By Ashley Marshall Word Count: 3,844
The Renaissance marked a distinct moment that bridged humans and their relationship to the world. Today, more than ever, we can see the necessity to observe, think critically, and disrupt the world as it is. With the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States of America, the edict that “man is the measure of all things” takes on a rebirth of its own, one that is dystopian in all ways.
One day after the inauguration of Trump, protesters and activists the world over took to the streets to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the man at the helm of a frightening and regressive future. January 21, 2017 will be remarked as the largest march in U.S. history, proudly overshadowing the attendance of the previous day’s events. Prevalent not only to the United States, but an engaged citizenry around the world raised their voices and defiant fists to the threats of fascist, sexist, racist, capitalist, globalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic, and anti-intellectual agendas.
In a delivery hauntingly similar to Big Brother’s INGSOC (the doublespeak of the totalitarian regime that asserts, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”), less than a week in power we witnessed the Trump administration coin the term “alternative facts.” With this “post truth” appeal to jingoistic and illogical justifications and rhetorical fallacies, we are bearing a time when the word “lie” has clever, although transparent, disguises. “Falsehoods” and “alternative facts” are not what is running the country, but flat out lies. Most troubling about this is the repeated belief that “Trump tells it like it is” – a lie in and of itself, one that shields much more racist, sexist, xenophobic, and anti-critical overtones.
So I marched. I have seen this type of rhetoric before. Rather, I have studied it. I learned to become suspicious of the kind of language power deployed as I read texts not only by George Orwell, but also from Foucault, Butler, Frye, Baldwin, Friere and Bauman. With this theoretical foundation firmly in place, I was equipped with the ability to disarm the strategically persuasive objectives of authority. Rejecting what I can see they want me to think is the ultimate exercise of freedom. Freedom from being controlled by a power that I fundamentally disagree with, and the right to protect what I know as true instead of being penetrated by lies is the frontier I see before me.
Allowing power to bend my beliefs while I am legally stripped of my rights is something I will not do, at least not sitting down. I am reminded of what such mass conformity to creative lies has done in the past: “Hitler’s most important contribution to the theory and practice of National Socialism was his deep understanding of mass psychology and mass propaganda. He stressed the fact that all propaganda must hold its intellectual level at the capacity of the least intelligent of those at whom it is directed and that its truthfulness is much less important than its success.” It is with this haunting example and permanent threat of mind control that I felt the need to resist in the street, and to resist intellectually.
The power to bend my beliefs is internal. It is personal. Only I have that kind of power, and it comes from learning. When I read or experience something that challenges what I think or believe, I try to learn as much about it as possible, interrogate it, twist it to see how else it may be applicable, before I accept it into my realm. And even then, it is only acceptable in certain circumstances and I recognize that entertaining an idea is not agreeing with it, but seeing how it works. Only then can I claim a position, and my thinking is dynamic. This is critical thinking. And now more than ever, this thinking is critical.
Under a Trump presidency, we are already seeing a regime that is founded on not thinking, not questioning, not researching, and not hearing. Rather, his cabinet is motivated by personal gain. In the wake of such an administration, another thought comes to mind, this one from Jack London’s Iron Heel: “The weakness in their position lies in that they are merely business men. They are not philosophers. They are not biologists nor sociologists. If they were, of course all would be well. A business man who was also a biologist and a sociologist would know, approximately, the right thing to do for humanity. But outside of the realm of business, these men are stupid. They know only business. They do not know mankind nor society, and yet they set themselves up as arbiters of the fates of the hungry millions and all the other millions thrown in. History, some day, will have an excruciating laugh at their expense.” I marched so the ideals of Kellie Lietch and Kevin O’Leary would never gain acquiescence.
