Monday, May 01, 2006

We Can Rebuild Him: Make Him Faster, Stronger, Funnier, Happier...

The left has a self-image problem. We seem to have lost our picture of ourselves and, with it, we seem to have lost our joy. We had a picture. Back in the 70's we had long-haired, guitar-playing, sweater wearing, multicultural kids holding hands and singing that they wanted to buy the world a corporately produced carbonated beverage. It was cheesy and campy, sure, but it was about freedom, peace, togetherness, caring, sex, and the care-free silliness of the Beatles in Help! Given the choice, you wanted to be us, not what they wanted us to be. But it wasn't just a marketing scheme trying to create some way to sell ovaltine to young baby boomers, it came in part from the liberation movement and the all the possibility that came with expanding freedom; and it came in part from the huge generation who happened to be at the age where they had to consider what they wanted "real life" to look like. Put the two together and there was a sense that a different model of living, a happier model was possible. Love was in the air -- of course, the notion of "love" was loaded with all kinds of political baggage, but that is exactly the point.

Then came the Reagan 80's. It knocked the crap out of us. It seemed like it was disaster after catastrophe. We had the US sponsored death squads killing innocents in Central America, bunny rabbits getting their eyes burned out for shampoo, Apartheid in South Africa, ecological calamities that if we don't stop right now [fill in name of species or important natural feature] would be gone forever, and on and on and on. Fast and furious, the issues that we HAD to take on just kept coming like chocolates on the conveyor belt in that Lucy episode. We were so busy putting out the fires and preventing the world from going completely to hell, that we lost track of the love.

The perceived success in elevating in the public mind the plight of those suffering from the famine in Ethiopia and homelessness on our own streets set the tone for the next generation of lefties. We got celebrities. We got concerts. We got news coverage. It became the default position. We became door to door sympathy salesmen. It was all about creating outrage about the next big problem. The meta-problem was that there were so many problems. Which one would be the one to galvanize our attention. It became a bustling marketplace of crises. And in the marketplace, too much supply could not drive up demand. We divided into camps to drive our pet concerns against the others. To get any press, you needed to be worse, you needed more emotion-laden images. The ratcheting up started. You had to have more distended bellies than the undernourished children last month. You had to have a more global ecological catastrophe. You needed a more vicious genocide. And with each step, the public got more and more weary, more and more skeptical, more and more immune.

That's part of the problem. We have been selling crisis for so long, that we no longer sell love. We have adopted a bunker mentality, hunkered down to hold what little ground is left that we have lost our dreams. We easily get branded as angry liberals for a reason, we are angry. I'm not saying we shouldn't be outraged. Damn right we should. That outrage is well placed and ought to be fueling our desire to right horribly immoral wrongs. But trying to create our outrage in everyone else does not work. It is a losing strategy. Yes, the other side does it, too. Hannity, Limbaugh, Coulter -- all ragingly angry. But we are especially susceptible being blindsided by the anger charge because we have lost our picture. The GOP talking point that the Dems are "the party of no" resonates. We tell people, "no to smoking," "no to meat," "no to fun cars," no to fur," "no to titillating images," no to everything that is part of the image of American life that the other side is selling. They are selling chocolate and all we are saying is "no, only eat organically grown broccoli, I don't care if you like it." We will lose every single time.

Some kids on my campus on Valentine's Day were handing out literature to students explaining the horrible labor practices behind the chocolate and diamond industries. The idea was to make people realize that when they were getting something for their beloved, they were really contributing to global evil. It was a very well-intentioned act, but think about what it said. The people taking the literature were only trying to do something nice and thoughtful for their sweeties. They were trying to make their boy/girlfriend happy. They were trying to get some action with someone they were interested in. And what is the left saying? Expressing your care/love/lust makes you part of the evil syndicate. There is no parade we won't rain on. I am not saying that we should look the other way. I'm not saying we should cave in and be pollyannas. I'm not saying we should put off action. We do need to stop these labor practices that are the result of global corporate capitalism. But I am saying that we need to be smart about it and part of being smart involves doing it in a way that reinforces our picture.

What is that picture? We need to figure it out, but I agree with Al Franken that whatever it is, it need to include humor. Our lives are funnier and everyone loves funny. If those kids had been selling fair-trade organic chocolates and given out a free condom with each bar, their message would have gotten a much better reception. People would have been drawn in, instead of rolling their eyes and thinking "there they go again." Be funny. Be clever. Make it a natural part of actions of the left.

But funny is not the only angle. We need a fuller picture. It should include being active in the outdoors. It should include being smart. Eating really good food. Having a lover free of socially constructed hangups. Being happy, not just angry. I'm not saying we should lose our edge, just that we don't need it to be our only side or our most public side. We need it to be a means to a better way of life, not an end which creates an angry unsatisfying life.

Help me out here. What is the picture of the life we are proposing? What is the dream? I understand that we all have different desires and that life decisions are deeply personal. I know we especially hate to try to rope people into things instead of letting them be autonomous agents, but at the same time, we can offer possibility. We can offer some building blocks from which to build the image of the perfect life. What are the positive possibilities we should be selling? I think health, outdoor activity, freedom, humor, and sexual liberation ought to be part of it. Other ideas?