Secret Base now has one million subscribers on YouTube. It’s a big moment for us, and it’s a testament to all the ambition, creativity and years of hard work put in by our team: Alex Rubenstein, Clara Morris, Graham MacAree, Jiazhen Zhang, Joe Ali, Jon Bois, Kofie Yeboah, Mike Das, Phil Pasternak, Ryan Simmons, Seth Rosenthal, and Will Buikema.
Out of appreciation for our viewers, we’ve decided to re-release our 2018 documentary series, Fighting in the Age of Loneliness, as a single two-hour video. Jon spent years working with Felix Biederman of Chapo Trap House fame to tell a story of mixed martial arts, sketchy business dealings, power-hungry families, the fading of American empire, and the refuge offered to us by our weird, stupid, beloved bloodsport.
Jon and Felix also took the occasion to have a long talk about what the project means to us two years later. It was a free-flowing conversation that sort of went where it went. We hope you enjoy.
Jon: I’ve been on the internet making all kinds of different shit for a really long time, and two years down the road, Fighting in the Age of Loneliness is one of the things i’m very proudest of. One reason it was such an interesting experience for me is that tonally, it’s just so different from other things I tend to make. It’s fundamentally a bittersweet story and it refuses to forecast a happy ending. It’s honest until it hurts.
I know you grew up watching MMA, and you’d wanted to make a large-scale MMA project for quite some time. Was there a specific point at which it stopped being merely a fun Saturday night for you, and you started to notice the erosion of the things that made it so special? Did it go hand-in-hand with you growing up and beginning to see the world for what it is? I’d be really interested to hear how and when you arrived at this place.
Felix: First of all, I want to say that FITAOL is the sort of thing I have dreamed of making since before I ever knew I’d work in media. It was a distant glimmer and I would never have been able to do it with anyone else. The way it looked and felt outpaced even what I had imagined something like it would feel like as a kid.
As for MMA, I didn’t notice the decline until I was in my early- to mid-twenties. Maybe there’s something to be said about the final parts of your childhood now dying around that time nowadays as opposed to earlier. I definitely became more prone to noticing seedier, more depressing, hollow aspects of things I enjoyed, but it was something more than that. There are tons of things I love that I now see the darker aspects of, but I’ve never gone from full obsessive mania to not touching it like [I have with MMA]. Or at least not as an adult. I knew everything, every fight, every event, who left which training camp, whose manager is an asshole, etc. I didn’t go from that to not watching instantly, though.
I think the moment my enjoyment declined too much for me to love it was 2016. I had more responsibilities and worked a ton that year, but to put it bluntly, I developed a life. I don’t think I really had one as a 22-year-old, and suddenly it felt like I had been dropped one from the sky. That’s never gotten in the way of me getting obsessive about things and drawing a singular focus, but in this case I had started missing fights I never would have and not really missing them. There was nothing drawing me back. If you can maintain an interest, hobby, obsession, or mania in a time of new meaning and excitement, there’s something at the core of it that’s radiating out to you on a very deep level. MMA did not have that for me anymore. I felt like that core had been hollowed out and it took me a while to figure out why.
Jon: You know, I think there’s something singular and special about that age you’re talking about, somewhere around like 20. A lot of parts of your life and things you always believed kinda melt off and float away. At the same time, the “rest of your life” – maybe not in everyone’s case, but in mine and by the sound of it yours – hasn’t started yet. So you’re left in this sort of twilight where you’re just sort of there, trying to make it day to day and clinging to whatever resonates with you. Despite all the confusion and indirection, while I’m glad I’m no longer there, I do get very nostalgic about it. It was this age of time-wasting, aimlessness and stupidity, and at the time it never dawned on me that I should cherish it, that it’s something I’d never experience again.
