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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Dictionary of the Undoing

John Freeman; Afterword by Valeria Luiselli

MCD x FSG Originals



Something is very wrong with the world. The disquiet of our times feels like a pause between storms. The body braces for the next wave of thunder and rain. A new agitation lurks around the corner. It can be terrifying; it often is. Take a rest with me for a moment. Let’s turn away from the spectacles we are being shown. There’s time, just. Let’s back away from the flickering screens. Let’s plunge our hands into our pockets, or link them behind our backs, and move into the ionized air all around us. Walk, stroll, wheel. Maybe as we do, we can think about what is happening.

In many ancient tales, it is the king who is blind or blinded. Power, the tellers often warn, robs those who hold it of the ability to see. Yet we are living through a strange era. Our leaders, too, cannot seem to stop the unraveling we are witnessing. Some of them cannot see it; others simply don’t care. Some of them are cheering it on, or even driving this destruction. We know this because their every move is reported upon. Never has a society possessed so many tools with which to observe the powerful in public. Our pockets vibrate with updates about their every move, each lightning strike. Then we watch ourselves watching the world burn.

This vigilance is essential. It’s also exhausting. It has burned down bonds between us that are essential. Separating the watchers from the huddled. Slotting us into tribes of protest, cones of preservation—as if those two postures must be mutually exclusive. As if engagement cannot take the form of self-preservation, and full-time monitoring does not have the price—occasionally—of isolation. Of loneliness. Of pain’s protective narcissism.

For one winter I bivouacked on a bluff in my apartment and set up all my tools of sight. The escalation I was watching across the globe toward autocracy had made me outraged, engaged, and then antisocial. Each night I sat up late, noting the changes in the laws of my country. I marked and collated arguments being floated that were based on lies. I tracked those fabrications as they snuck into public debate and gusted on injections of hot air and became lofty assumptions, somehow attaining the heights of accepted truth. Ideas like the notion that one group of people was better than other groups. That there was such a thing as an essential American. An essential Italian. Someone quintessentially British. Or Chinese. That anything challenging these essences was an invasion. I went online and saw other people seeing this ascension of lies, and went to protests where I met fellow travelers who felt the same. We heard our voices being heard by one another; we became part of the spectacle of sight and sound of tumult. The world burned even harder.

I don’t believe the registration of our discontent was useless. Recording our dismay was and continues to be very important. But it is not enough to stop the fires we see all around us. They have now turned into infernos. Look at them now as we walk. See them in the near distance? That one scorching through public works, through health care, through education—see it turning those institutions into husks? The other one racing up hillsides on dry grass? Turning our earth into an overused fuel source? What about the one sealing off borders and turning them into stripes of ash? The ones converting our wetlands and unusable landscapes into deserts, into ruins, into development zones? The ones destroying our sense of privacy? Nothing is more naked than a house after a fire. We are living in such a house. We are standing in it looking out.

The other great price to the vigilance we’ve kept has been a reduction in our capacities. As if all we possess is the ability to resist. To say no, to register our disagreement. Our distrust, our disgust. Our dislike. Our contempt and our scorn. We are banding together into tribes of unshakable belief as a result of this notion, thanks in part to the technology with which we register our shouted disputes. Sometimes, under the greatest forms of control, this right is taken from us, too. Some of us are not even allowed to speak, to go online—or step into a public square—and see who shares our resistance.

What if a storm is not the correct metaphor, though? I have been speaking symbolically, so why not be specific? We are living through one of the greatest transfers of wealth in human history—of assets and money, of labor and its value—and the force that is required to continue this transfer, to make its consolidation of resources permanent, has now reached a critical level. An imbalance of power so flagrant requires violence. The beneficiaries of this situation have begun to label as fungible certain human beings. They have begun trumpeting fantasies of purity, which is what nationalism is fundamentally. Ultimately, these fantasies lead to wars, which is what humans resort to when they abandon reason or know something is unfair. Change instituted by force. It has already led to armed resistance. War is what humans turn to when their cries of pain are ultimately no longer heard.

