I keep thinking about my long-standing feud with Madonna. It began in 1993.
The previous year Sinead O’Connor (one of the most underrated musicians of all time) performed on Saturday Night Live as the musical guest. At the end of a moving cover of War by Bob Marley, she famously held up a picture of Pope John Paul II, tore it into pieces, looked into the camera and commanded: Fight the real enemy. It was, as you can imagine, controversial. It was also, for teenage me, the best thing I had ever seen. O’Connor used her platform to call attention to the sexual abuse rampant in the Catholic church and covered-up by its leaders, though few people understood that at the time.
The response to O’Connor was predictably conservative and fueled by misogyny (multiple male celebrities said she should be beaten). She was dismissed as a troublemaker and hysteric. It would be years until the media wanted to pay attention to the horrors of the Catholic churches involvement in sex abuse and even longer before any action was taken.
A few months later, Madonna was the musical guest on SNL and she used her platform to mock O’Connor’s action. She sang some forgettable song and at the end of the performance tore up a picture of Joey Buttafuoco. It would be one thing if it was just the sketch. Offstage Madonna criticized O’Connor for being disrespectful, “I think there is a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people.” People who prefer propriety over human beings are some of the worst kind of people, watch out for them. Nothing in the history of Madonna’s career revealed her to be more of a vapid fraud, than that moment. It proved, once and for all, that Madonna was all style and no substance. Another privileged white woman playing around with oppression and rebellion for kicks. She had no problem using sacred iconography as a sexy backdrop to her mediocre dancing, but say something real and she is immediately offended. I turned on her then and have never looked back.
I learned in that moment that I like earnestness and resistance and people who are willing to speak truth to power. I also learned that O’Connor’s command was a useful one to keep in mind. It is easy to lose track of the enemy. (I promise that impoliteness is never the real enemy.)
I’ve spent the last several months struggling to stay focused and to contain my rage. My rage over how unjust and terrible our world can be, and over how useless I feel. My rage is an amorphous blob that I carry around with me and often gets misdirected at something as insignificant as traffic, or bad writing.
I try to remember O’Connor and her command: Fight the real enemy.
We’re currently talking a lot about statues, which should absolutely be taken down, but if they were all removed tomorrow we would still live in a white-supremacist state. And I worry that their successful removal will signal to some that the fight is over or that they can stop paying attention.
Fight the real enemy.
We are spending too much time fighting among ourselves about language subtleties and strategic differences instead of educating and supporting each other. People fighting for good, even in imperfect ways, are still fighting for good. Help them do better. And when someone tells you to do better, listen.
Fight the real enemy.
The enemy is also inside of me. I am worried that some well-meaning (?) white people are spending too much time in stunned awe of the spectacle of racism that we are faced with every day of the Trump regime. If we look to our brown and black sisters and brothers, you see no surprise. They don’t have the privilege of being surprised. Of having to stay away from social media because it is too depressing. The privilege of getting to prioritize self-care and eating cake. White-supremacy serves all white people. It allows us to dip in and out of the political process when we feel like it. It allows us to attend a march to feel better about ourselves but to do little else to help anyone and then to justify that in a thousand different ways. Sometimes the enemy is in us, or in our family or friends. It might be the toughest enemy to fight. But we must.
Fight the real enemy.
We need to focus and be brave and to spend every day resisting the oppressive forces of our culture. Racism, Misogyny, Homophobia, Ableism, Classism and all of the other forms of systematized oppression that prevent us from perfecting this union.
And maybe someday we can go back to celebrity feuds, and wasting anger on bad drivers. But for now: Fight the Real Enemy.