A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Politics has always been about fantasy. Politics, at its core, is about imagining what sort of a future world we want, or a past world we'd like to go back to.
-- Stephen Duncombe, author
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BuzzFlash has been covering -- over the past few years -- the debate in the Democratic Party over tactics. We've frequently lambasted the bankrupt notion of the DLC that there is some sort of permanent mythical "center" to politics, when politics in America -- as the right wing has shown us -- is about the ability to define the issues of the day, rather than be defined by the opposition political camp.
But there is another more overarching question of strategy we have covered. It is the battle over whether Democrats can win elections by appealing solely to public policies supported by most Americans, in short, conduct campaigns based on reasonable positions. Meanwhile, the Republicans have built a campaign M.O. that goes straight to the reptilian emotions that marked the human species in its pre-Enlightenment days.
The Democrats ignore the appeal to emotions and the power of symbolic narrative at great cost to their ability to beat off the forces of Republican tyranny.
We recently talked with Stephen Duncombe, a professor and media expert at NYU, about this Democratic Party disdain for the role of fantasy, emotions, dreams and spectacle in the political process. His latest book is appropriately entitled, "Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy."
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BuzzFlash: The title of your book is Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, and on the jacket, you have some very garish adapted signage from the Dunes Hotel. Your book delves deeply into the gap between the progressive movement and America's popular culture, which depends a lot on fantasy, as we know. Progressives are said to disdain popular culture, which is something you discuss in your book. Can you tell us more about that?
Stephen Duncombe: I think progressives have a complicated relationship to popular culture. Oftentimes progressives like popular culture, but they tend to think that there's no place for it in politics, or for the fantasies that popular culture projects and depends upon. What's odd is that, when progressives say fantasy has no place in our politics, they're spinning out a fantasy of their own.
Politics has always been about fantasy. Politics, at its core, is about imagining what sort of a future world we want, or a past world we'd like to go back to. That is what's central to the imaginative function of politics -- this idea of fantasy. And this is something that is still front and center in our entertainment business. It's also front and center in religion. These are spheres in which fantasy, dreams, and desires are really understood as central components.
Yet when you look at how progressives think about politics, this is something to be banished. This is something that, if it comes up at all, is treated as a contagion. I think the progressives really have to make their peace with the fact that politics is often about the irrational. And in making our peace with that, we have to figure out how to do it ethically.
I think closing your eyes to the fantastical nature of contemporary politics means that, one, you're not very effective, because you're basically deeding away the game to the other side. But, two, when you do engage in it -- and sooner or later you will -- you will not have figured out how to do it ethically or progressively.
By writing a book about popular culture and fantasy, and about what the left can learn from these, what I'm really calling for is the left not to adopt Las Vegas, but to learn from Las Vegas -- to see what's out there, and then say, okay, what can we do that's a progressive response to this? And not just ape it. It's not about creating more sexy ads. It's really about what's beneath the advertising. What's beneath Las Vegas? What are those desires it's tapping into, and can we tap into them as well?
BuzzFlash: Part of American culture, and particularly advertising culture and the fantasy culture in Las Vegas, is how we glorify the artifical recreation of real places -- such as a brand new Italian restaurant that resembles an old style Italian neighborhood eatery, but the new one is in a suburban shopping mall. We revel in the reconstruction, rather than the original.
Stephen Duncombe: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Advertising often is based on convincing us we need something that we don't really need, and that it's going to change our life. I've always been fascinated by the history of Coke. Here you have a carbonated beverage with sort of caramel flavoring to it. Coke became a world brand because it convinced people that if they drank it, they'd be refreshed. They'd be more popular. They would enjoy life more. All this out of a carbonated beverage. They convinced people that a drink will change their life and make it better. How does that impact politics?
Stephen Duncombe: Actually, politics is about transformation, and advertising is about transformation. I'm glad you talked about the history of Coca-Cola ads, because Coca-Cola does the transformation that most national brands do. Around the 1920s and the 1930s there is a shift from selling the product to selling the lifestyle, and understanding that people don't buy Coca-Cola necessarily because it might taste good. They buy it because they are buying into a dream, a fantasy.