What if the story, as I’ve been telling it above, is wrong, though? What if all this is merely a passing fever? What if it is more like a curse? What if it is a possession? What if our leaders are not blind and instead know precisely what they are doing, and our disquiet comes from this sneaking awareness? Doubt, our friend in times of confusion, has turned against us—inspiring paranoia. We are experiencing all this confusion. Maybe what needs to be told isn’t a story at all but a kind of long psalm—a litany of mourning. Of species grief.

This book is an attempt to ask these questions. The main ones it will pose are three: What if our capacity to imagine has been so badly damaged by the information climate of our times that destruction is all we can see? What if deforming our ability to imagine the present is precisely what governments and power systems do to control us? And what if I told you we have the power to change this? I believe we do. To seize this power requires a radical change in perspective, however. To do so, we need to take one tool being vandalized before our very eyes—language—and reclaim it, and redefine what it means to be an ethical citizen in the present moment. We do not need to hunt the terms that have been weaponized into nonsense; we need to grab the words that have possibility in them and begin using them anew. Using these words expansively, carefully, and with the full extent of their meaning—even if it is first in our heads—will ultimately lead to action.

I had this revelation in the spring, a year into the long crisis that is the present moment in the United States, many years into the unfolding crises that are affecting most of the countries around the world. After my winter on the bluff, I realized I needed stronger tools if I wasn’t simply going to watch and record what was happening. I packed up my long-range scopes and found, rummaging through my house, that these stronger tools lay in disrepair around me. Rusted bits of language that had fallen into disuse but still existed. Broken words that had been melted down to their simplest component parts—shorn of their complexities. These words lived in books and sometimes sprang right out there in the open from the mouths of my friends and loved ones. All these words were actively being mangled in public.

This book is an attempt to build a lexicon of engagement and meaning in a time and media age that has made a mockery of those forces in our lives. A time that has called out to the darkness that exists inside all of us. Each word feeds into the next word, and I hope by the book’s end, at the very least one or two sparks will have been lit. So you can see how big the cave of possibility before us is, how much language—which gives us the ability to say what we mean and live within complexity—awaits our care. Our use. Our stewardship and our quest for beauty. The world in which we live calls out for this. Maybe you make your own lexicon as a result. Or maybe you simply take one word. All we need is a spark in the dark. One at a time.


We are angry and ashamed, but mostly we are apathetic. We know the powers that be depend on it. And they have figured out how deeply that apathy extends. How far? Police and soldiers can brutally murder people before our eyes and get away with it. Politicians can lie. They can cheat. Governments can poison our water and our food. Candidates can brazenly steal elections and crow over historic victories. And the barely elected can loot our treasuries while scolding government for its ineffectiveness. Watching all this—and we are watching—has been beyond demoralizing, but what else can we do? Look away? Stop paying taxes? Who has done that? Meantime, the system of dissent and citizen input isn’t working. How many bankers went to jail during the last financial crisis? How many police officers get a prison sentence for shooting an unarmed civilian? How much has been done to protect our elections from being hacked? Who pays when a pharmaceutical company wins record profits by getting tens of thousands of people addicted to painkillers? At the same time, how many people lost homes? How many working-class people are without hope? How many are in prison for assaulting an officer? How many people of color are still in jail for smoking a joint? How many have been deported—pushed south or north or into mountains, away from where they simply want to live?

