Sunday, March 29, 2015

Bleeding-Heart Conservatives & Macho Wimps (20 Nov. 2009 / 29 March 2015)

                 They're hardly the worst people in the world, but among the more annoying breeds of Americans are bleeding-heart conservatives and macho wimps.

         I'm not bad-mouthing "compassionate conservatives" here. People should be compassionate; conservatives are people; so conservatives should be compassionate. The bleeding-hearts I refer to, mostly, are religious or social conservatives who can't bear the thought of (figuratively) God's straying sheep destroying their lives and, more important, damning themselves to hell. Bleeding-heart conservatives want to intervene and save these lost sheep; they differ from bleeding-heart liberals because their interventions often involve serious jail time, and some of the lost sheep wind up as mutton.

         The debate over gay marriage ultimately has to do with full-citizenship, sodomy and sin, and ancient and modern attempts to preserve the boundaries around categories — male and female, here — and semi-conscious programs to increase our tribe's population by limiting sex to the reproductive. This is an important debate, and rapidly getting resolved: a growing proportion of Americans, when pushed, accept "Different strokes / For different folks" with gays, or will allow that American adults have the right to go to hell as they, and we, choose.

        An armistice in The War on Drugs is also approaching, if more slowly.

         States approaching bankruptcy can't afford "the New Prohibition" of recreational drugs other than booze. We can't afford the investment in policing; we can't afford the gang wars over sales territories; and we can't afford incarceration of people who hurt mostly themselves. Abroad, the United States can't afford the figurative "War on Drugs" when it interferes with a far more literal war against the Taliban, ISIS, and other zealots.

         The 12-step people — Alcoholics Anonymous and its offspring — say this much that is true and important: that you really can't help addicts until they want help, and they often don't want help until they hit bottom. You want to be a compassionate conservative? Make sure every addict that wants help gets help. No waiting time to get into rehabilitation programs — and good programs. Until then, let these lost sheep, too, go to hell in their own ways: limit "intervention" to matters of public health.

         The currently most troublesome macho wimps, in my unhumble opinion, are the people pushing the excellent slogan, "Freedom isn't free" while militantly unwilling to take risks themselves.

         There are arguments to be made against closing the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. Those arguments do not, however, include, "Keep 'em locked up forever without trial in an iron cage 'cause I'm afraid to have a possible terrorist in my area code!"

         Freedom is not free; neither is decency nor effective foreign policy. They all require risks. Indeed, to modify a bit a teaching of Thomas Jefferson, freedom, decency, and even crass policy all require, from time to time, that nice people will die.

         Most Americans would be safer in a police state than a free one, but we haven't gone to a police state. To establish unlimited police powers would be macho in a way: tough; to do it to protect our own precious butts, however — the reason it gets done — is the act of dangerous wimps.

         So, bleeding-heart conservatives and macho wimps: toughen up! Throwing people in jail for doing some drug is not compassion; wetting your pants in fear that a suspected terrorist might get acquitted and walk among us isn't manly, or womanly: it's wimp.

Clichés, Ethics, Afghanistan (1 Nov. 2009)

                   Clichés are useful, but dangerous when they stop arguments and stifle thought, so we should demand that people at least think about our clichés.
                  Start with thinking about them literally.
                  The Washington Post had an editorial headlined, "Mr. Obama punts" (27 Sept. 2009). The editorial attacked the Obama administration on a decision on detaining terrorism suspects at the US base at Guantanamo, and I agree with the Post. There's a problem, though, if people assume that punting is necessarily a bad idea; if you think that you're not thinking enough about football, where a punt may never be heroic but is often the only sensible play.
                  Similarly there was a Congressional to-do over the line, "cowards cut and run, Marines never do." Back when the expression had the most meaning, literal cutting and running wasn't a decision for a Marine but for a naval commanding officer.
                  If you commanded a modest American frigate on a solo mission during the War of 1812, and you were at anchor in a small bay and looked out and saw the fog clearing to reveal a rapidly approaching, not-so-modest British squadron —any one ship of which had you outgunned — then, sir, it would have been your duty to order cut the ropes that held the sails furled and also your anchor cable(s). And then you would run, perhaps before the wind, perhaps not, depending on which way the wind was blowing, because your duty, sir, was to get the hell out of there before your ship was sunk or captured.
                  In football, sometimes you punt; in naval warfare, sometimes you cut and run. And in ground warfare, "Come back with your shield or on it" meant, "Don't throw away your shield and run off," not "never retreat." Infantry have to know how to retreat, sometimes at high speed.
                  And if you can't stand the heat do get out of the kitchen, unless there's some important reason for being in the kitchen.
                  American politicians, pundits, and standard-issue citizens are going to have to debate continued US military action in Iraq and, more pressingly, Afghanistan. And we will use clichés, including the macho clichés. Just ask yourself some literal questions and work out their geo-political equivalents.
                  Where is the ball in Afghanistan? How do you get a first down? Where, and, what are the goals? Alternatively, is this a "kitchen" we belong in? Is the meal worth the effort, and the cost? If politicians and pundits talk figuratively of heat and kitchens, we should also ask just who is sweating in the Afghan "kitchen." It's Afghans and NATO military people (primarily American troops), not politicians or pundits.
                  And so forth.
                  There is nothing unmanly about getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan if that's the right and reasonable thing to do: men are the second-most common variety of human beings, and humans are, in theory, uniquely ethical animals, capable of reason.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

