There are many reasons why TV shows such as Breaking Bad and The Big C are so popular. Or Sons of Anarchy, for that matter, a show I have become addicted to a year or so ago. But I only want to write about one here. It is what I call the thrill of the ultimate shoulder shrug.
Here, in the Western democratized world, we are born into a system that leaves little room for need, in the most basic sense. And for that reason, we do not easily question the system in which we live. We are provided with certain things, one of them being protection. In return we accept certain restrictions, usually without questioning them. And even if we reflect, we come to the conclusion that the deal we got, without being asked, is not a bad one. So we sign it, ex post. But still, whenever examples of people not taking the deal are put in front of us, many of us react in a way we both enjoy and fear: fascination, desire, doubt.
The show Sons of Anarchy is said to be based on the history and model of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, which was founded in California in 1948 and has since then expanded not only in the US but around the world. The Club today is listed as one of the ‘big four’ motorcycle clubs, and considered by many to be more of an organized crime syndicate than anything else. My begrudging fascination with SoA has led me to get a bit deeper into the HAMC background, mostly by reading the more than biased autobiography of Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, founding member and longtime president of the Oakland, CA chapter, entitled ‘Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club’ as well as Hunter Thompson’s wide acclaimed (by the literary world) and widely criticized (by the Angels) standard work ‘Hells Angels’.
I do not want to dwell on the manifold circumstances – both historical and personal – that led to the development of the club/gang, but what is abundantly clear is that the idea of the outlaw is the main factor in this equation. That is, in the end, what it is about, and also what explains the appeal. The outlaw is a major myth in American culture, his or her existence a fact that has always left the ordinary American with goosebumps caused half by fear and half by excitement. The basic meaning of the term is clear: an outlaw is an individual who is considered to stand outside the protection of the law. The thing about the law is: as long as you recognise it, it will protect you. I deliberately use the term recognise, not follow. Because in our Western societies as far as I know, the law protects you also if you choose or have chosen not to obey it. Murderers cannot be killed by an angry mob, etc. But the outlaws I am talking about are different. They are not denied by the law, they are the ones denying it. They say ‘no thanks’ to ruling law and the protection of both the legislative and executive branch. Which means that they can do what they deem right, but they also have to protect themselves if others do the same. Hence the formation of the gang/club. The Hell’s Angels have rules, like any society. One of the core rules has to do with loyalty, and it also explains the long criminal records of many members: a HAMC member must support a fellow member under all circumstances. Basically, if a member is attacked or attacks someone, you help without asking for the reasons behind the conflict. As stupid as this sounds, the bottom line is that the club offers a system of security that people seem to miss in society – hence the appeal of these kind of groups. It does not have to be a MC, it can also be a student fraternity, or a kind of anarchist collective. Same story, in a way. You are offered something you can rely on. You are offered simplicity. And that is something in a world where nothing is ever simple.
In Sons of Anarchy, this becomes clear as well. People who are members of the club know exactly what they can or cannot do. They know: if I do this and that, I can expect this and that. Not more, but also not less. There is a club member, Kyle, who has betrayed the club and as a consequence is kicked out. One of the requirements for a member fallen into disregard is to blacken out the giant SoA tattoo they all have on their backs. It is a rule. Kyle does not, because he cannot accept the idea of being out of the club. When this comes to the attention of his former brothers, the question is a simple one: ‘Fire or knife?’ Kyle chooses fire, is admitted to the hospital for life-threatening burns. After his recovery he shows no resentment, no anger. Why? Because he knows he had it coming. He knew the rules. He can accept the punishment. That is what I mean by simple (if by no means right, don’t get me wrong). You can also call it fairness. In a world where nothing is ever fair, where nothing ever seems to come around, where managers lose millions and are awarded with a bonus, where an exploited shop clerk eats a piece of bread and get fired over it, where kids die of cancer and old dictators drink brandy in big villas, the strict system of rules and the ancient fairness principle of an eye for an eye is appealing. If you are willing to hand over one of our greatest powers: the freedom of thought.
I hope it has become clear that the feeling of community offered by this and similar groups comes with a price, namely at times pressing the Off Button of your brain, of independent thinking, in order to fulfil your duties to the group. This part is what has always been a hinderance for me when it comes to joining any group.
