Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for October, 2007

Cookie-cutter thinker?

Some time ago I told my sister about seeing an episode of Sesame Street in which Cookie Monster expressed a fear of monsters. But how could this be, she asked, when Cookie Monster is himself already a bona fide monster? Here is how Hegel might have answered:

Self-consciousness is both a subject and object to itself, even within childhood, and monsters enter both sides of this mediated reflection in the realm of childhood terror.

A monster can experience terror of another monster, and recoil in horror at the very sight. At the same time, however, this negation in its actual manifestation is not something alien and external to the monster who is scared. It is, quite simply, the universal idea of monsters, which in this its last abstraction has nothing positive, and hence can give nothing to reassure the child who is reluctant to look under his bed, and nothing to reassure the monster who encounters another monster and sees only the object in its pure scary universality, forgetting the subject that is capable of reason just as he is.

But just on that account this will is in unmediated oneness with self-consciousness, it is the pure positive because it is the pure negative; and that meaningless “Boo!” from underneath the bed, the unfilled, vacuous negativity of self, in its inner constitutive principle, turns round into absolute positivity. Consciousness is changed and converted into the absolutely opposite experience.

This logic requires the healing mediation of childhood consciousness. A monster presents itself in its immediacy as an object of fear, even to itself, but this object, once named as a friend and entered into the domesticated self-consciousness of a child, can be the very means by which dangerous monsters external to the child are kept at bay. Thus the cold-blooded marching of monsters on the cold and crunchy snow outside a child’s window – timed to coincide with the heartbeat of that child reverberating on a pillow, in a futile effort to avoid detection – is overcome through the conscious introduction of a now domesticated monster who becomes an object of fear for those monsters lingering outside, because it has now taken an alien form to them in the form of a stuffed animal. And precisely in taking an alien form to other monsters, this monster rises out of the swamp of ghoulish imaginings and the fog of unhappy consciousness, and for the first time discovers the possibility of self-reconciliation through the magical mediation of the child and family life.

Thus the domesticated monster desires no longer childhood terror but cookies and milk, and in this mediated desire has squared and balanced both his own self-opposition as a scary monster and also the opposition of other monsters, with each now fearing the other and the opposition between them representing a new certainty through which freedom and childhood reassurance find expression once again. Just as the realm of childhood terror passes over into that of childhood imaginary friendship by which the monster is given a name, so the monster can leave its self-destructive sphere of reality, and pass over into the magical land of self-conscious spirit and affirmation in a loving home, where freedom is at last taken to be and is accepted as a positive notion which can endure.

And even though an adult puts away such childish things this speculative freedom endures, and is renewed with each generation of children as the opposition between friendly and unfriendly monsters is rediscovered as a problem for childhood consciousness. Children work their way to reconciliation through the self-alienation of the monster’s spirit, and the monster’s fear of itself ultimately gives way to reassurance, laughter, awe at the childhood imagination, and finally nostalgia.

Happy Halloween!

Read Full Post »

List making can be infectious. The Observer Music Monthly has made a list the top 10 right-wing rockers. It’s a rather motley crew and the definition of “right-wing” is somewhat elastic. Eric Clapton is on the list for drunkenly yelling out “Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!” Ted Nugent is quoted as saying about the war in Iraq, “Our failure has been not to Nagasaki them.” These sentiments seem to me as less right-wing and more pure and simple neanderthalism.

Still, if we accept a broad definition of right-wing, it’s an interesting list: 1. Elvis Presley 2. Tony Hadley 3. Ted Nugent 4. Eric Clapton 5. 50 Cent 6. Geri Halliwell 7. Kid Rock 8. Johnny Ramone 9. Phil Collins 10. Ian Curtis.

Any number of variations can be played on this list. Here are a few:

Top ten right-wing novelists (highbrow): 1. Fyodor Dostoevsky 2. Vladimir Nabokov 3. William Faulkner 4. Wyndham Lewis 5. Yukio Mishima 6. Ernst Jünger 7. Louis-Ferdinand Céline 8. James Gould Cozzens 9. V.S. Naipaul 10. Evelyn Waugh.

Top ten right-wing novelist (popular fiction): 1. Ayn Rand 2. Agatha Christie 3. J.R.R. Tolkien 4. Robert Heinlein 5. Tom Clancy 6. Robert E. Howard 7. Jeffrey Archer 8. P.D. James 9. Michael Crichton 10. Barbara Cartland.

Top ten right-wing poets who wrote primarily in English: 1. T.S. Eliot 2. Ezra Pound 3. W.B. Yeats 4. Robert Frost 5. Wallace Stevens 6. Philip Larkin 7. Marianne Moore 8. Rudyard Kipling 9. Basil Bunting 10. Allen Tate.

Top ten right-wing philosophers: 1. Martin Heidegger 2. Carl Schmitt 3. Leo Strauss 4. Willard Van Orman Quine 5. Hans-Georg Gadamer 6. Eric Voegelin 7. Michael Oakeshott 8. Willmoore Kendall 9. Richard M. Weaver 10. George Grant.

Top ten right-wing cartoonists (these names won’t be familiar to everyone so I’ve put in some identifying titles): 1. Charles Schulz (Peanuts) 2. Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie) 3. Chester Brown (Louis Riel, I Never Liked You) 4. Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) 5. Peter Bagge (Hate) 6. Percy Crosby (Skippy) 7. Steve Ditko (Spider-man, Dr. Strange, Mr. A) 8. Carl Barks (Uncle Scrooge) 9. Herge (Tintin) 10. Dave Sim (Cerebus).

Top ten right-wing film makers (includes influential actors as well as directors and producers): 1. Leni Riefenstahl 2. Ronald Reagan 3. John Ford 4. Walt Disney 5. John Wayne 6. Arnold Schwarzenegger 7. John Milius 8. Mel Gibson 9. Whit Stillman 10. Jimmy Stewart.

As with all lists, these are open to all sorts of criticism. Some will bridle at the inclusion of national socialists and fascists but I do think there is a continuum of attitudes and ideas that links them to more respectable rightists (as can be seen by the intellectual exchanges that Ezra Pound and Carl Schmitt had with some conservatives).

And of course, all these choices can be tweaked or challenged. Was Nabokov, for example, really a right-winger? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say he was a nineteenth century liberal with an aristocratic attitude born of his elite Russian heritage? I’m willing to strike him from the list and replace him with D.H. Lawrence. And it’s possible that Hayek should be on the list of philosophers, although he’s better known as an economist and he resisted being called a conservative. I’ve only included English language poets because I don’t think it’s fair to judge poetry in translation. I’ve tried to be as international as I can, but language is a real barrier.

But all quibbling and provisos aside, I’ll stand by these lists as fair approximations. If we taking them as a starting point, some interesting patterns begin to emerge.

First of all, right-wingers are unexpectedly strong in poetry. The list of the top ten right-wing poets is very close to the list of the top ten 20th century English-language poets period. By contrast, in every other category the right includes distinguished names but wouldn’t necessarily be a list of nearly all the top achievers.

Secondly, women are strongest in the category of popular fiction but otherwise marginal.

Thirdly, the highbrow artists listed here include quite a few that tended to lean towards national socialism and fascism. By contrast, the popular artists tended to be populists or libertarians. To put it another way, Ayn Rand might have been a nut job but at least she wasn’t an Ezra Pound or a Céline.

In effect, what these lists reveal is that popular artists can’t be too extreme in taking up explicitly elitist or authoritarian political philosophies. In order to keep in touch with the wide swath of their audience, their ideas have to be more inclusive or broadly pitched. That’s a reassuring thought.

Read Full Post »

Verso is publishing a series of books reprinting classic radical texts under the umbrella title “Revolutions Series”. My favorite of the batch is the one listed in the Verso catalogue as “Jesus Christ / Terry Eagleton The Gospels (Revolutions Series).” It must be nice to share a by-line with Jesus. Closer inspection reveals that the book is listed as:

Terry Eagleton Presents Jesus Christ

THE GOSPELS

In this new presentation of the Gospels, Terry Eagleton makes a powerful and provocative argument for Jesus Christ as a social, political and moral radical, a friend of anti-imperialists, outcasts and marginals, a champion of the poor, the sick and immigrants, and as an opponent of the rich, religious hierarchs, and hypocrites everywhere — in other words, as a figure akin to revolutionaries like Robespierre, Marx, and Che Guevara.

Read Full Post »

For centuries, classical scholarship was fueled by homoerotic desire. The Greeks, as every school boy who paid attention knows, didn’t have the Jewish, Christian and Islamic prohibition against same-sex desire. Because the church respected the ancients despite their vices, Latin continued to be taught into the monotheistic centuries and ancient Greek enjoyed a rebirth. Hard-won languages that could only be understood by an elite (which until very late in the game was also an exclusively male club), these dead tongues existed as a kind of code. You could say things in them that were otherwise unspeakable, things that could get you killed if voiced in the vernacular. The sanction of the church created, in effect, a closet space in the Western tradition, a place to hide but also a place of comfort.

Allan Bloom, himself a closeted gay, loved to emphasize the covert nature of the Western tradition, the concealed ideas wrapped up in esoteric texts that were passed down from generation to generation in whispers. Bloom, of course, learned esoteric reading from Leo Strauss and if you look at the Straussian movement closely you’ll see that if it’s not homoerotic it certainly is homo-social. Did Strauss ever have a female graduate student? Occasionally you hear Straussians suggest that women, with their icky biological urge to procreate, are incapable of philosophy. Certainly this boy’s club is conducive towards the forging of tight male friendships.

Everywhere you look in the history of classical scholarship, especially as it overlapped with literature, you see evidence of what we would now call gayness. There were the Uranian poets who flourished at Oxford and Cambridge in the late 19th and early 20th century who celebrated boyish bodies with Virgilian ardor (Oscar Wilde was the great popularizer of this coterie and its sensibility). For these poets, Hellenism and homosexuality went hand in hand. The Uranians were also the precursors to A.E. Housman, the star Latin scholar of his age and a great poet of unspoken and thwarted desire.

Lesbians are part of this story as well. Is it any accident that Edith Hamilton, best-selling author of The Greek Way (1930), lived for many years with the investment banker Doris Fielding Reid? Or that Marguerite Yourcenar and Mary Renault, both of whom had female lovers, wrote historical novels about the ancient world?

Michel Foucault represents the culmination of this tradition in more ways than one. He was not closeted at all (at least not in his last years). This allowed him to tackle the subject of Greek sexuality with a frankness hitherto impossible. But it also meant that he wasn’t interested in the Greeks as imaginary ancestors. The upshot of his work is to emphasize how different ancient Greek sexuality was from that of the modern world, including same sex desire. For the Greeks, the relevant categories were active and passive, not male or female. This meant they experience sex in a way we moderns don’t.

The question is, after Foucault and the end of the closet, what will happen to the classics? One of the main emotional wellsprings for classical scholarship has been lost. Repressed sexual energy was a great motivator for the hard work of mastering very difficult texts. It’s difficult to imagine young men and women looking to the Greeks with the same yearning the animated Housman and Hamilton.

This might explain why Allan Bloom was so adamently opposed to the gay rights movement, to the open proclamation of a gay identity. Somewhere deep in his bones he must have felt that the end of the closet could also mean the end of the classics.

Read Full Post »

Stephen Fry 

I am thrilled by Stephen Fry, across a whole spectrum of attributes — merely the latest of these being his blog (creatively subtitled “blessays, blogs, and blisquisitions”), which, while being wonderfully witty and spontaneously stylish (not to mention almost completely free of low-brow alliterations), is also — praise the lord – overlong and extremely tardy. In over five weeks of blogging, he has produced a grand total of three posts, the second of which, on the topic of fame, runs to precisely 8,938 words — to make the image just a little more tangible, when you copy and paste the post into Word it fills up fifteen and a half pages. This is a length that even the New Yorker magazine under William Shawn would think twice about publishing, and that’s under the favourable assumption that the piece happened to be about something truly compelling like the grain farmers of north-central Iran.