THE TRUE BELIEVER: A Text for College Comp., and for Our Time

            I've spent a fair amount of time the last decade or so attacking attempts to scare the hell out of the American people. For the next little bit, however, I'm going to ask you to consider a world of dense human population, dwindling resources, and decreasing economic stability; a world of rising fundamentalist movements, typically religious movements with nationalistic undertones: Likudniks in Israel, US fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Hindus — a difficult concept there! — in India, and, more visible of late, Wahhabi and Salafi and others Muslim sectarians working hard for their versions of Sunni or Shia purity and the promotion of their faith in and beyond the vast dar al-Islam.

            In addition, economic fundamentalists will come out of the woodwork and foundation think tanks in large numbers if, as is definitely possible, The Great Recession of 2008 f. takes a late double-dip and returns as World Depression II.

            We are ripe for — and with a Sunni/Shia civil war may be moving into — another age of fanaticism like the early and middle portions of the 20th century, and over that prospect you should be afraid, you should be very afraid.

            So I want to talk about fanaticism and recommend a flawed and dated book by a flawed man who eventually became a bit of a fanatic himself: Eric Hoffer's always-relevant long essay from 1951, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

            First, though, I have a story or two or three on how a guy with a degree in Shakespeare (me, I) came to teach a book marketed as Sociology, how a man of the Left continued teaching off and on for forty years a book generally loved by conservatives — by an author who became something of a tame intellectual for Lyndon Johnson — and how a fellow-traveller with the Civil Rights Movement and member of the Peace Movement (still me) came to encourage every serious citizen to read a book with very harsh things to say about all mass movements.

            In the mid-1960s, I returned to the University of Illinois at Urbana from Cornell because the U of I was willing to pay me to teach and Cornell really wasn't. I had gone to Cornell on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, which paid for my first year, and had a Danforth Graduate Fellowship that would've supported me (modestly) through my PhD. The Danforth people, however, asked its Graduate Fellows to apply for teaching assistantships where possible, to free up money for other students.

            I thought that was a legitimate request, and really sensible for me. With the exception of summer jobs doing gastroenterology and (more so) microbiology lab work, I'd been pretty much "studenting" since I was five, and I wanted to try teaching for a bit. Also, I really wanted to know if I liked teaching since it looked like the Vietnam War was going to go on indefinitely and teaching was an attractive career option for me.

            My other career options were helping develop new and improved militarized anthrax or bubonic plague at Fort Detrick in Maryland or — far more likely as things turned out — an "MOS" of sorts if not exactly a career as tunnel rat with the US Army in Vietnam, helping to fight a war of which I did not approve.

            For my other alternative, I could see what jobs were available in the Greater Toronto area (i.e., go into exile) or, if I were really courageous, go to prison for resisting the draft.

            I had applied to the U of T and like Toronto, but I was and am an American and didn't like the idea of exile. The prison option was a morally admirable choice, but I had this thing about avoiding rape. The folklore at the time was that anti-war activists were targeted to be raped in US Federal prisons, and at 5'2" tall and some 140 pounds, I qualified as fairly easy rape-bait. Long after the war, I heard of studies indicating that anti-war activists were, if anything, raped rather less frequently than other young prisoners; and it is quite possible that the rape threat was exaggerated as part of some propaganda operation to discourage war resisting and other anti-war/anti-government activities by young American men. In any event, I strongly disliked the idea of making protective friends by literally sucking up to large felons, or —small person's Plan B strategy — demonstrating that I would freak out and tolerate severe pain myself to hurt anyone who threatened me.

            (No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, but there are people out there willing to use the threat of rape to keep in line boys and men as well as girls and women. Except maybe that line should be addressed to Virgil, not Virginia, since it was feminist activists who did the most to bring to light and resist the use of rape and the threat of rape for social control.)

            Anyway, in the mid-1960s my options were what they were because of the continuing war — the Vietnam War will be a motif here — and because the United States enforced at the time military conscription on the principle of "Universal Obligation with Selective Service" (i.e., universal for young males). As General Lewis B. Hershey, the Director of Selective Service explained with admirable directness that burned into my memory, it would be well for the US if more young men went into teaching and, quoting from memory, «We'll make them good teachers or good soldiers.» Even as during World War II draftable American males were encouraged to become or remain machinists to serve the war effort better than as soldiers, even so, privileged young American males in the Vietnam era were offered the chance to teach or have our asses drafted, or thrown into prison.

