Not sure why I'm posting this now, since these two men died a while ago. But I think remembrances and appreciations should be good anytime, not just in the immediate shadow of death.
Free Speech Movement vet Michael Rossman passed back in the spring. A friend of mine knew him through one of his sons. It was she who first told me about his incredible collection of political posters. She encouraged me to make contact, gave me his phone number and everything. Somehow, I just never did. That was a few years ago. And then a link to this video below arrived from Lincoln Cushing in an email posted to the Radical Art History List. RAHL is a service of the Radical Art Caucus, one of the College Art Association's affiliated societies.
Michael Rossman political poster archive
And from this fall, only several weeks ago and from an earlier generation, Dr. Aaron Hilkevitch passed. He was a vet of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade–communist, socialist, and other anti-fascist Americans who went to Spain to fight Franco. According to the Chicago Tribune obituary he had no romantic illusions about that war. I'm sorry I never got the chance to ask him about his experiences. Even though for about the last year of his life he was a Hyde Park neighbor of my parents, he seemed mostly too ill to socialize much. Read the obituary–the man led an amazing life and kept up the good fight over many decades.
With this book I have my usual gripes about Temporary Services work, though. Chief among them this time around, the 'straight' style of image presentation and the direct voice in the text. For example, in the collection of photos documenting improvised methods of saving parking spaces on snowy Chicago side streets, the pics are almost all straight on. There, centered and filling the picture field, is an old chair or a couple of beams balanced on a box. Odd objects caught in the technically illegal act of saving a private space on a public street. But you'd never know about how the functional imperatives actually shape these creations because the method of photography gives no context. I want to see what else is on that street, how this pirated space relates to the parking spaces around it, how it stands in relation to the other side of the street, what kinds of junk might be found in the parallel alleyway, etc. A few distance shots would have been helpful for the reader to understand and imagine what drives these acts. In the text TS makes a joke about these temporary, soft-aesthetic barricades coming across as Arte Povera sculptures, but their photography makes it true. I know TS prefers ostensibly direct approaches in the name of accessibility, but sometimes a simplicity of documentary style renders acts grounded in concrete socio-spatial circumstances more abstract than they are, which reduces accessibility.
But don't read this commentary as a statement of disappointment! I depend on TS–my trusted colleagues and occasional collaborators–to produce work we can argue over. They deliver every time. I recommend this book. It is worth it alone for the digestable and smartly annotated list of book and web resources included at the end. As generous as ever, they turn me on to lots of things I never knew existed.
It was about three days after the election that Mary Patten forwarded a text by Judith Butler to the gochgo list. It was Uncritical Exuberance?, and I guess the story is that Butler composed it on or soon after Election Day, sent it around through her circles and from there it was passed along widely. You can read it here.
Judith Butler’s commentary Uncritical Exuberance? continues what the
left has been doing for so long it is now almost second nature: distance itself
from the power structure. Critical
voices on the left are always the first to see the likelihoods of cooptation,
neutralization of radical elements, assimilation of grassroots formal
innovation into the institutional sphere, misreadings of a political figure as
a messianic force, looming conflicts and frustrations with erstwhile allies,
and all the various pitfalls of politics at the mass, national, mediated
scale. But when Butler asks, to where is
our wholehearted and emotionally-rewarding identification with (first) the Obama
campaign and (now, maybe?) this president leading us, I cannot help but think,
there is a slightly different set of questions the critical left needs to be
asking right now.
Not that Butler’s questions are without merit. It is fair to ask, are leftist positions in
danger of traveling in an emotional bubble, the skin stretching as some mass
illusion of Obama-as-redemption takes hold, putting itself at risk of blowing
up with the first great disappointment?
But I think this question is rather easily answered: No. If
the unity/new politics/change/hope bubble was not popped long ago by Obama’s
two year-old team of brass-heavy foreign policy advisers, it has been in the
mere days since the election. From
within, the appointment of so many former Clinton-associated figures to the
transition teams dispels illusions, and from conditions outside, the daily
onslaught of announced mass layoffs and other bad economic developments does
the same thing. We all know this is a
president going into the job with his hands tied and choices limited, no matter
his intentions. If any of his domestic
initiatives—serious health care reform, big time green tech investments,
national service programs, etc.—gain early traction, he will have proved
himself a political Houdini. And if the
unfolding conditions in Washington do not splash cold water onto the face of a
hopeful electorate, then perhaps the news of fresh suicide attacks in both Iraq
and Afghanistan in the last week, resulting in scores of dead, served to remind
just how awful and messy these next few years will be, everywhere, always.
