For many American rollerbladers, today will be marked by an excess of sunburn, dehydration, hangover, and a strong desire not to be at work.
That’s because yesterday we celebrated our Independence Day—which we observe most customarily with massive imbibitions of beer, liquor, and grilled food. Obviously, most of you, nursing your hangovers, are too well aware of this.
But I bring up the 4th—specifically the 4th—of July because it can teach us something very important about power.
See, Independence Day is a very interesting, subtly arrogant, and yet still particularly American kind of holiday. We celebrate our independence not on the day we finally won our seven-year Revolutionary War, nor on the day we signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783—we celebrate it on the day we announced our famous declaration.
It’s important because celebrating on the day the Declaration of Independence was issued is our way of saying we were right—that we believe we were always right and that we never had any doubts that we’d win our independence from Britain and become a sovereign nation.
But you have to see what a brilliant PR move that move that was. Celebrating on the 4th is all about appearances. Because, while our founding fathers were very confident they could win the war, they were far from being certain.
You know how people say that the victorious in war write the history books? Well, it’s true. And celebrating independence on the 4th day of July is exactly what that looks like in real life.
Celebrating on the 4th gives the appearance that we became independent “when we damn well said we were.” That’s not really true though, because we didn’t become independent until all the other powerful countries in the world (at that time) said so. And we had to fight and win a war to get them to believe us.
And that’s what power is.
It’s the ability to make your will become reality and then to have history reflect what you want it to reflect.
When (or if) people won’t abide to your desires willingly, power becomes a measurement of your ability to either persuade people (or force people) to see things your way and do things your way. Then, once those people agree to (or are compelled to) support your view of things, you act like you were right all along—even though secretly you know that if—in this case—France hadn’t bankrupted itself supporting you, you’d be nowhere.
In rollerblading, power is a lot like that, but rather than being about national sovereignty, the name of the game is influence.
The shorthand of that idea is actually tied up in the word “cool.”
In rollerblading, power is the ability to define what cool is—to define what clothes are cool, what tricks are cool, what style is cool, what music is cool, what attitude is cool.
We know that what’s cool changes all the time, but it’s very important to realize that things don’t become “cool” spontaneously or arbitrarily. Things become cool when they’re made cool by certain people—people we should rightly think of as possessing power in rollerblading.
In sociology (and a bunch of other academic disciplines), this kind of making-your-will-reality is called Symbolic Power.
Let me clarify that for a second.
Before I can go on about Symbolic Power, I want to be clear about what “symbolic” means here. You might be tempted to associate this term with “symbolism,” but that’s not quite the same thing.
In this case, “symbolic” is a little bit more complicated. The nutshell version is that anything—and I mean anything at all—can be what’s called a sociological symbol. What that means is that virtually everything you can see and observe can tell you things about the state of the situation you are either participating in or being an observer of. Kind of obvious, right? Well, it is. But we all know what a complicated game interpretation can be.
So here’s the bottom line: we all act towards things based on the meaning we attribute to those things. So a sociological symbol is anything that makes you think a certain way about a particular person or thing.
Take, for example, our old friend “the Sidewalk”—not the expanse of concrete, the trick so many of us used to do. Its image has been marred by time and the trick itself has been excluded from the canon as a representative of a dark or shameful time in rollerblading, unbefitting of how “cool” and “mature” we all are at this moment in time.
When you see a guy do a Sidewalk today, assuming he’s taking himself seriously, you derive a certain meaning from that event.
You know, for a start, that this dude is dreadfully out of touch, behind the times, and virtually oblivious to the last 16 (or so) years of rollerblading. He has precisely no idea of what’s cool. He doesn’t know who we are, what we do, or what our standards are. In a word, he’s an outsider. You, on the other hand, are not an outsider precisely because of the knowledge you possess about contemporary rollerblading cool.
So that’s what a sociological symbol looks like. It’s something that you can observe and derive meaning from. When it comes to Sidewalks, you derive a particular meaning that has to do with a person being out of touch, unaware of current trends in rollerblading, etc.
But here’s the catch: you aren’t the only one who derives that meaning. Just about every rollerblader in the world derives that same meaning. Sidewalks are just as stupid in France as they are in San Diego; just as lame in Germany as they are in Japan, Australia, or Russia—at least, among the “elite.”
Now we can go back and turn our attention to Symbolic Power and what that looks like.