Rebel NationHow America Needs Nose Rings for Profit
I'm browsing the produce section of the North Haven Super Stop & Shop when an insinuating male voice -- reference hip AM Top-40 DJ -- disrupts the hum of cool refrigeration and the shhhhh of vegetable misters."Not since the '60s has there been a way to be so utterly free!" oleos the announcer. Right on, brother! Is it a march, a sit-in, a love-in, a concert, a revolution? Better, much better, than that. It's free checking."Groovy, huh? So truck on over to the People's Bank branch in the front of the store," concludes the pitch. Power to the People's!Or there's the new commercial for Pontiac's Bonneville. Pallbearers march a black Lincoln Continental to its burial. That's a luxury car for squares. The Bonneville promises "luxury with attitude." Cadillac -- the car for the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, if ever there was one -- is playing with similar themes. Welcome to rebellion, 1990s-style.Rebels are everywhere in today's Information Age culture. We know who rebels are: They're the nonconformists who stand out from the crowd, the men and women with the guts to break the rules. They've got attitude, style. They crank up the bass and let the guitars scream. They're constantly on the go, in-your-face, wise to the game with a smirking irony and a seen-it-all cynicism. They do what they want, dress how they like and don't care whom they offend. They're the young kid in the baggy pants, the computer hacker, the sports star with the mohawk or the shaved head or in drag. They sweat for the limit of extreme sports or affect a black turtleneck cool while sipping espresso in the boho coffeehouse. They have an evolutionary pantheon: beatnik, hippie, punk.They're the artists who put a bug up Jesse Helms' ass, the models with the wasted heroin look and the musicians who wage epochal battles for their right to present faux-Satanism in stadium rock concerts (with corporate sponsorship). They're the hippie software creator who's tweaking the latest update in a coffee-fueled all-nighter; they're the deal-making entrepreneur who's burning through cell phone batteries building a Web empire. You know them because they piss off the suits, the prudes, the uptight grannies and grandpas. They don't have time for the old ways of doing things. They're on the cutting edge of the new, hanging five as they surf the Third Wave, lifestyle frontier explorers posting their broadsides on the Usenet. They inhabit the quick-cut montage of contemporary life and, dude, they're leaving you behind.But a group of (mostly) young social and cultural critics believe the pervasiveness of rebel images in our culture is not what it appears. Writing for The Baffler, a journal out of Chicago which is attracting attention for its hard-nosed polemics, class-oriented analysis and superb writing, these critics see rebels everywhere, but no rebellion.Contemporary business culture, they contend, comes complete with its own critique, the mass society critique. Dating back to the 1950s, this critique charges consumer capitalism with the heinous sin of promoting conformity and stifling the individual. This is a criticism, says Baffler editor Thomas Frank, "that capitalism was really, really well-prepared to deal with." The answer is countercultural rebellion, selling the accessories -- or images -- of the rebel lifestyle.In an essay entitled "Why Johnny Can't Dissent" in a new Baffler anthology, Commodify Your Dissent (edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland, published by W.W. Norton), Frank writes, "The Culture Trust is now our leader in the Ginsbergian search for kicks upon kicks ... The countercultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy, its hunger for transgression upon transgression now perfectly suited to an economic-cultural regime that runs on ever-faster cyclings of the new ... " Johnny can't dissent because the concept of "rebellion" -- of being a "rebel" -- has become a question of personal identity rather than a question of cultural and/or economic power.The Baffler reopens the whole question of what it means to be a rebel. Whom or what does one rebel against? Who gets anointed as a rebel by the media and who doesn't? Whose interest does that serve? Is rebellion still possible?This is more than a parlor game. These questions concern the maintenance of democracy itself. Will we live in a "consumer republic" where we are limited to glittering or outrageous "choices" proffered by an ever-metastasizing array of fewer and fewer mega-corporations, private enterprises that extend their power at the expense of our own? Or will we live in a true democracy where we have a say over the behavior of not just public power but also of the giant corporations whose tentacles reach into every corner of our lives? Should we be inspired by the "Common Sense" of a Tom Paine or the uncommon style of a Tom-Pain-in-the-Ass-to-the-Squares (as sewn by kids in a Central American sweatshop and marketed by a trendy retailer)?According to Baffler editor Frank, we've gotten the 