The Virtue of Being Apolitical
Our dissent is a heavyweight. But empire cannot be built if we know that.
We are at a dinner party. There is a feast: a glossy, brown roast and out-of-season vegetables cooked in animal fat. There is wine, candles even, and bowls of cigarettes down the long table. There is beauty, laughter. And there are rules, of course. No chewing with your mouth open. No eating with your hands. And no discussing politics.
In American towns like the one where I was raised, it’s an unquestioned taboo to voice our opinions about the world we live in. The vibe at the social gathering has been set as delicately as the table. It would be rude to say something to fuck it up. (Unless, of course, it’s academic and hypothetical and grounds for a healthy and stimulating debate, in which case, it’s sophisticated, like a round of poker.) The rules say you are to be merry with people, not knowing, not even curious to know, whether or not, underneath their clothes, they are hateful.
It’s behind Judeo-Christian kindness and tight-lipped smiles that we are told that the goings-on in faraway places are none of our business, and that talking about it makes us the one thing no one wants to be: offensive. That it’s useless to feel guilty for our safe lives in America. That we can’t do anything about it anyway, and that since we can’t do anything, talking about the suffering of others is nothing more than performative goodheartedness.
Meanwhile, each of us is likely only a few degrees of separation away from sheer delusion, from political distortion. People, for example, who want to hold the burden of being the most injured party in the genocide of Palestinians, whilst also holding the gun. They are acting out a neoliberal satire with full sincerity.
It feels like make-believe. In our world, we are content being just informed enough to take the news at face value, just enough to get educations and make livings, just enough to show the mandatory amount of concern to wash our hands of the violence paid for by our tithing. And to delve any further, to care any further is sacrilegious to the collective mission.
Oh you didn’t know there was a mission? Well, that’s fair. The spoils of imperialism are sweet, fertilized by our devotion to looking away. Words like “America” and “liberty” and “15% off plus free shipping” have an amazing mouthfeel, but only if you shut the fuck up and swallow. For anyone to bring up the slaughter of children would make the dress I picked out feel itchy on my sensitive skin. But shhh, if you listen closely, you can hear people so generously dying for us to have all this.
Most of us in North America and Europe, even marginalized people, are some of the most power-wielding people on the planet. We are so powerful it’s hard for me to even fathom. The amount of money and global influence tied to us, to our existences is immense. Our dissent is a heavyweight. But empire cannot be built if we know that. To put a wall between us and our dissent, there is doubt. We are spoon-fed ideas that we can’t really do anything about these problems, that change is slow, that the world is really complicated and we are unqualified to be so upset about things we just don’t know about. We are sung lullabies made up of dinner party laughter and clinking glasses and waves slapping on beaches and told that it all goes away if we wake up. Told that it goes away if we talk about the human cost. Told that it goes away if anything changes. And after all that, we are told that we are free.
In my childhood home, we did talk about politics. It was all my parents ever talked about. They talked about wars and how much they hated our presidents and how much the news lied. It was a post-9/11 America, and we lived in the reddest of states. My parents were not especially politicsy. They were talking about their world, what the country they lived in was doing to Muslims countries, including the one they left. I’ll admit that at times, I thought they were overly distrustful. I wanted to stuff my ears and be a child. I wanted to be like my friends at school who didn’t have to know this. I see this same urge now in adults, to cling harder to their naivety at any sign of unrest. And though I understand it, I can’t lie and say I don’t judge it. Blissful ignorance is heinous, and the people we share this planet with deserve better than that.
The truth is the status quo is held together with manufactured fear and well-mannered ignorance, things we as individuals actually do have the power to influence. The status quo keeps us busy, praying at the altars of careers and wealth and glory and comfort. We are born believing the status quo is a bigger threat to us than we are to it. It hopes that we never come to realize its illusion: The worst it can do to us is cast us away. The worst we can do to it is cut its heartbeat.