[Note: This piece was originally written in April of 2016 on this blog.]
When it comes to cultivating a social circle, I tend to focus more on quality than quantity. Keeping things small with a mind towards the eclectic has always been my way, not as a preset rule but as a natural occurrence. In the days of #squadgoals, I possess none, instead preferring to traverse in-group after in-group like a derelict plastic bag and probably no less annoyingly. Yet in admiring the distinction one friend has from another, it becomes all too easy to overlook those things that stitch them together. It’s easy to see in real time the making and breaking of alliances, or the boiling over and soothing of animosities all the while forgetting that these people have one very significant commonality: they are progressive.
Among my circles I count friends who claim some variation of the term “progressive,” or at least the specific set of ideas that others tend to label progressive. Whatever pride or seriousness they attach to the term, I am assured they will balk in any case at the Brennanian broadness with which I expand its use. In so doing I include not only the Democrat, the socialist, the secularist, and the social justice warrior but the Republican, the reactionary, the faithful, and the alt-righter. Under my stewardship, progress is less an ideological cast than an outlook or, to borrow from Irving Kristol, a persuasion. Whatever differences these various people have in ordering or reordering or destabilizing the world, they do so with the firm conviction and rightness that Woodrow Wilson would find conveyed in reasonable proportion. They are invested in the future and mankind’s continued fruitfulness within it. I’m reluctant to call it optimism, as hope itself is a matter of degree from person to person; but hope is consistently a possibility, however faint.
In all this it is rather surprising that these people have ever come to find me tolerable. Perhaps when looking on a purely cellular level they find some shared values or empathy. But when the whole is considered it would be madness to expect them not to see someone so diametrically opposed to their worldview. Keeping my framework in mind, those of the dialectical bent would seek to label me a regressive, but I’d say depressive is the more accurate term. It is one thing to find the future hopelessly stagnant, but quite another to see it sensibly so. But assuming my overall disposition does not give this away, I usually withhold explicit expression of this view. I’ve enough decency to know the rudeness of attending a party only to tell any friend of keen mind and good intention that the earth is antipathetic to worldly humanism (though it is) and their designs for the future are founded on quicksand (though they are). Yet in moments when intuitional conjuring gives way to reason and prophetic resolution to concession, I have enough sense to admit that, yes, perhaps there is a future to be offered, but who’s to say that it’s going to be given to you?
An oft repeated contention in my work — the one that comes closest to flirting with intellectual consistency — is the primacy of the “loser” in American culture. “Loser” does not exist as a euphemism in America. It prefers positive euphemisms from which the negatives are created as a kind of side effect. Winners, as I understand them, are primarily doers, quick thinkers rather than light ones, who seek and successfully discover the fastest route to the most desired result, which contributes positively to national character and strength. Moreover, they are either completely inoffensive, or set the tone for what qualifies as offensive. They inspire and embody a national spirit, compelling to a vast majority of other Americans because it is simple and winners compel them with seeming grace and effortlessness. Losers, then, are whatever that isn’t; or rather it is what the average American would prefer to avoid if witnessed in public. Presumably they are impolite, unkempt, unmotivated, incurious, obese, yet alive in spite of everything. Why, the inoffensive Americans ask, do they persist on existing if they don’t right themselves? The common answers — they are poor, evolutionary psychology predisposes them to unacceptable behavior — may well be accurate, but are explored only so far as they satisfy prejudices and provide unambiguous contrast against majority propriety.
What I know of the juggalo I have not acquired from direct experience. And though my peers are just as aware of them and speak of them every so often, I can’t say with any certainty that their experience is any more direct than mine. Rather, we gain our understanding through hearsay. We get a sense of their values and character from what they consume (Insane Clown Posse and Faygo) and where they go to consume it (their “gatherings,” the epic advertisements for which are an annual tradition in hate-watching, or at least smug-watching). To most people there is a wretchedness to them that has few if any rivals remaining today. Indeed, in the music fan stratum, juggalos would seem to be the serfs to the Slipknot “maggot’s” landed gentry. And having routinely been accused of organized criminal behavior, movement leaders Insane Clown Posse and the ACLU sued the FBI over gang classification, which they won on appeal late last year. Living well outside of the juggalo bubble of existence, I’ve never been compelled to venture inside it, nor, do I gather, that they care to venture into mine. And while some would find insufficient resource to mount a defense, nothing to me is more paramount.
