Analysis of ‘Watchmen’

I: Introduction

Watchmen is a 1986-1987 comic book limited series, collected into a single-volume edition graphic novel in 1987. Original characters were used, since most of them would be unusable for future stories. The series was created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colourist John Higgins.

Moore meant the story as a reflection on contemporary fears, and as a deconstruction and satire on the concept of superheroes, as well as a commentary on contemporary politics. Watchmen depicts an alternate history in which Nixon not only doesn’t resign or is threatened with impeachment over the Watergate scandal (which is never exposed), but enjoys an overturning of the two-term limit and is thus still president by the mid-80s, when the story begins. He is able to do this because such superheroes as Doctor Manhattan and The Comedian help the US win the Vietnam War, ensuring Nixon’s continuing popularity.

Watchmen has received commercial and critical success, recognized in Time‘s List of the 100 Best Novels. According to the BBC’s Nicholas Barber, it is “the moment comic books grew up.” A film adaptation by Zack Snyder came out in 2009, featuring Malin Åkerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson; a video game series, Watchmen: The End Is Nigh, also came out the same year. A TV series continuing the story came out in 2019 on HBO. I’m basing my analysis on the comics and the 2009 movie.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

II: Alternate History vs Real History

What should we make of the alternate history, with a Vietnam War victory and Nixon continuing on as president well into the 1980s, that is, as a form of political commentary? Here’s my take: what difference does it make, really? Though communism hadn’t yet been defeated as of when Watchmen was written and published, it certainly had been as of the creation of the movie; besides, Vietnam would go over to a market economy, as would China, around the time of the comics’ publication. As for Nixon, when one considers how the foreign and domestic policies of the United States have moved unswervingly in the same neoliberal/neocon direction since the 1973 oil crisis, one can easily see how it has made no difference who’s been sitting in the Oval Office.

…and here’s where the superheroes come in.

Apart from the sheer goofiness of their names (Nite Owl?, Dollar Bill?, Captain Metropolis?, Hooded Justice?, Mothman?), the superheroes are a satire on their whole existence based on the idea that…no…they do not really embody the idea of defending truth, justice, and…wait, actually they do defend the American way. “Who watches the watchmen?Juvenal once asked of the corrupt men who would guard women against infidelity; though we today find far better application of his words to the defenders of tyrannical governments.

It must be emphasized that, though the liberal creators of Watchmen would have been unlikely to have defended Marxist-Leninist governments (note how the comics’ portrayal of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, moved later in this alternate history to the mid-80s, is still deemed an invasion, rather than an attempt to defend the growth of socialism there against the fundamentalist, reactionary mujahideen), the tyrannical government being critiqued here is the US dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the capitalist, imperialist state led by Nixon, who stands in for Moore’s real Republican satirical target…Reagan!

So, as with John Carpenter‘s film They Live, Watchmen is meant as liberals’ indictment of the GOP specifically, as opposed to being a critique of the entire American two-party system, the military-industrial complex, and capitalism in general, though it should have been meant as such, and it has enough elements in it to be critical of so much bigger a realm of political corruption, as I’ll try to show. For to put what I said above in different words, re-elected Nixon can be a stand-in for not only Reagan, but also Ford, Carter, Bushes Sr. and Jr., the Clintons, Obama, Trump, and Biden.

One criticism of the film’s general faithfulness to the comics is that it was too faithful. Retaining, for instance, the Cold War fears of nuclear armageddon between the US and socialist Russia was deemed by film critics over a decade ago to be too dated for contemporary moviegoers to be able to relate to the tensions depicted. In the 2020s, however, with new Cold War fears of nuclear armageddon between the US and capitalist Russia, moviegoers today can relate all too well to the tensions depicted in the film.

Such fears are what have motivated me to do this analysis.

III: The Comedian Is Dead

The story begins with the violent murder of Edward Blake, the Comedian (Morgan in the film), a man in his sixties who was in remarkably good shape for his age, but no match for his much younger killer, who throws him out of the window of his New York apartment, him falling to his death. The iconic image of his pin of a smiley face stained with a drop of his blood’s a harrowing one, for it symbolizes all that the Comedian in turn came to represent: the idea of superheroes defending the innocent is a sick, cruel joke.

Superheroes in this story are, essentially, glorified police and soldiers, whom they thus represent. Many people, especially in recent years, have come to feel nothing but contempt for cops, and justifiably so, for the cops’ job is really “to serve and protect” the ruling class. Similarly, the American/NATO military serves nothing more than imperial interests.

This is where the Comedian comes in. With Doctor Manhattan (Crudup), he is the only superhero allowed by the US government to remain so under the Keene Act of 1977, which otherwise banned all “masks.” Though the Comedian was inspired by the Peacemaker, with “a little bit of Nick Fury,” there’s also some Captain America in him, too, as can be seen on his Stars and Stripes shoulder sleeves.

Watchmen the comic and film seem to have anticipated the huge outpouring of superhero films in the 2010s, especially the MCU, with its pitting of the Avengers against armies of alien supervillains, a glorification of war between the “good guys,” or “Earth’s mightiest heroes” as representing the armies of US/NATO imperialism, and the “bad guys,” the Chitauri, etc., as representing any country opposing the Western empire.

Accordingly, we shouldn’t be surprised to see flashbacks of the Comedian killing the Vietcong with Doctor Manhattan, though we feel an unsettling sympathy for Charlie as he gets mutilated and destroyed, unlike those Chitauri. What’s worse, we see what a pig of a GI Joe the Comedian is to the pregnant Vietnamese woman he kills…after refusing to take responsibility for having impregnating her. Added to that is his beating and attempted rape of Sally “Jupiter” Juspeczyk, or Silk Spectre I (Gugino) back in the early 1940s. The Comedian thus represents not only police brutality and imperialism, but also toxic masculinity (elements I linked together here), showing what a cruel joke it is to be a “superhero.”

So, the Comedian is despicable in the extreme; but he is not 100% despicable. There are, after all, his penitent tears while sitting at the bed of Moloch (played by Matt Frewer in the film), who was his supervillain enemy for forty years (Chapter II, comic pages 21-23). The Comedian feels this remorse as a result of learning of the apocalyptic plans of Ozymandias (Goode). Indeed, his maskless confession to Moloch, revealing his secret identity as Blake, puts the retired supervillain in the ironic role of priestly confessor, thus once again blurring the line between good and evil in Watchmen.

The Comedian’s grinning wickedness can be explained, if never justified, in one remarkable way. His oft-repeated line, “It’s a joke,” can be interpreted as a kind of Camus-like absurdism. He knows it’s no good playing the hero in a world where villainy keeps resurfacing after brief defeats; it’s especially no good in a world whose existence is threatened by nuclear war.

For him, fighting crime is like Sisyphus rolling that huge boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back to the bottom as soon as it’s reached the top, to have to be rolled up again and again, for all eternity. One can never make the world a better place, but one is forced to keep trying. Camus concluded, however, that one must imagine that Sisyphus is happy, as a proposed resolution of the contradiction of man’s search for meaning in a meaningless universe; similarly, the Comedian continues to play the fake role of hero with a smile, knowing full well that it’s “all a joke.” Hence he commits atrocities without batting an eye.

IV: Rorschach

Rorschach (Haley), or Walter Kovacs–who has been, like a noir detective, investigating the murder of the Comedian and has formulated a conspiracy theory about someone out to kill all “masks”–is a similarly amoral sociopath, another example of how Watchmen deconstructs and satirizes the idea of “good guy” superheroes, though his sociopathy expresses itself in markedly different ways. His mother having been an abusive prostitute makes him a literal sonofabitch. This rupture in the normal child’s Oedipal and post-Oedipal development at least in part explains his pathology (it goes without saying that little Walter had no father in the home).

One peculiarity about Rorschach is his omission of definite and indefinite articles when speaking; these omissions are more extensive in the comic than in the film. Given his psychopathological nature, such omissions symbolize how incomplete his communicating is. In other words, he’s not as engaged as most people are in the Symbolic Order, the realm of language, social mores, custom, laws, culture, etc. His refusal to abide by the Keene Act, that is, illegally continuing his work as a “mask,” is a reflection of all this. He doesn’t fit in with society, and it shows when he talks.

He sees the world as irredeemably cruel, so he believes that he has the right to be as violent and cruel as he likes to other people (e.g., breaking people’s fingers when interrogating them). His superhero name and mask…or “face,” as he calls it, comes from the Rorschach test, a projective test using symmetrical inkblots (like the shifting black images seen on his white “face”) to bring out features of a patient’s unconscious thoughts that are projected onto the ink blots when he’s asked what he sees.

So his black-and-white “face” represents the kind of projection we all do, not just his own projecting of his viciousness onto the world, but also our projecting onto him when we see his “face,” or onto anyone else. (Consider the scene in the film when, broken out of prison with the help of Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II, he finds his “face,” puts it on, and facing the prison psychiatrist, Dr. Malcolm Long–played by William S. Taylor– who has used the Rorschach test on him, he asks, “What do you see?”) He is a mirror to us as much as we are a mirror to him. Rorschach, in his permanent hostility to all those around him, personifies the alienation that is almost universal in our world.

The fact that his mask is black and white also represents his own psychological splitting, his black-and-white view of the world: if something isn’t totally pure and innocent, honest and just, it’s so fetidly evil that destroying all manifestations of that evil is perfectly defensible (the fact that he stinks becomes yet another projection onto that fetidly evil world he sees). Hence, “not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.” The splitting into black and white means projecting the black outward and keeping the white inside…or so Rorschach thinks he’s doing; yet one cannot deny one’s Shadow, so he behaves as hideously as all those he condemns and maims.

V: Nite Owl II

Upon learning of the murder of the Comedian, Rorschach first goes to the home of Nite Owl II (Wilson), or Dan Dreiberg, to warn him about his theory of a “mask-killer.” Though based on the Ted Kord version of Blue Beetle, Nite Owl is in many ways a parody of Batman, with his use of gadgets and his “Owlship” (reminding us of the Batplane), nicknamed “Archie,” short for Archimedes. Dreiberg’s father left him a lot of money when he died, allowing him to afford such things, rather like orphan billionaire Bruce Wayne. His class status as a bourgeois ensures that Dan, like the other Watchmen, will always have, if not right-wing politics, at least liberal ones, as a reflection of his wish to protect his class interests.

Still, of all the Watchmen, Nite Owl II (as well as Silk Spectre II, or Laurie Juspeczyk–Åkerman) is the most moral. He and she do the one act of saving the lives of innocent people in danger in the whole comic, rescuing people from a tenement building on fire and taking them aboard Archie (Chapter VII, comic pages 23-26). When he and the Comedian are trying to handle the rioters back in the 1970s, he’s in the role of the “good cop,” trying to reason with the rioters, while the Comedian is the “bad cop,” beating the crap out of them (Chapter II, comic pages 16-18), if not killing them.

VI: Ozymandias

After warning Dan, Rorschach goes to tell Adrian Veidt, formerly Ozymandias, now the wealthy owner of, among other businesses, a toy company that, in selling Watchmen action figures, is capitalizing on the whole superhero phenomenon. Here we see more of the comics’ satire on superheroes. Like Dan, Adrian shows skepticism over Rorschach’s “mask killer” conspiracy theory (Chapter I, comic pages 17 and 18).

Well, naturally Adrian shows skepticism: as we learn in the end, he is the mask killer.

He’s the one who breaks into Blake’s apartment, beats him up, and throws him out the window. Adrian’s the one who deceives Doctor Manhattan into thinking that contact with him caused his colleagues, his former lover, Janey Slater (played by Laura Mennell in the film), and Moloch to develop cancer, giving the godlike superhero such guilt feelings that he leaves for Mars for some peaceful solitude, thus ensuring he won’t interfere with Adrian’s plans. Since Rorschach is also piecing the plot together, Adrian must get rid of him, too–by framing him for the murder of Moloch and putting him in prison. Finally, Adrian stages an attempt on his own life to make himself seem above suspicion.

And what’s Ozymandias’ plot? To kill millions of New Yorkers with a monster he’s had biologically engineered so that the leaders of the US and the USSR, joining forces to defend the world from alien invaders, will relent from nuclear war. Thus is world peace achieved!

Now, purist fans of the comics will be infuriated with me for saying this, but I believe the film’s changing of the alien monster to energy blasts, seemingly from Doctor Manhattan, on not only New York but also a number of other major cities around the world, was an improvement. Wiping out so many more people makes it all the more horrific, and energy blasts coming from a harnessing of Doctor Manhattan’s power, by virtue of the godlike hero’s name’s association with the Manhattan Project (and therefore associating his power with nuclear weapons), creates an ironic genocide by power thus associated in order to prevent a genocide by nuclear weapons.

Ozymandias imagines that his plot, as horrific as it is, will be a necessary sacrifice to prevent a horror killing billions, because apparently, the American and Soviet governments will be deterred by this horror from ever going to war with each other. Why, however, should we believe that world peace, let alone a lasting one, will be guaranteed by this “sacrifice”? Ozymandias himself acknowledges that man’s savage, violent nature will inevitably lead to his destruction. One doesn’t have to be “the smartest man in the world” to know that that savage, destructive nature won’t be tamed forever just because of the massive deaths caused by the monster, or the energy blasts. Let enough time pass by, and all those deaths will slowly fade from memory, and our bloodthirsty, competitive habits will reemerge.

Kiling millions to save billions, therefore, must be Adrian’s rationalization, rather than his real reason, for killing all those people (I wonder if any of his businesses’ competition were wiped out in New York, with his full knowledge?). Like the Comedian and Rorschach, Ozymandias is yet another superhero psychopath (recall how easily he disintegrates his pet Bubastis in his attempt to do the same to Doctor Manhattan), but with some narcissism mixed in. He identifies with great leaders of ancient history: Alexander the Great, and later Ramses II, called Ozymandias by the ancient Greeks. We’re reminded of Shelley‘s poem, in which we read the famous lines, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

In his narcissistic imagination, Adrian thinks he’s achieved the ultimate act of greatness in creating world peace, paradoxically, through a huge massacre. We are to look on his works (supposedly not knowing they’re his works) and despair, on the one hand, at the huge number of deaths he’s caused, and on the other hand, at the great accomplishment–supposedly thus–of what has been deemed impossible to accomplish…a lasting world peace. The “mighty” would envy him for his great feat.

Yet, just as the giant statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem has been reduced to mere fragments of rubble by the passage of time, so will Adrian’s peace by mass murder–by the passage of time–fade away into oblivion with the innate human urge to resume competing and waging war. His peace will come crumbling down; in fact, it may crumble quite soon if Seymour (played by Chris Gauthier in the film), at New Frontiersman, takes Rorschach’s journal from the crank file and, reproducing in a newspaper article the contents that have resulted from Rorschach’s investigation, expose Adrian’s whole plan as a hoax (Chapter XII, comic pages 31 and 32).

