OAlthough their fear and dismay are often seen as rooted in delusion, right-wingers are right that the world is turning into something new and, for them, odious. They are also right that the side of the story we tell is important. The story we tell today lays the foundation for the future we are building. Outrage over the 1619 Project and new laws aimed at preventing public school teachers from telling the full story of American history are a doomed attempt to withhold facts and perspectives that are already prevalent. .
In 2018, midway through the Trump presidency, Michelle Alexander wrote a powerful essay arguing that we are not the resistance. We, she said, are the mighty river they are trying to stem. I see it flowing, and I see the tributaries that pour into it and swell its power, and I see that once-strongly held statues and assumptions have become wreckage in its current. Similar changes are happening far beyond the United States, but it is this turbulent nation of so much creation and destruction that I know best and will talk about here.
When a regime falls, the new sweeps away its monuments and erects its own. This comes as the dismantling of Confederate, Columbus and other statues commemorating oppressors across the country, the renaming of streets and buildings and other public places, the appearance of myriad statues and murals of Harriet Tubman and other liberators, the opening of the Legacy Museum documenting slavery and mass incarceration and housing a lynching memorial.
There was no great overturning moment, but nonetheless we are dismantling the ugly old world trophies of hallowed inequality and erecting monuments to the heroes of justice and liberation, from the 1968 Olympic track medalists to doing their black power gesture at San Jose State University at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland. All those angry white men with tiki torches chanting, in Charlottesville in 2017, ‘You will not replace us’ as they sought to defend a statue of General Robert E Lee were mistaken in their values and actions but maybe- be not in their assessment.
White people are not replaced, but in many ways a white supremacist history and society is. The general’s statue was removed earlier this year and will be melted down to be transformed into a new work of art under the direction of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. They call the project “swords in plowshares”, a phrase suggesting that it marks the end of a war – perhaps the civil war in which the north never fully claimed victory, the south never accepted his defeat.
What is happening goes far beyond public monuments. The statues mark the rejection of old versions of who we are and what we value, but those versions and values matter most when played out in everyday private and public life. We are only a few decades away from a civilization in which corporal punishment of children by parents and teachers was an unquestioned norm; in which domestic violence and marital rape were considered the prerogative of the husband and the wife gave up her financial and other means; in which many forms of inequality and exclusion had barely been challenged, let alone amended; in which few questioned the righteousness of a small minority – for white Christian men have always been a minority in the United States – holding almost all the power, politically, socially, economically, culturally; where segregation and exclusion were pervasive and legal; in which Native Americans had been largely erased from history; where environmental regulation, protection and awareness barely existed.
You have to remember how different the past was to recognize all that has changed. Frames such as acknowledgments of Indigenous lands that were unheard of and perhaps almost inconceivable a few decades ago are commonplace at public events. Land acknowledgments are not land restitutions, but they justify their validity.
The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964; in 1965, with Griswold v Connecticut, the Supreme Court struck down state laws criminalizing birth control and laid the groundwork for Roe v Wade six years later; it was not until 2015 that Obergefell v. Hodges established equal marriage for same-sex couples (whereas equal rights between opposite-sex couples had also been gradually established as marriage became a less authoritarian institution). The right is trying to push the water behind the dam. With deregulation, social services and tax cuts, they succeeded in restoring an economy of extreme inequality, but not a society fully engaged in this inequality.
They succeeded in passing state-level laws against suffrage and reproductive rights, but they failed to push the imagination of the majority to 1960 or 1920 or whenever their version of the America was at a standstill. They can win the battles, but I don’t believe they will eventually win the war.
While the right has become much more extreme and has tens of millions of true believers, it is turning into a minority sect. This prompted their desperate scramble to nullify free and fair elections and other democratic processes. White Christians, who made up 80% of the population in 1976, are now 44%. The mestizos and non-whites quickly become the majority. On issues such as climate, people of color are far more progressive; if we can navigate through the enormous backlash of the present moment, the possibilities are dazzling.
These are relatively concrete changes. Others are more subtle and more recent, but no less important. Even in the past decade there has been an epochal shift in our expectations of how we should treat each other, and the occasional cruelty and disdain targeting women, gay men, Bipoc, the disabled and people with divergent bodies who have invaded entertainment and everyday life are now seen as repugnant – and have consequences in certain contexts.
A regular experience from this era (for those of us who were there for the last) is to revisit a song, a movie, a book and find that we have now become people who can see insults and exclusions better. which were so seamlessly woven into it. Some ancient art has not held up well and will fall out of circulation, as ancient culture always does; some will be interpreted in new ways; some neglected treasures will move from the margin to the center. We – a metamorphosing “we” – are sifting through an old one and building a new canon.
Even deeper than that is a worldview shift from the self-reliant individual of hypercapitalism and social Darwinism to a recognition of the natural and social worlds as orchestras of interdependence, of survival as a business essentially collaborative and cooperative. Disciplines from neuropsychology to economics have changed their perception of who we are, what works, and what matters. Climate change is first and foremost a crisis, but it is also a reminder that the world is a collection of interlocking systems. The just-deceased bell hooks spoke of an “ethics of love” that included “a holistic view in which we see our lives and our destinies as intertwined with those of everyone else on the planet.”
Birth can be violent and dangerous, and sometimes one or the other dies. There is no guarantee what will happen and the shadow of climate chaos hangs over it all. We don’t have time to build a better society before tackling this crisis, but it is clear that the answer to this crisis is to build such a society. So much has already changed. The river described by Alexander carried away so much, carried away so many people.
He has come a long way; there are still hurdles to cross and there is still much to do.