A Culture Without a Rebel
If, in these first years of the new millennium, there has been a more important speech than Chris Hedges’ “Calling All Rebels”, I for one haven’t heard it.
In characteristically unflinching rhetoric, Hedges describes the spiral of environmental and cultural collapse issuing from under-regulated corporations, and the frightening cohesion of multi-nationals with national security. It’s a sobering address, but perhaps not without satire.
Hedges’ deliberate use of the word “rebel”, which in many parts of the world still carries its original connotation of a resistance fighter, sounds oddly out of tune in North America, where long ago Che Guevara-like characters had the suffix “marketer” added to their title “guerrilla”. The only rebel in our culture is a convincing double-agent who romances us into designer shoes and sports-coupes with a perverse sales-pitch of standing against convention. The word is simply hollow here.
This ironic usage Hedges employs, seems rather to underscore our own complicity. He makes an embarrassment of popular culture’s vapid idea of a rebel, by contrasting the urgent need for against-the-grain activism, with this emasculated suggestion of an aloof and apathetic outcast. A person full of self-indignation but stripped of the will or means to act on it. “Too cool for school,” as they say. As though the measure of rebelliousness was the distance kept from any meaningful act.
It is a cruel joke, this idea of a rebel marketed as an isolated, disinterested, misanthrope, both for how easily it satisfies and how thoroughly it disarms a growing hopelessness among youth. A youth who’s aspirations and sense of contribution is co-opted and turned against themselves. Convinced the mastery of life is the surrender of life’s concerns.
This ability of popular culture to supplant a young person’s innate desire to agitate with a disaffected self-absorption, while simultaneously convincing them this retreat is the true face of rebellion, is a kind of terrifying marvel of social engineering. No less so for how seamlessly cultural ideas of “cool” become substitutes for desires of autonomy. Where emancipation is realized in the mimicry of movie dialogue, the swagger of rap singers, the luxury brands of the fashionable. Where credibility is measured in the precision of quoting trends at length, as though from a multi-platform version of The Little Red Book.
The effects are the same, the only difference is our zeal. Perhaps it’s lucky dictators never found a way to satisfy public narcissism in their blunt billboard propaganda, the way our advertising so insidiously does. The sight of our willing–indeed fevered–capitulation to a consumer model of debt peonage, whose net effects include a competitive, isolated and disengaged populace is every tyrant’s perfect trifecta.
Chris Hedges’ speech however, does not dwell on this long understood role of public relations in shaping cultural values and beliefs. His call is for the urgent work to be done: halting environmental collapse, checking corporate power. Leaving the problem of who is likely to commit to such work summed-up by the incongruence between the public image and the actual meaning of a rebel. We have all paid into an idea of ourselves as iconoclasts, Hedges implies, now is the time to live up to our own posturing.