Please find me there,
The lead story in today's New York Times (Monday, 19 Nov 2007), reports that the "U.S. Hopes to Arm Pakistani Tribes Against Al Qaeda."
The notion is send dozens of additional military "advisers"--special
forces operatives expert in insurgency/counter-insurgency
tactics--along with millions of dollars into the troubled Northwest
Frontier of Pakistan. Modeled on efforts in Iraq's Anbar Province that
have achieved some success in recruiting local "tribals" to fight
against Al Qaeda and other outsiders, the proposal identifies
Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps as locally-based force drawn
largely from the so-called tribal regions that span the
"The tribal proposal, a strategy paper prepared by staff members of
the United States Special Operations Command, has been circulated to
counterterrorism experts but has not yet been formally approved by the
command's headquarters in Tampa, Fla. Some other elements of the
campaign have been approved in principle by the Americans and
Pakistanis and await financing, like $350 million over several years to
help train and equip the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that has
about 85,000 membrs is recruited from border tribes" (NYT).
The short-term logic of such tactics is clear enough: the U.S. is
eager to project military force inside Pakistan to strike at and
"Taliban" and "Al Qaeda" forces that are finding refuge with the
Pakistani tribes. Seeing that the Pakistani military has been thus far
unable, or unwilling, to mount an effective campaign in the region in
spite of billions of dollars in military aid, Special Ops now wants to
create a proxy army.
The long-term consequences of such a move, however, are difficult to
predict. The history of arming and training such proxy forces, even on
a massive scale, does not exactly inspire confidence. The
American-funded Mujahadin in Afghanistan did manage to fight the Soviet
occupying force to a standstill and effectively force the former USSR
to beat a retreat back to Moscow, but the remnants of this force then
went on to become the kernel of the vary militant-terrorist
organizations the U.S. is now contending with worldwide, including
especially Al Qaeda. Proxy forces in Vietnam, including the Hmong of
Laos, may have been militarily effective in the narrow sense, but the
U.S. dependence on them, essentially turning them into low-cost U.S.
mercenaries, completely disrupted anything like a local economy and did
anything but contribute to winning the "hearts and minds" of the
broader Vietnamese population.
This, of course, is not to say that some kind of intelligently
designed counter-insurgency plan that features local paramilitaries can
never work in some sense--but if the goal is the stability of a nuclear
armed Pakistan, it is difficult to understand how arming and training
yet another paramilitary cadre under only the loosest of influence from
Washington or Islamabad is the answer.
The operative question concerns strategy, not tactics. A U.S.-armed
and trained paramilitary in the tribal areas might well, in fact, win
battles against rival tribes who may or may not be the ones harboring
Al Qaeda. This might have a positive tactical influence on the
immediate combat situation on the ground for U.S. and NATO forces in
Afghanistan. But--what then?
How will encouraging inter-tribal warfare in SWAT and across the
volatile border lead to a more stable Pakistan? How will the presence
of additional U.S. advisers in the region win the hearts and minds of
Pakistani masses? Particularly those beyond the frontier in the
populous provinces of Punjab and Sindh? Indeed, how will egging on the
process--already far advanced--of transforming tribal leaders into
Somali-style warlords act as an effective break on the spread of
In military-strategic terms how does the proposal to arm and train
the Pakistani tribals relate to the key goal of stabilizing Pakistan?
Seen as a way to preempt the immediate military success of Taliban-like
insurgents, such thinking may simply miss the strategic center, which
is the people of Pakistan more broadly construed.
Further, these self-same people of Pakistan already resent the
appearance of imperial intervention by the Americans in their domestic
affairs. This is particularly so when the vast majority of the
population continues to live not only in poverty, but in a poverty that
is exploited by feudalistic landlords in the countryside and brutal,
politically-connected crimelords in the cities--both of which are quick
to resort to violence to enforce their will on local populations.
American schemes have done nothing to either alleviate the poverty of
the people, or to curb the corrosive, anti-human uses of private power.
