On Hope, Relief, and Other Liberalisms

Biden's in office – now what?

(also published on my noblogs)


The last four years are not over – and they were not confined to a presidency. They were the latest episode in the long durée of American empire, the material linchpin, ever slipping, of global Empire. Joe Biden’s impending promises of a return to normal, of the safety and comfort of our everyday hell, surely more manageable, more livable than this one, are nothing but another bump in the texture of everyday violence we are conditioned to ignore. But ignorance only works for those who aren’t confronted every single day with the gut-wrenching brutality inflicted on those who fall outside the bounds of civil society, who don’t have to worry about where they’ll get their next dose of insulin, or AZT, or hormone blockers, or testosterone.

We’ve seen this before.

Living with AIDS is like living through a war which is only happening for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around you and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices. It isn’t happening to them. They’re walking through the streets as though we weren’t living through some sort of nightmare. And only you can hear the screams of the people who are dying and their cries for help. […] It’s not happening to us in the United States, it’s happening to them – to the disposable populations of fags and junkies who deserve what they get. Twice, three times, four times – The New York Times has published editorials saying don’t panic yet over AIDS, it still hasn’t entered the general population, and until it does, we don’t have to give a shit.

               Vito Russo, a person with AIDS, May 9, 1988 [1]

Many points from Russo’s speech still ring true today. Its power isn’t limited to its speaker’s tactile, heartfelt rage, but is also defined by the resonances it creates, the contagions it mobilizes. I first heard it years ago, before I knew I was trans, when I still enjoyed the full complement of benefits and securities offered to me by a society that I was never really present in. It spoke to me then, for reasons I couldn’t quite locate – but listening to it again today, I’m brought to tears. Some things change you permanently, and the repeated blunt force trauma of medical insecurity has indelibly altered the way I see clinical institutions. Hearing Russo explain that they don’t have to worry about where they’ll get their next dose of an untested drug they need to survive, or how to take it, or what effects it’ll ultimately have on them – that struck home for me. [2] It would be wrong to call the similarities between Russo’s description of people with AIDS’ struggles with AZT and my getting cut off of hormones, denied coverage, and otherwise abandoned “parallels” – obviously our situations are different, but the hate and disgust we face are bound up tightly enough that I can barely even attempt to separate their sources. Because even though people like me are being abused, beaten, misincarcerated, and murdered – and it’s not happening to them, so they don’t have to give a shit.

This is the lie, the trick that hope, relief, and the illusion of a “return to normal” all pivot on. That there is a normal, a conflict-free and idyllic past to return to. It’s always been a struggle for us, we’ve always been living double lives, whether that’s hidden with the box of clothes in the back of my closet, wearing a jacket to cover up the effects of months of HRT when visiting my extended family, who still know me as a man, or applying to jobs with my deadname. The daily effects of this estrangement run deeper than the obvious – Kamala Harris fighting to deny HRT and surgeries to California’s trans inmates or misincarcerating trans women; the trans panic defense, which makes it fully legal to execute trans people on the grounds that they are threats to heterosexual and gendered normativity; the constant barrage of hate and fear that we are submerged in every day. It’s the little things, the pauses before someone uses my name, the knowledge that people I love still see me as a man, that my existence is awkward and irritating for them. And just like the liberalisms and platitudes that we’re about to be inundated with, it’s much easier for them to ignore me, to pretend I’m still their son, grandson, nephew, than to realize that I exist.


Hope is a form of waiting, with the refusal to see what is there, with the fear of breaking into the present—in short, with the fear of living. To hope is to declare oneself in advance to be without any hold on that from which something is expected nonetheless. It’s to remove oneself from the process so as to avoid any connection with its outcome. It’s wanting things to be different without embracing the means for this to come about. […] Hope, that very slight but constant impetus toward tomorrow that is communicated to us day by day, is the best agent of the maintenance of order. We’re daily informed of problems we can do nothing about, but to which there will surely be solutions tomorrow. The whole oppressive feeling of powerlessness that this social organization cultivates in everyone is only an immense pedagogy of waiting.

               The Invisible Committee, Now

What we are witnessing is a deferral, a sleight of hand that frames Joe Biden, former Dixiecrat and friend of Strom Thurmond, as the enemy of Trump. Not even a re-ignition of Obama’s faux-grassroots campaigns, “yes we can” sloganeering, and “hope” posters – a bloodless and toothless reanimation of the thinnest platitudes available to us. And it’s working – because the people who believe it need it to be true.

They’re kept in a state of constant vulnerability, relying on politicians and managers of the disaster to deliver them from whichever evil is creeping up on them next – all without any real risk, a pre-rehearsed charade of fear and terror that ultimately serves as a mechanism for the maintenance of social control. This extends beyond its regular frontiers of terrorism, war, racial infiltration, or queerness, and into the sphere of politics, which is functionally a terrain of ethical designations, performances, and other enunciations severed from the aggregates of bodies that they claim to represent.

This is why liberals need Obama to be an untouchable, sacred icon, innocent of any purported war crimes, why Joe Biden is a relatable family man and not a senile racist whose history of harassment, sexual assault, and support for draconian crime legislation should be held against him. It’s why Kamala Harris can be forgiven for her blatant assaults on trans people without a second thought. Because politicians are more than figureheads for the people to identify with – beneath that function, they’re also the ones responsible for saving us, for delaying the end indefinitely. Politics has become a constant rehearsal of the end of politics.

Against a hope that displaces action onto politicians and other nominal representatives of the totality, against the management of the disaster, our only way out is a secession from the middle, to speak and act from within a world. To take sides and commit ourselves as completely as we can to the irruption of the common into the restricted economies that contain life. This is not the typical revolutionary call to arms – it’s a call to think strategically, to find each other and begin making things common now, because the next four years won’t be any easier than the first, and the managers of the disaster will never be the ones to survive it. [3]


[1] Diagnosed with HIV in 1985, dead of homophobia and neglect by 1990. Not a victim of chance but a casualty in a war that no one was willing to acknowledge existed, a cultural amnesia that still exists today.

[2] “And the days, and the months, and the years pass by, and they don’t spend those days and months and years trying to figure out how to get ahold of the latest experimental drug, and which dose to take it at, and in what combination with other drugs, and from what source And, how are you going to pay for it? And where are you going to get it? Because it isn’t happening to them, so they don’t give a shit.”

Full speech available:

Transcript: https://untorellipress.noblogs.org/files/2013/10/this-means-war.pdf

[3] “We’re so busy putting out fires right now that we don’t have the time to talk to each other and strategize and plan for the next wave, and the next day, and next month, and the next week, and the next year. And we’re going to have to find the time to do that in the next few months. And we have to commit ourselves to doing that. And then, after we kick the shit out of this disease, we’re all going to be alive to kick the shit out of this system, so that this never happens again.” –Vito Russo