Wednesday, July 27, 2011

a disturbing Dance with Dragons

This is a post concerning George R.R. Martin's new addition to a Song of Ice and Fire, but I'm going to try to keep it vague and basically free of spoilers. Fair warning all the same.

Martin's series is well known for its gritty realism. I often point to the brutality as a selling point. It's refreshing to read a story where even central characters are vulnerable to death and disfigurement. Aside from grieving for the affected characters, I have been able to breezily read through the gruesomeness of Martin's earlier books. Dashing babies' heads against the wall, ubiquitous rape, dismemberment, plain-old wanton slaughter--all of these things are just par for the course in a Dark Age world, I guess.

But Martin has really kicked it up a notch with a Dance with Dragons, so much so that I was uncomfortable reading some chapters. These chapters are from the perspective of a character whose mind has been shattered by torture. He has been trained to think of himself as a pet of his master. He is not allowed to wash or change clothes from the rags he was given when first captured. He is forced to sleep with dogs and he shares their food. The fact that the reader sees the story unfold from this character's perspective drives home the depth of the psychic damage. He has been given a new name, and the character cannot bring himself to vocalize his birth name, even within his own brain. And of course there was a physical component as well. Part of his training involved the slow amputation of a number of fingers and toes. And he lives in constant fear of losing another finger or toe, as well as feeling once again the flensing knife of one of his master's torturers.

For the first couple chapters of this, I felt it was gratuitous. To follow the story, does the reader really need to be inside the head of this suffering shell of a human being? Do we need the paranoia and pain firsthand? Maybe, maybe not; I'm still not sure. But after my initial misgivings, I remembered that torture is still with us in the modern world, with a recent regime of the world's most powerful hegemon torturing captives and the subsequent regime countenancing that policy by refusing to uphold the rule of law by refusing to investigate war crimes. This may not be an isolated incident, as we are arguably moving backward in the court of public opinion. As I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before, a relatively recent poll found a majority of young people think that torture is sometimes justified. This, when I imagine most of us fifteen years ago just assumed that torture was one of those human evils consigned long ago to the dust bin of history, something we would collectively feel embarrassed about, laughing at the ridiculous, transparent arguments that somehow beguiled our ethically slapstick forebears. Like slavery.

Now that the series is a big hit on HBO, I wonder about how different aspects of the story will play out on the screen. Will viewers be able to distinguish these scenes from the torture porn of movies like the Saw franchise? I think so. By the time a Dance with Dragons is beamed into homes everywhere, viewers will have followed the suddenly dehumanized character for four seasons, through highs and lows. The character is no Ned Stark. He has some nasty sins darkening his conscience, but he does have a conscience. The reader at least sees how he grapples with his misdeeds. There is a wealth of context and nuance in the character before he is tortured into his current state so the reader/viewer remembers his humanity even if the character himself does not.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Why not a primary challenge?

Conor Friedersdorf suggests that those on the left who are disappointed with Obama's presidency should mount a primary challenge.
President Obama won't face a serious primary challenge prior to Election 2012, but that isn't because he has governed as the left would've wanted. He is trying to keep American troops in Iraq beyond his own withdrawal deadline. His executive power claims are every bit as bad, and sometimes more extreme, than the excesses the left blasted when Bush was responsible for them. The prison at Guantanamo Bay remains open. Warantless surveillance on innocent Americans continues. Whistleblowers are in greater legal jeopardy than they were. The economy is terrible. Health-care reform was more corporatist than progressives would've preferred. We're now waging an illegal war in Libya that'll cost over a billion dollars, even as we prepare deep cuts to social welfare programs. Despite promises to the contrary, the FBI is still raiding medical marijuana dispensaries in jurisdictions where they're legal under state law. Promised advances in government transparency haven't materialized.

The left would be justified in lashing out, given the Grand-Canyon-sized chasm that separates the rhetoric of candidate Obama from the behavior of President Obama. By and large, however, they've kept quiet about the abuses and unlawful behavior of the man who occupies the White House, with a few notable exceptions, compared to their volume and passion during his predecessor's tenure. That's partly because they've focused their attacks on the tea party, and politicians like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. The truth of the matter is that even if a conservative like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the soft spoken advocate of a truce on social issues, won the nomination, the vast majority of liberals would support President Obama's reelection anyway.

What I'd like to see, apart from everything else, is a return to strong primary challenges against sitting presidents. It's easy to understand why they don't happen. But hard to argue that we wouldn't be better off if President Bush had been forced to worry a bit more about fiscal hawks, and President Obama was worried a bit more about anti-corporatists and the anti-war, civil libertarian left. 
I couldn't agree more. Since America's two-party political system is firmly entrenched by regulation, custom, and inertia, the primary challenge is just about the only possibility we have to avoid voting merely for either Bad or Worse, regardless of your political slant. I don't understand why this option isn't used more often.

Say what you want about the Tea Party (I'm not a fan), they have not been afraid to prop up their own homegrown candidates against those proffered by the Republican establishment. Sometimes they've won. And they've forced the Republican party to pay attention to their pet issues, regardless of what you may think of those issues. Now is a fine time for progressives and civil libertarians to do the same.

If no one from the left challenges Obama (and the Democratic establishment more generally), he will continue to abuse the progressives, the civil libertarians, the anti-war movement, gay rights advocates, anti-Prohibitionists, etc. He will continue to treat those groups with contempt because they simply have no where else to go. Even if a primary challenger lost, it would be a statement, maybe even a wake-up call for Democratic leaders in the future. Especially if a lefterly groundswell offered a host of primary challengers, not just a sacrificial lamb for the presidency.

The abused constituencies are held in bondage to the Democratic party because they are terrified of anti-choice, creationist Republicans who want to dismantle the welfare state (by passing legislation like Medicare Part D). This is clearly a dilemma. But what is the worst that could happen? If the progressive/civil libertarian champion loses, the disaffected can always come crawling back; Obama won't turn their votes away. Or is there fear that any challenger would necessarily be less electable than the sitting president? Well that's a risk. But I would rather lose with dignity and send a strong signal than wring my hands in limp despair.

A kernel for such a broad primary assault could be the War on Drugs, or at least the war on pot. A majority of Democrats support marijuana legalization, and yet few establishment Democrats do. (Although the recent bill cosponsored by Ron Paul and Barney Frank is a promising development). And amid the growing number of states legalizing marijuana for medicinal use, the Obama administration has continued to raid medical marijuana dispensaries compliant with state law. But of course there is no shortage of Obama administration failures to be outraged about as a liberal.