The Pakistani people are not particularly stupid. It is not
difficult for those not directly benefiting from military-largess to
see that they are being used. And while most in the "educated
classes"--a tiny minority in Pakistan--would hate to see a
fundamentalist regime come to power in Islamabad, even in these classes
the opportunism and arrogance of American policy combined with a lack
of significant support for education and desperately needed
infrastructure is deeply resented. Of the masses of Pakistanis it can
be said that the circumstances in which they live leave them ripe for
recruitment by any populist movement, even one with an openly
fundamentalist and anti-democratic agenda. At present the only thing
preventing a wide-spread uprising is an adaptive cynicism that doubts
the capacity of any political movement to make basic change in the
The outlook, then, is grim--particularly given the apparent lack of
political alternatives in the country. But even given such an outlook,
it is difficult to imagine how, ten years from now, having armed and
trained yet another paramilitary force in the region will make Pakistan
more secure. Such a course smacks of a myopic, present-obsessed desire
to "do something"--even if said something seems to be, in strategic
terms, yet another imperial blunder that will cost Pakistan in lives
and stability and the U.S. in lost opportunities.
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Lahore--A judicial drama has been playing itself out in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, over the last few days. According to Dawn news,
a leading English-language newspaper in Pakistan, 7 police and
government officials were sentenced to 15 days in jail (with sentence
suspended) for "manhandling" Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, the Chief
Justice of Pakistan.
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"It's not dangerous to play with a concussion. You've got to
sacrifice for the sake of the team. The only way I come out is on a
Those are the words of Kelby Jasmon, a high school football player
from Springfield, Ill., as recorded in the New York Times (15 Sep 2007).
had been asked if he would tell his coach if had a concussion during a
game. His response: "No chance." He feared being pulled, forced to sit
on the sidelines. Matt Selvaggio, another high school player said, "Our
coaches would take us out in a second. So Why would we tell them?"
In recent weeks media reports have focused on brain damage sustained
by professional players, sometimes resulted in early onset dementia.
Brain damage to high school players, however, can be far more
devestating. For whatever reason teen-aged players seem for more
susceptible to catastrophic brain injuries, even when compared to
college players only a few years older.
According to NYT research, at least 50 high school and grade school
aged players have died or sustained permanent brain damage since 1997.
Is this dangerous?
Well, over a million kids play high school football every year. That
means that about 5 in a million, on average, die or sustain serious,
permanent brain injuries. In purely statistical terms, those odds don't
seem so bad. The reality, of course, is that injuries are common in
high school football, albeit most of them not life-threatening.
The deaths from multiple concussions, well-documented to be much
more common in younger players, may be rare, but they are also largely
preventable. Most of these players become the victims of the ideology
of heroic masochism, the idea that it is noble to suffer for the sake
of the team and that it would be "unmanly" to admit pain.
Thus the fatal head injuries of high school football are not a
simple result of the brutal, combative nature of the sport--what is
usually glossed as "contact." A young player who suffers a single
concussion in a game or practice is unlikely to experience catastrophic
injury. When he receives a second concussion in a short period of time,
however, the result can be massive swelling of the brain resulting in
coma and death.
Something very like this happened to my little brother in 1980, when
I was a junior and he was a sophmore, both of us playing football. He
was on the JV squad and I was playing varsity. I missed his game that
afternoon while prepping for my own. Though I got a message, I don't
even remember how, before leaving for my own game that my brother had
been taken to the hospital, I didn't believe it was serious.
It was only when, after my game, that I called home and asked how he
was doing and heard from my dad that they "Didn't think he was going to
make it," that the seriousness of the situation hit me.
The young men who say they would never tell their coach if they
thought they had a concussion are living in the fantasty realm of
heroic masochism. It is a realm of high drama and many
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For most of the last 4 thousand years, the part of the world known
to "the West" as China has been the Earth's largest economy, most
developed political culture, and preeminent military. The Eurocentric
bias of our historical knowledge in the United States obliterates this
simple reality. In fact it is not too much to say that the past two
centuries of European triumphalism--including the rise of largely
European settler states such as the U.S., Canada, and Australia--has
been an aberation.
In an interesting little book titled The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative
(Rowman & Littlefield 2002), Robert Marks sets forth the case for a
human history that acknowledges the centrality of China. Though my
students at Monmouth College found his argument rough going, the basics
are simple enough:
(1) Since its origins as a political entity the area we call China
has been either the preeminent power or one of the preeminent powers.
