I’ve been thinking a lot about John Carpenter’s They Live recently. Well, very recently. Because I saw it just the other day and, well, it sticks in your brain. But even if I hadn’t just seen it over the weekend – at a theater, no less, because I am a fancy man – it would be hard to not think of the movie. It’s a film with an unsettling timelessness. Not the sort of timelessness you typically think of when talking about movies, though. When folks talk about timelessness of a movie, it’s usually about something like Wizard of Oz or another movie that holds up no matter how old it is. You know the sorts: Jaws; The Shining; E.T. For a movie like They Live, though, timelessness takes on a specific meaning. It’s the feeling you get when listening to a Dead Kennedys record, or reading Kropotkin, or studying about how, through the history of time, most of humanity just wants the means to make a decent life for themselves, and it’s when that is denied to them by more powerful forces when things go haywire. For me, particularly, They Live is a timeless movie because the problems in America shown in the movie haven’t changed and won’t change until people make them change.
The other day, I walked back from my apartment from the grocery store. It’s a big grocery store, owned by Kroger. Kroger owns a lot of grocery stores and they’re trying to add Albertson’s under their belt. This is important because it means a big chain becomes bigger, more akin to a monopoly, and when you have monopolies, workers lose. This particular grocery store is one I dislike because, a couple of years ago when Portland lost power for a while due to ice storms, the managers of the store called the cops to threaten people who were dumpster diving to rescue food from going bad. It’s not like I have much of an option in groceries, though. I can go to this place, which is unionized at least, or Safeway, which is not unionized and seems to favor hiring only the chudliest of rent-a-cops, or I can go to one of Portland’s many yuppie grocery stores, all of which put a bad taste in my mouth because they cater to the people who are making the city more and more unaffordable.
Anyway, I walked back from the store and passed by a few tents. All of these tents were bedraggled and the people even more bedraggled. I thought about how I walked by another encampment on the other side of my neighborhood and saw a chalk message near it: “Drug abuse is a response to trauma; not an ethical failing.” I thought, then, about how the current city council and mayor – may they all eventually rest in piss – seem united in deeply, truly, wanting these people to not live in their peaceful beachfront communities, even if it means they die as a result camp sweeps or during mental health crises at the hands of the cops.
I walked by those tents and then I waited at a traffic light near the 7/11, under whose awning people routinely sleep – because where else are they going to sleep with few other options? I stood there, thinking about how my rent just got jacked up by a manageable – but infuriating – rate, and I thought about how many people would be ruined by the rent increase I just received. And as I stood there, I saw a kid driving a new Audi. This kid had a girl in the passenger’s seat and was driving the Audi in the nervous way that all new drivers do, and I thought that the kid was probably 16. And then I thought about the kid’s family situation and what their finances must be like in order to be perfectly okay with letting their 16 year old boy drive a new Goddamn Audi. Then I thought about the multiple times in the last few weeks where I’ve heard someone having a mental breakdown in the neighborhood near me, but their exact location unknown because of the houses. And I thought about the people living rough in 116-degree summers like we had a few years ago.
Then I had my Joker moment and came real, real close to breaking open the bottle of slivovitz I had in my now more-than-1,300-dollar-per-month apartment with the paint that flakes off whenever I try to clean the cabinets, the toilet that’s starting to rust for some unsettling reason, and the bathtub lining starts to chip if I scrub it too hard. And then I thought about how many places there are in Portland that are way more than $1,300/month, and how those places are, perversely, smaller than my place. And let me tell you, I’m very, very glad that I have my dog, because it’s really easy to go into a dark place in America, 2023.
Is it any wonder that people start down destructive rabbit holes where they come to believe that there’s a shadowy cabal running the world? You look around and you see plentiful evidence that someone out there is getting rich and it’s not you. You look around and, if you’re on TikTok, you see people in these massive mansions, or even impeccably-designed apartments, and you ask yourself, “My God, what do these people do to afford such places?” No, I don’t think it’s a mystery at all how we get things like QAnon. Sure, it’s maybe baffling that it’s Donald Trump that they’ve chosen to fixate on, but the core premise of those sorts of things is that there is something deeply wrong out there, but that someone out there exists to right that wrong. It’s the premise of just about every superhero or action movie out there and it’s the sort of story we’re wired to believe. As I’m often given to thinking: If I’d made slightly different choices, I might have headed down some dark, dark routes in my life.
