We don’t need to listen all that closely to hear the voice of right-wing reaction lately. But over the past few days its questions have been particularly and flagrantly silly. “How dare these brown women swear? How dare they dance? How dare they dress in ways that go against our expectations? And how dare they think they can now walk the halls of Congress? Who do these socialists think they are?”
For sure, all aesthetic standpoints are political, and especially in the United States. This is after all a country where the far-right gained a level of influence it hadn’t seen in sixty years through the election of a reality TV star. That the conspiracy theorists and Islamophobes most vociferously supporting Trump are also the enemies of joy, fun, ribaldry, and candidness isn’t particularly surprising. But then the ideal of America has always brought with it a certain sense of decorum and respectability that applies well beyond the ranks of congress, and always far more to those outside the clubs of wealth and whiteness.
None of those who sneered at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's teenage dancing had much to say about the teenage misogyny of Brett Kavanaugh, for example. Nor, for that matter, about his middle-aged misogyny. Tongues that clucked at Rashida Tlaib for her foul mouth remain still when Honduran children are thrown in cages. The Capitol Building’s most outraged eyes are normally blind when it comes time to acknowledge the infant mortality rate – highest of any industrialized nation’s capital – that exists a few hundred yards away.
Obscenity, after all, is relative. And this is true for nobody more than the nation’s great and admired elected leaders, those whose positions of power are supposed to reflect such eminent fair-mindedness.
Fifteen years ago, living in DC myself, I unfortunately had reason to interact with this rare species of human. As an intern for a labor union’s political action committee, I was dragged by my tie from building to building while my bosses glad-handed with Senators and Representatives who promised much, delivered little, and yet somehow always seemed to clinch the endorsement come election season. I sat in on committee meetings and watched these sad old men chortle, sneer, and doze off when a woman or African American spoke. I had the senior senator from his state, a “friend of labor,” lean in and whisper to me, his breath reeking of whiskey at 9:30 in the morning, about how unfair it was that other senators had better luck hiring “fuckable” interns. I heard the story about how several of them sang “Ten Little Indians” as a way to mock the Bhopal disaster. (And no, I have no idea where to start with that one, given that it’s not even “the right kind of Indian” referenced in the song.)
I saw relatively little, but it was enough to prove to me that the bulk of these people, the ones making decisions on the direction of the country, are soulless and depraved. Their sense of equitability, their vision of freedom and even joy; these were all over time bound to be warped and siphoned into the rationale of a chess game in which the pieces on the board bear less and less resemblance to actual human beings.
And why should they act any other way? Not only is it not in their interest, but literally nothing in their lives could compel them to have a shred of decency. The entire universe of democratic elected representation at the federal level is designed to undercut the democratic representation part, down to the very geography and architecture. Reflect on the location and posture of the Capitol Building: its position on the top of the city’s hill, the sheer grandeur and self-seriousness that exists in the priceless frescoes and marble statues adorning the rotunda.
These are uninterrupted conduits to the Founding Fathers’ predilections, the neoclassicism of slave-owners, the pomp of landlords terrified of the rabble. All of it maintained to this day with tax dollars somehow too good to spend on libraries or healthcare. What should be in theory the most public and democratic space in the country is in reality a living symbol of the upward flow of wealth.
That Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, and others like them are already having their legislative agendas throttled from within their “own” party speaks to this gravitational pull. The centrist logic behind the finger-wagging and pleas for civility have a purpose of course. The upshot of this is that the enthusiasm generated by bold new blood, by the uneven and fitful revival of American socialism, may not be long for this cloistered world of horse-trading and realpolitik.
It is impossible to tell of course, and I hope I am wrong. But Tlaib’s vote for the controversial “PayGo” measures, along with both her and Ocasio-Cortez's vote for continued funding of Homeland Security through the government shutdown do not bode well. Sheltered power like the US Congress doesn’t stay in power without knowing how to turn today’s rebels into tomorrow’s apologists. That is, unless something far more radical happens, some fissure opens up that swallows the festering rot and allows a different vision to take root.
During these moments, some notoriously “uncivil” behavior can bubble up. It goes far deeper than Trump’s tweets. Congressmen took swings at each other over arming the Contras in Nicaragua. One hundred years ago, members of the Socialist Party elected on a swell of support and workers’ organizing were blocked from taking their seats. Sixty years before that, anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner was attacked with a cane on the Senate floor after he insulted pro-slavery opponents. It would appear that whenever the exploitation and empire sitting at the foundation of America are challenged, its precious decorum and civility crumble.
So for now, we may be best served thinking on the glimpses these breaks in stultifying decorum – and the thin-skinned reactions to them – provide. We may want to think of what it would mean for these closed citadels of gentility and calculated violence to be shaken by the dance steps of thousands storming their corridors.
We can imagine the laughter and cheers that erupt when the chambers of congress are told that they are no longer necessary, when justice departments flail impotently at the abolition of police. The carnivalesque mockery that ensues when it is announced that the rich shall be taxed until they piss blood, when those who voted for war crimes and oil pipelines are ordered to “get in the fucking cell.”
Perhaps we can imagine a day when the children of the Migrant Caravan adorn the walls of the Capitol Building’s rotunda with the slogans of Oscar Romero, Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, and Subcomandante Marcos.
Inside the Dirksen and Rayburn Buildings and other congressional offices, the metal detectors are deactivated and destroyed. Cafeteria staff give away free food. Representatives are given the choice of giving up their Georgetown residences to house the homeless or having them taken by force.
We watch as the Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol Building comes crashing down to the steps. Its fragments are moved to a glass case inside, a plaque placed in front that reads “This statue was cast in 1862 by Phillip Reid, a man of African ancestry kept in bondage by the American sculptor Clark Mills, who appropriated both payment and credit. The existence of this statue is a crime.”
Maybe when we allow ourselves to laugh at the joylessness of the right and center alike, when we let ourselves feel the temporary thrill of profanity in the midst of stuck-up and hypocritical propriety, we can imagine a bit of what it might look like for the cordoned off corridors of power to be thoroughly placed at the mercy of radical democracy. Slim chance it might be, but its resonance lives close to every urge to create and feel and move in an authentic way. As the graffiti on the wall of the disco once read:“o bailan todos o no baila nadie.” “Either we all dance, or nobody dances.”
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Alexander Billet is a writer and cultural critic. He is a founding editor of Red Wedge, and has also written for Jacobin, In These Times, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, New Politics, the International Socialist Review, The Nation, and other outlets. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he is an active member of Democratic Socialists of America. He blogs, with Jason Netek, at Say It With Paving Stones... and can be reached on Twitter: @UbuPamplemousse