For years I have dragged myself to politically charged lectures, screenings, panels, conferences, and events, in the hope of finding a glimpse of the unheard, an angle to which I have been blindsided, a thought that would subvert mine, and transform assumptions cultivated through decades of study and observation. It would be unfair to say that I have learnt nothing; yet, a claim to cathartic experience would be a lie. Also untrue would be to claim that any of these occasions have convinced me that, in the first world, isolated acts of protest alone can be structurally transformative. In fact, I have become weary of the morally satisfying progressive rhetoric, all too often preached to the choir, and brought to life in peaceful marches and slogans of dissent. I have stopped going to protests long ago. I do not believe in their efficacy—if not as mere concessions of democracy that give organs of governments the opportunity to pat one another on the back: “See how democratic we are? We let them protest!” Power could not care less about what “people” want, or need. And most people hardly even know what they really want, or need. I am referring, of course, to the occasional protesters, those who are imbedded in the system, who turn their head the other way when wrongdoings of all types and impacts happen under their noses, and then take to the streets when situations coalesce into a threat to their very lifestyle.
I believe the actions one takes, or doesn’t take, in their everyday life—one’s personal ethics—can be more formidable enemies of sovereignty, than protesting. But personal ethics must be cultivated, while for many, showing up to a protest is an act that requires all but one afternoon, and rewards with the illusion of agency, and right-doing.
It would be historically inaccurate to deny women suffrage, LGBT struggle, labor unions, or the civil rights movement, their mobilizing efficacy. But it would be equally inexact to think that marches were responsible for the painfully slow changes that continue to recoil, and be dismantled by denial that mutates form. What gained women the right to vote was lawsuits, and the consequent legislative changes—and still, in the 2016 election a staggering number of women used their right to vote against their own interest, while the gender pay-gap remains at a smashing 20%. LGBT people can celebrate themselves and one another in parades, and may be represented and somehow “normalized” on successful TV shows; yet, the harassment and murder rates for queer and gender fluid people have not declined. Unions have had great success; children in the United States are protected from being used as labor force, but the bodies of kids in other parts of the world are stained by the blue poison of the denim we insist we deserve in this or that shape, at the lowest prices, while many who are forced to work two eight-hour jobs (if they are so lucky to find work) remain unable to get to the end of the month. By the same token, centuries of civil resistance later, black and brown bodies are no longer “legally” enslaved, but they are discriminated against in all social matters, terrorized, and executed daily on live feeds. It is enough to look at the prison industrial complex to know that Dostoevsky was right when he claimed: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
If there was still need for confirmation on the inefficacy—or transient influence—of protest, Occupy Wall Street served the purpose. I did not join the demonstrations, but on my way back from a job interview I ventured among drum circles and signs, and asked a simple question: “Who do you bank with?” 90% of the answers were beyond demoralizing, and I walked away, watching people protest the very institutions they were patronizing. Kwame Ture, then Stokely Carmichael, criticized Martin Luther King’s nonviolence with a statement that is difficult to refute: “He only made one fallacious assumption,” he said of King, “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” The tragedy is that for a country’s government—or a world—to have no conscience, the majority of its people must also be confused, and ultimately sedated.
All that said, in light of the recent presidential election, like many others I have felt the call to fight for the protection of those even more vulnerable than I am, and in search for alliances, on Saturday night I drove to yet another gathering—this one hosted by a historically black church, in a historically black neighborhood in Los Angeles. One of the speakers was a Black Panther, another was a Young Lord, elder Native American activists were present. “You have been in the frontline, you have seen waves of activism swell and fade, and have witnessed change be temporary, and mostly cosmetic. What are your thoughts on the current situation? Is there any advice you would give our youngest activists, today, in terms of modes and structures of organization and action?” I asked the panelists. Not detecting any kind of response in their facial muscles, I erased self-censorship, and insisted: “Cause it didn’t work. I mean, we all know we have a new form of slavery in the prison industrial complex, discrimination of all of types is rampant, poverty is aggressively high, political prisoners framed with crimes they didn’t commit are dying in jail only because they represented a cause, and a people, and with the Espionage Act, whistleblowers are the new political prisoners … ” The Black Panther moved uncomfortably in her chair, her body tightened up, and her face contorted in a pained and dismissive grin. She spoke without looking at me: “First of all, we’ve got to get rid of this notion that the movement didn’t work. We would not be here, had we not been there, OK?” There was protective anger in her voice, and her wondering eyes showed a sort of trepidation. I realized that in about fifty seconds I managed to invalidate years of struggle, of the imprisonment of friends and comrades, of their deaths. It was far from my intention to do so, yet her logic didn’t hold. “With all due respect for you accomplishments and losses,” I said, “by that line of reasoning we could go back to Nat Turner, all the way down to Spartacus, but what would be the point of that?”
