by Tony Kushner
Throwback Thursday: As cities around the world celebrate Pride, we are republishing an edited excerpt from playwright Tony Kushner's President's Lecture, given at Brown University in the fall of 1998. Reprinted with the author's permission in the Spring 1999 issue of Religious Socialism. – Editorial Group of “Religious Socialism"
The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, With a Key to the Scriptures, by Tony Kushner
“Every day the world wakes up eager to r this is precisely how it should be. Texaco. world of energy.”
Perhaps you’ve seen this ad. It’s like many commercial spots on millennial TV. There’s a new formula now. The product being flogged is almost never visible, or is to be seen in fleeting, fugitive glimpses, like a movie star evading the paparazzi advertising having learned that its job isn’t really about creating a desire for a specific thing as much as it is about creating Desire itself, the more free floating, the less specific the desire the better, because desire for something dies when the something is obtained, whereas Desire Itself is unappeasable, everyone wants what they can’t have — or in the case of millennial TV, what they can’t even get a really close look at. Advertising is about creating consumers as much as it is about creating consumption. If a celebrity spokesperson is employed in these ads he or she is usually even less visible than the product, seen, not heard, someone so famous their voice alone suffices — indeed their invisibility intensifies the power and allure of their almost- presence by abstracting celebrity itself into a kind of distilled incorporeal essence, disembodied like a Godhead. The camera work in the millennial commercial spot is collage-y, channel-surfery, jittery, ideal for the age of Ritalin Addiction: a hundred hasty skimshots, carefully intentional, carefully multi-ethnic, careful to include at least a couple of outrageously gorgeous expensively clad fashion models pretending to he ordinary people among carefully selected ordinary looking actors looking like ordinary ordinary people doing the things ordinary people do, only magnificently back- and side-lit; and with every mundane activity underscored with airbrushed, rock-and- gospel-inflected, grand-opera inflected music, carefully uptempo, ideal for the age of Prozac, and yet carefully bittersweet, ideal for the age of No Pain, No Gain. The music is almost always vocal, but wordless, interpretable both as cyberbanshee lamentations for the imminent apocalypse— the apocalypse sells, for one thing we’re all more willing to blow our budgets and buy impulsively if we’re convinced there’s no tomorrow—or as sexual ecstasy, or both.
Attention must be paid to what these newfangled commercials are selling. Along with the fossil fuels that ravage our coasts and kill our shorebirds and blast holes in the ozone layer and begrime our lungs and produce carcinogenic metastases in the spongy and retentive tissues of our besieged and beleaguered bodies, what is being sold in these commercials is a little fortune- cookie philosophy, deadly serious for all that it’s a flatheaded commercial jingle.
Texaco used to tell us simply that we could trust our car to the man who wore the star, and that wasn’t so long ago. In the thirty years since, trust of any sort has become either a lame or a sitting duck, the demise of trust waiting only for the next devastating scandal or recovered memory. You’d think, considering how little trust there is left in the world, that Texaco’s claims would have shriveled: the jingle ought in fact to be something like: Buy our gasoline and even though eventually you’ll choke on its exhausts and we’ll probably dump a few million gallons of it on your favorite beach and we’ll collude in the assassinations of third world anti-colonialist insurgents if they interfere with our looting of their natural resources, at least your car won’t explode when you turn on the ignition, probably. But instead we get: “Every day the world wakes up eager to run; and this is precisely how it should be. Texaco. A world of energy.” Texaco used to sell gasoline; now it’s selling cosmology.
The world that is eager to run; that should only ever be eager to run and never eager to sit or strike or siesta or fuck or goof off or do anything other than run, on the run, each day, every day; this world of energy, not of people and their problems and their relationships, not even of their products anymore, this world of dis-incarnated; quasi- spiritual intangible overwhelming mythified totalistic energy: Welcome to the world Capitalism hath wrought. There was a time, not so long ago, when Just was an adjective, as in a Just person, to be Just. Just implied that one had some lived connection with the precepts and dictates of Justice. Nowadays if you see the word JUST printed on, oh, say, a tee-shirt, you will look for what inevitably must follow: DO IT. From Justice to Just Do It Every day the world wakes up ready to run. Which is precisely, or should I say, just how it should be. A world of energy. In which it is manifestly, perfectly, clearly obvious what a human being is and how to be one: Just do it. It’s all exactly how it ought to be. This is not your father’s Oldsmobile. Is this a great time, or what?
