From 1970: Say Easy Rider

This is from the first issue of a two-issue, tabloid-format newsprint magazine Stephen Williamson (no, not the economist) and I published as undergraduates in 1970, and which I long thought had been lost forever. Steve, as it turns out, is — fortunately — more of a packrat than I am, and preserved some copies, so I get to republish it 50 years after its first appearance. I’ve corrected a couple of typos, but otherwise left it as it was, including the abhorrence of contractions which I’ve long since overcome, assorted capitalization and punctuation crimes, and a grating insensitivity to 21st century gender pronoun and racial nomenclature norms, which I’ll just have to live with. We all have a past, no?

If the twentieth century had any essential lesson to teach us, it is this: we are finally on our own. Kings have been dead since the French Revolution. Nietzsche broke the news about God a century ago, and to any perceptive observer it is obvious that the state suffers from a terminal cancer. We are running out of history. What has brought us the concentration camp and the H-Bomb no longer has much to offer us.

For anyone born after 1940, independence is the natural attitude; the illusion of authority has evaporated. Our generation feels free to snicker when the thought police masquerade as destiny, an achievement George Orwell clearly believed to be impossible.  Nevertheless, the baggage of the past has not been as easy to dump as we thought. What began as the Aquarian Age has recently come to look more like a kind of simultaneous rerun of all but the most irrelevant episodes in history. The remnants of the student radical movement have restricted themselves to recovering the nineteenth century millennium, as though they somehow had forgotten that Stalin was the result of the first run-through. People in communes wait patiently for technology and international culture to disappear. What a damn shame it would be if someday their descendents had to fight the Sioux-Blackfoot wars over again!

There is certainly a kink somewhere when a generation with as good an understanding as ours has had of the gap between reality and human perception starts producing astrologers, communists, and subsistence farmers. Given what we know, it makes as much sense as Free Enterprise or the Cold War. I suspect the explanation lies somewhere in the difference between the extent of the possibilities we can see and the amount of personal energy required to realize even the most limited of them. We want a lot, and we can have only a little. Our tendency is to make up the difference by magic. We blame our impotence on a “Power Structure” that is already discredited, and play at revolution. We’re more ready to believe in Tarot cards or the Great Spirit than to live with our natural limitations. We have yet to learn that ending repression does not give anyone supernatural powers, or maintain his innocence.

The issue isn’t whether or not other cultures and ideologies reveal wisdoms ours lack, but whether we’ve picked up on them for the sake of wisdom or for an easy way out of our own troubles. There is quite a difference between learning from the Indians to respect the ecological balance and believing yourself to be the reincarnation of Crazy Horse. Like practicing astrology seriously or advocating guerrilla warfare, living in tepees in the twentieth century United States amounts to schizophrenia, and it’s dangerous. The bombs and concentration camps will remain, and we won’t be able to see enough of the world that produces them to discover where they are coming from. Chances are we won’t be able to understand even the simplest of things that happen to us from one day to the next.

There is good evidence that this is going down already. The illusions of youth culture or hip culture or whatever are almost as strongly defended as the illusions we call the American Dream. Everybody is hip to what the cops did in Chicago, and says so. With considerably less provocation the Hell’s Angels did a lot of the same at Altamont, and no no seems to notice the similarity, let alone the analogy it implies between us and Mayor Daley.

When we don’t notice, people get hurt, just like they did when the Haight went under and acid visionaries were replaced by needle freaks; just like they did when the Weathermen decided they had a right to crack heads, or Charles Manson decided he was Attila the Hun.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper have noticed and they’ve made a fine film about it. I can’t think of a more convincing image of the unpleasantness that can come from parts of the world a man has chosen to ignore than the end of Easy Rider. A lot of people have put it down for being paranoid, but they are missing the point. Of course it’s paranoid — a paranoid dream from beginning to end. That is its strength.

This film, unlike any other I have seen in a long time, openly prefers the psychological reality of experiences to the realistic description of an objective world in which such experiences presumably take place. Nearly everything which happens in Easy Rider is seen as Billy and Wyatt, the two main characters, would see it, and every character except them and possibly their lawyer is as two-dimensional as their understanding of him. I wouldn’t argue that Fonda and Hopper intended to make the film that way, but I would argue that they showed good sense in leaving it that way once it was edited. It sets up the audience beautifully.

Billy and Wyatt are not aware of what is going on around them outside the limits of their perception. Neither is the audience — the film represents Billy and Wyatt’s perception as reality. For those in the audience who belong to our generation the identification is particularly strong. Like Billy and Wyatt, we know that the world is fucked, and that there isn’t much we can do about it. We are on the same trip. Making a big dope deal, buying a beautiful motorcycle, and heading down the road to Mardi Gras appeals to us. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it.

