Tag Archives: Hollywood

Licensed to Kill

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

Nothing could be more formulaic than a James Bond film – unless we descend still further to the Popeye cartoon.  As it is the Popeye plot that provides the basic framework for this whole style of Hollywood entertainment, let’s look at that plot for a moment.

Always (despite what happened the day before), our hero Popeye and his beloved, Olive Oyl, have no thought of violence as they set out upon their daily idyll – a visit to the beach or mountain perhaps.  Yet out of nowhere appears the enormous Bluto, who beats Popeye senseless and heads off with the protesting female.

At this juncture, an entirely coincidental saving event occurs – contact between Popeye’s failing digestive system and the contents of a can of spinach.  Immediately our hero is restored to redemptive health and strength.  He heads off to rescue Olive, and in the process sends Bluto in a cathartic parabola towards the horizon.  The End.

Only for today, of course.  The success of the formula dictates that Bluto must be even more mysteriously restored for the sequel that will always follow.

Bluto’s epic size and malevolence are essential to the plot – for otherwise Popeye would have no excuse for the violence he must eventually use.  Similarly, Popeye cannot begin the day with a breakfast of spinach – as this would prevent him from suffering victimhood and even imply calculation and foreknowledge (especially if Olive Oyl had cooked it for him).  Everything must be rigged to create the complete moral imbalance that will give Popeye his licence to use maximum force.  He doesn’t even work out at the gym.  He is entirely innocent, and Bluto is entirely guilty.  Otherwise there can be no supremely cathartic, violent climax.

Bond films follow essentially the same logic.  A master criminal with global ambitions usually begins the film by dropping a failing henchman into a tank full of piranha fish, sharks, or crocodiles.  This establishes his Bluto credentials – and so does the unleashing of a world-threatening enterprise that will trigger the involvement of our hero, James Bond.  The latter, virtually on his own, will soon encounter the master criminal, as well as some supremely nubile and vulnerable female.  Both will suffer various trials and torments, until some gadget allows Bond to turn the tables (the spinach factor).  For some unaccountable reason the master criminal will never kill Bond at the first opportunity – but suavely entrust him to a stupid henchman or a lock-up with a large air-vent.

The films end always in a vast investment in stuntmen, catapulted corpses and explosions – and subsequent pneumatic bliss for Bond.  Our master criminal may either be annihilated or saved to conspire another day.  It matters little.  Master criminals are bankable resources – so hack Hollywood writers will work like hospital casualty teams to bring this Bluto, or another, back another day.

Clearly, the Bluto theory of life is commercially viable – as the Bond films have reaped more than $8 billion since the first one, Doctor No, in 1962.  The hugely profitable Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series are also basically Popeye films – as is the ‘Alien’ series in the Science Fiction genre, and Independence Day.  Mass entertainment is hugely indebted to the simple notion that world-threatening, (and female-threatening), malevolence is always out there somewhere – so we must logically be licensed to kill.

Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers has brilliantly pointed out that the Popeye plot predates Hollywood by many centuries.  It is in fact the core of the Enuma Elish – the Babylonian creation myth.  In this, Tiamat, mother of the Gods, sets out to kill her children, the supposedly lesser Gods.  One of these, Marduk, is licensed by the others to prevent this.  He kills and dismembers her – and she becomes the various parts of the material universe.

The essence of the tale is the overwhelming justification for Marduk’s violence – which is wholly just and necessary.  He too, although supremely violent, is innocent.  As he was the Christ figure for the Babylonians, he justified the rapacity of ancient Babylon itself – which included, of course, the enslavement of the people of Israel.

Their Genesis story may well have been written in response to the Enuma Elish.  Its account of the origins of human violence is wholly different: far from originating with creation itself it lies in competing human desire for the same object – the Cain and Abel story.  The geo-politics of the ancient world centred around competition for the fertile river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Those of today centre around oil, in the very same region.  Otherwise little has changed

How far is George Bush from an appreciation of the difference in the Babylonian and Biblical accounts of the origins of violence? On November 3rd a US-owned Predator drone in Yemen fired a deadly missile, destroying a car and six occupants – one of whom was supposedly a high-ranking Al Q’aeda member.  As the US mid-term congressional elections proved the same day, ‘9/11’ has most potently revitalised the Popeye plot as a text for the restoration of the Bush dynasty, with Bin Laden & Saddam Hussein alternating in the Bluto role.  The handlers of the younger Bush have exploited that opportunity to the hilt.  Hollywood keeps in step by giving us yet another Bond film.