In the annals of American defeatism, the juggalo is a curious case. Rather than offend they confound. There is something prefabricated about them, as if an enterprising sociologist sought to bring a thought experiment to life but very soon lost control of its will and perpetuated itself independently. More than merely fitting an average American’s perception of the Other, they embody it with gusto. They leave no room for questions as to their status and no particular qualms as to how we will react to it. They hit all the popular marks of low class degeneracy and indignity, but do so with a degree of acceptance and celebration so marked as to not go unnoticed as a statement of purpose or the setting of an example. “There’s haters everywhere,” a gathering attendee tells Fuse. “Everybody’s gonna be hated for something they do no matter what it is, even if they’re trying to do something good.” Vulgarity is a vice for all manner of progressive, the juggalo summarizes it and flaunts it back as a virtue. Why do they persist, the Americans ask again. We don’t know, the juggalos answer, but what’s the matter with it?
In this era of manufactured dissent and market-tested nonconformity, the juggalo stands as an uncommon expression of genuine exception to mainstream culture. And in a time when many internet cliques are rushing to acquire the glamor of counterculture, the juggalos are the only grouping that meets its primary requirement: that a vast majority of people want no part of it. The juggalos have an impressively consistent aversion to mainstream acceptance — though not so much the limelight which is often shined on them first — boasting that their gatherings are truly “underground” for denying corporate sponsorship (drawbacks and all). In fact much of its character harkens back to the last great counterculture. “When punk bands play, fans pogo,” Auberon Waugh wrote in The Spectator in 1978. “Perhaps the whole of Christian and liberal humanist philosophy was an elaborate curtain to give these Calibans self-respect and prevent them from looking in the mirror. Now the curtain has been removed, they might as well jump up and down.”
Today punk rock, especially in the United States, is a deeply earnest and ethical enterprise, with an aesthetic sensibility that bends toward authenticity and in some cases cultural elitism. Its infancy, however, was one of “proletarian defiance,” as Waugh called it. It was young, awkward, and more consistently “working class, although few, if any, of them worked.” Moreover it was playful and rich with artifice. Though leather and mohawk haircuts were their signature, punk style borrowed liberally from past trends from the fairly recent (mod rock) to the fairly distant (19th century romanticism). Juggalos have a similar working class background and are similarly playful with their style. Though clown makeup and dreadlocks are their own signature, the juggalo aesthetic clashes every bit as aggressively as punk’s, borrowing from hip-hop, nü-metal, goth, and rave culture. Though they assure inquiring outsiders that they have stable jobs, they make no bones about who they are. “We’re normal people,” a gatherer says, “we just live differently.”
But juggalos are descended from punk, not copied of it. Early punk was nihilistic, almost to a fault, a philosophical cast juggalos unambiguously reject. Juggalos are hedonistic and unrestrained by the standards of most Americans, yet Gathering attendees are quicker to point out the communal feel of the event rather than the libertine thrills. Juggalos are a “family,” regardless of how acquainted one is with another. Feelings of “love” and “respect” are constantly expressed, and an overall feeling of acceptance that is harder to attain outside the confines of the Gathering. So dedicated a clashing of individualism and communitarianism is unheard of among the blander economic individualism and social uniformity of middlebrow Americans, yet it is not new. More than a continuation of punk, juggalos keep alive the communitarian nonconformity that sent the Puritans to North America in the early 17th century. Beneath the postmodern dressing, juggalos are handed down a familiar quest for freedom and fellow feeling. And it is not done unawares. “The whole message is,” a gatherer says, “turn your fucking life around before the end. Hell is real, death is permanent. You only have one chance to turn it around. And … if you die and go to Hell you deserve it, because you have the opportunity to turn your life around now … This is a reflection of the wicked world.”
America is in the midst of clashing ideas of how to make its citizens safer, wealthier, and happier. Juggalo culture has no plans to make any of those things possible and it never intends to. Nor does it intend to impart any lessons on the people who would judge them. But the beast of education leaves a far harsher and more lasting impact when relieved of its chains, and juggalos have much to teach about freedom to a wider culture that looks on it with indifference at best. The future is less mine or the progressives to have than it is the juggalos’ to lose. Such an arrangement will make for a less anxious journey toward extinction on my part.
Postscript: Nicholas Pell over at LA Weekly covered similar ground ahead of me on juggalo culture with additional context.