Monday, March 30, 2015

A People Without History or Memory: What WrestleMania 31 Teaches Us About American Politics

Popular culture is political.

And as I have suggested many times before, politics is professional wrestling and professional wrestling is politics.

Roland Barthes insightfully described why the devotees of professional wrestling find it so compelling:

The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theaters. And in fact wrestling is an open-air spectacle, for what makes the circus or the arena what they are is not the sky (a romantic value suited rather to fashionable occasions), it is the drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light. Even hidden in the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.

There is no greater spectacle—an exaggerated, out-sized, over the top, presentation of physical storytelling inside a twenty by twenty foot ring—than World Wrestling Entertainment’s annual WrestleMania event.

This year’s WrestleMania 31 was exciting and thrilling.

Old heroes returned to reclaim their mantle, the “dead” rose from the grave, a working class hero who looks more like an everyman than the prototypical mythic heroes made real as professional wrestlers won a championship, and an unstoppable force, a beast incarnate, unleashed his wrath on a near helpless foe only to see his victory denied by a scurrilous rival who, in an almost “Deus ex machina” moment, stole the sport's greatest prize.

Professional wrestling is a global juggernaught.

WrestleMania 31 was watched in 40 different countries. The event, held at Levi Stadium, was attended by 76,967 people—a record for that facility.  

One of WrestleMania 31’s featured matches was a battle for the United States Championship between Rusev, an “evil” Russian (who is actually from Bulgaria, ostensibly a recipient of medals of honor from President Putin, and is attended to by his valet and manager, a strikingly beautiful “Russian” blond named Lana) and the habitually selfless, hard scrapping “good” American “patriot” and former Marine, John Cena.

Their rivalry is classic professional wrestling storytelling.

It draws on current events (a resurgent Russia), is rooted in the near past (the Cold War), features characters who are exaggerated even by the caricaturized standards of professional wrestling (Rusev, a monstrous brute whose apparent reason d’etre is to humiliate Americans, and John Cena, a character that is so sickeningly likeable and preternaturally good that his detractors have given him the moniker “Super Cena”).

Cena and Rusev’s rivalry resonates because it is fundamentally simple: nationalism and channeled through characters who embody simplistic notions of “good” and “evil”.

Befitting the spectacle that is WrestleMania, Rusev and Cena were gifted with magisterial entrances. Rusev, waving a Russian flag, road a Soviet-era main battle tank to the ring and was accompanied by an honor guard while the Russian national anthem blared in the background.

Not to be undone, John Cena was introduced by a brilliantly produced video montage.

It channeled with aplomb the empty patriotism of Tea Party rallies, Fox News, and a tautological logic that deems America the greatest country on Earth because Americans say that it is.

In all, John Cena’s entrance was perfect for the theater that is WrestleMania.

However, John Cena’s video montage was also a moment when the spectacular and exaggerated transitioned into the surreal.

Cena’s video opens with a segment from Eisenhower’s farewell address in which he offered a prescient warning about the rise of the military industrial complex—except such words are not included, his wisdom truncated into "America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world".

Ronald Reagan is omnipresent in the WrestleMania montage.

As Rick Perlstein sharply observes in his book The Invisible Bridge, Reagan was the ideal president for a country that wanted to be lied to in order to feel good about itself. Thus, Reagan, former Hollywood actor, corporate pitchman, and human emblem for an “empire of illusion”, is perhaps the President of the United States best suited as a mascot for professional wrestling.

He is the perfect narrator for a fictitious America made real.

George W. Bush had his moment as well--he who led the United States into disastrous wars in the Middle East that have killed more than one million people and broke the American economy.

Because the United States has reimagined itself as a type of perpetual victim whose good intentions are punished by terrorism and hatred from abroad, images of “first responders”, America’s soldiers, and September 11th were also included as obligatory elements in Cena’s video ode to America.

Those images are empty symbols, divorced of context. They are propaganda akin to the ahistorical lens into current events offered by movies such as the recent fascist fantasy American Sniper.

In this imaginary, George W. Bush is separated from the very horrors and chaos that his poor decision-making unleashed on the “heroes” depicted in Cena’s video montage.

Cena’s video also distorted the Black Freedom Struggle. Because Black Americans and their struggle for civil rights exemplify America’s moral conscience, a flattening of that history is central to the myth of American Exceptionalism. As is necessitated by their induction into the mainstream pantheon of American heroes, Brother Dr. King and Sister Rosa Parks have been robbed of their radicalism, reduced to iconic photos of a black man giving a speech to thousands and a black woman sitting on a bus because "her feet were tired".

Cena’s video package is just one more reminder of how the American collective conscience has repackaged the Civil Rights Movement into something digestible for the white (and too many of the black and brown) American public.

In the United States, capitalism is confused with democracy. As such, images of Steve Jobs, Apple products, and Facebook were included with Dr. King. The latter was a radical critic of inequality, the distortions of capitalism, and free market fundamentalism. Somehow, a man who was killed because he fought for human rights is a hero in the same sense as people who feed the infinite maw of consumerism.

America is in many ways a country without a history. Its core tenet of “American Exceptionalism” is, by most empirical standards, a lie. The “Founding Fathers” are deified—the language of “founding fathers” itself hints at the country’s capacity for self-delusion. And because Americans are given historical (and current) events without context, they are able to cherry pick and borrow from their country’s past to spin a narrative of unending progress. This is of course an effort to create a type of “usable history”. The question then remains, to what ends is it working?

