You can build something beautiful or you can chase validation and absolution...
A more-personal-than-usual post about why politics and activism isn't where you go to wish your worst feelings away
Top notes: Hey! As you may have noticed, I’ve been experimenting both with a weekly format as well as a consistent publishing day (Friday). Is that good? Bad? Did you not notice? Happy to hear feedback! Regardless, I will probably give myself the ability to chill out and miss a week or two coming up soon, though I have enjoyed playing around with this rhythm. I was going to definitively say “no newsletter next week” but I have a feeling that, for better or worse, there will be more to say about the Ottawa trucker’s blockade, so we’ll see.
Also: Super soon, I’ll be officially announcing the dates for spring Barnraisers training cohorts (most likely kicking off the second week of April. Sign up here and i’ll keep you in the loop.
As most of you all know, I’m currently writing a book. Now, there have been times in the past six months where I have been “writing a book,” in the sense that I’ve been thinking about it a lot, but not putting words on paper. But now, I’m in a stage where I actually mean it— fingers tapping on keys! Really! It’s wild.
This book is (I hope!) going to be one of those memoirs that makes a point much bigger than just one person’s story, and does so with context and research and all those other bells and whistles. But it is a memoir, and I’m the author, which means that, in this current sprint to get words on pages, I am mostly writing about myself. And that’s… pretty weird!
Do you know what writing a memoir is like (or, at the very least, do you know what writing my memoir is like?) Well, you know that feeling when you’re watching a horror movie and you know the killer is in the basement but the teenagers don’t have any clue that he’s there and they’re about to go down the stairs to steal some beers or get it on or whatever and you yell “NO! DON’T DO IT!”
Writing a memoir is like that except you are the teenagers and the killer-in-the-basement is your own life-long pattern of foibles and missteps. Oh and also, you’re not a perfectly omniscient audience member— even if you now know where your foibles used to be hidden, that doesn’t mean they won’t still jump out again from a slightly new spot. This time, the killer might be on the deck! Or underneath a pile of laundry! Or damnit, sometimes you do know the killer is in the basement, but you still really want to go down there and shotgun a beer and you’re like “well… maybe he’s not in a murderin’ mood tonight.”
I don’t think this metaphor is holding up anymore! But I think you get it! I’m writing about mistakes I’ve made, some of which I’m very likely to continue to make.
More specifically, I’m currently writing about a particular period of my life (beginning roughly around 2016) where I was frequently at my most insufferable. I was very into yelling at other White people about how bad Whiteness was and how much more I knew about that than they did. I wasn’t really engaged in politics in a meaningful way, but that did not keep me from very clearly stating my opinion! Quite a bit! I was also pretty emotionally needy, particularly at work, particularly towards Black, Brown and Indigenous people in my life. It was clear that I wanted to not just do the right thing, but to be seen and noticed for doing the right thing. I wasn’t thinking very critically about how, as a man in particular, my voice was taking up a lot of space. I also said “dope” A LOT, like too much for a White dad in my thirties.
I also did a lot of kind and wonderful things during this period. I was a pretty good Dad and partner. I remembered both of my parents' birthdays. And some of my self-righteousness and puffery was helpful. We’re all very complicated! But still!
I have read a fair number of “White people make mistakes” memoirs, for obvious reasons, and the “killer hiding in the basement” in that genre is almost always a knowledge gap. The author didn’t know that they were doing a racist thing and then they learned more, so they stopped doing it. It’s a very tidy narrative— mistakes are always in the past tense, and can be cured through learning whatever lesson the book is teaching. Goodness, would it be great if my narrative was as clean and tidy as that!
Mid-way through this process of excavating my story, though, it’s become clear that my patterns of alternating usefulness-to-others and complete insufferability have very little to do with knowledge or ideology. I have been both easier-and-harder-to-be-around as a reformist, nonprofitty liberal AND as a socialist abolitionist. I have made relationships more about me than about the other person involved, both before and after reading C.L.R. James and Audre Lorde.
No, my “killer hiding in the basement” has always been that I was and still am a pretty typical human being. I have a helpful-but-also-confounding brain and a loving-but-often-needy-heart. I am descended from early human beings who evolved both a genuine concern for the needs of other human beings AND an overly-heightened sense of shame and fear-of-judgment and need-for-acceptance. I am extremely loving and also very frequently a real mess. Probably a lot like you, no?
As I keep writing all these stories of me ping-ponging between being a loving community member and needy “look at me, look at me, look at me” shouter, I’m trying to balance grace and understanding with accountability (we may all be human beings with weirdo brains, but that doesn’t erase power dynamics, nor the undo amount of harm that combined maleness and Whiteness and straightness can wreak on spaces). I’m doing my darndest to not just self-flagellate for the hell of it, but instead sit with enough curiosity and love that I can actually wonder, “Why DO I keep going down into that basement, anyway?”
