Tag Archives: politics

The Scratch on Achilles’ Armor

 

Much has been said of Trump’s success as a businessman, as an industrialist, as a media mogul, and now as a politician. One cannot argue with success–except when it’s irrelevant.

America has always been the land of the underdog. A small group of Pilgrims braving ocean and foreign land for the chance to practice their religion in peace; the ragged revolutionary besting the greatest army in the world; the rebel yell resounding in the halls of Washington; our little Sherman tanks facing off against the mechanical behemoths of Nazi Germany…

We don’t like the  clear winner.

At least, that’s the  America I grew up with. It’s a patent falsehood.

We brought old world technology and organized zeal to bear against the disorganized aboriginal tribes of the new; we organized a brilliant guerilla campaign against a politically divided and distracted enemy 3000 miles away in an age with no instantaneous communication; no underdog can face down the shame of defending slavery; and we brought to bear upon Nazi Germany a military industrial complex so overwhelming, we managed to fight two full-scale wars on six fronts all at the same time (land campaigns in Europe and the Pacific, Atlantic and Pacific naval campaigns, and the intense bomber campaigns that devoured both Germany and Japan).

We have never been the underdogs.

And yet, I find myself, again and again, rooting for them. I root for Hannibal against the Romans, the Red Coats against the Colonials, the Union against the Confederacy (huh?)…and the Trojans against the Greeks.

Walter Benjamin once quipped that history is written by the victors. I often wonder just how true that is. Thucydides wrote the history of the Peloponnesian war, after all. So while many wars are written about by the conquerors, it’s not some kind of law of nature. This became especially clear to me recently as I finally got around to finishing the Iliad. The Song of Ilium, with justice subtitled the Wrath of Achilles, was written by a Greek(s) and tells the story of their conquest of the city of Troy. One would assume that the story unabashedly takes the side of the Greeks, the author(s) being as partisan as the rest of us. This is not the case.

Time and again the Greeks, when compared to their Trojan enemies, come across as haughty, arrogant, vainglorious, and duplicitous. The Trojans, on the other hand, are more often than not honorable, stoic, stalwart (Paris notwithstanding). Both sides evince passions and foibles, but it is the Trojans, exemplified by Hector, who really come across as admirable men. Perhaps it’s no wonder that in the Middle Ages Hector was elevated to one of the Nine Worthies, up there with Judas Maccabeus and Charlemagne.

It’s Hector I want to talk about. There’s a scene in the 2004 adaptation of the Iliad–Troy–wherein Hector duels Achilles and, having fought bravely, is slain by his unbeatable foe. Everyone knows that Achilles is going to win–even Hector. Yet still he walks into the field of battle, resigned to his fate, a true Stoic. He doesn’t go quietly into the night, however; in and amongst the swordplay, he manages to graze the armor of Achilles, nearly wounding the demigod.

This scratch upon the otherwise completely unblemished armor of Achilles is worth some exploration. That a man could even touch a demigod seems to me quite incredible. Hector, knowing he is going to lose ,still does his level best, and leaves a mark upon his conqueror as a reminder of what was lost in the winning: a good man.

I think Trump would do well to remember the scratch upon Achilles’ armor. America has always been a land of winners and losers. We are not unique in this. History is the story of the quick besting the slow, the smart the dumb, the strong the weak. Nothing new. What is a little unsettling, in our case, is just how disproportionate our victories have been. We don’t just subdue an enemy, we decimate them entirely. A sliver of the aboriginal population remains on this continent. Post war Japan and Germany were irrevocably changed as a result of our bombing campaigns, occupations, and commercial interests. The middle east has seen an influx of billions of dollars, thousands of foreigners, and tens of thousands of corpses since the inauguration of the War on Terror.

We go big, then we go home.

I hope that, in some small way, this piece serves as a reminder of the little scratches our victories leave upon our national armor. They came not without cost; and we as a nation do precious little reasonably to ask ourselves if these victories were worth it. This question is rarely asked in a balanced way. Whether defending or bemoaning, the conversation is one that generally disregards the reality of the past.

The Right tends to erase the real cost of Progress, unable to face the human toll that allowed for the spread of Christianity, Capitalism, and the like. The Left, on the other hand, pines for a return to some halcyon time where aboriginals lived in harmony with nature and the White Man (that scourge!) was nowhere to be found.

Of course, both views of the past are patently ridiculous, alternative facts if ever such things existed–like my narrative of America the underdog: comforting but ultimately false.