Now, New Frontiersman is a right-wing newspaper (as made blatantly clear on pages 275-278 in the graphic novel), and Rorschach’s giving of his journal to them indicates his sympathies for their politics. Indeed, he often speaks disparagingly of “liberal sensibilities,” which, contrary to popular belief, are not left-wing, but centrist, swaying only temporarily to the left or to the right depending on the political climate of the time (consider, for example, how liberals were left-leaning peaceniks in the 1960s and 70s; but when Trump was elected, they started banging the war drums against Russians, leading to our predicament in the 2020s). Other masks, like the Comedian, are similarly right-wing, “practically a Nazi,” according to Adrian.

Now, Adrian is deemed one of the “most consistently left-leaning superheroes,” according to a 1975 article by the liberal Nova Express (pages 377-380), so virulently hated a publication by the editor of New Frontiersman. Still, as the wealthy owner of several companies, Adrian is merely a bourgeois liberal and a member of the capitalist class, so he hardly merits the moniker of “leftist.” He’s no more “left-leaning” than billionaire George Soros, who may critique the excesses of unregulated capitalism from time to time, but who also used the “Open Society” to help dissolve the Soviet states. Only a far right-wing moron would call Soros a ‘communist’; it’s equally absurd to imagine that Adrian, an admirer of rulers during the ancient slave/master class contradiction, is anything approaching a socialist.

If one wishes to call Adrian a liberal, fine. We’ve seen plenty of liberals in today’s world joining the choruses of condemnation of Putin and all things Russian in response to his provoked invasion of Ukraine. These same liberals are, knowingly or unknowingly (the latter being no excuse, as evidence of the provocations has been made public for years), cheering for a government that has Nazis in it, as well as in their military. (I go into more detail about this issue in these posts, Dear Reader, if you’re interested: rehashing these arguments is beyond the scope of this article.)

That Western liberals are rooting for Ukraine and manufacturing consent for continued war with Russia is a dangerous game, risking a very possibly nuclear WWIII. Such an understanding of Ozymandias’ politics helps clear our minds as to why this liberal, fantasizing about an ideal world, has massacred millions in a manner comparable with nuclear war in order, paradoxically, to prevent it. Recall how atomic bombs killed hundreds of thousands in two Japanese cities (rationalized as having prevented far more deaths), far fewer than Adrian’s mass murder in New York City.

So, one lesson to be learned from this narrative is not to be naïve in hoping that liberals will steer humanity away from extinction. The trouble with liberal normal is that it always gets worse.

VII: Doctor Manhattan

The next heroes Rorschach goes to warn are Doctor Manhattan and Silk Spectre II, the couple being in a sexual relationship and living together in the Rockefeller Military Research Center, where Doctor Manhattan works for the government. When Rorschach tells them the Comedian is dead, Dr. Manhattan says he already knows, and that “the CIA suspects the Libyans were responsible.” Though the CIA presumably wouldn’t have known of Adrian’s plot (of course, knowing the nature of the CIA, and of at least some billionaires’ CIA connections, it’s quite possible that they might be in on it), their scapegoating of Libya sounds most convenient for their purposes.

Laurie feels no love lost for the murder of the man who tried to rape her mother, breaking her ribs and almost choking her; but Rorschach just trivializes the “moral lapse” of a man who died serving his country, a typically jingoistic and insensitive opinion from a right-winger (Chapter I comic page 21).

As for Dr. Manhattan, he is similarly unmoved by Blake’s death, since “life and death are unquantifiable abstracts.” As the only superhero of the Watchmen with superhuman powers, this nude blue demigod is emotionally numb from his deeper understanding of ‘the broader scheme of things,’ as it were, a numbness that will alienate Laurie from him and make her run into Dan’s arms later.

Dr. Jon Osterman became Doctor Manhattan as a result of a freak accident in the test chamber–in which he was locked–in the intrinsic field chamber where he and his fellow researchers worked. (He went there to retrieve a watch he’d fixed, that of his lover, Janey Slater.) In that chamber, his body was torn to pieces…pieces too infinitesimally small to see (Chapter IV, comic pages 7 and 8).

He reassembled himself (just like the repairing of her watch) in stages: first, a brain, eyes, and nervous system emerged; then, his circulatory system; next, a partially-muscled skeleton. Finally, he appeared before Janey and the other research staff in the cafeteria in his full, new form–blue, hairless, muscular, and naked, glowing with a “sudden flare of ultraviolet” (Chapter IV, comic page 10).

Osterman’s ordeal is obviously Christ-like in his agonizing death and resurrection, giving him a kind of “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44), if you will, and as a kind of “second Adam,” it’s fitting that he goes about “naked…and…not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25), just like the two lovers in the garden before their fall from grace. So his disintegration into the void was a kind of harrowing of hell…but also, paradoxically, a brief experience of the no-thing-ness of nirvana.

The sublation of the dialectical opposites of heaven (or, if you prefer, nirvana) and hell can be a way of interpreting what Wilfred Bion called O, and what Lacan called the Real. It’s a place of bliss as well as of trauma. Osterman has experienced both, almost simultaneously, and he’ll never be the same again.

Having experienced such extremes, he is distanced from the normal feelings of human attachment that are a part of samsara. He scarcely feels the fire of desire that causes dukkha, suffering; so his resurrected, god-like incarnation grows cooler and cooler emotionally. Death and suffering no longer trouble him all that much. He can still feel some emotion (hence his guilt over Janey’s cancer, a particularly powerful exception for him), but feelings are scanted for him, at best.

Small wonder he can walk as a giant through the jungles and rice paddy fields of Vietnam and destroy Charlie without flinching. Such is his nirvanic indifference to the differences between life and death. This indifference, of course, is most useful to the American government. As an American god, Doctor Manhattan should be terrifying to the world. As a metaphoric nuclear weapon personified, he’ll keep the Soviets at bay.

As the personification of a nuclear weapon, capable of destroying all life, he’s the opposite of what a superhero is supposed to be. As someone so indifferent to human life that it doesn’t matter to him if nuclear war wipes it out, Doctor Manhattan is that much less of a superhero.

It is only when he realizes so good a person as Laurie, Silk Spectre II, can come–by a one in a billion chance–from the mating of Sally, Silk Spectre I, with her near-rapist, the super-despicable Comedian, such good from such bad, that Doctor Manhattan sees the birth as a miracle, and therefore he can see value in human life once again. So by this paradox, he finds the willingness to go back, from his isolation on Mars, to Earth to prevent nuclear war between the US and the USSR.

But he arrives too late to stop the monster…or, according to the film, the energy blasts to be blamed on him.

Heroes meant to prevent calamity either fail to prevent it in Watchmen, or they outright cause it…the superhero concept is further satirized and deconstructed.

VIII: The Black Freighter

A subplot running throughout the comics, but not included in the film (apart from deleted scenes), is a comic book story–read by a young man sitting by a newspaper vendor who’s always prating about the end of the world (and providing copies of New Frontiersman to Walter Kovacs when he isn’t in his Rorschach outfit but is carrying around a sign saying “The End Is Nigh”)–from Tales of the Black Freighter. (This begins at the start of Chapter III.)

The protagonist of the story–curiously not a comic book superhero, since a decline in the popularity of “masks” over the years has replaced them with, in this case, for example, seamen–has found himself the sole survivor of his crew from a shipwreck resulting from an attack at sea by the Black Freighter, or as he calls it, the “hell-bound ship.” (Chapter III, comic pages 1 and 2) Overwhelmed by the sight of his wrecked ship and the bodies of his dead crew strewn on the shore, and also fearing the hell-bound ship sailing to his hometown of Davidstown, where his wife and daughters will be killed before he can get there, he vows revenge and is obsessively driven to get home to achieve it.

When he realizes that making a raft from wood won’t be buoyant enough, he decides to make one with the body parts of the dead crewmen he’s just buried. This ghoulish act is the first example of foreshadowing in the story, for the Black Freighter has heads nailed to its prow. In his overzealous quest to avenge evil (if he can’t stop the ship from killing his family, that is), the protagonist will become the very evil he’s trying to prevent. He’s projecting his own potential for evil onto the Black Freighter (Chapter V, comic pages 8 and 9), just as Rorschach projects his evil onto the world.

Further foreshadowing of him becoming that evil is when he, on his raft of rotting corpses, grabs a seagull among many trying to nip at the dead flesh and savagely eats it alive. We see a picture of him (Chapter V, bottom right of comic page 9) with a wild facial expression and gull’s blood dripping from his mouth.

It’s interesting to note, in connection with the moral degeneration of the protagonist, how the newspaper vendor standing by the kid reading the comic has said, from the beginning, that the US should nuke the USSR. Is his attitude not a perfect parallel of that of the comic’s protagonist? So eager to kill the bad guys that he talks like a bad guy himself. The same is true of the Comedian, Rorschach, and Ozymandias, all self-righteous psychopaths who think they have the right to end human life.

Eventually, the protagonist reaches land and gets to Davidstown. Since he’s narrating the story, and he’s been through a harrowing, traumatizing, and disorienting experience, his judgement will be shaky at best. Therefore, he is clearly an unreliable narrator. What he perceives to be happening next should be observed with due skepticism.

He sees a man and a woman walking along near the beach. It’s at night, so it’s dark and not easy to see. Still, the protagonist is sure this man is a moneylender from Davidstown whom he recognizes, and the woman is his paramour. Moneylenders were despised people back around the 18th/19th century, when this story takes place, so it’s easy to see the protagonist vilifying this man as an abettor to the evil crew of the Black Freighter. (Chapter X, comic book pages 12 and 13)

He kills the lovers, then disguising himself as the man and putting the woman’s body on her horse, he rides into Davidstown with her. (Chapter X, comic page 23) Again, this use of a corpse with transportation is a foreshadowing of his eventual identification with the murderous crew of the Black Freighter, with heads on its prow.

Finally in Davidstown, he gets to his home and, thinking the murderous pirates are there, he attacks one to avenge his family…only to realize he’s actually killed his own wife. (Chapter XI, comic page 6) The Black Freighter never reached Davidstown (has it been only a figment of his imagination the whole time, a projection of his own, inner evil?), though the ship is later seen approaching the shore by the despairing protagonist, who has returned to the beach. He gets in the water, swims to the boat, and joins the crew, being as evil as they are. (Chapter XI, comic page 23)

To return to the main story, after Ozymandias has released the monster (which, by the way, can also be representative of a nuclear holocaust, through associations with such kaiju as Godzilla) on New York, a mass murder that one TV news reporter compares to “Hiroshima but with buildings”(Chapter XII, comic page 25), he tells Doctor Manhattan about a dream he’s had, “about swimming towards a hideous…” (Chapter XII, comic page 27)

He doesn’t finish his thought, though, because, as should be obvious to us, he’s referring to the Black Freighter. Like the protagonist of that story, Ozymandias has become the very evil he claims he’s wanted to prevent…though he won’t let his guilt surface to his conscious mind (it can appear only in his unconscious, in dream).

IX: Conclusion

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history,” meaning the triumph of “free market” capitalism as the highest and final stage of human civilization. But as Doctor Manhattan tells liberal capitalist Ozymandias, “Nothing ever ends.” (Chapter XII, comic page 27)

We all imagined (myself included, at the time), in our naïveté, that the end of the Soviet states would not only usher in freedom and democracy around the world, but also, in ending the Cold War, put to rest our fears of nuclear annihilation. Yet since the early 1990s, we’ve instead seen life get shittier and shittier, with increasing income inequality, the capitalist class controlling most of our access to information, a homelessness epidemic, worsening financial crises, government surveillance (and surveillance capitalism), rampant imperialist wars, and militarized police. The end of socialist “totalitarianism” has only led to a very real capitalist totalitarianism. In the past, the West feared the rule of Stalin and Mao, but we don’t need to fear them: now we’re ruled by the likes of Gates, Musk, and Bezos.

Our “heroes” of the past–Soros et al–have become the very evil they fancied themselves to be fighting.

Furthermore, just as we see on the pages of the Watchmen comics, the doomsday clock is set just a few minutes before midnight. All one needs to do to see the grim reality I’m describing is to watch the reckless nuclear brinksmanship going on with the US and NATO’s proxy war with Russia, using Ukrainians as cannon fodder. And as if that weren’t madness enough, the Western imperialists are planning to play the same game of nuclear chicken with China, using the Taiwanese as cannon fodder.

The end of the world is nigh…where are Walter Kovacs and his sign when we need them?

Just as Ozymandias imagines dropping a giant squid-like monster on New York City–or, as in the film, using energy blasts seeming to come from Doctor Manhattan, killing not only millions in the Big Apple, but also in London, Paris, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, etc.–will save billions by killing millions, so do some of the warmongering imperialist psychopaths in our world imagine using smaller nukes will defeat Russia and China without wiping out the entire world. MAD indeed.

Not only are we headed unswervingly towards WWIII and nuclear annihilation, we are also blinded to this reality by the Russophobic and Sinophobic propaganda of the Western bourgeois media, who keep the truth from us just as Doctor Manhattan kills Walter Kovacs to keep the truth from the world about Ozymandias’ plot. That Western propaganda is like the tachyons used to blind us Dr. Manhattans to the dire future we face, causing us to do nothing to prevent it.

The anti-Russian partisans of the DNC, as well as the anti-Chinese partisans of the GOP, see the politicians of their respective parties as superheroes defending the US…yet, who is watching the watchmen? In their hate of their version of the Black Freighter, be it China, or Russia, or both of them, these Western politicians have built their raft of corpses–from all their previous warmongering–and they’re on their way to Davidstown.

Not enough of us yet know that these Western politicians will soon swim to that hell-bound ship and join their bloodthirsty crew…will there be enough of us to stop them before it’s too late?

As we can see, Watchmen, in its comic and movie forms, is extremely relevant to our troubled times today.

Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins, Watchmen, Burbank, CA, DC Comics, 1986-1987

Analysis of ‘Notorious’

Notorious is a 1946 spy film produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and written by Ben Hecht. It stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, with Claude Rains, Louis Calhern, and Leopoldine Konstantin.

The film was a watershed for Hitchcock artistically, having a heightened maturity. It was his first attempt to create a serious love story, with two men (played by Grant and Rains) jealously vying for the attention of a beautiful woman (Bergman) within the context of a spy thriller.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

What’s curious about this film is how it depicts clandestine operations by ex-Nazis in Brazil just after WWII, when the Nazis had just been roundly defeated. One would think that the ex-Nazi war criminals hiding out in South America would want to keep a low profile by not doing anything suspect just after their defeat, with Nazi hunters after them.

The ex-Nazis of this film are high-ranking members of IG Farben, the German chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerate infamously associated with such atrocities as the creation of Zyklon B, which killed over a million people in gas chambers during the Holocaust. These IG Farben executives, it is discovered, are mining uranium ore, to be used in the making of atomic bombs. (Incidentally, from the discovery of nuclear fission to the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, the Nazis were hardly motivated to develop nuclear weapons; getting rid of Jews was their priority at the time. And only now are these ex-Nazis interested in uranium ore?)

What is odd about the villain conspirators being from IG Farben is that the conglomerate was seized by the Allies at the end of the war in 1945, its directors to be put on trial from 1947 to 1948, thirteen of the tried twenty-three directors being convicted of war crimes. If a Nazi conspiracy to make nuclear weapons were afoot, it would seem unlikely that its men would allow any association to be made with IG Farben.

