Tuesday, September 29, 2009

E-pocalypse? Not!

"The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences."--Winston Churchill, 12 November 1936, as quoted in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

This past weekend, during a trip to DC to visit family friends, I watched the children’s film Battle for Terra on our host’s lavish home theater set-up (and on crystalline Blu-Ray, a first for me). For those who haven’t heard of it—and that’s probably most of you, since it bombed at the box office—Terra tells the story of a winsome race of aliens whose planet is invaded by the last human survivors of an Earth our species has laid waste. In a particularly insidious form of colonization, the earthlings plan to oxygenate the aliens’ atmosphere—certain death for the Terrans. But thanks to one human dissenter’s friendship with an especially winsome Terran revolutionary, the evil scheme is averted, its masterminds slain, and a permanent human colony erected on Terra to house the dissenting pilot’s peace-minded followers. If you read the reviews on Amazon, you’ll find much discussion—pro and con—of the film’s ostensibly subversive politics of radical environmentalism, anti-militarism, and civil disobedience. Dissenter that I am, however, I saw the film entirely differently.

Flash back several months. While staying in Prescott, Arizona to attend a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute on conservationist Aldo Leopold, I watched the smash Disney/Pixar hit Wall-E, another film lauded (and reviled) for its ostensibly progressive values. In Wall-E, the human race, having literally trashed the planet, departs Earth for a life of interstellar leisure, growing fat and useless on a mammoth cruise-ship space station while winsome robots stay behind to clean up our mess. Eventually, after the chance discovery of a single living plant on the globe’s wasteland surface, humanity returns home, vowing this time to cherish the land, get down in the dirt, and teach the children the virtues of community gardening. The robot probe that discovers the surviving plant is named, fittingly, Eve; the human race, the film suggests, has been given a second chance to act as stewards, not despoilers, of God’s green bounty.

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with both films: the second chance. In both, viewers receive not only the cautionary message, “Don’t screw up!” but the comforting rejoinder: “But if you do, there’s always a fallback!” In other words: go ahead and trash the planet—you can still escape to another world with plenty of green space, convertible oxygen, and winsome welcoming party (or, in the case of Wall-E, you can leave, come back home, and find the world you’ve trashed every bit as resilient as Terra). In these apocalypse-lite visions, there are no real consequences for our actions; we get to eat our cake and have it too. That’s hardly a subversive message. On the contrary, it’s the same message that got us into this mess in the first place, the same message with which our consumer culture bombards us hundreds of times daily (not least through the medium of the movies): everything is ours for the taking, no sacrifices must ever be made, our needs (and our resources) are limitless, take in and spit out as much as possible and let someone else, somewhere in the far distant future, deal with the fallout.

This message isn’t just for the tots, of course. I’m thinking of a film ostensibly for adults, a film ostensibly a somber fable for our time: The Day after Tomorrow, where our wasty ways lead to instant Ice Age. Leaving aside the film’s patent preposterousness, its failure to imagine a true alternative to the problems it identifies is revealed in its conclusion: after the Big Freeze sets in, the chastened citizens of the developed world are forced to take refuge in the southern hemisphere, which, against all science and logic, is not only completely unaffected by global climate destabilization but spacious and gracious enough to accommodate the entire population of the North. Ah, those winsome Argentines and Bolivians—so welcoming, so wise in the ways of the earth, so, well, winsome! Always another place, another world awaiting us. Whether it’s Mars or Mexico, we can safely trash the planet and move on.

In his pathbreaking essay “The Land Ethic,” published sixty years ago, Leopold writes of our half-assed attempts to conserve the land while preserving the prerogatives of consumer society: “Is not this formula too easy to accomplish anything worth-while? It defines no right or wrong, assigns no obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the current philosophy of values.” And again: “No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. . . . In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.” Which is another way of saying that, short of a revolution in how we envision and live our lives on Earth, all our imaginative efforts to address the environment’s ills will amount to little more than trash.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Time for Some Nonfiction

Recently, my wife's sister bought us a portable GPS, something I'd never dreamed of purchasing for myself. The first time we used it, all sorts of thoughts crowded into my mind: thoughts about space and place, about embodiment, about the human-technological interface. Ultimately, I decided these thoughts had to do with the oldest of human questions: "Who are we, and where are we going?" So I wrote them all down in an essay titled, simply, "Positioning."