What we need, and what T rump needs to come to grips with, is a rational look at the debt our nation has incurred in order to get where it is today; a solid understanding of what victory really means; and a recognition, that, for crying out loud, America is not in danger of being overthrown by a foreign power.

We are more a threat to the rest of the world than the rest of the world is to us. We have bountiful resources, the largest military in the world, a united and fertile population, a foothold on every major continent–and a president who is more interested in self aggrandizement than anything else.

Given our power, I wish that we were more like the humble and honorable Hector and less like the haughty, thin-skinned, vainglorious Achilles.

Running Scared: a Movie Review that Devolves into Politics

From what do we run?

Ourselves.

That is the thesis of Running Scared.

The movie takes place in a stylized rendition of New Jersey and tells of one night’s combat between the Italian Mafia, the Russian Mafia, crooked cops, and the people caught in between. Our protagonist, and the man who does the vast majority of the running, is Joey, a low-level tough tasked with disposing of a gun used to kill a dirty cop.

Things do not go well and therein adventure lies.

Or perhaps not. While the gore and the cinematography and the music all drew me in—and have over half a dozen viewings—what really interests me are the psychological adventures of many of the characters. Consider:

Joey turns out to be an undercover cop. He presents a hard edge, but as his wife puts it, “I didn’t marry an evil man.” He pleads with his wife at the end of the film, when it seems he is on death’s door, that he was always “the real Joey.” There is a disconnect between the person he presents and the person he is.

His Russia neighbor, Anzor, beats his wife and abuses her child; and in turn gets shot by said child (precipitating the running of the film). Yet we learn from that selfsame wife that he saved her, still pregnant, from being killed by his uncle for not having the child aborted. The price for this was being ostracized from the family. Now a decade later he has devolved into drugs and paranoia, yet underneath the grime there is a man who is deeply, almost pathologically devoted to John Wayne and the cowboy ethos. He ends the movie refusing to kill the boy who shot him and dying for his honor. Another double life.

Teresa, Joey’s wife, finds herself looking for Anzor’s kid Oleg (himself running after shooting his guardian), and discovers that he has been stolen by a married couple who kidnap, film, and desecrate children. She saves his life, along with 2 other children, and kills the deranged couple with no hesitation. As she puts it to Joey, “I have never seen true evil until tonight.” Another example of an inner reservoir of strength not readily apparent at the beginning of the film.

As a final example, we have Lester the pimp. He finds himself beat up a few times but ultimately in possession of the gun everyone is trying to find (the one Oleg used to shoot Anzor). In confronting Oleg and Joey at the end of the film, Lester blurts out “Say hello to my little friend,” before shooting Joey in the side. What does this evince but a man running from his own sense of inadequacy and lack of real power?

This movie has been criticized for a lack of character development. I submit that good stories need not possess character arcs as such, wherein someone learns something and becomes “a better person.” Rather, a story like this benefits from an arc of discovery on the part of the audience. These people are presented to us fully formed, and as such each is his own enigma at the start of the movie; with each reaction and every bit of information they share, we learn more about who they are.

Doesn’t that seem more psychologically realistic than a 3 act story where clear lessons are learned and growing happens as a matter of course? Most people do not change beyond a certain point. Their characters are set by years of social development mixed with genetic predisposition and a little trauma thrown in for good measure. By the time adulthood is reached, I contend, most people stop developing. Instead, they grapple with the world using the tools they find themselves possessing and go from there.

Growth can happen, does happen, needn’t happen. It is not guaranteed. Some characters, like Joey, are just good guys caught up in something that is unraveling in their hands, fighting the good fight but facing defeat at every turn. Others, Anzor for example, degenerate from a childhood ideal but retain that core somewhere—rarely called upon but there nonetheless. As his wife says, “He’s not a killer.” She was right. He was a junky with a quixotic sense of right and wrong.

I love this movie because of these psychological depths. I love this movie because we are privy to developed characters dealing with situations they were never prepared for, situations that don’t yield growth so much as truth: their real selves are exposed in the light of trauma, and we get to see what each of them are made of.

I am reminded of Lord of the Flies, a book I cannot get out of my head of late. The lord of the title is a totem left by a group of boys surviving on a desert island, a pig’s head impaled upon a stick and stuck in the ground. It is there as a ward against an unknown beast that stalks them as they hunt and play and devolve. In reality, of course, the beast is no external monster: it is the savage in each of the little children, and they pay for their lack of insight with the deaths of at least 3 of their number.