All this – and more! – is what I think about when I think about They Live. For those of you who don’t know, They Live is a 1988 movie directed by John Carpenter, starring Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David. The premise of the movie is simple. It follows a drifter named Nada as he sidles into Los Angeles in the hope that there, in one of the largest cities in America, he can make a living and get himself off the street. Piper, a wrestler by trade, affects a wholesome American charm in the first chunk of the movie. He talks his way into a job on a unionized construction site and makes the acquaintance of Frank, played by Keith David, another construction worker who also happens to be homeless. Frank brings Nada to his camp out in a not-so-great part of L.A., next to an Episcopalian church. There, Nada gets a decent meal, an offer to help out around the camp, and a conversation with Frank. Here are the highlights:
I have a wife and kids in Detroit. I haven’t seen them in 6 months. Steel mills were laying people off left and right. They finally went under. We gave the steel companies a break when they needed it. Know what they gave themselves? Raises. The Golden Rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules. They close one more factory we should take a sledgehammer to one of their fancy fuckin foreign cars.
You know. You ought to have a little more patience with life.
Yeah, well I’m all out! The whole deal is like some kind of crazy game. They put you at the starting line. And the name of the game is make it through life. Only, everyone’s out for themselves and looking to do you in at the same time. OK, man here we are. You do what you can, but remember, I’m going to do my best to blow your ass away. So how are you going to make it?
I deliver a hard day’s work for my money I just want the chance. It’ll come. I believe in America. I follow the rules. Everybody’s got their own hard times these days.
At the end of Nada’s response, Frank gives him a look that, clearly, says “You sorry son of a bitch. You really believe that.” Shortly after that, Nada sees a pirate broadcast signal come through the camp’s TV, warning viewers that they are being lulled into subservience by a malevolent species that’s taken over power structures all over the world. Nada follows the broadcast to the church across the road where he stumbles upon an operation dedicated to freeing the minds of humanity. They do this, first, by manufacturing special sunglasses that tune out the signals broadcast by the aliens. This, we come to find out, allows people to see the subliminal messaging put into every media in the world, as well as see the true face of the aliens.
But before that happens, the camp is destroyed by the cops as cover for raiding the operation out of the church. In the midst of the destruction – which doesn’t look too far off from the camp sweeps here in Portland, though I don’t think the PPB is dumb enough to beat a preacher to death in the streets – Nada grabs a box of sunglasses. In his escape, he manages to stash a box away. The next day, he puts the glasses on and sees the truth of the world: Billboards, ads, magazines, and newspapers send messages reading OBEY, CONSUME, MARRY AND REPRODUCE, and RESPECT AUTHORITY to anyone who looks at them under the influence of the signal. But more importantly, he sees that aliens walk among us in the guise of bankers, executives, cops – just about every station in society.
For someone who just stumbled onto the truth of the world Nada handles it pretty well. He wanders into an upscale grocery store, sees that every person in the grocery store is actually an alien, throws some insults at them, and then hears a campaign speech with several nods to the Reagan administration, including the famous “Morning in America” ad. In direct response, Nada says, “Yeah, it figured it would be something like this.
Shortly after this is when he goes on a bit of a killing spree, attacking aliens in the street and a bank before going on the lam, reuniting with Frank for the minutes-long alleyway brawl in an attempt to force the glasses on Frank, and then joining the human resistance against the aliens. The movie’s worth your time, so I won’t go into much more detail, but as the guys on Blank Check put it: It’s not like the other alien invasion movies you’re used to. There’s no patriotic uniting against impossible odds. There are no uplifting speeches about hope. Instead, the people fighting against oppression have a nearly-impossible task and it says a lot that the two guys who join up with no questions asked are the sorts of people with no reason to buy in to the system.