What’s more, while at the end of the war there would have been plenty of animosity felt towards the Nazis by the general populace of Western countries, there were also plenty of people among the Western bourgeoisie who had expressed sympathy for the Nazis as a group dedicated to destroying communism. Accordingly, not only did many Western bourgeois hope that Hitler would invade the USSR, and encouraged such a move at the Munich conference, but also a great many ex-Nazis were given prestigious jobs in the American government, in NASA, in NATO, and in the West German government, as part of the Cold War offensive against the Soviet states. Recall also that a number of Hitler’s business backers were American companies and other Allied multinationals.

Now, Operation Paperclip wasn’t made public through the media until December of 1946, well after the release of Notorious. Truman hadn’t officially approved of Operation Paperclip until September of 1946, again after Notorious was finished. It was therefore extremely unlikely that Hitchcock and Hecht would have known anything about the operation.

Still, with the Nazis decisively defeated, and not yet having the knowledge of the mining of uranium ore, it seems unlikely that the American government as portrayed in the film would be so concerned with the activities of a few ex-Nazis hiding out in South America. The Nazis were no longer an effective challenger to Western imperialist interests; on the contrary, it was now the Soviets who were such a challenge. And as I said above, the Western ruling class still had a soft spot in their hearts for commie-hating Nazis.

So what’s the real point about having ex-Nazis as the villains in Notorious?

Well, the movie-going public, as opposed to the capitalist class, would have had an unequivocal dislike of Nazis just after WWII, so the IG Farben men would have made fitting villains. Hecht, as a Jew, would naturally have hated Nazis, too. Finally, the mainstream liberals in Hollywood at the time, in their defence of bourgeois democracy, would have seen Nazis as appropriate villains whose presence in Notorious would have made the film appealing to the public.

On a deeper level, though, Notorious reflects the ambivalence that the liberal bourgeoisie of the time would have had towards such villains. This ambivalence is seen in how surprisingly sympathetic Alex Sebastian (Rains) is, as an ex-Nazi in love with (and his heart broken by) German-American Alicia Huberman (Bergman), the beautiful daughter of a German traitor in the US who has been convicted of aiding the Nazis.

Indeed, the love triangle between these two and the American government agent, TR Devlin (Grant) can be seen to be an allegory of this Western capitalist ambivalence to Naziism. Alicia, a woman exploited by the American government to seduce Sebastian–or, put more bluntly, to prostitute herself to him–in order to spy on him and discover what wickedness the IG Farben men are up to, personifies the land and resources that the US (as personified by Devlin) and Nazi Germany (as personified by Sebastian) are competing for, to possess and to dominate.

The men’s mutual jealousy over her is thus an allegory of 1) the Western capitalist use of fascism to counter communism, and 2) the inter-imperialist conflict of WWII when Hitler showed that he wanted much more than just to invade and colonize the Soviet Union; he also wanted to muscle in on the territory of Britain and other Western imperialists.

Alicia, as that American daughter of the German traitor, also fits in with my allegory in how she’s, on the one hand, looked down on, is notorious, as an alcoholic and a tramp who, at the beginning of the film, is suspected of being sympathetic to her father’s politics; yet on the other hand, is also such a desirable beauty. Western liberals despise fascist brutishness, yet they nonetheless find it politically expedient in furthering capitalist and imperialist interests.

Now, the object of desire here is a beautiful woman who drinks, and drinking–of alcohol especially–is a major thematic motif in Notorious (indeed, Hitchcock’s cameo in the film shows him drinking a glass at a party). This drinking is recurrently associated with danger and destruction: we see this first in her drunk-driving scene with Devlin, then later in the discovery that the uranium ore is being hidden in wine bottles in the cellar of Sebastian’s house.

This association of alcohol, wine in particular, with danger and destruction reminds us of Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and madness (consider the violence and wildness of his Maenads). The rivalry between Devlin and Sebastian over the charms of Alicia is the essence of irrational jealousy, leading to her near-death by poisoning and Sebastian’s downfall at the end of the movie, when he can no longer hide the fact that he has fallen for an American spy. This understanding deepens my allegory in that the madly jealous inter-imperialist rivalry during WWII between the capitalist West and Nazi Germany resulted in so much death and destruction.

While I’m sure that neither Hitchcock nor Hecht consciously intended to present the allegory I’m describing here, I consider the political circumstances that led up to WWII and those depicted in Notorious to be such that my allegory is inevitable, if only through the unconscious emergence of a few Freudian slips. Accordingly, I don’t find it to be too far out of place to see Devlin as a pun on devil.

Devlin takes Alicia by plane from her home in Florida to Brazil; through the airplane window, she can see the statue of Christ the Redeemer. It seems as though, through her working for the American government, she is about to redeem herself for her father’s treason. During the flight, and by an interesting juxtaposition, she also learns of her father’s death in prison by swallowing a poison capsule. She sees the statue immediately after hearing the news; it’s as if her father’s death is a Christ-like sacrifice freeing her of her family’s Nazi past.

They fly into Rio, and it isn’t long before Devlin and Alicia fall in love. Their love affair being in Brazil of all places, where she is to seduce Sebastian, adds more depth to my political allegory of this film when one considers how the Monroe Doctrine led to an increasingly possessive attitude towards Central America (i.e., the Banana Wars) and South America, that is, in imperialist terms. Since the beginning of the Cold War especially, any attempt at a leftist liberation from US imperialism would lead to a CIA coup d’état, replacing the erstwhile leftist government with an authoritarian, right-wing one, reminding us in a way of the ex-Nazis hiding out in South America.

The US government, thus, has been like a jealous, possessive lover of Latin America, just as Devlin has been of Alicia. A comparable kind of possessiveness can be seen in the US occupation of the southeastern and central part of West Germany just after WWII. German-American Alicia is eyed this way by Devlin, and Sebastian’s later jealous eyeing of her in Brazil allegorically suggests the ex-Nazi presence in South America. The allegorical interpretation of the Devlin/Huberman/Sebastian love triangle is complete when one considers the above-mentioned American use of ex-Nazis in their government from the beginning of the Cold War.

That closeness of America and Germany, apart from being personified in Alicia herself, is also seen in her famous extended kissing scene with Devlin, in which Hitchcock deftly evaded the censors of the prudish Production Code by briefly breaking up kisses that could last as long as the three-second limit. Indeed, one could think of the breaking up of the kisses as representative of the ambivalent attitude of the US government towards a Germany with a fascist past: love her, Devlin, but not too much.

Anyway, his love for her will soon turn into animosity when he learns from his superiors, including Captain Paul Prescott (Calhern) of the US Secret Service, that her job is to seduce Sebastian so she can find out what he and the other IG Farben men are up to. As I said above, Devlin’s and Sebastian’s mutual jealousy over the German-American beauty represents the ambivalent attitude the US government has always had towards fascism.

Like all good little liberals, the American ruling class is supposed to hate Nazis…but this doesn’t mean the Nazis don’t have their uses, as do other kinds of fascists, that is, in how they can serve imperialist interests by, for example, thwarting the advancement of socialism. Even now, the American liberal establishment, in order to avoid feeling any cognitive dissonance, pretends that the Russian/Ukraine war is a fight for liberation against the ‘aggressor’ Putin, while also denying, or at least minimizing, the neo-Nazi elements in the Ukrainian government and military, who are perfectly content to ban opposition parties and persecute ethnic Russians living in the area.

So, to get back to the story, Devlin is more than uncomfortable to know that the woman he’s attracted to is being used to attract another man. That the Americans can’t just go in and arrest the IG Farben men–because they’d then just find others to replace Sebastian et al, and so their sinister work would continue–is reasoning whose validity I’m not convinced of. Nazi war criminals are war criminals…arrest them! When the replacements come, arrest them, too. Nazis as of 1946 ceased to be a threat to US bourgeois imperialist interests (and as we now know, Nazis were actually helping the American government against its then-real threat, the Soviets), so just arrest the IG Farben men.

Devlin’s jealousy will be swelling when he learns that Sebastian wants to marry Alicia, who will agree to it…and he isn’t the only one feeling this jealousy over the marriage that’s coming; so is Sebastian’s mother, Madame Anna Sebastian (Konstantin). Though Rains retained his British accent while playing German Sebastian, Grant spoke with his Trans-Atlantic accent (bringing up associations between American, British, and Nazi imperialism in the context of Notorious), and Bergman largely managed to hide her Swedish accent in her portrayal of a German-American, the Austrian actress Konstantin spoke with her German accent undisguised, which really brings out the stereotypical Nazi associations in her role, as not only one of the main villains of the movie, but also as Sebastian’s ruthless and domineering mother.

There is a parallel to be observed in his relationship with both his new wife and with his mother–one of servile love. Just as Sebastian is uxorious towards Alicia, so is he Oedipal in his attitude towards Madame Anna, something she can use to her advantage in controlling him. One is reminded of the love Hitler had for his mother, Klara, after whose death he grieved for the rest of his life.

Hitchcock’s mother died four years before Notorious was made and released; he addressed his own mother issues for the first time in this film, and the notion of a domineering mother like Madame Anna, a reservoir of her son’s guilt, anger, resentment, and Oedipal yearning, was something Hitchcock would explore further in films like Psycho and The Birds. Indeed, he would often incorporate psychoanalysis in such films as these and in Spellbound, a film he did the year before Notorious.

The unhealthiness of an unresolved Oedipus complex that is exploited by a cunning mother just adds a deeper level of villainy to this group of ex-Nazis, for properly understood, the Oedipal longing for a parent’s love and undivided attention–combined with the frustration of never fully having that attention–is a narcissistic trauma. Sebastian’s unhealthy relationship with his mother, in which he is weakened and made vain and foolish, ends up being transferred onto Alicia, making him uxorious in his feelings for her. She, as an American spy, can exploit his weakness in getting to the key to the wine cellar to find the hidden uranium ore.

She’s being exploited, too, recall, by the American government, and to complete the job, she must agree to marry Sebastian and allow him into her bed–a conquest of his comparable to the American takeover of aboriginal land (I’m reminded of lines 25-32 from Donne‘s Elegy XIX, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’), which inspired Hitler to want to conquer Slavic land. Alicia must go along with this fake romance, to keep up appearances so Sebastian will never suspect she’s an American spy. Devlin must also keep up appearances and maintain a professional attitude, pretending he’s had no romance of his own with her.

Indeed, keeping up appearances is a major theme running throughout Notorious. Alicia’s mission as a spy includes keeping up appearances that she’s as much in love with Sebastian as he is with her. She imagines Devlin’s love for her is pretend, while he keeps up appearances of a stoic lack of interest in her, always hiding his jealousy behind a feigned contempt for her, all for the sake of keeping the mission going. The IG Farben men keep up appearances of wine bottles innocently containing wine when some of those in the cellar actually contain uranium ore.

Ironically, when Sebastian intrudes on Devlin’s and Alicia’s moment alone in the cellar just after discovering the “sand” in one of the wine bottles, Devlin has her pretend to kiss him in order to keep up appearances of having an affair to hide their real offence against Sebastian, the discovery of what’s hidden in that bottle. This ‘appearance’ of being in love, of course, hides the fact that they really are in love…though they won’t admit this until the end of the film.

The penultimate keeping up of appearances is when Sebastian and his mother pretend to be concerned for Alicia’s declining health–to cover up for his foolish falling in love with an American spy–when it’s their piecemeal poisoning of her coffee, another drink Notorious associates with danger and destruction, that is causing her declining health. And the final keeping up of appearances, which ultimately fails, is at the end, when Sebastian and his mother pretend that Devlin is just taking Alicia to the hospital instead of actually rescuing her from her two poisoners.

Sebastian pretends not to fear death as Devin is taking Alicia down the stairs towards the front door, but when she’s put in the car and Devlin is about to drive away, Sebastian is desperately anxious to have them take him in the car, too. More keeping up of appearances.

Sebastian has everything to fear, for the other IG Farben men, knowing there’s no telephone in Alicia’s bedroom from which Devlin could have called the hospital, proves that the hospital story is a lie…so Sebastian must meet the same fate as that of Emil Hupka (played by Eberhard Krumschmidt) for having reacted with shock, in front of Alicia, at the wine bottles, which tipped her off to their significance.

The paranoid intensity of security maintained by the IG Farben men is what makes me doubt the plausibility of there being any substantial American cause for suspicion of sinister plots by these ex-Nazis against American imperialist interests. They’re hiding their conspiracy so tightly that it seems virtually impossible for the Americans to have discovered anything; Alicia’s being tipped off by Emil’s display of agitation seems little more than a fluke.

Such a tight keeping up of appearances by the IG Farben men leads me to discuss the ultimate pretense of this film, whether consciously intended by Hitchcock and Hecht or not: that the US government, just after having defeated the Nazis, would still regard fascism as an intolerable evil in any form. The American moviegoing public would surely have continued to vilify Nazis, so it would have been expedient for Hollywood producers to keep up the appearance of despising fascism, too…for the sake of ticket sales, at the very least.

But bourgeois liberal Hollywood interests aren’t all that far removed from those of capitalist imperialism and colonialism. Hecht as a Jew would have justifiably hated Nazis in all sincerity, but he was also an avid supporter of the establishment of the settler colonial state of Israel, whose persecution of the Palestinians has been every bit as evil as the Nazi persecution of the Jews was. Notorious‘s keeping up of appearances of regarding Nazis as an enemy of America covers up how useful the West has always found fascism, which they’ve since falsely equated with communism…another deft move of propaganda on the part of the ruling class.

Western capitalism’s appeasement and, therefore, encouragement, of the rise of fascism in the 1930s, in its attempt to thwart socialism, was ultimately the creation of a monster they’d quickly regret. The Western bourgeoisie were Dr. Victor Frankenstein; fascism was the monster. WWII was the horror story. Notorious was, in my opinion at least, an example of a bourgeois attempt to save face over its creation of that monster.

Analysis of ‘Easy Rider’

Easy Rider is a 1969 film produced by Peter Fonda, directed by Dennis Hopper, starring both of them, and written by them and Terry Southern. The film co-stars Jack Nicholson (in a role that made him a star), Karen Black, Toni Basil (later of “Mickey” fame), and Luke Askew.

A landmark counterculture film, Easy Rider not only explored the rise of the hippie movement, drug use, and communal lifestyle, but it also helped spark the New Hollywood era of filmmaking in the early 1970s. Real drugs were used in the film.

Critics praised the performances, directing, writing, soundtrack, and visuals. Easy Rider was nominated for two Oscars, for Best Original Screenplay and for Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson).

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

Though the film is understood to be a film for ‘rebels,’ one needs to look deeper. Wyatt, or “Captain America [!]” (Fonda), and Billy (Hopper) have names inspired by Wyatt Earp and outlaw Billy the Kid, reinforcing their image as anti-establishment rebels by associating them with the rough and violent types of the Old West. Instead of horses, they’re on bikes. What immediately should strike one with suspicion, though, is Wyatt’s display of the Stars and Stripes on his black leather jacket, helmet, and the chopper he buys after he and Billy profit off of a sale of cocaine. Wearing such colours indicates the duo’s acceptance of the values of American capitalism, not a rebellion against them.

