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Gotham City, DPRK: The Big, Thumpy Politics of The Dark Knight Rises

In Comic Books, Movies, Politics on July 22, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Here, everyone. Have another post about Batman!

Major spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go away, see it, and then  feel free to shove this post into your eyeballs.

This isn’t a review. I greatly enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises, though thought it had some pacing problems. Despite being almost three hours long, it felt a little rushed in some places, and there were a few plot holes that just had to be waved away by saying “because Batman.” It wasn’t as good as either The Dark Knight or Batman Begins, but still excellent. If nothing else, I loved how amazingly gigantic Nolan made the final chapter of the trilogy.

The Dark Knight Rises is a hugely ambitious movie that definitely wants to be about something. The film acknowledges the existence of poverty again and again with scenes of an orphanage and Selina Kyle’s impoverished friend. We’re also reminded of the decadent corruption of the corporate class when we see Bane initially working with Gotham’s business elite. The Dent Act, the thing that put thousands of criminals behind bars, is based on false pretenses. At the outset of the film, the social order is not ideal. It is ripe for upending. However, the shape that that revolution or reform takes is of vital importance. Bane, storming into Gotham, offers a new way. Over the course of of the movie, the various characters cavort and bellow in front of the camera, and I couldn’t help but think of which real-life political figures the characters were most like. For instance:

Bane is Kim Jong Il

Bane is a tyrant with a horde of dedicated followers who clearly adhere to a kind of cult of personality. He values martial strength as a virtue in and of itself, and the society that he leads, occupied Gotham, is bereft of any kind of infrastructure, culture, or way of being not directly related to its own militant self-perpetuation. Like almost all totalitarian regimes, Bane takes power in the name of “the people,” exploits popular discontent with the existing system, and gives his militaristic rule only the barest patina of rule of law (One of my favorite parts of the film was the Scarecrow playing the part of Robspierre).

The fear of nuclear annihilation is the trump card that keeps the rest of the world from streaming into Bane Jong-Il’s impoverished hermit kingdom. The bridges of Gotham echo the perpetual standoff of the Korean DMZ, and past an arbitrary line known as a “border” Bane can preside over decay as he pleases, parading his dystopia in the face of the world.

Catwoman is George Orwell (kinda)

I will admit this is something of a stretch, but bear with me for a moment. Orwell was a socialist who hated communism. He longed for change, equity, and greater fairness in the political and economic systems of his time, but when he saw Communism distort the ideals of him and his fellow leftists, he denounced it as tyranny. Selina Kyle is not happy with the inequality or unfairness of Gotham, and says as much to Bruce Wayne. (By the way, I absolutely loved Anne Hathaway as Kyle- she nailed it. That being said, I did think her “storm is coming” speech was a tad too heavy-handed.) However, she rejects the false populism of Bane, knowing that even though an unfair social order has been upended, it did not happen in the right way. Catwoman blowing away Bane with the guns on the Bat Pod was as potent a denunciation as Orwell gave to Stalinism in 1984.

Batman is George Washington and/or Nelson Mandela

Nolan ends the series with Bruce Wayne faking his own death, hanging up the cape and cowl, and disappearing. He willingly gives up power, prestige, and position that others would clamber and fight over, and bequeaths the identity Batman to another at the end of the film. Both George Washington and Mandela did a great service to their respective countries by willingly giving up power. Both of them could have held on to the title “president” for the rest of their days, but neither of them had an interest in their person being synonymous with the ideals of their country. Batman also does not want his legacy to be entangled in the person of Bruce Wayne- he wants it to be universal. This puts him far away from the Kim Jong Ils, Fidel Castros, Moammar Qaddafis and Mao Zedongs of the world. He’s more in keeping with Washington or Mandela who declined to make a position explicitly personal, and therefore potentially more tyrannical.

All that being said, I don’t think that The Dark Knight Rises had a singular political thrust to it. It wasn’t Animal Farm. Instead, it used various political fears and attitudes as backdrop and coloration for the story it wanted to tell. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Nolan’s trilogy very much is of its time, and very freely uses characters and people as broad representations for things that he knows are sources of anxiety for the audience.