            So I got to choose among exile, teacher, tunnel rat, or "punk," and I thought teaching would probably be best bet — although I've now been to Vietnam, as a tourist, and found I could physically have handled the tunnels: my shoulders were a tight fit, but I could have done it. Physically. Without immediate claustrophobia. The only problem would have been the constant fear of sudden, or lingering, death. Or maiming. Or actually getting killed, wounded, or maimed, or going mad from the tight spaces and fear.

            Anyway, I was going to teach, so it would be good to try it, and I applied for an assistantship at Cornell and received one, and was offered a $1900 stipend for the year, which I could've lived on. Except that the Cornell graduate school was and remains private, and they wanted me to pay out of that stipend tuition and fees, for $1875. I pointed out that that worked out to $25 cash money for two semesters of teaching, and the dean or deanling I was talking to said that he understood the arithmetic, but they of the Grad School knew I had a Danforth fellowship and wanted the Danforth Foundation to pay me.

            I pointed out that part of the point of my applying for the assistantship was to free up that Danforth money for someone else — and, besides, I like to be paid by the people I work for.

            Illinois offered me a much better deal — back then, public universities were appropriated a fair amount of public money — and I sadly left beautiful, if incredibly rural and isolated Ithaca, New York, and returned to a marginally better program in my field, a significantly better library collection in said field, access to civilization, and, for the time, almost a living wage. (I was contractually forbidden from moonlighting for money, but I tutored for two meals a day and lived fairly well.)

            Illinois gave me a full fellowship, but with a teaching option, for extra money: which, for the reasons given above, I leapt at.

            The problem — the War and the draft and civil rights/civil liberties struggles aside — was that the English Department schedulers weren't sure which semester I'd teach until the Friday before the Monday they wanted me teaching.

            So Friday before classes began, I was anointed a Teaching Fellow in English, assigned a Rhetoric 101 section, and loaded up with a stack of books, none of which I had ever read (or, in some cases, seen before).

            Fortunately, I had been an undergraduate at the U of Illinois, and more fortunately I remembered tales of a mildly delusional sociology professor who consistently insisted that his classes were extraordinarily popular and that the bookstores should order a large number of books — many of which were never sold.

            Rhetoric 101 classes were capped at 20 (I told you this was back when public schools had money), and there were more than enough extras of a book I'd read the previous year, Eric Hoffer's The True Believer.
            Rhetoric 101 was basically basic College Comp., and it wasn't content free but was largely what I called "content irrelevant," in the sense that it didn't matter much what the students wrote about; what counted was that they wrote, wrote regularly, and got good feedback on their writing.

            The True Believer was good to write about, and is itself well written; so it was good to teach that first time out, and good for me to teach that first class, as I've said, pretty regularly for the next forty years.

            Why this book is important for a large audience to read — an audience of academics, students, and world citizens generally — is the topic of Part II.

Part II

            In Part I, I covered in some detail the crasser ways I came to teach Eric Hoffer's very important 1951 book The True Believer, to which I'll add here a bit more personal detail. I was in Chicago the summer of 1968: the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the following riots, and the summer of the Chicago Democratic National Convention. I was with the George McGovern campaign for the convention — there was a McGovern campaign in 1968 — and I was at Michigan Avenue and Balbo Street when the (police) riot started. As a "War Baby" coming of age during America's Vietnam Era, I had been concerned about the causes of violence: both the state-sponsored varieties and the more "free-enterprise," the causes of violence by people enraged and violence committed in cold blood. Encountering even non-lethal violence more up-close and personal in 1968, and again in 1970, focused my attention, and Hoffer had instructive and provocative things to say on the history of violence.

            There were also nonpersonal, more philosophically respectable reasons for my interest in "True Belief," though an important one comes with another story, which I'll try to keep decorously light, if not exactly brief.

            As mentioned, I'd received a Danforth Foundation Graduate Fellowship (and had "DF" after my name on their mailings until I told a Foundation administrator about the delight of my colleagues that I'd formally incorporated into my title "DF," which at the time stood for "Dumb F*ck").  Anyway, as a DGF — the revised abbreviation  — I got to attend conferences of my fellow fellows, including one winter in the late 1960s at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Contradicting the stereotype of hyper-organized Jesuits — which is OK since the school was founded by another Order — the conference staff wasn't ready for us. Reinforcing a stereotype of Notre Dame, we were fed with just tuna salad and crackers — but given to drink a lot of booze, and we got talking current events, politics, and philosophy.

