Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Apocalypse and Children of Men

I’ve always been drawn to stories of apocalyptic doom, which is strange, because I’ve also always been attracted to theories of utopia. It seems these interests should be in direct conflict with each other, but I think they are simply different spots on the same line. Both are about wiping the slate clean and starting afresh with a new human society. Both tap into a deep interest in how humans might live with one another, under widely varying environmental and social circumstances. We only get to directly experience a very limited number of societies and human organization, and apocalypses and utopias allow us to both critique our current situations as well as envision what else might or might not work.

I think that is one of the reasons I like science fiction and fantasy. What makes science, technology and magical powers interesting in stories are their ability to create new possibilities and rules for human interaction, or between humans and other possible beings. Good sci-fi/fantasy will create a new twist on social interaction and then play it out in a way that reveals something about human nature. Bad sci-fi/fantasy merely imagines new powers and toys as ways to blow stuff up.

Unfortunately, apocalyptic doom stories are inevitably followed by post-apocalyptic visions of humans reduced to their basest, most violent survival instincts. And yet, I can’t look away. It started with Dawn of the Dead in high school, continued through The Stand, Escape from New York, Twelve Monkeys, The Matrix, and a host of other guilty and non-guilty pleasures. It isn’t hard to envision the collapse of civilization causing a lawless future where those with the guns violently rule over everyone else. But it is hard to square these stories with my semi-recent pacifism, and what I might do in such a situation. Or heck, what I might do if I were in Iraq today. Sin boldly, perhaps, at best.


I saw Children of Men last week, and it is another fine entry in the list above. It offs the human race in a curiously original yet obvious way – stop the reproductive process for no apparent reason. In this world, no new babies have been born for 20 years, and most people have simply given up on humanity. It is actually as much Orwellian as apocalyptic, since it a world of surveillance and control interspersed with social breakdown and random violence.

The plot of the film is actually a nice little chase/thriller, and it succeeds well enough here. However, the interesting part is the thought experiment of what would happen to the human race if babies suddenly stopped being born. Obvious though it may be, it never occurred to me that civilization literally depends on there being children around.

And it isn’t just the biological necessity of filling the pipeline with more humans. Without *any* children, there is little external motivation to build anything, work towards a better society, or even be moral examples. As politicians know, people can often be shamed into doing things by invoking The Children As Our Future. No such outs in this world. Most people feel little reason to act morally in a world where God has apparently given up on the human experiment, seemingly for good reason.

Another thing that resonated with me was the film’s use of the iconic images of our day. It created scenes that seemed to come straight from video cameras out of Abu Ghraib or Gitmo, and even had those eerily familiar columns of smoke rising in the distance that we’ve seen in both gulf wars. It also tied in the immigrant issue nicely, with riveting scenes of immigrants being given Nazi-like treatment.

My brother made a good observation about the film in relation to an everyday practical issue – taxes for schools. We’ve both been annoyed in the past at people without kids in school who complain when they have to pay for schools that “they don’t use.” Anyone who believes this should be chained to a chair and made to watch Children of Men until they gladly empty their pocketbooks.

All in all, it was a clever critique of our current social values – if we continue on the course we are on, we are going to doom ourselves. I’m glad to see Hollywood tackling these kinds of subjects - it reminded me a bit of V for Vendetta, another modern Orwellian fable set in England. Mostly, it challenges us to think about the extent to which the human race depends on actual humans, and why it might be a good idea to start treating those actual humans with a little more dignity.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Tagabu Investigation

Seymour Hersh has another great (and long) article in this week’s New Yorker. It’s about Antonio Tagabu, the army general who was tasked to investigate the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. His integrity and honesty in the task cost him his career in the Army.

“They always shoot the messenger,” Taguba told me. “To be accused of being overzealous and disloyal—that cuts deep into me. I was being ostracized for doing what I was asked to do.”

Taguba went on, “There was no doubt in my mind that this stuff”—the explicit images—“was gravitating upward. It was standard operating procedure to assume that this had to go higher. The President had to be aware of this.” He said that Rumsfeld, his senior aides, and the high-ranking generals and admirals who stood with him as he misrepresented what he knew about Abu Ghraib had failed the nation.

“From the moment a soldier enlists, we inculcate loyalty, duty, honor, integrity, and selfless service,” Taguba said. “And yet when we get to the senior-officer level we forget those values. I know that my peers in the Army will be mad at me for speaking out, but the fact is that we violated the laws of land warfare in Abu Ghraib. We violated the tenets of the Geneva Convention. We violated our own principles and we violated the core of our military values. The stress of combat is not an excuse, and I believe, even today, that those civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable.”

Another thing the article mentions is that Tagabu was only allowed to investigate the people who actually did the abuse, and explicitly not the chain of command to find out where their orders came from. Republicans in Congress blocked any attempt to investigate further. Once again, don't tell me there is no difference between the parties. Democrats may be weenies, but at least they are not sycophants.

Doing the right thing often has negative consequences, and Tagabu was the unfortunate recipient of that on this occasion. Despite all the darkness, fear, and intimidation this administration has spread throughout all corners of the earth, I still believe that in the end, truth leaks out. Tagabu paid for his truth-telling with his career, but he is on the right side of history, and there is no better legacy to leave to one's grandchildren.