The separation of arts from science has been a profitable endeavor, to say the least. In what has been described as the military-industrial-academic complex (for more on this see Henry Giroux’s The University in Chains), higher education has been targeted and used as a profit-making machine for the permanent-war agendas of the State. Rooted in logics of “employability,” what such an ideology produces is students who only study what they think will get them a job. In an article featured in Jacobin, it is clear that “The upshot of this rapid feedback loop between industry and the university is the stifling of academic freedom and creativity as companies determine what innovative ideas or technologies are praiseworthy.” There is now, as we see on the campuses of North American universities, a thrust toward purchasing the futures of these graduates who can develop new technologies of war, new weapons and machines to kill so-called enemies, but the purchasing of these futures should not be confused with freedom. Purchasing the labour of these scientists of weaponry for permanent war is not freedom at all. Rather, as we see from the development of gated communities, and other examples of our wilful panopticism, our deliberate self-enclosures, we now have an agoraphobic relationship to freedom. Thus, purchasing the futures of graduates on the promise of “financial freedom” is a paradox; mere rhetoric used to mystify that what is actually for purchase, with or without the graduate giving consent, is the promise of slavishly working, of always having an in-demand job (or, the opposite extreme: perpetually precarious work). So, freedom is the promise of permanent (or the pursuit of) work. There has been a reversal from the desire for an agora, to prevailing agoraphobia.
It is important to pause here and think clearly about what I mean by work. Labour is necessary and adds to the flavour of life, so long as it is work one enjoys. The enjoyment of labour has long been divorced from what we have grown up to regard as “useful,” and that difference is profitable. In the words of Frye, “I’m speaking to you as consumers, not producers, of literature. It’s as consumers that you may want to know more about what literature can do and what its uses are, apart from the pleasure it gives.” The use value is for private gain, and so is prioritized. One counter to this, poetically represented, comes from Charles Baudelaire: “You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk. But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk…” Pleasure or enjoyment is often negated from the equation of work, and instead slavish obedience is what youth have been conditioned to chase, and acclimate to for the duration of their careers. What then of freedom? Frye continues by saying that “You see, freedom has nothing to do with lack of training; it can only be the product of training [the work of artists]. You’re not free to move unless you’ve learned to walk…nobody is capable of free speech unless [they know] how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift: it has to be learned and worked at…For most of us, free speech is cultivated speech, but cultivating speech is not just a skill, like playing chess. You can’t cultivate speech, beyond a certain point, unless you have something to say, and the basis of what you have to say is your vision of society.” The artists cultivate these social visions, through education, imagination, or some hybrid of the two. The freedom to do so is increasingly under threat. Orwell did warn us about this in Why I Write as he notes that, “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” I marched for something solid.
So while the science community has been chosen and dignified with promises of wealth and the American Dream (see Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), under Trump’s anti-intellectualism we see the science community being silenced. We see research and organizations focusing on the health of planet Earth being dismantled. We see climate change being denied, and pipelines being planted, with the short-term and profitable aims of neoliberalism. Included in these scientists are not only those with degrees and several letters after their names. Included in this cohort are the Native communities advising against destroying Mother Earth, exclaiming that “water is life” and activating to protect biodiversity and irreplaceable ecosystems. Their knowledge in this matter needs to be heard, and heeded, just as significantly as the rest of the scientists. The science community marched on January 21, and will continue to do so.
With the threat of war and terrorism portrayed as permanent and always looming, it is no surprise that STEM educations have been prioritized. As a result, the arts community has continued to be marginalized. By the arts community, I mean those whose educations are steeped in programs such as English and Cultural Studies, Communications Studies, Peace Studies, History, Geography, Philosophy, Women’s Studies, Justice, Political Studies and Law, Music, Theatre, Classics, Linguistics, the Cognitive Science of Language, and more. In C.P. Snow’s completely relevant text “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” Snow asserts “intellectuals as natural luddites.” So, it is not only those privileged enough to access formal educations that I am describing as artists. By the arts community, I mean the creatives who express their unadulterated passion, their absolute freedom and individuality, and it is by virtue of this awareness of self and expression of worldview that they are seen as a threat by the powers that be. It is because they are the dreamers, and the believers, those with knowledge of history and how it can repeat itself, that artists do the work of imagining an alternative to life as we know it, and do the work of shaping that new utopia. On January 21, 2017, an entire community came together, all over the world, and did what artists do: we recognized a problem and did the creative work of forging a different path forward. We all operated as thinkers invested in creating, demanding, a different world order, one that was the least oppressive, and the most equitable as possible.
