Originally posted on Facebook on November 2, 2020.
Anxiety around the election might be peaking now, but it’s been building for months. Various groups have been hitting the same theme: we must defend our elections; we must protect democracy.
And — I understand the impulse. But just as with the urge to end the pandemic and go “back to normal,” we must ask ourselves what we are actually trying to return to, or defend, or protect. Because the truth is that our elections have never been free. Our democracy has never been full. We do not need to “defend” what was; we must, rather, continue to *build* a freer, fairer, and more accessible civic life for everyone. We don’t honor the legacy of John Lewis by “defending” voting rights as currently constituted, but rather by expanding them, just as he fought to do.
In September there was grief and outrage at the failure to indict the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor. #ProtectBlackWomen trended, again, as the language of “protecting democracy” also began to crest. But the truth is that we cannot protect both Black women, and US democracy as we have known it. The truth is that the same democracy that we are being urged to “protect” is precisely what killed Breonna Taylor.
This is not an argument against voting. Electoral politics is a structure of power and those who are empowered by it are obligated to deploy it in the name of ending oppression. But it is also often twisted into a caricature of itself, so that those who are least empowered by it — including those same Black women whose protection is one of the truest metrics of our capacity for justice — are made most responsible for its outcome. The idea that Black (or Indigenous, or LGBTQIA+, or whichever marginalized identity) people have a unique duty to vote because they are threatened by unique harms within our system of electoral politics is the precise inversion of accountability, allowing those with power — white people, men — to continue to elide interdependence in favor of outsourcing.
This pattern is pernicious, and so well-ingrained within our civic self-concept that even the most fantastical efforts at reimagining only end up recapitulating the problem; and for an almost too-perfect example of this, we need only look to “The Good Place.” In its first three seasons the show carefully articulated a system of moral evaluation that was fundamentally flawed, one rooted in surveillance and hierarchy and exclusion, one in which no human being had made it into the titular Good Place for hundreds of years. In its fourth and final season, the show sought to answer this interrogation with a vision of what a fair and just system might be.
To be clear, this is an almost impossibly tall order — for a writers’ room to create a vision of the afterlife more complete than anything yet proffered by philosophy or religion is… a lot. But the show did not stumble on the scale of its ambition but rather the smallness of it, because the scenario that the show’s protagonists created in order to ensure the redemption of humanity hinged entirely on one single relationship: between Brant, a wealthy white man (and Princeton alum) dripping in casual racism, sexism, and entitled arrogance; and Simone, a Black woman neuroscientist. The protagonists coddled Brant from the beginning, lying to him to accommodate his fragile ego, while consistently demanding that Simone tolerate Brant’s abusive behavior — and this dynamic was named, for both Brant and Simone, as “growth,” as becoming “better.” In a climactic moment before just before the deadline of their experiment to save humanity, the protagonists construct a sequence of events meant to make certain Brant’s “growth” — a sequence which culminates with the expectation that Simone will literally, physically rescue her nemesis, because this will give Brant an “epiphany.”
Which is to say: literally *all* of the labor, both emotional and physical, falls on Simone; all that is required of Brant is “awareness.” No action. His interior state is determinative enough.
As if this is not already a freakishly on-the-nose description of the white supremacist expectation that stands in the way of liberation (amongst liberals as much as anyone else), the show then tries to remedy its fundamentally flawed system of moral evaluation in a way that meaningfully addresses exactly zero of its flaws. The heroic Chidi, a wonderful character, invents a workaround to the “points” system of who goes where in the afterlife by suggesting that people can be given multiple (or infinite) chances to keep earning enough “points” to make it into the Good Place, even after their earthly lives have concluded. The demons of the Bad Place — whose consent is required, despite their having zero incentive to alter a system which sends literally everyone to an afterlife of torment — agree to this novelty. And… that’s it. That’s the answer. The end.
Ta-Nehisi Coates used to blog regularly about the tendency — human, but especially American — to seek solutions when, in reality, all we can ever hope to achieve are better sets of problems. He wrote about such a tendency not only in political terms; marriage and monogamy was, in his telling, not an ideal, but simply the best set of problems. The danger comes when a “better set of problems” is mistaken for a solution — when partners in marriage believe that their effort ends at their wedding day, or when an electoral answer is taken to be a civic solution. In “The Good Place,” Chidi’s idea was a better set of problems. It was harm reduction. But it addressed none of the fundamental systemic flaws of surveillance and hierarchy that the show portrayed. By the show’s own statement, no one had entered the Good Place for centuries. The logic of Chidi’s proposal suggests that Harriet Tubman just needed a couple more lifetimes to get it figured out.
But any system that puts Harriet Tubman and John C Calhoun in the same moral category (“residents of the Bad Place”) is beyond reform; the basic error is so grave that to correct it is to change the system at its root, to create something altogether new. And this is the demand of radical imagination, the necessary mechanism by which we might find our liberation, by which we might free ourselves of the intractable trap of “protecting” or “defending” or “returning to” the very ideas and practices which brought us to this fraught moment.
The word “radical” derives from radix, from the root — our radical imaginations are not a tool for escape from accountability but the most potent way to enact it. In this country in particular we have a tendency to conflate imagination and escape, to value reinvention more than the responsibilities which such reinvention allows us to avoid. It is making a virtue of grift, and it is a large part of why our current president could ever be elected. So radical imagination cannot simply be an exercise in walking off into a different sunset. Liberation is not about escape; it is about transformation.
And the mechanism of such transformation can only be love, radical love, the love that we valorize as the most powerful tool in the world but that we also tame and confine, whose power we fear. Radical love does not come to us by Cool Girls or Nice Girls or Nice Guys or parent-pleasing or apple-polishing or any of the ways we might try to remain comfortable and unobtrusive but by allowing ourselves to recognize our interdependence, not only intellectually but fully, to be utterly undone by the thoroughness of our need for one another. To become fearlessly vulnerable in the face of this thing that is so much bigger than any of us but in which we can all participate; to show up relentlessly, to know that rebirth requires surrender first, and that it can only happen together.
Because our delusions are comforting, but they are not true. When we outsource justice instead of actively participating in it we create a world just like the one we live in, a place of oppression and hierarchy, a place where “women’s rights” were entirely dependent upon one single woman — where “women’s rights” are believed to be upheld so they long as they are upheld for middle-class white women, because ICE hysterectomies happened well before Ruth Bader Ginsburg died; because Black women, Brown women, Indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, rural women, trans women all had their reproductive rights curtailed and threatened and violated well before Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and this is not an indictment of RBG but an indictment of *us*, of our foolish belief that our active participation was not necessary. “Protect Roe v. Wade,” fundraising appeals exhort — but Roe has allowed so much reproductive violence to still be perpetuated. Perhaps we do not need to protect what has been, but to work and struggle together to continuously co-create better sets of problems.
And perhaps this sounds exhausting — perhaps you look forward to November 4 in the hope that this will be “over.” The possibility that this is never “over” might feel like despair but in fact it is an occasion for the greatest hope, because co-strugglership towards our collective liberation is the most joyful work of being human, because it is, at its root, nothing but learning how to love.
As Sonya Renee Taylor and Rev William Barber and Dr Melina Abdullah and so many liberationist thought leaders have said in recent weeks, it is not the choices that we make on November 3 which matter the most; it is the choices we make on November 4th. Let us choose not to mistake a better set of problems for a solution. Let us choose not to cut ourselves from the garment of mutual destiny. Let us choose freedom, and ferocity, and one another.
Let us choose love.