“[S]urviving evil doesn’t make you a good person: Surviving evil and not passing it on does,” writes Susie Day in her recent book Snidelines: Talking Trash to Power. One possible way to not pass on evil is to laugh about it. Day, through her comedic ability and shrewd observations reveals (with a giant spotlight) the hypocrisies of the American government: lax gun control, for instance, and murderous foreign policy supported by the same politicians who go on about being “pro-life.” This is just one topic Day writes about in her collection of political satire and personal essays. Each essay is a slice of truth, wit and dark humor, making the awful and absurd things the world serves up slightly more digestible. You will be smarter for reading this book — or at least, you’ll think twice before donning a Che Guevara t-shirt. I sat down with the sultana of sass to do some rummaging through that brain of hers.
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Why did you write this book?
I didn’t really write the book; I collected it. Snidelines is the name of the column I’ve written over the last few years. So this is an aggregate of pieces that deal with subjects I care a lot about — police brutality, militarism, idiotic consumerism — slightly updated for the modern reader. I make no attempt to save, or even inform, the world in this book. I just hope it might help readers to make a little psychic sense of reality.
You are someone I think of as politically active: you organize, you write about these things, you go to marches and rallies. Was there a moment when you realized that trying to do something about the myriad things that are wrong was always going to be a part of your life?
I’m hardly that politically active — unless you count my constant and quiet suffering about newsworthy injustices. But I assume many — probably most — people on the irascible left already suffer that way, too. To tell you the truth, I think that, in recent years, I’ve spent a lot of psychic energy to develop the subliminal skill of emotionally shutting out most of the shattering wrongs perpetrated by these United States. In 2003, for instance, I’d look at photos on the New York Times front page of little wounded children dying in the arms of U.S. medics and, all alone, I simply wept. Eleven years later, after uncountable lives have been obliterated by state-of-the-art U.S. atrocities that show no sign of stopping, I’ve learned to bypass the front page and open the paper to the TV section. I do go to demonstrations, I sign petitions, yes, but I’m not a good person; certainly not a good activist, nor do I play one on TV. The one thing the last two presidents have taught me is a greater compassion for the people I used to despise as “Good Germans.”
When did you become a writer (or did writing pick you)? When did satire become your mode of expression?
I used to be a theater person, an actor. Acting is still an art lots of women turn to because, even if you don’t fit the boring, stereotypical mom-ingénue-career-girl-dowager roles in real life, you can at least get kudos for playing them onstage. But after a few years, I realized I didn’t like the way directors and producers treated performers — especially women — as if our brains needed to be checked at the door in order to get into character. So I turned to writing. I think most of the satire I write is, on some level, meant to be performed.
Speaking of satire, I come from the boomer generation that grew up not only with great material privilege but also in the shadow of what Nazi Germany had done — that and the atom bomb offered a new awareness of what humanity is capable of inflicting on itself. I started believing, probably from the time I became conscious of the Holocaust, that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Thank god us boomers had the deep TV-wisdom of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Chuck Jones’s Bugs Bunny cartoons and Mad magazine and old Marx Brothers movies. Personally, I don’t think there’s a better way for me to deal with pain — especially pain on a global scale — than satire. Which is why I don’t think really good satire has to be funny. As long as it makes a point — but that point has to stab you, at least a little.
If there was one thing that you would like to see end in your lifetime, what would that be?
I don’t know. Before the Ferguson grand jury decision, I would probably have said capitalism — which would also mean we’d have a chance at saving the Earth. But now: earth, schmearth. Today, I’d like an end to white America’s deep denial of what it has done to extinguish countless Black and Indigenous lives. It’s that unacknowledged horror that transforms unarmed Black and Brown people into “behemoths” who police — and white civilians — are legally justified in shooting to death. As my friend Arun Gupta says on Facebook: “The system is fixed. We need to break it.” Because that system rests on an entrenched white complacency.
You organize around the release of political prisoners and elders in prison. If you had to explain, briefly, to someone who knew nothing about the prison system in the United States, what would you tell that person?
I think the concept of “political prisoner” is a foreign one to most people in the United States — literally foreign, in that it’s easy for most Americans to think of someone like Nelson Mandela or Václav Havel as a political prisoner. Herman Bell, on the other hand, a former Panther who’s been in U.S. prisons since the early 1970s, is just “a convicted cop killer.” I write about Herman in Snidelines, by the way. But that’s the genius of the U.S. zeitgeist. Ostensibly, we’ve done away with Jim Crow laws while creating what is in effect an apartheid system that’s much cleverer and more subtle than South Africa’s, thanks to our perennial veneer of democracy. We know that this is a democracy because most of us can vote. But what was it Emma Goldman once said? Something like, “If elections changed anything, they would be outlawed.” Anyhow, this electoral democracy has also created a prison system that has swallowed up well over 2 million human beings, whose lives will be hobbled and warped long after they’re released — if they’re that lucky.
This is the system that most political prisoners I know worked to stop. We as leftists can’t afford to forget people like Herman and Albert Woodfox and Sundiata Acoli, who are now largely ignored by our various movements. They’re alone and aging inside prison walls that don’t look like they’re going to crumble anytime soon.
I always think about moments that influenced us in our formative years — hopefully transformation always remains a possibility; the ability to be influenced or open to being changed. I’m thinking of childhood years. Is there a moment that shaped you and influenced who you became?
