Thomas Paine:

“Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”

Saturday, October 4, 2008

There’s Plenty of Good Reading Along the Way to Our Final Kaput

         I am in the middle of Derrick Jensen’s, The Culture of Make Believe. This is preliminary reading for me, before I get to Endgame, his most recent book.

         I love this guy.

      In his chapter Giving Back the Land, he writes of a conversation he had with television critic George Gerbner. He quotes Gerbner as saying, “Because most scripts are written by and for men, they project a world in which men rule, and in which men play most of the roles. Television and movies project the power structure of our society, and by projecting it, perpetuate it, make it seem normal...
         Let’s say you try to countercast, or change the typical casting in a typical story. A woman, now, is going to wield power. She is going to use violence. Suddenly, you can’t tell any story other than the one that describes why this is so. The story has to revolve around why a woman is doing things that seem scandalous for her, yet seem normal for a man.”
         This is so true. And it is true whether violence is a factor in the story or not. Take the fact, for example, that the majority of scripts where an older man is sexually involved with a younger woman: the story is never required to be about the discrepancy in their ages; their age difference is often not an issue, may not even be mentioned, and the story —some other issue— functions, regardless. That is because, as Jensen might explain, the predominant “power structure of the society” is not threatened there. In contrast, just try to find a script where the woman is in a sexual relationship with a younger man, but the story is NOT about their age discrepancy.
         Consider two movies, say, Last Tango in Paris (perhaps a loaded choice) and The Graduate. Consider the controversy surrounding Tango: butter. Not rape, not age difference. No. We all sat there, watched the movie, and absorbed —gave tacit agreement with— rape, brutality, and the reduction of a human psyche —the young woman— to that of an irrelevancy, but got upset over the mention of butter. It is clear: Brando’s character had entitlement, except where butter is concerned; his victim was serving in her proper role, and, if I remember correctly, complicit and not terribly damaged by it all.
         Consider, by contrast, Mrs. Robinson’s place in culture, her fate; how she was reviled— remember Simon and Garfunkle’s taunting melody, “Hey, hey, hey...every way you look at it you lose...” and poor graduate, seduced and manipulated by the vile bitch? The thing is, we cannot have this, a woman upsetting the “natural order of things;” how men may use their wiley ways —beguile, tempt, seduce— or mind rape, or even rape, as in Tango; but a woman must remain passive and receptive, or, if she is over the age of, say, thirty-five (and that’s being generous), she must simply fade away.
         There have been exceptions. Harold and Maude comes to mind. But...wait a minute: the issue of their age difference was central to the story! Yes, it was presented delightfully, and Maude is one of my favorite, all-time characters, but, just the same, there you are—how a young man recovers his equilibrium, in love with an old lady. And she had to die in the end. Suicide, no less. Of course!
         Harold and Maude was no exception to the rule; it proved the rule— you cannot tell a story about an older woman and a younger man, without explaining how this heretical thing happened and what the consequences of it must be.
         Further along in the same chapter, Derrick Jensen quotes Gerbner again: “ a demonstration of power, and the real issue, once again, is who is doing what to whom. If time and again you hear and see stories in which people like you—white males in the prime of life—are more likely to prevail in a conflict situation, you become more aggressive, and if you are in the same culture, and a member of a group or gender that is more likely to be victimized, you grow up more insecure, more dependent, more afraid of getting into conflict, because you feel your calculus of risk is higher. how we train minorities. People aren’t born a minority, they are trained to act like a minority through that kind of cultural conditioning. And women, who are a numerical majority of humankind, still are trained to act like a minority. The sense of potential victimization and vulnerability is the key.”
         I watched part of a movie today that illustrated this very point. I say “part,” because, after I got the gist of the horrible thing, I fast-forwarded through the rest of it, stopping now and then to pick up the plot, just in case it got interesting. It didn’t. The movie was Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, with Sting and a pack of actors whose unintelligible British accents required subtitles.
         Here’s what I noticed though: all the characters were men, save two— a pole dancer in the background of one scene and a woman who occupied a couch in a semi-conscious state throughout several scenes, also mostly just as background to the main action; that is, until, in one promising scene, she roused herself to consciousness, having heard a ruckus in the room, seized her opportunity to save the day by grabbing an AK-47, then stood up and battered the room with three or four minutes of automatic gun fire, shredding the room and sending the bad guys diving for cover. While this was happening, I was thinking, “Hey, you go girl...” but when it was all over, and she stood there in rapt silence over the destruction she had wrought, or, hath wrought, the main bad guy stood up, said something like, “Where’d SHE come from?” then knocked her out with one punch. In short, the message was, When women are violent, it’s all so ineffectual, so ineffective; women simply cannot do what men do; in the end, they fail.
         Yuk, yuk, yuk...and the guys watching this movie get to have a lovely moment of male bonding over the reinforcement of their mutual agreement about what it is to be male—which requires, first and foremost, that they are superior to females; and that they are leads, not only in the movie, but in life as well. (Think of that— “the lead” in a play or movie; it’s going to be a man, right?)

