It’s OK To Talk About Utopia, It’s OK!

November 19, 2022

It’s OK To Talk About Utopia, It’s OK!

Utopia, Metopia, All God’s Children Gottopia

Greta Thunberg. Photo: Stefan Müller (climate stuff) from Germany, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Progress is the realization of Utopias. —Oscar Wilde

Tales of the Trickster are the oldest stories known to humanity. As a timeless archetype, they show up throughout histories past, present, and even future. They compulsively mock the powerful and are therefore relevant to any discussion of a future that lays power low and sets the stage for Utopia. Why and how can we talk about Utopias, and what is the role of the Trickster in that conversation?

Our media feeds have become a cyberdump of flotsam, jetsam, and just plain garbage—empty calories bereft of knowledge, wisdom or insight. Yet unnoticed progress swims against these currents of bad and useless information. And by progress, I mean that folks today, American folks in particular, have a greater and more vital interest in politics local, national, and global.

When we get past attacks across the great divide; when we truly understand the urgent truths of climate change; when we’ve recognized the persistence of the -isms of hate: race, sex, religion, age, nation, class….then the pearls to be found in our heap of grief and despair are the proposals and initiatives that address these very issues—racism, poverty, war, incivility, our planet on fire. The work to be done is monumental, but substantial movements are out there. I’m far from the first to say “Don’t mourn, organize!”

Bill McKibben

Photo: Evan Derickson

Hotshot977, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Environmentalist Bill McKibben at and the environmental activists at Extinction Rebellion strive to bring generations together in a movement—to steer us towards a sustainable world, with a deep understanding of how the abuses of power and wealth have created the climate catastrophe. Philosopher Cornel West brings a religious passion for social justice barely harnessed by his massive intelligence. He teaches the ability to wrestle with issues of race, gender and class; the courage to speak of utopian possibilities; and his huge heart that cannot help but express loving humor. Ethicist-activist Will MacAskill’s Effective Altruism movement takes a sober and necessary look at the future—his clients are the unborn who come after us. Effective Altruism’s commitment is to calculate how the haves can make maximum contributions to the welfare of the have-nots, beckoning the ultimate philanthropy, the large-scale redistribution of wealth. MacAskill makes the case for what he calls longtermism —“the view that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time.”

Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Cornel West

Photo: Gage Skidmore

CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

MacAskill’s concerns for the lives of the unborn pairs with activists for the recently born. Greta Thunberg’s environmental activism rallied millions of teenagers to demonstrate for stronger governmental actions that address climate change, and from her international bully pulpit she has been unsparing and blunt in her criticisms. Malala Yousafzai has brought attention to Taliban regimes and any oppressive government that deprives girls and women of their education and their rights.

And once we find new hope in the substance of that work and the heroes engaged in it, we—proportionately the largest “we” of the last eighty years—can catch a glimpse of an even brighter horizon. That is, as efforts to make the world a better, more fair and sustainable place succeed, more than ever we’ll be able to have conversations about Utopia.

I believe in this because addressing our most immediate problems with immediate solutions is necessary, but by itself myopic. We need a north star, a vision of a world with these problems solved, a vision beyond the short-term. Does tamping down out-of-control Warrior consciousness allow such progress? Yes, but what will that progress look like? Does calling out and removing from power those who exploit and assault women set the stage for a better world? Yes, but what follows the riddance? Will villages of tiny houses ease the suffering of those experiencing homelessness? Yes, but is that the best we can do? Will killing Russian invaders of Ukraine support freedom, sovereignty, and democracy? Yes, but is killing Russian soldiers a desired activity in a world built on peace? To make a blunt point, is a better world one that gives folks who are not white men the same political, corporate and military power white men have held, or is a better world one that dispenses with or at least transforms such power?

To have this conversation about Utopia in the public commons. To elect visionary politicians free from the internal politics of the major parties. To give voice to a more imaginative politics—think Andrew Yang, Elie Mystal, Van Jones, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Andrew Sullivan, Stacey Abrams or Pete Buttigieg. Such conversations, such leaders, light the pathway out of our current afflictions and point towards new horizons. The trick is to have a utopia conversation that gives people realistic but not false hope. The trick is to share a vision, not propaganda.

The Circus, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Stacey Abrams

The Circus

CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of tricks, where does the Trickster archetype fit into this? Tricksters walk this world with a limp; one leg in our world, the other in the world of the gods. Tricksters wander in search of fun. And when power gets in their way, they mock it. Thus, when their trickery—telling lies to reveal greater truths—succeeds in laying power low, we get a glimpse of a world without power, of what a world without hierarchy might feel and look like.