Indeed, the film begins with Wyatt and Billy in Mexico, riding on dirt bikes to a bar where they’ll buy cocaine so they can smuggle it into the US to sell for a much higher price. Their clothes are as humble as their bikes at this time. They sell the cocaine to their “connection” (played by none other than Phil Spector, of “Wall of Sound” fame) outside at an airport, where airplanes are flying noisily overhead, as if representing the heavenly host watching over Wyatt and Billy, and judging them for their sins.

And what is their sin? I’m not so much interested in moralizing about their drug trafficking as I am in discussing what Marx wrote about in Capital, vol. 3, about “Commercial Capital” (chapter 16, pages 379-383). A merchant buys a commodity from a producer, then sells it again for a higher price to obtain a profit. Wyatt and Billy sell the cocaine they bought in Mexico to their American connection for a much, much higher price. Some might call this white Wyatt’s and Billy’s exploitation of the poor Mexicans they bought from.

Small wonder we hear, right at the end of the deal with the American connection, “The Pusher,” in which originally Hoyt Axton sang “Goddamn the pusher man” because he “is a monster,” selling you hard drugs like heroin or cocaine, and not caring “if you live or if you die.” (In the film, though, we hear Steppenwolf‘s cover of the song.) We hear these lyrics as Wyatt is stuffing their dollar bills down a plastic tube hidden inside his US-flag designed chopper. Hence, his bike is symbolic of American capitalism…Wyatt and Billy are just as much the establishment as are all the hicks who later antagonize them.

So when we see these two cool dudes riding their new choppers on the road, and we hear “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf as the credits flash across the screen, we have to be clear about what the contradiction is that is examined in Easy Rider. It isn’t between the right and the left: both sides here are capitalists through and through. It’s between conservatives and liberals. This distinction is important to make because there are many politically illiterate people out there who confuse the left with bourgeois liberalism (e.g., hippies, the Democratic Party, etc.). It’s significant that we hear Steppenwolf perform both the Hoyt Axton song and “Born to be Wild,” one immediately after the other, at this point in the film; this juxtaposition of songs emphasizes the dual nature of Wyatt and Billy, being both establishment (commercial capitalists) and anti-establishment (biker rebels) at the same time.

Now, conservative capitalists–owners of such private property as motels–won’t accommodate these two liberal capitalists. This lack of shelter for Wyatt and Billy puts them in a paradoxical situation: that of being, on the one hand, a pair of privileged white men with that secret stash of cash in Wyatt’s bike, their profit from the drug deal; and on the other hand, two men reduced to the status of the homeless.

Bourgeois lumpenproletariat: who’d a thunk it? In a sense, one might even think of what happens to King Lear.

One is reminded, in contemplating how the conservative capitalists are bullying these two liberal capitalists, of something Marx said in Capital, vol. 1: “One capitalist always strikes down many others,”(Marx, page 929)…or in this case, some capitalists often strike down these two others.

…and some far-right dummies out there equate the likes of Wyatt and Billy with communists. Give me strength.

Still, we see these two riding their choppers on roads with beautiful American landscapes and scenery on either side. One thing to remember about this land, though, is who it belonged to originally.

In a movie largely about white male rebels, we might not pay too much attention to those who are marginalized in it…probably because these people are so very marginalized: blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women. It can be just as instructive to note who or what is not seen in a movie as who is seen in it.

Our two biker rebels stop at the home of a humble farmer to fix a flat tire on Wyatt’s bike. They have dinner with the farmer’s family, who say Grace before eating. This is a humble, conservative Christian family, though the father is liberal and unprejudiced enough to marry a Hispanic Catholic. Still, he expects her to run off and get more coffee.

What should be noted is not so much the contrast between, on the one side, Wyatt, Billy, and the hippies they’ll meet soon enough, and on the other side, the bigoted and outright dangerous conservatives. One should rather see these opposing sides as on a continuum with people like this farmer’s family as somewhere in between. All of these people play a role of some kind in the white settler colonial state that is the US. It is those aforementioned marginalized people (including the Mexican seller of the cocaine and the farmer’s wife) who should be set in opposition to all the others, including Wyatt and Billy, in this film.

Indeed, this dinner with the farmer’s family has a double in the later dinner at the hippie commune, before which they also pray, the camera slowly moving and showing us the faces of everyone about to eat. We’ll see that the hippies, for all their drug use and practice of free love, have a lot more in common with the Christian farmers than meets the eye.

Wyatt and Billy ride on, and soon they pick up a hitchhiking hippie, a Stranger on the Highway (Askew). When at a gas station, the hippie fills up Wyatt’s bike, having taken off the gas cap and leaving the possibility of him seeing the plastic tube with all the money in it, Billy gets nervous and wants to stop him. He’s just as protective of his wealth as any capitalist would be.

At nightfall, the three stop by the side of the road to smoke some grass, then to sleep. When Billy asks the hippie where he’s from, he’s evasive in his answer, feeling that all cities are the same. People who’ve done LSD, something the hippie will give Wyatt and Billy to do at a fitting time later, often sense a unity in everything and everyone, that everywhere is ‘here,’ so to speak. The hippie would also have Wyatt and Billy take heart of how this land they’re sitting on has its original owners, the Native Americans, buried under it.

He says that Wyatt and Billy could be “a trifle polite” in their attitude towards those dead aboriginals whose land the white man has taken from them. Billy chuckles at the hippie’s words; his attitude should be a reminder to us, as much as Wyatt’s Stars and Stripes, that these two bikers are not sticking it to the Man the way they should be.

All the two men want to do is pursue a life of physical pleasure: drugs, drinking, chasing women, and freely riding their choppers along the American landscape…from a land taken from the aboriginals. Wyatt and Billy are going to New Orleans to enjoy the Mardi Gras festival: “Fat Tuesday,” a great indulgence in pleasure before the great abstinence of Lent…in which they, of course, have no interest.

Their rebellion is against repressive, right-wing conservative authority, but it doesn’t go far enough. One cannot just do one’s own thing while coexisting with those reactionary types, for the reactionaries refuse to coexist with society’s long-haired rebels, as we’ll see by the end of the movie. Those reactionaries must be defeated and wiped out, not merely given the finger to, or else they’ll wipe out the rebels. This is the reality as understood in the intensification of class struggle, and why a dictatorship of the proletariat is needed to prevent the return of reactionary capitalism.

Wyatt and Billy take the hippie to his commune, where we see two young women who show an immediate sexual interest in the two bikers, just as they’ve been openly affectionate with the hippie. (One of these women thinks Wyatt is “beautiful,” in his Stars and Stripes outfit, which should tell you something about her and her attitude towards straight America.) Billy briefly plays ‘cowboys and Indians’ with the children of the commune, an indication not only of the spirit of levity felt by these whites towards the genocide of the Native Americans as noted above, but also how these hippies, in not teaching their kids that even playing war might lead to a warlike mentality when they grow up, don’t seem all that committed to the anti-war cause, a reminder that hippies are liberals, not revolutionaries–they’re the phonies that Zappa accused them of being.

Yet there are right-wing morons out there who claim that hippies are communists. Pathetic.

Other examples of traditionalism among these hippies–which give the lie to their ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘counterculture’ posturing–include, apart from the prayer before eating mentioned above, their singing of old-fashioned, traditional songs like “Does Your Hair [originally “Do Your Ears”] Hang Low?” and “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” (as opposed to singing, for example, 60s antiwar/pro-drug songs), and their reluctance to accommodate any more visitors. Such a reluctance isn’t too far removed from when Archie Bunker refused to accommodate two unmarried hippie visitors to his house.

As I said above, all these groups of people in Easy Rider lie on a continuum, ranging from the bigoted hecklers and killers of Wyatt, Billy, and George Hanson (Nicholson) on the far-right side, then a little to the left of the bigots, there are the Christian farmer and his Catholic, Hispanic wife, then a little further left from them are the people in this hippie commune, then further left are Hanson, then Wyatt and Billy, and finally the hippie hitchhiker, who acknowledges the genocide of the aboriginals (without helping to do anything about it), on the other side. A real far-left opposition would include people like the Black Panthers and any Native American activists struggling against white settler colonialism, something we’ll never see in this film. To paraphrase Noam Chomsky, the mainstream media ensures a very narrow, but lively, range of debate between the “left” and the right.

Wyatt and Billy–after engaging in skinny-dipping and free love with those two women from the commune, then taking some LSD from the hippie hitchhiker–continue on their way into a town in New Mexico where a parade is going on. They ride their choppers along with the parade, as if to join it, then they get arrested for “parading without a permit.” Actually, the cops just don’t like long-haired men.

Here is where they meet alcoholic Hanson, himself locked up for having overindulged in booze the night before.

Now, George Hanson, as a lawyer who has done work for the ACLU, is rather square, but also liberal and open-minded, as well as knowledgeable about the social issues of the day. He knows that this town they’re in is full of right-wing reactionaries who’d love to shave the heads of Wyatt and Billy, taking away their symbol of rebellion…like taking away Samson‘s strength by cutting his hair.

George can help Wyatt and Billy get out of jail as long as the two bikers haven’t done anything like killing someone…white, which George says with a sardonic grin, indicating his awareness of his society’s double standards against the marginalized black community.

He gets them and himself out of jail, has a bit of the hair of the dog, sees their impressive bikes, and learns of their plan to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. George is so intrigued that he’d like to tag along; he even tells them about a whorehouse there, calling the girls “US prime.” Once again, we see that these ‘rebels’ can be just as marginalizing of people as the ‘hicks’ they’re rebelling against.

So George rides as a passenger on Wyatt’s bike (something Nicholson would metaphorically be in a later film also dealing with an uncommitted progressive), wearing his nerdy helmet. They stop somewhere off of the road, as usual, that night and smoke some marijuana, which George has for the first time, him at first being reluctant, then opening his mind to it.

As they’re getting high, Billy speaks of a ‘satellite’ he’s just seen in the night sky (which, incidentally, can be vaguely associated with those airplanes flying overhead during the cocaine deal). George tells him and Wyatt about the “Venusian” pilots of the UFOs, about whom the world governments apparently know, but keep a secret for fear of creating a general panic among the world population.

Apparently, these “Venusians” have a far more advanced civilization than ours: egalitarian, pacifist, money-less, and with futuristic technology. George says they’ve been coming here since 1946…which by the way was around the beginning of the Cold War. They’re people just like us, George says, working with us all over the Earth in an advisory capacity.

These “Venusians” sound an awful lots like communists (egalitarian, money-less, and with advanced technology) and Marxists (i.e., leftist professors in Western universities–working ‘in an advisory capacity’) to me. The capitalist governments don’t want us to know about them (as they did so embarrassingly, via McCarthy, during the 1950s) because our antiquated capitalist system, with our leaders, is no match for theirs.

You don’t believe me? That’s because the US government doesn’t want you to know how the Soviet Union went from a backward, agrarian society in the 1920s to a nuclear-armed superpower that won the space race in the late 1950s…technological advances all achieved within a mere three decades, along with progress towards equal rights for women, universal housing, education, employment, and healthcare for all. To this day, Stalin–far from being regarded as a ‘cruel dictator,’ is loved by millions of Russians for his leadership in defeating the Nazis, and majorities of Russians have consistently preferred the Soviet era, for all of its imperfections, to current-day, capitalist Russia. The same can be said of China, from the Maoist era to today.

Now, Billy, like most people brainwashed by bourgeois propaganda, thinks that what George is saying is “a crackpot idea,” because he and Wyatt are, at heart, not all that far from establishment thinking as they might seem to be. The two bikers just want to get stoned, each of the two an easy-going rider of a chopper.

…and the two of them lead me to my next point.

Duality is a major theme in Easy Rider. Apart from the two biker protagonists, there are two cocaine deals: first, the buying of it in Mexico, then the selling of it in the US–M-C-M’, or money to commodity to valorized money, that is, money with a profit, or increased value.

Wyatt and Billy visit and eat at two farms: that of the man and his Catholic wife, and that of the hippie commune, both of which include prayers before eating, and both of which have their own mixture of traditional and liberal values, in itself another duality in the film.

There are airplanes and satellites (or UFOs) flying overhead.

Wyatt and Billy spend time with two male companions, the hippie hitchhiker, and George Hanson, both of whom share valuable insights about the world while smoking dope with them (i.e., insights about the marginalized aboriginals buried in the ground where they are, and the marginalized “Venusians,” or communists, as I interpret them to be).

Wyatt and Billy have sexual encounters with two pairs of women: the two hippies they skinny dip with, and the two prostitutes they do the LSD with in New Orleans.

There are two parades: the one in New Mexico, and the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.

There are two violent assaults with intent to kill: the first in which George is bludgeoned to death at night, and the second at the end of the film, when Billy, then Wyatt, are shot and killed on their bikes.

These pairs of incidents have their parallels and their dialectical contrasts. Billy is more adversarial and self-centered; Wyatt is more laid-back and generous. The first coke deal is the buying of it: the second, a selling of it.

The first farm they visit is more conservative; the second is more liberal. The first flying machines are very real, the second are more imaginary.

The hippie hitchhiker and Hanson, as well as the pairs of women, are, in their respective ways, thoroughly paralleled.

After the first parade, Wyatt and Billy are put in jail. After the second parade, their minds are ‘freed’ with the LSD.

The first violent assault leaves Wyatt and Billy hurt, but still alive. The second assault leaves them dead.

Furthermore, there are two kinds of drugs enjoyed in this film: the narcotic kind (cocaine, marijuana, and LSD), and the religious kind (the “opium of the people“). Both kinds are attempts to escape, rather than solve, the world’s problems.

There are also doublings of performers playing songs on this famous soundtrack: I already mentioned the two Steppenwolf recordings; there are also two songs by Bob Dylan and performed by Roger McGuinn–“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Ballad of Easy Rider.”

There is also a duality of time, the present vs the future, in the form of the film’s “flashforwards” that occur at various points in the story, a quick flashing ahead to the future, then back to the present. The most important of these is when Wyatt and Billy are in the New Orleans whorehouse: Wyatt reads something about death freezing one’s reputation forever, then there’s a premonition of his death, his chopper in flames and flying in pieces by the roadside. Such a fusing of present and future symbolically suggests the feeling of timelessness experienced when using psychedelic drugs.

Now, the ultimate duality–or rather, the ultimate two dualities, as I’ll explain immediately after–is the conservative vs liberal contradiction. Since the liberals here are capitalist white men enjoying the privileges of US settler colonialism not all that much less than the conservatives are, then the conservative/liberal contradiction is really hiding a much more profound contradiction that one can only see if one is paying close attention. This is the white bourgeois vs the marginalized black/aboriginal/proletarian contradiction.

Indeed, as Wyatt and Billy are riding their choppers, or walking the streets of New Orleans, we get brief peeks of rural black families, or blacks playing music during Mardi Gras, or someone dressed as a Native American in the Mardi Gras parade. All marginalized people.

