Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Departed

In the Martin Scorsese film, every character is chasing every other character, and lying to them, and living a life based on lies and betrayal and subterfuge. Interestingly, none of this has anything to do with anyone outside of the circle of the police officers overseen by Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen, or the thugs overseen by Jack Nicholson. Matt Damon is a police officer actually working for Nicholson, while Leonardo DiCaprio is a thug working for Nicholson who's actually a police officer working for Sheen. There are only two scenes in the movie of any importance that involve civilians, people who are not thugs or police officers, and nothing about Nicholson's activities, or the work of Sheen or Baldwin, is directed at anyone except the other group. It's cops and robbers with the robbers never really stealing anything from anyone, except each other (the one crime in the story involves Nicholson double-crossing a group of Chinese criminals, probably because, as it turns out, Nicholson is an informer for the FBI.). The one time a store owner is actually threatened by thugs seeking protection money, the store owner is more upset with DiCaprio, who beats up the two thugs and trashes the store in the process, than he is upset by the shakedown. There is a great deal of violence bandied about, a great deal of energy expended on trying to find evidence on which to convict Nicholson of his various crimes, and a number of people dead by the end of the film (including Nicholson, DiCaprio, Sheen, and Damon). But it is all violence directed at the two groups (the cops and robbers), and in the end the one "redemptive" act is itself a crime (when Mark Wahlberg murders Damon). It's an interesting question in morality and "law and order:" the police are the "good guys," the "moral agents" authorized to punish the "bad guys," but what power do they really have to protect society from evil? This is not the "thin blue line" concept of police officers, so popular in the 1970's. The evil they are fighting is a shadow self, a reflection of the police officers themselves (especially in the characters portrayed by Damon and DiCaprio). It is not an evil that threatens society at large, or even in particular. Both the cops and the robbers seem to exist only for each other. Neither is presented as a necessary concomitant to human society.

I raise this because I was traveling through the wilds of northern New Mexico this past weekend (I left my heart in Santa Fe), and heard a part of this story on Democracy Now!. (I regret not buying the Dave Eggers book earlier; as my tribute to New Orleans five years after Katrina, I'm ordering a copy this week). The story is one that presents a very Jeffersonian challenge to our current American weltanschaaung that only when government enforces laws and provides "security" can it do no wrong. "Law and order" is an old concept in American culture, one going back to at least to the mythos of dime novels about "gunslingers" and "peacemakers" (which meant a weapon, not a person). We were supposed to have learned in the jungles of Vietnam the limits of American power. But we never really shook off the atavistic assumption that might=right, that power=ability, that military=societal control.

Which leads us back to New Orleans, and Katrina, and the lessons we should learn from it. Rachel Maddow's guest, Garland Robinette, calls New Orleans (or perhaps all of Louisiana) a "rich Haiti." (I include the clip in lieu of a link).

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It's a fair assessment; one so apt I wish I'd coined it. But what New Orleans was not during Katrina was a stew of violence and anarchy, a "Lord of the Flies" situation, although everyone in authority expected it to be. As this other story Rachel presented that night illustrates, all of the violence in post-Katrina New Orleans appears to have been at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us from violence:

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In that story, not only were the two men beaten, but photographers were assaulted by police, in an attempt to keep pictures just like the two in the story, from being seen. There are stories of violence in post-Katrina New Orleans, but almost all of the verifiable ones, like the story of Zeitoun, turn out to be stories of those with authority using it to impose order where there is no disorder to begin with, except the chaos of nature against the order imposed by houses and streets and electricity and water systems. These stories have a common thread: the most persistent threat to order, indeed to personal security, came from the people who supposedly provide order by their authority, and their weaponry.

But no society functions on that kind of "order," or ever has. Indeed, the ones that do are fictional nightmares, like Orwell's world of 1984, or are what we imagine Stalinist Russia was like. That kind of order is the kind I was raised to abjure, to reject, to state proudly was not the kind of society I lived in. But especially since that demon turned out to be a figment of our imagination, a greater threat to America in our rhetoric than in any reality, we seem determined to recreate that "order" in our own world. SB 1070 in Arizona is only the most recent manifestation of this desire. It is a baseless conviction that might makes right, and authority=control. It is as anti-democratic, indeed as un-American, an idea as any I can conceive of. Yet here we are:

Despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops, violence across Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Despite the presence? Why not "because of" the presence, which would be more accurate. Whence comes this benighted notion that the only answer to chaos and anarchy is more of the cause of that chaos and anarchy? Violence may be, in a very real sense, the society Afghanis have chosen from themselves, though I don't believe this. My understanding is that, prior to the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was actually a peaceful and ordered place, with many of the comforts and distractions of Western culture readily available. So if we want to start casting about blame for what is happening there now, we can start with the government Vladimir Putin once happily worked for. (His "strong man" photo ops being a bit undermined by such realizations, perhaps.) The Soviets, too, thought (still think!) might=right, and now we tangle with the tar baby they once wrestled. We insist on imposing a society on people from the barrel of a gun, and we wonder that life isn't like the dime novels about the "Old West." What we do not consider is that we cannot undo evil with even more evil. And no matter our intentions, our actions, our violence, our desires and attempts to impose order through military power, are evil.