We live in a warrior culture. It’s so pervasive, it’s as invisible as the air we breathe, and it smothers other perspectives. Thus we’ve fallen down an ugly hole: the belief that violence can solve problems when violence IS the problem. Mockery and comedy expose this false premise and simply clear the air so that we can experience politics…the relationships among humans…without the confusing, distracting and diversionary trappings of power. Donald Trump presents a clear example of how obsession with power only notices the problems of the common folk when they can be exploited to serve selfish aims. Trickster is not strong with him. Thief and clown better describe such craven grasping for power.

Trickster clears the air by ridiculing the ridiculous. The Yes Men, through hoaxes designed to embarrass corporate and military power, are downright artistic in their pranking. They recently impersonated former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on Newsmax, explicitly justifying war as a distraction from our nation’s failures in health care, infrastructure, education, food security, income inequality, etc.

With such pranking, the arenas of power and violence give way to the playground. So-called right and wrong are replaced by fun and not-fun. Not the politics of crusades, but of carnivals. Not purpose, but meaningfulness. The Play Society comes into view.

Burning Man makes its play for The Play Society. Its popularity offers proof of this hunger for envisioning and trying out a better world. Burning Man strives for minimized hierarchy and maximized play. It actualizes the connections between art, community, and play. Likewise, the Beats brought that consciousness to poetry and literature, and the hippies expanded the playfulness that comes with communality and congregating around music. So do tricksters deconstruct hierarchy and connect art and the playfulness of the child? Do they illuminate a reconciliation of Nature and humanity’s predicaments?

Now any Marxists worth their salt will tell you that the redistribution of wealth and the reordering of society’s priorities will take more than an idealistic vision of the Play Society, and they would be right. But they would also fail in their efforts to build a just world without that vision as a beacon.

Let’s bring this around to today. Happiness and play are popular topics. They’re presented as a moral good when in fact they are morally indeterminate states, more akin to fun than to goodness, though that makes for a fascinating Venn diagram. People seek and find ways to lead a joyful life through the advice of therapists and thought leaders, proponents of fun activities in nature, through cooking, playing games, in loving your immediate community, being good to yourself, etc. File it under ‘taking a break from the calamities of our world’—and that’s a-alright. Be here now and enjoy some moments. Carefree fun’s a beautiful thing and part of robust mental health.

And solving the world’s problems is difficult, daunting, and frequently depressing. But within those struggles lie the deep joy that comes from confronting what’s wrong with the world…while at the same time having fun via the spaceways of the Trickster: satire, comedy, and disruptive play—introducing conflict-free fun into the arenas of competitive power. Luminaries who represent this practice cohere into a visionary utopian practice. Here’s just a smidgen of the unassembled Team Utopia:

  • Banksy!, who is pro-environment, antiwar, anti-poverty, anti-consumerism. These are conventional causes, yet Banksy is the most unconventional of activists/artists/pranksters. His disruptive playfulness through graffiti and other forms of guerilla art has, in one of the world’s great ironies, brought him millions while his commitments hold steady. Banksy makes innumerable worthy statements, among them, Fight the fighters, not their wars.
  • Adbusters magazine puts the Banksy approach into print. Founded by a gaggle of renegade ad executives and radical economists, Adbusters runs no ads, but uses the persuasions of advertising to make its messages of liberation from war, environmental destruction and rampant consumerism striking and potent. Adbusters played a critical role in the Occupy Movement of 2011-12.
  • No utopian movement will succeed without the full participation and representation of women and whatever gender variations blossom. One vanguard would be Guerilla Girls, activist feminist artists who’ve been behaving badly since 1985 with their statistics, disruptive headlines, and outrageous visuals. They believe in creative complaining and mount projects that confront sexism, racism and corruption in art, film, culture, and politics. One such plastered public message: Dear art gallery. Selling art is sooooo expensive. No wonder you can’t pay all your employees a living wage.
  • The Radical Cheerleaders perform their activism “with pom poms and middle fingers extended…screaming FUCK CAPITALISM while doing a split.” They write and shout girl-positive, queer/sex-positive, environmental and anti-authoritarian cheers.
  • Miss Van, or Vanessa Alice, represents the kind of transgression that might rip open a portal to a utopian future. She blurs the lines between street art/graffiti, where she began painting, and fine art in the galleries, where she now shows. She depicts a great variety of female forms and emotions, exploring eroticism, sexuality, desire and innocence. She sparks controversy amongst feminists, but her centering of women in her art is also seen as a rejection of male supremacy and male domination in the art world, and a liberation of female sexuality.

