Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Really, Laura, Really?!

December 19, 2012 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Politics

I had no intention of writing anything about the school shooting in Connecticut. Maybe Pablo Neruda could have found words to talk about something like that, but it is beyond my capacity.

I understand the desire for people to ask how it could happen and how we can prevent it from happening again. But there is a fine line between asking why and using a tragedy to push your pet policy positions or promote your philosophy. It isn’t a line I want to walk.

But then I read this piece on Jezebel and I just can’t let it go.

Some incredibly brave woman wrote about being the mother of a child with serious mental health problems. If you haven’t read I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother yet, do it now.

Try to imagine what it would be like to be that mother. Imagine trying to cope with your kid’s behavior. Imagine the terror every time you hear about a serial killer or mass murderer. Imagine having to wonder – Will I have to put him in prison? Will my kid kill himself? Will he kill me? Will he kill somebody else? What if my only option to stop him from killing me or someone else is to kill him? You know that thought has to have gone through her mind.

If that child ever does anything horrible, the first thing anyone will ask is where the parents were. No. Scratch that. They will ask where the mother was. They will want to assess blame. They will want to dissect every action that woman has taken. They will want to know why nobody was warned.

Well, we have been warned. And we have been pleaded with. That mother put all her anguish out for the world to see. But instead of thinking about how hard that was, how hard it must be to live like that, some compassion-challenged asshat at Jezebel called the woman’s torment a distraction.

A fucking distraction.

According to Laura Beck, we are supposed to leave mental health diagnosis to the experts. But someone whose last posts included World’s Best Airport Pianist and Alison Brie Loves to Rap, Danny Pudi Loves to Beat Box is fully qualified to declare that mental health care needs to take a back seat to gun control. And if that means using someone else’s tragedy and shitting all over a woman’s cry for help. Fuck em.

No. Laura. Fuck you.

I rarely blog anything truly personal, at least not the details. It is so difficult to dig up the most painful things that happen to you and lay them out for the world. And there are too many Lauras out there who can’t even see what it is that they are shitting on.

So when I read something like I am Adam Lanza’s Mother, the only thing I am thinking about is what it would be like to experience that. I’m thinking how fucking hard it would be to share it and how hard it would be to not share it. And I’m thinking – Whatever you do, lady, don’t read the comments!

So, Laura Beck, how about this. How about you take the most awful thing that has ever happened to you in your life and write about it. How about you dredge up all the pain and splay it out for the internets to use and to tear apart and to tell you how your pain is completely besides the point. Maybe then you might find some tiny bit of compassion in there somewhere?

No? Well then stick to writing about airport pianists.

Poor Man Can’t Eat, Rich Man Can’t Sleep

December 28, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Criminalization

I used to shoplift as a kid.  When I was about fourteen, I was busted with a purse full of makeup and banned from Rite Aid for life.

My father was unusually rational about the whole incident.  Clearly, all the crap I had in my room could not have been purchased with my babysitting money.  And my parents weren’t giving me money to buy clothes or makeup or anything else.  I don’t think my father had lost his business or had his stroke yet, but it was only a short time away.  I suspect he was feeling guilty or inadequate about not being a good “provider”.

So instead of my parent’s usual tirade and grounding my father simply explained to me that I was hurting people.  He said it probably didn’t seem like a bit of makeup from a huge company would even be noticed, but thousands of people doing what I did added up.  And that company, he said, wasn’t going to let their profits suffer.  They were going to raise prices or lower wages to make up for it.

I never wanted to hurt anyone.  And I never stole anything again.  But if I were starving and couldn’t see another option, I would steal.

I confess my past (and possible future) thievery because of a post last week on The Freethinker.  Apparently, a Yorkshire vicar told people that they should shoplift if they need to. A couple of us godless actually had to side with the vicar on this one.  Not surprisingly, others objected.  One commenter, Ash Walsh, pointed out that

Criminality only entrenches poverty. If a Thief gets a Criminal Record, the Thief will find it a lot more difficult to get a job thus starting a poverty cycle that is difficult to break out of.

That is absolutely true.  But why do we place the blame squarely, and solely, at the feet of the thief?  Doesn’t the community also bear some responsibility?  If the thief was stealing out of necessity, the community failed in providing its members with the things they need to survive. If the thief (like my fourteen-year-old self) just didn’t see the harm they were doing, then the community failed to educate them.   If the thief didn’t care that they were doing harm, then the community failed to teach them morals.

And if our system of retribution ensures that a thief has virtually no opportunity to turn their life around, then the community has failed yet again.

I was lucky.  My father felt some responsibility for what had happened and so reacted with compassion instead of just harsh judgment.  And it wasn’t just him.  Had the manager of that Rite Aid called the cops, I might have ended up in juvi instead of home with my parents.  Things could have gone very badly.

But all too often thieves receive no compassion at all.  They are dehumanized and vilified to the point that we accept whatever is done to them.  We don’t blink when someone gets a life sentence for theft or shot by people “protecting” their property from “looters” after Katrina.

We live in secure buildings in gated communities with alarms and trained dogs.  We authorize armed guards, police, and mercenaries to shoot anyone who breaches security.  We are terrified of being robbed by our fellow citizens.  And all the while, the biggest thefts are happening behind the scenes and are perfectly legal.  Where’s the guard to protect your pension from Goldman Sachs?

Not long ago, a would be robber in Long Island was thwarted by the owner of the store he was trying to rob.  The store owner showed him some compassion, gave him some money and bread, and didn’t call the police.  Months later, the robber repaid the store owner and sent the man a letter saying that he got his life back together.

