Hercules and the Hydra

Basketball, Myth, and the Symbionese Liberation Army

golden snake warriors final 2

From the beginning of English colonial expansion in the early seventeenth century through the metropolitan industrialisation of the early nineteenth, rulers referred to the Hercules-hydra myth to describe the difficulty of imposing order on increasingly global systems of labour. They variously designated dispossessed commoners, transported felons, indentured servants, religious radicals, pirates, urban labourers, soldiers, sailors, and African slaves as the numerous, ever-changing heads of the monster. But the heads, though originally brought into productive combination by their Herculean rulers, soon developed among themselves new forms of cooperation against those rulers, from mutinies and strikes to riots and insurrections and revolution.

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt have noticed the image of the seven-headed snake that sits at the top of the page. It is of course the logo of the SLA, an apparently revolutionary organisation which was briefly active in the Bay Area during the 1970s, and which has since been the subject of a great deal of controversy. I first became aware of the SLA after listening to Third Sight’s Symbionese Liberation Album, and, after tracking down their audio dispatches and hearing of their audacious attempts to distribute free food to the poor and hungry people of California by extorting media baron Randolph Hearst[1], I decided I rather liked them.

It wasn’t until several years later that I stumbled upon rumours and allegations that Donald DeFreeze (the group’s leader) was an informant for the Los Angeles Police Department, and that the SLA was essentially a CIA-orchestrated false flag operation. I find this perfectly plausible, though I will leave it to readers to conduct their own research into the SLA if they’re interested (it’s not really within the scope of this blog post, though it is all quite fascinating). What I intend to focus on below is the question of whether or not the fact that the SLA was almost certainly a fake left-wing revolutionary group whose purpose was to discredit the so-called “New Left” actually matters, and (bear with me) the implications this may have for the 2017 NBA Finals.

SLA album liner notes

After kidnapping Patty Hearst (Randolph’s daughter, then a student at UC Berkeley) from her apartment on 4 February 1974, the SLA released a series of communiques to local media (issued between 12 February and 2 April), which they stipulated were to be broadcast in full, no editing. In hindsight, these tapes may well have been cynical attempts to caricature the kind of language used by the stereotypical white bourgeois “radicals” that UC Berkeley is famous for, and thus were intended to sound ludicrous and off-putting to ordinary, sensible Americans[2].

Yet some of Donald DeFreeze’s speeches were actually surprisingly good. Patty Hearst frequently spoke of “fascist America,” with its “concentration camps” and “fascist pig media.” This is perfectly reasonable language which accurately describes the society in which she lived (and which only becomes more accurate with each passing day). If these were attempts to make a mockery of idealistic young revolutionaries, they were not successful. In fact, the SLA’s message inspired me to read about (real) revolutionary movements around the world and throughout history, and ultimately to become a communist.

The logo of the SLA is reminiscent of the mythical hydra of Lerna, a many-headed monster that Hercules was apparently obliged to kill in exchange for immortality. This is significant because rulers and exploiters have throughout history used this myth to represent the struggle between themselves and the people they seek to oppress. Naturally, the ruling class identified with Hercules, the powerful and heroic individual who overcomes challenges and is rewarded handsomely for his efforts. The role of the hydra was reserved for the exploited, the working class, whom the rulers feared and despised. The hydra, write Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, was regarded as “an antithetical symbol of disorder and resistance, a powerful threat to the building of state, empire, and capitalism.”

Implicit in the hydra myth is the fundamental truth that the working class vastly outnumber the craven capitalist dogs who struggle to contain them, and therefore pose a permanent threat to the capitalist system. When Hercules lopped off one of the hydra’s heads, two new ones grew in its place. Likewise, cut down one revolutionary and you only create more. As Hearst explained in her eulogy to her fallen comrades after they were brutally massacred by the LAPD on live television,

I know that the pigs are proud of themselves; they’ve killed another black leader. […]. But no matter how many leaders are killed, the pig can’t kill their ideals. […]. They live on in the hearts and minds of millions of people in fascist America. […]. The SLA terrifies the pigs, because it calls all oppressed people in this country to arms, to fight in a united front to overthrow this fascist dictatorship. The pigs think that they can deal with a handful of revolutionaries, but they know they can’t defeat the incredible power which the people, once united, represent.

Is it possible that ideological projects which were intended for one thing may be requisitioned, rehabilitated, and redeployed for something entirely different, to take on a life of their own?[3] Consider the example presented by Richard King in Orientalism and Religion of the faux Vedic text which, when originally forged by French Jesuits, was intended to lampoon Indian culture, but, when later read by Voltaire, impressed him with its sophistication! Discourses, concluded King, “cannot be controlled once they have entered the public arena and become subject to contestation, appropriation, and inversion by others.” Of course, this is by no means a new idea. As Roland Barthes[4] wrote,

We know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.

