“We are All Viet Cong”

In 1963, President Kennedy declared himself a Berliner, expressing solidarity with West Germans after the Berlin Wall was erected. In 1967, Tom Hayden, at a Bratislava conference, announced that “we are all Viet Cong now,” suggesting that U.S. anti-war protesters were military participants, freedom fighters, albeit on the other side. After 9/11 and still today, U.S. citizens wear NYPD hats, demonstrating solidarity with first responders who died on that day. And now there is a trending “JeSuisCharlie” hash tag. In the Internet age, one can effortlessly tweet and post solidarity and embrace identity, whereas Kennedy and Hayden traveled to Europe to give speeches. One can also easily register support on a change.org petition, or ‘like’ a cause or candidate on social media. Here, I suggest that the appropriation of identity with victims, intended to raise political consciousness or at least give comfort, fails to overcome the distance between identifier and identified but, in appearing to do so, has a certain depoliticizing effect. Earned cheaply, appropriated identity replaces political practice. It can also lead to what Adorno called ticket thinking, where identification sacrifices the person to cause. #hash-tag radicalism

Hash-tag radicalism is enabled by Internet instantaneity. One can ‘like’ or tweet in real time, unconstrained by space. Competent drivers compose themselves electronically while waiting for the light to turn green. But, as my opening examples suggest, people appropriated political identity before the Internet. Hayden’s declaration, which was energizing at the time to those of us who were foot soldiers in the New Left, intended to create solidarity, prior to collective action, and to signal affiliation. Hayden, the primary author of the SDS’s Port Huron Statement, was involved for over a decade in civil-rights and anti-war activism. His remarks in Bratislava did not substitute for activism but were inserted in one speech among many. President Kennedy, presiding over the world’s most powerful nation, did not abandon practice for speechifying but was signifying to the Soviet Union that the U.S. would push back as Soviet global reach expanded during the Cold War.

Recently, the rapper Common (aka Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr.), who co-wrote a song for the film ‘Selma,’ made these remarks as he received a Golden Globe:

“As I got to know the people of the civil rights movement, I realized I am the hopeful black woman who was denied her right to vote. I am the caring white supporter killed on the front lines of freedom. I am the unarmed black kid who maybe needed a hand, but instead was given a bullet. I am the two fallen police officers murdered in the line of duty. ‘Selma’ has awakened my humanity.”

Appropriated identity, especially using social media, is becoming a trope, signaling solidarity and expressing affiliation. This is a strange time when value is added to esteem and self-esteem by tallying one’s likes, retweets, google hits. It is difficult to stay invisible on the Internet, making way for viral appropriated identities, expressed in the protocol sentence “I am_____.”

The appropriation of identity, as I am calling it, collapses boundaries between the personal and public. During the sixties, the public sphere, although highly contested, was accessible and available to all who were willing to wield a picket sign, join a march, sit in. Today, people overshare using social media and other ICTs as private experience and expression have overwhelmed public politics of the pre-Internet kind. Lacking political means to pivot on our anguish about the world, we overshare online, weighing in on message boards and tweeting. But venting is merely vicarious.

Appropriated political identity has two entangled features. It intends solidarity with victims who become heroes, such as those who honor 9/11 first responders by sporting NYPD clothing. Appropriated identity also enables affiliation at an historical moment when many bowl alone. As sports fans wear themed team clothing, political fans participate vicariously in an emergent collective subject.

This is not to deny that online organizing and petitions, like online political fundraising, may have a certain efficacy. Although the dour Adorno, who noticed that most of us lead damaged lives, may have condemned virality as hopelessly shallow, consciousness-raising depends on current technologies of dissemination. This echoes his debate with Walter Benjamin about art in the age of mechanical reproduction, with Benjamin cheerleading for printed publicity with Adorno worrying that a copy of ‘Mona Lisa’ robs profound art of its ‘aura,’ its original authorship.

One hesitates to denounce leftist Internet presence just because many embrace it. Whether a democratic cybersphere can resist commodifying corporate command and control is as yet unknown. That is the battle that coders and hackers, such as the late Aaron Swartz, are fighting as they recognize the progressive potential opened up by the ability to post and chat. Hackers and coders blocked SOPA and PIPA, proposed legislation limiting command and control of the Internet, by cyber-organizing, even mobilizing virtual giants such as Wikipedia and Google. Awash in talk of cyber this and cyber that, the mainstream media have migrated online, as has much of book publishing. Those of us inspired by the Frankfurt School, which cautioned against episodic enthusiasms that quickly become our fate, take stock of social media carefully. Beginning in the 1940s, they began to study radio, television and film as political vehicles and, presumably, were they alive today, they would add Facebook and Twitter to their list.