In fact only the combined states of Europe before the
Industrial Revolution, or the entire Islamic Sphere of influence in the
late Middle Ages could be considered of similar importance.
(2) In many ways China was the economic, technological, and
political leader for most of the last 2 thousand years, governing and
providing for by far the largest population of any integrated state
while defending a vast continental border--and even swallowing its
occassional concurers rather than the other way around.
(3) The origins of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, and more
specifically in England--which temporarily tilted the economic and
military advantage to what we now call "the West" was the result of an
accident of natural history and a global confluence of events, not
European superiority, market economies, or small families sizes.
First, and in brief, coal, which provided the energy for the first
phase of Industrialization, is available in easily accessible form,
near the surface, in only a few places on earth--one of these being
England. Steam engines--the first devices to convert coal into a
flexible source of power--were developed to power sump pumps used to
drain the coal mines of water. These early steam engines were so
inefficient, that they were economical to use only at such a location,
where there was a ready supply of coal--most of which was being mined
to heat London homes at this early stage. Thus without the historical
accident of a ready supply of coal in England, no "Steam is an
Second, the capitalization of European economic expansion depended
on silver mined in the New World. The impetus for the European
"discovery" of the New World came about because the overland route to
the markets of China and India, the old Silk Road, were dominated by
Middle Easter powers, leading to efforts to reach the Indian Ocean both
by sailing around Africa and by sailing westward--where what came to be
known as the Americas happened to be in the way.
Thus Europe became awash in a flood of silver, coming primarily from
South America via Spain. This silver was used to finance a number of
wars of conquest and thus became distributed--which eventually flowed
toward the east, to pay for Indian cottons, Chinese tea and porcelin,
Indonesian spices, etc.--all of which could be more cheaply
manufactured in the East, then exported to Europe, than made locally,
largerly because of the efficiency of Chinese and Indian agriculture
compared to that practiced in Europe.
Well... that's the thumbnail--but in the end intensive
intra-European warfare and economic competition, fueled by all that
American silver which then flowed away to the East, led to an impetus
to industrialization. The English, because of their available coal, had
the advantage: accident, dumb luck, and conjuncture of global forces
led to the Industrial Revolution, which in turn led to the rise of
European economic and military power.
China, however, is once again asserting itself. In a few years, or
at most a few decades, China will once again be the world's largest
economy. This can hardly be surprising since it has both by far the
largest population and a strong committment to industrialization.
Enter the fear.
In recent months the media has been saturated with stories about the
dangers posed by Chinese goods because of the low standards and lack of
inspection. Large American companies have been forced to recall key,
emotionally charged goods such as toys, coated with lead paint, and pet
food tainted with destructive toxins. Story after story hammered away
at the specifically Chinese character of these deadly products,
carefully deflecting the reality that many of the products produced by
global capitalism are dangerous or even deadly, and that the United
States Consumer Protection Agency orders hundreds of recalls every year
for safety reasons.
Now, working conditions in China--as in all parts of the world that
have undergone or are undergoing rapid industrialization--are
abominable. Political repression is rampant, environmental degredation
is severe, and workers rights are practically non-existant. But, these
are common conditions in parts of the world where multi-national
corporations turn for cheap labor. Unsafe products are manufactured
everywhere--and though consumers deserve protection from such products,
the hysteria associated with these specifically Chinese-made items is
The Yellow Peril Revisited...
to be continued
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In the Spring of 2001 I was engaged in ethnographic fieldwork with
various elements of the German military, the Bundeswehr. One field site
was the training complex at Strausberg, just east of Berlin, where the Akademie der Bundeswher für Information und Kommunikation (AIK) is located.
AIK is home to a number of training seminars (Lehrgang) for
Bundeswehr officers and NCOs engaged in public outreach of one sort or
another, including recruiters, press officers, and what Germans refer
to as youth officers (Jugendoffiziere),
who are responsible for doing public education, particularly in high
schools. It was while sitting in on a weeks long seminar with this last
group that I had the somber pleasure of touring the erstwhile Stasi
interrogation and internment center in what was East Berlin (Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen).
