Hi, friends! Sorry. You get me again this week.
I’ve had this THING on my mind. This THING in terms of time and decisions.
It occurred to me that I and a bunch of people I know have pretty much put a lot of decisions on hold because of current events. I was reminded of this — it’s become weirdly normal now — when I posted an excerpt of a manuscript I’m working on here last week. Someone asked when a finished product could be expected and I didn’t really have an answer because maybe it’ll never be finished, depending on the next apocalypse/crisis/chaos. I generally don’t have a set time for manuscripts I’m working on, but I generally have an idea of when I’ll be finished writing it and then you think about publication and in this case — in pre-2020 times — I could say maybe 12-18 months.
Everything’s different, now.
So when I read that comment, I just kind of stared at it for a while. I have absolutely no idea what this country or the world is going to look like in a month, let alone a year. I stopped making long-term (i.e. anything past a month) decisions in April. I’ve sort of got some plans that are on back burners, but I’ve also got tons of contingency plans. If A, then we do X. If B, then we do Y. If C, we do Z. But current events are so fluid and changing so quickly that making major decisions right now seems like a bad idea. So I and lots of people I know have basically put off anything major, anything beyond masking up and venturing out to stores once every two weeks in early morning hours to avoid crowds. I’ve also been stocking up on certain things, because there’s no guarantee we’ll even have a postal service in the next few weeks.
If you really think about what’s happening in the US right now — really think about it — you’d be doing the same thing.
I’m currently reading Masha Gessen’s 2017 National Book Award winner, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Gessen is a Russian journalist (now based in the US) who is also a college professor (and, if you cared, she’s LGBTQ+). In this book, Gessen follows the lives of four people born in what is now Russia but at what was supposed to be the dawn of democracy. Her story starts in the 1970s and right now, I’m reading about the turmoil in the early 90s, when Boris Yeltsin basically coup’ed Gorbachev.
So here I am reading about the chaos and uncertainty happening in Russia during those years, and the near-collapse of the Russian economy and Yeltsin’s appointments of people on the basis of friendship and loyalty rather than experience…sound familiar? Russians, however, had developed survival skills during the Soviet era, and had found ways to acquire things that weren’t readily available. These skills no doubt came in handy during the Yeltsin years. And they’re probably still handy, during the authoritarian era of Putin.
I bring this up because I’m trained as a historian and I make sense of social change and turmoil through the past experiences of others in similar circumstances. That’s why I read a lot of nonfiction, because I think it’s important to educate myself on these matters so that I can better predict and prepare for what we’re facing. Gessen, for example, has been sounding a warning for the US since the 2016 elections. A lot of people who have personal experience with authoritarian regimes and those who have studied them have been doing the same.
But lots of white progressives, especially, have refused to accept that what has happened in most other countries could happen here.
This country is supposed to be a beacon of “democracy”. A place where “anybody” can revel in “freedom” and “make something of themselves.”
Anyway, American institutions are based on social contracts and social structures. They were put in place through combinations of corporate/private wealth and systemic racism, and they’re designed to benefit specific people. They work because they’ve been enforced through familiar channels, and because they claim a veneer of “democracy.” As long as you believe that so-called democratic institutions (e.g. the justice system and elections) work, then you might not feel the need to think too much about them, or to think too much about losing them. Especially if you’re white. And male. And cisgender. And heterosexual.
That’s a privilege white Americans have, to think that. Because traditionally, those institutions have only benefited them (full disclosure: I’m white). So why WOULDN’T they think that the institutions don’t work? Why would they ever think that institutions that were established a couple centuries ago and that are still in place now would be so fragile? Why would they think they need to stay vigilant and be prepared to fight for them?
Enter an authoritarian leader who doesn’t give a shit about institutions. And you see, now, how easily those institutions crumble for a lot of white people, too, while benefiting the authoritarian’s inner circles and the parasites who cling to their coattails. This is why this elusive idea of true “democracy” is something that is never bestowed. It is EARNED and NURTURED. You WORK for it, not just for you, but for everyone. Especially those who traditionally have been excluded from “democratic” institutions or actively oppressed by them.
True democracy requires vigilance and constant civic engagement. You cannot assume that somebody else is going to take care of it; you cannot assume that “the system” will correct itself. You cannot assume that the institutions you may have believed in (looking at you, white people) are going to hold against a corrupt authoritarian and the decades-long corruption of a political system that was never designed to be truly “democratic.”
Which makes me think again of Masha Gessen’s work, and her descriptions of Russia in the 1970s and beyond and the constant struggle of everyday Russians to survive beneath a seemingly neverending stream of totalitarianism and corruption.
Under every regime, no matter where in the world you are, people find a way to survive. Even in the most brutal and deprived circumstances, people find ways to survive.
Marginalized people have ALWAYS KNOWN that the institutions in this country can’t be counted on and won’t protect them. Regardless, they’ve found ways to survive throughout this country’s history, and that hasn’t been and it still isn’t easy. And they’ve found ways to make change, but they’ve known that you cannot ever stop being vigilant.
I told my friends and colleagues the day after the 2016 elections that we’re on our own, now, and it was on us as residents and citizens of this country to help each other as we could, and shore up what we could, because the incoming administration was going to strip the country for parts and people would die as a result, whether through sheer negligence or policies designed to inflict as much damage as possible on as many as possible.
A lot of them said I was being “overdramatic.”
And now there are nearly 200,000 people who have died as a result of a pandemic that this authoritarian administration has done very little, if nothing, to contain.
If anything, I was being generous in my estimations in 2016.
So that’s why I didn’t really know how to answer that comment on last week’s blog. Because it was a long-term question predicated on something that might’ve been normal last year but may not be next year. Since 2016, I’ve been thinking in small blocks of time with regard to schedules and decisions. Time for me has become even more condensed since March of this year, when we all went into lockdown. So, sure, in 2019 parameters, I’d probably have that WIP ready in 12-18 months and okay, we’ll publish and sell and yay. But 2020 parameters are different and I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen to or in this country in the lead-up to elections and, if we survive that, afterward.
Grim talk, perhaps. But a little pragmatism is never a bad thing, amirite?
Stay vigilant, friends. And stay safe.