Just before glancing at the Golden Globes, I went to see ‘Selma,’ which has major studio support especially in the run-up to the Oscars. Expecting the worst, given the complexities involved, I didn’t hate it, although it did not measure up to the cinema verite of ‘Eyes on the Prize.’ The film depicted police violence effectively, even though LBJ was given a more important role in the narrative than he deserved. And the emergence of black power and eventually the Panthers from Stokely Carmichael’s organizing in Lowndes County was largely ignored, as were architects of SNCC and CORE such as Ella Baker, Cleveland Sellers, and Floyd McKissick. This was, I suspect, in service of the mainstream view that King was civil rights, making that history lesson about the civil-rights movement easy to swallow, much like George Washington cutting down the cherry tree.

In that context, Common’s claim that “’Selma’ has awakened his humanity” seems grandiose. It is tempting to read this as an advertising strategy for the movie. Here, there are several layers: There were the political events surrounding Selma, Alabama in 1965. Then, there is the movie depicting those events. And, finally, there is the discourse about the movie. The event marked an important moment in the civil-rights movement in that the whole world was watching Sheriff Clark obstruct a growing movement, and the march signaled a turning toward black power and away from Ghandian non-violent protest. Perhaps the movie was timed to come out 50 years after the actual event, a suitable time for people to have forgotten the significance of the event, if they ever knew. In this sense, the Golden Globe acceptance speech reflects that Selma occurred seven years before the composer was born. But he does not simply say that Selma opened his eyes; he claims identification with the fictionalized protagonists, in the style of appropriated identity.

Baudillard’s term simulacrum is helpful here:  “…The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.”

Baudrillard is noticing that Abercrombie, Nike, and hash tags do not reflect or represent reality but take on lives of their own that become more important than the shirt, shoes, political position. We lose touch with an underlying reality to which, in an earlier modernity, they made reference as copies. This is a story about postmodern capitalism which, since WWII, has cultivated false needs and proffered personal credit in order to keep people shopping, far beyond their real needs. False consciousness, Marx’s term for not understanding one’s true class, race or gender positioning, segues into what Marcuse calls false needs, needs imposed, through marketing, that, according to Baudrillard, are increasingly bound up with the wrapping, the signage, and not the ‘real’ commodity.

In these sense, the appropriation of political identity simulates political action, even though the acceptance speech, tweet or ‘like’ need not shift power. The Internet matters because it is matter; through it, commodities circulate and ideologies are promulgated. Media companies are hacked and urban violence organized. But, for we materialists, discourse is practice, although not all practice involves discourse. In fast capitalism, texts, exhorting certain lives defined by acquiescence and accumulation, ooze out of their covers into an everyday life lived thoughtlessly. Authorship is concealed as dispersed texts become secret writing which subtly influences because it appears not to take a stand. In describing, this writing recommends. The Internet promotes secret writing because discursive interventions—think of tweets—can be thrown off quickly, without the distancing necessary for reflection. Postmodernists might observe that there is no stable ground from which to know the world, which, according to Hegel, is the ‘bacchanalian whirl in which no member is not drunken.’ Selma becomes a movie, leading to an award, prompting an acceptance speech widely discussed on the Internet. And #JeSuisCharlie, intended in horrified solidarity, displaces theorizing about the endurance of religion in postmodernity, patriarchy, and the embattled existence of Israel. In Marx’s terms, ‘all that is solid melts into air.’

Perhaps this is only to note that lives lived on the screen, and not only by Gen-Xers and millennials, involve a certain immersion in the quotidian. The Internet puts Gutenberg on steroids as books are unbound and texts become lives—the theme of my book Fast Capitalism composed at the dawn of the Internet in 1989. There, I argue that ideologies, according to Marx systematic vehicles of false consciousness, have been dispersed into everyday life in ways that deflect us from theory and especially from the conjuring of utopia—a world imagined and lived differently. That utopia cannot be tweeted, or ‘liked,’ is an occasion to rethink hash-tag radicalism, even if we are stuck with the Internet, which, we dialecticians realize, provokes both conformity and counter-hegemony.

Fifty years after Bratislava, Hayden recognizes that earlier appropriated identities were always already problematic. That Diem was a dictator, and our involvement in Southeast Asia imperialist, does not deny that Ho was a Marxist-Leninist as well as a patriot. In Reunion: A Memoir, Hayden writes:

“As I consulted my old notebooks and tried to re-create the way I saw in 1965-67, I was struck by the flatness of the panorama I painted. My tendency was to see everyone as gentle, as lacking hate, and as having insight. In my admiration, I turned the Vietnamese into caricatures of revolutionaries, a people who provided me with an alternative to cynicism. I failed to consider that the people I befriended were those most like myself. Western-educated, liberal, understanding of American society—exceptional bridges between our cultures. So identified was I with their people’s suffering and struggle that I lost objectivity; like an intoxicating spell, their mythical stature served to heighten my apocalyptic intuition of the American future.”

The left’s right, Weatherman, held the earlier New Left, of Port Huron and Freedom Summer, hostage. To note that Weatherman, which emerged in 1969 and gathered momentum after the Panther Fred Hampton was killed by police and the anti-war movement was being ignored by the White House, bore a resemblance to current urban bombing and shooting does not locate utopia in Homeland Security.   To identify with the Viet Cong as freedom fighters strained credulity just as it was cartoonish for a Weather leader to valorize the Manson killings as appropriately oppositional.

