Wednesday, November 14, 2012

M for Mummy

Now we know what M in the James Bond franchise stands for. Mummy, of course.

For those who have not yet seen the latest James Bond movie "Skyfall", it is highly recommended. It manages to be tongue-in-cheek without being cutesy; nostalgic without being soppy; and action-oriented without wasting an entire arsenal of ordnance. The visuals are great: Daniel Craig is good-looking in a craggy, unshaven sort of way; and the plot (almost) makes sense.

But the greatest achievement of the movie as far as I'm concerned is to rewrite the foundation of Western civilization: the Oedipal myth. Until now, the conflict between fathers and sons has been central to our most exalted narratives (see Hamlet and Star Wars). If you believe Harold Bloom (I don't), the father-son relationship underlies the dynamics of literary creativity (see The Anxiety of Influence). And yet James Bond has as little regard for Dr. Freud as he had for Dr. No.

The plot of the movie (spoilers alert!) hinges on the fact that Bond's boss, M (superbly played by Judy Dench,) has betrayed an agent named Silva to the nefarious Chinese.

(Incidentally, here is the link to a hilarious article on the Chinese reaction to this:

The agent comes to extract revenge and is defeated by Bond, who holds the mortally wounded M as she lies dying. No romance here: M is an old lady. But it is very clear that her relationship with Silva and Bond is the relationship between a stern mother and two sons who compete for her affection and approval. Silva is practically hysterical, begging M to kill both of them because, of course, matricide is the ultimate tabu. Bond is less emotional but more dutiful, which is why he becomes M's heir designate, continuing her work on behalf of Queen and country. There is no ghost of the father haunting this movie: authority and power are represented by a mother figure. It is as if Hamlet contested the crown with Gertrude or Luke Skywalker crossed swords with Mrs. Darth Vader.

What difference does it make? Very little, in my opinion. Power is power, whether wielded by a man or a woman. Family romance does not go very far in describing the dynamics of social hierarchies. But in the light of the latest soap opera unfolding in the CIA, with General David Petraeus brought down by a silly affair with his biographer, perhaps we could use some more of M's no-nonsense, I-told-you-to-clean-your-room maternal authority.   

Monday, July 16, 2012

My last thoughts on the sad plight of American cities - and the promised solution.

The modernist utopia of the city as a machine for living (Le Corbusier) is gone, together with the rest of modernist utopias: Communism, fascism, Nazism. I can recommend an excellent book by Mark Mazower "Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century" which describes the utopian tide that swept over the West in the aftermath of the butchery that was World War One - and its result in the even greater butchery of World War Two. So I will not mourn the loss of Detroit as a Fordian model for the future city, in which disciplined armies of uniformed workers produced uniform Models T for the uniformly happy citizens.

On the other hand, the deadly boredom of the suburbia is unsustainable, both economically and socially. I'm sick of seeing empty streets, occasionally relieved by a waddling figure of gargantuan proportions (this is, if the street even has a sidewalk).

So here is my own utopian solution. Bring in those "hungry multitudes" of Mexicans, Indians and Chinese who still believe in the American Dream abandoned by most Americans. Dump them in the ruined heart of Detroit, Oakland, Buffalo NY and similar urban wastelands. Promise them a path to citizenship if after five years they are still living in the city, paying taxes and have opened a small business or found a job. Send them back if they move to suburbia.

It's not going to happen, of course. There is no political will for doing something like this. And am I not contradicting myself, by mocking modernism's social engineering, while indulging in a social engineering of my own?

Very well, so I contradict myself, as Walt Whitman said. It is still the only way. Without it, American cities will die, while cities in the rest of the world (especially Asia) will grow and prosper. And cities are not only cultural and economic centers but a way to avoid the ecological catastrophe of cancerous growth, unrestrained traffic, and greenhouse-gas pollution.

On the other hand...On a recent visit to Oakland CA, which looks like Detroit's depressed sibling, we suddenly heard a buzz of human voices in the desert of abandoned buildings. We followed the sound...and were engulfed by a crowd of shoppers. They were all Chinese. Oakland's Chinatown on Sunday was so bustling that some dim-sum places had waiting lines. (Oh yes, the mayor of Oakland is Chinese).

"What is the city but the people?" Shakespeare, Coriolanus.            

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dispatches from Detroit - 2. Who Killed the Big D?

