Air Guitaring Towards Insurrection
On January 6th (sort of), the politics of nonsense, and what it will take to build something better
I’ve told the story of Digger Joe before, but not nearly enough. The story rules. Joe rules. Except his name isn’t really Joe, that’s just what folks call him. His actual name is Ljubisav Đokić. Also, it’s not really much of a story, in that there’s not really an arc to it at all. What your man Ljubisav did back on October 5th was take a really big wheel loader and ram it into the Serbian state-run radio and TV building over and over again. He didn’t knock the building over or anything like that. Nor did he and his big fascism-hating machine single-handedly bring down Serbian Dictator Slobodan Milošević. That did happen that day, for the record, but there were thousands of democracy-loving Serbs in the street who deserve a piece of the credit. Ljubisav’s contribution to the affair was that he did something that looked awesome and made people proud. I mean, they really did hate that TV building. It was a Milošević propaganda mill. The whole deal with the wheel loader likely wasn’t necessary for the flourishing of Serbian democracy, but, you know… vibes matter.
I bring all this up mostly because one thing that often gets lost When We Talk About January 6th is that sometimes citizen uprisings against oppressive governments— particularly mass nonviolent social movements— are actually really cool and fun and good. You know how Portugal overthrew their dictator? They used their country’s entry in that year’s Eurovision Song Contest as a cue. Also, they filled city streets with carnations, though that was more of a celebratory, after-the-fact thing. When thousands of Filipinos brought down Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, they tied a whole bunch of yellow ribbons all over Manilla- apparently, it was a reference to a Tony Orlando song. Great nonviolent revolutions, both of them!
January 6th, 2021, of course, wasn’t one of the good ones. It was quite bad, actually! And it may be a harbinger for much worse things! This is not a trenchant opinion for somebody with my particular brand of politics to hold. You have no doubt already scrolled past thousands of articles this week from liberal-to-moderate sources reminding you that the insurrection was both quite bad and perhaps a serious harbinger of a broader democratic collapse (you might have also found some Leftist takes about how it’s Not Actually That Big Of A Deal Because American Democracy Is A Pyramid Scheme, which is, well, also true). No need for me to pile on there. It’s not that I disagree, I’m just not quite sure of the utility in me adding to the great national pile of well-furrowed brows.
Instead, I’ll say this: Goodness, it was such an American take on the whole storming the Capitol trope, wasn’t it? There were so many unnecessary guns and accouterments. There were so many individual plans but no real coordination except to mess stuff up. There was both farce and tragedy. There wasn’t a clear line where one stopped and the other ended. There were so many White people. There were so many realtors. There were so many White realtors actively promoting their real estate business while attempting to overthrow their country’s government (Jenna Ryan famously broadcast the message “We are going to f---king go in here. Life or death, it doesn’t matter. Here we go...Y’all know who to hire for your Realtor. Jenna Ryan for your Realtor…” to her Facebook followers before storming the gates).
Most of all, though, it was a deeply American affair in that it was very loud and dangerous but also completely fabricated. It was nonsense politics. And by that I mean not merely that it was built on an extremely obvious surface-level lie (there was no stolen election, which meant that from the onset that this was an act of citizens demanding less democracy rather than more). That’s generally part and parcel of how mobs of people have been riled up to support fascism throughout history. I mean that there was actually no overarching goal at play other than the expression of fandom. The dream wasn’t to return Trump to power so that he could do anything specific for the economy or the pandemic or foreign policy. It was just to make sure he won. It’s the same logic that pop group fans use when they stay up all night refreshing Youtube to juice the numbers up for their heroes’ new single. It’s the logical end-point of politics as just a big dumb in-group signaling game where you get to make your guy win and send the other team home disappointed.
This week, Simon van Zuylen-Wood of the Washington Post published a really strong profile of J.D. Vance, the supposedly-Appalachia-whispering conservative author turned Tucker Carlson-aping Ohio Senate candidate. The whole thing is worth reading, which is high praise for an article that spends a significant amount of real estate on Vance’s beard. There’s one scene in particular, though, that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.
