Why do we marginalize children in our radical political spaces?

Yesterday, I flew from Minneapolis to San Francisco to read books to children. This is a new gig for me. All of my other books are for adults. And, even though those books haven’t sold loads of copies, I am confident that I could line up a speaking gig in any major city to talk about my grownup books. And I’d probably an honorarium and expenses covered. That’s how the grown-up nonfiction gig tends to work.

But writing for kids is different. They don’t have money. They are fickle critics. They haven’t really even learned how to be coldly polite yet. It is a tough gig. But it is important work.

And so, this morning, I made my way to a leftist book fair, excited that they had signed me on to do a dramatic reading of my book, A Wolf at the Gate. I was excited that a radical event was giving space to not only childcare, but the formation of children.

But when I arrived, they didn’t have my event on the printout. Nobody knew where I was supposed to be. And so they told me I could try to corral some of the children in the play area to sit down as I read my book to them. In radical spaces, children are often an afterthought. And in that moment, my work was an afterthought as well. It was a frustrating, but familiar, experience. (Thankfully, after expressing my frustration with them, they did their best to open up some more dedicated space for my reading.)

Some people become children’s authors and do book events for kids because they are one of those people who love hanging around with children. Not me. It isn’t as though I hate kids—far from it. I have great relationships with a number of kids, especially my eight year old son, Jonas. But I don’t get energized by hanging out with kids. For the most part, I prefer the company of adults.

No, I write for kids because our world is fucked without them. I write for kids because they have something we need: imagination. We live in a dark world. Our nation has been at war for all of my life. Increasingly, folks are protesting economic injustice, environmental injustice, racial injustice…but we don’t seem much closer to justice. In fact, since Trump was elected in November, it seems likely we’re moving further from justice.

If developing ever-sharper-analysis and trying to communicate that analysis loudly were enough to turn the tide, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

No, I’m convinced our problem is a lack of imagination. Shifting our political realities requires imagining something different. The reason systemic oppression is so easily accepted by most human beings is that we lack imagination. As Hannah Arendt puts it: “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality.”

Adults are often set in their ways, but children often have an imagination for a new world. I’ve started writing for children because I believe that our hopes for justice rest with them. And, while I don’t typically enjoy hanging out with little radicals, I do admit that there are few things in life better than meeting a woke child…a child that is frustrated with oppression, passionately believes Black Lives Matter, and wants to know the latest update from Standing Rock. Kids that casually correct you when you misgender someone. Kids that think poverty shouldn’t exist.

Radical movements need children. But they often forget it.  Many radical gatherings, political conferences, and book fairs don’t even have childcare. The ones that do often treat children as something to be pushed to the side so grownups can have radical conversations without being interrupted. But where are the radical gatherings that celebrate children? That honor them? That treat them as fully embodied activists?

Look, I get that kids slow us down a bit. If your goal is to get 500 people to quickly show up for an action, figuring out childcare (or, even more, figuring out how to include children as full participants) may not seem like a priority. But if you goal is to build deep and strong movements, a long view is required. And children are a necessary part of the political long view.

If our aim is to develop ever-sharper-analysis while trying to communicate that analysis loudly, then giving attention to kids doesn’t make sense. There is, after all, a reason I don’t read Noam Chomsky to my eight year old at bedtime. But, if our goal is to nurture deep imagination for other possibilities, then giving attention to children in our midst makes all the sense in the world.

 

sendak2

A Letter from Your Uncle

My Dear Nephew,

I hope this letter finds you well.

I’m enjoying my retirement. Gardening has become very therapeutic.

Congratulations on your recent success! Being elected into such a noble office is a great accomplishment.

Now that you are entering into the halls of power, I have a few reflections to offer. I believe they will assist you in the noble task of subjugating the population. I hope you find them useful. I offer them to you with my deepest affections.

Entertainment in a capitalist society functions as a sort of soothing distraction that simultaneously placates a populace while also generating revenue for corporations. When possible, as much as possible, use entertainment as a means of control. It makes everyone feel better. And happy subjects tend to be the best subjects.

Religion in a capitalist society also functions as a sort of soothing distraction (though it doesn’t offer pleasurable soothing so much as it offers moral soothing). However, it doesn’t generate much profit for corporations. Rather, through the use of moralizing, it names enemies and victims as a way of generating a sort of social capital that can be traded for political power. Some religions work better than others toward this end. But since most in this society are Christian, use Christianity. Be sure to inject enough nationalist mythology to over-ride some of the bits about loving one’s enemy and all of that rubbish. But don’t overdue it. Folks still remember the Nazis too much to entirely replace the Cross with the Eagle.

When the population cannot be effectively managed by entertainment and religion, potential dissent can be slowed and dulled by bureaucracy and complexity. If you don’t want to allow people to aggressively assert themselves, you provide a legitimate way for them to passively assert themselves. This gives the illusion that the system can change. And you give them a limited range of options for self-advocacy. This gives the illusion of choice.