I do not believe this is a great time. I believe in fact that my laptop computer is a great computer and it’s great to have a great laptop computer and yet it is not a great time. The top five jobs in the growth category of the American economy are janitors and cleaners, salespeople, waitpersons, and nurses. CEOs of the top 500 American companies made on an average 273 times more money last year than the average American worker, and next year, if current trends continue, the CEOs will all make twice that much. Mike Eisner, CEO of Disney, made $203 million in 1995. After the capital gains tax is eliminated he already pays less. He will probably pay less in taxes than I pay. That’s not true, but you know what I mean. Money, like salmon, is swimming upstream. In 1975 the top 20 percent of our population controlled 43.2 percent of the nation’s wealth. In 1998 it controlled 48.2 percent. All other quintiles controlled less in 1998 than they did in 1975, and the poorest 20 percent, which in 1975 controlled 4.4 percent of the nation’s wealth, today controls a puny 3.7 percent. The richest 5 percent of our citizens in 1975 controlled 15.9 percent of America’s money; in 1998 it controlled 21 percent. These are, rather famously, the days of the greatest discrepancy in wealth between rich and poor in our country’s history. It has always seemed to me a reasonably good measure of the health of a society that as time passes, more and more people can afford more and more things: bread gets cheaper. To create the illusion of this, we measure reductions in poverty by the number of people, one year after the passage of the barbaric Welfare Reform Bill, who have either fled or been thrown out of the social net, who have gone to work for a hard-won minimum wage no one believes for a minute anyone can actually survive on, which is by definition sub-sub-minimum.
Oh God of the Free Market, whose Bible is the Wall Street Journal and whose dwelling place is the University of Chicago, HEAR our complaint! Even if statistics, those slippery things, can be manipulated to make it appear that your purportedly rising tide will raise all boats rather than drown us, look at our lives, look at what we are expected to put up with! We are failing to meet our already sub-sub- minimum emission standards; our world is killing us, because we are killing our world.
The Balanced Budget, that new trumpet of millennial doom, signals in advance the end of environmental control, decent public education, any hope for health care, funding for the arts, funding for scholarship, meaningful international aid, and the whole phalanx of miseries the gleaning of any daily paper will pile up. And we can’t even talk about what it’s like for a human being to spend his or her day tightening a wing nut, answering a phone, waiting tables, schlepping boxes, spraying carcinogenic fixatives on aluminum siding, every day for a lifetime; can’t talk about the right people have to employment, or whether or not an injustice is done when someone is downsized, when someone loses an accustomed way of life due to a downturn on Wall Street—I always love it how the stock market falls every time they announce employment is up— is that healthy? Is that right? And forget about exploitation, disenfranchisement, alienation; the more subtle refinements following from an unflinching look at how most people on our planet spend most of their lives. Work, like economics, like money itself, have become the great undiscussables. The liberal left in America worries endlessly about how the right has stolen the discussion about ethics and values from us, not noticing, because it knows which side it’s really on, how the discussion of money has been completely and entirely shifted to the right, to a perspective that Louis Althusser, a French Marxist, described as “accounting from inside the firm.”
This isn’t a world of simple dualities: This is a world in which one must decide whether Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo is good poo or a bad one, and that is a very very complicated question. Ours is a time in which the most reliable champion of gay rights in the United States is the Walt Disney Corporation; in which, as mergers and acquisitions replace production as the source of the Dow Jones great phallic upward thrust, Compuserve merging with AOL merging with Nike merging with the Gap merging with Citibank merging with Boeing merging with Murdoch merging with Archer Daniels Midland merging with Beatrice may be the next historical development after the increasingly irrelevant nation-state, internationalism of labor replaced by multinationalism of corporations. This is a hard world to figure, and though I think good and evil, right and wrong are still discernible amid the electronic howl, discernment is unquestionably harder, and this is probably a good thing. If we make the effort to discern.
