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e-flux conversations

Progress as Regression


Despite ideological differences, the various factions that make up the political right in America—from the grassroots to the astroturfed to the corporate—have found common ground after Obama’s 2008 victory.[footnote Astroturf is the brand name for plastic grass. Politically, it designates a class of organizing with the appearance of being led by a “grassroots” effort when in fact it is wholly funded and controlled by institutional or corporate interests.] This ground is the past: an arid patch of mythological land that has become home to a growing organizing effort driven by anti-tax sentiments, elements of nationalism, and a vicious streak against a laundry list of undesirables.[footnote Undesirables should not be mistaken for the unwanted. When something is undesirable, it reverberates with feeling the alien in oneself. Or, put another way, the undesirable is a reminder that what is foreign may in fact be what is missing in the incomplete puzzle of the self. This is why it is so alluring. Or put in yet another way, undesirability is the pleasure principle of art.] This movement only knows one way forward: back.

Consider the recent time warp at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. David Wojnarowicz’s video Fire in My Belly (1986–87) was removed from an exhibition mounted there by the Smithsonian (the gallery’s parent institution) after complaints were lodged by the Catholic League and Republican Congressman Eric Cantor that the work was “anti-religious” and therefore a form of hate speech.[footnote For an account of the Wojnarowicz incident, see Frank Rich, “Gay Bashing at the Smithsonian,” The New York Times, December 12, 2010. See .] The video itself shows no semblance of a critique of religion. In fact, the work uses Christian iconography as it was historically intended, as the lingua franca of suffering and redemption in dark times, like the medievalism of the early age of the AIDS crisis. But Cantor and the Catholic League did not see this, if they saw the work at all. What they did see was an opportunity to reignite the culture wars of the late 1980s—in which Wojnarowicz was also a target—by attacking gay visibility and acceptance in order to wage a proxy battle against the repeal of the military ban on serving openly in the military and the increasing pressure to legalize gay marriages in all fifty states.

Are the eighties not bygone enough? One of the consequences of the Republican takeover of Congress after the 2010 midterm elections has been that Texas libertarian congressman Ron Paul now chairs the subcommittee on domestic monetary policy in the House of Representatives. And Paul recently reiterated that he wants the US to go back to the gold standard, essentially pinning the value of the dollar to the fixed weight of gold.[footnote See Nin-Hai Tseng, “Will the Fed be able to survive Ron Paul?,” Fortune magazine online, December 14, 2010: .] This was the US monetary policy up to 1930s, when there was a near universal belief that gold was the only value paper money represented. A nation’s economy based on the gold standard is essentially beholden to miners for their money supply. FDR took the US off the gold standard in 1933.

Are the thirties still too modern? One can revel in the musty pageantry of the Tea Party protests that continue to fly the freak flag across the country. Standing for Taxed Enough Already, the Tea Party self-consciously echoes the rhetoric and sometimes the dress of early Americans resisting taxes imposed on the colonies by King George III.[footnote See Jill Lepore, “Tea and Sympathy,” The New Yorker, May 3, 2010.] The Boston Tea Party, in which colonialists dumped a shipment of tea imported from England into the Boston harbor in 1773, has since become a beacon for the idea that taxation without representation is tyranny.[footnote See Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).] For the Tea Party of 2009, this idea has become a call to arms, gathering libertarians, Ayn Randers, evangelicals, Christian nationals, militiamen, strict Constitutionalists, 9/11 truthers, neo-Birchers, and people who still do not believe President Obama was born in the US (known as Birthers) to form a noxious alliance composed of homophobic, racist, xenophobic, and nationalistic elements that imagines itself to be the second coming of the American Revolution.

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