Friday, July 8, 2011

"All of which are the American Dream..."

Standing in the weight room next to the bench press, I had one more set to go.  I scrolled through the songs on my iPod to find the perfect finishing song, and of course I went straight to Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name Of."  I finished my last set, and as I am wont to do, thought about the lyrics to the song and what Zach de la Rocha was probably thinking as he wrote it.  I envisioned him scribbling the lyrics on a notebook while in a Cal-Berkeley class called "U.S. and Latin American Relations during the 20th Century."  He, of course, had a hoodie to cover his dreads and had the old school Walkman, with headphones covering his ears, and Eric B and Rakim's "Microphone Fiend" bumping (I always envision him listening to Eric B and Rakim, mainly because to my delight he covered one of their songs in the Renegades album).

However he came up with the song, I am absolutely sure that if he knew that the majority of people who listened to his music would be white members of the status quo, followers of the establishment, listeners of Linkin Park before discovering Rage as the "next step" on their iTunes suggestions, then he would not have written the song and may well have killed himself.  Because there is something genuine and honest and passionate about Rage's songs and lyrics.  There is.  La Rocha really truly wanted to fight the system and to take the power back.  We don't need the keys, we'll break in! Instead, the outflow of his revolutionary spirit was swallowed up by the system, and spit back out into the mass market so that white-collar workers can have music to listen to when they feel like feeling dangerous.

That's the awful power of "the system," the mass-market, consumer-driven capitalism that has taken over the United States (next stop: the world) in the last century.  With "The System," real, live human beings with powerful emotions and passions and self-interest are reduced to something much safer: consumers.  And real, live ideas, powerful thoughts and words and movements, are reduced to something much safer: products.  And instead of a real revolution, in which structures and systems are overthrown or changed, we now have revolutions in which books and music are sold to a niche audience that wants to feel like part of a something bigger.  The beauty of The System is that it has a place in it for everyone: even (especially) those who question The System.  Do you feel that corporations and Big Business are corrupt and taking everything over, getting rich on the backs of the poor, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots?  Well, that idea sounds like it might make for a nice product.  And our market-testing experts have shown that there are consumers who will buy that product.  And Barnes and Noble has agreed to hold a book signing on the release date of the book.

When the revolts in the Arab world happened (wait, what, they're still happening? I must have missed it in the middle of the Anthony Weiner/Casey Anthony news), there were some paranoid people who thought that similar revolutions would come to America.  After all, there was and is a lot of anger towards our government, just like there was anger toward the Arab governments.  And, we Americans love to be afraid of the possibility of earth-shattering events.  But, unlike most of the Arab world, we have an outlet: free elections in which people can peacefully express their anger.  Even better, we have The System in which angry people can go have their angry rallies, and eventually pick out angry leaders to follow who will write angry books to be sold at your local Barnes and Noble.

In the 1970s, Gil Scott-Herron (RIP) wrote a song that said that the Revolution would not be televised.  In 2011, Scott-Herron's claim has become obsolete.  The Revolution would most assuredly be televised, and the rights to it would probably be owned by Pepsi.  It might start out as a group of people protesting on the streets, but eventually iPhones would be used to film the events, which would then be posted to Twitter, followed by being picked up by CNN in order to attract viewers, and then Anderson Cooper would be sent to report on the Revolution, followed by 24/7 coverage, and finally culminating in a Michael Bay movie and a tell-all book from whichever leader of the revolution proved most charismatic (by which I mean "physically attractive"). 
This is what we have created, and it's here for better or worse.  Some people still yearn for a revolution, and they still look for someone to lead it.  They may not expect a violent overthrow of the system, but they want to believe in a big idea (we call these people "idealists" and they are a dying breed compared to "pragmatics").  For social conservatives, Sarah Palin represented a revolution, a return to a perception of "small-town values" and "real America."  Instead, Palin settled for book deals, a TV show on TLC, a job with Fox News, and bus tours across America.  Barack Obama represented "change" and the culmination of Martin Luther King's dream of racial equality.  It remains to be seen what he'll do after his presidency, but in the meantime, Obama has settled for extending our overseas wars, keeping the same tax structure in place, and bailing out the big businesses that he once lambasted.  However, even if Obama were to "change" the System, then the System would simply evolve and maybe hail Obama as a hero in order to get a new book published or a speaking tour started at the end of his presidency. 

The System is powerful, and when it offers the kingdoms of the world (by which I mean money, fame, prestige, security), even the most principled and idealistic have a hard time refusing to bow down.  And, irony of ironies, those who refuse to play by the System's rules are left without an avenue to get their revolutionary ideas out to the people.  It's a Catch-22 of epic proportions.

I write all of this, not to suggest that we need to change the system (I'm too cynical for that), but rather to point out these three things: One, it is really hard to be a true, principled revolutionary.  Two, we still need people to keep trying, because we have an innate desire for revolution in some sense, for change to something better, for "the way things should be."  But three, don't be fooled by those claiming a sense of self-righteousness and separation from the "evil" system.  They themselves cannot escape its grasp.  The only way to change the system is to navigate the treacherous waters within it, and to pretend that this is not true would be like Rage Against the Machine believing their music's main purpose would be revolutionary.  Instead, their legacy was to help develop a new genre of rap-rock music to be marketed by MTV and sold on iTunes, and listened to by establishment-followers in weight rooms everywhere.