Your Money Or Your Life: Bar Rescue, Piratz Tavern and the Case of Irredeemable Money

And Taffer wept, for there were no more bars left to rescue.

If you haven't watched Bar Rescue, you can consider yourself lucky. You probably lead a virtuous life, one of fruitful reflection and genuine feeling. You also probably haven't been passed on the right by a guy with TruckNutz, and have no idea how a guy like Donald Trump could become a political force, albeit a fleeting one. In your refinement, you're unfamiliar with the current state of market-driven garbage that constitutes most peoples' cultural intake. You've also, surprisingly, missed one of the great works of art of the past thirty years.

Bar Rescue is a reality show where bars get rescued. It's on Spike, the network responsible for MANswers, in which your questions about boobs and balls are sometimes manswered, and Greatest Warrior, which settles arguments over whether a Roman legionnaire could beat up Bo Jackson in his prime. Bar Rescue is always a complete waste of time, except for this one time.

The horrible Jon Taffer is the show's ostensible hero, the man who will make it all better, you dumb fuck. An irregular pressing from the lumpenbourgeoisie mould that sent Donald Trump dripping into the world, Taffer looks like nothing less than the grisly union between Danny Husk and Gigantopithecus. Though his looks have nothing to do with anything, I will be picking on them relentlessly, because none of his more voluntary traits redeem them in the slightest.

He's a man for whom success is the measure, because by all other metrics, he's a monster. He has made enough money turning bad dive bars into horrible pseudo-chain blights (think jalapeno poppers; think needless cleavage) that he no longer has to treat humans like humans. He's a reminder that no matter how good pedagogy gets, the social-emotional nature of the human brain means we'll always have to deal with beasts like him. What he lacks in taste and opinion he makes up in spite and pride. He insists on having the first word, the last word, and most of the words in between. He's Scarface in his office with a giant pile of panko. And he's going to film himself breaking you down and remaking you in his own image.

I have no memory of why I made this

Here's how he works: you bring Jon Taffer into your failing bar (or Mitch and Murray ask him to pay you a visit). He acts knowledgeable and screams at everyone. Then, he renovates the bar into the sort of place he could take his mistress and her nephews. Maybe he "rescues" an Irish bar by convincing its four Irish owners to turn it into the most demeaningly patriotic joint in the office complex. Maybe he "rescues" a sleazy bikini bar by making it a sleazy bikini bar with a Grand Marnier faucet. And maybe - very probably, in fact - he "rescues" a bar by installing his claim to fame, his magnum opus: the Butt Funnel, which solves the problem of social alienation by forcing you into sublimated ass-to-ass with a sales consultant on Wodka Wednesday.

But always, he "rescues" bars the way the Marines rescued Bán Tre: by utterly destroying it, keeping only enough to claim it survived. To his credit, he picks his victims well: they're usually terrible bars to begin with, and very horribly run. The owners are on the ropes, and any bar - even one that feels about as welcoming as a Borg cube - would be better than bankruptcy.

Jon Taffer, here, would have us believe he's the Ghost of Capitalism Present. He takes these suffering wretches, shows them how to clean a grease trap and shriek at a hostess, gives them some branded products, and lo and behold, their lives have been turned around. He may be brash, but darn it, this is business! Who could possibly hate that?

Enter Piratz Tavern, the saltiest groggery in all of Silver Springs, Maryland. A pirate bar founded by a cosplay enthusiast and staffed by her cosplay enthusiast friends (as well as her clearly-not-into-cosplay-at-all husband, who is named the name Juciano), this is very much the worst possible bar. The owner is massively in debt, the place is nightmarish, and Jon Taffer got three erections on the flight down. We are GO, people.

Except… except that the Piratz don't bite. They don't like the business ogre. They don't like getting screamed at for dressing like pirates. They don't like making branded cocktails for brand managers. They would rather be weird, and limited in their appeal, than shed their idiosyncrasies and embrace the great communion of sales. They would rather life than career. And so they resist, more than any other bar in the show resisted.

And luckily for us, that gave Jon Taffer a fourth erection.

Capitalism - or rather, capitalism's evangelists - positioned itself as deeply moral during the 20th century, when it could point to the atrocities of Stalinism and Maoism as relative proof. Here, it was claimed, there was no coercion - just plucky traders, all free to haggle, sometimes to win, sometimes to lose, but hey, that's freedom. You don't like it? What would you prefer, another Holodomor?

But the apparent morality of capitalism is only relative to the nightmare of totalitarianism. It's completely amoral - hell, in its current form, you can make the case that it's inherently misanthropic. David Graeber did the good work of detailing how on-the-spot, tit-for-tat haggling, the bread and butter of capitalist exchange, only appears in societies when the parties are distrustful, exploitative, or about to go to war. Interpersonal debt, with no interest and for no profit, is the norm in friendly societies. "Don't worry about it: take the wool, you just give me some wheat when it's ready; it wouldn't be right to charge interest or put the screws to you now." The modern market, built on short-term profit off of want, ignorance and opportunity, is bloodless warfare.

