January 12th, 2006

[LINK] "The depraved heroes of 24 are the Himmlers of Hollywood"

In The Guardian's media section this Tuesday, Slavoj Žižek has an extended critique of the morality behind the television series 24 and its hero, Jack Bauer. An extended quote seems merited.

In the fourth season, among those tortured are the defence secretary's son-in-law and son (both with his full knowledge and support), and a female member of the CTU wrongly suspected of passing on information to terrorists. (When her innocence is revealed, she is asked to return to work immediately and accepts.) The CTU agents, after all, are dealing with the sort of "ticking-bomb" scenario evoked by the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to justify torture (why not torture someone who knows the location of a bomb that is jus about to kill hundreds of thousands of people?).

The agents treat themselves as expendable, ready to put their lives at stake if this will help to prevent an attack. Jack Bauer, (the agent and central character, played by Kiefer Sutherland), embodies this attitude. He not only tortures others but condones his superiors putting his own life at stake.

In the fourth season, Bauer agrees to be delivered to China as a scapegoat for a CTU covert operation that killed a Chinese diplomat. He knows he will be tortured and imprisoned for life but promises not to say anything that might damage US interests. When he is informed by the ex-president of the US that someone has ordered him to be killed, his two closest CTU friends fake his death. Both terrorist and CTU agents operate as examples of what the political philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer - someone who can be killed with impunity since, in the eyes of the law, their life no longer counts. While they continue to act on behalf of the legal power, their acts are no longer constrained by the law. It is here that we encounter the series' ideological lie: in spite of the CTU's ruthlessness, its agents, especially Bauer, are warm human beings - loving, caught in the emotional dilemmas of ordinary people.

24 should not be seen as a simple popular depiction of the sort of problematic methods the US resorts to in its "war on terror". Much more is at stake. Recall the lesson of Apocalypse Now. The figure of Kurtz is not a remnant of some barbaric past. He was the perfect soldier but, through his over-identification with the military, he turned into the embodiment of the system's excess and threatened the system itself.

The problem for those in power is how to get people do the dirty work without turning them into monsters. This was Heinrich Himmler's dilemma. When confronted with the task of killing the Jews of Europe, the SS chief adopted the attitude of "somebody has to do the dirty job". In Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher describes how Nazi executioners endured the horrible acts they performed. Most were well aware that they were doing things that brought humiliation, suffering and death to their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, instead of saying "What horrible things I did to people!" they would say "What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!" In this way, they were able to turn around the logic of resisting temptation: the temptation to be resisted was pity and sympathy in the presence of human suffering, the temptation not to murder, torture and humiliate.

There was a further "ethical problem" for Himmler: how to make sure that the executioners, while performing these terrible acts, remained human and dignified. His answer was Krishna's message to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita (Himmler always had in his pocket a leather-bound edition): act with inner distance; do not get fully involved.

Therein also resides the lie of 24: that it is not only possible to retain human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragic-ethical grandeur. The parallel between the agents' and the terrorists' behaviour serves this lie.

This is a prime-television hit in North America, in case anyone is wondering whether they should start worrying about the New Man of 21st century North America.

[BRIEF NOTE] Berlusconi and P2

One thing that heraclitus pointed out to me is that Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi belonged to the nominally Masonic Italian organization known as Propaganda Due, famed for its shadowy connections with Italy's far right, with fascists in Mediterranean Europe and South America, and with media moguls. As Paul Foot wrote in The Guardian in October 2001, Berlusconi is a product of Propaganda Due, benefiting from its defining characteristic. What is it?

[. . .T]he determination of rich and powerful people to manipulate the democratic process. This was once the central aim of P2, perhaps the most influential secret society ever established in postwar Europe.

P2 was ostensibly a harmless branch of the freemasons but there was nothing harmless about it. Its members included top bankers, business tycoons, media moguls, generals, judges and intelligence agents. They met in secret and plotted the gradual erosion of the hated system of democracy that from time to time threatened to exert some marginal control over Italian society.

