Monday, May 25, 2009

Fight Club in the White House

Watching a recent documentary about The Pixies reuniting was a sobering moment. As a fan of The Pixies (just "Pixies" is more accurate, but awkward), I was interested to see what the group was like after 15 years apart. Somehow, this dysfunctional group managed to rock out like they hadn't spent the last decade estranged, when they either lost themselves to addictions or in their own solo music projects. That was onstage. Offstage, there wasn't a whole lot going on. Reports of what the previous years had been like were nothing short of depressing, and it seemed that all the members couldn't wait to get back together, but mainly for the paycheck that would come from filling music halls across the country. (The lead singer, Frank Black, did manage some wonderful music in the intervening years.)

Something else struck me about the group. I was reminded of the violence in their music, which was always oddly combined with a clean-cut look, an attractive (at least in the late 80s) bassist, and a calm demeanor between songs. This was a stark contrast to the overly rebellious music groups of decades past, whose violent music was always paired with a violent image. (Think Dee Snyder
eating an oversized thigh bone, an iconic image at the time we would ridicule today.) Now, violence is an acceptable trait of the quiet man, the thinker, the amateur philosopher, the college student. What had once been public displays of pain turned into a controlled rage, a rage that was recognized, contemplated, and accepted. Who was it that bought tickets to see the Pixies on their reunion tour? 40-year-olds that listened to them in their heyday? No, from the looks of things it was 20-year-olds who still heard in the Pixies a freshness, and saw in them role models of their own controlled rage.

A few years after the Pixies broke up, a film was made that was seemingly adored by every one 30 years old and younger: Fight Club. Here again was a portrait of controlled rage, harbored by a seemingly secure, educated professional. But behind his superficial success was a disillusionment about the very institutions that had given rise to his way of life. He wasn't an individual, as he felt was his birthright; he was a robot, a number, an automaton, devoting his empty life to a corrupt system that was anti-human and soul-crushing. His response? A psychotic break and the birth of an underground fight club that would grow into an anarchist legion. By the end of the film, the group is responsible for destroying skyscrapers that house all records of debt for the American consumer, destroying capitalism in one fell swoop. The background music as the buildings crumble to the ground? The Pixies'Where is my Mind?

Was this just a cool film? Or a snapshot of how an entire generation now views/viewed institutions? Maybe both. It certainly wasn't the Magna Carta of Generation X, but a justification (albeit insane justification) for destroying capitalism and altering society had been portrayed and appreciated by millions, many without giving it a second thought. Destroy debt? Sounds good to me! Live my life on my terms, not dictated by some evil bureaucratic company? Awesome! As long as that attitude was the daydream of a few college students who would one day shed that naivete with their own mortgage, small business and car note, the film didn't bother me. But the sentiment at the core of the Pixies controlled rage and Fight Club is now on full display in the highest branches of our society.

Before there was Fight Club, there was a guy who had authored a treatise on how to bring about social change. As it turns out, he worked in Woodlawn and Hyde Park, Chicago, where I went to school and were our current president lives when away from D.C.
Saul Alinskyadmitted that his aim to bring about revolution by working within the system, harnessing a controlled rage by agitating institutions, especially financial institutions. (The picture below includes corporations, banks and utilities, but nothing is off limits.) He taught his followers how to create appetites for "change", how to get folks on board with legislating against one negative concept (like pollution) and expanding it to virtually anything else. Unlike Fight Club, blowing up buildings wasn't his preferred method of bringing about social change. But like Fight Club, Saul Alinsky worked in small groups in neighborhoods across the country, and the goal was to take down large institutions, one piece at a time.

And like Fight Club, there is a very real hostility against the very institutions that have created our comfortable way of life. Capitalism? It's surely imperfect, as all of humanity is, but the once fringe academic sense that capitalism was inherently evil is not so fringe anymore. In fact, I would argue it is incredibly likely that our president was highly trained in the sentiment that American capitalism was the moral problem, not the solution. His response as soon as he came into office? Virtually no element of our economy has gone untouched. Banking? Practically owned by the government. Automobile? Owned,
at the risk of the rule of law, by the government. Credit cards? They're next, waiting for a takeover. Health care? By the end of the year, the government may have remade American healthcare in the image of England's failed model. The currency? Our own Treasury Secretary seems okay with the dollar no longer being the world's standard. The bailouts weren't a government loan to keep capitalism afloat. It turns out it was forced money that empowered the federal government to dictate changes in policy, without recourse. This article is a fascinating summary of just how unstable our economy is, and how much doublespeak is at the heart of it all.

In Fight Club, controlled rage is celebrated, indeed its needed, because the American system is immoral, corrupt and anti-human. This use to be a fringe idea, echoed only in the halls of colleges and by community organizing menaces like Saul Alinsky. Judged by his actions alone, a reasonable person can conclude that destroying America's fundamentally immoral foundations are at the heart of an Obama presidency. In the film, people didn't fight because they disagreed or were offended; they fight because they enjoy it. And at the core of the conflict, there is the desire to shed the institutions of the past, to literally destroy the goose that lays the golden eggs. The film simply animated the mainstream views of the American professoriate. Now, that view is in real power for the first time. Let the fight begin.

UPDATE: Obama says he's ready.

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