Of Righteous Dissent

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It was maybe 1981. There was this guy who worked at my father’s nursery – a lanky guy with a stringy George Thorogood haircut and an Ironhead Sportster. That bike was probably the most valuable thing he owned. He worked outside in the fields or in the smothering heat of the quonset huts all day and wasn’t that interested in talking to a little kid. I seem to recall he had once worked as a deck hand on a Great Lakes freighter, so let’s call him Freighter Dave. The only protective gear Freighter Dave wore on his bike was aviator sunglasses and engineer’s boots. His Sportster had a sissy bar and straight pipes – absolutely no baffles.

At that point in my life, the loudest thing I had ever heard were the jet funny-cars at Thompson Drag Raceway, but this bike came a close second. It was shockingly, frighteningly, wonderfully loud. Freighter Dave said it was “the sound of freedom.” I thought he meant because it was made in America. I knew we didn’t like “Jap” bikes, so I took this as a simple, straightforward statement of patriotic loyalty. It didn’t occur to my eight-year-old brain that Freighter Dave was not exactly the rah-rah America type.

That comment about “freedom” stuck with me, maybe because it was one of the few things Freighter Dave actually said directly to me. Later, I thought it meant that he felt free and in control while he was riding, when the rest of his life certainly had few luxuries and few choices. It wasn’t until decades later, in a moment, that I realized what it was about.

He was talking about righteous dissent.

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Bikers have always had a strange relationship with patriotism. Some of the most anti-establishment biker characters are sometimes the most patriotic. It’s like when you see a Maltese cross and American flag on the same bike. It’s a patriotism that isn’t blind allegiance. It’s a patriotism that revels in the fact that we are a nation of firebrands, misanthropes, and weirdos. This is a patriotism that can sometimes make people very uneasy, like when the Hells Angels volunteered to go to Vietnam. It’s “freedom” with a hard “F.”

This is summed up perfectly in the image of Peter Fonda’s “Captain America” bike from Easy Rider. Here is this character, this anti-super-hero, striking away from society’s expectations, a new pioneer, with the flag on his tank. Of course, he runs up against “real” American society, with terrible results. A sociologist might say he “appropriated” the flag “iconography” in order to “re-invent” or “re-interpret” it, but I say that’s where it was meant to be all along. The spirit of righteous dissent is essential to the American spirit. Without it, there is no Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, or Woody Guthrie. It’s something you don’t hear in Lee Greenwood, but you do hear something like it in Elmore James. It is what makes America unique… or at least what makes America interesting.

We are the nation of the Whiskey Rebellion. Right after we had a revolution and formed a shiny new country, a bunch of farmers and distillers took up arms against our very first administration over whiskey taxes. Many of them were even veterans of the Revolutionary War. You have to love a bunch of nuts like that.

Our culture is bursting with great examples of dissent. Every “great American novel” is a book that is critical of our society, and we celebrate them for that very quality. From The Last of the Mohicans to The Scarlet Letter to Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Jungle, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Naked and the Dead. It is a canon of malcontents!

This is why I believe Rocky I is a more genuinely patriotic movie than Rocky IV. It’s why the most credible rendition of The Star Spangled Banner is by Jimi Hendrix. Once you hear his “rockets red glare,” when you can’t tell if you’re hearing celebratory fireworks or a shitstorm of missiles raining helldeath out of the sky, every other version of the national anthem will just seem boring. This is why Abbie Hoffman wore that American flag shirt. This is why we love the First Amendment so much. Think about it: you don’t need an amendment to protect inoffensive speech. You don’t need it if everybody agrees. The only reason to have it is to protect offensive, unpopular, outsider speech. It is our license to dissent. Our license to be a crackpot.

I think we are in danger of losing this spirit of righteous dissent and becoming boring. Patriotism is becoming too narrowly defined. At the end of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson talks about reaching a high water mark in the 60s, and seeing the tide recede, sliding into apathy and complaisance. I don’t think we’re apathetic, but bumper-sticker love of country is too easy and lazy. Patriotism now seems to mean supporting a particular agenda. We have plenty of partisan bickering, but no real dissent. It’s morbid compliance. Biker-style patriotism is anti-agenda, and we need to spread more biker-style patriotism.

Most people who ride are good, normal citizens – squares. That’s fine; we love bikers from all walks of life – I don’t hold to that “real biker”/”not real biker” thing. But whether you’re a nursery worker, a high school teacher, a dentist, or even (ugh!) an architect, when you get on your bike, you know deep down that you’re tapping into something dangerous. I don’t mean physically dangerous, I mean a dangerous idea. You are hearing Thomas Jefferson tell you, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” This is something that emanates from core biker culture, and it’s good. It feels good. We need it.

