Saturday, October 21, 2006

Televising the Moral Imagination

Remember right after 9-11 when Americans asked that question, "why do they hate us so?" That question was so full of promise. It had seemed that the attacks of 9-11, and their horror, had prompted real self-examination and reflection. I wrote in an academic journal in Spring 2002 that, to the side of the option that would be chosen, one of the (admittedly unlikely) options open to us was,
...a sea-change in policy - of that policy of incommensurability between saying America represents one thing, a set of liberal principles and humane values, while acting in ways that often violate those principles for which we supposedly stand (previously in the countless corners of the Cold War world, and now, perhaps, in the countless secret corners of the global war on terrorism). This would be a change from what others perceive as arrogance and what Americans tend to perceive as God-given rights and the moral certainty of a "chosen" country. Part of this change would consist in a renewed attempt to perceive the actions and beliefs of others through their own cultural lenses. Rather than attempting to export our own self-certainty, we would view the world in its contingency with a hearty sense of our own fallibility. Perhaps it would be a change which would take fully into account our tradition of democracy, fallibilism, and commitment to pluralism...

...the two cultural attitudes - self-admiration and moral absolutism - are especially odd for a pluralistic nation that produced the eloquent philosophies of fallibilism found in Jefferson, Franklin, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Peirce, James, and Dewey... [A]s a whole they represent a tradition that sought to move us beyond the need to rely on absolute certainties as guides to action, especially those which appeal to a form of transcendence. This tradition sought to have us fully accept the responsibilities of living in a precarious world by understanding that our certainties are historically-bound tools that, once applied in the concrete, would invariably yield other uncertainties requiring further experimental applications of intelligence - new tools for coping with the world. This tradition sees little use in stunting our moral and intellectual growth by chastising, humiliating, or denouncing those different than ourselves. Indulging in these actions has been shown repeatedly to work only for a few. Moral arrogance of this sort in the face of incomprehensible dangers boils down to bluster, and is stultifying for the individual as well.

Thrown into a confrontation with the precariousness of the world, the morally rigid tend to be confused or lash out blindly... This tends often to be an anger that requires that shroud of moral certainty, of outward-directed humiliation and ridicule, as well as a lack of moral imagination, a lack which is necessary to maintain the certainty.
The questioning, of course, didn't go in this direction. It had its opportunities, but it was politically and rhetorically guided back towards the Cold War mentality of ambiguous evil that required defeating, which lurked ominously outside of the American sphere. Civilization was at stake. We were civilization.

Here and there, however, we see little attempts at understanding. One of the most interesting things, for me, is to try to place one's mind in the position of another. Travelers and expatriates know this - in difficult situations, you have to move some distance in the direction of understanding what the others around you think and believe. Greek scholars know this as well when they try to understand the very meaning of a Greek term, not to mention the metaphysics of Parmenides.

Think of also, for example, the documentary made by Irish public television, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," about the 2003 coup attempt in Venezuela. The filmcrew was serendipitously placed to document the coup as they had simply wished to do an exposé on Chávez at the time and found themselves in the middle of the coup. But what it shows us is a fascinating story of the chaos of such an event, and the uncertainty over what to do, placing us in a position of understanding the Chávista government and its very human mindset.

The point is not that this example is a case of understanding the "enemy," as I don't see Venezuela as an enemy - this is a story the US has created, aided, of course, by Chávez's often overwrought rhetoric about US imperialism. This anti-imperialist rhetoric - with its underlying serious concerns and historical-empirical bases - is easily transferred into anti-Americanism, just as anti-Zionist positions are immediately translated as anti-Semitic language for political purposes, to deflect any criticism by cutting off its very possibility.

Or take a look at Riverbend's writing from Iraq, which is all too rare, and is certainly precarious. Her recent long absence from blogging worried many of us.

Here, today, is another small attempt on the part of the BBC to understand the Taliban from their own position, to understand why they hate us so. What I find surprising is how short and simple the article is. One would think that such an effort to enter the realm of the Taliban could produce something other than a light article such as this. The conclusion of the essay is that the British are disliked because they haven't rebuilt the country quickly enough, which doesn't show the roots of anything since it portrays the British as well-meaning but somewhat inefficient. Efficiency, as we well know, is that value that seems to trump all others in the West. Since efficiency is a quality of instruments, means rather than ends, emphasis here constantly defers actual criticism and self-understanding away from more substantive issues towards things we apparently all want - paved roads, electricity, Snicker's bars. That mindset kills off substantive self-examination. But at least this article is an attempt to extend the moral imagination.

As often happens, fiction comes to the rescue in assisting our collective moral imagination. If, for example, you want a better understanding of how Latin America views the North, read Eduardo Galeano's trilogy, Memory of Fire, which develops an alternative history of the Americas.