One of P2's most influential members was Roberto Calvi, boss of the doomed Ambrosiano bank. In June 1982, Calvi's corpse was found hanging from scaffolding under Blackfriars Bridge. The City of London police concluded that the banker had committed suicide, though others were struck by the coincidences between the scene of his lurid death and certain well-known masonic symbols - a bridge, a ladder, some stones in the dead man's pocket, not to mention the frati neri (black friars), an ancient secret society from which P2 allegedly originated. At any rate, despite occasional successes, P2 never came near to overthrowing democracy, and not long after the death of Calvi, dissolved and vanished.

One of its most prominent members - no 1168 - was Silvio Berlusconi, who was so rich and owned so many television stations that he was able to form an entirely new legal political alliance, unattached to the parties of the old Italian democracy, and, with the help of former fascists and racists, to get the alliance elected to government.

There are such things as conspiracy theories, vast shadowy conspiracies in the dark involving connections between unconnected people. This is not a conspiracy theory. This is a set of documented connections and demonstrated memberships in a single movement with the aim of creating an Italy politically under the control of the right, closely associated with the United States, and dominated by the powerful. What do else do we see in early 21st century Italy but just this structure, managed by a man who was a scion of P2? P2 isn't a conspiracy. Rather, P2 is networking.

[BRIEF NOTE] Is there such a thing as Canadian history?

Via optimussven, the discussion in history, "Does Canada have a history?". I'll quote brotherj, the originator of the thread.

If someone were to ask you whether Canada has a history, how would you respond? Especially if that someone had just finished reading an article* that suggested that Canada has no particular reason to exist as a distinct political entity, and has ceased to exist as a distinct social entity. That someone, a former Washington Post Canada corrospondent, later commented that if a world history course was given, outside of North America, “I’m not sure how often Canada would come up. Does it come up in American history courses? No.”

So if someone were to ask you, "Does Canada have a history?" what would you say?

Me, I'd say that Canadian history constitutes a fairly coherent and distinct unit cemented by four centuries of political and other separation from what's now America. I'd also say that it bears somewhat the same relationship to American history as Austrian history to German, or Scottish to English history, since there's clearly a strong relationship between America and Canada that privileges the larger and more powerful partner.


* Steven Pearlstein's "O Canada! A National Swan Song?".

[URBAN NOTE] Queen Street West, Shaw to Beaconsfield

The first westbound streetcar on Queen Street West that I boarded took me only a bit past halfway towards my home before it turned north onto Bathurst. The next streetcar that I boarded, just a block behind the previous one, took me another quarter of the way home before it detoured south onto Shaw Street. This left me with a brisk ten minutes' walk in the pleasantly cool air west before I got home.

That stretch of Queen Street West is lined with galleries, but I noticed that almost of them were closed. The new cafes and restaurants along that street were still open, like The Knit Cafe (1050 Queen Street West) filled with chatting people--mostly women--poised with their needles at their tables in the brightly-lit room, the new Starbucks at 1092 Queen Street West with the desperate spray-painted cry "The Drake you ho it's all your fault" removed from the handsome stucco, and the Friendly Sports Bar & Grill (1116 Queen Street West) with a man in a chef's uniform poised to smoke.

[BRIEF NOTE] Another's cracked review of Brokeback Mountain

I tend to be rather amused by crazy right-wing people, in the sense of finding them and their positions laughable. (Left-wingers too, but different question.) It's for this reason that I was pleased to come across David Kupelian's review of Brokeback Mountain at World Net Daily, daringly entitled "'Brokeback Mountain': Rape of the Marlboro Man".