            In one conversation, a guy got around to asking me how I felt about working with "The Movement" — the Anti-War Movement directly, tangentially the Civil Rights Movement — at the University of Illinois; and I said the Movement was good, though I was troubled a little by one thing. A definite minority, but a fair number of my comrades in the Movement seemed to be always in earnest, not much into laughing.

            He responded — slur a word or two here when reading the dialog aloud — he responded, "I can't tell you why you're troubled, but I can tell you why you should be." He shifted gears into good Socratic mode and asked me if I'd accept that the source of laughter is incongruity, things not going together. I allowed that a source of laughter, probably the most important, is incongruity. He then asked if, short of the subatomic level or something equally exotic, there were things or events that aren't at least potentially incongruous. And I said, no; we don't encounter things literally identical. He responded that there were certainly things that we should not laugh at, that it would be cruel and indecent to laugh at, but, if all things are potentially incongruous, then all things in one situation or other are potentially funny. And I said OK, and he went on and asked what — esoteric physics still aside — would be potentially unlaughable, always congruous with everything. And I said, "It would have to be something like the ground of being." And he asked, "And what, in the West, do we call 'the ground of being?"; and I said "God." And he said, OK, I'll give you a rule of thumb: That at which you can not — no matter what, in no context, not even potentially — laugh at: that is your god. And if it is anything less than God; if it's the Movement or your family or your country or the Church or an ideology — then you're involved in a strange and dangerous form of idolatry."

            I returned with this theory written out in pencil on a paper plate and used it in my teaching of The True Believer, and retained it in the back of my mind, reinforcing for decades my intention to teach Hoffer's book whenever it fit into my courses.

            And to recommend it often: There were blessedly few fanatics in the American movements in the second half of the 20th century, but far too many Americans lack a mature sense of proportion and perspective, far too many Americans are unable to laugh at themselves and at least chuckle over the incongruities of their sacred beliefs and causes.

            In the opening decades of the 21st century, we're again getting dangerously large numbers of people, "full of passionate intensity," zealously in earnest about sacred causes; again, though in different and arguably less hopeful ways — the initial Russian Revolution was a good idea — it begins to look like "the centre cannot hold."

            The Center is a crucial issue here, and too many people nowadays misunderstand what the Center is and where it is located.

            We usually talk about "the political spectrum," but Hoffer implies something more like a political horseshoe or, and better, like the Greek letter omega (Ω).

            At the rounded top of the omega in this image are those who are more or less reconciled with the present: from strong conservatives on the Right through liberals, social democrats, socialists, and even a fair number of radicals on the Left. People may sing, "We can change the world — / Re-arrange the world," but from an anthropological or long-range-historical perspective, most of us, most of the time want to make relatively moderate changes, changes that can be made politcallypolitically, without serious violence.

            During the 1960s, people on the far Left were right in saying "A liberal is a conservative with brains," or as Edmund Burke put it in 1790, reflecting on the Revolution in France, "A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation."  OK, from its title on, The True Believer is an exercise in typology, innocent of statistics and better at historical analysis than sociological. It's a temptation to go from the type "The True Believer" to a stereotype — a strongly negative stereotype — and Hoffer pretty much succumbs to the temptation. Still, there are people who are fanatics, and fanatics necessarily want to make drastic changes even at the cost of great damage to the present world. Fanatics often have a myth of past glory and a dream of a magnificent future — and between such a past and future the present can be crushed and (almost) any sacrifice now can be justified to restore the glorious past and/or gain the glorious future.

            What is crucial in such an analysis and classification is a willingness to sacrifice one's self for the better world — exalting and desiring "self-sacrifice" is crucial for Hoffer's True Believer — and with this a willingness to sacrifice a lot of other people, property, institutions, and lives. In the large swath of people in the center, there is little desire for self-sacrifice and radically radical change: change not only from the roots but achieved by tearing up the roots. There has to be a more-or-less extremist movement for Hoffer's True Believer; exactly which one can vary. There is only a spark gap, so to speak, separating extremists on Right and Left and other axes. "A Saul turning into Paul is neither a rarity nor a miracle" according to Hoffer (The True Believer III.14). Saul was zealous for the Lord as an activist agent for Jewish orthodoxy and then became zealous for the Lord Jesus as an apostle (Acts 9.1-19). Saul the agent of the High Priest doesn't become Paul the baker and religious moderate; he became St. Paul, a martyr for the Church he helped to create.

            When pundits today talk about the loss of the Center, they are usually overstating the case. Still, the political spectrum world-wide is deforming in too many places into a Hofferian omega, and it sometimes seems like we've distilled from The True Believer a checklist for producing fanatics and are steadily moving down the list to produce people all-too-willing to sacrifice themselves and the present for a cause, and take down a whole lot of people as well.

