Friday, January 27, 2017
All The World's A Stage: My rules for engaging in a new era of performative politics
I've become a big fan of the word "performative" because it so accurately captures so much of the window dressing that surrounds the progressive movement. It drives me crazy when people treat the very important and serious work of electing progressive leaders and advancing progressive policy like a hobby. You know the people who make a big deal out of the fact that they don't shave their armpits? The people who feel the need to point out that they are an ally in their Twitter profile? The activists who go to every Democratic committee meeting but are indignant when a field organizer calls their home? These are the people who believe that if a tree votes in the forest it doesn't make a sound. They are the bane of my existence.
So I totally got it when I read the somewhat-viral Medium piece "I've Already Marched" by college student and former Hillary organizer, Danielle Templeton. I did not attend the women's march and many of my reasons were included or at least alluded to in this piece. It's not fucking fun or funny. It's not enough to participate in performative feel-goodery and be convinced that you did your part. And I knew it would make me sad to see all that energy and all that anger and think of what could have been if it had been properly directed BEFORE we got into this mess.
Having said that...I totally disagree with the premise of this piece. If it's self-righteous and performative to snapchat yourself with a #DumpTrump sign having never knocked doors, so too is it to criticize those who are currently taking action while you abstain because you have "done your part." I get it, you're exhausted. I'm exhausted. We are 7 days into a Trump-presidency and I am already overwhelmed and demoralized by my own outrage. I am bitterly disappointed by the election results and in some moments just plain bitter. I didn't march because I didn't think it would have meaning for me in proportion to the emotional toll it would take, but I also know that as we move forward I must find ways to remain engaged that do feel effective and meaningful.
I've been meditating a lot on a Rabbi Tarfon quote which I feel will be the key to me to remaining politically active while maintaining my sanity over the next few months, "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."
When the stakes are so high no one has truly "done their part" even if we need to take a moment to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off again. It's tempting, but unproductive, to be dismissive of those who didn't or couldn't engage in the ways that we have just as its frustrating as a long-time organizer to resist among a sea of people who are just now discovering that elections have consequences. So where do we go from here?
1) Be welcoming. Recognize that everyone has to start somewhere. Believe it or not, there was a time before you were politically active. Would you have remained engaged if people chastised you for not starting sooner? When you became an organizer in college I didn't dismiss you because I had already been doing this work for 10 years (and girl, I don't mean to pick on you. I get it.) We need new people to become active in the progressive movement because guess what? We lost. If you can't do it because it's the emotionally generous thing to do, do it because its necessary. The corollary to that is...
2) You didn't invent this shit. This means you, yes you. At every phase during my relatively brief political career there has been a generation of organizers/activists who insist that they have revolutionized the progressive movement (OFA, Bernie Bros). While you might have something to add, recognize that you stand on the shoulders of giants. You and I are able to do this kind of work because of what others have done before us. You are not a special snowflake. The fight for a more just society didn't begin when you or I showed up. As Billy Joel would say it's been always burning since the world's been turning. Have some humility. Listen. Learn. Give credit where credit is due.
3) Don't tell other people what to care about. Remember when Mike Pence got booed at Hamilton and everybody lost their shit about it? "This is a distraction! The real issue is________." Look, I don't doubt that the new administration is engaging in a fair amount of (pardon the pun) political theater to distract us from the serious issues on which they are wreaking havoc, but that doesn't mean I can't be angry about both. Like the ocean, I contain multitudes.
Recently I responded to Bernie Sanders' 23 Questions for America with concern that he and his supporters were dismissing the importance of so-called "social issues" as identity politics in favor of an agenda that focused solely on economic equality. No sooner had I posted about this on Facebook (the most effective organizing medium of all!) than a Democratic activist, who I only know because she and I are in a Facebook support group for the same rare disease, started railing at me that I shouldn't be talking about this because I should be focused on the confirmation hearings for noted bigot Jeff Sessions. (This is the same lady who inspired this post, by the way.) Of course I was outraged by Sessions' nomination as well, but I was (and remain) also concerned about the future of the Democratic party. This lady would not spit the hook and kept insisting that my issue was frivolous and that I focus on that which was of immediate concern to her. When I suggested that she might be better served organizing around Sessions' nomination rather than harassing me she responded, "I SIT ON MY DEMOCRATIC TOWN COMMITTEE DO YOU?"
