Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Politics and the Summer Flick: A Note on the Climax of THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD (2017)

Note: I'll get into an important plot-point here; if that's a "spoiler" for you, and you intend to see THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD (2017), stop reading now. Also, please note that I came out to California in part to become a Hollywood Whore but never made it beyond Burbank Bimbo, Toronto Trollop, and, arguably, Chicago Chippy; I was not consulted on BODYGUARD.

THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD is a fairly-well-received, fluffy summer romantic comedy, just with language coarser than usual and a very, very high body-count. It also has an A-list cast, good production values, and handles more seriously than usual — i.e., more than tangentially — Interpol and the International Criminal Court in the Hague. BODYGUARD raises the question precisely of international criminal justice and the possibility of justice under law as opposed to vigilantism.

The climax of the movie is a moment of choice by the Hitman between do-it-yourself justice and law; and if I had been asked for Notes — and recall that I definitely was not — I would have complimented the script for drawing the choice so starkly and pointed out that the writers and film-makers in turn had a political choice to make. Should we have a change in the Hitman, bringing him over to justice under the law, or should he continue to cooly continue — and this is Samuel L. Jackson cool — continue to continue in doing his murderous thing?

You have one guess.

Jackson's serial-killer Hitman, of course, kills the mass-murderer, tyrannical motherfucker villain, for part of the traditional comic happy ending.

See ROBOCOP, the original one, and cf. Shakespeare's romantic comedies and what we might call The Challenge of the Alazon. Tragedies move toward isolation of the hero, often — well, *always* in Shakespeare — the final isolation of death. Comedies move toward integration, with a new and somewhat better society coalescing around a central heterosexual couple (that's a formula out of Northrop Frye, with me correcting the chemical image — Frye suggests "crystalizes" — and nowadays specifying sexuality). Comedies tend to incorporate as many people as possible, but that "possible" doesn't always include everyone. Often there's an "alazon": a guy (usually) who demands too much, the comic villain who can be expelled and not included in the final comic "Komos": revelry, party or, often in Shakespeare, a dance. That gets tricky, and Shakespeare finally gets it totally right with Malvolio in TWELFTH NIGHT, who exiles himself.

BODYGUARD could have made Jackson's character more dynamic and on its way to the final happy ending — with dancing — could have made a small but real contribution to popular ideas of justice under law and international norms. A lot of very smart, very talented people, with prodigious resources to work with, missed or passed up that opportunity. I'm not sure I want to hear any of them any time soon mouthing off in public against real-world political violence.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Politics and Those Confederate Statues

Peace and Justice members of "the reality-based community" should take very seriously the title in "The Plum" line article in THE WASHINGTON POST for 17 August 2017, "Steve Bannon: Post-Charlottesville racial strife is a political winner for Trump" and the finding that on removing Confederate monuments, "A poll released Wednesday suggests that, on this at least, Americans generally agree with Trump. The survey from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist found that 62 percent of Americans think that memorials to Confederate leaders should remain in place, while a bit over a quarter of the population thinks they should be removed. Among Democrats, that percentage is lower, but even on the left, views are about split. Remarkably, 44 percent of black respondents said they should remain, versus 40 percent who said they should go."

Let me go full-bore pedant on this — or you can stop reading this post — and suggest thinking through the issue by starting with instances without a lot of emotional charge for most of us.

Let's start by noting that public/monumental art has been political since early antiquity. This is clearer when you add the knowledge that trying to separate religion from politics is a recent idea and WEIRD: common (only) among people(s) who are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic — and, largely, also American. Ozymandias, King of Kings, knew what he was doing when he built great monuments to himself as did anyone who tore them down. Displaying icons and smashing them are both politically-charged actions, as was destroying stained-glass windows during the English Puritan Revolution or blowing up statues of the Buddha by the Taliban or destroying statues of Saddam Hussein or building them to Genghis Khan as founder of the Mongolian nation and state.

So: Would you tear down statues of Stalin and, in spite of its fame for a crucial battle in world history, rename Stalingrad whatever the hell the Russians renamed it? I would, reluctantly: by Matthew White's estimate, Stalin was responsible for 20 million human deaths. But I'd keep Leningrad Leningrad: in terms of body counts, Lenin isn't in Stalin's league. Genghis Khan and Mao, though, outdid Stalin and pretty much everyone else, depending on how much you want to blame Hitler for World War II: some 40 million apiece for Genghis Khan and Mao. Should modern Mongols cut the shit with statues to Genghis Khan and the Chinese put into museums the artistic tributes to Mao? I'd have them do so.