Love me!

The only situation in which this sort of raw capitalism could be considered moral or just is one in which everyone is the same - everyone is on board with it, everyone is remorselessly aggressive and coldly calculating, and everyone haggles so constantly and shamelessly that a stasis, an economic no-man's-land, develops. There would be no undesired poverty or inequality - provided that everyone is more uniform than even Mao would have dreamed of. Idiosyncrasy, compassion, and humanity are exploitable weaknesses - they come at a cost, for in such a competitive market, they'll fuck up your margins. They've got to go, for the sake of those oh-so-moral markets.

This moneyed ethos is only bandied about by those who have no qualms about exploiting their neighbours, and who can sleep soundly while their brothers starve. It's a deeply neoliberal fantasy - that ferreting out the unexploited, unmonetized corners of the human realm will actually be good for their inhabitants, in fact, it turns out, actually. Personal profit is totally incidental to taking up this Rich Man's Burden, I assure you.

Butt funnels, for lack of a better word, are good.

The Piratz crew, despite how doomed they are, are unwilling to repent. As dumb as their niche is, most would rather be buried alive in it than give it up. One grizzled old seadog takes a stand and walks out on Taffer, who has nothing but contempt for non-financial principle. "You don't like the market? Fuck you! You've got to deal with it! And if you have to deal with it, you might as well like it!" Nevermind that only a sociopath could (or would) choose something so dismal as business to be a genuine passion of theirs. Corporate restaurant raider Jon Taffer cannot envision anyone, especially people dressed like pirates, rebelling against filthy luchre. And so he makes a big show out of grinding the non-sellout into the dust - he likes dressing like a pirate so much, he's willing to turn down a minimum wage job? What a nut!

But not all of the pirates rebel, at first. Some of the Piratz hold their nose and try to go along with Taffer. This is where the show shows, instead of merely telling, the deeply human drama at the front lines of the economic war on the meek.

Some topics - love, hate, class - are so well-known and well-trod that most works of art don't engage with them too deeply. They trust the audience to know them well, and focus more of their attention on the particularities of the melodrama at hand. But some works of art refuse to be cowed by the concept of triteness. To the wide-eyed observer, the basic, raw, elemental stuff of human experience is evergreen, and in the hands of a skilled artist, triteness vanishes. Off the top of my head, Shakespeare, Terence Malick and Leonard Cohen have the sort of knack and drive to dust off old hat successfully - at least in my lazy opinion. And yes, this goddamn episode of Bar Rescue pulls it off.

(Note: I am not so pompous as to think I will convince anyone that Bar Rescue is a timeless work of art. Not even I believe it. It's a blank sheet of paper that was in the monkey's typewriter at exactly the right time.)

A pirate - a nerd, really - has to be instructed, Pygmalion-style, how to talk like a regular non-pirate, or he's out of a job. He doesn't like it - he doesn't like the run-of-the-mill world that hates him, that exploits him, that doesn't care about him. He and his friends build a garden in a wilderness, here, and now they have to tear it down? Why not just work at an Applebee's, if you have to sell out? Why taint the memory of an earnest failure by making it everything it pointedly was not?

MIKE: Ladies, good evening. What brings you here this day?

JESSIE: Mike… are you still a pirate? Or are we back to normal?

MIKE: Fine. Good evening and welcome, ladies. What brings you here this evening?

JESSIE: Let's do it in normal people voices, and not in pirate.

MIKE: You asked me to have a conversation, so the first thing I'm going to ask about is what brings you here this evening.

JESSIE: Yeah, I understand that, but we're no longer in a pirate bar, so let's talk like a normal person. You know, I'm just-

MIKE: What do you want me to do?! Like, this is just me!

JESSIE: Act like the people you see outside of this place!

MIKE: I hate those people, okay?

JESSIE: Those people are going to make you money.

MIKE stews.

Triteness can happen for a reason - the basic stuff of human life is experienced fresh by every individual in every generation. The snobs have fought the slobs so many times as to seem like an infinite cycle - an ouroboros of jocks wedgying nerds supergluing jocks. But each time, there is a difference. And this time, rather than the businessman planning to bulldoze a rec centre, the businessman is trying to convince the scrappy youths that they should bulldoze it for him, because they could set up a parking lot and have menial jobs when it's gone.

But this isn't just a snobs-vs-slobs narrative. It's a nerds-vs-society yarn. In what I imagine is the archetypal Piratz employee's experience, people are cruel, callous and dumb. Why the hell should anyone want to be like them? If you can't make money without giving in to their ignorant demands, then fuck money.