Hayden draws out the implications of his rethinking of appropriated Vietnam-era identity:

“As a result of these experiences, revolution has lost much of its romantic quality for me. I still oppose U.S. military policies in places like Central America, and I believe that violent revolution is inevitable where peaceful reform is blocked. But I feel a numb cynicism at most of the romantic exhortations of Third World revolutionaries. I understand their pain and rage, but my former innocence has yielded to a foreboding that I can do nothing about.”

This stands in some contrast to Todd Gitlin’s call for a progressive patriotism after 9/11, outlined in Gitlin’s The Intellectuals and the Flag. In a recent interview, Gitlin defends appropriated patriotic identity:

“Principally, I argue that the left needs to be straightforwardly patriotic; that real patriotism has to do with a great deal more than the symbolism of the flag, but (as George Orwell understood) with attachment to a national tradition and values; that patriotism, in this sense, is to be distinguished from aggressive nationalism of the Bush variety; that the affirmation of a national tradition is properly the business of the left, some of whose members (what I call the fundamentalist left) have made the drastic error of thinking that America is the root of all evil; that, like three intellectual exemplars to whom I devote essays—David Riesman, C. Wright Mills and Irving Howe—the left should be comprehensive in its positive ideas for the country and not simply stand on the sidelines mocking; and that the academic left has in many ways defaulted on the need for an affirmative vision.”

Both ex-SDS leaders, these smart guys move in different directions: Hayden rethinks his appropriated identity as revolutionary mythologist, while Gitlin argues for a post-9/11 patriotism comfortable with flying the flag. Each tweets, with Hayden having 3,225 followers and Gitlin 2,766.

The child within me resents flag waving as I remember the Vietnam-era phrase, “America, love it or leave it.” The draft gave some little choice. Patriotic affiliation would seem benign if the mother country was Slovenia, Finland, Canada. As of this writing, a movie about a military sniper is dominating the box office. And, in the week that the film opened, “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, rejecting her former appropriated identity, apologized for a Vietnam-era photo in which she poses in a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery.

Hayden, like Bob Moses, who organized the Mississippi summer project in 1964, and like Lenin, who spearheaded a revolution heard aggeroveraround the world, was a political person. Not all of us are. Hayden blended pragmatism and passion, orating, composing and organizing profound change. Some of us merely reflect on politics. Perhaps we are loners, merely teachers, perhaps agreeing with Sartre that “hell is other people.” When Che called for “two, three, many Vietnams” and Rudd and the 1968 Columbia strikers “two, three, many Columbias,” they were willing to put their bodies and liberty on the line. When I raise questions about online radicalism, I am simply noticing the gulf between Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney paying for the Civil Rights Act enacted eleven days later with their lives, on the one hand, and people appropriating identity with a few keystrokes, on the other.

I have wondered whether the Communist Manifesto or Port Huron Statement, if posted online, would have sparked action more quickly than they did or sunk into the Sargasso Sea of the Internet, trending briefly. We will never know. Both documents derive from the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, issued by Marx and Engels in 1845, where they contended that the point of theory is not to only to understand the world but to change it. They, and fellow 19th century revolutionaries, did not obsess about identity. Like Hayden and Che, they were pragmatic.

Identity became a political construct during and after the sixties, as class analysis was augmented by engagement with race, gender, generation, sexual orientation. Identity politics is an artifact of the struggles of the sixties, even if, as Gitlin noted, the outcome of that tumultuous decade is that the right won the White House, and the left won the English Department. Multiculturalism is more progressive than Eurocentrism, and broadening the great books into many books exposes young people to new narratives of change. But, Gitlin implies, the White House is where the action is. Although he has Internet presence, I suspect he would agree with me that social change cannot be retweeted.

Russell Jacoby, who authored a stirring indictment of leftist academic obscurantism, Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, issued an earlier book, less than a decade before the sixties ended, in which he worries that the ‘politics of subjectivity’ displaces the political:

“The prevailing subjectivity is no oasis in a barren and dehumanized society; rather it is structured down to its core by the very society it fantasizes it left behind. To accept subjectivity as it exists today, or better, as it does not exist today, is implicitly to accept the social order that mutilates it. The point, however, is not merely to reject subjectivity in the name of science or affirm it in the name of poetry; it is to delve into subjectivity seriously. This seriousness entails understanding to what extent the prevailing subjectivity is wounded and maimed; such understanding means sinking into subjectivity not so as to praise its depths and profundity, but to appraise the damage; it means searching out the objective social configurations that suppress and oppress the subject. Only in this way can subjectivity ever be realized: by understanding to what extent today it is objectively stunted.”

I could not find Jacoby, influenced by the Frankfurt School and thus probably not a hash-tag radical, on Twitter.

Ben Agger works in critical theory and cultural/media studies at University of Texas-Arlington and directs the Center for Theory there. Among his recent books are Oversharing and Texting Toward Utopia.