To get back to the story, Wyatt, Billy, and George continue on their way, while we hear “Don’t Bogart That Joint,” by Fraternity of Man, then “If 6 Was 9,” by Jimi Hendrix. Both of these songs reflect our bikers’ attitude to life in general, and to reactionaries in particular: just keep on smoking dope, and who cares what’s going on in the rest of the world? We do our own thing, and who cares if the conservatives don’t like it?

Umm…actually, Wyatt, Billy, and George do need to care.

They stop off in a little diner where the locals make no secret of their surprised reaction to these three strangely dressed visitors. Once again, there’s a duality in these reactions: first, a bevy of cute teenage girls finds the three men handsome and fascinating; second, all the men, being bigoted, narrow-minded conservatives, engage in non-stop heckling of Wyatt, Billy, and George.

It doesn’t take long for our three heroes to face the fact that they’re clearly not welcome, so they leave, in spite of the girls’ coming out to talk to them at their bikes.

That night, Wyatt, Billy, and George camp outside as usual. George laments the direction he sees his country going in. He says, “This used to be a helluva good country.” He’s wrong. A country founded on black slavery and the genocide of its aboriginals was never a good country. What’s more, these old sins laid the foundation for the three men’s current predicament.

Though lip-service is routinely paid to the notion of the US being a country founded on the principles of “freedom and democracy,” a deeper investigation of the intents of the Founding Fathers reveals that these land-owning, upper-class white men were primarily out to protect their class interests. They made a few concessions to working class Americans as a result of indispensable political agitation.

Nonetheless, those class interests have to this day been continually maintained in such divide-and-conquer forms as racism against blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and all non-WASP immigrants; other forms of the divide-and-conquer of the proletariat have included sex roles, keeping women in the home and away from such things as voting, and belief in such nonsense as ‘capitalism is freedom,’ the ‘free market,’ the ‘American Dream,‘ and the ‘land of opportunity.’ These illusory freedoms are what the reactionary nemeses of Wyatt and Billy will fight to the death for (as George explains), while condemning the freedom that our two protagonists practice.

As soon as the illusory form of freedom is exposed as such by the real exponents of freedom, these reactionaries further expose their fascist mentality through violence. This expression of violence is why one cannot coexist with these kinds of people: they must be fought and defeated; if they aren’t defeated, they’ll not only defeat, but also kill us. This harsh reality is what Wyatt and Billy won’t accept, and it’s also what gets them and George killed.

Freedom does not come for free.

One cannot escape the fascist mentality through drugs, though Wyatt and Billy continue to try to after George’s murder.

The two get to New Orleans and decide to find the brothel that George recommended. As they’re dining in a restaurant, getting drunk, and talking about going to the brothel, we hear a song by The Electric Prunes that does a psychedelic rendition of the Mass’s Kyrie. We continue to hear the song as they wander into the brothel and look around at the artwork. These two druggies are pursuing pleasure while we hear more music about the opium of the people.

They get two prostitutes, Karen (Black) and Mary (Basil), and all four of them drop the hippie hitchhiker’s acid after entering a cemetery in New Orleans’s French Quarter. As they’re all tripping out, we hear the voices of other people there reciting the Credo, Ave Maria, and Pater Noster. Again, we have a juxtaposition of drug use with the opium of the people.

Mary gets naked, and she and Wyatt screw. Karen has a bad trip. Wyatt embraces a statue of a goddess, and, weeping, complains of his abusive mother as if the statue were of her. He seems to be having an epiphany that Billy, unfortunately, isn’t having: Wyatt seems to realize that his rebellion against society is based on his rebellion against his parents, which would seem to be the basis of Billy’s own social revolt. This is why the two bikers can’t be revolutionaries: they won’t take on the system because all they want to do is stick it to their parents, their Oedipal, love/hate relationship with their parents being a universal narcissistic trauma.

The two bikers ride out the next day, and that night, camping out as usual, they chat for a while before sleeping. Billy is thrilled to be rich from their cocaine deal, thinking with the materialism of a typical capitalist and equating their material success with freedom. Wyatt, however, knows better, saying they “blew it.” That acid trip must have helped him understand how superficial their “freedom” is.

A common experience during an acid trip is a dissolving of the barrier between self and other. One feels a sense of unity between oneself and all of humanity, like the equating of Atman with Brahman, resulting in stronger empathy. Wyatt could very well have felt such an emotional connection with the marginalized aboriginals, blacks, and female lumpenproletariat (i.e., those two prostitutes, Karen and Mary). This would have made him realize that mainstream American liberalism just isn’t progressive enough.

Accordingly, he wears his “Captain America” leather jacket far more sparingly, that is, only outside at night, when it’s much too cool not to wear it. When Billy is shot by the man in the truck, the hick who doesn’t like his long hair, Wyatt rides back to help Billy and puts his star-spangled jacket on Billy’s wounds.

He’ll die anyway, because the gunman shoots Wyatt next, destroying his star-spangled bike. What does all of this mean, symbolically? It means that the American flag won’t heal your wounds, and that American capitalism will one day destroy itself through the violence of its own bigoted, reactionary, fascist mentality. Interpreted this way, the ending of Easy Rider can be seen as a prophetic warning of what would happen to the US, and to the world it dominates, decades after the film was made.

Please indulge me in a digression through recent political history.

The US of the mid-twentieth century–with its strong unions, high taxes for the rich, and welfare, to say nothing of the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, and gay liberation–had enormous progressive potential. The American government, however, was also giving safe haven to former Nazis in NASA, NATO, and the West German government, all rationalized as part of the effort to contain communism.

This tolerance of fascism (as seen in an allegorical sense in Easy Rider in the form of these reactionary hicks who are never properly fought off) has led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which, for all of its imperfections, was an effective counterweight against US/NATO imperialism, aiding liberation movements in the Third World and goading the US government to adopt more economically progressive policies to keep the American working class from resorting to socialist revolution.

Without the USSR as that effective counterweight, the US government has since been able to do anything it wants with impunity: hence, the gutting of welfare, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed the mergers and acquisitions of American media until now only six corporations control most of Americans’ access to information. Then, there’s been one imperialist war after another: Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the ongoing threats of war with Iran, Russia, and China.

Hollywood liberals (including one or two Jewish ones) are now cheering on a Ukrainian government and military under the strong influence of Neo-Nazis. Instead of using its revenue to help the poor (a huge section of which are, of course, aboriginal, black, and female), to repair roads and crumbling infrastructure, to end homelessness, to fund education and healthcare, and to create jobs, the US government sends billions and billions of dollars to those Ukrainian Nazis in a proxy war to weaken Russia (as it had in the 1980s in Afghanistan), as part of an ambitious, yet maniacal, plan to go after China in a similar way (through Taiwan). All of these events risk a nuclear WWIII, which would kill everyone on the planet.

This is what happens when we let things slide, like an easy rider on the road that leads to the far right. The violent hicks who kill Wyatt, Billy, and George aren’t literal fascists, of course, but they share the same vicious, intolerant mentality; hence, they can be easily seen as representative of the fascists I mentioned in the previous paragraphs. If one can’t tolerate something as simple as longer hair on a white man, one isn’t going to tolerate much of anything else. These intolerant people, however, have been tolerated by liberals, not just in the film, but in our society for all these decades, leading not only to the film’s ending, but also to our current political predicament, which is why I brought it up.

The hicks fear the freedom of the longhairs because such freedom has the potential to lead to the liberation of the marginalized groups I mentioned above, including, ultimately, the liberation of the global proletariat (not that the liberals, as represented by Wyatt and Billy, are doing anything to pave the way towards such liberation). The hicks have a black-and-white view of the world in which one is either absolutely like their reactionary selves, or absolutely like long-haired ‘commies’…and the only good commie is one that’s dead, remember. This conception of the world is what links the violent end of Easy Rider to the precarious state of the world today.

Once again, the hicks are coming to get us. We’ll have to do a lot more than just give them the finger.

Birds

What’s
supposed
left wing is, seen more closely,
in the centre, which in turn
moves to the right.

A
bird
in flight, whose flapping wings are
left here, over there on the right,
is only so depending on your
point of view.

If
it’s
flying forwards, you will see
the left wing where it ought
to be, and where the right
should be.

If
it’s
flying backwards, right at you,
the left, centre and right
may seem a confused
monstrosity,

as
has
been the case, increasingly,
for the past forty years.
As it nears,

the
bird,
which is an eagle, quite the hawk,
shows no signs of slowing down
as it reaches us,
its prey.

Not
knowing
the left wing from the right,
we will be snatched up
in its claws, fed
to its chicks.

So Undeserving

In spite of how logically indefensible as the belief in a just world is, in spite of how high the evidence is piled against believing in such an absurdity, many people out there still believe in it.

The reasons for having such a belief range from the religious, or a notion of philosophical idealism (the mind, or soul, determines how the world is), that ‘God’ is watching over everything and therefore He in His infinite wisdom will set everything right sooner or later, to the emotional need to feel safe and comfortable in such a disordered and scary world. If I’m good, nothing bad will happen to me, and if it does, with a little patience, I’ll see the wrong turned to right.

If not, then I must have deserved the wrong.

Here is where belief in a just world is not only logically indefensible, but morally indefensible, too, for victim-blaming is about as despicable as despicable gets.

In a previous post, I wrote about how wrong it is to think it’s cowardly and weak to say that we aren’t where we want to be because of other people’s thwarting of us in some way. There may be individual instances when it’s nobody’s fault but our own, but one would be amazed to find out how often our misery is caused at least partly, if not wholly, by others.

Similarly, the individualist capitalism of our day all too often attributes the great successes of those in our billionaire class to their own individual talent, while saying little (if anything at all) about the many people who helped those fat cats get so fat. Little attention is given to the people who were stepped on as those billionaires made their ascent to success, too.

The idea that the global poor ‘deserve’ to be as they are in ‘God’s just world’ because they are ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’ is itself an intellectually lazy–and therefore stupid idea. The poor work very hard because they have no choice but to do so…otherwise, they’d starve. If they seem ‘stupid’ to you, consider the fact that they typically don’t have the money to get a proper education.

That the rich supposedly deserve to own millions or billions of dollars, while paying minimal if any taxes, because they ‘work so hard’ is also a dubious argument. There are only twenty-four hours in a day: how much ‘hard work’ can be done in a day for someone like Jeff Bezos…justifiably…to make $321 million per day?

It’s elementary Marxism (a materialist philosophy, as opposed to the idealism of the just-world fallacy) to know that capital is accumulated through the exploitation of labour, that is, the overworking and underpaying of workers–the talent and hard work of the capitalist, however present they may be, are if anything, more of a detail than a central element of his success, which is typically being born into at least some degree of affluence. Consider, on the other hand, the slavish suffering of Amazon workers, who have to piss in bottles so as not to be late with deliveries, and so Jeff could go up into space in his cock-rocket.

So undeserving, on both sides.

Did so many get plunged into poverty, often even greater poverty, over the past two years because they were ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid,’ or was it because of ill-advised lockdown policies and the exploitation of the pandemic (whose danger many of us still insist has always been exaggerated) by the capitalist class, causing the wealth of men like Bezos and Gates to go through the roof?

So undeserving, on both sides.

So many of us have lost work, going from fully employed to underemployed or completely jobless, and facing the danger of no longer being able to pay our rent or other basic necessities. Is this our fault? Not at all. The capitalist class–with its crises of overproduction and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, problems we have known about and been able to foresee happening for decades if not centuries–are the ones to blame, as they are for the exacerbation of this problem with their exploiting of Covid as described in the paragraph before my refrain:

So undeserving, on both sides.

The capitalist class thrives, while the rest of us suffer. These economic problems have been further exacerbated by the backfiring sanctions on Russia, and the refusal to allow Europe to use Nordstream 1 and 2, just to kowtow to the US imperialists in their anti-Russian agenda, means Europeans will have to endure a winter without gas, or to buy the much more expensive American gas. This, even though Putin is willing to boost gas supplies to Europe after repairs (following sabotage that, in all likelihood, was caused by the US).

[These macrocosmic, global injustices have their parallel on the microcosmic level, in families and other social groups tainted with narcissistic abuse. The narc enlists flying monkeys and other enablers to assist in bullying and scapegoating the chosen victim, typically a highly-sensitive person who sees through the falsely altruistic veneer of the narc, calls him or her out for it, then suffers the consequences, being publicly shamed for merely telling the truth. Meanwhile, the narc continues to be admired and is never suspected.]

So undeserving, on both sides.

Now, we can see, as I observed in my post, The Toxic Family of Imperialism, how the global media celebrates political villains while scapegoating political victims, as is happening with the dangerously escalating war between Russia and Ukraine, one that–contrary to popular belief–was anything but “unprovoked.” Many of us have been trying to tell the uninformed and propagandized that Russia’s intervention had been thoroughly provoked for a period of eight years since a 2014 US-backed coup d’état replaced the democratically elected, pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych with a government and military that includes Russian-hating Neo-Nazis. They make up small percentages, but they’re politically very influential.

These Ukrainian fascists have been discriminating against, physically attacking, and killing ethnic Russians in the Donbass region for eight years. Putin has tried to establish peace negotiations, first with the thwarted Minsk Accords, then in April of this year (thwarted by an intervention by BoJo), and recently with the Zelenskyy and American governments, both of which have refused to talk to Putin. Meanwhile, everyone demonizes Putin for merely trying to protect his country.

Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian Nazis are celebrated and regarded as heroes, and the US and NATO are perceived as ‘defending freedom and democracy,’ while they use this ridiculous slur on their scapegoat: “Putler.”

So undeserving, on both sides.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I don’t regard Putin as any kind of political ideal. He’s a bourgeois, reactionary politician who assuredly has his own secret, ulterior motives for wanting Russian control over the newly-annexed, formerly Ukrainian territories. But I see no reason not to regard the referenda results, of the people living there who mostly voted to join Russia, as legitimate. (I don’t trust the Western media bias against the Russian referenda; the West refused to legitimize them before they even got the results, as they were biased against the Crimea referendum.)

A great many of the people living there are ethnic Russians, and most eastern Ukrainians speak Russian (a language the Ukrainian Nazis wanted to prevent them from speaking): why would they want to stay in a country unprotected against Russophobic fascists? In any case, whatever faults are to be found in Putin are minuscule compared to those of the US/NATO warmongers (who have military bases all over the world, and are stealing oil and wheat from Syria, of which they’re controlling a third), who are pushing us all to the brink of WWIII and nuclear annihilation…all because the American ruling class refuses to accept the emerging multipolar world.

None of us is deserving of being killed in a nuclear holocaust.

Now, some of you who have read my posts on what I call The Three Unities, those being the Unity of Space, of Time, and of Action, may be thinking that, as they read this little rant of mine, I’m being hypocritical and self-contradicting. My discussion of The Three Unities, as well as my post, Beyond the Pairs of Opposites, in no way necessitates a belief in a just world. I’m not saying that the ups and downs of life are somehow equalized, and therefore ‘just.’ On the contrary, I stressed that the evils of the world “are all unqualified evil.” Good can flow from those evils as a dialectical response to them (and through human effort), though it far too often doesn’t.

