Of course, this image demonstrates that people don’t really want to cut anything from the federal budget. Except one thing. You know, the one most Christian thing on this list. That, they want to get rid of.
Last fall, The Walking Dead had its inevitable torture episode. It wasn’t surprising from a show that is so gleefully violent and revels in the dark recesses of the human psyche. As the story arc progressed, it became only a matter of time before one human would torture another. There was always something truly inevitable about it.
What was shocking, then was not the torture, but how conventional it was. Not in its depiction precisely, for it was inventive in a few significant ways, but as the subject for a visual drama. Our sitting in our living rooms, watching a male character brutalized to give up information about loved ones to a maniacal embodiment of evil; a female character victimized sexually and psychologically; these scenes were revolting, well shot, and evocative.
And yet, so normal for the 21st Century. Not shocking. No stirred up negative emotions about the nature of torture; but complex ones: visions of ticking clocks and terrorism. Visions of our post-9/11, amoral American vision of safety and conviction. In this era, torture itself has become conventional. Not so much in real life. Just in film.
The director of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, recently defended her film’s use of torture as a plot device, arguing that it was required of her. That the narrative demanded it, even if it didn’t match the actual events upon which the movie was based. It wasn’t just creative licence, but imperative to the narrative that she do this. This argument has been critiqued in many places, most damningly by pointing out that the unreliability of intelligence derived through torture would be a pretty good plot device.
This is also the real criticism of real torture–that we are less likely to get what we want and more likely to be put on the wrong track, getting what we don’t want. This could have actually worked in the filmmakers’ favor, casting more excitement into the chasing of leads and casting more doubt on the conviction the protagonist displays in trying to track bin Laden. It would have served both the narrative of the film and demonstrated more honesty.
We know fiction requires the suspension of disbelief. When we do this, we do so knowing the purpose of our disbelief. We don’t have flying cars, but science fiction allows us to believe it is possible. We don’t live with wizards and barbarians battling dragons, but fantasy fiction allows us to see the possibility. But these stories work precisely because we know the difference between what is real and would could be. Yet with torture, we don’t have that same certainty. Our experts know that torture doesn’t work like it does in the movies, but our politicians and pundits are convinced otherwise. This isn’t a subject of suspension of disbelief for many viewers, perhaps most, but the validation of existing belief. It therefor functions as a rewriting of reality. And that is dishonest.
I write this as someone who does want to make the social and political critique of torture, but is here making the literary critique. For us, having torture as the norm is just bad art. It is a failure of the imagination and of the responsibility of storytellers to reveal through the fantastic (or comedic or surreal or tragic) things as they actually are.
It took more than ten years since its conclusion for the Great War to be critiqued in a safely public way. Prior to the publication of Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms in 1929, books and films were focused on the valor of war and on the patriotic bonding of men in war. Yet it was nearly 15 years after those actually fighting in World War I began criticizing the war as ugly and pointless, as they did throughout the war’s duration. Despite the cruel transformation of modern warfare and the truly great poetry that arose during the the war, history has been harsh on the Great War, but for ten years after its conclusion, the greater public was given a different view of reality from their media.
I’m waiting for our ten years to be up so we might get our great critique on this warfare. Perhaps it’ll have a simple title: The Interrogator. It’ll star George Clooney or Matt Damon and be a true David and Goliath story in which one intrepid interrogator battles the machine–going after big government and its use of torture. He pushes, not for the old way as an old man, but the way of gathering intelligence that is reliable; intelligence that we can trust; intelligence received through moral means. This fight will put him up against all the doubters, all the neophytes who had no experience in the trade and yet believe it with all their heart. Neophytes trained and serving under Republican and Democratic administrations. There will be suspense, action, intrigue, and moral complexity.
That would be a good movie. That would be an exciting movie. That is a movie that truly defies convention. And that is the root of art.
From Surreal to Real
Hearing that a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center wasn’t the most arresting thing I heard eleven years ago. At work, the rampant speculating, the absurd discontinuity of airplanes and buildings in far away places made the tragedy distant somehow. News spread in the waning minutes before our Barnes & Noble bookstore was to open for business. Even more disorienting was how many people were wandering around our store in Lansing, Michigan over the next few hours, not untethered from reality as we now portray that time in our collective history. No, it was a normal day. A day in which another tragedy somewhere has happened. Oh, hey, let’s see if they have a Jonathan Franzen novel.