We are living through one of the greatest transfers of wealth and power in human history and there have been virtually no riots. Mass protests occur and then disperse. Citizen outrage is being controlled through violence, through the use of force in cities and towns—the brazen use of force. Law enforcement doesn’t care if it’s filmed. They need some of it to be filmed so we can see what the impunity of power looks like; otherwise the message is not sent. They can do what they want. Meantime, those of us who are fellow travelers to protesters and people who are paying for their beliefs with their body—or simply just for being—control ourselves. With the internet. This big machine, this panopticon, we have built one post at a time. We watch, we profess, we complain, on it goes, and thus agitation leads to apathy. And apathy leads to more digital agitation. We are not foolish for having constructed this machine. Anger and outrage make us lonely, but our inability to be alone has been used against us. Our idea that empathy is equal to action has been used against us. So we are left talking to one another and trying to maintain some semblance of value to language as it’s vandalized. A body is a body, not a data point; a fact is a fact, not a subjective part of an argument. Meantime, the rate of change in this spectacle of violence we call modern life accelerates. It has reached a terminal velocity, in fact, where nothing makes sense. To simply keep up, to log the events of a day, feels like a full-time job. It makes you feel insane if you even try. And still, even if you could order and arrange all the monstrosities ongoing in our present moment, doing so would not be enough.

Knowing injustice is happening is not enough. We have to learn to turn information into action rather than apathy, because in our time apathy plagues a significant part of the population. Information is not just leading to apathy; information is causing it. We are burying ourselves in awareness. We know we are not putting our bodies where our beliefs are—especially those of us whose bodies have been protected our whole lives by our whiteness, by our freedom, by the fact that nothing is projected upon us. Our apathy—as in our passionately disengaged engagement—is part of the reason the struggle continues to be a struggle rather than a tipping point toward true justice. Our apathy has turned the struggle into entertainment. Our apathy has made empathy a consumable experience.

We live in agitating times. How else to describe what it feels like to be alive today? As if a rough rope has been raked over tender skin—waking it painfully. The parts of us that feel are raw now, and they’re alert all the time. For good reason. Dark forces are afoot. You feel them like a kick of a boot, a beam of light shown from a hand that holds power. A truck driving by slowly, knowing you ought to be scared. These types of gestures were once done in the dark. Or at least the half-light of shadows. Now there’s a strong sense their perpetrators don’t have to hide. Maybe they never did.

That feeling, that rush of adrenaline and alarm that bolts through the body in such moments, is fear. The body telling us something isn’t right. An animal sense that never leaves, no matter how much we sit at a desk using our civilized skills. What civilization, though? For those of us protected by our skin color, one of the peculiar aspects of living today is we can watch the fear of others, slowly dosing ourselves with a sick kind of relief that at least it’s not us. And thus the system tests us. How much are you willing to watch? How many floods before you stop driving your car? How much are you willing to sacrifice to help another in need? How long will you observe the complacency of the safe without damning them, too?

The system is testing us, and pushing us, because it’s being pushed to the limit. Twenty-six people are worth half the value of the planet. Global capital and democracy depend on interconnectedness, and yet the checks and balances on these systems have been ripped off, or proven to be useless—leaving many governments wide open to corruption and manipulation. To profiteering and power grabbing. Banking regulations that were placed to prevent another collapse are all but gutted in many economies across the world. Voting rights are under attack everywhere. Environmental accords to share the burden of the disaster we are approaching have all but failed. Many governments see a distracted, apathetic populace and are grabbing more power for themselves than ever before.

Even if you don’t intend to read the headlines, they’re hard to ignore. Every day begins a new crisis. An item of news is channeled and elevated, then broadcast and discussed. Riffed on. We have eighty-six thousand, four hundred seconds a day, but we typically spend most of them looking at a handful of images, reading about a half-dozen stories, in thrall to a few personalities. Or maybe just one? We have all the choice in the world, yet time and again the little invisible directors in the codes that run the world draw us to a simple few. Why?

It suits the corporations and governments that hold power for us to feel this way. Agitated users of social networks click more, we know, and clicks for the media giants of the world mean huge profits. There’s a reason you can’t look away, too. It’s not just that the spectacles our new forms of media show us are that entertaining. Some of them are grisly. Some are strange. Some are downright weird and grisly all at once. But they’ve been designed for you. Every time you use social media and the internet, data is collected on how you move in virtual space and what moves you there, and then ways are found to keep you connected. The world’s most powerful artificial intelligence is being used on you, and for the price of free admission, all of us who use these tools allow it to happen.

