Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Now Ain't The Time For Your Tears

This piece in the most recent LRB, on Michael Moore's Sicko, ends with a rather interesting and intentionally exculpatory description of him as "the last great American protest singer". I have my doubts about Moore: the way Fahrenheit 9/11 makes use of the grieving mother of a dead American soldier seemed to me, whether or not she was happy to be used that way, quite wrong, stepping over the line between the use of individuals harmed by some policy or other as examples into a demand that we turn one woman's total consumption by grief into the basis of public policy; a lapse into exactly the sort of personalised politics of vengeance that were drawn on to justify the war Moore is in that film arguing against. Whatever. Maybe no omelettes without broken eggs is the right attitude to take towards degradation of a public sphere that is already clearly not characterised by a commitment to argument in terms that all can share. The thought that he is the last great American protest singer is what is interesting.

I remember having a discussion with a friend about the way that Billy Bragg, maybe particularly in the songs from the earlier part of his career, sounds curiously out of time now. The sense of joy in a project dedicated to human emancipation despite its futility so perfectly articulated in 'Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards' seems so hopelessly naive now, and not just because of the references to the Soviet Union; I can't think that anyone can really take simple pleasure in the moral vision presented by Gordon Brown's inward looking and defensive capitulation to the forces of reaction and the common-sense of the Washington Consensus. We will most definitely not prevail, not like this. The hope, even if it so often seemed vain, seems to have leached out of left-wing politics, and without that hope the sense of a moral community united by a sense of justice that demands public affirmation that protest singers thrive on - that the genius of that Bragg song relies on the evocation of - seems to just fall away.

That's sad though, and not just because we lose the possibility of new protest songs. As I mentioned in my last post, I've been working on a paper on the proper subject of theories of social justice (roughly), where I argue that proper attention needs to be paid to the fact that political institutions are institutions and not just sets of isolated incidents of coercion, and that that institutional nature makes special demands of our theories of their justification. But Bob Dylan says this better than I could ever say it in 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll': you're only supposed to bury the rag in your face only when institutions of attitudes to race and class allow William Zanzinger to escape proper punishment. Likewise, 'Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards' is one of the best ways of arguing for the good of a community of justice anyone could possibly come up with, which I am currently trying, when not swamped by teaching-related demands, to think about. We need protest songs so I can keep doing political theory, damnit!

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