It might be, it's more refreshing, you'll feel refreshed, or it keeps you up and makes you think sharper. In the more modern ads, you'll have a circle of friends, you'll be having good times. Now, with the latest advertising, it isn't even about the product or the lifestyle. It's just about a funny little vignette. Advertising can even be about that you're smart enough to understand that this is just an advertisement. But regardless, it's really about tapping into a sense of who the consumer wants to see themselves as.
I think this is exactly what politics should be doing, as well. We progressives often sell ourselves to sort of an abstract "other." That is, if you follow our platform, it will be good for "the people." Or if you follow our platform, you're doing it for things like justice, or peace, and so on. I'm all for peace or justice. I'm all for the people, even though I don't know what they are.
What advertising has shown us is that, really, people respond to a personalized desire and personalized fantasy. And I think politics can do this. One could argue that we would just be selling a politician like soap, but I think the difference between politics and advertising is that politics, particularly progressive politics, could actually realize the desires that advertising now just taps into.
What do I mean by that? The example that I use in my book is about McDonald's. The advertisement about McDonald's is that if you buy this McDonald's meal, you will have this wonderful afternoon with your daughter in this free and open public space.
BuzzFlash: "Safe, free, and open."
Stephen Duncombe: Nothing can convince me that if I buy a hamburger and a Coke, then somehow I'm going to walk into a free and open, safe public space, and spend more time with my kids because somehow I've gotten out of work in the middle of the afternoon.
But progressive politics actually can address those desires -- things like flex time, things like increased funding for public parks -- all of these things are basically bread-and-butter progressive issues. Yet when we sell them, we sell them in terms of abstractions. McDonald's and Coca-Cola understand that these are real American fantasies. Ironically, McDonald's is speaking to Americans, not us, even though we're the ones that could deliver it, and they can't.
BuzzFlash: Does this tie in to the "values" issue -- let's replace the term "lifestyle" with "values" -- the emphasis Republicans have had on values versus public policy? The Democrats have been accused of trying to reason about public policy. Meanwhile, Bush was packaged and branded by Rove and others in a narrative, at least in the beginning, as the man who landed on an aircraft carrier for "Mission Accomplished" with his crotch in hand. The warrior prince, well-endowed, with his helmet on. I mean, this is the stuff of myth-making. What they did with Bush was like sewing a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Nonetheless, they got a silk purse, in terms of the image and the fantasy that you talk about.
But the Republicans have always emphasized the values over the substance that can help the middle class. Thomas Frank wrestled with this in What's the Matter with Kansas? Why are middle class and unemployed people voting Republican, even though the Republicans are against their economic interest and against their families? The answer is because the Republicans have appealed to them on a fantasy level, addressing what are allegedly the values of these people.
Stephen Duncombe: Tom's an old friend, and I really enjoyed that book immensely. I think he's absolutely right-on as to saying what the Republicans have done is sold a fantasy and not delivered any substance. The Democrats then have to turn towards providing the substance. I completely agree with that.
If you're going to speak to the middle and working class, you have to deliver economic programs and run an economic platform that they'll actually benefit by. But what the Republicans understand and what the Democrats don't is that you also have to create a narrative, or a story, or a dream around that substance. It's not good enough to just say: Here, we have a series of policies that are going to benefit you. You also have to create an idea or an ideal. The Democrats have done nothing about creating a narrative into which voters can place themselves.
Now, this didn't used to be true. The brilliance of the New Deal all the way up through Lyndon Johnson really was that the Democrats were the ones that knew how to create narratives. The New Deal can be seen as a massive propaganda campaign to recreate a narrative about who and what was important in American life. And it was very, very successful.
What I think separates "us" from the "them" is that the New Deal actually delivered policies which backed up their fantasies. The Republicans deliver policies which often run contrary to the fantasies that they create. Not always, but they oftentimes do.