A "secret" area, not depicted on East German maps of Berlin, this
facility was built with prison labor and used to house and interrogate
political prisoners as well as verious organs of state
security--including a forgery section. Since the fall of the Berlin
wall it has been converted into a memorial open to guided tours.
I was forcibly reminded of this facility by the recently released German film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), written and directed by by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and starring Ulrich Muehe as Stasi officer Captain Gerd Wiesler.
Easily one of the best films I've seen in the last year, Anderen
follows the career of an officer in the East German security police
(Muehe) who is assigned to keep tabs on a brilliant and idealistic
writer (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend (Martina Gedeck).
Kock's character, Georg Dreyman, is known for his pro-socialist views
and his strong support for the project of the DDR. In fact his
dissident friends accuse him of being so idealistic that he's almost a
party insider himself.
The actual insiders, however, are portrayed as cynical and
self-serving. The paradigmatic instance is Minister of Culture Bruno
Hempf, played by Thomas Thieme, who has his eye on the patriotic
writer's girlfriend, and so orders the Stasi to dig up something on
Dreyman. He also puts the squeeze on Christa-Maria Sieland, telling her
"put out or neither you nor your boyfriend will ever work in this town
again." Having seen even the most acclaimed of her friends blacklisted
for displeasing party bigshots--either personally, or, more often,
politically--she knows that the porcine minister isn't bluffing.
The action that follows is conducted on two levels: (1) Dreyman and
his circle of writers and artists as the former becomes increasingly
radicalized, and (2) the surveillance and interventions of Stasi
Captain Muehe who watches virtually every aspect of Dreyman's life.
With his drab, kafkaeque appearance and officious affect, it is
Muehe who surprisingly steals the show. The film actually allows him to
develop a modicum of humanity in response to the aesthetic and ethical
idealism he observes in Dreyman.
I will leave the summary there and move to some conversation regarding the Stasi and the culture of surveillance.
Analysis of DDR-era documentation is still ongoing and will be for
many years to come, but it is probably correct to say that the old East
Germany was the most surveilled country in human history. A country
with a population of only 17 million employed over 100,000 agents and
perhaps as many as 350 thousand informants, or one for every 50
persons. And if the population in general was heavily scrutinized, for
artists and intellectuals the level of surveillence reached ubiquity.
The film plays on the intimacy of this surveillence and the impact
that watching someone--often someone whose life is far more interesting
than the one led by a state security bureaucrat--can lead to a surreal
level of involvement. Like soap opera fanatics who begin who identify
with their favorite characters, the subjects of Stasi surveillence had
the potential to become more real than than the lived reality of the
East German security apparatus.
The former DDR was a state founded on Betham/Foucault's panopticon,
Orwellian in its conception, yet for all that overshadowed by the
Soviet Union, without which it simply ceased to be. Ultimatley the
Berlin Wall, a barrier that at least 238 people died attempting to
cross, was simply opened as confused border guards responded to mixed
signals from the power that be desparately trying to hold on to their
privileged positions. It fell as if the whole thing had been a joke. A
deadly joke in the German manner, all the stranger because the dominant
political trope in the DDR was melodrama. Irony was of the West.
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by Dawn Fratangelo appearing on MSNBC (May 4, 2007) addresses some of
the issues associated with sexual assault in the military.
Rachel Kimerling, a clinical psychologist with the Department of Veterans Affairs, is quoted thus:
"Both combat trauma and sexual trauma are important deployment
mental health issues right now and the VA is absolutely taking sexual
trauma as serious as combat trauma."
I am not sure that, even if true, this is a ringing endorsement of
VA treatment opportunities for sexual assault survivors, given what
many accuse is a less than stellar performance in treating
combat-related PTSD. Moreover, Dr. Kimerling's assurances
notwithstanding, I have my doubts that it is true. There is strong
institutional inertia in both the military and the VA to disappear
sexual assault as either a disciplinary or mental health issue.
Even the available statistics, which for the usual reasons almost
certainly give only a partial picture, suggest a very large problem.
The article references VA data suggesting that of Afghanistan and Iraqi
veterans who visiting VA facilities 14.5 percent of women and about 0.6
percent of men report being sexually assaulted in the military.