(Case in point- the Gotham City PD. If the Nolan movies were actually “realistic,” as people seem to be fond of calling them, several of the cops would have probably joined Bane’s thugs. When freed, they probably wouldn’t have strode bravely into battle- instead, they probably would have wandered about filthy, broken and malnourished. However, I didn’t see them as representing literal cops. The big, final street battle was all about the rule of law finally confronting tyranny. Nolan’s movies are as sleek, stylized and unrealistic as anything from comics- that style is simply better at passing itself off as realism.)

I wonder how much of Nolan’s trilogy will look dated in ten or twenty years. Or, I wonder how much of it will be seen as a kind of time capsule for our era. Either way, the trilogy is mainly about the politics, crime, fears, terrors, and social welfare of a place called Gotham City. It does not necessarily work as a human drama or as a series wherein superheroes are put into a “realistic” environment. What makes it work, though, is that it makes visible very real, often unformed fears of terrorism and tyranny. The trilogy gives its hugeness the room it deserves, allowing its characters to be broad avatars who parade loudly before us as inspiring or terrifying symbols, the most prominent of all being Batman himself.

What I Think of Occupy Wall Street

In Jobs, Politics on November 4, 2011 at 11:47 am

I have started and stopped this post several times. Unlike having opinions about holidays or science fiction movies, articulating my opinions about Occupy Wall Street have been far more difficult.

As I’ve gotten older, my political passion has cooled greatly, and for the most part I’ve regarded that as a mark of maturity. When I think about what it means to be mature and rational, I’ve oftentimes equated that with having a certain lack of passion. This is a common thing. It is generally cool, after all, to be above it all, or at least seem as such.

Also, I’ve become increasingly more hesitant to categorize myself politically. While I do self-identify as a liberal, I recognize that as an extremely broad category with multiple and oftentimes contradictory definitions. I liked this, as I generally distrust idealism of any sort, and I generally don’t believe in aligning myself with a philosophy that could be outlined as a set of principles. For the most part I’ve envisioned my politics as enlightened rational but also passionless and distant. More than once I’ve thought that I would support a regime of benevolent, technocratic philosopher-kings who make dispassionate decisions based on rational analysis of data. I will admit that I would also probably support a regime of well-meaning computer overlords.

When I went to the original Occupy Portland march on October sixth, I thought of myself as mostly an observer satisfying my curiosity. I did not have a sign or anything to say, and envisioned myself being there mainly to take pictures and then come home and write about it. I was amused to see that there was a crazy-quilt of political ideologies at play: There were anarchists, people there who were opposed to the very existence of the Federal Reserve, and a guy who brandished a sign that said Al QAEDA IS CIA. They were exactly the sort of people that turn me off to any kind of political activism- loud, irrational, and unwilling to engage in any sort of debate because their conclusions must adhere to their pre-existing ideologies.

While I was the event, though, it became increasingly apparent that the lunatic fringe was precisely that- the fringe. The gathering was not one of crazed ideologues at all, nor was it completely dominated by a single demographic. I was surprised at the amount of older people, union members, and clean-cut folks I saw. I know this sounds superficial, but I was immensely happy to see folks who were not black-clad anarchy wackos.

Public events like this have two big things that they can do- the first is that they can galvanize the base, and inflame the passions of those who agree with the basic message of the event, and get them mobilized. The other thing that they can do, though, is change the broader political conversation and persuade people who have differing opinions or no opinions about a given issue.

In this regard, Occupy Wall Street (and Occupy Portland) has done both of those things remarkably well, and as a movement it has earned my respect and support. Starting with October sixth, I personally have been increasingly less jaded, less hopeless, and less removed from American politics and economics. The whole event did remind me that yes, I do have a sense of justice, yes, the financial industry has been hugely irresponsible, and yes, economic inequality is absolutely appalling. Not only did the Occupy movement remind me that I dearly believe these things, but that I should be angry about them. I am very much part of that core liberal demographic that popular demonstrations can awaken and galvanize. I was complacent, now I’m not. I was resigned to the right setting the agenda, now I know that does not have to be the case. I felt like things were unchangeable, now I know that’s not true. I am the galvanized base.

Which brings me to the second point- the Occupy movement has successfully gotten a good amount of people, media outlets, and politicians talking about issues of inequity and injustice. Prior to this there was mainly a lot of unproductive ideological talk about debt and deficits that wasn’t really about debts or deficits. The economic well-being of ordinary Americans was not really being discussed at all. Now, attention is not only on the problems of the middle and lower classes, but also the financial institutions who helped create them.

