There is a genre in fiction that celebrates an individual’s adversity against seemingly impossible odds. Whether this is a person who takes the war to organized crime (Mack Bolan), a secret agent saving the world for their government (James Bond), a wronged loner lost and bullied by the law and the society that rejects them (John Rambo), one who wants something so bad that they will defy social conventions (Velvet Brown), or even a rogue that hides behind a mask and inspires a revolution against tyranny (V), they are in some way inspiring. They are better than most not just because of courage, but also often principle. They are the outsider, the curmudgeon, and blowhard, or worse.
In the coming eclipse of cancel culture and layered censorship, certain allegories and metaphorical fiction will become a dangerous device for story tellers to use. It is no longer a method of sedition to lift a mirror up to a wider culture or society, to reveal an imagery that the victims or an outsider may see. The marketplace of varied opinions and diverse perspectives that is supposedly a hallmark of the abstract known as western civilization is becoming less welcome to such variations. Instead, through technology and a paternalistic tendency society is becoming a dystopia tinkering between the prose of Huxley and Orwell, but especially that found in the film ‘Demolition Man.’ It is a creation of the timid, those who shy away from difference while claiming to champion it.
Social media, like most innovations, was a promise to open our worlds and to connect and share so many different ideas and experiences. Instead it becomes a series of cultivated echo chambers that snuff out certain viewpoints and celebrate others, always confirming a particular bias. It is with an unofficial handshake that the public, made of shrill and easily offended individuals, unite with corporations and states to mash out a new moral order that mutates in instances of outrage and crisis. It clings to central planning and yet it is not necessarily centrally planned. It is a negative instinct to constrict and subvert any desires and needs for liberty. It is the widespread transformation of language to duplicate words into meanings that could only be conjured up inside the laboratories of intellect inefficiency. It is born from a need to be safe and correct, but it is a dangerous approach to any issue or problem.
The story of the individual saying no or wanting to be left alone is now one that is deemed selfish and dangerous. It is bad that one or a few may defy the collective good. The abstract religion of social contracts and duty to the state are the order and safety that a majority cling to. A society of so many dependents who demand and extract from the individual hinder productivity and creative instincts while demanding more. It would be as much of a cliché to invoke Ayn Rand as it would George Orwell—both would simplify the moment—but alas, the Randian term “moocher” is perhaps apt at times. The moochers rule. Tyranny inevitably is like a kind chef cooking a frog in warm water slowly until it boils, so that it may not leap for freedom until it’s too late.
It is with great concern that if the fiction of the past is not censored, redacted, or destroyed that it will be viewed, and that many will view the villains of the story as the hero. The individual, those who fight for freedom and liberty, are now the bad guy. Those with the imperial conviction to control and impose law and order, however maniacal, are the true heroes, the pillars of society. John Rambo after all was carrying a knife and Sarah Connor was stockpiling weapons. Will great firemen like Guy Montag burn the pages of dangerous books and char the words of seditious thought to maintain a society of ignorance? It is after all a state of bliss to be hidden from such dangers.
What does it say about a society or culture that will not leave people alone? That it will not let them be or demand that they must not merely comply, but pay tribute? The one who does not want these conditions is considered selfish, while those who exist at the expense of others are normal. The myth is that the elites and rulers are the only benefactors from the centrally planned nightmares that always lead to tyranny. There are many who benefit from such a regulated society, where grants, welfare, and subsidies feed the ineffective and perpetuate an ideology of employment over outcome. The many planners, agents, and ‘moochers’ all benefit, enjoying the trappings of such a state.
The individual must speak in whispers like a thief, yet they are the one getting stolen from. They must plan around impositions as though a conspirator, but it is those in conferences and on committees who conspire against them. They are the ones whose homes are invaded if they possess contraband, do not pay enough tribute to the state, or if they speak wrongly on social media. The terror regimes of North Korea and the Peoples Republic of China are often pariahs, yet the more the open nations of the west condemn them, the more they seem to employ their methods of control and order.
The majority tends to yearn for a comfortable status quo that allows them to enjoy life, often at the expense of others. They are the opulent living city dwellers of the Capitol in ‘The Hunger Games.’ They are the humans inside the pods that will not swallow the pills in ‘The Matrix,’ and those who refuse to wear the sunglasses in ‘They Live.’ To have a bitter truth revealed is painful. That means the victims of the wars, the unintended consequences of regulation, the trampled innocent of policy, all cannot have a voice, and if they do it is often skewered and redirected. The status quo is always preserved. Partisan politics allows the steering wheel to keep turning, even as the direction stays the same.
