Thursday, October 06, 2005

Repugnance Reprieved

Besides sharing the same ethnic DNA, Arabs and Jews mushing it up in that land so laughably called holy have made a specialty of outdoing each other in repugnance. Palestinians have their barbaric suicide bombers. The Israeli army has its practice of using Palestinians as “human shields” when it goes a’knocking on Palestinian doors before casting its dragnets or setting coordinates for the non-suicide bombers to do their job from the safety of an F-16 or the turret of a tank. But here’s the salient difference between Palestinians (and Arabs in general, my own Lebanese brethren included) and Israelis: When Arabs go repugnant, they know no limits. There are no limits: No public opinion to worry about, no electorate, no laws to answer to. Syria’s Hafez el Assad razes the city of Hamas to put down an insurgency in the early 1980s, massacring some 20,000 people, and what does he do next? Opens up the city to blood tourism so potential troublemakers get a look at what happens to dissidents in Assland. “Hamas rules,” the occasionally dead-on Thomas Friedman called it back then. When Israelis go repugnant, there are limits. There’s the law. There’s the Israeli Supreme Court, whose authority — without so much as a water gun — trumps every caliber in the Israeli arsenal. Here’s a concept Arab nations, Iraq’s nascent parody of democracy included, have no clue about. The Israeli court’s decision today banning the Israeli army’s use of Palestinian human shields is an example of repugnance meeting its match in reason. “You cannot exploit the civilian population for the army’s military needs, and you cannot force them to collaborate with the army,” the Israeli chief justice wrote. (No Rehnquist reincarnation here, no state-pandering apologists.)The army, weaving cynicism out of repugnance, had claimed that it was using the shields with Palestinian individuals' consent. But there was that affidavit from a reservist in the army: “No civilian would refuse a ‘request’ presented to him at 0300 by a group of soldiers aiming their cocked rifles at him.” It’s the law of the shield: what civilian anywhere, America’s streets and highways included, will exercise his rights to exempt himself from police state tactics when faced with a shield and a gun? Voluntary compliance is the biggest crock in law enforcement. Imagine the crockery in states of siege as in Gaza and the West Bank. “In light of the inequality which exists between the apprehending force and the local resident, the civilian cannot be expected to resist the request to pass on an alert,” the chief justice wrote.

The Bush administration and its Guantanamo rules could learn a few things from the ruling. But fanatics tend to have the last word. Guantanamo rules trump the Bill of Rights in the United States because our mullahs fighting their war on terror consider these rules more important than the liberties the mullahs claim to be protecting. It’s the oldest trick in horror’s B-movies: Your alleged protectors turn out to be your worst nightmare. Israel has its mullahs, too. Here’s how a member of the National Religious Party, the Israeli version of our moderate Republicans, put it: “Supreme court judges demonstrated today that their pity for the cruel will prove cruel to the merciful and will expose [Israeli] soldiers to more danger.” Didn’t I read those lines a few thousand times every time our own mullahs bitch and moan about, say, the Miranda decision? Those mullahs who look at Hamas rules and think to themselves: If only…

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Desperate Households

Why do we watch these television dramas? Why do we love feeling pangs of pain and sadness when a regular character is hacked to pieces and the doctors try to save the hell out of her? Why do we care, why do we stand to watch actor-surgeons hack into the character on the operating table, split open her chest, say “rib spreader” between two takes’ bagels, crank the ribs open, dive into the chest cavity with both hands, pump the actor-heart, throw those electric paddles in there and jump-start it when it goes in defib, if that’s what it’s called? It gores us, it upsets us, and when she dies our lips turn and we feel our own tear ducts well up. Cry, at this? Sometimes we do. We mourn – very mildly, relatively speaking, because as soon as the first commercial has run its course we’re in the kitchen having a drink or kissing or talking about what trinkets the teacher needs the following day for a talk on the weather or flipping to M*A*S*H or hearing the local news anchor blabber with incoherent urgency about the wreck on I-4, the latest bushy follies and the amazing discovery about fat (“you need it!”) all coming up next. Hadn’t the cherished character died one hundred twenty seconds earlier? It’s not as if the day after we go to work with a heavy heart, feeling any sort of pain whatsoever related to the loss. It’s not even a discussion item at the proverbial water-cooler. Our evenings’ habits are now so fragmented, not from an abundance of fascinating things to do but from that fragmented grid of time-wasting still concentrated in that television box, that few of us have anything like a television channel in common, let alone a show in common. It’s not cool anymore to talk much about shows as if they have an effect. Have we no other lives? Of course not, but let’s not let on.

