Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Rico So White (and That's Okay): The Flogging Scene and Matters Fascistic in STARSHIP TROOPERS



"Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor […].
Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms."
  Jean V. Dubois, Lt.-Col., M.I., rtd. (High School Instructor in H. & M. P.)



            It's been decades since I could bring myself to actually re-read Robert A. Heinlein's important 1959 novel Starship Troopers, but I did review my underlining and notes every time I taught it, which was often, and skimmed it pretty thoroughly for this note — and I haven't found a key moment that Samuel R. Delany recalled at a conference and mentions in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: "Thus Heinlein, in Starship Troopers, by a description of a mirror reflection and the mention of an ancestor’s nationality, in the midst of a strophe on male makeup, generates the data that the first-person narrator, with whom we have been traveling now through two hundred and fifty-odd pages (of a three-hundred-and-fifty-page book) is non-Caucasian" (quoted in James Nicoll Reviews, "Into the Abyss": Rev. RAH's Troopers). For young, Black, and gifted Delany, as the older Chip Delany recalled, it was revelatory moment.
            Delany may remember a better novel than Heinlein wrote, but in the Delany version, Starship Troopers is set in a society where the color of the hero's skin becomes relevant only when it is rationally relevant: i.e., when he's deciding on cosmetics. It is certain, however, Juan Rico's cultural competence includes his knowing who Ramón Magsaysay is (and admiring him as a highly successful anti-Communist warrior), and that Rico's native language is Tagalog (p. 205 of 208 in Berkley 1968 edn.; ch. XIII).
            Anyway, Heinlein's Rico is a Filipino resident noncitizen of a Terran Federation that's one variation on Heinleinian eutopia, its eutopian aspects including being for 1959 non- and antiracist and, in its idealized military, mostly non-sexist (or mostly non-sexist for 1959 and the Navy and Marines; also "civilian chicks" [139; ch. XII] might be, and Rico's mom [passim] definitely is, another matter). As H. Bruce Franklin points out, Starship Troopers gives us a future-SF World War II movie cast celebrating American — or in this case Terran — diversity: the Terran Federation gallantly defended by a typical selection of Terran Youth (p. 111; ch. 5), and where warships have names like the Pál Maléter, named for a leader of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution; Montgomery, undoubtedly "Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein," a British general of some note during World War II; Tchaka, whom I assume is Shaka kaSenzangakhona, the great Zulu warrior-conqueror; and Geronimo, a hero of the Apache-Mexican/Apache-American conflict on, significantly, the Apache side.
            This lack of racism in the conscious design of Starship Troopers is important but unremarkable in a novel of its period, and in 1953 Isaac Asimov had explained why. Although Asimov was to publish in 1957 a collection of his Earth-bound stories, Earth Is Room Enough, he pretty much ended his classic essay "Social Science Fiction" with the observation that "The large majority of the futures presented in science fiction involve a broader stage for the drama of life" than just Earth.

The one world of Earth is expanded to a whole series of worlds […]. Other intelligences may exist or they may not, but at least the inanimate universe with which man struggles is stupendously expanded.
          The result is that to science-fiction readers Earth becomes small and relatively unimportant. A subdivision smaller than Earth becomes even harder to focus upon. [* * *]
          This is not because science-fiction writers are internationalists as a group, or because they have a more enlightened and all-inclusive outlook, are less patriotic or less given to sectional passions and race prejudice. […]
          [Science-fiction] writers ignore the subdivisions of mankind because the nature and scope of science fiction is such that anything less than the "Earthman" doesn't make sense.
          Whatever the reason for it, science fiction is serving a specific and important function. By ignoring "racial" division among men it is moving in a direction the rest of our culture must move in out of sheer self-defense. […]
          Where does this me-you rivalry [as with US cities or states or sports teams] stop being exhilarating and start being dangerous? When it coincides with a fixed belief that "you" are an inferior human being and "I" am a superior human being.
          Just at the time that the western European powers began to expand across land and sea and to collide with societies other than their own, they also began to develop their superior material technology. Not only were the American Indians, the African Negroes, the Asiatic Indians and Chinese, the South Sea Malays and the Australian aborigines heathen and therefore inferior by divine fiat; they were unable to stand up to our gunfire and therefore inferior by natural law.
          This division of mankind into whites (particularly Nordic whites) and everybody else was safe only so long as western Europe (and its cultural appendages in America and Australia maintained their technological superiority.
          But the superiority is no longer being maintained. In 1905, the Russians suffered the humiliation of being defeated by the yellow-skinned Japanese. But the rest of the white world took it calmly enough; after all, the Russians were half-Tartar and very backward for a theoretically white nation.
          Then in 1941 and 1942, Japan inflicted defeats upon British, French, Dutch, and American troops, the pick and cream of the white world. Even Japan's final defeat did not abolish the shock her initial victories communicated to the entire nonwhite world.
          So times have changed and race prejudice is becoming a dangerous anachronism. We [Whites] are treating with an outmoded emotional attitude a group of human who outnumber us badly and who are drawing abreast of us technologically. For selfish reasons alone we should be wiser than we are. (And on moral grounds we never did have a leg to stand on.)
          Science fiction, insofar as it tends to think of humanity as a unit and to face humanity, white, black, and yellow alike, with common dangers and common tasks, which must be pushed to a common victory, serves the world well, and America particularly well. (SF:F 2nd edn., 365-66, section X).