It is true, America felt like a new country for about a day, maybe
two. Those denying reality stretched it
into the weekend. But by the time Obama
took the televised walk to the Oval Office with George W. Bush at his side six
days after the election, any residual exhilarations had been flattened into the
self-congratulatory feelings which accompany the achievement of a first: yes, there goes the First Black
President-Elect. As in, there is a first
time for everything. No more messiah, no
more euphoria, no more fantasies of redemption.
Is the mood much improved? How
could it not be with the first concrete signal of the impending departure of
the evil, disasterous, and violent Bush regime?
Given the literally torturous tenure of George W. Bush, identifying
Obama—and identifying with Obama—as
the cleansing agent ready to flush the White House of its eight-year build-up
of scum seems perfectly reasonable.
While Butler’s theoretical analysis of this identification remains
impressive for its sheer, uncompromising criticality, ie that such personal
identifications which are at least partially the result of strategically
produced affects perform functions essential to the machinery of fascism, it is
undone by the example she herself cites.
Liddy Dole, bursting with love for ‘each and every one of us,’ and a
heavily favored incumbent and national Republican figure, lost the US Senate
seat held only six years ago by paleo-conservative Jesse Helms to a little
known Democratic state senator. This
time around, the voters of North Carolina rejected all that ‘love’—by nearly
But more to the point, in this crucial moment is the primary job of
critical theoreticians to poke holes in our optimism, our satisfaction, our good feelings? Even if the exuberance has run its short
course and rendered the question moot, I still answer, no, not as an end in
itself, or as a precondition for further political work. Butler cites voter contradictions to remind
us of our reasons to remain sober.
Disunity on gay marriage and the rights of Palestinians are only the two
most pronounced of the disagreements internal to the grand coalition that
elected Obama. There are other divides
and gaps, as well. But is this
news? When Butler says we are faced with new configurations of
political belief that make it possible to hold apparently discrepant views at
the same time: someone can, for instance, disagree with Obama on certain
issues, but still have voted for him, I say, has there been anybody,
anywhere, who fully agrees with Obama on all the issues? For the hard activist left, the ‘new
configuration’ may be simply this: we
have finally, for one election cycle, gotten over our insistence on being right
at the expense of being effective. I do
not have a problem with being rewarded, for once in my lifetime at least, with
the feeling that comes riding an insurgent campaign to a win on a grand scale.
Critical voices on the left do need to be heard right now, but the
most pressing task is to conduct self-analyses apropos the conditions now
defined by a successful national campaign that featured and relied on the
essentials of a grassroots organizing model.
Rather than merely reminding us of Obama’s shortcomings, or, as Butler
does, of listing the left’s minimal demands that must be met to prevent a ‘dramatic
and consequential disillusionment,’ the urgent responsibility right now for the
critical left is to dissect this victory and map workable strategies for
pushing a progressive agenda, including in intra-coalition campaigns. This involves recalling what kind of
thick-skinned work brought us that moment of Election Night joy, and, just as
importantly, to study how the reactionary forces are likely to respond to this
If we who supported Obama all gulped a bit of the Kool-Aid, for its
part the campaign squeezed the tube. The
grassroots are now out, volunteers by the thousands, trained and invested—one
might even say habituated—and the more the theoreticians among us attend to the
strategic tasks of continued organizing, based on the actualities of activist
work plus the lessons of the campaign recently won, the more the grassroots
element will evolve and mature. Ideally,
Obama-identified grassroots constituencies and work forces will grow to become
not fully directable by Obama, and will have the potential to outlast him. Progressive dreams have always included
building movements with leverage over national politicians, and here we have the
chance. So even though I agree when Butler
says many of us "set aside" our
concerns in order to enjoy the extreme un-ambivalence of this moment, I
think her worries about uncritical exuberance are, while not necessarily
overstated, somewhat misplaced. When
those of us who are committed to full gay rights, or Palestinian rights, or
another progressive cause that goes against Democratic Party liberal orthodoxy
and/or the moderation of Obama himself, begin the difficult and tedious work of
lobbying our opponents/one-time coalition allies (and their constituents, on their doorsteps, in their neighborhoods, instead of on our blogs), looking for those
individuals (the ‘each and every’ of grassroots organizing) who just may be
convinceable but for whatever reason have fallen into the opposing camp, any
lingering good feeling over the election victory will seem very distant. But if we show up and do the work, future
victories for progressives in those areas will at least be in the cards. Whether, why, and how we should show up to do
this work are the questions we need to be thinking through. Butler is right in identifying that space of
a ‘critical politics’ as moving between illusion and cynicism. Widening that space depends on our continued
political work, that is, on our continual generation of concrete contestations,
the analyses of which will automatically recalibrate the emotions to a more
restrained register, but would do so without turning to the crutch of measuring
Obama’s imminent actions and non-actions according to the default moralism of the
left. And we do the work to
win—precisely so we can feel that feeling again.