This is the pea in the mattress of the modern libertarian-consumerist-capitalist fairy tale: money channels human impulse, but those impulses are, by and large, pathetic. Is the market moral, then? And if it isn't, what do we do about it?

And, because you enter history with the situation you have, not the situation you want: what do you do about it when you dress like a pirate and work in a bar that is as dumb as anything else? How do you take a stand when you don't have a peg-leg to stand on?

Lucky for Piratz, their enemy is flawed. Taffer is a vain man, and impatient - he wants to see his enemies completely destroyed by his hand. He failed in his duty as a representative of pure, dispassionate market forces. His mistake was paying attention to what made Piratz Tavern unique so that he could break their spirits and particularly humiliate them.

A true businessman would have just named them something like "O'Reilly's Pub" - truly, actually faceless. But Taffer, incensed at this pocket of rebellion and its stated distaste for "corporate bars," christened the rescued bar "Corporate Bar & Grill." Its logo, a faceless shlub in a suit. It's so on-the-nose that it's actually reassuring - the way that the idea of the devil is reassuring, because it means something, anything, is out there watching. A directed malevolence is comforting compared to an utter indifference - and here, that malevolence gave the Piratz something specific to react against, instead of something amorphous and all-encompassing they could only be enveloped by.

Piratz Tavern dutifully tried its hand at Corporate Bar & Grill for a while, but it didn't take - neither the employees nor the customers wanted a place where reformed pirate cosplayers struggled to act normal while describing Singapore Slings. After a few months, they cast off their new uniforms and went against all flags once again. They even filmed themselves burning the old shameful signage - and true to Piratz form, the video is poorly done and irritating, but in its defense, it at least stretches on far longer than it has any right to.

Jon Taffer, in response, plays the disappointed well-wisher - he came at their request, he offered helpful suggestions, and they just didn't have the business acumen and common sense to stick by his prescriptions. He's concerned - concerned! - that they're doomed to go under. He's compassion in a giant suit.

Of course Taffer can feign concern - he knows they're doomed, and he'll be proven right. They were always doomed - but by rejecting Tafferism specifically, Taffer can claim that their ultimate fate isn't his fault. He is once again the consummate businessman - with his spiteful rebranding destroyed, he can pursue the course of total disinterest he should've taken from the start.

Much as I love to make fun of Taffer, the food court Judge Holden, it's hard to specifically blame him for all of this. He's a thoughtless stand-in for forces greater than himself, as we all are, to some extent. He is as inhuman as his ideology demands of him, and as inhuman as it demands he make all of us. True, we have a choice of ideology - partially, anyways - but Taffer is only a dumb man following orders he mistakenly believes come from the world around him.

But while you can't blame Taffer for all of this, you should still blame him for much of it. The market isn't a wholly impersonal force - it is larger than the sum of its contributors, but it is still constituted by them. A slight change in behaviour by most people could change all of this - one drop, one iota of taste, and the Taffers of the world would vanish, their gigantic polo shirts all that remains. In aggregate, these individual choices doom us, but they could yet save us, however unlikely that currently is.

That's why to resist the market as it stands, even futilely, is a noble sacrifice. It is a choice against the presumed preferences of the masses, motivated by a superior ethos - which is to say, any ethos at all. The kneejerk conservativism of the masses should not be rewarded by being catered to. It doesn't need to be a sacrifice - there must be thousands of less-stupid niche businesses than a pirate pub - but Piratz wouldn't have made its point as strongly if it became an organic dry cleaner instead of a catastrophically stupid bistro.

So yes, drumroll please: Piratz died for our sins. The great throngs of people who genuinely prefer Taffer-style establishments, who are totally cool with the nasty, brutish and short ribs, who have no sympathy for a pointless bar in a corporate desert, all implicitly demanded the death of Piratz Tavern.

But Piratz is no Christ-like figure - it really, really deserved to die. And Taffer, for how much I hate him (lots), is not purely a monster. If Piratz were not such a disaster, I'd gladly heap on the scorn (there's still a lot of good stuff in jontaffermetaphors.txt). But really, he's just the Longinus in this situation (told you) - the workaday shlub who jabs the crucified with a spear to make sure they're dead. Yeah, he gets off on the jabbing, but the buck should've stopped with a lot of other people before it got to him. The real villain is the countless microTafferisms committed every day by the shlubs of the world as they pour in and out of butt funnels, the empty, branded void at the center of their universe.

The realpolitik of brand fitness

In the age of mass production, economies of scale are everything. If you can produce a one-size-fits-all product for everyone, you can undercut everyone else on the market, if people find your product acceptable. There's a balance to be struck between how universal you can make something and how much crappy universality people are willing to put up with. A fair amount, it turns out.