And that’s what I think makes They Live such a sticky movie. Whether or not John Carpenter meant it this way, there’s a lot in it about the struggle of how to fight against a horrible system and whether or not that means you have to reject everything about the system. (Carpenter, for his part, says in interviews that he considers himself a capitalist and is more than happy to get paychecks. But, well, he’s also an ornery dude in interviews and it might not be too far off the mark to think that he says these things because he’s tired of being asked the question.) In my brief experience doing any sort of extracurricular activism, this is a dilemma nearly everyone I’ve talked to faces. You can’t ever be “pure,” despite how many purity tests the left likes to throw out there. If you have a job, your taxes go to supporting a military-industrial complex that props up obscene wealth at the cost of death across the world; your taxes go to a cop-industrial complex that results in an epidemic of police violence; your taxes go to salaries of bureaucrats who work to deconstruct what little social safety nets there are. If you live in an apartment, you’re probably enriching some motherfucker who exists solely as a leech, providing nothing while skimming off tens of thousands of dollars of workers. If you own a home, then your property taxes definitely go to cop salaries in your city.
Again, there is no purity unless you abandon all of that and, like Christ’s apostles, reject any private property and work solely for your ideals.
So the question becomes, how can you engage in meaningful work while holding a regular job? I don’t have an answer to that, and I don;t know that anyone really does. It seems like the consensus of people who’ve been doing things much longer than I have is “Partition the two things and try not to dwell on it too much, or you’ll go insane.” (Again, that’s if you’re unwilling to drop everything you own and couch surf while you, say, set up mobile cooking shops for houseless folks.) And I suppose that’s the best answer you can really give. It’s either that or you give up entirely.
At one point in They Live, a character says to Frank and Nada: “What’s the threat? We all sell out every day, might as well be on the winning team.” Carpenter put that into the script after a conversation with a film exec who saw nothing wrong with the aliens’ approach to dominating humanity. At that point in the movie, things are pretty goddamned bleak. And that implication is that, really, there’s nothing wrong with being a collaborator with the system. After all, we all do sell out every day. The common phrase for that is “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” That phrase gets bandied about so much that, in my mind, it’s become meaningless. It can be said as a reminder of the deep ties every product has to destruction of the world around us; it can be said as an abdication of responsibility; it might even just be something thoughtlessly slapped on to a mug on a merch store in a possibly-ironic ploy for money.
But I think the reason it gets to me as much as it does is that it reminds me of “well that’s the world we live in.” That second phrase is something that I hear nearly-constantly in response to criticism of the world as it is. Sure, it might be better if housing was not commodified, but that’s the world we live in. That sort of thing is a verbal shrug and an admission of defeat. To me, that phrase – and others like it – are an attempt to free yourself not just from guilt of taking part in the system and benefiting from it, but from responsibility of doing anything about it beyond the bare minimum. (By which I mean voting.) If you can convince yourself that there is nothing you can do, then you can give yourself permission to take off the glasses that show you the reality of the world. It’s the sort of phrase you hear from people who went to a few marches against police violence in 2020, but, once Biden was elected, stopped caring about the violence of the system and have settled back into rhetoric about “a few bad apples.” Or it’s the rhetoric of people who vote down a ballot measure to ensure eviction representation because it means implementing a capital gains tax. It is, in short, the sort of thing Phil Ochs referred to when he described liberals as: “Ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally.”
“That’s the world we live in” is, I would further argue, the comfort given to yourself when you know that it boils down to luck that you’re not in immediate danger of being evicted, bankrupted by hospital bills. Shot by police during a traffic stop, or any number of issues that require much more direct and pressing action than we seem to be able to give them in America. Because my brain thrives on making weird-ass connections from pieces of media to other pieces of media, it’s an idea that makes me think of a couple of other things than They Live. First is Asimov’s Foundation and the second is a book about the rise of Nazi Germany titled They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.
In Foundation, Hari Seldon is a psychologist who comes up with a way to predict the future. This method is based on the simple premise that, while you can’t make accurate predictions about individuals’ impact on events, you can make broad inferences about the course of history based on how people react to stimuli. It is, of course, science fiction and such things are not accurate. (Though this doesn’t stop groups like the Good Judgement Project from trying to utilize the “wisdom of the crowd” to attempt to predict events.) In the book, Seldon predicts that the Galactic Empire has stagnated too much because people have grown too complacent and, thus, the Empire will fall starting from the edges in, in the course of a few hundred years. He is proven correct, but sets up bulwarks in two Foundations on opposite sides of the Galaxy to attempt to rebuild a galactic empire within a thousand years of the previous one’s fall.