            Heinlein's Troopers, begins with battle of Homo sapiens against the alien humanoid "Skinnies," but this is only the prelude to war to the death (as Terrans and — for the purposes of the novel — Heinlein believe) against the Pseudo-Arachnid "Bugs": "a madman's conception of a giant intelligent spider" (107; ch. VIII). Heinlein slips here and there with some bigotry against the "Red Chinese" of 1959 (121; ch. XI), but in the world of Troopers species-ism is a given — The only good Bug is a dead Bug — and "race prejudice" among humans would be not only "a dangerous anachronism" but suicidal and silly.
            Racism would also work against a Heinleinian eutopia that is rational, efficient, and scientific in its approach to "History and Moral Philosophy" — and political structure and warfare … and elitism.

            Starship Troopers, and Robert A. Heinlein have been accused of fascism, but that charge is unfair. Heinlein would have fought against literal Fascists during World War II and didn't for the compelling reason that he'd been mustered out the US Navy and not allowed to re-enlist because he had tuberculosis. Starship Troopers lacks the Führerprinzip and shows a Terran Federation not subservient to a dictatorial Leader but a democracy  — though not a strongly liberal democracy — with sovereignty resting in the demos of honorably discharged veterans of Federal Service. Federal Service is "either real military service […] or a most unreasonable facsimile thereof" (28; ch. II), as explained to Juan Rico, but since the novel is presented from the grunt's-eye view of Rico, what we see is pretty much all military service. The impression for classically-educated readers should be less Mussolini's Italy or Hitler's Germany than a combination of ancient Sparta with Athens and republican Rome. As in Sparta, there's a military elite with a brutal initiation for membership and rigid enforcement of law. As in Athens, there's democracy, but a limited one. I played the nominal hero in Aristophanes' The Congresswomen (Ekklesiazousai, 391 BCE): a young citizen in a bit part asserting his rights in claims that he's "Athenian, male, of age, and free" and therefore "won't put up with sex by decree." We can ignore the specific assertion of freedom from enforced sex — The Congresswomen is a satiric sex comedy — and just note that this guy is a native-born Athenian and not a foreigner; a man, not a woman or child; free, and not a slave; he'd also had to have completed military training, which put him in a small portion of the population of Athens, in the range of 10-20%. As we colloquially use the word, Heinlein's Federation is more democratic than the classic Athenian.
            Starship Troopers, though, is authoritarian, elitist, and fascistic in a manner signaled in an allusion to republican Rome and taken up by Paul Verhoeven.

            At Officer Candidate School, Rico's instructor in History and Moral Philosophy, Major Reid, cautions his students that their subject "is science, not wishful thinking" and insists that "the universe is what it is, not what we want it to be. To vote is to wield authority; it is the supreme authority from which all other authority derives — such as mine to make your lives miserable once a day. Force, if you will! — the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax. Whether it is exerted by ten men or by ten billion, political authority is force" (145; ch. XII).
            Sovereignty in the Federation is in the franchise, and relatively speaking it is broadly shared, but we see the Federation (through Rico's eyes) mostly in its military aspect, and we hear from Major Reid a formulation combining sovereign authority with the franchise and both with the Roman fasces, "the Power of the Rods and the Ax": "The axe represented the power over life or death through the death penalty […]. Bundled birch twigs symbolise corporal punishment […]." Fasces are associated etymologically with Italian fascism, but they have long been a popular symbol for authority in the United States and appear prominently behind the Speaker's chair in the US House of Representatives. Force is an idea that interests, maybe fascinates Heinlein, very much as represented by "the Power of the Rods and the Ax": Starship Troopers has a substantial sequence on a hanging (87-90; ch. VIII), serious discussions of corporal punishment, and two floggings, only one of which is used by Verhoeven.[1]
            The first flogging — that of Recruit Private Tim Hendrick — is part of a longer section on military justice that could be used to illustrate the adage, "Military justice is to justice as military music is to music," except that Sousa marches can be fun, and, relevantly here, Heinlein wants his readers to appreciate the efficiency and necessity for a future version of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that includes "thirty-one capital offenses" and gets a man ten serious lashes and a dishonorable discharge for hitting back when hit by his sergeant (55-64; ch. V, carrying over into VI).
            Heinlein's description of the floggings are fairly sparse, especially when Rico relates his own, and stress how painful they are to watch (86-87; ch. VII carrying over into ch. VIII). In Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997), Rico's flogging is a major scene, and Verhoeven's agenda differs radically from Heinlein's.