I am currently working on a paper dealing with issues of the
perpetration of sexual assaults on men in the military. The issues are
complex and include the role of military culture, the stresses
associated with military life, particular in forward-deployed
situations but also in the confines of training, and the exaggerated
gender performances expected of soldiers. Not least of all, I think, is
the expectation that a soldier's body should be impenetrable--that is,
a soldier, male or female, who can be raped, is not a soldier at all.
This, of course, makes no sense--anyone can be raped--but that is part
of the point: perpetration may act as a kind of anxiety defense. The
rapist embraces his role as a defense against penetration, whether that
be sexual, corporeal, or of his hard military facade.
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army has a new recruiting tool: it will pay you $2000 for referring a
“qualified individual” who actually joins the army and completes basic
training and advanced individual training (AIT). The program is called SMART, for Sergeant Major of the Army Recruiting Team. (To see the details of the program, you’ll have to create a GO ARMY account.)
getting too excited about referring that lazy neighbor kid who is
always riding his skateboard down your driveway, however, there is a
catch: to be eligible for the cash payment, you must be associated with
the army in some way—active duty, reserve, national guard, ROTC, cadet,
or retiree. I first saw an advertisement for this program in the May
2007 issue of the AMERICAN LEGION magazine, but the ad neglected to
mention the limits on the bounty…, I mean bonus. I am slightly
relieved, since the army affiliation requirement frees me from a
potential moral dilemma: calculating how many people I would have to
refer to finance a year of research.
army veteran myself, involved with veteran’s organizations and with an
active research agenda focused on the armed forces, I am not
anti-military. But to say that this program is in poor taste doesn’t
even scratch the surface. Granted, the army seems to have stopped short
(for now) of offering to buy “recruits” from their parents and teachers
by extending the program only to other soldiers, but the implication of
dealing in human lives can hardly be avoided.
I wonder, is a young soldier who helps to recruit a sibling, cousin, or
friend supposed to say if the recruit comes home in a body bag? “Gee,
sorry Aunt Ruth about what happened to Freddy. You want to see the big
screen TV I bought with the bonus?”
decision to serve, or not to serve, in the armed forces should be a
personal one. Certainly the army should not be in the business of
paying people to spot or otherwise influence potential recruits into
joining. The advertising is bad enough, but this program crosses a
line, turning soldiers into pimps for the army. Little wonder that
SMART has received little exposure outside of military circles.
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This weekend past my partner, Angie Reed Garner, and I spent the weekend in Chicago, attending ArtChicago
and related events. I really enjoyed the urban experience, though I
felt a little like a tourist—which is an odd feeling in a city I lived
in for two years. More
than anything I appreciated the chance to eat food not available here
in rural Illinois: Greek, really good Mexican, and excellent pizza, and
the chance to feel the urban vibes. I heard people speaking German,
which always catches my attention, French, Hindi, Arabic, Spanish,
Dutch, Japanese, and Russian (at least), and not one comment about how
everyone should be required to speak English. It made my cosmopolitan
heart happy—even while understanding that the linguistic multiplicity
heard in places like Chicago’s Loop represents, more than anything
else, enormous privilege. As
an official artist’s spouse—a select society known to each other as
artistic supporters—I found the event “fantastic,” in the sense of not
quite squared with mundane reality. The main event, held at Chicago’s
premier urban mall, the Merchandise Mart, featured hundreds of
galleries presenting the most salable works from their stable of
artists. The effect was like walking through an amazingly lush, and yet
thoroughly dissatisfying candy-coated landscape. Gloss, glitz, and
technique were at a premium. And while there were certainly individual
works that were ethically, conceptually, or aesthetically challenging,
they tended to be lost in a see of shiny surfaces and pretty colors.Running
concurrently with the featured event were separate shows, also
presented on a large scale, of “outsider art,” art by new and upcoming
artists and galleries, and art presented by artists themselves. Each of
these is doubtless worthy of its own entry.
attended two lectures, one dealing with the concept of “outsider art”
the other with protest art in relation to war. Particularly with
respect to the former, I left feeling like the lecturer, an academic
from the Art Institute, had bought into his own propaganda. While
professing that “art was art” and that the various categories under
which it is designated should ultimately be abolished, since “it is all
creativity,” he clearly had a good deal of investment in what I will
call the “discourse of authenticity.”