We may well be able to dismiss the author of a text, but can we dismiss the authors of events, of whole systems of ideas? Consider the particular brand of Zen Buddhism that was famously popular in the Bay Area a few years before the SLA emerged. The Zen of the Beat Generation was largely the product of Japanese ultranationalists and bore little resemblance to Zen as it was practiced in Japan. Rather than dismiss it as corrupted and inauthentic, however, I think it is more useful to understand Beat Zen as Californian Buddhism. Religions do change; they are adapted to suit different cultures and periods, and this can happen in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. As far as I’m concerned, Californian Buddhism functions as a religion and is therefore legitimate (though of course it is important to understand it in context).

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks - Game One

The classically educated architects of the Atlantic economy found in Hercules—the mythical hero of the ancients who achieved immortality by performing twelve labours—a symbol of power and order. For inspiration they looked to the Greeks, for whom Hercules was a unifier of the centralised territorial state, and to the Romans, for whom he signified vast imperial ambition. The labours of Hercules symbolised economic development: the clearing of land, the draining of swamps, and the development of agriculture, as well as the domestication of livestock, the establishment of commerce, and the introduction of technology. Rulers placed the image of Hercules on money and seals, in pictures, sculptures and palaces, and on arches of triumph. Among English royalty, William III, George I, and George II’s brother, the “Butcher of Culloden,” all fancied themselves Hercules. John Adams, for his part, proposed in 1776 that “The Judgement of Hercules” be the seal for the new United States of America. The hero represented progress: Giambattista Vico, the philosopher of Naples, used Hercules to develop the stadial theory of history, while Francis Bacon, philosopher and politician, cited him to advance modern science and to suggest that capitalism was very nearly divine.

By arranging for the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers to face one another in the NBA Finals for the third year in a row, Adam Silver was clearly attempting to revive and re-present the Hercules-hydra myth for a contemporary basketball audience. This time around, the hydra was permitted to overpower Hercules. Were LeBron James to have cut down one Finals MVP, another would simply have risen from the bench to take his place! The team of perfect unity and cooperation won against the outmoded brute force of capitalist domination. The Cavaliers could not overcome their own internal contradictions.

Or so the NBA would have us believe!

By signing Kevin Durant in 2016, the Golden State Warriors became the best basketball team that has ever existed. They are incredibly fun to watch, and, I think, even quite likable. As a basketball enjoyer, I love watching teams that rely on isolations get crushed by teams that move the ball, and the 2017 NBA Finals would have taken me in ten years ago.

However, things are not as they are made to appear. In fact, the Warriors are not a hydra but a team of Herculean individuals. The signing of Durant not only represented the further concentration of unimaginable wealth in the hands of the already filthy rich (the Warriors won a record 73 games last season before Durant arrived), but Durant himself did not join the team due to any high-minded basketball ideals. He does not play in a beautifully planned and executed offence because he wants to liberate the NBA from the tyranny of isolation ball. Rather, Durant was bedazzled by the promise of Silicon Valley riches offered to him by his venture capitalist teammates.

Like the SLA, the Golden State Warriors are presented to us as a revolutionary organisation. But just as the SLA were in fact puppets of the CIA, so the Warriors actually represent the ideology of another terrorist organisation—the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley (who “saw the 3-point line as a market inefficiency”). The SLA was indeed revolutionary—their gruesome end, broadcast live on national television, resulted in a revolution in US policing, in the militarisation of American cops. As they watched the murders unfold, fascist police across America were beguiled by the Kevlar vests and incendiary grenades of the SWAT team that had been called in to murder the entire SLA, and subsequently set about arming themselves in a similar vein. Similarly, the revolution the Warriors are ushering in is one of mass surveillance and the tyranny of technology.

So where does all of this leave us? Is it advisable to enjoy watching the Golden State Warriors, or is their very existence a duplicitous scheme to foster within us sympathy for Silicon Valley and its evil plots? Critics of the secularisation thesis, from Émile Durkheim to Rachel Wagener, have pointed out that truth claims by religious authorities and sacred texts in fact mean relatively little to most religious people[5]—what matters is community, tradition, ritual, identity, and so on. Perhaps, then, the truth that Donald DeFreeze and Kevin Durant are agents provocateurs does not matter very much after all so long as alternative ideas, inspirations, and significances can be drawn from their escapades. Viewed this way, they become as much a myth as the Hercules-hydra drama they echo. As Nancy Isenberg writes, the Patty Hearst saga resists one single meaning:

This surfeit of information generated by the SLA, and the overproduction of meaning by the media, suggests why Patty Hearst is perhaps the best of all postmodern subjects. Her story at once registers and resists the desire to find a single meaning. Despite all attempts by journalists, psychiatrists, and jurists to explain her persona through either the tragic story of a female captive/brainwashed victim or the dark comedy of the spoiled rich girl/pseudo revolutionary, her gendered identity cannot be fixed. […]. The Patty Hearst case obliges us to reassess the meaning of identity through a postmodern lens. In a profound way, Hearst’s trial problematizes the meaning of human agency, volition, and the “truthful” representation of facts—cultural categories central to the law and a postmodern critique of bourgeois individualism and “reality.”

