What does it mean to lead political lives?
There is a sense of grief and fear among many of our communities. The rituals of grief themselves help: Feed our bodies, even when they can’t feel hunger. Lay down to rest, even when sleep does not come. Grief is real and, like a fire, it needs tending.
A recurrent worry among friends has been the ease with which normalization sets in: how quickly some of us feel better, how the despair evaporates. I turn here to Paul Farmer, who, in describing his work in Haiti, once articulated that the best way for him to be of service was not to constantly be in despair — it was not to attempt to ‘blend in.’ It was, in his view, to use his power to do the work the Haitians in the communities he knew needed him to do. Tears give rise to work, as does guilt. Despair is political. But they also eat us from within, and we cannot do our best work when we are sobbing. So let’s embrace the soft recoveries, the return of an appetite, the return to some routines. They make space for the work.
What does it look like to do political work in the every day? Voting is not the only political act. We need to look beyond the realm of ‘high, formal politics’ to the politics that govern which lives are grievable. I keep reading, particularly among liberal allies who share a lot of the policy priorities but who do not necessarily actively practice political work between elections, that “we must start working.” To that, I earnestly say: Welcome. The work has been going on — slowly, quietly, invisibly, in the margins, often done by the most marginalized.
The work of politics is walking people between their cars and the doors of Planned Parenthood, past the screaming people calling you names and holding placards of dead fetuses.
The work of politics is showing up at the immigration clinic and helping translate documents or fill out forms.
The work of politics is donating money to support those organizations that have been asking (and answering) “what can I do to help?” for ages, particularly if that question feels paralyzing to individuals who are new to it.
The work of politics is realizing that ‘this’ did not happen just ‘because of racism’, or just ‘because of sexism’. It is realizing that oppressions are interlinked. That, in the words of Audre Lorde, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
The work of politics is diagnosing power. Complacency, too, is a political act. What power do we each hold? What privileges? It is not just immigration lawyers and gynecologists and environmental groups that have the knowledge and skills and abilities to effect change. When we do not do the work, we shift the burden of change entirely on the shoulders of those who have experienced layered inequalities and injustices.
Time is political. Literacy is political. Money is political. Whiteness is political. Heterosexuality is political. These are all sites of power, as are others. Know yours, and demand from your loved ones to diagnose their own. And let that be the starting point.
The work of politics is demanding politics from our friends — from those who are, in principle, allies, but who do not treat allyship like a muscle that needs to be exercised. It is the discomfort of asking a friend to articulate her commitments and to live them in the day to day — just as oppression is lived in the day to day. It is the discomfort of having us question ourselves and having our friends question us. It is the power that emanates from that discomfort.
The work of politics is noticing the all-male-panel, the all-white-panel, the constructed expertise. It is noticing who shapes the narrative and from where they presume to derive their authority. It is paying attention to those who will tell you that we have urgent issues now, and that your counting black women on a panel can wait till later. The work of politics is questioning ‘later.’
Finally: love is political. It is overflowing right now. It is the friend who has offered to help undocumented immigrants in any way they can, including providing a physical space for them in their home. It is the friend who has texted to let me know they will not let anything bad happen to me.
Let us practice a non-exceptional love. Let us love the precarious immigrant in our lives by protecting not her, but the people like her we do not know, the people more vulnerable than her.
In the words of Cheryl Strayed: “Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start there.” Let the despair many feel today not be the end, but the beginning of the opening. Let us acknowledge that, for many, this is not the beginning — this is the continuation of hate they have lived, fear they have inhabited, and struggles they have been launching their whole lives. Let us know how we have undermined those struggles and reinforced those fears with our complicity and silences.
And, eight months from now, on a beautiful spring day, let us remember that the struggle continues, even when some do not see it, even when the despair has lifted. Our work must continue too.