New World Same Humans #20

Anti-racism protests spread around the world this week. How can we best support those who most need us to be allies?

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Watching the events of recent days unfold is an experience that is difficult to articulate. Sometimes, it can feel like making a bleak journey through a set of painted Russian dolls. One moment in history comes nestled inside another, which comes nestled inside another. And containing everything is the most inescapable moment of all, the overarching fact of our lives right now, which is the pandemic.

This weekend has seen protests around the world, sparked by the racist killing by police officers of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May.

There’s nothing new of value I can say about the killing of Floyd or its immediate context. Instead, we should hear the voices of black Americans who live each day inside the structures of prejudice and violence that made this event possible. If you have not heard those voices yet, stop reading this this for now and seek them out. I found this list of resources helpful across the last few days.

But let me talk for a few minutes about the broader wave of protests, which now transcend any single event or national context.


Bending the arc

The USA is not just anywhere. Still, and after everything, it is the self-proclaimed shining light on the hill. The global representative of the liberal democratic west and its promise. So when a tidal wave tears through American collective life as is happening today, the ripples move people in all places.

That truth has never been more visible than it is now. This weekend has seen an outpouring of anger in western cities across the globe, from L.A to Adelaide, New York to London. In all those cities and more, crowds have come to the streets to protest against racism, and the liberal west’s history of colonial exploitation and violence. In the US, the focus is on a long history of oppression against African Americans. In Australia, it’s about the erasure of Indigenous Australians. Here in the UK, all this has rightly prompted a renewed conversation about policing, structural racism, and Britain’s colonial past.

In normal times the world would look to the US President to put a balm on the wounds reopened in recent days. But these are not normal times. The darkness of the last two weeks is inseparable from the fact that the US is now led by a cynical conman in thrall to his own chaotic greed and petty prejudices. In the New York Times, Trump’s lackeys call for the US army to be deployed against its own citizens. High fences have been built around the White House. The symbolism seems almost too crashingly overt to bear.

America is an embattled place. But that truth, and the global protests this weekend, fuel a broader feeling: that the ideals the US was always meant to represent – freedom, democracy, individual rights – are also embattled.

So what to do?

We all know that in the years ahead we face a project to rebuild. But this moment has been a powerful reminder that any such project should be informed by an acknowledgement. That is, that we in the liberal democratic west have collectively failed to live up to our own ideals. It’s not the ideals that have failed, but us. Specifically, the powerful and privileged among us have failed those without power and privilege. And most acutely of all, that failure has played out along lines of racial privilege.

In the 21st-century the liberal democratic system is going to be tested as never before. Powerful new modes of collective life are emerging; most notably the new form of techno-authoritarianism coming into being in China. Meanwhile, a connected world and the massive socio-corporate powers to which it has given rise pose fresh challenges to the principles and practises that fuel liberal democracy. To survive, liberal democracy’s core ideas – freedom, tolerance, equality before the law – must retain the moral force on which their claim to universal respect is founded.

To see that happen, we must commit ourselves to reimagine those principles. And this time, everyone must be included. It’s a collective project of reconstruction every bit as important as that to rebuild our economies for sustainability, and so avoid environmental collapse.

There’s so much more to say here. About progress in history, the Enlightenment and the versions of modernity to which it gave rise, and the ways in which those modernities has been built on exploitation and violence perpetuated against non-Europeans. In this powerful 2018 essay in Slate, the New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie argues that the European Enlightenment essentially created racism as we know it today – every bit as much as it created contemporary science. I hope the NWSH community – that means all of you – can discuss all of this more in future, and play a part, in our own small way, in helping to build something new.

As for me, one day I will expand on my solidarity with those calling for change by writing more about my own family. After all, the western colonial project is in the end the reason I write to you under an anglicised name, Mattin, and not my real name, which is David Moftakhari-Khalilinejad.

But right now, we should listen to those who are in pain. This week I read about the story of David Dungay, an Indigenous Australian killed by police in a Sydney jail cell. Or Darren Cumberbatch, a black British man killed by police who punched him and beat him with a baton. This weekend’s protests are powerful. They strike me as a moment that calls for personal humility, and humility among all of us who benefit from structures of power that have held down those who are not of European heritage.

Longer term, though, there is surely more we can do to support those who most need us to be allies. We need to go to the ballot box, put our hand in our pocket, and change the stories we tell ourselves.

That means that first, we should vote for those who embody our highest ideals. If you are an American citizen, vote in November. Second, crucially, we should allocate resources towards institutions that uphold those ideals, and towards marginalised groups who have been afflicted by our failures. That happens via the tax system. Third, we should educate. So much of our failure is a failure to educate – on the shared ideals that are supposed to underpin the system we live inside, and on the history of exploitation and violence perpetuated by our system against so many. That means listening to those who can tell us those stories firsthand.

Vote, tax, educate and listen: on the journey of renewal ahead, these seem useful goals to aim at.

The promise that underpins modernity – that we can make the world a better place – is not hollow. But it takes work, and the advances we make are fragile. The uprisings of this weekend, nestled inside the wider crisis that is the pandemic, are a reminder of a failure that is shaming. Let’s commit to a reinvigoration of our values. And then, together, act.


Go well

That’s more than enough from me. Sorry this instalment comes later than usual for some of you.

Back next week with a more typical instalment, including snippets!

Until then, go well, stay safe, and be kind,

David.


David Mattin is the founder of New World Same Humans. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.