On the other hand, one could argue that this is what we do all the time in the current system anyway. Looking away, accepting certain bads for what feels like the overall good. The hypocrisy is unbearable, when you think about it. We might buy fair trade coffee, we might attend demonstrations. We might feel guilty after shopping at H&M. We all know the injustices we are part of. But we look away, for the most part. And we shrug our shoulders. So why not do the same, but at least in a setting that gives us so much more in return? Freedom. Fairness. Loyalty. I don’t have an answer to that. All I know is that I have had my time, during university, of being affiliated with different left-wing groups, especially during the big university strike 2003/2004. I have attended discussions, sit-ins and demonstrations. But as much as I wanted to join the cheering crowd fully, something always held me back, some statements, opinions or actions always made me raise an eyebrow. And this one percent, mostly, ruined the other 99 %. Because I am not prepared to make that kind of deal, even if the outcome is this fulfilling, immensely satisfying feeling of belonging, or a common cause. I had the same experience in Israel, when I felt real envy for the young people I met right before they went to fulfil their military service. I know this statement will not make me very popular, neither will this whole article, but that is exactly why I wanted to write about it. The moral grey area I have felt myself enter at times in my life, and recently more than ever. That people can feel this belief in something, this undoubting support of an idea, a country, an institution, is strange to me, and I am aware that it is not a good thing in itself. But the jealousy stung, still. Seeing that life can be so easy.
Besides the alleged fairness and simpleness we encounter in the context of the Hell’s Angels and SoA, the outlaw myth is of course mainly about freedom. Breaking out of the shackles of a society you did not select to be a part of and living life by your own rules. How can that not be an appeal? Especially in a world where we are raised with the exciting and terrifying awareness that we can do anything, go anywhere, achieve unthinkable things – at least in theory. For me, the appeal of the outlaw lifestyle is very much connected to this feeling of shock, of deepest horror, when I wake up in the middle of the night with a gasp, and the dark around me presses against my temples and onto my ribcage, and the thought hammers against my temples from within my skull: You are going to die. A lifeless body, the hands I see now working the keyboard – still. My arms, my fingers, the scars I know, the lip I bite, the eyes I rub – all turned anonymous and cold. Like they have never done or meant anything. Like I was never here, thinking these thoughts. As I lie there, I think of all the things I do every day that I hate, all the shit I take, and all the places I might never see. All the things I might never do. Riding horses in Iceland, sitting on the fire escape outside my Manhattan apartment with a cup of coffee, writing a book, seeing Jamaica, seeing Canada. The list is endless. But life is not. What if there is no do-over?
I know what you are going to say now: this is true for everyone. And you are right. I am convinced, though, that not all people are equally afraid of death, or equally aware of it. In theory yes, but in everyday life, no. I see people building their lives like there is no deadline (pun intended), and am often fascinated and jealous. They grow up, take a job they mediumlike, get married, build a house, have kids, etc. I wonder if they ever wake up in the middle of the night thinking about all the things they will probably never do. The only conclusion to draw from this is that all of these people have no dreams besides those they already live (a family, for instance, or wealth and security). And I refuse to believe that. That said, the only answer I have been able to come with up to now is that their tranquility is part of a bigger deal that we all assume we have with life. Because they live their life in the expectation of the ‘later’. The afterwards (not afterlife, mind you. That’s a totally different story). When all they have invested is going to be paid back, and with profit. When you can finally do all the things you want to do, because you have paid your dues. The problem starts when the normal life we were promised, if not out loud then implied, is taken away from us. When we are forced to question the reliability of the ‘later’.
On Couchsurfing I met an incredibly inspired young man from Canada who has seen his father and way too young friend die. He summarizes his basic philosophy as follows: ‘Although we hope and presume the sun will always rise tomorrow…it may not. LIVE your life, LOVE your life and above all, be INSPIRED to reach an undefined, unprecedented level of greatness!!!’ I find it easy to connect with people like him. I have met many kindred spirits in this regard here in Lisbon. Not so much in Berlin. Or my hometown. I feel like an alien often, because the things that dominate my everyday thoughts are not a part of their world. Like on Harry Potter, where the black horselike Thestrals can only be seen by those who have seen death. I can see them, and I cannot make up my mind if this sight, this insight is an enrichment or a horrible burden.
For the past year I have been the only participant in a social experiment aimed at finding out exactly what happens if the above mentioned deal with life is broken. The basic assumption is that the rhythm of our life is defined by the idea that we do something and get something back in return. That is the essence of the deal. We accept that we have to rise early (in fact, the alarm clock itself stands for everything the deal is about) and hand over most of our time to educational institutions when we are young. We do it because we believe that it will pay off. If we obey, we will receive an education allowing us to take up a profession allowing us to put money in the bank allowing us to buy a car build a house and send our kids to the very same educational institutions so they can have the same. Also, the deal says that we should pay money into pension funds so we can have a beautiful life when we are old – which we will have because we pay a lot of money for health insurance, and it is implied that we will remain more or less healthy long enough to enjoy the fruits of our labour later on. Of course we also need to treat our bodies more or less well, eat fruits and vegetables, don’t take drugs etc. I have never questioned the deal. Why should I have? Life was treating me well. I was a good girl and did everything that was asked of me. And in return I got more or less what I had hoped for. But then the contract was broken, and I found myself standing in a brightly lit hospital bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror, standing there with an invisible, torn-apart piece of paper clutched in my fist, and no words. Wanting so desperately to sue someone but did not know whom. There is a reason why people should only get sick at old age: because sickness can undermine the system. Call it anger, call it realism. Once you reach a different perspective, many things do not seem obligatory anymore. Because you paid into the fund and don’t get the promised amount back, so you get pissed off. And rightly so. It is a burden, but it is also a ticket for the ‘Joyride of Notcaring’. If you have the balls.
