Hunk of Bern-ing Love

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When this photo of Bernie and AOC at the Queensbridge rally is in history books — if climate change doesn’t kill us all — I will point to it and tell children (if I survive into my forties) the story of how we fought and won (or lost). It’s hard to plan what you’ll be doing in fifteen years when you look ahead and see a Bernie Sanders presidency overlaid on a second term of Trump like a double-exposed photograph of 2020. 

To write this piece before the primaries begin is to write in uncertainty, peering into a morass of potential futures. To hope before the primaries begin is exhausting. And absolutely necessary. I am here today typing this piece as a spell, a prayer, a conjuration; I am believing my desired future into being. Isn’t that why we vote? Believe this with me: 

“Take a look around you, and find someone you don’t know. Maybe someone who doesn’t look like you.” Bernie is doing his classic finger-waggle at us, “Are you willing to fight for that person as much as you are willing to fight for yourself?

“YES!” I scream, along with the rest of the 20,000 people in the park. We hear cheers of assent in the distance too, from the crowds outside who physically couldn’t fit into the main rally.

Since I saw Bernie speak at Brooklyn College in March, I’ve been tearing up a lot more often than I used to. I never thought I could feel like this. I thought feeling like this was for other people, people who went to church or heal each other with crystals. I thought it was for extroverted people, people who are in successful bands, people who were around before the 90s, before irony’s emotional-meat grinder processed us into less-than-organic Big Macs. I was wrong. I was wrong; it’s for me too. And not just me; it’s for us.

Earlier in the rally, we heard Senator Nina Turner speak as she brought out a whole can-can line of local New York leftists who had been elected to office on a wave of millennial socialism. They included Julia Salazar, who unseated an incumbent superPAC Democrat in an upset much like AOC’s, and Tiffany Caban, the almost-DA of Queens who came onstage to cries of “You were robbed!” in reference to her loss by sixty votes after a sketchy recount. 

Turner foreshadowed Bernie’s speech when she quoted Maya Angelou, saying that we have to have the courage to stand up for ourselves, and the courage to stand up for someone else. She called herself and the other politicians onstage the “elected ministry,” because politicians are supposed to give a damn about the people they serve. That got her one of the biggest ovations of the rally, a relatively little-known senator rivaling two household names by striking the right chord against disaffection.

I have never been religious. In high school, I identified religion with the white men in Congress who were waging war on women, and in college, I was too drunk to think about religion at all. When Trump was elected, I remember bitterly thinking it must be so nice to be part of the religious right; having the power and privilege to force your morality on others. Now I do a daily Wicca candle ritual that includes fervent energies directed toward making Bernie Sanders president–and more effectively, I canvass every Sunday at peak church hours.

Turner, Bernie, and the rest of the left’s elected ministry are tapping into the same human principle as religion. To be a pretentious film kid for a moment, both ideology and religion tell stories; they are stories. People want to be part of something, to connect with others over shared values, to feel at one with a community in their home, on their block, or in a 20,000-strong crowd in Queens. They want to know that there are other people out there in the world working toward their shared vision of a future, not to mention ensuring there is a future at all. Whether people are gathering in droves to see Bernie Sanders or a Marvel movie, people are just looking for a story to believe in.

Martin Scorcese recently wrote an article about why Marvel movies are spiritually empty, marking a divide between Bernie’s story and Captain America’s. For Scorcese, “cinema [is] about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation.”

A Marvel movie is only a significant experience in the context of other Marvel movies. If another person really, really likes Marvel movies, it can feel like you and that other person are instant best friends because you can talk about all the same characters. The problem is, liking Marvel movies is basically the same thing as liking stories in general, and then having no other opinions about them. They’re that generic; that kitschy.

Marvel movies are kitsch by its original definition: they remix basic tropes to create not a new story but rather an amalgam of a story, an average of all stories. A kitsch product is one where you can guess the plot before act one is over, where no new artistic techniques are explored. In the case of a Marvel movie this is taken one step further: everything the audience sees has already been focus-group tested to ensure its success. They’re more kitsch than kitsch; they’re the kitschiest kitsch there is.

Another system of signs without signifiers, one concentrated on the aesthetic instead of and as a replacement for meaning, is fascism. All you have to do is listen to one attempted sentence by Donald Trump to know that fascism is a garbled mess of cultural signs recombined to maximize popularity. Trump speaks to his audience in non-statements like “Vietnam Crooked Hillary 9/11 never forget.” It works because his followers aren’t looking for coherence; they’re looking for a remix of every other construction of American identity they’ve ever heard; they’re looking for the latest installment of the myth of America’s greatness.

With his “Will you fight for a person you don’t know?” speech, Bernie makes the political personal and the personal political. Leftism is about fighting for people you don’t know, because they’re not just people you don’t know. Compare that to Disney reboots that only exist because people already like the original, or to Hillary’s commercials disparaging Trump without bothering to pretend Hillary had an actual vision of her own. To feel “the bern” isn’t to invest yourself in a floating signifier, it’s to believe in very specific and concrete things: Medicare for All, rent control, and a $15 minimum wage. Bernie is famous for not changing his beliefs; compare that to other politicians saying whatever gets them into office because politics for them is an end in itself. 

When Scorcese says films are about “enlarging our sense of what is possible,” I think both of the ineffable and of our political unknowns, territory marked by Bernie Sanders. I think of standing alone among my entire family while my Trump-voter uncle made snide comments at Thanksgiving 2016, and of standing with a whole crowd of people in 2019 who had rejected everything that man believes. I think of knowing more deeply in that moment than I ever did with data or facts that he is wrong. That’s the power of leftist spirituality. That’s what will bind us together to face our enemies. That’s how we will win. 

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