The Big Noun phenomenon; the dEeP sTaTe
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
I used to be a part of the particular ~milieu~ in which calling something Big [noun] was an automatic denotation of evil. You’ve heard it too, and I still use it often: Big Brother, Big Business, Big Banks, Big Oil, Big Tobacco.
I want us to go around the corner of bigness, to have a Wizard of Oz moment where we see behind the curtain of bigness, to identify the entity that makes Big Things so. What’s back there? It’s Big They.
Big They, among other things, is the universal stand-in for English speakers. “How do they make peanut M&Ms?” and “What do they use that for?”
I wasn’t aware of how strange this formation was until I learned it in Spanish, and got some distance. In Spanish, you pop in another tiny word (se) plus a singular third person verb. So, ‘se usa’ means ‘it is used,’ more or less the equivalent of ‘they use it for [x].’ Sometimes there is an unacknowledged but existing group that accounts for the they, like ‘[Americans] use that for artificially toning the skin on their foreheads, and also for migraine treatment.’
Most of the time in this construction, they is a pronoun for the unknown (just like it is when used as a personal pronoun. hehe). The unknown is the ultimate villain, the absolute scariest thing to be hiding behind the curtain.
When something can retain its anonymity—what Big Oil is actually up to in the Gulf of Mexico, or Big Arms (sorry arms) are up to in Palestine or Somalia—it is easier for us to look away, to be distracted by the scale of our unknowing and the fear that accompanies it. The Big Noun phenomenon is an attempt to name the unnameable. But it also lets us off the hook for understanding what the Thing actually is, what shape and color its tentacles are, and where to find the levers of its power, so that we might more adeptly confront it.
The way around a terrifying obstacle is rarely simple. The right has weaponized simplicity—mastering the use of ideas like ‘freedom’ and ‘manhood’ and what a family is supposed to be, falsely boiling them down to an easily edible essence. At the heart of this deception is the false conceit that jabbing grubby fingers into tiny cracks will get us to the other side of the blockade.
In contrast, I’ve been thinking about science fiction characters’ special powers (electrical shocks, control of others’ blood, casting of sleep spells) as a means of easing our way into those cracks. These powers are a metaphor for accepting that which demands complexity and meeting it with the gentleness and effort required to slip through. Accepting and negotiating with the complexity of Big They is the superpower that dissolves the beast.
And funnily enough (or maybe, not surprising at all), this is applicable to the other Big They, the supervillain conjured by queer-fearing, education-depriving folks behind the Don’t Say Gay bills plaguing our legislatures. This is part of a long legacy of us-and-themming; its target is the so-called machine of wokeness that, according to the neofascist American right, is corrupting children and destroying families.
Work from home for justice just featured a bit on deep canvassing, in which volunteer organizers talk to people about issues in a more holistic way than your average phonebank call. It works! Taking time to listen, to acknowledge, and to know others is a superpower; it lets us enter that little tiny space and see a way forward.
When we take the time to know—to pull back the wizard’s curtain, to attend to people we don’t understand, to attempt to know ourselves—we have the opportunity to contend with whichever Big They is front of mind, and to see down into the details. What is behind the fear, the scapegoating of wokeness or the universalizing about complexity?
Yesterday I listened to Democracy Now!’s interview with Ralph Nader and Mark Green, who recently coauthored a report on what Democrats need to do in order to win back their/any base. The gist is that Democrats have become the party of the elite, and progressives, who understand and have solutions for the most pressing issues of our time, don’t know how to talk to anyone who isn’t a progressive. They’re calling for, as I read it, a zooming-in on values and really basic stuff that, if communicated simply, perhaps can avoid the trap of politicization. Think, ‘you should be able to go to the doctor without going into debt,’ ‘you should not be forced into poverty because it’s expensive to have a kid,’ ‘the government is squandering funds allocated for your social security,’ and so on.
I’m not in a position to trust the Democrats to make a hard pivot on their messaging, but we can take it upon ourselves to look behind the curtain, and attempt to understand whatever Big They awaits.
And now, a palate cleanser:
Vermont friends, here are my (slightly updated) thoughts on the upcoming election. One new piece of information: there is a separate ballot (why? who knows) about money for a new recycling facility. I am undecided; read more at the link, and I’ll update things there if I find out anything else. Don’t forget to make a plan to vote!
I will leave you with this.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
This piece discusses antisemitic remarks and acts of violent extremism. I’ll stylize any hate speech in sPoNgEbOb MeMe StYlE to try to lessen its impact but it's still in there.
