“The Russia story is a distraction from the Affordable Care Act!”
“Trans people in the military are a distraction from disastrous tax reform!”
“The chaos in the White House is a distraction from environmental collapse!”
“The immigration ban is a distraction from the Russia story!”
One of the most distressing things about the current US political disaster is that it’s happening on so many fronts. Living in this country is like a chronic case of whiplash; following the news is like being on a rollercoaster you can never get off of. It’s numbing, overwhelming, and exhausting.
There are many effective ways to deal with this. Telling people their issues are distractions isn’t one of them.
When people are told their activism is a distraction from the “real” work, it’s demoralizing. It’s hard enough to keep up with activism, even when you do have support. And it’s especially hard to do activism right now: there’s so much work to be done, things are changing so quickly, multiple fronts need urgent attention, activists are stressed and traumatized, and it feels like everything is falling apart. We’re all trying to decide what our priorities are and re-examining those priorities with every news cycle. We’re all struggling to manage our time and money and emotional energy, all of which are increasingly spread thin. This is hard enough by itself. When people who are theoretically on your side are trivializing your work and cutting you down, it makes it even harder.
It’s also unlikely to work. Think how you would feel if you were working and speaking on an issue you care about passionately, and someone told you: “You should drop that! It’s a trivial distraction from the real work. You’re clearly incapable of deciding what is and isn’t important—you’ve allowed yourself to be tricked, duped, distracted by the waving hands of the magician. I have a much clearer understanding of what our priorities should be than you do, so come work on my thing instead!” Think how you would feel if you heard this every day, from multiple people, no matter what you were working on. I know that when I hear this, it doesn’t inspire me to switch gears and forge a new alliance. It inspires me to roll my eyes and flip them the bird.
It’s hard not to notice that much of the time, the issues that get called a distraction are the ones that affect people who are most marginalized. Trans people are some of the most vulnerable people in our society: they’re commonly shut out by family and friends, they’re denied work and housing and even the right to exist in public (if you can’t use the bathroom it’s hard to leave the house), and they’re targeted with mockery, humiliation, and violence. Yet, when Donald Trump announced his intent to ban trans people from serving in the military, far too many cisgender liberals and progressives reacted by telling trans people their lives and rights were a distraction.
It’s not just trans people, either. Far too many others are told that their issues are disposable: Muslims and ex-Muslims hear it from never-Muslims; immigrants and people perceived to be immigrants hear it from people who aren’t immigrants; people who can get pregnant hear it from people who can’t get pregnant and never could. The people who will suffer most in this regime, the people already suffering the most, are the ones who most often get told to shut up and wait their turn.
But I don’t think I’ve seen a single disaster coming out of this regime that hasn’t, at some point, been dismissed as a distraction. It’s true that the ones hitting marginalized people hardest are the ones that get trivialized the most. But every single garbage fire coming out of this regime has been called a distraction. Corruption at the highest levels, the systematic rollback of basic civil rights, our election being stolen by a hostile foreign government—all of it has been called a distraction by someone. And not just by random yahoos on the Internet: it wasn’t that long ago that mainstream media pundits were dismissing Rachel Maddow for staying on the Russia story like a dog on a bone. It’s like a circular firing squad.
It may be the case that the Trump regime is trying to distract people by dropping media bombs. Personally, I think this is giving Trump too much credit. If we’ve learned nothing else in the last few months, we should have learned that this president is not a criminal mastermind playing eleven-dimensional chess. This president is a self-involved, impulsive, willfully ignorant buffoon who hires sycophants to advise him and then ignores their advice. But even if he does announce abrupt staff changes or make outrageous policy statements as a way of distracting the country from whatever he doesn’t want us to pay attention to—so what? As many people have pointed out: if someone tries to distract you by setting your house on fire, you still need to put the fire out. And while our attention isn’t infinite, we do have the ability to pay attention to more than one issue at once. And we’ll need that ability more and more in the months and years to come.
If we think an issue is important and isn’t getting enough attention, by all means, we should call attention to it. We can do that without dissing other people’s issues and the work they’re doing on them.
Fascism plays out in lots of ways at once. Authoritarianism, nationalism, corruption, manufacturing enemies, fanning the flames of xenophobia, slashing civil rights, weakening or destroying the right to vote, dishonesty, gaslighting, undermining the free press—all of these are building blocks of fascism. They’re all important. In fact, they’re interconnected. We can pay attention to all of it. We have to.