The Democrats have seen what the Republicans have done, and they've said, we don't want to be in the fantasy-selling business. We're about sober reason, and we're going to produce policies that are good for people. But the Democrats need to realize that fantasy and reality don't have to be diametrically opposed -- that, in fact, the fantasy, and the desire, and the dream is actually what gives the reality some sort of meaning, something that people can attach to.
If we're talking about the ethical spectacle, which is what I try to talk about in Dream, those things have to be meshed up with one another. If the reality doesn't lead to the fantasy, and the fantasy isn't connected to the reality, then we're really just talking about smoke and mirrors.
BuzzFlash: Was JFK the last Democratic President who had a narrative?
Stephen Duncombe: I think Lyndon Johnson had a bit of one, but the Vietnam War, of course, was the Achilles heel of the Democrats. He really mired himself there, and the anti-war movement really took away the narrative. I have a certain respect for LBJ, because he knew how to fight, but I'm not sure he knew how to tell the story. That's one of the things that led to his downfall.
BuzzFlash: Kennedy was despised in the South, in large part, because he embraced the civil rights movement. So one person's fantasy is another person's nightmare.
Stephen Duncombe: That's part of the game. You are never going to be able to create a fantasy that appeals to absolutely everybody. But remember, this is democracy. You have to appeal to 51%. And once you appeal to 51%, then you get a platform upon which you can actually convince people that this narrative, this dream, and the policies which back it up, are actually in their benefit. Go back to the New Deal. Roosevelt squeaks in, and then he wins by larger and larger margins because he's able to convince the American public that this is a dream, this is a narrative, which they want to be part of. Again, he had the political muscle to back it up with real policies and real programs.
BuzzFlash: Where would you place Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech within this context?
Stephen Duncombe: He's brilliant. We always talk about him as sort of the made-for-TV memory of the Civil Rights Movement -- as this proud, noble soul who just spoke out of the honesty of his heart. He was a master strategist. And one of the things he's a master at was what Doug McAdam, civil rights historian, calls a genius for strategic dramaturgy.
In the "I Have a Dream" speech, he's drawing on all these different threads of imagination of America. He draws on religion, on the Declaration of Independence and on the Constitution. He draws on the ephemeral idea of the American dream, and creates and conjures up this ideal in which the American dream can be inclusive. That becomes a very powerful ideal, not just for his supporters, but for the rest of the country as well.
But he was also a master of creating spectacles. If you look at the 1963-64 campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, this was something which he consciously and strategically created as a spectacle. He knew that Bull Connor was going to overreact. He knew that they were going to get absolutely abused by the law and order of Birmingham, Alabama.
Yet they went ahead with the plan because what they wanted to demonstrate to the rest of the world was what happened in the shadows of the everyday life for an African American in the South. And sure enough, Bull Connor let loose the dogs, got the firemen to open their hoses, marched the school children off to jail, and created all of that imagery which we associate with the civil rights movement. Sure enough, a year later, the Civil Rights Act passed.
BuzzFlash: Going back to Martin Luther King's speech, what he did was, he backed it up with substance. The "I Have a Dream" speech is a list of particulars. He details what that dream is. Today, while we certainly think a lot of Barack Obama, some say of his book, The Audacity of Hope, that the title is the strongest part.
Stephen Duncombe: Exactly. I was so excited when I saw it and I read it. But hoping for what?
BuzzFlash: Martin Luther King, however, was very specific about what that dream was.
Stephen Duncombe: First he conjured up a narrative, a vision -- "a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Then he backed it up with real particulars. He also added one more thing to it, which was a social movement. And this is absolutely important. I can't stress it enough that this is part of an overall strategy. You have to have the narrative, you have to have the fantasy, you have to have the dream. Second, you also have to have specifics which you can attach the dream to. Third, you have to have organizing muscle and ability. You have to have the organization on the ground, and the social movement. It's all of a piece.
