Saturday, April 16, 2011

No Country for Old Gods

This is the opening section of an interpretation of the film No Country for Old Men, which appeared in the journal Perspectives on Political Science. The article, which is an analysis and explanation of the movie, can be found here.

William Butler Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium” tells of an old man who yearns to be part of something eternal in the face of his own approaching death. A perennial theme of artists and poets, at least until the advent of post-modernism, the narrator seeks immortality through art, and asks of the sages on a mosaic wall who stand in “God’s holy fire,”

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.

He’s coming from a country whose inhabitants do not contemplate eternal monuments, caught up as they are in the cycle of coming into being and passing away. This, the narrator says, “is no country for old men.”

The old man in the film No Country for Old Men is sheriff Ed Tom Bell, but unlike the narrator of Yeats’ poem, he cannot find a way out of this world. We hear Bell’s opening monologue over scenes of the desolate landscape of West Texas, as hard and beautiful a country as the United States has to offer. It is not the desolation of Texas that defeats Bell, but its harshness does offer a clue about his inability to find a home here. The novel by Cormac McCArthy almost seems written for the Coen brothers, and its prologue echoes the first scenes of the Coens’ first movie, Blood Simple, which also opens with images of the Texas desert and a narrator who explains that in Texas, “you’re on your own.” West Texas is large and sparsely populated, with the long Mexican border opening onto a savage wilderness from which almost anything might emerge. Even by 1980 (when the movie is set) it was a hard place to police, and Ed Tom is the embodiment of law and order in the land. A new form of disorder, in the form of vicious Mexican drug gangs, has appeared and shaken the foundations of this old order.

This new world is the country Bell finds unbearable, and the challenge of living in it is a persistent theme for McCarthy (as well as the Coen brothers), which is why so many of his books are set on a frontier. Bell’s family had been in Texas for several generations and he “always liked to hear about the old timers,” who seemed to live in simpler times. We find out later, though, that this nostalgia may be misplaced: the frontier had always been a wild and savage place that required enormous fortitude from its inhabitants. This country, his uncle Ellis tells him, “is hard on people.” It is not Texas, but the modern world, which nothing seems to be holding together and in which ‘you’re on your own’ that breaks Ed Tom Bell.

The young man in the film, Llewellyn Moss, who finds the money, is able to adapt to this world and, despite his premature death, is not broken under its weight. Where Bell sees only uncontrollable chaos around him, Moss does what he can to take hold of his situation, and shows great resourcefulness in the process. Despite his imperfections, Moss faces the challenge of the modern world head on and although he dies while Bell lives, he is the closest thing in the movie to a hero.

The villain, Anton Chigurh, conveniently dressed in black throughout the movie and undoubtedly its strangest character, believes himself to be in complete control of events and exempt from the chance that determines the fate of those around him. Early in the film, he sits on Moss’ sofa after breaking into his trailer home and stares oddly at his reflection as if experiencing déjà vu. Shortly after, Bell arrives and sits looking at his own reflection from the same spot. Both Chigurh and Bell drink from Moss’ bottle of milk. Just as each of these three men, who never share the screen, sits looking at the same TV, we are invited to compare them and how they make their way in the modern world.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Caste Discrimination Protest

I was recently in India for a wedding, and while walking in New Delhi I saw a march against caste discrimination. This was February 16 2009. There wasn't much media attention, but the target seems to have been a bill that would eliminate reserved posts in academia for certain castes. This is somewhat like affirmative action programs in the US, and there is an informative article on the subject here.

Once they saw me with my camera, many wanted their pictures taken. They got a kick out of seeing themselves on the screen afterward.

Ramalinga Raju was the head of Satyam computers who was arrested for embezzlement and fraud - some compare him to Bernie Madoff. Others point out that caste cronyism and nepotism are rife in Indian companies, which may lead to more Satyam-style scandals.