This week Adidas, following Balenciaga and JP Morgan, dropped its partnership with Kanye West after West published a series antisemitic tweets. Reading some of the reactions on Twitter I was surprised to see different people saying the same exact thing with two very distinct meanings: some saying “Adidas only dropped West after their stock prices took a hit 😒😒😒” and others “Adidas only dropped West after their stock prices took a hit 👀👀👀.”
The subtext of the first reaction is that Adidas doesn’t actually care about antisemitism. It only cares about its profits and we should be critical of them for not taking different or earlier action. The subtext of the second reaction is that jEwS cOnTrOl ThE sToCk MaRkEt and they pressured Adidas to drop Kanye because he spoke out of line (Kanye’s remarks also came from this same jEwS aRe gLoBaL eLiTeS conspiracy).
The thing that interests me here is the uncomfortable common ground between racist conspiracy theories and progressive criticism. Both see concentrations of wealth and power as a bad thing and point to a big collective they conspiring to preserve their power. The real difference lies not in the interpretation of facts on the ground, like whether corporations put their profits before people, but who they are.
Progressives see Joe Manchin conspiring with fossil energy companies on the surface through his massive investment in Enersystems. Manchin’s investments aren’t completely out in the open, but they are documented and can actually be dug up. The conspiracy theorists see the donations of George Soros’s Open Society Foundation as indicating underlying conspiratorial power and influence. Grant money is, of course, influential and worthy of scrutiny, but the true conspiracy about what Soros is up to is entirely hidden. And just to spell it out: deep-state conspiracies don’t apply the same critical lens to the work of the Ford or Gates Foundations, much less the Koch Foundation.
In an episode of Reveal, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s podcast, titled Inside the Global Fight for White Power, reporter Matt Greenblatt interviews American white supremacist Matt Heimbach. Heimbach was at the deadly 2017 Unite The Right rally and has ties to white supremecist organizations in Russia attempting to form a white Christian state, so I was surprised to find myself resonating with Heimbach when he asked things like “how many billions need to be displaced and how many cities need to be swallowed by the ocean before we can all just look around and say ‘These specific people did this?’ Because they did.” The “specific people” Heimbach later names: Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden, are not the ones I would choose, but they’re not the usual gLoBaL eLiTe suspects either.
Heimbach coolly advocates for violence, claiming that “...class war is already here [and] we should defend ourselves.” This terrorism-as-self-defense framing makes me think of the environmetal terrorists in Kim Stanley Robinson’s book Ministry for the Future who begin shooting private planes out of the sky to scare people into not flying. The book gives you a backstory for this terrorist group, helps you empathize with them, even reveals that they’re coordinating with the book’s titular Ministry to guarantee humanity’s future.
I don’t empathize with Heimbach’s calls for violence; unlike the terrorists in Robinson’s novel, they sound hollow and accelerationist, a tool to seize his own power masked by his framing of “self defense.” I do not agree with Heimbach’s choice of presidents as the architects of the nested crises we face today, nor do I perceive the sHaDoWy NeW wOrLd OrDeR behind them that Heimbach no doubt is too smart to bring up in the company of a public radio audience. I feel very uncomfortable giving him so many direct quotes in this piece but I do so because, like the Twitter reactions to the Adidas/Kanye split, we agree on the facts on the ground: that there is a climate crisis and systematic global class violence. We agree that there is a Big They with a vested interest in retaining power but we disagree on who they are and that crucial detail is what determines how we act.
Knowing that I have so much in common with any single white supremacist makes me extremely uncomfortable. But it also makes me curious as to how many people in white supremacist circles have been sucked in, not because of their deep racist hate, but because they see the problems and roadblocks we all do and were promised a path forward by the Matt Heimbachs of the world. The continued white supremacist violence in the US is horrifying, and I’ll admit that living outside the States has desensitized me somewhat to the acute terror of this endless string of murders. But this white supremacist violence has always had a place in the United States and is softly embraced by Republicans who, no matter their drain-the-swamp rhetoric, are nevertheless embedded in the government’s fabric. Progressive movements against police violence and the influence of US multinationals, on the other hand, are easily labeled by Democrats as dangerous and anti-American and jettisoned from the party platform as soon as it is convenient.
It’s not so surprising then that any white dude critical of class in the United States would swing to the right, regardless of whether or not they’re down with antisemitic conspiracy theories. And it’s no surprise that Republicans espouse this anti-state rhetoric even when they run the government - because their voters think they’re actually fighting the dEeP sTaTe. It seems that if Democratic politicians internalized a critical stance toward state power and the power of cash in shaping policy instead of seeing it as a threat, these folks vulnerable to the rhetoric of the right could see how welcome they are in progressive movements. If information about political and campaign donations were more publicly disseminated and easier to understand, there would be very little doubt as to who they are.