post nationalism in the age of cooptation and other dumpster fires

during election seasons, it can get a bit murky trying to navigate other people’s political identities. i have recently been called someone who believes in the electoral process a few times, and i initially laughed, but then i thought it could be a great moment of clarification.

the first thing i ever wrote that was published in a book was “i hate politics.” that was in 2003, for an out-of-print book i coedited called How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office. i wrote about the compromise it was, to have radical politics but feel the need to navigate survival in the current political landscape. the book gathered examples of people who held their noses and harnessed election work as a tactic in larger fights.

my politics have changed a lot as new data and context has entered, but that fundamental piece has not really shifted that much – i don’t think nation is the way, particularly this one: a political system designed for exclusion while using the language of ‘the people’.

complexity guides my organizing priorities, still. i don’t believe our electoral system works, and i don’t believe we can completely abandon it while we practice governance elsewhere – i believe we need to move in ways that protect and center the most vulnerable as we reach for a dream of cooperative governance.

i find most of the work of u.s. politics to be cyclical in the worst ways, illogical, presumptive, illusory, performative and not actually useful in the work of improving lives. i left electoral politics for direct action, and then emergent strategy. but i continue to engage a multitude of tactics simultaneously, which i see many in our movements able to do well.

i just want to speak for a moment on the peace it gives me to be a post nationalist.

because most modern nation-states form within the context of the age of supremacy, nationalism often requires it’s practitioners to claim some supremacy. especially the younger and more immature said nation is. that’s how a warmongering, politically divided, arms bearing, death penalty practicing, pandemic petri dish of a nation, which has never fully (economically) accounted for its genocidal, enslaving foundation, can claim it is the best at anything.

is there magic here? of course. but traveling far and wide will show you that there is the potential for magic any time humans come together. across celebrated differences, yes, and in deeply monocultural spaces where we get to celebrate something widely shared. the magic comes not from an unfulfilled dream, or string-swelling theme song of a narrative, but from the miracle of life in proximity to itself.

i think the best thing that could happen to the u.s. is what has happened to other blustering empires – rome is delightful as a place of history, relic, food, art, commerce…it’s not the center of anything except perhaps a certain romantic narrative, and that’s fine. england is rainy, quirky, has lovely gardens, fantastic museums, and an excellent selection of mushrooms in camden yards. the sun sets on whatever is still british, and then it rises through a fog and life goes on. nation as superpower is definitely over.

but this nation, the u.s., can’t imagine the end of its empire phase and doesn’t currently have a coherent national identity. unless it’s rash compulsive rebellion and trolling? or ostrich tactics in the face of our impacts?

post nationalism gives me room to see the u.s. through a lens of compassion…it’s doing the best it can as a flawed structure. it’s a sum of disparate parts that actually don’t have an organic cohesion, and never did.

post nationalism helps me remember that i was never a part of the dream of this place, and that those i have dreamt alongside of have mostly been killed here.

i write this on the birthday of martin luther king, jr, who dreamed of something profoundly simple – a land where humans could be human together. for this he was killed, and then rebranded as a hero of and for this place, as if the dream slipped out on his last breath into the soil. i still share his dream, the seeds he cast took root in me. i water them with my work, which is not for this nation which has still not reckoned with its racism, materialism or militarism. i don’t expect humane and planetary dreams to manifest in spaces where they are continuously shortchanged, fed words without acts. i dream for the species, i dream for Black people.

post nationalism gives me room to focus on conditions. what are the conditions in which we learn to make our dreams politically possible? what conditions allow us to catch our breath and move beyond the desperate acts of survival? what are the conditions in which we create muscle memory around our humanity, around our relationship to the planet, around justice that transforms harm, around cooperation and collectivism, around liberation?

to create those conditions i use every tool in the box – the sharp clean tools of revolution and the rusted tools, like elections with a busted electoral college mess, which are still most accessible to the masses. i know that the hardest step is not getting people to choose the best tools, but inspiring people to want to build something at all. and then, growing the belief that there is a structure they could cocreate in which they could belong without battle. i believe people can and will demand better tools as they fall in love with their own possible futures.

being a post nationalist is feeling constantly aware that our species precedes our nation, and if our nation is not worthy of the miraculous, then it will be succeeded by those of us who choose to align with life oriented structures instead of institutions stagnant in their power struggles.

so, do i celebrate when the conditions allow us more breath, more room to practice; when the conditions allow more of the most vulnerable amongst us a chance to be a part of something beyond this? yes i do.

do i believe that this electoral system is a path to liberation? no i don’t.

do i judge you justice fighters for your patriotism or your anarchy? only if it is purely theoretical. if you are trying, truly trying to figure out ways this species of ours, and particularly my people, Black and Brown and queer and trans and weird and visionary and disabled people, get to perpetuate in ever improving and liberating conditions, then i can respect our differences. i promise not to flatten you if you are practicing a vision of the future that you truly and deeply believe in. and i promise to stay three dimensional at minimum in my own complex beliefs and practices.

dreamer, out.

oprah is already an emperor

i watched oprah winfrey’s beautiful speech the other night…actually the next morning. that night i watched different people from my community documenting their experience as #timesup activist guests at the golden globes. a friend sent me the speech and i sat on the edge of my bathtub and watched it and cried hard because i get moved by bravery and collective moments.

