A Covey of Credos

A good friend wrote to me recently to point me toward the website for Credo, a wireless expansion of the Working Assets telephone program. Credo sets aside a percentage of all of its fees to support nonprofit organizations of its customers’ choosing. According to its website, Credo gives you an opportunity to “choose the mobile company that supports your beliefs.” At the same time, “You’ll get competitive rates, nationwide all-digital coverage, helpful customer service, great phones, and a variety of plans to choose from.” This best of all possible worlds has undoubtedly produced significant support for some worthy progressive organizations, and is a fine example of good corporate citizenship, I thought. Still, I wondered, how much can something like this actually accomplish?

The problem with this type of political action began to come into focus the next day as I read Lawrence Weschler’s absolutely wonderful book Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences. The collection grew from a regular column the author contributed to McSweeney’s Quarterly, and from other publications, in which he traces provocative connections between iconic images from the history of visual culture. Many of Weschler’s convergences begin with playful observations about similar compositional approaches in painting, graphic design, photography, television, and advertising, and grow in layers of resonance through the power of his imagination, some startling research, and his will to extract and articulate meaning from these seeming coincidences.

In Weschler’s world, however, little is pure coincidence. If Newt Gingrich and Slobodan Milosevic seem to share a similarly sculpted doughy visage, it becomes an occasion to contemplate the “fundamentalist, cynical, and manipulative” similarities between the Contract With America and the regime that launched ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko begin to share a sublime sense of human insignificance within the vast cosmological and metaphysical void that surrounds us when seen in the context of images of galaxies and moonscapes published in magazines during the years of their greatest productivity. And the chance fact that Vaclav Havel was photographed wearing a jacket created for the film Awakenings brings an uncanny authority to Weschler’s reading of Oliver Sacks’s tale of “frozen” patients in a Bronx hospital; they become more than allegory for Eastern Europe under Soviet communism, sharing a podium at the prow of a revolution. Weschler’s insights are often startling, and invite a more careful attention to the images surrounding us than we typically maintain.

His speculations also begin to become practical tools in essays like one near the middle of the collection (also published previously here) in which he considers the graphic design of the Solidarity movement in 1980-1981. Solidarity’s posters were an integral part of a potent propaganda campaign to rally Polish nationalist sentiment behind a difficult and often bloody struggle for workers’ rights under Soviet occupation. Weschler points out that the simplicity of images like this one were packed with latent meaning, drawing on a rich trove of images and other materials from national history while making oblique references to contemporary popular culture. He points out that it was often enough for Solidarity’s graphic activists simply to juxtapose bold images with dates of important uprisings in the Polish struggle for self-determination, because supporters of the movement would immediately recognize them. They were willfully cryptic, though not for the sake of obfuscation, and successful because of the issues at stake for Solidarity and the public’s investment in the movement, witnessed in the hunger they endured to support it.

Weschler contrasts the vitality of the Polish images with American political graphic design in the same era, and finds at least one example—for a 1981 march on Washington for labor rights—to be sorely lacking in comparison. Though titled Solidarity Day, the poster projects a mishmash of vague agendas, reflecting a lack of cohesion and determination in the movement itself in the blank stares of the citizens looking out of the poster. In Weschler’s analysis, the posters of Solidarity were not successful only because they relied on a pastiche approach to recycling images and identified with a relevant history, but because there was a clear goal and a strong movement behind them.

Though the essay was written in 1983, what Weschler says could just as easily apply—perhaps even more so—to the situation in which left-spectrum Americans find ourselves now. Weschler’s reading reminded me of a gathering in Washington Square Park held on the occasion of the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center—one of the few dates that actually has resonance for Americans today (although this past year witnessed the stirrings of a
purposeful forgetting
). Organized by the coalition Not In Our Name, the ostensible purpose was to remember the victims of the disaster and to protest the Bush administration’s already apparent agenda of using it to manipulate public opinion. Over the course of the event, however, we heard speeches protesting American imperialism, meddling in Central America, and failure to support the Palestinian cause. Important problems all, and probably even related to the big picture of which 9/11 and its aftermath form the foreground, but I left confused and wishing that someone with a clear vision and the authority to articulate a limited set of pressing demands had been in charge.

