Monday, August 31, 2009

Hail, Slump (2001)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, AUG 31 - This ran as a column in Punk Planet 44, mid-2001. I'm kind of conflicted on the piece. In hindsight, complaining about PETA seems a tad gauche. At the very least, it's a soft target, like bitching about gas prices in 2009.


I'm waiting for this alleged recession to kick in, and not just so I'll finally have a cover for my pathetic man-shamblings in the financial sphere. A showdown is brewing between the sillies and the slump. It's the simplest of equations. Prosperity gives wings to nincompoops. Recession takes those wings. I've been sitting patiently in my lawn chair for a while now, and the parade of dewinged nincompoops, long postponed by good weather, just might be getting under way.

Take Adbusters. I've been plenty tickled by this magazine over the years, although not for the right reasons. Here's a full glossy publication of spoof ads that, at first glance, looks like a yuppie update on Mad Magazine, minus a knowing wink towards the reader. And two bucks higher at the newsstand. On closer inspection, it turns out the fake ads are declarations of the 'culture jamming' faith. The editors and contributors seem to regard their social critiques as bona fide political activism. "The Panthers, Feminists, Situationists [and] Zapatistas fought for an intangible idea so radical it seemed like a dream," reads their text (curiously, ACT-UP, Adbusters' obvious immediate graphic design predecessor, gets no nod). "The corporate jammers are the heir to that tradition. It's our turn."

Some sad shit, this. Curious, too. It seems like there's some genuine conviction buried under all the drivel. There's certainly a lot of rationale upkeep involved with this jamming of culture - like Adbuster's editorial digs at the "commodification of dissent", as if an anti-consumerist coffee table magazine could exist as something different and detached from the pricey Che Guevara T-shirts they themselves sniff at. These self-justifications remind me of the deeply conflicted record reviews found in the back of all crummy metal magazines, in which a particular band is force-hyped at the expense of its own genre (like; the new Ass Factory CD rises far and above the average drone of most so-called hard-metal acts). Adbusters hadn't crossed my mind much in the last year, and it was only by coincidence that I happened on their recent Fool's Fest campaign. Explains Adbusters; "Abby Hoffman proved, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, that throwing money at the problem works - when the problem is conformity. Let's do it again -- FOR REAL! Let handfuls of dollar bills rain down on the trading floor of your local stock exchange or, failing that, shopping mall."

Lest anyone miss the condescension, I should mention that Adbusters promised to review videotaped submissions of these scenes and refund $100 "to all worthy entries". Could there be any more telling sign of the folly that the New Economy hath wrought than the sorry spectacle of enraged graphic designers hurling cold cash at the masses? But hard times heal the silly. There'll be a lot less money to toss about - figuratively and literally - in a recession. How many computer jockeys will still be willing to do pro bono bogus ad work when their own market demand has shriveled? And when the Gen X nouveau riche finally have to start budgeting their magazine subscriptions, which do you think will get the ax first - The Nation or Adbusters?

I'm wondering if Critical Mass will prove more recession-proof. This national franchise of "organized coincidences" has been swindling otherwise intelligent bicycle enthusiasts all through the economic boom. A CM chapter started up in Richmond, Virginia the last year I lived there. It was bad enough having to see them in action every now and then, "reclaiming" "their" public space. Mission statements stapled to telephone poles provided an even harsher toke. Cars are destroying the social fabric of our community! we regular folk were reminded. The fun, excitement and enthusiasm of the cyclists is quite infectious! But there was something fishy about a bunch of predominantly white punk kids tying up traffic in a city that's 55% black. And there's still something sinister about a national movement that mouths only the most meaningless slogans of civil disobedience and high school civics class, both for no real-world purpose. That it's bad politics to vent rage with "car culture" on drivers should seem kinda obvious. I'm wondering if it's any less obvious that there are people driving cars with lives to lead, jobs to get to, mouths to feed, emergencies to deal with. Could any shadowy FBI program have so effectively pitted activists against citizens? I don't think it's a coincidence that Critical Mass started in 1992 - the year after our last war - and flourished in the boom. It's a classic of first-world navel gazing. There are chapters, supposedly, in India, Argentina, Thailand.... proving only that American exports aren't limited to fast food and toxic chemicals. But you'll find very few CM chapters in pockets of America that missed the expansion entirely. There is no Gary, Indiana Critical Mass. There is no East St. Louis Critical Mass. There's a reason for this.

And yikes, People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals... how bad are they going to catch it when the economy plops? For the record, I don't file PETA in my little roster of sillies. They've done good work over the last 20 years. But a decent recession could trim much baloney. The "Got Prostate Cancer?" billboards (even Adbusters gave this a thumbs down), the campaign to make Timothy McVeigh's last meal vegetarian... all are hallmarks of a group whose thinking machine has been gummed up by excess money. The money doesn't even have to be theirs, it could just be floating around in the atmosphere. Economic good times means more resources, more contributors, more publicity outlets, more celebrities willing and financially able to lend their names to inane stunts.

As fate would have it, my mom worked at PETA in the mid-90's. She served as assistant to founder Ingrid Newkirk and was, briefly, the person who managed incoming crazy mail to the top brass. I got to visit their offices in suburban Maryland a few times and was deeply charmed by the giant carrot suit. Only later would it occur to me that dispatching a large anthropomorphic vegetable to elementary schools, with a sign reading "Eat Your Veggies, Not Your Friends", doesn't make sense on any level beyond performance art. My impression is that this type of kitschy, cloying weirdness slowly but surely chipped away at morale in the ranks. Unfortunately, the folks in charge seem unable to tell good publicity from bad. Not long before my mom left, PETA launched a strange campaign to rename the town Fishkill, NY as "Fishsave", NY. In my home state, the "Kill" suffix is a vestige from the days when the Dutch ran the show, and it means "small brook" or "stream". So this idea had all the moral heft of an attempt to persuade actor John Goodman to change his name to John Goodperson. An economic wrecking ball won't transform this kind of unfortunate policy slant, but when dollars have to be earmarked one way or the other - conceptual billboards or animal rescue - hopefully the less doofy urges will triumph.