Manufacturing Dissent: An Interview with Stephen Duncombe (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of a two part interview with Stephen Duncombe, author of the new book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy. What follows is the second installment. I am being pressed for time this morning but hope to add a few comments to this post later today about last night’s debate.

You only briefly touch upon the rise of news comedy shows like The Daily Showand The Colbert Report. Do you see such programs as a positive force in American democracy? How do you respond to those who feel that the blurring

between news and politics trivializes the political process? What role does

comedy play in the kinds of popular politics you are advocating?

I love The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. As someone on the Left it is refreshing to see a progressive viewpoint expressed (even if only expressed ironically) in a way that makes me laugh and gives me pleasure. I also think that Stewart and Colbert’s use of humor can be deeply subversive: they use ridicule to show how ridiculous “serious politics” is, much in the same way that Jonathan Swift’s “modest” proposal in 1729 made the “rational” case for solving the problem of the poor in Ireland by eating them. The political process is already a joke, these guys are merely recognizing it for what it is.

In doing this they hold out the possibility of something else, that is, they create an opening for a discussion on what sort of a political process wouldn’t be a joke. In doing this they’re setting the stage for a very democratic sort of dialogue: one that asks questions rather than simply asserts the definitive truth. However, it’s still unclear that ironic joking leads to the sort of popular response I’m hypothesizing above. It can, just as easily, lead into a resigned acceptance that all politics are just a joke and the best we can hope for it to get a good laugh out of it all. To paraphrase the philosopher Walter Benjamin: we can learn to find pleasure in our own destruction.

However, I think we need to take Stewart at his word: he’s just an entertainer. It’s really up to the rest of us to answer the questions he poses. Sometimes I think we ask too much of culture: we expect it to solve our political problems for us. I don’t think it can do this. It can create openings, give us insight, provide us with tools, but the rest is a political process that counts on all of us.

You contrast the ways that FDR spoke to the American public with the ways that George W. Bush addresses us during his weekly radio-casts. What do you see as

the primary differences? Most contemporary politicians who attempt to

“explain” complex policy issues in the way FDR did get accused of being

“wonks.” What steps do you think could be taken to create a new political

rhetoric which embraces the ideal of an informed public but doesn?t come

across as patronizing or pedantic?

The brilliance of FDR is that he and his New Deal administration, like King and his fellow organizers, recognized the necessity of spectacle in politics. Because of this they worked hard to re-imagine spectacle in a way that could fit progressive, democratic ends. The 1920s were an era much like our own in its worship of celebrity: a mediated world of movie stars on the silver screen and sports heroes in the new photo-tabloids. But instead of merely condemning this state of affairs, New Deal artists and administrators re-imagined it, using photographs sponsored by the Farm Securities Agency and murals painted by artists of the Works Progress Administration to recognize and display a different sort of American: the dust bowl farmer, the southern share cropper, the factory worker, the rootless migrant. By creating these counter-spectacles they tried to turn the public gaze from stars to everyday (albeit romanticized) people, essentially redefining “The People” in the popular imagination. Make no mistake, this was a deeply political move, as valorizing everyday people was essential for garnering political support for New Deal political and economic programs.

Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” also put the lie to the myth that spectacle has to run against reason. Over thirty times during his presidency FDR addressed the American public on the radio. He would always begin these speeches with a warm “My friends.” But what followed this simple greeting was a sophisticated explanation of the crises the country faced: the banking collapse, currency concerns, the judiciary, world war. This was propaganda. The speeches were scripted by playwrights who dramatized the case for the president’s politics, and FDR spoke to people’s fears and desires in a folksy, personalized language, but these fireside chats also took for granted that citizens could be reasoning beings with the ability to understand complex issues. In other words FDR believed that rationality and emotion could exist side by side.

I wish contemporary politicians would learn from this. Instead, we get the “man of reason” like John Kerry, or the “man of fantasy” aka George W. Bush. Politicians need to understand – in a way that I think many producers of pop culture already do – that you can speak to reason and fantasy simultaneously. It’s an Enlightenment myth that truth is self-evident: that all you need to do is lay out the facts of your argument and immediately people will acknowledge and embrace it. What FDR and King understood is that the truth needs help. It needs stories told about it, works of art made of it, it needs to use symbols and be embedded in myths that people find meaningful. It needs to be yelled from the mountaintops. The truth needs help, but helping it along doesn’t mean abandoning it.


You discuss the public desire for recognition as the flip side of their

relationship to celebrity culture. What lessons might progressives draw from

reality television about this desire for recognition?

If there are two things that those on the Left love to hate (while secretly enjoying) it’s celebrity culture and reality TV. These play to the our most base political desires: celebration of an ersatz aristocracy and cutthroat competition; the driving fantasies of Feudalism and Capitalism respectively. True, true. But it’s a mistake to write them off as just that, for they also manifest another popular dream: the desire to be seen. What do stars have that we don’t? Wealth and beauty, yes, but also something more important: they are recognized. What is reality TV about? The chance for someone like us to be recognized.

What sort of a politics can be based in a recognition that we desperately what to be recognized? First off, policies that make it easier to be seen and heard. Community TV, micro radio, free internet access, net neutrality, and so on. If the populist Huey Long once called for a “chicken in every pot,” in the mass mediated age our slogan ought to be “every person an image.” But it goes deeper than this, for the popular desire is not just about being seen as an image on a screen. This, in some ways, is just a metaphor for a far deeper desire: being recognized for who we are and what we are, our opinions and our talents — and this is the core of democracy.

The democracy we have today has little place for our opinions and talents. Our opinions show up as abstract polling data, and the only talents our political process asks for is our skill at forking over money to professional activists and campaigns or our dexterity in pulling a voting lever. This professionalization of politics, whereby democracy becomes the business of lobbyists, fund raisers, and image consultants, has fundamentally alienated the citizenry from their own democracy. It’s no wonder that we turn to culture to find these dreams of recognition expressed.

This issue really gets to the core of my Dream. My book is about learning from popular culture and constructing ethical spectacles, but the lessons that I hope are learned will lead far further than making better advertisements or staging better protests for progressive political causes (though that wouldn’t hurt). What I’m arguing for in my book is a reconfiguration of political thought, a sort of “dreampolitik” that recognizes that dreams and desires, ones that are currently manifested in pop culture, need to be an integral part of our democratic politics.