The problem with just throwing out fantasies and ideas and sort of a media activism model, is that it often becomes just "ether activism" -- in other words, the sound and fury signifying nothing. It really has to be tied into on-the-ground organizing, and very specific programs.
But I do have a problem with the "I Have a Dream" speech. One of the problems is that it's realizable. What he's asking for is literally something that America can deliver. In fact, today you can say, look at Colin Powell, look at Condoleezza Rice, look at Oprah Winfrey, look at Clarence Thomas. Who can say that we don't consider the character, as opposed to the color of the skin? America has delivered on this.
And that leads to two things. One is, if we've realized the dream, it's over. We don't need to work on it any more. The other thing is that, for those folks who don't feel that the dream has been realized, or who look around and see that the dream hasn't been realized and African Americans are still suffering oppressive poverty, then it seems like it was all a sham in the first place.
Something I'm seeing on the margins of the progressive movement today, something which I find really exciting, is unrealizable dreams. Dreams are being put forth not as fantasies to be realized, or to be disappointed about if they aren't realized, but instead, almost as aspirational goals which we know can never be realized, yet which give us something to walk towards.
With a dream -- you wake up in the morning and you know it was a dream, yet it still can actually inspire you. Again, a way to keep these things ethical is to say, look, we know these are dreams. We know they're way out in the future. Yet they give us something to walk towards.
BuzzFlash: Give us an example.
Stephen Duncombe: An example I use in the book is the Zapatista army in Southern Mexico. What Marcos is doing there is he's setting up a fantasy or a dream to which people can say: I want to move towards that, but I'm not going to be disappointed if we don't get there. It's always something out in front of you, almost like the horizon.
You can see that also around the globalization issue. Some of these social movements put forth ridiculous demands, if you look at them as sober demands. But if you look at them and ask why don't we dare to dream these things, then it's a good way to get us moving someplace.
BuzzFlash: What would be a dream in the United States that could resonate with 51% of the population?
Stephen Duncombe: If I was a Democratic politician at this point, I would say something like free education for everyone, from top to bottom. Now, is this really a dream that's so far outside the pale? Probably not. It's probably something we could deliver sooner or later. But what's interesting about that dream is, instead of couching it in terms of free education for those who can't afford it, or more scholarships, or more funding, it sets out an ideal which shifts the debate. All of a sudden, you've basically created a new vision of what a society is supposed to do for its citizens.
The Republicans have done this all the time. Think about the dreams people like Karl Rove were having twenty years ago. Karl Rove has this great line where he says, you know, for decades, we were wandering in the desert. And what do you do in the desert? You hallucinate. You come up with these fantasies. Think of Jesus in the desert, and they're imagining all these things. Some of these haven't been realized, but some of them actually have been realized, and the rest gave them a point that people could walk toward.
Their dream is falling apart right now, but the Republicans have been very good at it for the past twenty years. If you become a conservative, or you become a Republican, you are entering into a story and a narrative. It's a contradictory narrative, liberals and Democrats always say, because the ideal is so contradictory. They're pro-business, yet they're pro-family? Don't they understand? They don't care. It's a fantasy. It's an ideal.
I think we can do the same thing, but we can do it ethically by backing it up with real policies that could actually deliver on some of these things. But it's important to always have a dream which can never actually be reached, but gives us something to move toward.
BuzzFlash: Let's go back historically. Hillary Clinton, of course, during her husband's presidency, was given the task of trying to reorganize government-provided health care in the United States, and she ended up with a wonkish, eleven-hundred-page document that no one could understand. Ira Magaziner was the guy who helped her with that. Many felt at the time that it was a way to avoid dealing with "universal health care," or even having that phrase emerge.
Some people said that what she should have done was be bolder and simply say we're going to add Medicare Part C, and that everyone under 65 will receive the same health care benefits as everyone over 65. Now that is as clear and as transparent as can be. Is that the sort of a dream that you're advocating?
