The consequences of clarity

Sintext X amid the uprising

Last Saturday, I woke up, packed a suitcase, went to demonstrate, and left my mom in tears. I haven’t been back to see how the rest of my family’s been faring. I know that I’ve caused them pain. They hoped I’d find ways to help without putting my health in jeopardy. By writing, they figured, I could do my part and, what, change the hearts and minds of my 207 readers?

I don’t flatter myself or the work I do here. I’m surer now than ever that writing, like reading, like speaking and listening, can only prepare us for a moment of possibility. The real work is in converting that possibility into actuality.

New words I write about what’s happening will fall flat. I don’t want to dwell on the turbulence I’m feeling, but it’s true that I haven’t yet found my balance. I want to articulate what I hope to see happen in the near future, but I don’t want to further alienate those whom I love and know mean well.

The fact that Black Lives Matter is at all contentious, that not every car honks its support on the streets, requires us to continue marching. It is simply and forcefully true that the demonstrations are what caused this conversation about race and injustice and brutality to occur at such scale. It is simply and forcefully true that each of our parts in the real work extends past what we can comfortably do from our homes.

I said I’d take stock of Sintext in this issue, and these weeks have been the ideal test. I’ve written a little less than 28,000 words in this space since December. I didn’t expect that many of my sentences would actually hold up on rereading. I was even more surprised to see the consistency of my concern, the velocity of my leftward trajectory. And I’m shocked by how much solace I was able to find in the distance between where I was and where I am now.

In the second issue, I remembered the disappointment of KONY 2012, and how it portended disappointing politics.

What we’re still desperately missing is what [Teju] Cole calls “constellational thinking.” Because 14-year-olds with unfettered access to Facebook aren’t taught that their subjectivity might be determined by larger systems, we grow up without seeing “the patterns of power behind the isolated ‘disasters.’” Without connecting the dots that matter.

That’s no longer the case. The uprising is an expression of the constellational thinking that’s been long overdue. On our own, we’ve finally learned to discern the patterns of power behind these most recent “disasters.”

In the fourth issue, Oriana Tang explained how we scapegoat China’s hard power in order to ignore the hold American soft power has over our lives.

As long as we can criticize China, we can assure ourselves that things aren’t really all that bad. At least America still values liberty, right? At least in America we still have time to act? I for one would hate to wake up one morning and find we’ve been living in a dystopia all the while, having been too intent on other people's problems to attend to the reality of our own.

It took a week of sustained dystopia — questionable curfews, baseless arrests, fascist postures — to wake us up to our own ongoing nightmare.

In the seventh issue, I agreed that living through the pandemic, a moment of obvious historical significance, contains the feeling that an old era is closing and something new is emerging.

But what if that “something new emerging” isn’t the future? What if it’s only an understanding of the present as distinct from recent past?

This fear was unfounded, too. A sense of the emergent future has never been clearer. We know how we want it to look. It starts with racial justice, and concludes with equity across the board. That sort of present would be distinct from the one at hand.

Another mystery solved is the role social media can play for us today:

assessing culture along the axis of entertainment—liking, sharing without comment—isn’t enough. We need more people talking confidently to each other about what they’re seeing, thinking, feeling. Critical consciousness needs to be raised at the level of the individual user, and fostered through meaningful digital interaction.

My feeds this week have been vectors of moral and intellectual vitality. Instagram stories have become syllabi. It’s invigorating.

In the eighth issue, an awkward extended metaphor about trying on theory like clothes, I wrestled quietly with what still didn’t fit.

What does it mean to be convinced? What does it mean to be moved? What does it mean to find meaning? What does a world worth working towards look like? What does that work feel like? What should that work cost?

Maybe I shouldn’t be shocked to have found solace in rereading. I’ve had a great deal of doubt; now I have certainties. I’ve had long-standing questions; now I have answers. I see now that Sintext has been all about collecting tinder. I’d been missing the spark.

