Monday, February 19, 2007

The "Bad-Guy" Hero Culture.

Currently in the news are stories about how a Judge in Milan Italy is holding over 30 named CIA Agents responsible for kidnapping foreign nationals on Italian soil and taking them to other countries to be tortured and interrogated in our current war efforts. Ironically, we call it the War Against Terror, but we seem to use terror tactics ourselves at times.

Many people are suggesting that the current administration advocates a culture of lawlessness and deception and perhaps even arrogant disdain for the constitution and the law, and so that fosters this kind of behavior, however, this is not the first time we have done this. We, as a country, have done similar things many times in the past, it seems. I imagine that it was also pretty common during the cold war. This stuff wasn't invented in just the last 7 years. Though it does seem a lot more prevalent now than before.

This practice may be a part of why America is not well liked, nor trusted by much of the rest of the world. Agents and others within our government subvert the legal processes of our own constitution as well as everyone else's in order to further their partisan and personal interests. There is corruption, despite the words and beliefs to the contrary. These people probably think they are heros for "getting the job done despite the beaurocrats".

I think the real truth at the very core of this problem is that our culture respects and rewards the rebel/bad boy type. The criminal. The outlaw.

Is it just a coincidence that, in the old days, when the rest of the world admired America and Americans, we had movies where the heros were the good guys? In cowboy movies, they wore white hats, and the bad guys wore black hats. In gangster movies, they were the cops who caught the gangsters. In war movies, they were men of honor and sacrifice, and doing the right thing was the goal. The Lone Ranger, Zorro, Roy Rogers, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Superman, etc. True, they were simplified, mostly one-dimensional roles, but they were good, law-abiding, evil-fighting role models.

But over the past 50 years, that has all changed. Look at music for example. Rap music became popular. Have you listened to the lyrics of Rap music? It would be hard to think of a more racist, anti-social, or violent message. Rock music has taken a turn toward the dark side. Bands and songs about death and evil abound everywhere. There is an entire musical genre called "Death Metal". Just looking through a guitar catalog shows guitars with skulls and spikes that look more like weapons of evil than musical instruments. Some bands wear face masks and the most gruesome, evil-looking makeup you can imagine. Tattoos, body piercings, leather, studs, metal chains, spiked mohawks - even the look is as menacing as humanly possible.
Imagine a person from the 1930's or 1940's seeing these rock bands of today and hearing their music with all the loud screaming about death and dismemberment, and evil, violent messages. Imagine the culture shock for them to go from the America of the 1940's to this. Back then, when they looked forward to this period, they thought of this time as a dream. This would seem a nightmare to them now.

But honestly, I think that the music and fashion/look styles are more representative of where we have gone already, rather than being the cause. To see the real cause, I think we need to look at a more complex, sophisticated image machine. Hollywood. This is where they craft the hero formulas. This is where they use images, music, stories, emotional constructs to build our ideas of who we are and who we want to be and how we should act. This is the factory where mental models are designed and built and therefore where, ultimately, our culture is directed.

In the past 50 years, movies have become more sophisticated, yes, but they have also become far darker and more cynical and jaded. And we, as a culture have gone right along with them.
Now, our stories are all too often about the guy who bucks the system, and goes out and does the big thing. Many times, the big thing is something criminal. We glorify and cheer for Billy The Kid, The James Gang , Bonnie & Clyde, Dirty Harry. Vin Diesel, Kurt Russell, Clint Eastwood, Sly Stallone, Antonio Banderas, and the list goes on and on. It's not only a recent development though. If you think back, even Humphrey Bogart was more often a criminal than otherwise in the roles he took in his movies. And in more recent decades there was Rambo, Cobra, Triple X, Snake Pliskin, Walking Tall, The Marine, Bobby DeNiro, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Heat, Chronicles of Riddick, Unforgiven, etc. The list goes on.

At the very least, our folk heroes seem to be generally rough, shady characters with a checkered past who might be trying to do one right thing for a change. Sometimes, it's not even that. Look at The Godfather, Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs, and the Sopranos is one of the most popular shows on TV these days. Gangsters are our heros now. It used to be the guys who CATCH the gangsters that were the heros.

Sure, it's not 100% evil. We occasionally have adventure movies, and we have comedies, and other drama as well. But the overiding trend seems to be the reverse of what it used to be. Fifty or sixty years ago, it seems like most movies praised the good guys and nice people doing good things, and the bad guy heros were in the minority. Film Noir. Now it seems to be the reverse. And when we go dark, we REALLY go dark, now. Think of horror movies of the 1940's and compare them to horror movies of today. They have honed their craft to the point of chilling your spine in every way imaginable. Evil is so much more evil now.

