Guest article by Professor Michael Thomas.
It feels strange to say it’s September. It’s been a long summer, and simultaneously everything’s moved at a blur. If we can remember back to January 2019 after the inauguration, there was event after event, protest after protest, and we kept asking each other, “is it ever going to slow down?” “Will we ever get to breathe?” This year gave us our answer.
We started the year with political assassination by drone in Iran.
We had an impeachment.
We’ve had the COVID pandemic, which has killed nearly 200,000 people in the US alone.
We’ve had a massive resurgence of widely broadcast lynching’s of black people.
We have 16 million unemployed people.
We have armed white right-wing militia members bringing weapons to assist police in the violent suppression of protests.
It feels like it’s important what to reflect on everything we’ve seen to try to think about what we could do going forward.
Through all this, it feels like we haven’t had time to breathe. We’ve heard a lot about breath in lectures and conversations since the murder of George Floyd brought back echoes of the phrase “I can’t breath” from the murder of Eric Garner in 2014. The phrase expresses the intense pressure and loss that many Black US Americans have felt all summer, beginning with the extensive coverage of the disproportionate number of deaths of black people due to COVID-19. In the wake of this violence, we’ve learned that the loss of breath was meaningless in the eyes of government and industry. Remember, the week after the announced that we were on track for 150,000 to 200,000 deaths without intervention, our officials, begin to decide when we would “reopen the economy,” forcing people back outside and back to work. It was at this moment that I first began to despair. I remember sitting at my computer, thinking, “they’re not going to stop.”
In my last few years in professional employment, I’ve felt and heard others express that it seems we’re always moving faster, under more pressure to perform to keep things running. For many of us, the source of stress is financial. We refuse to slow down because we may lose our jobs and succumb to the fact that life in the US is a precarious tightrope walk from birth to death without a safety net. One injury, one illness, one bad month of unemployment, and you’ll tumble headlong into poverty and death.
The economic restart in May let us know that those who “call the shots” are willing to sacrifice the precarious lives of the poor and vulnerable for the sake of the economy. The Texas Governor even said out loud that our elders are eager to do the same. In that moment, I prayed that our sense of self-worth, of the value of our own lives, would move us to say enough is enough. Sadly, I’ve been proven wrong.
When I find peace and compassion, it comes from understanding that our imaginations are limited by what we’ve come to feel is necessary to live and what possibilities are afforded to us. It hurts, but I’ve accepted that for most of us, it’s too difficult to conceive of a world organized differently from our current one. What’s more, a lot of us fear that the change required will cost us everything, and that fear holds us in place. I believe that another world is possible and that we can’t get to that world through doing the same things that got us into this mess in the first place. I believe that we all have to ask ourselves, “What happens if we just stop?”
Life in the US is framed as an upward race that we’re all out to win. No matter what you’re facing, you don’t quit, and you don’t give up. You keep pushing forward. You keep going on; you keep going on. At the end of that struggle, all your efforts will bear fruit. There’s something to be said for the fact that persistence is a virtue. There are cases in which, if you’re not accustomed to the difficulty of what you’re doing, and you just give up, you miss an opportunity. But what if the fight comes from refusing to struggle in these ridiculous circumstances and deciding to struggle together.
What if the fight comes from saying there are certain conditions from life that are necessary, and until those conditions are met, we refuse to participate in this form of society? What if you can say, I will work and struggle together to feed my friends and my family and with my community, but I’m not going to push forward for someone who pays a paycheck and neglects my health, safety and refuses to provide me with the things that I need for life.
We’re trapped right now because not enough of us are prepared to stop. We can’t stop the economy because people would go broke. Yet, if we stopped the economy. We would also put pressure on the people on top to make a move and change their strategy to keep us moving. There’s an open space there, another possibility. We can’t stop because we’d lose our jobs. Or we can collectively organize and strike, putting pressure on institutions to change their track.
We’re at a point where the country itself and many of its citizens are in the middle of an existential crisis. We have to ask ourselves the question of what we are going to do with that life, what is it that we can change. We can change our priorities and where we place our efforts. We can reorient our attention and our values. For these changes to happen, we have to stop, refuse the trap of the new normal, and find space to live and breathe.
On the material level, we will need health care workers to take care of those who need services, we need teachers to teach, garbage men to help handle the garbage. What we call social life will have to continue. But we collectively have the power to determine the terms of that life. Right now, I’m doing long overdue homework in political theory, reaching out for reading groups for folks who want to study, and rethinking what teaching and research look like beyond the confines of the corporate university. I’m trying to overcome my anxiety and form bonds with creative community members to cultivate spaces for young people to learn to imagine other possible worlds. I’m looking out for ways to support people in the classroom to keep them motivate and remind them that when it becomes absurd, they can refuse, and they can stop.
If we want another world, we have to accept that we’re the people who have to make it.
What are you willing to do to help?
This article was written by Professor Michael Thomas. Michael is a Humboldt Foundation Research Fellow at JFK Institute for North American Studies, at Freie Universität Berlin and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Susquehanna University. You can follow him on LinkedIn. You can also check out his website and other writings as well.