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In the era before the Avatar, we bent not the elements, but the energy within ourselves. To bend another’s energy, your own spirit must be unbendable or you will be corrupted and destroyed.
Above is the quote that the Lion Turtle says to Aang, preparing him for the final confrontation with Fire Lord Ozai, and it always makes me feel and think when I watch what is the best ending to a cartoon ever. I feel choked up, like something true and important is being revealed, and I think about civility, and social change, and compromise, and radicalism, and nonviolence, and disarmament.
In order to bend another’s energy, must our spirit remain unbendable? In the context of worldwide anti-racism protests and riots, what does it mean to bend or not? I think about two approaches to activism, one that is more concerned with purity, and says that there should not be any compromise, and another that is more concerned about civility perhaps, or pragmatism, that calls for the path forward being some middle ground of compromise.
I also think about progress, or especially the lack thereof when we look at race relations in the US. We are more segregated than during Jim Crow, and the police aren’t murdering (and harassing and abusing and framing) more African-Americans, we’re just catching them on camera. When I say “we”, I mean white people. A well-known gaming luminary recently commented on a Facebook thread that he supports the police the way the used to be, before they did all the awful things we see now. I responded that the police haven’t changed, we just have cameras in our pockets and the Internet. None of this would surprise us if we had been listening to people of color the whole time, but it takes protests in 50 states and 18 countries to listen to them now.
I realized that I don’t care what his reply is, I’m just so tired of this “The cops were always friendly in my all-white middle class neighborhood so what are you even talking about?” response.
But, again, who is best to bring about positive change? One who is unbending, uncompromising, or one who bends, and compromises?
The reality seems to be, right now, that evil is uncompromising. With corrupt police departments, there is no compromise. There is no compromise with Mitch McConnell as he stymies progress, halting hundreds of bills and working to stack Federal benches with regressives. There was no compromise on Merrick Garland’s nomination. Over and over, the people working to make the world worse every day show us that they will not compromise.
This is likely what has moved the center rightward in the US rightward for my entire life (40 years and counting)…
Coda: De-Fund the Police (or Abolish Them)
After I started writing this draft, protests broke out in 50 states and 18 other countries against police brutality. Again. After an unarmed African-American man was suffocated to death by a cop on camera. Again. So here we are. Again.
Only this time, the protests are more widespread than I remember in the past, and they do not seem to be losing momentum. I’m hearing more about de-funding the police, and even abolishing the police, than I ever have before. (For the record, I want to abolish police, but I’ll gladly accept radically de-funding them as a compromise).
This brings me right back to the ending of AtLA. The Fire Lord has demonstrated that he will never use his power for anything but evil. He has every chance to change his ways, reconsider, and so on. But he simply will not turn aside from evil. And so Aang has to deal with him – the previous incarnations tell him he must be decisive. Everything is pointing toward killing the Fire Lord.
But Aang disarms him. That is decisive, and it ends his capacity for evil (or at least dramatically reduces it). But in order to do that, in order to bend his spirit, his own spirit must be unbendable.
I end there. We must disarm the police, because they have demonstrated that they will never stop using their power for evil. They are using their power for evil this very moment, brutalizing unarmed protestors who are protesting their brutality. Posing for all-white photo-ops and screaming at the press for vilifying them as white supremacists. Shooting and beating and killing children and elders and everyone in between.
We must disarm them, and we must not bend.
I’m reflecting on what I think we can learn from this time of pandemic, social distancing, lock-down and quarantine.
Many Invisible People Are Essential
We love to talk about nurses and doctors as heroes, and they no doubt are. But so are the health aides and hospital custodians. So are the EMTs and lab technicians.
So are the cashiers and food handlers and truck drivers. So many previously invisible people are now the ones we depend on for our lives. Many working in healthcare, especially health aides, do not themselves have affordable healthcare. The cashier at the grocery checkout is risking their life for what falls far short of a living wage.
I hope that when we have these conversations again about universal healthcare and raising the minimum wage and even universal basic income, we remember the time when we depended for our lives and our loved ones lives on people we normally ignore without a second thought.
Many Visible People Are Unnecessary or Worse
So many large companies are going to distribute billions to stakeholders while laying off their work forces, or refusing to provide hazard pay and basic safety gear. There have been dozens of outbreaks literally caused by the greed of those in corner offices.
Many of Us Can Work from Home
So many chronically ill and handicapped people have been told they can’t do a certain job because the job can’t be done working from home. I have heard this story so many times, over and over. And yet it turns out that many of us can in fact work from home. Yes, it sucks sometimes. But it is definitely possible, and if someone spent more time learning how to work from home really well, they could do a great job in many situations without having to be able to come to the office.
