Now you know things are bad: Activism and Time Out New York

By Guest Columnist Jul 24, 2008

by Joyce Li I’ve grown accustomed to the appropriation of the fist. Revolutionary imagery, especially when depicting the forgotten struggles of communities of color, is very becoming on baby bibs and Coldplay album covers. The fist has come a long way since the Boxer Rebellion, or the 1968 Olympics. But when I passed a newsstand in Midtown Manhattan this past weekend, my jaw literally dropped. Time Out! NY is obviously going for a new angle. Sometimes, that’s sexist satire (Sex and the City women with mouths duct-taped) or self-loathing (after years of promoting the neo-gentry renovation of Bushwick, recent cover "Hipster Must Die!"), but with the latest issue, the week’s phrase is social responsibility. "We change New York!" it screams, followed by their claim against high rents and fare hikes: "we fight them all." The cover is emblazoned with – you guessed it – a gigantic fist. Deputy editor Michael Freidson explains, in a CoverAwards interview:

"We wanted the reader to “rise up” and think about how they’d change NYC. The fist, and the Russian vibe, had a “unite” feel to it. We’re all in it together—the reader AND Time Out New York. "

And who is that reader? TONY’s advertiser media kit includes a profile that highlights its online audience’s affluence: median age 33, 79% single, 96% college-degreed, 76% female. Oh, and median household income $94.5K. Upper-middle class single women living in New York City: TONY wants to teach them "activism for every attention span." "Ask for a doggie bag," they say to city hunger. "Join your community board," says another to overdevelopment (proper, since community boards have proved they want to protect white, upper-middle class sections of the city even when landlocked by working-class communities of color). In other words, TONY subscribes to a seemingly color-blind and classist perception of city politics; what scares me is that they’re paying attention at all. At a moment in which banks are broke, and CNN gives peak airtime to race matters, how do longtime organizers and radical activists incorporate the sudden surge of interest in progressive politics, into their agendas? If a lifestyle/culture magazine devotes an entire issue to social activism, it means things are bad. If trust fund babies are complaining about affordable housing, the future is bleak. What I fear is everyone throwing themselves into the fight for affordable housing and fair working conditions – and whitewashing it. With little or no analysis of structural inequities, we’ll tell the big guy/(semi-)little guy story over and over. Last time the city was engulfed in depression, the light at tunnel’s end was Rudolph Guiliani, the man made infamous for razing homeless encampments and imprisoning thousands of men of color for minor offenses like window-washing. He helped affluent New Yorkers realize their truth: when things are bad, blame it on the poor brown folks. There’s little question that city and country are in troubled political and economic climes. But when mainstream media and the average American have finally turned a listening ear, who will be telling the story for us? Joyce Choi Won Li is an Applied Research Center Communications Intern.