Can Language Help Us Heal?

Crime is increasin’
Trigger happy policin’
Panic is spreading
God knows where we’re heading

– Marvin Gaye, Inner City Blues

We are living thru a deep, intense and multifaceted crisis of civilization.

2020 has come to signify a watershed in many Peoples’ minds, and in the endless struggle for a better world.  None of us are the same person we were last spring.  The deep, structural connections between social inequality, public (and individuals’) health, ecology, government policies and broad cultural and political programs of domination and exploitation are all becoming much clearer.  Many, many valid perspectives clash daily, and build on each other.  On a mass scale we’re learning the essential, terrifying truth of the old adage: “Depend upon it sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”  Appreciating our newly focused state of mind, where will we find the words, ideas, stories, themes and cultural resources to overcome these devastating blows and challenges?  What movement to come will heal this plague and its causes?

In summer 2020, after the May 25 recorded racist police murder of George Floyd, the historic multiracial, African American-led Movement for Black Lives built on their years of brilliant and courageous organizing to foment the greatest mass popular uprising for social justice in the USA for over 50 years.  In an astonishingly short period of time, several important ideas – structural and systemic racism, reparations for the centuries of enslavement and subsequent exploitation, defunding the slave patrol-model police in order to fund our communities (policies previously unheard of or ‘too radical’), have affected political rhetoric in the forthcoming presidential election.  More meaningfully they helped further political discourse and popular education at multiple levels.  Under conditions of pandemic, what language and meanings, expressed in what modes and registers, may help us communicate and cope with the already-emerging white power backlash?  What can we do about the Boogaloo? (read on & I’ll try to explain that!)

As Grace Lee Boggs taught us decades ago, we’re living thru a great transition from the old industrial world to the new world being born.  This 2020 nightmare time, like our past transitions, from original human beings to ‘civilized’ ones, and later to our capitalist industrial modern epoch, clarifies that change is constant.

The comprehensive policy failure of the US federal government in the pandemic leaves us on the knife-edged hinge of history.  Embodying our failed state, Trump said: ‘I don’t take responsibility at all.  It is what it is.  If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.  I’m willing to put myself out there.’  I. Me. Mine.  When we’re supposedly ‘all in this together.’  A civilizational crisis of ecology, health, violence, spirit, democracy, weather, norms and values.  The system’s viral biological breakdown generates a bottomless political crisis.  The climate & web of life daily struggles for breath.  Taking the longer view, this should lead to long overdue changes in our planetary life boat!  The question of power looms and destabilizes the life boat.

Mainstream corporate media struggle to understand and explain what’s going on.

The half dozen media billionaire corporations that control information spent the past 5 years milking Trump for revenue, gifting him billions in free publicity. They lack sufficient self-awareness to turn their objective journalistic attention to critical contradictions, like the effects of corporate media ownership consolidation on their “news” product; to tell essential historic and systemic truths behind the con-that’s-weaker-than-all-the-other-cons called Russiagate; indeed, as big powerful corporations they trade for profit in their own power.  That’s what they do.  They don’t usually really tell the truth about much of anything.  That’s considered “normal”.

The New Yorker reporter Luke Mogelson’s recent essay regarding Michigan militia activism against the state’s successful public health emergency measures – ‘The Militias Against Masks’ –  is uniquely powerful journalism that could help us see the real stakes in this period of confrontation and change.  The very long story recounts on-the-ground incidents during April and May 2020 involving the Devos-funded, white gun rights-dominated ‘reopen’ armed demonstrations at the state capitol in Lansing.  (The article’s last set piece involving a nonviolent counter demonstration is Pulitzer-worthy.)  But I found even this impressive story telling pulled its punches, understandably and successfully exposing the gun carrying rightwing racist dominionistic Frankenstein monster funded by the Koch Bros thru their own words, but refusing to introduce new frames, interrogate important concepts that are clearly on the mask militia table, derived from history like McCarthyism and J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO, or to help New Yorker readers understand the racist violence at the heart of America.  It’s time we connect up the dots and organize new antiracist structures of meaning, which those of us who survive the coronavirus will desperately need in our future, not normal, new world.

It’s hard to imagine mainstream corporate media being up to the job of telling truths about all this, and in the short run very hard to make up for that fact.   Russiagate.  Biden. Police body cameras.  Objectively covering Trump.  Media surveillance, commercialization, access journalism.  The dominance and effective limitations of television, FaceBook’s effects on ads, Google’s omniscience, monetizing all TV’s successor screens all day, the grotesque inequality, racial and gender imbalances of the media and tech sectors of the economy, on and on!  The corporate media has its own deep structural crisis of capitalism, which increasingly frustrates its better efforts to deal with the catastrophic global slide to fascism under Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Putin, Xi and all the rest.