But it's not so much the evil tone and evil images of the movies that is the essential element here. It's how we view a hero. The crafting of the image of what a hero is. Because that shows us a goal. That gives us something to shoot for. A look. A behavior that we can emulate and pattern our own behavior after. We probably don't want to emulate Freddie in Nightmare on Elm Street, or Jason from Friday The 13th movies. But we might try to emulate Clint Eastwood from Dirty Harry, or Unforgiven. We might see ourselves as Vin Diesel as Riddick or Triple X, or Kurt Russell as Snake Pliskin, or James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. The sneering anti-social anti-hero type. The crime boss. The exact types of guys that our heros used to conquer are now our heros and role models. That persona now looks "cool" by modern standards because our perceptions have been modified to first accept that image and then, finally, praise it.

I don't think that there is any evil mastermind sitting in a Hollywood office somewhere rubbing his hand in glee thinking about how he is subverting our entire culture. It is not deliberate. It is simply a bunch of filmakers trying to make money by appealing to what was once a nascent rebel instinct in the average American mind. And they have done it very well.
Hollywood has made a king's fortune selling the 'bad boy' archetype to the American public and installing it permanently into our psyche as the new heroic model.

And so now the people who watched all these movies and absorbed all these behavioral models as role models while they were kids are now grown up and they are the ones that make the decisions to do these kinds of things in real life. They are in the military and in the government. They are in positions of leadership and responsibility in our society. And they have been programmed by Hollywood, to an extent. They don't think about right and wrong anymore - they think about how to expedite their cause. How to get the job done. They probably think of themselves as some tough, hero type just doing what has to be done to make it all work. I imagine many of them probably think of their task as a necessary evil to serve a greater good. It is a completely predictable consequence of the cultural bias over the past 200 years, and the accelerated trends over the past 50 years.

So the general population has been twisted over a half century toward the dark side by this cultural shift, however, most of us are not in a position where it does much damage to other people directly. But the military leaders are a special breed all their own. There is a special mentality of people who are attracted to that kind of role in life and work toward the goal of working in those kinds of positions. It's easy for us to feel morally superior to them, but we have to keep in mind that our morals are not tested like theirs are on a daily basis. We are not tempted by the dark side so much, so often, so deeply. There are some stories about decisions they made in the 40's 50's and 60's that run chills up my spine. Testing aerial drops of chemical and biological weapons on American cities just to watch the dispersion patterns and contagion proliferation speeds and direction, for example. My older co-worker told me some horror stories about decisions he made in Vietnam as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Marines then. As he explains it, anyone not born in America was easy gun fodder for them. It was no more than paperwork to them. The only reason for NOT killing other friendlies, was to avoid the reports and paperwork later. As people, they meant nothing to them. They were like trees to be cut down to make passage. Sadly, I think he STILL feels that way even today. His moral compass was so far skewed back then, that he still doesn't have an appreciation for people who are not American-born as human beings and deserving of life and human rights.

Consider this one:
Think back to the Manhattan project during World War II. That was a group of about 100 physicists working for Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Their goal was to create the first nuclear bomb.

Dr. Richard Feynman was one of the more prominent scientists on that team. In one of his books, he describes a frightening decision made by the military at the time. Once they had finished the prototype, the scientists explained to the military leaders that the bomb worked so efficiently because it causes a chain reaction in the atmosphere. The air itself actually catches on fire. Take a close look next time you see a mushroom cloud from a nuclear test and you will see those flames up in the air, under the main bloom of the mushroom cloud.
There was a significant portion of the scientists who were trying to warn the military not to conduct the test because they felt that the chain reaction would not stop and instead would continue on and catch ALL the air on fire - with no way to stop the runaway chain reaction. They actually felt that it might possibly burn off all the atmosphere of the entire Earth - thus killing every person and living thing on the planet.

Knowing that this was a distinct possibility - STILL the military leaders decided to go ahead with the test. Dr. Feynman did not say why, but I assume their reasoning was that if they didn't do it, then the Nazis would do it very shortly anyway and so the risk was the same, so they took it upon themselves to risk all life on the planet to prove their project was a success and finish their bomb first. Thus are the ambitions of those kinds of men in those kinds of positions.

Considering these kinds of decisions, by comparison, kidnapping some foreign nationals in one country and shipping them to another country under the political radar for questioning and torture - that is well within the limits of what that kind of mentality is capable of. They can always justify their actions by saying that the other side would do it too if given the opportunity.

Beginning in 1864, the Geneva Conventions were set up as a series of guidelines for conduct in wartime to assume that as military and political leaders waged wars, they would treat prisoners of war with some basic decency. It prohibits things like starving them to death, or torturing them, it outlines how to deal with wounded prisoners, it dictates that certain weapons not be used, such as poison gases, expanding bullets, etc. Basically, the Geneva Conventions define the low end of what is allowed by a decent civilization.

Some of our leaders today do not believe that we need to observe the Geneva Conventions for behavior in wartime anymore, because they say that the enemies we are fighting are not signatories to those agreements. Therefore, they think that they can act in whatever way they want to with the prisoners they capture during this war effort.

A little scary, yes?


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