When the great Parisian Hegelian Alexandre Kojeve searched for an image of the end of history, he finally hit upon the Japanese tea ceremony. Coming from Brooklyn, I am a bit less sophisticated and turn to American professional wrestling instead. For wrestling has been as much a victim of the end of the Cold War as the military-industrial complex. It is not just that the demise of the Soviet Union deprived wrestling of one set of particularly despicable villains. The end of the Cold War signaled the end of an era of nationalism that had dominated the American psyche for most of this century. Like much else in the United States, including the power and prestige of the federal government itself, wrestling had fed off this nationalism. It drew upon ethnic hostilities to fuel the frenzy of its crowds and give a larger meaning to the confrontations it staged.
The state of professional wrestling today thus provides clues as to what living at the end of history means. It suggests how a large segment of American society is trying to cope with the emotional letdown that followed upon the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy. If the vast wrestling audience (some 35 million people tune in to cable programs each week) is a barometer of American culture, then the nation is in trouble. Indeed, the very idea of the nation-state has become problematic. For wrestling has been denationalizing itself over the past decade, replacing the principle of the nation with the principle of the tribe.
The erosion of national identity in wrestling reflects broader trends in American society. If one wants to see moral relativism and even nihilism at work in American culture, one need only tune in to the broadcasts of either of the two main wrestling organizations, Vince McMahon's Worldwide Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling. (It is no accident that one of the pillars of professional wrestling is Turner's cable TV empire, which also brings us CNN, the anti-nation-state, global news channel.) Both the WWF and the WCW offer the spectacle of an America that has lost its sense of national purpose and turned inward, becoming wrapped up in manufactured psychological crises and toying with the possibility of substituting class warfare for international conflict. And yet we should remain open to the possibility that contemporary wrestling may have some positive aspects; for one thing, the decline of the old nationalism may be linked to a new kind of creative freedom.
The history of pro wrestling as we know it begins after World War II and is roughly contemporary -- not coincidentally -- with the rise of television. Wrestling provided relatively cheap and reliable programming and soon became a staple for fledgling television stations. By the 1950s -- and well into the '60s and '70s -- wrestling was filling the airwaves with ethnic stereotypes, playing off national hostilities that had been fired up by World War II and restoked during the Korean conflict. Wrestling villains -- always the key to whatever drama the bouts have -- were often defined by their national origin, which branded them as enemies of the American way of life.
Many of the villains were at first either German or Japanese, but as memories of World War II faded, pro wrestling turned increasingly to Cold War themes. I wish I had a ruble for every wrestling villain who was advertised as the "Russian Bear," but the greatest of all who bore that nickname was Ivan Koloff. Looking for all the world like Lenin pumped up on steroids, he eventually spawned a whole dynasty of villainous wrestling Koloffs. The fact that the most successful of them was named Nikita shows that it was actually Khrushchev and not Lenin or Stalin who provided the model for the Russian wrestling villain. Time and again the Russian wrestler's pre-fight interview was a variation on "Ve vill bury you." Nikolai Volkoff used to infuriate American opponents and fans alike by waving a Soviet flag in the center of the ring and insisting on his right to sing the Soviet national anthem before his bout began.
To supplement its Russian villains, wrestling turned to the Arab Middle East, where a long tradition of ethnic stereotyping was readily available. During the years of tension between the United States and Iran, wrestling hit paydirt with a villain known as the Iron Sheik, who made no secret of his admiration for and close personal ties to the Ayatollah Khomeini. His pitched battles with the All-American GI, Sgt. Slaughter, became the stuff of wrestling legend. Not to be left behind by the march of history, during the Gulf War the Iron Sheik reinvented himself as Colonel Mustafa, and suddenly Americans had an Iraqi wrestler to hate.
The extent to which wrestling relied on national identity to manufacture its villains should not be overstated. Some of the greatest villains were home-grown, like Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, and some of the greatest heroes were foreign-born, like Bruno Sammartino. But although ethnic stereotyping was not essential to the emotional dynamics of wrestling, it did play a crucial role. That is why the end of the Cold War threatened to deliver a serious if not mortal blow to the whole enterprise. Suddenly audiences could not be counted upon to treat a given wrestler automatically as a villain simply because he was identified as a Russian. There was a brief, almost comic era of wrestling glasnost, during which the promoters tried to see if they could generate drama out of the shifting political allegiances of the Russian wrestlers. The extended Koloff family was riven by internal dissent, as some sided with Gorbachev and the reformers, while others remained hardliners and stuck by the old regime. But since Kremlinology has never been a popular spectator sport outside academia, the public quickly grew bored with trying to sort out the internal politics of the Koloff family, and it began to dawn on the wrestling moguls that the end of the Cold War was a threat to their franchise.