*
            Elsewhere I've discussed the weirdness of watching Starship Troopers in Hamilton, Ohio, and being the only one in the audience to laugh. My experience was hardly unique, but TheAtlantic.com has titled a recent article by Calum Marsh, "Starship Troopers: One of the Most Misunderstood Movies Ever," in which we're told "The sci-fi film's self-aware satire went unrecognized by critics when it came out 16 years ago. Now, some are finally getting the joke." That's a bit much — a fair number of people got the point in 1997 — but it's clear that film students and fans of various sorts — the kind of people who watch movies nearly two decades old — now understand the film as a satire worthy of the director who made RoboCop (1987).
            In satire, especially satire aimed at a wide audience, subtlety is not often a virtue (nuance, yes; subtlety not such much), and satires are rarely guilty of subtlety. Verhoeven's Troopers was not overly subtle, but it did depend upon viewers' being familiar with World War II films and stereotype Nazis — and it helps if audience members know either Heinlein's novel or the tradition of the gung-ho military epic.
            Verhoeven foregrounds and makes explicit fascistic elements in Heinlein's Troopers, and he does this with mise-en-scène that identifies the Terran Federation mobile infantry with the German Wehrmacht, most obviously in costuming and symbols, but also in casting. To drive the point home, Verhoeven needed some Aryan-looking leads, in no case succeeding more than with Casper Van Dien's Juan Johnny Rico. (Although Jake Busey — raised in Malibu, CA, and still looking it in 1997 — provides a glowingly incandescent White, surfer-dude Ace Levy, and Diana Meyer is a passably WASPish Dizzy Flores. The point being made, Denise Richard's Lt. Carmen Ibanez can appear Latina, however much Denise Richards usually does not. )
            Verhoeven's satire in Starship Troopers is primarily of the gung-ho war movie, tempting the audience to identify with blood-thirsty characters fighting a war that Terrans may have precipitated, and one that involves torturing prisoners[2] and propagandizing small children into joining up to become Bug fodder in a war that is being fought very, very stupidly.
            The nuance comes in with Verhoeven's meeting Heinlein on a more complex issue.
            I admire Heinlein's Troopers first off because it takes on at least two major opponents: Thomas Jefferson and the Prophet Isaiah. The US Declaration of Independence says (punctuation modernized): "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable [sic] rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" (approved and signed 4 July 1776). Heinlein's spokesman, Mr. Dubois tells Rico's H. & M. P. class: "[…] a human being has no natural rights of any nature" and proceeds to attempt to refute Jefferson et al. in detail (96; ch. VIII). Isaiah sees an End of Days when humans will "beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore" (2.4). Heinlein has another of his spokesmen assert that if humans don't keep expanding into the galaxy in conquest "Soon (about next Wednesday) the Bugs move in, kill off this breed which 'ain'ta gonna study war no more' and the universe forgets us" (147; ch. XII).
            However gutsy I find Heinlein's attempt to make sacred cows into hamburger, it is more admirable that Heinlein raises the more extreme question following from such efforts that, if you could have a fascistic society without the stupidity of racism (and sexism) would that be a good thing, a eutopia as The Good Place, The Good Society, or at least significantly better than what we've got?
            Verhoeven takes on this deeper issue passim in his film, with the question concentrated in the scene showing the flogging of Rico.
            When Hendrick is flogged, we're told that "A corporal-instructor from some other battalion stepped forward with the whip" and "The Sergeant of the Guard made the count" (63; end of ch. V). Information is more sparse with Rico, although we're told that Sgt. Zim gives him a rubber mouthpiece and that a "doctor painted the marks" from the whip, presumably with an antiseptic or antibiotic (86; end of ch. VII).
            Verhoeven cuts away before the doctor, but the flogging ritual is shown in some detail, including a mouthpiece of retro wood and leather binding. What is significant is that we see the corporal-instructor with an implausibly long whip, and the man with the whip is emphatically Black.
            If second-rate satire takes some straight-forward position and drives it home — "moral clarity" and all — first-rate satire raises issues in its own satiric manner, but in the tradition of serious literature first-rate satire does not preach "MORALS" but raises questions. So: If there is full equality under the law, and it is just as likely that a White is whipped by a Black as the other way around, should we see this as a step toward or a central part of eutopia, the Good Society?
            It's an important question.
            One argument for racial integration of education in the United State was that Whites wouldn't stand for bad schools, and education would improve for Black children in integrated schools. Underrated was not only White flight — the primary reason integration did not result in strong increases in quality education — but also the willingness of the White establishment to let schools they couldn't control go to hell. As the saying went and continues to go, there are White racists who'd drain the municipal swimming pools before sharing them with Blacks. And there are White parents who will put up with shitty schools. Getting closer to Starship Troopers as novel and film,[3] there is the question of police procedure, which in my lifetime has gone for middle-class and above White folks from cops' asking, "Will you come peacefully, or do I need to cuff you" — at least in the movies — with more humiliating methods for Blacks and the underclass, to protocols for kneeling and lying on the ground and cuffs and manacles for all manner of people. For largely not very good reasons, we have in the US moved toward more equal treatment where people of color are arrested and not shot, but protocol-specified disrespectful treatment.
            I've asserted in various contexts that most Americans would be safer, and probably happy in a police state. Would a Heinleinian eutopia, of the Troopers variety, be A Good Thing if it involved flogging offenders — and if you can be sure flogging would be equal opportunity: for a hypothetically dangerous error by Rico in Heinlein's novel, to a mistake that got a teammate killed in Verhoeven's movie? — In a polity that's apparently noncorrupt and prosperous?
            The questions are not rhetorical, but neither do I intend to answer them. The point is that they're raised in a critical, resistant reading of Heinlein's Troopers, and raised in Verhoeven's film. And they are most directly pointed in the flogging scene with very White Rico being whipped by a dark-black Black.
            In such a scene, a Filipino Rico would raise excellent questions — including questions about different subordinate ethnicities being set against one another — but for a largely-White audience, these would be more familiar and possibily less challenging than questions about a violence-celebrating, militaristic, fascistic eutopia.
             As I write, the United States and countries in Europe are confronted again with old-fashioned xenophobic and small downright fascist movements, some of which are nativist and sometimes racist to the core, as we might expect: In his flawed but again indispensable True Believer, Eric Hoffer makes clear that fanatical movements can get by without God or gods but do need a Devil, preferably a foreign one (sections 65-77). I'm nervous about the matter — obviously! — but feel we will probably get past these incipient Right-wing movements. The long-term threat, I think, is more nuanced. We should fear less the ISIS currently operating in a manner that's blatantly evil and destructive and fear more their likely successor groups: the "kinder, gentler" more subtle totalitarian movements of Parties of God. Even so, the longer-term danger in the US is authoritarian, fascistic movements that have learned to get beyond racism and the Führerprinzip: more clever movements that can be inclusive and offer equality under the law in a society that is efficient, but unfree and in the control of an elite armed and dangerous and that holds the vast majority of people to be irresponsible, sloppy folk to be controlled by "force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax."
            What I fear for much of the world is what we see in Heinlein's and Verhoeven's Troopers, and epitomized in Verhoeven's scene of the flogging of the very White Johnny Rico. Racism is a relatively new invention in the long history of human oppression, and it needn't matter to those with Supreme Authority the color-coding of who gets whipped and who does the whipping. What counts is the whip (and the Ax and the noose) and who and what determines who gets disciplined and reduced to obedience. To get to power, fascism with an American face will need a figurative devil, and the devil will have to be foreign or in some way Other. The Other needn't be racial, and once in power and to stay firmly in power, that Supreme Authority can offer safe tranquility to its people under equal opportunity oppression.



