I Want To Believe
There was an advertisement, until recently, on a billboard in my neighborhood. Although the ad was replaced weeks ago, the image still haunts me. It was an advertisement for the fashion designer Alexander McQueen but, like most high-end ads, the product was absent from the scene. Instead, rising above the pavement on the corner of Lafayette and Bond, was a supersized portrait of a street protest. It’s a particular moment: May, 1968 in Paris, when students and workers took to the streets and in a fit of imagination and fury seized the city and brought down the French government. But you don’t need to know the particulars to be moved by the image.
It’s a close shot of a handful of young protesters standing in the middle of the street. To the left is a row of attractive women, in their early twenties at the oldest, dressed with that careless elegance that Parisian women are justly famous for. They hold red flags. A few of the flag poles are thrust forward at forty-five degree angles, a few more pointed back. Behind them, with their backs to the women and facing the other direction are two young men. They wear dark jackets, black leather in the case of the man in the foreground, and both have megaphones raised to their lips.
It’s a striking image – both aesthetically and historically -- which is no doubt why the fashion designer’s advertising agency selected it. It bespeaks hip rebellion, which today, of course, is the lingua franca of mass consumption. It is the alchemy of advertising: buy this product and you will magically become someone who could care less about things like products. Alexander McQueen’s last design collection and ad campaign drew upon the imagery of Mods and Rockers. To move from images of mid-60s subcultural rebellion in Britain to late-60s political rebellion in France is just a few short years and a hop across the Channel. Time and space are easily transcended by advertising’s appropriation; the image of hip rebellion remains constant.
But this isn’t what moves me. What moves, inspires, and haunts me is what I see in the faces of the young protesters: they believe. I don’t know what they believe and I might not even agree with it. They might be chanting Maoist nonsense (in which case, I’d disagree) or Situationist slogans (to which I’d likely agree), but what they are saying or exactly what they are protesting is largely immaterial. Their gaze, how they hold their mouths, the position of their bodies all says: “I believe.”
I don’t. I’ve been an activist my entire adult life. I’ve built houses in Nicaragua, walked union picket lines, organized community activist groups, and shut down cities with mass protests, but I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever really believed. My activism, like so many of my generational comrades, was more a reactive, or even existential, activism. We acted to hold on to what little things we had: community gardens, affordable rent, the right to unionize. Or we acted because to not act was simply inconceivable, it would mean accepting things as they are. (And we knew something was wrong with the way things are.) But believe, truly believe, in something? I’d be lying to say that I did.
I don’t think I’m alone on the Left. Ask a Liberal today what they believe in. They might tell you that they want an end to the war in Iraq or desire universal health care; it’s likely that they’ll say something about getting rid of Bush. But these aren’t beliefs, they’re policies or actions. A belief is something like universal peace, a caring society, or a world with great leaders (or no leaders at all). It is only by believing in such grand impossibilities that small accomplishments are possible. This is why liberals, for nearly two decades now, have accomplished nothing. (Many contemporary radicals are little better: they have grand beliefs but have no desire to realize them, as realizing them would jeopardize their outsider status as radicals. As such their belief is in bad faith.)
Believing is what the other side does: the Christian fundamentalists who believe in the rapture and the righteousness of their cause, the Muslim radicals who dream of a Caliphate and return to Islamic law, or even the Neo-Cons in Washington who fantasize about exporting free markets and Western culture by force. Belief is also part of the – uncomfortable -- heritage of my own side. It was a sort of Utopian faith that led to the forced collectivization and brutal public projects that marked Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China. It was a belief in the inevitability of new world that animated the students who protested in Paris and so many other places in 1968. But when this failed that faith passed into the illusion of glorious armed struggle in the West, or a pacific retreat to “the land.” In these narratives belief leads to Heaven, the Gulag, or self-delusion. This is a history from which I am desperately trying to awake.
Yet without belief can there be any progress? For as much as I detest the religious Right I have to admit that they’ve gotten results: their agenda is now our nation’s agenda, be it family values or a War on Terror. We might debate it, fight it, or try to redefine it, but Ralph Read and Osama bin-Laden are the ones who have defined the “it” we react to. And the Left at its strongest was also the Left at its most believing. It was the 1930s that realized the ideal of a modern society that cared for all its citizens and the 1960s that conjured up a culture of individual liberty. Belief motivates. It gets you up in the morning and headed toward the horizon; it makes you act to bring about what you know is impossible.
I know that belief is necessary to inspire and motivate, yet I still find it hard to believe. Too many of the most atrocious, and just plain stupidest, events in the political history of the world have been the result of those who truly believe. Belief is blind and I prefer acting in the world with my eyes wide open.
Can belief and skepticism, rationality and faith, be reconciled? I don’t think so, for each cancels the other out. Belief is an edifice built upon ephemeralities like hopes and dreams; rationality demands a firm foundation constantly tested through inspection and deconstruction. The philosopher Rene Descartes found this out centuries ago when he fruitlessly tried to prove that God exists; it’s also why the “logic” of Creationists today is so weak when presented in an academic debate or courtroom (though a majority of people in the US still “believe” in Creationism or its variants). Combine the fiery flames of faith and the icy waters of calculation and you get a sodden pile of ashes.
Yet every day I carry this warring opposition within me without bursting apart. I “know,” for instance, that I am determined by my biology, history and ideology, yet I act “as if” I was fully responsible for my actions. Or, for example, when I watch Reality TV or visit Las Vegas I know that what I am seeing is a staged representation of real people or landmarks, but my enjoyment is contingent on my feeling as if they were real. I think the trick is to possess both belief and skepticism, simultaneously, without trying to reconcile the two. That is, to exist somewhere in between, resonating with both yet never being wholly subsumed by either. This isn’t as impossible as it sounds. Irony, for example, works this way: it makes a statement of belief that can only be understood by not believing it. And while irony leads most often to a smirking, knowing distance (e.g. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show) it does suggest that there may be ways to create a sort of state of being suspended between the poles of belief and disbelief. A sort of critical, provisional, and maybe even a tad ironic, belief.
Adopting this sort of critical belief means I’ll probably never have the beatific look of surety that lights up the faces of those young protesters on the streets of Paris. Nor, however, will I ever share the certainties of the skeptic who points out that this billboard image is really just an ad campaign and that the photo was probably faked anyway. It means that my belief will always be challenged by skepticism, and my skepticism by belief. The belief I want to believe in is not easily reducible to a political slogan and doesn’t translate well into religious dogma. It’ll make a lousy advertisement. But maybe for that reason alone it’s worth trying.Tweet