Unique ideas almost always come at a premium cost. Going from one-size-fits-all to two-sizes-fits-all can, in theory, double production costs, while going to one-size-fits-half can halve your market. If you want a thing that only half the market could want, it'll cost you double. And if you want to be served undrinkable syrups by pirates and eat inedible slop made by the man with the name Juciano, god and Mammon help you.

Weak, hyperselective ideas like Piratz wither and die under the Sauron's gaze of the market. But what about the ideas that survive? If the failure of Piratz tells us that we think it's bad, what are we told by the market success of Mike Judgian hellscapes that serve reheated frozen food containing cheese and/or barbecue sauce? Is it the case that we all only want chicken tenders, and we want them sold by no more than 10 different megadiners from coast to coast?

Two possibilities: one, yes it is the case, because we are self-loathing and this is the best of all possible worlds. Two, yes it is the case, but it's because many people (who could otherwise prefer anything else) have, over the years, accommodated their tastes to suit whatever is cheapest and most readily available. This means that the current consumer product regimes are almost entirely arbitrary, being more price tag and presence than actual product.

In this interpretation, things are there because they're there, and things that aren't there aren't there because they're not. There are many far better restaurants than McDonald's, but they're not there - McDonald's is there. We like what is familiar to us, and what is familiar to us is what has spread itself the farthest - the cheapest exportable product that appeals to the lowest common denominator. But it's only the cheapest exportable product because it's made en masse - it benefits from the largest economy of scale. Even within McDonald's, only the cheapest gets the chance to become beloved - witness the McRib as arbitrage, or the tragically expensive cooking time of the McPizza.

Consumer capitalism's fans would say that it gives us the choice of all possibilities - if we don't like Taffer's Troughs, we're free to start our own place. But we're not purely rational agents - a lot of our implicit preferences are set when we're young, or over the years, based on what is simply present. Thus, omnipresent chains seed the idea of their own goodness just by being there, like minimally-involved parental figures. So it is that our modern superbrands are coming to imprint themselves culturally in much the same way a totalitarian would - rather than a framed portrait of the Burger King hanging in every living room, just have a BK visible outside most windows. After all, that's why America fought a revolution - to choose the King.

Remember that Taffer never even tries to make the bar work as it is. He demands a complete reinvention into something that seems more familiar - a place just like every other place which is also like every other place. The closest he's ever come to building something interesting is the Corporate Bar & Grill, which is separated from all other restaurants by the naked hatred embodied in its branding.

As it is, we're caught in a cultural feedback cycle - popularity begets popularity, cheapness begets cheapness, tackiness begets tackiness. You can argue that it's what we truly want, or you could argue that what we truly want is deeply plastic, and we're letting it be determined by the lowest bidder - crass commercialists who will us to want what they sell. Jon Taffer has rescued our minds - our poorly thought-out, unmarketable, Piratzian minds. We can either surrender the ship, or defend it, even if that means going down with it.

The future is a glorious land

So why pick on Bar Rescue and Piratz Tavern specifically for the failings of modern society? It's their own fault for laying those failings out so clearly and saliently, stripped of any of the usual partisan attachments. The forces of Tafferism are not noble because they are sometimes profitable, nor is the filthy novelty of Piratz Tavern noble for failing to succeed as a business. This is the age of economy - nobility's got nothing to do with it. A smarter show might have cluttered the meaning of it all by actually saying something about it.

But this imperfect dialectic is how this fight is happening in countless other fields. Journalism, public science, the arts, goddamn politics - in countless institutions where the public at large ought to be the primary patron, the public is growing disinterested, and the economies of scale are disappearing. Without vigilance, a multitude of Taffers are likely to arise - or have already arisen - offering market-friendly fixes whose ideological slant is disguised as business-as-usual. Think deregulation, privatization and deunionization - think Jon "Carved Potato" Taffer shouting "your school is a mess, kids are dropping out, and you still let the teachers have a UNION?! UNACCEPTABLE!!!"

As our society continues its dereliction of worthwhile duties in favour of more distracted aims (like watching fucking Bar Rescue, ugh), it's worth bearing in mind that, left to its own devices, the corporate world will always make us dumber, either passively or actively. It takes dumber-than-average as its default level - it has no problem marketing to the sort of juvenile mentality that, if left alone for a weekend, eats pizza, candy, and jalapeno poppers until it gets sick. That's easy to pitch to. But there still is choice - even if all you do is choose to consume differently, it's still something. Just know that the price of non-demeaning things is forever going up, and the eternal temptation of going with the affordable flow will forever whisper in your ear, like Jon Taffer telling you about the benefits of spherical ice cubes. In choosing between the awful ideas of the marketplace and the awful ideas in your head, you're choosing between your money and your life.

Just don't choose to dress like a goddamn Piratz.