For these two things alone — I simply cannot call them faults – he should be elevated into the pantheon of literary gods. It’s far too easy to be perfect, after all. You know the type: the good-looking mid-thirtysomething writer, published regularly and at length in the Atlantic Monthly, a new book coming out with Alfred A. Knopf (his fourth), interviewed by NPR, two screenplays in development, and an upcoming appearance on The Daily Show. Apart from the good-looking, mid-thirtysomething bit, all this takes is effort. Sweat. And sweat is something everyone can produce, even pigs. Yet for all that, we look on the writer’s works and despair.

By contrast, Fry has taken the harder, nobler road. He has deliberately chosen, quite simply, not to make the rest of us feel like crap. My god, think of the altruism: a man stays up night after night, penning a post that stretches on seemingly to infinity, all in order to produce something that is so unwieldy — myself, I just stare at his posts, awestruck; no point trying to read the damn things — that the efforts of average bloggers (and I count myself in that august company) must inevitably stand out as models of concision and elegance. For us, his work marks the ne plus ultra of posting, the logical extreme, the 9th plane of a Hell none of us wants to visit. How he keeps himself motivated; how he can continue pushing on to the end when there is no end in sight – these things are mysteries. But this much I do know: that Stephen Fry’s self-denying blog embodies the real meaning of heroism and of sacrifice, veterans of Omaha Beach be damned.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Fry. Merry Christmas indeed.

Read Full Post »

The following two-part interview is one I originally conducted for Herbivore, an animal-rights magazine based in Portland, Oregon. The magazine declined to publish it, for reasons they never shared with me. Given that Herbivore readers were the original audience, most of the questions focus on animal issues. However, I am posting it here on the hope that it might also be of interest to a general audience. It appears here for the first time.

Henry Mark Holzer at the River Rats/Nam Pows Reunion in  Fort Worth, Texas, 2002.
Henry Mark Holzer at the River Rats/Nam Pows Reunion in Fort Worth, Texas, 2002.

Henry Mark Holzer served as Ayn Rand’s lawyer in the 1960s and 1970s. Click on his Web site henrymarkholzer.com, and you’re liable to come across an article defending the war in Iraq or blasting the likes of John Kerry. Yet Holzer has long combined right-of-centre political advocacy with an equally impassioned advocacy on behalf of animals—what you might call putting the right in animal rights.

Holzer is a vegan who taught at the Brooklyn Law School until his retirement in 1995. Much of his work on behalf of animals has been conducted on a legal level. Over the years he’s been involved in several important cases, including one that concerned animal sacrifices performed by adherents of Santeria, an Afro-Carribean religion, that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Holzer’s other noteworthy activities have included working with his wife Erika Holzer to rediscover and restore a film version of Rand’s novel We the Living that was illegally made in fascist Italy, only to be lost for many years.

Holzer now lives in Bermuda Dunes, California. From there he shared his thoughts about the early days of the animal protection movement, right-wing support for animals, and life with Ayn Rand.

When did you first become interest in animal issues, and what form did your original involvement take?

In about 1970 I contributed money to Friends of Animals (FOA) for their campaign to end the slaughter of baby seals in Canada. The FOA founder and president, Alice Herrington, contacted me because she saw on my letterhead that I was a lawyer. At dinner, she told me of the religious exemption in the federal Humane Slaughter Act, I told her it was arguably unconstitutional, I sued (Jones v. Butz), and began looking into broader animal rights issues. That case, and a New York case I brought (unsuccessfully) to close the Central Park zoo in Manhattan, are the first two anywhere to use the phrase “animal rights.”

Compared to today, were there less organizations and resources available to animal advocates of your generation in the early days? Was it even more challenging to advocate for animals back then?

If we define “the early days” as when I brought the Kosher Slaughter Case in about 1970, there were no legal animal advocates, except perhaps the very few “in house” lawyers who worked for the very few national organizations e.g., the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)—but they didn’t do “principled” cases like the Kosher Slaughter case. They did mostly very fact-specific cases (e.g., closing a rotten shelter). The resources (e.g., data banks, case books) were nonexistent.

It was more challenging in the sense that what some of us were trying to do was writing on a clean slate. There were few if any precedents, and to most people, including lawyers and judges, the idea of any kind of animal rights was absurd. Now, “animal law,” is an accepted, if not welcomed, specialty. In the early 1980s, together with the International Society for Animal Rights I organized the first conference ever held of lawyers who were interested in the subject of animal rights. We scoured the country obtaining names, and names from names, etc., and had about thirty attendees. Most of today’s prominent lawyers in the field were there. Indeed, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and David Favre’s organization at Michigan Law School (the Animal Legal & Historical Web Center) came out of that conference. That was truly the beginning of an organized animal rights legal movement in the United States. Now there are law school case books, appellate cases, law journals, data bank. Internet sites—many legal tools.

A New York based practioner of Santeria.
A New York-based practioner of Santeria.

You worked on a high-profile 1992 Supreme Court case, Church of the Lukumi v. Hialeah, which revolved around the issue of animal sacrifice. The case was brought by practioners of Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion, who objected to an ordinance in the Florida city of Hialeah outlawing the sacrifice of animals in religious rituals. What was the nature of your own involvement in the case, and what message do you think animal advocates should take away from the Court’s decision?

I am a trustee of Institute for Animal Rights Law. The Institute, at my behest, filed two “friend of the court” briefs (written by myself and a former student) in the Supreme Court and we attended oral argument. Essentially, our position was that the Santerians’ claim to free exercise of religion did not trump the city’s power, in those narrow circumstances, to prohibit the practice of animal sacrifice and the consequential dumping of dead animals throughout Hialeah. We lost 9-0. There were at least three messages: (1) the city should have had better counsel, (2) the Supreme Court’s “free exercise” jurisprudence is in disarray, with very fuzzy lines existing about what “free exercise” really means when it is arguably in tension with other public values, and (3) all judges need to have their consciousnesses raised about animal issues. The latter has been happening, but it is a slow, tedious process.

You and your wife Erika Holzer were Ayn Rand’s lawyers in the 1960s and early 1970s. What kind of cases did you work on in that capacity? What was she like as a client? (You must be asked this all the time).

I am.

I represented her in almost everything, except literary and tax matters. Mostly, dealing with people who wanted something from, or had done something to, her. An example of the former would be a TV show that wanted her to appear; the latter would be some folks who had opened a store selling “The John Galt line of draperies.”

As a client, she was easy, and she was difficult. She was a genius, so she quickly grasped what needed to be understood, and all the implications down to the end of the line. She was a genius, so she would be impatient and not infrequently kill the messenger (or the lawyer).

Your readers might be interested in knowing that once she said to me that if I could figure out a theoretical basis for animal rights, I “would be doing the world a great service.”

For part two click here.

Read Full Post »

U.S. postal stamp featuring Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand postage stamp, released in 1999.

For part one click here.

Do you remember the context in which Rand made her (surprisingly sympathetic) comment? I don’t take you to be trying to turn her into a posthumous champion of animal rights. Yet her remark would seem to suggest she was not as dismissive and hostile to the idea as many writers influenced by Rand seem to be. Is that how you took it?

My wife and I were in her apartment, in the room she used as an office. I had recently brought the Kosher Slaughter case and, on the fly, we were saying something about animal rights. Erika had just crossed the threshold between her office and the hallway, as I approached it. Ayn was still in the room. Almost to my back Ayn made the statement I have quoted above.

I do not believe she was anything approaching “a champion of animal rights” because she ate meat, wore fur, and never once—except that time—ever said anything to me even remotely suggesting that she had given the subject any thought. Frankly, when she made the statement I was, to say the least, quite surprised. “Reason is paramount,” etc. And animals can’t reason, etc.

That said, however, she said what she said, with apparent sincerity. That’s how I took it. We never returned to the subject. Her acolytes, who to this day deny that she could ever have made such a statement, are mistaken. They were not there. Erika and I were—and that’s what Ayn said.

Film poster
A poster for the 1942 Italian version of We The Living, starring Alida Valli and Rossano Brazzi.

You and your wife played a remarkable role in rediscovering the film version of Rand’s novel We The Living. The movie was originally made in Italy in 1942; thanks to your efforts, a new version of the movie played in North America in 1986 and received terrific reviews. How did you rediscover the film and what challenges did you have to overcome to bring it to the screen?

My wife and I found the film, no one else. She and Duncan Scott, per Rand’s instructions, restored the film and wrote some 4,000 subtitles.

We found the film by backtracking a few slim leads Rand provided, and by utilizing some contacts in Italy. It’s a very long story which has been told, in part, elsewhere. (See www.wethelivingmovie.com).

The challenges included: finding it, making a deal with the people who owned it, copying the highly inflammatory nitrate negative onto safety stock in Rome, shipping everything to New York, convincing US Customs that the safety stock was safety not nitrate, quarantining the nitrate and eventually destroying it, having Rand tell us what to cut from the nearly four-hour film (in the midst of her breakup with Nathaniel Branden), storing the film from August 1968 to the mid-1980s, making a deal with her estate, cutting the film, writing the subtitles, finding a distributor, and promoting the film. Other than that, it was easy.

One of the reasons we were interested in interviewing you is that you do not fit the stereotype of an animal rights advocate. Rather than a hippie or Green Party member, you’ve long been active on behalf of libertarian and conservative causes. Have you ever encountered the view that animal advocacy and right-of-centre political beliefs are incompatible? What would you say to counter it?

I often encounter that attitude because it is a fact that most animal advocacy comes from the left. It is an interesting question as to why. One could say, superficially, that the left is where the bleeding hearts are, and concern for animals is consistent with those kinds of values. The mistake is that those on the right are also “bleeding hearts” (note the quotation marks), but we simply bleed for other things: victims of terrorism, crucified businessmen, our military, deserving students who lose out to affirmative action, the unborn—and more. In other words, because one of the left’s big lies, too long unchallenged, is that it is they who “care,” they have had a near monopoly on animal advocacy. But the right has a strong claim to it as well—even given the NRA, hunters, etc.—but they have not often asserted it. I am sure the macho problem of many on the right has something to do with this as well.

Are animals gaining more advocates outside the left? Former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully, for example, made a big splash with his 2002 book Dominion. Aside from Scully, are you aware of any other prominent libertarian or conservative voices on behalf of animals?

Not that I am aware of. I fear that in libertarian and conservative circles, though there are of course exceptions, there are not many animal advocates. Anecdotally, the few non-prominent voices tend to be more libertarian than conservative. Don’t forget, to the extent conservatives are religious (quite a few), there is a lot of biblical baggage regarding animals and humans having sovereignty over them. Among all the animal advocates I know, only one is a conservative. Finally, it needs to be understood that by “animal advocate” I mean someone who acknowledges that animal have rights, even though the nature and scope of those rights are complex to define and to apply.

Looking back over your career as an animal rights proponent, what would you say your biggest victory has been?

My biggest victories have been (a) launching a movement of lawyers who now work for animal rights, (b) introducing into federal and state case law the literal term “animal rights,” (c) helping legitimize the very concept of animal rights and showing that it is very much more than the proverbial “little old ladies in tennis shoes.”

