Jacqueline Couti, Department of Modern and Classical
Literatures and Cultures
What a bewildering first half of the year! So far, the new year has unfolded for many of us like a soap opera so unexpected and infuriating that no twisted, creative mind could ever have conceived of it. Among other plot twists, the federal government’s task force, run by the President’s son-in-law, did not design any coherent policy to protect the country. Left to their own devices, governors crafted statewide plans, with Democrats predictably imposing more far-reaching measures. Anti-maskers responded by marching down the streets to protest for their idea of freedom. Armed with handguns and assault weapons, they blocked intersections and demonstrated in front of government buildings. On banners and posters, punctuated with angry shouts, these protesters (mis)appropriated and mocked important pro-choice slogans and icons, as well as mottos of the Civil Rights movement. These intentional misquotations ensured that no one could deny the influence of gender and race on their cause. Many brandished firearms the way others use penis size as a proxy for strength and courage. Can we talk about patriarchy and white supremacy gone wild or rather, patriarchy and white supremacy gone too mainstream or even institutionalized? Embracing their freedom to offend to the max, anti-maskers have happily shed their inhibitions. Real American men do not fear venturing outside and braving the coronavirus; real American women stand by their side. Who is afraid? Not them of course…
But their protests and outrage had nothing on the social justice marches, demonstrations, and riots that gained followers and impetus as the weeks went by. Can we compare anti-maskers’ dedication with the commitment of those on the other side of the political spectrum killed and maimed by tear gas-lobbing police officers who shot rubber projectiles at them for daring to assert that Black lives matter? The protection of property, while not enumerated among Americans’ unalienable rights, surely is worth the life and limb of many. Some people in social justice protests became martyrs, not merely ready to die but actually dying because they believed that their society could and should do better. Do anti-maskers have any martyrs of their own; have they been wounded by the police or Homeland Security? Are they ready to die for their beliefs or, rather, kill for them?
The spring of 2020 was hot already. The summer of 2020 has been even hotter. As the pandemic worsens, protests are spreading like wild fire, from individuals chanting that Black Lives Matter, to others claiming their right not to wear masks. What does the social contract require in a decent society comprised of people “different” from one another in terms of race, ethnicity, or gender identity? Mutually exclusive ideals of freedom and free will test our beliefs concerning acceptable behaviors during a pandemic. It is a test that many are failing…
All summer long, like mushrooms after a downpour, videos have emerged showing white women, in particular, as an extension of the State, wielding their feminine power and doing their best to police and terrorize those they consider a threat, out of order, or simply beneath them. Often, but not exclusively, these miscreants are people of color whom the women seek to bring into conformity with their own sense of social norms by calling the police. So many videos of white women and white men, recording themselves or being recorded by others, complaining in stores, yelling in restaurants, throwing full-blown tantrums and refusing to respect new safety rules that restrict their idea of freedom, of being American: acting out of self-interest, and performing the narcissism they understand as individualism.
Make no mistake. We are witnessing a social struggle that some cynics and opportunists would disguise as a mere culture war, a struggle over appropriate social behavior and the rights and responsibilities of a citizen. Protest, whether in streets or supermarkets, shows the commodification and power of our diverse populace in the public sphere; their bodies often become political as they blur the lines between private and public spaces and institutions. In so doing, our diverse populace illustrates the different ways it willingly or unwillingly incarnates the American national identity. Between protests and pretexts, we are witnessing a war over the very heart of democracy itself.
Freedom stands out as a code word for the self, for the idea of Nation. While the so-called battle for freedom rages on, who can say about the US that everyone is united as one nation? A new generation fights for a better future, a future that many previous voters, legislators and politicians did not take seriously enough, valuing money above all else. This political battle reveals itself as a generational and cultural struggle. More and more young people realize that the world they stand to inherit is thus far a mess in progress.
Protests or pre-text? Can civil unrest and “incivility” reform the national self? Change can only start with the self, one protest at a time.