“We Looked Like Grasshoppers to Ourselves”

If I hear one more person (however grudgingly) admire the Republicans’ “long game” and compliment them on masterminding a fifty-year strategy to overturn a longstanding consensus on rights, bodily autonomy, guns and more, I’ll scream. In fact, I’ve screamed already.

It’s not that the U.S. Right doesn’t long for a Big Daddy and eagerly follow the leader when one shows up. It’s not that Right wingers don’t know how to line up and take orders, suppressing differences and dissent to approach unity. It’s not that they aren’t persistent. It’s not that they haven’t left a trail; check out the Powell memo of 1971 for a frank blueprint penned by a Supreme Court justice-to-be for cultural colonization that inspired a good deal of obedient investment. And goodness knows, it’s not that they haven’t succeeded at key moments, the present being a case in point.

It’s not that the U.S. Left doesn’t show a marked tendency to value results less than talking about it. It’s not that our disagreements — personal and political — haven’t roadblocked necessary coalitions. It’s not that the Democratic Party consistently chooses to placate opponents rather than forthrightly pursue justice, equity, and rights. It’s not denying the tone deafness of elected officials who, having failed to take meaningful action to protect our rights, responded to the overturn of Roe v. Wade by sending out a barrage of fundraising letters. It’s not that these strategic failures haven’t turned off a rather large group of potential allies.

It’s not that there’s not some truth to all of the above. Left wing longing for greater unity and accomplishment makes sense; and even though Republicans got there by being allowed to lie and cheat with impunity, recognition of Right wing accomplishments is reasonable too.

It’s that this story of disciplined persistence and strategic genius, where some Republican mastermind shot a golden arrow fifty years ago that hit its targets in 2022 is first of all, false. Along the way they experienced tons of defeat and setback as well as notable victory and progress toward their goals, like just about every significant political force in history.

Second, it’s a story designed by the Right to inflate its power and intelligence, scaring opponents into passivity and despair. It is the equivalent of the inscription the poet Shelley imagined 300 years ago on the mythical king Ozymandias’s statue, crumbling in a wasteland: “”My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” When we repeat this story, we are carrying water for today’s Ozymandias, puffing up Republicans’ mastery and thereby aiding their aim of rendering the rest of us quiescent and hopeless.

We recently discussed last Saturday’s Torah portion with friends. There’s a story in it — really, a line within that story — that is probably my favorite in all of Hebrew scripture. After traveling through the wilderness for some time, leaders of each of the tribes are designated to enter the land they have been promised and report back on the soil, the produce, the people they encounter. With few exceptions, these “spies” return daunted, reporting that the land is good, but the people are giants who will surely defeat them. Here’s the line (Numbers 13:33): “[W]e looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

This is the most elegant and concise depiction of Paulo Freire’s powerful concept of “internalization of the oppressor” I have ever seen. Think about it. The natural sequence of statements would be to say something like “they were so huge we felt like grasshoppers in comparison.” But the text gets it right: having internalized a view of themselves as weak and fearful, the spies make clear the understanding that others will see the same.

Freire’s work is probably the greatest influence on my own understanding of what liberation means. Most of us absorb and internalize messages crafted by the powerful to render us powerless, to persuade us that we are objects of others’ action, not subjects in our own history. The task of liberation begins with self-liberation from this mind colonization, asking whose voice we have mistaken for our own, who benefits from implanted beliefs that make us smaller than we really are, what truths are being obscured by internalized falsehoods. (I’ve written about Freire many times, including a chapter in my forthcoming book; here’s an essay from a few years ago that gives more examples.)

So if I notice myself applauding the Republicans’ strategic brilliance and their golden arrow’s fifty year trajectory, I know I am helping to shore up the fantasy of Big Daddy’s supremacy and dominion. Who benefits from holding this false belief? The people who want you and me discouraged into pliant surrender. Rooting out such internalized beliefs has to be the first step for anyone on the path to freedom, love, and justice for all. It’s steady work, but essential. Here are a few questions to help:

  • Where does this message come from? Who benefits from my belief?
  • What impact does this belief have on my own ability to live into freedom?
  • If I reject this belief, what truth remains?

I have been blogging very little for months. I’ve had practical reasons and political ones: finishing my new book and preparing for publication in January; wondering what if anything useful I might offer amid the avalanche of opinion triggered by every subject these days. My personal hunch is that given the rise of authoritarianism not only in the U.S. but in many other nations, and given the fact that all of these authoritarians seem to have had some sort of procedure to remove all scruples from their cognitive apparatus and hearts, we are likely to be in for a time of even greater challenges before the wheel turns again. But it will turn, and it will turn sooner if we refuse to be persuaded that we are grasshoppers.

Muddy and Rough” by Rev Sekou.

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