Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Day in DC

Yesterday, I traveled to Washington, DC along with a million or so other people to participate in the Women's March that took place following Donald Trump's inauguration event. I sure that most participants would agree that the trip was a whirlwind of emotions and experiences. In my case, four songs surfaced over the course of the weekend that helped me make sense of the event, and perhaps a little more sense of how the world looks after the most recent election.

One of many MLK quote signs seen on the walk from RFK Stadium to the rally. Out of town buses parked at RFK Stadium and marchers walked from there to the Mall.

The Beatles, 'Across the Universe'
I took a bus to DC and on the way down, we watched the movie 'Across the Universe,' a 2007 'British-American jukebox musical romantic drama film' (convoluted genre definition per Wikipedia). While the film itself did not leave much of an impression, I did get the song 'Across the Universe' stuck in my head as a result. One line of it stayed with me throughout the weekend: 'Nothing's gonna change my world.' As I looked around DC and saw the juxtaposition of the inauguration aftermath and women's march, this line took on new meaning.

'Nothing's gonna change my world' felt particularly applicable to those who claim they can 'make America great again'--bring it back from its current changes to some kind of better time. This slogan has already been subject to great criticism, and rightly so, as it is hard to envision an era when America was equally great for all. This imagined time and place fits what Svetlana Boym identified as a key trait of nostalgia:
It is the promise to rebuild the ideal home that lies at the core of many powerful ideologies of today, tempting us to relinquish critical thinking for emotional bonding. The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home with an imaginary one. In extreme cases, it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unelected nostalgia breeds monsters.
The term 'unelected' feels particularly ironic here. Boym was writing in 2001 and her subject was primarily the nostalgia that permeated the Soviet Bloc, encouraged and established by its dictators. Today's nostalgic longing to 'make America great again' is cut from the same cloth, but was produced in a democracy by a group of people who refuse to let anything change their world. Boym identifies this type of nostalgia as 'restorative,' a type of nostalgia that relies on concepts of 'truth and tradition'--although in this 'post-truth' world (as in the Soviet Bloc), there are many ways to inflect truth with fiction. Boym continues:
Restorative nostalgia is at the core of recent national and religious revivals. It knows two main plots—the return to origins and the conspiracy...Restorative nostalgia takes itself dead seriously.
Restorative nostalgia is a danger because it is a fiction that presents itself as truth. As such, it is nearly impossible to argue with its catchphrases. 'Make America Great Again' presents exactly this problem: I cannot cogently maintain that America was 'never great'. I can nuance the discussion by suggesting its greatness was mired in inequality (arguments that others have made far more expertly than I) or its triumphs have benefited some individuals rather than the greater good. But it is wholly impossible to counter nostalgia with facts. If nothing's gonna change your world, then nostalgia is the only means available to preserve it.

Public Enemy, 'Fight the Power'
For the first part of the day, I was unable to get close to the speakers because there were so many people at the rally, so my experience was remarkably free of noise apart from the murmurs of the crowd (and occasional chant/cheer). Participants in the march were told ahead of time not to bring large bags because they would be subject to search, but not everyone heeded this guideline. Early in the afternoon, one man walked by where I was sitting with a boombox playing 'Fight the Power.' On the surface, this song seems like an appropriate one for the march, whose mandate was not limited to women's rights, but rights for all who experienced inequality. Indeed, why were we all there unless we were fighting the power? But as I thought more about it, I couldn't reconcile this song with this event.

'Fight the Power' is also a slogan, although clearly it does not draw from the same nostalgia as MAGA. But it is a unilateral declaration by Chuck D in the song. The Women's March, in contrast, did not have a single slogan. Instead, marchers brought signs, many of which were made by hand and sharing different messages. Calls for public art brought varied interpretations of the march's ideas--several of these signs were brought by those marching, along with art by Shepard Fairey. As we were walking from the bus to the Mall, a young black girl held up one of Fairey's posters:

'Thank you!' she yelled enthusiastically as the crowd walked by. 'Thank you all for coming!'

While the Women's March may have sought to fight the power, it was the multiplicity of voices that made it such a powerful event. All of the signs were rooted in the fundamental idea of equality, but the variations on this theme were almost overwhelming in their volume. Signs were seen all over town--many left on display near the National Gallery--imparting their messages even as the event wound down.

Beyoncé, 'Formation'
I did finally manage to get to a place where I could hear the speakers for the rally as the speakers drew to a close (I missed the Madonna moment, for instance--this is the hazard of attending rather than watching the highlights). There was also indigenous music performed to wind up the official ceremonies--while I was unable to find a clip of that performance, Indigenous Women Rise was an important presence at the march. Once the ceremonies concluded, music turned over to a DJ, who started off the party with what was, perhaps, the obvious choice: Beyoncé's 'Formation.' Naturally, the crowd responded enthusiastically.

As I have written about before, 'Formation' is an important song within Beyoncé's oeuvre because it engages with her identity as a black female artist. It accomplishes this in part by imbricating personal details: she has 'hot sauce in her bag swag,' we learn about her origins as a 'Texas bama.' What struck me listening to 'Formation' in this context is that the women around her bring their identities too. We hear their voices later in the track during the 'slay/okay' section, as they get in formation. This imagery fit the event almost perfectly as so many different people came together for the cause.

Undoubtedly this struck me because I was deeply moved by how variegated the crowd was. It was impossible to know what motivated each person to participate, but it was incredible to witness so many people who felt strongly enough to fight for equality that they traveled to DC and participated in the event. We all slayed, everyone who marched, wherever you marched. Thank you for being in formation.

Kid Rock, 'All Summer Long'
As I was leaving the rally, I almost stumbled into an event held by Bikers For Trump up the street from the Mall. The music playing sounded like Kid Rock (it may not have been), and it brought back a nostalgia that was almost wholly absent from the rally. Even the name 'Kid Rock' is nostalgic: he is no longer a kid, and this reference to 'rock' hearkens back to the 60s or 70s. 'All Summer Long' is a song that doubles down on its nostalgia, quoting from Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Sweet Alabama'--an ode to the nostalgia of place in its own right--in the process. In an instant, I was back in a place that wants to Make America Great Again with its pseudo-rock music that longs for another time. In the distance, I could still hear chants from the world that yearns for change.

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