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Video of the day. Modern Myth

A familiar American myth, but a crucial one.

At this point, the video above probably doesn’t need an introduction. On Wednesday, weeks after its Democrats fled the state to defer voting, the Wisconsin state legislature called a meeting on 110 minutes notice to vote on a bill that strips public-sectors unions of many of their negotiating rights and raises their pension and health care premiums. On Thursday, a 13 year old on the Upper East Side knowing nothing of Wisconsin remarked to me that “the poor pay for the poor more than the rich do.” Amid insane collusions of government, business, capital, and populism over the past two administrations, Wisconsin has offered some relief of common sense and an easy foothold onto a more naked, almost mythic drama than the news usually allows: a lying and thieving Republican administration, the privileged few, conspiring in the halls of power for more power and working to crush the working class.

It’s a familiar American myth, but a crucial one. However more damning WikiLeaks and bailouts have been of America’s interests—Wisconsin’s workers were stripped of rights many other state’s employees never had—Wisconsin has finally offered this familiar narrative to make sense of fucked-up politics: the righteous, ragtag American mavericks against the entrenched elite. However lost this role of underdog is to most major modern news, it’s still a default ideal for anyone who learned about America not through news but culture: in symbols of Lincoln and Roosevelt, in Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonPaths of GloryBad News BearsA Few Good Men. For once in the past decade there’s been an illusion that the people could and would stand up for their own interests.

The video above of the vote clearly marks the dramatic climax of the past months, as State Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, a democrat, cries for accountability as the State Senate call roll and head into their chambers to take a vote. Outside, hundreds—thousands?—of protestors cry “Shame!” Without context, it’s a rousing movie on its own: a single pan opens the scene up to its chorus, and the whole thing is like a bureaucrat’s vision of Greek tragedy, with Minority Leader Barca as holy martyr. As he’s denied intelligence of the bill by the rest of the Senate (they won’t let him hear), and as he reads the clause specifying the illegality of the vote while they take it (they won’t hear), Barca casts himself as an American hero, maybe the only one, to play people’s mouthpiece of rage against an indifferent elect. One of the first things that’s extraordinary is how ordinary he is: his cheesehead voice and nervous “like”s betraying his tenor's debt to so many movies.

It’s extraordinary also to anyone who’s watched C-Span or Wiseman’s State Legislature. The health care debates last year showed a pretty funny, chaotic sort of order: legislators talking around each other in a tortuous protocol, trying to ask questions in split-second intervals but tangled in the rut of formulated answers and tangential formalities. But the video above shows the chaos finally erupting in Barca’s rogue element, so rogue that he can’t even be admitted into the consciousness of the establishment and its established conventions. The scene is another variation on one Kubrick put in almost all his films. That the Republican legislators are shown to be stooges to their system, retreating behind a mask of propriety and social codes while they break the law and make it in ways petty and great, is the point. Who are the agents of convention, and who are the agents of chaos?


More reading:

“After a three-week stalemate, Republican senators pushed the measure through in less than half an hour even as the Senate’s Democrats remained many miles away, trying to block the vote.” — “Wisconsin Senate Limits Bargaining by Public Workers,” New York Times

“All 8 Republicans eligible for recall voted to strip public employee unions of their rights, despite clear public opposition. Many of these Republicans, frankly, are going to recall as early as this summer, and if just three of them lose, the balance of power will switch to Democrats in the state Senate.” — “Anti-Public Employee Bill Passes Senate in Wisconsin; Only the Beginning of the Fight,” FDL News Desk

“Walker's proposals do have important fiscal elements: they roughly double health care premiums for many state employees. But the heart of the proposals, and the controversy, are the provisions that will effectively destroy public-sector unions in the Badger State. As Matt Yglesias notes, this won't destroy the Democratic party. But it will force the party to seek funding from sources other than unions, and that usually means the same rich businessmen who are the main financial backers for the Republican party.” — “What’s Happening in Wisconsin Explained,” Mother Jones

“There is fierce debate over the approach Walker took to address the short-term budget deficit. But there should be no debate on whether or not there is a shortfall. While not historically large, the shortfall in the current budget needed to be addressed in some fashion. Walker’s tax cuts will boost the size of the projected deficit in the next budget, but they’re not part of this problem and did not create it.” — Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

