Back in the early summer, the young, liberal corners of the web exploded in one of their regular fits of viral solidarity. You remember it. The Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 were on the judicial chopping block, and everybody’s Facebook profile was suddenly a red and white equals sign. Judgment followed, swift and inevitable, with various critics battling over what the episode meant: It’s important! It’s empty! It’s brave! It’s problematic!
One thing, at least, was clear: It was difficult to go a summer day without seeing that equals sign. For better or worse, it was as viral as these things come.
After the Supreme Dust settled, a similar campaign for social media solidarity was launched, this time to meaningfully raise the minimum wage, Another icon was created, green this time, and featuring “$11” in large white letters. A few leftist policy wonks signed on, but the effort never caught fire in the wider world, and quickly died away.
That doesn't mean it's dead, though. Economic inequality is back in the spotlight. Bill de Blasio is running a populist liberal campaign for mayor of New York City, and New Jersey is on the verge of passing a minimum-wage hike over Governor Chris Christie’s typically elephantine objections. Given these likely successes, it seems a good time to consider why the $11 icon failed where the equal sign succeeded. Economic populism was once central to the left’s moral universe. Is there nothing fun we can do to encourage a return to those days? Granted, battles over civil rights are easier to grasp than more complicated economic matters: The simplicity of a profile picture lends itself more to demanding equal protection under the law than it does to ideal calibrations of expected income-to-tax rates. But surely there’s a way to make income distribution as sexy and righteous to middle-class liberals as standing with a gay friend.
Of course, I don’t mean any of this to diminish the importance, progress, or difficulties faced by social justice advocates, especially those involved in marriage equality. But economic equality is an issue with equally dire stakes (had wages kept pace with productivity after 1968, the minimum wage would be nearly $25/hour today), and I wonder if we shouldn’t take the social media campaign up a notch by tying the success of gay rights to the fight for economic justice.
You can almost imagine it: a series of viral posts tying the goals of economic justice to the sexier right-and-wrong of equality campaigns. A close-up of a handsome, young gay man in a well-cropped Walmart shirt, staring into the camera. “Thanks to the Supreme Court overturning DOMA,” he says as hopeful music plays, “the federal government finally recognizes how much I love my fiancé, Bruce.”
But suddenly the score turns dire. “Unfortunately, at these poverty-level Walmart wages, I’ll never be able to afford the fabulous wedding I’ve always dreamed of! Without an $11 minimum wage, my dreams will stay deferred ... perhaps forever denied. Help my dreams come true: Call your congressman and demand an increase to the federal minimum wage.”
Or another: A young bisexual waitress sits in the restaurant where she works, eating a delicious vegan cupcake. “I love my job at the café,” she says. “I love how committed we are to serving environmentally friendly, locally sourced food to customers we consider friends.” But then the kicker: “But if restaurants are allowed to continue paying servers next-to-nothing and passing the expense on to customers in the form unreliable tips, I’m going to have to get another job at some awful, carbon-spewing corporate empire in order to make ends meet. I don’t want to do that. Demand economic justice in the form of an $11 minimum wage for all.”
Simpler still: “Did you know that in 30 states, gay men and women can be fired just for saying who they are? Support strong labor unions and end employment anti- discrimination laws.”
We could even try a bit of reverse psychology, to scare our reactionary friends into joining the cause. Picture a dark bunker, with hammers, sickles, and machine guns. A shadowy figure with a thick accent glowers at the camera: “Greetings, comrades. I’m a transgendered, Marxist illegal immigrant from Venezuela. I came to your country to foment revolution among the downtrodden underclass. Raising the minimum wage to $11 an hour would placate enough of the proletariat to stanch the torrent of class-fury bubbling beneath the surface of your white-picket middle-class American Nightmare. Call your representatives in Congress and tell them to vote against raising the minimum wage, so the the People will finally be spurred to rise up and bring back Lady Guillotine! Viva Chavez! Viva Che! Viva la revolucion!" Ominous strings; fade to black.
Soon, even Ted Cruz would be on board.
All of this is meant in fun, of course (unless you’ve got a camera, money, and influence — then call me!). Viral videos don’t change policy anymore than Facebook photos (Kony, after all, is still in power, and Kennedy didn't quite cite the equal sign in United States v. Windsor.) But there’s a case to be made in the popular imagination, for the value of media and humor in directing popular pressure. A series of videos on its own won’t turn the left back to its glory days of economic populism, but maybe they would be a start.
What’s clear is that today’s liberals — especially moneyed, influential young liberals — must make the struggle for economic justice a righteous, moral battle, equal to simpler civil rights causes. The two are connected, in the end: Fights for social justice are waged against powerful reactionaries with the money and means to resist the forces of change. When the economic playing field is leveled, struggles against sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia will become easier too.
But we’ve got to start soon. Otherwise, the grotesque inequality of the last several decades will continue unabated until those of us outside of the plutocracy haven’t even got the resources to whimper out against the status quo.