Stephen Duncombe: Exactly. What I would say is she should have done two things. One, she should have first of all created the story, and the story is free health care for all because we all live within the borders of America. We all contribute to the wealth of this country. We all deserve free health care. Then what she should have said is here's the policy laid out right there.
Now in the end, it's going to be a political process, and political processes are all about compromising and so on. We might have ended up with a 500-page document. But to start out with a policy that's already compromised, which is already about realism, is insane, politically. Of course, it went down in flames. No one supported it because the American public couldn't even understand what it was about.
BuzzFlash: Also she got hit by the advertising industry -- insurance company and pharmaceutical company advertising.
Stephen Duncombe: Right, it was all about how confusing everything was.
BuzzFlash: The Democrats tend think, you put in a lot of time, you've studied this, and you've come up with an eleven-hundred page wonkish document, and this is reasonable, and we're already compromising. We're not going for the whole enchilada, universal health care. So here's something reasonable.
Stephen Duncombe: Yes.
BuzzFlash: And the Republicans say this is just red meat, just give it to us.
Stephen Duncombe: Again and again, Hillary Clinton has created scenarios which could have been crafted and scripted by Karl Rove. Her book has been very good at creating a stereotype of what a liberal is like. What is a liberal? Someone who likes to regulate. Someone who talks over you. Someone who is interested in details and can't see the big picture. I find it astounding from a seasoned politician like her.
BuzzFlash: There's a narrative in Hollywood films where you have a parent and a child, and basically the film is the "dare to dream" film. It's like, honey, as I grew up I made a lot of compromises. I married the wrong man, then I remarried, and I still wasn't happy. That's because I always feared living out my dreams. I don't want that to happen to you. I want you to dare to dream.
It seems like the Democrats are always the parent who is afraid to live out their dreams, and they always have an excuse. No, they won't go for that in Kansas. And, oh, the media will kill us. And, oh, Karl Rove will slice us up. We've got to do this partial thing, because we can't dare to dream.
Stephen Duncombe: I live in New York City, so inevitably when I give a talk there's someone in the audience who says, well, this whole idea of spectacle and fantasy sounds good here, but will it play in Kansas? I look at them and say the only place spectacle does not play is in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Here, turn on the TV. Go to Las Vegas. Americans love fantasy. They love dreams. They love desire. Our whole country is built around this.
It's really only in small pockets of D.C. and the Upper West Side of Manhattan where you have these people that think, if I come up with a better, rational solution, somehow the truth will set people free. Of course, you do have to do that study. You do have to do the rational policy work. But that is not enough. There is nothing self-revelatory about the truth. The truth has to be sold, and the truth has to be told.
BuzzFlash: Democrats in general, and progressives, certainly, see America as an evolving nation. We're not static. The right wingers who claim they're conservatives really are the radicals. Though they claim they're the ones that believe in the status quo, they took advantage of the capacity of America to be resilient and change, and they made it move in a direction that is not really representative of the aspirations of the people. But they sold a certain narrative.
Stephen Duncombe: They understood that even if Americans don't like their policies, one of the great things about this country is we like motion. We like to move, we are an experiment, we are a country in the making.
And liberals became reactionaries. They said let's hold on, let's keep what little things we have, and keep them from being chiseled away from us, as opposed to taking the offensive. In the 1930s and the early 1960s in government, the vision was about where do we want to go next? How are we going to do things differently? How are we going to deliver a better life to you than you have now?
Every single advertisement, every single television show, every single Las Vegas hotel, is all about this idea that you can be more than you are right now. You can live in a better world. You can be something else than what you are. Now, it's all built on lies in these worlds, but in politics we can effect change. It's ironic that conservatives became the ones to say we don't want things as they are, we want to move forward. It's the biggest tragedy of liberalism and progressivism over the past quarter century.
BuzzFlash: One of the things that we find just totally baffling about the DLC political philosophy is related to this. It's their perception that somehow there's a static center. The idea of the static center just prima facie is faulty. It simply doesn't exist in life. Things are always changing. It's not borne out by interpretable reality. The idea of a static center results in an abdication of leadership.