Patricia Hearst brandishing a weapon in front of SLA (Symbonese Liberation Army) april 15, 1974

The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the ‘human person’. It is thus logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.

In both instances, the battle between Hercules and the hydra turns out to be an illusion, a theatrical production. Both the Warriors and the Cavaliers are owned by vile plutocrats whose only goal is capital accumulation at the expense of you and I. As for the SLA, it was created by the CIA and destroyed by the LAPD; the SLA saga was essentially a puppet show between two arms of the fascist American state (two heads of the fascist American hydra?). Yet, as Stuart Hall argued, audiences are not passive and stupid, and though a certain message may be encoded within a text, this message can be contested, subverted, rejected.

According to Brad Screiber (an author who investigated the SLA fairly thoroughly), “neither Hearst nor the white radicals who followed DeFreeze realized that he was molded by a CIA officer and allowed to escape, thanks to collusion with the California Department of Corrections.” Screiber claims that Patty Hearst was a “closet radical,” and that most of the SLA’s members were unaware that they were being manipulated and led to their deaths. It is possible that some members of the Golden State Warriors are trapped in a similar predicament, believing naïvely that they are simply members of a basketball team when really their job is to crush any and all resistance to capitalist expansion. I think perhaps we owe it to the idealistic young souls who died in that tragic shootout with the LAPD to rescue what we can from the wreckage of the SLA, just as we owe it to innocent and idealistic basketball players to sometimes simply enjoy a basketball game. I enjoyed watching the Warriors beat the Cavs, and I think Patty Hearst was right about her parents.

The SLA’s rhetoric was imaginative and invigorating, and the principles that they outlined—of racial harmony, of men and women working side by side in a united front against fascist America—are laudable. I like the image and the idea of the hydra, even though the hydra myth was selected by the ruling class because they felt as though it cohered with their worldview, and, moreover, despite the fact that Hercules defeats the hydra in the original myth. I don’t believe in myths. In reality, the hydra (the workers of the world, united) would win every time.

In conclusion, I think I have established beyond any reasonable doubt that the purpose of the 2017 NBA Finals was ultimately to trick the public into thinking that the Warriors’ (i.e. Silicon Valley’s) “disruptive” and “innovative” style represents something different, something in opposition to LeBron James’ (i.e. the real estate mogul’s) more “traditional” Herculean approach to crushing their opponent (i.e. you and I), and as such to foster within us a false sense of security and a trust in the methods, products, and institutions of Silicon Valley.

Regardless of what we each think about the SLA and the Golden State Warriors, there is one thing that I’m confident we can all agree upon:

[1] Incidentally, Hearst Communications Inc., the “fascist media empire” (DeFreeze’s words) established by William Randolph Hearst (Patty’s grandfather), owns 20% of ESPN, and we would be wise not to discount the possibility that they are working to insert fascist messages into their basketball broadcasts right now.

[2] Brad Screiber, who wrote a book about the SLA, believes that these communiques were probably written by Nancy Ling Perry, rather than DeFreeze or Colston Westbrook (the alleged CIA contractor and mastermind behind the SLA), and, moreover, that she was probably quite unaware that the SLA was not what it seemed to be. They may therefore have been written in earnest, making them “authentic.”

[3] Similarly, can one enjoy a Radiohead song knowing that Thom Yorke doesn’t give a shit about Palestinians and appeals to the authority or J. K. Rowling in order to excuse his apathy towards the disgusting violence of Israeli settlers?

[4] The CIA was, incidentally, quite fond of Barthes, promoting his work in the belief that it would lead well-meaning academics into a dead end. They weren’t necessarily right, however. Is it possible that, just as a discarded weapon, which may have been a tool of state repression, can be picked up by a revolutionary and used to murder the agents of capitalism, images, symbols, myths, rhetoric, and theoretical concepts can also be turned against their creators? To be clear, I am not asserting that they can, but it is an interesting and important question to consider.

[5] The secularisation thesis was perhaps most famously advocated by Max Weber, who declared that scientific advances would result in the “disenchantment” of the world. However, in spite of the rise of science and the increasing scrutiny under which religious truth claims are placed, the demise of religion predicted by proponents of the secularisation thesis has yet to occur. Émile Durkheim was more prescient, in my opinion, arguing that although it “seems natural…that religion should progressively fade as science becomes more adept at completing its task,” “insofar as religion is action, insofar as it is a human way of living, science could not possibly take its place.” Religion, according to Durkheim, has ceded one of its original functions to science: that is, its speculative function, its “right to be dogmatic about the nature of things.” Durkheim recognised that “religion clearly cannot play the same role in the future that it has in the past,” but had the foresight to recognise that “it seems called upon to transform itself rather than to disappear.”

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