On Being Real In An Age of Parody
It feels like we are trapped in an SNL skit and yet we keep pretending it's authentic. Maybe it's time to assume the attitude of Russell Hammond.
I’ve had this sensation of late that when it comes to politics, we are now all trapped inside of a really dark, badly written Saturday Night Live parody, and yet we all somehow have to pretend that this isn’t parody -- to pretend that while our system is flawed, we still have a serious, earnest and authentic democratic process.
Donald Trump pretends the coronavirus situation is being handled, and our politics asks us to take those assertions seriously, even though we know the situation is out of control.
Congressional Democrats pretend they are really putting up an opposition to Trump, even though they keep supporting his corporate bailout bills -- and progressive organizations in DC ask us to applaud the bait and switch.
Congressional Republicans pretend they care about fiscal responsibility, even though they just keep giving away trillions of dollars to their donors -- and the Beltway media echoes the GOP’s austerity message.
It all feels so insultingly performative -- as if both the actors and the audience knows it’s bullshit, and yet we still sit there and pretend it’s totally legit. Indeed, the fraudulence of the cosplay is now becoming so obvious — so in-your-face brazen — that it’s starting to feel downright embarrassing that we nonetheless still have to go through the motions of pretending that this isn’t an SNL skit.
All these thoughts bubbled to the surface as I read the celebratory declarations about Joe Biden’s new policy “task forces.” They are a mix of party dinosaurs, corporate zombies and some terrific progressive voices -- and we are asked to earnestly evaluate and applaud the complexion of the task forces, as if they are a genuine endeavor. As if they are something truly real.
There is already handwringing and celebration about who is and isn’t on these task forces, but step back from that and consider the bigger picture. Consider how condescending -- how mocking -- the entire “task force” dance really is. It’s as if the Biden campaign went into the basement of the DNC, dusted off a three-ring binder from 1983 titled “How To Run Campaigns,” and turned to page 863b for the section entitled “Post-Primary Unity Blueprint” -- and we are all expected to pretend that this is something real.
But, of course, we all know it’s not real because we know we don’t suffer from a lack of good policy ideas that require new task forces to litigate -- we know that we instead suffer from a lack of political will and political power.
We all know in our hearts that we don’t really need another “climate task force” -- we know we just need a Democratic nominee who commits to supporting existing Green New Deal legislation.
We all know we don’t really need a “health care task force” -- we know we just need a Democratic nominee who commits to not vetoing Medicare for All legislation that is already co-sponsored by a majority of U.S. House Democrats.
We know all of this, so don’t deny it. We know Biden could just choose right now to endorse these things, and we know he is actively choosing not to do that — at least not yet.
He is instead ripping the page out of that ancient DNC binder and choosing to put forward vague task forces, expecting us all to pretend he isn’t deliberately shirking concrete legislative commitments, and further pretend that a task force process is some serious, truthful, totally above-board move for consensus.
Yes, it is certainly better that Biden feels he has to pretend to be doing something to unify the party and better that he put a few progressives on his task forces, rather than just sneering at the base of the party.
But my question is: why does anyone even play along with this ruse? Why does anyone pretend stuff like this is real?
Why do we have to insist that it’s some legitimately great victory that a few good people are on some random list of names on toothless task forces?
Why do we have to pretend that this canned SNL skit is not a parody?
Maybe we don’t. Maybe it’s better if we stop pretending.
Maybe it’s better to just be honest in our conflicting feelings -- that while Trump must be defeated in November by whoever the Democrats nominate, we are still being played, and we keep playing ourselves by pretending obvious fraudulence is authenticity.
Maybe folks on these task forces need to be willing to break with tradition and speak out in public protest if Biden doesn’t actually make concrete commitments right away.
Maybe we should realize that we have years of work ahead, way beyond the upcoming election — and that if we get lucky enough to defeat Trump, the next president is going to need to be unmercifully pressured to do even the bare minimum.
Maybe we should understand that our leaders will give us nothing at all unless they are forced to do what’s right -- and that if we actually want something more than performative bullshit, if we actually want anything actually real to happen, we can’t just tweet emojis or watch MSNBC or pretend that task forces are real or worship a few politicians, waiting for them to use their star power to give us crumbs. We will need to do the grueling work of taking power through primaries, union drives, local elections, strikes, and all sorts of other direct actions to do something.
Maybe we should finally embody the attitude of Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond from my favorite film, Almost Famous.
“From here on out, I am only interested in what is real -- real people, real feelings, that’s it,” he said. “You are what it’s all about. You’re real. Your room is real. Your friends are real. Real man, real...You’re more important than all the silly machinery -- and you know it.”
You do know it -- now during this emergency, we all need to try to start living it.
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