No irony please -- we're leftists

No irony please -- we're leftists The American left's disdain for irony and popular appeal ensures its irrelevance


James Poniewozik
May 13, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

These days anyone to the left of House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt pretty much has to die or send a mail bomb to get serious media attention. So you'd think progressives would have been tickled this May Day, when Verso Press released a new, 150th anniversary edition of "The Communist Manifesto." In one of the finest controversy-baiting publicity campaigns in recent memory, Verso made a show of selling the sleek volume, jacketed with striking red flag on a black background, to the bull market's winners: Prominent displays rose up in Wall Street bookstores and the company's managing director insisted, in numerous venues, that the title could "grace any coffee table."

But instead of celebrating, leftist pundits hit the ground grousing that Marx and Engels were being served up for desecration by smirking, yuppie ironists. In Salon, Barbara Ehrenreich disdained the idea of "members of the 'sybaritic classes' ... mincing about with their designer copies." On NPR, Baffler editor and professional anti-ironist Tom Frank reminded us again that this consumerist nihilism is all the fault of those advertising bastards, alluding to Taco Bell's Marxist-themed Gorditas commercials as further proof that you might as well not laugh about anything, because the Man's just gonna find a way to turn it against you.

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These charges are part of a growth industry in progressive irony-bashing -- Dilbert's a capitalist stooge! Stop laughing at "Seinfeld"! -- that does little to counter those grim,
how many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb stereotypes. And they go to show how, for all its populist dreams, the left can still get squeamish about the messy business of appealing to the populace. Marx was hardly busting anyone's chains sandwiched in the basement political-science section between Herbert Marcuse and Charles Murphy, but damn it, he was gathering dust with dignity. It's as if the left has grown fond of being an honorable living museum piece, the Swiss Guard of fin de siècle political discourse. Being irrelevant means never having to say you're sorry for the Stalinist purges.

Hence the spectacle of white-collar professionals with book deals and lecture gigs remonstrating Verso for peddling the manifesto to those bourgeois! (Shhh! It was supposed to be our secret!)

"(The) gorgeously rippling red banner," Ehrenreich deadpans, "should be readily accessorizable with the cashmeres in primary tones coming to us for fall." It's an easy joke -- we all know nice red sweaters are dyed in the blood of the proletariat -- and a telling one: It suggests that an eye-catching presentation of radical ideas trivializes them at best, corrupts them at worst. After decades of electoral disappointments, progressives have concluded politics is a rigged beauty contest, where the people are perennially conned into betraying their interests -- who could have voted against Upton Sinclair or Tom Harkin on the merits? Thus the suspicion of the attractive (read: superficial), the popular (read: dumbed down), the mediagenic (read: Reaganesque).

Nowhere is the left's antiaesthetic aesthetic better displayed than in the pages of its flagship journal, the Nation. Knock Verso's Marx all you want, but what is the Nation if not a fashion accessory? It's a constructed object with a look calculated to send a message about the bearer: The gray, under-illustrated little journal on its Spartan newsprint tells you the owner is a person of substance, unconcerned with the shimmer of worldly baubles. Print it on glossy stock and splash some color inside it, and readers would squeal louder than when they lost their black-and-white Times and their Jules Feiffer in the Village Voice. It ostentatiously declaims a colon-cleansing austerity; it is a magazine that should be printed on bran flakes.

To be fair, in the past several years, and particularly since Katrina vanden Heuvel took over as editor, the Nation has begun looking less like a food co-op newsletter. To a certain extent it even reads less like one, having expanded its coverage of popular culture and the media, though often with more passion than writing chops. But the cover of the May 18 Nation shows how, for the left, a lack of style still earns you points for substance. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. --"President Wellstone?" the cover copy wonders -- is sketched, head cocked, in a "Stand and Deliver" pose. He looks like your almost-hip high school social-studies teacher, the one who got a little misty during the class on the Rosenbergs, and seems determined to carry on the grand democratic tradition of winning the electoral votes of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

Ruth Conniff's article discusses Wellstone's rumored plans to seek the 2000 Democratic nomination; he's been touring Appalachia, the South and the inner cities in a re-creation of Robert Kennedy's 1967 poverty tour. Now, I've liked Paul Wellstone ever since his first lonely speech against the Gulf War. But, apropos of Desert Storm, Wellstone as RFK would be the most laughable political one-man show since George Bush's Churchill impression in '91.

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Paul Wellstone is -- well, let's be shallow, shall we? -- Paul Wellstone is bald. And Wellstone's dome is not so much a TV handicap (he's handsome enough for a politician and academic) as an unignorable physical metaphor for the left's failures since FDR: a history of decent, impractical and often quite bald candidates that we brainwashed morons were supposed to support for our own good. That shiny pate is the crystal ball in which two generations of earnest progressives have scried an electorate that embraces sensible public investment, not realizing they were gazing into their own distorted reflections. It is a gleaming and doomed bowling ball that the left has heaved into gutter after electoral gutter. Stevenson -- whoosh! McGovern -- whoosh! Rack 'em up, fellas! Who's next?

Conniff creditably recognizes Wellstone's liabilities -- a certain lack of feistiness, a pronounced lightness in the wallet. She nonetheless holds out the eternal leftist hope that his candidacy could finally found a Christian Coalition-style "grass-roots network" -- the philosopher's stone that has justified one divisive progressive folly after another.

Sure, the left would love to have a Christian Coalition. The tiny problem is that it doesn't have Christianity -- that is, an overriding, agreed-on set of principles. It doesn't even have a unifying exigency: no Vietnam, no Depression. The Christian Coalition has the logos, the Good Book. The left has my book and my book and my book and my book. Check, for example, Gay Wachman's review of Marjorie Garber's "Symptoms of Culture" in the Nation's back pages: "I don't consider myself obsessed with identity politics, but" -- that conjunction setting up the second clause to annihilate the first -- "I have to admit I expected to find the word 'lesbian' in this book." This is the left that's going to unify textile workers, blacks and dominatrixes from the Carolinas to the Castro?

You can blame the left's skittishness about mass appeal, I suppose, on that actor Reagan, but it's a shame -- it's in entertainment that progressive ideas come across best. With Jesse Jackson moderating a tepid CNN chat show, with stiff from-the-left spokesbots (when they appear at all) getting their rhetorical clocks cleaned (e.g., Conniff, and before her the Nation's David Corn, who's also a regular Salon contributor, on CNN's defunct "Capital Gang Sunday"), about the only lefties getting a receptive public airing these days are Michael Moore and Warren Beatty.

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Then again, maybe the excruciating trailers for Beatty's forthcoming movie "Bulworth" -- a corrupt New Democrat senator morphs into a truth-telling liberal MC -- just crystallize the left's subconscious fear: If it reaches out to the masses it'll come off like a 61-year-old white man trying to rap. But when it equates selling itself with selling out, when it declares irony its enemy, it's adopting the fetal stance of the unpopular kid on the playground, convinced that we'll never laugh with it, only at it. That's not the message a strong, vital movement sends; and if you're going to broadcast it, you better not come crying when Newt knocks you off the monkey bars and takes your lunch money again.


James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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