This problem was compounded by the fact that at roughly the same time as the Cold War was ending, ethnic stereotyping began to be anathematized. By the early '90s, the WWF even seemed to be testing whether it could capitalize on the new era of political correctness. With Russia and virtually every other country ruled out as a source of villains, Vince McMahon and his brain trust searched the globe to see if any ethnic group remained an acceptable object of hatred. The result was a new villain named Colonel DeBeers -- a white, South African wrestler with an attitude, who spoke in favor of apartheid during interviews. One can almost hear the wheels grinding in McMahon's head: "Russians may no longer be fair game, but no one will object to a little Boer-bashing." But wrestling fans did not take the bait. This was one of the few times the WWF misjudged its audience, proceeding as if its fans were sipping chardonnay and sampling brie instead of guzzling beer and munching on nachos. Colonel DeBeers was a flop as a villain and in some ways marked the end of a wrestling era -- a last, desperate attempt to base physical conflict in the ring on political conflict outside it.
Wrestling promoters have always been concerned that theirs is not a team sport and thus threatens to lack that extra measure of fan commitment that group solidarity can extract. Exploiting nationalist feeling had been one way of turning wrestling into something more than single combat. Instead of rooting for the home team, fans viewing a Sgt. Slaughter/Iron Sheik bout got to root for America. Or rather, America became the home team.
But there was also a germ of a team concept in wrestling's peculiar institution of the tag team -- a bout in which two wrestlers pair up against a couple of opponents. And as ethnicity faded as a principle in wrestling, the WWF and the WCW began to expand tagteam partnerships into larger groupings that might best be described as extended families or tribes. The wrestlers in such tribes pool their resources to advance their careers, often illegally entering the ring to come to each other's aid, softening up each other's opponents for future matches, and generally creating trouble for any wrestler not within the tribe. These wrestling tribes adopt an outlaw pose within their larger leagues, refusing to conform to league rules and challenging the duly constituted wrestling authorities. The most famous of these groups is the New World Order (the nWo) within the WCW, which was headed by Hollywood Hulk Hogan and is constantly trying to outwit the league owners and take over the organization. It is surely one of the ironies of the end of history that in the after-math of the Gulf War, that "vision thing" of George Bush's has left no more lasting monument than the name of a group of renegade wrestlers.
Tribal organization gives wrestling something intermediate between national identity and a purely individual identity. Fans almost have the sense of rooting for teams, since the wrestling tribes often have their own logos, uniforms, slogans, theme songs, cheerleaders, and other badges of communal or team identity. The wrestling brain trusts create ongoing storylines involving the various tribes, so that the future of the whole league, perhaps its very ownership, can seem to depend on the outcome of a given bout.
Thus the newly created tribal identities in wrestling can serve as substitutes for the old national identities. But one thing is missing -- any sense of stability, the reassuring feeling of continuity that used to be provided by ethnic stereotyping in wrestling. Once a Russian, always a Russian, and, until the era of glasnost, that also meant always a villain as well. National identity is not a matter of choice; one is born into it and stuck with it, unless one chooses to betray one's national origins (at the height of the Koloff confusions, charges of "traitor" were routinely hurled back and forth in interviews). But in the world of wrestling today, which group a wrestler affiliates with appears to be a matter of personal choice (though in fact these "choices" are still scripted by the league). As it happens, the traditional national identities in wrestling were often made up. Both the "Manchurian" Gorilla Monsoon and the "Oklahoma Indian" Chief Jay Strongbow were in actuality Italian-Americans (Robert Marella and Joe Scarpa respectively), and the wrestler known as Nikolai Volkoff began his career as Bepo Mongol. In the contemporary era, though, wrestling virtually acknowledges that it is manufacturing its villains, and their roles are presented as a matter of personal choice rather than national destiny.
Thus pro wrestling takes its place along with the plays of Samuel Beckett and the buildings of Michael Graves as an example of the dominant cultural mode of our age, postmodernism. The characters in Beckett's plays are not meant to represent real-live human beings, who might be said to lead an existence independent of the drama. Rather they are revealed to be fictions, consciously constructed characters who are themselves sometimes dimly aware that they are merely characters on stage. Graves's buildings are not meant to be "true" in the way the triumphs of modernist architecture were. Abandoning the modernist dogma that form follows function, Graves returns to architectural decoration, reminding us that his buildings are after all human constructions and thereby "deconstructing" them before our eyes. Pro wrestling has similarly entered its postmodern phase, in which it deliberately subverts any claims to truth and naturalness it ever had. Of course, at least since the era of television, pro wrestling has always been entertainment rather than real sport. But for decades pro wrestling at least pretended it was real. It now admits its fictionality, and indeed, like most forms of postmodernism, revels in it.