Most recently, Trump has been publicly welcoming the support of the QAnon cult, a potent brew of conspiracies and Trump hero worship that Nazi propaganda master Josef Goebbels would recognize as ingenious.  Only by negating objective reality, the meaning of facts in the real world, the credibility of every source of information, can Trump be reelected.  The even more painful truth lurking in the bones of the US racial capitalist system and its empire is that for decades maintaining US imperial dominance under previous US governments has been similarly dependent on (less crudely fascist) propaganda.  Big lies like the inherent goodness of US intentions in the world, the noble-hearted mistakes we made napalming southeast Asia, terror is evil, we are good, cold war reduction of global justice, peace and civil rights to anticommunism, etc.  The ground was well-prepared for Trump, and corporate media helped sow the seed.

There are tensions and balances to be struck between telling our truths and constructing paths out of the chaos engulfing us.

The “Militias Against Masks” story shows readers the unconscious and implicit racist bias of the white gun rights activists, tracing their connections to Devos right wing money and historical violent militia precedents, allowing the reporter’s factual narration of the reactions of attendees at the reopening rallies to perform and display implicit racial bias in their own words and actions.  The connection to potentially vital political modes and registers I perceive as missing from this generally excellent report relates to the observation by New York Times writer Leah Sottile in her recent feature article, “The Chaos Agents”:

“These reopening rallies had become more than just rallies, allowing everyday Americans — suspecting a liberal ploy in the shutdown of the economy and misled by right-wing politicians, up to and including President Trump, about the dangers of the coronavirus — to be exposed to the ideologies of a wide variety of extremists.”

Except for that last word: “extremists”.  These everyday Americans are being exposed to a violent contemporary manifestation of historic militant racist political traditions of white US society – like the KKK, Black Legion, Confederate Flag, Michigan Militia lineage groups, etc.  – that still thrive today in mutant forms like the Boogaloo (or whatever they’ll be calling themselves next)!  This would be a good time to start calling things by their right names.

We have to use new language to find new ways of dealing with this new situation.

The recent attention and confluence around political violence, police brutality, structural racism, disparate racial impacts of the pandemic and its associated economic collapse, and other contemporary facets of our deep, structural crises should call forth new vocabularies.  Ideas about our power, agency and humanity must be incorporated into the changes and choices we make in the teeth of these crises.

Our situation is hard to summarize.  Perhaps a paradox of power may help us see the theoretically still dangling thread of our freedom.  Approaching the end of this uniquely strange summer of 2020, Micah Lee (in connection with transparency / hacktivist collectives DDoSecrets and Anonymous), reports a major activist computer hack.  Northern California federal / state / local /shadow police ‘fusion center’ communications prove that on a daily basis police monitored Black Lives Matter protests using the procedures in place for policing potential terroristic actions in the weeks after George Floyd was murdered.  The very model of a modern slave patrol in action in their own electronic communications.

This shocking exposé correlates closely with dominant police discourses involving protest, demonstrators and any alleged crimes arising out of such events.  The vast majority of protestors’ constitutional rights to speak in this historic time, and the fact that more than 99% of the demonstrators never did anything even wrong, much less criminal, generally don’t prevent police and political leaders who should know better from treating Black Lives Matter protestors like criminals or even terrorists, as clearly demonstrated by the northern California fusion center hack, imposing collective punishments supposedly based on small groups’ and individuals’ alleged crimes, but really for political purposes of dominance and control by the failing system.  Trump’s explicit naming of Antifa as a supposed terrorist  group Boogaloo-signals the grassroots followers.  Let me be clear: This is very, very dangerous.

With the aid of the DDoSecrets transparency activism, outside the mainstream corporate media, we can see the paradox of power.  For example, Leah Sottile reports that a prominent speaker in the armed white ‘reopen’ movement sometimes calls police “Blue Isis”.  Viewed thru the all-important racial justice lens in these fraught times, police (including their elaborately networked and high tech intelligence surveillance apparatus), and their most outspoken political surrogates, powerfully support the supposedly cop-hating Boogaloo white power backlash, by treating BLM, Antifa and allied grassroots social justice organizing responsible for the historic George Floyd uprising as extremist and suspiciously criminal.  The violent, top-down racist synergy that’s going on right in front of us between Trump’s crazed QAnon and Antifa messaging, the white-people-with-long-guns-‘reopen’ movement’s expressed racial hatreds threatening imminent deadly violence (ironically in the context of the very structural racist violence ‘reopen’ itself enacts), and the corporate sectors who fund and profit thru them – banks, media, weapons makers, billionaire dominators like Devos and Koch, etc. – is or should be absolutely terrifying.

