The United States prides itself on being a progressive nation. Each “new era” seems to approach us faster than the last. While many are excited by the speed of development, others are cynical, especially when progress is projected to take an irreversible toll on the planet by 2030. But while we are so preoccupied with the course of the future, we overlook what came before.
So let’s look backwards, specifically at the origins of the United States’ obsession with progress.
In “The Constitution of Liberty,” Austrian neoliberal economist Friedrich Hayek first extends the rationality of the free market to the individual: In a competitive sphere, one must act only in their interests, so they assume full responsibility for their actions. If everyone was concerned solely with themselves, the free market would force people to better their skills, quality of work and reputations as competitive tactics, subsequently improving and growing our world.
Hayek’s rationalities are reflected today. People have been transformed into entrepreneurial beings in all aspects, concerned with improving themselves as products with the best investments.
In the United States, time is money and it is of the essence. Time is valuable and it’s sacrilegious when wasted — therefore it must be optimized. There is an opportunity cost to every action, which means that we are selective about how we use our time, trying to find a balance of work, family, friends, mental health, politics and activism.
Here, time is linear. We are obsessed with origin stories, from those of superheroes to our own, the Big Bang. We perceive films, stories and even our own human history as linear. There is only forward, only progress, and the past grows smaller in the background — a shadow, proof that we have overcome and grown from it.
The Black Lives Matter movement proves us wrong. We cannot proceed as though time is linear, as though our reputations are the only things at stake, as though the past is a dusty relic. Racism in modern contexts clashes with American narratives of progress, proof that the past has not been left behind but is alive and with us. What’s more is that this tension between the history behind our identities and the passing of time seems to be a uniquely American issue.
In Iran, my father’s home country, time is experienced in vastly different, fluid contexts. It’s custom to arrive at festivities at least an hour late and for events to extend into the late evening. There’s a running joke that Iranians operate in accordance with PST (Persian Standard Time).
In Iranian culture, time makes its rounds and everyone’s along for the ride. It’s not something we have to work around or manage, but rather something that carries us. It’s not owned or monetized or wasted or hoarded or optimized. When we label time as such, we risk perceiving our lives as something that must always be strategically bolstered with the right kinds of people, experiences and activities, or else risk “wasting” it.
The dazzling ceilings in Iranian mosques are tiled with thousands of hand-painted blue porcelain pieces. The patterns spiral outward from a center, transforming, expanding. In “One Thousand and One Nights” — the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales — the captive Scheherazade spins an endless tale to cheat death. These stories fold over and into one another, swirling together without the confines of a strictly linear progression.
As such, Iranian history does not have the privilege of being swept under the rug — it’s far too entangled with itself. Stories about the 1979 revolution and modern extremist politics, about childhood overseas and the Iranian shops in the United States revive an ancient culture in all of its amalgamated glory.
In the same cyclic fashion, our modern world continues to regurgitate hateful, racist and systemic violence against Black people. And yet, the United States refuses to confront its historical patterns, instead insisting on its trajectory of progress, denying that its past of violent abjection has a hold on the present.
In some arenas, Black Lives Matter has been exploited as an opportunity for investment. Big businesses capitalize on the movement and reduce it to a profitable trend, something to boost companies’ public images in an economic crisis.
What’s worse is when applied to the individual level, we are participating in the same patterns — performing empty gestures on our social media accounts. Posting donation receipts, protest photo shoots, lengthy personal rants about struggles as a non-BIPOC individual and black squares accompanied by a single hashtag all fall into the category of performative activism, done for the sake of bettering one’s social capital. But consider the opportunity cost: If you invest time in performing empty gestures, why not use the same time to do something of substance?
Support for BLM does not have to be an entirely public affair. It can be as small as streaming a video, quietly donating or educating yourself and your family. The point is, there’s no need to publicly deliver proof that you’re “woke.”
Transforming Black Lives Matter into a spectacle performance risks evacuating the movement of meaning, creating emptiness and supplanting activism with a new trendy, flashy hashtag used to rake in likes or appear on the trending page. Ultimately, it stifles Black voices.
Let go of self-serving allyship. We must stop pretending to have overcome our cyclic past. We have not. It continues to haunt us, staring us in the face again and again in the streets of Ferguson, Cleveland and Minneapolis.
Time, and subsequently history, does not pass, but instead circles us. Perhaps it’s time to experience its fullness and live with the weight of what was rather than denying its presence today. It’s high time to change the iterations of history. Act with intention and mindfulness about our history and our future — there’s simply too much at stake not to.
Alexandra Sasha Shahinfar writes the Thursday column on multiculturalism. Contact her at [email protected]