“Liberate Minnesota” Didn’t Liberate Anything
April 18, 2020 – David R. Weiss
NOTE: I did not attend Friday’s Liberate Minnesota rally. I followed it via Unicorn Riot’s live feed.
I am not sure what I expected, but not this. And I am struggling to make sense of it.
It was a carnival atmosphere. Maybe a thousand people (of all ages) gathered in front of the Governor’s house in Saint Paul. There were megaphones shouting and horns honking, while a slow parade of cars with placards drove along Summit Ave to cheers and claps and nods. Sure, there were some angry shouts about ending the Stay-at-Home order and fervent calls for opening the economy. But there were lots of smiles. People lined the streets and sidewalks shoulder-to-shoulder, plainly happy to be there—and plenty close together. There were a few—but only a few—face-masks in sight. But more than a few references to “faith” and “God” as though speaking these words was a sufficient substitute for responsible human behavior.
And now I’m struggling to process the horror of what I saw on Friday. People jubilantly dispensing with any recognition of the real stakes of this pandemic for us as a state. People gleefully ignoring the medical plea for social distancing. People celebrating their defiance of the Governor’s Stay-at-Home order. People festively—and as families!—dismissing the very deep cost that their immediate actions and their larger aspirations—will surely pose to their fellow Minnesotans … especially to the elderly, the immune-compromised, and communities of color.
Some of it I understand. Folks are economically anxious. We live in a predatory economy that keeps most of us much closer to precarity than we recognize until a medical emergency, job loss, major repair—or pandemic—reveals just how near the edge our lives have always been. But that’s a set up. It doesn’t have to be that way. However, the wealthy and powerful in our society know they do best when the rest of us scramble. And this pandemic shows us how uncertain even our scrambling lives have always been.
Additionally, one whole slice of our society—and it’s a slice that cuts across many of our families and friendships—has been fed, for decades now (long before Trump), a steady diet of disregard for science, mistrust for media, and simmering bias toward anyone painted as other. Taken together those forces have rendered us a republic ripe for civic unrest, tilting toward tribalism, and ready to play into the hands of an authoritarian regime. You see this in the irrational polarization that impulsively pits worldview against worldview, eclipsing humanity in the blink of an eye.
There is another wild card at play in this as well: the insatiable appetite for stuff as the ultimate and most trustworthy measure of human worth (known as “economic growth” on the macro level—but simply the “capacity for personal acquisitiveness” in most of our private lives). This didn’t happen overnight. We were “bred” for this over generations. But today it is the water in which we swim. It is the invisible idolatry that makes us ready to engage (quite literally, goddammit!—and the curse is both intentional and righteous) in human sacrifice to appease our economic gods.
So, yes, economic anxiety runs deep into our psyches. Scarcity has real roots in the human condition. But today, for most of us, the experience of economic anxiety is framed by the forces named above. And under those conditions, our sense of community, our capacity for resilience, gets narrowed down to “taking care of me and mine.” Meaning that those that lack economic value, or those whom I don’t see as part of my tribe, or those whose differences gives them less value—when push comes to shove, and when shove comes to pandemic, all of these persons are obstacles to my worth. So they don’t matter to me. They can’t matter to me. In fact, if I’m told—as by a Stay-at-Home order—that they actually do matter, then their mattering becomes a threat. And threats … deserve to be eliminated. That’s just economics at work.
Trump might like to take credit for this—this Machiavellian politics that presumes winning (at any cost, by any means) is always self-justifying: that might makes right. That the wealthy and powerful deserve what they have, and that playing successive parts of the populace off against each other is both a pleasant pastime and a savvy social strategy to maintain their position at the top. But Trump merely inherited this moment. And despite his pompous narcissism—and the real danger he presents, because being President gives him unearned and unpredictable power—he is mostly a tool of forces that view him with as much contempt as I do (just from an opposite angle).
Nonetheless, this moment is real and its threat to our common humanity is here. Now. And on full display in the Liberate rally in front of the Governor’s house on Friday. On the surface it was a call to open the economy and let Minnesota get back to work, regardless of the risk. In between the lines it was a vigilante declaration of open season on the vulnerable. But at an even deeper level of social dynamics it played like a carefully choreographed desecration of the common good.
This moment—in Minnesota and in cities across the nations—has been months, maybe years in the making. Trump’s administration undertook a whole series of foolhardy (or perhaps strategic) moves to ensure the nation was as exposed as possible to a public health crisis. Then, with that crisis blooming in China and coming our way, it was dismissed, downplayed, even mocked—until it was more than upon us. When public health voices became inescapably public, they were portrayed as partisan opinion rather than medical science. When the degree of economic disruption that would be both inevitable because of disease and necessary to preserve public safety became clear, the administration and the GOP made sure the government response would be both top-heavy toward corporations and the wealthy and underfunded for everyone else—because only such a package would keep most of us sufficiently on edge so that some of us could be turned against others of us. Which is exactly what the festive mood of anger on Summit Ave reflected.
Trump’s daily pandemic briefings have focused less on presenting relevant information than on presenting bias, spin, and outright propaganda. The disinformation, the lies, the distractions, that come from both the podium and his twitter account aim to fracture any notion of the common good. This isn’t merely a character defect on Trump’s part. It’s a campaign strategy. The only America in which Trump gets re-elected is one in which the common good carries no coin. That’s the America we saw a preview of in front of the Governor’s house in Minnesota on Friday.
It’s true that for our entire national history our “common good” has been less than common. Reserved foremost for white men, with “guest privileges” only granted to others in prudent (that is, begrudging) measure and on relatively recent terms. It remains contested. But it also remains an ideal, a foothold for the dream of justice that can be called out by King or Baldwin, César Chávez or Delores Huerta, Ta-Nehisi Coates or Stacy Abrams.
Understand that today—in our streets—that foothold in under open assault.
I am on board to liberate Minnesota. But that’s not what was happening Friday on Summit Avenue. I usually write as a theologian, but I speak today simply as a Minnesotan, a responsible citizen, and a human being. In this precarious moment of multi-faceted anxiety, we “Liberate Minnesota” when we act to protect the most vulnerable in our midst by honoring the call to Stay Home, mask up, and keep our safe distance. We exercise responsible citizenship when we respect the insights of medicine and seek the welfare of the whole community. We show human decency when we bear one another’s burdens, including the burdens of those who are indeed other than us. Ultimately, we liberate Minnesota when we reclaim our humanity from a dehumanizing economy, and when we reject any “good” which fails to support the common good—of all. These goals are worth rallying for.
After Friday’s desecration of the common good in front of the Governor’s house, those of us who embrace a good that is common for all Minnesotans, for all persons everywhere, we should make sure we’re equally visible and vocal—even behind our masks and in our homes.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.