         I used to be able to predict the fate of female characters who dared to be freely sexual —death— or at least some other equally damning or degrading end. That’s social conditioning too.
      Or, think of women who dare to fight back or try to defend themselves, after years of humiliation, abuse, and rape: they must suffer similar ends, the ultimate punishment of death. I’m thinking in particular of Aileen Wuornos, the subject of the movie, Monster. The title says it all, doesn’t it? Those of us who felt sympathy for the woman —after learning how most of the men she killed had threatened to kill her first, had raped her, or tortured her— understood the irony of that title. However, it seems to me a more just title would have been, "Monsters," to make reference to the men she killed and the society that rendered those men devoid of conscience, or devoid of a consciousness of women —even prostitutes— as people. Certainly, without conscience, or consciousness, one must be a monster and ultimately do monstrous things.
         And Wuornos? A monster? I don’t think so. Her crimes were crimes of self-defense. But how dare she? So we killed her. Let that be a lesson to all you uppity bitches! Just sit there and take it, and then, shut up about it.
         Jensen offers insight to this injustice to say, in effect, you are not allowed to hit back, UP the hierarchy. The crimes against you by those above you in the hierarchy are sanctioned by society; yours against them are to be condemned.
         Even the sympathetic duo, Thelma and Louise, had to die. Imagine the outrage had they managed to survive, face justice and win, to live out their lives in dignity and respect. No, no, no...we can’t have that!
         The only place we find this paradigm consistently upended is on Lifetime TV, where the victims of abuse, usually women, do manage to have some measure of revenge. But, hey, these are “chick flicks.” The guys know better not to watch those, and they’re usually pretty bad movies with awful acting, anyway; so the powers-that-be are not likely to be threatened, especially since such movies, where women are victorious, are inferior in quality, to match the audience. Still, that’s where women learn a different lesson, behind the backs of their “superiors.”

         I am reminded of Susan Griffin’s, Pornography and Silence. She says, “Yet in order to see our lives more clearly within this culture, we must question the meaning we give to certain words and phrases, and to the images we accept as part of the life of our minds. We must, for example, look again at the idea of "human" liberation. For when we do, we will see two histories of the meaning of this word, one which includes the lives of women, and even embodies itself in a struggle for female emancipation, and another, which opposes itself to women, and to "the other" (men and women of other "races," "the Jew"), and imagines that liberation means the mastery of these others.”
         Sometimes I read this stuff for corroboration of guesses I’ve made as to the why of certain things, not that I don’t also read for the special insights of those authors. For example, I myself had thought about rape as a hate crime, but not as hatred directed at the victim, but as hatred the rapist feels for himself. That is, the femininity he sees in the “other” which he cannot obliterate in himself, which he cannot control or govern, is wished to be obliterated and mastered through rape—a case of projection. Given that no man exists who does not have vulnerabilities, who does not have weaknesses, cares, loves, and all those other human aspects we designate as “feminine;” and given that no man exists in this culture who has not been taught to disdain those qualities, it is no wonder that some men must split off from themselves to become ignorant of the truth about themselves, and, in the process, become less than whole beings; and, when confronted by a being who represents their own denied, humiliating aspects, some men cannot deal with it and become enraged.
         Perhaps as I read more, I will come to understand how we got to this point, how the yin and yang of things, the balance of male and female, got way out of whack in favor of the male side of things. How this happened, and how to correct it, is unknown to me; but I do think if we keep this up, nature, which always strives for the perfect balance, will one day just up and spit us out and be done with us. It’s going to be a huge hacking sound, a rumble in Earth’s chest, then it’ll be, “Spitt-oo-ee!!!” and we’ll all be goners.

         Derrick Jensen is the role model for the required change of mind and heart, it seems to me, the direction all men and women must go, if we are going to live in harmony with a healthy planet. I do love this book, except for one comment there, which I cannot find at the moment, where he quotes Thomas Paine to show him as an advocate of slavery. I would disagree, as one essay of Paine’s shows, where he says, “But to go to nations with whom there is no war, who have no way provoked, without farther design of conquest, purely to catch inoffensive people, like wild beasts, for slaves, is an height of outrage against humanity and justice, that seems left by heathen nations to be practiced by pretended Christian. How shameful are all attempts to colour and excuse it! As these people are not convicted of forfeiting freedom, they have still a natural, perfect right to it; and the governments whenever they come should, in justice set them free, and punish those who hold them in slavery.”
         Still, I am looking forward to Endgame.

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