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Public imagination is much larger than issues, policies and candidates. It’s about the values, principles, and visions that shape understanding of the good and just society. It’s a set of assumptions and agreements about the most important organizing principles for society, along with the kinds of institutions that support them, the practices that sustain them, and the images and stories that promote them.
Since society itself is a product of imagination, it can be remade. New waves of collective imagination grease the wheels of all major societal shifts.
Today’s dominant public imagination promotes hyper-individualism, supremacist norms, enemy orientation, scarcity for the many and upward distribution of wealth to corporations and the already-wealthy. It views everything – people, water, health care, public education, public and tribal lands, plants and their biochemical makeups, civic infrastructure, and more – as commodities to be bought and sold.
That’s why we must unsettle, disrupt, and transform the public imagination.
1. Never accept the dominant framing of issues or the underlying assumptions that support it. (Think of a political action frame as a conceptual path that tells us how to understand an issue and what we ought to do about it. )
Some of the worst, most overused frames of the dominant US political imagination – and they are deployed by both major political parties in varied ways are noted here – followed by a quick mention of the coded meaning of each phrase:
Budget crisis. (Austerity measures created by giving huge tax breaks to corporations and those who are already wealthy; also created by bloated expenditures on surveillance, policing and militarization. This frame is invoked to leverage draconian cuts for public education, food programs, health care, and other human needs. See “safety and security.”)
Entitlements. (This is code for essential programs such as Medicare and Social Security. These programs are available to qualifying people as a right, not a privilege, and as a form of insurance recipients have been paying into for decades. But this phrase is deployed as a racially-coded word to suggest that undeserving, lazy, selfish, non-white people are burdening the budget by demanding “special rights and benefits.” It is used to build uncritical momentum for slashing spedning for human needs and services – especially at the expense of people with low and fixed incomes, and who are poor. See “budget crisis.”)
Right-sizing government. (Busting public sector unions, states’ rights, and privatizing public services, lands, and resources)
Safety, security, justice. (Intensified surveillance, policing, militarization, and war, and increased privatization of “security forces” and various aspects of public criminal punishment systems at the expense of social/human needs commitment and expenditures)
Choice. (Dismantling/privatizing public schools and other public institutions; diverting public funds to unaccountable, private interests)
Public/multiple/wise use. (Permitting corporate access to public lands for private use and benefit; a phrase particularly used in relation to National Parks, public wilderness areas, and more.)
Terrorism. (Muslims, progressive/left political dissidents, and anyone the US government deems to be an enemy. Presumes appropriate response is intensification of surveillance, policing, and militarization of already demonized peoples.]
Accept any of these frames – there are many others just as deceptive – and we’re automatically in quicksand. Disrupt them. Develop and keep using new frames that announce a new vision, new priorities, new social, economic, and ecological relationships.
2. A politics of reaction is insufficient to produce transformative change.
There will always be times when we have to mount strong protests and work to try to stop some horrific new policy from being enacted into law. But even within protests, it’s possible to announce new agendas while incorporating imaginative ways of unsettling established boundaries of the status quo.
Fuel for Radical & Transformative Imaginations
Sponsored by the Women’s Resources and Research Center at the University of California, Davis, 2007.
“Just as it was once possible and important for people to imagine a world without slavery — a world beyond slavery…it is now important to imagine a world without xenophobia and the fenced-in borders that are designed to make us think about the people of the south as the enemy…and one in which violence is eradicated from state practice as well as from our intimate lives.”
-Angela Y. Davis
Spiral to the Stars: Mvskoke Tools of Futurity (Critical Issues in Indigenous Studies), by Laura Harjo (The University of Arizona Press, 2019)
Laura Harjo is a Mvskoke scholar, geographer, planner, and Indigenous methodologist. Spiral to the Stars taps into the dynamism of community-based spirit, knowledge, and culture to discuss Indigenous community planning from a Mvskoke perspective. The publisher notes that “this book poses questions about what community is, how to reclaim community, and how to embark on the process of envisioning what and where the community can be.” This is an indispensable resource for thinking about community-making without acceding to or reproducing the dynamics and imperatives of settler colonialism.
“Black Creativity and Imagination at the End of the World,” by J.T. Roane, Black Perspectives/ African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), December 11, 2018
The author, interested in matters of geography, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities and their futures, draws on the work of Octavia Butler, Enwidge Danticat, and Alexis Pauline Gumbs to “give a unique vantage on what is possible as a new world eclipses an old one” and to think about charting “the world of possibility, the horizon of survival that is the extension of Black culture and the articulation of Black futurity.”
Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018)
In this book, an acclaimed writer, activist, and performance artist explores the expansive terrain of disability justice, centering the lives and leadership of sick and disabled queer, trans, Black, and brown people. They frame access in collective terms, “not as a chore but as a collective responsibility and pleasure – in our communities and political movements. Here is a call to radically resilient, sustainable communities of liberation where no one is left behind.
Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, by Robin D. G. Kelley (Beacon Press, 2003)
“My purpose in writing this book,” Kelley said, “is simply to reopen a very old conversation about what kind of world we want to struggle for.”
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, by adrienne maree brown, (AK Press, 2017)
Drawing from science, nature, philosophy, visionary fiction, dreams, and spirit, this offers a beautiful approach to organizing and building community relationships that nourish and sustain human lives and the biosphere as we work to shape transformative futures.
“The Great Turning,” by Joanna Macy, Center for Ecoliteracy, June 29, 2009
Eco-philosopher and scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology on the shift from the Industrial Growth Society to one that is life-sustaining.
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