No one discovers what is wrong with it until Billy and Wyatt do themselves. From the second shotgun blast to the silent end of the film, it breaks in a long wave over both the characters and the audience; the horrible surprise of an intrusion from the world outside the myth both are sharing.

What surprises Billy and Wyatt is that the rednecks really are out to get them. What surprises us is the sudden end to the illusion we are into too deeply to back out of in time. The shock of the last scene isn’t the shock of death, but of its opposite; of waking up. When Billy and Wyatt are murdered our fantasies die with them, and for that moment we are uncomfortably exposed to the reality of the theater around us. Psychologically it is akin to being discovered masturbating. The sadness comes in having to stop too soon, not in having to experience someone else’s death. Our sympathy is for ourselves.

Had that been all there was to Easy Rider, identification with the characters, titillating violence for a minute or two, and then a return to our unexciting lives, it would have compared favorably with Goldfinger or Bullitt, but it wouldn’t have had anything to say. The film is important because Fonda and Hopper enclose within it a comment on both the psychological processes involved in identifying too strongly with a myth, and the dangerous consequences which are in store for one who lives his life inside this myth. The danger is not to be taken literally; it isn’t that the rednecks will shoot us down, although that is one possibility. The danger lies in the destruction of our humanity. Being on our own trip isolates us from one another. When finally no one can recognize the real existence of anyone else, just being alive will be danger enough for all of us.

Fonda and Hopper have left to many clues in Easy Rider for us to miss the point, although none are so obvious that they prevent us from making the emotional identification with Billy and Wyatt that gives the film its power. They are there for us to discover in retrospect. After the film is over it remains to us to separate the myth from the reality; to understand what it is that we’ve felt so deeply.

The first hint of what is really going on in the film is, of course, the title. As Fonda has explained it in interviews, easy rider is Southern slang for a pimp — the only one who doen’t have to pay. Responsibility is the price of freedom, deadness is the price of living in a myth — those are the obvious implications.

Again, it is hard to escape the fact that the road Billy and Wyatt are traveling doesn’t lead where they think it does. Instead of ending in Mardi Gras, it ends in death. A night in jail and the murder of their friend the lawyer were warning enough. There were alternate routes, such as that of the rancher who loaned them his tools and fed them. They were even given outright invitations to try another one. As wrapped up in themselves as they were, they were welcome at the commune, and obviously, to at least the whores in New Orleans, they were attractive. What kept them on the move was not really a quest for freedom — possibly just the opposite.

There are reviewers who have pointed out what appears to be another inconsistency. Although it is Billy and Wyatt who introduce him to pot and give him lectures on the evils of society, the lawyer seems a much more well-rounded character than either of them. Whether or not this was the result of better acting on the part of the man who portrayed him, as reviewers have suggested, is not what is important. His presence in the film serves two purposes. First of all, it shows that Billy and Wyatt’s analysis of society is essentially correct. Society is stultifying, and any man who prizes his self-respect would like to break out of it. Hippies don’t bother the lawyer; he recognizes that they have some good ideas. But he does serve also as a kind of contrast to Billy and Wyatt. He is much more firmly rooted in the world than either of them. He feels no need to style himself “Captain America,” but, as the flying saucer tales shows, he is more creative and alive than the two characters for whom freedom is supposedly a specialty.

There are other indications that Billy and Wyatt have a harder time relating to themselves and others than should be true of free men. Wyatt is rebuffed twice by the leader of the commune — once when they are smoking in the abandoned adobe, and later in the commune when he is trying to ball one of the women. It could happen to anyone, but Wyatt doesn’t understand that. He freaks, just as both of them freak later on acid in the graveyard. Despite the jumbled cutting in the graveyard scene, there is solid evidence that both characters have their share of personal demons.

The key to all these indications that Billy and Wyatt are not what they imagine themselves to be lies in the character of the more introspective of the two, Billy. Wyatt is a kind of Sancho Panza — a man interested only in what he can get. Billy is a little more cautious, a little more aware, and consequently a little more stylized, especially as Fonda plays him. His “we blew it” and the image of the burning bike that intrudes on his thoughts provide the context for not only his withdrawn personality but for all the rest of what happens in Easy Rider as well. He begins bit by bit to become aware of what is wrong, but the film ends before he really gets to the heart of it. The rest of the task in dumped in the lap of the audience, where, in fact, it has lain all along.

