By Ian Ezinga
The 2021 Met Gala happened about a week ago. As per usual with this sort of fanfare, nothing of real consequence took place. Twitter, however, certainly had a field day sharing pictures of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wearing a white dress with “Tax the Rich” stitched in red. The meat of the issue, as my feed presented it to me, was that this sort of stunt does nothing at all insofar as making actual progress towards creating a more just and equitable society. I am in full agreement with this idea and any notion that suggests that performative politics hinders any chance of an actual discussion taking place with the aim of producing tangible improvement to our shoddily constructed society.
When AOC first made her splash in electoral politics, it was impossible not to get excited. A young, charismatic, woman of color passionately defending some of the more vanguard pillars of leftist political thought in the US. The charm for me, most unfortunately, has worn off.
She is still one of the most prominent figures in progressive politics, but it is on that stage that I criticize her continual regression toward ineffectual messaging. I am not worried about AOC becoming a Republican or anything, but I am worried about the trend of championing the optics of her stances more heavily than the stances themselves.
The political right regularly has a field day whenever AOC appears in a photo wearing an expensive outfit or participating in some petit bourgeois activity that, by exposing, is supposed to amount to evidence that revokes her “I care about poor people” card. As frivolous as these attempts may be, they do get at something that is paramount to understanding AOC.
Not to get too cynical, but the political project that is AOC, is one almost entirely of presentation. She has been one of the loudest freshman congresspersons of all time and has gained both massive fame and notoriety. Almost anyone can point to her as some sort of symbol of the left, but what lies beyond the messaging that is curated for the public’s consumption, isn’t nearly as effective at producing change.
Mark Fischer, whose name was brought up in relation to the image of AOC’s dress, has a lot to say about what some people like to call late-stage capitalism. The most pertinent of his writing to the handling of AOC’s case is capitalism’s ability to augment attempts to criticize it into a further entrenching of the structure. What do we gain from AOC wearing that dress or selling t-shirts and hoodies with the same phrase pasted above her name? Sure, someone could try to make the case for awareness. But following that case’s thread just a short distance further, we arrive at a few questions. Importantly, we must ask what would people do once they become aware after reading a t-shirt, or designer dress?
Surely they, themselves, supposing they are ordinary citizens, have no power in taxing the rich. So, their only recourse would be to vote for representatives to do that for them. Maybe representatives like AOC? Therein lies the problem. Instead of using limited time and energy on publicity stunts, she and her staff could have clocked in a few extra hours inching towards that which she is calling for. We already have people in the seats of power that can tax the rich. It is not our job to wear merch spouting a belief about as obvious to a justice-minded person as the idea you shouldn’t commit first-degree murder.
Of course, we should tax the rich. That is why we elect people like AOC to bring common sense to the floors of congress. AOC, who is paid by we, the people, has one job. That is to fight for what she thinks her constituents need. I’m not saying she can’t party, but I think more diligence should be called for in transferring the energy put into these gestures of caring into real, tangible policy. There may be a few examples of politicians in this world who aren’t complete lizards and haven’t sold the entirety of their souls to corporations. Whether or not this is true isn’t all that important to me. What is important is continually pressing our elected officials into a mold that more closely resembles a person who was chosen by us to actually fight for the needs and the pain of ordinary people.