The Weakerthans, “Pamphleteer”

“Pamphleteer” opens quietly, a rapidly moving guitar getting louder, until drums crash in. Then, with a full sound, three big, anthemic chords ascending, followed by three big, anthemic chords descending.

Some notes later, a more ambiguous resolution to the phrase.

The song as a whole is told from the viewpoint of a guy trying to, you know, overthrow capitalism. (This sounds far more plausible and desirable than when I first heard this song, to be honest.) He’s got his pamphlets and stands on the street corner, trying to confront the businessmen walking by during rush hour. To say they ignore him would be an understatement: Facing rush hour faces turned around / I clutch my stack of paper, press one to a chest / Then watch it swoop and stutter to the ground.

I don’t want to play at being a sociologist or anthropologist through song lyrics. But I can say there are moral phenomena at play, sometimes, for which we don’t have words because they’re so harsh. For example, take the current President. He openly takes and uses bribes, self-deals, covers for the worst regimes, undermines the law and the spirit of the law. We all know this. What we haven’t come to terms with is that “hypocrisy” isn’t the right word for when he accuses his political opponents of the same, they prove innocent, and a not insignificant part of his base still cheers for him and repeats his lies. That’s not “hypocrisy”—that’s a symptom of white supremacy. He’s allowed to commit crimes and get away with them because he’s a white man of a certain standing, that standing dictated by his wealth. For that part of his base, he’s demonstrating racial “superiority” by openly flouting the law, lying about other people, and getting cheered on by them. It’s that ugly and that’s why we don’t really have a term for it. If we actually put in the time it takes to think through and come up with a term for this phenomenon, we’ll go insane.

In the case of ignoring the pamphleteer, “ignoring” is also not the correct term. The businessmen are a herd. They’ve accepted capitalism as the only reality. They’re not even bothering to imagine a different system and will not hear anything else. Those who think of entrepreneurs as a dynamic, innovative bunch really should try to come to terms with the culture of knowing current prices, market valuation, and a bunch of rumors about who’s-moving-what for the sake of trading and literally knowing nothing else. You can say this fulfills some kind of productive function when all is said and done, but honestly, it isn’t hard to see how this sort of behavior could lend itself to approval of authoritarians.

Our pamphleteer is a bit crazy, but he’s honest about how awkward his daily encounters are. Not only do his pamphlets fall, being blown away, but he sees his own failures, his own weary self, in every mirrored window. He knows he doesn’t come across as someone who immediately commands respect. He’s aware he gesticulates weirdly and wildly: How I don’t know what I should do / With my hands when I talk to you. He’s worried that his passion is not causing a revolution, far from it: How movements rise and then dissolve / Melted by our shallow breath / How causes dance away from me.

The honesty isn’t just admirable. It allows the pamphleteer to tie together two threads in his own words, both of which directly bear on how we conceive politics. The first is politics as religion. This the pamphleteer embraces—he’s more than willing to be like a Jehovah’s Witness on a street corner, he takes whether he can get converts to his cause personally, his invocation of The Communist Manifesto‘s “specter” sounds less like theory and more like hope based in a providential dispensation. I don’t think I need to say too much, regarding the current state of America, about politics being religion. If you need help envisioning this, consider watching, um, some business news.

But there’s another way of conceiving of one’s passion for politics. Isn’t it a lot like wanting to be loved? Seeing your dignity reflected in acceptance by another? A close read of the lyrics reveals a number of places where the pamphleteer sounds like he’s lost someone and wants to win them back. Examples: Why do I still see you in every mirrored window / In all that I could never overcome? and How movements rise and then dissolve / Melted by our shallow breath and, of course The rhetoric and treason of saying that I’ll miss you / Of saying “Hey, well maybe you should stay.” The trouble with talking about politics and being personally loved nowadays is that one has to deal with the topic of “incels,” radicals who believe they are entitled to being loved, pushing themselves to hateful and angry extremes.

I believe we can dismiss “incels” as a serious topic, ironically enough, because their complaints about “love” are really complaints about others not being subordinate. They feel they’re entitled to something and they intend to collect. When this is frustrated, they get angry. Weirdly, that incels are too concerned with power places them outside politics for the sake of this discussion. What’s relevant to us is the portrait of the pamphleteer. Yeah, this guy is a little crazy. He wants converts. He wants to be loved for what he does. He’s trying to convey what he thinks—and he might be 100% right about—is a greater truth. And he’s stuck alone on a street corner, unable to communicate despite throwing his energies into writing the right words.

It’s that idea which makes politics such an infuriating mix to deal with: the idea that minds can change because of the right words. That’s what links politics to religion and love—a brain screaming something like “maybe if I say the right thing?” Yet attempts to understand politics get even worse when we stray away from words and try to describe political phenomena purely empirically, through results or actions alone. I get that some people are uncomfortable with saying political philosophy, for example, is purely talk. If we accept that in a negative way, it’s dismissive of political philosophy. If we accept it in a positive way, it smuggles in values precisely where there should be a hard look at how things actually work or a robust debate about values. I believe there is something else at stake here, though. Treating political phenomena as talk, as this attempt to get the “magic words” politics, religion, and love are all searching for, lets us see what people really want and how they regard others. In other words, there’s an authenticity here that’s foundational, independent of most sets of values. Deny it and we can’t have good things.

Our pamphleteer sings “I am your pamphleteer” over and over as the song fades into nothingness. I used to think he was steeling himself for the next day of rejection, declaring who he thinks he is in order to find courage. That may be true, but it’s too cynical, especially when facing the possibility that he’s probably entirely correct about the way we live now. This might be helpful: the more you know yourself, the more it may be the case you can be lost in this world which only wants to hear affirmation of itself. You’ll doubt yourself, you’ll feel like nothing’s working, you’ll still try. You’ll have integrity. There’s an answer to what force on earth could be / Weaker than the feeble strength / Of one, and that answer is that identity is not a force. It’s something far more important, potentially far more valuable.

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