This reminds me of something a little more contemporary: Mr. Trump. Having watched his rise in popularity, having caught his speeches, researched his claims, and dug into his various positions, I have come to two realizations.

First, he has no substantial political platform. Over the past six months, he has changed positions on every single issue on which he has given an opinion. There is no need to give proof of this here. Those who realize this never supported him, and those who do not will not be swayed by anything  I say here.

His lack of any semblance of a platform led me to my second realization: his is the candidacy of the flies; it is his head that so many of us wish to hold up against the beasts of the night; his talking points that buzz around and die like the flies that dance around the pig’s head, deafening us to their void-speech. We support him because we are afraid of the savagery within every human breast. We support him because he presents himself as a fighter and a champion against that savagery.

We support him because we don’t think he would run from what scares us, not realizing that because his internal man is so radically different from the external, that he is a coward that presents as a brawler, he would be at the head of the race and beat us all into the abyss.

We do not realize that he is a product of our fear, not a champion against it. His popularity is the result of looking for solutions through broken glasses. He is the destroyer of civilization, not its savoir.

I suppose the logical thing is to ask towards what ought we run? Or put more politically, whom should we look to as our champion?

What ought we look for in a leader? Someone who gets things done, who doesn’t bullshit, who respects the law (or doesn’t, if he’s breaking it for something you support), who reverences the Constitution (or recognizes it as a fallible human document), who will defend our country (but does that mean preemptive action or just diplomacy), who will invigorate the economy (whose economy)…

We live in a federated republic. That means our leaders have the impossible job both of responding to the general will and tempering the extremes of popular opinion for the sake of compromise, stability, order (control, if you like). It is an impossible task because what some see as a mandate from the people others take to be mob violence against political minorities, or just the loudest minority getting their way by acclamation.  It is a job I do not envy.

My vote, such as it is, will go to Bernie Sanders.

I don’t agree with everything he says. I am suspicious that we will be able to get enough money by taxing the billionaires and corporations to pay for what he wants to do (although does it really matter if the government technically has enough money, because it doesn’t seem to…); I tend to think free trade does more good than harm (but perhaps the agreements we have in place are better for businesses than their employees); I appreciate his stance on gun control that there needs to be compromise between urban and rural citizens.

I am not convinced that healthcare and education are universal human rights, but then again I remain unconvinced that rights are really a thing at all, except within a cultural context. If enough people are convinced that everyone should be able to speak their mind within reason, then suddenly we have that right; if enough people think that basic healthcare (however defined) is required by all, then suddenly it becomes a right. I do think that, in the ideal, basic healthcare and higher education have the potential for civic utility and should thus be taken seriously as ideas. This assumes the healthcare is not extraneous and the education useful and meaningful, but if we take those assumptions as granted, then there is a real conversation that must needs be had.

Regardless, Sanders has several things going for him that I find compelling. I think he is a good citizen, well spoken. Unlike Trump or Clinton, Sanders comes across as a man trying to do his best for the national community rather than merely for himself. Trump’s campaign is about the Brand; Clinton’s is about the Legacy; only Sanders cares about the Union.

He also strikes me as the most rational candidate, in how he presents himself, how he converses with others, how he interviews. I get the impression that I could sit down and have an actual conversation with him, dialogue about the issues, and have him actually hear me.

I also admire his consistency, not so much on various issues but in his efforts towards doing real civic good. I don’t care if this or that position of his has or has not changed over his political career; I care that for the duration, he has striven towards the public good. Trump, the developer of casinos, thinks only of his private aggrandizement. Clinton, the head of a decades old political machine, is just as selfish.

So, I submit that Sanders is the man to vote for. If you disagree with his policies, there are two things to keep in mind. The first is that he has come to his opinions after, I think, real consideration for their public worth. The second is that our political system was built such that no branch has all the power. As Sanders himself has stated, without Congress behind him, he will be able to accomplish very little. If enough people want his reforms to pass, it will happen with the approval of the legislature. If not, then he will have a difficult four years. Either way, compromise is inevitable; the tempering of his platform is inevitable. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate, no one with whom you will agree 100%. But there is such a thing as a candidate with a “good brain,” to quite Trump, such a thing as a candidate willing to put the Union above himself, such a thing as a civically-minded politician. I think such men deserve to be elected. If reason is against them on an issue, they can be swayed. If money or power tempt them away from the public good, they have the fortitude to at least put up resistance.