Only three years ago, the Bond formula appeared to have been played out.  Media wits suggested in 1999 that the next Bond film should be entitled ‘Enough is Enough’.  Now Al Q’aeda has dusted off the Marduk legend – and the elevation of the Irish actor Pierce Brosnan to megastar status in the years ahead seems likely.  If we in Ireland take the same innocent pleasure in this that we did when John Ford made The Quiet Man, we will have wasted much time (half a century exactly) in learning nothing about the world.

Meanwhile of course, Bin Laden tells exactly the same Popeye-Bond yarn to the Arab world, but casting America in the master-criminal role, and himself as James Bond (or the medieval Islamic equivalent, Saladin).  If he has indeed survived Afghanistan we are only midway through the film – and haven’t seen anything yet in the way of explosions and cartwheeling bodies.

Is George Bush a good or an evil man?  The pundits argue endlessly, when the answer is obviously: Yes.  George Bush is a good and an evil man.  He is endowed with impregnable innocence by the Christian fundamentalism that has incorporated the essence of the Marduk legend into mainstream US Christian thought (we must have, and we alone can be trusted with, a license to kill).  He is also evil in being so deliberately enveloped in self-righteousness that he cannot step into the shoes of a Palestinian or Egyptian or Saudi or Chechen idealist and see how easily he and America become therefore, in their stupefying lack of empathic intelligence and awesome military power, the Bluto of someone else’s nightmare.

The truth is that Genesis is absolutely right.  We humans compete – and it is out of this competition that violence arises, because the elevation of the winner is always, and simultaneously, the abasement of the loser.  The Marduk legend was concocted, and is endlessly retold, merely to justify the violence and the victory of the stronger.  US emergence as sole superpower in 1989 was for many Islamic people their abasement, as it signalled not only the defeat of the Palestinian cause but a single globalised economic system with them, usually, and probably forever, on the outside.

As a durable global peace depends not upon the always unsuccessful expulsion of Bluto, but upon the exposure of the Tiamat/Bluto lie, it follows that Christian education must rapidly understand the application of ancient myth to modern culture and global politics.  It simply isn’t good enough that Christian children in Ireland may well exalt Pierce Brosnan as a role model, when he personifies and exalts a deadly ethic – one that now grips the world in a vice – to buttress a basically commercial and militaristic agenda, and an unjust world.

As long as we humans insist upon having a licence to kill we will go on narrating history as the Marduk legend in Popeye/Bondian terms – interminably rigging the story to justify our own murderous intent (‘republicans’ and ‘loyalists’ please note).  So long as the ‘Christian’ west cannot separate itself clearly from that intent, and that myth, so long will it continue to misinterpret its own basic texts and to betray the humble and pacific God it hypocritically exalts.

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Rethinking Freedom

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2002

This era should be one of unprecedented freedom. A revolutionary period lasting over two centuries has seen the overthrow of a series of political tyrannies, from absolute monarchy to Fascism and totalitarian Communism. Yet the absurd violence of these times, in which addiction can drive individuals to random mugging and murder in the streets of the richest cities, and international terrorism can send a jumbo jet through the office windows high above, was inconceivable when this era began.

Freedom from fear seems even more remote than when FDR made it one of his Four Freedoms in January 1941. Freedom from want should be far behind us also – given the extraordinary productiveness of our economic systems – but this too eludes many millions around the globe, as do freedom of speech and freedom of religion still in many parts of the world.

What is the root of the problem? Why are we still oppressed?

The standard answer is that capitalism is inherently evil – as though evil was a function of economic and political organisation. Logically this analysis proposes a repetition forever of the capitalist/socialist face-off that dominated the period before 1989. Who really wants to go through all that again? There is need for a new analysis – one that does not scapegoat ‘systems’ for human failure, but looks for the root of the human failing that prevents capitalism from developing a truly human face. That failing clearly warped political socialism also, especially when it gained control of a sizeable economy – creating an oligarchy of ideologues even more nasty than the reactionary aristocracy of the ancien regime.