Read Full Post »

J.K. Rowling’s decision to reveal that Albus Dumbledore , the beloved and deceased headmaster of Hogwarts, is gay reminded me of something George Orwell wrote in his great essay “Boys’ Weeklies”. That essay dealt with the once popular genre of the public school story, a form of children’s literature that focused on the adventures of rich boys attending  private boarding schools. The Harry Potter novels, as I once noted in the National Post, are the modern, fantasy-inflected, co-ed version of the public school story. 

In his essay Orwell, writing from experience as a survivor of Eton, slyly observed that in these stories, “Sex is completely taboo, especially in the form in which it actually arises at public schools.” Which is another way of saying that having a gay headmaster is surely the sort of realistic touch that all true fantasy needs.

(Orwell’s essay, a pioneering effort by an intellectual to look at popular culture squarely in the eye, remains a sprightly read. It’s informed by Orwell’s shrewd, instinctive understanding of the English class system and the way fantasies about how the rich live influence the whole of society. If you want to understand the genealogy of Harry Potter, Orwell is a sure guide.) 

Read Full Post »

Rawls and The Wire

johnrawls.jpg
John Rawls, son of Baltimore: 1921-2002 (photo: Steve Pyke).

Recently I’ve started renting episodes of The Wire, the brilliant series first broadcast on HBO. The show is set in contemporary Baltimore, and revolves around of a group of police who struggle to reign in a drug-dealing gang. The program is extremely well-written (particularly the authentic inner-city speech of the criminal characters) and more realistic than any other show I’ve seen. Most of the actors are black, for example, a rarity for a television drama, but in keeping with real-life Baltimore. More than anything, however, The Wire stands out for the way it conveys a particular mood and worldview, one that might be called pessimist realism. Rather than being the obvious good guys, the show’s police characters are largely amoral, and spend as much time combating each other and their department’s bureaucracy as they do fighting crime.

The show was created by David Simon, who also wrote and produced Homicide. Simon used to be a police reporter, which perhaps explains why so many of the show’s details ring true. According to Simon, The Wire doesn’t aspire to be a regular cops and robbers TV show with lots of bang-bang. Instead, it is “really about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how… whether you’re a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge [or] lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to.”

The show has attracted considerable attention from critics, but so far few of them have expressed much interest in the character William Rawls, played by the talented actor John Doman. Rawls is the superior officer to homicide Detective Jimmy McNulty, the closest thing The Wire has to a hero. As a boss, Rawls is a bureaucratic nightmare. In the episodes I’ve seen, he is far more concerned with his unit looking good on paper than actually solving murders. As he comes to resent McNulty’s attempts to crack a big case, Rawls gradually grows more vindictive and menacing.

williamrawls.jpg
The Wire‘s William Rawls, played by John Doman (photo: HBO).

Is Rawls’s name a reference to the philosopher John Rawls? That was the question I asked myself as soon as I heard the character’s name. As it happens John Rawls was born in Baltimore, so Rawls may simply be a common surname in that part of Maryland. But whether or not Simon was making a conscious allusion, it adds a layer of interest to interpret The Wire in light of William Rawls’s philosophical namesake.

Like Simon, Rawls was interested in institutions, particularly institutions of justice. His writings also frequently address the issue of rights and liberties, a subject that often comes up in The Wire (the show is something of a crash course in all the regulations that prevent police from conducting surveillance without a warrant, or committing other civil-liberties violations). That is where the positive parallels end, however. Rawls the philosopher was an idealist, deeply committed to a vision of justice as impartiality. The Wire by contrast is the opposite of idealistic, and portrays a moral universe in which impartiality is a distant dream.

John Rawls was famous for devising what he called the Veil of Ignorance, a philosophical tool he asked us to use when deciding what rules and principles public institutions of justice (the police, the legislature, the courts etc.) should uphold. The Veil prevents us from knowing any particular aspect of our identity, such as our race, gender, class, religion, etc. With this restriction in mind, we imagine that we are debating what the principles of justice should be with people who are also unaware of their personal identities.

