Back Against the wall at odds
With the Strength of a Will and a Cause
Your pursuits are called outstanding
You’re emotionally complex
Against the grain of dystopic claims
Not the thoughts your actions entertain
You have proved, to be a
Real Human Being
And a Real Hero
College Featuring Electric Youth
A provincial election is once again upon us here in Ontario, and a general heightening of the political atmosphere has followed. Placards are out on lawns, candidates are going house to house, and campaign ads inundate media outlets on a daily basis. Add to the mix the mayoral campaign underway here in Toronto, as well as a number of important by-elections, and what you get is a heady mix for politicos throughout the province.
I always feel a profound sense of confliction when it comes to elections. I know there are a tremendous amount of young people in their twenties and thirties who simply do not vote. This, let me state at the outset, is a deep shame. For despite all of the flaws within our democratic system I still believe profoundly in it. When backed up by enshrined freedoms of speech and association, the democratic process still ensures (at least to some extent) that the popular will be respected by the state.
No amount of hipster detachment or ivory-tower critique can justify not engaging in the democratic process. If we truly feel there are problems to address in our society then we cannot simply sit back, complain, and retreat to our closed off professional or domestic spheres. Particularly for middle and lower class people, who already live their lives far away from networks of power and privilege, engagement in the political process is critical.
Yet I can understand young peoples’ reluctance to get involved in politics. If you boil it down, I think most people of my generation do not vote because of the sheer self-interest of most of our political class. We’ve all met politicians before (or young-people aspiring to be ones). We’ve all shaken hands with, or been to lunches hosted by, or even gotten the chance to converse one-on-one with elected officials. One always comes away with is a strong sense of the self-interest that defines these people.
What do I mean by this? The search for general acclaim and Historic recognition, the general air of self-aggrandizement, that cling to those who seek public office. Despite so much of the blithe talk politicians indulge in about wanting to contribute to the social good, they’re not running to become leaders of your local soup kitchen. They’re running so that they can walk through the marbled-halls of legislature with their hands on the levers of power. They’re running to be known, to be supported, to make their mark on History, to shape the social and political dynamics of the society around them.
It’s precisely that Nietzschean will-to-power that makes politicians from all corners of the political spectrum so fundamentally disingenuous. The ambitious drive politicians represent is seen no more thoroughly than when you meet young people who are “interested in getting involved” in a party. The campus experience is instructive here. Just think of those young Liberals or Conservatives who shake your hand with a glinting smile across their face. They’ll tell you how great a person you are, how you should do drinks and stay in touch, how important it is to stay involved.
But every inch of this performance is eerily off-putting, no matter how real such a public mask seems to the young political operative who wears it. They want your friendship because one day you might be important enough that they’ll need your support- as fundraiser, endorser, donor, or consultant. And as they work the room, glad-handing with everyone among them, you can’t help but feel the cold nature of it all: if there wasn’t the possibility of a political position dangling at the other end of the process, would they even bother with the whole charade? They certainly aren’t interested in getting to know you so they can hear about your inner-doubts, your flawed family history, or your regrets over lost loved ones.
Just once I wish a politician would say the following: I’m interested in becoming mayor of Toronto or premier of Ontario because I want power. Because having that power beats being anonymous, it beats pushing papers your whole life without anyone recognizing that you lived on this earth.
I can’t guarantee that the politician who made this statement would get my vote, but at least I would commend them for their honesty about what the whole affair is about.
Now, I don’t want readers to misconstrue my argument here. I think some political leaders really do care about issues of income inequality and social justice. But as people like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Justin Trudeau prove to us, narcissism and social concern are hardly mutually exclusive. You can desire the power that elected office gives you and at the same time want to do good for the poorer people of the world. It’s simply that no politician will admit to the former, but they’ll all rush towards the nearest microphone to discuss the latter.
How do we know when a politician is being false with us? I think most people have a kind of intuitive sense about the issue- you can feel when a public figure is being fake with you, no matter how genuine that person tries to be. This is one of the great (though rarely commented upon) secrets of Rob Ford’s success: like him or hate him, he is genuine. He is a sweaty, bloody, flawed human being, alcoholism, sexism, and homophobia included. Although we recoil at everything Ford represents, he exudes a kind of raw authenticity, even when (or especially when) he is trying to lie to us. What distinguishes Ford from so many of the candidates who vie for our attention is that he is mostly up front about his bigotry and self-destruction. The others, we suspect, may not be that much better than Ford- they simply keep that dark self all the more hidden.
This is the reason that a person like John Tory will never have nearly the same cultural influence as Ford. While Tory may ultimately win the mayorship he so covets, he is a politician through and through. From his coiffed hair to his glittering white teeth to his put-upon rich man’s smile, he has raised inauthenticity to a sublime art form.
While Tory isn’t plagued by the personal demons that hound Ford, neither does he have the dogged authenticity that Ford exudes. Like it or not, Ford ditched the politican’s aura of invulnerability long ago. Tory, on the other hand, is cryogenically steeped in that aura, which clings to him despite all his attempts at proving to us that he’s running “because he just really loves Toronto.” Then again, when you are essentially a political candidate by profession, with that North Toronto elitism clinging to you as firmly as your finely pressed suit, authenticity is not something that comes naturally.