Works Cited or Consulted but Not Linked


Asimov, Isaac. "Social Science Fiction." In Modern Science Fiction. Ed. Reginald Bretnor. New York: Coward-McCann 1952. Rpt. Science Fiction: The Future (SF:F above). Ed. Dick Allen. New York: Harcourt 1971 (1st edn.), 1983 (revised 2nd edn.).
Franklin, H. Bruce. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. Oxford, UK: Oxford U P, 1980.
Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. 1959. New York: Berkeley Publishing Corporation ("A Berkley Medallion Book"), 1968.
Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. 1951. New York: HarperPerennial ("A Division of HarperCollins Publishers"), 1989.



Also: Atlantic article: Calum Marsh, "Starship Troopers: One of the Most Misunderstood Movies Ever." "The sci-fi film's self-aware satire went unrecognized by critics when it came out 16 years ago. Now, some are finally getting the joke." <http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/11/-em-starship-troopers-em-one-of-the-most-misunderstood-movies-ever/281236/>








Notes


         [1] A student of mine asked if there is an S&M theme, so to speak, in Heinlein's oeuvre. I replied that that was my impression, and she did a brief research paper on the topic. She found the theme.

            [2] Cf. experiments on Bug POW's in Troopers 175, 203; ch. XIII.

         [3] There's a developing convention of italics for the names of print works and other words traditionally italicized, with Small Caps for film titles; I use this convention and will add underscoring for occasions where we (carefully!) discuss as a unit both novel and film incarnations of a work.


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