Our negative belief systems (e.g., the illusion of a separate ego, black-and-white thinking, capitalist apologetics, bigotry, etc.) cause our problems to a far greater extent than the external difficulties of life. My Three Unities are an attempt to remedy those bad beliefs, not to deny the existence of evil.

Indeed, the belief in a just world is one of those very negative beliefs. The paradox of such a belief is that it leads to less empathy, or to no empathy at all, for those who suffer (i.e., victim blaming). Granted, to be fair, such a belief doesn’t absolutely lead to no empathy or to victim-blaming, but it does tend toward such an attitude.

On the other side of the coin, acknowledgment of the many injustices of the world tends to prod people towards trying to right those wrongs…again, I mean this as a tendency, allowing for many exceptions.

So, what should we think about the idea of a ‘just world’? It shouldn’t be conceived as already existing; it should rather be something to strive for, with all our hearts.

Don’t see a just world…make a just world!

Slopes

When
we slide
down a hill
on a sled, we
don’t think of
the speed of the
slipping, the danger.

The
thrill of
the feeling
of freedom will
blind us to how we
will crash at the foot
of the hill of our pride.

A
few
decades
ago, we all
thought of the
West as invincible;
we saw no cracks in the ice.

The
liberal
Sisyphus
must roll a rock
up a hill, just to go
back and roll it again.
We always go down, not up.

All
of this
time, we
keep rolling
lower and lower,
no hope of ascent,
or of even staying put.

The
crash
at the
bottom is
coming, and
it’s going to hurt.
Will we be ready for it?

Analysis of ‘We’re Only in It for the Money’

We’re Only in It for the Money is the third album by Frank Zappa‘s band, The Mothers of Invention. It came out in 1968, the album cover parodying the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As is typical with Zappa’s music, the lyrics of this concept album satirize the social hypocrisies of 1960s straight America–in this particular case, those of conservatives and of a particular kind of liberals whose hair was as long as that of Zappa and the Mothers…the hippies. Musically, we hear a mix of psychedelic rock (a parody of it), and the influence of such post-war avant-garde composers as Varèse and Stockhausen.

Zappa used montage recording techniques, including musique concrète, speeding up the tape, and abrupt interruptions between abbreviated songs, splicing in segments of dialogue and unrelated music. These montage techniques were also used on Zappa’s first solo album, Lumpy Gravy, which came out at about the same time as Money, and is its sequel, or “Phase 2.”

While Zappa had intended the outer front and back cover, as well as the inner sleeve photo, to parallel those of Sgt. Pepper, Verve decided to reverse the intended inner and outer designs out of fear of legal action resulting from a lack of assurance of permission from the Beatles’ business managers.

So on the front cover, we see–from left to right–bassist/vocalist Roy Estrada, keyboardist Don Preston, drummer Jimmy Carl Black (“the Indian of the group,” as he himself tells us twice on Side One), and keyboardist/wind player Ian Underwood; and on the back, we see–from left to right–Zappa (asking if this album is Phase One of Lumpy Gravy), drummer Billy Mundi, and saxophonist Bunk Gardner. They are posed against a yellow background, as in the inner sleeve of the Sgt. Pepper album, but instead of wearing marching band uniforms as the Beatles wore, Zappa and the Mothers are all in drag, their facial hair all intact, for sure, and Zappa’s hair in the cutest of pigtails (or ‘bunches,’ if you prefer).

The inner sleeve shows the parody with the Mothers in drag again, as well as a collage of faces in the background, those generally more obscure than the famous faces seen on Sgt. Pepper. These include Zappa’s father, Lee Harvey Oswald when he was shot, a pregnant Gail Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and LBJ. Instead of the bright blue sky at the top of the Beatles’ front cover, we see a dark, stormy sky with lightning.

The other side of the inner sleeve shows the lyrics and album credits against a red background, with the Mothers in drag again at the bottom; though instead of seeing most of the band facing forward (as in the case of Lennon, Harrison, and Starr) and one member facing backward (i.e., McCartney, who, recall, was “dead”), here all of the Mothers have their backs to us, and only saxophonist Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood is facing us, which I guess is because he had the “teen appeal” that the band needed so desperately.

The title of the album is a cynical take on the financial success of bands like the Beatles, who presented their music as an inspiration to the hippie counterculture; yet as with the hippies themselves, the music of these bands was something Zappa considered to be equally fake. The album’s title is also ironic, since no one would seriously consider music of such an experimental nature (far more avant-garde than the sonic experimentation of Sgt. Pepper) to have been conceived to make much of any money, let alone solely to make lots of money.

The overall theme of Money is phoniness: the phoniness of conservative parents, of the hippie ‘counterculture,’ and of “American womanhood.” On a deeper level, we can see the dichotomy of conservative vs. liberal to be a false one, as exposed as such on this album. Indeed, both groups of seemingly opposed people are really just upper-middle class bourgeois who, though pretending in their own respective ways to uphold either traditional or progressive moral values, are really just preserving their class status in society.

This is not at all to say that Zappa himself was ever interested in upturning class privilege any more than the hippies were. He openly expressed his dislike of communists and his disdain for any kind of labour movement. During a gig in Berlin back in the late 1960s, he was annoyed when radical leftists in the audience heckled him and his band by calling them “The Mothers of Reaction.” Similarly, as a bandleader, he was clearly the boss, making his musicians play only his music, and dictatorially demanding exacting performances of his music from them.

Still, Zappa wasn’t as paranoid about communism as so many on the right in the US have always been. I would characterize his politics as a libertarian-leaning centrism: socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. Though he would never have advocated my proposed solutions to the problems of conservative vs. liberal/hippie phoniness, I can nonetheless use his satirical depiction of the faults of these only seemingly opposed groups as a basis for diagnosing them as bourgeois symptoms, indications of class and imperialist privilege that would be alleviated by a revolutionary class struggle that Zappa would have wanted no part of, having been quite bourgeois himself.

Side One fittingly opens with Eric Clapton asking a question whose answer in the affirmative would seem to be the root of all the phoniness Zappa observed in the conservatives and liberals/hippies of the time: “Are You Hung Up?” A preoccupation Zappa had throughout his career, and the basis of his work as a social critic and satirist, was people’s mental health…are we, or are we not, hung up? Are the repressions of our conformist society inhibiting us from expressing ourselves, each of us in a unique, creative way?

Zappa’s preferred alternative to the hippie scene was the California freak scene, a group he hoped to promote and organize into a Mothers fan club called “The United Mutations.” He preferred the freaks to the hippies because the former group dressed, acted out, and danced to his music in creative and non-conforming ways without the use of drugs, of which he never approved. (Back in the 1960s, Zappa tried smoking marijuana about ten times, but he never liked it.)

The next track on the album is “Who Needs the Peace Corps?“, which it’s safe to assume isn’t about the American government organization, but is rather a metaphor for the peacenik hippies. Zappa despised the phoniness of the hippies not just because of their conformist adherence to the fashion trends of the time (long hair, beads, leather headbands, etc.), or their getting stoned and partying, only to go back home to Mom and Dad; but also because their dreaming of a world of peace and love was hopelessly naïve and utopian.

It’s only natural that most of us want to end all the wars in the world (especially now, in the 2020s!), but before we can end war, we have to understand it. People from upper-middle-class, petite bourgeois America are the least likely or motivated to take the time to learn of the origins of warmongering. Their class privilege makes the hippies far too complacent.

The Russian working class and peasants, back in the 1910s, eagerly wanted to get out of WWI. Lenin, who theorized about the imperialist competition for land that was the basis for the war, promisedPeace, Land, and Bread” to the Russian people, and when the Bolsheviks came to power, they delivered on their promise, though they had to make a number of unpleasant compromises in the process. (And granted, the Russian Civil War came almost immediately after that, but that was the fault of the capitalist invaders, not of the Bolsheviks.)

Communists have fought wars far more often out of necessity than out of choice, as we’ve seen imperialists do routinely; the Soviets often tried to influence the peace movement. Even Soviet military interventions were less the result of wanting to fight than of being manipulated into it, as was the case with Afghanistan in the 80s. The Red Army bore the brunt of a Nazi invasion that Stalin bought time against with a non-aggression pact (since a detailed discussion of the history of this is beyond the scope of this post, I refer the reader to this).

My point in bringing all this up is that the only realistic way to end war and achieve a lasting peace is to eliminate imperialism, which is a chronic cause of war, as we’ve seen to be especially true since the dissolution of the USSR. Similarly, the only way we’ll all sincerely love one another is to end the alienation that capitalism causes. Hippies, with their typically bourgeois social background, are hardly inclined to make the necessary changes. These people are phonies because they lack revolutionary potential.

In fact, hippies are so reactionary that they tended to go from the 60s counterculture to the liberal establishment of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s…up until now. They’ll tell you, “Vote blue no matter who!”, even if the blue candidate is an imperialist warmonger like Biden, who is pals with the GOP. Zappa once observed that hippie types would even reinforce conformity in the music industry.

The next song is “Concentration Moon.” The first word of the title is clearly referring to a concentration camp, so we prisoners see the moon at night outside our cell there. The references in the song to the police shooting and killing “creeps,” as with the reference in the previous song to the police who “kick the shit out of me,” are indications of the fascist nature of the authorities associated with a concentration camp. “Over the camp in the valley” cements this interpretation, since it also alludes to Kafka‘s “In the Penal Colony” (more on this short story later), which is a concentration camp in a valley on an island.

Note the juxtaposition of a concentration camp with hippies in the song, and keep this in mind when you recall what I said above about hippies all too quickly becoming part of the political establishment…a liberal establishment that, far from promoting peace, has for years now been banging the war drums against Russia. Instead of wanting a quick end to the war with Ukraine, these liberals are cheering on the Ukrainian army, which includes Neo-Nazis, of whom they’re either willfully ignorant or in denial, or whose existence they’re rationalizing and/or minimizing.

Social democracy is, essentially, left-leaning liberalism, like the kind these former hippies tend to espouse. Recall, however, Stalin’s words: “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Small wonder Zappa considered hippies to be a bunch of phonies.

So the juxtaposition of hippies in a concentration camp, hippies who’d rather be “back in the alley,” is symbolic of the surprisingly close relationship between conservatives and liberals. Contrary to the spurious horseshoe theory indicating a closeness between communists and fascists (actually two ideologies as far apart from each other as any could be), it’s the liberals who are far closer to fascism.

Next comes “Mom and Dad,” which is, by Zappa’s standards, a surprisingly serious song. Here we have a kind of diagnosis of American society’s problems at their root: the dysfunctional, emotionally neglectful family.

The cops’ violent reactions to the hippies and freaks made it difficult for the Mothers to perform on the West Coast; instead, they had to play in New York City if they wanted to make any money. In the song, however, the parents’ callous attitude to the “creeps” whom the cops were killing is rationalized with the observation that “they looked too weird.”

The song’s indictment of the parents grows bitter during the bridge, when it’s asked if they’ve ever taken a minute “just to show a real emotion.” Do the parents have any appreciation of their kids’ talents, or even a sincere love for them? Just as the hippies have drugs, their good, upstanding, God-fearing parents have a drug of their own–alcohol, which they’re usually too embarrassed to let their kids watch them drink.

Do the parents even notice how unhappy their kids are? For all their pretensions to being good, virtuous, Christian families, these conservative parents are every bit as phony in their own way as are the hippies, who as we know will become quite conservative themselves when they get older. The idea that you “have to love a plastic mom and dad” really gets you in the heart. In these toxic families, “love” is really just obligation; one “loves” one’s family because one has to, not because one wants to. Small wonder the teens become hippies, as a way not to be like their moms and dads.

After the “Telephone Conversation” with Suzy Creamcheese (Pamela Zarubica, actually) comes “Bow Tie Daddy,” which continues the satire on conservative parents, but is light-hearted and focuses on the father’s hypocrisies rather than those of the mother, as we heard in “Mom and Dad.” We sense that the root of Dad’s bad temper is his frustrations with his personal inadequacies (i.e., “getting too old,” and his “drinkin'”). The bow-tie and parody of old-fashioned music, of course, emphasize how decidedly unhip Daddy is, hence the teens’ desire to rebel against him.

Harry, You’re a Beast” opens with dramatic piano arpeggios played by Ian Underwood. The song satirizes “American womanhood” by pointing out how “phony” these females are with their use of makeup (“You paint your head.”) rather than accept their facial imperfections (a lack of acceptance that is society’s fault, mind you, not theirs), as well as how air-headed Zappa perceived them to be.

Now, this song’s satire of American women borders on, if it doesn’t lapse into, outright misogyny in how it makes light of a rape. “Harry” the “beast” attacks a woman, “Madge,” and while the censored version of the rape is played backwards, the uncensored version gives us an allusion to part of an old Lenny Bruce routine, “‘To’ is a Preposition; ‘Come’ Is a Verb” (“Don’t come in me, in me,” the woman begs her rapist, four times.). Her comical crying afterwards (with a return of the piano arpeggios), and his buffoonish excuse that he “couldn’t help it…doggone it,” is a kind of humor that should apply only to Harry’s hypocrisies of an outward mask of virtue (“it’s not merely physical”) and not to Madge’s trauma.

Next comes, “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?“, which is a parody of the doo-wop that Zappa loved to listen to as a teen back in the 1950s, and which he made a tribute to–and a parody of–on the album Cruising With Ruben and the Jets. As we listen for the first time, we assume that a criticism of one’s physicality is coming, and we’re surprised to hear that it’s our mind that is the ugliest body part.

The ugly minds are those of the teens’ parents, who don’t like “all those creeps” the teens hang out with; they’re “creeps” because of how ‘ugly’–in the parents’ judgement–they look in their non-conforming clothes. The parents’ intolerance and narrow-mindedness is what makes their minds so ugly, and what makes their teen kids rebel to the extreme point of doing drugs and engaging in free love.

The doo-wop suddenly switches to a 7/8 section in which Zappa indicts the parents with telling their kids “lies”–emotionally abusing them by teaching them bigoted ideas and moulding them into adopting a socially conformist mindset. A brief section in 3/4 time expresses a mother’s worry that her daughter, Annie, is hanging out with “creeps” before returning to the 7/8 riff and Zappa’s further indicting of the parents’ “ignorance.”

A pretty piano passage by Underwood, with arpeggiated chords played so fast that they sound strummed, opens the next song, “Absolutely Free,” another Zappa parody of hippie idealism and psychedelic music, somewhat imitative of the Beatles’ “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds,” with its almost Baroque keyboards and trippy imagery in the lyrics. At the end of the opening piano, we hear Suzy Creamcheese say she “won’t do publicity balling…anymore,” with the word “balling” originally censored from the album.

When Zappa begins by saying “discorporate,” meaning “to leave your body,” he’s talking about the mind-expanding effects of drugs, and the naïve belief that they will liberate us from the stunting effects of conformist society. While some, like George Carlin, have had positive, mind-opening experiences from doing LSD, even he acknowledged how dangerous such experimentation can be (i.e., doing too much, or doing the wrong kind).

