S.O.S.: Save Our Symbols
January 10, 1995
THE NIGHT AFTER THEIR REVOLUTION, Esther and I washed dishes in Laura’s kitchen. It was Laura’s birthday, and we’d celebrated (because, fuck it all, we needed to). Now, we were talking about the fact and the fairy tale of what had happened. We threw around the common predictions — social repression, economic depression, the dismantling of civil rights. I tried to make fun of fundamentalists, but ended up retreating into the dislocated feeling I’d first experienced way back when I was 20 and nobody I knew elected Ronald Reagan. My country, their revolution: here it came again, supposedly the spawn of a Middle America I couldn’t see in my kind, tolerant, working-class Wisconsin cousins, or in my freedom-loving Northwest family, all middle class and raised religious, with different opinions about abortion and the welfare state, but none of them this inhumane or this foolhardy.
“What’s being said,” Esther muttered into the soap suds, “makes me feel erased.”
“I know what you mean,” I replied.
“No,” she said. “I mean by our side. By the left.”
This is how believing in their revolution hurts us. Esther spent the Reagan-Bush years — her twenties — as an activist and a cultural progressive, organizing for ACT UP, hanging out in an experimental arts collective, teaching junior high, and designing workshops to promote racial tolerance. Like me, like our friend Laura the Middle East activist and new-music promoter, Esther was very busy during the ’80s. She endured failure and dissension within her various communities, but she also saw progress. She wasn’t just living in a boho fishbowl; her efforts educated, expanded the discourse, and often effected real change. And she wasn’t alone — across America progressives created different versions of this synthesis of radical culture and political organizing. Yet she was being told that the left she’d helped preserve during a decade of very hard times was dead; that street activism and identity politics, not to mention a too-strong focus on culture, had in fact destroyed the left long ago. And that the only way to reclaim power was to disregard the importance of the very ground people like herself had won.
“The ambitions of the left have been political and their triumphs cultural, while the ambitions of the right have been cultural and their triumphs political,” Adam Gopnik wrote recently in The New Yorker. This aphorism elegantly describes the way much of the left currently sees itself. The duality it expresses makes possible the judgments self-styled leftsavers are making about activities they deem “cultural.” This cordoning-off of culture from politics leaves no room for the evolving reality of left politics since the early ’70s, as it’s been shaping up in the imagination and on the streets. It dismisses the power of the arts to effect consciousness, and questions the importance of lifestyle, education, or any kind of socially oriented work that falls outside the the traditional political arenas of the voting booth, the picket line, and the halls of power.
Yet the very slipperiness of the term culture highlights its capacity to jump and blend boundaries, emphasizing the interplay of knowledge, belief, and behavior through which a society emerges over time. The split between culture and politics is an unnatural one; this is the rudimentary lesson of feminism, queer liberation, and movements led by people of color. If such a split is reasserted, it will once again devalue these groups, who’ve often been dismissed by hard-line politicos, in a very old-fashioned way: by marking their preoccupations as frivolous. (Did I hear someone say “too feminine”?) And it will narrow our political vision on an even deeper level. What we’ve developed by taking culture seriously is a view of the political as a web, connecting individual identity to community concerns, and personal passions to a larger social agenda. Exploring this web has kept the left alive during an era of vicious attack from the right. More than that, it’s made the left a more inclusive, multifaceted presence in American society.
SOME MAY SAY TALKING about the links between lifestyle and activism, or the symbolic and the material, is mere distraction in our current state of emergency. But dismissing this conversation as irrelevant not only makes it hard to understand our weaknesses, it denies our strengths. The syncretic view is what fed the heart of the left as it beat within direct-action groups like ACT UP, WAC, WHAM, and Queer Nation; in those doing clinic defense, guerrilla environmentalism, and immigrant advocacy; in the oft-maligned academy; and through the work of artists ranging from Karen Finley to Public Enemy and Roseanne. What these various figures and groups shared was the radically democratic notion that politics could happen wherever a person’s strengths and interests led.
This principle is elemental to our nation of individualists. It became progressive through the social critique originating in the civil-rights movement and the counterculture. Those of us schooled in this history invested less faith in electoral politics than we did in the changes that sprang from conversations across women’s kitchen tables or in the neighborhoods where community workers lived, or, yes, through the words and visions of artists who have helped us understand the structure and experience of oppression, and the possibility of freedom. Our faith came from witnessing how change happened in our own lives.
The decentralized approach many activists have adopted since the ’70s suits our moment. Direct action efforts like abortion clinic defense, for example, require loose networking that can easily adapt to changes in agenda. Battered women’s shelters, free clinics, or needle exchange services all originate (and thrive) through the efforts of a few dedicated people who see a need right there, right then, and fill it. When such methods work, they offer an antidote to the big-government approach the right accuses the left of backing: grassroots organizing reduces bureaucracy in favor of a hands-on, usually nonhierarchical, practical approach.