That was a time I thought about a lot as I started reviewing your script, actually. In most of the chapters you slotted in an interlude that painted a picture of the sorts of people this resonated with. People who were forgotten and rudderless in one way or another, and took refuge in a thing that was so unique and tasteless and off-the-path that it could feel like it was theirs. That was the case with me. Although my appreciation of MMA was much more casual than yours, it picked me like a lock. I was just like, so much of the shit I thought I was supposed to care about doesn’t make sense to me. But this does, perfectly.
We’ve talked about this a little before, but the thing about this I’m proudest of is its determination to try and capture that lonely, disjointed, forgotten feeling that countless people around our age experienced (and still do!), but is virtually never talked about. I mean, this isn’t new. Every previous generation has 900 million pieces of media documenting what it was like to be them. While each one is no more or less important than the next, each is different and shaped by different conditions. I don’t know if you wanna venture a guess. Do you think future generations are in for more of what we were in for, but worse? Can you imagine a realistic possibility that things will get better?
Felix: When I think about coming generations, I think about what Jarvis Cocker says in “Common People”: “you’ll never watch your life slide out of view.”
It’s a gut-wrenching line in a song that’s musically upbeat. It hits at something very deep emotionally with me that I could never put into words. That’s exactly it: peoples’ lives just fall out of the collective field of vision. They’re forced to live at the periphery of everyone’s vision. They’re UberEats guys or they wipe down the aisles at CVS every 15 minutes, or they’re the saving someone else’s place in line for a COVID test.
The next generations will have a few carefully-doled-out seven-figure futures, and then a fleeting and tenuous middle class that is only defined as economic “freedom from” and not “freedom to.” Your purchasing power is shit compared to your parents, you’re going to live like a bug in a major city or in a new construction monstrosity that’s built to collapse on itself, and you have fewer family and friends every year.
Your dream of having someone you love and somebody that loves you, much less bringing someone new into this world, seems like more of a distant fantasy every day. But you’re the person ordering the food on the delivery app. You’re the guy who those CVS workers make way for when you sadly waddle down the aisle. Aren’t you glad you’re not those people who you only ever see in the corner of your eye? And that’s where everyone else will be: increasingly invisible. They’ll leave your food at your doorstep and be penalized at work if you make eye contact with them. They’ll bring you pallets of agribusiness-grown chemical bullshit that makes you feel sick and fucking miserable all the time. Your greatest fear on that middle class iceberg will be drifting off and becoming someone who does not exist to people like you, and it will keep you in line.
I don’t know how that changes. I don’t think anyone currently holding federal office gives a shit about those people or even putting their finger in the dam to momentarily pause the constant degradation and pain most people in this country feel that you never hear about. I don’t know what the path out is.
Jon: I don’t know either. I’m an optimist by choice because being that way makes me happier and motivates me to make whatever infinitesimal speck of difference i can make. It’s like religion. I can’t justify it, I can’t tell you you should be, it’s just the way i choose to be. One thing i’m fairly sure of is that if it gets better, it’ll happen over a long, long span of time, in increments usually too small to collectively celebrate, and so slowly that neither of us will ever really see it. It’ll be as imperceptible as Jarvis Cocker described. The small, illusory prize of seeing Bernie lose, for instance, is the fantasy that we were THIS close to getting on the right course, that we’re only a few breaks away from pulling the switch and rolling down another track.
And since it happens so slowly, we can’t let ourselves be driven to agony. I mean, we can, but we’ve only got one of these lives. We have to have things that make us happy, even if the avenues toward those things grow narrower, and even though the very nature of community crumbles and sends us seeping between the floorboards looking for it.
I remember during the aughts, when I was first trying to work my way into sports media, the popular line among the cool kids was that things like sports are a distraction that monopolizes peoples’ attention and energy that otherwise would go into enacting real political change. But things like sports are the fucking point! MMA, or learning how to play the lap steel, or thrift fashion, or Counter-Strike, or Scrubs fan fiction, or whatever in the world it is for you. That’s what you’re fighting for, if you’re fighting. Every hour you get to spend in that world is your victory against all this. Maybe it is the bread-and-circus shit that every guy on an aughts forum with a name like TheChortlingAtheist or whatever said it was. Maybe it is. But what exactly would we ask? Can you blame them? What the fuck else would you suggest, annoying guy i remember?