I’m hopeful. That’s hard for me to admit because it seems like such an idealistic thing to say or think (I can’t stand idealism) and it seems like such an immature feeling to have. Hope and hysteria seem to be twin poles irrationality. Nevertheless, though, I’m hopeful that the conversation really will change, that America can become more equal, and that problems are not intrinsic or entrenched, and we really can fix them.

There’s a lot of dumb things going on with Occupy Wall Street (like those idiotic Guy Fawkes masks, or drum circles) but positive change (like, say, separating consumer banking from speculation) only comes if it is demanded. Financial institutions have demanded plenty over the years, and have gotten it. Upper income American have demanded tax cuts, and gotten those. Occupy Wall Street is finally pushing the demands in the other direction- it’s finally pushing back against the small portion of the population that did much to damage the lives of countless people. We have massive unemployment largely because of rampant speculation on the part of a very specific class. It is right and proper to be angry at them.

Because of that, I support Occupy Wall Street, and sincerely hope that the signs and chants and marches and anger get translated into very real policy, because change isn’t coming by itself.

PSA: Guy Fawkes Was Kind of a Jerkface

In Politics, Rants on October 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm

I’ll have a much longer (and more positive) essay/post about Occupy Portland soon, but first I want to allow myself a little mini-rant about something that’s been bothering me.

My fellow disaffected Americans: Can we please stop it with the Guy Fawkes masks? You know the ones I mean. These:

(Also, the whole black bandanna thing is also kind of silly.)

I have a number of gripes with these. They are thus:

1: Guy Fawkes wasn’t a liberal crusader for the rights of the people. He was a Catholic radical who wanted to blow up the English Parliament as part of an elaborate plot to increase the power of the Catholic Church in England. Parliaments (English and otherwise) are places where deliberation and democracy happen. Representatives of the people debate, argue, and generally hash things out in the messy process of legislation and then make laws. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what the Catholic Church does. That’s an organization where all the rules are made by old celibate guys in robes- hardly a paragon of democracy. Guy Fawkes would have gladly exploded the former to help the latter.

2: He wanted to blow up a goddamn building. That’s not cool. People who want to make London go “BOOM” should not be role models.

3: If we really want protests and popular movements like Occupy Wall Street and its various offshoots to be successful, they have to be persuasive to middle-class Americans. If Mr. and Mrs. Middle class are watching the news at night and they see the protests are populated by a bunch of masked (or bandanna-ed) freaks, they are much more likely to go “pish-posh!” and dismiss the substance of the movement out of hand. However, if they see a bunch of people with whom they identify, they are more likely pay attention the substance of what’s going on.

If you show up looking like a costumed freak with a sign, then lots of people will just see you as a costumed freak. If you show up in normal clothes and a sign, though, then you’re an American with something to say. That’s hardly fair, but it is how things are.

4: V For Vendetta is not Alan Moore’s best work, and the movie isn’t that great. Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Swamp Thing, and even The Killing Joke are all way better. Vendetta’s good (it is Alan Moore, after all) but if we’re going to drag comic book imagery into politics, can it at least be stuff from a better graphic novel?

That is all. I’ll have a more positive post soon.


Regarding This Past Friday Night

In Politics, Portland on November 28, 2010 at 10:02 am

Finishing work on Friday evening I was in high spirits- my tour had gone well, the weather was agreeable, and I was on my way to meet some friends for burgers and beer at one of Portland’s local hipster holes. The streets of downtown were crowded with people who had showed up for the Christmas tree lighting in Pioneer Courthouse Square, and every third person seemed to have a green blinking light on their person. (They must have been handed out as a promotional item.) I passed the Square, took a look at the tree, and a huge crowd of people were still there singing carols. Jogging a few blocks over to Burnside, the newly-lit White Stag/Made in Oregon/ Portland, Oregon sign lit up the night. All was wonderfully festive.

And the next morning I opened my browser to discover that someone had tried to blow all of that up.

The facts of the case are widely reported, so I won’t bother reiterating them here. I’m quite happy they got this guy, and all for stings, but there are two things that I can’t stop thinking about:

Firstly: As a matter of personal policy, I refuse to be frightened by this. Like the poster says, I’m going to keep calm and carry on.