A man like John Rambo—a vagrant used by his government and then rejected—is a danger not because of his skills and experiences, or because he carries a large knife, but because he wants to be left alone. He is directionless and does not have a generic path in mind. It is a long road, but it is his to take. In time the radical individual becomes embraced and utilised by the state, in life and fiction. In the United States, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. is no longer a dangerous emblem of civil rights defying the order of his time, but a murder victim of cause, likely killed by the very government that now enshrines his name. But his ideals?
Mack Bolan, a former Vietnam war veteran like John Rambo, comes home to a society that no longer needs him. His family is murdered and wronged by the Mafia. So, Bolan deserts the military and wages his own war. In time, as the franchise succeeds and the 1970s climate of anti-establishment thinking grows into Reagan’s America, Bolan fights the Soviets and terrorists. He works with the CIA and other covert government agencies, and like the Punisher (inspired by Bolan), he serves Uncle Sam. Around the same time as this switch, so too does John Rambo in the sequels. These individuals become implements of the state, however begrudging it may be.
As the new century loomed it was not merely the state itself that was the danger, but corrupt actors from within. Gene Hackman and Will Smith as an ‘Enemy of the State’ do not go up against the U.S. government but instead rogue elements of it. This becomes the theme as the individuals continue to defy the odds, but only in a watered-down way. Mark Wahlberg in ‘The Shooter’ is a wary ex-serviceman, a loner, living remote with conspiracy inclinations. We are shown this as the camera pans across his library. He is bought in by the government as a consultant but is betrayed and used as a patsy. But again it is the secret agency of corrupt individuals, not the government itself.
Perhaps the peak of this genre was the 1990s when so many things culminated: the promise of a technological future where liberty and decentralized markets could thrive, and where no more would Cold War threaten the globe with nuclear misery and endless proxy wars. Instead the new century arrived, and it was like the last one. All those promises were betrayed. Like the fictional individuals ultimately going on to serve the odds, Arnold Schwarzenegger would become the governor of California. The man who championed Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose and appeared in the documentary series introduction, the Austrian ‘Austrian’ economist of free markets who starred in many ‘individual against the odds’ films, ultimately became another statist. ‘The Running Man’ would go on to run the show in the sequel. It defeats the point.
The animated film ‘Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,’ perhaps one of the greatest tales of individual liberty told, shows a defiant horse that does not want to be owned and broken in by humans, whether that’s by a native American boy or a U.S. army cavalry officer. In the end the native American boy accepts the horse’s wishes and the cavalry officer realizes that he cannot break the stallion’s spirit. It is a beautiful and basic story, that if you love something you should let it to be free. To respect freedom itself is in a sense love.
In the follow-up sequel, the whole point is missed. It is a cynical defeat of an established franchise, an all too common theme for any fan that has seen the terrible litany of remakes in the modern era. Instead of Spirit the stallion being free—a rebel—he becomes submissive and a prop to a city girl. It is a complete about face of what the original film was about. The hero of individual defiance is again saddled and broken in by the very odds that he was heroically defying. No longer does the individual stand up to do the right thing despite personal risk, but instead he is relegated to be a vapid avatar for contemporary consumption, spiritless and all too common.
Perhaps this is the theme: no longer will individuals be this feral radical, but instead be tamed in the end. The uniqueness and dignity of their principles becomes perverted by a mandate devised inside the cauldron of academia by a committee of experts or the reactionaries on social media. In the end, like Spirit the stallion they must be broken in and ridden for some collective monolith. Maybe in the future the spirit of the individual will be found inside the broken algorithms of a machine’s mind, like WALL-E, a lowly robot with basic AI that eventually sees the world for what it is. And the comfortable obese humans wrapped in technology, having destroyed nature—both their own and the wider world’s—will be saved by the touch of a machine who simply thinks for itself and says, “no more.” By then will it be to late? Will the sacred beauty of the individual flower pushing through the filthy mess of the collective be plucked for good?
Bryce Courtenay, in The Power of One, wrote, “Pride is holding your head up high when everyone around you has theirs bowed. Courage is what makes you do it.”