Still, the story is in our mind. As the following week’s episode approaches we think about it once or twice. The evening of the show we thrill a little with anticipation, wondering what will happen next even though we’ve been conditioned by so many years of formulaic plots to know exactly what will happen. The one character who didn’t die will recover, not nicely, and begin watering his guilt for a half season’s worth of episodes, he’ll think he was responsible for his colleague’s death, he’ll break down, start doing drugs, go to rehab, then return in triumph, a new man, the Prince Andrew of NBC’s hit television show, with the special bonus of not being, like Andrew, dead. The lesser character is sliced off so the star can live. There was an episode or seven like that on ER, the one where Carter and Lucy, freshly stabbed and hanging by an organ or two, are pieced together again by every doctor in the hospital. Carter survives. Lucy dies. The head doctor, the one who usually plays the resident asshole, works on Lucy and is upset when she dies. He smashes equipment and refuses to believe she has died. (Always that dramatic refusal of the obvious.) A moment of humanity from the mean man. We were sad for Lucy too even though she was our least favorite character, that Lucy plucked from one of those idiotic right-wing family shows like Full House or Empty Nest or Half-Way Fascist. We fell, too: we felt for her, for that half minute. Why? “For a generation of Americans now in the twilight of their 20s, no other series on television better illustrates how weirdly compelling bad TV can be,” one critic wrote when “Melrose Place” (Melrose Place!!) was cancelled last February. ER is not bad TV. It was once as good as it got in that gauze of low threshold entertainment. But still once it’s over it elicits nothing more than that half minute of rote reflection even at its most compelling. So why do we return? Because, I think, ER is not only as good as it gets, or got, but it’s part of that grid of truth-making that’s as good as we have in these culturally suburban, vaguely anxious, slightly too comfortable times. It’s not ER by itself that matters, but ER and the lesser-quality fare that makes up our weekly, ritualistic habit of reassuring ourselves of a predictable set of references. In other words it’s not the shows themselves but the act of watching the shows that brings us back, the desire for those small doses of narrative that frame the rest of our flatter and unflattering lives in the titillation of plot and a certain amount of assured, safe, predictably “closure”-prone anxieties. We feel for Lucy. But we’re grateful it’s her and not us on the operating table in the exact same way we felt for victims of terror bombings with the same grateful guilt that it was them and not us in indistinguishable pieces: It’s primarily a television event conditioned by television’s expectations of emotions calibrated to last twelve minutes at a time, until the next commercial break (unless you’re on cable, in which case it’s six minutes at a time). Here’s what we’re being spared, at least for another day, we think as we watch, not-too consciously. Entertainment (or news) as palliative, but not necessarily good palliative. The more reassuring thing about those weirdly compelling dramas is the boundary they still afford between the real and the fantastic. For all the drama, we can always say: It’s make-believe. But that defeats the purpose of fiction as fiction ought to be understood. Make-believe’s power, when it has any, is in its veracity. No fact ever explains or gets at the emotional depths and truths of good fiction. Which explains the ultimate shallowness of television dramas. They reach, but never grasp, literary truths.