But can we confidently say that wrestling simply mirrors broader movements in our culture and politics? It is difficult to look at developments in politics and culture today and not see them as in turn mirroring developments in wrestling. Was Hulk Hogan, who dominated the 1980s, perhaps our first taste of Bill Clinton? The Hulkster -- who could never talk about anything but himself, his own career, and his standing with his Hulkamaniac fans -- was the model of a roguish, narcissistic, utterly unprincipled performer. While changing his stance from moment to moment, he was never held accountable by his adoring public, to the point where he seems to have gotten away with anything. If postmodern wrestling was not a forerunner of postmodern politics, why is Jesse "The Body" Ventura now the governor of Minnesota?
When the villainy of wrestlers was rooted in their national identity, their evil was presented as inherent in their natures. Related to genuine political conflicts in the actual world, the evil of a Russian wrestler seemed real. But villainy has become something more fluid and elusive in the era of postmodern tribalism. Since the contemporary wrestler appears to choose his tribal affiliations, he also gets to choose whether to be a hero or a villain (again, these matters are carefully scripted by the WWF and the WCW authorities, but we are talking about how things are meant to appear to the wrestling public). The most striking characteristic of post-Cold War wrestling is the dizzying rapidity with which today's wrestlers switch from hero to villain and back again. Wrestlers used to spend their whole careers defined as either good guys or bad guys. Now they alter their natures so often that it no longer makes sense to speak of them as natural heroes or villains in the first place. The contemporary wrestler exemplifies the thoroughly postmodern idea that human identity is purely a construction, a matter of choice, not nature.
With its underpinnings in traditional notions of morality, heroism, and patriotism eroded, wrestling has turned to new sources to hold the interest of its fans. Generally these sources have been found in the dramas of private life. Televised wrestling has always had much in common with soap operas. Fans identify heroes and villains and get wrapped up in ongoing struggles between them and especially the working out of longstanding and complex feuds. Throughout its history, pro wrestling has occasionally sought to involve fans in the private lives of its warriors. Once in a while a wrestler has gotten married in the ring to his female manager or valet. (More recently -- reflecting a loosening of morality -- female companions of wrestlers have been at stake in matches, with the winner claiming the right to take possession of his opponent's woman.) Personal grudges have always been central to wrestling, but over the last decade they have gotten ever more personal, often involving family members who somehow get drawn into conflict inside or outside the ring.
In short, wrestling conflicts have come increasingly to resemble the appalling family feuds aired on The Ferry Springer Show. This is only fair, since Springer seems to have modeled his show on wrestling interviews. Wrestlers used to get angry with each other because one represented the Soviet Union and the other the United States, and the two ways of life were antithetical. Now when wrestlers scream at each other, dark domestic secrets are more likely to surface -- sordid tales of adultery, sexual intrigue, and child abuse.
Here a wrestler with the evocative name of Kane is emblematic. Kane was introduced in the WWF as the counterpart of a well-established villain called the Undertaker, who often punishes his defeated opponents by stuffing them into coffins (a nasty case of adding interment to injury). Kane's aptly named manager, Paul Bearer, soon revealed that Kane is in fact the Undertaker's younger brother. Kane wears a mask to hide the frightening facial burns he suffered as a child in a fire set by his older brother, which killed their parents. Thus the stage is set for a series of epic battles between Kane and the Undertaker, as the younger brother seeks revenge against the older. Paul Bearer then reveals that Kane and the Undertaker are actually only half-brothers, and that he himself fathered the younger boy, though he neglected him for years and is only now acknowledging paternity. With its Kane story-line, the WWF crafted a myth for the '90s. All the elements are there: sibling rivalry, disputed parentage, child neglect and abuse, domestic violence, family revenge.
McMahon and his brain trust have once again proven that they have a finger on the pulse of America. In the wake of years of psychotherapy, Twinkie defenses, and the O.J. trial, they have reinvented the villain as himself a victim. No one ever felt a need to explain the evil of Russian wrestlers -- they were presented as villainous by nature. But unlike his biblical counterpart, Kane is supplied with motivation for his evil, and therefore inevitably becomes a more sympathetic figure. After all, his problems started when he was just a little kid. Kane is in fact a huge man named Glen Jacobs: six-feet seven-inches tall and weighing 345 pounds. Yet when he climbs into the ring, he stands as the poster boy for the '90s -- the victimized wrongdoer, the malefactor who would not be evil if only someone had loved him as a child.
