Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Thank You: How 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper and 'They Live' Taught Us to Stand Up and Fight Back Against the Right-Wing Neoliberal Nightmare

Legendary professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper passed away on Friday, July 31, 2015. He succumbed to a heart attack in his Hollywood, California home. Born, Roderick George Toombs, Piper was 61-years-old.

Roddy Piper is best known for his work with the (then) World Wrestling Federation during the 1980s and feuds with Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka. While he is a member of the WWE’s Hall of Fame, I would dare to suggest that in the future it is far more likely that Roddy Piper will be remembered for starring in the 1988 cult classic film They Live.

The plot of John Carpenter’s They Live is deceptively simple. Roddy Piper’s character, a semi-homeless day laborer named “Nada” (Spanish for “nothing”) discovers a pair of sunglasses which allow him to identify the extraterrestrials that have infiltrated the Earth’s populace. The aliens are part of the global (intergalactic) power elite, a group that has been stealing the Earth’s resources, buying off its leaders, and exploiting the masses for their own personal gain. Piper’s character quickly encounters “Frank” (played by actor Keith David), and together they join the resistance movement in order to bring down the alien overlords.

As I discussed with author Jonathan Lethem several months ago, They Live is a genius film that embraces the culture of disreputability—it is genre entertainment, based on an obscure short story, a professional wrestler is the main character, and the heroes of the movie are an interracial group of homeless, working class, and poor people.

They Live, for all of its b-movie auteur sensibilities, is a scathing indictment of the Reagan 1980s, the culture of cruelty and austerity, wealth inequality, the plutocrats, the corporate media, classism, racism, and greed.

As such, They Live is also an essential film for this socio-political moment: it has much to teach the American people as they struggle to make sense of wanton police brutality against people of color and the poor in the new Gilded Age, an era of toxic white masculinity, and perverse reactionary Right-wing politics.

They Live’s central theme is how people can learn to see reality more clearly. 

The nature of the truth and its relationship to reality are foundational philosophical concerns from the classic Plato’s Allegory of the Cave through to the immensely popular Matrix films. When Roddy Piper dons his sunglasses he sees an unsettling and terrifying world—one which he initially runs from, in shock, denial, and upset. At first, Piper believes that he must be insane because the brutal reality of hegemonic power—and its organs of control through the media, surveillance, advertising, casino capitalism, the corporation, and the police state—is now laid bare in front of him. They Live presents one of the fundamental choices that citizens must make in this time of neoliberal trouble and tumult: do they choose to live in denial or do they accept the truth?

They Live is an indictment of learned helplessness. The neoliberal order through a combination of surveillance, economic brutality, incarceration, and technologies of pleasure and distraction (for example: social media, mass entertainment, consumerism) has been able to limit the possibilities of true democratic action and reform. The American people (and many in the West more broadly) have seen true democracy undermined by organized and well-monied interest groups, the rich, and corporate power more broadly, that pursues policy goals which are antithetical to the will of The People. The American people know something is amiss and wrong—but many of them are too tired, afraid, or distracted to do anything about it. Unfortunately, too many Americans are living a life oriented around survival and pleasure; this is a type of life, but one that is neither fulfilling nor transformative.

They Live demonstrates how a group of marginalized people who are written out of the polity can struggle for and win a more humane and just world. These heroes made a choice to overcome learned helpless and to become citizens of action.

Interracial alliances across lines of class can change the world for the better. The invention of Whiteness in the 17th century is one of the primary means through which White Supremacy as a system of social, political, scientific, philosophical, and economic control and power has come to dominate global society. White supremacy as a system of maintaining unearned advantages for “white” people has historically paid significant material, psychological, political, and economic wages to its owners and other beneficiaries. But, in an age of globalization and gross wealth inequality the central lie of Whiteness is further exposed: Whiteness has always benefitted white elites at the expense of the material (and often long-term political) interests of the vast majority of white people. In many ways, poor and working class white people have more in common with poor and working class people of color than they do rich and upper class whites. White racial resentment and the intoxicating effects of white supremacy have blinded too many white folks to that reality.

