“At the close of 2021, the right is poised to treat the pandemic as a political portal, and the left is not. That’s a disturbing reality, but it is not a fixed condition,” says Kelly Hayes. This year’s episode of Movement Memos, Kelly reflects on what we’re up against and what we need to build in the new year.
Music by Son Monarcas and Jon Björk
Note: This is a rush transcript that has been lightly edited to improve clarity. Copy may not be final.
Kelly HayesWelcome to Movement Memos. TruthoutPodcast about things you need to know if your goal is to make a difference in the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. We talk about building relationships and analysing data that are necessary to create movements that can win. Today, as we finish up the third season on Movement Memos, I wanted share some thoughts on 2021, and our experience in outrage during COVID. Because the last two years have been a remarkably dystopian ride and most of us still have a lot of emotional baggage that we haven’t unpacked yet. I wanted to end the season with some thoughts and encouragement for activists who feel discouraged or tired. This is not a pep speech. But it is a check-in about where we are, where we’re headed, and how we can get right with ourselves on this journey.
We are now almost two years into a pandemic which has changed our perception of the world. In some cases it has changed how we see others and deepened ideological divides. As part of a failed right-wing coup, we began the year watching Trumpian rioters attack Capitol. We have witnessed right-wing antivaxxers worsening the pandemic in the midst of a global crisis. Researchers estimate that 163,000 COVID deaths could have been preventedSince June 2021, vaccinations have been available in the United States. We have a confirmed death toll of over 800,000 in the United States, and yet we see proud op-eds from conservatives with titles like, “Where I Live, No One Cares About COVID.”
Republican officials have failed to protect their constituents from COVID. However, as an authoritarian project, they have made significant gains in this time of crisis. Emboldened by the same “stolen election” narrative that launched an insurrection, Republicans have introduced at least 400 voter suppression bills in 49 states. According to Voting Rights LabSeven states have passed tougher voter ID laws, and 14 states have increased or expanded election-related crime in ways that could suppress votes. States that have passed more restrictive voting laws this past year are home to approximately 55 million people.
Meanwhile legal abortion access hangs in the balance, and right-wing attacks on the mere discussion of racism in public schools are illustrative of what’s at stake in our pandemic era culture wars. Pandemics are historically characterized by political extremism and factionalization. The right-wing has found the pressure cooker of the pandemic to be incredibly successful. The pandemic fueled conspiracy theories and conspiracy-obsessed communities by having so many people at home searching for answers on Google. Thanks to a whistleblower, we now know that Facebook’s own research has confirmed that the platform’s algorithm pushes new conservative users into “rabbit holes”Radicalizing content, including QAnon conspiracies in as little time as two days
We have seen some hard-fought battles and some important victories like the recent unionization in Buffalo of a Starbucks. But we also saw a lot of exhaustion, resignation, and frustration. While there are many people working tirelessly to defend abortion access and voting right at the local level we have not yet seen a nationwide response. Normally, I would expect the imminent demise. Roeliberals and leftists to respond strongly to the resurrection of Jim Crow. Yet, while Republican outrage may cause havoc and possibly rewrite the rules for political ascension’s rules, the outrage from liberals and leftists often occurs in reactive fits. I find myself often looking back at comments made by Washington officials. made to AxiosAfter Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd, the officials said that they were confident that outrage over police violence would now play out in the same way as liberal outrage about gun violence. The officials said that with the guilty verdict, they were confident that outrage over police violence would now play out in the same manner as liberal outrage about gun violence — after a major shooting, there are a few days of intense clamour, and then people are reliably distracted by the next big story.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot more about outrage, how it is expressed, and what it means for us. I recently read an article. article in PoliticoIn which the author argued Republican moves against abortion would not rally prochoice voters at polls, as some liberal pundits had predicted. Julie Roginsky is a former top adviser of the New Jersey Democratic Governor. Phil Murphy said:
I wish we lived somewhere where outrage was valued. I believe we live in a post-outrage society. Voters today are only affected by what directly affects them. This is why the economy, affordability, and cost of living are so important for many people. While a lot of people will express sympathy for that 12-year-old girl in Texas who got raped but no longer can terminate her pregnancy, it’s not what motivates them to go to the polls, sadly.