Detroit is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

I can just imagine the reactions to it. To most people, word associations with Detroit are: crime, decay, bankruptcy, apocalypse (not necessarily in this order). Most people are right, and still I stand by my assertion: Detroit is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

                                                       Part of the Rivera murals

Yesterday a couple of people from the conference I'm attending (Science Fiction Research Association annual gathering) drove to Detroit Institute of Art. This is a world-class museum, better and bigger than the De Young and Legion of Honor in San Francisco. It has a stunning collection of contemporary art, a great 19th century display (including Whistler, Pissarro and Gauguin), and the jaw-dropping atrium painted with murals by Diego Rivera. The murals show Detroit in the 1930s - the city of the future, with the industrial armies marching boldly into the working-class utopia of glass, skyscrapers and red stars (Rivera was a communist, a fact tactfully avoided by our helpful guide). But no matter: the murals are so stunning that for a moment one feels like belting out "The International". The atrium (newly renovated) should be filled with oohing and aahing crowds - and in San Francisco it would be. This Saturday morning in Detroit a couple of tourists wandered through the giant museum, looking lost and vaguely embarrassed.

Outside the museum, broad avenues of Art Deco high-rises, brownstone mansions and jewel-box churches stretched into the sunlight. The high-rises are abandoned -  vertical ghost-towns. The brownstones are locked up. The churches are burnt. In five blocks, we saw one person - a homeless black shambling through the empty city like an escapee from a zombie invasion.

                                                These skyscrapers are empty

The municipality has dotted the downtown with pretty little parks. I was relieved to see them empty. This morning, one of the participants in my panels described those green places as sites where bodies are dumped. I guess they had been removed earlier.

So what happened? Who killed the Big D? One of my fellow visitors reminded us of the concerted efforts of car companies in the mid-twentieth century to undermine public transportation. There are no more streetcars named desire, and Ford, GM and the rest of them are to blame. There is racism, of course. Segregation is just a word until you see the streets of Detroit where a white face means a visitor. And there is an all-American glorification of small-town life, which has created the nation of overweight gun-toting SUV-drivers. And still, it seems unbelievable  to me that a symbol of national aspirations and a world-class city would be just left to rot. Can you imagine the English walking away from London? The Italians abandoning Rome?

I have no complete answer to this enigma. But do I have a solution for Detroit? You bet. See the next installment.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Dispatches from Detroit - 1. Can One Enjoy a Dead City?

Detroit has an impressive GM center, a new riverside walk, and a spacious downtown, encircled by a light rail called "People Mover." What it does not have is people.

Detroit has become a symbol of the death of American cities. On my first visit here, I am beginning to understand that this death is a more complicated process than I supposed - a slow, gnawing decline rather than an apocalyptic destruction. I came expecting burnt-out streets and gutted buildings. I'm sure there are many such sights in the outer rings of the city but from where I am now - on the 14t-h floor of  a downtown hotel - Detroit looks very grand indeed. The skyscrapers, some in Art Deco style, are somewhat shabby but there is a crystal cluster of the new Renaissance Center by GM to promise new architectural glories. There are small parks, sky-walks, and wide pavements.

And no people. The parks are empty; the glass sky-walks are blazing with sunlight, unobstructed by moving bodies; even the river's placid flow is not marred by boats or cargo ships. The concrete labyrinth of RenCen should be bustling with retail and eateries: similar places in Asia shock you into parting with your money in a myriad colorful ways. A dejected pharmacy, a couple of junk food places, and a single boutique is all you get in this GM showpiece (well, there are also cars on display on the ground floor).

The giant riverside walk which is beautiful enough to make Melbourne is populated by a couple of cyclists and a group of black women in yellow t-shirts pathetically trying to undo the lifetime of junk food consumption by walking. There is a sign "God Bless America" on the terminal for crossing into Canada.

It is people who make a city. And the people are not here. Where are they? In the suburbia? Why? What made Americans give up this great city that for so long was a symbol of American pluck and ingenuity?
Why did they leave behind this beautiful urban corpse? I came expecting a Mad Max urban wasteland and found a sad mausoleum. What makes it even sadder is the fact that it refuses to die. The city fathers are  investing in revitalizing the downtown. Volunteers are organizing bus tours of local businesses. But one cannot have shops without customers; streets without pedestrians; cities without citizens.