I'd be cautious in arguing with the Mongolians and Chinese, though, since — for one reason — I've written on and taught Christopher Marlowe's 1587 play Tamburlaine the Great, Part I: a celebration of Amir Timur (flourished ca. 1400), #9 on Matt White's "Ranking: the One Hundred Deadliest Multicides" in world history, with hero credited with the deaths of some 17 million people.

The Atlantic Slave Trade is #10 on White's list, with 16 million dead — and that's deaths, not counting the kidnapping and torture, nor the function of the trade in selling human beings into slavery.

Unlike the clear, present, and infinite danger to souls of the idolatry of statues of the Buddha or Eastern rites icons or Papist stained glass — in the doctrines of the Taliban, iconoclasts, or revolutionary Puritans — the CSA (Confederate) memorials do their work more indirectly, and are a symbolic issue, symbols serving politically potent narratives, but still symbols.

What's to be done with them — US public art celebrations of the heroes of the CSA?
I taught and would have many more people teach Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1 and Part 2. It is important that the first English blockbuster drama celebrated a serial mass murderer called "the Great." In a course in propaganda, I dealt with D. W. Griffith's THE BIRTH OF A NATION (a k a THE CLANSMAN, 1915): technical film stuff aside, it is important that people know that a seminal film mourns The Lost Cause of the Confederacy and celebrates the "invisible nation" of the Ku Klux Klan.

So I would put the movable CSA statuary in appropriate museums, where they can be contextualized and their politics made explicit. With the really big monuments, especially any of esthetic value, I just don't know. But as a practical matter, moving toward the elections of 2018 and 2020 where this issue might be prominent — Yo, decent Americans! We need to talk.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"Peace Pig": Me, Neo-Nazis (1961), the U of I Anarchist (1970), and Street-Fighters Right and Left (2017)

         My first close encounter with neoNazis was when I was eighteen, in downtown Chicago over a break in the U of Illinois (Urbana) school year, second semester of 1961-62.

         I was downtown to attend a large dance held by a high school fraternity and sorority, the profits from which were to go to The Merton Davis Memorial Foundation for Crippling Diseases of Children. We were a teenager-run charity against crippling diseases and raised enough money for seed grants for research at Michael Reese Medical Center. I was the immediate-past president of the Foundation and was supposed to say a few words of gratitude, and, on the side I'd get in a bit of hustling for my college fraternity with some of the next year's crop of freshmen.

         There were crowds outside the hotel hosting the dance: unusually for Chicago not moving and giving off none of the stereotypical Midwest friendly vibes. The crowd was large, mostly stationary, and pissed off about something.

         The something was within a long oblong of large, grim-faced Chicago cops: an un-merry band of George Lincoln Rockwell's neo-Nazis in full uniform and regalia, marching in tight ellipsoids with large Nazi flags.

         I went into the hotel, went to the main ballroom, went to the stage, got introduced, stepped to the microphone and looked at a thousand or so Chicago teenagers, mostly Jewish. And I delivered my mentally-rehearsed few words of thanks and gratitude and giving credit and paused.

         All I had to do was say, "Rockwell's Nazis. Marching outside. Right now." And then several hundred or more teenagers would rush outside, and there would be a riot in which the cops would stand by for a few minutes while the Nazis got trashed and then would start cracking heads, making a couple arrests, and dispersing the mob.

         I got polite applause, said only "Thank you" — nothing about the Nazis — left the stage, and got on with my business.

         Whether or not to incite a riot was not a particularly grave ethical question for me. Growing up, I spent a lot of time across the street from the duplex I lived in at one of the three large, expensive, single-resident houses on the street — and more specifically with my friend Bill and his parents. I forget the context, but there was one, in which Bill's large, Republican father told us that back around 1940 he'd participated with other Jewish and Italian (and Sicilian) young men breaking up the Chicago German-American Bund, largely with baseball bats and tire irons. Insofar as I judged this action at all, I thought it on balance a good idea: there would be no unfortunate First Amendment precedents set by gangs of thugs attacking Bund members; it was obviously illegal.

         Concern for my own beginning college career aside — a conviction for incitement to riot would need explaining — my main concern at that microphone was practical. Those Nazis on the street wanted riots; SA-style street-fighting was part of their image of what they did and who they were.

         Later, when George Lincoln Rockwell himself came to the University of Illinois and still later when the Ku Klux Klan came to Oxford, OH, I stuck with my decision at eighteen and endorsed the strategy of (1) as much as possible denying the racists an audience, (2) when there must be an audience, packing it, and have that audience meet them with silence and one line of denunciation. We would not show the fear they fed on; we would not give them publicity; we would not allow them to dictate our schedules and control our concerns. At that stage of US politics, the most effective strategy was quiet, confident, disdain.