Could the jolting truth of a post-modern world be possible?RoeThe world is reviving enthusiasm about abortion rights at polls. I honestly don’t know. But I did find myself rattled by the words “post-outrage world,” because those words touch on possibilities that are both real and frightening.
Outrage is part of our daily life. For some, it’s a matter of routine. If you’re on Twitter, you may learn who the so-called main character of the day is — someone whose offensive words have gone viral such that we all get to take turns throwing metaphorical rotten fruit at them, once we figure out what the hell everyone is talking about. So we make our joke, or fire off our rageful critique, and if we’re being honest, the satisfaction is usually short-lived. I have indulged in that kind of discourse plenty of times, and to say it usually isn’t generative would be the understatement of 2021. Because these conflicts are not helpful and do not address our pain. We are in a lot of pain.
Our biosphere is being destroyed, and it is also killing us. The Biden administration recently held the largest-ever auction of oil and gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico’s history, while claiming that it was legally required to do so. That turned out to be a lie, and it’s a lie that feels representative of the Biden experience. A campaign promise of “no more drilling, including offshore” gave way to the administration auctioning off an area of the gulf twice the size of Florida.
Even those who didn’t expect much of Trump’s administration can feel hurt and anger at Trump’s abandonment of issues that were a source of alarm under Trump. Many of us feel a deep need to be there for each other, for the millions of lives that have been lost to COVID and for the Earth. We are grieving. We have to be real about our hurt.
I’m determined to create rituals and practices around outrage and grief in the new year. We are bombarded with so much terrible imagery and news that we don’t have the emotional outlets we need. Whether we want to or not, we are going to spend the coming years engaging with the traumas, resentments and unprocessed grief of the pandemic in our movement spaces — either in intentional ways that help us heal and grow, or in messy, unintentional ways that cause derision and disrupt our work.
Our movements could be a way to make people feel better by providing a platform for them to share their pandemic-related pain and dysfunction in the collective. Because the society does not offer us any popular reckoning with events over the past two years, the people who run it do not want one. They want us to accept normalcy. We need to create movements that offer an alternative option to the consumerist zombie approach towards mass trauma.
Although most groups and organizations I spoke with this year agreed on the importance of grief work being integrated into their organizational structure, very few have adopted new or improved practices or routines to support their members in their grief. Some simply don’t know where to begin. The scale of loss we’ve experienced is staggering, and the denialism of some people in the face of so much death, can be difficult to reconcile. But I think it’s important to remember that anger is one of the ways grief manifests itself, and that some of us lean on it because it’s easier to be angry than it is to feel sadness. You can get into a debate on social media with a stranger and feel like you’re winning when you’re angry. It’s hard to feel like you’re winning when you’re sad.
People have shared with me that they feel sad or weary due to the fact that the pandemic’s transformative potential was not realized or was wasted on electoralism. But the pandemic’s transformative potential is still there. Researchers have shown that a pandemic can suppress unrest in its early stages. Repressive governments may exploit emergency powers to suppress protests and spread the illness, which can lead to fewer demonstrations. According to the International Monetary Fund, researchers have found that during the pandemic, there was a drop in major unrest events around the world. This is compared to the last five years. Their study also showed that historically, the likelihood of upheaval increases over time. The following observation was made by me, and it was published in the IMFBlogParticularly interesting in February of this calendar year:
The longer-term risk of social unrest rises beyond the immediate aftermath. The IMF staff study uses information about the types of unrest to focus on the normal form that unrest takes after an epidemic. This analysis shows that over time, the likelihood of riots or anti-government demonstrations increases. Furthermore, the study finds evidence of heightened risk of a major government crisis — an event that threatens to bring down the government and that typically occurs in the two years following a severe epidemic.
I’m not saying we should let the IMF be our guide, but based on this analysis, all of the political extremity we have already experienced in the United States during the pandemic has happened during the tamest days of the COVID era.
