Introduction: These Colors Don't Run: Things They Roll Over, and Some Issues That Stick
Issue #59, February 2002
When we chose Cruising for this issue's theme, we could not have foreseen the series of events that would lead President Bush to proclaim, "Let's roll." A wonderfully synoptic phrase, that "roll," which manages to conflate everything from "The Caissons Go Rolling Along" to "We Will Rock You" airpower in a message of militaristic destiny that Americans young and old can understand.
And if they can't understand, today's newspaper reports that Neil Young — the Norman Rockwell of rock stars — has collaborated with Booker T. Jones on a rock anthem to help us all understand. As the Washington Post writer so blithely puts it, "of course" the song is "jingoistic": "Desperate times call for desperate measures. And bars. And beats. And Booker T's." Young's whining refrain sums up the new attitude: "Time is runnin' out...let's roll." It sounds good, but not everything gets to roll in America: for instance, footage of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Those reels of footage, wherever they are, will stay tightly spooled for now.
In the months following September 11th, cruising has gone from a term with outsider cachet to the centerpiece of our national recovery. "On the Road" is no longer some beatnik book but our national calling. Americans love their mobility to be sure, but now we are supposed to need it. In choral tones, government and industry sing a siren song of mobile consumption: sure, unemployment is skyrocketing, but we can save the nation if we spend money on travel and cars. Recession? What recession?
A Travel Industry Association of America advertisement revoices Bush's "Let's Roll" speech as the refrain of groups of uniformed travel personnel. After grainy shots of Pere Bush's speech, workers sing the body electric by chanting the same words, in a commercial that switches back and forth between film stocks to weave an intertextual message defter than any avant-garde video's. The employees and the president speak as one: Hallelujah! In this ad, the travel industry becomes an omnipotent force for which the President is just a pitchman, and all thought devolves from him. Even bellhops wring deep meaning from his admonitions, repeating them with great pride and earnestness, having seen the light of Jesus, C.E.O., presumably as they take his bags to the curb.
United Airlines commercials, meanwhile, take an opposite approach. United had the first TV ads in which "real folks" — in United's case, literally true — spoke about 9/11. The conceit of the United ads was that the airline discovered its workers had better things to say than anything the ad agency had scripted. So it put them on the air to tell their stories: as if United were a benevolent corporation, transparent in its motives, with the same stake in the process of business recovery as its employees. Their declarations of pride and determination in the face of grief and loss suggested their recovery was our own as well, customers and labor linking arms in a mission of holy consumption to save a corporate country.
In those happy moments when an ad for the Travel Industry Association is followed by one for Viagra's NASCAR team or a United spot, we have a sense of what's at stake when we hear about "recovery," and how this recovery is being defined.
It's not a recovery for you or us, and United is a great example: their largest union has voted to go on strike. President Bush vows to block it for the time being. Just as the airline industry gets a bail-out and the union gets a kick in the face, the high-art theatrics of the Travel Industry Association create a more realistic picture of power in American life than the faux documentaries of United Airlines. If United were really a transparent conduit for its workers' voices, perhaps we'd see an ad with overtures to management for better compensation and working conditions. That's footage we won't see rolling anytime soon.
In some ways, the Cruising issue is a shadow companion to the preceding issue, Police State. Whereas that issue set out after tales of the new Church of Police power and State of repression, this issue charts a more intimate understanding of how we police each other and ourselves. This was less the product of our own design and more the result of the submissions we received, as if it's harder now to think of cruising without thinking of danger, and the forces that regulate and restrain, channel and co-opt our cruises. It's as if the joys of self-discovery and self-determination that we associate with cruising no longer exist, vaporized by September 11th's catastrophic transformation of American national life.
We heard about the millennial sex parties that followed the terrorist attacks in New York, and we couldn't find anyone to write about them. What we have instead are a series of essays that remind us the freedom to cruise isn't free — not in the sense that freedom must be paid for in blood or sold back to us, as the government suggests. Freedom is not free because its suspension of limits is illusory, and our understanding of freedom is managed and directed by people far better funded and far more organized than us. Freedom is not free because it, too, is tangled in a web of power. Freedom is by people who seem so powerful at this moment as to almost merit description as naturalized forces, instead of the very human beings that they are. But if kings have no divine right to rule, neither do our military or civilian warlords. Their power, like our own, is socially constructed. So we devote ourselves to the construction of a just social order. With Cruising's hand locked firmly in the glove of Police State, we roll merrily along to pick flowers and pursue our task.
Joe Lockard starts us off with an analysis of the underpinnings of fear in our national urgency to "Keep America Rolling," with a call for a homeland defense based in something other than mass consumption. Carrie Rentschler, Carol Stabile, and Jonathan Sterne take General Motors's dictum seriously with a photo essay of roadside patriotic advertisements. The accompanying text examines the impoverishment of the public language with which Americans express their faith in country, even as it takes seriously and respectfully the motives of human beings who fly the flag and advertise hoagies at the same time.
Jeff Chang notes that the freedom to cruise is an entitlement granted some but denied suspect Others in the wake of September 11th, and his article charts redefinitions of race, ethnicity, and civil rights in a street-level survey of Brooklyn, New York. On the other side of the U.S., J. Douglas Allen-Taylor interrogates the policing of social mobility of youth of color in Oakland, California. Allen-Taylor asks where the logic is when police break up car sideshows, impound the cars of suspected cruisers, but drive young people into a riot outside the arena of a rap concert. His conclusions lament the consequences when cities expect police to solve social issues.
Rob Drew steers us back to anti-consumerist screeds with an essay on the creeping fascism of record stores, while Baynard Woods finds his desire to consume curiously purged by watching the 150mph rotating advertisements of NASCAR, in a touching tale of a Classics major rediscovering his Southern heritage. Zack Furness pulls us out of our cars with an entertaining pro-bicycle rant that seeks to throw drivers on Freud's couch and pin them there. If Woods's ass remains firmly planted in the stands as he falls in love with the heroes of racing all over again, Furness's ass is constantly in motion as he rides up, on, and over you on his bicycle. That leaves Michael Stephens too afraid to shake his moneymaker, as he recounts the terror of high school dances, the historical repression of bodily movement, and the racialization of this fatal characteristic.
With the end of our cruise drawing near, three rays of hope light our passage toward a happier new year. Aaron Shuman interviews artist Naomi Bragin, who uses dance to transform young people into warriors for peace, and to block the path of WTO delegates. Tanya Olson charts the liberating potential of queer theory, in a novel application of Freire and transgender theory to the plight of teaching assistants. Finally, we conclude with the sexiest person we could find in these times: Slavoj Zizek, interviewed by the Left Business Observer's Doug Henwood. Enjoy.
Aaron Shuman is a freelance journalist and critic and a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team. Jonathan Sterne is an assistant professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.