For help I recommend one turn to writers, thinkers, historians, maybe even a playwright or two, Shaw and Brecht and Ibsen and Chekhov and Williams, for instance, who have recorded, voiced, analyzed, emblooded the grit and tragedy and failure and defeat and occasional triumph, however momentary, that in its entirety constitutes that to which I refer when I refer to the tradition of socialism. The writings of the left will give you, I believe, a better chance of making sense of a world in which the Walt Disney Corporation is champion of gay rights. Socialist, progressive thinking will follow the money and the ideology the money has shaped; toward thinking shout political economies; socialism will entangle your brain in the vast dialectics of liberty and justice, freedom and responsibility; socialist writings will trace the historical development of liberalism and its ossification into individualism, the subversion of individualism by identity-based politics and the politics of liberation, and the counterrevolution these revolutions produced; it will see the bad new thing; the dialectic. Whereas the “moderate” right will tell you that people, who are basically bad, under capitalism have their best shot at a dignified existence—and if you believe that I suggest you take a trip to almost any public high school in any big city in the United States— while the radical and religious right will tell you Disney supports same-sex benefits because Mickey Mouse is Satan in rodent disguise. And they’re right. in a sense, but not in the sense they intend.
The creation of the social world, the unknowability of the Real world, the laboring animal who creates the social world into which he and she bring offspring, in which life is lived at a remove from the real, the dignity and the obscenity of labor, the dream of a world without work or want: These are the ideas of socialism, which is a politics of Political Ideas. The Politics of Ideas perhaps began with the introduction of self-consciousness, of subjectivity into the field of an political endeavor around the end of the eighteenth century; before which, as it is said, people struggled for freedom and a better life but did not know what it was they struggled for. In opposition to the growth and accompanying turmoil and devastation of industrialization, the Goal was named—perhaps for the first time in the American and then the French Revolution—and the goal has been a site of vital, violent contention ever since. Until recently. Political ideas are in deep disfavor these days.
There is a politics of ideas of the right, too; fundamentalist militancy can be said to participate in it. There is a real danger to the visionary in politics; just look at Israel and all those visionaries; but what is often forgotten is how dangerous politics can be without vision — look again at Israel, especially under Netanyahu, last seen having lunch with Jerry Falwell — in the absence of which Ideology with a capital I can be seen to work unopposed, unquestioned, usually for the purpose of profit maximalization. We are right to distrust meta-narratives and grand theories; we are fools to think we can do without them. Utopia is a meta-narrative, Utopia is grandly theoretical, is fantastical, in fact; what hope have we, to use everybody’s favorite Bush-ism , without The Vision Thing?
Any politics deserving of its “ism,” is a politics of utopia, which is to say future-oriented, large-gestured, not a politics expressed in State of the Union speeches bizarrely obsessed with the manufacturing of school uniforms.
The rejection of the future by our Fleetwood Mac-playing president is odd; the rejection of the future as the millennium approaches is unseemly. My favorite statement so far about the big calendar event we’re all about to suffer through the media overkill comes from, of all people, Bob Dole, who is always at his best when at his crankiest, and he was at his crankiest when he was interviewed — I believe by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, the day before Clinton’s second Inaugural. You may recall that Bill “Bipartisan Compromise” Clinton had had constructed, for the inaugural festivities, for the purpose of literalizing his favorite sound bite, an actual Bridge to the 21st Century. I think it spanned some Washington side road. When Bob Dole was asked what he thought of Clinton’s bridge, the former senator replied, “They tell me it’s made of plywood. Glad I don’t have to walk on it.”
Here is a grand American paradox. Most of us believe with the Dour Former Majority Leader that Bubba’s Bridge. constructed as it seems to be on a principle of balancing the budget based on figures drawn up by arithmetically- challenged Panglossian accountants, will most likely collapse in a stiff breeze. Even those of us who despise Dole’s politics and the party of which he is a former pillar, among whose number I can be counted, feel a certain fondness for him as an American archetype, the Grump (as opposed to most of the rest of his party, who represent another American archetype, the Gump, as in Forrest). All Americans sort of love the Grump, but we couldn’t vote for him for President because we insist that our President manifest an optimism bordering on insanity —or at least an optimism indicating an overdose of Halcyon. We don’t trust the manic positivist we elect farther than we can throw him, we know he’s a con man, we prefer the mordant wit of the Grump, beneath which flows a river of bleak despair with which we can easily identity; we believe the Grump at least sometimes tells the awful truth about life but we want the indefatigably cheery maniac to run the country or, since we all know the President doesn’t run the country, (Microsoft does), we want the indefatigably cheery maniac to be the one who’s got his finger on the button of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Maybe it’s wise; you don’t want such a person to be moody. Americans want a President who believes in the Future, who believes that it is Bright.
