The Arc of History Will Not Bend Itself

by Jonathan Krall

On the Media has done it again. I am once again amazed at their ability to address, with impressive specificity, the toxic “new normal” politics that lie at the heart of my fear for my own future and for our democracy. This time they address the twin myths of “American exceptionalism” and “it can’t happen here,” the “it” being fascism and/or totalitarianism. With guest Andrew Marantz, author of Anti-Social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, they simultaneously frighten us by diminishing the myth that the arc of history bends naturally towards justice and give us hope by suggesting that many of us are already on a path forward, that path being movement politics.

Perhaps because the story of propaganda-driven Kochism is naturally their beat, On the Media has been surprisingly relevant in the post-2016 era. Maybe they simply saw a need and stepped up. In this episode, as in others, we are reminded that our rights can be taken. Protest (and other forms of free speech) can be criminalized. The for-profit concentration camps can be expanded.

At the heart of this week’s episode are the limits of free speech and the tension between the 1st and 14th amendments to our constitution. On the one hand, free speech is thought to be limited only to prevent direct physical harm. On the other hand, the 14th amendment promises equal protection and full participation under the law, participation that can be limited by pervasive threatening speech. For example, “open carry” of firearms is a form of public participation that, through the pervasive, threatening, racist actions of police, is virtually inaccessible to black people.

Ultimately, it is implied that the 14th amendment will be enforced by identifying and fixing specific problems in non-public spaces (an example is the expansion of gender equality through the restriction of sexually-harassing speech in the work place). Marantz suggests that limits on harmful speech in public generally come from new norms rather than new laws. As examples, they cite seismic shifts in civil rights, gender equality, and marriage equality. These breakthroughs were delivered by the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the LGBTQ rights movement, respectively.

So, no, our myths will not save us from the toxic “new normal” politics that criminalizes otherness, destroying lives and communities. But movement politics can. The Movement for Black Lives, the immigration and indigenous peoples movements, and the Extinction Rebellion, to cite only a few examples, are with us today. The myth is that “history” or “exceptionalism” will somehow save us. The truth is that we can save ourselves, but only if we get off our butts and do something. The arc of history does not bend towards justice by itself; it needs to be pushed.

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