Aesthetic Political Progress — Where’s Our Police Reform?

Our brains are advanced pattern recognition machines. When we see something happen, we fit it into the deep neural web of symbology we have in our minds.

In this way, we use symbols as shorthand for communication without even realizing it. Fictional tropes are entirely made of these symbols. If you’ve consumed enough media of a certain type you starts to know what the pattern of the story will be. In games, it’s the pattern of: explore → enemy → loot. In books and TV, it’s the hero’s journey with extra seasonings per trope. In romantic genres, the hero will end up happy. In horror genres, you know almost everyone is in danger and you expect jumpscares. In comedy, you know you’re going to go in to laugh. Action flicks you know to expect a lot of fighting and running (action, one might say).

These easily visible patterns help set the expectation of what we’re going to get. When the pattern is completed, our brain feels satisfaction when it gets the result it was expecting. That’s why re-experiencing something we previously enjoyed gives us comfort (aside from pure nostalgia) and why unexpected results from a problem are frustrating.

If a piece of information falls too far outside our neurological pattern, our brains start to reject the information, even if it’s widely agreed upon by scientific professionals who went through the peer review process.

“In our research, we find that people treat facts as relevant more when the facts tend to support their opinions,” says Campbell. “When the facts are against their opinions, they don’t necessarily deny the facts, but they say the facts are less relevant.”

The actual objective truth of the world is not important to people who are fully consumed with their own mental interpretation.

And here i want to put in a note upon mental illness. Some people might class climate change or other science deniers as suffering from delusional disorders. But there is a reason psychologists to go to school for years to study the human mind, and this is a reminder that non-medical professionals should refrain from attempting to diagnose. We can call these people science deniers, but i’m specifically choosing not to use the words “delusion” in this essay for this reason. I’d also like to avoid painting people we disagree with, even over objective facts, as having mental illness. If someone actually is mentally ill, they require help and care, not to be stigmatized.

So, what is to be done? Other than funding a robust and free educational and mental health care system? First, we can look at where capitalism exploits our poor human mind that is just trying to make sense of the world. Once we fully grasp at how the mechanism works, we can begin to dismantle it, and create better ones in it’s place.

Media is filled with well established symbols. Why does a scriptwriter choose to put a blonde rather than a brunette in their script? Why is someone wearing red rather than black? Why is that actor’s face framed in lights like that? They’re evoking symbols. A blonde represents someone who’s fun. Unless they’re the joyless kind that’s ice cold! A salad represents a healthy meal for someone (usually a woman) who is watching their weight. Or it’s a joyless bowl of lettuce under sad lighting for a depressed man in the 2nd act at their low point. The bowl of salad might be the same prop, but the lighting and context around the salad changes to evoke a symbol you already recognize because it’s been drilled into you that this is what a salad represents and means.

This is how advertising works. A product is shown with hot, happy people consuming it and having fun. Your brain creates the pattern that product = good emotion. You want the product now. You consume it, and you try to subconsciously recreate the pattern shown to you in the advertising. You bring the product to parties and share it with friends. You create a culture around having the product at events. You take pictures of yourself consuming the product. It can even become part of your identity. It doesn’t even need to be the exact same product as advertised sometimes, as long as its close enough for your brain to project the same feelings on it. And the only way to survive brutal late stage capitalism is by finding a source of good emotion, which means more products, all the time.

Even more insidiously, this works with people too. If you imagine someone of a certain subculture, it brings up certain stereotypes — positive and negative. In either case, you are ceasing to imagine that person as a person and see them instead as a symbol. Your mind is cutting all the corners off the individual and trying to fit them into one of the patterns you’ve already got lying around.

Politically, this has dire implications. If one has access to mass media, they merely need to repetitiously expose you to the same patterns to train your mind to associate certain types of people with certain emotions or fears. Once exposed to enough media that associates skin color, language, or mannerisms with danger, our minds start to build that pattern. They do not understand that fiction should not be used to understand the world. In fact, we are taught otherwise from childhood, by being given children’s stories and fables whose only goal is to teach the child how to behave.

