Lacking Inspiration: 2017 in Review
Nearly everyone I know, myself included, feels as though the year 2017 was a train that jumped its tracks and is now careening at ever-increasing speeds toward the edge of a cliff. Much as we might want to brace ourselves for the inevitable train wreck, however, the year continued on with ever-mounting tensions, crises and exhaustion that just doesn’t seem to let up. In a strange sort of way, the wreck would almost be welcome, because at least then, the train will have stopped. But in the meantime, we’re strapped in, stuck helplessly on the ride, and now we’re speeding with increasing velocity into 2018, which seems as though it will drive on into the unknown at an accelerated pace.
We’ve watched Congress throw away even a hint of democratic pretense to try to ram through disastrous repeals of the Affordable Care Act, which Donald Trump is actively sabotaging anyway, and then pull a similar stunt with tax “reform” that will leave the working and middle classes paying for the rich. We’ve seen the US Supreme Court declare that the Muslim travel ban may go into effect while lower courts sort it out, in violation of the US Constitution’s insistence that the government must be religiously neutral and not favor or discriminate against one belief system over another. We’ve seen brave protesters from the J20 summit be slapped with horrific sentences just for exercising their First Amendment rights to speak out against impending fascism, and we’ve similarly seen football player Colin Kaepernick be mocked and degraded for exercising his First Amendment right to raise awareness of police brutality toward the Black community. The religious right continues to vigorously chip away at women’s reproductive rights, and Alabama seemed perilously close to electing pedophile Roy Moore to the US Senate despite the numerous women crying out #MeToo and demanding accountability for sexual assault and harassment. (Fortunately we dodged having Moore in the Senate, though he is stubbornly insisting that he won the election and was sabotaged by voter suppression, an irony not lost on those who have been protesting Black disenfranchisement in the South.) Also in the South, white supremacists and Neo-Nazis openly marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and felt emboldened to harass, attack and run over counter-protestors standing up for racial justice. 2017 was full of deadly mass shootings, yet the US still refuses to pass sensible gun legislation, climate change has fueled raging fires in California and monstrous hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico, and the world seems as though it’s only one tweet away from nuclear war between the United States and North Korea.
The happenings of 2017 were, really, nothing new. The events themselves may have been unique, but they were really just symptoms of the same diseases that have been festering within the declining US empire for decades now. The rich are still getting richer while the poor become poorer. T Those in power are retaining and consolidating that power, while the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves in a world that is becoming increasingly precarious and increasingly hostile. In some ways, the events of 2017 were positive in that they’ve revealed the crumbling charade for what it is. Unfortunately, a painful truth is still ultimately, painful, even when it is faced head-on, and while the truth still may yet set us free from the systems of oppression and exploitation that surround us, it is not a truth to relish. There are individuals within my socialist activist communities who revel in their being right about the course the US society is on, but such devastation plaguing people across the globe is not something to gloat about. It is something to mourn.
My existential doom and gloom, some of which may come from reading too much Chris Hedges lately (or whomever Chris Hedges is plagiarizing now, because there truly are no heroes left), also stems from my own depression. While the political landscape has degraded to a hellscape around me, I have been grappling with demons in my own personal life, some very, very old and familiar to me and others completely new. Despite my trepidation upon entering 2017 a year ago, I was also hopeful. There was danger, yes, but there was also resistance and more than resistance, there was an opportunity, in the ashes of the old, to build something completely new.
Intellectually, I know that opportunity still exists, but emotionally, I have difficulty mustering any enthusiasm or hope for it. The places that I looked to at the beginning of 2017 for signs of hope have all extinguished their once-promising lights. The activist group I had nurtured for a few years with my blood, sweat and tears that suddenly saw a surge in membership has been torn apart by people more interested in fighting each other than the one percent. Some of my own personal hopes and dreams for myself and my life have not been realized, and I’m struggling with some difficult realizations I’ve had about myself and who I am as a person. I’m still attempting to work out what my father’s death and my relationship with him meant to me and shaped me while he was living. I haven’t yet reached thirty and my hair has started going grey, making me mourn a past attractiveness I didn’t appreciate while I had it and also giving me a dour view of my future sex appeal and romantic prospects. But perhaps the grey streaks are fitting. I’ve never really felt young, so maybe I should just embrace my old soul and general misanthropic pessimism rather than fighting them anymore.
