I think the three best things my parents did for me growing up were they (1) read to me often, especially fantasy and science fiction, (2) encouraged and made space for all things creative—whether it was drawing or painting, playing dress up and make believe or giving me old tossed out radios and other machines to take apart and put back together—and (3) when I had some story to tell whether it was real, like something that had happened at school, or a dream I had or an idea for a novel or movie, they would always listen intently and engage with me and my ideas. Together, the three things taught me that reality was malleable, stories mattered, the stories I told mattered and, ultimately, my imagination and thus how I viewed and processed the world mattered. As a result, at an early age, I was able to see that almost nothing in the world had to be the way that it was if we could imagine it to be another way.
When the Trump administration and House Republicans were attempting to slash the National Endowment for the Arts, I recall many decrying that the meager, 29 million dollar operating budget, would be irrelevant in balancing any kind of budget or saving any kind of money. It wouldn’t even be enough to effectively funnel it somewhere else. And while everyone was right about the numbers, they were, I think, wrong, that the Republicans’ motivations were ever about money, but instead about power, the imagination, and world building.
We love the arts, all of them, because they tell stories (if you think you don’t, no more movies, music, concerts, museums or books for you). They imagine and create new worlds, whether worlds we want to briefly escape to, worlds we take pleasure in imagining, worlds we fear and denounce, worlds that cause us to more critically engage our own world and ask questions of it and of each other. The best art, I think, does all of this. It is our job as creators to imagine new worlds, creating them on the page, the stage, the canvas or the screen. In fact, that is all of our jobs as people: to world build.
We do this constantly. Every action we take takes us toward a specific kind of world whether we think it does or not. Our job is to imagine a world, and then think about our actions in relation to it. Do these actions take us toward or away from what we imagine and want to see? Thus, the impetus for cutting arts funding for those who are in power, hold vast power and wealth, was that it is in their best interest to keep the world exactly how it is, and if they could weaken the mediums that best facilitate our abilities to imagine, and thus build, a better world then they will.
The imagination is not some fanciful pipe dream factory full of unicorns and pixie dust. The imagination is the tool of power. The imagination is the factory of the inevitable. Depending on what decisions and investments we make, we make what we can imagine real. Our decisions and investments, really, have inevitable outcomes.
A hot, dry, virus ridden apocalyptic world isn’t and has never been merely an exercise of the imagination for exciting art. As much as Tom Hardy speaking entirely in grunts and beating people is my favorite art form, Mad Max Fury Road isn’t just an exercise of ‘what if’ heavy metal, action packed fun. It is a deeper commentary on our relationships to the world and each other, a grim portrait of an inevitable kind of future if we continue to make certain decisions. It is the kind of world we have been steadily moving toward one decision, one investment, one inaction and divestment at a time at least since industrialization, but really since the onset of 15th/16th century colonialism.
Contemporarily, for many people in Brazil, Australia, parts of California, the Caribbean, New Orleans (to name just a minuscule few) they have already experienced “apocalyptic” like events or glimpses of them. For each event, some of the world acts, and much of the world can’t imagine such an event happening to them, or happening again, so they turn their cheek and, after some weeks, we all turn our cheeks.
If there is any good to come out of this current global pandemic, it is perhaps that the Coronavirus might give us all just the smallest glimpse into how utterly ill equipped and vulnerable we really are in this world. ALL OF US. The utter corrupted incompetence of many our governments, especially our in the US, and our complete lack of infrastructure to not only to respond to such events but to prevent them is staggering yet unsurprising. Really, we have created the kind of society which is incredibly vulnerable to viruses such as this.
Right now, in America, there are undocumented people with symptoms, possibly infected with COVID-19 and possibly not, who are afraid to get tested for fear of being detained and deported. There are millions of humans in prisons and thousands and thousands in concentration camps, all tightly quartered and lacking access to decent healthcare who are especially prone. There are people not seeking testing or treatment because they are afraid of what it might cost them. There are people with symptoms, infected or not, who are going to work, in every imaginable field, because they cannot afford a day off. They will miss rent, or medication, the electric bill, or food on the table. However many infected people there will be tomorrow in this country when we wake up, the number will in actuality be far greater than that because we are not testing people, and many people are afraid to get tested for any number or reasons. This does not and should not be our reality. It does not have to be.
Paid Sick and Safe Time.
Open Border Immigration Policy.
Green New Deal.
Increased Minimum Wage.
Safer Working Conditions.
These are all AFFORDABLE policies that could vastly mitigate the danger of a viral outbreak. They also might prevent such a scenario entirely. If you can afford healthcare, and can afford to take time from work, and live in an environment that is healthy, its air, water, and soil, if you work and live in clean and safe environments, you are less likely to become ill, and you are more likely to seek care in the event that you do.