Investor “Risk” Is A Lie
When someone makes an investment – say, in a rental property – it is said that they are taking on a financial risk, and because they are taking that risk, we do a lot of things to help them in a capitalist economy. We definitely favor the investor over the worker, the owner over the renter, and so on, time and time again. Businesses serve their investors, not their workers. It is far easier to evict a renter than to fight a landlord. And when push comes to shove it is clear that the investor is not the one who is risking at all. It is the worker, the renter, who is actually taking on all of the risk. Risk flows downstream, not up.
The landlord risks losing some income – the renter risks losing a home. The owner risks some income – the worker risks their livelihood, possibly their access to healthcare. Our economy values ownership over pretty much anything else. It is not the investor who risks, when the risk is real.
Nature Flourishes When Left Alone
So, it turns out there weren’t dolphins swimming in Venice’s canals – but there were fish, and it was possible to see the bottom for the first time in I don’t know how long. All around the world, air pollution is diminishing. People in India see the blue of the sky for the first time in a generation. Confused animals are wandering through cities, wondering where all the noisy primates go to.
Stories like the dolphins swimming in Venitian canals speak to a deeper desire in us, I hope, to see nature flourishing around us. Not to just drag ourselves through disposable lives, anesthetizing the pain of watching the world around us die however we can, but to live and see life around us and be happy about it. Can we do that? Maybe?
We Can Consume Less
My family is learning this on our individual level, and what some describe as “economic collapse” I can also describe as “slowing our hysterical plunge into ecocide.” The fact remains, if we all just sort of decide to, we can consume a lot less. We can eat out less and drive less and fly less and garden more and cook more and do more with the things we already have. COVID-19 has done what 50 years of environmentalism wasn’t able to accomplish. All it took was some existential fear, I guess. But I hope we learn from this, and come out of this pandemic time having gotten a taste for not ruining the world at breakneck speed.
Pay A Living Wage
Everyone deserves a living wage. Everyone. Don’t think so? Go to Hell.
When a crisis comes, we find out that some people are more essential than we thought. This will probably surprise us with each crisis that comes. So just to be safe, let’s pay everyone who works enough to live as a result of that work. That means food, shelter, education, healthcare, safety. Other countries do it. Why can’t we?
Universal Health Coverage
Everyone who thinks it’s OK to be too poor to go to the doctor needs to sit down and shut up, forever. Even if you are a selfish narcissist, you have to acknowledge that universal healthcare would be great for slowing down a pandemic and swiftly responding to it. Instead, we get to play the life-and-death guessing game of “We have nowhere near enough tests so we have no idea who is sick.” I hope we survive this fun game we’re playing, instead of caring for each other.
Ignore the President
Never, ever, ever, listen to Donald Trump. Don’t read his tweets. Don’t listen to his words. Don’t read the chyrons beneath his words. Don’t read his letters or go to his websites. Don’t read his name on the side of his ugly buildings.
The sounds that come out of his mouth and the sounds that come out of his anus are of equal value, and the right response to both is to gag, cover our noses and mouths, and leave as quickly as we can. Period. He is a vile, narcissistic, ignorant, inveterate liar. He will never not lie. He will never say a single wise, intelligent, or helpful thing. He never has in his entire adult life, and he never will.
Listen to Experts
Some smart people go to school to study One Thing very closely for years and years. When these smart people talk about their One Thing, sit down and listen. You can ignore their opinions on Other Things if you want, but not that One Thing, and definitely not when that One Thing means life or death for millions of human beings.
Anything else you’ve learned from your ‘rona time?
I wonder if this guy wanted to be famous? Maybe he just wanted to exploit thousands of people for profit. Well, now he’s famous.
The problem isn’t billionaires – billionaires are a symptom. The problem is capitalism. The common lie is that capitalism is the functioning of free markets, but this has never been the case on any large scale. Actually, capitalism has always demanded slavery in some form, because capitalism has always been exploitation.
We can see what I’m calling the “capitalist exploitation reflex” at work right now, as we adapt to the coronavirus and watch opportunists do things like drive across three states to buy up all of the hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes so they could price-gouge people on Amazon and Ebay, or buying up toilet paper rolls so they can sell them for $5 each out of the back of their car. Under capitalism, this is perfectly rational behavior. If you aren’t hoarding and price-gouging your neighbors in the midst of our shared fear and uncertainty, you’re the sucker.