The morning was surreal and distant. This wasn’t as arresting as what came later. It was hearing that people were jumping.
Like many others, the images and video of people falling to their deaths caused the acid in my stomach to move up. I was shocked by the situation and surprised that the journalists were so strong as to capture this moment and share it with us. I don’t remember if I joined the chorus that said that coverage was in poor taste. I very well might have. I do remember feeling compelled to look away from the screen.
Despite their absence in the coverage since, and the willingness of the people to avoid them, those images have hunted me from that day. I haven’t gone looking for them, they find me. I have not forgotten how I watched video of people falling. And that is my 9/11/01 image. Not the abstractions of the day: heroism, terrorism, smoke, rubble, fear, devotion, revenge: but the arresting truth of a visible and tragic death; a death in plain view, not hidden behind the burning walls of our imagination.
This morning, I was treated to the picture of the Falling Man in my Facebook feed and immediately clicked on the Esquire story from 2009 and read it, fighting back tears, for what we have failed to recognize in the most tragic legacy of the post-9/11 era: avoidance.
Dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of people died by leaping from a burning building, and we have somehow taken it upon ourselves to deem their deaths unworthy of witness — because we have somehow deemed the act of witness, in this one regard, unworthy of us.
This essay, by Tom Junod is amazing. Please read it and its follow-up. He deals with the attempt to find the identity of the Falling Man from the picture. He discovers along the way a rejection of this man, and all of the jumpers, because they are visible; their last moments available to the world. The still-grieving families hoping, demanding of their creator, that in facing death, their loved one didn’t choose death. That they fought till the end to come home or protect their friends or stayed with a loved one. Anything. Just not fear. Humanity. Deciding to die on their own terms.
I don’t judge them for this. It is the same self-preserving interest that allows the families of murder victims to expect vengeance or sending a scapegoat into the desert will provide relief for the pain they are feeling. And so many of us wanted to exercise that same feeling on the globe, hunting and destroying out of a sense of righteous vengeance. It is unsurprising that our geopolitical actions didn’t make it any better.
Closing Our Eyes, Stopping Our Ears
As I finished the essay, “Corner of Your Heart” by Ingrid Michaelson came on my Pandora station and I had to stop and listen. And the tears came. Even after the tenth year, we are still avoiding. I am avoiding it. Avoiding what 9/11 really is and how our response to it is everything.
As a Christian, we are to eschew violence, but that ship has sailed. And sailed again. And again since then. We allowed our collective victimhood to lead to collective anger. Yet we didn’t do the most basic work of dealing with the tragedy for what it really was. It wasn’t an evil act of violence that required a “good” act (of violence) for punishment. It was evil. Period. Our response is not to be vengeance, but discernment, examination, and actions of generosity and love. We saw much of this in the aftermath. But the drumbeats of war were loud, too loud, for us to drown out in songs of praise. And we were swayed by their intoxicating fragrance.
The biggest mistake came within a week of 9/11. We stopped examining the last moments of the victims. We ignored their pain and the awful experience of not only facing their own mortality, but the disturbing death by suffocation and burning. The true horrors of those final minutes and seconds, in which there was no way to get out, no hope for bodily rescue, and no opportunity to return home to their families. We stopped confronting the true evil and dealt only with the philosophical one. And every year on this day, I do precisely that, despite my mind’s attempt to put the images at the forefront. I push them back, replacing them with happy images of my family and friends.
As we are compelled throughout Scripture to open our eyes and ears to the suffering around us; to make ourselves available to those in trouble; to recognize the conditions of our people; to be moved to action by what we witness; we are also reminded that the action that these images direct us to is not revenge, but peacemaking. The Beatitudes, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount make this very argument: that we are to be moved by our witness toward acts of peace and reconciliation.
Therefore, as Christians we are called to face the hardest questions in the world and deal with them. We are to face evil, but not to fight fire with fire, but with love—evil’s equivalent of water.
Our tendency to avoid the hard questions makes it worse. We don’t face the evil, so we don’t deal with it at its source, and we allow the evil to spread and infect us and our response.
In ignoring and repelling the images of those that fell to their deaths, we are avoiding the very nature of 9/11, keeping its evil powerfully in command. We are rejecting the very truth of those last moments to keep alive an imposed dream of what filled those last moments. And we are rejecting them for what we wished they were.