I’m still sifting through multiple variations of that question and answer, but here’s one for now: Just as none of us are well served by the myth that our pathway to happiness is some artificial wrung of professional success or service to our employer, so too are we poorly served by politics and “movements” that primarily offer us false deliverance from our angst or alienation. There is a role for so many valid human emotions in politics— anger, fear, sadness, angst, whatever. The problem is when we view politics as a tool for emotional alchemy, a magic vessel that will quickly spin our bad feelings into good feelings.
When I think about my most hamfisted political moments— when I just yelled at somebody I could have organized instead, or instinctively given money to some viral vanity campaign, or scrolled social media for hours instead of showing up to a community meeting— it’s almost always because I felt scared or alone or inconsequential, and I took the quickest neurological escape hatch available to me: I see a child in a cage on the border, make a quick Facebook post and give money… and never think about it again. I go down a rabbit hole about some Fox News Host or conservative pundit, only to have spent hours (that I don’t have) validating the opinion I had already. I talk crap on a group text about a flawed but beautiful third-party in our life. I tell myself that I’m too tired to introduce myself to the renters next door.
I’ve been thinking about the shallowness of the politics available to us. There is a real sugar-cereal-ness to it all, right? Empty calories and quick buzz and little in the way of long-term sustenance. This week, I’ve been texting with friends in Oakland about the bitter school closure debate that they’re having there— where all of a community’s pain and anger has to find a home in the thimble-sized container of short-term decisions, but there never seems to be enough time for parents and students to imagine, proactively, what it would actually take to have the school system of their dreams. I’ve been trading emails with activist friends in Minneapolis who truly are trying to build a long-term movement that isn’t reactive, and instead builds the necessary conditions to truly change their city, but who were laughed off as being unrealistic when they didn’t win a mayoral election. Right now, that movement is again (and understandably), in reaction mode (in response to the killing of Amir Locke), but I take deep comfort in knowing that they will keep up their long-term neighbor-to-neighbor long after this moment passes.
And yes, I’ve been thinking about the Canadian trucker’s protest. Goodness, what a perfect metaphor for our collective “look at me, look at me, look at me” politics. This is an action solely composed of extremely loud, bulky machines holding a city (and now an international border! and maybe much, much more!) hostage, not in service of a policy goal (even this piece, which is pro-protest propaganda, admits that it's not really about vaccine mandates), but as a tool for grifters— both in-person and online— to milk feelings of alienation and isolation for their own benefit.
I am not wrapping this up with a tidy call-to-action. We’ve all got a lot of emotions and fears and insecurities and traumas to work through. And no, those aren’t all equivalent to each other, particularly when cut across various layers of power and privilege. But still. The individual and collective quest to hold and process and do-your-darn-best with your version of that is sacred, important, necessary work. I’m definitely not giving you suggestions on how to do that work (although, therapy is probably a lot more efficient than “writing a memoir", so take that for what it’s worth).
What I am increasingly realizing, though, is that, regardless of the form it takes, there isn’t a shortcut to that work. Just as no job or app or award or influencer can magically deliver you to the place where your emotional dial is more consistently closer to “generally at peace” than “needing constant validation and reassurance for the world,” neither can you find it in political action. And I didn’t seek for this current writing process to be a census of my own approach towards “politics” or “social action” over the years, but it’s been humbling (and pretty embarrassing) to see how much of my own personal sturm and drang over a decade had much more to do with making a feeling go away than in trying to build something.
In future weeks, I’ll be back with various thoughts on what that process of building looks like. Right now, though, I’m knee-deep in an excavation of lessons that took me way too long to learn. As such, all I have to offer is that there is power in noticing your own motivations. There is power, as well, in holding a healthy skepticism of influential political actors, even those you adore and agree with, who seem to be manipulating those emotions. Most of all, there is power in asking why- why are you really making that donation? Why are you going down that research rabbit hole? Why have you cut that person out of your life? Are you building, or are you just trying to run from a feeling?
As always, thank you for supporting the work of The Barnraisers Project. This newsletter is free, but only because it’s part of the broader work we’re doing over there.
This week’s song: I just looked up what tracks I listened to most in 2016 and I stand by them! Here’s “Be Good” by Waxahatchee. It wasn’t released in 2016 but I must have been super into it that year. Also, now that we’re talking about 2016 music, is this a safe space to admit that I didn’t mind “Fight Song,” which is infamous for being Hilary Clinton’s campaign anthem? I don’t know, man… is it a crime to like things that are anthemic and rousing?