Friday, December 7, 2007

At Home in the Exurbs - A Review of Peter Lawler's Homeless and at Home in America

“We Americans are the most homeless and the most at home people of the West today.” This is the central paradox of Peter Augustine Lawler’s latest book, Homeless and at Home in America: Evidence for the Dignity of the Human Soul in Our Time and Place (St. Augustine’s Press, 2007). The book is a collection of essays (often published elsewhere) on a wide variety of topics, from Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons and bioethics to Casablanca and Tocqueville. The chapters, though, fit well together and are linked by a set of related themes. The book, written in Lawler’s usual engaging and often humorous style, presents a fascinating argument from one of the chief proponents of what he calls the “‘crowd’ of American faith-based, non-libertarian, Strauss influenced thinkers.” This group is part of a growing school of thought Lawler refers to as “conservative postmodernism – postmodernism rightly understood,” which “…is associated with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and American literary Thomists such as Marion Montgomery, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor.” Tocqueville is one of their favorite authors. This line of thought is a reaction against modernity for its failure to comprehend what it means to be truly human; that is, as creatures that occupy the ‘middle class’ between beasts and God.

The first chapter, which sets up the framework for the rest of the book, explores how Americans are at home and how they are homeless by contrasting Heidegger’s view of America with that of G.K. Chesterton. Heidegger, according to Lawler, sees the American middle class as being “…in the thrall of a technological utopianism that is making human beings everywhere ever more displaced or homeless.” This process of Americanization leads to an obsession with science and technology insofar as it can prolong our lives. “But that means,” Lawler says, “that we are more defined by our working against death than ever before: our material prosperity has done the opposite of freeing us middle-class beings from the need to work.” Americanization has also altered what it means to be human: “The ‘soul,’ for example, means less and less to us, and we have nothing to say about death. Anything that eludes the technological thinking of calculation and control is nothing, an illusion, we say. In that sense we are nihilists.”

For G.K. Chesterton, on the other hand, America is “…a nation with the soul of a church.” Like a church, America is an asylum for the homeless and a place where the individual is not rootless, but “newly rooted as a free and equal citizen.” On this view, atheism is un-American and “our technology is subordinate to our real souls and our real God.” Chesterton also recognized the influence of modern technological thinking on America and the consequent sense of homelessness. This, though, is not necessarily at odds with a Christian understanding of the world since “…no Christian can experience himself as completely at home in this world.” For this reason Americans are the most at home and the most homeless people in the world.
For Lawler, this uneasy tension in fact mirrors “…the truth about our middle-class existence under God.” Against the technological view that sees the world in terms of mathematical and solvable problems, Lawler recognizes that “[t]he moral and spiritual conflicts or at least tensions that constitute the human soul aren’t problems to be solved, but just part of our being.” The heroes of Lawler’s book are church-going middle-class natalists (those who have large families) who live in the exurbs (those indeterminate places beyond the suburbs), who probably shop at Walmart and who see themselves as created beings rather than evolved animals. These exurbanite natalists are the real core of America and the only thing that really distinguishes Americans from Europeans, who are not at home with their homelessness and are “losing themselves in postpolitical, postreligious, and postfamilial fantasies.”
In chapters dealing with the work of Thomas Pangle and Allan Bloom, Lawler explains why Leo Strauss and his followers were wrong to view Americans simply as relativists who have not yet succumb to some form of totalitarian thought only because of a blind and uninformed preference for liberal ‘values.’ In fact, Lawler claims, in large part because of this religious backbone, Americans are “the least Americanized or least technological or least hopelessly homesick and nihilistic nation in a Heideggerian sense today.” American ‘values’ therefore, are not simply the result of blind choice but the reflection of a truer way of life than that of Europeans.

Part of this truth is that we are creatures with souls and are not reducible to either bodies or minds. The tendency to identify ourselves primarily with our bodies leads to “…an increasingly paranoid, puritanical, and prohibitionist attitude toward health and safety,” while the tendency to understand ourselves somehow as minds apart from our bodies allows us to treat our bodies, and even our moods, as property to be sold and manipulated technologically (Lawler discusses the latter in his excellent chapter, “Is the Body Property?”). Part of understanding ourselves as creatures with souls means rejecting the premises of “Darwinian sociobiology” and its reduction of man to drives and instincts. One of Lawler’s strongest arguments for the untruth of this doctrine is that those who do not believe in it are often much happier than those who do. Ironically, as he points out, this means that in evolutionary terms, those who reject Darwinism have a competitive advantage over those who do – they have larger families and are more willing to make sacrifices for their children and thus are more likely to perpetuate the species.