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i thought oprah was stepping into a new territory, wielding her power in a new way. i didn’t think she was beginning a run for the office of president. i’ve been reflecting a bit on why, as i’ve seen tons of very heated debates on her qualifications, her wealth (which seems suddenly surprising to some people), her liberalism.

the first thing is that i think we all need to change our understanding of what presidency in the context of this country means.

i was recently at the obama summit. i met the 44th president there, and sat up close for michelle obama’s speech. in both of them i saw elegant beautiful brilliant black people who had survived something horrific. when the first lady spoke of the white house, it sounded like the biggest, fanciest prison experience available. listening to obama tell stories at the dinner table, i wondered how he carries the weight of the decisions he made as president. and i understood, again, that brilliance, and even individual integrity, are not enough to change a corrupt system.

Octavia’s words “all that you touch you change, all that you change changes you” are also a warning. so far, to hold the role of presidency means to become the keeper of war, the one who manages oppression, the prison guard and executioner. it is a role of drones, prison bars, barbed wire borders. it is a curse, even when held in competent hands.

and i am tired of seeing power handed off at the moment of implosion – as a coach i often support women and people of color who were celebrated and given roles of executive power only to learn that it was power over a hot mess. we’re lucky we survive these brushes with toxic hierarchy – power imbalances that put all the worst kinds of work on the shoulders of those willing to risk being leaders. the job description to come in after 45 is like firefighter-janitor-ER nurse-in chief.

so one reason i am not over here thinking #winfrey/[insert powerful feminist here]2020 is because the role of president as it currently stands is a set up to do the worst harm, and i don’t really want to see another black or brown person take on that burden until we have revolutionized the whole system, at which point the role will likely be obsolete.

and we’re far from revolutionizing even that role; at this point we need to reassert that president is a role of service, not empire. we don’t want to accept the precedent that wealth can qualify you for a role that is meant to be held by experienced politicians who have been practicing service to the people for most of their adult lives. my great uncle just passed – he was a state senator in South Carolina and he was beloved, available to his constituents, responsive. they guided his hand.

it isn’t actually meant to be about who is the most articulate, or charming, or rich. democracy is supposed to be about finding those who can listen to the people, uplift the best of our skills and longings, and weave a society that works for all of us.

as a post nationalist, i am divesting my energy from the federal experiment as the place where this kind of leadership can get elevated. 45 is a clear indication of failure. a system at this scale without a humane economic view (such as socialism, a pluralist commonwealth or other forms of economic democracy) leads to boorish, egotistical monsters in power. it’s what we will put our attention on – look how many people are reading the news every day now that it’s all dumpster fires and disaster.

we have to invest in a different way of being american than this experiment allows for, and our cities and communities are the spaces for that investment.

let’s give oprah a slate of incredible local leaders to back, help her redistribute her wealth into powerful feminist leadership in that way. politics is a field that requires diplomatic and collective skill, and there are brilliant women walking in the fire of elected office right now, learning to survive and lead – she can support them in 2018 and 2020.

because the other reason oprah doesn’t need to be the president is that she is already the emperor of her own life, network, wealth and narrative. oprah is living her best life as oprah. and i’m not mad at it, she’s been shaped by her time and taken great risks.

i am rarely angry at an oppressed person for besting the system, but it’s a corrupt system, and those who rest comfortably in its spoils should not be expected to lead us to the next system.

oprah is a black billionaire who loves love and transformation. she’s a survivor who has lifted herself out of poverty and lifted a lot of others with her. she has learned a lot in public, and she is generous and vulnerable with that learning. she claims her joy, her book nerdery, her health, her right to be a black woman on the cover of a magazine every month, her actress self, her producer self, her i-don’t-have-to-get-married-to-have-solid-partnership self, her podcasts full of spiritual leaders self…who knows what she’s like behind the scenes, but she’s a fucking fantastic public persona. let’s not destroy that with an american presidency.

now we can

I remember one time I was talking about how capitalism was failing and classmate-friend-teacher-organizer Mia Herndon said “capitalism is working exactly as it is meant to. in competition and constant growth, those who don’t compete, or who compete less viciously, suffer, serve and struggle.”

now it feels to some people like America is failing, like the people who said “make America great again” are confused. but this is the trajectory of nation states, of borders and white supremacy. deepening our anti-capitalist and post-nationalist analyses will help make this moment an opportunity.

