Dildos for the Bundy brothers: Love, laughter, and the politics of joy

If you’re going to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Princeton, Oregon, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. Rumor has it, wintertime will be a love-in there. In fact, it’s more than rumor if you consider fifty-five gallons of lube and a stockpile of dildos compelling evidence.

If you haven’t yet encountered this viral bit of news, when Ammon Bundy and his gaggle of armed ranchers sent out a list of needed supplies, the militia men were apparently flooded with boxes full of dildos.

They even received some penis-shaped snack foods and a fifty-five gallon drum of lube. For whatever reason, the occupying ranchers responded with disgust, perceiving the care packages as expressions of hate. Their spokesperson, Maureen “Mo” Peltier, said, “People spending money to send items representing their hate. That could have been spent on good things. Or those in need. Or something.”

But do the dildos necessarily constitute hate mail? How do we understand the political significance of the dildo in this instance?

The politics of the dildo

It should be noted that the dildo is no foreigner to the political stage. It sprang into the spotlight back in the day when lesbian feminists debated whether its use in lesbian sex represented a re-inscription of patriarchal power dynamics or a form of progressive sex for which no male was needed.

This time, the mass-mailing of dildos inspired a minor controversy that merits some inquiry into the politics of the dildo. Some Twitter commentators assigned the moniker #brokebackmilitia to the Bundy gang and promptly received accusations of homophobia. Questions were raised as to whether the dildo barrage was somehow meant to belittle the militia by undermining their masculinity and labeling them gay.

It is also possible, however, to interpret the dildo packages as a progressive gesture. It might be seen as a way to challenge, in a joyful and humorous manner, dominant conceptions of masculinity and the aggression and violence often informing masculinist values and behaviors. Perhaps we cannot know the intentions of the mailers, but we can talk about the effects of their gesture.

Frankly, it’s nice to see the dildo back. It’s been absent from our finer political discourse for too long. When I first caught wind of this bounty being bestowed on the Oregon militia, I have to say I belly-laughed until I just about bust my gut, popped an aneurism, and popped anything else that could burst in my being.

The laughter was a relief, buoying my spirits and altering my attitude in a political and cultural environment that usually locks me in a state of constant anxiety and, more often than not, inspires paralysis rather than activism.

It reminded me of the historical role of laughter in resistance and the need to reinvigorate our politics and ourselves with a joyful and erotic dimension. This is what makes us most vibrantly human and should characterize the world we seek to win.

In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., we need to foreground love in all that we do in the name of politics. As the good Dr. King stressed in his Nobel Peace Prize address:

“Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

The outpouring of dildos was, perhaps, just such an effort.

News of the militia’s occupation first broke for me through Facebook. The most prominent response seemed to be an insistence that if the militia men were people of color, the government would have moved quickly with violence and the protesters would likely be dead.

I wasn’t sure if this was meant only to underscore the racist double-standard at work in our culture, given the recent spate of Black lives taken in police shootings, or whether there was an implicit wish for federal authorities to visit violence upon the militia?

If we were to take a breath and reflect on Dr. King’s wisdom, we would see reacting to violence and anger in kind simply isn’t the way.

The beauty of the dildo shower is that it erects a vision of another way to resist and seek justice. It not only provokes laughter to counter terror and disarm anger, but it takes us a step beyond passive non-violent resistance. To borrow a phrase from back in the day, it calls on us to make love, not war.

Particularly in our age of terror in which we risk reacting out of fear, the mailing of dildos and lube underscored the need for a politics of joy that combines laughter and eroticism. These two ingredients are needed if we are going to craft a political resistance that doesn’t just wage war against oppressive forces but pre-figures the next world we seek to build – a humane, expressive and joyful one. As Gandhi so eloquently reminds us, “The means is the end.”

Make love, not war

Writing during the repressive rule of Stalin, Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin highlighted the political uses, indeed the necessity, of laughter to challenge terror and authoritarianism. In his study Rabelais and His World, which should be required reading for U.S. left activists, he concludes, “The serious aspects of class culture are official and authoritarian; they are combined with violence, prohibitions, limitations and always contain an element of fear and intimidation. These elements prevailed in the Middle Ages. Laughter, on the contrary, overcomes fear, for it knows no inhibitions, no limitations. Its idiom is never used by violence and authority.”