Stephen Duncombe: Yes.
BuzzFlash: It's saying, somewhere there is this mythical center of thinking, and we have to respect that and not go too far. In contrast, the Republicans said we're going to lead the nation, take people in our direction, and they did. That disproved the DLC's whole notion. The DLC then says, well, look where they led the country. That must mean the center is somewhere further to the right, so we can't go too far left. Those terms don't make any sense.
Stephen Duncombe: Right.
BuzzFlash: Progressives have really just presented what is common sense. For example, the Iraq war was stupid. Did it make America safe or not? Did it enhance our ability to live better lives? No. Did it consume our tax dollars to the profit of certain companies that were war profiteers? Yes. Now, that's not liberal or progressive. That's just common sense. Do I want someone stealing my tax dollars so they can profit? No. That's my self-interest. That's not a liberal position. But the Democrats have said, until very recently, even though the polls showed overwhelming support for getting out, we can't risk any of our House or Senate seats by being overly aggressive about this, because out in the center, you've got to appear to be strong.
Stephen Duncombe: I think the static center is really a myth which comes quite naturally out of poll-driven politics. What polls do is they solidify in a moment a wide range of ideas. At eight o'clock you believe this. At six-thirty in the morning, you might believe something else. But what it does is it locks down public opinion. What the Democrats do is they look at public opinion and go for that locked-in position. They start thinking about people as locked into politics, which, as you point out, is ridiculous. Politics is a discussion.
BuzzFlash: It also results in an abandonment of leadership.
Stephen Duncombe: Yes.
BuzzFlash: And then people don't vote for you because they don't see you as leaders. They see you as followers.
Stephen Duncombe: Followers, exactly. One of the great ironies of the DLC was that it always saw itself as being realistic about power. "We understand the center. We understand the true current of America." Ironically, they're completely out of touch with the true currents of America. They don't understand the center and they're not realistic about power at all. They delivered almost nothing. They delivered a relatively powerless president. One of the things the right did, which was very effective, is they looked to their margins. They looked to the people that would have horrified Eisenhower. And those people, whether we like their politics or not, infused the Republican movement with power and ideas and enthusiasm.
BuzzFlash: And energy.
Stephen Duncombe: Now, I think, there's a lot of that happening out on the margins of the progressive movement. There are tons of people doing lots and lots of interesting stuff. The problem with the Democrats is they don't care. They don't try to co-opt. They don't try to borrow. They don't try to recruit. Particularly the DLC are very, very comfortable in the center, even though they're losing power rapidly.
I think that the Democrats should take a lesson from the Republicans and look to all these progressives. They don't have to adopt everything but understand there are a lot of smart people, a lot of creative activists out there, that have figured out a different way to do politics, and they could learn from them.
BuzzFlash: Let's talk about spectacle, which a very key point in your book. Let's go back to the Mission Accomplished moment -- Bush landing on the aircraft carrier, announcing that major combat operations in Iraq have ceased, and the United States and its allies have prevailed. I believe that's almost verbatim his statement. It was the perfect television spectacle.
Stephen Duncombe: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Most of the television commentators were just drooling at this performance. Here was where politics and spectacle merged in one triumphant moment. What is your read on all that?
Stephen Duncombe: It was brilliant, brilliant stagecraft, like you might see in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. The problem was it was unusable after a year. Politically it was a lie, but it was also unusable after a year because it was based on a lie. Within a year, all the details about George Bush's less-than-heroic performance in the Vietnam war days had been trumpeted around the papers. And more importantly, the war was escalating. It wasn't over at all in Iraq.
I think this says something to us, the progressives, about the spectacles we have to create. You can't build them on lies. What I'm arguing in the book is not for a politics built on lies and delusions. I am saying that illusion might be a necessary part of political life, but delusion doesn't have to be. Instead, you can actually build spectacles based on truth -- and amplify the truth. I think that progressives have done this in the past -- the New Deal, the civil rights movement, and so on. I would like to see a new stagecraft, but not built on lies. Sooner or later, that comes around and bites you in the ass.