John Cena’s “America” video is an example of history by committee, a product of marketing researchers, and WWE’s keen understanding of its viewer demographics. Cena’s video montage cannot offend by truth-telling; nor, should it be expected to. This is the ethic of the neoliberal corporate multicultural state: false notions of inclusivity to the end of profit maximization.

Professional wrestling is spectacular theater. WrestleMania is the spectacular elevated to the ridiculous. As a lifelong fan of professional wrestling, I/we have made a bargain. We know that the events are scripted. The drama is no less real.

The danger lies in how the fantastically distorted history and present embodied by John Cena’s video is actually taken as true by too many of the country’s citizens. This is especially the case for conservatives with their American flag lapel pin obsessions, insular and alternative reality news media entertainment machine, as well as penchant for confusing militarism and ugly nationalism with authentic and true patriotism.

Even more disturbing, is how John Cena’s American Exceptionalism themed video montage could easily be substituted as a type of exam or test of faith for the Right-wing faithful and their presidential candidates in the 2016 election.

If politics is professional wrestling, then WrestleMania 31 provided a moment of gifted insight into a twisted and delusional belief system that imperils the Common Good. 


James Scaminaci III, PhD said...

Thanks, Chauncey, for that essay. I watched only a bit of WrestleMania and was amazed at the production values and the spectacle. Having just come from the SF-Oakland Bay Area, I was very surprised that 77K+ packed the stadium. My son, a devotee of WWE, told me that fans fly in from all over the world to witness the Super Bowl of Wrestling. I remember watching wrestling in Alabama and Georgia in the mid-1970s when I was stationed at Fort Benning. All the stereotypes of nationalism and good versus evil that you wrote about. Even President Carter's mother attended the wrestling shows I went to. But, what really caught me was how emotionally involved the crowds were. They were fully invested in a hero "fighting" an opponent in a scripted match. Should the hero "lose," the anger and disappointment was palpable. What a show. I'm really impressed with how you tie wrestling entertainment to political entertainment. Brilliant. Genius.

James Scaminaci III, PhD said...

Chauncey, you may to read this article at Religion Dispatches: "Wrestling and Religion: We Know It's Fake and We Don't Care" by Jess Peacock who is also a fan of wrestling. You guys could probably have a Vulcan mindmeld.

chauncey devega said...

Another man--you--who has the good fortune of having son who enjoys American theater :)

I will need to read that piece!

My love of wrestling has caused crickets these last few days. One of the fun things about online essaying is that it is a good place to work out one's own thoughts and very often work takes on a life of its own.

chauncey devega said...

If you never read Barthes Mythologies you should. I really think you would enjoy it. You were in a great territory in Georgia. A very very special time in wrestling with some of the best talent and most amazing storytelling.

SW said...

My reading list just keeps growing. I bought a copy (used of course) of Mind of a Master Class, based on your conversation with Dr. Nama a couple of weeks ago. I'm quite excited to start it, but won't allow myself until I've finished DuBois' Black Reconstruction. What a mind!!! I love those moments of clarity he provides through his writing.

I have "bookmarked" Mythologies to be purchased at a later date.

I grew out of the pro wrestling thing in my early teen years I suppose. Perhaps it was my older brother's insistence that wrestling was fake. Or maybe it just stopped being on at the time and channel I was accustomed to. So I never made it past WWF. But I was a pretty consistent WWF fan growing up. Your reference to "Lana" reminded me of what's her name? Miss Elizabeth. I had to do a little googling to come up with that. She's apparently no longer with us. I'd have to put her up there with Jane Fonda as an object of my affections as a child. My mom had a couple of those Jane Fonda workout tapes. To this day there's still something about leotards and leg warmers....

chauncey devega said...

Crushes on 'Scary Sherri" for me. Damn that was one badass white woman. Elizabeth was something else. Her relationship w. Savage was a type of possessive love on his part. Her passing from drugs was so sad.

SW said...

Scary Sherri huh? Lol. Indeed. As an adult looking back, I can appreciate how undeveloped my tastes were. Lol.

INDYOO7 said...

I used to love wrestling. Mid South wrestling with the Von Erics was a main stay on my small black and white tv as a kid.

kokanee said...

A brilliant piece of writing and observations.

What is parody and entertainment to us is propaganda to so many of wrestling's fans. And what you call a bargain, I call cognative dissonance. ;)

chauncey devega said...

Cognitive dissonance is one hell of a drug :)

How have you been? I scare folks away so I always offer hugs after sharing such insights.

chauncey devega said...

Another era. Another era. Goodness you were lucky!

kokanee said...

I like warm hugs!

Your essays are widely varied and people have different interests but I'm your number one fan!

INDYOO7 said...

Looking back at it I guess I was. Saturday nights in Houston, Texas, staying up late with a bowl of nachos those were the days. Your summations about the Reagan era were truly apt. We collectively signed on to a mass delusional state. Politics like the popular entertainment was mere fiction that we deluded ourselves into believing it was fact. America the good versus the evil Soviets. It was all a sham. Wrestlers of that era were very dynamic. Week after week it was a play of good versus evil. The Von Erichs versus the Fabulous Freebirds or the Four Horsemen. I witnessed some of the best in sports entertainment.Unlike today the wrestlers of that time put their money were their mouths were. There was no waiting for pay per view see some action. Another era indeed.