I don’t know what happened to Freighter Dave. He would only be about 55 or so now, so I hope he’s still riding. I wonder what he’d think if he knew I spent so much time thinking about his comment. I know he wasn’t thinking about the Whiskey Rebellion or Upton Sinclair when he said it. All these connections are just my own ramblings, but as I try to look past all the sameness around us, the chain restaurants, reruns, pop anthems, cars that all look the same, the neighbor’s leaf blower, and all the fucking parking lots, when I look for what is awesome, inspiring, and uniquely American, I always come back to this common theme of restlessness, rebellion, and dissent. I’m always listening for the sound of freedom.

Natty Bumppo: Original American Biker

James Fenimore Cooper is little read today, perhaps because of his daunting, elliptical prose, but his books, especially The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer, helped carve the mold of The American Novel.  Writing at a time when both the novel and the nation were just coming of age, Cooper created settings, plots, and above all characters that felt distinctly American and very different from existing European literature.

Cooper’s novels draw emotional impact from his readers’ love of country, by which I mean the physical country – the landscape, the woods, streams, and lakes of a vast continent.  They also gain narrative drive, interest, and sometimes humor by subverting inherited European notions of class and propriety.  The American landscape, anti-elitism, and adventurism are integral to Cooper’s writing in a way that was new and would endure in American writers through the twentieth century.

Natty Bumppo, better known by his Delaware name “Hawkeye,” is the central character in these books and the embodiment of all these sentiments.  He is not, strictly, the protagonist, but he is the most interesting, memorable, and ultimately significant character.  He is the biker character.

Born of white parents, raised among the Delaware Indians, he is forever a man apart.  He speaks both languages and is of both worlds, but does not fully belong in either one.  He is independent of the rules and expectations of society and almost supernaturally capable in the manly arts of the woods – hunting, tracking, shooting.  More mainstream characters like Major Heyward, who would be the unquestioned hero in a novel a generation earlier, are almost comically out of their element in Hawkeye’s wooded world.  There is a supremacy of wildness, which a natural man must master as he masters himself, rather than mastering the rules and mores of society.  By being more natural, Hawkeye is more free than his counterparts in either the Indian nations or the English society; he is closer to the Rousseau ideal.  In a sense, he is taking the American revolution against distant aristocracy to is Platonic ideal form.

Hawkeye is quick-witted, a jokester god who offers asides other characters cannot.  He can comment on everything, being the perennial outsider; he does not say too much, but when he speaks, he cuts away the grease.  He is cunning and morally ambiguous, or at least lives by his own moral code, which may not be congruent with society’s code.  He is fiercely loyal to his friends and has a sense of chivalry, but these values stem from his innate nature, not society’s expectations, and so his behavior often seems odd to the square characters that surround him.

All this may sound like a cliché Romantic hero today, but in 1826 this was certainly revolutionary.  This was a proto-American archetype.  Our ingrained images of the frontiersman, cowboy, rough rider, fighter pilot, private eye, and above all biker share these fundamental elements.

These characters are all outsiders, living on the in-between, masters of their own world and outcasts in ours.  They are people we look to with equal parts trepidation and admiration.  They do not respect and do not fear the things we wish we didn’t respect and fear.  From Huck Finn to Tyler Durden, they live what we yearn.

Of all these archetypes, the biker is the most unredeemed and the most on the outside, the most associated with danger and criminality.  Although most real bikers are firmly part of square society, part of what draws us to ride is the reminder of that elemental being.  When we open the throttle and the adrenaline pumps, there is a native recall, an atavistic displacement from ordinary life.  Woods long lost close in around us, and we are briefly marksmen and masters.  Hawkeye is our Adam.

This lineage has survived as a central part of the American psyche in literature and film for almost as long as the nation itself.  Now, however, it is in decline.  The real longing for adventure and drive to be uncaged have recently lost their cultural purchase.  In place of the Hawkeye/biker character is the superhero.

While superheroes are outsiders, have special skills, and often live by their own codes, there are important differences between them and the Hawkeye type.  Central to the idea of a superhero is a supernatural/fantasy element (or supernatural wealth) and sheer physical impossibility of their feats.  This can serve well for childhood imaginative role-play, but is not a trait that has enduring worth as the reader/viewer matures.  (Fortunately for studios, most males do not mature any more.)  Their cartoon exaggeration overwhelms any moral complexity in their stories.  The superhero’s victory is always a deus-ex-machina cop out.

A more significant difference is that the superheroes are heroes, which a Hawkeye is not.  There may be moments when society turns on the superhero in a story, but ultimately is it the superhero that saves the day, because they share square society’s values, even if the hero is at times misunderstood.  (This often makes the superhero boring, and it’s why the Joker is the only interesting character in all the Batman movies.)

Not so the Hawkeye/biker characters.  They value independence over acceptance.  That proposition has sadly since been inverted for today’s heroes.

We need Hawkeye.  We need that other, the wolf that stares back at us from outside the light of the campfire.  We need to be more hungry and less satisfied.  Superman will not come in and punch evil for us.  If we lose the zero-fucks-given free thinkers, we will be just as hopeless, feckless, and moronic as the citizen of Metropolis.

America needs bikers.