The other victim of society now celebrated by pro wrestling is the poor, abused working man, symbolized by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, currently enmeshed in a bitter feud with Vince McMahon and the entire power structure of the WWF. In his unceasing search for suitable villains, McMahon finally hit upon the most villainous person he could think of -- himself. In the ultimate postmodern convolution, wrestling now focuses on itself as a business and makes its own corruption the central theme of its plots. McMahon has decided to build his storylines around ongoing labor-management disputes in the WWF. He is in constant public conflict with his wrestlers, trying to force them to do his bidding and above all to make his on-again, off-again champion Austin toe the corporate line.
In his quest to gain an edge on Turner's WCW, McMahon realized he could tap into the resentment the average working man feels against his boss. McMahon is always threatening to downsize the WWF wrestling staff and has surrounded himself with corporate yes-men. Austin is his perfect working class opponent -- a beer-drinkin', foot-stompin', truck-drivin', hell-raisin' Texas son-of-a-gun, always prepared to tell McMahon: "You can take this job and shove it." With this storyline, wrestling has completed its turn inward, moving from the Cold War to class war. Ironically, even at the height of the Cold War, wrestling never went after Russian communism with half the fervor it now devotes to pillorying American big business. If wrestling is any indication, the United States -- deprived of any meaningful external enemy -- seems to have nothing better to do than attack itself. Why not go after a bunch of tobacco companies, for example?
The McMahon-Austin feud proved to be so successful that Turner's WCW soon began imitating it, using its chief executive, Eric Bischoff (a former wrestler himself) to play the role of corporate bad guy. Always one step ahead of his competition, McMahon went on to fuse the family soap opera aspect of wrestling with the class war-fare element by involving his son, his daughter, and eventually even his wife in his corporate struggles. These storylines have become increasingly bizarre, with McMahon's son Shane first seeming to betray him and then revealed to have been secretly acting on his behalf all along, and his daughter Stephanie set up for a kind of wrestling dynastic marriage and then kidnapped under weird circumstances. Who would have thought a century ago when wrestling began with a simple full nelson and a step-over toehold that it would eventually culminate in a proxy fight? But that is exactly what happened when McMahon's wife and daughter shocked him by voting their shares in the WWF to make Austin CEO, thereby transforming the board meetings back in Connecticut beyond recognition. (Austin brought a case of beer to his first session as president.) No wonder McMahon is about to take his corporation public.
Every time I think wrestling has reached rock bottom, either the WWF or the WCW finds its way to a new moral depth. A recent plot line culminated in Austin holding a gun to McMahon's head in the center of the ring, as the nattily attired owner/operator of the WWF appeared to wet himself in terror. When one looks at wrestling's "progress" from the 1950s to the 1990s, one really has to be concerned about America's future. If wrestling tells us anything about our country -- and its widespread and sustained popularity suggests that it does -- for the past three decades we have been watching a steady erosion of the country's moral fiber, and America's growing incapacity to offer functional models of heroism.
On the other hand, perhaps we should cease being moralistic for a moment, recognize that wrestling is only entertainment, and try to look beyond its admittedly grotesque antics. Though it is tempting to become nostalgic for the good old days of American patriotism in wrestling, let's face it: The traditional national stereotypes did become tired, overused, and predictable. In that sense, the end of the Cold War actually proved to be liberating for wrestling, as one might hope it could be for all American society. What appeared to be a loss of ethnic stereotyping proved to be a gain in creative freedom, as wrestling was forced to scour popular culture to come up with alternatives to traditional villains. Wrestling may not be more moral these days, but it certainly is more interesting and inventive. This development suggests that maybe we all need to be thinking beyond the nation-state as our chief cultural unit.
After all, the nation-state has not always been the dominant form of cultural or even political organization. It is largely a development out of 16th-century France, and has never as fully prevailed around the world as historians would have us think. There is no reason to believe that the nation-state as we know it is the perfect or even the best unit of political organization. When Aristotle made his famous statement usually translated as "man is a political animal," what he really was saying is that man is an animal whose nature it is to live in the polis -- the Greek city conceived as the comprehensive human community, on a scale much smaller than a modern nation-state. Thus Aristotle would have said that the nation-state is an unnaturally large and even overblown form of community.
Perhaps what appears to be the end of history is only the end of the nation-state, and humanity is now groping confusedly toward new modes of political organization, which may be at once more global and more local in their scope. Today's professional wrestling points in these two directions simultaneously. At any moment of deep historical change, it is easy to become fixated on what is being lost and fail to see what is being gained. The way wrestling has been struggling to find some kind of postnational identity reflects a deeper confusion in our culture as a whole, but one that may portend a profound and even beneficial reorganization of our lives in the coming century. Perhaps, then, when we watch -- and enjoy -- the WWF and the WCW, we really are wrestling with the end of history.
Paul A. Cantor is professor of English at the University of Virginia.