Here are the things that have been going through my mind: Solidarity, The Velvet Revolution, the fall of Apartheid. Why? Because each of these represents a moment in history in which a critical mass of people awakened to the truth that the regimes oppressing them were far from the permanent and unshakeable authorities portrayed in the blare of their unceasing propaganda.
For the last couple of weeks, people have been sharing this social media post:
COVID-19 is showing you the facts that American capitalism has lied about. It’s showing how many of you support socialism when it’s convenient for you or the people you care for…
Children could’ve gotten laptops & free wifi this whole time.
Wifi could’ve been a utility this whole time.
Stores could’ve been allowing seniors to shop for one hour assisted.
Stores could’ve closed earlier to give stockers & cleaners proper time to stock & recover this whole time.
College students could have a frozen interest rate on student loans this whole time.
Pregnant women, disabled people & single parents could’ve worked from home this whole time.
Abandoned federal buildings could’ve been used for homeless people.
Students could learn from home instead of being suspended for a lack of transportation to school this whole time.
Bill payment could’ve been furloughed this whole time.
Evictions for hard times could’ve been delayed this whole time.
Co-Pays & other out-of-pocket health provider fees could have been waived.
Not turning someone’s electricity or water off in desperate times so they can survive could’ve happened this whole time.
Airfare could’ve been cheaper this whole time.
Sick people could have been encouraged to take time off & given paid time off to care for themselves.
The bottom line is…
Humanity could’ve been humane this whole time.
This is also what the children dedicating their young lives to awakening response to climate crisis have been saying the whole time: if you take the problem as seriously as it warrants, there is plenty to do to make a meaningful difference. But if greed blinds you to reality, if you instead spend your brain-power generating the rationalizations and justifications that put profit above people, we all pay the price.
People are also posting variations on the simple theme that “this will change us.” I’ve written recently about my fear that one of the changes will be an expansion of state power — even the imposition of martial law — that may not be undone when the crisis passes. Hungary is a chief example, and there are many others. Does anyone doubt that the enormous deranged ego in the White House will do all in his power to play the situation to his personal advantage?
So here’s my question. What will it take? I don’t suppose everyone in Poland or Czechoslovakia or South Africa awoke one morning from an aha! dream of people-power and leapt into action. I understand that mass movements were built slowly, over years, and often at great risk to those who saw their potential and helped to organize them. But mass movements have been building here too, from the Movement for Black Lives to Me Too to the Sanders and Warren political campaigns. What meme, what hashtag, what collective dream or galvanizing message could awaken a critical mass of us to the reality of illegitimate state power and the possibility to true democracy?
When I talk with friends about this, the obstacle is clear. People think about the prospect of a popular uprising of conscience and possibility, and instantly the self-validating propaganda of the current regime floods their minds. How can we — ordinary people with our little lives and modest means — prevail over the well-armored, well-financed institutions of the profit-first state? Every word that issues from its apparatus and allies is intended to reify that power, broadcasting a message straight from “Star Trek:” Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated. Even those who know every day that history’s lessons and our own values contradict this propaganda — even for such people — internalizing the oppressor’s message is hard to resist. It takes will and desire, energy and engagement — things that are even harder to muster in a plague year than in ordinary time.
I know in my bones that the Great Pause of this moment can catalyze the Great Turning. It may show up in the coming elections. It may show up in an unprecedented scale of protest. I know it can, I just don’t know if it will.
What will it take, friends? If you think back to Solidarity, The Velvet Revolution, the fall of Apartheid, if you cast your own friends, neighbors, and colleagues in the leading roles in a comparable sea-change in the United States, what do you see? What forms of organizing are reaching people? What new ways of catalyzing democracy are being invented in quarantine? What slogans are the virtual banners streaming? What hashtags are flooding social media? What will it take?
“A Change Is Gonna Come” performed by Terence Trent D’Arby with Booker T and the MGs.