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Critical thinking for writers

By Anis Shivani

The situation in America resembles Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia or the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It’s a turbulent moment; 350 million people are trapped with no idea how to get out. The thinkers are clueless and have been for 30 years, so you’re on your own.
The model I suggest is: disengagement –> consistency –> honesty.
Disengagement: Only then can you figure out what’s real.
Two competing models:
Empire is collapsing and no one can do anything about it.
It’s cyclical, so let’s deal with the immediate and do damage control.
Which feels more real to you?
In literary life, disengage from popular models.
Science fiction is ‘unreal’, but often deals with mortality, time, space, ultimate philosophical questions that ‘realist’ fiction doesn’t leave room for.
All of our writing (slam poetry, confessional poetry, realistic stories, memoir) seems directly engaged with ‘reality’ — but what if it’s actually unreality?
In politics, so much of it is arbitrary. Very postmodern. They decide from day to day what ‘reality’ they will impose. Its optional fascism, luxury fascism, gentrified fascism: one day you can be multicultural, the next day genocidal. Seventy years ago, after the Second World War, we reached such affluence that since then we’ve been inventing problems.
Is optimism real or delusional? ‘I and my children will help create a better America.’ They can outlaw abortion, reinstitute slavery (modern immigration), exterminate people, do anything and we respond to that problem, one at a time. We accept their terms of unreality. ‘They’ are not just Republicans or Trumpists; they are the powerful people of all political persuasions who do not want you to understand how power really operates.
Consistency (requires disengagement): Cannot be working at Shell or Dell and do weekend activism. You help empire, but then decide to give a little time to activism, which cannot have any effect. The evil people, such as White House adviser Stephen Miller, can sense that, therefore you are no threat to them.
We are all fascists. Are we? Who believes in absolute free speech? Absolute privacy? The right to be left alone? No surveillance. No borders. Free movement (not as utopian as it sounds, 100 years ago this is how it was in America and Europe and other parts of the world, too). No border security.
Liberals believe in ‘ends justify the means’, the thought process is the same as fascists. Liberals condemn half of America as deplorables, without looking at their pain, this is the same dehumanisation the fascists are doing.
Civil disobedience is not just marches. But lack of consistency prevents us from getting into real civil disobedience, gumming up the works. The hypocrisy of stopping a general strike in early 2017, claiming people of colour would be affected, the hypocrisy of counting on a (Democratic Party) blue wave or (former FBI director) Robert Mueller. We’ve been engaged in put-out-the-fire thinking since Reagan and it’s made the situation worse every time.
The demand should be: release every single immigrant, violating immigration rules is not a crime deserving prison. If you don’t demand that, then it makes the situation worse. We just established the notion that asylum seeking families should be detained together, so we caused more harm. But because we hadn’t really thought about it, we couldn’t possibly have arrived at the idea that no immigrant should be in jail. For that we needed to disengage, think, study and the answer would have become obvious. As opposed to raising money to unify families, etc.
Consistency of language. What is the language in your head when you write? Do you hear Marlowe, Ibsen, Woolf, Faulkner and Ellison? Or do you hear Jon Stewart and Joy Reid? But how can you hear the right language, make it so much a part of your psyche that it automatically comes to you when you write?
Honesty: With calmness, you will know the real, disengaged from frantic postmodern activity. Your mind will be clear and you will have the strength to do what’s morally right. The whole moral calculus is absurd, all of it will change. Important things will become unimportant and vice versa.
Then nobody will be able to control you. Not your group, tribe, subculture or larger culture.
Honest writing, which is hard-earned, is different from dishonest writing, which stays on the surface, doesn’t take you deep enough. How can your writing be deep if you haven’t gone through the process of distance, introspection, rejection, then acquiring consistency? It’s not possible to be an arm of the imperial/genocidal state, be part of its intellectual apparatus and accept its basic premises (exceptionalism) and yet come up with honest writing.
Even if you never write one honest poem or story or essay, the process of trying to reach it seems far more worthwhile than writing and publishing dishonest work.
If you’re honest and they try to hurt you, they can’t really do so. But if you’re not disengaged and they hurt you, then it will really hurt. So it’s a protective manoeuvre.
The empire is collapsing model gets everything right for 30 years, the cyclical reaction model gets everything wrong. The Refugee and Immigrant Centre for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a grassroots organisation to help free detained immigrants, just donated 20 million dollars to the Department of Homeland Security, the imprisoners themselves! There is no imagination, no intuition, this is a strong sign of empire collapsing.
Individualism is considered bad now, but we know that communalism is tribal and primitive. We are all communal now. Individualism depends on scepticism. Americans used to be much more sceptical. From disbelieving everything comes intuition and imagination. What are our dreams made up of, our fantasies and utopias?
Fascism starts from liberals’ rage for security. Fascism turns it around and imposes radical insecurity. The question for writers is, can we embrace our own form of radical insecurity, not the one fascism/empire chooses for us? That is the only idea of universal resistance I can get with.