1960s all wrong. "The conventional understanding of the '60s has a lot to do with our notion of what rebellion is, how rebellion works, and what you're rebelling against, most importantly," says Frank. In this version of the story, "the counterculture -- and you'll hear this both from people who despise the counterculture and people who love the counterculture -- constituted a very real threat to consumer capitalism, and capitalism reacted against the counterculture out of hostility and fear, and that's why you had co-optation. Or they were just doing it for demographics. They wanted to reach a larger youth audience and sell their stuff to them, which is partially true, of course."In his new book, The Conquest of Cool (University of Chicago Press), Frank takes issue both with the conservative story of counterculture as a catastrophe for the social order and with the sympathetic history which sees the '60s as a wide-ranging overthrow of the stultifying and repressive order of the 1950s. Both interpretations, Frank writes, "place at their center the stories of the groups that are believed to have been so transgressive and revolutionary; American business culture is thought to have been peripheral, if it's mentioned at all." The Conquest of Cool looks at the changes of the '60s through the often-ignored lens of business culture, specifically the advertising and menswear industries. What Frank calls the "standard binary narrative" of the 1960s -- Counterculture versus Establishment -- begins in the previous decade with the critique of "mass society" that had proponents both in the high culture journals and the popular press. Sociologist David Riesman wrote about the "lonely crowd." Business writer William H. Whyte dubbed the new bureaucrat -- who could be found both in the offices of government agencies and the cubicles of the mega-corporations -- the "Organization Man." In an Easter editorial in 1959, Life magazine offered grudging praise to the "beatniks": "At least they know that the over-organized technology and bureaucracy of American life are a poor environment for the individual's cultivation of an immortal soul." Technocratic mass society was turning individuals into cogs in the machine. Everyone was carrying out their appointed roles as consumers and producers, dressing alike in their gray flannel, and then returning at night to watch the same sitcoms in their look-alike homes in Levittown.The malady was soul-deadening conformity, go-along-to-get-along, and -- the story goes -- it met its match in "hip." Hip's most prominent proponent was Norman Mailer. His 1957 essay in Dissent, "The White Negro," counseled existential rebellion as the curative for post-Hiroshima/post-death-camp Cold War spiritual malaise, thereby, in Frank's words, "founding one of the great public myths of our times." The Hipster lived for the moment, flipping the bird to the suburban squares as he mumbled in an unintelligible black slang and filled his A-bomb-shadowed days with sex, drugs and jazz.With the '60s, in Frank's interpretation of the conventional understanding, rebellious youth stormed the fortresses of the Establishment, overturning taboos and undoing repression. "Most important of all," Frank writes, "the counterculture is said to have worked a revolution through lifestyle rather than politics, a genuine subversion of the status quo through pleasure rather than power."Needless to say, the Man didn't take this lying down. The Establishment fought back with police harassment of shiftless hippies and, more slickly, with co-optation. "According to the standard binary narrative, the cascade of pseudo-hip culture-products that inundated the marketplace in the '60s were indicators not of the counterculture's consumer-friendly nature but evidence of the 'corporate state's' hostility," writes Frank. "They were tools with which the Establishment hoped to buy off and absorb its opposition ... "Frank's not buying. He doesn't believe the counterculture was either as threatening or as alien to the Establishment as most chroniclers would have it. In The Conquest of Cool, he demonstrates that a revolution in business thought and marketing ran on parallel tracks to the youth rebellion of the '60s. "The business community isn't monolithic. People in advertising aren't like people in banking; they're actually quite different," Frank says. "People in advertising liked what they thought was the counterculture. They had this idea of what youth cultural dissent was and what rebellion was and they loved it. It was a consumer fantasy for them. It was such a powerful consumer fantasy for them that they invented their own counterculture before the real one had appeared on the scene -- the Pepsi Generation." The term "Pepsi Generation" debuted in 1963, but the concept was bubbling up in the company's ads and commercials for two years before that.Advertising, according to Frank, had its own "Creative Revolution." And the leaders of that revolution -- iconoclasts like George Lois, Bill Bernbach and Jerry Della Femina -- were as vociferous critics of the