            Most people, for most of history, haven't been much involved in large-scale politics, and they have usually acquiesced in their lots, if far from embracing them, so long as the village and tribe and social networks held — and their betters left things be. Our "betters"— that One Percent and their helpers: the movers and shakers — are very successfully pushing another period of modernization and globalization, and this is both hopeful and highly dangerous.

            As the alleged Russian joke has it, "Everything Marx told us about communism was false; unfortunately, everything he told us about capitalism was true." And Marx and Engels were very explicit on what it means for traditional cultures to get their corporate asses modernized and rationalized into the world capitalist system: 
Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. ("Manifesto of the Communist Party," 1848, ch. 1)
And for many people the "real conditions of life" without traditional social networks and support, without a defined role in life and status — can pretty much suck. The brave new world of Modernity, individuality, testing, and achievement (or not) can be rewarding, but even for the winners material goods may not be enough to balance the pain of alienation; and if times go bad, the material goods and their attendant status can "melt into air."
            Such a pattern is obvious in the 20th century, but we were hardly unique, and Hoffer finds instructive parallels in earlier, even pre-capitalist periods.

            So let's return for a moment I've mentioned elsewhere to Saul of Tarsus's famously (among educated Christians) becoming St. Paul, and the subsequent rise of Christianity as a major religion.

            Hoffer asks the obvious question of why Christianity succeeded among the competing cults in the waning of the Hellenistic-Roman world. Initially, at least, the Church's intellectual offerings couldn't compete with even Roman let alone Greek philosophy, and the Christian promise of immortality was no better than that of the (other) mystery cults. What the Church did have to offer from fairly early on was a Way and a community. The churches were as communal as the synagog, and more so, and even more all-embracing and welcoming: in congregations following Paul, nonJews didn't have to follow the dietary code of Kashrut nor, for guys, undergo circumcision. And so forth.

            The Way the Church offered was more flexible than Torah — far more flexible — but a Way: not some lifestyle but a plan for living and, by the time the Roman Empire imploded, a theory and mythos that encompassed everything: from the Genesis of all things to the Apocalypse that ends our universe. Life was hard for most people, as always, and getting worse for those who'd been well off under the more capable emperors, but the Church offered hope for life everlasting in the future and the experience of immediate community now in the community of Christ's warm embrace.

            In our now, in the early 21st century, we are in the midst of at least two Great Awakenings and counting down to a clash of movements that could range from Christian Dominionism to Ayn Randian hyper-individualists (although hyper-individualistic Libertarians should be difficult to organize) to Likudniks with nuclear weapons to revived nationalist zeal in Russia, China, and the neighbors they challenge.

            One prime contender, though, is the one whose potential danger is trivialized by bigots. Especially if met by a revived Russian and Chinese nationalism, especially if demonized by zealots in a Great-Awakening Christendom, a revivalist, fundamentalist Islam could make an incredibly impressive mass movement, possibly unequalled since, well, unequalled since the last time Islam was on the move, spreading out of the Arabian peninsula to Spain in the west and (by the 1200s) Indonesia in the east.

            Again, Hoffer overstates, but he is right to see active and effective mass movements attempting to dwarf the present between a glorious past and a glorious future. The Nazis had to pretty much make up a glorious Teutonic past; Islam has a great past. And given the extent and resources of the dar al-Islam, Islam can have a great future. Islam offers a Way; the mosques offer community; and Islamic tradition strongly respects self-sacrifice, martyrdom. Add a unifying leader with the skills of a Saladin, provide the movement with enemies to demonize and be demonized by, and Islam could again vie for power in much of the world.

            With large populations of unemployed and underemployed young men — many highly schooled — the Muslim world has its potential Saladins and lieutenants for a Saladin, and an ample supply of those Hoffer calls "Men of Words" to prepare the way for a unifying leader (section XV). With infidels in the heart of the dar al-Islam and US infidel soldiers still in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is plenty to talk about: continuing humiliation to be avenged.

            And the world economy continues to integrate economically more people, with many good results including undermining "ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions," but with the cost in lessened community and inevitable alienation. And for many people a slowing world economy is not providing jobs to provide the goods and status that might balance such alienation.

            So The True Believer remains a handy book for College Comp courses and an important book, period. Check out Part 2 on "The Potential Converts" and our rapid production thereof. Note the importance for fanatics of demonizing enemies — in both senses of that phrase. Note the celebration of "heart" over head, the denigration of facts: "All active mass movements strive […] to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. […] To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason" (section 56). Note the uses of propaganda (§ 83-84) and the usefulness of terror (§85), faith (§99), hatred (§65), the centrality of fear and suspicion (§100).

            The great tagline of David Cronenberg's The Fly says, "Be afraid. Be very afraid"; we should be afraid of True Believers, of fanaticism — but rationally afraid.

