The first thing that I’m reminded of when watching the Congress in crisis is my lifelong love of professional wrestling’s broad theatrics. Telling someone that you love wrestling is akin to what I expect it’s like to announce a foot fetish. Most recoil and wince, the rest ask if you prefer the big toe or the pinkie.
The other force of nature that comes to mind is W.H. Auden. When Auden wrote of World War II’s outbreak, he depicted himself at a bar on 52nd Street: “Uncertain and afraid / as the clever hopes expire / of a low dishonest decade.” The poem in question, “September 1, 1939”, was recited on NPR in the wake of 9/11, echoing the panic and ghastly imagery that follows violence, and the somber realization that human beings can be despotically cruel. It’s a poem I return to often, not for its depiction of explosive death and destruction, but for its coupling of dread and optimism. In times of outrageous tragedy, resignation and hope hit one’s stomach in alternating contractions. And so Auden’s been fuming on his stool all month, during this dire national cockfight.
“September 1” was first published in The New Republic, a journal which this week ran Michael Kinsley’s piece “Obama Should Just Give in to the Republicans”, in which the author proposes that for the President to compromise his health care plan would be to take the high road. Caving, argues Kinsley, would make the President look like the mature adult in the room, so much so that the GOP would surely never again be crazed enough to try this month’s hostage tactics again.
Go into any supermarket between the twilight hours of 5-8PM. Watch the child who’s just pulled candy off of a shelf. Watch the exhausted parent carting them around – the adult in the room who has just gotten off work and still has to prepare dinner – sigh and say “Alright, fine,” as they toss the Twix atop the kale. Then ask that satiated child if they would be crazed enough to try that tactic again tomorrow night.
Yet the low dishonest decade since 9/11 has shown us that when clever hopes expire, new ones emerge. Those of us born in the last forty years or so tend to be brutally cynical toward our elected governance, and have been given few reasons not to be. Yet for all the sage, worthwhile advice from Louis CK to get off our phones and stare aimlessly into blank space for a few moments, there remains hope that the Internet is a democratizing agent, and that the wireless masses will one day together solve the collective connectivity issues from which our corrupt cowards in office cower. This is all predicated on the rather hairy idea that those in opposition to my beliefs would do a full 180 if they read the same websites as me.
The ideal online experience should probably be that of a moped purchased from someone shady under a bridge. It typically goes exceedingly fast and furious, and breaks down the other 25% of the time, thereby reminding you to exhale and go look at the sunset’s bleeding edge.
Now that nearly all media has become social media, it’s not surprising that community has surpassed ideology. The rare instance of widespread political activism in the last several years was Occupy Wall Street, which infamously came and went without a media-friendly recognized leader or easily bulletpointed agenda. As Adam Kirsch points out in his review of Nathan Schneider’s new book Thank You, Anarchy, many Occupiers viewed the gathering of good souls as their chief goal, beyond any explicit reform. They became conveniently branded as homeless hippies with no message. Those with more specified economic aims branched off away from Zuccotti Park to form credit unions and practical means of pulling the 99% from the brink. Just look at all the fine taverns popping up in Bushwick. Auden would love it here.
Many of my friends who live and work online at resume-ready jobs recognize the need for change in our economic structure, but don’t wish to associate themselves with smelly hippies and rah-rah anthems. Those of us who debate politics on Reddit have been led to believe that public protest not only looks uncool, but that it makes you appear dated, rehashing habits of a bygone past that failed in prior generations.
Wrestling lends itself to the streaming, clipped diet of our viewing habits: it is by design a surrealist medium more akin to Tim Heidecker than Tim Lincecum. YouTubing “legit” athletes doesn’t garner the same results that you get searching for pro wrestlers. Scrolling through Google’s readily available videos of licensed nuts like Mark Fidrych, Latrell Sprewell, or Phil Esposito doesn’t come close to the kind of results you’ll pull in entering pro wrestling monikers like Dump Matsumoto, Stan Hansen, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, El Hijo del Santo, and Jerry “The King” Lawler.