Your mind will always try to fit what you see into a pre-existing pattern in your brain. It takes conscious thought of will to change or create new patterns. Our minds would rather take the path of least resistance and slot someone into a pre-existing pattern rather than devote active time to see someone as a complete person, rather than as the symbols you attached to them.

These symbols, once created and mass understood, can then be abused for political gain. In addition to mass political propaganda, politicians now have the option of donning symbolic clothing and perform a symbolic action. Since our brains have seen the symbols of formal clothing, grave tones and big words so many times in media as “this means that person cares a lot and is gonna do something” we transfer these emotions from fictional politicians onto the real politicians. A few minutes of talking about the problem in the right way and some photos is enough for people to feel like the problem is addressed, because our minds reasonably came to the conclusion that talking seriously about a problem means it will be addressed.

Unfortunately for us, bourgeoisie millionaires that have never worked for minimum wage do not actually care about anything except their own interests, namely a financially secure future for themselves.

Let’s look a practical example of how this aesthetic symbology works.

On May 25th, 2020, a policeman murdered a black man named George Floyd. The police murder hundreds of black men a year, but this man’s death become a rallying point over the egregious nature of the violence. To black lives matter protesters, the story of his death fits all too easily in the real pattern of police violence. Activists knew what to do next: make noise, make them pay attention, make them care. And it worked. Solidarity protests popped up over the entire world, people kept protesting for months, ignorant people were being educated and joining the movement, and actual real change to the policing system was being discussed.

On June 4th 2020, Ayanna Pressley (one of the few black congresspeople) co-introduced the Ending Qualified Immunity Act. To summarize, this effectively would allow police officers to be actually charged with a crime if they killed someone.

This week, I am introducing the Ending Qualified Immunity Act to eliminate qualified immunity and restore Americans’ ability to obtain relief when police officers violate their constitutionally secured rights. The brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police is merely the latest in a long line of incidents of egregious police misconduct. This pattern continues because police are legally, politically, and culturally insulated from consequences for violating the rights of the people whom they have sworn to serve. That must change so that these incidents of brutality stop happening.

Unfortunately, this Act didn’t even pass committee.

On June 8, 2020, things really kicked off. Joe Biden met with the Floyd family privately, he told us publicly, and gave them a video message for the funeral. Nancy Pelosi and roomful of majority white democrats donned the national cloth of Ghana and kneeled for the amount of time it took George Floyd, who was born in North Carolina, to be murdered. Most impressively of all, another black congressperson (Karen Bass) was introducing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which had several materially useful reforms.

credit: C-Span

On June 17th 2020, The house of representatives passed the George Floyd Act. It went to the senate, but uh oh! Democrats knew it would never pass the Senate, because they didn’t have a majority. So it had to be tabled.

The protests dwindled over the remainder of 2020, in no small part to the media backlash against property “violence” at them (Incidentally, over 1,100 people were killed by police in the united states in 2020). The story of racial justice was getting washed away.

By October, the media had a new toy to sell people: election fever. They sold this all the way to the attempted coup at the capital in December, and after that, racial justice just never really made it’s way back on the agenda.

On January 3rd, 2021, the 117th congress was sworn in. Joe Biden, the man who had drafted the crime bill, was now President. Kamala Harris, a self-described “top cop”, was now Vice President and had tiebreaking powers in the senate, which she has since exercised eleven times. Democrats effectively controlled every branch of the federal government.

On February 24th, 2021, nearly two months after the 117th congress was sworn in, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was reintroduced to the house of representatives.

On March 1st, 2021 the Ending Qualified Immunity Act was reintroduced as well.

On March 3rd, 2021, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the house of representatives again, and went back the senate.

on April 20,2021, the murderer of George Floyd had been found guilty. Considering that over 800 people have been killed by the police this year and we’re well on track to hit the 1100 last year, that doesn’t seem to have materially have any effect on police violence, but it did fit into the aesthetic pattern of “Doing Something”. In reality, 6 people were killed by the police in the next 24 hours after the guilty verdict was passed.

Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice. For being there to call out to your mom — how heartbreaking was that — call out for your mom, ‘I can’t breathe.’ But because of you, and because of thousands, millions of people around the world who came out for justice, your name will always be synonymous with justice.