            We can read Hoffer's flawed, provocative, insightful True Believer for a checklist of things to be avoided and things to be done. For sure, more people need to read the book so "the centre" can hold a bit better, the world can be made marginally safer, and needed changes can come with minimal violence and blood. To start with, American politicians and agitators whipping up xenophobia and Islamophobia and encouraging American extremists can knock it off. American Christian and Jewish nationalist extremists — and some Ayn-Randy atheists as well — are, in a politically symbiotic relationship with Islamist extremists, participating in a highly vicious and dangerous cycle. If, nothing else, if Islamist extremism might become a major threat, America will need alliances with Russian-Orthodox Russia, secular Europe, and Confucian/Communist Authoritarian/Capitalist China; so people of influence in the non-stop American political cycle, stop already with the American exceptionalism and hyping normal competition with other great powers — great powers we need as friends — into chauvinistic hostility.

            Large-scale slaughters of human beings have had a number of causes, but from the destruction of Jericho to the murder of Hypatia, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the Terrors under Robespierre and Stalin and Pol Pot — fanaticism has a strong record as a source of butchery. So far in our time, from the likes of the Taliban and al Qaeda and still-small cults, the body counts have been relatively low. Hoffer's True Believer remains a reminder to all literate people to act cautiously to prevent a spiral into horrors. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When See the Same Movie, We See Different Movies (15 Oct. 2012)

             One of the more interesting comments I received on a student evaluation was in my Science Fiction Film course, with the student saying, "I'm glad I took this course; now I understand why my parents find The Simpsons so much funnier than I do."

            Good point.

            Homer Simpson floating around in the space shuttle, snarfing up potato chips with schmaltzy music in the background is mildly amusing.  Homer Simpson in a shot-by-shot parody of the docking sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), complete with Johann Strauss's The Blue Danube waltz is funny. And if you grew up on 2001 as a semi-sacred film "text," then a Simpsons parody of the docking sequence or (more so) Homer as the Star-Child is borderline blasphemous and very, very funny.

            Similarly, one might chuckle at Lisa Simpson's conditioning Bart with electric shocks as negative reinforcement for stealing cupcakes. Bart reaching up for cupcakes with frosting and red cherries with stems, desperately trying to overcome his conditioning, exactly like Alex reaching for a pair of perfectly-formed model's breasts in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) — Bart reaching for cupcakes topped with cherries pretty much where the model's nipples are: that cracked me up.

            In my Satiric Film course, I showed a Reader's Digest version of the 1979 Monty Python's Life of Brian (and for any studio lawyers reading this blog: I have long since Ceased and Desisted in this exercise, so don't send me threatening letters). The clips got some snickers, but only one student really laughed: the one leftist who'd been to meetings of contemporary versions of, so to speak, "The People's Front of Judea" — and not, definitely not "The Judean People's Front." If you've ever been to an interminable meeting of political radicals, you know how accurate is the satire of radicals in Life of Brian. Python's Brian includes also highly effective satire of imperialists, gullible fanatics, militant optimists, and law-and-order conservatives; and close to the end, Brian gets to the most concentrated, devastating critique I have ever encountered on Liberals: Michael Palin's rosy-cheeked Roman officer (Nissus Wettus) handing out crosses at a mass crucifixion, and trying to make everything nice — while continuing to participate in an atrocity.

            Anyway, "The first duty of a critic is to state the obvious," as I was taught in graduate school, and we can pause here with the obvious point that different people will get different jokes in movies depending on which allusions and parodies they get, and whether or not they can relate a comic bit to their own experience, eliciting (or not) "the laughter of recognition."

            From this obvious small point, however, critics go on to the larger point that coming from different experiences, different people will see, while watching the same movie, at least slightly different movies. And as we get older and develop new experiences, we will see slightly different movies each viewing.

            And similarly with other works of art — and stuff more important than art; but arguments over movies are usually, not always, but usually, nonlethal, and familiar ("Everybody's a critic" — especially movie critics).

            So I'll continue on toward larger points with another movie from my Satiric Film course, a film I included as one kind of "limiting case": Animal House, by Harold Ramis et al. (1978), with the et al. including Chris Miller, Dartmouth alum, class of 1962, member of Alpha Delta Phi social fraternity, and author of the series, Tales of the Adelphian Lodge, of which Animal House, set in 1962, is one.

            Chris Miller is a satirist and a lot nastier than I am, but we are roughly contemporaries, and his AΔΦ isn't particularly like the fraternity chapter I ended up pledging but is very much like the TΔΦ chapter I walked out of during Rush Week. More to the point, I knew Doug Neidermeyer, the cadet commander of the Faber College ROTC Corps. That is, I knew a "Neidermeyer" still in his larval state: the cadet lieutenant who was my platoon leader my sophomore year of Army ROTC. So I laughed a laugh of recognition with Neidermeyer and laughed a laugh of cruel satisfaction when the "Where Are They Now?" portion of Animal House had Neidermeyer killed by his own troops — fragged — in Vietnam. I had also "wallowed in Watergate" and laughed at the notice of Greg Marmalard's becoming a Nixon White House aide and ending up raped in prison. (I am not as nasty as Chris Miller, but being a nicer person than a satirist still leaves a lot of room for nasty; plus, when the theater lights go down, we can all get pretty amoral.)