That essay has now been published in the online journal Terrain.org. This journal bills itself as an environmental journal, and it is precisely that--if one can overcome the predisposition to think of the environment only as the non-human world. As the writings collected in Terrain.org indicate, the "environment" consists of the intricate and intimate relationships between that which we humans create and that which we don't. "Positioning," I hope, calls attention to that complex interchange linking our bodies and minds, our tools, and our physical world.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Time for Some Fiction

About a year ago, I made the decision to stop producing academic writing and to concentrate on other genres: fiction, creative nonfiction, editorial, memoir, and so on. Many factors contributed to this decision, including my sense that academic work, no matter how intellectually stimulating and personally satisfying, was simply not reaching a wide enough audience to justify the time and labor I poured into it. (It was also, frankly, beginning to lose its stimulation and satisfaction.) I started out years ago as a fiction writer, produced a couple novels in college (one of them agented but never published), won a short story award, attended writers' conferences, all the usual. Grad school and career intervened, and I was itching to get back to the writing I'd once loved--not necessarily to become rich and famous (though that wouldn't hurt), but simply for the love of it. I was guided, too, by a statement Thoreau makes at the end of Walden, as he's describing why he abandoned his cabin after a two-year residence: "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." I've had a nice life as an academic writer; but now it's time to live another.

So I resumed writing in the genres I'd deserted so long ago, took a class to get myself back in trim, produced lots of stories and essays, got some of them published, left others to languish on my hard drive. It's been a wonderful experience, and though occasionally I feel a pang when I turn down some request or other to produce more academic work, on the whole I'm convinced that veering off in this new/old direction was one of the best decisions I've made.

In today's post, I want to link you up to one of my more recently published stories, "Mishap," which came out earlier this month in the online magazine The Battered Suitcase. It's a quirky little story, using some old characters I'd first invented in college, so in some ways it was an experiment in seeing what had happened to them in the years since then. But it also, I think, has a certain melancholy to it, and that certainly reflects what has happened to me in those twenty-some years.

So here it is. Enjoy.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why I Don't Support the Troops

This will be the last of my antiwar essays (at least for a while, at least until the current administration gives me another excuse to post something. Shouldn't take long). I originally published this essay in the newspaper of the Thomas Merton Center, Pittsburgh's hub of peace and social justice activism. It also gave me an opportunity to cite Thoreau, which is something I do every chance I get!

Incendiary title notwithstanding, I think the logic of the piece is fundamentally sound. An anarchist acquaintance pointed out to me, however, that despite my conscious refusal to support the troops, I support them and the wars they're fighting every day with my tax dollars. More proof, as Bruce Springsteen reminds us, that it's hard to be a saint in the city.

"Why I Don't Support the Troops"

Headnote: I was dismayed when my daughter told me her class had been assigned to write letters of support to the troops in Iraq. In a meeting with the principal, I protested that children should not be forced to take a moral position they were unqualified to take—that to “support” people fighting a war is not, as he held, morally neutral. I got nowhere with him. But I did put down the following thoughts, which, by coincidence, were composed on Tax Day, April 15.

Imagine a friend of yours has done something you believe to be terribly wrong—say, killing an innocent person. What would your reaction be?

It is probable you would continue to love your friend. It is possible you would not wish him or her harm (though you would likely hope he or she received some form of punishment). It is feasible you would try to prevent him or her from committing another such action. It is not, however, conceivable that you would support the person in committing this action.

Imagine further that this friend continued to commit such acts. You might still love the person. You might pray for his or her soul if you are religious, or hope for his or her reformation if you are not. But you would not under any circumstances support this person in the continuance of actions you believed to be terribly wrong.