Believing the Future to be Bright is another way of saying you believe in Progress, and you more or less have to believe in Progress. You don’t have to believe that we are progressing, you may believe that we are too committed to the idea of making progress happen—or not committed
enough, or too committed to the idea that ideas make progress happen — you may even believe, as every American politician these days seems to, that what makes progress happen is having no ideas at all, that progress, like shit, just happens, and you only need Alan Greenspan to step in periodically to threaten to raise interest rates, and otherwise everything takes care of itself. But whatever you are or believe yourself to be, you have to believe in Progress. What are the alternatives? Belief in eschatology, or in sensuality —but the afterlife doesn’t really need our beliefs, there either is one or there isn’t one, it will either be waiting for us after we die or it won’t, in which case we won’t even be disappointed, and this will or won’t happen whether we pray for it or not. We must pray to be spared eternal punishment, but that’s really begging, isn’t it, and obedience, and what we are talking about here is faith. The pleasures of the flesh certainly don’t require belief do they? The body and its pleasures are materialist affairs, you’ll know fun when you find it, whatever price you may be asked to pay for it afterward. What requires belief, or perhaps I should say faith, in this world it seems to me is some conviction that things will improve, that there’s something worth waiting around for; some reason to inflict this grim thing we call life on the charming unsuspecting creatures we call newborn infants; some reason not to try to hitch a ride on Hale-Bopp or the next available comet The future needs our prayers—and a whole lot more besides, but to begin with, the future, progress needs our prayers.
Why talk about socialism? Here are a few reasons: Because there’s such beauty in the idea, and some of history’s best people have talked about it. Because I believe that the world will end if we don’t. Because nobody else is, or very few are, and the near-complete burial, within less than a decade, of a globally significant millennia-old history and idea, seems to me premature. And because capitalism sucks, it’s evil, we all know it and let’s be done with that debate: capitalism, the free market, to the extent that such a thing as a free market exists (as opposed to a globally hegemonic sadomasochistic death dance between the world’s peoples, its nation-states, and the multinational oligopolies daily losing their nominal distinctiveness merging into one great shell game for the sole purpose of moving all money and all wealth to the very most infinitesimally measurable micro-quazillionth of an inch of the utmost tippy-top point of the social pyramid), the principles by which we have organized and continue to organize our society, and increasingly all our world, are principles that guarantee our costly subjection to chaos, to cycles of boom, bust, colonialism, war. And globally vast environmental despoliation. And people stuck in crummy jobs, day in, day out for all the years and decades of their lives. And social evils with which we are familiar, like racism, sexism, and homophobia, all of which I believe derive their longevity and persistence through the ongoing contribution each form of bigotry makes to keeping power drastically, catastrophically imbalanced; and the social evils with which we are perhaps less familiar, because no one talks about them anymore: things like alienation, disenfranchisement, and exploitation. But if you think, from time to time, and you must, that human life at the end of the twentieth century lacks dignity, beauty, meaning, hope, if you feel trapped by the unreasonableness of what it simply takes and costs and requires to get through life with a roof over your head; if inflation rates and downsizing and cloning and vagrant nuclear arsenals for sale and Bill Gates scare you, and unless you’re insensate as a sponge, they should scare you, scare you very badly, scare you so badly you might even think of doing something about them — if any of this seems familiar to you — then perhaps alienation, exploitation, and disenfranchisement are already concepts with which you are familiar, and perhaps you already know why we should talk about socialism. The world is a mess and whether or not there’s an alternative it would be so depressing to accept that there isn’t one; so let’s talk about socialism, and see what happens.