Wisconsin’s Budget Wasn’t Manufactured by Walker and the GOP” —

Billionaire Brothers’ Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Dispute” — New York Times

Wisconsin GOP Bill Allows State to Fire Employees for Strikes, Walk-Outs” — Mother Jones

The Hidden Budget Bill Item Even Worse than Union Busting” — The Awl

It’s Not Over in Wisconsin” — New York Times

Also worth a watch for those who haven’t already seen it, Michael Moore’s half-hour “America Is Not Broke” speech, delivered last Saturday to the crowds outside the Wisconsin State Legislature.
Thanks for this, David. General strike to follow, I hope.
The myth has been inverted. It is no longer righteous, ragtag American mavericks against the entrenched elite, but entrenched Americans against self-righteous, ragtag maverick elites.
Can someone on this blog explain to me how this effects the film community? Not to say that as good citizens we can’t also be film lovers (or vice versa), but since when did this become a political blog? Making a a specious connection to Kubrick and Wiseman doesn’t justify this post, in my mind. I hope I don’t come across as opposing the opposition, because I clearly support the people who will suffer because of this blatant disregard for democracy (almost laughable). But I don’t come here to receive updates on political issues (unless they involve filmmakers — Panahi, et al). I’ll go to ZNet for that.
Hi Oblivion, The subject of the piece is the video itself, which as David pointed out, is a fascinating piece of film with profound roots in American cinema history and culture.
Cinema is everything.
Jesus wept.
Thank you for this, David. This means a great deal to us. I was outside screaming, but it didn’t feel cathartic. Peter Barca is a great guy whose eloquence and force of will has helped slow this thing down for the last three weeks, but self-righteous, ragtag maverick elites have a way of getting what they want that still leaves us bruised out here. Now it’s time to recall the sons of bitches.
Acephalous, Danny, Adam- yes. Michael, Matthew, and Evan esp—thank you. “Can someone on this blog explain to me how this effects the film community? Not to say that as good citizens we can’t also be film lovers (or vice versa), but since when did this become a political blog?” This is the question, but those kind of terms suggest that even though we should be good film lovers and good citizens, we should be so exclusively. I’m not even sure how that’s possible. How can you be interested in movies and not interested in everything besides movies? How can you be interested in politics and not be interested in everything besides politics? They’re each a medium for reflection, and, pretty often on each other and in similar ways, to pit regional ideals against an economic reality. That’s not just “political documentaries”; you can wach so many pre-coder for the same easy mix of idylls taking place in the terms of reality, real places, everyday concerns, modern lingo. Same is true of movie above. I think I learned my own place as an American less from my parents’ home life than from the movies they showed me, and I still do. For most people, it’s probably those sorts of ideals which are at stake in Wisconsin far more than the pragmatics of health care premiums. Probably most Americans have been watching Wisconsin unfold for the same dramatic importance and momentum as they get from a football game or a TV series: as a political barometer of this country’s standards, as an allegorical story, rather than (though Evan and many thousands aside) a point of policy that directly affects the world they’re living in. There’s a lot owed to myth and theatics here, and the video above is a good example and allegory in its own way. Ultimately we live in a world driven as much as most movies by economic imperatives, what Marx terms “fictitious capital”: the speculations that would allow so many Americans some extrended credit of material dreams for decades. Part of Marx’s implicit point is that fictitious capital has its own basic principles of myth and narrative construction, however much the characters and eras change, as Hollywood fiction: “At times of more general crisis, bitter struggles erupt over which locale is to bear the brunt of the devaluation that must surely come. Such objective material conditions provide abundant nourishment to notions of community harmony and national solidarity. Such notions are as meaningful to factions of labor as they are to factions of capital, and the pursuit of territorially based interests is frequently convenient to both.” That’s from David Harvey’s Limits to Capital, from well before Gov. Walker. Not trying to pretend some collapse of fiction and fact, but the call-response mechanism in each direction is like mind and body. Just look at how many dictators have been film buffs.

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