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Output 3 v2

A Work in Progress

Oct 22, 2020 – by Tom Tian

I’ve been replaying a memory from four years ago. It was the moment on election night when the jittering needle of the New York Times election predictor, which had already crept uncomfortably rightward toward Trump, finally lurched across that dreadful threshold. The boisterous conversations at our friend’s apartment that night — first joyful, then nervous — fell silent. We could only watch in mute horror as our expectations crumbled into unthinkable reality.

It’s true that the Obama years had hardly felt like the culmination of some grand world-historical process, but the rude shock of Trumpism would, in that moment and so many more to come, forcefully repudiate any notion of democracy and social justice’s inevitability.

That disenchantment should give all of us hope. With fewer allies in positions of power and beset by fascists emerging from the proverbial woodwork, so many of our fellow Americans on the left have rekindled an animating faith in the collective struggle for social justice. It’s a belief in which neither God nor history preordain triumph, where we have no saviors except each other.

The displays of that faith are unmistakable. Movements for and led by marginalized peoples have made it signally clear that neither they nor significant portions of White Americans will surrender to authoritarian minority rule. In left-leaning cities, monuments to blatantly revisionist narratives — especially those of the Confederacy but also of America’s genocidal westward drive and iniquitous founding — have finally fallen. There’s even an argument to be made that the right’s shrill defensiveness about being called out speaks to the left’s success in cultivating more respectful, pluralistic social norms.

Black Lives Matter protest Portland Oregon
Speakers address the crowd at a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, OR on July 24, 2020. (Photo by Tom Tian)

That this has happened in sustained defiance against so vicious a reaction is cause for courage. And that courage will be more necessary than ever, for America after four years of Trump is a greatly diminished nation wracked by open racism, glib ignorance, serial incompetence, narrow provincialism, and cruel, selfish indifference. With divisions deep enough to produce a parallel right-wing reality that worships Trump as its vengeful messiah and stirs more than just talk of political violence, it’s hard to fathom how America can mend itself.

Perhaps the answer is that it won’t happen anytime soon, certainly not after this election and possibly not within our lifetimes. The right’s legacy will loom over the country for decades thanks to judicial appointments, redistricting, and the departure of so many talented civil servants. Most importantly, the bigoted, cruel individualism Trump embodies has long been a popular American impulse, one that will surely outlive him.

Portland BLM protest
Portland riot police advance on BLM protesters through a cloud of teargas in Portland, OR on May 5, 2020. Photo by Tom Tian.
May Day protest Chicago 2017
A protester steps on an effigy of President Trump during May Day protests in Chicago, IL on May 1, 2017. (Photo by Tom Tian)

Despite those challenges, I remain optimistic. In reminding us of the ongoing, contingent nature of the American experiment in democracy, the present moment also points to how we may yet advance it: By making a habit of democracy as a sacred yet secular form of everyday life, one in which there is no authority higher than that which is derived from regular intersubjective dialogue and agreement between complex, real, and flawed agents. And to take shared pride in this living practice so that it may become the bedrock of a healthier, liberal nationalism.

I should point out that this is emphatically not a call for all of us to somehow get along” or a plea for civility.” Democracy without disagreement, even bitter ones, is about as healthy as a relationship without fights. Similarly, I’m not so naïve as to assume that democratic practices will (or even can) fully reconcile with capitalism’s inherent tendency toward domination and hierarchy. It is, however, a call to measure the merits of our actions against the pursuit of that greater goal.

Dan Ryan shutdown protest Chicago
Passersby show their solidarity for protesters who shut down the Dan Ryan expressway during a protest against gun violence in Chicago, IL, July 7, 2018. (Photo by Tom Tian)

Since this is a design firm — and because how can design fix x’?” is still a popular topic — I will offer a few opinions on how I think designers can contribute positively to such an enterprise.

The single most important thing I think designers can help create are genuinely public spaces within which we may celebrate and engage in public life.

Monumental American architecture gives us a model for the former. If you’ve visited D.C. then you’re already familiar with what I speak of: Bigger than life yet not oppressive, with space for folx to assemble but somehow not cavernous when empty. In short, secular temples built on public land, free of sponsorship, and above all dedicated to the awesome spirit of a public struggle for justice that is bigger than — but also welcoming of — any individual.

The single most important thing I think designers can help create are genuinely public spaces within which we may celebrate and engage in public life.

There is one more important thing I think we can do, which is to stop asking what can design do?” so much. Our professions do not define ourselves, and it is as ourselves that we must approach the public square.

I think our profession also has much to reckon with. So much design exists in service to helping businesses sell ephemera in the guise of loftier ideas. Elsewhere we obsess over delightful micro-interactions and user experiences that feed our worst egomaniacal impulses. We might not be peddling racist caricatures or crude propaganda, but I think designers have, on balance, done more to enable a confederacy of cynical consumers, users, and spectators than a society of citizens.

And it’s that state of existence I want to avoid. Of being that spectator, helplessly watching a needle quiver between two futures.