            For my students most of my teaching career, Animal House was a classic comedy. For my students near the end of my career, by the time one could teach a course in Satiric Film, Animal House was mostly old, politically incorrect, sexist, gross-out farce, and it took a good deal of explaining to my students ca. 2004 how Animal House in 1978 could have been mostly a sexist gross-out farce but also subversive satire.

            Two final examples, from outside of classes: The first was my baptism in watching different movies while watching the same movie; the second was my final confirmation in the theory — at least before MetaCritic came along and one can demonstrate the phenomenon a couple times a week.

            Exhibit One: Franklin J. Schaffner's, director, Francis Ford Coppola, first-listed writer, and George C. Scott, very memorable star: the 1970 movie, Patton. By 1970, I had read and once or twice taught Dwight Macdonald's essay "My Favorite General"  — and felt pretty sure the Scott movie had cleaned up Patton, most particularly omitting his anti-Semitism. Still, I saw Patton as a worthy successor to Shakespeare's Henry V in giving a Machiavellian, objective view of a military winner. (If you grew up on Lawrence Olivier's World War II propaganda film Henry V, check out Olivier's cuts from Shakespeare's script and one big addition: the Battle of Agincourt as a romantic visual spectacular. Olivier did a very elegant script-editing job to make Shakespeare's Henry V an unambiguous boy-scout hero.) At the end of Patton, I gathered up my stuff to leave the theater thinking about how beautifully the film had shown the General to be a dangerous whack-job, but situated — destined? — to be the exactly right whack-job to lead the US Third Army against German forces in Europe. After the War, however, Patton was mostly just dangerous, including dangerous to important policies of the United States (although I doubt he was assassinated for his views — however much that would make a hell of a movie).

            As I started to walk out of the theater, I heard behind me what sounded like a grandfather telling his grandson how good it was that Hollywood had finally made an old-fashioned patriotic movie about a pure hero: George S. Patton. That Richard Nixon might come to love the movie I had seen didn't surprise me; but that old man and perhaps his grandson had experienced a film very different from the one I saw and heard.

            That was in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1970. Much later, in 1997, I was in Hamilton, Ohio — "The Heart of It All," USA-wise — watching Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers and eventually noticed I was the only one in the auditorium laughing. And among the cast, only Neil Patrick Harris made it clear he understood his character was among a group of "fresh-faced fascists" in a "twisted space opera" that isn't "a sendup for the ages," as the USA Today reviewer called it, but certainly a sendup. I was waiting for Harris's young-20's Colonel Carl Jenkins to light a cigarette in a cigarette holder, adjust his monocle, and say "Ve haf vays of makink der Bug Brains talk …."

            And we have arrived at serious issues.

            I am a staunch member of "the reality-based community" and will stress that Starship Troopers or any other movie — or anything else on the human scale — has real existence, Out There, independent of our perceptions and opinions. Meaning, however, is created in the interaction between a work of art and its audience: which does not mean anything goes and all interpretations are equal but that we have to be careful and responsible in constructing meaning.

            We have to watch and listen attentively and speak carefully.

            We have to bring background information to the work and be aware of the likelihood of our ignorance of other background.

            We have to listen to other people's opinions and understand that we're all likely to miss and to misunderstand aspects of a work.

            And we have to think through our experience of the work and the experiences we bring to the work.

            Or we can say, "To hell with it; that was fun, but it ain't worth talking about." And then shut up. Or talk about the movie, but admit cheerfully we are, as the picturesque expression has it, talking out of our asses.

            The background part (and lack thereof) is what can get scary, that and the values people bring to movies, other art, politics. An American audience should know when we're dealing with Fascism and the fascistic, and Starship Troopers is not exactly subtle. An American audience should catch on to, "Oh, I'm being asked to enjoy a fascistic fantasy. I can do that — but I don't approve of the upshot of the fantasy." And then, having that bit of conflict, think about it.

            There's nothing new here. Back around 1600, Elizabethan audiences should have thought, Gee, Shakespeare's Henry V threatens to spit naked infants upon pikes if Henry doesn't get his way with the French city of Harfleur (see 3.3.3-43); how should I feel about that? Henry doesn't as things work out — doesn't kill babies or massacre the people of Harfleur — but he says he would, and if, in the affairs of princes results, as in winning, is all that counts, shouldn't Henry spit a few French infants (etc.) if that's what it takes to win?