We can gain some insight into this by remembering one of the most obvious anomalies of the Soviet Union in its last years – those secret shops that imported western consumer goods and sold them only to the soviet socialist elite. Western hi-fis, videos and large-screen TVs – and no doubt Irish whiskey – passed through these places into the luxurious dachas of the politburo outside Moscow – and it was eventually the shortfall in such goods (as well as Reagan’s proposed Star Wars anti-missile defence system) that convinced Gorbachev that Marxism-Leninism as he knew it could not match the West either technically or economically. The world’s greatest experiment in socialism failed at that moment.

The soviet demand for such goods can be explained simply as mimetic desire – an irresistible and largely unacknowledged urge to possess what is possessed by others – especially those with whom one is in rivalry. It can be guessed that Khrushchev’s goggle-eyed amazement at US consumer society on his visit to the US in 1959 led directly to these Orwellian purchases, which eventually bankrupted the integrity of his own revolutionary generation.

Rene Girard insists that where we find conflict we should look for similarity, not difference. As a teacher of history I was trained to explain the Cold War as essentially a struggle of contradictory ideologies – free market liberalism versus Marxist totalitarianism. However, there was also simple rivalry for global dominance between two societies that had both risen to the status of superpower in the preceding two centuries, their armies meeting along the Elbe in 1945. Wherever human endeavour brings triumph, an antithetical challenge will sooner or later emerge.

Mimetic desire (that is, desire borrowed by imitation) and rivalry also dominate the current face-off between Islamic radicalism and the west. Osama bin Laden emphasises the differences between his ultra-puritanical version of Islam and western decadence, as the root of his quarrel with America. Why then not simply take pride in this moral superiority and leave the West to perish in its decadence? The fact is that the west possesses something that bin Laden wants – supremacy in technology, especially military technology, and the geopolitical supremacy this also brings. Radical Islam is, through people like Bin Laden, in rivalry for global political, cultural and religious supremacy with the West.

So, wherever there is conflict look not for differences, but for similarities – especially similarity in objectives. President Bush is currently riding on the crest of a wave of patriotic fervour in the US, with many feeling that the original zeal of the American dream is being restored. Yet every TV picture of the flaunted stars and stripes is bound now to call forth equally chauvinistic Islamism when redisplayed by El Jazeera. Outside Latin America the ‘War on Terrorism’ seems to have only Islamic targets – Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and possibly even Indonesia – and this can only feed into the polarisation bin Laden and his followers seek. It is above all TV that declares who is glorious and who is impoverished today – and TV currently contrasts the ruins of Afghanistan and the lush lawns of Hollywood, stating clearly the disparity that Islamic radicalism seeks to end in blood.

And similarities too explain the current crisis between India and Pakistan. Both states want undisputed possession of Kashmir, but neither government can yield it and survive.

As for Ireland’s conflict, although the surface complexities have deterred people as intelligent as Graham Green from attempting an analysis, it’s clear by now that simple rivalry for dominance of the north-east lies at the back of the contest between green and orange paramilitarism. The latter emerged in mimetic response to the rise of Provisionalism in the early 1970s, until then the focus of the global media. Although Sinn Fein has stressed its leftist credentials, it has not rejected suggestions that it might become the crutch supporting Fianna Fail if the latter again fails to win an overall majority in a general election this year – so mimetic desire for political status is clearly paramount for this supposedly new political broom also. And the standard explanation for the original outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s is that a newly educated young Catholic intelligentsia found itself shut out of the usual economic rewards in a discriminatory Unionist society. That is, frustrated desire for wealth and status was again crucial in explaining the onset of violence in 1969.

As for the random violence of the streets, in London in early January of this year a teenager was shot in the head when she objected to the theft of her mobile phone – currently the most saleable and portable of consumer durables. The wealth-producing sector of western society must display the fruits of its labour – infuriating those who still remain outside that sector, especially if they also belong to a racially disadvantaged minority. This same factor was clearly at work in the race riots that traumatised several British cities in the summer of 2001.