This is the reason I don’t support the troops in Iraq. They are performing actions I believe to be terribly wrong: invading a sov­ereign nation, destroying its lands and appropriating its resources, killing and wounding its people for reasons I do not accept as legitimate or lawful. To support them under these circumstances is tantamount to condoning actions I cannot condone.

Some might object that I am misinterpreting the term “support.” They might say that to support the troops simply means to wish them well, to pray for them, to hope for their safety. It is possible, they might argue, to support people even when one condemns their actions.

I do not accept this definition. Let us assume I do “support” the troops in the sense of wishing them well. The fact remains that they are engaged in a conflict in which, to secure their own safety, they may have to inflict harm upon others. More generally, to wish them well under these circumstances is to suggest that I do not condemn what they are doing. It is comparable to saying I wish a murderer well while he commits murder. Though I do not wish such a person harm, I do not wish him well either. I wish only that he will stop committing such acts.

It might be objected, then, that the troops in Iraq are unable to cease committing these acts, or to leave the place where the commission of such acts is likely to occur. It might be argued that whatever the troops think of their actions or of the broader circum­stances that placed them in Iraq, they are committed by the terms of their service to continue performing the actions their superiors require of them.

I do not accept this argument either. There are alternatives to performing actions one finds morally wrong. It is possible for soldiers to refuse direct orders, to desert their post, to apply for Conscientious Objector status. None of these alternatives is easy; most will result in dire consequences, including prison time and all the problems a criminal record brings. But this does not mean soldiers cannot pursue such alternatives. It simply means they must weigh the consequences of doing so against the consequences of not doing so. In the case of a soldier who disagrees with what he or she is asked to do in Iraq yet continues to do it, we must as­sume that this soldier has chosen to suffer the moral consequences of his or her actions rather than the material consequences of refusing them. None of us would wish to be faced with such a choice. But that does not make it any less a choice.

In “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), Henry David Thoreau describes facing such a choice. He was required to pay a poll tax, a tax he knew funded the Mexican War. Thoreau believed the war to be terribly wrong—an invasion of a sovereign nation in order to commandeer its land and resources, as well as to extend the practice of plantation slavery. Thoreau refused to pay the tax. He went to jail. He said, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” In terms even more pertinent to the present situation, he continues:

A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers . . . march­ing in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, aye, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed. . . . They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small moveable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?

Thoreau concludes by urging individuals to refuse wrong actions and fight for what they know is right. “If [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

With these thoughts in mind, what do I hope for the United States troops bogged down in the hellhole of criminality and injustice, torture and torment that is the Iraq War? I hope for their immediate return home, where they will be freed from the prospect of taking further lives or of having their own lives taken. Failing that, I hope for them to refuse to commit the acts they are being pressured to commit. If they adopt this position, if they transform their lives into a counter friction to stop the machine of war, I will support them. Until that time, I will continue to oppose—not support—the troops.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Domestic Terror

This one came from 2006. It should be self-explanatory (and maybe even a bit too didactic), but I've always been interested in how fantasy films participate in cultural discourses, especially discourses having to do with aliens and outsiders. My 2005 book Framing Monsters, discussed in this interview, lays out my interests and arguments at greater length than this short essay, titled "Domestic Terror," can.

"Domestic Terror"

A colleague told me she absolutely hated Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.

“It insulted my intelligence,” she said. “To have the son return unscathed at the end was completely unbelievable. And what about the time Tom Cruise and his daughter were dropped from the underside of the tripod and walked away without a scratch? They’d have been crushed flat, squashed, exploded into a million pieces.”

Taken as a statement of fact, I couldn’t disagree. War of the Worlds insulted my intelligence too. In fact, excepting the six-year-olds in the audience, I think it’s safe to say it insulted everyone’s. But taken as a judgment of the film, I felt she was missing the point. Movies—at least, summer blockbuster alien-invasion movies directed by Steven Spielberg—aren’t about nourishing the intellect. They’re about fulfilling desire. And in this respect, War of the Worlds couldn’t have been better.

