Jacobin - October 10, 2021
My fellow Americans, as a young boy I dreamed of being a baseball. But tonight I say: we must move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.” It may be a quarter century old, but the classic Kodos-as-Clinton bit from The Simpsons has never really gone out of fashion or stopped being referenced as a shorthand for the absurdity of modern political rhetoric. A phrase like “twirling towards freedom,” after all, is only a notch or two removed from the kinds of things mainstream politicians quite regularly say, and promising to take things “forward” has become a piece of political liturgy so ubiquitous across the ideological spectrum that it’s effectively devoid of meaning.
Insofar as it does convey anything, “going forward” is a kind of lazy appeal to an unspecified but vaguely positive direction of travel, an empty signifier for broad good intentions that generally illuminates very little. An arrow, by definition, is supposed to point somewhere, and it inevitably falls on us to ask what it is, exactly, we’re all moving toward. In the mid-twentieth century, when mainstream culture and politics maintained at least some capacity for accommodating competing narratives of progress, the rhetoric of “forwardness” might have occasionally meant something. In an era where most everything, including and especially politics, has been colonized by markets and brands, it’s now basically on par with slogans like “The Choice of a New Generation” and “Think Outside the Bun”: an ersatz appeal to the transgressive and avant-garde that’s more about packaging than use value and entirely concerned with present appearances rather than future destinations.
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