Most of the music has a waltz-like triple metre, except for a bar of 4/4 played on the harpsichord before we hear “Unbind your mind, there is no time,” which is sung in three bars of 3/4 and one in 2/4, before going back to the usual triple metre. ‘Unbinding one’s mind’ can refer to the ‘liberating’ drug use, or to the letting go of inhibitions to lead the carefree, hippie life. After the first declaration that “You’ll be absolutely free, only if you want to be,” we hear a brief riff in 7/8 before going back to 3/4.

A reminder that Zappa doesn’t believe a word of what he’s singing is in another censored line: “Flower power sucks!”

The next song to make fun of hippies is “Flower Punk.” The main riff is played in a fast 7/8 time, which alternates with 5/8 sections with singing. With this album, we note the conspicuous absence of lead singer Ray Collins, who briefly left the band, meaning Zappa here is singing pretty much all the lead vocals, though his voice often isn’t recognizable, as he tends to speed up the vocal track, which he did on “Flower Punk.” (Here is a version with digitally slowed-down vocals, making his voice recognizable.)

The “Hey, Punk” questions are a parody of “Hey Joe,” a song made famous by Jimi Hendrix. The usual hypocrisies of hippies are exposed in how, far from being committed to promoting peace and love, these are people who just want to party and get laid, or who have fantasies of becoming “rich and famous” rock stars. One of the air-headed hippies that Zappa (with sped-up tape for his voice) lampoons even acknowledges that it’s all a “gigantic mass deception.”

Hot Poop” ends Side One with the whispering, paranoid voice of Gary Kellgren, who has been doing this whispering at various points on the album, and will do so again on Side Two. He usually speaks of Zappa as if obsessed with him, as if Zappa’s presence in the control room of the recording studio were omniscient and oppressive. The first side of the LP that I used to own, when a teen, ended with a particularly delightful, even melodious, “snork” (by Dick Barber) that I, regrettably, haven’t been able to find on any of the YouTube videos of Money.

Side Two begins with the musique concrète of “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music,” which includes Eric Clapton’s declaration that he has ‘seen God.’ Towards the end of it, we hear a bit of surf music interrupted by what sounds like a stylus being abruptly pulled off of a record.

Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” is based on the true story of the antics of Ronald “Ronnie” and Kenneth “Kenny” Williams, neighbours of Zappa when he was living in Ontario, California back in the early 1960s. Ronnie and Kenny would engage in such after-school fun as making “blue angels,” that is, to “burn…poots away,” all while their parents, “Daddy Dinky” and their mom were at work, her in a restaurant “with her apron and her pad” (this latter being censored after being confused with a sanitary napkin).

I think that the point behind Zappa’s inclusion of this story among the songs on this album was to contrast the weird antics of Ronnie and Kenny against, on the one hand, the phony conformity of the conservative parents who, for all their posturing as good Christians, just emotionally neglect their kids and get drunk, and on the other hand, the phony ‘non-conformity’ of the hippies who, for all their posturing as progressive pacifists, just want to party, get high and get laid, then “go home to bed.”

As odd–and outright disgusting–as lighting farts, pissing in jars, and collecting snot (“pneumies”) on one’s bedroom window are as pastimes, at least Ronnie and Kenny were engaging in behaviour that can be genuinely called non-conformist. These two freaks, or “creeps” were being different in an honest way; they weren’t just following a fashion trend.

The Idiot Bastard Son” is a kind of sequel to the previous track, since it also involves Ronnie and Kenny, who raise the abandoned “idiot boy,” the illegitimate love-child of a congressman and an LA prostitute. (Fittingly sandwiched between these two songs is the actual Ronnie Williams performing “a little bit of vocal teenage heaven, right here on Earth”: backwards, distorted, guttural vocal noise that makes me imagine what an alien might consider to be beautiful, lyrical, mellifluous singing. It’s another manifestation of Zappa’s favouring of the creativity of freaks over hippie phoniness.)

That the congressman would be called a Nazi is apt, for it fits in with the theme I’ve described above, of how there’s a continuum ranging from hippie ‘counterculture’ to mainstream liberalism, then to the conservatism of one’s parents, ultimately leading, under the right social and economic conditions, to fascism. As we’ve watched the degeneration of American society over the past sixty years, from parental conservatism to the hippies in the 60s, to the mainstream liberalism of the 70s, then to the return of conservatism (in the form of neoliberalism) in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, and now to the resurgence of fascism in the 2010s and 2020s, we can see how prophetic Zappa really was. Recall his fears of the US developing into a “fascist theocracy,” and how Roe vs. Wade recently got overturned.

Again, the hypocrisy of the conservative congressman and his ‘good, Christian values’ is exposed by his getting the hooker pregnant and abandoning the baby “in back of a car.” He’s an “idiot boy” because his neglectful upbringing, stashed “away in a jar” by Kenny, precludes any proper education, something most of those on the American right are averse to providing.

The song is interrupted by another spoken word segment, a chaos of voices, some with sped-up tape, of men talking about the different kinds of booze they’ve drunk. Just like hippies’ use of drugs, getting drunk is another manic defence against facing the depressing realities of life, another time-wasting indulgence Zappa disapproved of.

Back to the song, we’re reminded of all that snot on Ronnie’s bedroom window. Elsewhere, the idiot bastard son will spend his time at church, “warming his pew,” which could mean that he’s just sitting there because he’s been made to go, and he isn’t listening to the preacher; or he could be warming his pew with his flatulence, the result of the loving influence of Ronnie and Kenny.

Under the tutelage of the flatulent duo, indeed, the boy will “thrive and grow,” entering our world of corrupt “liars and cheaters”…for what other world is there for him to enter? The hippie communes won’t be much better for him.

Lonely Little Girl” was originally listed as “It’s His Voice on the Radio,” which was how I had it on my old LP. Apart from being another complaint about emotionally neglectful, psychologically abusive, conservative parents, this short song also repeats a line from “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body,” namely, “All your children are poor unfortunate victims…” etc. A quick flurry of guitar notes segues into the next song.

Take Your Clothes Off When You Danceexisted in other forms prior to this one. There was an instrumental version Zappa recorded back in 1961, then one with lyrics in 1965, a straightforward pop song called “I’m So Happy I Could Cry,” and there’s another instrumental version, “Take Your Clothes Off,” ending Side Two of Lumpy Gravy.

The version on Money is another satirical dig at the hippies and their idealistic view of how life will be one day when we’re all “free to sing and dance and love.” We won’t care how our hair looks, we won’t be ashamed if we’re overweight, and one day, we’ll even dance naked. Of course, no program of social transformation to bring about this utopia is ever discussed; communists have revolutionary theory, whereas liberal hippies are just dreamers.

The next song is a reprise of “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?“, which replays the doo-wop opening, and ends with a weird, comically eerie repeat of voices saying, “I think it’s your mind.” Recall that these ugly minds are those of both the conservatives and the hippie liberals, against whom Zappa would contrast his preferred freaks, or “creeps,” or…

Mother People,” which begins fittingly with some snorks, has a guitar/keyboard riff first in 3/4 (for three bars), then a bar of 6/16, then one in 3/8, then two in 6/16, these last two bars with a guitar lead playing notes a perfect fifth between them. These Mother People “are the other people,” those other than the conformist conservatives and the phony hippie liberals.

You might think they’re “crazy, out of [their] mind,” but wait ’til they tell you who they really are, and what their plan is, for each of them is “another person” than the “creepy” one you’ve misunderstood them to be. This section, clearing up the misunderstanding, is musically set in a tense 7/8, which soon switches to 6/8.

The music of this 7/8, then 6/8, section has a second verse with naughty words; this verse was originally censored, but Zappa put it backwards on the end of Side One. (Here is the uncensored version of the song.) Before the third playing of this section, with the lyrics described in the previous paragraph, the song is interrupted with a brief orchestral arrangement, rather like something in a film soundtrack; it can also be heard on Lumpy Gravy.

The final track on Side Two is “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny.” This piece is another example of Zappa’s avant-garde, experimental leanings. We hear dissonant piano after an ominous fade in, then birdsong-like woodwinds and chaotic percussion, then a dark section including an eerie bass clarinet, then maniacal laughing with the…arbitrary…inclusion of the word “arbitrary.” Finally, we have acoustic guitar playing dubbed notes, accompanied by percussion, and an ominous fade-out.

Zappa advises us, in the liner notes, to read Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” before listening to this final track. Once we’ve listened to it, our own crime will have been carved on our back. A brief synopsis of Kafka’s story is thus indispensable here.

An officer demonstrates to an “explorer” an “apparatus” for executing criminals in a most sadistic way, carving the crime on the back of the condemned. Though the explorer, as any reasonable person would, disapproves of the cruelty of the apparatus, the officer is in fanatical support of it, loving the former commandant of the island’s concentration camp for having devised it. Despairing over the explorer’s disapproval, and knowing the camp’s new and more humane commandant would do away with the apparatus, the officer gets naked and puts himself in the apparatus, killing himself with it, with the intention of having the message “BE JUST!” carved on his back (though the poorly-maintained machine fails to do so). After seeing the grave of the old commandant, the explorer gets on a boat and leaves the island.

What I find to be the most significant part of the story is how the old commandant’s gravestone has an inscription prophesying that he will rise again and lead his followers to retake the penal colony…”Have faith and wait!” Though Zappa was thinking about the Japanese internment camps of WWII, and how Reagan, then-Governor of California, might have used the camps for the hippies, I see other dangers in this prophecy.

Though Kafka wrote the story in 1914 and published it in 1919, the cruel, authoritarian nature of the old commandant and his loyal, son-like officer seems to anticipate the then-imminent arrival of fascism. That these two men’s sadistic ways were defeated by the more liberal-minded new commandant (old ways that are prophesied to return) is in turn a prophecy–as I see it–of the return of fascism today, something Zappa was surely predicting, however indirectly, by referring to Kafka’s story on this album. This was a fear of his back in the late 60s, when one would never have imagined a return of fascism…that is, if one were blinded by the ideals of the mainstream liberalism of the time.

As I said above, only the communists of today have remained vigilant against the recent resurgence of fascism, while partisans of the DNC and GOP have turned a blind eye to it in Ukraine. Even Zappa, addled by anticommunist propaganda, didn’t really see it coming back when he was hanging out with Václav Havel.

As a registered Democrat, Zappa may have gotten politically active in the 80s as he, rightly, fought the PMRC; still, his real focus was never politics but, of course, music. He didn’t live to see the evils wrought by the Clintons in the 90s, evils exacerbated not only by Bush and Trump, but also by Obama and Biden today. Though Zappa was no hippie, thank God, and though he rightly saw the danger of allowing the Christian fundamentalists among Reagan and his ilk to have their way, he didn’t see the road fiscal conservatism was taking us all on.

So in sum, though We’re Only in It for the Money does do a legitimate and important critique of many aspects of the problems of American society, I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t do enough. All the same, I believe we can use the album as a starting point to critique those other aspects.

Tightrope

If
I
lean
too much the one way, or too much the other, I will fall.

If
the
rope
went in a straight line, I could keep my balance well enough,

but
the
rope
keeps veering to the right, making me counterbalance left.

How
far
is
too far left, or not left enough? Is moderate “too balanced”?

One
has
to
walk it slowly, yet the human race’s time is running out.

We
can
not
stay on one side; we must go, yet to fall is certain death.

Analysis of ’28 Days Later’

28 Days Later is a 2002 post-apocalyptic horror film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland. It stars Cillian Murphy, with Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Brendan Gleeson, and Megan Burns.

Inspired by such George A. Romero films as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, as well as John Wyndham‘s Day of the Triffids, Garland replaces zombies with the great majority of the UK population being infected with “Rage,” a highly contagious virus that induces aggression and replaces speech with mindless growling; the result is civilizational collapse.

The film was released to both critical acclaim and commercial success, reinvigorating the zombie genre. It has been featured in several “best of” film lists; Time Out magazine ranked it #97 on its list of the 100 Best British Films ever.

A sequel, 28 Weeks Later, came out in 2007, and in the same year, talk of a third film, 28 Months Later, came about with Boyle and Garland being among those interested, with Murphy showing interest in reprising his role in 2021.

28 Days Later has maintained a following, with the COVID-19 pandemic giving the film an especial relevance in recent years.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

The film begins with shots of chimpanzees, all infected with Rage, kept in cages and made to do such things as watch footage of riots and protests on TV screens; this is happening in a laboratory in Cambridge, where a group of overzealous animal rights activists have broken in, with the intent to free the chimps.

The combination of our learning that the virus is called “Rage” by the doctor who tries to stop the activists (in a “Rage” of their own) from so rashly freeing the chimps, that there’s footage of angry rioters and protestors, and that the infecting of everyone in the UK will result in civilizational collapse, all leads us to an understanding of what Rage symbolizes.

28 Days Later isn’t a direct critique of capitalism, but when we see that the prescient film presents the aftermath of civilizational collapse (a collapse we in the 2020s are in danger of experiencing, due to the global financial meltdown exacerbated by–and, as some of us suspect, masked by–COVID-19 and the fall in value of the petrodollar caused by the sanctions on Russia), we can see in the film an indirect critique of a mode of production that Marx predicted, in Capital, vol. 3, would one day collapse from its own contradictions.

Rage, in this context, represents the collective trauma we’ll all feel under such a collapse of society. This trauma has already been felt in all the mass shootings that keep happening in the US. We can only expect more of it in the near future. The plague of wars brought on by US/NATO imperialism, having begun its worst phase–perhaps fittingly–around the year of the release of the film, has manifested “Rage” all the more vividly.

The thing about trauma and extreme stress is that they activate the most primitive and animalistic parts of the human brain (e.g., the amygdala), causing one to lash out in fight-or-flight mode. Seeing a Rage-infected chimp attack and infect one of the animal rights activists when it’s been freed is thus also symbolically fitting. Rage reduces us all to animal instinct.

Related to this idea that Rage reduces humanity from the rational, thinking, cerebral cortex level to the instinctual, animal, amygdala level is the loss among the infected of the ability to use language. Lacan‘s notion of the Symbolic Order is our healthiest mental state, for it brings us, via language and its signifiers, into the world of culture, custom, and society–what we need to live together and function in harmony with each other.

The infected have forever lost the ability to communicate verbally, having replaced it with the pre-verbal form of communication (as WR Bion conceived it) coined by Melanie Klein as projective identification. Instead of saying words, the infected either growl unintelligibly, bite their victims, or spit their infected blood on them, causing the victims to be infected almost immediately afterwards.

By biting or spitting their blood, the infected project their pathology onto their victims (as Romero’s zombies do), who are then forced to contain an intolerable pathology. When Bion wrote of projective identification, he usually referred to a mother receiving her baby’s projections of agitation from irritating outside sensory data; the mother would, through what Bion called ‘maternal reverie,’ contain her baby’s agitations, detoxifying them by soothing it, then return the detoxified feelings to her baby in a form acceptable to it. As a therapist, Bion would play the role of the mother and similarly contain the agitations of his psychotic patients, his ‘babies,’ as it were. (Read here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

With the infected, however, it is impossible to do such containing and detoxifying of their Rage. So instead, one is forced to confront a negative form of containment (Bion, chapter 28), wherein Rage is never soothed, but rather turned into a nameless dread. To fuse Bion with Lacan, therefore, in this nameless dread, we see a shift away from the healthy, sociable state of the Symbolic, whose signifiers allow for mental clarity and differentiation of all things, to the traumatizing, undifferentiated state of the Real.