There is no shame in electing a man for his virtue. That, as Montesquieu was so fond of reminding us, is the well-spring from which Republics flow.

Heinlein, Steinbeck, and the Prospect of Reform

Of what benefit is reform? Given the blood-soaked pages of history, and the road to hell paved with good intentions, is it even worth the effort? To answer that, I propose to look at two literary men bent on reform: Robert A Heinlein and John Steinbeck. They are of interest because they were 1. good writers, 2. thoughtful individuals, and 3. looking at American society and its various problems during the same time period, but with different perspectives and through works of radically different setting.

Heinlein began his literary career after a failed political one. His first book, then, was a reaction to the thwarting of his political life. Being very opinionated, he could not help but do something, even if office holding was not in his stars. For Us, the Living is a story about a man catapulted into the future, one where the barbarities and injustices of the 20th century are laid bare for the time traveler by the inhabitants of the future. It is full of blunt criticism, the kind Steinbeck would likely approve of. He dwells on wealth disparity, class disparity, political corruption, and our ridiculous sexual mores, to name a few. Indeed, the protagonist’s chief future liaison is a woman, one with much more education, responsibility, and vigor than the typical (read: culturally idyllic) woman of the America of the mid 20th century.

Later in Heinlein’s career he authored Starship Troopers. It is remembered as a militaristic polemic wallpapered in sci fi gadgetry and alien warfare. In reality, it was Heinlein’s attempt to clarify and defend his political views against those in the science fiction community who took issue with his support of nuclear armament. In broad strokes, he envisioned an earth where the weak social democracies, built on the laziness and entitlement of the mob, failed into violence and chaos. From that chaos rose the veterans, who built for themselves a two-class global polity. Civilians enjoy the rights of free expression, economic endeavor, and justice; citizens enjoy the privileges of political life. The difference between the civilian and the citizen is federal service, usually military in nature. Only a veteran can vote or hold office. It is Heinlein’s solution to what he saw as a crippling problem of modern democracy, namely that those who have no active stake in society dictate policy for that active minority that seeks to defend hearth and home. It is doubtless his most controversial and (I think) misunderstood work. This misunderstanding is most clearly evinced in the film version, which satirized its fascist undertones, forgetting that fascism stole erratically from anything that looked practical at the time, thus negating its superficial similarities to other political ideologies (militarism, limited political franchise, etc).

His two greatest works, Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love, look uncompromisingly at the human condition. The former does so on a future earth by way of an alien analogue to Christ, a satire of the worst aspects of Christianity and of the corruption of bureaucratic government, a complex look at human love and sexuality, and a pantheistic faith where “Thou art God.” The latter takes us centuries into the future, wherein humanity has colonized the galaxy, moving from world to world. It chronicles the oldest living man, his history according to his own accounts, and his potential future. He regales us with tales about buying two child slaves, raising them to be self-reliant frontiersmen, and then setting them free, to feast or famine on their own; about his adventures raising a family on dangerous, almost uncharted frontier worlds, etc. The main line of the story has the protagonist regenerated from self-inflicted old age, reinvigorated by his discussions with a sentient computer, that computer’s transformation into a person, and their attempt to forge yet another new world for them and their growing family.

Heinlein spent his whole literary career critiquing humanity in general, but he also attempted to point towards reform. We will get to his vision in a moment, but first, let us outline Steinbeck. Unlike Heinlein, I have not read enough Steinbeck to give a representative account of his body of work. I’ve read three of his books: Tortilla Flat and The Wayward Bus (short, personal, psychological character studies), and The Grapes of Wrath (a reformist manifesto if ever there was one). It is upon that last book that I wish to focus. Unlike Heinlein, it deals with a setting that was very much contemporary for the author, the America of the Dust Bowl. Steinbeck spends the majority of the novel railing against the injustices of banking, the greed and corruption of large business, and the governmental apparatuses that defend such inhumanity towards man. He chronicles the dehumanization that occurs when a man owns far more than he can cultivate with his own bare hands, the loneliness, isolation, and fear that accompany financial tyranny, and the misery suffered by the poor when they are crushed under the boot heels of such machine-men. This book, too, offers up some ideas for reform, both practical and philosophical. Let us now compare the reform notion in both authors.