BuzzFlash: Let's go to another example of a definitive spectacle, when Ronald Reagan was running in the 1980 primary against George Herbert Walker Bush for the nomination to the presidency. There were other candidates who wanted to be on the podium, and George Herbert Walker Bush didn't want the other candidates. Reagan said, yes, they should be part of the debate. Reagan seized the microphone and exclaimed: ""I am paying for this microphone." That became a defining moment and probably turned the tide for Reagan in terms of the presidential primaries that year, and led to his getting the nomination. It showed a kind of dramatic symbolic gesture of leadership that was risk-taking. We know Reagan was an actor, so if anyone could pull it off, he could. But is that part of spectacle?
Stephen Duncombe: I think so. Ronald Reagan, because he was an actor, understood that all of his actions, all of his utterances, were about projecting an image. That's what he'd done for his entire life as an actor.
BuzzFlash: You're right.
Stephen Duncombe: He understood that he was going to be perceived by the way he appeared, by how he projected his voice, and that people weren't going to vote for his policies. They were going to vote for what sort of policies a person like him might vote for in the future, if you know what I mean. They were buying into a Reagan idea. And he understood that quite brilliantly in a way that George Herbert Walker Bush didn't. Of course, George Bush, Jr. did understand.
Reagan used that image of "I'm just the underdog who needs a chance at the microphone," to basically pass legislation which, of course, helped the overdogs. I don't think there's anything wrong with him understanding the idea of play-acting. The problem is when it runs counter to reality. The Democrats have to learn how to act, but act in concordance with reality -- to dramatize the real things that they're actually proposing.
BuzzFlash: You have a chapter, "Imagine an Ethical Spectacle." Let's talk about that. Imagine for us an ethical spectacle for progressives.
Stephen Duncombe: My editor said to me, "I want an illustration of a completely ethical spectacle." And I just said, "You know what? You can't do it." What I do is I lay out six ingredients, which I've found in mostly ethical spectacles. What I'm hoping is that people will read the book, and then go reassemble these in ways that then will create the great ethical spectacle.
Thus said, I have seen something which moved me deeply. Iraq Veterans Against the War staged a series of performances in Washington, D.C. and New York, and I believe they're going to Chicago. They went into the streets and essentially acted out combat scenarios from the streets of Baghdad and from Iraq, in which they interrogated prisoners on the ground, yelling at them. They also came under sniper fire. One of their people was hit, and they had to put him over their shoulder and run away. All of this in midtown Manhattan. It was chilling to watch. Why? Because it was about dramatizing a reality.
To me, that had a lot of ingredients. People knew it was a performance. It wasn't trying to pretend that it was reality. It was about dramatizing the real. It wasn't about selling a fantasy. In fact, it was trying to sort of de-fantasize the dream we've been sold about Iraq. And it worked. It was really quite chilling.
BuzzFlash: Well, on an activist level, you yourself were involved in a spectacle campaign, the grassroots advocacy, of Billionaires for Bush, which you described.
Stephen Duncombe: Yes, exactly. Billionaires for Bush showed me something that I've learned, too, from Las Vegas, which is you can create a fantasy that people know is a fantasy, yet it's still a lot of fun. When people go to Las Vegas, they know they're not going to New York, New York. They know they're not going to Paris. They know they're going to Egypt. Even though the landmarks of all those places exist in Las Vegas, they know that they're going to consume a fantasy, and they have a lot of fun anyway.
That's what we did with Billionaires. We didn't look like real billionaires, who wear designer jeans, you know? We dressed up as sort of characters out of a Monopoly board game. People understood we were putting on a schtick. Yet our schtick was entertaining and it had real facts behind it about the world of money in politics. People could enjoy what we were saying, listen to what we were saying, in a way that they wouldn't listen to someone just standing up on a soapbox. We weren't really trying to fool anybody, even though we were playing out a part. I think that's the central part of ethical spectacle -- that illusion is a necessary part of politics, but delusion does not need to be.