That's the ironic lesson of "The Departed," one I have no doubt was entirely intentional on the part of Mr. Scorsese: the "good guys," the cops, are no better, morally or in action, than the "bad guys," the robbers. Indeed, they are simply mirror selves grappling with each other, engaged in a macabre game that has almost nothing to do with the citizens of Boston. The only virtue of their game is that it doesn't spill over into the society around it. The damning quality of it, is that it destroys the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, grinds him up like a virtual meat-grinder, to the point that his death at the end is more of a relief than a shame (despite the fact he has uncovered Damon's perfidy, and is about to justify his police career by turning Damon in). DiCaprio's execution at the hands of yet another police detective on Nicholson's payroll is only balanced by Wahlberg's execution of Damon, but it's eye for an eye justice, which is no kind of justice at all (Wahlberg takes great care to leave no clues behind; he knows what he's doing is criminal). Nothing is gained, and everything is lost, but it's in a microcosm, a sealed-off bubble from the world around it (not unlike the bubble universe DiCaprio lives in in his newest film, "Inception."). The movie is a subtle study in the nature and limitation of police power to impose order on society, since society seems to have no real need for the police power overseen by Baldwin and Sheen (and the FBI, who are present only to keep Nicholson in business for their own purposes. Games within games.).

No such examination of power is going on now. Andrew Bacevich comes closest to talking about it, but he is a prophet in the wilderness, at best, and no one is going out even to see a reed bending in the wind, much less to listen to him. Notice, too, that this is not a matter of "cowboy" George W. Bush or "malevolent" Dick Cheney. As Bacevich notes:

Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: “What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?” Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What’s the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn’t actually work?
But I would ask: when do we finally decide it doesn't actually work? 50,000 troops remain in Iraq, and no withdrawal from Afghanistan is in the offing. Sarah Palin wrapped herself in the flag at Glenn Beck's rally, equating support for U.S. soldiers with the moral courage of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a deliberate conflation meant to repel any attempts at criticism, although of her, not of U.S. soldiers. To say our military power doesn't work, of course, is to insult our soldiers; at least, that's the conflation we've all made in our public discourse. The real problem is that to say our military power doesn't work is to question U.S. foreign policy and domestic policy since the end of World War II (when the Pentagon was supposed to be turned into an archive, not continued as a permanent military headquarters). It is to question the major premise taught to my entire generation: that only American military power kept the USSR from invading America, or taking over the world. It is to question the assumption almost everyone trades on: that only power keeps us secure in our homes, and safe in our borders. It is an assumption we have never seen to be true, but one we insist on nonetheless. It may be it is because revenge is the opposite of forgiveness, and that forgiveness takes more courage than we can muster.

I could turn this into a long rant, something very common and apparently popular in left (and right) blogistan; but that outcome bores me. I cannot turn into Professor Pangloss, however, and say this is, after all, the best of all possible worlds. So I turn, for a closing, to a theologian much admired by Andrew Bacevich and by me; a man quite familiar with the nature of power and the nature of societies, as well as with our human understanding of the nature of God. This is practically in the nature of a prayer, but that makes it even more appropriate in this context, especially as it comes from the man who made his earlier fame from arguing that individuals could afford to forgive, but nations could not. The question of limits, is another question.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

“Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

“No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint.

“Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."

--Reinhold Niebuhr

Photo courtesy of Wounded Bird

1 comment:

  1. Robert, thanks for posting the videos. While I was traveling, I watched very little TV news, and I read only one newspaper. I decided that life without the latest news is possible.

    Since I've been home, I've eased slowly back into reading the news but not yet into TV news. Aug. 26 was a looong travel day for me, but I'm pleased that you posted the videos from Rachel Maddow's show.

    Garland Robinette calls it right. NOLA and Louisiana are the rich Haiti, not truly part of the US. At the time of Katrina and the federal flood, I pleaded, as did others, only half jokingly, "France, please buy us back!"

    I didn't watch or read the many remembrances of the anniversary, because I simply couldn't bear to.