Lawler’s weekly wrestling show, broadcast from a modest studio in downtown Memphis, consistently garnered ratings throughout the late 1970s and early 80s that exceeded that of M*A*S*H, Cheers, and the week’s biggest sporting events. From a ratio of budget to earnings, peak Memphis wrestling would today be considered one of the biggest hits on TV. Monday Night Football and the MLB playoffs would sell your grandmother to electroclash DJs if it meant earning Lawler’s ratings on a national scale.
My own hope is that in addition to providing goons like me endless streams of spandex-clad absurdity, the web is breaking down educational barriers, expanding our cultural horizons, and doing more to bring diverse voices to the forefront, rather than simply drumming up a dissonant, hostile cacophony of semi-famous ghouls, bleary-eyed and Klout-starved.
A streaming world won’t teach us to be patient. But then, the only living creatures that I’ve ever seen be taught patience were cellmates and terriers. To learn patience, you have to will yourself to enjoy what Louis is advocating: the crap shoot of day-to-day manual experience. Note that I almost said “endure” rather than “enjoy”: rest assured, enduring no longer feels like enduring. Not – say it with me – in this economy, where Average is Over. Our new wondrous technological outlets into the world at large often make us more apt to covet what lies on our neighbor’s side of the fence, or firewall. Here Auden’s “1939” emerges:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives”
Is there a better depiction of online trolling than that of an earth prickling with lit pinpoints, each emanating just enough vitriol to seep into your copper wiring?
In both wrestling and politics alike, we crave a rambunctious bastard to come in and say, “This system is unjust and you can’t treat the poor this way.” A “Stone Cold” Steve Austin to wag middle fingers at Ted Cruz and bring truth to power. The trouble is that when you have folks who only want to dismantle the game, who only want to move it slower and get themselves over, the results are inherently dull, and undramatic by design. The lynchpin of wrestling’s drama, and its moral code by which the storytelling proves enjoyable, is the delineation of hero and villain, babyface and heel. Gandhi said that in this world we have “enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” The most dastardly act of the Tea Party movement is the means by which it presumes an inherent greed in each of us, and aims to make that greed prevailing policy.
Wrestling, unlike Congress, seems in transition, and on a bit of a creative upswing. The sixty-eight year of CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, Vincent Kennedy McMahon, continues to run things behind the scenes, but it’s his daughter Stephanie McMahon-Levesque and son-in-law Paul Levesque, better known by his in-ring name as the semi-retired-but-still-active wrestler Hunter Hearst Helmsley. A main event attraction, Helmsley is segueing into a role that would be characterized as “show runner” were this a sitcom, with his wife and heir to the McMahon throne serving as the executive producer. Gerry and Penny Marshall notwithstanding, you’d be hard pressed to find a married couple producing entertainment together to a wider audience than Hunter and Steph. Jay-Z and Beyonce, yes. But you’d be harder pressed to find such a high-profile duo in which the woman is recognized as #1 and the man is #1A. At least outside of pornography. And you wouldn’t want to find Gerry and Penny Marshall inside of pornography, now would you?
In John Boehner and company, the worst part of me wishes it were as simple as pro wrestling, and that their greed would be made as explicit as the pyrotechnic circus that is Monday Night RAW. That Boehner would sneak up behind Harry Reid, bash him over the head with a steel chair, cackle loudly, and be booed by the nation at large. We got a taste of such chicanery from him this week as he pounded his fist on a table and actually bellowed the words “This is not a game!” to no one in particular, like an action movie crony furious that Bruce Willis hasn’t taken the bait.
But Boehner and his party lack bombastic melodrama. Bloomberg, for all his shameless fatcat escapades and Wall Street apologist rhetoric, is no “Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase. Grover Norquist has the tact of Abdullah the Butcher. But Abdullah the Butcher was a friend of mine, and you sir are no Abdullah the Butcher. The GOP approach, as much as anything, is to bore the nation to death and lower our expectations in what we believe to be possible from our leadership.
Boehner wouldn’t draw a dime on pay-per-view as a main event heel. He looks more like the sluggish referee who the villainous wrestler and their stooge manager bribe in order to guarantee victory. The would-be ensurer of justice who’s bored by the action, averse to the hard work and sacrifices. He waits for the clock to run out and the arena to empty, so that at long last his next cigarette break can be had.