Forty-six years ago Gil Scott-Heron first said that the revolution will not be televised. He didn’t say it so that edgy white guys could look even edgier while wearing that t-shirt we’ve all seen. He said it because he completely meant it.
I personally never knew where that quote came from until I looked it up. It’s from the first track off Scott-Heron’s 1971 album Pieces of a Man, and it’s a great 3min 7sec spoken-word takedown of white pop culture and commercialism — a quintessential cultural moment of the peak of Black Power in the early 70s. It starts:
You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and
skip out for beer during commercials,
because the revolution will not be televised.
Of all the wisdom and rhetoric that gets passed around in liberal/socialist circles, I don’t know if there’s anything more prophetic and under-appreciated than the words of Gil Scott-Heron. In 1971, before media exploded into our lives to a degree that nobody at that time could begin to comprehend, Scott-Heron made what continues to be the most crucial point about modern progressive activism: if Viacom is profiting off of your agenda, there is definitely something wrong with your agenda.
Case in point: last week, MTV released an end-of-year video called “2017 New Years Resolutions for White Guys,” a run-of-the-mill rip off of Buzzfeed where a diverse cast of millennials cheerily talk to the camera for 90 seconds about what white men need to do to be good liberals in the coming year. As videos like this tend to be, it’s an extremely boring rehash of contemporary liberal talking points: stop saying All Lives Matter, don’t mansplain, America has only ever been great for white men, don’t brag about being woke, that whole Brock Turner thing was fucked, and (I guess this is a newer development) we don’t like Kanye West anymore.
Nothing about this video grabbed my attention — it’s the kind of thing my Facebook feed churns out every day. What’s interesting about this particular video is the backlash it received, which was so overwhelming and immediate that the execs at MTV quickly pulled it down. A digital bootleg, for the mean time, remains here:
For one, the fact that the video got removed speaks volumes about MTV’s priorities as a platform that claims to be a voice for millennial progressivism. As soon as even a fraction of MTV’s demographic was outraged, the video got pulled, and the conversation neutralized.
Fox and Breitbart gleefully jumped on this story, saying that by overtly calling out white men, MTV was officially a racist organization. On Fox & Friends, Crystal Wright made painfully obvious argument that if MTV put out a video called “2017 New Years Resolutions for Black Men,” liberals would immediately go berserk.
Can’t you snowflake libtards see the hypocrisy? Trump’s America cried out on Twitter. How can you call us racist when you’re so obviously racist yourselves?
I wouldn’t be concerned if only the far right had these qualms about the video. But fury over MTV’s “racism” extended to YouTubers like Ethan Klein, who made this reaction video a few days ago:
I bring up Klein because although he’s by no means a conservative, you’ll notice in the comments section of his video that droves of racists and Trump supporters rushed to congratulate him for finally taking the right side. Klein’s analysis is clearly tone-deaf to a degree that verges on being racist itself, but it’s basically well-intentioned people like him who we need on our side if we want to be persuasive to a critical mass of Americans. Klein’s reaction reveals a core issue with the way we’ve been trying to talk about social justice for the past few years: we’re communicating in a way that only people who are already within liberal circles can understand, alienating lots of people who would otherwise be on our side.
For example: how did I watch that MTV video for the first time and not for a second think that it was racist? Because I’ve taken the time to become educated about anti-racism, and I understand that racism has a direction of power that intentionally upholds white supremacy and oppresses minorities — it refers to the system of power that privileges whiteness at the expense of darkness.
That’s why I know that critiquing white people’s racist attitudes can’t itself be racist. Is putting all white men on the planet in the same box a little bit obnoxious? Sure, maybe, but I’ve been in progressive circles long enough to know that picking a fight over identity politics is a waste of everybody’s time. I don’t feel offended when my own friends mock white guys, because I have a level of experience and maturity to see the forest for the trees. And any personal offense I take pales in comparison to the extent that people of color have suffered for their identity in the past four centuries. I’ve learned to take being called out as an opportunity to grow, instead of recoiling and shutting down communication.
But how is the rest of America supposed to know to do all of that? Trump’s election was a sobering reminder to progressive America just how many people there are in this country who can’t think rationally or critically about politics. The vast majority of people (and not just Trump supporters, I would contend) define racism as simply “prejudice based upon race.” They’ve never been to a slam poetry event, they haven’t taken a seminar on critical race theory, they haven’t read the autobiography of Malcolm X, and they don’t willingly surround themselves with people who have radical liberal and socialist perspectives.
America is full of people who choose to see the world in simple, post-racial terms. And while we can criticize and mock these people for being deluded by their own privilege, it will only drive them away, and the millennial brand of liberalism will become a tighter and tighter echo-chamber that makes no sense to anybody outside of the bubble.
I chock it up to laziness on our part — which is why I started off by talking about Gil Scott-Heron. We’ve been letting liberal media outlets like MTV and Buzzfeed position themselves on the front lines of what is ultimately our battle, because it lets us stay in a cozy online bubble of moral elitism, happily excluding huge swaths of identities and perspectives as we gleefully jab at easy targets.
There has been and will continue to be absolutely nothing revolutionary about this mode of politicking, where MTV outrages flyover country on our behalf, and we don’t have the will to relate to people whose ignorance and privilege have led them into racist attitudes.
As a white guy who cares about social justice, I don’t care what resolutions MTV wants me to have. My 2017 resolution is to start having the tough, unglamorous conversations that might actually bring privileged people around to the idea that social justice is worth fighting for.