Tuesday, August 16, 2005

On why moral science is not redundant

I just finished watching Moore's 'Fahreinheit 9/11'.

Much has been said about this film. Im not about to add to it. What I am about to discuss is why the sun seemed so welcoming after the lounge in which I watched the documentary, and why I trotted over here faster than I usually do to type this.

Im not an emotional person in the everyday matters of life. 30ml of blood injected out of a un-ligamented right knee, and I didnt whine. Sitting in the collectors office at nagapattinam watching an NGO meeting carrying on unfruitfully, and I didn't whine.

I do however get choked up over Braveheart, still. My eyes will well up if its a clear day, an open field, and the intrumental version of the national anthem is being played. at the end of Amistad, I will stand and watch the entire credits roll.

And that is because I will always be moved by action taken by an individual unmotivated by self-interest, which provides good to another human or two, or thousand. I will always be moved by words spoken that were not spoken before, out of fear.

And this is why I like Moore's documentary.

But I think the most important part of the documentary was not the actual film itself, but footage that came along with the DVD edition of the same. This footage was apart from why Tarantino & Co. gave it the golden palm, and it got my attention more than anything else in the documentary.

It was the footage taken by a swedish journalist that showed outrages committed by American troops in Samarra 2-3 months before any news of Abu Ghraib was made public. Footage, which news media in Sweden and America refused to air or look into, and which the journalist had to take to Moore for it to reach daylight and human minds.

The BBC had this to say about the clip I refer to:

'Swedish journalist Urban Hamid is also highly critical of the conduct of US soldiers in his eyewitness account. This also includes distressing footage of an early morning raid on the home of a suspected terrorist and the humiliating treatment he's subjected to during a medical examination. "It was sad to see how the Americans did not even try to communicate," mourns Hamid'.(Papamichael,Stella)

The footage showed American soldiers posing with head-bagged, trussed-up iraqi citizens who had been captured in a raid the morning of 12 December, 2003. Pictures were taken, jokes cracked. Houses were broken into, and Iraqi women who did not know what would be done with their husbands and brothers, cried and screamed in fear, before being herded out of the room. Papers were checked, but as Hamid points out, these were all in Arabic, thus weren't useful in verifying the identity of these "wanted men"-- Wanted, because they were believed to have contributed financially towards the insurgency. A soldier in the footage tells Hamid that they aren't sure these are the wanted men, but they will be held anyway. Hamid guides us through the footage, pointing out how the men were manhandled-- One had his nose broken, the other, an old angry silent scared man on a stretcher, had his penis felt up and laughed at.

Hamid, a Swede, says that he was shocked by the fact that the officer in command did nothing to control his troops. Many of whom are 17 years old, since that's the minimum recruiting age is this land of starred and stripey dreams.

The government since then has scrambled to defuse the situation that blew up in their faces when Abu Ghraib was made public globally.

Tribunals have been set up, persons convicted.

But I wonder at what made the soldiers do what they did.

I'm no moralist. But I can't help wonder at the minds of those men and women... Some superstitious people might claim that Abu Ghraib by itself as a prison complex is evil, and the negative vibes wrapped themselves around these red-necked cowhands from the midwest.

The officials have tried claiming that the guilty parties were rogue soldiers, separate from the system-- bad apples & mutant T-cells. Their opinion holds 3 drops of water, only because most recruits tend to be poor, uneducated and from tough neighbourhoods.

I tend to disagree though-- And I'll tell you why.

America is not the country you see on Mtv, Vh1 or CNN. Its not F.R.I.E.N.D.S and its definately not Sesame Street. America is the country you really see only when you're waiting at a bus stop with them at 12:45 in the morning, or along with the majority of them, avoiding the eyes of other Americans at the greyhound bus terminus at Sacremento, CA.

There is violence-- And there is amusement because of violence. South Park aint far from the truth, really... push a handicapped kid and chances are there will be people-- or other kids, which is worse-- who laugh. Make racial jokes, and you will get applause. Carry a gun, you will get respect. Be tough on the basketball court, with your girlfriend, in a board meeting or on the freeway, and you will be respected, even if you get post-its on your window calling you an obnoxious pig.

The pornography of power isn't a new concept. Subjugation, control, the execution of one's will over that of another.... and this leads to an all-abiding fear.

Let me illustrate.

Here, Mexicans avoid goths. Blacks are avoided by everybody. Native Americans try and be black. Indians try fitting in, and sigh in relief when the topics of discussion while in conversation with white red-necks pertain to food and bollywood. Japanese, Chinese and Koreans avoid everyone who doesn't look like them. Anyone who speaks arabic and doesn't eat the cheeseburgers at MacD are given 6 feet of space by all of the above.

In short, underneath the happy social appearance during daytime-- On beaches, in disneyland, in grocery stores, at Abercrombie & Fitch-- there is fear. Mistrust. And a delicately-held balance between outright agression and thinly-veiled insults. A balance whose tensile strength is being tested to the limit today.

Which is why I believe pop culture is held so dear here in this country. People need starbucks, the chinese theater, the ozzfest, bluegrass music, porn sites, legal battles, the two party system, pamela anderson, KFC, roller-blading, mount rushmore, old records, hollywood, CNN, hip-hop, jazz, the cosby show, Fool, nintendo, 4th of july BBQ's, football [not soccer] and SNL to come together. They need these media-propelled points of reference, because left to themselves they have less in common than apples and oranges, a rabbi and charles manson.