The work of challenging and proposing alternatives is being done by the people who resist against ignorant leadership. Such resistance is brave, and it is dangerous. As my heroes taught me: John Lewis said to “March,” to make “good trouble”. Toni Morrison said, “this is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” James Baldwin said, “Democracy should not mean the leveling of everyone to the lowest common denominator. It should mean the possibility of everyone being able to raise themselves to a certain level of excellence.” I think that the momentum has begun, and must continue, because the future is censorship, reduced freedoms of speech, or peaceful assembly or association, if we do not, and that is too much to risk. I think the future will include the mass defunding of not only programs that support women, the LGBT community, racial minorities, and the environment. I think those are just the beginning. I think the future is the dismantling of the origin of those types of identities being accepted in the first place. I think curriculum across the board will be hit with “alternative facts” that suggest that difference is a threat, and that our only “security” is conformity of the mind. I think the future is not just a dystopian fiction, but a reality that we have seen, or studied, already. As Orwell writes, it was accepted when leaders said “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” How does belief in such a fallacy come to be? By muzzling non-conformists. By telling the cast of Hamilton, Meryl Streep, Saturday Night Live, and ANY other artists who speaks to power, peacefully, that they should apologize. But that is only the beginning. As Stephen Graham writes, “Those frequently labelled as terrorists by national governments or sympathetic media since 9/11 include anti-war dissenters, striking dock workers, anti-globalization protestors, campaigners against the arms trade, computer hackers, artists, critical researchers, urban sociologists, advocates for ecological sustainability and freedom of speech, and pro-independence campaigners within US allies such as Indonesia – protagonists of a wide spectrum of opposition to transnational US dominance. Indeed, almost any large group that assembles in city streets and is not preoccupied with consumption has been demonized….Above all, groups tarred with the terrorist label become radically delegitimized. Who, after all, will speak out in favour of supposed terrorists and their sympathizers? This linguistic trick has helped sustain the judicial casting-out of whole swarthes of populations caught up in the War on Terror – civilians as well as fighters – from protection under humanitarian or international law.” It is a fact that our journalists and reporters and filmmakers, those who occupy a special position between artist and scientists, those charged with the task of conveying facts as they are and doing so in hopes that something will change once people are aware of the details, will be particularly targeted. It is the press, the free and independent press, who will need us, the citizens, to protect their rights to keep us informed. It is a reciprocal relationship that requires immediate attention, because who else can report to us that reporters are being silenced? And so I marched, and I wrote. I became as loud as possible and recognized what was at stake, as intersectionally as possible.
When asked by FLARE magazine ahead of the march why I would participate, I said, “I am participating in the Women’s March so that my students can realize the purpose of being informed and put their studies into practice. It is important to send a message to our governments here in Ontario, Canada that the people will mobilize and hold power accountable to any threat of injustice. I am marching to pay homage to those who marched for my right to march, and it is through this agitation that I hope people will have the courage to imagine a creative alternative.” I feel the need to pay forward to my students what my courageous, creative professors paid forward to me. To elaborate, I must rely on the brilliant article featured in the New York Times called “I am a Dangerous Professor” published November 30, 2016:
“Bear in mind that it was in 1963 that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. raised his voice and said: ‘I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence.’
I also recall the words Plato attributed to Socrates during his trial: ‘As long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy.’ By that Socrates meant that he would not cease to exhort Athenians to care more for justice than they did for wealth or reputation.
So, in my classrooms, I refuse to remain silent in the face of racism, its subtle and systemic structure. I refuse to remain silent in the face of patriarchal and sexist hegemony and the denigration of women’s bodies, or about the ways in which women have internalized male assumptions of how they should look and what they should feel and desire.
I refuse to be silent about forms of militarism in which innocent civilians are murdered in the name of ‘democracy.’ I refuse to remain silent when it comes to acknowledging the existential and psychic dread and chaos experienced by those who are targets of xenophobia and homophobia.
