Tricksters

Bogart and the Sierra Madre

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Treasure of Sierra Madre (film) – 1948 Movie still. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

(Excerpt from The Gospel of Scarface, Chapter 1, “Shakespearean Villains”)

In The Big Sleep (1946) we see in Bogart’s face, in Bogart’s actions, the performer always thinking, which translates into the detective thinking all the time, insistent on dissipating the shroud of mystery that confronts him. Bogart’s best performances reveal an abstraction, a state of mind and feeling made manifest by a created, if limited pattern of movement and sound.

The destruction of this thinking mind, the loss of control of this detective, the descent into the emotional and psychological chaos of the gangster and the outlaw—who now becomes a full-fledged monster—is what Bogart achieves in John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). (more…)

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Our Undemocratic War Machine

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Names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. (Credit: David Bjorgen)

A richer democratic culture should make the US less warlike, less inclined to endless imperial warfare. That is a basic premise of critiques of US war culture advanced here in Hunt the Devil.

A corollary to this premise is that America’s insufficiently democratic polity is overly susceptible to militarism.

A focus on the nation’s democratic health is especially relevant because, as Andrew Bacevich observes, “We are, or at least claim to be, a democratic republic in which all power ultimately derives from the people.”

Bacevich speaks as a retired US Army Colonel, Professor Emeritus in History at Boston University, and discerning commentator on US foreign policy when he says the American military system has failed in its purpose to defend the country and to bring about peace.  “Peace,” he observes, “has essentially vanished as a U.S. policy objective.”  (more…)

Crossing of the Rio Grande

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“Coronado sets out for the north” by Frederic Remington, oil painting, circa 1890-1900. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

(Donald Trump is hollering that “caravans of immigrants” are headed for the US border. He threatens to suspend both DACA and NAFTA in retaliation.

We know our president does not know very much, and does not care to know. But just so we remember who we are and where we came from, I offer the following from my Stories of the Conquest of the Kingdom of New Mexico. The passage is written with apologies to Ray Bradbury and his much admired The Martian Chronicles.) (more…)

Two-Minute War

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Capt. Anthony Deiss, a public affairs officer with the 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, South Dakota Army National Guard, visits with Richard Engel, NBC news correspondent, 7 July 2010, at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Credit: Sgt. Rebecca Linder, U.S. Army)

I have been watching network news regularly over the past year, since Mr. Trump assumed the presidency. I am not a big fan of network news. I default to newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian for more complete coverage. But the evening television news, given its entertainment format, is a way of keeping up with popularized versions of daily events.

It is easy to be ensnared and stupefied by the evening news melodrama. While watching the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt on March 15, I was suddenly alerted by my internal propaganda detector to a two-minute story about a previously secret skirmish in Syria between US special forces and Russian mercenaries. The incident had occurred a month earlier, on February 7, in an area of eastern Syria where ISIS forces recently had been driven off. Americans directly engaged Russians in combat for the first time in 50 years. The US officer in charge, Brigadier General Jonathan Braga, was concerned that the battle could lead to real war with Russia. (more…)

Trust Me

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Lenco BearCat G3 of the Ottawa Police Service, 9 September 2014. (Credit: Matti Blume)

‘Trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they protect and serve is essential in a democracy.”

“Armored vehicle use by police departments is not new but has recently become quite controversial due to some individuals[‘] misconceptions of the intended use of these vehicles. Unfortunately, some law enforcement agencies have used the vehicles in what, even to the greater law enforcement community, would seem to be, given what is known, an inappropriate fashion.”

Bloomington, Indiana Police Department, September 15, 2015

Coming soon to Bloomington, Indiana—the Lenco BearCat armored vehicle manufactured for police and military use. BearCat is an acronym for “Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck.”  (more…)

Narcissus

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“Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse, oil on canvas, 1903. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In these political days, much is said about Narcissists and Narcissus. It would be good to remember the myth in order to avoid our typical game of finding a foreign noun or story, applying it to describe a specifically North American (usually deplorable) phenomenon, and then projecting the flaws we have confined in that concept on alien others.