Felix: That’s exactly it. There’s this thing that happens when people get monkeys as pets: they go insane from a lack of enrichment and play (as well as not being around other monkeys). They never learn how to be a monkey. They’re just naked and vulnerable to the world because all they can do is hit the button or make the face that makes their owner give them food. That’s all their life is and it’s fucking miserable and terrifying. Sports isn’t the thing you strip away and then find meaning. It’s part of the palette we color our lives with. It’s the only way left we have to describe certain things.
I think it’s interesting, that for however highly Americans poll on the military on paper, the military feels it absolutely must have this massive presence at American sporting events. That for all the polling, no American recognizes someone from the joint chiefs of staff or the ranks of SEAL Team Six like they do someone from the NFL or NBA. I think people reflexively say they worship the military in this country, but they clearly don’t seem to believe we have any war heroes. We haven’t made any of them celebrities in a long time. We fundamentally don’t believe our wars are heroic. Our actions show we think our athletes are. That’s the thing actually giving our lives enrichment and color.
How to channel that, I don’t know. Maybe our Napoleon is at Michigan or Clemson right now. If we ever have a highly transformational single ruler who washes out the old, it will be an athlete.
Jon: RIGHT! It’s in sports where we find some of the most pure, honest expressions of humanity. To borrow one of my favorite lines of yours from the series, nothing about it lies to you. It’s so intensely expressive in ways people can almost never achieve even when we script it. I think about this moment a lot:
Looking at this, you’d never know the Astros would win the next game and go to the World Series for the first time ever. A stadium full of people is losing their shit, Pujols hits a ball 700 miles, and in an instant, the entire place sounds like a shopping mall. There’s no lesson in it, there’s no narrative arc, there’s nothing being sold, no message sent. It’s just 50,000 people having their hearts ripped out. You’ll never see a more essentially human moment. Give me times like those over every TV show i’ve ever seen.
I’d love to say the military’s days of polling high are numbered, that younger people are beginning to see things for what they are. But hell, however old you are, odds are that either Vietnam or Iraq shaped your upbringing and understanding of the world in some way, and apparently that’s failed to sufficiently register. Once again, everything progresses so slowly and silently that maybe it’s just a foregone conclusion that most of us come to accept it.
I gotta reference the Civilization games here. The start of a Civ game is a hell of a time. You’re exploring the world, discovering things, introducing new technologies, building all over the place. then you start waging war as a colonizing piece of shit, and that’s a great time. After a healthy amount of that, Brazil invades and burns down half your cities, and you spend the next 700 years plotting revenge. And one day you strike back and take that revenge, and it’s so satisfying. It feels like it should be good times from there on out, but to your surprise, the late game is incredibly dull and lifeless. All you’re doing is researching how to build fighter jets and bombers. You hunker down, and you stop giving a shit about whether all your cities have enough food. All you’re doing is selecting a stealth bomber, scrolling across the map, bombing Barcelona. Then you scroll back to Philadelphia, select another bomber, bomb Barcelona again. This is all you’re doing now. You don’t even know why you’re playing anymore. You just keep doing it because that’s all there is to do.
Then sometimes you’ll scroll around and notice some ancient unit you forgot you had. Like a spearman or something you left on a far-flung part of the map in 400 A.D. and forgot about. You could disband the unit, but you don’t. You could send him to bum-rush a helicopter unit and get destroyed, but you don’t. Because you care about him. He’s all that’s left about what you once loved about all this, back when you at least thought you knew why you were doing what you were doing.
