writing as doing; Gabriel's democracy wishlist
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A few months ago I quit my organizing job because it made me hate organizing. My brain was mush and my heart was angry. Since then, I’ve done some organizing, but mostly have been writing for and about the climate movement.
So naturally, the most recent episode of Outside/In, a podcast “about the natural world and how we use it,” caught my eye. The episode focuses on the exodus of climate journalists from journalism, including Outside/In’s former host, Sam Evans-Brown.
Overall, it seems like the reasons for this mass departure are burnout and the choice to do advocacy work instead of journalism.
The episode poses a lot of questions about writing and reporting versus doing. About a year ago, right in the middle of making a series on wind energy, Evans-Brown left the show to work for a wind energy advocacy organization. He needed to do.
But the hosts also speak with Kendra Pierre-Louis, a former climate journalist at the New York Times and current host of How to Save A Planet. She talks about how frustrating it was to just pummel people with facts, and also get trapped in the chronic both-sideism of journalism. As is well-documented, the ‘other side’ of reporting on climate change only exists because of the fossil fuel industry’s long history of making up fake shit to distract from the problem they knowingly caused.
And thus the shortcoming of journalism: the requirement of objectivity. Hamza Syed articulates beautifully in The Trojan Horse Affair that it is often impossible, if not also wrong, to pull yourself as a journalist out of experience and into objectivity. As a Muslim, Syed is unquestionably impacted by the fallout of a false “terrorist letter” that circulates among his community. As people who are only biologically capable of functioning on one planet that we know of, we are unquestionably impacted by the climate catastrophe.
Which raises the question: if journalism (and writing/recording/filming etc, the media behind it) by definition has its hands tied, how is it useful, especially in the face of urgent crises?
Pierre-Louis offers “solutions journalism,” which uses facts and primary sources to point towards solutions to a problem, and therefore openly acknowledges (an inherently political) problem. She also talks about how people respond to her work—often with gratitude and admiration, as well as how her stories have impacted their lives. People have chosen careers, had hard conversations, and shifted political understandings because of her reporting.
One of the Outside/In hosts, Justine Paradise, airs another concern: that reporting, especially to an already-agreeing audience, is mere entertainment. But we’ve seen that even when people just come for entertainment—Don’t Look Up, for example—they will stay for the message.
The secret sauce of good communication, as I understand it (and thus, part of how powerful movements are fueled) is handing people something they can digest, and that invites them back for another bite. Entertaining, climate-focused content, while not as detailed as the latest IPCC report, is really, really important.
And stories, which make entertainment entertaining, need to be told. When I write, I negotiate with the world. That work of telling a story in a way that holds you with me all the way till the end of this post brings us together and gives us a shared tool to use in our respective negotiations. We need stories to move us to action; we need writing so that we can keep ourselves doing.
This weekend, I went to see the fireworks. I’m categorically opposed to fireworks, but have trouble staying away from a crowd, especially now that I live in a small place. Down by the waterfront, people were splayed out under a still-darkening sky. Out of the ambient crowd hum leapt children’s yells, a laugh that spread among friends, a greeting.
When the show started, everyone fell silent, hushed by the boom above. Faces turned skyward. People cheered. We want to be entertained; we also need to feel like a part of something bigger than ourselves. This is true whether we’re turning out in numbers to watch a beautiful toxic spew into the only breathable atmosphere we know—or mobilizing to save the only planet we call home.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
I’ve been trying to find a way to write about democracy in the United States for a while, especially the way we Americans think of our own nation and ideas of democratic freedom. The general myth most of us have come to accept is that America was the first country to reject monarchy and embark on the experiment of democracy, and is therefore the best at it. We’re taught that Lafayette carried the idea of democratic revolution right across the ocean to France and that our military has towed freedom behind tanks to Europe and on the wings of B-52 bombers to the Middle East and Asia. It’s no surprise that so many judges in the US are “originalists” when, despite our founding document having been expressly written to be imperfect and amendable, we’re taught that this piece of paper is the cornerstone of global democracy, a religiously venerated text that has led countless nations on Earth to freedom.
