Ode to the Social Gadfly


This one is dedicated to all those annoying gadflies out there. You know who you are. You’re speaking inconvenient or uncomfortable or economically-unprofitable truths on the daily. Your old friends probably don’t call you. You don’t get invited to their parties, but sometimes you crash them anyway…


Feeling somewhat embattled myself lately, I thought I’d open the history books and console myself with some of the more controversial figures of the last century. Detroit has produced more than its fair share of gadflies over the years: Michael Moore, Madonna, Eminem, Walter Reuther, the list goes on… Detroit’s got grit, and its diaspora generation has challenged convention in every industry and in many countries around the world.


Back when labor unions had cojones – that is, when they struck not just voted – some rebel gadflies from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) joined forces with United Auto Works on a retreat outside Detroit to craft the now-legendary Port Huron Statement:


We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.


What is the consciousness of our generation, the Occupy generation? Saddled with debt, job prospects waning, but with high hopes and expensive degrees. We “millennials” want work that is meaningful, not just good-paying. We watched our parents acquiesce to the false luxury of the 80’s and 90’s, we survived the dot-com bubble and its bust, and we bathed ourselves in the self-referential shallowness of the Backstreet Boys era. We packed our hopes into the empty signifier box of Obama’s Hope and Change©, and then when we didn’t get all the change we had hoped for we took to the streets of Manhattan and Detroit and Chicago and Oakland and…


The other week, the former bankruptcy boss of Detroit Kevyn Orr condescendingly called out my crew of social gadflies during a speech at the Economic Club:


“Some of [the water crisis] was orchestrated. We know that the Occupy Wall Street folks are the folks behind Detroit Water Brigade.”


You’re damn right, Orr. And we gadflies are happily stinging the nasty Wall Street horse you rode in on. And we’ll continue to be that voice after you’re long gone and you’ve picked up your last consultation check from some corrupt bureaucrat or veiled veneer of a corporate foundation. Because the Detroit we want doesn’t need emergency managers and bankruptcy lawyers. Because the Detroit we are building doesn’t have water shutoff trucks or back-due property tax payment plans with 18% interest rates.


Or maybe just because we can’t help being that pesky social gadfly you keep swiping at.


So maybe the 60’s aren’t quite back again (yet), but at least we’re making some damn noise! So let’s praise those among us who possess that annoying gadfly-i-ness that is so preciously-needed in times of social upheaval, when systems crumble around us. Praise them even as they sting us with their itchy, seductive poison.