Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Art of Seeing: Torture and Obama

In order for my NeObama/Matrix metaphor to have any integrity, I have to admit that I think the Wachowski brothers should have never made the two inferior sequels. One of the most exciting meta-realities in watching the first Matrix was the prospect that a movie could so thoroughly blow your mind that the world would actually change. A movie that so challenged your ways of thinking about things that at the end of it you felt an incredible agency in the world. If only you were brave enough to take the red pill, you could be eternal, a savior, immemorial. The revelatory ending of the Matrix was satisfying enough to make you flash back to adolescence, wishing you could fly.

But then came Reloaded, which was pretty good, and Revolutions, which was more interesting than good. Some of the shine came off the idea of the Matrix (especially after the introduction of the terrible white boy dreads).
Jah, dude!

The point of all this is that candidate NeObama got into office by telling us that he was going to change the game up completely. The possibilities would be infinite. It would be all good.

But now we have President NeObama. And although I'm still glad to see how he is executing his extraordinary power against extraordinary odds, I can't help but think of the fight scene from Reloaded where Neo fights a near infinite amount of Smiths.

In the scene, Neo is up against incredible odds, but you alway know he's going to get out of that jam, without a scratch. And that's cool, but it sidelines the personal moral question (blue pill or red pill?) of the first movie. Now the movie's about Neo, not our own power to change things. And that's less appealing, especially since it's hard to place the ideological position of the film.

That's even more significant because the premise of The Matrix is an extension of quite a few movies, most notably They Live, which was explicit about it's political leanings. Directed by John Carpenter, starring Roddy Piper, the movie reimagined Los Angeles as the site of an alien occupation, where humans are enslaved by omnipresent subliminal messages that instruct them to obey, consume, and reproduce. The movie's sharp critique of consumer culture and materialism is not hard to miss. When George Nada (Roddy Piper) puts on the special shades that decode the aliens subliminal messages, the first thing he does is go on an alien shooting spree in a bank. He's not after the money, he just wants to make a statement.

I have come to chew bubble gum and kick ass. Indeed.

When Nada finally awakens the world at the end of the movie, there's a certainty to the act that lets us know that there won't be any sequals.

The Matrix, on the other hand, is harder to discen. What is Neo trying to achieve, besides the preservation of human consciousness? Well...I guess when you say it like that it does seem really important, but it's still incredibly broad. Neo might be the messiah, but I can't imagine trying to resolve a moral crisis by thinking, "What would Neo do?"

Similarly, President NeObama has been less satisfying in some respects because although he changed the game up, he now has to operate within the new game he created.

Which brings me to the torture photographs. Now the military is concerned that the negative depiction of US soldiers and Arabs might lead to the deaths of our bravest men and women. You would think they would have similar concerns about their consultation with the makers of Iron Man, a movie about an arms dealer who creates super weapons used to control a violent and ignorant Arab opposition. Guess not.

This isn't about inflaming Arabs.

This is about not being sorry and not having to be accountable. There are plenty of people in this country, and in the military, who would not have changed a thing about the way the "terrorists" were treated in captivity. Look at the way we treat Americans who end up in our prisons. Lest we forget, we have the world's largest prison population. Execution is legal, despite the fact that we know a certain percentage of people are going to be wrongfully accused. It's a long standing joke that men get raped in jail. Don't drop the soap. Heehee. The term "prisoner rights" is another knee slapper.

Given that, I found it kind of incredible that NeObama was going to allow the release of the new photos. It would be an amazing gesture and would expend a lot of political capital. Perhaps he was not clear on how much capital it would cost him, but his conversation with the military leadership probably made it much clearer. He has planned a larger strategic shift in Iraq and Afghanistan, which requires a lot of cooperation from the men with medals and guns. He probably calculated that their support was more important than that of a few liberals who would never be fully pleased anyway.

And that's more than a little disappointing. Before I said that I think NeObama is going to reach a point where he's going to be very unpopular because of his policies, but now I'm not so sure. Obama is a master of centerdness, whether it's spiritually or politically. Almost half way through his first year as President, it's clear that he always lands on his feet, no matter how much he has to contort. One of my concerns is that he contorts to the point that he forgets his original shape.

We need to see all of the photos that exist. They teach us something about ourselves, part of who we have become as a society. Obama would not have been possible without the (forced) revelation of COINTELPRO, a program which actively extorted, kidnapped, and murdered members of domestic political opposition groups. More than any politician in recent memory, Obama knows the power of this history. Hiding these photos sends the very dangerous message that we don't really care to change. These days, we can't afford to take the blue pill.


Jackson Brown said...

Great post! It would indeed be an interesting presidency to watch if Obama did focus as exclusively on changing Washington as he did during his campaign pitches. In selling his candidacy to the American people, Obama's unwarvering focus on bringing about change was, really, a rhetorical move to focus on a campaign promise that he knew had traction and that he knew, and the electorate knew, his opponent couldn't provide.

And so now we've exited the slick "Matrix" of campaign promises and entered, as Morpheus describes it to Neo upon the latter's awakening, "the real world." The one thing that always bothered me about the Matrix was that, yeah, Neo was breaking stuff down, but he was also unapologetic about mowing down the many innocent bystanders that stood between him his goal.

It's fun to think about NeObama challenging and taking down every right-wing member of the U.S. Congress with the sheer force of his moral convictions, but bringing the type of change he hinted at during the campaign to quick fruition now could be devastating for all of us politically/ economically (more than it is now, that is).

That said, Obama's change of heart on releasing those photos does muddy the clarity of his intentions a bit. But maybe he's just playing his presidency like the long arc of a film trilogy instead of going for the superman ending right away.

Abdel Shakur said...

Yeah, I'm hoping he'll still break out the cape, but it's hard to imagine a time when he would have more clout to push his agenda. We'll see. I'm just hoping it doesn't end like Superman III (the terrible one with Richard Pryor.)

Jackson Brown said...


in the machine.