::: Triple J
When they said repent, I
wondered what they meant.
— Leonard Cohen, “The Future”
Morris Bishop tells it, the answers are as numerous as the theorists providing them:he historian’s hindsight is rarely 20/20. Why, for instance, did Rome fall? As
Montesquieu said that the Romans conquered the world with their republican principles, they changed their principles to fit an empire, and the new principles destroyed it. There is the moral answer: license, luxury, and sloth, a decline in character and in discipline. The Christian answer of St. Augustine: sinful Rome fell to prepare for the triumph of the City of God. The rationalist answer of eighteenth-century freethinkers: Christianity, teaching nonresistance, otherworldliness, disarmed the Romans in the face of the barbarians. The political answer: Caesarism, loss of public spirit, the failure of the civil power to control the army. The social answer or answers: the war of the classes and the institution of slavery, which suppresses incentives toward change and progress. The economic answer: trade stagnation, low productivity, scarcity of gold and silver. The physical answer: soil depletion, deforestation, climatic change, drought. The pathological answer: plague and malaria, or even lead poisoning from cooking pots and water pipes. The genetic and racial answers: the dwindling of the old Roman stock through war and birth control and its mingling with Oriental and barbarian breeds. And the biological-cyclical-mystical answer: an empire is an organism, and like a living creature, it must pass through stages of growth, maturity, and decline, to death.
Whatever the cause, the later days of the empire were marked by discouragement and fear, by what has been well termed “a failure of nerve.”
In the twentieth century, an offshoot of literary theory gave rise to the genius insights of Canadian Marshall McLuhan, whose American incarnation became known as the field of “media ecology.” Its greatness—other than being featured in nebbish Woody Allen films—lies in the suggestion that perhaps all of the above factors were not mutually exclusive. Perhaps they were intricately tied together in an ecology of technological and moral cause and effect that located the central “loss of nerve” across an array of real physical and social events that culminated in a culture unified only by an indifference to the common good—I’ve got mine, now you get yours, and leave me the hell alone.
It’s worth noting that media ecology is also predicated on the moral horror of Nazi genocide. Communications departments across the country arose suddenly after World War II. Communications became a legitimate field of study precisely so as to avoid the possibility of a historical repetition of the brightest, most civilized, most spiritually enlightened nation on earth being persuaded to calmly and deliberately slaughter twelve million of its citizens and neighbors through a cult of personality and the influence of mass mediated propaganda. On the syllabi are books like Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
Germany, in other words, was Rome reincarnated, and the media ecology program seeks, among other things, to train a generation in preventing a similar rise and fall of the American Empire. But Leni Riefenstahl just celebrated her hundredth birthday, the new Volkswagen Beetle is the cutest car on the road, and Nike still wants you to just do it instead of considering the strange persistence of Hitler’s ideals in your own culture.
“Civilization,” you recall, is defined as the strong protecting the weak, a definition that explains both the original rise of the Christian faith as well as its institutional continuation, warts and all, throughout the rise and fall of two millennia of history’s assorted empires. The opposite of this civilization is the new nazism that Nike embodies so well. Call it Neo-Nikeism: youth, beauty, and strength commingled with an absolute moral indifference—no second place, no fear, no mercy; you get the point the bumper sticker is making. Espoused daily by Cosmo (Fun, Fearless, Female!) and Maxim (Sex-Sports-Beer-Gadgets-Sex)—the his-and-hers of the whole media array of five thousand channels owned by three major corporations in a ménage-à-trois with the government—these ideals are the essence of the übermensch’s will to power. They are the essence of what led to the rise and fall of Rome, Germany, and now—sooner rather than later, it would seem—America.
Ophthalmology for your mind’s eye requires not hindsight, but foresight, and it is here that we can make the job of tomorrow’s historian that much easier. Let the record show that the decline and fall of the American empire, whose underlying causes have been brewing for much of its strange history, was set off by the addition of one specific item. We know not only to the year, but also to the month and the day when this item was added—August 9, 2002, when the film XXX—Triple-X—was released.
We’ve got it all right here
Ever since America has been the world’s only superpower, her four remaining growth industries have been military hardware, communications technology, sports, and pornography. They go together like pastrami on rye with sauerkraut and mustard: they are an irreducibly complex sociopolitical narrative so tightly interwoven that removing any one ingredient causes the whole sandwich to crumble.
So when an American film company called “Revolution Studios” releases an R-rated film based exclusively on these four ingredients, titles the film after its own industry’s code for the final taboo of social acceptability, and releases all this on August 9—the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki (the most Christian city in Japan in 1945)—then you know the culture that produced this blockbuster is going down, and going down fast. If you thought you had years to go to see what became of America, guess what? Someone just hit the fast-forward button. Like the new Infiniti tagline, someone just made it their mission to start “accelerating the future.”
