What saves us, what doesn’t

A love letter to you for dark times (by way of a brief history lesson), 10.06.18

In 1871, Victoria Claflin Woodhull stood before the House Judiciary Committee and gave a rousing speech, demanding that women be given the right to vote. As you might imagine, this was basically an unheard-of thing, a woman addressing a major governing body of the US, daring to tell men how things should be done. But Ms. Woodhull was a rare bird, to put it lightly. In many ways, she was not only ahead of her time in 1871—she was ahead of our time in 2018.

The logic of her argument, quite solid, was that women were already granted that right under the 14th and 15th Amendments, by virtue of their citizenship:

After all, she argued, she was a citizen, along with almost all her female contemporaries. Surely she, like all citizens, were meant to be included in the Constitution’s lofty ideals of equality. Right?

It was noted that the powerful clarity of her argument “impressed” some of the men there. They were so impressed, in fact, that they only made women wait and fight and march and get beaten up and thrown in prison for another FORTY-NINE YEARS before they granted women, in 1920, a right that obviously should have been afforded us from the start.

At the time Woodhull gave her speech, black males had recently been granted suffrage, about 80 years after powerful landowning white men, who at that time represented just 6% of the US population, had given it to themselves. Of course, those same white men, through generations of unquestioned authority, have continued to work tirelessly for another 150 years to make sure that enfranchisement for non-whites is never fully realized.

Four years after women gained voting rights, Native Americans, 2/3 of whom were already citizens, were “officially” made citizens (of a land that already belonged to them) and technically allowed to vote — though it wasn’t until 19-freaking-62 that all states allowed indigenous people to vote, and they weren’t allowed to run for county office, even in counties where they were 75% of the population, until 1980.

The magnanimity of the ruling elite, I know, is positively overwhelming.

Good people, you who are worried and despondent this day/week/month/year and are working so hard for a better world: I tell you this story, a story that barely scratches the surface of one issue, and I could tell you a thousand more—about white supremacy, about poisoned water and land and air and food, about income inequality, about the integrity of our electoral process, about mass incarceration, about corruption and the insulation that the powerful have always enjoyed, about education, about everything— because we need to have a very serious and loving conversation.

The pattern in our short shared history, through the lens of just one example, is this:

It is Victoria going to the House and demanding an obvious, God-given right — to be able to have a say in how her country was run — and then basically being put on hold for 50 years. Many losses, some important gains, and then we got there, we got the vote. Still more losses and important gains, and we got a little bit more. 242 years in, and we’re at 20% representation instead of 0%.

The pattern is women and people of color and poor people and immigrants and laborers and young people and LGBTQ folks and anyone not a part of the ruling class demanding to be seen and treated as fully human — and being ignored, silenced, controlled, enslaved, punished, ridiculed, and terrorized for centuries. And then somehow, somehow, still surviving, still thriving, still pushing pushing pushing a new world into being. It is an awe-inspiring kind of strength and sorrow and resilience.

As Rebecca Solnit put it today:

Most of us in a place of privilege, myself included, have enjoyed the labor of generations in spite of our relative lack of sacrificial commitment to this progress. I think part of why we feel so despondent is because many of us do not know what it is to fight for these things that have always mattered. It feels like the end because we have only ever enjoyed a sense of progress; we were born or have existed in a period of relative upswing for us, and we thought that’s just the way things are. When we take the long view, though, we see patterns of evolving and regression, with the overall trend towards things getting measurably better. It is the human way.

If you knew you had to wait 50 years — or more — before you saw the truly just and equitable outcome of your efforts — would you still fight? Would you still storm the doors of the Empire and speak the truth?

Here’s a grounding question: If the men on that 1871 House committee were so “impressed” by Ms. Woodhull’s speech — if they found her testimony credible, in other words — why wouldn’t they move to act with integrity and make decisions that would reflect what they knew to be true?

We know the answer, of course: Because there is no incentive at all for these men to accommodate us, especially not in the short- to medium-term, which is where they mostly live. It doesn’t serve them — or, better put, they are afraid that it won’t.

To those who have never held all the power, the thought of not sharing influence diversely is completely insane; they have learned through pain and fear and struggle that the only hope we have is to stay and organize and act together and to lift each other up — that there is, in fact, enough for everyone to thrive if none of us gets greedy.

To those who have never had to share power, though, the thought of diluted control is completely terrifying. They know what they have done. They know how they have abused power and degraded their fellow citizens and sought only those things that would entrench and enrich and elevate their status. It’s not that none of them has ever been decent or done a noble thing — it’s just that when the opportunity came to sacrifice a small portion of their power in exchange for a more equitable nation, they have never done it willingly. That is the calling card of the patriarchy: the insistent and unnecessary and often brutal hoarding of resources, wealth, agency, freedom, safety, and opportunity, all out of a false sense of scarcity and insecurity. The paradox is that it’s those who have everything who always fear there’s not enough. When the marginalized start to gain voice and momentum, underlying everything for the elite is this persistent fear: What if they get power and then treat us the same way we have treated them?

It is easy to get caught up in the romance of the theoretical ideal, that of the fully representative government. But a theoretical ideal carried out under paradigms and systems that are inherently unjust can never be just. We need to understand and accept that, in practice, these institutions which the powerful have built and benefitted from were never designed to fully include all of us. In practice, they have been set up and maintained specifically to keep most of us on the outside and a very few on the inside.

There is a certain kind of insanity in looking to the same broken institutions — that from day one have been intentionally designed to exclude us — to somehow save us. It’s like going back to the person who stole from you a hundred times and hoping that he won’t steal from you this time.

The vast majority of positive change, of true transformation, has happened because of movements OUTSIDE of these established structures that have 1) disrupted the status quo, 2) shifted individual hearts and minds little by little, and then 3) become so powerful that they could no longer be ignored by those who hold the levers of change.

We were never intended to thrive under these existing structures. We have survived and thrived IN SPITE of them.

My friends. Anger is an appropriate response to violation.

But also, I am begging you not to panic and not to become despondent.

Because the pattern that also emerges in our short history? If we commit to this together, we’ve got this.

Terrible stuff has happened. Terrible stuff will happen again. Human progress has always been a marathon of finding a way around, under, over, and through all that darkness. The SCOTUS, and Congress, and Presidents, and corporations, and religious leaders have made a lot — like a LOT — of unspeakably evil decisions. Progress hasn’t come when some landed white dude in power spontaneously has decided to do the right thing because his conscience told him to. Power anesthetizes conscience. It has come when the terribleness of the original decision/law/rule/mindset was brought to light by those whom it was affecting (and by those who cared about those whom it was affecting) with enough force that it couldn’t be ignored — and then it was overturned. That will happen again. And again. And again.

So, yes, we work somewhat within a broken system we’ve been given. But, more importantly, we work to dismantle and transform broken systems that privilege the few over the many. That is always, ever, our sacred work.

We disrupt and subvert and hold accountable abusive authority, as is the proud tradition in a true democracy. Every election cycle, we show up and shift the balance just a little, or a lot, if we can. We pull down, brick by brick, those institutions that ignore or disenfranchise or target the vulnerable — something that will likely take generations. And we work to restore them, the broken people and the broken institutions, into something that truly serves all of us and that truly supports and gives life.

Our call is always the same, regardless of the circumstances, and it’s the same right now as it was in 1776 and 1871 and 1920 and 1965 and 2008: to be in radical community, to demonstrate unreasonable and inextinguishable love for those around us, to stand up for those who need us. That is a beautiful calling. It’s as beautiful and urgent in seasons of defeat as it is in seasons of victory.

Storyteller. Storylistener.