When a population cannot be effectively managed by entertainment, religion, or bureaucracy, it becomes necessary to use force. This is tricky. If you use too much force to suppress the people, they will realize they live under a police state and may rebel so strongly that the bonds of entertainment, religion, and bureaucracy shatter. In such a case, they are likely to respond to force with their own force.

On the other hand, you can’t get rid of all elements of force. Just enough violence must be used, preferably on marginalized or outcast elements. This has several benefits.

Firstly, it too functions as a form of distraction; if you carefully administer the threat of violence, it keeps people from recognizing the ways they are being controlled by entertainment, religion, and bureaucracy.

Secondly, the use of violence against despised or marginalized members of society helps more “mainstream” elements feel secure…like honored citizens who maintain their liberties. They will say to themselves “I am a good citizen, unlike those scum.” By believing themselves to be free citizens, they believe themselves to be more valuable to those in power than they actually are.

Thirdly, the use of force is a very natural way to instill fear. People do not like to experience pain or death. The threat of it will keep some docile. And those who feel relatively safe from the threat of sanctioned violence realize, in the back of their mind, that circumstances may change. At some point, if they themselves don’t stay in line, violence may visit them as well. This feeling must remain a mere background thought among the mainstream of society–just enough to serve as a gentle reminder, but never enough to provoke them to action.

I’m always willing to offer you more advice…that is, if you welcome the ramblings of your old uncle. I wouldn’t want to put you out.

Your Uncle,

sam

enlightenment

It stung when my eyelids
slid off
carried away in a flow of tears and blood
welling in my mind
and spilling from my eyes.
Moonlight glimmers into my pained gaze
to dance on my soul’s dark pool.
Down, deep through
forgotten caverns–
there a pale fish swims
with white scales
and its own lidless eyes
that see strange things lurking
in that murky place.

If you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain?

Vote or don’t vote, everyone has a right to complain about how they are governed.

I get the nice feeling of shaming folks for not being politically active. But why does this old nugget—if you didn’t vote, you don’t get to complain—get limited to voting as the decisive vehicle for speaking into political realities?

 
Why not:
  • If you don’t protest the war, you can’t feel sad when people die in war?
  • If you didn’t vote in your local school board elections, you can’t be upset when the teaching your child receives is inadequate?
  • If you don’t own property, and therefore pay property taxes, you don’t have a right to complain about property taxes being used for a new stadium?
Find a better way to challenge people to engage their right to vote. The reason why many folks don’t vote is because the system is so rigged, many feel apathetic.
 
Others don’t vote for principled reasons. Everything from believing that they should opt out of the machinations of government altogether to the belief that they should put their energies into fomenting revolution.
 
I had a few big reasons why, until 4 years ago, I didn’t vote (at least not nationally):
 
  1. If you don’t vote, you don’t get pushed into the “them” category. Republicans often don’t listen to Democrats. And vice versa. When you are a principled nonvoter, folks get irritated with you, but they don’t think of you as the enemy. And it allows you to have deeper conversations about politics. For real. It is something I miss about being a principled nonvoter.
  2. I saw the energy going into party politics as a big relief valve. Generally speaking, folks who vote tend to think they can effect change. And, generally speaking, we all overestimate the weight of our voices and choices. I saw the way the anti-war movement lost momentum after Obama’s election. There is a very real sense in which voting can be a way of avoiding responsibility rather than taking responsibility, since voting isn’t the only (or even most effective) way of bringing change.
  3. I saw voting as an act of complicity. As George Carlin said: “I firmly believe that if you vote, you have no right to complain. Now, some people like to twist that around. They say, ‘If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain’, but where’s the logic in that? If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent politicians, and they get into office and screw everything up, you are responsible for what they have done. You voted them in. You caused the problem. You have no right to complain.”

Why, then, do I vote now? Because #3 is a bogus argument (as bogus as the argument that provoked this article). Because #2 isn’t enough of a reason, in and of itself, not to vote. I have the freedom and privilege to be able to advocate for a candidate AND work for change in other ways. I don’t put much hope in voting (at least at the federal level), but I recognize its strategic values. Because #1 no longer works for me; I’m already known as so far to the left, that my republican friends avoid talking to me about issues.

But more important than understanding why people may not vote, it is important to affirm…and fight for…the conviction that everyone has a right to use their voice to criticize their government. That is, after all, why so many people vote. If someone DOESN’T vote, are you really advocating that they shouldn’t speak against injustice? That’s like saying the only appropriate place to speak into politics is by voting.

American Jesus

Matthew 5:38-45 American Exceptional Version

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, do not merely resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek (or is even thinking about striking you on the right cheek), strike them down. Strike down their families. Strike down their villages. Strike down their nation, so that even their descendants live in fear. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, take everything they hold dear and laugh; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, force them, by any means necessary, to go one hundred miles. 42 Give to none who beg from you, for that enables laziness, and refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you, for that promotes idleness and entitlement.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 And I say to you, despise your enemies and preemptively bomb or drone those who defy you (or defy your ally or have natural resources vital to your sense of security), 45 so that you may be children of your God; for he makes his sun rise on the good, and sends rain on the righteous while bringing darkness to the wicked and drought to the unrighteous.