In which I wonder who makes the future
I’ve been thinking a lot lately—no doubt since the murder of George Floyd late last spring, renewed this week after Derek Chauvin was convicted of that murder on three charges, and while my home country happens to be in the midst of possibly its worst mass-shooting spree ever—about how, why, and when we hold the belief that we can effect institutional change.
Obviously it begins with a lot of people angry enough to be spurred to action. As recently as my early twenties, I didn’t consider myself very angry. I knew I had anger inside of me, and that it flared up at certain breaking points. But really expressing anger was for other people. Granted, I have led a fortunate life; the things I do have to be angry about are not related to social systems, because those social systems by and large have not failed me, in fact have been designed to support me. I might not have felt I had ‘earned’ anger.
Give it a few years and I’ve recognized and acknowledged my anger: at things that have happened to me personally, at things that happen to my loved ones and communities, at things that happen (and have long been happening) to people I would otherwise know nothing of. This anger is there regardless of whether I ‘earned’ it, and so I’m learning not only to embrace it but to channel it productively and constructively. Fortunately again, positive examples abound, set by organizers, activists, and people who are simply more informed than I am about being the change they want to see in the world.
Some people, like Bernie Sanders and the late John Lewis, have defined themselves across generations by this kind of work. Others—the majority—belong to younger demographics. Which got me inquiring into the nature of the supposed optimism of youth.
Has every generation of young people to ever live believed that a new world is theirs for the making, only to have that belief beaten out of them as years go by? Or does the extraordinary momentum going today—the momentum that (among other things) pressured the trial of Derek Chauvin into happening at all—stand a chance of sticking and succeeding that previous movements did not stand?
In the perhaps vain hope of arriving at an educated decision on the matter, I looked to the past. The time of revolt, if not revolution, in which we live has been compared more than once to the late Sixties, in terms of both the problems being exposed and the public’s manner of protesting these norms. Now, I suppose I know a fair amount about the Sixties from a cultural and artistic standpoint (much of which was a direct response to political and social movements) through simple independent study over the course of years. And yet, however long it’s been, it’s been nowhere near enough. A newsletter I subscribe to just detailed the covert operations of COINTELPRO, a program I had never even heard of. This new information filled in some important blanks around the relationship between the FBI and many central civil rights leaders. To repeat, I had not heard of it until now.
One significant advantage we have over the organizers of that era is the internet and the sheer ease with which it can disseminate information. I’ll be the first to tell you how much I loved school; but I have learned more about some of the most basic and longstanding social inequities from these newsletters and Twitter threads than from any history class. Knowledge truly is power—and, in an age where the media (which already need enough reform) are under excessive scrutiny or outright attack, the more everyday people can attain the knowledge themselves the better. We must diagnose these issues before we can set about fixing them and creating structures that prevent them in the future.
Looking back, I guess the ‘spirit of the Sixties’ wasn’t sufficient. The momentous charge and motion of a period (in)famous for its engagement and activism couldn’t repair the systems whose brokenness haunts us to this day. This time of year we celebrate Earth Day, a holiday founded by those people in that era. They certainly didn’t seem to be lacking in optimism. Did they simply lack the resources—resources which we now possess? Or are we doomed to a similar fate? Have we just not lived long enough to know that this is the way revolutions work…or don’t work?
Some people I know who were born and coming to consciousness in that era currently despair of ever shifting public opinion (on gun-control legislation, for example). I’m not sure whether they are expressing a realism which I would do well to adopt—after all, they saw a movement flow and ebb and flow again, they must know more than I—or a pessimism which I and my generation can disprove by making lasting change. I’m not sure if we’re just delusional or if we truly have the power.
Growing up I would talk to people about what I believed would be key components of a better, fairer, more equitable and peaceful world, only to be met with a resistance not of ideology but of complacent realism. The formula went like this:
Me: It really should be this way.
Person: But that’s not the way it is.
No shit, it’s not. I was envisioning the way it could be. I wasn’t convinced that the way it was was the way it had to stay. That said, I had no practical means of demonstrating—much less realizing—the meager vision I cherished. Come to find out, in more recent times, that not only do so many people share my vision, but they have the logistics, skills, and guts to make that vision a viable reality. We have, collectively, taken strides that might not have seemed possible even a few years ago. Maybe we can continue to gather, disseminate, and use the instruments at our disposal as a meaningful follow-up to optimism. Maybe this time, we’ll be lucky.