All too often, progressives believe that if we start to truck in fantasy and spectacle and desire, we have to go over to the side of delusion, of lying, of pulling the wool over people's eyes. It's natural that we think that, because most of the examples we have out there are from things like advertising, or things from the far right, like fascists. That's exactly what they did. What I'm asking is, by acknowledging that desire and fantasy are part of our politics, we can make them our own. We can make these things progressive, and think about a progressive way to deal with fantasy and desire, and spectacle and dreams.
BuzzFlash: Where does The Daily Show fit in all this?
Stephen Duncombe: The Daily Show is wonderful. One of the things that Jon Stewart has been able to do is he understood and tapped into this immense amount of disbelief in "reality," in quotes. The only thing Jon Stewart has to do is put up a clip of President Bush saying something, and all of a sudden, the crowd starts cheering, because they know it's just a put-on.
The problem I have with Jon Stewart is that that's where it ends. You can watch Jon Stewart and then walk away from it saying, yeah, all politics is phony. They're all a bunch of liars. Isn't it funny? And we're smart. We know that they're all a bunch of fools.
That could lead to saying, well, let's create a politics which is different. Let's create a politics which is really about responding to people's needs, and about telling the truth to people. But it also can lead to believing that's all a game anyway. Let's go shopping.
I think Jon Stewart rides right in the middle, and he should. He's not a political activist. He's an entertainer. But I think those of us who are interested in political activism and political advocacy need to take that sort of revelation and the fun that Jon Stewart traffics in, and move it in a more political direction.
BuzzFlash: Jon Stewart will do what the mainstream media generally doesn't. He'll take a statement, let's say by Alberto Gonzales, and he'll say, "Really, Alberto?" And he'll put his chin in his hand, and show clips of Gonzales saying things that refute what he just said yesterday. And the audience will, of course, laugh uproariously. You'll laugh at watching it. And he's simply doing what a reporter should be doing, which is digging up comments by Gonzales which show him to be a liar based on his own past statements. Somehow, it's hysterical. So in some ways, there is a part of The Daily Show that does investigative reporting, just by going into the archives of videotapes of former statements of Bush, or Karl Rove, or Gonzales, or Rumsfeld, and editing them so you see their historical past. Because the mainstream media has no history. It just serves a news cycle.
Stephen Duncombe: The march of amnesia, as I always.
BuzzFlash: The Daily Show does allow one to laugh, which is very hard sometimes, considering what's going on in the world.
Stephen Duncombe: It's absolutely necessary. And what Jon Stewart does and does so well, is he does what reporters should be doing. He's telling the truth, but he also acknowledges that in order to find a huge audience, it needs to be dramatized and performed, and made funny, and made part of a schtick and a story. And I think that's one of the reasons he's so successful. He combines those two things.
BuzzFlash: He provides, in his own way, a spectacle of sorts.
Stephen Duncombe: Yes.
BuzzFlash: He's not a politician. He's not moving you in a certain direction, and he's not giving you a dream. But he is providing a spectacle.
Stephen Duncombe: And at the core of that spectacle is reality -- without quotes.
BuzzFlash: That's right. As you say, viewers can just go off and be cynical, and say, oh, my God, there's nothing I can do. Or they can go off and be fired up, and say I'm going to create a dream that's going to change that reality.
Stephen Duncombe: That's where the politics comes in. And as I say, Jon Stewart's an entertainer. We shouldn't expect him to do anything different. But those of us who are organizers and activists -- this is the moment where we intervene and actually say, yes, we're going to create something different.
BuzzFlash: Stephen. Thank you so much. The book is Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, and we highly recommend it.
Stephen Duncombe: Thanks.
BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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http://www.dreampolitik.com, Stephen Duncombe's web site.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW