Tue, May. 4th, 2010, 09:00 pm Persepolis, The Immutability Of War, And Blistering Cynicism
Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.
And another was this: liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive government. It can seem that way when you live under tyranny. Nothing is more comprehensible than people living in apartheid South Africa, or under Saddam, thinking: if only that government were removed from power, things would be better. They would have to be. After all, how could they possibly be worse?
I finally read Marjane Satrapi's memoir "Persepolis," and it's quite good. I'll have to track down the second half. It sits on my little comics shelf alongside two other serially-published memoirs told in spare black-and-white comics about living through terrible times, through authoritarianism, war, and fear which focus on a single family living through it: Maus and Barefoot Gen. To compare them is to be reminded of the common features of grief and pain. If you're videogame-minded, you could begin reading with a simple intonation of "War ... war never changes" and it'd be reasonably apropos.
Persepolis addresses the Iran-Iraq war and the Islamic revolution in Iran from the limited perspective of a youngster. This doesn't make the rendition less powerful: Satrapi pulls off some very effective graphics in service of rendering the parts of the war that touched her childhood, and doesn't fail to notice that, Islamic theocracy or hypocritical-Christian plutocracy, the war is predictably fought by those who cannot pay to be exempted from fighting it. It's an easy book for Americans in some ways, because the role of America in destroying peace in Iran is mostly elided. I like to think that Satrapi assumes that her readers know it, but I wouldn't share that assumption. Even the history of Iran still within living memory has generally been thrown down the memory hole in American culture, leaving just a gaping, halfwitted "why do they hate us?" attitude that stinks of fake innocence. So, like Maus and Gen, it focuses on the easier angle - hey, these are real people that are affected by this, and it is wrong to reduce them to abstractions, to "Islamofascists," to "the Axis of Evil," to "enemy combatants." I think that the comics medium serves this end very well, because in the unadorned style of the three books, the characters need more participation and empathy-building from the reader, their ethnic differences from the American mainstream minimized. That short-circuits a certain amount of knee-jerk judgment.
Persepolis, plus the quick rereading of the other two that I could do without getting excessively blue, brings to mind a familiar surliness. The necessity of works of media, patiently pointing out over and over that war is still hell, is annoying. The lesson is simple. The lesson is rarely learned by the people who need it - not least because those people tend to be insulated from the consequences of their decisions. If you're discussing privilege, frankly that one should be at the top of your hit-list.
I had to discuss politics with my family again recently. I should learn to avoid that: sometimes it makes me more uncomfortable than discussing either sexuality or religion with them. My mother is your average Democrat (i.e. somewhere a little bit to the left of Obama) and my father is a disillusioned centrist-Republican (to Obama's right, but voted for him anyhow). My father is also the son and grandson of San Francisco police officers, so the police force is a bit of a sore spot that I might need to avoid. In the latest discussion, I had to keep pushing my talking point: high power and low accountability means inherently untrustworthy. That's my problem with virtually all law enforcement organizations. If you assume that police/FBI/Gendarmerie Nationale officers are average humans of reasonable goodwill - and I believe they are - that still leaves us with a problem, because the track record shows us that average human beings with access to power and shields against consequences do terrible things, routinely. Especially when, as is the case with law enforcement organizations, an "us versus them" mentality is entrenched in the culture, and accountability measures are seen as weakness or hindrances to getting the job done.
Because of my politics on that front, I can't avoid seeing that theme cropping up in all three comics. Power, its exercise, and its expansion are all there, and the persons seizing power have every incentive to entrench themselves and none to letting go, toxic feedback builds up over and over, and eventually a dramatic simplification is effected in the form of collapse. This was Germany, this was Japan, this is Iran, this is the United States. I certainly hope that the latter two can avoid collapses. Collapses suck. But both need radical simplifications, need to escape long-standing toxic feedback loops (it is a foregone conclusion at this point that the TSA does vastly more harm than good, and so does the Revolutionary Guard). No one currently in a position to effect that change has an incentive to do so, and most of them have profound disincentives. Barack Obama sure as hell isn't going to improve matters: like Clinton before him, pretty much his only claim to fame is being better than the alternative (John McCain thinks that the suspect - suspect - in the recent Times Square bombing attempt shouldn't have been Mirandized: if you couldn't see that coming, you need shades, a cane, and a dog). So what's going to solve it?
On my bad days, I think that killing the right people would solve the problems, or at least remove many obstacles to solving them. That's why I keep rereading the quote at the beginning. Violence is not a way to solve your problems faster. Violence takes you on a different journey, and you necessarily reach a different destination. "Better government" is especially tricky, here, because it's one of those things where the destination doesn't really exist without the journey: it is a process of refinement, and you cannot have the latter stages of the journey and their benefits without taking the beginning of the journey. Violent revolution is a different journey. Satrapi's story, and the others, are part of the vast chorus of knowledge that violence is not a solution.
The problem is, still, that attaining a certain level of power in the world-system that we have requires systematically deafening yourself to that chorus. Regardless of what they believe or claim to, there hasn't been an administration in my lifetime that didn't act as though it believed that killing the right people solves problems neatly and with finality. Likewise none of them have been able to understand the results when killing more people fails to solve problems. That's part of why America is not a white hat in international affairs, and why the wars in Iraq and Afganistan - and possibly Iran - will not solve anything. They are incapable of making matters better as long as the people in charge believe that killing more people can solve their problems.
Some days I feel like electing HK-47 president: now there's someone who's straightforward about using violence. Short of that, though, we're going to keep getting Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas: people who make plenty of nice statements and gestures and flourishes about despising war and last-resorting and loving peace and don't make any substantial action to renounce or even scale back violence.
I'm going to try to get my young cousins to read these books: Barefoot Gen and Persepolis are about children their age, so maybe they'll empathize. Maus can be for the grim adolescent stage. That gesture probably means that I'll have done more for world peace than George Bush. Pfui.
Wed, May. 5th, 2010 06:02 am (UTC) krdbuni: X's Legacy
My problem—and it is a problem, make no mistake—is that I believe in retributive violence as a legitimate tool of the disempowered. I don't believe in firing the first salvo, but I'm a big believer in firing the last. This is likely to get me in trouble on day; I can only hope it only gets me in trouble.
My bigger problem, really, is that, narratively, I'm possessed of a grand delusion. I hold as a personal ideal the vision of the doomed hero; the character that, having been told that her best possible result is still failing, seeks to change the definition of success. This is usually accomplished by radically dismantling the system, becoming the open smirking antagonist, or otherwise refusing to play by the rules. Unfortunately, in real life, this isn't really an option without becoming a bin Laden-esque figure, and I just don't have the stomach for living in caves.
I think we might differ on the definition "legitimate tool," but we share a bunch of these thoughts. I disagree with "violence is never a legitimate tool" and with "the State is the only entity which may legitimately enact violence," so I find that I'm almost required to admit that violence can sometimes be a legitimate tool. Perhaps the problem is not so much using violence as being able to stop using violence.
As for "refusing to play by the rules," I flashed to two things while turning that over in my head. One is the Mencken quote about every complex problem having a solution that's simple, easily implemented, and wrong. The other is an Order of the Stick strip. I read it as the short, stern advice about life as a deviant, so I'll reproduce it (more for me and for future readers than for you, because I bet you've read it):
HINJO: The wisdom is this: Play the game. [...] I mean The Game, the big one. The one that each of us plays every day when we get out of bed, put on our face, and go out into the world. Some of us play to get ahead, some of us just want to get through the day without breaking character. It's called "Society." Your problem is that you don't want to play the game at all. You want to sit on the couch and eat Cheetos while everyone else is playing. BELKAR: Well, why shouldn't I ? What's the point of their Society, anyway? It never did anything for me. HINJO: The point is that if you laugh and spit in their faces enough times, they'll kick you out of the house. Which in this extended metaphor means killing you. BELKAR, dismayed: So, what, you're saying the the only alternative is to show up and play by everyone else's stupid rules? HINJO: Of course not, my woolly friend! You can cheat. Gods know I always did. Nudge die rolls, palm cards, "forget" penalties ... but you have to sit down to play first. As long as the people at the table see a fellow player across from them, they'll tolerate you. A crooked player is a pain in the ass, but someone who refuses to play at all makes them start questioning their own lives.
I don't have the courage to entirely renounce the bennies I get from accidents of birth and society, either.
The second Perseopolis is told in much the same vein.
One thought that representative democracy was supposed to help prevent people from amassing power that shields them from consequences, but that was when they assumed that both sides would have sufficient differences that compromising for them meant giving up something they held dear in exchange for being able to turn the screws on their opponents if they failed to live up to their end of the bargain. Nowadays, we have one party, the Corporatist Party, and it has two factions that want you to believe they are separate entities.
While violence won't bring about the right changes, in the United States or abroad, it certainly seems like there's no way short of violence to stop or reform the system so that the power is actually in the hands of the people instead of the boardrooms and the capitalists and the political figures they put before us and tell us to vote for or against.
An additional layer of the problem is that we're dealing with problems that are not new. They've been brewing for a long time, and are getting to the point now where there's a very high risk of overwhelming our collective "immune system" for dealing with them. At that point, things would go from "basically okay" to "absolutely everything is fucked" very quickly. So that inflection point is what I worry about. As much as I despise the Presidents of my lifetime (Obama is perhaps the closest to being a decent person; Reagan, Bush, and Bush were absolute evil scum; Clinton was a dithering centrist), the problems lie much further back than them. I'd put it at least to the 19th century, the plutocrats of that era, and the invention of corporate personhood.
So, violence, as above, is a perfect example of a Mencken solution: simple, easily implemented, and wrong.
Quite. And how odd it is that the shakepoint of this, where it suddenly seems like things are flying apart at the handle, is because there's someone in power who makes it look like he might want to really change things. That angers Our Corporate Overlords and so now we're suddenly in "partisanship" and "reverse racism" and "special interests", where beforehand it was all "profits!" and "WAR!" and "All is Good!"
All in all, though, while I think Obama might intend to make some small changes to things, he's not the kind of person that would actually work toward dismantling things. If we ever elected one of those, they'd lose votes on their policies 100-0, I'm guessing.
I don't believe that violence solves problems, but neither does the avoidance of violence, necessarily. (Largely because it's usually not a matter of avoiding violence but displacing it on others.) But I couldn't agree more with the idea that removing the wrong people from power is only part of the path to liberation. It's one of the reasons I loathe the politics in so much sci-fi: Broadcasting the "truth," or killing the evil overlord is just as likely to result in a worse situation as a better one.
(Largely because it's usually not a matter of avoiding violence but displacing it on others.)
I think that that's a very important point. It's part of the mythical "away" that we First Worlders tend to send our problems to.
As for the sci-fi angle, it reminds me of Le Guin's critique of the SciFi Channel's adaptation of A Wizard Of Earthsea. Blockquotes again!
The idea is taken from A Wizard of Earthsea, but in that book we know how Ged came to have a shadow following him, and we know why, and in the end, we know who that shadow is. The darkness within us can't be done away with by swinging a magic sword. But in the film, evil has been comfortably externalized in a villain, the wizard Kumo/Cob, who can simply be killed, thus solving all problems. In modern fantasy (literary or governmental), killing people is the usual solution to the so-called war between good and evil. My books are not conceived in terms of such a war, and offer no simple answers to simplistic questions.
This is part of why I'm such a cranky media hermit (bossgoji is the patient sufferer of many of my rants on the subject). Life is far too short to sit through shitty media.
My personal opinion is that entertainment is what we MAKE of a work, not what the author/creator intends. I'm not just 'sitting through' a bad piece of media, I'm making jokes, analyzing WHY it's flawed and/or total pants, I'm ENGAGING with it. In this sense the only bad media, to me, is something so stupid or dull that you can't make your own fun with it.
The value of a work is not in execution, tone, or even message. It's in what you get out of it.
One of the major problems with the power/accountability vortex you describe - especially (but hardly exclusively) in the context of our modern era - is the fact that among unaccountable power's top targets are the mechanisms of accountability. So tackling unrestrained power means firing at a moving target, and one that is better equipped to game the system than you are.
That, and the entanglements between different accountability mechanisms tend to turn things into a Gordian knot over time. "We can implement political change by voting in the Less Insane Party! But corporations are throwing lots of money at the political process, so first we need to address corporate malfeasance. We'll expose them in the media and inform people! ... Except too many people are watching the propaganda of Fox News, so first we need media reform. Which we'll do through politics ... but ... oh crap."
Violence may be simple and wrong, but when unaccountable power has solidified its grip on existing mechanisms strongly enough, it's one of the only tools the masses have. (Better would be nonviolent resistance - but that relies on the awareness of injustice leading to external sanction, and when that falls through, or external sanction is unavailable ...) Past that tipping point, it's hard to make any blanket statements about its usefulness or legitimacy. About the only absolute I'm certain of is that in the normal course of politics (i.e., when the tipping point of unchecked power has not been reached), it's bad.
This is part of what I find worrisome about John Robb and similar analysts - or rather, about the possibility that they're right. They tend to posit that terrorism and similar system-disrupting measures actually are effective and rational (for certain values of, etc.) means of addressing this problem, because they acknowledge that entrenched power's goal is to stay good and entrenched, unassailable, and have decided not to fight on entrenched power's terms. I worry that entrenched power has gotten less ethical faster than white-hat folks have figured out morally acceptable ways to disrupt it. It reminds me of an alt-history story I read about Gandhi - it had India ruled by Third Reich Germans instead of Brits, and posited that Gandhi would fail in that situation because the Brits were capable of shame, whereas the Germans of the story sincerely believed that gunning down unarmed brown civilians was totally fine.
Especially when, as is the case with law enforcement organizations, an "us versus them" mentality is entrenched in the culture, and accountability measures are seen as weakness or hindrances to getting the job done.
I think this is a mixture of things. Police, by definition, have a mix of reasons for going into the job - it's steady work, it's accessible after you've served in the military, other people in your family were policemen, a few really vicious bullies, a few true saints. All of these guys are granted the feel-good emotion of "protecting their community" no matter how noble or vile they are.
Police, by definition, work weird hours doing something stressful - which will build espirit de corps on the up side, but us versus them mentality on the down side. I actually think the mechanized nature of police work is isolating and plays into this - when our grandfathers were policemen, they literally had more contact with the people they were policing. And there's a race angle too; when our grandfathers were policemen, a lot of the criminals they were dealing with were blue collar Irish and Jews.
I think combining all of this is dangerously volatile. Only by having some sort of larger accountability - or a media which doesn't blankly portray the cops as warrior-saints no matter what - do you actually ensure that your policemen act like, you know, policemen there to protect and serve the community.
This is a good thing to point out. I am perfectly willing to believe good things about individual police officers - I just am also very aware of the power differential and of the "power minus accountability equals untrustworthy" equation.
Next part; I believe that violence is a solution, so I disagree with you. Some people will not listen to anything else. Violence does have implications, so it's never a good solution.
In a lot of places, non-violence is a much more viable solution. Looking at Indian struggles for independence, at Vietnam, and at the Civil Rights movement, the non-violent protestors start out with the advantages that they're not going to have the implications of violent struggle (there were Brits who felt that maybe, after 9-11, Americans might for a change understand that it's hard to sympathize with the people bombing you), and because there's a media/empathy/time component to any struggle. There's only so long that a public can see their tax dollars disappear into nowhere, soldiers returning in coffins or psychologically shattered, and especially dead or badly hurt opposing non-combatants, without starting to ask "hey, is this really worth it?" And the answer of course is "no, not really."
The down side to non-violent protest is that there's a good chance it'll just get ploughed under. The protesters get to take the hit without really gaining anything in response. If you look at labor struggles of the early 20th century - things like the Columbine Mine Massacre, the Red River Massacre or Blair Mountain - or the WTO protests in Seattle, the guys trying to change the system got really badly torn up, but they were under represented and anything valid they were trying to say promptly ignored by society. This plays back into the way violence creates implications - where the protestors were violent at all, it was hyped like crazy, but the authorities who brutalized and murdered protesters basically got away with it.
I'd point to the Kent State Massacre as a place somewhere between the two. The protesters were essentially nonviolent and as a result took the hit - and the media, therefore the popular view did support them, but they weren't radically successful in effecting change and their oppressors got off without consequence.
Thus, I feel that the issue of violence versus non-violence for changing society is a lot more complex than simply saying violence is always bad and nonviolence is always good.
I try not to say that violence is always bad - the furthest I'll go is "violence is always suboptimal," and that's part of why I like to highlight that one particular talking point: violence is not a way of getting to the destination faster, it changes the destination. Sometimes that's acceptable. Mostly I reckon it isn't. And sometimes, as you point out, it's the only way to get there - but I think we should be extremely reluctant to make that jump, because it's turned out to be wrong many times in the past.