My question may have been objectionable, in fact it may have even been unanswerable—after all, those militants had been there, but they have not been here, before, either, and modes of communication, control, and production, have changed; what gave me pause was the barrier we put in front of each other, which denied a productive conversation—even one that led to impossibilities—and instead got us stuck in the molasses of validation through identity. The Young Lord intervened, trying to address my question with grace, and also fell into the rhetoric of hope that activists find themselves forced to live upon, in order to survive. “You know,” the Black Panther interrupted the Young Lord, this time looking at me in the eye: “I saw friends getting shot by others in the movement. Not doing that would be a start.”
OK, now we are moving towards something. And the question, the real question, becomes evident: without discounting the weight of infiltrations and drugs, how do we get to shoot someone who is fighting against the same monsters that oppress us? How do those infiltrators become infiltrators, and how do those who, for all intents and purposes, force-fed drugs to already disenfranchised communities fighting for basic rights, lose all relationship with a sense of humanity, in the name of money? How do we get to have 54% of white women vote for Donald Trump (and the men, for that matter—particularly the Latinos and Blacks—but the women, really?!?)? And the 81% of white evangelicals or born-again Christians? Whose desires did the internal killings in the Black Panthers movement actually enact? Whose votes were, really, those cast by the majority of women in this election? And how does one get to be a white evangelical or born-again Christian in the first place? These, are the questions to be asked.
It is time to rethink our strategies on a structural level. In fact, it is time to rethink the processes through which we arrive at any conclusion at all.
The economic travesty of corporate gluttony, with its outsourcing and poverty-salary for local jobs, is as real as the racism and xenophobia it feeds. But there is more at the bottom of this well of hellish images: a systemically induced atrophy of the imagination, which, of course, is not accidental, but the result of hegemonic indoctrinations that have penetrated the fibers of our very beings. We are buried in information and ill equipped with tools to interpret it, to give it space within a context. Along with the demonization of the “other,” out of this scenario emerges the modern “liberal”—the enemy of progress. Remember MLK’s letter from the Birmingham prison? Liberals want things nice and pleasant for all, and since they already have it pretty nice and pleasant, they are invested in a politically correct rhetoric that aims at avoiding making waves. On the other side of the fence, true progressive and radicals are understandably focused on doing triage on the most urgent situations, and we remain subdued to a system of systems that is only concerned with its own propagation.
Imagination is dangerous for the equilibrium of inequality, and unfortunately it is easily stultified; strategies to calm our anxious, fragmented selves are not in lack—from compulsive shopping, to TV shows that derail our preoccupations to those of fictional characters, all the way down to Pokem hunting. The “selfie” may be the most elementary, widespread contemporary symptom of our self-sabotage, and inner disintegration. I cannot see one without thinking of French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, who developed the concept of the “mirror stage,” or, as he writes: “The transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image … the Ideal-I” To simplify, this process takes place when the infant sees their self in the mirror for the first time, and feels the agency of their ego as whole, imagining this wholeness to be permanent, and definitive. The mirror stage represents the “jubilant” and terrifying moment when we recognize ourselves as other from the mother, and believe that our experience of a stable and unified identity is permanent. But this permanency is an illusion; fragmentation resurfaces, and we spend all of our existence trying to recapture that very moment of self-recognition in an idealized, fixed “I.”
Selfies are one of the ways in which we distract ourselves form a pressing perception that, if attended to, would cause a distress so great, that many could not survive it. Through the image of the self, confirmed by the testimony of hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions on social media, the contemporary individual makes sure they exist, more or less intact. But it is the very distress of self-fragmentation that we need to address, if we want to attempt a response to the questions I ask above, and remove ourselves from the quicksand that denies an answer to James Baldwin’s famous query: “How much time do you want, for your ‘progress’?”
Much fuss is made about our loss of humanity to technology. The distance between our actions and understanding of their origins may in fact be exacerbated—and perhaps, eventually even finalized—by robotization, but the gap is as old as man. Our ego is fragile. Simple incidents can reveal our internal fragmentation, and crush the illusion of a fixed identity. When that happens we are left confused, alienated, and find refuge in, to borrow Lacan’s language, the voice of the other we carry within—be it a parent, peer groups, social pressure, cultural modes, religious rules, advertising, or what-have-you. And it is by enacting these others’ desires that we silence the terror of our fragmentation. When consuming whatever item as fast as possible becomes a strategy to give some meaning to existence, it is clear that the level of distress we exist in is great. Women’s overwhelming vote for one who declared himself a denier of their equality and value as human beings is an illustration of how the desire of another is enacted. Naturally this electoral preference finds justification in matters others than gender roles (things are really really bad, and he will make them really really good and terrific, so what is a touch of pussy-grabbing compared to “returning” America to “glory?”), but who, even remotely in touch with the wellbeing of their species and the world they live in, would willingly give power to someone who sees them as objects to be molested for his own satisfaction, unless their actions where not born of the desire of another? Similarly, that is how militants in the same movement get to kill one another—in the attempt to fill the holes the lack of a fixed ego exposes, by following prescriptions that are not truly their own. Simplification? Sure. Still, Lacan’s model, against the way we seem to function, should make us reflect.
