I’ve always really liked New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s been a beacon of hope, a sign that an electable left in America wouldn’t die with Bernie. She’s a working-class hero, too — a bartender with student loans. It’s been wonderful to see the Right go absolutely berserk trying to find something to hit her with and just sputtering and failing. Her rhetoric skillfully employs the old themes of American civic religion for progressive causes, something you’d associate more with a previous era of American politics.
When Anderson Cooper put it to her that she was “radical,” she responded: “Abraham Lincoln made the radical decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the radical decision to embark on establishing programs like social security. . . . If that’s what radical means, call me a radical.” Now that might be corny in a certain way too, but it also showed a terrific seriousness about winning, about seizing the ideological core of the country’s imagination. She’s a star, but also a star serious about politics.
For better or worse, AOC has always acted totally in earnest. When sections of the podcasting and ultra-online left turned on her, mocking her rhetoric and style of self-expression in her Instagram videos, I believed they were just reacting to this earnestness, which made them uncomfortable. Granted, it hasn’t always been my cup of tea, but she has always seemed sincerely dedicated to helping people and her performances in Congressional committees have been masterful: well-informed and sharp. She has style and substance. I’ve mostly been interested in the substance, and am often annoyed at the petty griping about her speeches, which is shallow and sometimes manifestly sexist.
But now that we’ve seen “The Dress,” I have to grant her critics may have been on to something.
I’m sure you’ve seen by now: At the Met Gala on Monday, AOC wore a discount-rack-looking wedding dress (by Brooklyn designer Brother Vellies) with “TAX THE RICH” written on its backside in red. Putting aside for a moment the question of hypocrisy — namely whether it makes sense to demand taxation of the rich while evidently enjoying the celebration of glamour and wealth — the statement of the white dress with red lettering is just… lame. And juvenile. And sad. I could go on.
This is the wrong kind of corniness. It’s a Hot Topic-level political expression. It’s the sort of terrible youth-outreach type stuff that Lena Dunham tried to do for Hilary Clinton — the stuff that AOC seemed at one time to be moving us away from, a return to seriousness and actually knowing what you were talking about. This is like something Sacha Baron Cohen could’ve come up with to parody the faux-social consciousness of high society. And I do not think that the uber-earnest AOC had this level of satire in mind. AOC is too earnest to troll. By doing this sort of stunt, she finally gives the Right Wing media machine’s missiles, which once bounced harmlessly off her unshakable poise and conviction, an opening.
The theme of the gala was “America:” it would’ve honestly been more subversive and interesting if AOC had shown up in Tea Party-style Founding Father cosplay. That would’ve left the Right Wingers with nothing to go with except dumb jokes about gender roles. Ultimately, however, the Met Gala is an event best shunned by sincere socialists. Comrade, some proletarian severity, please. Or at least some populist insolence. There will be no reforming from the inside of the Temple of Dendur.
I’m inclined to forgive AOC for making a mistake this time. Okay, she was trying to make a big statement and got caught up in our era’s regrettable preference for legible content over interesting form. Always trying to help, that AOC. But maybe trying to have her cake and eat it, too: Being on the right side of history and in the belly of the beast. Who wouldn’t want to party with Rihanna? And deliver a message for a good cause? Win-win, right? I hope AOC can rewind a few steps. Otherwise we’re right back where we started: in a never-ending cycle of lame celebrity gestures. To paraphrase Orwell, imagine the “Sensual Pantsuit Anthem” stomping on a human face, forever.
John Ganz, a Gawker columnist, is a writer in Brooklyn.