The reality is that this new administration is such an outrageous dumpster fire that it will be impossible to engage on every issue, and every comment that upsets you. We will have to pick and choose, just as we will have to pick and choose the ways in which we get involved. I didn't go to the march because it wasn't what I chose. I was frankly pretty offended when friends who have not been as politically engaged as I have tried to shame me about that. But neither did I feel like it was my place to judge them or tell them their choice to engage in that way wasn't meaningful. In fact, I felt more comforted and inspired by how uplifting the march seemed to be for my less political friends than I believe I would have felt from participating myself.
4) This is not about your ego. Though I understand the temptation, I am not here for people who just showed up to a movement and are already trying to lead it. Right now the progressive movement needs more soldiers, not more generals. As I said above, so many different facets of our lives are being attacked which means so many worthy and experienced progressive groups are competing for attention and resources; this is not the time to start your own. One way to tell if you are being a performative progressive is if you are only interested in participating in an action provided that you can be a leader, regardless of whether you are the most qualified to do so. Ask yourself...would you still be doing this if for some reason you were prohibited from sharing evidence on social media? If not, then it might be time to reevaluate your motivation.
5) We need doctors. I don't show up to an arthritis walk-a-thon and expect rheumatologists to come out of the woodwork and harangue me for not having done my part before. Not everyone has the talent, the personality or even the privilege to work in progressive politics full-time. What would even be the point of living in such a society? We all contribute to the things we care about in different ways and while everybody should be engaged it is unrealistic to expect everybody to be involved to the same extent as those of us who make a living out of this kind of work.
6) It has to be fun and it can't all be fun. On the surface, is there anything more performative than taking a selfie in a pink pussy hat? You don't get to get dressed up all cute, walk around outside chanting with your friends and act like we're equally engaged. On the other hand, if doing that and being part of a march like the one post-inauguration inspires you, empowers you, and puts a fire in your belly to do something more, you wear that pussy hat! You wear two or ten or twelve pussy hats and you wear them with pride!
This is going to be a long haul. For it to be sustainable it has to be enjoyable. A friend who attended the Women's march described the atmosphere as "slightly angry political mardi gras" (which, sidenote, is now the theme of my wedding) and that more than anything made me sad I'd missed it. There is nothing wrong with taking the work, but not ourselves, seriously. Indeed sometimes its the only way to stay sane. The caveat being that the fun should be a reprieve and sometimes a benefit but not the purpose or end game of the hard, important work.
7) Respect the circle of grief. As a final note, I feel like I've been fair and generous in recognizing the value of people who have just shown up to the political progressive table, so indulge me for a moment as I change tones and vent about something. Stop fucking texting me about everything that Trump does. Stop telling me that you are depressed and looking to me to comfort you, or worse yet to assuage your guilt about not having done something about this sooner. I have news for you, I'm depressed too. My soul hurts. As I wrote in my first post-election blog post, everything I've believed in and stood for and worked for my entire adult life has been turned upside down, so maybe I'm not the best person to turn to to make you feel better right now.
I understand that you feel frustrated and impotent and afraid and I appreciate that you consider me an expert and want to turn to me for advice. Obviously, I love to give it and I am glad you've asked, but I am asking you have a modicum of self-awareness. Don't treat me like your personal political sounding board and certainly don't come looking to me for a cookie. Just as it would be unfair for me to expect you to do this work full-time, sometimes I need to turn the world off too. If you are enraged and need to share that rage with another person, consider venting to someone who still lacks the proper motivation to participate politically.
Campaign Love and Mine,