War of the Worlds fulfills the perennial American desire for the preservation of the family at all costs, against all obstacles. We in America like to believe that no matter what, no matter how many shootings, explosions, downed buildings, foreign wars, nuclear holocausts, somehow, miraculously, the family will survive. Not someone else’s family, of course—our family. And it’s because Spielberg knows how to tell stories that tap this quintessentially American desire that he’s been responsible for most of the top-grossing films of the past two decades. It’s not that he’s the only American filmmaker to tell this story; most mainstream American films tell it in one way or another. It’s just that he’s so damn good at it.

Maybe this is because it’s the only story Spielberg knows how to tell. He told it in E. T. He told it in Hook. He told it in Jurassic Park (parts I and II). He told it in Schindler’s List. It’s the story of a family, invariably father-headed, that manages to survive the worst possible threat the world has ever known—indeed, that comes into existence through the tumult of fighting off that threat. In Jurassic Park the threat was rampaging dinosaurs, and the father was former kid-hating curmudgeon Alan Grant. In Schindler’s List the threat was marauding Nazis, and the father was former out-for-himself rapscallion Oskar Schindler. And now, in War of the Worlds, the threat is gigantic death-dealing tripods steered by alien imperialists, and the father is former all-around asshole Ray Ferrier.

In all these stories, an inconceivable, a seemingly insurmountable, and—importantly—an alien threat conjures the family into existence. So you and your daughter get dropped from a height that would crumple steel? So your son walks into a wall of fire that engulfs the horizon? Don’t worry. At the end, father and son will embrace. Our family is impregnable.

War of the Worlds brims with imagery suggesting the family’s peril, suggesting, in fact, that the family won’t make it. You might have noticed the repeated image of panes of glass pierced by a perfect circle: once when Cruise throws a ball through his own front window, once when a refugee claws through the windshield of Cruise’s stolen car, once when Cruise, hiding in a basement bunker, witnesses his daughter standing like a prepubescent Ann Darrow before a looming tripod. In these shots—the first of which occurs before the aliens attack, as Cruise tries to one-up his son by whipping a hardball at him in a curdled game of father-son catch—the shattered glass signifies the fragility of the family “circle”: an invisible protective shield that is frighteningly easy to break, glass, like the family, should not survive the onslaught of baseballs, much less of alien monsters. But it does. Indeed, the ultimate fantasy of a film like War of the Worlds is not just that the family survives, but that while an errant throw by an inattentive dad can puncture the shield, the alien menace, the very power that should shatter the family for good, whips the father into shape and coaxes the family into being.

I don’t disdain the power of this fantasy. We are family creatures; we need families. And a certain truth underlies the claim that families find themselves in extremity. Though catastrophe—financial, mortal, or otherwise—can destroy families, it can also bind them closer. Typically, of course, families are threatened not by alien forces but by forces inflicted either by themselves (alcoholism, abuse, infidelity) or by their own society (low pay, lack of health insurance, mercury-laden water). And typically, families survive, if they do, not by plumbing some previously unglimpsed reserve of inner fortitude but by appealing to external agencies: the police, the social welfare system, legal and legislative allies. Still, the primal power of this fantasy can be productive of good: it makes us want to preserve our families, or at least to see them preserved, and a desire that strong can help people through some pretty rough times.

Yet to the degree that this fantasy is capable of producing great good, it is also capable of producing great harm. For when we convince ourselves that because families come together through the agency of external threats there must be an external threat to secure our families, we enter a realm of dangerous, even deadly, paranoia and denial. When we believe that, we’re liable to do anything. Buy guard dogs. Buy guns. Bomb Iraq.

