Plan B


Like everyone I know who has been paying attention, I’m fucking terrified of what’s becoming of my country. In the past few days, the Supreme Court has issued decisions that leave no doubt of its illegitimacy or its lack of interest in the integrity of our system or in the right to freedom from religion, bodily autonomy, safety, a livable planet. Yesterday, we learned more jaw-dropping things about our violent, venal former president and the coup he and a small army of bottom feeders attempted. And there’s little reason to think the court wouldn’t help him or one of the many Republicans patterning themselves after him into the highest office next time.

Likewise, like everyone I know in Missouri who has been paying attention, I am terrified by what my state has already become. Because Missouri was one of nine states with trigger laws–the ludicrously named “Right to Life of the Unborn Child Act”–as soon as Roe was overturned, the law went into effect, and abortion was banned here.

Yesterday, a major Missouri hospital system announced that it would no longer provide Plan B because it wasn’t yet clear that it was still legal to prescribe emergency contraceptives and it didn’t want its doctors to get arrested. According to a statement made today by the governor’s, it is, though there are some who say an ambitious prosecutor could still test that determination. Regardless, the state house is filled with the kind of people who would name a law the “Right to Life of the Unborn Child Act,” and there is no reason to think they will be stopping at abortion or that those who think that women should have control over their own bodies and that religious belief should have no place in public policy will be able to stop them.

And just as democracy in my country has been under attack by coup plotters and election riggers, so it is under attack now in my state. The party simply ignored a popular referendum on Medicaid, refusing to accept federal money that would have helped alleviate an underfunded healthcare system. Gerrymandering has long been common practice in Missouri, and the state GOP is forever on the lookout for more ways to create long skinny, misshapen districts designed to rob Democratic voters of the chance to have the representation they should.

No primary, no registering voters, no problem

Today the governor signed an awful bill into law that contains a number of provisions designed to further chip away at the ability of the opposition to oppose them, from voter ID laws to procedures that make it much harder to register voters. As it is for the national GOP, democracy–elections, lawmaking, constitutions–is an obstacle, something that gets in the way of their hold on power, power that is to be used in profoundly antidemocratic ways.

Our own personal Trump

It all feels hopeless for us here, just as it does for many across the country. We march, we call our elected representatives, we work to get out the vote for candidates who might better represent our interests and the interests of the state as a whole rather than a small, vocal minority. And they sometimes are able to fight back against bad legislation. But more often they aren’t. And we have our own criminal who might make it back into office, just like the country does, with his own people eager to get him there. And it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot we can do about it–if Greitens emerges from the primary, all we can do is hope he flames out. And unless the Department of Justice makes it so Trump can’t run again, unless Biden and others in DC who could make court reform happen do, unless in doing so they make it impossible for SCOTUS to continue to ignore our legal tradition and the separation of powers and to steal the White House for the GOP, we’re going to need a plan B to save us from a future we don’t want and shouldn’t have to have.

White Riots

“White Riot” sleeve, 1977

Sometimes people who don’t know The Clash and don’t listen carefully to song lyrics mistake their “White Riot” for a white supremacist anthem. But when they sing about wanting “a riot of our own,” they don’t want a race riot. Inspired by the riot that erupted in 1976 at the Notting Hill Carnival, a Caribbean cultural festival in West London, the song is about about white people following the example of the black Notting Hill rioters. “All the power’s in the hands/ Of people rich enough to buy it,” Joe Strummer sings, “And everybody’s doing/Just what they’re told to.” Instead of docility, Strummer calls for “throwing a brick.” While the song played live unfortunately caused the trashing of a lot of clubs by overexcited fans, the song is about fighting for the rights of those who haven’t had the money to buy the power, white and black and any other color, across the globe.