For the infected, there is no socializing, planning for the future, intellectualizing, or any of the normal human functioning that is conducive to survival. There is only undifferentiated, traumatic, meaningless Rage–the Real.

Rage, as a contagious virus, is thus a metaphor for the mindless destructiveness of a people overcome with, and overwhelmed by, the alienation that results from the contradictions of capitalism. People in this mental state don’t try to replace their oppression with a building of socialism; they just destroy, destroy, destroy…

After the incident with the chimp in the laboratory, we jump ahead…twenty-eight days later. I can’t help but wonder: why was the chosen number twenty-eight, of all possible numbers? It’s the exact equivalent of four weeks, but what is the significance of that?

Twenty-eight days is also the number of days of the shortest month–February. It’s too warm in the year for the movie to take place anywhere near that month, but could that time period indicate a symbolic February, with the time before it a symbolic January, and the time after a symbolic March? Please indulge me, Dear Reader, as I explore this possibility.

Since January is derived from Janus, the god with two faces, one looking back to the past year and the other looking ahead to the future of the new year, we can see the time preceding the twenty-eight days as the time when people could still envision a past and a future. Since March is derived from Mars, the god of war, we can see the time after the twenty-eight days as a time of war between the infected and the non-infected.

In this symbolic schema, the twenty-eight days–between the laboratory incident and Jim (Murphy) waking up from his coma–are therefore the symbolic month of the Februa, when such festivals of the purification of Rome as Amburbium and Lupercalia were observed. In the case of this film, ‘purification’ can be seen as either dialectical irony, a failed attempt at purification, or…here’s a thought…maybe it’s the infection itself that is purifying the world of the sickness known as the human race.

In any case, Jim wakes up from his coma in a London hospital after he, a bicycle courier, was hit by a car. Like so many of us, he has ‘woken up’ far too late, after all the damage has already been done to society, the damage resulting in the trauma, social alienation, and civilizational collapse that Rage symbolizes. He is shocked to find not only the entire hospital deserted, but also the streets of London.

He goes about the streets shouting “Hello!” over and over again in all futility. He wants to connect with people in a world where human connection is all but completely annihilated.

The link, however indirect, with capitalism is evident when we see all the billboard ads and the uncollected trash on the streets, including unused commodities and money, this latter being picked up by Jim and put in his white plastic bag (in which he has also put such commodities as soda pop cans he’s taken from their vending machine in the hospital), him imagining he’s actually going to have a use for it. He sees “EVACUATION” on a newspaper headline.

He finds a church and enters it, where graffiti on a wall says, “Repent, The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh.” No, not even religion will save us from Rage. He says another of his pointless “Hellos,” only to get the attention of the infected in the church, including a priest.

They chase him out of the church and back onto the streets, where he meets and is saved by Selena (Harris) and Mark (played by Noah Huntley), the first people be’s been able to communicate with in a long time. They hide in a grocery store, where his new comrades explain how the virus spread.

Significantly, Selena begins the explanation by saying, “It started as rioting.” Just as with that TV footage of riots and protesters that a chimp in the laboratory was watching, we can conceive, through Selena’s opening words, that the virus should be understood as a metaphor for an epidemic of civil unrest resulting from capitalism’s growing oppression of the people, causing their despair and wild acting out in a world where no effective organizing is possible. One is reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Mark, when Jim has later found his dead parents, gives his own story about the beginnings of infection in which he and his family are trying to escape. They find themselves on a hill of people lying on the ground, a mix of infected and non-infected. Having climbed up this mound of people and on top of a kiosk, Mark looks down on the people, unable to see the difference between the infected and non-infected. Again, this origin story shows how the virus should be understood as a metaphor for the general breakdown of society.

In such a breakdown, the pain of the loss of family is especially keen, of course, so Jim is anxious to find his parents, though Selena and Mark assure him that they must be either infected or dead by now. When it’s safe to go out, the three find his parents’ house, where the two are found dead in bed, having killed themselves by overdosing on pills. Indeed, when society collapses so extremely, despair can be too overwhelming for one to want to rebuild.

Jim’s mom’s choice of words in her suicide note is apt. She says that she and his father have left him sleeping. Now, his mom and dad are sleeping with him, and he must never wake up.

In such a hopeless situation, the comparison of death to sleep reminds us of the soliloquy of despairing Hamlet: “To die, to sleep,/No more, and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished, to die, to sleep…” (III, I, 60-64)

To prevent this kind of despair is why it’s so important to organize the people and be ready when the inevitable societal collapse comes, a collapse symbolized in the film by the Rage virus, and soon to come in our world as a result of the following problems. First, there was the economic meltdown of the 2020s; next, its exacerbation due to the response to the pandemic; third, inflation brought on by the backfiring sanctions on Russia. Added to these problems are the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and all the billions spent on the military rather than on the struggling American people. Such reckless spending is creating a ticking time bomb of a deficit which, when it finally blows up in our faces, will be made all the more painful by the decline in value of the petrodollar.

To get back to the film: some of the infected attack Jim’s parents’ house, and though Selena, Mark, and Jim manage to kill the infected, Mark is bitten in the arm by one of them. Selena doesn’t hesitate to hack her screaming comrade to bloody pieces with her machete. In a tense situation where solidarity is so crucial, it is especially difficult to have to eliminate a comrade on the mere suspicion that he’ll turn against you, becoming a traitor, a wrecker of the organization, an agent provocateur, or someone bringing in a gang mentality–these being the kind of problems that bitten Mark can be said to represent. Selena’s killing of him seems rash, but it is necessary.

She, Mark, and Jim have had to eat the junk food of places like the grocery store, obviously because it’s the only food to be consumed quickly and the only kind that won’t go bad. Its consumption is also representative of how the survivors are still dependent on the kind of commodities–now merely use-values, rather than exchange-values, because money has become useless–once produced by capitalists. Like capitalism, junk food is bad for you, but it’s all they’ve got. It ironically won’t yield a profit for the companies that made it, but the survivors are limited to eating it. This fact is another indirect link from the movie to a critique of capitalism.

Selena and Jim see, far off in the distance in the cityscape, an apartment building in which one of the higher-up apartments has Christmas lights flashing in its windows. This means of attracting survivors is a double for the one to come later, when the army men try to lure women into a trap of sexual slavery and forced impregnation.

This first lure, however, happens to be a benevolent one. Here, Selena and Jim meet Frank (Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Burns). The sight of Christmas lights, contrasted with the army’s later promise of “Salvation,” makes for a chilling juxtaposition.

Frank and Hannah offer protection and hospitality to Jim and Selena, again, in a way that compares ironically with the protection and hospitality of the army men, when one considers the honest motives of the former against the predatory motives of the latter group.

Soon enough, though, all four of them hear the army’s radio broadcast from Manchester, and after a brief argument over whether it’s wise to go and find people who might be dead by now, for all they know, they decide to go. On the way there, we see shots of beautiful green grass, wind turbines, and at one point when the four briefly stop, even a group of horses running about. These are all reminders to the survivors that there’s still some good in the world.

The sound of religious music is heard during this drive to Manchester, too: Ave Maria, and “In Paradisum” (from Fauré‘s Requiem in D Minor). It is during this time that the four see, from a distance, all of Manchester in flames, a chilling omen that they aren’t about to enter paradise, but hell. Just as with Jim’s first encounter of the infected having been in a church, of all places, face to face with an infected priest, the four are about to confront their ‘salvation’ as a kind of damnation.

They arrive at the army men’s blockade, surrounding a mansion, but at first they see no one there. Frank is disappointed and goes off alone for a moment, sitting where a nearby crow is cawing and bothering him. A drop of infected blood from above hits him in the eye. Hannah comes over at that moment.

This is a touching, heartbreaking scene. Frank knows he’s about to change, and he has to repel her…out of love. While he can still speak, he tells her he loves her very much, but then angrily demands that she stay away, even pushing her away. The Rage virus represents our mutual alienation, an alienation so severe that it estranges even loving family members from each other.

Selena and Jim know that Frank must be killed, but do they have the heart to kill him…in front of his daughter? The soldiers can do it, of course, and they shoot him as soon as they finally appear.

At first, the soldiers, especially Major Henry West (Eccleston), are cordial in their welcoming of the surviving three. Pretty soon, though, Jim is made aware of the unsavory things that West is capable of doing. West shows Jim an infected soldier, Mailer, as a chained captive in a small yard outside the blockaded mansion. West wants to use his captive to learn about the infected, concluding that they have no future. Eventually, his captive will starve to death, as will all the other infected.

At dinner, West reveals a bit more of his unsavory character in a philosophical disagreement he has with Sergeant Farrell (played by Stuart McQuarrie). Farrell speaks of the normalcy of the vast majority of world history, before the beginning of humanity, and of how the Rage virus’s wiping out of humanity can be seen as a return to normalcy (recall, in this connection, my interpretation above of the twenty-eight days as a metaphorical February, purifying the world of man).

West contrasts Farrell’s analysis of the situation with one of his own, saying that infection is just “people killing people,” which had already been going on throughout human history, and would doubtless continue after the virus is (presumably) annihilated, making killing perfectly normal.

Now, as ugly as West’s analysis is, it’s correct as far as 28 Days Later is concerned, since as I’ve said above, the Rage virus is a metaphor for how alienated and fragmented we all are, and have increasingly become, in a world that oppresses the great majority of the population for the sake of maximizing profit and exporting capital outside the Western empire and into the Third World.

What eventually becomes clear to a horrified Jim, then to Selena and Hannah after the soldiers have fought off an attack of infected who penetrated the blockade, is that West and his men have offered “salvation” as a ruse to lure in women to be raped and impregnated to repopulate the UK. Their pretense of protection against a threatening outside world, only to be revealed as a repressive and oppressive life inside that sphere of ‘protection,’ is thus symbolic of fascism (one is reminded of the forced prostitution in the Nazi concentration camps), which arises whenever the capitalist system is in crisis or under threat, as it is in a time of societal collapse, as we see in this film.

The fascist mentality of far too many soldiers, who dehumanize those they kill, is made clear when Corporal Mitchell (played by Ricci Harnett) laughs and says of one of his kills, “He bounced!” The dehumanizing continues when Mitchell and the other troops return from the shooting of the infected, finding Selena and Hannah. Mitchell takes away Selena’s machete, symbol of the phallic woman, thus taking away her power while chauvinistically promising to give her his protection, as well as childishly playing with it as if it were an extension of his cock.

This juxtaposition of the promise of protection with chauvinistic dehumanizing is inherently fascistic, both in this scene with the girls as with the previous one with the infected kill who “bounced.” Now, seeing this mentality among individual troops is one thing, but seeing it justified by their commanding officer, with his chilling line, “I promised them women,” is something else entirely.

One of the greatest dangers of societal breakdown is the emergence of fascism as an attempt to restore order. Since we are seeing signs of such an imminent breakdown in the US, combined with so many Americans having right-wing views and espousing open carry, the emergence of fascism there when the breakdown comes is not some fanciful, paranoid fear.

West’s rationalization for keeping Selena and Hannah, making them forced mothers, is that “women mean a future.” Recall above when I described pre-infection UK as a symbolic January, with Janus’s faces looking to the past and to the future; while the UK after the twenty-eight days exists in a symbolic March, the month of the war god, in which–because of the endless fighting off of the infected–there is no Janus-face looking into the future. One can understand West’s predicament, not wanting his boys to kill themselves over a future with no meaning in life beyond just fighting off the infected, a future with no wives or future families to raise. But those wives, of course, must be willing wives.

Since neither Jim nor Farrell is willing to cooperate with West and his would-be rapists, the two are to be taken out and shot. Farrell laments over how the island of Great Britain has been quarantined and left in the lurch while the rest of the world carries on normally (Earlier, Selena mentioned reports of cases of infection in Paris and New York, though we don’t know any more of how that has developed.). During societal crises of this magnitude, abandoning a huge section of the world’s population is conveniently easy.

Jim manages to escape being executed by Mitchell and Private Jones (played by Leo Bill), their least effectual soldier and hopelessly incapable cook. Jim returns, though, meaning to rescue Selena and Hannah, whom Selena has made high as a kite on Valium so she “won’t care” when the men rape her. Jim releases Mailer, the chained-up, infected soldier, who goes on a rampage throughout the mansion, infecting a few of the other soldiers. Since the hitherto-non-infected soldiers, as potential rapists, are hardly any more civilized than the infected, then what difference does it make if they, too, become infected?

Mitchell tries to escape, forcing Selena to come with him, so Jim (who by now has already begun a sexual relationship with her) has to kill him. Jim does so in a particularly brutal way: by stuffing his thumbs deep into the eye sockets of screaming Mitchell. Covered in blood, Jim looks to her as if he’s infected–is he? Again, we see that, in terms of being prone to violence, the line separating the infected from the non-infected isn’t so clear or well-defined.

Jim, Selena, and Hannah are about to escape the blockade in a car, but West, the sole survivor of his band of brothers, has been hiding in the back seat of the car, and surprising Jim, shoots him to avenge his troops. Since West has been a father figure to his now-dead troops, saying to Jim, “You killed all my boys” before pulling the trigger, it’s useful to note the reproduction of Laocoön and His Sons in the hallway of the mansion (which our three protagonists have just run by in their escape attempt). Just as Laocoön and his sons are attacked by sea serpents, so have West and his “boys” been attacked by the infected.

Indeed, Hannah saves the day by backing up the car so infected Mailer can grab West from behind, pull him out the back window, and infect him. Since Jim is going to die from his gunshot wound if he isn’t given medical treatment as soon as possible, Hannah has to ram the car through the blockade gate.

Another twenty-eight days go by…another symbolic February, by my interpretation.

[Now, all three alternative endings, as given on the DVD, show Jim having died–one from his gunshot wound, this being the one that was filmed. Another version shows the outbreak to have been a dream (including shots of him as a bicycle courier up to the car hitting him), and another version, given in storyboards, shows Frank being given a blood transfusion, an exchange of his with Jim’s, instead of the soldiers shooting Frank, after he gets infected.]

The more optimistic, official ending, with Jim surviving and recovering in a cottage in Cumbria, shows the infected lying on the roads, emaciated and dying of starvation. Shots of hills of beautiful green grass remind us of the good there still is in the world. This second symbolic February, as it were, is showing a world being purified of infection. It’s as though our symbolic months have gone backwards in time, ending with a second symbolic January, with Janus’s faces looking backwards and forwards again, with a past and a possible future.

There is hope for renewed communication when Selena has knitted up a huge cloth banner saying “HELLO,” to be laid on the grass so jets flying over their location may see it. If the pilot of the Finnish fighter jet has spotted them, the three can be rescued.

The cure to Rage, and to societal collapse, is communication.