So much of our daily lives contradicts the old definition of a common culture as a homogeneous whole and demands a new model for community. Technology makes microcosms. Architecture subdivides. The marketplace places us in niches. We need a model that accepts difference and seeks the common within it — a key to the new language that arises from mixing things up. Multiculturalism tries to imagine such a model. Rather than the downfall-of-the-left naysayers accuse it of being, multiculturalism is at heart a complex lesson in the art of empathy, essential to forming a vital movement in divided times. Multiculturalism starts with a simple method: listen and learn. It uses culture’s tools (the story, the image, the custom) to ground analysis. The process takes time. As we unlearn the rhetoric of Barbie Dolls and a vengeful God, we replace it by hearing other tales, discovering other icons, celebrating other realities. If we really want a broad-based left, this is the first, most practical step.
SOME OF US DRAWN to the left since the 1970s studied politics or stumped for the Democrats in school; more often, we learned our values from what the left’s stern commentators would label “cultural.” Sometimes the way the web works is very clear, as when homocore punk band Team Dresch offers a self-defense workshop (women only!) to open a gig, or the San Francisco conceptual art team Margaret Crane/Jon Winet design tiny, elegant placards inscribed with AIDS prevention information and distribute them in restaurants. Less easy to prove, but nonetheless traceable, is the path that leads from being a Pearl Jam fan to volunteering at a center for child abuse victims, or from frequenting the Body Shop to becoming an environmentalist, or from reading a Toni Morrison novel to organizing against racist policies in your local school district. (Or reading a Morrison novel and hating Clarence Thomas; your public opinion isn’t just based on watching the nightly news, after all.)
It’s not just Lollapaloozers who believe that your life can be changed by rock and roll, or a great book, or even a TV show. Ad people know that ritual and image influence how people structure their opinions and their lives. So does the Christian right. In fact, the right understands that in the 25 years since Janis Joplin died, popular culture has helped shape a more liberal public. Anita Hill’s fall followed the summer of Thelma & Louise, and although the hearings themselves favored a horrifying conservatism, you can bet that the women and men watching at home — those who, in the next election, chose more women than ever before — took what they’d felt and learned from the confluence of imagined scenarios and cold, hard facts into the voting booth.
Now, the right aims to possess the leaky means of ideological distribution known as the popular. The right knows the value of culture; that’s why it uses talk radio and television and religion now, and why, before Clinton became the only punching bag that mattered, it fought so hard against lightning rods like Karen Finley, hip hop, and Murphy Brown. Conservatism’s superstars attract their supporters by making their narrow-minded viewpoints fleshy, funny, and moving — exactly what rock and roll, street fashion, and strains within all of the common arts have done for radical thought over the past third of a century. For the moment, the right’s wet weekend with pop has given it a ruddy glow. But the mass appeal they’re mining is a cruel one, based around bullying. Their fun is a gouge in the eye — a shtick that’s always appealed to crowds, from Shakespeare’s time to the present. Such mean-spirited fun appeals to the weakness in people, which is certainly vast, but ultimately unsatisfying. The aspect of culture that’s about learning, about expanding the self, isn’t honored here. That’s why figures like Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy fell, and why Rush and Howard will someday, too.
Progressive movements have been far more successful in changing people’s worldviews. In fact, the loose web of attitudes reflecting some tie to post-’60s left politics has so successfully invaded the mainstream that it’s got its own market niche: alternative. This term, dreaded by all who feel protective of the margins, encompasses everything from earth-friendly toilet paper to postpunk music to the Internet. Its impact remains hard to bottle: there’s been a sea change in attitudes about gays and lesbians since Stonewall, for example, obvious in the wide defeat of antigay legislation in the last election as well as in the popularity of Philadelphia and k.d. lang. Yet that legislation keeps popping up, and as the tussle over gays in the military showed, many people aren’t willing to open the doors of American institutions to new values. Still, radical culture’s energy keeps regenerating, and when it’s tapped it can bring new people into the left, sustain those who are already committed, and sway those on the fence.
The feeling on the left right now may be that we need to abandon our cultural focus and get serious. I think we need to get serious about culture — as serious as we’ve ever been. We can see Melissa Etheridge at the Garden and feel uplifted, or give Mom a copy of Cornel West’s new volume and possibly affect one point of view. But we know that’s not enough. We need to retain the critique of capitalism that helps us recognize consumption as part of the system, not freedom from it. Then we need to take the next step, not abandoning the cultural but politicizing it further. That next step can lead in many different directions — toward intervening in institutions, seizing the means of production, changing our family lives, our sex lives, ourselves.
Artists and activists must be fearless now. Retreating isn’t the solution, and neither is penitence. We need to devise ways to make the symbolic a potent political weapon once again. The legacy starts here. ❖