What of that other western anomaly – school violence – the focus of so much American angst prior to what they now call 9/11? Significantly, the leading spirit in the worst example of that violence, Eric Harris, confided to video the root of his alienation before shooting twelve of his schoolmates dead in Littleton, Colorado: “Everywhere I went I had to start again at the bottom.” He was referring to the problem posed by his semi-nomadic soldier father – moved about from base to base. US High Schools too are pyramids of esteem – an extraordinary fact in the state supposedly founded upon the principle of human equality.

The root of the violence that oppresses the world can therefore, it seems, be reduced to conflicting mimetic desire. The possessions, status and power we acquire through success, automatically become desirable to those without these. Our media flaunt our Western success globally in the faces of the uneducated and impoverished. Where these have inherited a proud memory of earlier cultural and military achievement – and this is especially true of the Arab world – we can expect a deadly rivalry to flourish.

Rivalry is also the basic dynamic of the power games played by competing political parties in the democratic world, and often causes internal fissures within parties as well – as the relationship between chancellor and prime minister in Britain currently illustrates. Here again the media are misled into looking for differences between rivals, rather than similarities. Very little of ideological importance now divides the parties or personalities that alternate in office in the major democracies.

Yet real equality remains elusive. A large underclass, often educationally disadvantaged, seems permanently shut out of the ‘good life’ shared by the ‘meritocratic’ elites. And it is this underclass that suffers most from addiction, unemployment and urban violence. Meritocracy is, of course the self-promoting ideology of the ‘bright’ people who currently enjoy the western gravy train.

Post modernism tends to argue that all ideologies are designed to empower those who purvey them. Very little separates this insight from the basic Christian premise that, unredeemed, we are a selfish species that makes war upon our own weakest members. Mimetic desire describes our basic weakness precisely, in a manner that makes it rationally inescapable.

The conclusion is inescapable also: western politics can be rejuvenated only by a realisation that true freedom and equality can be achieved only through a recovery of spirituality. The deep well of corruption that alienated voters from British Conservatism in the early nineties is now beginning to taint pristine New Labour – and in Ireland cynicism on the same evil knows no bounds. Although Ireland is now gearing up for another general election, the political polarities of the 1920s that provide the only logic of our two-party system are now entirely meaningless. There is a need for an entirely new kind of politics here and throughout the West.

It will be based upon a value system that will roundly challenge liberal meritocracy by arguing that humans everywhere are inalienably equal in dignity, and can never lose or gain in that respect. We are indeed differentially gifted, but this asymmetry should be seen as similar to that of an orchestra, in which the differing contributions of all are of equal value. Education will be redesigned to develop all intelligences equally – including, above all, spiritual intelligence.

There is this much wisdom in liberalism: that genuine equality is indeed the only route to freedom. However, how come that in the most ‘egalitarian’ societies liberal politicians are themselves tolerant of a social hierarchy almost as layered in terms of social esteem as any that preceded it? How come they accept that some people become more equal than others by hogging media attention as well as power, and then rigging tax and educational systems to perpetuate that inequality? How come they are blind to the dynamics of rivalry, which explains their corruptibility as well as their conflicts? They above all need to become spiritually aware.

For Christians this awareness is best expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Only a deep appreciation of its wisdom can undermine the whole notion of celebrity that currently fuels the upward journey of millions. Media-borne celebrity is the supreme mirage – the stupid notion that some people are truly deserving of separation onto a higher plane of being. It is also the supreme object of political mimetic desire, as Tony Blair’s air borne posturing so well illustrates.

Which means in turn that the next Pope will need to include this in the re-evaluation of the role of the papacy that John Paul II has called for. As mimetic desire is the root of oppression and injustice, every spiritual leader should be emphasising that no-one ever really becomes more important, more worthy, than anyone else – and behaving accordingly.

This really should be no problem for any Christian. Nothing more characterises Jesus of Nazareth than the refusal of worldly elevation – from his first step down into the Jordan to join the sinners, to his acceptance of the cross. If the west is to deliver freedom to the world it must rediscover Christ as the gentlest but greatest enemy of mimetic desire. Imitating Him in this alone can indeed set the world free at last.

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Rehabilitating Satan

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2001

Since the 18th century Enlightenment, western modernity has ridiculed the notion of an intelligent power of evil separable from us yet bent upon our destruction, and has optimistically trusted in the power of reason to deliver Utopia. Post modernism has lost confidence in reason and banished all optimism, but remains closed to any spiritual dimension. Both God and Satan remain banished from the media discourse of most of those who seriously debate human affairs – including the question of where the world may be going. Even Christian theologians, although defensive of God, seem often slightly embarrassed by the question of Satan – as though he were a kind of demented and distant relation with obscure and unmentionable, and maybe even absurd, criminal tendencies who is best forgotten.

The fact that Hollywood has enthusiastically adopted this embarrassing relative doesn’t help matters. As lascivious progenitor of a human Antichrist bent upon world domination he becomes merely ridiculous – even more so than Dracula, Dr No or Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Yet the pervasiveness of evil in our time – never more horrifically demonstrated than on September 11th, 2001 – defies our expertise, and whatever optimism we can still muster. The West’s technological sophistication – quite capable of ending global deprivation – was turned against it with terrifying effect. America, ‘land of the free’, was attacked as though it was a global tyranny to be fought by the most merciless of means.

‘Diabolical’ we may say – at a loss for words of sufficient force – even while knowing that it is the demonisation of America by militant Islam that explains that day. That is, when we humans decide that any physical entity is ‘the root of all evil’, we will justify any means to destroy it – and that attempt becomes itself an archetype of evil. Nazism justified the Shoa in precisely the same way – ‘international Jewry’ had supposedly conspired against and humiliated Germany during and after World War 1, so its destruction was a holy duty. Yet this systematic attempt to destroy an entire people became itself the archetypal example of ‘diabolical’ evil in modern times.

Accusation is the essence of the demonisation process – the loading of blame onto a specific human target. If we identify the specifically demonic act as one of accusation we can make use of the insights of René Girard (succinctly presented in a recent post-retirement work *) both to interpret what is happening, and to predict what lies down the road. Girard the anthropologist needs to do no more than minutely describe a repetitive process of mimetic rivalry, accusation, violence and concealment to justify his theories. Christian faith can go beyond this to accuse the spirit of evil, Satan, which lies behind this process, tempting us to accuse one another.

The USA’s finger was within hours of the US catastrophe pointed at Osama bin Laden, catapulting him to world notoriety and, apparently, global Islamic fame. Within a month western high explosive – often with ‘NYPD’ painted on the casing – was ‘rearranging the rubble’ in Afghanistan, and causing much ‘collateral damage’. Soon Osama bin Laden was in turn accusing the USA of being the source of all that is wrong in the Islamic world, and urging Jihad.

What I propose here is simply that mutual demonisation is an inevitable consequence of the banishment of Satan, understood as ‘the accuser’ – the spirit of accusation – from human discourse. That is, if we fail to see the resort to mutual accusation as the imitative demonic process common to protagonists on the brink of conflict, and to stand apart from it, we, almost consciously, join the dance of death. Our common enemy is this spirit of accusation, busy on both sides. Unrecognised it operates freely through us – raising our arm to point in accusation, and to hurry us to arms. And once we use them we will, knowingly now, validate one another’s accusations. Thus Satan the accuser becomes also Satan the destroyer.

“How can Satan drive out Satan?” Jesus asked. Unless the accused is totally alone and powerless, the result of accusation is invariably counter-accusation. We have seen this law survive thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland, perfectly intact. It is the veritable source of human historical inertia, the repetitive resort to violence. It would be catastrophic if this same dynamic were now to polarise the West and Islam.

Of course accusation to be plausible will usually seek, and find, justification for itself. Bin Laden’s direct part in the September 11th atrocity may be hard to prove conclusively in court, but it fits perfectly his openly espoused programme of killing Americans wherever they can be found, and he explicitly approved and exulted in the attack afterwards. Moreover his wealth and energy will inevitably place him somewhere in the paths of some of the perpetrators, and in the weave of events, leading to the disaster.