January 6, 2021

The white riot going on in the U.S. right now isn’t about that. It’s the people who have the money to have bought the power–the Supreme Court, half of congress and state legislatures–who are throwing the bricks in this white riot. And it wouldn’t at all be a misunderstanding to think it’s white supremacist. The Federalist Society takeover of the Supreme Court, the depths of which we still haven’t plumbed (we still don’t know why Kennedy suddenly stepped down), is absolutely about keeping power for white people–men in particular–and wielding it against the bogeymen of the Great Replacement by nonwhites and/or LGBTQ people, non-Christians, socialists, abortionists, whatever latest distraction engineered by the Chris Rufos of the world and rolled out to keep the white men who don’t actually own the power distracted, in the great American tradition of racial capitalism. The decisions coming down from the Court are preparing the way for an authoritarian theocracy, defended by unlimited guns and bigotry and the destruction of the Constitution. And it’s a court that is as much stolen as bought, just like the presidencies that made it, as, without the extraordinary extralegal intervention of the Court itself in Bush v Gore and without the interference that gave Trump his presidency, the Court wouldn’t be what it is today.

Brooks Brothers Riot, Miami, November 22, 2000

And like the Brooks Brothers Riot that gave us Bush II, what’s happening now–the theft of the Court, the overturning of precedent and principles, the attempted stealing of an election–in the end is powered by the outrage of thwarted entitlement, by the rage that comes from feeling like the country you think is yours is being taken away from you by people you think it doesn’t belong to. It’s a top-down riot where the people throwing the bricks already have the power and have recruited a lot of throwers who don’t realize they’re dupes, and they’re going to knock it over and burn it down if they have to. And who’s to say they won’t win? If Bush v Gore worked, what’s going to stop them next time?

After The Clash broke up, Joe Strummer had a band called The Mescaleros, and they had a song, “Yalla Yalla,” that begins, “Well so long, liberty let’s forget you/ Didn’t show, not in my time/ But in our sons’ and daughters’ time/ When you get the feeling, call and you got a room.” This liberty–real liberty, not the adolescent freedom to swing your fist no matter whose nose it hits–has always been imperfectly imagined and never widely enough achieved in the U.S., but there have often also been people in its institutions, from congress to the courts to higher education, who have worked to acknowledge and overcome these structural and historical failures and to try to extend the freedoms to live and work and be to those who haven’t had them. It’s hard these days to imagine that history continuing. As the song goes, after “night falls on the grove,” “you can but dream.” But I’m going to go to sleep tonight with the chorus in my ears, carrying the hope that it won’t be until my children’s time that this latest white riot will be over. According to Strummer, yalla yalla means “come on, let’s go” in Arabic, and it seems to be a call not just to go out and be free but also to work for freedom. Let’s wake up tomorrow (later this morning now), be crushed by the horrible news of the latest decisions and heartened by the latest disclosures from the investigations into January 6, and let’s go.

What’s This Weird Feeling

Doing some work in front of the TV tonight, I watched documentaries on Watergate and Alex Jones. It was something, watching an account of the moment in US history when the system held against a president who abused his power–in part because Americans learned what he’d done and turned against him–and then watching an account of the career of one of the men most responsible for making sure that Americans are unable to point to a shared set of facts about what another president who abused his power did.

It had already been a day. It started to look this morning like the pattern that’s been established for the past too many years of mass shootings failing to lead to the change an outraged nation demands might not be holding. This time, it was two events in close succession, which might have made a difference. It might also have been the state-by-state pressure exerted by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Everytown, and other groups advocating for sensible gun policy that has made this time look like it might actually be different.

It also was starting to look like the pattern that long ago emerged with Trump–a nation is horrified to learn of the latest outrage he’s committed, Washington marshals its forces to expose the depth of his abuse of power, and a fully compromised Republican party lets him off the hook–might not hold this time. Instead of impeachments that don’t lead to convictions, we might have actual criminal accountability. The January 6 committee just might have the goods and the Justice Department just might actually live up to its name.

So maybe this is the start of something. Maybe things have gotten so bad that the efforts of the Joneses and the Murdochs to ensure we can’t all be working from the same set of facts are becoming less effective–so much less that Americans’ outrage can reach critical mass and their representatives have to listen to their demands. Maybe the evidence is piling up so high that it’s overwhelming the work of the liars, the conspiracy theorists, and the politicians who might know better but in their own personal calculus have decided that the true and the right are less important than the expedient and the advantageous. It could be that decades of hoping for better gun policy and a long six years of hoping that Trump would finally be treated like the criminal he is might finally be more than exercises in disappointment. You know it seems the more we talk about it, it only makes it worse to live without it. But let’s talk about it.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

Why Everything Is So Fucked Up Right Now

If you had to answer the question of why everything is so fucked up in this country right now, you could do worse than pointing at this tweet:

I’m an American in my own home, and I’ll do whatever I want with my guns, Mr. Chairman.

