The Kyrsten Sinema Bathroom Intrusion Experience, and the question about What Is Permissible that seems to get lost.
Note: this essay was originally published on Revue on October 11, 2021.
So, some activists had some questions for a shitty Senator who has made herself unavailable and unaccountable to anyone but her donors, about why she’s blocking a bill that’s desperately needed to address a full spectrum of pressing problems that affect the lives of the people she was elected to represent, and she didn’t really want to answer, and then she went into a bathroom, and they followed and read their demands to the blank face of her closed stall door, and by now we’ve had our Appropriate Discourse news cycle about that, and it probably already feels like it happened a century ago.
The question before us, the one that keeps getting chewed over on Twitter and the social medias and newspapers and teevee and maybe the water cooler (if there are still places with water coolers), and who knows where all else, is a pretty simple question.
Here’s the simple question: Is this acceptable behavior?
You know: Was it counterproductive? Is this really the way we want to conduct our politics? Is this the sort of society we want? Isn’t this a slippery slope? and how slippery? and what slope? If we permit harassment here, mustn’t we permit it elsewhere?
Let’s presume I have my own answer to this question.
Now let’s forget that question and ask a better one.
Here’s a less-simple question I don’t see asked so much, when something like this happens:
What makes a person without power chase a person with power?
Suppose you want to live in a world where this sort of thing doesn’t happen.
If so, it might be good to consider what such a world would look like. If you were to consider such a world, you might ponder a world that allows Senators to answer only to wealthy donors, and might well ask:
What makes a person without power chase a person with power?
Power is key here, of course. Most cases of abusive involve people with more power—physical power, political power, societal power—acting upon someone with less. Yet here we have something far less usual: someone with none chasing someone with a lot. And for many people this is an abuse that must be addressed as a first priority, in a way all instances of the former case are not.
Or we might say: Why do we permit some people to have power over others with no power?
If you don’t ask such a question, you make simple mistakes. Example:
Tom Nichols @RadioFreeTom
I have things to do and so I can't do this all day again, but I'll remind you all about "permission structures." Once you decide "physical intimidation of politicians" is okay, you open the door to anything - from a bathroom hassle to Jan 6.
It's *the same permission structure*. https://t.co/3HOHkoesJx
10:16 AM - 5 Oct 2021
Since I’m having a go at famed Nevertrumper Tom, Free Of Radio, I’ll start by gifting him something. Let’s just take as given that what the activists who read their demands to Senator Sinema did rises to the level of “physical intimidation,” and that the actions of the Jan 6 insurrectionists could be reduced to the same phrase. Let’s just let him have it.
Also, I’d like to thank Nichols for the very useful phrase: “permission structure.” I think that’s exactly what we’re dealing with here: a permission structure. A structure of permission suggests that there exists a class of people who allow things or disallow them, and then there are others who are permitted to do those things, or not.
“Permission structure.” Perfect.
It’s just that Nichols is sort of forgetting to ask which is which is which. He’s focusing instead on behavior of individuals. (To be fair to him, he did say he’s strapped for time, so maybe that’s it.)
Let’s focus instead on power and permission.
The January 6 mob had permission, and it wasn’t given to them, post-hoc, 10 months later, by a few activists in Arizona. They were instigated and encouraged by long-standing white supremacist power structures, and by elected Republicans, and by massive media outlets and social media platforms, and most frequently and directly by the President of the United States himself. They are defended and encouraged to this day by damn close to the entire Republican Party establishment and by their far-right propaganda apparatus, the most powerful one on the planet.
You can’t ask of the insurrectionists what makes people without power chase somebody with power? because they aren’t without power. The best you could do is ask what makes those who are already over-represented seek to overthrow the seat of their representation? and I’d say we should ask that, exhaustively, with a Congressional commission, and I’d say we should interrogate anybody who would seek to block such an effort.
The January 6 rioters did what they did because power told them to do it, and because they had been itching to do it, and though they were murderously violent, they remain defended right up to the top of our power structures.
The activists who followed a Senator into a bathroom did so because it was literally their only remaining option other than simply giving up, and though they were not violent, their defenders in the seats of influence and power on either side of the aisle are few and muted, which their critics are many and bipartisan.
What Nichols (and many others) are doing by focusing exclusively on the question was this behavior right or not? is defending an established permission structure in which they—with their large platforms or other signifiers of influence or power or privilege—remain the rightful bestowers of permission, and, to guide this dispensation, they ask a question that I would almost swear is designed to locate all the responsibility for our current situation, up to and including the January 6 insurrection, upon the behavior of individuals with the least power to change that situation, who are nevertheless actually doing what they can to change that situation.
It’s worth pondering why, as these “undesirable” things keep happening, the question is always phrased in the way least likely to lead to interrogation of the causes of the “undesirable” situation.
A casual observer might conclude it’s almost as if some people don’t actually want the situation to change, they just want people to behave.
This matters, because it conflates even the tamest of improprieties, committed by unrepresented desperate people—in the name of equality, with the purpose of preserving our democracy—with a murderous rampage through our nation’s Capitol, committed by already overrepresented people—in the name of their own supremacy, with the purpose of overturning our democracy.
If this remains our permission structure, then power remains uncontemplated, as does responsibility, as does purpose. Our focus remains on behaving properly. It’s a permission structure that suits authoritarians well, and, paradoxically, makes impropriety not only inevitable but eventually absolutely necessary. A riot to prevent the installation of a fascist government is not the same thing as a riot to install a fascist government, and we’d do well to recognize this, because it might be on the final exam.
One thing the shape of this permission structure does is completely fail to interrogate the person most responsible for creating a reality in which those without power chase a person with power. That is, the person with power. That is, the Senator herself. The Senator, you see, has permission to make herself unavailable and unaccountable to her constituents, and to serve only her wealthy donors, no matter how much damage she does to human beings, as long as she follows rules that were set up to make it easy for her to do so.
And maybe that’s what following a Senator into a bathroom is about, in the end. A simple statement about permission structures between public servants and the people for whom they are meant to work.
Maybe they’re saying a simple thing, something dispensers of permission in this age of abusive impunity might well heed:
We don’t get permission from you. You get it from us.
And we say you aren’t allowed to do that.
A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places. He never promised you a toes garden.