They Live intervenes against the possessive investment in Whiteness: the plutocrats, the elites, and “the aliens” are the real enemy that human beings, in service to our shared humanity and the Common Good, should be fighting.

They Live reminds us that there are human beings with no sense of linked fate, compassion, or caring for other people. They are engaged in a cruel type of calculus that results in a distorted and wicked biopolitics that uses “the market” to decide human worth: this is homo economicus as sociopathy.

The human traitors in They Live are agents of neoliberal governmentality, where profits trump human dignity and value, who seek to destroy the social safety net, eliminate the “useless eaters”, believe that corporations are people, and live an ethos of robber baron gangster capitalism. The aliens may rule the Earth, but they are only able to do so because they are helped by unethical and immoral human beings.

At the climax of They Live, Roddy Piper’s character “Nada” and Keith David’s “Frank” embark on a suicide mission to destroy the satellite dish on the roof of a local “news” station that is broadcasting the signal which keeps the Earth’s people asleep, helpless, enslaved, and enthralled to the alien’s will. In this symbolically potent moment, two poor men, one white and one black, die to awaken humanity to the dynamic of their true oppression. They Live ends with the ghouls from outer space, their glamour and masks dropped, and “we the people” seeing them for what they actually are, monsters who are our business leaders, lovers, bosses, media elites, politicians, and dream merchants.

Film is a space where a given society fight with itself, negotiates identity, and works out the struggles of its collective subconscious, values, politics, and meaning.

In the present, They Live reflects an America (and world) where some people have put on the glasses, awakened to the ugly reality of the culture of cruelty, austerity, and disposability, and decided to resist it. They are the young lions in Baltimore, Ferguson, and the “Black Lives Matter” movement; the people who have fought the IMF and World Bank in places like Greece; the Occupy Wall Street and Jubilee movements; the Green peace protesters suspending themselves from a Portland bridge to stop the ravaging of the Earth by oil companies; and the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” movement.

Ultimately, They Live is also a metaphor for how the “aliens” and their thrall still dominate American politics and life.

To wit.

This week, the Republican Party will hold the first of their televised debates to decide which of its candidates will be the presidential nominee in 2016. These debates will feature personalities from an irresponsible political party that has mated racism and conservatism in order to advance a radical agenda which will further destroy the consensus politics that have governed the United States since at least the middle of the 20th century.

The Republican debates are a spectacle and a parade of political ghouls. In the recent past, Republican debates have featured audiences that cheer killing people, electrocuting Hispanic and Latino immigrants, and who boo gay Americans.

The 2016 candidates choose to pander to the freak show human zoo that is the Republican base in order to win their approval and subsequent nomination.

Consequently, the potential Republican presidential candidates include people who believe that God has appeared to them and sent magical portends that they should run for President of the United States, who want to destroy the gains of the Civil Rights movement, deny basic scientific facts such as global warming, war mongers that yearn to invade and bomb countries around the world, Birthers, Islamophobes, plutocrats that see the American people as lazy and not hardworking, and of course as a group the Republican presidential nominees want to further destroy the basic guarantees of an already threadbare and frazzled social safety net.

This is the politics of spectacle, illusion, distraction, and absurdity that They Live cautioned its viewers about.

In They Live, upon donning his sun glasses and seeing the truth, Roddy Piper decided to kick ass and chew bubble gum…and he was all out of bubble gum. This was a call to action in a smart b-movie that embraced the culture of disreputability in order to tell some basic truths about power, greed, and politics in the neoliberal age.

John Carpenter’s They Live was prescient. Roddy Piper was irreplaceable both in the squared circle of the professional wrestling ring and as a man named “Nada” who reminded us all, that yes, we can choose to see reality more clearly, and then fight to make the world a better place.

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