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The Marginalization of Radical Politics

New Tactics Such as Web Site Parody Needed To Boost Movement

Julia C. Lipman

Of all the arguments I’ve heard in favor of Click and Clack as MIT’s commencement speakers -- they’ll keep everyone awake, they understand MIT culture, they’re better than stuffy politicians -- the most ridiculous one was that the radio hosts represented something dangerous and subversive. Maybe, the argument went, they’d pull off something radical at Commencement, something that was more than MIT had bargained for. Maybe President Vest didn’t know what he was getting into when he’d asked the two alums to deliver the address.

Well, now that Commencement’s over, and the wacky pair didn’t even make good on their threat to wear nothing but boxers under their academic regalia, it’s clear that Tech Talk’s description of the speech as “mildly irreverent” is right on the mark. The first half of the speech was all about congratulating the MIT administration for “having the courage” to choose them as speakers. The advice given in the second half, which dealt with following one’s “urges to create and discover,” could be disastrous to the corporate world if followed, but was hardly radical in the context of MIT, where students are used to following such urges by creating hacks and inventing.

The Magliozzi brothers never really claimed that they were radicals in the first place. But the fact that they could be considered such by anyone points to how marginalized radical politics -- in fact, any kind of politics -- has become. What passes for political discourse in the media nowadays? We have pundits more famous for being famous than for any of their political analyses, such as James Carville and Mary Matalin. There are the young, conservative, female, self-described “pundettes” (I’m really not kidding about this term) like Ann Coulter, for whom style, particularly clothing style, matters more than substance. And for the truly daring, there’s the “politically incorrect” natterings of Bill Maher.

A lot of the really subversive commentators rely on less mainstream means to get their messages across. Michael Moore of Roger and Me fame has a show on cable. Cartoonists like Ruben Bolling and Tom Tomorrow display their work in alternative weeklies such as the Boston Phoenix and the Village Voice, while mainstream papers run rehashed Monica jokes. Tomorrow was dropped from U.S. News and World Report after a six-month stint, partially because of political disagreements with the magazine’s publisher. But the media coverage they get pales in comparison to their less radical counterparts. Which is why I was glad to hear about the controversy surrounding the website is a parody of presidential candidate George W. Bush’s campaign website. With a similar domain name and a similar look, a casual observer might easily think that the site was the official site of the Bush campaign. Most of the humor centers around allegations of previous drug use by Bush. “If I had been thrown in jail for minor drug crimes in my ‘youth’, I wouldn’t have ever been able to become governor, or run for president. That’s why as president I want to raise the ‘certification’ age -- the age at which minors can be tried as adults -- to age 40,” runs a typical fabricated quote. It’s not subtle or particularly brilliant satire, but it apparently annoyed Bush -- his lawyer has filed a federal complaint. “There ought to be limits to freedom,” Bush remarked, a comment which hasn’t done much for his popularity among civil libertarians or anti-CDA web surfers. The New York Times remarked that Bush has “shown how not to handle the Internet.”

The site was sponsored by RTMark, an organization which specializes in organizing elaborate political hacks, often of an anti-corporate nature. RTMark was also responsible for the toy prank in which GI Joe dolls were heard to bouncily emote about clothes and shopping, while Barbie dolls issued gruff battle commands. Not all of these pranks would qualify as hacks by MIT standards -- the Barbie one did involve some damage to property, namely Barbies. But by employing innovative, relatively harmless guerrilla tactics for a political cause, RTMark has garnered quite a bit of positive mainstream media attention.

Perhaps tactics like those of RTMark and the Guerrilla Girls, a group of disguised female artists who call attention to sexism in the art world, are the wave of the future for protest movements. If so, then commentators like Michael Moore might end up looking downright mainstream. Maybe we can expect him as our next commencement speaker -- well, as long as he leaves sidekick Crackers the Corporate Crime-Fighting Chicken at home.