Archive for February, 2007

Vengeance is Ours

Posted: February 14, 2007 in Culture, Ethics

Ezra Klein has a brief analysis of the way we view heroes and their methods in the post-9/11 world. The linchpin is this data from an article in the Los Angeles Times:

From 1996 to 2001, there were 102 scenes of torture, according to the Parents Television Council. But from 2002 to 2005, that figured had jumped to 624, they said. “24” has accounted for 67 such scenes during its first five seasons ….

Klein compares the protagonist in “24,” Jack Bauer, to the heroes of comic books, and surely enough, the comments from comics fanboys immediately and gleefully dissect comic book heroes in light of Klein’s analysis. (That’s more entertainment for comics enthusiasts but misses Klein’s point, I think.) Klein’s ideas are pretty good, but I find it rather telling that his analysis never goes beyond fiction to actual examples of torture, questionable heroes, or the attitudes underlying the Patriot Act and the so-called Torture Act.

I’ve written before on how pragmatism is the new idealism, how we’ve gotten too comfortable with the idea that ends justify means. Well, it’s not just fiction served up for our entertainment. It’s now a full-blown ideal that informs politics and policy. What’s unclear to me is whether it’s an idea put into practice by the powerful, eventually filtered down to the masses, or an expression of the Zeitgeist that has percolated up to the board room, the legislative chamber, and the Oval Office. Either way, it’s clear that vengeance is ours to own and use to motivate and justify in real life some of our worst, most atrocious behaviors. The argument usually goes that the stakes are just too high to play fairly, that we can’t afford the time and exposure necessary to go through proper channels, operate within the law, and act with restraint. We must have whatever it is that we want right now! It can’t wait. And to enable that, any notions of propriety are simply too quaint to be bothered with.

Back to fictional depictions, David Mamet’s movie Spartan is a rather chilling depiction of what it means to act brutally and lawlessly in pursuit of an objective. However, the various characters each have their own conflicting objectives, and the putative hero has no problem torturing, killing, and sacrificing others to achieve his mission, which was paradoxically rather idealistic. And afterwards, there are the spin-doctors to package it for the news. What struck me was that the chaos, mayhem, and waste of all that unrestrained hubris is probably closer to reality than we would like to admit.

Thinking of the 1950s, even Joe McCarthy in all his paranoia still had a gentlemanly manner about him. Indeed, the cold warriors of that era were not marked by the high level of outright hate of some of our current political activists: Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, perhaps even Keith Olbermann. While talk isn’t torture, the condemnation and hate heaped upon others by energized citizens is flabbergasting. It would seem we’ve all taken on the righteousness of victimhood and can’t see beyond the destruction of our enemies. It’s the world we now live in, and it’s reflected in our entertainments.


Posted: February 5, 2007 in Culture, Idealism, Philosophy

I remember watching the street in front of my boyhood home being repaved. The bulk and power of the construction equipment made a lasting impression on me, as bulldozers, cranes, steam (or hydraulic) shovels, pavers, and dump trucks are pretty imposing pieces of machinery. But the one that really fascinated me was the steamroller. What the steamroller lacks in majesty, compared to the glacier anyway (a natural process, I note), it makes up for in fanciful temporal reconceptualization. Watching the steamroller work requires one to think in terms of slow process. It’s also a well-worn clichĂ© in cartoons that villains and heroes alike are frequently flattened by steamrollers only to reappear in the next scene no worse for wear. Roadrunner, Tom and Jerry, The Naked Gun, A Fish Called Wanda, Austin Powers, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? all have steamroller bits in them, always slapstick in tone.

The implied threat of the steamroller, which is different from other heavy equipment, is not merely the specter of death but a slow, agonizing, bone-by-crunching-bone crushing accomplished not by stealth, strategy, or speed but by slow, steady, obvious, undeterred, mindless force. I don’t know of any sort of irrational fear that stems from steamrollers, though, unlike the silent scream or catatonia some experience faced with other looming threats. Because the steamroller works in slo-mo, one feels safe knowing that it’s possible to play in the streets and alight out of harm’s way at the last moment. So being caught under a steamroller represents either a grave miscalculation or the mark of rather extreme stupidity.

So what steamrollers are figuratively bearing down on us at the dawn of this new millennium? I can think of a few. (more…)

Suburbia Calling

Posted: February 5, 2007 in Consumerism, Culture

A post at Vulgar Morality caught my attention recently in its celebration of suburban diversity and dismissal of fashionable loathing of suburbia (whether the suburban way of life or the mere location was not clear). That post links to a Washington Post article exposing 5 Myths about Suburbia and Our Car-Happy Culture, which reads like an apology for car manufacturers. I don’t want to get bogged down in the car debate, although that is certainly one reason I loathe the burbs. Like many others, I grew up in the burbs. But I now live in Chicago, and I take mass transit to work weekdays. Though clearly not everyone’s preference, I far prefer the “L” to having to climb into my car whenever I go somewhere.

I admit that my first thought upon reading Vulgar Morality was that, yes, I am in fact a good example of that artistically and intellectually chic form of disapproval. However, it’s neither a mere flag with which I drape myself nor a posture adopted out of some snarky superiority felt by being a city dweller. I’ve referred to suburbia as “franchise hell” for years: the long corridors of four- and six-lane boulevards lined by Home Depot, Olive Garden, Best Buy, etc., all of which divide up the housing subdivisions where families go about their familiness. Sure, it’s possible to find mom-and-pop businesses, parks, and worthwhile destinations in suburbia, but the big box stores, endless fast food options, and network of heavily trafficked roadways pratically define suburbia.