mass society as any alienated hipster. They too chafed at the restrictions of bureaucracy, technique and scientific rationality that stifled individual inspiration. "Hip young people famously despised Madison Avenue and the plastic civilization for which it stood, and yet admen could never seem to get enough of their criticism, their music, or the excellent trappings of their liberated ways," Frank writes. But more important, admen saw in the counterculture a hot muscle car of consumerism for which they could trade in their dowdy and battered '50s sedan. "The advertising industry began to recognize nonconformity, even more than science or organization or standardization or repetition or regulation, as a dynamic element of advertising and, ultimately, of the 'permanent revolution' of capitalism itself," writes Frank. I believe Frank understates -- perhaps marginally, perhaps more -- the challenge that the most radical practioners of counterculture posed to the dominent order in the '60s. But he's precisely right in analyzing how the counterculture critique operates now.Be different! Search out the new! Sure, capitalism still maintains its reserve army of the unemployed. But pointing that out is strictly Second Wave thinking, as futurist Alvin Toffler or his buddy Newt Gingrich might say. In the Information Age, it's the reserve army of the outrageous that really keeps things humming."Whaddaya rebelling against, Johnny?" a woman asks the Marlon Brando character in the seminal motorcycle gang movie The Wild One (1954). "Whaddaya got?" he replies. I go in search of "rebels." I want to talk to some of the folks who might be soldiers -- possibly unwittingly and/or unwillingly -- in the reserve army of the outrageous. I want to ask what being a "rebel" means to them.And where does one go when he wants to up his chances of encountering an "authentic" -- more on that word later -- contemporary countercultural rebel? The haunts of rebel youth, as lifestyle scouts know, are where you'll find tomorrow's trend today. In New Haven, I figure a couple of good bets are the Tune Inn, on a night when a lineup of hardcore bands is featured, and the Daily Caffe, the coffeehouse on Elm Street that exudes a laid-back sense of neo-Beat community.In one sense, this isn't completely fair. It's a set-up. Operating on my own version of George Bush's "vision thing," I hope to engage individuals sporting visual signifiers of rebellion. Shallow of me, I admit. On the other hand, since the '60s, style codes have become important markers of an individual's attitude vis-a-vis mainstream culture. Still, there is a big difference between Dennis Rodman, an official rebel icon of the corporate media who can profit mightily from the marketing of his transgressive authenticity, and a grassroots punk rocker registering her or his disgust outside the conduits of the information conglomerates. And as it happens, the definitions of rebellion I encounter -- rooted in social change and grassroots culture -- do differ substantively from the concept as it endlessly pulses through media discourse. In the reserve army of the outrageous, your style is held in trust until it's needed -- drained of any content.There's another problem. When I get to the Tune Inn, I stand out like a nonconformist sore thumb. I'm over 40, balding -- but haven't shaved my head -- and I'm wearing a blue down jacket, not a black leather jacket bristling with metal studs and spikes and stenciled with slogans and the names of angry young bands. Although I'm familiar with hardcore going back a decade-and-a-half and used to regularly buy Maximum Rock 'N' Roll, the bible of the punk "do it yourself" (DIY) movement, I'm sure I appear completely clueless: Excuse me, young fella, but are you one of those punk rock rebels I've heard about?I approach one young man in a leather jacket, identify myself and state my business. He refers me to his similarly attired friend, saying "He's a rebel. You should talk to him." Maybe later, says his friend. "Later," his friend still isn't interested. That's better than the reaction I get from another young punk. He's of medium height and burly, with mascara around his eyes. One row of stiletto-sharp spikes of hair divides his otherwise shiny head. I tell him I'd like to know what he thinks about rebellion. He screams and walks away.I have better luck with Kate Roberto, a friendly 18-year-old from Greenwich. She's wearing red plaid pants, a dog collar and a black hooded sweatshirt, but it's the two rows of impressive green spikes of hair emanating from her otherwise shaved head that makes her stick out from the crowd. She acknowledges that she considers herself a rebel. It starts with "seeing the problems of society" and realizing you need to fight against them."That's when you really become a rebel, when you go against the normal society and do what you want to do," Roberto says. Gesturing to her hair, she adds, "You know, this doesn't make me a rebel, the hair. This is just the way I like to dress. What makes me a rebel is what's in here, in my mind."How