No. Lots of moments but no epiphany I can remember. I suppose what impacted me most was my dad, who’d had a pretty bad life: poor and virtually orphaned as a kid in Oklahoma, probably left to live on the streets — I don’t know; he never talked about his childhood to anybody I know of. Going into the army probably gave him a job and an identity. All this created a pretty mean, hungry person, who seemed to feel that earning enough money from a job he hated so he could order things from the Sear Roebuck catalogue was the most he could get out of life. We’re talking general lower-middle-class angst, here. Hardly off the charts. But definitely formative.
What do you observe about younger activists today? In many ways, it feels like the wall is bigger and thicker, and pushing back becomes harder.
In so many ways I like young activists much more than I like us, then or now. Younger peeps are usually more able to see nuance in political situations — it’s OK to criticize Cuba, for instance, without being made to feel you’re a gusano. They’re much less ready to judge people as “good” or “bad” simply because of where they fit on a demographic scale. No doubt they’ve learned from the Manichean arrogance of our generation. Or maybe, as you imply, they’re able to afford nuance because the “wall is bigger and thicker” now, and change doesn’t seem as dramatic or inevitable as it did in the 60s and 70s. Which is probably why, though, I think a lot of them are way too stuck on the romance of the 60s. No generation I’ve seen can figure out how to maneuver this growing police/surveillance state.
You point out, and I love that you do, that sometimes we tend to be single-issue people. If you care about gay rights then you can’t care about the environment or what the U.S. has done in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you think this is part of the problem in not getting things done? Conversely, do movements that start broad become single-issue? (For instance, the Civil Rights movement was once about adequate jobs and eliminating poverty, but I was taught in elementary school that it was only about Black people securing the right to vote.)
This is where it becomes obvious that I have no real politics. The thing is, most activists, thinkers, organizers, artists, etc. have to concentrate on the one thing that moves them; it’s just the pragmatic thing to do. You can’t do everything. But a large part of me misses what I imagine the best of the old CP must have offered: the universally agreed-on, macro-analysis of global economics and human justice. I still don’t think I’ll be joining a sectarian party any time soon.
Are there any organizing actions that you wish the U.S. (even New York) would or could be doing? I am thinking the bus fare protests in Brazil, the student strikes in Montreal. You know, I have been in New York for five years and there was a subway fare hike for each of those four years and New Yorkers didn’t shut down the streets. Why not, you think?
There actually was a subway strike in 2005. You probably weren’t born yet. It was by the subway workers union, not riders — even though then as now, passengers have all KINDS of things to complain about in our subways. I guess the essential reason the average New York MTA rider won’t get involved is because we don’t identify with MTA workers — or other workers, unionized or not. We’re all striving to be the best and most successful individualists, rushing to get to jobs we really don’t want to be at. The A train I ride is packed with exhausted, alienated people who see each other as competitors for the best seats if not for life itself. Obviously, “the people united” has yet to be completed. Sometimes on the A train, I pretend it’s Moscow, 1916; Revolution is in the air, anything is possible, and we are on the verge of a beautiful new tomorrow. Then I fall asleep and somebody picks my pocket.
In your essay, “In Handcuffs, Smiling,” you write about meeting your partner Laura Whitehorn, a political prisoner, when you interviewed her in the DC Jail. My question is about your conversations with Laura about activism. You write that you are ambivalent about armed resistance. Why?
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his post-Ferguson decision article for The Atlantic, writes: “What clearly cannot be said is that violence and nonviolence are tools, and that violence — like nonviolence — sometimes works.” But here, he’s talking about mass action, without weapons. Property damage and looting, he says, “have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America.” True.
I think it’s different when we’re talking about armed struggle. I don’t call myself a pacifist, but I do believe that too many radical organizations and people lose sight of just how unrepeatable life is. Of course, everybody has the right to defend themselves, but I think, in theoretical discussions where you’re expected to be down with armed struggle, that we forget the state is now and will forever be better armed. And less forgiving. Sometimes I think radicals throw around images of weapons — like the cute little round bombs with the sizzling fuses the Lesbian Avengers used as their logo in the 1990s — more to demonstrate their radical commitment to “fighting the power” than their awareness of what it means, for whatever cause, to take a life. I remember Heresies, a feminist 1970s journal on art and politics. They devoted an issue to women and violence, and somebody wrote: Women don’t really have the option to be nonviolent, since they’ve never been given the option to be violent. You could probably extend that statement to most of the U.S. white middle class. So cute little images of “struggle” get created by fairly naïve people. A group in which I would include myself.
Outside of face-offs with the “power,” though, I think most conflicts could be at least cooled down, if not resolved, by forms of nonviolent negotiation. Conflict resolution, transformative justice, restorative justice . . . there are many methods of, dare I say, “healing,” coming from communities and people under siege. I can’t imagine that Laura would be against any of these.
Which historical figure would you like to meet and why? What would you ask them?
I dunno. Maybe Joe Slovo? Ruth First? I would want to know how they were able, as white, well-educated, middle-class people, to give up their careers and comfort and societal respectability — and endanger their children — to fight against a formidably entrenched system like South African apartheid. Then I’d like to talk to their three daughters. Because I — probably like most leftists — am constantly trying to balance political commitment with my lovely everyday life. As Rosa Luxemburg said, “The world is so beautiful, even with all its horrors.” A statement that, because of its deeply satirical potential, is entirely true.
Natalie Peart is a writer and producer. Follow her on Twitter @UnaHeretic.