The obvious way to read Spielberg’s film—at least, the one in all the reviews—is to call it a 9/11 nightmare; and the screenplay, obligingly, provides such a reading when Cruise’s daughter, a convincingly panicked Dakota Fanning, screams, “Is it the terrorists?” just as the tripods attack. But I think a more profitable way to view the film is to place it within America’s foundational posture of defensive denial, a denial so powerful it enabled the young nation to view its prehistory not as the greatest act of invasion the world had ever known but as the providential triumph of a besieged outpost of civilization against the heathen hordes. That denial still runs so deep that only now—three years, tens of thousands of deaths, and hundreds of billions of dollars after we sauntered into war with Iraq—are we beginning to witness a murmur of collective discomfort (it is still too polite to call it “protest”) against our delusive national conviction that we could preserve our own family by slaughtering someone else’s. And however that hallucinatory denial may be ebbing a bit in our public discourse, it remains regnant in our collective psyche.

So we forbid photographs of dead Iraqi children and dead American soldiers. So we drive SUVs with magnetic September 11 stickers, memorializing 9/11 by enriching the nation that birthed and bred the hijackers and their mastermind. So we sit by as the President of the United States hides out in his Crawford bungalow, unwilling (I mean us as well as him) to confront a grieving mother. So we watch War of the Worlds. Don’t worry, we tell ourselves. The wall of fire, the fall from the heights are only movie tricks. Our family will survive.

And I suppose it will. But it will also suffer, and punish, and kill, and no Tom Cruise will appear to save it.

Chicken Hawks

Now that I've gotten started, I thought I'd treat you to a few of my antiwar essays, which I've written over the now more than six years since the monstrosity that is the Iraq War began. I was moved to revive these old essays (the first of which, "Chicken Hawks," dates to 2005) when I attended an antiwar address delivered by Anthony Arnove, who spoke during the The People's Summit currently being held in Pittsburgh as an alternative to the G-20 Summit arriving next week. Arnove's impassioned address, which pointed out that Obama's policies regarding Iraq and Afghanistan merely pretty up for public consumption those of the Bush administration, convinced me that we need now more than ever to mobilize as many voices as possible, in as many forums as possible, to speak out against the criminal wars being waged in our name.

So here's "Chicken Hawks." It's old news in one sense, but--especially given Obama's refusal to release documents relating to the Abu Ghraib scandals and his continuation of the Bush policies regarding the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists--I believe it's still pertinent.

"Chicken Hawks"

Five years ago I stopped eating meat.

And yes, that includes poultry and fish. Why people don’t consider poultry and fish meat I’ll never know. To make sure I’m covered, I now tell everyone I don’t eat creatures.

People ask me why all the time. Here’s what I tell them.

Because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Think about it. Eons ago, when our hominid ancestors were roaming the savannah or the steppes or the rainforest, there was a degree of parity between predator and prey. You could get hurt trying to lay your hands on enough buffalo or puma to satisfy the caloric and mineral dosages our megawatt brains required to evolve. Heck, you could get killed. The scales of power were, if not exactly even, at least not radically out of whack.

But we did evolve. And when we evolved, and no other creature really did, at least not in intelligence and rapacity, the scales of power tipped absolutely and irrevocably. Nowadays, at least in the industrial West, there is no risk whatsoever involved in obtaining meat—none, that is, beyond the occasional fender-bender at your average snarled supermarket parking lot. Our power over the animals we eat is absolute; we hold all the carving knives.

And because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, abuses in the current system were bound to occur.

I was reminded of this truism while watching a news report about the abuse of chickens (meat, remember?) at a slaughterhouse operated by Pilgrim’s Pride, chief supplier of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It seems that a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals infiltrated the plant disguised as a regular line worker, and in secret videotapes recorded an appalling litany of abuse. The tape showed fellow workers stomping chickens on the head. Hurling them against walls. Snapping their necks in two.

All of this, of course, is against company policy, which dictates the humane killing of food animals. Hanging the chickens upside down and slitting their throats, I understand, is the current humane method.

