Sunday, July 21

Patriotic rhetoric lives long and prospers


Patriotic rhetoric lives long and prospers

American media fail to portray political realities

"Entertainment – the American state philosophy … the diverted
already have no idea from what they are diverted or why."

– loosely translated from Wim Wenders "The American Dream"

As I make my way to and from class every day, I see the
Fruitopia advertisement: "Cynicism removed naturally." It annoys me
to no end, and I have absolutely no idea what it means; though it
implies that the idea of cynicism is a bad or unnatural thing,
when, in fact, it is quite often insightful.

Stemming from the Greek kunikos, meaning "like a dog," cynicism
described a cosmopolitan, anti-materialistic social movement that
advocated a return to a more natural way of life. As the cynics
were committed social critics, it is not too surprising that their
name now represents the belief that "all people are motivated by
selfishness."

In any case, I like to reverse the slogan and say, "Nature
removed cynically."

In "The Poetics," Aristotle described most arts, including drama
and music, as imitations. That is, all fiction performed is,
however skillfully done, essentially artificial. The influence of
such storytelling, and entertainment in general, is grand indeed.
Truly, Nintendo has gone very far in solving the class problem.

If we believe Barbara Boxer, the American entertainment industry
helped win the Cold War by spreading ideas of American freedom and
democracy. And sure enough, movies like "Superman" ("truth, justice
and the American way"), "Star Wars," "Rambo," Chuck Norris films
and "Rocky" (just to name a few) cannot in any way be mistaken as
pro-communism.

How about "Forrest Gump" – that impartial, objective movie in
which the main representative of the student revolt is a Students
for a Democratic Society man who beats the leading lady and is set
straight by a punch from soldier Gump?

Even more striking is "Crimson Tide," in which the underlying
assumption is that the Führer need only give the order
properly, and committing nuclear holocaust becomes duty.

At one time, I was a "Star Trek" fan. I still remember the
first, eagerly awaited episode. In it, a god-like entity known only
as "Q" kidnaps the crew and places them on trial in an
Inquisition-like setting. The charges are man’s inhumanity to man,
and the crew has to answer for the crime.

So Capt. Jean Luc Picard, the embodiment of the Enlightenment,
admits man’s misdeeds, but then says in a booming voice, "But we’ve
learned." Naturally, he is very vague about what exactly was
learned or how. The question is conveniently dodged. One wonders if
the writers intend to imply that being humane is a technical rather
than moral consideration, like everything else on "Star Trek."

If platonists are right to believe that ignorance is the reason
for evil ("no one errs willingly"), perhaps there are grounds for
the belief that the simple progress of civilization will remedy the
ills of human conflict.

Of course, this is contrary to human experience thus far. The
pinnacle of progress is aptly represented by nuclear power, of
which the first practical use was the massacre of hundreds of
thousands of people.

(By the way, when the curator of the Smithsonian museum wanted
to exhibit the Enola Gay in late 1994, and present the bomb’s
necessity as a disputable question, veteran groups complained, and
the government threatened to cut off funding if the project was not
made sufficiently patriotic. The project was later dropped.)

One of the subplots of "Star Trek" is Lt. Data’s quest to be
human. The other races and Data show what it means not to be human,
while the crew defines what is human, even though all of these
hominids are imitations of humans and have equal claims to human
nature.

Since "Star Trek’s" different cultures and races have their own
authority and military structures, the show certainly is a parable
of international relations. The U.S.S. Enterprise crew has ranks,
obeys orders and wears uniforms (and is admired by a civilian
audience).

"Star Trek" has even kept up with current events, particularly
in "Star Trek V." Produced shortly after the Soviet collapse, the
movie features Chernobyl, Klingon power struggles and a meeting of
the United Nations at the end. The parallel is as unmistakable as
it is unfair to the Russians, who are, as usual, treated as violent
beasts in the American consciousness.

The worst part of this parody is the heroic Federation. As
usual, the Americans see themselves as the only humans, and pat
themselves on the back for their peaceful and benevolent mission to
help the universe. The crew helps hapless aliens with technical
advice and gives them the secrets of free enterprise – oops, I mean
the secrets in the computers of the Starship Enterprise.

The reality is quite different. On one episode of "The MacNeil
Lehrer News Hour," State Department officials (who feared funding
cuts) were most adamant in pointing out that "foreign aid is not
charity," and that when it does not serve the "national interest,"
it is not given out.

One kind of "help" that American tax dollars did fund was a
program at Panama’s School for the Americas which taught Latin
American army officers how to effectively use torture. Another
method was recruiting ex-Gestapo agent Klaus von Barbie for service
in Bolivia to train paramilitary groups after World War II.

"At Issue," required reading for a political science course at
UCLA, unabashedly talks about how the function of "death squads" in
U.S.-supported countries is to inspire "deference." (It’s really a
fascinating way to describe rule by terror.)

Unlike "Star Trek," which presents a total lack of vested
interest in foreign policy, the United States has some vaguely
defined (Middle East) and clearly defined (Latin America) spheres
of influence.

Consider Panama (Reagan: "We built it; it’s ours"): The U.S.
Army went abroad to arrest a foreigner in his country and brought
him back to a U.S. courtroom for trial under U.S. law. Ergo,
American law has jurisdiction in Panama. Legal jurisdiction is a
close definition of the boundaries of a state. Ergo, Panama is
legally under the authority of the United States. (At least, we
should give Panamanians the vote in U.S. elections.)

Commercial television (totally), film (mostly), radio (largely)
and newspapers (to a certain extent) must all confess their failure
to inform properly. Our new mission: to seek out new and
interesting ways to entertain ourselves – without deluding
ourselves. There are still Public Broadcast Stations and National
Public Radio (not for long); foreign film; the alternative, foreign
and radical press; good forms of nonelectronic entertainment and
even a few gems in American cinema.

One of these gems is "Pulp Fiction." Lambasted by Sen. Robert
Dole as destroying "the American soul," it contains perhaps seven
deaths and a total of 16 violent scenes. Estimated deaths in "True
Lies," which starred staunch Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and
was cited by Sen. Bob Dole this spring as appropriate family fare,
totaled 94 (U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 25, 1995).

"Pulp Fiction," which presented death as something bizarre and
uncomfortable, is a stark contrast to the wholesome fun of killing
Arabs.

However, Dole is neither an idiot nor a hypocrite; what is
important to him, in particular, and public figures, in general, is
not to be accurate, but to be believed. And if enough people are
credulous and unaccustomed to a natural sense of distrust, the more
those like Dole will continue to find such lapses profitable.

Osman is a fourth-year history student. His column appears on
alternate Mondays.

Mike Osman

If platonists are right to believe that ignorance is the reason
for evil ("no one errs willingly"), perhaps there are grounds for
the belief that the simple progress of civilization will remedy the
ills of human conflict.

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