There is a telephone pole at State and
Washington that is all staples. The wooden trunk is like any other,
except that there isn’t any wood left to see. The tallest
person got it above our heads, the smallest person got the bottom,
and everyone else punished the middle with their staple guns. There
aren’t any fliers on it now — there isn’t room
for one more staple — so it just stands there, looking at you
as you pass by.

Steve Cotner

I looked back at it the other day. It must have been the
peculiar mood I’ve been in lately. I didn’t see a face
in it or anything, but I do think I sensed something. I thought of
all the fliers that must have covered it over the decades. A Free
John Sinclair rally in 1971. A vigil for Che Guevara. No nukes. No
war. Maybe the Ann Arbor Nazis posted on it in the early
’80s. Maybe students posted against them. I think this pole
said not to go to Iraq. I think it probably said a lot of things
that people would not believe. But now it’s just staples, and
it looks like it’s kaput.

It was on the day after the election when I saw this. I had
woken up that day on the Daily couch with a hangover. I imagine a
lot of people needed something to help them sleep that night. When
I woke up, it was like New Year’s Day — messy hair,
disoriented, wondering if I had missed anything — but it was
what New Year’s would be if we knew none of our resolutions
would come true.

On my walk home I stared at the telephone pole. I wondered what
it meant. Are we done with politics? Have we used up everything the
way we used up this pole? Most of us bottomed out in some way on
Nov. 3, whether it was an alcoholic stupor or just a calm
reassessment of how each of us is living life. The closer to the
center a person was, the more devastating was Kerry’s loss
— Ann Arbor’s liberal contingent held a vigil for Kerry
that night. The radicals kept on trucking, meeting in the Union on
Friday to discuss building a culture of resistance. Their ideas
included a calendar and another meeting. It wasn’t very
exciting stuff, but I’ve learned that it never is. No one has
any energy now. The would-be radicals lost it somewhere in the
torpor of an anarchist potluck — about the same time their
eyes took on that zombie-raccoon look — and the liberals lost
it with Kerry.

I think what the telephone pole really observed, in its silence,
was the failure of words. Everyone on the left has been talking for
a very long time. If our president decides to kill people, the Left
talks about it. The Left snaps its fingers when someone makes a
good point. The left puts up neon fliers and says come to our
meeting, so we can talk. The Left invites Noam Chomsky to campus
and climbs outside on a window ledge, just to hear him. The Left
sits cross-legged and drinks tea boiled from roots. The Left knits
hats for each other. Then the Left pulls out a joint, listens to
hybrid folk-pop music from the Andes mountains, and talks.

I believe the Left is operating on the Dalai Lama principle.
There is an admirable spirit in all of what it does, and if
I’ve had a good breakfast, sometimes I join in. But I think
the Left is working on the premise that all of its shuffling about
will eventually flick a switch in some young person’s head,
and he will grow up to be the next Martin Luther King, Che Guevara,
John Lennon, Nelson Mandela and so on. I call this the Dalai Lama
principle because it is based on a kind of mystical faith in
someone else’s agency. The Left talks about things, plans
things, organizes people in large groups. But no one is putting
himself out there as the one — the one to do what needs to be
done.

In saying this, of course, I’m just talking too. And
perhaps people will complain about this whole premise, saying we
don’t want dominant personalities, we want cooperation. But
the Left needs to get back to some more basic traits. It needs
someone who can cock a smile. It needs someone who can wink. It
needs charisma — the thing that makes women want to dance
with you, young boys want to be like you and old men be nostalgic.
It needs to remember what life is for and then make living it
irresistible. It needs to remember we’re the only ones who
can do it.

 

Cotner can be reached at
“mailto:cotners@umich.edu”>cotners@umich.edu.

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