         My first encounter with a self-identified anarchist was at a mostly anti-(Vietnam)War protest march in Champaign-Urbana Illinois, probably in May of 1970. I was a graduate student with the English and then University-wide Graduate Student Association and through the GSA active in "The Movement." The Powers that Were told the protest organizers that the FBI was in town in strength, had kind of taken over police operations, and were hunkered-down and bunkered-up, so to speak, in the main police station — and were, the local authorities judged, very, very nervous. So we of the movement beefed up our parade-marshal contingent. To accompany me while marshaling, I recruited Bob, one of my fraternity alumni brothers: a law student who'd been in Marine ROTC (officially under the Navy) and then had decided that a more pressing patriotic duty was resisting a war he judged both immoral and a danger to the Republic.

         The march went well and ended up at the police station, where Bob and I oversaw the deposit of our signs and banners on the lawn and then dispersal: for a symbolic gesture from our side and, from the cops' point of view, to reduce the danger of people leaving the demonstration in big groups and with sticks heavy enough to break windows. It seemed fair enough to Bob and me, and, besides, that was the demonstrators' deal with the University, city officials, cops, and the armed and nervous FBI agents.

         The anarchist didn't want to lay down his sign and potential weapon or move on. In the windows of the cop shop I could see guys in suits looking excited, so with all the authority of our white armbands and somewhat greater age, we politely but firmly ordered our anarchist to put down the goddamn sign and move away already. I forget most of his argument with us before he obeyed, but I do recall him looking at me and calling me a "Peace Pig," in the sense of a member of the Peace Movement who acted like a pig, an epithet used at the time by some — not my people — for police
         I cracked up at the phrase, and then told him, still politely, "Okay, now put the sign down and go."

         And he went away, and after a couple moments Bob and I moved on as the demonstration peacefully ended.
* *

         In August of 2017, we have seen confrontations at a White nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, that include Peace-and-Justice-type people on one side and fascists or the fascistic on the other, but also among the anti-violence demonstrators against the neoNazis, Klan, and White supremacists there were "antifa[cist]" anarchists and young men at least willing to mix red flags of the traditional Communist movement amid the black flags and slogans of the anarchists (notably, "No gods, no masters," though possibly, and more immediately relevant "No gods, No master race").

         As of mid-August 2017, I've seen one news story but no statistical breakdown on which groups showed up for the demonstrations in Charlottesville in what numbers, although the statistics on casualties are clear: a terrorist murder of one peaceful counterdemonstrator and injuries of nineteen more (five initially critical). It's unlikely we will get cold-blooded numbers until weeks after the anger cools at not just the bloody, goddamn neoNazis and Klan fans but at President Donald J. Trump's refusal to speak seriously about the issue, starting with an unequivocal denunciation of fascism and those in his base who truly are deplorably fascistic.

         However, however — On the Left (and in the Center), we need to start now learning who is showing up for antifascist demonstrations, and the Peace and Justice component of protest movements needs to determine how much to accept and work with the ideological grandsons (and a granddaughter or two) of that anarchist at the U of I: young people enthusiastically willing to challenge opponents armed more heavily than the police and FBI in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois ca. 1970.

         On the one hand, decent America may find itself in the situation of Chicago in the run-up to World War II, and it may be necessary to have cadres of young folk willing to "take it to the streets." On the other hand — on the other hand, I'll put it this way. If I were a Republican black-ops operative preparing for the elections of 2018 and 2020, an operative of "a certain ... 'moral flexibility,'" I'd be putting money, incendiary tracts, and provocateurs into several of the more obscure and violent fascist groups and into the more ideologically ardent anarchists, Trotskyites, and any remaining Maoists or LaRoucheans. When the struggle gets taken to the street — especially in our time of open-carry on those streets — when there's street fighting and riots and maybe firefights, it's thriving time for politicians of the "Law'n'Order" variety, and nobody in America does law and order appeals better than Republicans backed by operatives with the "moral flexibility" to paint any and all opponents as soft on crime and violence.

         This round of extremism, the Left is way behind the Right. Still, violence in the streets from just about any source is likely to help Republicans win elections. If they play their cards right — or wrongly enough —  street violence may help the more respectable-looking Right to a victory like Nixon over McGovern in 1972 and the backlash victories from 1968 on.

         Older readers may here supply analogies, if we're really unlucky, with 1933.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Taking Trump (and Others) Seriously and Literally

I just heard again advice that Donald Trump's critics took and still are dense enough to take Mr. Trump "literally but not seriously," whereas his supporters took and continue to take him "seriously but not literally."