But the purpose of accusation is more than to apportion blame. It also deflects attention from the accuser – often in a crisis likely to reflect badly upon that accuser. Bin Laden did precisely the same in forecasting US atrocities in Afghanistan as a means of winning support in Pakistan, and of deflecting attention from the appalling scale and manner of death in Washington and New York.

To date I have not heard any US politician ask why the appalling weaknesses in US internal air security, spotted by the plotters probably as early as 1996, were not eliminated by those charged with this responsibility by the Washington administrations of both Bill Clinton and George Bush. Could the reason be that both of the great American political parties have been catastrophically remiss – for purely wealth-driven reasons? And when the plight of the Palestinians is raised as a cause of Islamic fundamentalist wrath, the hawkish response is to allege that some kind of moral equivalence is being argued. To placate American opinion – severely shocked by this unprecedented blow to its heart – the military hardware they finance through taxation must be put in motion eastwards, even if this does cause further havoc among the desperately poor of Afghanistan. As I write, Americans wait for some kind of dénouement there in the arrest of Bin Laden – so the deflective power of accusation is still doing its job.

The best of all lessons on the proper Christian approach to accusation is the story of the woman accused of adultery in the Temple, in Jesus’ presence. He did not address the accusation, but the accusers. Accusation deflects attention and focuses anger elsewhere by implying a moral imbalance between accuser and accused. Not only is the accused guilty, the accuser is also innocent. The scapegoating violence that normally followed such a charge was intended to envelop Jesus also – either in complicity or opposition. His direct appeal to the self-knowledge of the accusers – and to their knowledge of one another – prevented the throwing of the initial and always fatal stone.

To allude to Satan then in this context is to point to the power of the spirit of accusation in unifying one community against another. Evils exist both in a seriously sick western culture that threatens an unmodernised Islam, and in an Islamic fundamentalism that naively scapegoats America – and these must both be addressed.

When addressing the problems of the west – especially an unbounded and glorified consumerism that unbalances the world and threatens its environment – we may be temped to resort to the accusatory word ‘greed’, especially in relation to America. Yet the Bible does not make this accusation. Again it places the blame for all our weaknesses upon a spiritual entity that tempts us, without being an essential part of us. ‘You shall be as Gods!’ – this is the original temptation: to forsake the obscurity and dependence of the creature for the glory and power of the creator. To say ‘yes’ to this temptation is to admit the spirit of material dissatisfaction and ambition – the very core of Western economic dynamism and military power.

When the artist known as Madonna can assert that she will continue her career until she is ‘better known than God’, she unwittingly validates completely this biblical diagnosis of what is wrong with all of us. Our self-regard depends more and more upon the degree to which we suppose we are regarded by others – and this is the root source of our acquisitiveness. Possessions are the social symbols of success, of ‘worth’, and money the means by which these symbols are to be acquired. Celebrity is the final seal: ‘I am known by millions, therefore I exist’.

The Enlightenment was therefore entirely wrong in supposing that the concepts of sin and Satan are an indictment of humankind. Instead they are a means by which the perennial evils we visit upon one another are explained in terms that deny us the right to accuse one another, and also offer us the means of a full reconciliation, in mutual respect.

Thus when President Bush tells an American audience ‘we are the greatest nation on earth’ we need not say ‘There you are – American arrogance and imperialism!’  We can say instead that in a moment when American self-respect has been seriously damaged the temptation to hyperbole has proved irresistible. And when bin Laden identifies America as the root of all evil we can ask ‘What role, then, does Satan, the tempter, play in your theology?’

And when right and left fall into separate bitter camps over the relative evil of ‘terrorist’ and state violence we can point out that the debate needs to move on – to identify the spirit of self-exculpation and accusation in both camps as the root of the problem. Islamic societies seem to be as easily deflected from the horrors of September 11th as Americans are from the sufferings of Palestinians and other Muslims due to Western failure.

There is no doubt that otherwise we must all seek a violent righteousness – a position of moral unassailability from which we can indict everyone else. We will continue forever demonising one another until we can recognise that the temptation to do so – a temptation that is resistible – affects us all, afflicts us all, but is nevertheless separable from our better selves. And this tempter has the same name in both the Bible and the Quran.

  * I See Satan Fall like Lightning : René Girard (Orbis Books, New York, 2001)

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