Not me. Us?

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When I’m not on social media it doesn’t mean I’m depressed, but for the first part of 2020 I think I was actually very depressed, and consequently already at a distance from some forms of the social. In fact I believe depression was one reason why last week I did something I had spent ten years firmly convinced I would never do again, something that my self-conception had even depended on knowing I would never do again, which was to participate in U.S. electoral politics.

I’m leaning toward feeling it wasn’t worth it. But there were other reasons than depression, reasons I would still defend (not just fury at Biden and the New York Times). Maybe above all, for me, the Sanders campaign was responsive to the ten demands of the #PrisonStrike and had been endorsed by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. And I have serious love for the communists, immigrant organizers, and other friends I had seen devoting their time and passion to that campaign.

I’ve been thinking about the useful but complicated distinction that people have introduced in recent days between “social distancing” and “physical distancing,” about the much-needed room that the choice of “physical” leaves for the social; and also about the ever more widely shared and discussed analogy between voting and harm reduction. Indigenous Action makes the strongest and clearest case against this analogy:

The proposition of “harm reduction” in the context of voting means something entirely different from those organizing to address substance use issues. The assertion is that “since this political system isn’t going away, we’ll support politicians and laws that may do less harm.”

The idea of a ballot being capable of reducing the harm in a system rooted in colonial domination and exploitation, white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and capitalism is an extraordinary exaggeration. There is no person whose lives aren’t impacted everyday by these systems of oppression, but instead of coded reformism and coercive “get out the vote” campaigns towards a “safer” form of settler colonialism, we’re asking “what is the real and tragic harm and danger associated with perpetuating colonial power and what can be done to end it?”

“Coercive” strikes me as a key word here. What can undermine so many efforts to position voting as an act of harm reduction, I think, is that the structure of electoralism itself mobilizes the same world of coercive pressure that the vote has always had at its disposal anyway. The stickers that say “I Voted” implicitly ask, ” … And You?” And so they insist on an us. When I wrote a Facebook post about Bernie Sanders last week, I was careful to make it clear that I would always respect and support people who did not vote—”If you’re going to vote in a primary on Tuesday,” I wrote, “I would ask you to please vote for Bernie Sanders”—and of course it still felt like trying to have it both ways. (How can I ask you to do something that is in my power to do if I’m not going to do it myself? How can I acknowledge the case against that power and profess to support people who resist this form of settler domination when my participation is the opposite of support?)

If we have to be thinking analogously at all, then I wonder if, rather than referring to harm reduction, it would be more apt to ask how voting might claim to mitigate, and at the same time might reproduce, various forms of social distance. Even before COVID-19, there was a calculus of good intentions and material harm that should not have been mistaken for anything easy. I have no idea what will happen, but right now it feels instructive to see so many people who’d been active with Bernie’s campaign getting more involved in mutual aid work: the campaign drew people to it who are committed to the work, including many who don’t really believe in presidents anyway; that’s what I respect about it; and that might now be what prevents a Sanders presidency. And there’s something at least as instructive, and also deeply chilling, about watching Joe Biden in the midst of a pandemic encouraging Americans to go out to the polls.

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Could there be any more immediate illustration of voting as harm production? Do you remember the dad in Get Out who says he would have voted for Obama a third time? I had already wondered for a while who else might have made the observation that Get Out offered a kind of critique of representative democracy in its title alone. Its vision of everyday suburban white agency upheld through terrifying anti-Black violence at once marked the film out as political, and rendered nonsensical any suggestion that this terror could be resisted by means of getting out the vote. When it comes to the Sunken Place, Get Out seems to say, don’t worry about the vote. And now, in the same way that Get Out was easily seen as a response to the Trump era when in fact it had been conceived and developed during the Obama years, I wonder if Peele’s Us might end up feeling like one of the definitive artworks about social distance and the public health crises of capital. A year before hand sanitizer exposed the sham, Us located its visceral critique of a social order in Hands Across America. It is afraid of Americans and structured around spectacles of U.S. unity that spell out death.

I started to cry when Bernie in his COVID-19 address said, “Now is the time for solidarity”—because my nerves were frayed, because I was not prepared for this correct statement, because he didn’t say “unity,” and because he sounded like what he is, a solid old-school Brooklyn Jewish leftist. But I was in Grant Park the night Obama won in 2008, and I remember the power of that night too, and how it was actually not too long after that night that I decided I would never vote in a U.S. election again. And then I didn’t, till last week, long ago.

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