The occasion for these musings is that I just watched the first two episodes of this season of Battlestar Gallactica, which I think is by far the best show on TV (and worth paying for the download, if you haven't seen them on the telly). In the first two episodes, the enemy (the Cylons) occupies the human planetary outpost, submitting the humans to their end-goals of, apparently, creating a hybrid race in which the synthesis of human and machine is completed. Curiously, the Cylons are monotheists who view themselves as doing the work of God, even when this work becomes oppressive and, they think, requires propaganda and psy-ops techniques, detentions (often carried out at night by forcibly taking people from their homes), torture, executions, and the use of a puppet human government in order to force the humans to submit to their will, which is further, it appears, to spread their form of what it means to be "civilized." The humans are polytheists (and the writers of the show borrow heavily from Greek polytheism in particular, including the names - a secret hybrid child is named "Hera"). The battle between humans and Cylons involves not simply territory, but questions of fundamental religious beliefs, racial purity, the dark means by which war is fought, and consciousness of a world lost for eternity. The series began two seasons ago with the near-total victory of the Cylons over the humans, and the remaining living humans having to flee their own planet. Hope lies in finding the mythical Earth, the main goal of the humans. The human mythology mentions the existence of the planet. Its existence, however, requires a kind of faith found in the religiously-inclined of the human population. Earth, for Commander Adama, on the other hand, represents a will to survival regardless of whether the actual planet exists or not.

What is interesting in these first two episodes is that the humans play the role of insurgents on the Cylon-occupied planet. They're engaged in terroristic attacks on the Cylons and even come to the conclusion that a "spectacular" attack is necessary to make their point, beyond the smaller attacks on infrastructure and Cylon military units. Desperate, they begin to engage in suicide bombings, taking with them human collaborators who are widely viewed as traitors. We, the viewers, are not meant to be entirely sympathetic to either the humans or the Cylons. The show never develops simple binaries or simple resolutions to ethical dilemmas like most police and hospital TV shows. We're meant to wonder about the humans' terroristic tactics, especially as they kill collaborators, while we're also meant to see the differing views within both the human and Cylon populations, especially those Cylons and humans who have developed complex sympathetic relationships with members of the other side.

The show is one of the very few places - whether intended or not (but it seems clearly intended in these first two episodes) - where we're able to take on the position of those we don't understand in the non-TV, war-weary world. Taking on this position within the show is a matter of taking up our normal place as humans, but then also the difficult real decisions they have to make. The robotic Cylons are, according to typical sci-fi convention, the natural enemies. But they're often portrayed sympathetically, so that we can even sympathize with the occupiers at the expense of the oppressed humans. The perspective switches throughout the show, destabilizing any neat lines between good and evil. Our positions of trust and loyalty are rendered precarious. Most immediately (but only immediately), for our context, is that we come naturally to identify with the insurgent humans engaging in terroristic acts. "Freedom fighters" they are, but the lines between "freedom fighter" and "terrorist" are blurred sufficiently to question any easy support for the humans. Even collaboration, in the show, is fraught with ethical difficulty.

It is odd that a fundamentally complex world, which we tend to simplify in order to wrap our understanding around it, is rendered once again complex by a TV show, which is usually a central medium through which we simplify the world and set it aside as entertainment. This, it seems to me, through television, through the fictional use of the moral imagination, is the closest we've come to an understanding of why they hate us so.


Anonymous said...

Santorum redux.

Anonymous said...

If only more viewers could get past the Sci-Fi label and actually watch BSG.

It and HBO's "The Wire" are my must see television. On the one hand, they are about as far apart as two series can get. One is science fiction and has writers groomed on the Star Trek series (aside: it's nice to see what they can do freed from Roddenberry's rules). The other is "realistic" drama and has show-runners who were police and journalists in Baltimore.

Yet, both share the admirable trait of never shying away from difficult ethical questions. Whether questioning the morality of raping an "unhuman" enemy (BSG) or the examining the institutional failure of urban schools (The Wire), both attack their subjects with a sensitivity lacking in much of our political dialogue. Perhaps in that respect, they are both escapist fantasies.

Anonymous said...

I should add that many BSG viewers of the right-wing persuasion HATED the season premiere because it had the audacity to portray the moral complexities inherent in an occupation and insurgency. One comment I saw --that obviously transposed the moral universe of the show directly onto our occupation in Iraq--complained that the show added unneccessary nuance to a situation in the Middle East that requires us to be clear, resolute, and unconflicted. In other words, that the very act of asking "Why do they hate us?" is more-or-less an admission of defeat.

They would prefer the series (and I guess, life) would have the humans (i.e. the U.S.) kicking ass & getting revenge, and asking questions later...if ever.

MT said...

I think it's because we canceled Bay Watch.