For those of us who went to this film just to get stoked up on our own innocence and the evil of rednecks and other oppressors, there are a couple of other scenes that remain to be considered. Neither are acted in the usual sense of the word. The first is hardly more than a couple of seconds long, and appears to have been shot in the streets of New Orleans without any prior planning.

Billy is careening down the street during Mardi Gras with an open bottle in his hand, which, in the spirit of things, he offers to a passing black. The look on that man’s face and his gesture of refusal are enough by themselves to sum up the whole peculiar history of the South. His is the classic double-bind. A drunken white has offered him a drink, a drink which other whites might beat him or worse for accepting. Yet, when he turns it down, he must also keep smiling. Otherwise his refusal might be interpreted as an insult to white generosity, also a dangerous offense. Billy doesn’t understand the black’s behavior and blunders on down the street. He is too busy with his own problems.

The other scene takes place in a southern cafe. All those rednecks trading jokes about how people in their county customarily handle “Yankee queers” were real live rednecks, not actors. They were showing off, of course. The movie people indulged them in a little play-acting, and they enjoyed themselves at it, that’s all. Still, there was no script. Just where in hell did they get that long list of epithets and tortures they were tossing back and forth, I wonder.

At that point in the film everyone should wonder. The boundaries between acting and reality are not clearly drawn in Easy Rider, but neither are they in the world of experience. From the black man’s point of view, there must not seem to have been much difference between the man whose dream prevented him from noticing another’s pain, and one whose dream is to inflict pain. One of the corollaries to the central point made in Easy Rider is that the two dreams lie very close together, and the transition between them is as hard to spot as it is frequent.

If that seems hard to believe, get a copy of the January 21st Rolling Stone and look at the picture of Mick Jagger at Altamont. There he stands, with his high-heeled boots, and his knuckles in his mouth, watching four or five Angels butcher a man on the stage ten feet away. It must have been one hell of a rude awakening for the author of Street FIghting Man, and for the other 300,000 people who were watching, too, for that matter.

It is the same kind of awakening that is previewed for us in Easy Rider, one which awaits every one of us, who, considering ourselves beyond the errors of past times, refuse to pay attention to anything but our own dreams. In the twentieth century, we are all being forced to live outside the law. If there is one thing for us to remember, it is this: to live outside the law, you must be honest. (Anybody can say that.)

Playing the Piety Card Yet Again

So…a secular attack on religion is what’s wrong with us. This from Donald Trump’s latest bagman/consigliere, William Barr. I’d love to be able to say with a straight face that God is not mocked, but I’m well aware that every time one of these pious hypocrites’ bosses gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar, we’re in for another torrent of God-mockery. It might be a Billy Graham wannabe calling the Almighty’s wrath down on us liberal perverts at a congressional prayer breakfast, or a cameo appearance on Fox News by a semi-professional Jesuit sophist like William Bennett, or maybe a diatribe on Twitter from some finger-wagging moral majoritarian of unknown provenance, one of the legion who once flogged their handicraft spiritual wares on Sunday morning local TV, but now all seem to work for Koch Industries or the National Rifle Association. The sad truth is, we’ve seen it all before, and we’ll doubtless see it all again. (I wonder, did Barr take off his American flag lapel pin for this speech in order to avoid being accused of secular idolatry, or did the White House dry cleaning service just forget to reattach it?)

Punishments To Fit the Crime

Donald Trump: Strip him of his iPhone, his Secret Service protection and all his assets. Dress him in overalls and a court-mandated ankle bracelet. Give him a bible, a bullhorn, and a family-size bottle of Oxycontin. Order him to remain within the city limits of Bluefield, West Virginia for the rest of his life.

John Bolton: Equip him with an M4, a Ka-Bar, a pair of camouflage cargo pants, and a Rambo wig. Parachute him at midnight into the outskirts of Teheran or Aleppo or Pyongyang.

Betsy DeVos: Require that henceforth everyone who performs a service for her, from plumbing to asset management to sex, be educated exclusively at the University of Phoenix.

Stephen Miller: Confiscate his passport and deny him access to currency or credit of any kind. Require him to choose between being chased barefoot across rural Mississippi for the next 20 years by mounted prison guards and bloodhounds or speaking only Spanish for the rest of his life. Depending on which he chooses, make sure he wakes up outside the Parchman Farm perimeter fence, or in the center of Tegucigalpa.

Mitch McConnell: Confiscate his principal residence in Kentucky under federal asset forfeiture laws. Provide him with a new principal residence in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. Require him henceforth to run for the Senate from California.