Facing Death is Strength
The sister of one of the victims demonstrates an uncommon description of the existential dilemma. As the follow-up Esquire essay captures her:
Gwendolyn Briley Strand works in Washington, D.C. — what she calls “the epicenter of memorials” — and knows what cold comfort memorials bring. “They’re never the way that the families, the grieving people, deal with their loss,” she says. “They’re the way the world deals with its loss. They’re not for us. They’re for the rest of the country, and they’re for history.”
This is the very problem of the day: that we feel a certain thing and the victims and families have a different experience: a more complicated one. And we have struggled to recognize the difference.
I know my words are challenging. I feel that they need to be. Not because we’ve done anything “wrong”, but because those of us that are Christians have failed the basic task asked of us: to face the evil squarely and resist the temptation to do evil in return.
We have stratified some victims as lesser because they fell to their deaths rather than were buried or burned inside the building. We have pitted the families of victims and rescue workers against each other and their insurance companies and state and federal governments for respect and compensation owed them. But most of all, we have failed to deal with the one thing Christians are supposed to do: be a witness in death. We turned away from the very people that needed us to see them, and the very people we needed to see.
Briley Strand, whose brother may be the man in the photograph, said it extremely well:
“People have to get over wondering who this man was. He’s everybody. We’re so stuck on who he was that we can’t see what’s right there in front of us. The photo’s so much bigger than any man, because the man in the photo is clearly in God’s hands. And it’s God who gives us the grace to go on.”
We are the Falling Man because we are all facing death, making hard choices, and in the end, dying to ourselves.
We like common sense. That folksy, personal anecdotal understanding of the world that just, you know, sort of…makes sense. That common sense that encourages parents to tell their three year-old to stop playing with a ball –and is horrified when they throw it one more time. We throw our arms up in frustration and wonder “what happened?”
Didn’t I just tell you not to play with that!
The real problem? We’re ignoring the most important detail: the child is three years-old. Or, more accurately, we are expecting of our child what is not developmentally appropriate.
We are ignoring the most important ingredient.
Common sense is great, but what we really need is wisdom. We need to know what we want and what is going on.
As I wrote about the spoon, our big problem is that we are eager to resolve our problems with only half of our brain. We throw up blinders to specifically ignore the details.
An easy example of this is how our common sense approach to teen sex actually produces more of it, and more complications of it. Abstinence-only education, which makes a kind of sense (if you don’t want kids to have sex, tell them not to) is intellectually consistent, but statistically foolish, producing the opposite results of what we actually want. Unfortunately, we double-down on the common sense: which is worse than making the initial mistake. Our desire to intellectually defend that common sense over the wiser approach is what I am condemning. We shouldn’t encourage sex, but ignoring the lessons learned in implementing such priorities is deeply foolish.
The more insidious problem is the common sense idea that regulations are shackles to our success. We know that we hate rules and our country was founded on breaking them. And worse, we confuse our desire for breaking the rules with a belief that the rules are actually bad for us. We also know that children thrive in environments that are predictable, orderly, and highly structured. Rules aren’t our problem.
Instead of recognizing the obvious psychological connection between success and systems that are geared toward our success, we argue for the breaking of those systems, simply because we don’t like them. This is especially true with our view of economics. Many of us have swallowed the argument that regulations on business drives business out of our state or country. Or that rules will impede our growth, or worse, directly harm our economy. The data just doesn’t back this up.
In her excellent report, Stacy Mitchell puts the two important pieces together: the “friendliness” of the state toward the expressed interests of businesses (meaning actually doing the things that the businesses ask for) and the current level and growth or decline of small businesses. The data is directly opposite the common sense approach that regulations harm businesses. In fact, the data demonstrates that small businesses thrive in the most regulated environments. Despite what the common sense wants us to believe, these practices may benefit really big businesses, but they actually harm small business growth.
Like an unregulated environment hinders a child’s development.
This is the reason we need to rediscover wisdom: because we are unhealthy without it.
What spoons can you find?
What is your experience with common sense without wisdom?
The last few days, the following photo has bounced around my space in Facebook:
The cynical person will no doubt ask: what are the comparable costs of metal spoons, eh? Why don’t we compare apples to apples, here?
