Saturday, July 21, 2012


A couple of weeks ago I went for the first time in my life to Buffalo Wild Wings. The building was cavernous, dimly lit; huge projection screens hung from its high roof; plasma TVs—themselves enormous—surrounded the room. Here and there a neon sign gleamed. The restaurant was full. Couples, who had been seated to face each other, gazed up at their respective TVs; children, too, with their families, turned in their seats to watch while they ate; everyone—but for the smallest children, who were either locked in high-chairs or running about—gazed upwards, as if at flickering angels. Beneath their upturned faces their hands worked on plates of orange chicken.

The plasma TVs glowed with sporting events: soccer; baseball—our beautiful game; poker; an old NFL game; golf; hockey; even sailing. But the four projection screens, which dominated the room as a movie screen dominates a theater, were all broadcasting the same event: an MMA fight. Two men, their heads shaved, wearing nothing but shorts, circled each other. The mat beneath them was smeared with their blood.

I'd been invited to the restaurant by a friend. And for a few minutes I tried to stay. But I found it impossible to ignore the MMA fight, and without an available table it was easy for me to suggest that we leave. "Anyway," I said, "I can't watch this." Actually, I could do nothing but watch it. The scene was primal, riveting.

I remember when MMA fighting was an underground subculture, mysterious, barbaric, vaguely shameful. Occasionally I saw advertisements for it on late-night TV. The DVDs promised warehouse settings, high cages, poor production values. The fights, always between two white men, apparently had but one rule: win. The midwestern American high school fight had found its expression in commerce.

Now MMA has gone mainstream—more than mainstream: it's dinner table entertainment. You see it, too, in upscale SF bars on Saturday nights, and in posh lounges in Los Altos and Burlingame. It's even advertised during Giants games on TV: an inning ends and abruptly we're confronted with the sight of a man being knocked unconscious by a kick to the head. He falls to the mat, his eyes gone white, for our entertainment.


A couple of quarters ago I taught Distant Star, by Roberto Bolaño. I found discussing it difficult. Bolaño's books—being, at every level, new—defend themselves against understanding. But we concluded (in a very small nutshell) that Bolaño was announcing the triumph of fascism by way of the arts. Fascism might have been defeated militarily, the book seems to say, but it has triumphed culturally, which is a vaster, more fundamental victory. The principles of fascism—purification through violence, corporate militarism, the glorification of the body, "survival of the fittest," nationalism as patriotism, a disdain for the life of the mind—dominate contemporary Western culture. The West—America—defeated Hitler, only to become, in many respects, his most ardent spokesman.

Leaving Buffalo Wild Wings (which no doubt survives—this isn't a peripheral point—on the low-cost ruthlessness of industrialized chicken farms), it was easy to imagine Bolaño's wry smile. You didn't believe me, did you? Compassion, community—a civilized dinner? Those ideas belong to another age. Welcome to the global triumph of fascism.


I have yet to see The Dark Knight Rises. Lincoln and Zachary saw it on Thursday night in Daly City, about an hour after—unbeknownst to all of us—a young man in Aurora, Colorado, walked into a packed movie theater and opened fire, killing twelve people and injuring dozens more. In the world of Distant Star—in our world—the slaughter in Aurora was essentially performance art. Yes, James Holmes, a PhD student in neuroscience, is a moral outrage. But—as the forthcoming media circus will confirm—we find his story riveting, and eminently American. According to the New York Times, many people in the audience thought what was happening was part of the show.

As much as we like to declaim against it, violence is our national pastime. We eat to violence; we pay for violence; we export violence; we applaud violence. America loves violence. If we didn't, we'd fucking change.

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