Felix: I think we’re headed in this strange fragmented direction none of us can quite place. Very few people want to admit that this is the end, the beginning of an imperial unraveling. I see all these debates over whether China is communist or not, whether they’re the fucking Third Reich or something ridiculous, or they’re the saviors of humanity. They all miss this very basic fact: China overcoming mass poverty on a scale we’ve never seen, China modernizing on the timeline and scale that it has, is the only generational human accomplishment of the last 30 years. That’s it. That’s the only thing anyone actually remembers in one thousand years if we’re still here.
They’re the only nation that has done anything at all. The United States, European Union, India, no one has any equivalent accomplishments. Oh, uninterrupted peace in Europe? Shut up! No one gives a fuck! You’d have to dig deep for something one one-hundredth as impressive.
In America, though, you never hear about it. You never hear about how they’re fucking spitting in each other’s mouths at water parks while we’re toiling in the slush. And you know what? I don’t care if more people died than what they said. I know nations lie, blah blah blah. The simple fact is that we’re squirming around in the mud while they are living in the present and that’s an unmistakable fact. Sorry. We may have the capability to kill some people and knock some governments over still, but we’re done. We’re revealed as pathetic. No one is actually afraid of us. So what happens next?
The one thing working in the military’s favor is that they’re the only institution with the resources and manpower to assume control and/or fight current oligarchical powers if it came to that, but I don’t know if the military will have the same emotional powers in people’s minds then. It may leave a different taste in people’s mouths if there start to be falls of Saigon every day. Maybe that happens under a Mike Lindell presidency in 12 years. We’re dragged kicking and screaming out of the world. We never acknowledged our time was up. That’s certainly the direction we’re heading in as Biden drools out something approximating “we’re going to restore global leadership.”
Jon: In high school I was annoyed by this dude I knew who liked to go on about how America was in a state of decline. He was also a guy who signed his homework as Tyler Durden, but 20 years down the road, can you argue with him? I’m glad we talked about Hurricane Katrina in the series, because that wasn’t an aberration. It’s all Katrina. Sometimes it manifests loudly, like it does with this pandemic, but most of the time it happens completely silently. Someone sitting in Rikers for years without a trial. A $45,000 medical bill sitting on a kitchen counter. Whatever we collectively thought this was is long gone if it was ever here at all.
I’m watching an NFL game at the moment and it feels just like 1996. Aside from flipping on an old movie, sports might be the only thing that can do that for me. The material realities of our world completely evaporate there. Colin Kaepernick was blackballed from the league in his prime and the league’s owners knew they would never have to admit why. The moment it seemed like NBA players were on the precipice of the most radical labor action we’d seen in ages, it was whittled down to something compatible. Granted, they are stenciling END RACISM behind the end zones now. But it just dries up here, and a consequence of that is that we get this world that sort of exists outside of time. It’s our constant. It’s like you said: that’s where our heroes are, that’s what captures our imagination.
There’s no prescription I feel qualified to offer for any of this. Fighting in the Age of Loneliness doesn’t really either! We ended it with, keep fighting, keep putting one foot in front of the other, the only way out is through. But ultimately, a lot of this project’s ambitions lied in simply acknowledging the feeling of living in a time that we argue is unquestionably an era of American decline. Nobody wants to try to tell that story, and understandably so. It wasn’t us because we’re so smart or insightful or brave or whatever the hell. We just got a chance to try to tell it through Google Earth, iMovie, and inconsistent audio leveling on YouTube, the world’s most prestigious and important platform. As with any project that’s a couple years old, I’ll sometimes see something and wish I’d done it better or cleaner. That’s inevitable. But damn if it isn’t one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever worked on. It was fantastic to be able to make this with you, man. Maybe we’ll do it again someday.
Felix: Every day I have to remind myself that we did this. It doesn’t seem like something I really got to do because it’s so completely our own. I could not have written this with anyone else. Whatever happens, whether we’re just the next Turks or Brits, sad crusts of a water pie, a former imperial core driven insane by the frontier we created, whether we live in a Chinese century or the next power is some unexpected axis, or maybe even something good happens, I hope we can do this again.