Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On the "March to Restore Sanity"

What does it say about the present social and political climate in our country that marches are more or less organized and called by self-avowed "rodeo clowns" and "entertainers" on cable television?

Does anyone even realize that there is going to be a massive march on October 2nd in Washington, called by the NAACP and a huge swath of trade unions and other Left-wing groups (there will even be a socialist contingent (more on that here))? Probably not. But though I'm positive that it will be far more heavily attended, my guess is that the Stewart/Colbert stunt will get more attention.

What is the function of their stunt? It is a smug, self-satisfied gesture entirely akin to the main way in which most people engage with the show. You sit back in your La-Z-Boy and chuckle about how dumb the Right is and how you've got it all figured out. Of course, you're not wrong to think that the Right is crazy. And of course it can be funny to laugh at them. But is that all we'll ever do? Laugh and shake our heads?

The problem with the Stewart/Colbert thing is the passive, cynical orientation towards the world embodied in this whole plop-yourself-in-front-of-the-TV set up. As far as I can tell, this is more or less what this whole stunt is about: being smug and self-satisfied, laughing, and basically allowing things to go on as they are, but with the individual self-assurance that you know it sucks.

What will have changed in light of the Stewart/Colbert stunt? What, besides more endless spectacle and grist for the 24-Hour news circuit, will have been achieved? Will people emerge from that feeling more confident, more organized, more able to build a social movement capable of exerting pressure on the entire system? Or will they walk away feeling that they just lived out an individualistic fantasy not too dissimilar to their interaction with flashing images on the TV screen? It's like virtual combat with Glenn Beck. What about real struggle against real oppression?

I'm sure that cultural studies people all over the country will have a wet dream when this thing goes down. They can blather about the "hyper-real" and the virtues of mass media and the most commodified and tepid forms of cultural "resistance". But the fact is that I am deeply troubled by this march and people's orientation toward it.

For all its flaws, the October 2nd March on Washington at least draws on existing activist infrastructure and makes determinate demands on the system, most of which are worth getting behind. But it is probably already fated to be dwarfed by the ephemeral swells of the Culture Industry.

"Don't just mindlessly punch-in for the two-party straight-jacket. Do it with a chuckle and big grin on your face".


-sf said...

How is the leftist blogosphere any different than what Stewart/Colbert are doing? Aside from the obvious difference of seriousness in the way you engage with societal problems, it seems just as smug and self-satisfied to pound away on your laptop as it is to sit back and enjoy making fun of the right. The only difference I perceive is that their stunts go out to a much larger public sphere. It'd be hard to argue that any political blog gets much attention from anyone other than consenting readers (which is why I'm here :) So yea, I'm curious to know what do the leftist blogs contribute to "real struggle against real oppression?"

t said...

Two things:

1. I don't think of blogging as my primary mode of political agency. I am part of organizations and movements where I live that are aimed at the things I often write about here: building strong, independent Left movements that can challenge the system, rather than impotently pander to the "good will" of the Democratic Party. As I argue in the post, I don't see that Stewart/Colbert's stunt contributes to that goal: on the contrary it seems more to contribute to a smug cynicism that has no organizational trajectory, or any concrete relation to real struggles.

2. There is, to be sure, cynicism on the Left, and on the blogosphere as well. But at least as far as what I write on this blog is concerned, I do not endorse this smug cynical attitude through and through. I end a great deal of my posts by saying that we need to build the movements, challenge the tepid liberal assumption that the Democrats are a progressive force, etc. To be sure, some of it is ranting, and I wouldn't say otherwise.

My problem isn't that Stewart/Colbert think that they're right, in a sense, that the Right is wrong. I agree with them. The question is what conclusions we draw from the fact that the Right is wrong: do we laugh, and take their mishaps as entertainment? Or do we have real discussions about how to organize to change things? I have no beef with what Stewart/Colbert think they're doing or what their intentions are: I could care less. I care only about the actual effects of their interventions in our political culture writ large.

And I think we add up the balance sheet here, the effects aren't good. In order to change things, we've gotta know what we're up against. Right now, the passive orientation cultivated by this TV "march" phenomenon is an obstacle rather than a spring board.

-sf said...

Good answer :) I was expecting as much, but I just wanted to prod a bit, so thanks for indulging me.

Richard said...

I wish I knew an answer to the problem of dealing with the marginalization of left social movements, which we also see in relation to immigration rights as well

it might help if labor unions would stop pushing marches making economic demands of politicians that have already rejected them while simultaneously supporting these same politicians, as McEntee of AFSCME just did in supporting Rahm Emanuel for mayor of Chicago

in this respect, the marches increasingly take on the effect of street theatre in the negative sense, a way for unions to maintain the status quo while planning events for their members to blow off steam

Anonymous said...

I agree with what richard says about the union-Democrat pact and the street theatre, etc. But it does look like the movement will present activists with an opportunity to reach out to people who are frustrated with the system and are looking for an alternative analysis. The whole socialist contingent thing that's being formed within the march seems like a small step in the right direction.

But i think we also need to be clear that there is a sharp divide between the conservatism of the political institutions, union bureaucrats, etc. and the potential radicalism of the rank-and-file.

. said...

The Stewart/Colbert rallies are propaganda intended to emotionally foreclose in the audience the necessity of really fighting the Tea Party/Glenn Beck/etc. or joining up with anyone they might know who says it is necessary.

It's taking the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster mentality to a larger scale.

This way a segment of people who voted for Obama on the hopes for some mild social democratic reforms can convince themselves that they are still being rational, still responding effectively to the situation, while preventing them from engaging in a more searching and demanding analysis of the situation and their obligation to respond to it.

It won't do a damn thing to defuse the possibility of more right-wing militancy, especially since without any significant jobs program from Obama the crisis is bound to continue.

What it will do is defuse the tensions enough to prevent any serious left campaigns from getting any attention before the midterm elections. (Not that the electoral cycle actually matters much to us at this point, since the Democrats have proven how completely useless they are once again. But still.)

t said...

Agreed. To fill out what you say, I suspect that the sense in which the event will help these people continue to feel they are rational is this. They will feel comforted by the laughs and group dynamic of being among others who are similarly confused. That is, it won't give them much in the way of evidence that their political attachment to the Democrats is effective... but it will give them the sense that they're not alone, that there really is no other choice, etc.

. said...