Monday, June 01, 2009

I blame literature

No, really, I do. Dime novels, pulp fiction, 19th century romances, historical romances, Leatherstocking tales, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dumas pere et fils; what have you. It's not just "24" and "Dirty Harry" before it, and all the spew of "action films" out of Hollywood. It's the simple fact that drama demands conflict, and convinces us who have nothing to do with that conflict that brutality is strength, and strength is the only viable response to "evil."

And that evil is very, very real, and very, very pervasive; in the souls of the "Evil." Never in ours, of course.

So maybe it isn't literature, after all; maybe it's just the all-too human proclivity to declare the "other," and the all-too human inability to initially seek to understand the "other." But if that were true, then this story couldn't possibly be true:

"They" hate "our freedom"? Who did we hear that from? The interrogators? The agents of our government who worked to get information, intelligence, from those who would attack the people of this country? No. We heard it from our leaders, men with great experience in politics and ideology, and no experience in criminal investigations or intelligence gathering. Listen to those stories again, and hear the "terrorists" appalled that their side killed their own, in the name of the cause. Listen again to the terrorist who relented when the agent of our government apologized for what our government had done. Listen again to the terrorist who gave up information for the consideration of a plate of sugar free cookies.

Listen again to the description of the words and actions of the evil villains we are supposed to be afraid of, the ones we are supposed to commit ourselves to destroy, as if that was the only purpose for America in the world. Listen again, and think about the villains in pulp fiction, dime novels, action movies: the kind of people you never meet in real life, because they are as rare as hen's teeth; or simply because they are fiction, not reality.

Update: Anthony McCarthy, in comments, links to this essay by George Orwell, which is well worth reading, and contains at least two very interesting (and relevant) observations about "crime fiction." Writing about the book No Orchids for Miss Blandish," he makes this observation about the plot: "Ultimately only one motive is at work throughout the whole story: the pursuit of power." And this, about the genre of the novel and its context (the 1940's):

As I have mentioned already, NO ORCHIDS enjoyed its greatest vogue in 1940, though it was successfully running as a play till some time later. It was, in fact, one of the things that helped to console people for the boredom of being bombed. Early in the war the NEW YORKER had a picture of a little man approaching a news-stall littered with paper with such headlines as 'Great Tank Battles in Northern France', 'Big Naval Battle in the North Sea', 'Huge Air Battles over the Channel', etc., etc. The little man is saying 'ACTION STORIES, please'. That little man stood for all the drugged millions to whom the world of the gangster and the prize-ring is more 'real', more 'tough', than such things as wars, revolutions, earthquakes, famines and pestilences.
There is more than a little something in that observation: fiction always appeals to us, especially in times of crisis. While we know how the decade of the '40's ended, those living in 1940 couldn't possibly see the future we know. Fiction is better that way: it ends quickly, and it seldom ends without justice, even rough justice, being done. If it confirms for us that everybody is scum (Orwell points out the detective in "No Orchids" is more concerned with money than duty), at least we're the survivors, and that's supposed to mean something.

The practical answer to morality is always going to be: "What good is it if you're dead?" Orwell goes on to point out No Orchids is written in American, not British, English, which says a lot, to him, about the story:

There exists in America an enormous literature of more or less the same stamp as NO ORCHIDS. Quite apart from books, there is the huge array of 'pulp magazines', graded so as to cater for different kinds of fantasy, but nearly all having much the same mental atmosphere. A few of them go in for straight pornography, but the great majority are quite plainly aimed at sadists and masochists.
Not a pretty picture, is it? But then who is the target audience of "24"? Or all the crime and mystery novels that pour onto bookstore shelves every month like clockwork? It's really quite an interesting article. Take this, for example:
The thing that the ordinary reader OUGHT to have objected to--almost certainly would have objected to, a few decades earlier--was the equivocal attitude towards crime. It is implied throughout NO ORCHIDS that being a criminal is only reprehensible in the sense that it does not pay. Being a policeman pays better, but there is no moral difference, since the police use essentially criminal methods.
Dirty Harry. Anything with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a policeman/government agent. I immediately thought of "The Departed," which is nothing but a meditation on this theme: how the police and the criminals need each other simply to justify their existence. But that was a moral examination of the question, and nobody paid much attention to it because it didn't involve the Mafia, Robert DeNiro, or Joe Pesci. "The Godfather" movies are much better, because they're "operatic." Or something.

Orwell makes one final point, a point worth considering more broadly than I have done here so far. He refers to:

what is now fashionable to call 'realism', meaning the doctrine that might is right. The growth of 'realism' has been the great feature of the intellectual history of our own age. Why this should be so is a complicated question. The interconnexion between sadism, masochism, success-worship, power-worship, nationalism, and totalitarianism is a huge subject whose edges have barely been scratched, and even to mention it is considered somewhat indelicate.
Which is the real issue for people like Dick Cheney: he is a "realist," he understands the world in ways no one else does; which probably explains his determination to speak as often as possible about what his Administration did, even as he now backpedals and blames the failures of intelligence on George Tenet. It is still "somewhat indelicate" to examine what Cheney's reasoning actually means; but it is high time we did.

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