Miss Van / Vanessa Alice

Art by Miss Van (Vanessa Alice): aikijuanma, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Re/Search Publications, who sucked up the punk ethos and spit it out as raucous utopian thinking. Especially in their magnum opus Pranks, which spells out the transcendent power of pranks and features testimony and a deep understanding of what tricks tricksters like Abbie Hoffman, Mark Pauline, Karen Finley, John Waters, Henry Rollins, Boyd Rice, Frank Discussion, Margaret Cho, Jello Biafra, Gerald V. Casale, and the Situationists have up their sleeves.
  • Sacha Baron Cohen—it’s not whether one chooses between art with explicit political meaning and art that incites paroxysms of laughter, it’s the world-turning jolt of awareness from someone who does both in extremis. In the very serious speech linked above, Cohen unveils the high moral ground that can be traversed by someone who makes hilarity out of the morally indeterminate trickster persona, whether as Borat, Ali G, Erran Morad, or Admiral General Aladeen.
  • Burning Man—Shut up and dance! The annual Burning Man festival is the child and mother of all happenings, rife with opportunities for trickster spirit and play to surface and jump…how does the trickster behave when the impediments of power are removed? And maybe, just maybe, Burning Man is a phenomenon that sits still long enough to be recognized as an emerging and evolving model for utopian community.
  • Michaela Coel, the arresting British actress and screenwriter who gave us a look at trickster consciousness in her HBO series I May Destroy You, may just be pointing the way to more utopian relationships with her stance as an aromantic, i.e., someone whose relationships thrive on love but decline romance.

Michaela Coel

Peabody Awards, 2021 CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Birds Aren’t Real—We are so easily duped by lies. But why should QAnon have all the fun? If you believe that birds aren’t real, but are lifelike surveillance robots, you are truly from another galaxy. But if you get it, your consciousness and satiric funny bone rise.
  • The Yes Men—Shut up and dance! The Yes Men follow in dada’s footsteps. dada came together as an antiwar and art movement that used absurdity to expose the horrors and absurdity of World War I. The Yes Men do the same. Whenever one of their hoaxes was exposed, The Yes Men would make just exactly that point. As dada invented the fake news prank as a means of getting to the truth, so follows the Yes Men’s motto: “Lies can expose truth.” And there is a clear reverence for and inspiration from the guerilla theater, the disruptive play that Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies so successfully performed. The movements connect through tactics that embarrass those who would wage unjust wars, destroy the environment, or cause the suffering and death of others.
  • Not all speculative fiction is dystopian. Authors like Margaret Atwood (The Maddaddam Trilogy; The Handmaid’s Tale); Cormac McCarthy (The Road); Tom De Haven (Freaks’ Amour); and Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower) warn us of postapocalyptic futures that are anything but fun. Maybe we lighten up a bit with The Walking Dead or Escape from New York. But it takes brave imagination to write speculative fiction where the world’s problems, instead of crashing down on what’s left of the human race, get solved. These are the utopian visions of Kim Stanley Robinson, who believes in the possibilities of equality, ecology, democracy and postcapitalism, and the idea that anything that makes our world any better than it is today ought to be considered utopian.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Let us finally consider the not-so-tricksterish but essential utopianism of folks like Bill McKibben, Greta Thunberg, Cornel West, Malala Yousafzai and Will MacAskill. The trickster lays power low with tricks, mockery, and lies that reveal the truth so that these more solemn champions speaking the greater truths can be heard. Jeet Heer writes in The Nation: “Utopias teach us to dream collectively, to sharpen our imagination, to demand more, to ask if the injustices of the world really need to exist—or if we can figure out how to junk them.”

But modern-day tricksters, kin to the Yoruba Trickster god Eshù Elégba, are just intermediaries between this world and the next. They open the door, but who crosses the threshold? What does playfulness have to do with all of this anyway? Are play and playfulness valuable salves offering quality respite from conflict and existential hazards, from the psychic disease wrought by an overdose of Warrior consciousness? Or are they also agents of social change, suggesting a society free of conflict and hierarchy? Are play and playfulness in fact the non-doctrinaire bringers of social justice and global peace, creating a world that, in a word, is fun and fair? Might these currents converge in a utopian movement of humans crossing the threshold illumined by Trickster, alighting on the world we were meant to create and enjoy?



There’s Something Happening Here

[what it is, to be exactly clear, is a Kirkus Reviews review of Tricking Power into Performing Acts of Love


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