In They Thought They Were Free, there is a specific line that always lives – rent-free – in my head. The book, I should mention, is the result of a Jewish journalist living in Germany after World War 2. As part of his time in Germany, Milton Mayer interviewed several run-of-the-mill, workaday Germans. Some of them were Nazi Party members, some were not. He interviews them to figure out what they were thinking before the Nazis took hold. (It should, of course, go without saying that he did not tell them he was Jewish. Despite many claims from several of his “friends” that they could smell out a Jew, none of them found out in his time in Germany.)
During one of his conversations with one of his friends, he asks about why his friend joined the Nazi Party. His friend says that, if he had refused to take the oath, which he took for a better job, he would have saved everyone who died in the Holocaust. Mayer is, obviously, confused. The friend responds with this:
“You are an American,” he said again, smiling. “I will explain. There I was, in 1935, a perfect example of the kind of person who, with all his advantages in birth, in education, and in position, rules (or might easily rule) in any country. If I had refused to take the oath in 1935, it would have meant that thousands and thousands like me, all over Germany, were refusing to take it. Their refusal would have heartened millions. Thus the regime would have been overthrown, or, indeed, would never have come to power in the first place. The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared, and each one of these hundreds of thousands was, like me, a man of great influence or of great potential influence. Thus the world was lost.”
“You are serious?” I said.
“Completely,” he said.
I think about that a lot – especially in these times with the rampant assault on LGBTQ+ folks across the country. I think Mayer was flummoxed – even after his friend’s explanation – because of his own experience as someone who was relatively privileged in America. At Mayer’s time, Jews were well on our way to being granted whiteness and, even in the many parts of the country where that was not the case, Jews were up the racial ladder from Black Americans. Thus, Mayer was not in a position to think about these things in the context of his own life. But even beyond that, he was educated and believed in education as a salve. His friend replies: “My education did not help me and I had a broader and better education than most men have had or ever will have. All it did, in the end, was to enable me to rationalize my failure of faith more easily than I might have done if I had been ignorant. And so it was, I think, among educated men generally, in that time in Germany. Their resistance was no greater than other men’s.”
I think about how his friend’s understanding of how base his instincts were mirror every conversation about America today that, ultimately, winds up with “Well, that’s the world we live in.” When I hear that, and I see the tent encampments swept up with very few of us doing anything – anything at all, like voting people who don’t want to treat the people living in encampments like refuse – I think about the great swaths of the country that have rationalized themselves into inaction. I think about how Asimov is really on to something when he views humanity as a mass with its own inertia – which, I remind you, refers to the act of motion whether it’s lack of movement, or the force that would be required to stop a body from moving.
I do not think there are any easy answers of how to solve the problems that abound in America. But I think the answers will come if we manage to stop rationalizing ourselves into apathy and inaction. Every piece of evidence around us pointing to the deep, deep problems with commodified housing, education, food, transportation, all those necessities of life – every piece of evidence that points to those things should propel us into doing something to stop them. But for most people, rationalizations stop them from doing anything. Every “we all sell out every day” or “that’s the way the world is” means that it’s just that much easier to not do anything. Nothing will change until we quell that thought process.
And, if you manage to do that and keep the sunglasses on, what then? What can you do? Well, I suppose that depends on what your community needs. Maybe that’s setting up a free fridge. Perhaps it’s taking steps to form a free daycare for working parents. I don’t know because I don’t live in your neighborhood. But what I can tell you is that your neighborhood probably needs help and that help isn’t coming from the cops, or from non-profits that work with the city. That help will only come from the people who know what the help needs to be and who needs the help. In a lot of Portland, it’s helping out unhoused people – because they’re our neighbors, even though the City Council would rather them not pollute downtown.
So if there is a point to this thing – and after nearly four thousand words, I suppose I should come to something like a point – it’s that you can’t allow yourself to take off the sunglasses once they’re on. You can’t allow yourself to rationalize your way into inaction. But you can’t let it drive you mad, either. You have to do something. You have to do anything at all, because that’s the only way things will get any better.