Laughter “frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities. For this reason, great changes…are always preceded by a certain carnival consciousness that prepares the way.”

Mailing dildos instead of throwing grenades represents a move that perhaps “prepares the way.” It allows us to access a different kind of power – the power of the erotic – in what we might call the politics of joy. It is a practical politics designed to counter hate, anger, and violence by making love instead of waging war. It re-directs traditional “masculine” energies of revenge, aggression, and retaliation toward a creative method of response founded on love, as King promoted.

Audre Lorde explains the power of the erotic as a form of political practice, defining it as “our most profoundly creative source” and “that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.”

While she defines the erotic as “female,” contrasting its qualitative difference from patriarchal hierarchy and aggression, she identifies it as “a resource within each of us.” Just as Bakhtin thinks about laughter, Lorde sees the erotic as a central energy for social change. It is a “source of power and information within our lives” against the forces of oppression which always “must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change.”

The erotic, echoing the words of Gandhi, is both the means and the end of political struggle according to Lorde:

“We begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives.”

In other words, while the erotic offers the clean and green political means – i.e. the activist energy – through which we must act to ensure humane and joyful consequences from our actions, the erotic is also the chief criteria by which we measure outcomes. We must ask, have we created a joyful world that gives expression to our fullest creative or erotic energies?

The joy of resistance

Although Lorde doesn’t use the term, she describes the erotic as a necessarily anti-capitalist energy and as the hallmark of what Karl Marx would have termed a dis-alienated society. Herein lies the vitality of her thinking for a moribund left, as she writes:

“The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need – the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love.”

The erotic is the power through which we reclaim our work and ourselves, essentially aiming at what we tend to understand as a socialist society. It is one in which people enjoy the fruits of their collective labor and social conditions allow for the fulfillment of realizing one’s full creative potential. It is a society in which the free and full development of each is the precondition for the free and full development of all.

While we have not yet succeeded in transcending a system with this “principal horror” and creating a system that truly honors life and enables human fulfillment, the mailing of the dildos (the militia’s unappreciative reception notwithstanding) signals a recognition of the erotic as a source of power and social change. It counters modes of resistance that simply replicate the violence and repression we mean to eliminate in the future world that, in the spirit of John Lennon, we must imagine.

And, the delivery of dildos does not stand alone in the history of joyful resistance to capitalism. When I first heard about their arrival in Oregon, I was reminded of the striking women textile workers in Elizabethton, Tennessee back in 1929.They changed the tone and tenor of the picket line in a way that male workers could not, bringing play back into politics precisely by accessing the erotic power Lorde identifies.

As labor historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall writes, the women made “no secret of their sexual experience” as they “combined flirtation with fierceness on the picket line.” As opposed to anger and muscle, “Laughter was among the women’s most effective weapons.”

Much like the dildos, this joyful and erotic play disarmed anger and violence.

I also remember visiting the Solidarity Singers on the lawn of the capitol in Madison, Wisconsin a couple years ago. Joyful and concerned citizens had been gathering every day at noon to sing together since the mass protests of Governor Scott Walker’s hijacking of democracy and collective bargaining rights in early 2011.

I spoke to one of the protestors, an oncology nurse, who related the importance of the singing, of resisting and protesting in playful and joyful ways. She recounted how at one moment back in those frigid days, amid the masses in the Capitol, she and others suddenly stopped yelling and started singing. The feeling in her body and spirit completely transformed. She found herself uplifted, energized, joyfully open to others and the future, as opposed to consumed and exhausted by the stress of anger and negativity.

This joy, I would wager, has functioned like a clean and renewable energy, keeping these singers congregating everyday at noon for years now. By contrast, our anger, like fossil fuels, gets harder and harder to access and is less sustainable for the long struggle ahead.

Regardless of how the ranchers received the dildos or how the Elizabethton strike fared, the point is how we sustain ourselves in our movements and how we conceptualize a radical means to achieve the ends of humane social transformation.

Perhaps an unexpected beacon in a fog-shrouded political environment, the dildo has appeared to light the way, bringing the joy of sex to radical politics.

Photo: Video snapshot




Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.