Secondly: Law enforcement (at least based on reported anecdotes) seems to be targeting foreign-born individuals who have become radicalized. Most of the time, it seems that these guys probably couldn’t pull off their desired schemes themselves. The feds are with them every step of the way. Left to his own devices, I wonder Mohamud would have gotten the materials he needed.

Again, I like the idea of stings. It’s a great thing to keep potential criminals off balance. Potential terrorists don’t know if they’re talking to an actual Jihadist or a federal agent. Sowing that kind of overcaution, confusion, and fear among these criminals is great, strategically.

And yet, I wonder how many unbalanced guys the FBI would catch if they targeted the militias in Montana, the self-appointed border guards in Texas, or the white supremacists in Idaho. How many other Tim McVeighs are out there that could be stung into arrest? How many native-born, equally bloodthirsty, equally unbalanced white Mohamuds are there?

I have no kind of sympathy for adherents to radical Islam. They are, at the very best, foolish. However, history tells us that they are not alone. Prior to September 11th, 2001, the largest terrorist act in American history had been carried out by a radical white Christian. McVeigh’s kin, gun-toting religious radicals who are doubtless incensed by the very existence black president, are still out there.

What could we reap with a focused effort? Given the collaboration, encouragement, and resources of an undercover FBI agent, what kind of potential violence could we find welling from religious white America? I don’t doubt that Mohamud (may he spend his remaining days ingloriously in prison) has an equal and opposite out there, a kind of inverse brother born not in Somalia but in Kansas, reading not a Quaran but a Bible, and just as filled with impotent unarticulated rage, and dreams of violence.

An Open Letter to America’s Really Rich People

In Politics on September 15, 2010 at 11:21 am

Dear People With Several Times More Money Than Me,

We have had our differences.  There were those nasty incidents back in college when I was all hopped up on Marx and proclaimed mostly non-ironically that we should “eat the rich.”  I also used to have a Che poster and have used the term “capitalist pig-dogs” on more than one occasion.  Sorry about that.  I feel differently now, but I believe in getting the elephant in the room out of the way.

Especially because now I (and indeed, all of America) kind of needs your help.

Our economy is not doing so well.  Yes, we’re recovering, but rather slowly.  A while ago, when the stimulus was passed, I hoped that one of my favorite economists was wrong.  Paul Krugman said over and over again that the stimulus was going to be too small to get the economy going,  I love Krugman, but in this case I really, really hoped that he was wrong.  Incorrect.  Not on it.  Erroneous.

Alas, it seems like he won that Nobel prize for a reason, and the stimulus really was too small.  We need another one, but there presently isn’t the political will for such a thing.  If the government isn’t going to start feeding the economy, then the demand is going to have to come from somewhere else.  In this case, you guys.  You massively rich humans who go to sleep on beds made out of Benjamins and have doorknobs that cost more than me.  You guys are sitting on approximately ten bazillion-bajillion dollars of wealth, and that money really needs to be spread around.

As yourselves:  Do I have every XBox game ever made?  Does my cat own enough sweaters?  Are there enough melon ballers in my life?  Do I really own enough blenders?  Is my life really complete if I don’t have my very own sushi franchise?  I can tell you right now- the answer is no.

Rich people, for the sake of us all you need to do what you do best- spend.  Spend widely and freely.  Spend with abandon and excess.  Spend because the rest of us can’t.  Go out to eat and order dessert.  Tip your server well- they will put that money into circulation, trust me.  If you’re eyeing a new gadget, go ahead- buy it.  Buy the pro version, even.  Get yourself a new set of drapes.  Or a summer home.  Or a velodrome.  If you happen upon some crazy entrepreneur with a wacky business model, go ahead and invest in her idea.  Who cares if it doesn’t work?  You’ve provided much-needed liquidity.

Would it be nice to live in a hippie-utopia zero-growth economy not dependent on consumption in order to sustain itself?  Sure.  That’s not the world we live in, though.  In the meantime, us normal people really need you guys to start being profligate and excessive for the sake of America.  I wish that we could have another stimulus- a nice big one that incorporated high speed rails and alternative energy.  That would be fantastic.  But, I know it’s not going to happen.  In the meantime, though, while the rest of us are doing less than awesomely it’s up to you, rich folks.  It’s up to you to spend and spend and spend until we’ve got money again.

So when you go out to Restoration Hardware and buy a bagload of artisinal hammers, remember- you’re not just helping yourself.  You’re helping us all.  You’re doing what’s right for America.