And then the intuitive among us will point out, yeah, but you only buy one metal spoon and wash it when you are done, rather than take a plastic spoon and throw it away on a daily basis. That’s how it scales.
For me, I am more interested in weighing the total cost when making a decision. When we decided whether or not to take a plastic spoon with the understanding that it will be thrown away, it is irresponsible of us to take only those sets of facts to be part of that decision. We are misguiding ourselves into making an easier, and more selfish choice. This is clearly the case, since the entire defense for not throwing away the spoon has been deemed irrelevant.
Many of our decisions contain these hidden costs; we simply ignore them. When corporations pollute, there is virtually no mechanism for attributing the real cost to the polluter. Or often when a business goes bankrupt, they clear out of the building, but don’t sell it, so it remains vacant for years, depreciating the value of the businesses around it. Or there is the plight of the heirloom tomato, which is going extinct due to cross-pollination and genetic modification. Or the problem of cutting the police force in Trenton, NJ by 1/3 led to an exponential increase in crime, not 1-to-1, but more like 1-to-10.
All of these examples were made easier when the true costs were hidden. They also encouraged selfishness on one group’s part over the needs of others.
What then, is the hidden cost of such selfishness? What are we paying for when we allow others to selfishly hide the costs?
What decisions do we make that contain hidden costs that we ignore?
Why do we ignore them?
What is the cost of ignoring those costs?
[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains Season 2 spoilers of The Walking Dead. I'm not kidding. Seriously important ones. If you have any interest in enjoying this show, stop reading, bookmark this page, and come back later. Otherwise, read away. Chris and Emily, you are absolved.]
The second season of The Walking Dead revealed the most important ethical quandry of the zombie apocalypse: life and death when we suddenly are given a third option of undeath.
In the pilot episode in the first season, we are forced to see how altered the notion of life and death is when undeath is added. Our existing ethic is, and needs to be, “thou shalt not kill” and is generally applied to mean “in any case.” We may quibble around the gray areas of self defense and the like, but as a whole, killing is bad. We reprioritize quickly in the kill-or-be-killed world to recognize that killing the undead is not only justified, but tangibly different from killing the living. But in that episode, we are introduced to the killing of an undead loved one. The personal struggle with a wife turned into a zombie is shown, not told, and we watch as the husband wrestles with showing mercy to her and what his own actions will bring.
Early in the season, we are treated to the more existential question of brining a new life into the zombie apocalypse, and whether our ethic of protecting life supercedes the inevitability of that life’s torment and eventual undeath. Though the show takes a more practical approach, the finale makes this question even more disturbing, as the life being protected will certainly become a perversion of life at some point.
The more troubling argument occurs over the decision to save the life of a stranger in the midst of a zombie horde, treat him medically so that he doesn’t die at that moment, only to dump him off in a random location with no supplies or means of communicating with his friends and family. In this case, Shane, the headcase at this point, is actually thinking more clearly and humanely, as Rick, the leader, is operating from a twisted amalgamation of his old moral framework and the new world in which he lives.
What this incident demonstrated was not that Rick’s ethic of preserving life at all costs is ethically wrong, but that his execution of that framework lacks the recognition of the additional variables, particularly undeath. The young man was likely to die and potentially become undead. At the time, I was wondering if it weren’t more merciful to simply kill him, rather than risk his becoming a zombie (an idea made completely moot by the finale).
We must re-examine our understanding of life when it is no longer a polarity, but more triangular, or perhaps a new polarity that is not based on life versus singular death, but two deaths. From birth, through a period of life, death, through a period of undeath, to final death.
More telling for the ethicist, however, is what happens to the world in the zombie apocalypse. We are given additional variables that effect our understanding of violence, peace, discord, reconciliation, life, and hope. The world is not only post-Christian, but post-living. This must call into question many of our bedrock assumptions.It does not give a free ride to pervert our humanity, but it is irresponsible to proceed without some adjustment and recognition of changes to the world.
I find the ethical issues explored in The Walking Dead of great theological substance, not only in the obvious arguments over abortion and violence, but in much deeper and satisfying ways. It also seems to create a world with rich metaphorical relationship to our world, and the very nuance and complexity it casts on those very obvious arguments of abortion and violence. In other words, it reveals how much more complex our ethical framework toward life ought to be here, without any zombies.