Dick Cheney: Waterboarding, I think. No less than 183 times. Then, if he survives, Guantanamo for, oh, I don’t know how long. Until the last of the other detainees is released, maybe. Let me think about it.

Sean Hannity: Arrange (through the customary diplomatic channels) a papal order of excommunication. Deliver him, bound and gagged, to the leadership of Opus Dei. Invite them, as true servants of the Living God, and of Holy Mother Church, to perform the first auto da fé in almost 200 years.

Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto*

Es gibt viele Arten zu töten. Man kann einem ein Messer in den Bauch stechen, einem das Brot entziehen, einen von einer Krankheit nicht heilen, einen in eine schlechte Wohnung stecken, einen durch Arbeit zu Tode schinden, einen zum Suizid treiben, einen in den Krieg führen usw. Nur weniges davon ist in unserem Staat verboten.

There are many ways to kill. You can stick a knife in someone’s belly, take the bread out of someone’s mouth, not heal someone’s illness, stuff someone in substandard housing, work someone to death, drive someone to suicide, lead someone into war, and so forth. Precious few of these are forbidden in our country.

―Bertolt Brecht

I’ve been a fan of Brecht’s for a long time, mainly because he never failed to depict our emperors without their clothes, and always stood for the one indispensable principle of any civilization worthy of the name: that in the end, either we all matter, or none of us does.

*A quote from Cicero: “Let the safety of the people be the highest law.” Fifty-five years on, I still remember being in a car with some other half-wasted students from Oklahoma State University, passing by the Grady County Courthouse in Chickasha, Oklahoma late on a 1960’s Saturday night. Since the courthouse just happened to be an Art Deco masterpiece, and lit up like a fairground attraction, I got a good look at it as we passed. On the side of the building, high up, was the motto “The safety of the state is the highest law.” That sounds like fascism, I remember thinking as the building passed from view behind us. Indeed….

21st Century Character Studies, Part I

Ryan Zinke — and the horse he rode in on — are finally on their way out of Washington. In the Trump era his resignation surprises no one, and bothers no one much except his erstwhile supporters at Breitbart and the Washington Times. Most of us expect these paragons of Western libertarianism to get caught with their hands in the public till from time to time — and to be unrepentant about it when they do — because we know that in Washington, if not yet in the rest of the country, the performance of virtue has come to be indistinguishable from virtue itself.

When asked by the press to react to his downfall, Secretary Zinke did what is now customary for embarrassed Trumpistas. He blamed the irrational partisanship of his political enemies, and assured everyone that he nevertheless remained steadfast and undaunted. There’s an old saying, he reminded us, that a man should do right and fear no one. That’s what he’d always done, and what he planned to do in the future, come what may.

There’s an old saying. Yes, there is — a very old saying, as it turns out. Like so many other ancient proverbs brandished by the right wing, it sounds more authentic in the original German. Here’s one of the earliest recorded examples, from 1592:

Fürcht Got, Thue recht, Schew niemandt

Fear God, do the right thing, stand in awe of no one. Fearing God has gone by the wayside over the years, even among Christian fundamentalists, but the rest has apparently carried a whiff of Lutheran rectitude across the centuries and continents all the way to present-day Montana, and to Ryan Zinke. Given that Zinke is actually a German name, it isn’t such a stretch to imagine a Zinke great-grandfather’s words of wisdom detached from their original context and turned into a utilitarian political bumpersticker by a descendant who has no real idea who he is, or where he came from. It’s a common American story, this. From Saint Patrick’s Day parades to mariachi concerts in the park on Cinco de Mayo, we both are, and are not, who we think we are.

Is Secretary Zinke who he thinks he is? Does he really embody this ancient teutonic motto that he’s so fond of quoting, or is he simply a hypocrite? The truth is that we have no reliable way of knowing. In a media environment which seems to evaluate politicians in the same way it does film stars, it’s all too easy to confuse performance with reality. For those of us who actually do want to distinguish between the two, and who are continually tormented by that sinking feeling that we’ve seen this film before, context is everything. Fortunately for us, there’s a scene in a film — the classic German film, Der Blaue Engel — which illustrates almost too precisely the context at issue here.

The plot of the film is well known: a bourgeois professor is seduced, humiliated, and destroyed by a bohemian showgirl who doesn’t share his supposed values, but understands his suppressed passions all too well. The famous scene in which Professor Rath first awakens to Lola’s seductive charms, and the farce first begins its turn toward tragedy, is followed directly by a closeup of the painted motto above the now empty bed in the professor’s flat, which reads:

Tue Recht und scheue Niemand

The German is more modern than the Sixteenth Century version, and the fear of God is already long gone, but the motto is the same as the one Secretary Zinke is so fond of repeating. The problem with his use of it is that, just as in the case of Professor Rath, the moral of his personal story isn’t at all the one that he’s trying to sell us. It’s actually irrelevant to our interest as citizens, and as voters, whether or not he believes it himself.