There have been bright spots, for sure, this past year. My life hasn’t been one long, dreary trudge from tragedy to tragedy, but despite the rare highs that I have experienced, I’ve felt stuck in my writing. Nothing inspires me. My ideas, when I have them, feel tired and worn out and everybody else has already said what I have to say and said it better, so what’s the point? What could I possibly add to the conversation? I have nothing original or worthwhile to contribute, so why bother?
That attitude has pervaded my mind throughout 2017 whenever I’ve attempted to write. Yet, after all this time, I’m finally discovering ways to listen to it rather than deny it and push it away. My activism has felt similarly fruitless. I attend so many meetings that, in this past year, I have rarely found time to eat or sleep let alone think, yet I feel as though I have nothing to show for all this time spent. In our culture we are so focused on action, on doing, on blocking out any negativity or doubt, that I think we sometimes become manic in our energies, churning out products or papers or posts just so that we can tell ourselves we have been productive in some way, but failing to harness our efforts strategically or thoughtfully.
In my depression, I am finding ways to be thoughtful. I am learning a certain humility that is in many ways miserable but that I am hoping will carry me through the coming year’s trials in a way that forced optimism and faked confidence probably could not. My ideas feel tired and worn out because they are tired and worn out. My activism feels manic yet unproductive because I am throwing myself into projects that come my way without considering them strategically.
After Trump was elected, I felt a crazed sense of urgency that demanded I take action, any action, to settle the sense of panic churning in my chest. Now, the panic has dulled to a deadening numbness. Everything, to me, is flat, boring and leading toward the inevitable extinction of the human species through our own refusal to solve climate change. Life — whether it is in the everyday activities of getting up in the morning and running errands and going into the office or in the special moments of spending time with family, listening to music, cooking a special meal or having sex — has become flavorless and meaningless. Nothing interests me. I have no energy, but my lack of energy has given me space to breathe, to think, and to sleep. I am beginning to realize that action for its own sake can be just as damaging as inaction and that passion, when not given direction, can be just as destructive as apathy. Action is necessary, but so is thought.
So I am giving myself time to think, and I am forcing myself to ferret out new ideas, even if I find them uncomfortable or unproductive or inscrutable at first. And as I am finding new ideas, I am finding myself slowly able to write again. I am reconsidering my previous notions about what kinds of activist projects I should invest my time in and how I can spend my energies. I’m also rethinking who is worth my time and energy and what kinds of projects I’m able to take on. I’ve been mulling over the argument made by Angela Nagle in her book Kill All Normies that the notion that Nazis are undeserving of a platform and should be censored is paradoxically promoting the alt-right and preventing the Left from articulating a real critique of these racist ideas. I’ve been listening to The Dead Pundit Society podcast, which veers more into class politics at the expense of identity politics more than I am often comfortable with, but even when I disagree with it, I am challenged to think seriously about and defend my own ideas in a way I haven’t needed to since I was in academia. I’ve been reading about foreign relations and the United States’s human rights abuses abroad and how they are contributing to a decline in not just civil rights protections but also the standard of living within our own country.
As I’m learning more and opening myself up to new knowledge, I am hoping to become more strategic in my activism, because as much as I think we need to remember old ideas about class and inequality and capitalism, I also think that we lack the imagination needed to adapt our anti-capitalism to this present moment to effectively fight fascism. We can’t find that imagination, however, if we are stuck in old modes of thinking. If we expose ourselves to new ideas, then perhaps we can begin to think of new ways to create a more just and equitable world that we want to see.
As I step into 2018, I don’t really know where I am going and I don’t have any enthusiasm for going there, but I’ve found a certain tenacity in thinking new thoughts, re-evaluating old maxims and reconsidering former truths. I’m not sure where this intellectual journey will take me, but I have always been something of a believer in critical thinking and learning for their own sakes, so I am hoping that this personal journey, while slow and very tiresome, will eventually invigorate me, even if I can’t really imagine much of anything invigorating me right now.