also, saying “I told you so” in any way is tacky and diminishes the speaker, because saying is not enough if we don’t effectively organize to make our visions palpable and our strategies collective. so we knew “make America great again”, when uttered by white supremacists, was not harkening the racism of the 1980s, or even 1950s, but the era of chattel slavery that preceded and seeded our current prison system. we may have done our very best, but we did not organize effectively enough to have the power to stop this moment.

but now we can. this moment is our ledge, or choice point. we are as free as we choose to be. (baldwin)

now we can put a moratorium on shading and attacking other factions of movement on the internet (or in meetings, or with funders) and either choose to collaborate or ignore other efforts while still counting them as part of our own resistance momentum.

now we can look at each person, regardless of background or experience, as a potential comrade (butler) and figure out how we must transform ourselves to transform the dynamic (boggs) in the name of liberation. i have been practicing this in cabs – i’ve had three transformative conversations with drivers in the last three days – people just need one suggestion, one encouragement to question everything.

now we must look within ourselves and ask what actions we are willing to take, what interventions we are capable of, if we can will ourselves into honest conversations, if we believe in our visions enough to step towards them, if we are brave enough to assert the future we require and to shape it.

the other option is to survive for a while, pointing at the very sharp thing aimed at our hearts and getting closer by the minute.

adapt! dodge, weave, learn from the L, slip out of your ego, hold each other, scream the truth and keep moving towards life. everything is going fine in this realization of someone else’s imagination. but we dream another world, and we make it come true.

a poem for brutal holidays

the sky explodes and it sounds like
the world was created by
lost men
who nearly died on the salt sea
but, living,
planted bullets in the flesh and soil
and grew up a world of metal
and rage

boom blast it surrounds me
and inside I quiver
is it gunshots
automatic, bursting through
the bass in the club
is it suicide at the door
car metal slicing through
humans who believed in god

stray death
or just the celebration of it

i looked up in awe
when i was a child
all the colors
inside the body it is dark
until, pulled open
red sprays and eggplant
acidic nauseous droplets
swallowed diamonds
what was i learning

bombs bursting in air
make you gasp
and feel wonder
and you survive
but no one else does
you win the right to pay
into a system that tries every day
to kill you dead

tell me a way that
bombs, or borders, can mean love
can grow our souls
can pull us into a vast future
worth all of this miracle
am i a child still
to want all this life
and to only celebrate
explosions of joy

* for that time i sat in a bathroom last year, singing songs to comfort finn, who was trembling at the sound of fireworks.

* for my friends who remember being attacked every time the explosions come.

* for every human for whom the sound of bombs bursting in air is the last thing they heard.

this will be america

my friend jodie reminded me of this piece i wrote a few years ago about being an american revolutionary, particularly section 6. she has reposted that section in the past, calling it ‘america, i must love her’:

you cannot shirk responsibility for this country
you cannot shake off these atrocities
its a bloody birthright
all children are born into blood
you have to grow up by growing down into the soil
past the burnt bodies and broken buildings
built on broken bodies and broken promises
built up, bloody borders
borders you live in whether you want to or not

you are the ones we’ve been waiting for

it was hard to revisit the poem in the shock and grief of orlando. and it feels important to remember my own responsibility in this place. i sit in the spirit of grace lee boggs and octavia butler, knowing i, a post-nationalist american-born revolutionary, need to do the hard work of taking on america, and shaping the future that can grow from this place. so.

    this will be america

we are strewn across the street
or the sticky sweet floor
where we called ourselves home
where we got ourselves free
now slick with our blood
this
is america

we are heads bent knees bruised
guilty in hushed prayer
god’s words telephoned across time
to tell us: everything you need
is made of fire
this
is america

we are children, somebody’s children
we are innocent children
we are wayward children
we are violent children
and we fight and we grieve like children
this
is america

we are warriors brought home in whale bellies
to fight, to die on this soil
in an unnamed civil war spilling all our borders
on one side is humanity
and we cannot see the other side
this
is america

we are bruised broke-open fruit
a piled mess under ancient trees
which will only grow with us
we permeate the roots, seething, seeding
we will never go anywhere else
this
is america

we are born with our dignity
we look beautiful weeping, waging love
when scared we sashay the tar streets
press together in the steaming darkness
sweating out freedom songs, love songs
this
is america

we are growing and falling apart
and we are absolutely terrifying
we are stunning funghi, transforming this toxic soil
we are swallowing our dead
becoming worthy of our miracles
this
is america

we cannot separate now
there is nowhere else, no escaping ourselves
millions whisper rituals into dirt and flesh
millions, millions hold each other, raging, changing
fecund with our sacrifices
and this
this will be america

and our future will inhale together
to sing out a bright axe ooh
and remember the names of our martyrs
as we offer each other abundance
as we finally, finally learn we are love
and this
this will be america

thank you to dani, jodie and autumn for holding this with me