I don’t have the balls, but I would love to. That is why I feel drawn towards people who do. I am the kind of person who says ‘Sorry!’ when others bump into her. The one who pretends she was not even waiting when she is not being served, just so not to make the inattentive staff feel bad. I say ‘No problem’ when I want to say ‘Are you kidding me?’ Of course I know politeness is good, you should be friendly, what goes around comes around, etc. etc. etc. But right now I am in the anger phase, and I do not give a shit. I want to be different. I want to be a person who does not take any crap from anyone. Who says “fuck off”. Who is only fair when treated fairly. Who shows compassion when being shown compassion. I want to be someone who does not get bothered by others. Who is shown respect. I do little things, which I am also proud of. Like going to Lisbon, writing, etc. But what is it that keeps me from robbing a bank and going to Iceland to ride the ponies? Morality? Bad conscience? Fear of not getting away with it? Probably all of these.
Recently I have been playing with the idea of purchasing a gun. Which is the ultimate moral shoulder shrug. It is also only semi-serious, but at least I want to go to a shooting range and fire one. It took me a long time and quite the amount of anger to openly admit these thoughts. Nobody said: ‘Yeah, you should do it’. After some explanations most people did understand where I was coming from, but they all suggested alternative ways of achieving the desired effect. Self-defense, boxing, hitting a pillow with a stick. But it is not only about the release of tension or aggression for me. It is about feeling powerless. The feeling, the illusion of power over a situation, over anything, really, is comforting. Not to have to accept others bothering you, restricting you, scaring you, taking from you. I imagine it feeling like a breath of fresh cool air would to a drowning woman. But at the same time I know the air would not really be fresh, it would be stale and poisonous and it would burn my lungs. Power at the expense of others would not give me the peace of mind I so desperately seek. But I sense that the anger does not disappear. I think if not dealt with right, it can stay forever, burning deep scars into the skin with which you encounter others. I know two men whose childhood was characterized by family violence. They grew up always having to ‘take it’. Now both of them are constantly involved in some lawsuit or other, using up their resources both of energy and money, in a futile attempt at seeing justice served. As one of them told me: ‘After what happened to me I am just not gonna take any crap anymore. Never again!’
This issue is the main theme of the popular TV show ‘Breaking Bad’. I do not follow the show, but from what I hear the bottom line is that a law-abiding family man and chemistry teacher turns criminal when faced with impending death as well as impending debt. In order to provide for this family and cover his medical bills, he joins a former student in producing and distributing crystal meth. The concept is also part, in a more harmless way, of a show I love very much, called ‘The Big C’. The protagonist is Cathy Jamison, a high school teacher, wife, and mum, who is conservative, boring and a bit of a control freak. When she finds out she has cancer and maybe one more year to live, she goes crazy in her own little ways: by saying no, by only ordering desserts and liquor in restaurants, by doing cartwheels and smoking in deserted school corridors, by kidnapping her son from a school bus with a paintball gun because she wants to spend more time with him. These examples are fictional, I know. But they only imitate the actions of real people who made similar decisions. Take the HAMC, take Che Guevara. Take political groups like the Danish Blekingegadebanden I have been reading about lately, or the German RAF. Not all good people, that is not my point. But all people who made a choice most people do not make. To live their lives differently. To obey a different law, a different moral code, than the one given to them before birth.
I am not a Hell’s Angel, because I cannot turn off my brain (among other reasons). I am more like Cathy Jamison. The knowledge or rather nonknowledge of my shadowy future makes me make small changes in my life and personality, helps me put certain things a bit lower in my stack of worries and priorities. Career, financial security. Being liked by everyone all the time. It makes me agree to ride on the back of motorcycles without thinking of accident statistics. It made me dance down the streets of Baixa some nights ago to Elton John’s ‘I am still standing‘, and ignoring the people laughing and pointing. Because I knew that fucking moment would not come back.
But to the ubiquitous presence of death and what it means for my life choices I have found no reply. All I can say is that I believe it is good to make yourself aware of the things outlined above – the option of the ultimate shoulder shrug, of a different kind of spending your limited years – once in a while. Either to make yourself appreciate even more the regulated, secure system you are part of, or, if you are so inclined, to have an alternative that makes you bear your current state better. The illusion of an ‘Out’, even if you know, as I do, that you will never have the courage to go through with it.