Consider the strange end of Ian Fleming’s original super-spy series. James Bond, who put the Double Ohh! into his license to be a lady-killer, is now—five actors later and fresh out of original novels on which to base himself—currently a self-sustaining parody whose economic viability is largely based on product placement subsidies and a foreign market still twenty years behind the American scene. The Bond franchise, of course, sat out the end of the Cold War from 1989 to 1994 and then finally realized in 1995 that The World Is Not Enough.
Two years later Mike Myers proved, with Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, that an accurate parody can have as large a franchise and as many sequels as the original it spoofs. In other words, Bond should simply retire, and we should all move on. But no, he mutated . . .
Who’s a porn star?
Instead of a new Bond film, viewers last summer were treated to XXX. This is a film starring the already porn-star-named Vin Diesel, whose talent as a Hunter College dropout and club bouncer was enough to earn him $10 million for his two hours of screen time. Appropriately, Vin Diesel also pretty well summarizes the symbolic move that Western culture has made in the last two thousand years, from wine to crude oil, from the blood of Christ to the internal combustion engine as the basis of global culture.
Thankfully, Diesel does not have to act since he is cast as himself with the alternative porn-star-pseudonym of Xander Cage, another society drop-out whose nihilistic indifference to anything other than extreme megalomania allows him to focus on the four loves of his life: his parachute, his self-focused video cameras, his next extreme action stunt, and his biceps. In other words, his military hardware, his communications technology, his sport, and his pornographic appeal. Explicitly, he says to the audience, “You’re in the Xander Zone now”—implicitly he says, “and if you don’t like it, then fuck off.”
These four ingredients combined in this army of one turn out to be exactly what the NSA is looking for when their James Bond look-alike turns up dead in a tuxedo at a Goth rock concert. But are they concerned about nuclear disasters or Middle Eastern terrorists? No, they’re worried about “Anarchy 99,” a group of Russian Xander Cage fans who want to create global anarchy and then, as an optimistic Rousseauian side effect, complete freedom.
Total nihilistic anarchy is, in fact, precisely the world Xander Cage wants to live in, and this is why the NSA finds him the perfect weapon: he’s stupid, deadly, and expendable. The method to their madness is a toxic-nerve-gas delivery system called “Silent Night,” which is, ironically, the exact same plot device used by the bad guys in Goldeneye.
As Bond aficionados know, XXX was the codename of Major Anya Amasova, the evil Russian agent from 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. Played by the deliciously beautiful Barbara Bach, Agent XXX set the tone for a new breed of feminist co-star, one who no longer swooned in Bond’s arms after being heroically saved, but literally had to be wrestled into bed, upon which she would often widowize her amorous pursuer with a killer kegel exercise. And with that move, male audiences realized their worst fears—that with a little feminist enlightenment, ZZ Top’s insight cuts both ways: She’s got legs, and she knows how to use them.
But if three X’s stands for a triplicate of all the devious, hidden mischief for which the original X marked the spot, then there’s more to these three strikes to go out on the town with.
“The Roman Empire and its decline and fall remains to this day the dominant historical event of Europe and the Near East.” This, of course, is the official opinion of the authoritative scholar of the era, Edward Gibbon. Now in the film Triple X, the NSA agent played by Samuel L. Jackson is a character whose name is Augustus Gibbons. Augustus was the name of the first and last Roman emperors, and Gibbon’s multi-volumed Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is still required reading. This, then, is the new historical compression of entertainment, where cause, effect, and explanation are neatly condensed into one action-packed character.
Augustus the Great
Note the additional nice touch of Gibbons’s half-burned face and the fact that he’s played by a black man, combining a touching homage to Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned with the visual suggestion that race relations will be a key ingredient in America’s undoing. Having successfully caged and cowered the red, yellow, and black man, American foreign policy is currently intent on lording it over the brown man. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight—but remember what they did to Jesus?
And here’s the punchline: betrayal is the worst of sins. Just ask Dante, who put Judas in the center ring of Hell. This explains why the film is called XXX. It is a signifier of the pornographic cultural ideals that spawned it, but it’s also the Roman numeral XXX, representing the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas—blood money—for his betrayal by kiss of Jesus, his lord and would-be savior.
It also represents the three crosses of Calvary, especially as on the film’s logotype wherein the central X is larger than the other two on each side. But Xander Cage didn’t die for your sins—he stayed alive so you could keep it up, and stay hard all the way to the bitter end. As Cage puts it before bedding the Bolshevik bimbo, “The things I’m gonna do for my country!”
Whatever happens next, Triple X declares, we’ve got it coming. As Cage reminds us in the film, “Before you ask someone to save the world, you’d better make sure they like it the way it is.” By the end, we realize that his indifference-turned-narcissistic-hedonism is precisely the motivation that causes the film’s “bad guys” to conspire for total anarchy. Ultimately, it seems, Gibbon’s and Bishop’s answer to the puzzle of Rome’s fall is our answer. Whether judgment from without or moral sloth–induced decay from within, America has in this film its own final spasm and subsequent loss of nerve.
A sequel is coming soon to the political theatre nearest you.