In this way, Rawls argued, we will avoid settling on laws and principles that favour this or that group of people based on their race or other personal characteristic. Instead, the law will apply impartially to everyone. As part of his commitment to impartiality, Rawls also believed that a just society should minimize differences in wealth. For a Rawlsian, economic inequality can only be allowed when it is somehow to the benefit of the worse-off members of society. The CEO of a company that creates jobs for the poor, for example, can legitimately be paid more than his workers because job-creation helps the worse-off. Were that same CEO to leave a fortune to his children on which he paid no taxes, however, it would run afoul of Rawls’s philosophy.

It is a subject of dispute just how much inequality a Rawlsian society would allow. Some critics have charged that Rawls’s work was a rationalization of American thinking about justice. Rather than criticizing the society around him, this view portrays Rawls as a defender of the status quo. The sheer scope of inequality depicted on The Wire, however, suggests that this view is mistaken.

Much of the show is set in the West Baltimore ghetto, where black characters live in a world of drug abuse, crime and degraded city blocks that recall wartime Beirut or Baghdad. When the police travel out to the suburbs they enter a separate universe of stately homes, well-maintained soccer fields and ivy–covered schools. How the massive disparities that define Baltimore life might benefit the city’s underclass is hard to fathom. As a result, the show illustrates just how demanding Rawls’s economic standards would be, were they ever applied to the modern United States.

The universe of The Wire is also deeply anti-Rawlsian in the way it gives wide scope to partiality. For one thing there is Rawls the character’s highly personal vendetta against his subordinate (if there were such a thing as John Rawls for Managers, this would be the worst possible approach). But the primary anti-Rawlian element is the all-pervasive influence of race. In Rawls’s ideal theory, skin colour is something we can get beyond. On The Wire, it is not. The HBO page on William Rawls for example says that rather than attempt to undermine his black boss, Rawls has instead remained loyal, “knowing perhaps that his path to the top position is blocked, in the majority-black Baltimore, by his race.” Similarly, among the criminal characters, when one of them goes out to buy drugs, the police grow suspicious and arrest him, simply because he is a white person in a black neighbourhood late at night.

As for the black characters, with the exception of the black cops, most of them live in grinding poverty, in neighbourhoods that are overwhelmingly black. Their double segregation shows just how far modern Baltimore is from living up to the standards of its most prominent philosophical son.

Read Full Post »

Other people’s delusions can be revealing, especially when they have an unsettling resemblance to our own mental habits. The latest issue of the avant-garde graphic arts anthology Kramers Ergot features a brilliant and disturbing war comic book done in 1937 by master Japanese cartoonist Shuiho Tagawa (1899-1989). (A sample panel is here).

The story, which appeared in the magazine Shonen Kurabu (“Boys’ Club”), shows a band of brave and cuddly Japanese dog soldiers (the “Rabid Dog Troops”) defeating an army of cowardly Chinese pigs. The dogs are spunky and heroic (one of them shouts out during battle that “it would be an honor to be shot.”) The pigs are disorganized and quick to surrender.

As a work of art, this war comic is beguilingly alien. The colors aren’t the garishly vibrant ones we would expect. Instead, everything is pastel and pale. The dogs and pigs move with a dream-like awkwardness, as if they’re immersed in water. Even the scenes of violent battle have an oddly Zen flavor, the carnage looking static and timeless. The influence of traditional Japanese printmaking is everywhere present. Militarist and racist in message though the story is, the art has a gentleness that sets it apart from the fascist aesthetic. It is this radical tension between form and content that gives the comic its unexpected power. 

A shock of recognition comes at the end when we see a vision of life after the war, with the Chinese civilian hogs happily accepting the occupation government set up by their canine masters. “Now that the shogun has fled, we can live in harmony,” one civilians says. “With the Rabid Dog Troop’s protection, our country will finally have good politics,” another pig says.

In 1937, the Japanese invading forces expected the Chinese people to welcome them as liberators. Were their delusions any crazier than our own fantasies of benevolent global hegemony and liberal imperialism?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 40 other followers