I refuse to remain silent when it comes to transgender women and men who are beaten to death by those who refuse to create conditions of hospitality.
I refuse to remain silent in a world where children become targets of sexual violence, and where unarmed black bodies are shot dead by the state and its proxies, where those with disabilities are mocked and still rendered ‘monstrous,’ and where the earth suffers because some of us refuse to hear its suffering, where my ideas are marked as ‘un-American,’ and apparently ‘dangerous.’
Well, if it is dangerous to teach my students to love their neighbors, to think and rethink constructively and ethically about who their neighbors are, and how they have been taught to see themselves as disconnected and neoliberal subjects, then, yes, I am dangerous, and what I teach is dangerous.”
For me, iconoclasm became necessary when I was introduced to a man and his mouse. Cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking graphic novel Maus made the tales of those who survived the Holocaust real, human, and urgent. It became clear to me that recording history, to make information available, was one way to move forward having learned from the past, to as not become detached from it or think one’s self immune to it. It is our duty, all of us, to witness ethically, which is to amplify the voices and realities of communities speaking their truth, and bend our beliefs when it is an investment in equity instead of division. It is our duty to create environments where creativity and truth are praised instead of condemned. I marched in 2017 because I read a comic book about a man who was forced to wear stripes, shave his head, tattoo a number to his skin, lose his family, lose his friends, lose his home, lose his language, lose himself, lose his beliefs in morality, and made to march because “work makes you free,” to make “Germany great.” And I listened. I marched in 2017 because I have read and watched and heard the biographies and histories of the black bodies in chains who were told that we couldn’t think, we couldn’t read, we couldn’t write, we couldn’t succeed, we were only the means of production, and we should march, hop to, and get to work. And I listened. I marched because when I was 18 in a high school creative writing class a teacher let me recite a poem that had lines like “as the rich get richer and the minorities stay broke/under the star strangled banner tailor fitted for coloured folk” and “my neck aint red, my skin aint white and my eyes aint blue” and he let me express myself without fear of reprisal. My white teacher wasn’t threatened by me, and I wasn’t afraid of him. I marched with the life’s work of Alex Janvier in mind as his 1991 O’Kanada was painted “after the Oka Crisis, depicting a medicine wheel in the cross-hairs of a gun sight, targeting a child in the middle, recalling the bayonnetting of a young girl during the melee at the end of a seventy-eight day stand off, reminding us that children have been colonial targets in attempts to assimilate or eradicate First Peoples.” Or his 2013 painting Oil Patch Heart Beat, which represents Janvier’s “frustration [and the Dene people’s disconnection] over the denigration of the land.” I marched with the Zapatistas and Frida Kahlo in mind knowing the broad brush strokes Mexican people have been stereotyped as . I marched so my niece and nephew know that the world belongs to them and I will do whatever it takes to give them a world they would be proud to inherit, one they know they can thrive in, one full of information and freedom to choose who they want to be. I marched so they know that the point of education is not to get a job – any job, as long is pays, no matter if it is corrupt – so they can toe their place in capitalism, but to start their journeys of lifelong learning, the ultimate freedom, to create a world they want to live in (instead of merely existing or supporting something they don’t believe in). I marched so they know that when or if they graduate they would be encouraged to “go out and create a stir” by the president of the university like I was. I marched because none of the realities of oppressed groups are “stories.” This is real life and we have a duty to speak truth to power and emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds. I marched. It was the least I could do.
But my march was different; it was heavier, and it was conflated. Not regarded as intersectional, but absorbed as collapsible. Moving forward, it is crucial to remember that not all women have a pussy and not all pussies are pink. I have no time or patience for those hats. They are yet another example of oppressive white feminism and its exclusions. Brittney Cooper, in Feminism’s Ugly Internal Clash: Why the Future is not Up to White Women aptly asserts that, “White women’s feminisms still center around equality…. Black women’s feminisms demand justice. There is a difference. One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.” (For more on the complexities of intersectional feminism and oppressive white, liberal feminism, read the following Your Calls For Unity Are Divisive As F*ck). I marched, to change the system, to break the cycle of oppression, not to be integrated into it.
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