Right now, many of us are angrily grieving the loss of factory and warehouse workers — including Amazon workers — who died last week because they were ordered to remain in the path of a winter tornadoThey could continue to work. We should remember that these storms were so severe and workers suffered from them. However, this kind grief and rage is also present in other parts the world that have been more severely affected by climate change. This has been happening since well before the hardships caused by the pandemic. I believe that a new era in global political upheaval will soon be upon us.
Unfortunately, in the United States, it’s the right that seems poised to change the shape of the system, and topple any semblance of democracy. Although their gains are disconcerting, there are many ways to fight them. The great narrative battle of our time will be fought between those who portray migrants and refugees as an invasive threat and those who seek global solidarity with displaced people. It is crucial to organize prison and police abolitionists and activists working for the end of surveillance.
It is important to consider who we want to be in this moment. What does our outrage look like? What form should it take? I hope we will choose to avoid unworthy conflicts as we enter the new Year. I hope we can take constructive actions when confronted by the outrageous. And I hope that when our feelings run wild, we can use that power to show that extreme in powerful ways. This includes the broad-scale direct action and mutual assistance efforts that we will need in the coming years. I also hope that we can get rid of any illusions people have about the Biden administration, neoliberalism, and how they could lead us to salvation. Although we have delayed the onset right-wing authoritarianism’s emergence, those forces are still at work and the nature and goals of neoliberalism will continue to lead us to the same destructive ends: organized desertion, mass production of premature death, and a natural world stripped of its resources. We must reject these ends. We cannot just fight right-wing advances. We must take the offensive with a bold vision for our future. We are pursuing a politics of surrender in apocalyptic time without world-changing demands.
Our organizing must be visionary, courageous, and welcoming in 2022. We must be open to the intricacies and contradictions that come with building communities and coalitions. We must remember, as grassroots strategist Ejeris Dixon has told us, that we don’t always get to choose who helps us survive. We also need to prepare ourselves for an increasingly catastrophic future, and to understand, as Chicago organizer Monica Cosby suggested on the show last week, that when we can’t yet see or envision a light at the end of the tunnel, we sometimes have to work with those around us, to make our own light.
At the close to 2021, the right is set to treat the pandemic in a political portal. The left is not. That’s a disturbing reality, but it is not a fixed condition. We have a lot to be proud of, but the facade of democracy in the United States will soon crumble. Our hollow rituals of self expression will not save us. We need to deepen our commitments and our relationships in the new year, and to strap in for what’s bound to be a rough ride. We need a bold vision to help stabilize the world. It must be something we are willing and able to fight for together. There are many storms in the future, and we will need to be strong enough to support one another.
As we end this year, I think a lot of you are probably feeling the same love, rage and grief that I’m feeling. I think the question for 2022 will be what we do with those feelings beyond just expressing them. What will you contribute? What will we do? Who will we meet or deepen our friendships with? What is the worth of the world? What are we worth to one another?
I know a lot of people like to get down on New Year’s resolutions, but I’m a big fan of making commitments. As we approach the new year I encourage people make at least one commitment to themselves regarding how they spend their time and how they vent their anger to the world. If you spend a lot of time taking shots at people on social media, and it’s not helping you feel any better, could you redirect a little of that time? If there’s an issue you’re passionate about, like voting rights, climate justice or prison abolition, and you are not actively engaged with that work, will you re-budget some time toward that issue? You can also create a ritual that allows you to express your anger and hurt in a more meaningful way.
Maybe that’s something we can work on together.
I want to thank you, our listeners, for being here today and throughout this third season. Movement Memos began just before COVID turned our worlds upside down, and we have done our best to create something useful for the moment we’re living in. Building a plane in flight is tricky as hell, so I am more grateful than I can say to everyone who’s on this journey with me. We’re going to take a break for a few weeks, but we will be back in January to talk about prison abolition, organizing, mutual aid and how we can fight the continued rise of right-wing power. It is an honor to participate in these conversations. I also appreciate the fact that others find them useful. I am inspired by your messages, and your efforts. Please take care of yourself and remember that our best defense against cynicism lies in doing good. It is important to remember that what we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
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