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How Revolution Became Cushy, Fun and Safe (and Why we Should be Worried)

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Message K Moderson

In California, you can walk into a restaurant named after Che Guevara, sit down at one of the tables surrounded by pictures of Che Guevara, and perhaps, to be polite, engage one of the waiters or waitresses in conversation about Che Guevara. A left-leaning radical's dream, right? Yet that conversation will be short; at this restaurant built so heavily upon revolutionary nostalgia, specifically centered on Che Guevara, chances are the employees won't know much about the man who gave their workplace its trademark name and image. They may not even know who he was. That was certainly the experience of one customer, who, after a few awkward seconds of wondering whether their allotted serviceperson was joking, was forced to explain to them El Che's role in revolution and history. Because the young, polite American beside them knew only one thing about Che Guevara, and about revolution in general: he, and it, are totally f*cking cool.

In a society where revolution is the stuff of movie legend, pop song lyrics and 14-year-olds' rebelliously oversized t-shirts, this attitude is kind of understandable. And, let's face it, 'revolution chic' has been a dominant feature of Western popular culture over the last few years in particular. Squealing teenaged girls have consistently stocked the cinemas for the latest installment in Katniss Everdeen's sanitized revolutionary adventure -- the Hunger Games' blend of cushy anti-authoritarianism and a due dollop of soppy, contrived romance has netted the franchise over a billion dollars at the box office, and the flattering epithet of "the thinking girl's Twilight". A family-friendly romantic comedy about Leon Trotsky was released in 2009, transforming the unscrupulous Bolshevik into a snarky high school student who undermines authority (in a cutesy, affable manner) and, of course, gets the girl. When not fixated on nightly happenings at 'the club', popular music, too, frequently delves into anarchic subject matter. Don't believe me? Give Labyrinth's 'Earthquake' (2011) a listen, for example. Its approving nod to "riots" disturbing London/ got the whole city panicking", only two months after violence of a like sort brought turmoil to the capital, was perhaps more risque than it was given credit for at the time. Yet it reached number two on the UK charts. Muse's 'Uprising' (2010), directly calling for revolution, reached number one in the US and remains the band's most successful single to date. And amidst a slew of film and book titles calling inappropriate stuff a "revolution" (2012: climate change is the focus of 'Revolution'; 2012: 'Step Up Revolution'; 2014: 'Yosemite's Rock Climbing Revolution' for crying out loud), the modern Western concept of the cool, easy revolution becomes even more apparent.

Ok, fair enough. But is this a bad thing? Engagement with the concept of revolution can only be achieved through familiarity. These influences surely raise awareness of the possibility of revolution and make it seem more reasonable and plausible than it might appear coming directly from a theory or history book. Even if the film, song or book in question does not reference revolution directly so much as a generally anarchic standpoint, exploration of anti-authoritarian views is encouraged by these cultural phenomena. Heck, Donald Sutherland, who portrays the chief antagonist in The Hunger Games, even went so far as to express hope that the franchise would "stir up a revolution" amongst its audience -- an audience whose members are, let's face it, rather unlikely to sit at home reading Marx on a weekend. Why deride a cultural trend that's bringing the concept of rebellion to new demographics?

Jennifer Lawrence in 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
Jennifer Lawrence in 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
(Image by 'The Hunger Games Explorer')
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Furthermore, the proliferation of anti-authoritarian ideas in popular culture was far more apparent in the 1960s and 1970s: the golden age of the protest song and grassroots activism, whose partnership was as harmonious as the mellow, lyrical vocals with which they became associated. No sane leftist would scoff at Bob Dylan's role in the anti-war movement; we shouldn't assume that current cultural influences with anarchic or revolutionary leanings can't shape the political zeitgeist just as well.

But there is a notable difference between the trend of the '70s and that which has gripped today's popular culture. Whereas there was realism and grit to be found in Dylan's songs, and the albums, books and films of his contemporaries, today's portrayal of rebellion is facile, lazy and inane. There is clear definition of the morality behind every action, with no question that 'the people' are wholly behind the movement in question. It's easy. It's clean. No long-term damage is done. In The Hunger Games, a girl and a boy fall in love against a backdrop of dystopia. The suffering involved is linked to that dystopia; the decision to rebel is an easy one, and the actual process of rebellion is predominantly of a plot device to throw these two characters together, rather than a complex dilemma in itself. Similarly, gone from our screens is the portrayal of Leon Trotsky as a complex theoretician with a dubious position in history ('The Assassination of Trotsky', 1972); say hello to a wisecracking teenager, disconnected from theory and history, who serves as a metaphor for changes in the emphasis of pop culture over the last forty years. Today, we get everything so easily and quickly; information comes at a flash to our increasingly demanding fingertips, and we live in unprecedented cleanliness and safety, surrounded by a friendly bubble of regulations and medicines. If it's not fast, sanitary and entertaining, we don't want to hear of it -- and the same goes for revolution.

When placed alongside the downward trend of young people's engagement with activism -- in 2011, a third of professors at Brown University said they'd witnessed a marked reduction in student protest during their time -- the above signifies a worrying development. A development indicating that the new generation will watch an optimistic, morally simplistic Hollywood blockbuster on the subject of revolution, but will not partake in a serious rebellious action themselves. No wonder, then, that the only revolutionary calls to arms in recent years have either been so insignificant they never graced the mainstream media's radar or toe-curlingly facetious. Russell Brand's recent adventure in activism, characterized by a single, ill-advised demand that young people refrain from voting, serves as an example of just how lazy the Western concept of revolution has become. Just as our society has sanitized history -- the flamboyant 'celebration' of the World War One centenary speaks for itself -- it has sanitized revolution into something so distant and irrelevant that we can afford to speak about it in cushy, affectionate terms. Perhaps this is why, while in Thailand the Hunger Games' 'mockingjay' gesture has come to symbolize political resistance, in the West it has left our screens only for cosplay and themed birthday parties. The problem is not our popular culture -- it's us.

To reverse this development, we can only try our hardest to remember what is truly important, rather than slipping into the sense of self-importance and antipathy that facilitates political disengagement. We must flex our ability to empathize, and cast aside that characteristic millennial fear of getting dirt under one's fingernails. This, after all, has been at the root of the emasculation of revolution in our culture: if we do not provide the demand, the supply of pseudo-revolutionary junk will eventually cease, in favor of a serious approach to activism that truly strikes fear into the powers that be. Sure, revolution can be cool, but our understanding thereof must also be plausible and realistic. We can wear a t-shirt with that photo of Che Guevara emblazoned across the chest, we can sit at his namesake restaurant and make chitchat to pass the time, but we must not forget who he was -- and what he died for.

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