Those are actual words one of the most powerful leaders in america spoke. She didn’t condemn the system she helped create or even recognize the black lives matter movement or racial justice. Instead, she thanked a murdered man for becoming a convenient political symbol of justice for her to use.

On April 28th 2021, President Joe Biden delivered a speech to congress. Among other things, he called upon (democrat controlled) congress again to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act:

We need to work together to find a consensus, but let’s get it done next month by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death.

On the same day, the Ending Qualified Immunity Act was referred to subcommittee. Nothing has happened with it since.

I am writing this on 17 months after the murder of George Floyd, and 6 months after that speech. There has been no movement whatsoever on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Congress has long moved onto squabbling about an infrastructure bill instead. As of writing, the police have killed 827 people in 2021.

Politicians have expertly manipulated the us to believe that progress has been made, but in fact police are still murdering hundreds of people just like George Floyd.

Let’s look at how they were able to turn the horrifying unjust murder of a black man under a white supremacist system into a political symbol for their own gain.

The story of progress is familiar to us all. It goes like this:

Act 1: injustice is brought to light
Act 2: conflict between the justice seekers and the perpetrators
Act 3: justice wins in the end

This is how the story should go, and would go in an inspiring movie long after the fact -

Act 1: an activist is exposed to or made aware of a material injustice, such as a marginalized person being murdered under an oppressive system.

Act 2: They stand and march for hours, days, weeks, weeks, years facing police violence, arrest, chemical weapons, and the potential loss of their rights and liberty just to say, “we’re not moving until the violence stops. You may even chase us away at some points, but we’re going to keep coming back until this is fixed.” Off the streets, they educate and agitate wherever they can, and support the protesters or other people in need.

Act 3: The end of injustice. policy is changed. Violence is stopped. The problem is solved. We have defunded the police, and invested in community enrichment instead. The cycle is finished.

In contrast, here is how the symbols of those acts was abused to aesthetically fit the pattern of progress.

Act 1: Injustice. A man is murdered.

Act 2: A series of somber press releases. Kneeling in silence for the amount of time it took for the man to be murdered. Selfies at protests. Posting a black square. Being in a position of power and lying about how you’re going to change things.

Act 3: A happy press release! You got the bad guy this time! Most years not even one cop is found guilty but this time where everyone cares we did it! And then the story is simply dropped, despite other cops still murdering people. They don’t need to do anything further if no one is paying attention. Who will hold them accountable? The corporate media? They were pro-cop even while getting actively shot by the police. Later on, cops will quietly be funded and armed with even deadlier weapons, but no symbol is made of it, so only the most-left wing news hawks will even notice.

The story of progress was invoked and popularized, and to a lot of people, that’s all that mattered.

And why is this happening? Well, turn out that’s a feature, not a bug, of our political system:

Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all. By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.

And what does this study class as “economic elites”? Being in the top 10% of income percentile. In america, that means making about more than $150,000 a year, which is 12.5k a month, or 78$ an hour. Federal minimum wage is 7.25 an hour, over a hundred times less.

Who are these people making 78$ an hour? Well, i couldn’t find direct data for that demographic group (top 10%) of earners. Instead we can look at data from the federal reserve over average income:

New data from the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) show that long-standing and substantial wealth disparities between families in different racial and ethnic groups were little changed since the last survey in 2016; the typical White family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family and five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family.

We can also look at data from people who make even more money. This is surprisingly difficult to find, despite America having 18,600,000 millionaires in 2019. A full 5 percent of our population is millionaires. Contrast that with only 1.3% of america’s population being indigenous to this country. We have more colonizers who have gotten rich of stolen land and labor than we do original inhabitants of this country.

Let’s look at the forbes top 400.

Now, it’s hard to tell which someone’s ethnicity or cultural background is based off an extremely whitewashed picture and i don’t like it when people get out digital color-matching calipers. But looking at that list, you’ve gotta go pretty far down to hit someone who looks dark enough that would fit the manufactured trope of “dangerous skin color”. In fact, i had to go all the way down to number 125 to get to Robert F. Smith, who has only 3% of the net worth of Jeff Bezos. So between this and the federal reserve we can reasonably expect that most people in the top 10% of wealth are white.

