May 12, 2010

Our Monstrous Culture, and the Monsters Who Rule You (I): What the Monster Said

I remember seeing about half an hour of the original Night of the Living Dead several decades ago. For most of the 1970s, I lived in the middle of Manhattan. I had been flicking through television channels late at night, and I stumbled across the film, which had been released theatrically in 1968. The film caused some controversy because of the nature and level of violence it portrayed. Since I'd now come across it, I was curious to see what the furor was about.

So I watched for a little while. I could barely believe what I was seeing. Limbs torn from bodies, zombies munching on human legs and arms, blood everywhere. I kept watching -- for a little while -- because I found that I was unable to make real to myself the kind of mind that would create this kind of mayhem. It wasn't simply that the images -- and, as I recall, the sounds, oh God, the sounds -- were horrifying. Of equal and probably greater significance to me was the fact that (in part, remembering some of what I'd read about George Romero, the director of the film) the creation of a movie about people who were terrorized and then eaten, all of which was presented in loving, careful detail, was clearly intended to be entertainment. This was fun! It appeared that a sizable audience agreed with this assessment.

After about 30 minutes, I couldn't bear it any longer -- and I realized that I would never understand what kind of psychological damage would cause a person to seek out "entertainment" of this kind and then proceed to enjoy it. I'm not interested here in pursuing a lengthy inquiry into the "legitimacy" or its lack with regard to this kind of "art"; to begin with, such terms are not ones I would employ with regard to judging art of any kind. But I am prepared to say that, generally speaking (always allowing for exceptions, for example, an actor who is so desperate for work that he'll do almost anything, and even then I'd have certain questions, although I doubt I would communicate them to someone I knew only casually who appeared in such movies), those who create such works and those who regularly watch them are engaged in pursuits which are distinctly unhealthy.

Since I'm briefly on this tangent, I'll add this thought. I view one explanation (or "defense," if you will) of this kind of movie as entirely invalid: that those who create or watch such films are seeking some sort of "release," and that they would never do this kind of thing in real life. A release -- from what exactly? That's where the problem lies. Moreover, every creation of this kind -- indeed, every moment of each of our lives, regardless of what activity might engage us, whether it's making or watching a movie, reading a book, or writing a blog post (or writing a comment about a blog post) -- contributes to an overall cultural atmosphere. And we live in a culture in which violence and cruelty in a huge variety of manifestations and in widely varying levels of intensity have become the overwhelmingly common thread.

The result is one I've described in a number of essays: for example, in "A Depraved, Violent and Indifferent Culture." The news story that served as the starting point for that article concerned "the two hour gang-rape of a 15-year-old girl outside her homecoming dance while onlookers watched, jeered and took pictures with cellphones..." Those onlookers -- who "watched, jeered and took pictures with cellphones" while a 15-year-old girl was gang-raped -- might have been watching a movie. You see the problem, and the connection.

I explored the roots of this kind of violence, as well as the celebratory air that often greets it, in that article. I also noted that this particular incident reminded me in crucial ways of the tasering of Andrew Meyer, as John Kerry witnessed the tasering -- that is, what might have been a murder -- occur directly in front of him and did precisely nothing to stop it. But Kerry was hardly alone: except for one or two brave and still recognizably human souls who protested, no one did anything to stop it.

In my discussion of the gang-rape story and the Meyer tasering, I went on to make these observations -- and this speaks to the comments that opened this essay (television and movies are interchangeable in this context):
The Huffington Post article [about the gang-rape] mentions the possibility that the prevalence of violence against women on television has desensitized people to such an extent that they fail to act when similar violence occurs directly before them in real life. I think the problem is worse than that. I've sometimes noted that our systematic denial has moved us so far from reality that what happens on television seems more real to many people than events in their own lives. I now think that isn't quite exact. I would rephrase the point this way, to make it more accurate: unless something happens on television, it isn't fully real. Period, full stop. It isn't that such people are clinically insane, in the sense that all their connections to reality are severed. Clearly, that isn't the case. But there is a sense in which many people connect much more, certainly in emotional terms, to events on television than they do in response to what happens to them, and to the events in which they take part.

At the same time, they think that what they see on television isn't fully "real" either, even when news events are reported. So reality -- and the actual events that happen to actual, breathing (and often dying) human beings -- are banished in large part across the board. Thus, the United States government unleashes a genocide -- and for the most part, people do nothing. The deaths of innocents in Afghanistan and Pakistan increase -- and people do nothing. Here at home, the most basic protections of individual liberty are systematically eroded and even obliterated, under Obama as under Bush -- and people do nothing.