We have to learn from our history and apply the lessons to our current transformative reality.

In mid- March 2020 when the big pro and college basketball and hockey leagues canceled their tournaments (essentially leaderless as we are now under Trump’s reality TV misgovernment), Americans generally started to physically or ‘socially’ distance, shelter, and restrict contacts for public health reasons.  State governments stepped gingerly into the adult leadership vacuum, triggering the ‘reopen’ backlash.  Incredibly, mask wearing became a divisive political signifying issue, independent of public health.  The uncertain plague time had begun.

Within about a month, by mid-April, there was a little less uncertainty.  Those of us paying attention to science and communication grounded in objective reality (a clear majority of us in this historic public health crisis), realized the pandemic virus is presumably killing 3 (or maybe 4) times more Americans of color – black, latinx, indigenous People principally – than from the old white majority.  At precisely this point the irresistible momentum to ‘reopen’ the economy took on its seeming inevitability.  With the country reeling from the shock of George Floyd’s recorded murder at the end of May, virally-loaded Memorial Day celebrations signified the white bargain’s gamble with ‘other’ People’s lives, best expressed at one of the Boogaloo ‘reopen’ stunts: “When you look at the demographics [of who this pandemic is affecting], I’m not worried.”  By July the (for now) full scope of the horror of the federal government’s pandemic face plant became evident as the south and California in particular were overwhelmed.  Now in late August 2020 the virus is pretty much everywhere.  This horrifying public health mass catastrophe coincided with the historic racial uprising, and we stand or fall today on those epic shifting tides.

The debate was and remains about the stark racial splits, between multiracial, African American led BLM (and Antifa) vs. white ’reopen’ protesters, as well as in the crushing economic effects of the pandemic beggaring tens of millions.  The underlying reality is and has been the subjective determination of privileged whites fueled by corporate capitalist power that the disproportionate costs those “other” People will bear are necessary.  The extractive, supremacist, genocidal racial dynamic echoes that of enslavement, not coincidentally at all.  The 3 times greater mortality rate corresponds (in the register of quantifying racist domination and accumulation-by-dispossession), to the enslaver states’ 3/5 clause in the original US constitution.  We witnessed a mass racial crime, and now the Boogaloo white supremacists who enabled it are talking race war, while the slave model-police strategize to suppress the uprising for justice.  That’s why we need new words and ideas that fit our new situation.

There will be no magic bullets issued for this revolution.

At a minimum, we now have to atone for the structurally, systematically, strategically and deadly racist ‘mistake’ of the Memorial Day workers death march ‘reopening’ of US economy, whatever that may mean.  This will take every ounce of every resource we can assemble, and we already know that some of us won’t make it to the end of this struggle, which has always been true anyway!  But we’re living in the new world the Movement for Black Lives made.  For now, we should plan, act and follow up with fierce waging of love to reorganize our planetary life boat in as many healthy ways as possible.  Some options may include:

+ Healing should be our watchword out of pandemic.  Choose language that clarifies the real situation, and suggests ways of coping and getting thru it toward human rights and justice-focused outcomes in the new reality.  Reject arbitrary white supremacist and capitalist ideological censorship, their models don’t apply any more!  Seek healing thru meaning, action, and revolutionary trauma-based apocalyptic educational experiments like the freedom schools model.

+ Anticipate and survive the backlash.  Intense and murderous white backlash has met every advance for racial justice in this settler colonial nation’s history.  From summary torture and executions of any enslaved People who may have allegedly had knowledge of a rebellion; to the KKK’s post-Reconstruction terrorist redemption of southern white power; to the recently ended ‘normal’ neoliberal nightmare backlash against the civil rights movement’s ‘second reconstruction’ identified with Dr. King, Rosa Parks and their freedom movement, as well as the militant Black Panthers and Leagues of Revolutionary Black Workers; to Michael Brown’s martyrdom in Ferguson, etc.  Today’s Boogaloo backlash against Black Lives Matter is already and will continue to be fierce.  That word “extremist” seeks to divide the “good” protestors from the bad others so as to conquer all.  Throw that word out, read, listen, watch, learn, decide and act for yourself and your communities!

+ Insofar as language and the modes of our communications can help us constructively engage our daily crisis, and perhaps even heal bruised souls, listen and talk, write, podcast up and ultimately organize collective solutions to the basic problems facing us, wherever, whenever and however we can assemble a meaningful conversation and contribute to the crucial organizing.  Freedom school is always in session.  Those timeless human processes will almost certainly help us to, at a minimum, decide how to proceed.

+ Don’t believe for one second any of this goes back to “normal”!

This essay is dedicated to the Drive-By Truckers and their album “The Unraveling”, and to Tawana Honeycomb Petty for her idea I stole repurposed…