Lawler’s argument for changing our view of what it means to be human is a strong one, as is his argument that we are in need of manly virtue (in Harvey Mansfield’s and Tom Wolfe’s terms). On the other hand, it seems to rely on belief in a personal God – many of the chapters end with an appeal in this direction. But what about those readers who recognize the power and to some extent the truth of this argument, but who are not religious believers? If Pangle has “…propped up [revelation] to be stronger than he really thinks it is on its own,” Lawler might be accused of neglecting the side of reason to an even greater degree. Although Lawler claims that “…we students of political philosophy really live the tension…between reason and revelation insofar as we’re not perfect philosophers,” the implication of the work as a whole seems to be that belief in Christianity and a personal God is fundamental to living well for all but the true philosophers. This seems to be a rather limited account of the resources available to human beings when it comes to understanding that they are more than matter in motion.

Lawler claims that his is a “very pro-American book.” But it doesn’t take long to discover that what he really means is that it is a very pro-red-American book. The criticism that he levels against Europeans could just as easily be leveled against great swaths of ‘blue’ Americans. As he says, “Remove our observant religious believers from the American scene, and our birthrate is the same as that of the demographic time bomb France.” But this raises a question about the book’s aim: is it intended solely as an intellectual justification of a way of living and thinking that already exists, or is it meant to influence a wider audience that may not accept Lawler’s starting premises? The book may be more successful at the former. For those who do not accept these premises, however, it remains an enormously thought-provoking book.

An edited version of this review will appear in the March 08 edition of the Canadian Journal of Political Science

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Living Among the Dead

According to al-Jazeera's story, there are thousands of homeless in Cairo, and "Many in fact are being forced to live among the dead." One would think that this is a new phenomenon from the story - in fact, Egyptians have been living in these very large cemeteries for centuries. Some parts have electricity, running water and sewers. Those interviewed in the story show a lack of uneasiness about living where they do and this is presented as a shocking testament their plight. The truth is that Egyptians are just not particularly put off by this. At least the Muslims aren't - no one lives in the large Christian cemeteries in Cairo's Coptic neighbourhood. These places are poor, no doubt, but they are not the poorest or the last resort of the homeless. There are many impressive tombs (such as Sultan Qaitbey's mosque - depicted on the one pound note)) in the Northern cemetery and these cemeteries are well-worth visiting.

UPDATE: Here is a more recent article which says that Egyptians are now being forced to live in cemeteries - despite interviewing people who have lived there for 30 years. According to the article, the government is now trying to stop tourists from entering and taking pictures of the inhabitants. They've also closed Qaitbay's mosque. Below is a picture of the mosque (hard to photograph in the close quarters) with a four storey apartment building beside it - with air conditioning. Although it is true that Cairo is constantly expanding, the cemeteries are not the last resort of the poor - the city is expaning outward into the valley's farmland ([picture below) and the desert.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Reading Mein Kampf in Cairo

My article in the Jerusalem Post can be found here. The Introduction to Mein Kampf is here.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

Spoiler Warning It would be better to watch the movie before reading this post.

According to the description on the Netflix envelope, The Lives of Others (a title evoking Vasari's Lives of the Artists), set in East Berlin in the 1980s, is “…a nuanced portrait of life under the watchful eye of the state police as a high-profile couple is bugged. When a successful playwright and his actress companion become the subjects of the Stasi’s secret surveillance program, their friends, family and even those doing the watching find their lives changed too.” What this movie is actually about is art and the role of the artist in society.

