Let's Think Big

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What a strange month it’s been so far, what with the election and Trump’s non-concession and the surge in COVID infections. So often in the past year, living in the United States has felt like being mired in a spiral of anxiety and hopelessness. Too often, it’s felt impossible to envision, let alone enact, the futures we want to see. And yet, we must, if we ever want to see anything change.

On the Thursday after Election Day, I was part of a small (masked, outdoor) crowd dancing in the streets outside of the Philadelphia Convention Center. This was not an impromptu block party, but rather a calculated de-escalation action orchestrated by Black-led Progressive organizations. It had been a dreadful week leading up to the election. On Monday, October 26, the police gunned down Walter Wallace, Jr., in front of his mother, and West Philly erupted in a spasm of grief and anger. For the second time in 2020, the National Guard set up camp in the streets surrounding City Hall, and businesses boarded up all around town. The president and his henchmen, meanwhile, continued to spew racist nonsense about “rampant election fraud” in Philadelphia. Tensions were high, and it was clear to everyone that things could get very ugly, very quickly, if right-wing mobs carried out their threats to descend upon the city.

Hence the dance party/protest/dance party protest. As Pastor Nicolas O’Rourke, organizing director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the Working Families Party told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Joy is itself an act of resistance.” Everybody knew the yahoos were coming—why not drown them out with the spirit of community and possibility? And so the Working Families Party sent a DJ, cranking up the volume so loud that Trump’s lawyers had to find alternative locations for their press conferences. Lefty Philadelphians’ phones started blowing up, telling them to get downtown if they could—the dance party needed more bodies.

I arrived mid-afternoon, during a sort of lull before the real party picked up later that night. I’m not usually much for dancing with strangers in daylight, but soon enough I found myself sharing the pavement with people I’d never met. Some folks from my church were on hospitality duty, hanging out water, hand sanitizer, and snacks. At some point, someone handed me a “Count Every Vote” banner on a giant bamboo handle and I bopped around with that for a little bit. There was laughter and air hugs, singing and pointing. By nightfall, there would be dancing mailboxes and a paper-mache City Hall. There was hope, and there was joy.

This past week, I’ve been struck by how quickly the discourse has reverted to a grim retrenchment. Of course Biden’s election alone was never going to fix structural racism or the conditions of late capitalism, but it was (in my opinion) a necessary precondition for any possible change to happen. It was, to put it mildly, better than the alternative. But it has been hard, under circumstances that range from cautious Democratic leadership to an attempted couplette, for visions of transformative change to enter the national conversation.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with science. I am, of course, wondering what we should be asking of the incoming Biden-Harris administration, on matters involving science or anything else. President-elect Biden, as you may recall, explicitly promised to “Listen to the scientists.” Two of the four “Day One” priorities highlighted on the Biden-Harris transition website explicitly deal with science: COVID-19 and climate change. This explicit commitment to prioritizing climate change, in particular, offers an opportunity for activists, scientists, and policymakers to think big, whether under the banner of the Green New Deal or something else. Even the relatively centrist Biden administration, in other words, is inviting us to think about what might be instead of just what is awful now.

After the past four years, many of us—especially those of us with specialized expertise, those of us most used to making change from within institutions—are out of the habit of thinking big, of asking for what we want. Institutional change is a slog, even under the best of circumstances. Those two hours I spent dancing down by the Convention Center reminded me that you don’t need a Senate, or even a sympathetic media, to change the narrative and possibly the course of history. You need vision, engagement, and the kind of hope that takes the form of creative yet strategic planning. The people who know how to do that best are the people who have never had to stop fighting, the Black, Brown, and Indigenous organizers who have never taken their access to power for granted.

Let’s not limit our list of asks to rolling back Trump’s 194 executive orders (which, admittedly, wouldn’t be a bad place to start) or getting the pandemic under control (again: necessary but not sufficient). Let’s think of rebuilding the federal scientific advising infrastructure as a critical first step, rather than a goal in and of itself. Let’s think about what it means to demand clean air and clean water for everyone, what it would mean for guarantee access to housing and healthcare, what it would mean to wipe Americans’ slates free of debt, what it would mean to abolish to police.

Let’s dance and dream our way into 2021 thinking about what we really want, in science and everything else.

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Gotta start somewhere: About that “rebuilding the federal scientific advising infrastructure” bit: The Union of Concerned Scientists has a plan.

Clapback: Dan Hirschman has a great taxonomy of the different ways that “science is political” on his blog, “Scatterplot,” and you all should read it.

Audra on the internet: This Thursday, November 19, at 11 a.m. EST/4 p.m. GMT, I’ll be joining Blanche Wiesen Cook, Margaret Peacock, and Patryk Babiracki for a virtual discussion hosted by the Department of International History at the London School of Economics on “New Directions in History, Culture, and Diplomacy in a Time of COVID.” Free with registration.

And really, truly, please: Please take whatever precautions you can to protect yourself, your loved ones, and complete strangers from COVID. If your local officials have implemented thoughtful restrictions, thank them. If they haven’t, use whatever tools you have to urge them to do so. And thank you, once again, to the healthcare workers and their families who are doing the best they can to hold this whole broken system together. We are forever in your debt.