As us lefties know, these foundational teachings are myths. The constitution was really only written to protect white landowning men and, though attempts have been made to extend Chief Justice Douglas’s penumbra over the rest of us, the document as it stands is poorly suited to today’s world. US militarism’s impact on other governments has at best spread neoliberalism and US multinational power and at worst upended democracies in favor of authoritarianism. This brings up the most pervasive myth of our constitution: that the document is still the most contemporary and experimental form of democracy out there. When folks in the United States look out to other Western democracies, we see old places: Germany, Italy, the UK; places of stuffy baroque ballrooms and marble arches. America, in contrast, is pluckily modern and devoid of any historical baggage with our uniform suburban streets and endless frontier. But in conflating the cultural history of other Western democracies with their governments, Americans forget that most governments, in the West and around the globe, are less than a century old and have founding documents that, though coming from the same lineage as the US constitution, are written expressly in conversation with the politics of today.
WWII’s earth-shaking fascist violence led to the formation of many of these more contemporary governments. France discarded no less than three governments in the five years following the second World War: the Nazi/authoritarian Vichy government fell away to the Provisional Government of the French Republic in 1944 which then gave way to the Fourth Republic in 1946 and today’s Fifth Republic in 1948. After the Netherlands was liberated from Nazi control in 1945 the government was reformed a second time in 1954 in an attempt to deal with its history of colonialism. Germany, of course, was divided in four pieces in 1945 which became two pieces in 1948 and was united into the state we recognize today in 1990. The founding documents of these governments and the many others reorganized in the late 20th century include tools intended expressly to prevent an authoritarian regime from taking hold. But America won the war, and because we were the ones who brought democracy back to the world, we never had to change or examine who we really needed to be as a nation.
When American journalists report on ranked-choice voting theatrics in Ireland or the great lengths India goes to get everyone access to a voting machine these are spoken about as quirks of individual voting systems. But they aren’t quirks; they’re tools developed through experience with empire and fascism to help governments serve their people, tools our antiquated constitution doesn’t have. Some things on my democracy wishlist:
Ranked choice voting: ensures that everyone’s vote counts and that elected officials are always voted for by a majority of voters.
Mandating polling access regardless of how remote or busy someone is: ensures high voter turnout and truly democratic representation.
A parliamentary democracy, where the executive is elected by a parliament rather than in a separate election: requires different parties to form coalitions and prevents antagonism between executive and legislative branches.
A positive rights constitution: guarantees certain freedoms provided by the government, not just freedom from the government, which our current negative-rights constitution is based around.
We don’t have any of these tools in the United States, and every American is worse for it.
Today, right-wing populist movements and ruling-class corporate infiltration in both parties adds to the strain put on the US constitution by our modern world. At the same time we’ve become paralyzed in the status quo and have come to fear the human people that actually make up this nation. The right is taught to fear immigrants and refugees, disenfranchised ancestors of slaves, and sovereign indigenous governments. Reflexively, the left is spooked by populist militia members and suburban white folks with hate hidden up their sleeve. This fear tempts everyone to retreat endlessly back into the arms of the document that continually institutionalizes the class struggle that all these race, gender, urban/rural divisions mask.
New governments of the past 150 years came about almost universally from violent conflict but our constitution, in its continually more-perfect state, should allow us to circumvent that, right? I read a while ago in the wiffij about attempts by right-wing state legislatures to call a constitutional convention in order to amend or even rewrite the constitution. At first glance, it’s terrifying to see our founding document as so fragile in the hands of hateful people, but a constitutional convention seems the only nonviolent way out of this tension – bringing congress or state legislatures together to think about what we really need from this document. Fearing Article V means fearing Americans: not being able to trust that when push comes to shove, we can really care for one another.
Heidi Shreck’s What The Constitution Means To Me ends with a live debate over whether we should keep or abolish the constitution. In the taped version I watched, this ends with the audience voting to abolish, which is what I feel we need to do, but the play doesn’t address exactly how feasible that is. Even if a constitutional convention is called, any amendments or reimaginings of the US Constitution must be ratified by 75% of state legislatures to pass. The United States can’t even get 75% of Americans to take the full course of a free lifesaving vaccine, so that doesn’t give me much hope and also quells any fears I have that Republicans could make meaningful changes to the constitution on their own. But if we can’t pass the ERA and the President won’t abolish the filibuster and there’s no momentum to add more justices to the Supreme Court and the EPA can’t regulate emissions and uteruses now fall under state jurisdiction then what is this government even for and how do we even think about nonviolently getting the basic positive rights guaranteed by so many other founding documents in governments around the world? Maybe a massive general strike is possible if we can keep people out of the job market like they have been since the pandemic or some kind of debt strike or hunger strike or utility strike? I don’t know. I’m tired.