-Joe Streckert

A Certain Mosque

In Politics, Religion on August 19, 2010 at 12:24 pm

The issue of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” has been greatly distressing.  All manner of bigotry and nastiness has surfaced on the right, of course, but what I’ve found quite distressing is that leftists have been quiet on what seems to me to be a clear-cut issue of tolerance and liberty.

When Obama said that Muslims definitively have the right to build their community center on private property, my heart fluttered a little.  I was immensely pleased and got a little bit of the “Yes We Can!” vibe again.
Then he backpedaled.  He said he was not commenting on the “wisdom” of the Cordoba Center’s construction.  My heart fell.
This issue should not even be a controversy.  At all.  This is the U.S., and one of the best, most admirable things that we’ve ever done is institutionalize freedom of religion.  No one is compelled to belong to a state church or religion.  No one is required to believe anything that the state tells them to.  Citizens are free to assemble, discuss, and believe whatever they like.  That is, really, quite profoundly incredible.
I’m an atheist- I don’t believe in any kind of god or gods, and that philosophical stance is immensely important to me.  However, I think it would be massively deplorable if even atheism was enforced as a state religion.  The state should be utterly neutral in these matters.
That neutrality is not exciting or sexy.  It is not amazingly compelling.  It is, really, massively boring to have one of the most powerful entities in the history of humankind (the U.S. government) not take stands on issues such as religion.
That unsexy boredom, though, allows for so much else to transpire.  The U.S. is a stew of religions and philosophy, of mutually contradictory worldviews and outlooks.  That pluralism is utterly fantastic.  As fervently as I cling to my own philosophy, I would never, ever, want the state to enforce it.  Not even my philosophy is worthy of a breach of state neutrality.
This is profoundly important, and I really do believe that having a government divorced from any religion whatsoever (even mine!) is very, very important to maintaining a civilization.  The very idea that we should prefer one philosophy over another (on private property, no less!) is cause for distress.
I keep hoping that someone on the left will express this.  I keep wishing that some Democrat will take a principled stand and inform America that religious liberty is one of the most fundamental pillars of our free state.
But, I have my doubts.  Right now, I can’t identify any admirable leftists in government.  I wish I could, but there’s no one.
That distresses me far more than anything Gingrich or Palin says.

Ross Douthat is a Bigot

In Politics, Rants, Sex on August 10, 2010 at 8:59 am

If I spent all of my time railing against right-wingers with whom I disagree, I would have no breath left in my lungs.  However, I recently came across a column I thought was so subtly nasty, that I was compelled to write about it.

Like most snooty American liberals, I read the New York Times editorial page.  Paul Krugman is probably my favorite avuncular bearded economist, and I find Thomas Friedman sort of amusing, as he usually gets quite enthusiastic about issues that broke five or so years ago.  (I recall him being very excited about cell phone cameras in the mid 2000s.  It was cute.)

Yesterday at dinner my friend L asked me if I’d read it that morning, and I said that I hadn’t.  She alerted me to a piece by Ross Douthat, the NYT‘s resident token conservative who isn’t David Brooks.  Douthat’s column was basically a screed against gay marriage, but not for the reasons that you’d expect.  He does not seem to oppose gay marriage for religious reasons or because it will lead to polygamy.  He says, basically, that heterosexual marriage is special because:

This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.

The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.

Again, this is not how many cultures approach marriage. It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.

This is utter sophistry.  This is ahistorical dreck.  This is nothing but thin apologetics for bigotry.  A few points:

1:  Douthat’s last section, about “equality of the sexes” is particularly laughable, especially when juxtaposed with Christian and Jewish beliefs.  The ideal of sexual equality is new, and we don’t have religious traditions to thank for it.  Thank the feminist movement.  Thank women’s liberation.  Thank Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem for that.  Prior to that, wives were pretty much property.  You’re actually going to claim that “later ideas” “supplemented” religious beliefs?  No.  Just the opposite.  These later ideas overturned religious beliefs.

2:   He is also equating marriage with monogamy.  Admittedly, this is most people’s expectation, but it is entirely possible for married couples to have any array of sexual arrangements open to them.  There are plenty of happily married non-monogamists out there, and their marital unions are as legally binding as anyone else’s.  Marriage, really, is about whatever the people in it say it’s about.