Kupelian actually managed to touch upon many of the major themes in Brokeback Mountain, like the profound alienation and disconnection experienced by the protagonists I noted in my review. This alienation and disconnection, harmig the protagonists (if they survive) and theirs is actually fairly common. If you'd like, compare Solomon and Gaenor, or perhaps the more famous Romeo and Juliet. True love thwarted ends up curdling life, and this seems to be common across orientations. I'm not sure where Kupelian got his idea that the film didn't show the suffering of Jack and Ennis' loved ones--anyone who saw Michelle Williams' potentially Oscar-winning portrayal of Ennis' wife would know that Kupelian was wrong.

I stopped being amused by Kupelian when I got to these paragraphs.

A "Brokeback"-type movie could easily be made, for instance, to portray a female school teacher's affair with a 14-year-old student as "a magnificent love story." And I'm not talking about the 2000 made-for-TV potboiler, "All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story," about the Seattle school teacher who seduced a sixth-grade student, went to prison for statutory rape, and later married the boy having had two children by him. I'm talking about a big-budget, big-name Hollywood masterpiece aimed at transforming America through film, just as Hitler relied on master filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to make propaganda films to manipulate the emotions of an entire nation.

In place of "Brokeback Mountain's" scene with the castrated homosexual, the "adult-child love story" could have a similar scene in which, as a young girl, the future teacher's mother took her to see the body of a woman who had fallen in consensual "love" with a 14-year-old boy, only to be brutalized, her breasts cut off, and bludgeoned to death – all by Nazi-like bigoted neighbors. (So that's why she couldn't be honest and open about her later relationship with her student.)

To this, I'd like to point the casual reader to Doug Janoff's Pink Blood, described in the Montreal Mirror, Metro News, and The Fulcrum, provides a superlative overview of homophobic assaults and murders in Canada. I can't speak to the situation in the US West, but I'd be surprised if things differed overmuch.

It is funny, isn't it, how much some people try to miss the point?

[BRIEF NOTE] A Future Past

Last month I was reminded of a future history that I'd drawn up in junior high school, in the early 1990s. It's still vivid in my mind. I was working within its framework, in fiction and timelines and atlases, for a fair stretch of time.

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[MUSIC] "First We Take Manhattan"

If I may be so bold, Leonard Cohen's song "First We Take Manhattan", off his 1988 I'm Your Man, is a fucking brilliant song. I can still recall the chills that ran down my spine when I began to play that borrowed LP in the media room at Robertson Library four years ago and heard that introductory synth line, even before Cohen's gravelly intonations. I feel that even when I hear the more-than-capable cover versions of Jennifer Warnes and R.E.M.

Cohen gained his fame first as a poet, and a reading of his song lyrics as poetry is merited. What is "First We Take Manhattan" about? Imminent transformative doom in the late-modern technosphere, for starters.

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

I'm guided by a signal in the heavens
I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin
I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

There's that chorus, with its hints of mutual desire unrequited:

I'd really like to live beside you, baby
I love your body and your spirit and your clothes
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those

Cohen is singing to a listener, to some kind of interlocutor he has abandoned: "Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you're worried that I just might win/You know the way to stop me, but you don't have the discipline/How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin." He hates that "fashion business," and, he sings, "I don't like these drugs that keep you thin/I don't like what happened to my sister." His vengeance will be coming, for "I practiced every night, now I'm ready/First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin." The American citadel of modernity then its European counterpart, perhaps? He's committed.

Ah remember me, I used to live for music
Remember me, I brought your groceries in
Well it's Father's Day and everybody's wounded
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Cohen has adopted, in this song, the persona of a warrior committed to a fight. Cohen is an insurgent against the established powers, perhaps even a violent one, certainly a dissenter in the fields of culture and art. Anyone who sings this song has to consent to this persona's dominance, and anyone who hears it has to recognize this inevitability. "First We Take Manhattan" is not a complacent song, and we love it for that quality.

(I've a feeling that the German-language police bulletin that's audible on Jennifer Warnes' version might be crucial, might even be some sort of seminal document. Can anyone confirm this?)
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    Jennifer Warnes, "First We Take Manhattan"