The Thick Present / The Thin Ice

Posted Jan. 27, 2023 by Paul Graham Raven

barbed tangle

The war in the Ukraine, still ongoing at time of writing, has landed like a second line of argument from an interlocutor who already had you on the ropes with that whole global pandemic thing. If you’ll forgive me donning my Cassandra cosplay outfit for a moment: after fifteen or more years of arguing for the incredible brittleness of what passed for the status quo, particularly regarding the logistical infrastructures which underpin pretty much every day-to-day activity undertaken by human beings, it has been—in a very ugly way—almost a relief to have an irrefutable example of systemic shock to point to. Rather less of a relief, however, to see everyone continue with the same old finger-pointing routine… but “divide and conquer” was an old idea when Caesar said it. The easiest way to get people to do what you say is to tell them you know who’s to blame for all their problems, and to identify someone other than them.

On which note: while it is born of good intentions, and founded on the very real and historical facts of profoundly unequal distributions, I’m coming to think that the constant falling-over-ourselves by some of us in the Western world—or the Global North, or the privileged classes, or whatever we’re supposed to call it this week—to acknowledge and atone for the advantages bestowed upon us by structural inequality has become actively unhelpful. It activates a sense of personal shame and guilt, which contributes to a discursive culture of shaming others, and to a paradigm of performative righteousness which is demonstrably doing little to right any wrongs. Which is not at all to say we shouldn’t understand our unearned advantages, nor that we shouldn’t do our best to use those advantages to leave behind us a world where such advantages are less unequal and unfair. But simply stating that unfairness exists and that we are its benefactors achieves nothing, beyond the superficial assuagement of a guilt that would be far better alchemised into an anger, and burned as fuel for the real work.

What’s the real work, you ask? I’m still working that out—and the answer that fits my situation and skills will not be the same one that fits yours. Working out what the work is is part of the work. Maybe it’s even the hardest part of it; that would explain the lively market in off-the-rack answers.

And hey, if you find one that fits, good for you! But don’t then turn evangelist. You wanna highlight a particular problem in the world? Great, go for it; that’s one aspect of the work, if you’re called to it. But if you find yourself wanting to advocate for one particular solution, then check yourself. This planet’s got enough salesmen already.

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