Already there’s been quite a bit of writing, remarking, and blogging on the Obama victory as a sort of national catharsis. But like the fluid identity of Obama himself, the emotional healing enters the picture from any number of angles. Here’s mine.
Forty years after the Chicago Police, under orders from Mayor Richard J. Daley—remembered by more than a few from that time as an out and out racist—beat down the anti-war demonstrators in Grant Park during the DNC and in the process established definitively a split between the New Left and the Democratic Party, the younger Mayor Daley welcomed supporters of Barack Obama downtown for the election night celebration party, whether they had tickets or not. He did this knowing full well he was putting his fate into the hands of a young leader who, if he’d had the curse to stand before the throngs in defeat, or worse, perceived criminal theft of an election, would have had the responsibility to quell an unfolding riot, if not a new civil war.
This act of faith on the part of Richard Daley the Son, seemed to offer another dimension to the feeling of this election’s seeming resolution of long-standing divides: after ’68, Nixon, the ineffective Carter, the victorious Reagan, the centrist Clinton, and the nightmare that is Bush the Younger, is the Left back in the fold of the Democratic Party? It is a fair question, because the activist Left put in some serious work for the Obama campaign, in the meantime shelving work on many other struggles. Also, there is the plain reality of the incessent right wing chatter/incantation of the names Bill Ayers, ACORN, and Jeremiah Wright—names, groups, and lineages (SDS, Weather Underground, Alinsky-style organizing around poverty issues, black liberation theology) to which, really, only the activist Left are positively attached. When such associations were used to attack Obama many leftists felt a righteous responsibility to contribute to the campaign, no matter the falseness or prespostureousness of the charges. In other words, just as it assisted Obama in uniting the rest of the fractured social body to form a single voting majority, the Right did an excellent job of driving the activist Left directly into the waiting arms (and stacks of phone bank lists) of the Obama campaign.
The activist Left will be disappointed with Obama. We all know that. But the present day Left’s aversion to party politics—and to the Democratic Party in particular—may not soon return to its pre-Obama state. For one thing, the paranoid Right won’t silence its chatter anytime real soon, and may even amplify it in the coming months. Every time Bill Ayers is trotted out as a bogeyman, the Left has a responsibility to respond, if only to defend our own history. But each response probably will, conveniently for Obama and the revitalized Dems, contain at least a trace defense of Obama, and therefore remain somewhat positionable within that camp. The regional, ideological, cultural, and, most importantly, political marginalization of the Right is one consequence of this united Center-Left. And for that I will not complain.
* Watching the Republican television commentators tonight was alternately baffling, wince-inducing, and just plain infuriating. Baffling, because they just didn’t seem to get it. Not a single one of them whom I saw—Karl Rove, John Bolton, Bill Bennett, Pat Buchanan, Tom Delay, and others--acknowledged their failures and looked in the mirror. I can’t help thinking, don’t they want to know what went wrong and why they lost? For example, Rove smugly reminded viewers that Democratic Congressional leadership has earned negatives right down there with his old boss, W. But he never stopped to consider the possibility that Pelosi’s disapproval numbers might have something to do with the fact that in one of her first (non) acts as House Speaker, she took impeachment ‘of the table.’ Their pathetic attempts to cast early doubt on an Obama administration by continuing the very lines of attack that earned them the evening’s national electoral doghouse caused me to wince out of a combination of embarrassment and irritation. The infuriation came when after the election had been called and the discussions turned to how Obama’s achievement stands in the context of the struggle for racial justice in America. John Bolton’s first remark on this topic to BBC telejournalists was a belligerent demand that Europeans never again accuse America of having a racial problem—as if all racial problems were done with, and, furthermore, that he and his extremist wingnut gang had something to do with solving this problem! Others spoke of having lifted the ‘excuse’ of racism—as if they could take credit for this positive turn in American social evolution! Unbelieveable.