In one of the opening scenes, a Stasi officer and the minister of culture discuss the playwright Georg Dreyman, who is supposed to be the only non-subversive writer in the country “who is also read in the West.” Why are there so many subversive artists in totalitarian regimes? Artists are always troublemakers to some degree and the lack of freedom in these states is particularly grating. There is something more at work, though, than a simple desire for freedom. These regimes force a materialist understanding of what it means to be human onto their citizens - even the Stasi prostitutes work on a tight schedule. This understanding implicitly denies the very reason art exists in all civilizations and societies.

At the heart of this movie is the question of what it means to be a human being, and, more importantly, a good human being, and the role art plays in this.

Wiesler, the agent in charge of the surveillance of Dreyman is part of the Stasi. The Stasi’s goal is to ‘know everything.’ This knowledge though is limited to what can be written down, quantified and recorded with the various machines that surround Wiesler throughout the film. In one scene, two Stasi agents discuss a system for classifying artists into five types with matching prison conditions for each. Of course, what an artist attempts to convey cannot be captured in these terms.

One of the central themes of Dreyman’s plays is that people can change. This is a claim that the minister of culture denies. This story, though, is of the transformation of Wiesler through art. At Dreyman’s birthday party, his former director, who has been blacklisted, gives him a piece of music called “Sonata for a Good Man.” Later, when the director hangs himself, Dreyman plays this piece of music. Wiesler is listening through hidden microphones, and, despite his usual stoic demeanor, is profoundly moved by the piece. At this point, Dreyman says to the actress Christa-Maria, “You know what Lenin said about Beethoven’s Appassionata. ‘If I keep listening to it, I won’t finish the revolution’. Can anyone who has heard this music – I mean truly heard it – really be a bad person?”

Wiesler is not an artist, but he has become part of the true audience. When he sees Christa-Maria at a bar, torn between continuing her forced affair with the minister of culture and staying with Dreyman and jeopardizing her career, he responds when she asks whether she should sell herself for art that she already has art, “I’m your audience,” he says, “You’re a great artist. Don’t you know that?” She replies, before returning to Dreyman, “And you’re a good man.” It is through contact with art that Wiesler finds the strength and inspiration to defend Dreyman from his own organization. In doing so he takes a great risk and the result is that his already dreary life is made even worse. After his promotion ban, Wiesler, without his uniform and powerful position, appears smaller but more human.

Chris McClure

Monday, September 24, 2007

Trastevere and the Colosseum

The Colosseum
Erica Alini
Trastevere, the 'heart of Roma'

Chris McClure

Saturday, September 15, 2007

DC Anti-War Protest, September 15, 2007

These are some pictures from the anti-war protest (and counter protest) in Washington DC on September 15, 2007. As usual, all sorts came out of the word-work for this one.

Many of the counter-protesters were veterans. Despite heated arguments, the two groups never came to blows (not that I saw, anyways).

The most popular chant was, "This is what democracy looks like!" Did that include all those protesters wearing masks? Some of those wearing masks were chanting 'jihad, jihad' at one point (see below, 16 seconds remaining). I'm not sure why they were chanting this - maybe it's some sort of new 'Hamas-chic?' What is clear is that even though many of the protesters might have had something valid to say and were serious about it, they were somewhat discredited by the large number of oddballs promoting all sorts of fringe issues - everything from veganism to the notion that Hillary Clinton and Obama are trying to outdo each other in a race to invade Iran (there was an effigy of Hillary with 'blood on her hands').

Chris McClure

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Middle East Radio

Perhaps the most common thing one hears on the radio in Egpytian taxis, buses and internet cafes is Quran Radio - recitations from the Quran and other religious programming.

In Israel, the most popular radio station is Galgalatz - Israeli Army Radio. It's run by soldiers and is meant in part to alleviate the tedium of long bus rides. It's also quite fun. The word 'Galgalatz' is derived from the Hebrew acronym for IDF (Israeli Defense Forces).

Quran Radio Cairo


The picture above is of a speaker at a friend's place in Jerusalem. Wrapped around the speaker is a headband taken from a Hamas member by my friend's roommate (a paratrooper in the IDF).

Chris McClure