discourse of authenticity, I mean the notion that true art flows from a
pre-cultural center of pure individualistic creativity, tapping into
subconscious realms of idiosyncratic symbolism and naïve confrontation
with convention. In the terms of this discourse, to be authentic means
to have never been contaminated by any exposure to institutional art
with its traditions, schools, and trained techniques. So, more than
simply being self-taught, the real outsider artist must make no attempt
to actually communicate. S/he makes are purely because of some
mysterious drive to do so, unconnected to the social universe. In the
economy, the most authentic outsider artist is the one whose work is
only discovered posthumously, perhaps by a sensitive dealer or critic
who realizes that what others see as insane or idiosyncratic, is
actually some kind of unmediated window on the subconscious.
partner Angie Reed speculates that this fetishization of authenticity
by academic critics is actually secondary, whereas the categorization
of art into “mainstream” and “outsider” (in its various types, marked
by relative nearness to pure outsiderness), is actually driven by
collector identifications. Some collectors want, in effect, to feel
superior to the artists whom they collect. They want art made by the
impoverished, the suicidal, the schizophrenic, the structurally
oppressed—and they want art that was not intended to be marketed, but
made from a naïve impulse to create. Other collectors want art created
by credentialed, vetted young “geniuses” who have mastered traditions
which authenticate their work in terms of institutional recognition. In
either case the preference has to do with the identity position of the
collector, rather than anything much to do with the art or the artist.
lecturer revealed his participation in this discourse of authenticity
when he compared the works of surrealist “masters” with the authentic
“outsiders”—and found something too “polished” in the work of the
former. The latter, for him—though he attributed the notion to
collectors—produced “the real stuff.”
was no sense of critique or irony in this lecturer’s understanding of
outsider art and what made it appealing to certain collectors. In spite
of his opening remarks about “it all being creativity” he seemed to
draw, in effect, a strong line between authentic outsider art and art
that consciously draws on both the techniques of institutional art and
a personal vision. Part of this, I think, derives from the fact that he
seemed to have no concept of “culture” as used by anthropologists. From
an anthropological point of view, the notion that academically trained
artists participate in a culture but “outsider” artists draw on a
purely personal vision is nonsensical. Everyone participates in
culture—and there is a vast (probably unbridgeable) difference between
“untrained” and “uncultured.”
there is certainly a point to be made about the specific ways in which
academic training in any discipline—be it mathematics, art, or
anthropology—channels the efforts of anyone who has been through such
training, simultaneously enriching and impoverishing that person’s
vision, precisely because the training is initiation into a
disciplinary subculture. Yet, such subcultures always exist in the
context of encompassing social settings from which the academic
subculture ultimately derives and adapts its conceptual tools. Thus
academic artists and, for example, untrained mentally ill artists both
participate in encompassing cultural milieu—though different social
positions within that milieu produce differing worldviews (that is,
points of view).
like the lecturer we heard have a convenient relationship to the idea
that the really real authentic raw art is made by people who are “not
even trying to make art” at all—they are just creating. Such
persons, innocent of the institution of art, require the critic, the
academic, to explain them to the general public. Even more, they are
kept at a safe distance from the academy, since as far as the
commentators are concerned, the only real outsider artists have, in
effect, never even heard of MFA programs. (Subtext: Yes, these
wide-eyed, somewhat deranged people might be able to do something that
is artistically interesting, but those of you trying to make art that
communicates with institutional art—that is, if you are interested in
showing, selling, etc.—then you are not an outsider artist, you are
of course, is romanticism. There are certainly persons who, due for
example to congenital mental incapacities, are unaware of art as such,
but these are not the right kind of outsiders, not the persons actually
producing even the most romanticized of outsider art. And for good
reason: the outsider art people are attracted to is supposed to flow
from an active subconscious—and to be active in a recognizable way, a
subconscious has to have already absorbed recognizable cultural forms.
very examples the lecturer used to demonstrate the supposed disturbing
“rawness” of the outsider artists took up predictable, if sometimes
taboo, themes. And, of course, it is not just this specific lecturer.