I’m an American and I’ll do whatever I want with my guns.

I’m an American and I’ll do whatever I want.

I’ll do whatever I want.

The essence of this tweet is something you expect to hear from toddlers, not members of Congress. One of the most important things we are supposed to learn as we are socialized–by playing with other children, going to school, and learning how our system of government works–is that we can’t do whatever we want, because our actions affect other people. What we do sometimes does things to other people that they don’t want done to them and that we wouldn’t done to us. As we learn what becoming a member of a functioning society entails, we learn not to swing our fist wherever we want because we don’t want it to hit the other fellow’s nose.

So maybe we don’t live in a functioning society anymore. A good portion of us root our identity in the idea that other people and their noses can go fuck themselves, that our freedom to swing our fists wildly with our eyes closed because it makes us feel good is sacred. For those among us who think this way, people who voice complaints about how their noses keep getting smashed are too sensitive, are snowflakes, should be mocked. America doesn’t owe them anything other than the chance to become nose-smashers themselves. Trump is their hero because he could give a rat’s ass about the effects of his actions and just wins wins wins. And Trump, in his red white and blue uniform, is America.

You can’t spell triumphalism without Trump.

America can’t lose, Trumpist, triumphalist thinking goes, unless un-American Americans hold it back, like (this line of thinking goes) in Vietnam, or in business, or in elections, or in defending itself against the immigrant hordes or the enemies within. If real Americans are just allowed to hang onto their guns and their prejudices and do whatever it takes–and not do things they don’t want to that might help others, like wear masks or allow people to do things they think their religion just can’t tolerate–they’ll win.

Along these lines, if you think that tweet isn’t the answer, try this shirt:

America is flag-draped death heads and guns. America is swinging fists and fuck your noses. America is good guys with guns, lots and lots of guns, all the guns you can eat.

I’m sick to death of people thinking it’s American to do whatever you want. We’ve always had this attitude as one part of who we are, as colonizers and enslavers, bosses and con men, but now it seems like all the strains encouraging selfishness and destroying the impulse to work toward the public good have combined in a toxic stew of America firster, neoliberal individualist, love-it-or-leave-it ignorance and bigotry. Aggression, lack of empathy, and narcissism used to be the hallmarks of a sociopath. Now they’re job qualifications to be a Republican member of congress. Or someone who votes for one.

How do we pull out of this neoliberal tailspin? Is there any righting of the plane? Can humanities professors save us? Why are you laughing? Looking at my notes taken yesterday for a talk I’m writing about the humanities, I see this passage from Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution: “as increased use of casual academic labor, online instruction, and neoliberal governance erodes research-faculty control over curriculums, degrees, and major requirements, the last force within public universities potentially sustaining the ideal of the well-educated citizen, the liberal arts professoriat itself, will be dramatically diminished in both size and power to assert its vision.” As the state defunds higher ed and the culture devalues it, Brown argues, as people stop believing that democracy depends on educated citizens who put the public good over individual freedom, it is becoming harder for those within universities who understand this to save their institutions from becoming the kind of places that are no longer interested in producing that kind of citizen.

Cold dead hands: Thatcher, Reagan, Heston

The same holds true for institutions and individuals everywhere in America. We are all supposed to be looking for positive ROI, in our workplaces and in our lives. It’s becoming harder and harder to talk or even think about what’s just, about the greater good, about the good at all, when everybody’s competing with everybody else, when everyone and everything is ranked. I’ll argue in my talk for the possibility of working against the economization of everything within higher ed, for the idea that there are things we can do in higher ed that might fight against neoliberal rationality in higher ed and outside of it. I’d be foolish to imagine such efforts could have any effect on people like Greg Steube who think there’s any appropriate response to the mass shootings of May other than finding ways to protect the lives of the people they represent. But if public higher education could be saved as a place where future potential members of Congress and future potential voters could learn alternative ways of thinking, ways that don’t make the very notion of the public good absurd, maybe that could be something. And if others could do whatever they can to affect their own institutions, to show that things don’t have to be this way, that could be something too.