Recognition Through Violence

Within a few hours of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, the film critic Roger Ebert made a provocative observation in a New York Times essay:

I don’t know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news…

…Like many whose misery is reflected in violence, he may simply have been drawn to a highly publicized event with a big crowd. In cynical terms, he was seeking a publicity tie-in.

I don’t want to dismiss the extreme nature of Holmes’ obvious mental illness. Like psychiatrists say about Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Holmes might suffer from schizotypal personality disorder. Certainly he suffers from serious disturbances.

I do, though, want to make two additional points: 1) Recognition through violence is a common theme in American culture; 2) In the age of Facebook, Twitter and reality television, everyone seems to have access to a significant audience, but the recognition it brings is, usually, an illusion. When everyone’s a star, no on is a star.

Thinking a little about these things might open some avenues for understanding the epidemic of mass killings and other violent episodes in our recent history.

First, what do I mean by recognition? Isaiah Berlin said it best in his essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty”:

What I may seek to avoid is simply being ignored, or patronized, or despised, or being taken too much for granted – in short, not being treated as an individual, having my uniqueness insufficiently recognized, being classed as a member of some featureless amalgam, a statistical unit without identifiable, specifically human features and purposed of my own. This is the degradation that I am fighting against – I am not seeking equality of legal rights, nor liberty to do as I wish (although I may want these too), but a condition in which I can feel that I am, because I am taken to be, a responsible agent, whose will is taken into consideration because I am entitled to it, even if I am attacked and persecuted for being what I am or choosing as I do.

All humans want such recognition. But two things combine in our culture to make it problematic: the celebration of individualism and a mass culture which renders the individual invisible.

The viability of violence as a road to recognition may be uniquely exaggerated in America. Cultural historian Richard Slotkin wrote of “regeneration” rather than “recognition,” but the centrality of violence to the pursuit is the same:

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Real True Grit

“Well, there is no beat of a good friend.”

–Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn, in the novel, True Grit.

“He is not my friend.”

–Young Mattie Ross, speaking of Rooster Cogburn, in True Grit.

The American myth of the rugged, self-sufficient individual is ever-present in our culture. Think of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a character based on the nameless “Continental Op” of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller, Red Harvest. The characters abandon the very concept of community. They no longer even want a name that could be known by others.

The myth, of course, is just a fictionalized reflection of a belief held by many Americans: the self-contained individual is all. The furtherance of individual liberty, with little regard for the fate of the community at large, is the only legitimate role of government. The belief comes with magical thinking (or cynical slight-of-hand) that unrestrained selfishness will produce more for all than selflessness, altruism, or compassion.

Charles Portis’s True Grit and the 2010 film version by the Coen Brothers turn the myth on its head. In the process, the works tell us something about loneliness, inequality and the pursuit of friendship in contemporary America. We can look at the “true grit” of the book and movie as a reference to the courage to befriend others selflessly despite differences and barriers.

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The “Miranda” Blessing for Corporations

large_dirty_harryYou have the right to spend billions in the public sphere, silencing the voices of individual Americans. Anything you can say or do politically to further your private corporate interests cannot be used against you in a court of law. We know you can afford an attorney, but you don’t need one. Don’t bother trying to understand your corporate rights. They are limitless.

— Supreme Court’s New Miranda Blessing for Corporations

NYU law professor Barry Friedman and journalist Dahlia Lithwick suggest that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is as tone-deaf to the times as the old Warren Court’s 1966 opinion in Miranda v. Arizona. In case you forgot, that’s the decision that required the so-called Miranda warning.

Immediately after the Miranda ruling, conservatives, exploiting Americans alarm at recent urban riots, blamed the liberal Court for increases in crime and lawlessness. The rest is history. Richard Nixon, campaigning in 1968, said Miranda (and another opinion, in Escobedo v. Illinois, which gave suspects the right to counsel), “had the effect of seriously hamstringing the peace forces in our society and strengthening the criminal forces.” In 1969, Seymour Martin Lipset published a molotov cocktail of an article in Atlantic, “Why Cops Hate Liberals and Vice Versa.”

In TV and film, Miranda became code for corrupt government, government that coddled criminals and left Polly and the rest of us tied to the railroad tracks of runaway crime. The St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture sums it the impact on our cultural narratives:

Movies, television police dramas, and “real” cop shows, have done much to inform the public of the protection offered by the Miranda warning. Tom Hanks even delivered a (mercifully abbreviated) rap version of the warning in the 1987 movie Dragnet.

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