3:  Douthat also brings children into the equation.  Aside from the fact that the children of gay couples tend to be just fine, who says marriage has to be about children?  Matrimony doesn’t equate to kids.

4:  Heterosexual marriage, says Douthat, is distinctive.  All relationships are.  Heterosexual relationships are distinct from each other, and homosexual relationships are also distinct from each other.  For instance, an elderly couple who get married late in life and can’t have children will have a very different relationship than young people who pop out tons of kids.  Both relationships, though, are worthy of legal sanction.

Douthat ends his column with this bit of semi-coherent vileness:

[I]f we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.

“But based on Judge Walker’s logic — which suggests that any such distinction is bigoted and un-American — I don’t think a society that declares gay marriage to be a fundamental right will be capable of even entertaining this idea

Douthat obviously thinks highly of heterosexual marriage.  Great.  Wonderful.  Good for him.  However, we’re not just talking about how we feel about people’s relationships, here.  We’re talking about the law.

We’re talking about health care and inheritance, tax breaks and hospital visitation rights.  We’re talking about partner benefits and unique legal protections that apply to spouses.  We’re talking about a whole array of privileges that come with marriage.  Very real privileges that translate into rights, money, and legal recognition.  For that state to deny such things just because “lifelong heterosexual monogamy is a unique and indispensable estate” is indeed “bigoted and un-American.”

The state, in matters sexual, really ought to be neutral.  We would balk at the government taking official positions on religious beliefs, political parties, or journalistic entities.  Theoretically, the state is neutral with how it treats with all of those in their various forms and kinds.  It should be likewise so with sexual behavior.

I would not be nearly so incensed about this if it weren’t in the New York Times.  Not because the NYT is a liberal newspaper, but because it’s serious one with standards, an editorial board, and all that.  Even though they carry Maureen Dowd, I still expect them to maintain a certain degree of intellectual cache.

Douthat would be a more honest person if he just said his thesis directly- that he does not like the idea of gay relationships.  He is, I imagine, uncomfortable with the idea of two men having sex.  Such queasiness is not the basis for law.  I’m uncomfortable with the idea of two fat people having sex, but I still believe they should get to have their relationship sanctioned.

There is nothing left for the opponents of gay marriage.  No argument that carries any sort of serious weight.  Nothing for them to say that is at all persuasive.  On every meaningful philosophical point, they have lost.  Douthat and others like him are grasping at straws, and those straws are slipping away.

In Which I Probably Read Too Much Into Dirty Harry

In Movies, Politics, Rants on July 25, 2010 at 7:44 pm

I recently watched Dirty Harry for the first time, which had since then been something of a hole in my pop-culture education. I enjoyed the movie, but found its politics to be somewhat objectionable.

To briefly sum up the film, Harry Callahan pursues and catches the Scorpio killer, a serial murderer who uses a sniper rifle, through San Francisco. Scorpio is let loose after his release, though, because the district attorney say that Harry didn’t inform the suspect of his rights, that he violated multiple sections of the Constitution, and that all of the evidence that Harry obtained was done so illegally.

The scene in which Harry is informed by the district attorney that there is no way that the authorities can bring a case is preposterous. If anything, a district attorney passing up the chance to put away a serial killer seems highly improbable. The chance to lock away a high-profile sicko is the career-making move that most DAs probably dream of.
However, the prospect of realistically portraying the civilian authorities (along with the DA, the police chief and the mayor are portrayed as similarly toothless) is not Dirty Harry‘s project. The film goes out of its way to portray such authorities as weak so that Harry, by comparison, may appear strong.

Dirty Harry posits that the warrior caste of a society may second-guess the civilian authorities. Not just may, but should. Harry’s decisions are portrayed as wiser, braver, and more socially responsible than those of his police chief, the district attorney, or the mayor.
A democratic, civilized society means that the state retains a monopoly on force. Force is controlled, regulated, and not used lightly. Private citizens may not initiate force- they may only use it in self-defense. Indeed, the state may not display aggression, either- it may only use it in a situation where the larger ends of society are served by the judicious application of violence.

Those who apply violence for desirable social ends do so at the pleasure of civilization at large. The police and soldiers who may engage in violence do so in a context where they are ruled by civilization. It is most decidedly not the reverse. The warriors do not rule in a democratic society. (Hence the hooplah some years ago about W. wearing an Air Force jumpsuit. Presidents, even if they have served in the military, traditionally always wear civilian clothes.)