Depression, Apathy and Boredom as Opportunity in 2018
As Rob Horning writes in New Inquiry, boredom seems like a necessary element of intimacy and a means to resisting the consumerism that surrounds us and clamores incessantly for our attention. While my own sluggishness feels like a personal failing or an individual psychological disorder (and I have no doubt it is), it also feels symptomatic of a society that is steadily sliding toward its own destruction. Such an atmosphere of hopelessness seems to inherently stifle creativity. Another New Inquiry article, reviewing the recent remake of Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2149, observes that the futures we imagine in our science fiction are no longer grand or vibrant or even exciting but rather reduced to “an endless horizon of scarcity, fear, and authoritarian corporate rule… when the most utopian of all desires is family and work, to have a child is the sort of miracle you have to see to even believe could be possible. Sequels are all there is, and bees.” Not only have our films become endless sequels in search of box office booms but our fashion is a pastiche, our pop music borrows from the ’80s borrowing from the ’50s, and our politics seems hell bent on undoing years of progress by suppressing Black voters and permitting discrimination against same-sex couples. We aren’t looking forward so much as we are trapped in an endless mix of past and present without any path toward to the future.
This tedious sense of timelessness is a symptom of late capitalism, but writer for The New Yorker Masha Gessen also sees it as part of our new reality under Trump, writing, “we have settled into constant low-level dread: a state in which a person can function, but can hardly be creative or look into the future. A Russian writer who blogs under the name Alexander Ivanov-Petrov, writing of a different time and place, has called this state of living ‘provincial time.’ It is a time in which people continue to think and create, but ‘in some fundamental way lack agency or the ability to be fully aware of themselves.’” The Left, whatever that even means anymore, seems ready to rehash the infighting and divisions of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the ’60s (only this time with Twitter!) rather than offering a vision for a future beyond capitalism. We are trapped in a political moment that demands innovation, yet we are stifled by our lack of understanding our own history.
Perhaps if the cure to my own malaise seems to lie in exploring novel ideas, the solution for the Left might be to plumb its own past for grasping the opportunities available to us. How did we find success in the previous movements, from women’s liberation to civil rights, and how can we build upon that success before it is completely overturned? What factors that lead to these movements’ success are present today? What is different and how can we adapt to it? How have we failed in the past and what can we change this time around? One of the greatest weaknesses of our movement is that our history is so whitewashed and repressed that we are forever reinventing the wheel, leaving us sputtering in place instead of pushing ahead.
The fights ahead of us in 2018, whether they are personal inner battles or grand-scale social and political clashes, will not be fought and won in a year, no matter how much we might wish they were. 2018 will be a pivotal year, no doubt. It gives us the opportunity to vote out Republicans in the Senate and House and replace them with progressives who are open to being pushed to the Left. It gives us the opportunity to dive into local and state elections and start building the progressive base necessary for any long-term change in this country. And 2018 will also give us the opportunity to build upon the small victories of 2017, such as continuing to hold accountable the men who sexually harass and assault women. There will be plenty for us to do in 2018, but if 2017 was the year of resistance, then perhaps 2018 will be the year of imagination — the year in which we not only hold the ground we have but also envision the possibilities for a future that expands our understanding of justice and equity. To truly expand our minds in this way, however, we need new ideas. We not only need to do much more but we also need to think in new ways and challenge ourselves to think critically. Paradoxically, to come up with new ideas, we must go back and study old ideas, so that we know when we have found something truly innovative and when we are just trodding old paths that actually lead nowhere.
In this spirit of imagination, in 2018, rather than doubling down and ignoring my burn-out and depression, I’m going to try to learn from it and listen to what it is telling me. I’m going to use boredom and apathy as a space for slowing down, a space for examination. Rather than continue to do things just for the sake of doing them, I’m going to try to find new ideas and think critically about the ideas I currently hold. In a political and societal moment defined by a rehashing of old ideas and a dull, deadening lack of imagination, a quest to discover new thoughts and new ideas feels, in some small way, revolutionary, though for anything to be truly revolutionary, I realize that it must also be acted upon. I’m going to try to apply these ideas to what I am doing and see if they can lead me to new, more strategic and ultimately more productive activities. I’m not totally sure where this intellectual search will lead me, and perhaps I’ll only end up feeling as frustrated and hopeless as I am now, but somehow, despite my depressed state, I think I will eventually stumble upon what I need to inspire me. I just don’t know what that inspiration looks like yet.