The representation problem extends all the way into mass media.

The 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report also includes a workplace analysis of 11 major and mid-major studios, which found that 91% of C-level positions are held by white people and 82% are held by men. Among all senior executive positions, 93% percent are held by white people and 80% by men.

Women had 44.1% of lead acting roles and 40.2% of the total cast in the 145 films from 2019 examined in the report; people of color made up 27.6% of lead actors and 32.7% of all film roles in 2019.

Women earned 14.8% of writing credits on the films analyzed in 2018, and minorities claimed 10.4%. Both figures improved for 2019, with 17.4% of writing credits going to women and 13.9% to people of color.

Rich white people are not only the main ones influencing policy directly through their wealth, they’re also the ones actually having veto power of the propaganda patterns in mass media too! And they’re hiring white people to write scripts that mostly white people will perform. In a previous article, i wrote how newsroom employees are mostly white, and how that also influences how racial issues are covered.

It’s not that being melanin deficient is bad, it’s that white supremacy is the cultural norm and that white people are trained by propaganda patterns to not to see microabuses like stereotyping as racist. This in turn constantly reinforces white supremacist thinking. Some of them might unconsciously replicate white supremacist thinking without realizing it, because they’ve never had any reason to examine or question the accepted pattern of thinking.

Looking at a sampling of board of directors for these massive media corporations, do you think there is any chance that they actually care about alleviating wealth inequality and racism? Do you think they’re ready to end world hunger and pollution and give everyone free healthcare?

These are the people who decide which patterns and stories are okay to show us. They have the presidential veto power, and they set policy. They’re also making millions of dollars. They’re the principal at school driving a ferrari telling the teachers with second jobs not to teach evolution or sex education and instead to teach kids that america was totally empty before the settlers landed here.

People naturally create things that reflect their internal cognitive patterns. While some subversive media exists, it’s drowned out by the mass flood of media that uplifts and reinforces the status quo. For every anti-war movie, there are 100 pro-military movies that are better funded and get more acclaim. For an anticapitalist message to survive in a modern mass media, the activist must be treated as the butt of a joke or it must be washed out by other concerns, to show that activism isn’t actually that important.

The story is primed and ready: being concerned with political activism is boring, uncool and a waste of time. We have bills to pay and children to raise. We have [product] to get us through the rough times, and besides there’s some novel things for us to do instead of trying to make the world better, because nothing will change anyway. The ending credits will play at the end and things will go back to normal just like the story pattern has shown us it will every day.

Except there is no fucking ending credits. Your child will get older, they will hold grudges against you, they will make mistakes and get hurt and will be irreparably changed by what happened to them. Their perfect infant bodies will become worn and grown. They will scar, they will burn, and they will change. You cannot stay here, in this cavern of repeating music, and expect them to stay with you. You cannot do that with anyone.

This world is changing. Millions of people are going to die from climate change in the best case scenario. We cannot stand still, we cannot stay inside the patterns they’ve taught us. But our minds are adaptable, and we can create new story patterns and stop paying attention to the patterns they’ve created to distract us with.

Reject aesthetic progress. Find comrades who are willing to change the world with you and do it. You are not a toddler waiting for politicians to read you your good bedtime stories. You are a grown human being, capable of controlling your own body and using it for good, and i’m telling you right now you have do to it, because the people they’re letting us vote for won’t do it for us.

Over 1000 people have been killed by the police since George Floyd’s death in 2020. We cannot forget the real ongoing victims of the police like the politicians have. Real change must be made and we cannot listen to their aesthetic political progress anymore.

For further reading:
https://www.versobooks.com/books/2817-the-end-of-policing

https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Are_Prisons_Obsolete_Angela_Davis.pdf (pdf)

https://www.aclu-wa.org/story/ProtestGuide

https://citationsneeded.medium.com/episode-113-hollywood-and-anti-muslim-racism-part-i-action-and-adventure-schlock-74d3c7ec69a6

https://www.thriftbooks.com/w/capitalist-realism-is-there-no-alternative_mark-fisher/1029279/#edition=6117009&idiq=10188980

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nayirah_testimony

https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/1280

https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/1470

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