As soon as the story broke, representatives from the plant itself, as well as from KFC and other beneficiaries of the killings, were quick to denounce the atrocities. They assured the public that these were deviations from the norm, that the guilty workers were aberrations, that they would be summarily fired, that safeguards would be instituted to ensure that it never happened again. Most of all, they wanted to assure us that the abuse went no farther than the individuals involved—that the company itself, the CEO at its helm, the stockholders reaping its profits, and the public gobbling its butchered meat were blameless.

But they were wrong.

All of the above parties—company, CEO, and multitudinous beneficiaries, including you and me—were directly accountable for what happened.

This is because when you engineer the circumstances under which power operates without fetters—though not, obviously, without feathers—abuses will occur. When you lord it over the chickens to the extent that we do, when you (we) cook up a contest of Homo sapiens versus Gallus domesticus absolutely devoid of equality of any kind, abuses must occur.

Why? Because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And what’s true of people versus chickens is no less true of people versus people.

Consider the nearly contemporaneous scandal in the Abu Ghraib detention facility. Once again, photographic evidence, this time taken by the perpetrators themselves, recorded an appalling litany of abuse. Detainees forced to stand immobile for hours with hoods draping their heads. Led about with dog leashes around their necks. Threatened with genital electrocution.

Once again, as soon as the story broke, the higher-ups issued the customary disclaimers. They said these were deviations from the norm, that the guilty soldiers were aberrations, that they would be summarily court-martialed, that safeguards would be instituted to ensure that the atrocities never happened again. From Donald Rumsfeld to Dick Cheney to George W. Bush, we were assured that the abuses went no farther than the individuals involved—that the military itself, the secretary and president at its helm, the oil companies reaping its profits, and the American citizens cheering its War on Terror were blameless.

And once again, they were dead wrong.

I don’t know whether Rumsfeld or Bush ordered the abuse. They tell us they didn’t. They tell us they knew nothing about it until the papers spilled the beans. Turns out they were, if not lying outright, at least stretching the truth by cleaving to a disingenuous (some would say devious) literalism. It appears now that ambiguities in the definition of who counted as a terrorist and in how such persons were to be treated created an atmosphere in which no one knew exactly where the lines were to be drawn.

Whether such ambiguities were purposeful I can’t say. But if all we care about, and all the press does seem to care about, is trying to prove with which individual the ultimate blame lies, we’re going about it the wrong way. Once again, the issue isn’t who ordered the abuses. The issue is what made the abuses certain to occur.

And the solution to that conundrum is, of course, laughably simple.

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

No matter how you slice it, George W. Bush is a chicken hawk, a man who glibly decreed that fellow human beings, American and Iraqi, would have to confront horrors he’d somehow managed not to face himself.

But that’s not what really matters either.

To the extent that we condone or pardon what happened at Abu Ghraib—not to mention at Pilgrim’s Pride—we’re all chicken hawks.

Sounding My Barbaric Yell Over the Wires of the Web

In "Song of Myself," the autobiographical manifesto from his 1855 Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman writes: "I too am not a bit tamed--I too am untranslatable; / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." I'm no Whitman, but I thought his quote was an appropriate one with which to begin my first blog entry. What I'm hoping to do here is twofold: to sound off about the issues, ideas, idiosyncrasies, and idiocies of our time, and to provide readers easy access to a variety of my writings, including fiction, creative nonfiction, and political essays. Hardly original for a blog, I know, but I hope you'll find something of worth in these pages.

By way of introduction: J. David Bell is my pen name, something I use when I write creatively. Such writing has been my focus over the past year, and will continue to be my focus in the future (though in the past I've published academic prose under my real name, and you'll see occasional links or other references to it here, as below). I'm also a teacher, a political cartoonist (once I figure this thing out, I'll post some of my stuff), an environmental and antiwar activist, a fantasy literature and film fan, and a follower of the writings and teachings of such thinkers as Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson. Not to overdo the Whitman, but I hope I can say along with him: "I am large, I contain multitudes." As do all of us, of course. It's my hope you'll find my writings and reflections engaging, enlightening, occasionally infuriating, but always interesting.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to hearing what you think!