Being free, not "free on a technicality."
The everyday practice of life, even in midwinter.
One thing I enjoy most during the winter holidays is sinking into films like The Star, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They’re all very different kinds of films, but at their root they’re tales of kinship, outcasts, and solidarity.
They’re stories about how evil tries to possess to excess and fracture what it can’t control; about what it means to seek freedom despite the long reach of kings, would-be kings, and the bullies they enroll and pay for.
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They’re stories about merciless cruelty and courage from unexpected places. And they’re also tales of tenderness and joy; psalms marveling at new life born in a barn far from home; delight in poh-tay-toes and stew while orcs and mercenaries muster and hunt just a few plains away.
What child is this Who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Rock in the pool so nice and cool so juicy sweet! Now we wish to catch a fish so juicy sweet!
A few weeks ago, before my brain went on strike, I read a critical law journal article called “Being Right-With: On Human Rights Law as Unfreedom.”
Petero Kalulé (they/them) reviews the work of Ugandan activist, poet, and author Dr. Steslla Nyanzi. After Nyanzi criticized the Ugandan government on Facebook, she was convicted of cyber harassment and served prison time before winning her release. Kalulé’s article discusses the legal arguments she and her team used in their case and appeal.
The article builds on the writings and philosophy of Dionne Brand, Christina Sharpe, Ashon Crawley, and Rinaldo Walcott, almost all of whom explore the enduring legacies of Black enslavement in the Western hemisphere and oppose incarceration and other forms of domination today.
In this worldview, while Nyanzi’s bid for freedom was successful, it was also internally inconsistent. It depended on definitions of the law and civility that were and remain hostile to her and the world of equity and community care that she works to cultivate. It deferred to a system that uproots what she plants.
So even if she won her case, Kalulé argues, Nyanzi didn’t win in a fair fight or on substantial grounds. She won her freedom on a procedural technicality. The laws and procedures that prosecuted Nyanzi and eventually freed her do not value her politics, moral commitments, or service.
She won, but she did not win.
This is the kind of analysis that’s hard to take in, not because the facts counter it, but because it frustrates every disciplined-by-storybook desire we have for tidy endings, payoffs, and resolution.
The anticipated baby is born. The henchmen get their comeuppance. Frodo destroys the One Ring.
But in the real world we don’t usually get resolution. We rarely get it, in fact.
There isn’t only fog in wartime. There’s also a fog in ordinary time, in the present, on the edge of tomorrow before the script wraps, the orchestra swells, and the credits roll.
Last decade, when same-sex marriage was debated in state referenda and influence campaigns year after year, a vocal minority of queer people wondered whether we would win, even if we won.
We wondered if we could win freedom, if it was truly winnable if the price was ordination into a closed clergy circle, or an education only accessible with five digits of debt, or the right to vote for politicians already bought with dark money—if freedom itself was about how well we fit into exclusive social structures, and how well we advocated for our own individual or interest group’s advancement in them.
Whether through organizers, clergy, policy folks, marketers, or funders, I saw so much energy, infrastructure, and money poured into aruging that some members of the community should be able to access a state-controlled license that made them legible to heterosexual society through law, property, and commerce.
Some of us, disabled people particularly, still don’t have access to that license or the network of benefits that come with it. Some of us, Black and Indigenous people particularly, have a well-earned suspicion of rights that are contingent on law and legibility and so subject to repeal, repression, or banal bureaucracy. House Rules have not been good to all God’s children.
President Kennedy was right when he told Americans in 1963 that every one of them was equal and none of them should have to protest to access public services. He was right, and Congress eventually passed legislation on that principle, but the premise isn’t secure. In cases like 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, the Supreme Court is still debating this point six decades later, and, unfathomably, is likely to rule against it.
Last August I signed Auburn onto a friend of the court brief in the 303 Creative case. My colleague Liz Reiner Platt cowrote the brief, which argues that allowing discrimination in public services would undermine society overall and especially disadvantage religious minorities.
It burns my belly that we’re still in this conversation, that we might be in the conversation for as long as Herod hoards power and Sauron deceives men. It warms me to the point Kalulé makes in their article: if you’re free on a technicality, you’re not really free, and if you’re playing House Rules, the game is compromise.
That just deepens my longing for something other than legibility under the law and reform within the law.
Perhaps that’s the longing we should leave Advent season with, after the trees and lights come down, as the sunlight lengthens.
Maybe seasonal sentimentality should wither in the cold; maybe we should feed our hunger with potatoes and stew and relation beyond self-interest.
It’s a new year now; I won’t pronounce it happy, but every day so far I’ve woken up again and that’s not a guarantee but a gift.
Lots of people adopted yesterday as if it were a chance to begin again, to wrap goals with intention and plot them out across time. Some of them are already disappointed with themselves. I wish them gentleness.
I expected my gym to be full of people making promises to be different than they are, but it wasn’t, and I was relieved for all of us. We were just a bunch of regular folks taking step after step, pulling, pushing, resting, drinking water, and then going home.
The ordinariness of that delights me: no cataclysm, no shock to the spirit, no harsh standard for the soft animal body to rebel against. Just another day of being here, in mass and form, choosing how we’ll live.
How are you choosing to live?
Reply here or email me.
I joined Mastodon in early November. If you’re trying to figure out how to get started with federated social sites, WIRED has a guide. So does Markup. And Social Movement Technologies will be training on Mastodon specifically at the end of January.
2020 became 2021 became 2022 and is now 2023; but COVID is still a thing. Dr. Justin Feldman presents on “How to Hide A Plague: How Elite Capture and Individualism Made COVID Normal” for the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston’s Institute for Bioethics & Health Humanities. (Sept 2022, 61 mins)
Just before Christmas, the password manager LastPass confessed to a major data breach. I’ve moved to 1Password; some friends have moved to the open source option, BitWarden; and I recommend you find an alternative too. Read Wladimir Palant for more. (Dec 2022)
It’s been 22 years. I hope you’ve seen Lord of the Rings by now because otherwise you just found out how it ends. ;-)