* The world is getting to know Chicago. The faces we saw at the Grant Park celebration? That is Chicago, and that, Sarah Palin, is the real America. It is the America I love seeing. And what about the bullet-proof glass behind which Obama delivered his victory speech? That, too, is Chicago—specifically, the South Side, where in some parts a majority of one’s consumer purchases may be conducted through bullet-proof glass. I know it was a Secret Service thing, and it wasn’t to protect against a stick-up, and they had them polished to near-liquid invisibility, but having made my home on the South Side for more than a decade, I must say, it was the slightest bit ghetto. You could even say, as far as bullet-proof protection goes, it was ghetto fab. Which is also very Chicago. These were to the world of bullet-proof glass what glittering, spinning rims are to the world of hydraulic rides.
* In the discussions of an expanded Democratic electorate, it is worth noting that the election to the US Senate of the Udall cousins in Colorado and New Mexico marks a return as much as it does a departure. Sure, Obama broke ground as an urban-based, minority candidate who found success in the West, but the Udalls bring the federal political profile of the mountain west back to its progressive roots. Being the sons of Mo Udall and Stewart Udall, putting conservation on the federal agenda runs in their blood. Hopefully, the younger Udalls will bring to the Senate a full backlash against the evisceration of America’s wilderness heritage and the deliberate despoilation of western government land under the Bushites. This is an incredibly important moment for such issues, as last minute orders on use of federal lands—sometimes impossible to undo—have become standard fare for lame duck presidents in recent administrations.
* On the morning of Election Day I had my semi-regular meeting with my language tutor/coach, a native of Beijing. The day’s discussion of course went straight to the elections. Never having voted, and not having grown up in a society with elections, he had many questions for me. When are the votes counted? Is a winner announced the same day? If this is a federal election, then why do all the states have their own voting rules, hours, and machines? In my halting Mandarin and spotty knowledge about the ins and outs of election operations, I tried to explain the American way. He described the Chinese way, by contrast, as really simple. You never vote. There are elections for representatives to the National Congress, but they are never announced, never publicized, there are no campaigns, and most people hear about them only after the fact, if at all. And there is no information about what the representative then does or says. Worse yet, in the various congresses, all votes are taken by a show of hands, which serves to encourage super majorities and frequently unanimity, especially on sensitive measures. So it is true—China is not a democracy. On the other hand, how would it even begin, should the CCP decide to start an electoral process? Does India’s system work any better? By and large, the Chinese do not think so.
So here it is. In twenty-four hours or less we may have elected Barack Obama president of the USA. Besides the Grant Park party for a million, and the four years of occasional traffic snarls that would accompany a President Obama traveling by motorcade and/or helicopter to and from Hyde Park, there is the feeling (already!) of a let down.
We on the Left knew all along that we would be disappointed by an Obama presidency. And yet we jumped on the grassroots end of the campaign, contributing time, labor, creativity, and money
1) because of Sarah Palin 2) for the chance to elect a man embodying the multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial American reality 3) because anybody the Right negatively links to Bill Ayers and ACORN deserves our support 4) because it is about time we had president who is from a Northern big city 5) and because...did I mention Sarah Palin???
It will surely be a sweet defeat of the Right, but it won't be a victory for the Left. I've read and mostly bought into the analysis that FDR's early administration was a pitch-perfect co-optation of the socialist Left by the Democratic Party liberals. But never did I understand the conditions of that cooptation until now. I can see it happening. Bill Clinton's presidency didn't even offer the pretense of a Left, or rather only granted the most pathetically shallow lipservice (such as playing Fleetwood Mac at the inaugural ball), and as a result the radical activist underground went its own way in the Nineties, coming out in full flower in Seattle in '99.
But here we have the prospect of a president with the talents and vision to bring new and needed programs into being, and Congress that just might be willing to go along. Not another New Deal, but at least some kind of serious re-investment in the national body. Naomi Klein's words, quoted on John Cusack's blog, are worth keeping in mind.
"I have been talking about the need for a progressive shock doctrine in
speeches a lot. I call it disaster populism and the key difference is
democracy. The right has been using shocks to suspend and sidestep
democracy, declaring states of emergency and the progressive use of
shock to enlarge and deepen the democratic space to bring more people
into the political process. This is why it is important to remember
that the New Deal did not come only from kindly elites handing it down
from on high, but also because those elites were under massive popular
pressure from below. We can all use shock and crisis to move the
political direction of the country, but the progressive route is a
democratic one, the right is an authoritarian one, even if it takes
place within an electoral democracy."
So how can we maintain a distance from the candidate we supported and
worked for, now that the Right is reduced to a fringe element? How does the Left, as the ascendent extreme, demand and get the results that the social conservatives never were able to?
I'll be pondering this thought as I drive in the opposite direction, away from Chicago and Grant Park, listening to the election returns on the car radio.