The blurb on an “outsider art” website puts it like this:
artists] have at least this in common, they express themselves freely
and are not limited by tradition. Their work is at once inspiring and
visually exciting. In these artists one can truly see the limitlessness
of human expression.”
outsider artists are not free from tradition. Our world is awash in
visual imagery, and this has been true for at least a century, in some
ways several centuries. Artists not channeled by formal training, are
nonetheless far from innocent: and if they were, the art they made
would be profoundly uninteresting.
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According to IGN blogger Todd Gilchrist's review of the Zach Snyder's film 300,
"Snyder has crafted a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that is unlike any
movie audiences have seen, and in so doing he may have sealed his own
fate as a possible redeemer of modern moviemaking." And if such praise
seems perhaps slightly overblown for the movie adaptation of a graphic
novel by the genius whose last masterpiece was a remake of Georg
Romero's classic zombie flick Dawn of the Dead, it is actually not unusual by the standards of the blogosphere.
"This movie was mind blowing," writes Tim Not Tom over at Matchflick.
Comments posted in response to reviews are perhaps even more
instructive. While "mainstream" reviewers have tended to take issue
with the plotlessness, violence, and lack of any relationship to actual
history--not to mention racism, sexism, orientalism, and homophobia--of
the film, the comments from the target audience have been worshipful.
Here is a smattering fromMoviephone:
sircharlieoftuna: "What a GREAT MOVIE EXPERIENCE!
And it beats the way they made epic war movies in the past. This movie
will win many statue's--the ones you turn off to watch other shows
while the show goes on and on."
ccr380: "300 is no question a legendary film to become,
bypassing gladiator and other film's of this nature, 300 is truly
today's modern marines were to become yesterday's hero's, this film
cannot be matched by any other spartan movie!!! prove me wrong......"
lawx729: "This movie was more an adventure than a movie. You
feel as if you are there in battle with the Spartans. Acting is well
done. Directing superb. The visual effects make the movie exciting. You
leave understanding what it felt to be a Spartan. Go and see it."
And my favorite, from rbiceps13: "We can all agree that
upwards of 90 percent of us loved this marvelous and action packed
film! Me, I loved it, I didn't expect much from it, as our usual
cynical critics gave it poor standings, which is nothing new; this is
why I don't trust them period! If you happen to be a typical guy, who
loves a movie made for us, definitely go and see this one; also bring
your girl or wife, if she also likes these awesome films that are
slammed with action and bloody drama as opposed to chick flicks which
none of us like... "
Thus however mixed the official reviews in the "quality"
publications, this is clearly a film that struck deep chords with its
target audience of 18 - 36 year old males. This was readily apparent
when I saw the film opening night in Galesburg, Illinois. The theater
was filled with young men. Their enthusiasm was visceral as they could
not help themselves from laughing and mocking at what passed for humor
in the movie--a reference to Athens as a city of "boy lovers" for
example--and all but clapping for the overblown battle sequences.
The basic formula of the movie is a simple one: a handful of pretty
yet hyper-masculine people--that is buffed-up "Spartan" warriors--make
an heroic stand against an asiatic horde of deformed, effeminate
slaves. The subplots--believe it or not there are some--have to do with
(1) coniving civilian authorities and leperous religious figures back
in the Spartan capital who play politics with the resources vitally
needed by the heroic King Leonides, and (2) Persian King Xerxes,
depicted as a 9-foot tall black man with shaved head, muliple
piercings, and delusions of godhood, trying to seduce the manly
Along the way it is safe to say that Snyder leaves no bigoted stereotype undeployed. 300
is in this sense truly masterful: it manages to depict Leonide's and
his warriors as unremittingly heroic, masculine, uniformly handsome,
homosocial but heterosexual (Leonides has an otherwise gratuituous and
painful to watch sex scene with his wife to drive this point home),
patriotic, freedom loving and lily white, and the Persians as cowardly,
effeminate, ugly to the point of deformity, homosexual, treacherous,
slave-minded, and black or brown. In short he doesn't miss a trick,
even resorting to such heavy-handed tactics as sadomasochistic lesbian
orgies in Xerxes HQ pavillion and Persian soldiers wholook more like
Tolkeinesque orcs than human beings. If the film were not already based
on a glorified comic book, it would have to be converted into one.