Professor Rath was undone by lust, Secretary Zinke by greed. Both are human failings, to which every one of us is susceptible. It’s not that doing right and fearing no one is per se a bad ideal of personal conduct, especially in a democracy, it’s that when one can’t manage to live up to such ideals, a confession is in order, not least of all to oneself. What Secretary Zinke doesn’t get — or doesn’t think that we’ll get — is that ideals must always of necessity be leavened with a little humility. In a just society, or more to the point, a society in which every public figure’s conduct is under surveillance 24/7/365, setting oneself up as a paragon of virtue is not just a bad defense for influence peddling, it’s a ticket to social and political oblivion.

The Laws of Physics, the Limits of Desire

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who’s relied on me off and on for thirty years for tech advice, came to me with a complaint that his iPhone 6 — then barely two years old, out of warranty, but a month or so short of being off contract — was shutting down at random, even though it still seemed to have plenty of charge left in the battery. We rounded up all the usual suspects to no avail, then hauled ourselves off to the nearest Apple store, where the genius at the genius bar, assisted by Apple’s own diagnostic tools, rounded up all of her usual suspects, and concluded that there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with his phone — except, of course, that the random shutdowns made it at best unreliable, and at worst, unusable. At my suggestion, my friend paid off his old contract, and replaced his suddenly unfaithful companion with the then current model, an iPhone 7. Two months later, I read that Apple was replacing batteries for free in out-of-warranty iPhone 6’s exhibiting random shutdowns, with no questions asked, and, as usual for Apple, no explanations given. A year later, again with no explanations given, Apple began throttling iPhones with aging batteries which could no longer supply the necessary voltages under peak load conditions.

It’s been painful to watch Apple get Twittered, Facebooked, and ultimately sued over this whole affair. The fact is that those of us who were aware of the limitations of lithium-ion battery technology, Apple engineering executives above all, should have seen this coming. The very things that make the iPhone magical — its pocketable size, its ever-increasing computing power, and its appliance-like simplicity and ease of use — are also, to a greater degree than Apple marketers would have us believe, based on an illusion.

The sad truth is that Apple had painted itself into a corner bounded on the one side by an understandable, if misplaced confidence in its own hardware and software innovations, and on the other by a misguided attempt to protect the technological innocence of its customers from the consequences of their own addictions.

Marketing has its own imperatives, and as any marketing expert worthy of the name would probably concede, a certain blindness to the long-term consequences of its own cleverness has never been much of an impediment to its operating budget, or to its status in the corporate hierarchy. Until, of course, the shit hits the fan. Then the public dance of recriminations is performed, and everyone concerned goes back to business as usual. Except for the hapless consumer, who’s inevitably forced to grumble, sigh, roll his or her eyes, then pay whatever the going rate is to get back on the road.

Apple could have done a lot better a lot quicker. Its customers love what it promises, even those of us among them who know to what extent the promise exceeds the current limits of technology. Progress requires us to dream forward, and to accept that sometimes along the way our reach will exceed our grasp. That said, a little more transparency from those at the pointy end would be welcome. Infantilizing the consumer as a path to marketing success has all sorts of support from the countless schools of social science pilot fish who’ve attached themselves to corporate C-suites in the postwar decades. God forbid that I should deny what their statistics are telling them about our human vulnerabilities. I would ask them, though, to consider how they feel when their own strings are pulled.

Spectator Sport

Watching President Trump try to beat the Congress into submission has been a uniquely gruesome experience, but also an edifying one. For decades now, the dysfunction of the federal government has been something sensed rather than seen, partly because it was in the interest of the political class to keep it hidden, and partly because the media, ever conscious of which side their bread was buttered on, shared that interest.

Today we’re told by Marc Short, the President’s director of legislative affairs, that the White House is simply “asking that the Congress do its job.” I wonder if he, or his boss, for that matter, has any idea just how big an ask that is. If the experience of the past 40 years or so is anything to go by, the problem isn’t that the Congress won’t do its job, it’s that it can’t. Our tolerance for venality, it seems, has drawn the veil over an alarmingly complete incompetence as well. What happens when you bully a moron? Nothing good, I’m thinking, but with the two-minute warning already being signaled, it looks as though we’re about to find out.