Use Your Illusion

Stephen Duncombe explains why the left should indulge Americans' fantasies

Despite all that's followed, the defining moment of George W. Bush's presidency may still be May 1, 2003, the day on which Bush, costumed in a flight suit, landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln before a red, white, and blue banner that roared "Mission Accomplished." Among liberals, that phrase was a cynical punchline, and the spectacle on the aircraft carrier proof of Bush's grand delusion—that, or his intent to delude the public. To the rest of America, though, the photo op dramatized and bolstered the "victory" version of the Iraq invasion story. It was pure theater, but if most people were aware of that, they didn't seem to mind.

There's a lesson embedded in the "Mission Accomplished" extravaganza: Mainstream Americans like their politics a little flashy, DC pollinated by Hollywood. Stephen Duncombe gets this; most other left-wingers, he believes, do not. In Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, Duncombe argues that fantasy and spectacle—which he defines as "a dream put on display" —are the "lingua franca of our time." On the whole, conservatives have become adept hucksters, using spectacle to sell their political vision. Liberals, meanwhile, tethered as they are to straight facts, found themselves constantly combating the "reality" engineered by the Bush machine, which only reinforced the stereotype that they were naysayers and nags. "Waiting around for the truth to set you free is just lazy politics," Duncombe told the Voice. Progressives are in need of a new strategy.

Enter Duncombe's Dream. Sitting in a café near Washington Square Park, Duncombe, a media and culture professor at NYU, explains that he began concocting the idea for Dreamat a time when "everything about progressive politics was going down in flames." Duncombe is boyish and animate, somewhat slight, and possessed of a face that broadcasts emotion. There's a whimsical quality about him, enhanced by the black beret he wears with his neat black winter coat. He was born into activism: Charles Dickens caricatured one of Duncombe's ancestors, a member of Parliament, as "the radical dandy," and others in his family fled Canada after participating in a failed 19 th-century rebellion against Queen Victoria. His father was a minister and civil rights activist—their phone lines were tapped when Duncombe was a child—and Duncombe refers, with affection, to his teenage "punk rock days" in early-'80s New Haven. ("That scene was exuberant," he says. "It was passionate. Politics should be like that.") He went on to co-found the Lower East Side Collective, a community activist group, and helped organize events with others, including Billionaires for Bush. Their demonstrations were carnivals, attracting revelers who'd dance in the streets. Then came 9-11, followed by war. "Politics became something deadly serious," he said. Liberals lost whatever sense of humor they had.

Dream weaver Stephen Duncombe
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Dream weaver Stephen Duncombe

Dreamcould have simply been an elegy to that pre–9-11 era—a nostalgia piece for the recent past. Instead, it reads like a manifesto inspired by a pop culture fever dream. Seizing upon references high and low, Duncombe makes the case that spectacle can be an ethical and sophisticated means of appealing to, even seducing, the American public. Rather than bemoan the fact that people are obsessed with Paris Hilton and condemn video games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, both of which Duncombe discusses with a mix of awe and critical glee, liberals need to determine why that obsession exists—pop culture as road map into the American mind. "We can't afford to ignore it," Duncombe said. "If we do, we're writing off the passion of a hell of a lot of people."

The idea, which Duncombe dubs "dreampolitik," is that progressives, armed with strategies derived from sources as vast as advertisements, celebrity-gossip magazines, and the casinos on the Las Vegas strip, would then be able to enact a politics that enthralls a broader sweep of Americans. The left needs to start appealing to people's hunger for hope and attraction to fantasy life. What's more, Duncombe said, they have to let go of the belief—"naive at best, arrogant at worst"—that intellectual arguments should be enough to win people over, and that spectacle, as the Bush administration employs it, is something to which they shouldn't have to resort, a tawdry means to an end. "It's a pathos of the left," he said. "We're worried about selling out, but no one's buying." Besides, the point isn't that liberals move towards conservatism; it's that they become savvier and, ironically, more realistic about what it takes to win.

Though midterm elections have restored the Democrats to congressional power in the months since Duncombe completed Dream, its argument remains potent. After all, the Democrats didn't win because they presented a well-articulated narrative or identity—they won because they were able to position themselves as anti-Bush. They should stand forsomething, Duncombe said, and that something should provide people with a blockbuster sense of hope. (It's no accident that Barack Obama's book, number one on this week's New York Timesnonfiction best-seller list, is called The Audacity of Hope.) "The Democrats are going to lose unless they figure out a way of imagining the world," Duncombe concluded. "They need to figure out what utopia they want to sell."

 
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