It feels good to have a say, which is what our new media makes us feel like. To have a voice, even if it’s just one among many. To have a platform, to be followed, to be liked, to be looked at and paid attention to, even if in a negative way. Yet bit by bit, as the number of social media users tops one-third of the planet, we are losing purchase on what it means to have a voice. If you speak only to those people who agree with you, what does that mean? If you are constantly being agitated by spectacles of abuse and suffering and destruction, at what point does outrage inflation run away with the essential value of language? How do you express abomination over murder and destruction when all that language has been hollowed out by small-time thieving or even just idiocy?

The governments that run the world and the technology companies that help us watch them—and one another—have an insidious convergence of strategy, perhaps unplanned but reinforcing nonetheless. Both benefit when we are frightened and enraged. Abraded. Agitated people feel more powerful because they are at least alive to something, when in fact they are more easily manipulated. Agitated voters vote—and sometimes don’t, depending on what messaging they receive. Agitated consumers buy. Agitated eaters eat faster. Ever wonder why busy restaurants blast music at you? To get you out the door faster. Agitated users of social media stay connected. We are being manipulated, and so on top of the fear that we feel running through our bodies, another big one runs just behind: we are being fooled.

We are in the middle of an information war. It started well before the 2016 election, and it’s not about to end, because the manipulations of social media are highly effective. They are the cheapest form of warfare ever invented. For a few million dollars the Russian government threw the United States into a paroxysm of chaos that even a catastrophic income gap couldn’t manage. Nor spectacles of radicalized violence. This type of intervention is happening the world over. We are being told real news is fake and fake news is real, and the platforms that now bring us the majority of our news are washing their hands of the situation, saying that they’re just platforms, not publishers.

We don’t have to live like this. It’s much harder to opt out of governments than it is to opt out of media, so one of the most crucial questions today is this: Are we going to grab the platforms that are still available to us—the ones that aren’t being used and still would function if we could all, for a second or two or maybe longer, turn away from screens—the street, the public square, the free press (printed on paper and distributed), and the rooms of our houses of worship and schools; or are we going to continue using the ones that keep us angry and distracted, that trick us into complacency and apathy, that siphon off our data and leave us feeling lonely and afraid, dissatisfied with our lives?

We need to face this hard question if we are ever going to redefine agitate as an active word. When was the last time you heard it used as in to agitate for change? To agitate for justice? To agitate for fairness? To agitate for an end to corruption? This gap you’re probably feeling in your memory ought to tell you that the modes of agitation have been turned against us. We can change that direction, though. We can begin by realizing that if we can’t completely opt out of the system, we can at least figure out ways to build spaces within it—living, active places—that make change possible. We need to agitate against apathy.

The original agitators in our lives were people who spoke. People who took up residence in a town square or who went from house to house and looked someone in the eye and said something. Who understood the power of the eyes and ears and how much we needed to see something to believe it. For the past seven decades, since the dawn of television, we have abstracted these experiences. We’ve listened to and watched people on screens; we’ve taken our eye off the world; we’ve done it the easy way. We’ve invited them into our living rooms when we didn’t even have to serve them coffee.

We can also disinvite them. In fact, we must if we are going to feel something that invites us out of the dark apathy of watching the world burn. Places all around us are calling to us. Our local chapters of unions. Our places of worship. Our parks. Our town squares. Our libraries. Our meditation centers. It is so much harder to manipulate these places. To chase optimism from them. If we are going to turn agitation on its head, we need to step away from the forms that are doing it to build dependence and instead turn toward the spaces that cannot be entirely controlled by governments and technology companies. We can take our bodies out there and agitate with them. Nothing rings like a bell like a body.

Copyright © 2019 by John Freeman