Heinlein starts off by thinking of the future as a useful lens for the present, so that the present might see itself in a truer light and correct its blemishes accordingly. By the time of Stranger in a Strange Land, this proclivity is fully formed, as he uses the idea of a man raised by Martians and returning to earth as a vehicle for growth, critical analysis, and, ultimately, a profound attempt to change what it means to be human, ie the very make-up of society–of man’s relation to man. After this work, however, Heinlein turned away from reform in the here and now. This is clear in Time Enough for Love, where the main character points out that when a planet’s population grows obese with time, it always degrades–freedom always gives way to security, chaos to order; the system always grows too bloated for its own good, and the meddlers, thinking they know what is best for everyone, reign supreme. Thus, liberal humans are always striving towards the frontiers, and the main character himself has led many such expeditions to new, dangerous, chaotic, but free planets. It seems Heinlein’s contention, by at least the late 1970s, that humans will always muck things up, so the only practical solution is to keep expanding–if, that is, your desire is freedom.

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck hints more and more as the book goes on that the plight of the poor and underprivileged is building towards something, that something is simmering under the surface, that the bankers are only hurting themselves by dominating their laborers, and that eventually the emotional dam will burst, letting out a flood of reprisal and reform. He looks towards collective action as a means to this end. He also sees pantheism, as expressed by the character of the ex-preacher, as the ideology of contentment for this new cosmos, where man will help man, where all the universe is God, where tyrannical hierarchies, be they corporate or Christian, have no place (the world being a level spiritual field; so long, Pseudo-Dionysius and your celestial hierarchy!). He does, however, brook caution. Realistically, he sees reform on the horizon, and has no love for the business class; at the same time, he sees the French Revolution and Ancient Rome as somber examples of failed reform, wherein the oppressed cast down their oppressors and oppressed in turn, perpetuating a cycle of domination and dehumanization. He ends the book with a single act of kindness between strangers, as a starving man is suckled by a woman who just had a stillborn baby. This indicates that he is suspicious of systematic overhaul, and places his faith more in individuals and their innate kindness towards each other in times of troubles.

What are we to think of these two men and their visions of reform? In the former, we see hope dashed against the inevitability of Systems, the victory of Order, the aristocracy of the Meddling class, leaving the frontier of the stars as the only refuge. In the latter, we have an author who sees reform inevitably on the horizon, who on the one hand relishes the collapse of corporate tyranny, but who on the other recognizes the historical precedent for a continual cycle of power and dominion.

I very much sympathize with Heinlein’s view that Systems seem inevitably driven towards decrepitude and stifling order, that the meddlers will always win out. Steinbeck seems to agree, at least so far as the verdict of history is concerned. In The Grapes of Wrath, he seems perhaps to agree that overarching reform will inevitably continue the cycle under different nomenclature, resulting in his very personal ending. Both men seem to think that there is more hope in individuals and small groups than there is in larger communities.For example, in Heinlein’s novel Farnham’s Freehold, the characters band together to weather the apocalypse (brought about incidentally, by the nuclear lunacy of warring factions); the emphasis in the Puppetmasters is on freedom of thought, liberal humanity over orderly aliens, and on the survival of one family in particular; The Moon is a Harsh Mistress deals with the growing pains of a new lunar society and the struggle to free itself from a bloated and oppressive earth, etc.

Steinbeck’s family in The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads, stick together through thick and thin. A few members die, two flee, and the protagonist goes off to fight the good fight against the banks and oppressors–and yet the book ends with the majority of the family huddling together amidst a storm; and the book stops not with the grand pantheistic reformism of the protagonist Tom, but with the simple kindness of his sister Rose and her charitable breast. Steinbeck, it should be remembered, does assert that humanity progresses, that even a step backwards is only a half-step, a prelude to several steps forward. The French Revolution, after all, inspired those of 1848, the democratization of Europe, nationalism, self-determination (and the Great War of 1914-1949, and the Cold War, and the modern surveillance state…). He seems to think that such progress will always be towards better worlds. Does that mean the corporation from the Alien movies, whose slogan “Building better worlds” is stamped triumphantly on every human frontier? Again, his very personal, very small ending seems skeptical of this grand progress, so vehemently and earnestly proposed in the middle of Grapes. Perhaps Heinlein is right: our answer is a fresh start on a new world. Shall we throw up our hands in disgust and try again somewhere else, as the Puritans or Greeks of yore? Let us hope such endeavors are not funded by multi-planetary corporations; that would defeat the purpose.