In one of the very few reviews that manages to understand just how
wedded to anti-Middle Eastern racism this film is, Ahmad Sadri,
Professor of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College, attributes
the potency of such prejudice to the residual rage of Americans over
I have no doubt that the still fresh psychic wound inflicted in
2001--and hardly mitigated by the inconclusive wars in Afganistan and
Iraq--has indeed played a role in the way this movie has been received.
I think, however, that there is another issue, I will not say "deeper,"
but certainly more constant than any particular incident or attack. The
greatest appeal of this movie, I suspect--beyond the pure "I'm in the
middle of a giant video game" adrenaline rush, has to do with what I
refer to as heroic masochism.
In brief, heroic masochism is a sanctioned form of masculine
suffering wherein men are trained not just to accept pain for the sake
of the group, but to like it. While the bulk of 300 is
focused alternatively on hyper-kinetic action sequences and
melodramatic "freedom or death" speeches, the scenes that draw us in
have to do with the dramatization of male suffering.
In the opening sequences, for example, the military training of
Spartan boys is depicted. Starting as young as 7, boys are taken from
their families and placed in a kind of boot camp, where they are
toughened to be the "greatest warriors the world has ever known." Young
American men, of course, know that they have been through no such
training and that they would be no match for these hard as nails
Spartans, but vicariously they are allowed to indulge in the
fantasy--"if only I had been so trained, I too would be a fearless
Now, I hesitate to even bring up historical context--since the
"source material" that counts for the target audience is not the actual
Battle of Thermopylae, but the Frank Miller graphic novel--but some
things cannot be left unsaid. The Spartans did invent boot camp--it was
not to defend freedom, however, but to maintain its military readiness
against constantly feared slave uprisings. A similar dynamic was
involved in the military traditions of the Old South in the United
States. The rite of passage to manhood for an elite Spartan youth was
not confronting a demonic CGI wolf, but slaying an unarmed Helot slave.
This demonstrated he had "the right stuff" and was not infected with
the feminine weakness of compassion. Though historical materials
regarding social organization in Sparta are sparce, it is probably not
too much to say that this was one of the most repressive societies in
The important thing, however, in terms of the success of the movie
is that it depicts men suffering and doing manly things. Leonides has
several chances to say, in so many words: "No one tells me what to do."
He and his men die for freedom, for Sparta, for each other, for glory,
to live forever, etc. The vast majority of viewers, of course, have no
desire to make "the ultimate sacrifice" and die for their country. But
movies like 300, and 300 perhaps most of all, depict the superiority of sacrifical soldierly manhood in such a way as to make it attractive.
This does not mean that 300 will work as a recruiting film--though I did interview German soliders who told me that reading the Iliad and the Lord of the Rings
influenced their decisions to actually volunteer for military service.
Instead, young men get a vicarious thrill from identifying with the
heroic masochism of the Spartans. Even better than actual suffering,
since they don't have to feel it, the movie promises that if push ever
came to shove, they might in fact have to sign up and do their part,
and that would be okay, in extremis. In the mean time, they can feel
they are part of a potential brotherhood of the sword that is entitled
to social privilege--that is heterosexual, male privilege--because of
the sacrifices that "men like them" are called upon, or could be called
upon, or have been called upon, or were called upon in the movie
version of a graphic novel, to make.
The larger point is that 300 is only one of virtually
countless cultural products that appeals to the same themes of heroic
masochism underwriting male entitlement, of valorous soldiers betrayed
by cowardly, treacherous civilians, of freedom-loving "real men"
standing tall against effeminate pseudo men in defense of real women
who look on adoringly. Nor is the suffering young men are expected to
experience only virtual. Whereas Spartan boot camp is out of favor for
second graders, boys--and increasingly girls, since the gendered
position associated with masculine heroic masochism is not linked
inextricably to biological males!--are expected to learn the guy code:
be tough, don't cry, take it like a man, take it for the team. Sports,
peer group bonding, hazing, fraternity rituals, etc. train men that it
is good to suffer, and that only through suffering for the group does
one find meaning. This is the current that 300 taps into--and it combines it with the rage and revenge fantasies that such expectations inevitably produce.
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