Human fruit, with dangerously polar ambitions and beliefs.

Left to their own, the separate into the groups and communes out of which sewn-together bits this country was formed. Without Oprah and Wal-Mart, they are ghettos, mormons, reservations, conneticut neighbourhoods. They are republicans, democrats, cheerleaders, red-necks, japs, chinks, blondes, pimps, white trash, burger-flippers, metal-heads, goths, fetishists, white collars, beatniks, hippies, illegal immigrants, ABCDs.

This country survives on a manufactured safety-net which consists of media-candy. I even have a theory that the two-party system only works so well in this country because it helps separating the country so neatly. God help Americans if it ever came to a coalition or a United Front. Forget Iran-- They would nuke themselves.

But then again, I suppose every country administration uses such safety nets to pull its people together. Hitler did. He had to remind the Germans of their glory to get them to recover from the humiliation of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles and get them to sig heil as a whole, beer-drinking, October-festing bunch of aryans. So it didn't work out so well: So he had to trim the population dempgraphic a bit to make it fit his measurements. But the fact is, he did it, and for him, it worked. India used a safety-net too: ancient culture, the concept of family, a single land-mass, Gandhi.

Go ahead and use social constructs. But try for something a bit more constructive, you blue-suited, lavender-tied congress people.

Try moral science classes, for one. At least you wouldn't have little Bill and Katie go around ruining international opinion in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Yup, I do believe in the power of moral science. And this is because I have a theory about kids: they live their lives based on what they learn while growing up. And most of that is learnt before the age of 15.

Know what the difference is between American and Indian kids?

While growing up, most American kids learn that its smart to stay out of jail. So don't do anything to get yourself into trouble. And if you do, try getting out of it.

Indian kids, though we figure this out for ourselves in the jungle that is math classes and morning assembly, are also taught that it's not nice to be mean. That God, however we see him/her/it, prefers it when we don't hurt others, physically or verbally. That we live in circles, family closest and the dhobi and principal in the outermost circle. We mayn't hug 'em, but we do give them sweets on our birthdays.

Its terrible stereotyping, and there are exceptions to the rule, but it comes down to Dennis the Menace vs. Narayan's Swami. And friends.

We are taught that hate doesn't work. Here they are taught to do whatever it takes to survive.

We are taught mature opinion-- things like, its good to have a family with the same mate for as long as possible, and a good job. Here, they are asked to go find life for themselves.

My mother would cry and yell and plead and bargain and pray and argue with me to stop smoking. Here, they would avoid talking about it.

Of course, there's overlap. We aint angels-- And American kids are not all boorish, insensitive horrors. Many are though.

Im not sure what it is-- But this need for absolute freedom and expression has led to a strange paradox: young adults are giving up this absolute freedom and expression in order to conform to a rut they hope to conquer and keep next to their check-book and mont-blanc pen-set at night in a hotel in Rome. Kids, however, imagine woodstock, grease, the basketball diaries, bridget jones' diary, neal cassidy and hendrix to be their world. They want time off from school. They want space. They want sex and alcohol and appartments and weed and cars and a dvd player.
Then they wake up on their 22nd birthday depressed, and either OD or get a haircut and go back to school.

No RSS training, of sticks and tradition and unitarian beliefs and brown shorts. But someone please tell people that democracy is a myth, and unbridled freedom only works if you live in a book by J.M Barrie whose main character is a little boy who wears green tights and fights pirates everyday.

I dont mean religion. I mean the thing that prevents us from cursing in front of ma and blatantly ignoring the annoyingly deaf aunt.

A liberal arts college is too little, too late for a yank kid to learn his or her P's and Q's.

People teach your kids to be nice. We all create the monsters who hunt us. Instead of the gun [yeah Im talking to you, Charlton Heston] try being a parent instead of an overgrown fat kid who has issues with your mother.

Damn yankees.


zigzackly said...

Impressive, Chuckles. Interesting to watch you maturing as a writer. You're taking on topics people far older don't grasp, and treating them with balance, plugging in your own insights in interesting ways.

Good on yer, brat.


The Wizard of Odd said...


thankyou, Curly.

Madhuri said...

Hey Priyanka. You've made a lot of generalizations here, but even so I was nodding earnestly to myself as I read this post. I spent a part of my childhood in the US, and the second half of it here, and there IS a difference. A very huge difference in the way children are brought up. If my parents hadn't brought me and my brother over here when they did, I just KNOW that we would have grown up to be either the 'boorish, insensitive horrors' you talk about, or depressed, lonely and confused adolescents. The other Indian kids I knew there have all grown up to be... emotionally hollow, from what I've heard. They're just not able to reconcile their parents' views on marriage and family and careers with what their peers would expect. They're caught in the middle, and seem to be going nowhere.

I really love America. I was born there, I've visited it a few times, I spent a month abroad with 150 other Americans my age and made some really incredible friends. But I'd never bring up a child over there. The Indian ethos might be smothering at times... especially now, when I'm in college, and fancy I'm grown-up enough to be a lot more independent... but what I've learned here, the person it's shaped me to be... you just can't GET that in any other place on earth.

So basically, I'm just saying- word. I really liked this post- it was very insightful and I think you've hit the nail on the head about something that I've often thought about. :) I hope you're doing well. Stella seems really weird without you and the rest of the old union. :)