The story is found in Book III of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The water-nymph Liriope, mother of Narcissus, once asked the ancient seer Tiresias how long her child would live. “To old age,” he replied, “if he does not come to know himself.” At sixteen years old Narcissus’ beauty enchanted both boys and girls, but

that slender figure

of proud Narcissus had little feeling

For either boys or girls.[1]

(more…)

Enough? Playing with Nuclear Fire

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North Korea’s ballistic missile – North Korea Victory Day – 26 July 2013. (Credit: Stefan Krasowski)

The Editorial Board of the New York Times hit the nail on the head of the North Korean missile crisis in its editorial of February 1, 2018, “Playing with Fire and Fury on North Korea.” After reviewing recent developments that suggest Trump is inclined to risk what is likely to be a devastating war with North Korea, the Board ends its editorial with perspectival flourish:

The United States has been at war continuously since the attacks of Sept. 11 and now has just over 240,000 active-duty and reserve troops in at least 172 countries and territories. Enough.

Indeed, one wonders if there can ever be enough in an ongoing sixteen-year-old forever war spanning the globe. (more…)

Patriotic Animus

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ARLINGTON, Texas (Nov. 13, 2011) Sailors assigned to Navy Recruiting District Dallas hold a giant American Flag on the field at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner at the beginning of a Dallas Cowboys home game against the Buffalo Bills. The Dallas Cowboys Football Club honored all five branches of the armed forces during pre-game and halftime ceremonies. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Tackitt/Released)

The forever war on terrorism, to which the country has become well accustomed, permeates US public culture. Militarism—the predominance of military virtues and ideals, the heavy investment in military capabilities, and the aggressive use of the military to advance national interests—is sanctioned routinely in political rituals large and small.

Tune in to a professional football game, for instance, to see opening ceremonies that feature a flag the size of the playing field, a military color guard, and a soloist in uniform singing the national anthem, culminating in a flyover by jet fighters.  Along the sidelines, head coaches, their staffs, and players wear military camouflage caps and jackets. And so it goes, on and on.  (more…)

The Eyes of Argos

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“Mercury, Argos and Io” by Abraham Bloemaert, circa 1592. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Argos Panoptes, the many-eyed giant of Greek mythology, is invoked by Josiah Ober to warn a slumbering citizenry of the danger of tyranny. “Vigilance and readiness to respond,” Ober warns, are the duties of a participating citizenry if they wish to preserve their democracy from the ever-present risk of elite capture. Argos “was bewitched into slumber and then killed in his sleep by the trickster-god Hermes at the behest of tyrannical Zeus.” A vigilant citizenry, Ober cautions, “must not be lulled into sleepy inattention by rhetorical incantations.”[i]

In times of crisis, paternalistic demagogues promise salvation in the name of the people. Mercury—Rome’s patron god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, and trickery—stands in for Hermes in many depictions of Argos’ slumber and demise.

What happens when the delegated authority of elected representatives—delegation being a necessity of a large and complex modern state—is captured by elites to legislate in their own interests and against the common interests of the people? What happens when the sovereignty of the people is co-opted and democracy is corrupted? (more…)

A Capable Demos

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The decline of western democracy shown in the domino theory. (Credit: Paraney / Wikimedia Commons)

“In imaginary Demopolis the citizens are capable of governing . . . . But the stunted civic education offered by real modern states may be unequal to the task of producing a capable demos. In the absence of adequate civic education, citizens lack the motivation and the skills necessary to govern themselves . . . . [That lack] fosters unstable perversions of democracy, as opportunistic politicians channel antityrannical sentiment into paranoia and warped nostalgia for a mythic age of national unity and civic virtue.”

Josiah Ober, Demopolis (2017, p. 161)

The illiberal populism of right-wing demagoguery by the likes of Donald Trump is just such a perversion of democracy. It is, as Ober observes (pp. 178-179), an outburst of political polarization that feeds on racial strife and exclusionary nationalism and projects a fierce hostility toward liberalism and liberal values such as tolerance. It is marked by a rhetoric of demonization. Populist despots, Ober insists, “can take power only when citizen self-government is reduced to a simple form of majoritarian tyranny” (p. 180), which can happen in the absence of adequate civic education.

Ober’s formulation of basic democracy is a thought experiment that helps us to envision the minimum conditions for a healthy polity of limited self-governance that provides sufficient security and prosperity without succumbing to tyranny. In addition to adequate security and sufficient welfare, basic democracy promotes political liberty, political equality, and civic dignity, which in turn reinforce and depend on the exercise of interrelated human capacities for sociability, rationality, and communication. (more…)