does she fight what's wrong in society?"It's mostly through talking to people, getting your ideas across, what you believe in -- like how you see oppression and racism and homophobia and those things. First of all, it's by example, how you don't participate in that kind of thing. And when you do see that, you say, 'that's wrong,'" says Roberto. The music reinforces the rebel feelings, she says."You wouldn't hear a song on the radio like some of the things they sing about here," says Roberto. "The music has a lot of energy, a lot of feeling, a lot of power to it. It's not like you just sit there. You really get into it. It almost makes you feel like you can do something -- if you didn't know that already -- because it gives you a sense of empowerment."Skacore -- hardcore's Jamaican-syncopated younger cousin, which also has a Tune Inn following -- has been entering the mainstream. (Ann Powers wrote in The New York Times on Nov. 23 that, "For a generation unsure exactly how to rebel, extreme sports offers a safe way to let off energy and be different from the average football player. Skacore does the same; it is cheerfully chaotic, more a party than a riot, but with undertones of both.") Hardcore, though, has stubbornly remained in the reserve army of the outrageous for almost two decades. When East Coast Panic -- a hardcore band that is unusual in that it has both male and female lead singers -- comes on, Roberto goes right to the front. Smiling, she sways in the barrage of power chords.Jim Martin, lead singer for Broken and the Baltimore Footstompers -- and Malachi Krunch before that -- has held court amid gales of power chords numberless times, roaring lyrics like these from "Truth & Consequences" on the most recent Broken EP: "Massive prison construction/A plan for social failure/A sick example/Of a decline in morality." Martin, who chuckles when he says he's not as much of a rebel as he used to be since he got married, has participated in demonstrations, including protests against the Gulf War and a solidarity rally for Local 34 strikers in 1984. (His father was a member.) It's through the DIY network, his music and his cartooning, though, that he feels his rebel impulses are most effectively expressed.Through the DIY network, bands from around the world can release their music outside the channels of corporate (and governmental) control and, by sharing equipment, sharply cut the overhead costs of touring."We can set things up for bands from other countries as a network of friends on two or three continents. We have people who came over from Japan. They didn't have to go through all the red tape of paying taxes because they used our gear and moved on," says Martin. "Anything to help those people and they would help us in a heartbeat as soon as we got over there. Being a rebel now is more about getting by the rules to make things work for you."Martin recommends the book Sabotage in the American Workplace (edited by Martin Sprouse, Pressure Drop Press), a collection of anecdotes by "people [who] on the exterior are mainstream but they really throw monkey wrenches into things." Sprouse defines "sabotage" as doing anything you're not supposed to be doing; the reasons range from revenge to boredom to economic necessity."Each person tells a story of what they did to screw up some kind of job they had, ranging from a kid at 7-11 all the way to somebody at IBM," says Martin. "That's rebellious. That's even greater than putting on a leather jacket, thinking you're oh-so-cool, walking down the street and scaring old ladies." Martin estimates that 10 percent of hardcore aficionados are committed to "doing it yourself" and the rest are attracted by the style."And the facial piercing and all that stuff is way out of control! They look like they fell into a tackle box. But as P. T. Barnum said, there's a sucker born every minute. Where's it going to go from there? How are you going to top that? Branding's been done. What's next?" wonders Martin. "Maybe it can be turning around, putting on a suit and tie and destroying from within, like I was saying."For Emily Hertzer, an 18-year-old Yale frosh who's sipping coffee and studying calculus in the Daily Caffe, rebels stand up for what they believe in the face of social pressure. One motivation can be religious faith. A week earlier, out of personal opposition to injustice, she had gone to Georgia to protest against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning. The school is a military training academy which has been linked to torturers in Latin American regimes."The majority of protesters were from Catholic religious groups. Their faith influenced them to resist wrong and to have an impact on society," Hertzer says. "They're channeling their frustrations in a way that brings about active change. In that way, they're more effective rebels."Hertzer isn't sure if she'd call herself a rebel. She does feel she has "different priorities" from a lot of her Yale classmates who, she believes, want to "assimilate into the power structure and strive to earn high incomes." "I'd