A number of times, I taught classes in college composition starting with sayings, clich├ęs, figures of speech, and other overlapping categories of language, and one of the tactics I insisted on was starting with the literal meaning of a figure of speech. To take such language seriously, you start by looking at what it says, literally.

"A stitch in time saves nine": Nine what? Complete the sentence: nine stitches. Always and inevitably nine stitches? Of course not: sometimes one or two will do; sometimes it takes some serious sewing. The idea is — the "tenor" of this sewing "vehicle" — is that a little (relavively) minor maintenance now will avoid big(ger) problems later.

So far so innocuous, but what if a coach or boss says s/he wants "110% effort" on your part? Obviously, you can't give more than 100%, but how much dedication is being demanded of you? Well, you can't know: agree to giving "110%" and you've just written a figurative blank check on your time and effort. If you're into speaking truth to bullshit and don't really need the sport or the job — this is a time to demand clarification of the "tenor" of the "110%" vehicle. (Good guess: These authorities want everything they can get from you.)

Or what if a person of far greater power threatens you with "No options are off the table." You'd damn well better start thinking about that "No" very, very literally. That's an open-ended threat, and it can cover a whole lot of nastiness.

So when Donald J. Trump leads a cheer of "Lock her up! Lock her up!" one should remember that populist Folkish Leaders (and my snarky capitals do "mean" here) — you should remember that in the lifetimes of some remaining old farts populist Folkish Leaders have locked up political opponents and, when that worked out for the Leader went far beyond.

If you’re Hillary Clinton, you should damn well take that chant both literally and seriously, and Donald J. Trump should do the same with Hillary’s knowing the political saying “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

And all involved should ratchet back their rhetoric.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Demand Strong Evidence for All-Too-Familiar Claims of Crisis: "The Opioid Epidemic"

Carl Sagan popularized the excellent rule, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," which I'll call (very informally) "Sagan's Law" and to which I'll add what I'll call "Mike Males's Caution": «Politically charged claims that sound really familiar should be viewed with strong skepticism.»
I get this principle from Males's work in the late 20th c. on "The Scapegoat Generation" and "Framing Youth," and his observation that claims of various failings and social pathologies among older US teenagers seemed very much like earlier accusations — sometimes backed with impressive-sounding science — against Blacks, women, Jews, immigrants, and other groups being economically and politically held back by being (mostly figuratively) held down.
Similarly, when we have another crisis epidemic of drug use, keep in mind the last several and ask for really strong evidence that we don't have just problems — and problems best handled as a public health issue, and a public health issue perhaps best seen as just another incarnation of America's drug habits and the US as a drug culture: where you can buy hard, addictive drugs in your local Krogers (check out the liquor sections and cigarettes), and where you are surrounded by ads that promise near-magic improvements in your life if you just take the right pills or drink the right booze (and, soon, smoke a sufficiently fashionable name-brand weed).
With any pain-killer, you're going to get some addiction and a fair amount of abuse; and drug use, like pretty much all things human, is subject to The Iron Law of Fashion about which the Powers That Be usually can't do a whole lot (but will take credit when fashions change: during the longer or, often, shorter period between one crisis and the next). So I'm sure there are problems and serious problems with opioids. 
I want to see serious statistics, though, and serious policies not only dealing with abuse of a pain-killer (more exactly: pain-ameliorator) but also for reducing people's pain. So before you come to get my Tramadol — I can't take NSAIDs any more if I want my kidneys to keep working — I want some stats on social pathologies for opioids per 100,000 population and with careful definition of those pathologies. 
To twist a partial quotation from Karl Marx, «Opiates and opioids are the opium of today's suffering people" and the pharmalogicals are probably less dangerous than fanatical enthusiasms in religion and/or politics. All things considered, opium might've been a fairly sensible choice among the wretched of the Earth in Marx's time — opium reduces pain and hunger — and so might an addiction leading to a fairly quick death. 
We need to hear solid, honest, disinterested statistics and analysis of the current US opioid problem, plus some suggestions for reducing sociological and economic pain, making it less pressing for people to use painkillers.
When US troops came home from Vietnam, Americans felt threatened by a HEROIN EPIDEMIC!!! from the return of hordes of heroin addicts. It didn't happen. Military users were dried out in 'Nam and sent home. Those who returned to a decent life, left their pain in Vietnam, the way most people recovering from surgery leave their pain and heavy narcotics in the hospital. Those who returned to pain and available and relatively cheap heroin, often returned to heroin. 
The situation will be similar with opioids, except I don't think American politics will allow us to even think about reduction of harm from reduction of social and economic pain. Minimally, though, let's apply Sagan's Law and Mike Males's Caution: don't panic, be skeptical, and demand rigorous analysis and compassionate policy.