No Times Like The Future
Well this is delightful. Likely the work of high-gloss uber-pranksters, The Yes Men, the faux-Times handed out all across the city this morning was more than just a welcome break from Wednesday morning routine. Dated July 4, 2009, and depicting a sort of liberal utopia that has risen from the continued efforts of the Obama coalition, the spoof’s message couldn’t be clearer or more urgent: For God’s sake, Let’s not stop now.
In this respect the timing and execution of the piece are excellence manifest – it appears that no expense was spared, and the facsimile is altogether double-take worthy. What’s more, there is no definitive attribution anywhere to be found – the masthead is a historical lexicon of luminous, if reliably soft, leftists like Thorstein Veblen and Robert Owen – and the finest print is merely a directory of advocacy groups whose wish list is realized on the paper’s pages. The effect is quite striking, first the wtf factor, than the laughter, and then finally, the wincing, fang-sinking pangs of sadness that mark successful satire – what if, wouldn’t it be, if only... But wait! This is no ordinary Wednesday! We have not yet finished rinsing History's sparkles from our hair! Our eyes still bear the happy smears of so much made-up progress! We are still drunk on change! There is nothing we cannot accomplish. And here we the see the true genius of this surgical art-strike: it is not in the particularities of its proposals, it’s that the iron has never been hotter.
All involved are to be truly and honestly commended. This is viscerally intelligent, passionately committed, seamlessly perpetrated poetic terrorism of the highest order, it made my morning and made me think. This is established.
Let’s not miss, however, that beyond its initial impact, this text is remarkable in a number of other, additional ways. As a sort of performance of American Liberal Utopia at the end of the aughties, it betrays a marked and disturbing lack of theoretical coherence. Indeed, the contrast - between the artistry of the productive effort and the immature poverty of the ideas contained within - could not be more striking. I do not wish to imply, at all, even, that this is due to some failure on the part of the paper’s producers. Rather I wish simply to mark that for all the left’s remarkable resurgence, it still has no idea what it stands for. The post-industrial, post-cold war left remains, as this work incontrovertibly illustrates, a decidedly reactionary tendency, a loose bundle of issues and grievances having as much to with one another as, well, as adjacent stories in a newspaper. To steal a phrase of sorts: the content happily takes its cues from the form.
The headline - IRAQ WAR ENDS – is the perfect example. The Iraq War, such as it is, is a construction of the recent administration, to be favored by some and opposed by others, both of whom are content to overlook the relevant history in their scramble to pursue an empty partisan dichotomy. This pattern - of helplessly determined, simplistic opposition to Bush policies - marks this piece all over, and the left more generally. Rather than formulate our own counter-narrative, our own paradigm, we seem perfectly content, upon taking over the edifice of State, to change merely the color of the carpets and the kind of food in the fridge.
There are, of course, two ways of looking at this. The first, which seems dominant by default, is to celebrate this post-ideological vision of progress, with each, self-contained concern fully grounded in present realities and with a practical solution just around the corner. This is, as we see, the newsprint theory of social progress – the creation of a progressive majority organized against a series of immanent, rightist wrongs, and sharing nothing so much as common heading, the obvious being obvious, that of the New York Times. It is certainly possible to view this as a positive, popular adoption of a post-modern skepticism towards the violent history of twentieth century politics on the right and on the left. Sanction only the broadest and least determinate of ideas, like HOPE and CHANGE, work only on the most concrete of problems in the most practical of ways. It’s a legitimate tactic, this on-going non-strategy.
The second perspective, towards which I am sympathetic, believes that if the last fourteen-years have taught us anything, its that the right has not gotten the memo about the twentieth century. As far as they are concerned, all totalitarianisms are leftist totalitarianisms; they are comfortable with this narrative and they pursue it ruthlessly. A purely reactionary left, though refreshingly devoid of some of the more absurdist idiom that has marked our fair tendency’s history, seems to me to woefully ill-equipped to puncture this insidious balloon, and, indeed, risks installing it permanently. (And for the record, let me just say that a messianic faith in the UN is not a viable counter-narrative, though the impulse might be a good place to start)
So pick up the Yes Men’s work, marvel at the craft, support the orgs listed in the fine print, volunteer, organize, be thankful to live in a city blessed with such generous and talented artists, laugh at the fake ads, read the articles, see what’s there, but notice also what’s not.