The way in which the self responds to the lack a fixed ego is informed first and foremost by one’s social environment, which is inevitably dominated by economics. That is what Jean Paul Sartre meant when he wrote that “existence precedes essence,” as our identities are constructed around the ecosystems in which we exist, populated as it is by the visible and invisible others whose desire we are bounds to enact. And yet, we continue to deny ourselves intimate recognition of the ideas that possess us, and to ignore their origin. “Much human behavior can be seen as unilateral or bilateral attempts to eliminate experience,” R.D. Lang wrote. Given the evidence one would expect more devotion toward the exploration of this thought. Instead, we remain oblivious, and when conditions we suppose surpassed reemerge—in old or new forms—we take to the streets. But as long as we are willing to attend to our anxieties of existence as fragmented selves, in obedience with the prescriptions of organs whose interest is to maintain our psychological and economic subordination in favor of their domination, we can fill the streets with signs and chants all we want—those we protest will keep on smiling, imprison us, and accumulate power through our losses. And we will continue to lose. The people at Standing Rock are admirable in their persistence, in their willingness to put their lives on the line to protect their rights, which their oppressors do not seem to understand are also theirs, and their grandchildren’s. The water protectors have been protesting/protecting actively for over nine months now; the preservation of the Native Americans’ land, and of their ancestors’ graves, would be a great victory of justice for everyone, because if injustice exists for one, it exists for all. But even if they succeed in having the North Dakota pipeline re-routed, or better stopped, another pipeline will pop-up, in another region. Because this is the way power works, and power, much like corporations, is only appropriated by selves so fragmented, their need for validation bypasses human empathy, and as such, power does not care about the wellbeing of others.
The abandonment of protest and re-routing of energies threatens our attachments and sense of agency. I insist that more efficient than protests would be altering the ways we teach each other to be in the world. Babies do not know whether they are black, white, yellow, red, or any variation of it all. They do not know if they are religious or not, if they are rich or poor, conservative or liberal, straight, gay, or gender fluid. It is obvious that it is in the interest of the dominant discourse to make sure these designed differences are evidenced as soon as possible, but the dominant discourse could not succeed without our participation in its project. Yes, if you object in any way, it will try to destroy you, because it has already managed to demolish collaboration even in the most elementary of activities, and its agents, on both sides, are united by fear. Having been homeless I know that when circumstances indefatigably overwhelm your will to resist them, your mind is under assault, and when you are hungry you cannot think of anything else than stopping the pangs that are literally erasing you—the fragmentation of the self is a matter for those whose stomachs are full. Yet, even when we are well fed, and our preoccupations are not life threatening, we follow the prescriptions of the most powerful, invisible other—the dominant culture.
It is time we get hip to ourselves and our others. Why is it easier to imagine than an asteroid could hit the earth, than to think that we could cut one basket weaving, soccer, cooking, or hip-hop dance class from curricula, and introduce a study of the processes through which we learn how to manage life, and regulate our actions and reactions? If confronted with these realities early in life, children would grow into more understanding, less hateful, less suppressed, oppressed, and depressed adults. With her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise Jane Elliott single handedly changed the perception of thousands of people. Is it enough? Of course not. Can Jane Elliott do more, alone? Of course not. And of course we all understand that those who control our strings have much invested interest in not letting the cognition of the processes of the self succeed. They’d much prefer us go on with the band-aid of a protest on the gashing wounds of the systemic disenfranchisement we silently endorse in our everyday actions. But even in massive events such as the Arab Spring, protest could not, and will not, bring long lasting change.
To intervene in a demoralized school system and transform it into one that teaches the science of the self would be very difficult. Public school was designed to fail, in order to give raise to the privatization, hence corporatization, of education, and we let it happen. The appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education can either function as the final straw—or machete swing—to reforms that would make children cognizant of the social, economic, psychological implications of the origins of their desires, or it could serve as one more reason to mobilize. It is not impossible, and there is nothing more important. Nothing. It would change the world.
When we are lucky enough to be properly fed and sheltered, there is no excuse to turn away from our responsibility to do and be better; there is no excuse for letting our anxieties run amok, and perpetrate the blindness imposed upon us by others who silenced their own fears with distractions provided by what I recently heard properly referred to as “riches and asses.” We must educate ourselves about the intricacies of our others, and insist that children be alerted to theirs as early as pedagogically productive. It must start at home, and it requires great effort, as everything that is done against the grain of the mighty indoctrinations we live by. But imagine a future where people are no longer victims to emotions they mistake for truths, aroused by the rhetoric of those who have an interest in their subordination. Perhaps, then, there would be less self-sabotage, and less oppression, which of course also means less desire to be an oppressor of any kind. What could be more important than that?
Barbara Moroncini is a composer and author. She lives in Los Angeles.