Dirty Harry posits that the mechanisms of democracy are fundamentally broken, that the safeguards of law and order, the rights embedded in the Constitution, are deterrents to justice. In Dirty Harry, the implication is that if San Francisco really wanted to catch the Scorpio killer, if they were serious, then they would not go to the mayor, the police chief, or the DA. If they were serious, they would go to Harry Callahan and allow the warrior caste to call the shots over the civilians, not the other way around.

The stance implied by the film is a deplorable and socially irresponsible position, basically stating that borderline-sociopathic individuals such as Harry Callahan are necessary for civilization’s survival. The whole thesis of the movie reminded me of another famous speech, wherein Jack Nicholson’s Co. Jessup rationalizes his existence in A Few Good Men.

The scene above, though, is more nuanced because Jessup is explaining himself to other members of the military. A Few Good Men is essentially about members of the armed forces who conduct themselves as normal participants in a democracy rooting out and investigating those (such as Jessup) who behave as if they belong to an exceptional warrior caste a la Harry Callahan.

The polar opposite of Nicholson’s speech (and ideological sibling to Dirty Harry) is Team America: World Police. I’ve always found the final (NSFW) speech to be something like the opposite of A Few Good Men, and in it Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to articulating something akin Dirty Harry’s thesis- that society needs a certain population of nasty, violent people in order to survive.

Though they admit that pussies are necessary, too. How big of them.

Make no mistake, I am not a pacifist. Not by any means. I don’t believe that we should dismantle the Pentagon or anything like that, and I find people who are reflexively anti-police to be kind of strange. Every contact I’ve had with people who’ve been members of the armed forces or law enforcement has led me to believe that those who are responsible for public safety are more or less normal people. I worked for the Department of Public Safety at the University of Oregon for two years, and none of the police officers I met (a few of which were former military) seemed nearly weirdly barbarous as Harry Callahan. My grandfather was in the U.S. Army, and while he had seen and participated in WWII’s horrors, he certainly wasn’t a monster.
Granted, the Dirty Harry is a bit self-conscious about how monstrous the protagonist is- the word “dirty” is right there in the title, after all- and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t delight in seeing Clint Eastwood blow dudes away while glaring that steely glare of his. But, Dirty Harry tries to turn the pathologies of the main character into virtues; virtues that civilization supposedly needs in order to endure. We do need warriors, certainly. We need cops and soldiers and marines and fighter pilots. That is true. But we do not need monsters. We do not need Col. Jessup or Team America, and we certainly don’t need Harry Callahan to survive.

Awesome Thing: Tea

In Awesome Things, Crazy People, Food, Politics on July 21, 2010 at 10:16 am

Tea is beautiful. It is, without a doubt, my single favorite beverage. Other than water, it is the only thing that I drink every single day. It is more flavorful and stimulating than any sort of juice, not as blunt or intense as coffee, and far more peaceable than anything alcoholic. As much as I love coffee and beer, Portlander that I am, tea is foremost in my affections. The first thing I do in the kitchen is put on the kettle and I inevitably begin my day with at least one cup of the stuff. If I don’t have to go to work I’ll generally down a few cups throughout the day.

It’s the ideal beverage for writing or reading. At the keyboard, I’m usually typing between sips, and while reading a book on my porch I often have a mug close by. I associate tea with literary endeavors, with the inspired creation of words or the calm, solitary appreciation of them.

The words “tea party” have now become utterly synonymous with bombast and nonsense. I find this not only disconcerting, as a tea lover, but also deeply weird. Tea, the most peaceful of beverages, the most contemplative and calm, the kindest and most thoughtful of stimulants, is now a signifier of yowling, yelling yahoos.

Tea does not deserve this. More to the point, tea does not fit this. The contemplative nature of the beverage clashes horribly with right-wing ideologues, with upraised fists and brandished signs. Tea is a learned beverage, the least barbaric and most civilized of all drinkables.

I believe it’s reputation will persevere. Tea, after all, has been with us for millennia, and the maniacs now screaming in its name have existed for less than thousandth of the age of the beverage. Tea will, once again, be known as something calm, rational, civilized, and logical. Until then, my favorite drinkable will take its lumps, not of sugar, but of irrational defamation.

The Best and Worst of America, All in One Morning

In Politics on June 3, 2010 at 9:30 am

There were only five of them.