For those on a different page, I will relay the spark as it reached me, through Twitter. All the below links are to tweets, and they can be viewed together here. A content warning: some are extremely graphic.

Perhaps you’re still stuck on the looting. The news in the first few days certainly focused on property damage. You wouldn’t have seen a graph that shows how wage theft accounts for more stolen value than other property crimes combined. You wouldn’t have seen store owners standing with those who looted their store.

Breaking windows and spray-painting buildings and stealing goods isn’t violence. Violence is shooting at people carrying the unconscious body of a college student whose skull the police had already fractured. Violence is pinning protestors with tear gas and pummeling them with fists. Violence is firing “less-lethal” baton rounds, which still kill and maim people, indiscriminately into a crowd.

If the actions we’re demanding make you feel defensive, this is because we are repudiating your way of life. The uprising has already toppled statues, rooted out incompetence, and ruptured a status quo that includes most forms of complacency.

Most of the ironies in play — cops beating their board president in Chicago, shooting their implicit bias trainer in San Jose — only discredit the police and reveal their illegitimacy. The ironies that seem to strike back — like the pair of New York lawyers arrested for trying to firebomb an empty police car — actually destabilize the confines of moral behavior.

But the uprising possesses creative force, too. In Minneapolis, where I watched a police precinct burn, the education system has rid itself of the police. The city council has pledged to disband the entire department in favor of a transformative, community-led justice system. Meanwhile, a group of 150 volunteers continue working around the clock to maintain a sanctuary hotel for the unhoused. They have no leader. They are locals who decided a better alternative was within reach.

In Los Angeles, our police chief claimed that looters are as responsible for George Floyd’s death as are the officers who murdered him. My city councilmember tweeted that the looting is “no less troubling” than his death. We’ve succeeded in prying up to $150 million from the LAPD budget, a drop in their $3 billion bucket. But it’s a start. Local political engagement had been a foreign concept to most people, just as #DefundThePolice had been. Change can happen fast; the youngest of us get it.

We each bear private burdens, what we owe to those closest to us, but we also have collective obligations, an urgent responsibility that extends beyond the circle of people we know. The society that shaped my parents — neoliberalism, in a word — erased the latter from the picture. I’m used to hearing idealistic used pejoratively, as a strike against rather than an endorsement for. What’s underway is a reconsideration and re-articulation of our values, an upheaval of the organization of our lives. It’s no wonder if we feel the consequences of clarity closest to home.

I know that police in Columbus gassed a girl my age to death. I know that Covid remains rampant. For those who favor a cost/benefit framework, remember that the quotient trends to zero as the denominator continues to climb. What we’re fighting for is worth the risk we’ll continue to take on.

I also have a clearer sense of what I want for this newsletter. Above all, Sintext will continue to be a cognitive diary that develops critical thought through cultural analysis.

My distraction from the tumult has been watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. Towards the end of the show, Aang, the boy tasked with saving the world, consults his Avatar ancestors before his final battle with Fire Lord Ozai. In the streets, demonstrators are chanting “no justice, no peace.” Aang receives from Avatar Kyoshi that same wisdom, just inverted: “Only justice will bring peace.” Cause and effect become clear.

Avatar is a show that pulls no punch but one: lethal violence. Nobody dies on-screen, as is a children show’s prerogative. Aang manages to enact justice, and bring about peace, without taking Ozai’s life; instead he takes away his firebending.

There is, unfortunately, no comparable justice available to us. Reforming the police won’t address the basic fact that our society coerces consent through incarceration and violence, lethal or less-lethal. It’s foolish to think there could be peace. This is a truth that I and many others now hold to be self-evident. Another is that power responds to pressure. Why would we stop now?

This was Sintext X. Write to me, as always, by responding to this email. You can also reach me at, or @marc_shkurovich on Twitter. Thanks for reading.

If you’re looking to continue expanding your sense of the possible, here is a comprehensive abolition reading list that I’ll be returning to. There’s also two abolitionist ebooks available for free: The End of Policing and Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?

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