Monday, February 9, 2009


Gary Younge has a very interesting column in next week's Nation (don't ask me to explain weekly magazine circulation--next week's came almost a week ago). A choice passage:

The transfer from protest to power is not an easy one, particularly for the left. We live in a state of dissidence, which makes the notion that we might one day take over the state apparatus--or indeed any apparatus--all the more difficult. That does not necessarily make us oppositional by nature--though some are--but we are antagonistic by temperament. Our work is never done. If it were, we would no longer need a left. Unaccustomed as we are to office and power, we are more likely to sign [a petition] than to receive [one].

So it is that even as Obama settles in to the Oval Office, with the full might of the wealthiest and most powerful state in the world at his disposal, many of his supporters still consider him the underdog. Having made this unlikely journey happen, they want to keep traveling in the style to which they have become accustomed even after they have reached the terminus. They wear buttons and display posters that demand that we "Hope" and "Believe," even as what they hoped for has happened and what once seemed incredible is now real.

But it's time to let that new reality sink in. The transition is over. We have moved from aspiration to destination. Obama has arrived. Tempting though it may be to savor the lingering aftertaste of a sweet, sweet victory, progressives need to take the posters down and the buttons off. These are no longer the emblems of resistance but of power.

A movement that does not champion the cause of the powerless has no right to call itself progressive. And a movement that attaches itself unequivocally to power does not have the credibility or wherewithal to call itself progressive. That distinction is of course much easier in times when those in power attack us and our values with impunity. But it is no less necessary when they don't.

I think Younge has some excellent points to make, but I think he also mistakes his audience, to some degree. "Progressive" is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of political philosophies and methodologies, especially right now. The progressives Younge is addressing are the somewhat rare Americans who embrace "progressive values" as a guiding ideology; the progressives who make up a huge percentage of the Obama electorate are Americans who took that label on as an emblem of one-time change, temporarily slipping into a little black dress that probably only sort of fits because they've been on a starvation diet for eight years. Readers of The Nation would like to consider themselves members of the former group; perhaps that's why Younge so casually assumes that Obama progressives are lifelong leftists. I don't think those folks (us folks) are the ones who need convincing, however. It's the dreaded liberals who are threatening the new leftist label who need to be quashed.

To some, bearing the sign marks a form of premature nostalgia for the days when all they dared do was hope. There is a place for that. But as Shepard Fairey's iconic poster of Obama goes up in the National Portrait Gallery, that place is rightfully in a museum. Along with the buttons calling to Free Angela Davis or Nelson Mandela, posters for the Poor People's March or placards to defend the Rosenbergs, they are important pieces of the nation's liberal history because they illustrate an important moment. But that moment has passed.

Move on, lefties, says Gary Younge. Most of us have, Gary. The ones who haven't? They still have those Mandela buttons and Rosenberg placards. That somehow reactionary radical nostalgia is an entirely different problem.


Gray said...

I guess I'm one of the people he's talking to, given that I'm currently displaying three Obama car magnets, an Obama rally sign in my kitchen window, and an Obama yard sign in my patio door. Also, I have a handheld FDR sign. And I'm a lifelong leftist.

I keep up all the Obama bric-a-brac (though I stopped wearing the Obama buttons the day after the election) to show support for a President whose term has just begun and whose supporters started splintering off immediately once the first administration appointments started coming out (eh, it's what we do. We're ideologues). I don't intend to be one of those people who leaves up their election signs for years on end (there's a big-ass BUSH '00 billboard in the middle of a cornfield near where I grew up. Its owner repaints it whenever it gets weathered. I've never met him, but I'm pretty sure I despise him). Mine will come down no later than the end of Obama's first 100 days in office (sooner if he starts fucking up a lot). He's got that long before I shift from election-year loyalist to quasi-sympathetic agitator.

And I'm never getting rid of my FDR sign, even if it seems like nostalgic power worship to some people. My attitude toward FDR is complicated, but he's a damn good model I wish more Democratic Presidents aspired to.

CelloShots said...

You, sir, are a thoughtful man. I appreciate your calculated approach to political paraphernalia; would that others shared it. I think Younge's comments, though, are directed at a mass movement that doesn't really exist in the form he's imagining.

This kind of well-considered, insightful comment makes me wish once again that we'd arrived at graduate school at the same time so that we could have more classes together. If only everyone could communicate the way you do. Sigh.

And make them pry that FDR sign from your cold dead fingers.

Gray said...

Aww. I could (and do) say the same thing of you! I miss seminars. At least we have our weekly Very Serious Colloquia on Mid-Century Science Fiction Offal.

Leila said...

You know, he doesn't teach in my school. I don't think he could write that article in quite the same way after seeing our social studies classroom, covered in Obama paraphanaelia, or my students notebooks and backpacks covered in images and buttons. Yes, they're the emblems of the winners, the powerful, now. But Obama's victory makes my school community-- which is in no way victorious right now-- feel like they have a small corner of that. It's important.