None of it is fully real, none of it matters to a degree that causes people to resist in meaningful ways. Moreover, any signs of decency, of compassion and empathy, of being willing to say, No, and to mean it, any signs of healthy, vital life are ignored or, still worse, sneered at and made the target of mockery.
In the decades since Romero's original Night of the Living Dead first appeared, widespread, ungraspable violence and cruelty have become more and more common. The concept "depravity" has been rendered close to meaningless. When so much of what happens every day, here and abroad, is so unfathomably depraved, what does it signify to state that another 40 murders of innocent human beings represent still one more monstrous act, or that the torture of another dozen or three dozen or a hundred innocent human beings is unforgivably evil, or that the rape of another 10 or 30 or 50 girls and women constitutes a crime so immense in its magnitude that it makes all commentary completely beside the point, and even itself obscene?

None of it is fully real. Most of it is never even noticed. None of it appears to matter, not in ways which cause a critical number of people to resist in ways which might momentarily slow down the machinery of cruelty and death. If some people should notice, they'll watch, jeer and take pictures.

We've been treated to a remake of Night of the Living Dead, this time in full, bloody color, to enhance our enjoyment and pleasure. And we've descended still lower, if that is even possible. Basing my judgment on a few articles I read when it was released five years ago (I would never watch such a film today, for any reason at all), it appears we have movies (and at least one sequel) that celebrate torture, in exquisite, excruciating, drawn-out detail.

Since movies and television approach closest to reality for us today, let's imagine a scene from one of these celebrations of violence, cruelty, torture and death. Our scene is in color, perhaps even in 3-D (we want to be fully up-to-date and as completely real as we can, provided the contemplation of reality itself remains forbidden, thus allowing us the inestimable luxury of non-action). The monster of our imagination is feasting on human bodies. Young children, women, men, none of them distinguishable, only a mass of torn flesh, limbs ripped from sockets, muscles and guts strewn across the room, blood drenching the scene.

The monster's hands are dipped in the steaming abdomen of his meal of the moment. He rips out a kidney, or maybe the liver, perhaps the heart. He eats it, grunting and slurping, barely chewing, swallowing large chunks of bleeding flesh. He plunges his hands into the body again, pulls out huge parts of what had been a living human being just moments before, turns his head up, and drops the bloody hunks onto his face. He grunts again -- and then he laughs.

The monster sees us watching. His eyes open wider as he registers our presence. He looks directly at us, and smiles. Blood and pieces of flesh fall out of his mouth. He chuckles quietly. Then, suddenly, he looks at us with an expression suffused with sincerity. He's about to say something, and he wants us to know that what he's about to say is important. He wants to be sure we understand this.

"I take extraordinary measures to avoid killing these people," the monster solemnly says. "I have an interest in reducing these killings, and I'm doing everything I can to prevent them. But sometimes I can't avoid them altogether. When that happens, it's their fault. They leave me no choice."

The monster looks very sad. We hear him sigh deeply, regretfully. A few pieces of bloody, torn flesh fall out of his mouth to the ground. He looks directly at us once more. The monster wants to add another thought, one of special significance.

"And when I have to kill them -- but only because they leave me no choice -- I'm sorry. I'm truly very, very sorry."

The monster sits very still for a few moments. He sighs again. Then he plunges his hands deep into the guts of the body in front of him once more. He leans over and begins shoveling bits of flesh and entrails into his mouth.

You needn't be concerned about the following. It's not real. It's not as if it's a movie. So I mention this only as a point of momentary, exceedingly minor interest:
The Obama administration has gone to great lengths this week to smooth over relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, or at least to present an image of a partnership that has improved after weeks of heightened tensions.


Reducing civilian casualties were also the agenda for the meetings and today Obama said the U.S. has "taken extraordinary measures" to avoid [them].

The president was blunt: "We have an interest in reducing civilian casualties because I don't want civilians killed. And we are going to do everything we can to prevent that."

Karzai said Tuesday he was "thankful" for the efforts that the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has made for "the protection of the Afghan civilians."

"It's the first time that when incidents like that occur, that he calls," Karzai said. "If it has occurred, apologizes for it, for which we are grateful."
This is remarkably touching. The sight of the reluctant, apologetic monster is deeply moving.

And we must always be grateful -- if not for the monstrousness, then certainly for the reluctance, and the regret. If we aren't, why, then we're monstrous ourselves. Isn't that the way it works, the way it's designed to work?

To be continued.