The few local faces one sees on the streets are all black. Is this the key? The white escape to the suburbia is a well-documented phenomenon but it is spooky to see it so palpably in action. And still, racism aside, the mystery remains. Segregation is, unfortunately, a well-known urban phenomenon. But why did the affluent whites abandon the beauty and grandeur of the city center to the impoverished blacks? This is the opposite of what is happening in many European cities where the minorities are expelled into the boring, faceless suburbia.

Perhaps I will find an answer later. Still, I am enjoying downtown Detroit. It is the same kind of enjoyment one has in contemplating the ruins of other dead cities.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".  (Percy Bysshey Shelley, "Ozymandias")

Sunday, May 13, 2012

In Defence of Psychopaths

This is a story about a 9-year-old whose bratty behavior (temper tantrums, manipulation, lies) earns him not a spanking but a medical diagnosis and a 24-pages-long feature in the NYT. It turns out that Michael is not merely a bad boy but a "C.U." ("Callous-Unemotional") child, the latter being part of a new diagnostic methodology that not only labels children as young as 5 "psychopaths" but supports the view that "psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition".

This instantly calls to mind a horrifying image of a juvenile Ted Bundy luring playmates into the basement and dismembering them at leisure. But it turns out that Michael's behavior, while  unpleasant, is not exceptionally violent or cruel.  Rather, he is an odd child: cold, manipulative, angry, jealous and unloving. These are not winning traits. But are they a disease?

The story of Michael strikes me as another example of the growing medicalization of behavior, in which a narrow band of human responses and emotions is defined as "normal", while everything outside it becomes a subject of therapeutic intervention. Besides the obvious dangers of overmedication, I find this ethically and politically problematic. There is no tyranny like the tyranny of normalcy; no dictatorship like the dictatorship of mediocrity. Behind the story of Michale lurks the cardboard image of the suburban American family: and whoever does not fit into the Procrustean bed of their shallow happiness is "sick". But what about rebels, nonconformists, eccentrics or misanthropes? Are these human types to be declared "neurological conditions" in need of cure?

But, many will object, are not psychopaths dangerous? According to the article, more than 50% of adults diagnosed as psychopaths are guilty of no criminal behavior and many of them become highly successful, especially on Wall Street (I realize that this is a strong argument in favor of incarcerating them while still in diapers). Psychopaths are not incapable of moral reasoning; they are deficient in empathy. But the two are not the same. You can do the right thing for any number of reasons and it is not society's business to question the motivation, only to monitor the behavior. Otherwise, we end up in the world of "Clockwork Orange" (as pointed out by some comments on the article, the therapeutic "boot-camp" where Michael's family is sending him is uncomfortably close to the dystopian movie). By arguing that children like Michael need to be "taught" empathy, we miss the more important lesson of freedom and responsibility. Paradoxically, by trying to make psychopaths more humane, we destroy their humanity.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why Obama is Going to Lose

Well, I don't know that he is. In fact, the current Republican primaries show is more entertainment than serious politics. Still, our recent trip to Death Valley took us to some strange places and I don't mean only geographically. And even though this blog is not about politics (there is a glut of those already), I think there are interesting cultural implications of what I witnessed in the heartland of California - that is, in small and medium-sized economically depressed towns, far from the rich, liberal, technologically savvy coast.

There was a woman in a bookstore breathlessly telling her friend that there is a conspiracy to change the Constitution, make America into a UN protectorate, and force us all to eat genetically engineered food. There were "Trust Jesus" plaques along the roadside. And graffiti in public restrooms such as those in the picture above. The narrative is clear: a governmental conspiracy; a vast network of lies that obscures the simple truth of religion and/or Constitution. What Richard Hofstader called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" in his classic 1964 essay is alive and well:

But what is more significant is WHY it is so popular. It has nothing to do with mental illness or with the recent ridiculous suggestion by Chris Mooney that conservatives are genetically different from liberals (does living in Fresno instead of San Francisco affect your genome?).

No, conspiracy theories are popular because they are narratively stronger than wishy-washy liberalism. The woman I overheard in the bookstore had a narrative that seamlessly connected Obama, GM food, and her own depleted bank account. Adrift in a big, complex, chaotic world, she needed a story to cling to. This story is wrong but it is as compelling and dramatic as a Hollywood movie. It has no historical truth on its side but it has narrative truth and in a fight between the two, narrative truth always wins.

 Democrats, aghast at the irrationality of the Republican debates, marshal facts and statistics. They'd do better to consult a script-writing textbook that could teach them the basic elements of storytelling. Or perhaps a course in narrative theory should be mandatory for politicians (I wish!)