These policies should be our policies because they are the right thing to do to make life better for humans in this country. They should also be our policies because they create the political and social geography necessary to prevent ‘bad’ scenarios from becoming ‘worst case’ scenarios overnight. If you’re selfish and don’t care about other people you should still support these policies because they will, ultimately, keep your selfish ass safe and healthy too. And save you money.
It will always be cheaper to prevent disaster and create a world with the conditions which do not make us susceptible to disaster than it will be to react to catastrophe’s we were vulnerable to and unprepared for. It will cost less money and cost less lives to imagine and create a more equitable world as opposed to try and put the fire out once it engulfs the current one we are living in. It is never a question of cost, it is a question of what we imagine as possible, and what/who we value.
The National Endowment for the Arts has an operating budget of 29 million dollars. The 141 F-38 fighter jet costs 89.2 MILLION DOLLARS. There are, in fact, 25 different kinds of fighter jets that each cost more than the NEA’s annual operating budget. Imagine what we could fund if the government bought just a few less winged killing machines every year? What if we made a few less Destroyers ($4.4 billion per ship). What if we made a few less Tomahawk Missiles (1.4 million per missile). Donald ‘I Was Just Hanging Out With a COVID-19 + Bolsonaro Rep but Won’t Get Myself Tested’ Trump just dumped 1.5 TRILLION DOLLARS into the economy in response to the virus and it did essentially nothing. If the economy get's bad enough and lenders can't pay that money back, there is no guarantee that 1.5 Trillion dollars didn't just essentially vanish.
That money could be used to create the living conditions for millions of Americans that would prevent us from ever getting to the place we currently find ourselves in. We didn’t imagine we could get here. We did. We don’t imagine it can get worse. It can and likely will. We refuse to imagine a worse world and because of that we are moving toward it every second. We refuse to imagine a different and better world, and thus we do not make the decisions necessary to build it. The latter, I’m sorry, is the only option we have.
There is no time. There wasn’t time 30 years ago and there is even less now. Imagine a better, safer world and build it. It is possible. We have a presidential candidate right now (we had two) with policy proposals and ideas that would make this kind of outbreak less likely, less costly, less deadly, and our country and healthcare system more equipped to respond to it. Bernie Sanders folks, I’m talking about Bernie Sanders!
Even the majority of the Democratic party and Democratic voters it seems imagines his policy ideas to be extreme, to be unrealistic, to be too costly. Because we have no imagination. We have no foresight. His policies would save money, save lives, and boost the economy. There isn’t any arguing that anymore. There is only the unfed imagination now to contend with. The policies simply require us to change how we imagine this country, this world, and ourselves in orientation to both. The refusal to do so is not only irresponsible, it is cowardly.
Joe ‘Mass Incarceration Anti-Choice Rape Apologist Capitalist Creep with Several Sexual Harassment Allegations Status Quo’ Biden will take us backward. Trump and the Republicans have been fighting daily to barrel us backward as fast as possible. And every road backward is an acceleration into an entirely unlivable future. For many across the world, and in this country, we are already in an unlivable present. And we are here because so many in power, and so many of us who put them there, cannot imagine that reality. And if we can, we do not imagine ourselves in it, and thus we do not care. It seems asking each other to care about other people is a losing battle, so at the very least if you care about yourself, then understand your life and future will be improved if the lives of those around you, and those far from you who you will never meet, are also improved. It is possible, and it is affordable.
People are dead and dying and more are going to die, of COVID-19, of the flu, of cancer, of diseases and viruses that do not exist yet, of wildfires, of drought, of poisoned water, soil and air, and it is because of our inability or refusal to accurately imagine that suffering and imagine a new and better world without it. It is not inevitable. Inevitability is a creation of our imaginations and actions. If we can imagine it, we can build it. It takes decisions and investments. Let’s do it. Now. There are no other options.
This photo is taken from cnn.com
Michael Lee is a Norwegian-American writer, youth worker, and organizer. He has received grants and scholarships from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the LOFT Literary Center, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Winner of the Scotti Merrill Award for poetry from the Key West Literary Seminar, his poetry has appeared in Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Indiana Review, Poetry Northwest, Copper Nickel, and Best New Poets 2018 among others. A gradate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Michael has worked as a dishwasher, a farmhand, a teaching artist, a social studies teacher, a case manager for youth experiencing homelessness. He works, lives, writes, organizes, and dreams in North Minneapolis, spending his free time reading books and working in his garden. His first book, The Only Worlds We Know (Button Poetry) is now available.
Writer. Performer. Youth worker. Educator. What I know is eclipsed by what I don't. Working and writing for justice in all the ways I know how. Radical imagination. Deconstructing Whiteness.