I’ll bet they both ate that day and slept really well that night.

Inglourious Basterds as Self Examination

August 27, 2009 By: Mel Category: Art

(Note: I’m going to relate much of the storyline in this post.  While I don’t think that really spoils the movie, if you haven’t seen it yet you might want to wait to read this.)

Quentin Tarantino makes films about film.  He examines, exaggerates, and worships our most iconic film genres.  And in doing so, he examines us.  There is no genre more central to the American mythology than the war movie, particularly the World War II movie.  All the cliches are present.

There is a small band of elite fighters led by a sexy leading man.  There are victims to be saved.  There are beautiful women in danger.  There are good guys and there are bad guys and we all know who is who and who we are supposed to cheer for.

It is a Tarantino movie and so it is, of course, violent and funny.  There are beautifully shot scenes and there is intense dialogue.  But what makes the movie truly interesting are the ways in which Tarantino challenges the genre and the American mythology that goes with it.

Jews are Made Fully (In)human

The movie begins with a beautifully shot scene in the French countryside.  A dairy farmer (brilliantly played by Denis Menochet) and his gorgeous daughters are visited by the Nazis.  As the scene rolls on we discover that the dairy farmer is hiding Jews from his village.  These are the Jews we are expecting, victims hiding in a cellar.

Every war movie needs an elite group of soldiers to follow and this movie is no different.  Except in this movie the elite group is made up of Jews.  The actors who play these soldiers look more like rabbinical school students than warriors who are going to scalp Nazis.  Tarantino’s Jews are heroes, but they are sick, murderous, psychopaths and terrorists as well.

During the holocaust, it was the Nazis who marked Jews so that they could more easily pick them out for destruction.  But I don’t recall seeing a single yellow star in this movie.  In Tarantino’s world, it is the heroes who mark people.

Women Are Smart and Men are Destroyed by Their  Sexism

Like all war movies, most of the central characters are men. Unlike most war movies, the two central women characters are the ones who engineer the ultimate destruction of the bad guys. Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) and Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) both design separate and eventually interconnecting plots to destroy a movie theater filled with Nazis.

Most interestingly, it is men’s continual underestimation of women that causes their own destruction.  The main Nazi villain, Colonol Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) lets Shosanna get away once.  He doesn’t do it out of compassion.  (He has none).  She just isn’t important enough to go after.

Colonol Landa prides himself on being able to read people, break people, and hunt down Jews.  Yet, when he questions Shosanna, he reads nothing.  He does not see that she is a Jew.  He does not see that she is terrified and full of rage.  He just orders the adorable blonde girl some strudel and milk.  And that same blonde girl will engineer the destruction of his people.

When things go wrong for Bridget, there is a stand-off.  The stand-off is between a Nazi soldier and our hero, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt).  The Nazi must decide whether or not to trust Raine (who wants to rescue the injured Bridget).  It never enters the Nazi’s mind that the danger could come from the woman.  He does not live to regret it.

And then there is the scene where Tarantino turns the story of Cinderella on its head.  The man who is coming to find you with that shoe is not a prince, but a psycho.  Sexism destroys the men, but the men still destroy the women.

The Bad Guys are More Human than the Good Guys

We see Nazis playing drinking games and celebrating the birth of a young soldier’s first child.  Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) is a Nazi hero who single-handedly killed hundreds of the enemy and who stars in a movie about his exploits. Yet he is humble and charming. And he is conflicted about having killed so many people.

Our hero, on the other hand, is not conflicted at all.  Raine has completely dehumanized the enemy.  His only mission is to kill Nazis.  He sees the world in black and white, good vs. Nazi.  He doesn’t care for rules.  He experiences no remorse.  He has no desire for diplomacy.  We  never see him being kind.  We hear nothing of his family.  There is nothing to humanize him.  Tarantino relies solely on the likability of Brad Pitt and our willingness to see the world in the same good vs. Nazi terms he does.

The Audience is Put Under the Microscope

Tarantino rubs our willingness to overlook people’s humanity in our faces.  A theater full of Nazis watch their hero as he kills person after person.  The audience cheers and laughs at the carnage.  We are disgusted by them.  And while they sit in the theater cheering, we do the same.

We cheer our heroes as they execute a terrorist plot to kill a theater full of people, not just soldiers but wives and girlfriends and anyone else.  Not only are we, the audience, laughing at merciless violence, we are rooting for men with bombs strapped to their bodies.  We are rooting for suicide bombers.

And when Shosanna shows a moment of empathy, when she recognizes the anguish of her enemy, it is a fatal mistake.  We accept, even expect, that the people who show the least amount of humanity survive, while those who show a moment of it perish.

It Asks Important Questions

It would be a mistake to read too much into the movie.  We won’t ever know what the maker’s intent was.  Still, the movie left me asking questions:

  • Why do we accept simplistic answers?
  • Why is it so easy to dehumanize people?
  • Why do we accept the idea that recognizing others humanity is dangerous?
  • Is it better to become a monster and live or keep your humanity and die?
  • Why do the most peace loving of us cheer violence?
  • Are any group of people more or less capable of violence?
  • Does “terrorism” depend on which side you’re on?
  • If we had been in Germany, would we have cheered on the soldier?  (Well, I would have been in a concentration camp, but those of you who aren’t Jewish, Gay, Black, Gypsy, disabled….  Do I know anyone who isn’t Jewish, Gay, Black, Gypsy, disabled…?)
  • How much of our support for the Israeli government depends on the myth that Jews aren’t capable of grotesque violence?