Just this morning the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (a.k.a. the “God hates fags” people) protested Portland’s Grant High School. Arriving there, I could see why they chose the location- the entrance to Grant is large and dramatic, columns rising up over greenery and stairs. The street in front of it is wide but not busy, accessible and easy to find but not excessively choked by cars. The setting was an idea potential publicity place.
The five of them, a middle-aged man and women, along with three younger men who looked to be either in their late teens or early twenties, held two signs each. One of them read “YOU ARE ALL GOING TO HELL” and another said “FAGS DOOM NATIONS.” Of course, there was one that simply said “GOD HATES FAGS” and another proclaimed Obama to be the Antichrist. I wondered if the five of them were all related to Fred Phelps, the leader of the church.
This was the worst of America, a fanatical cultlike hate group. This was a vile and utterly morally bankrupt display. This same group also pickets the funerals of people who have died of AIDS, frequently desecrates the American flag and declares the U.S. to be a “doomed,” and also holds hateful signs outside of Jewish institutions. They are (and I use this word sparingly) evil. I don’t use that word for a lot of people, but I think that if you are heartless enough to disrupt funerals, blame Jews for crucifying Jesus, consign nearly all of the U.S. to hell, and all the while believe that God is on your side, you are most certainly evil. Crazed, arrogant, and twisted.
But there were only five of them. There were hundreds of us.

A whole crowd of counter protesters massed in front of Grant High School, carrying signs and banners, playing guitars and drums, singing and chanting. There were high school students, weirdos, old people, geeks, and priests. Some of the signs were serious, but most were whimsical and odd, proclamations of nonsense and internet memes. People were there to protest, but they were also there to have fun.

This is better than simple resistance. My generation, for the most part, believes in equality. We were raised learning about Marting Luther King, Jr., we were born well after Civil Rights, Women’s Lib and the first gay rights movement. For most of my generation, people in their twenties and thirties, equality has simply been part of the air. Of course we believe in civil rights. Of course we’re against discrimination and prejudice. It is, anymore, common sense. To rail against it is absurd, and it was answered with absurdity.

Again, there were five of them, and hundreds of us. The crowd, rather than being angry, was gleeful. At one point, everyone started singing the Barney theme song (“I love you, you love me…”) and then This Little Light of Mine. That was followed by The ABCs. Grant students milled through the crowd holding cans asking for donations for “The Grant High School Gay/Straight Alliance… and irony!” I gave them a bit for irony.

Someone had a portable stereo and the familiar lyrics “Never gonna give you up…” blared through it. The crowd said “Woo!” and started grooving to Rick Astley only half-jokingly. Cars drove by, most of them parents dropping off their high schoolers, and waved to the crowd, tooting their horns in support.

(Her sign says “I like cats,” by the way.)
Would it be better to ignore the Westboro Baptist Church? Maybe. If you see a crazy street person ranting to themselves, it’s usually best not to try to dissuade them of their craziness. They’re too far gone. However, the counter protest wasn’t about persuading the Westboro Baptist Church that they were in the wrong. The crowd was more there in solidarity, and it turned into something of a party, a huge pre-work get-together. People were having fun. That was what the WBC accomplished today- I doubt that they persuaded anyone that God actually hates fags, or that anyone is going to hell. What they did do, though, was act as the impetus for a good time, a fun occasion of playful nonsense.
I don’t fear for America. This is a country that’s produced a fair amount of awful things, but we’ve also pushed back. Gradually this place has gotten better. Yes there are still nasty things like the business in Arizona going on right now, and yes we have a long way to go, but things are mostly going in the right direction. I really believe that.

Fifty years ago we had segregation, and now the president is black. Fifty years ago sexism was the norm, and now a(nother) woman is going to sit on the Supreme Court. Fifty years ago homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder, and now Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is in the process of being repealed. Would the crowd in front of Grant have been there fifty years ago, enjoying themselves in the streets, all in the name of equality? Probably not. But because of the wonderful evolution and adaptation that this country is capable of, we were there.

It is tempting to despair and say “fuck it,” to point at incidents of nastiness, ignorance, and regression and just write off the country as doomed. That’s a cop-out, though. That’s ignoring responsibility. I’m not there. I believe that one of the best things about America is that it has the power to grow out of its awfulness and become something better.
It has become a place where there were five of them and hundreds of us.