In order to address this exploitation, Amazon and Ebay had to temporarily suspend capitalism. They had to actively prevent the so-called “free market” (which is never, ever actually free) from setting prices the way economists relentlessly teach us markets are supposed to. They had to set price maximums and cancel the accounts of price-gougers. And of course they did – we always punish the small-time gougers, while we let the big-time gougers run everything. We are, after all, capitalists.
The cruelty isn’t a glitch, it is demanded by the system. It is poisonous, diseased billionaire-ism, and it infects many of us whether we know it or not. It shows up when we are anxious, and some of us immediately begin to frantically hoard and exploit. Hoarding and exploiting are the two basic instincts of the capitalist.
This isn’t vapid “all are sinners” kind of reasoning, this is a specific system playing out in predictable, horrifying ways again and again across time and throughout the world. It isn’t that markets exist – they always have. People get together and trade things with each other without any outside encouragement. Capitalism is not markets – that’s just capitalism’s marketing. Capitalism is hoarding and exploitation, deep down to the core. It exploits everyone it touches, relentlessly, blindly, like a blasphemous idiot-god from a Lovecraft story. (From a Christian perspective, I would say that it is literally a blasphemous idiot-god, and we its idolatrous servants)
It is a dragon that breeds dragons, and we need to slay it.
It is common to talk about how people are addicted to technology. But I don’t think we are addicted to technology at all. I think we are addicted to what technology offers is easy access to: each other, games, and stories. I think that a large number of companies have found that these human needs can be leveraged and made highly profitable, especially if they are allowed to exploit them without limits, as they currently do. But even calling these ‘addictions’ is a misnomer. They are just fundamental human needs which many of us are trying to fulfill through digital technology.
Addicted to Each Other
It helps me when I remember that most of the folks I encounter on social media are starving. Not physically, but emotionally. We just aren’t built for this nonsense. We are not made (whether by God, evolution, both, aliens who seeded Earth with life, etc) to stare into a flickering screen alone seeking social connections. We only do it this way because our society doesn’t work.
Every few years, we find that people have fewer friends. The average white man in the United States right now has zero close friends. Zero. First our society uprooted all of us, so that we do not have a sense of place or lasting in-person relationships, and then to address this we developed Web 1.0 and then Web 2.0 and social media. These are the things that would connect us as never before, and they have. What they cannot replicate, however, are the in-person relationships that every single human being craves. Without those relationships, we’ll starve, and like starving people, we’ll end up willing to try to eat almost anything.
Addicted to Games
Every soldier’s kit historically included gaming pieces. I’m not an expert who is certain this was always true, but this does seem to be broadly true. So when you have to decide every ounce you are carrying, whether you want to carry that marching hundreds of miles through all weather, whether you want to wear that into battle, one of the most important things soldiers have with them are gaming pieces of some kind.
Gamification is a term that’s come to common use over the last decade or so, driven by people like Jane McGonigal and others who are learning how to use games as leverage in shaping human behavior, whether our own behavior or that of others. Gamification would never succeed if people weren’t already strongly inclined to love and play games.
I would personally go farther to say that we are, as animals, strongly inclined to play. You can observe stingrays playing; whales breaching; dolphins passing around narcotic puffer-fish like a ball. The more I learn about animal intelligence and animal behavior, the more I learn that animals play. One of the forms that basic living need to play takes is the human obsession with games.
Addicted to Stories
Humans love stories so much, we impose stories on seemingly random events. That, at least, is how people without supernatural beliefs account for those who have supernatural beliefs, but it’s also why we impart meaning to noises in the dark or see faces in objects. Confronted with a world with no table of contents or user’s guide, we create stories out of what we experience, and those stories in turn help us navigate more of the world.
People will live and die for stories. Right now, tens of millions of Americans are committing collective suicide for the sake of the story: Make America Great Again. They are eagerly voting against their own best interests, exacerbating problems that will destroy the lives of generations to come, for the sake of that story. Stories drive our triumphs and our failures, as individuals and as communities.
In order to flourish, I think that we as human beings need to find better ways to be connected to each other, better ways to play and play games, and better ways to tell one another stories. Right now we are locked into multiple exploitative, extractive, destructive, suicidal systems that provide a version of those things only to use them as leverage to commodify us. Fortunately there is a very long human history of knowing one another, playing games, and telling stories. We have a lot of practice in doing these things; we just have to understand what it is that we need, underneath all of the noise and consumerism that is currently strangling us all to death.