Posts for the End of The World: A Political Myth

Meme so true.

I don’t think any (competent) adult disputes that we are collectively facing a time of huge tumult, with unprecedented need to either make large changes to every level of society or continue to be complicit in mass death. And it’s not just one thing nipping at our furiously kicking feet. As the above meme so perfectly illustrates, we are well and truly f*cked if we think things are going to go back to November 7, 2016 or February 2020 anytime soon; thanks to the climate crisis, we are already literally living on a different planet now.

And yet, unless we were raised in the former USSR or South Africa, etc, most of us don’t know the first thing about society-level fundamental government change. I mean, it felt really big when Kurt Cobain committed suicide and when President Obama actually won back in 2008. That was huge. Similarly, when the Twin Towers were destroyed, and the failed attempt to introduce New Coke. Those events played out on streets all over the country. I should stop there, because I’m not, of course, trying to make light of the very real and important things that have happened in this country in the last 50 years in particular, things like marriage equality and Obamacare, but even our largest moments have been small compared to the ubiquity and depth of the changes now required to survive with our souls intact.

“Wherever I am, whatever I happen to be doing, I try to feel connected to futures that are only possible through struggle.” - Angela Davis, The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues

Unfortunately, imagining radical futures is not a skill readily promoted in our country. The Jetsons, Bladerunner, Elon Musk. What we have come to know as the utopian future is almost always our white father’s wildest dreams; they usually involve robots and little hope for actual humanity. This is a real problem, and one that has played out to disastrous effect during both the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primary seasons. In fact, too much about what we think we know about radical change is wrong—I’m speaking specifically to liberal white people. But the stakes are high right now for this level of misunderstanding. So what else can we unlearn?

Myth: Individual actions are pointless because real change will only happen when government forces corporations to change.

Truth: Our politicians don't introduce transformative laws unless a significant number of individuals show with their own bodies that people want these changes. The bigger the change needed, the more massive the individual action needed to convince the politicians to act. (Yes, whatever you're thinking now, think bigger.)

This myth about the relationship between individual action and truly transformative society-wide change is most often dredged up by white people who bemoan the pointlessness of taking personal action to stop things like the climate crisis or the horrific segregation happening in our nation's schools. I'm not a racist for wanting the best for my children, it's the system that's at fault! And sure, it can feel ridiculous to think going car-free or switching your kids to a global majority public school has any impact on the tilt of history; we are smaller than spit at that scale.

But--and this is a big but--you are mainlining craft beer if you think politicians are going to pass so much as a ceremonial resolution if they don't first see a huge (and I mean huge) number of people embracing the lifestyle changes that come with these policy changes, no matter how bad things get in the world. If you think our Congress is going to pass a meaningful carbon tax without first feeling confident that they won't lose their seats once gas prices spike, you have not spent time doing elite level gymnastics just to get a rapid bus lane or a protected bike lane built--one, just one lane. 

The sad reality is that our political system is set up as a consumer economy, and in that framework, the status quo white voter is always right, even when we’re awful. Too many of us don't want to change our lifestyles, and our elected officials are no fools. Most politicians learned from Brown v Board of Ed and the passage of subsequent busing laws not that integration is good, but that forcing white people to change our ways will create massive backlash—both above board and in endless small acts of resource hoarding for generations to come; even when we post memes on Instagram claiming otherwise. Just look at how much of a limp waffle Bill DeBlasio is being when it comes to something as basic as overhauling the racist practice of specialized high schools in New York City. (Most disappointing mayor of NYC ever?) Or the way we block all development in our neighborhoods. Or most depressingly, how many Black men and women have had to be killed--on camera--to get a handful of major cities to begin to defund their murderous police departments.

So yes, individual action is important. Even if your lifestyle change seems cosmically laughable, remember: it’s not. It is absolutely necessary to convince our elected leaders to make the real changes that will force massive, nationwide overhaul of the toxic systems that are threatening to kill us all. Which will, let’s remember, directly impact the way we live our everyday lives. These are not abstract changes. But nor are the threats.