Our intuitive ability to snuff-out smoothly produced fakery was perhaps best summed up by the music critic Steve Hyden, when he tried to explain in a recent essay what liking the band The Pixies meant in the context of the alt-culture of the 1990s:
Liking the Pixies was a way of saying “I’m a walking bullshit detector,” which was a righteous thing to be in the ’90s. Those of us who identified with alt-culture prided ourselves on being able to see through media obfuscation and show-business superficiality. It’s what drew us to The Simpsons and Mr. Show, Reality Bites and Quentin Tarantino, “Cut Your Hair” and Fiona Apple’s 1997 VMA speech. Pointing out B.S. was how like-minded individuals communed back then. And, in a way, it still is. Over time, “cynicism is the new optimism” became the predominant ideology of online media. Long before Gawker, talking like a Gawker headline was a way of life in the ’90s.
As Hyden points out, we are still those walking bullshit detectors, and it’s why politicians have so much difficulty in gaining the respect of young people. There’s just no way to separate the social concerns of politicians (which may be genuine) with their professed disinterest in the material benefits and Historical celebrity associated with public office. For our generation- nurtured on satirical bullshit exposing masters such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, as well as productively subversive comedies such as South Park and Key and Peele- the flagrant hypocrisy of the politician is as blatant as it is off-putting. Why should we lift a finger to vote for these people, none the less campaign for them, if they won’t even admit to the power-seeking dynamics of the very business they’re in?
Some may call our generation cynical, spoiled, and decadent for taking democracy for granted. But as Hyden points out, cynicism has always had deep connections to its flip-side: harried optimism. I would even go a step further: within the cynicism of the non-voting generation there is a submerged desire, a deep Utopian drive for a better and more just world. In the face of the cold, uncanny quackery of someone like John Tory or Justin Trudeau, this utopianism simply can’t be expressed, for it is always at risk of being siphoned off by the grinding calculations of machine politics. It is always at risk of being manipulated and distorted by those shiny faces on placards telling us about “hope and hard work.”
So young people disengage, they retreat to the xbox and the movie theater, the youtube rabbit hole or the inner recesses of their favorite fiction. They fracture into a million different hobbies, identity groups, and message board communities. From the outside looking in young people today can’t but be seen as differentiated beyond all recognition, literally cut-up into a million different consumer identities and micro subject positions. The only thing a young person has to be loyal to, it seems, is their self: their happiness, their desires, their own individual needs and proclivities. How many times have you asked a twentysomething what they want to do with their life and they tell you: be happy! “To thine own self be true,” as Shakespeare told us long ago.
But I for one am not totally discouraged by the undeniable social fracture that defines the cultural landscape. Even when young people don’t vote, even when they no longer identify with nation, party, or church, even when they split themselves off into so many fan clubs, hobby groups, or just plain individual monads, I still have great faith in them.
For the desire to be true to yourself, to live a life of care, fun, and sensuous pleasure, presumes a whole set of rights (regarding not only freedom of expression, but freedom of association, the right to affordable education, to a modicum of health and safety) that young people value highly. If any of those basic rights were infringed upon by a sudden act of state violence or economic rupture, I have no doubt that you would see young people act quickly to unify. Beneath all of the social fracture there is still a strong utopian desire that courses through them, even if the pressures of professional and bourgeois life often make it hard for them to locate and express it. So it burrows underground, to be found in the formal mechanisms of cultural texts or the endless chatter of online message boards.
This utopian desire thus needs to be read in a kind of inverse way, as a buried clue, a hidden symptom, found within a whole host of cultural practices- from obsessions with professional sporting clubs to constant consumption of digital celebrity culture to the isolating tendencies of online gaming- that seem far from collective or utopic on the surface. Going out and getting hammered at the coolest hipster bar on friday night is, for our generation, an expression of utopic desire masquerading as an act of flagrant decadence, if not self-abuse. But its surface-level vanity hardly mitigates the deeper emotional and cultural needs it fulfills.
Utopia is there within young people, if you are willing to stop and really look at them. It is not found in the egotistical vanity of a John Tory or Justin Trudeau- the more they disavow their ambition, the less traction they will get with young people too smart to be fooled by their shallow selflessness.
What would really impress young people is a political leader who was like them. Human, flawed, catty, sexually voracious, a little lazy, a little hard-working, prone to deep uncertainty and overstimulated much of the time, but essentially good, if totally unclear about how to change the world around them for the better.
I don’t know when a political leader like that will emerge, but I know we will recognize her or him the moment we see them. They will not have the fake veneer, the calming coldness, that defines most politicians. And if they pass the bullshit detection test, they will have our loyalty.
From where will this leader, this non-politician, emerge? I don’t know, but I eagerly await the day they come forward. Someone who is as progressive as they are genuine, as diligent as they are humble, as flawed as they are great.
Or, in other words, a real human being.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.