Handy symbols

In the five years that I spent in Wisconsin, the ubiquitous symbol of Madison liberals’ resistance to the right-wing takeover of the state was the Wisconsin fist. Something about it always bothered me. I always figured that my dislike for the symbol was aesthetic. Wisconsin is a lovely state, but it has an unlovely shape. It’s top-heavy and lopsided, with an awkward combination of natural borders and razor-straight surveyor’s edges. It does look a bit like a fist, I suppose, but why did they have to keep that ridiculous thorn of a Door Peninsula jutting out beside the clenched pinky finger?

On reflection, though, I realize that it wasn’t just the clumsy design of the Wisconsin fist that put me off. It was the clenched fist itself. Although the fist as a symbol of political determination has been invoked over the past century by many causes that I support (worker’s solidarity, anti-racism, feminism, and so on), there is something about the fist’s stubbornness, its anger, and above all its isolated loneliness, that makes it seem more appropriate to the emotional condition of the right. Indeed, the fist can symbolize white power, ethnonationalism, and neo-fascism just as well as it can symbolize leftism.

One of my political axioms is that “resistance,” by itself, is not a political stance, or, if it is a political stance, then it is one that bends rightwards. This is why we should be careful to avoid fetishizing principles like resistance, dissent, revolt, and so on, as such. That’s not meant as a plea for centrism, incrementalism, or quietism. Personal stances like obstinance, refusal, and defiance, alongside public acts of resistance, dissent, revolt—even, on rare occasions, violence—are necessary for breaking the conditions of injustice. But the first half of that principle is strictly subordinate to its second half. Resistance must always ask itself for what?

Without doing so, resistance as a principle in-and-of-itself becomes a banner that can be flown by the fundamentalist who bombs an abortion clinic, the business owner who refuses to comply with a pollution-control regulation, the white suburbanite who refuses to see her neighborhood racially integrated. Each of these people may well imagine their resistance (to secular reproductive rights, to community oversight of the environment, to social change) taking the imaginative shape of an angrily-clenched fist. William F. Buckley’s infamous man “athwart history, yelling Stop” no doubt has his fists clenched.

As a symbol, I much prefer the socialist handshake, especially when it depicts hands of different colors clasped in unity. (The overleaved hands of early volunteer fire companies are another good symbol.) This is because one of the clenched fist’s worst features is its loneliness. It’s often meant to stand as a symbol of solidarity, but more than anything it conjures up the hero myth, the assumption, trotted out in so many lousy films, that the world awaits salvation by a tough-minded good guy who isn’t afraid to clench his fist rather than being pushed around by convention and social norms.

For me, the vital heart of left politics is the principle that a better world is one that features more shaking hands, more supporting of one another across the fabricated lines that split us apart, more openness and more embracing—and less clenching of fists.

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