Chip McGrath in that (to me) famous New York Times Magazine article five years ago compared television drama to the compelling literary dramas of the nineteenth century that the French and Russian novelists serialized in newspapers. “[T]here are ways in which TV has actually taken over some of the roles that books used to fill. A few of the more inventive TV series, for example, have become for our era the equivalent of the serial novel, unfolding epic stories installment by installment, and sweeping all of us up in shared anxiety and in a lot of group sighing and head shaking over what fate or (it’s the same thing) the author has in store. TV drama is also one of the few remaining art forms to continue the tradition of classic American realism, the realism of Dreiser and Hopper: the painstaking, almost literal examination of middle- and working-class lives in the conviction that truth resides less in ideas than in details closely observed. More than many novels, TV tells us how we live now.” It is “the prime time novel.” Maybe, but it’s still that weak palliative for a reason. There’s too much of it, whatever it does is too diluted by its own mixture of pretensions and surplus. Richard Ford wrote about this once: “Worrisome things are happening to my sense of the now. Maybe many of us are feeling that way. [... ] whatever the reason, now -- by which I mean our experience of the present moment, that ever-passing, uncertain platform upon which we recognize ourselves to be alive, and appraise how life seems -- that now feels under attack. Chiefly, what I’m talking about are the ways in which that series of present moments we describe collectively as our real lives is made insignificant, made ignoble or forgettable, made hellish or made in essence non-existent by all sorts of forces outside our brains, yet forces whose existence we may have complicity with.” Ubiquitous televisions everywhere we go, telemarketers, email, phone surveys. “Of course, I'd be happy to think that reading a novel or a short story or even a poem could help in this cause.” He’d like more people to read more novels, which “slow the reader's pace and make him self-conscious so that his now is made vivid and of worth. In addition, novels are often all about these very important issues I'm arguing we've lost our good grip on; measuring cause and effect from a recognizable place in time; calculating the results of history; noticing how events of the moment can prefigure events still to come; recognizing our very selves and appraising how we are. Frankly, I doubt if it’ll happen.” Can it be that television dramas and good novels, good literature, have in common the same ultimate failing, that they cannot finally satisfy our craving for a more meaningful now? War and Peace tangentially addresses that very question, as it does all others. Its answer is precisely in the absence of an answer.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Harriet the Thomas

Now we know who Clarence Thomas might have picked to star in his version of The Vagina Monologues. Harriet the Thomas emerges out of the same stealthy background bearing the same politically non-suspect credentials (dittohead loyalty being the hallmark of Bushist conservatism) as he did thirteen years ago, minus the pubes on soda pop but most certainly not minus such ready-for-prime-time lies as Thomas’ allegation that he never discussed Roe v. Wade in law school or anywhere else at the time of its birth. Harriet Miers won’t have to lie of course. She can do what Sandra Day O’Connor taught every nominee to do—look down at a sheet of paper and say something to the effect of I can’t predict how I’ll vote on this or that. And she’ll be ready to face down a squad of senators firing the same sort of reliable blanks that ensured John Roberts’ elevation, as Bush’s second choice, to Chief Justice (Clarence Thomas was his first until Katrina intervened).

Time to recycle lines form the Times editorial on Clarence Thomas, on September 22, 1991, six days before the Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked, 7-7, on his nomination, itself a vote that pre-dated by a few more days the leak to Nina Totenberg on the Anita Hill affair: “[T]wo weeks of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings have displayed a candidate with the slimmest qualifications of any recent Court nominee. His testimony disclosed little in the way of coherent judicial philosophy. If anything, it deepens anxiety over the future of rights the Court has long protected. […] Indeed, the case for the nominee is so thin that some proponents are reduced to arguing, ‘Well, he's better than the next likely nominee.’ The historical answer to that is one nominee at a time. After President Nixon failed to win confirmation for Clement Haynsworth and then G. Harrold Carswell, he came up with Justice Harry Blackmun. Other proponents contend that, having run the hearing gantlet successfully, Judge Thomas has earned confirmation; the committee exposed no smoking gun or other disqualification. True, but since when is ‘not bad’ the right standard? This is the Supreme Court of the United States; the standard should be ‘how excellent.’” Harriet Miers, an excellent choice? Why not go the full monty and nominate Jill Clayburgh? Same age, more experience behind a bench, however fictional. (Remember "First Monday in October"?)
But it would have been too earnest a joke. The craven in George Bush likes his jokes a touch cruel, like dangling a rattler from the ceiling of a movie theater, filming the audience’s reaction, and projecting
that back on the big screen while he laughs from somewhere else. Harriet Miers is no rattler of course, bless her honest soul. Unlike the inveterate politician and ambitious jurist, she is who she is, most likely a reliable Roberts without the intellect. But she’s being dangled, and the cameras are rolling. What a show this will be. What a projection of regression foretold.