One thing that struck me as I checked out Vance’s campaign events was how rarely voters wante dto talk about topics of local relevance. One night, Vance held an event in Boardman, a suburbe not far from the Lordstown GM plant that closed in 2019. That day, a federal trial was taking place in Cleveland that would result in the first-ever jury decision finding chain pharmacies responsible for exacerbating the opioid crisis. One of the two plaintiffs in the trial was Trumbull County, 10 miles north of where we were. Yet nobody in the room— or any event I went to— asked about drug addicition. It’s not that voters didn’t grill Vance. They just preferred to ask about his past anti-Trumpism, or his relationship with Thiel, or any number of more unexpected national concerns, such as term limits. After the event, I drifted over to a folding table where other candidates had dropped off campaign paraphernalia. A placard for Josh Mandel read “ELECTION INTEGRITY NOW!” on one side and “STOP DEMOCRAT CHEATING!” on the other.
I’ve already spent a couple of weeks detailing why— at least in the White American Body Politic— vague, culture war-ish national debates have been allowed to colonize every corner of political discourse. No need to go down that rabbit hole again. Suffice to say, it took a lot of work to get here. But here we are, stuck in a No Politics Is Local (And Very Little Of It May Matter) loop. There is no shortage of it on the right, of course— my entire lifetime has been spent watching incredulous flag-pinned conservative TV shouters warn me about one manufactured danger or another, all of it melding into a sprawling, reactionary “We Didn’t Start The Fire” verse: Satanic Panic, prayer in schools, War on Christmas, Q-Anon clues.
While the center and left side of the aisle might be less likely to “just make stuff up” when engaging in various culture war rumbles, none of our hands are clean in this devolution towards a collective politics of nonsense.
You see it every time a new fundraising email hits your inbox with some borderline-elder-abuse subject line like “WE’RE IN TROUBLE— MITCH MCCONNELL IS CACKLING AT US.”
You see it in our obsession with individual political personalities— about what gun-adjacent backdrop Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert posed in front of this week, about whether AOC’s “Eat The Rich” dress was or wasn’t cringe.
You see it in our ability to take tiny, individual disputes and imbue our response to them with Future of the Republic stakes (you’ll remember that just days before George Floyd’s murder, the central racial justice issue gripping the nation was how passionately we could correctly identify that the White Lady With A Dog Who Threatened The Black Bird-Watcher was, indeed, in the wrong).
You see it in the amount of time and energy various companies and organizations spent trying to polish “Black Lives Matter” statements on corporate web pages compared to how deeply those same companies were held accountable for the kind of tax-and-regulation-avoidance that limits any hopes for reparational, justice-inclined government intervention.
And goodness knows you can see it in the insular myopia that marks most debates on the Left. [I recently watched my local DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) chapter’s County endorsement meeting for County Board candidates; I learned very little about the work of our County Board but quite a bit about national DSA internecine fights].
Now, by calling all this Nonsense Politics, I don’t mean to infer that there aren’t any traditional “Cultural Wars” issues that don’t have tremendous implications for people’s lives. Nor is it to infer that manufactured political issues can’t trigger real, actual tragedies. January 6th started as a dumb lie but ended with actual death.
What I do believe, though, is that you can’t fight nonsense politics with more nonsense politics. You can’t just hope that your side’s “epic clap-backs” will make the other side’s “brutal takedowns with facts and logic” magically wither and die. Sadly, our collective political muscles are so atrophied that it will take even more than merely trying to seed national discourse with “kitchen table issues” rather than rhetorical fights.1 You don’t create a different Kansas merely by bemoaning “what’s the matter” with it. We have to build a different set of political muscles together, and that starts hyper-locally.
Returning back to JD Vance’s campaign stop in Boardman, OH, it doesn’t surprise me at all that hyper-local issues— Ohio’s actual governmental culpability in the Opioid epidemic, a very real plant closure— weren’t on folks’ minds when it came time for a Q and A. I see the same phenomenon with the anti-racist organizing trainings that I run for (mostly) Left-leaning White people. The students in my cohorts often come with an extremely sophisticated understanding of contemporary anti-oppression discourse, but many struggle when it comes time to identify current local issues where equity and justice are on the table. We have all learned— on the right and left— that political involvement lives in our ability to properly react to the controversy of the day. We’ve aren’t used to digging up the dirt about who is being sold up the river by our local zoning board, which mega-corporations are fleecing our city through TIFs or defrauding our state through crooked mineral rights leasings. We don’t know what our school board is actually debating in the 90% of meetings where the TV cameras don’t show up and nobody is yelling about CRT.