An article that ran in Adbusters last year titled “The American Left’s Silly Victim Complex” hit the nail on the head in its parody:

Anyone who’s ever been to a lefty political meeting knows the deal—the problem is the “spirit of inclusiveness” stretched to the limits of absurdity. The post-sixties dogma that everyone’s viewpoint is legitimate, everyone‘s choice about anything (lifestyle, gender, ethnicity, even class) is valid, that’s now so totally ingrained that at every single meeting, every time some yutz gets up and starts rambling about anything, no matter how ridiculous, no one ever tells him to shut the fuck up. Next thing you know, you’ve got guys on stilts wearing mime makeup and Cat-in-the-Hat striped top-hats leading a half-million people at an anti-war rally. Why is that guy there? Because no one told him that war is a matter of life and death and that he should leave his fucking stilts at home.

The diffuseness of the movement would seep into view again and again. A radio report on a February 2003 protest that ran on NPR during the run-up to the Iraq war featured a chorus of women singing John Lennon’s mantra, “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” as if this articulated any kind of relevant agenda. A March 2004 protest march in New York City trickled out once again into Washington Square Park, with the most audible statements coming from a small group of communists who had seized a patch of pavement near the fountain. Whether you agree with their historical analysis or not is not the issue; it was beside the point of the gathering. The numbers of people who turned out for the event made it clear that there were large segments of the public who opposed the war, but there was still no clear catalyst that could synthesize and channel this expression into any coherent tangible action. The Democrats ignored it until much too late, and even the New York Times, which has been otherwise commendable in its recording of the Bush administration’s failures, has seemed content to report on public protests at arm’s length, a symptom of the inability of the march’s leaders to articulate a lasting vision that sticks.

The final chapter of Everything that Rises can offer a way to think about why public opposition has been ineffective in opposing an obviously and astonishingly inept government in the past many years. In an essay (perhaps in another sign of the Weschler-ness of experience) also titled “Credo,” the author posits his method as a negotiation between two kinds of seeing.

The history of thinking about vision is in fact a history of a continual rejiggering of the relative importance of those two vectors: is it that light rays enter the eye through the corneal lens (whereupon they get sprayed onto a sort of tabula rasa screen at the back of the eye)—or rather, in some sense, that the brain’s or the mind’s, or anyway the self’s attention courses out to the world through that lens (actively grasping and even shaping what it sees, or rather looks at, or rather chooses to tend to)?

For Weschler, seeing what is in front of us and creating a compelling narrative that gives a form to the world are intertwined activities, though it is the latter that makes his writing so compelling. It is his creative repurposing of the raw material on which his essays are based that brings a focus to our sense of things we might otherwise ignore, and that might even suggest a method of extracting a meaning from history. Such is perhaps the case in any good critical writing, but Weschler’s “credo” also hints at a way of existing in the world; it is a philosophy of a creative life.

A hypothesis: Credo as phone company, at least as professed in its undoubtedly focus-group generated promotional copy, is the opposite of this. As effective as it might be in raising funds for organizations worth supporting, such an automated form of feel-good, multifaceted (and therefore utterly without focus), ersatz activism will never engage participants to the point of feeling truly invested in the causes they believe in. Although it helps fund activists who are dedicated and working to effect change, for the broader public this is politics as unconscious abstraction, as convenience, as reduction to fundraising campaigns. It serves as an umbrella to an overstocked supermarket of “causes” that showcases the competing fight for the attention of the left-of-center electorate. It is a sign that, unlike Solidarity, many feel alienated even from the agendas they support, and of the desperate need for a more persuasive lens to focus the public’s attention.