All crime, and that includes capital crime, is just a matter of where your society draws its particular line (think justifiable homicide). Here in the US, we have the main lines drawn pretty well. But that leaves many of us victims of a fairly arbitrary drawing of the white collar line in the sand. (Think Wall Street)
Tyler Durden may be the coolest guy that’s (cinematically) walked the earth. A true Renaissance man, the (anti)hero of Fight Club provided an outlet for troubled young men to re-invest their lives with meaning, stood up to make political and social change where he felt change was necessary, and created a sense of true community among a group of misfits who felt disconnected, all from humble beginnings as a soap entrepreneur. Sure, a lot of the “change” he made came as the result of blowing up buildings and getting guys to punch each other senseless (not to mention pouring lye on Ed Nor-ton’s hand, arguably one of the most painful scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie). But when push comes to shove, I want to be Tyler Durden at the end of the film, or at least as close to him as I could be.
When the visions of Brad Pitt’s abs on my body withered away and the realization that chemical explosives are, in fact, a bad thing became clear again, I put my dreams of being Tyler Durden’s next protégé on hold. But for some, this dreamworld never dissipates, which leads to some really fucked up things. Take for instance the Queens elementary school teacher who was charged with “acting in a manner injurious to a child under 17,” after it came forward that he had started his own fight club comprised of his fourth grade students. The playground turned into a boyhood bloodbath every time the 10:45 morning bell would ring.
This is an extreme. Sometimes all we want to do is have a little fun. And hell, I’ve never been one to say no to that. Just like watching Julie and Julia has the potential to give you the false perception that you can cook like a master of Le Cordon Bleu, or that if you start a blog that people will actually care about it, watching a guy onscreen steal diamonds and get away with it or rob a bank and then make out with Kate Beckinsale gives us the urge to try it ourselves. And because this is the way Hollywood has programmed us, who’s to say it’s wrong? The law, that’s who.
As soon as families started looking a little less like Norman Rockwell paintings and a little more like The Royal Tenenbaums, child-rearing took up an approach that I’ll coin as the “box method.” Since the 60’s, we’ve all been raised by various boxes: televisions, VCRs, movie screens, DVDs. Hence, it would only make sense that as a people, we’ve developed a system of values and desires based on what we’ve seen onscreen, from Miss Celie’s strong will to The Terminator’s ability to kick some major ass. We’ve learned to assign demigod status to heroes, of both the regular and anti-variety, who have graced the screen in our lifetimes, and we’ve subconsciously created a Rolodex in the back of our minds that tells us what’s right and wrong based on their behaviors. We’ve developed our hopes, dreams, and aspirations from the Colin Farrells and Matt Damons of the world, and we’ve spent the majority of our childhoods living out these fantasies on the playground and in the backyard. As kids, we became so close to these movies and so far removed from real life that we never dreamed of the lives we ended up living, or the careers we ended up occupying. I remember countless hours spent on the hot California blacktop imagining I was a crooked cop, a robber, or a highway bandit, but I can’t recall a single recess spent playing a financial analyst or corporate lawyer.
Just because the blacktop has turned into happy hour in Hell’s Kitchen doesn’t mean we’ve “grown up” by any measure. We may be sitting in chairs in cubicles in tall office buildings playing financial analysts and corporate lawyers everyday, but that’s not to say that much has changed in the ways of our idolatry. We still yearn for what we’ve seen in the movies, what we still see. We pepper our day-to-day with fantasies of the “caper criminals,” those fearless men who live out their lives onscreen, breaking the law in every which way, who we can’t help but adore. We go to the movies expecting the thrills we can’t achieve in our own realities, and when we see it all acted out in front of us, it sparks that basic human instinct to cause a little trouble, to stick it to the man who decided to switch the office toilet paper from Charmin Ultra Soft to generic one-ply. The next day, we wake up ready and eager to perform what we studied in that Scorsese flick, only to stare in the closet and realize our wardrobes are full of sensible cashmere socks instead of the black ski masks we’d need to rob a bank. Sadly, the fantasy is quickly dissolved. Call it a case of criminal blue balls: it’ll sting for a bit, but when it gets down to it, you probably made the right decision not to go any further.
But what about that guy who doesn’t stop there? Is he a badass or an idiot? A misinterpreted hero or a plain criminal? While a lot of this area is clearly defined by the law, I think it gets a little sticky when you start to unpack it a little. I will be the first to admit that I don’t think stealing is an OK thing to do. In recent years, a lot of young Americans have started this bizarre trend of “thrill theft,” where rich kids from Connecticut are caught stealing from stores simply because it was the only thing that could put a spike in the charts of their prep school lives. I guess it beats intravenous drug use, but that’s no justification for taking something that isn’t yours. Stealing wallets on the street or purses on the train? Forget about it. I hope we can all agree that there’s no justifiable reason for this. Don’t even try the Robin Hood, “stealing from the rich and giving to the poor” excuse either, because I’m sure the victim of this crime would be happier to buy someone a sandwich or donate a few dollars than he would be canceling all his credit cards and standing in the DMV line waiting for yet another embarrassing driver’s license picture (take it from experience, this whole debacle sucks). This stuff is illegal for a reason: it’s immoral and it’s just plain not nice.
Even with all the provisions of the law that make this kind of behavior punishable in our country, there exists a whole style of “stealing” that’s almost institutionalized in the states. It is a sort of “capitalist crime” that nobody would ever argue as unlawful, and that exists on every street corner in America. OK, that’s a lot of words, but what does it mean, and how are we all a part of it? Like this: when a store or an individual sells an inferior product at a price that somebody would consider exorbitant if they knew the real quality, should we consider that a theft of sorts? New Yorkers, let’s take an example that is near and dear to many of our hearts and examine the sale of umbrellas on the streets. How many of us have been caught in a disgusting January surprise rainstorm and have been forced to succumb to the closest vendor under scaffolding shelling out shitty umbrellas for $15? He knows that the umbrella will undoubtedly break before you even make it to your train, and with this knowledge, he takes your money and gives you what is essentially a piece of garbage in return. While this “crime” isn’t something that will earn him criminal charges, is it not still a morally criminal act? Is it right for somebody to use their intellect and the benefit of capitalism to take your money from you like this, knowing that they are the sole benefactors of the transaction? As long as we keep purchasing umbrellas on those awful days, we are complying with this kind of “crime”, and while it seems victimless, your empty pockets will miss that $15.
It seems that a kind of double standard exists when it comes to dealing with crime in the United States, favoring the intellectually adept over those with physical might. While I’m sure almost all Americans would be outraged by a linebacker of a man taking Little Miss Sunshine to the floor and stealing her Hello Kitty purse, we rarely hear of people taking a stand greater than living room grumbles over business big wigs collecting their twice-yearly bonuses as our economy crumbles even further to the ground. If you want to commit the perfect crime, don’t act on physical impulse. Rather, take your time, get out the drafting paper, and be ready to use your words. I can’t tell if Americans are really smart or really stupid to let this kind of “crime” pervade in our country, but either way it seems to be the way of the land, so why not take advantage of it? At the end of the day, if you’ve got some thoughts in your head and the mysterious charm of Tyler Durden (the six pack is a bonus), America may be your treasure chest. Let the plundering begin.