The good news, though, is that we know how to do this. It’s the same spirit that leads us to remember to bring snacks for our kids’ soccer team or to show up for a blood drive, just with the added ingredients of radical political imagination and in-it-for-the-long-run tenacity. It’s neighbors actually doing the digging together on the issues facing their neck of the woods and then spreading the word. Its Hoosier Action organizers in Martinsville, IN raising enough of a fuss about toxic plumes in their town that the EPA finally took notice. Its tenants of a long-suffering Minneapolis apartment complex banding together to evict their landlord. It’s both high-profile labor actions— like the John Deere strike in Iowa or the Warrior Met Coal Strike in Alabama— and the community support networks that have organized around those strikers.2
There is little glory in the stalwart, quiet, actually-knock-on-your-neighbor’s-door-and-invite-them-to-work-with-you path. It is an almost guaranteed ticket to anti-virality, to never being on a short-list as a cool new Congressional hopeful. But there’s a time and a place for big, bold, attention-getting moves, and that’s after we’ve actually built something together. Because here’s the other thing that separates inspiring mass people’s movements from whatever it is that we’re all doing around these parts: the activists who eventually made history on the street spent months and years building trust, camaraderie and local political power first. Notably, the Serbian rebellion was only successful after student activists like Srdja Popovic changed tactics after their previous attempt at big, flashy, zeitgeist-seizing moment failed.
“In 1992, we were in our Occupy phase,” says Popovic. “We occupied all four university campuses in Serbia – it’s a small country – and we were super-liberal, super-educated, super-cool and super-isolated. Meanwhile Milosevic was sending his tanks to Croatia. We had to go out and listen. Get the real people, rural people, not so [cool, self-satisfied young] people, behind us. Build a movement. We did, but it took us five years.”
Put differently, we’ll all get to drive our wheel loader into a state-run TV station someday, and when we do so, a crowd of thousands will cheer us on, but only if we have actually put in the work of building something beautiful with that crowd of thousands.
You know, I keep using this term “nonsense politics” to refer to the big, flashy “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” fights to which American discourse has been reduced. But that’s actually not the whole story. What January 6th revealed was that all this isn’t just dumb and loud, it’s cynical and nihilistic. It is a societal consignment to the idea that our neighbors aren’t actually worth very much, that collectively we aren’t capable of transcendence, that the only thing left is to go home and root for our own team. By contrast, the act of building something small and hyper-local, of trusting your neighbors to engage in a politics that is real and honest, of sticking with it… well, that feels much more like democracy to me than any of the furrowed-brow but ultimately empty denunciations of January 6th that you’re going to hear today.
I’ll leave the last word to Popovic, because quite frankly I’ve never had the experience to which he’s alluding— the joy of building democracy with your neighbors, of confronting those who seek to divide and control, of proclaiming that we’re all worth so much more. It sounds lovely, though. I’d very much like to experience it. And I’d like to build it together.
“I think we succeeded because we simply loved life more than them…. Those guys were the preachers of death. Their hatred, their propaganda, their language smelled like death. And we won because we loved life more. We decided to love life.”
As always, The White Pages is free, but if you’d like to help keep the lights on you can make a tax-deductible donation to The Barnraisers Project (heck, you might even get a nice sweatshirt in return). Thanks!
Song of the week: Portugal’s unlikely revolutionary anthem, “E Depois Do Adeus” by Paulo Carvalho
As somebody who personally supports Medicare For All and The Green New Deal, for example, I wish it were true that all it took to cut through the sturm and drang of American nonsense politics was to offer clear, national, materialist alternatives. If that was all it took, though, Bernie Sanders, with his clear, consistent messaging around populist economic interventions, would have won easily. You can make a similar case about this on the conservative side too; again, that Washington Post article about the Ohio Senate campaign is a good starting point to understanding the uphill climb that would-be economically populist conservatives face in a post-Trump GOP.
If you only click on one link this week, I highly recommend making it that first one, about the Warrior Met Strike Christmas Fund. Getting to buy a couple of things on their Target wish list this year might have been the single donation that made me happiest this past year. You’ll see a link at the end of the article to a couple of active funds as well.