like to be content. Not necessarily to have a lot of money or a high-powered job, but to have a job where I'm making a change, having an impact," she says.Hailing from Berkeley, Hertzer has spent a lot of time on Telegraph Avenue. "I've seen people who think they're rebels. They live a different lifestyle but they accomplish no real change," she says. "They're just submitting to the system."Thomas Frank resists mightily when asked to explain how he makes the differentiation between what is "real" rebellion and what is not."One of the strange things about my writing is that it's somehow led people to believe -- this is totally unintentional -- that I'm some kind of arbiter of 'authenticity,' that I can point out who has sold out and who hasn't," Frank says. "I decline to do it. I don't want to get into those questions." What he and other Baffler writers are interested in, he explains, is exposing the way that business culture uses the concept of dissidence to shore up its power. But, to use a business term, what's the bottom line?"Clearly we regard things that challenge the market order and the business order in some tangible way as being more meaningful than those things that challenge it on a purely symbolic level," Frank declares.Here is the essence of The Baffler project, its break with the contemporary "lifestyle left," as Frank terms it. Started in 1988 by Frank and fellow University of Virginia undergrad Keith White as a straightforward literary magazine, the journal has evolved more toward cultural criticism and essays as its writers have found their voice. (And a vigorous and stylish voice it is.) Eschewing the obscurantism of the poststructuralist/postmodern academic left -- writings that dazzle but provoke nothing but "bafflement" -- The Baffler has opted for exploring the "avant-garde road not taken," as Frank terms it. This is the intellectually rigorous and class-oriented journalism and criticism as practiced by writers from the teens, '20s and '30s like John Dos Passos, Randolph Bourne, John Reed and Edmund Wilson. In the introduction to Commodify Your Dissent, the editors state: "We were determined to follow in the paths of both The Masses and punk rock. We aimed for nothing less than to revive the old generalist project, to speak about out culture without excessive jargon and as though people cared."In particular, this has meant puncturing "pseudo-liberationist tendencies," as Frank puts it. Again quoting from the introduction to Commodify Your Dissent: "The cultural crisis of our time cannot be understood without reference to the fact that certain modes of cultural dissidence that arose in the '60s are today indistinguishable from management theory ... Our society is blessed with a great profusion of self-proclaimed subversives, few of whom have any problem with the terrifying economic-cultural order into which we are blithely stepping on the eve of the millennium." These "self-proclaimed subversives" are skewered throughout The Baffler: Wired magazine, management gurus of rule-breaking like Tom Peters, Quentin Tarantino.Whaddaya rebelling against, Baffler? The total domination of the realm of culture and the halls of power by the dictates of the market, or more precisely, the market's ideologues. It's the control of the circulatory system of the Information Age by larger and larger transnational conglomerates. And it's the cloaking of this state of affairs in the language of liberation. It's the "Cultural Miracle" by which the rich get richer while economic insecurity spreads for the rest of us and yet there is no reaction."It's the cultural equivalent of the economists' 'black box': In one side go the objective circumstances -- the most vicious attack on the public well-being by private wealth in decades; and out the other comes the mysterious response -- the most abject reverence for private wealth to characterize our public culture in decades," writes Frank in his essay "Dark Age" in Commodify Your Dissent."There are certain things that won't be co-opted ever and things that will always get you in trouble with management," Frank declares. "If you cover labor stories for very long, you will meet any number of people whose rebellion is not something that any marketer in the world is interested in and whose rebellion is the kind of thing that winds up getting them fired, getting them death threats, getting them in serious, serious trouble."Not only is that possible but it goes on all the time. But it doesn't have this kind of libidinal appeal to Nike and isn't featured in TV commercials," Frank continues. "Try and organize your workplace and you'll find out about rebellion real soon."Rebellion, then, is about power, not style. Who has it and who doesn't. All the style and 'tude in the world won't halt the juggernaut of the global market as it bears down on your door. What might? The actions that have served rebels well in the past: organizing, DIY media outside the circuitries of power, opposing oppression by word and example.The difficulty resides in imagining -- and acting upon -- a different