            All things considered, General George S. Patton is one of the good guys of World War II; but with this guy there are a lot of things to consider. Indeed, should we complain too loudly if it turns out Patton was assassinated shortly after the war? Old "Blood and Guts" was willing to spill a lot of other people's blood to achieve US war aims in his way. If we approve of Patton's philosophy and actions, should we be very upset if his figurative blood was part of the cost of as much peace as was had at the end of World War II?

            All things considered with Starship Troopers, even if our enemies are giant Bugs — should we engage in species-cidal war against them if it's just possible some of our people provoked the war? Should species-cide be a war aim, even if our opponents are literal Bugs? And what if, in the real world, we come to see our enemies as "bugs"? Is genocide OK if we are convinced our enemies are vermin?
            What we bring to a work of art and "where we're coming from" will greatly influence what we experience in the work and how we experience it. The work, though, isn't passive in all of this: once we've experienced the work, it is a new experience, one we bring to future experiences. To some extent, we shape the film as we watch it; to a lesser extent, it shapes us.

            We need to be aware of how this works, or, minimally, at least that it's happening.

Preserve, Protect, and Defend ... (3 Nov. 2012)

"Preserve, Protect, and Defend" America, Not Necessarily Americans  

               A fair number of Americans, including American Presidents, assert that the first duty of the President of the United States is to protect the American people, to protect Americans.

                  And then a smaller group of us pedantic sorts, especially small-r republicans, assert that no, the key duties of the President are to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed," serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States, and, as s/he swears or affirms — no American may be required to swear an oath — to "preserve, protect[,] and defend the Constitution of the United States."

                  Now does "Constitution" here mean every clause, phrase, and mark of punctuation in the document? The Constitution in its original form — e.g., with the assumption that slavery legally exists and that new slaves could be imported until 1808? Of course not. "Constitution" in the oath means the written document, as amended, plus something like "Constitution" in the British sense of the term.

                  I'd put it that the primary duty of the President is to defend the Republic, the American Republic as constituted in its essentials by the document, The Constitution of the United States. Let's put it, the primary duty of the President is to protect not Americans, but America.

                  This idea is in useful tension with the commonplace truth from Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan to John Stuart Mill in On Liberty to our own Declaration of Independence that the primary duty of any government is to protect its people.

                  Most Americans are either loud about their patriotism or keep their mouths shut; relatively few Americans get arrested any given year — so most Americans, most respectable, voting Americans, would be safer in a police state. Insofar as we have avoided a police state, we put at risk a fair number of decent, innocent Americans.

                  If the tree of liberty is fertilized from time to time with the blood of patriots, it is also fertilized with the blood of men, women, and children who die, or are wounded or maimed, because we make the State prove people guilty and grant bail and allow free speech to those who will insult God and the Prophet Mohammed. Well, and so forth through the Bill of Rights and traditional ideals of liberty.

                  At various times, however, and the years following 11 September 2001 have made up one of those times, there has been consistent over-emphasis on the part of US Presidents and the Congress and other leaders to protect Americans and consistent reluctance to tell the American people to toughen up and be willing to take casualties — civilian casualties — to preserve traditional rights.

                  There has been a failure to explain that even furthering US interests can have its costs, and a balancing favor to continue whether perceived interests are US interests and just what we mean be the interests of America.

                  We cannot have US ambassadors walled up in fortress embassies; we cannot have US Special Forces holed up in secure areas: to do their jobs they must get out among the people, including among people who want to kill them and sometimes succeed.

                  Ambassador Chris Stevens died doing his job, as did two of the CIA security officers who died responding to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in Libya, along with at least one other American.
                  To protect America, in some cases even to just achieve US policy goals, some Americans have to risk death or horrible injury, and sometimes they suffer.

                  The first duty of the President is to protect America and further its interests, and to do so s/he may have to get some Americans killed. Each President need to explain this nasty fact to each generation of the American public, and each generation has to debate where to strike a balance.

                  On 22 April 1971, speaking for Vietnam Veterans Against the War — against what we Americans call the Vietnam War — John Kerry asked rhetorically, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Or, arguably, worse than a mistake: we continue to debate the morality of the Vietnam War. What isn't debatable is that the President and government of the United States can err, horribly, and order Americans to kill and die in conflicts that are not necessary to preserve America, wars that hurt America.
                  This idea, too, needs to enter the debate.

                  A bumper sticker is not a philosophy, Charlie Brown, and one-liners on "the first duty of the President" aren't serious consideration of difficult issues.

                  We Americans need to toughen up and be willing to take risks necessary to preserve our freedoms (and our dignity). For example, making US airports less secure but freer puts lives at risk. So be it, I say: I sometimes take planes, and I'm for loosening up security. Let's debate that.

                  We Americans need to get our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and much of the rest of the world and shift money from "kinetic" military operations into the civilian economy. Such pulling back will save military lives and may put at risk civilians. So be that as well — and let us debate that also.