“This notion that ‘These media companies are just giving us what the public wants!’ No. They’re giving us what the media companies want; they’re giving us what the advertisers want. And they’re packaging it in such a way as to make it sound like it is our fault; it’s not.”
Giving people “what they want” is the worst excuse for providing bad content.
- We consume only what is provided.
- It is not what people want, but simply what they consume.
- We don’t only consume what we want, but what we despise.
- Often what is consumed is not even close to what we want–it is simply less like what we don’t want.
- I recently purchased a conditioner that was 92% biodegradable. I actually don’t want 92%. I want 100%. But 92% is better than zero. So I bought it. Now the retailer believes I like 92%. I think 92% is actually bad because it isn’t 100%; it isn’t good enough. But if the only thing that matters is cash, then I must love it.
The truth is that we have abdicated responsibility for our culture. Now, I’m no puritan. I actually kind of like a little bit of scandal and a little bit of sexy in my diet. But we act as if there are only two options:
- Free speech means we can put anything on the airwaves we want regardless of what it does to us.
- Me must be moralists that remove “objectionable” content from the airwaves because it is “indecent” to children.
I just don’t think its all or nothing. I don’t think we have to pretend like free speech means we get to be jerks all of the time. I also don’t think that we should only care about sex. Remember the Super Bowl “Wardrobe Malfunction”? I wasn’t scandalized by a bare breast–it was the simulated rape that got my goat.
Back to my point.
There is another option: we make the producers give better content. I don’t think the world collapses when we do it. All it takes is to reorient the conversation. Jennifer Pozner does just that in the clip above. She makes it simple:
They produce something, subject us to it, then blame us for buying it.
We allow this to be the case. We allow all of the responsibility to be on us to avoid it. We expect them to take no responsibility for producing it.
- They produced the ad campaign or
- They spilled the oil or
- They blasted the tops off of our mountains and allowed the runoff into our streams.
We didn’t do it. Just because we may benefit from someone else’s destructive action, why are we punished while they are ignored?
© 2011 Drew Downs. All rights reserved
Over the last week or so, some really good Christians have written about the death penalty from a Christian perspective. It has been in the public consciousness for the last few weeks. I gave my own response recently.
But in the responses, a curious thing happened. There was what has to be this moment of cognitive dissonance for many conservative Christians when faced with a case so tattered as the one against Troy Davis. Davis wasn’t the monster that the other man put to death yesterday, Lawrence Brewer (Texas), seemed to have been. There was no bogeyman or threats to come back and gnaw on the legs of our children. There was no way to transform Troy Davis into the personification of evil that Christians could pretend is their enemy and deserving of righteous, GOD-sanctioned vengeance. It was entirely possible that this man was a victim of essentially “driving while black”.
It laid bare all of the hypocrisy of the conservative Christian support for the death penalty as a matter of faith. If there is anything true to Christian ethics, it would mean that you and I shouldn’t go around thinking that GOD wants people dead by our hands. So what happened?
An argument from scripture of the state’s right to execute popped up. We should step back and let the state take care of it. It’s their right, they argue. So why is it that the Christians most eager for public displays of faith from their leaders plead that the state has a right to execute, washing their own hands of it? Should not all members of the legal system, up to and including the governor, many of whom profess to be Christian and ran on their faith and moral character, express their Christian morality in this legal matter? Is this not the ultimate matter of faith for Christians in public service: the participation in state-sponsored execution? How can one’s faith and commitment to Jesus not come to bear in this decision? Otherwise, the entire scope of Christian morality is relegated to the least important matters of state and wholly absent from matters of supreme weight. That isn’t morality, that’s cowardice.
If you think capital punishment is none of your business, then stop getting in other people’s sex lives or demanding corporate protection from poor people, because then none of it is your business. Otherwise own up to these two very real issues: Jesus asked you to love that person and make our legal system more just.
Lastly, may we stand together against the barbarism of state-sanctioned evil.
- The State Killed Two Men Last Night (But We Only Cared for Troy Davis) (davidrhenson.wordpress.com)
- The One About… Troy Davis Is Easy. It’s Lawrence Russell Brewer That’s Hard. (the-one-about.blogspot.com)
- who would jesus execute? (eugenecho.com)
- Michele Somerville: Troy Anthony Davis And Georgia’s Plan To Commit An Irreversible Sin (huffingtonpost.com)
- Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: The Power To Choose Life (huffingtonpost.com)