value system than that proclaimed everywhere by the apostles of the market and seconded by the official sponsors of counterculture. Yes, Johnny and Jane can dissent. But, as Frank has written, they shouldn't expect to see themselves on TV. Certainly not in the commercials and probably not in the news, either, unless it's to point out how their conflict with their employer is disrupting the normal flow of commerce. Now, that's outrageous.These are not rebels waving union signs in front of the Regency House, a nursing home in Wallingford. Ask them. Not Sandy Osipow. Not Diane Warren or Gayen Sullivan. Not Rose Jansen or Barbara B., who asked that her last name not be used. There are no baggy pants, no nose rings, no wild hairstyles. These are middle-aged women, not anarchic youth.It's cold but the women -- all employees of the home -- and Frank Cyphers, their union organizer, are in high spirits. They brandish their signs to the encouraging honks of passing drivers."I hate to be labeled a rebel," says Sandy Osipow, a short, ebullient woman with dark hair. "I think of [supporting the union] as being protection. To be honest, I think you will see a lot of organizing in health care facilities. Being a rebel -- I wouldn't say that because it's not like we're storming and asking for unreasonable things or trying to squeeze blood out of a stone."After a short organizing campaign, workers -- RNs, LPNs, housekeepers, therapists, in fact, everyone except management and clerical staff -- voted overwhelmingly on Aug. 28 to join Local 560 of the International Chemical Workers Council of the United Food and Commercial Workers (see related story, page 7). They are standing just off East Main Street and waving signs in an informational picket because, they claim, management is dragging its feet in recognizing the union.Many of these women have spent years -- decades, even -- working at Regency House, which is one of 12 nursing homes owned in Connecticut by National Health Care. Years ago they didn't think about a union. They didn't need one, they say. But things have changed. What used to be like a home is now "major corporate," according to Osipow. Orders flow from the top, from headquarters in New York, downward without regard to either the needs of patients or the input from staff. Money wasn't the main issue in the organizing drive, they say."It's just being treated with respect and dignity and being listened to, instead of saying, 'Oh, O.K.,' and shutting the door," says Gayen Sullivan."Most people, when they start a union, it's because they're really downtrodden and money is a major issue," says Osipow. "Here it was really issues in regard to not having the right equipment, issues in regard to treating people humanely. Resident care. And treating workers humanely."The issues are having enough staff to maintain patient care. Capricious policy changes. Job security: Many of the union's members are single women for whom the work means survival.Cyphers says it took a "ton of courage" for the women to organize."They're ferocious. They have a very arrogant owner. He held 'captive audience' meetings with them. They'd be marched into the cafeteria and have other management standing behind them like armed guards," says Cyphers."They brought in a small army -- eight to 10 management workers -- of administration workers from headquarters in New York for the last two weeks of the organizing campaign. They harassed my workers on every shift, every day. They didn't miss a beat," he says."I think a rebel is a person who goes against the grain, somebody who dares to be different. It's like the penguin in a whole group of different types of animals going 'I got to be me!'" Osipow says to laughter.The picketers sight a UPS truck heading their way."There you go, Sandy," says organizer Cyphers. "Shake your sign at this one!" The driver responds with an enthusiastic honking salutation."If I had a tail, it'd be waggin'," says Osipow. "But I don't consider myself a rebel.""We're just standing up for what we believe," concurs Barbara B. Sidebar One1. Do you have nose ring?a) Yesb) Noc) Yes, but not on my nose.2.Your tattoo says:a) Momb) Anarchyc) Harley-Davidson3. Your favorite magazine is:a) Wiredb)Maximum Rock 'N' Rollc) Left Business Observerd) The Baffler4. You wear:a) Nikesb) Dr. Martensc) Birkenstocks5. Fast track is:a) One of the commands on your entertainment systemb) Your route to professional successc) A defining issue on whether or not our country will accede to the dictates of global corporations.6. Your opinion of extreme sports:a) Too violent.b) A good time people make too big a deal out of.c) Extreme what?7. Software tycoons who play electric guitar are:a) Cool.b) Not cool.c) Front men in the corporate co-option of rebellious images.8. Your favorite musician is:a) Tony Bennettb) Marilyn Mansonc) MC5d) Broken9. Which computer do you use?a) Macb) Microsoft Windows PCc) Manual typewriter10. You decide whether you're a rebel by:a) Taking a meaningless quiz in a hip lifestyle rag.b) Not taking a meaningless quiz in a hip lifestyle rag.