On the shuttle to campus twice now I’ve heard a radio spot for the Nissan Leaf, an electric car. The spot finishes its pitch by urging the listener to buy a Nissan Leaf – doing so, the ad says, is desirable because “You’re not starting a revolution. You’re way past that. You’re joining a movement.” The first time I heard this I almost fell out of my seat, and I was careful to listen attentively the next time I heard the ad to make sure I had heard that right. There’s so much packed in there! What are we supposed to be thinking?
The first interesting point is how blasé we’re supposed to feel about revolutions. When I hear ‘revolution,’ I picture people getting their fancy powdered wigs (plus a bit more) removed by guillotines, the bourgeoisie being lined up against the wall and shot, or at least a bunch of high schoolers wishing they could vote for Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders.
Apparently, though, a room full of ad writers was able to talk itself into thinking that revolutions are small potatoes. One of them suggests that they should compare buying a Leaf to a revolution, and instantly someone else says “I like the spirit of the suggestion, but I’m really feeling like we go for something more exciting.” Pride wounded, the original person perhaps suggested, hope in their voice, “starting a revolution!” Surely that’s radical enough to get someone jazzed up about buying an electric car. Assassinate an archduke, douse yourself in gasoline and set yourself aflame, sign a declaration of independence – but no, that’s all so yesterday. We’ve got to get way past that.
How is it we’re supposed to be wanting to start a revolution in the first place, such that it’s possible that there’s something even better, namely, buying a new car? This ad is co-opting some pretty radical politics for the sake of getting me to purchase a Leaf. I’m trying to picture the overlap on the Venn diagram depicting, in one circle, “up for a revolution,” and in the other circle, “shopping for an expensive new car.” I’m pretty sure the only person in that intersection is Sean Penn and that’s just because he doesn’t quite understand what a revolution entails.1
I think the real answer is that a circle labeled “environmentalists” is supposed to be both circles. The ad writers are picturing a bunch of people far enough to the left that they want an electric car and react vaguely positively to the idea of revolutions, but not far enough to the left that they realize that they shouldn’t be buying a new car, or at least that if they want to and are able to, they’re the sort that’s going to be up against the wall come the next revolution.
To be fair, I think this is exactly the group of people that will buy electric cars, but it’s weird to see them, in the words of a T.S. Eliot poem my students have recently read, “sprawling on a pin, / […] pinned and wriggling on the wall” so accurately by the radio spot, which instantly cuts through all the bullshit, perfectly highlighting the weak-ass neo-liberalism that counts as being to the left in America. What’s interesting is that it does so in order to appeal to the group it has so accurately painted as completely incoherent.
Anyways, we’re “way past that,” as the radio tells us, so forget it. Where have we arrived? We’re “joining a movement!” What makes this so interesting is how much of a letdown it is. We’ve gone from Che Guevara to people wearing Che Guevara shirts and somehow we’re supposed to feel good about that, good enough to buy a car. I can’t see any way of seeing joining a movement as ‘past’ starting a revolution except in the very vague sense that it’s somehow “better” in some way, and I guess the universe has a moral arc and as we move along, we leave stuff in the past, including revolutions. No longer will the people rise up, cast off their chains, and seize what’s theirs. Now we’re just all going to hold hands.
Even worse, you don’t want to be the leader of the people, rising up, casting off, seizing, etc. Better instead to slide in among the crowd as it gently wafts towards the future. Instead of starting a revolution we can all camp out in the parks and Occupy Wall Street with nobody in charge. That’s a lot less work and it’s way more trendy! You don’t have to end up getting lumped in with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria or the PKK, because instead of a revolutionary you’re just… moving… somewhere… in a brand new car!
There’s something just a little sad about picturing a whole movement’s worth of people in brand new electric cars feeling good about themselves for their purchase because they’re way past the revolution. There’s a lot I disagree with in this article about the so-called “smug style in American liberalism” but I think there’s no doubt that you have to be something close to the wrong kind of smug to see yourself as being better than a revolutionary because you’ve bought a car, and I think we can safely say that conservatives aren’t the ones buying Nissan Leafs.