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A Severe Shortage of Rebels, Mavericks and Anti-Heroes
Novel's characters provide needed dose of heroes and mavericks
As if the nation wasn’t inflicted with enough woes and worries, here’s another one: a severe shortage of something as American as apple pie: rebels, mavericks and anti-heroes.
According to Berkeley, Calif. writer Charles Smith, the dearth of anti-heroes is a symptom of deeper social ills. “Anti-heroes come in two basic flavors,” he says. “The outlaw type is either a moral person who’s driven to crime in order to resist corruption or injustice, like Robin Hood, or a Butch Cassidy who only robs Robber Barons. Though he is unconstrained by society’s rules, he doesn’t hurt people. In folk versions of his exploits, he pays off the widow’s mortgage with some of the loot.”
The second variety of anti-hero, Smith says, is an alienated rebel seeking freedom from society’s meaninglessness and corrosive strictures, or the maverick who seeks to shock the status quo by breaking cultural taboos. Examples include the Impressionist artists of fin de siecle Paris, the Beatniks of the 50s and the student radicals of the 60s.
What’s troubling, says Smith, is the vacuousness of the current crop of rebels. The “gangsta” lifestyle glorified by edgy hip-hop music certainly bears the criminal aspects of the Outlaw anti-hero, he notes, but it utterly lacks any moral dimension. “The hip-hop star’s flaunting of excess wealth is nothing more than an Enron executive with flamboyant tastes,” Smith observes. “The primary moral quality of such anti-heroes is utterly negative: degradation of women, the glorification of destructive drugs and senseless violence. It’s not a rebellion against greed, it’s an embrace of greed. There’s no paying off the widow’s mortgage, there’s only the making of widows through meaningless killings.”
As for rebels and mavericks, Smith finds the cultural field barren. “No one’s ‘mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore,’” he says. “Instead they’re anxious to acquire all the goodies of the upper class, even if it means mortgaging their future and their kids’ future.” Young people’s rebelliousness amounts to listening to misogynous marketing and getting tattoos, he says, self-absorbed, passive activities unworthy of any self-respecting maverick.
“We’re in pretty sad shape as a nation when the entire notion of being a maverick has sunk to being a consumer of completely synthetic ‘rebel’ brands of music or clothing,” he says. To counter the trend to bland, corporate versions of rebellion, Smith wrote a novel starring what he views as classic American anti-heroes with a modern twist: the young men are both mixed-race.
“Our current culture has debased the anti-hero to mere criminality,” he says. “Being a thug doesn’t make you an anti-hero. Righting injustices and cutting through the phony pretensions and meaninglessness of society make you an anti-hero.” The key elements of the classic American anti-hero, says Smith, are: an unrestrained freedom of movement and action, a distrust or dislike of overweening power, be it corporate or government, and a heroic moral bedrock which drives their rebellion against a morally corrupt, hidebound status quo.
“If you scratch an honest-to-goodness anti-hero, you reveal the hero within,” says Smith. “Someone who refuses to play along with a debased status quo, someone who sees the rot within and who either acts against it or breaks free. This takes a moral awakening and a strength which is very appealing to the part in all of us who feels trapped and powerless.”
The cultural maverick, Smith says is a James Dean or Holden Caulfield character who sees the emptiness of modern-day life and who rejects its essential phoniness and artifice. “In my book I-State Lines, the two protagonists see the consumerist basis of American life as fundamentally phony, a scheme of the wealthy to milk the insecurities and unthinking loyalties of the regular Joe and Jane.”
While the standard-issue anti-hero of popular culture is either a criminal or gangster, the protagonists of Smith’s book have no need to steal or degrade people in order to rebel. When they run out of savings, they find a job. While this makes them tame by today’s standards of ravaged debasement—“to earn salvation in today’s popular culture, you must first be a junky, a prostitute, or at a minimum, a victim of horribly painful abuse,” Smith says—their rebellion is profoundly American.
“There’s a deep narcissism in a culture of theft and victimhood,” Smith notes, “be it Enron’s Robber Barons, hip-hop gangsters or the teenager’s joyride. While popular culture has always been titillated by criminality, the true anti-hero doesn’t indulge in crime for self-glory; he or she finds the moral strength to resist the blandishments of the status quo notions of greed and indeed, progress as a whole.”
When Daz, the Hispanic-Anglo character, rants against the quasi-religious status of the consumerist economy, Smith says, he’s rebelling against the spiritual rot at the heart of the phony American Dream. And when the guys take manual labor jobs to fund their travels across America, they’re refusing to buy into the conformity of the cubicle life which goes hand in glove with a consumerist definition of self and success.
The part-Hawaiian character, Alex, does use physical force, but in true anti-hero fashion, only to punish wrong-doers who exploit their authority, or to protect the weak from bullies. Defending the weak and tweaking the powerful, Smith says, is the core of any American anti-hero, “especially if rules have to be broken to uphold deeper moral values.”
While Smith expects his book to be dismissed as a tame road novel, he says such a cursory summary fails to grasp the book’s deeper message. “Rebels and mavericks are alive and well in America, and they’re not thugs, victims or consumers of store-bought rebellion.”
I-State Lines publication date: April 2006
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All content and coding copyright © 2006 by Charles Hugh Smith, all rights reserved. The right to reprint or adapt this feature story is expressly granted to professional journalists working in any media or language.
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