I Needed This

There’s a lot of gloom and doom out there–and plenty of reasons for despair. But I keep thinking back to the disruptions of the 1960s, and the then-widespread belief that the country was coming apart, that the riots and eruptions and emergence of a nonconforming youth culture were harbingers of ongoing and unstoppable social disintegration.

Actually,if I can be forgiven the metaphor, those disruptions were akin to labor pains–signaling the birth of a different set of social arrangements and understandings.

The chaos of the Sixties gave birth to massive social change, and although it was uneven, much of that change was positive. Isn’t it possible that the nastiness we are experiencing right now is similar–that it marks a hysterical effort by a minority of the population to foreclose changes that most Americans would consider improvements?

Rebecca Solnit has recently suggested precisely that, in an essay in The Guardian, titled “Why are U.S. Right-wingers so angry? Because they know social change is coming.”

While their fear and dismay is often regarded as rooted in delusion, rightwingers are correct that the world is metamorphosing into something new and, to them, abhorrent. They’re likewise correct that what version of history we tell matters. The history we tell today lays the groundwork for the future we make. The outrage over the 1619 Project and the new laws trying to censor public school teachers from telling the full story of American history are a doomed attempt to hold back facts and perspectives that are already widespread.

In 2018, halfway through the Trump presidency, Michelle Alexander wrote a powerful essay arguing that we are not the resistance. We, she declared, are the mighty river they are trying to dam. I see it flowing, and I see the tributaries that pour into it and swell its power, and I see that once firmly grounded statues and assumptions have become flotsam in its current.

Solnit points to replacement of monuments to the Confederacy and Columbus with statues of people like Harriet Tubman, to the renaming of streets and buildings and other public places–and she notes that “those angry white men with the tiki torches chanting, in Charlottesville in 2017, “You will not replace us” as they sought to defend a statue of Gen Robert E Lee were wrong in their values and actions but perhaps not in their assessment.”

The replacement of statues is symbolic of the far greater changes that have occurred within the lifetimes of many of us. Solnit enumerates several of the most consequential:

We are only a few decades removed from a civilization in which corporal punishment of children by parents and teachers was an unquestioned norm; in which domestic violence and marital rape were seen as a husband’s prerogative and a wife surrendered financial and other agency; in which many forms of inequality and exclusion had hardly even been questioned, let alone amended; in which few questioned the rightness of a small minority – for white Christian men have always been a minority in the United States – holding almost all the power, politically, socially, economically, culturally; in which segregation and exclusion were pervasive and legal; in which Native Americans had been largely written out of history; in which environmental regulation and protection and awareness barely existed.

Solnit compares our current unrest to an effort to push water back behind the dam. Despite the fact that the Right has thus far succeeded in protecting economic privilege and has won preliminary battles against voting and reproductive rights– she is convinced that the Right cannot, in the end, win the war.

While the right has become far more extreme and has its tens of millions of true believers, it is morphing into a minority sect. This has prompted their desperate scramble to overturn free and fair elections and other democratic processes. White Christians, who were 80% of the population in 1976, are now 44%. Mixed-race and non-white people are rapidly becoming the majority. On issues such as climate, people of color are far more progressive; if we can make it through the huge backlash of the present moment, the possibilities are dazzling….

Birth can be violent and dangerous, and sometimes one or the other of the two involved die. There is no guarantee about what is to come, and the shadow of climate chaos hangs over it all. We do not have time to build a better society before we address that crisis, but it is clear that the response to that crisis is building such a society. So much has already changed. The river Alexander described has swept away so much, has carried so many onward.

At risk of torturing a metaphor, we can–we must— work to midwife the birth of a better, fairer society.