I am not sure why I decided to read this article to-day.  Procrastination?  Even though the end of the debate season and impending freedom is the growing light at he end of the tunnel?  Regardless of cause, I needed the good laugh.

Mendelsohn’s argument is that Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino: Pulp Fiction)  is a bad film.  Maybe he doesn’t it find it bad in the artistic sense, but he finds it bad in the dangerous sense.

An alternative, and morally superior, form of “revenge” for Jews would be to do precisely what Jews have been doing since World War II ended: that is, to preserve and perpetuate the memory of the destruction that was visited upon them, precisely in order to help prevent the recurrence of such mass horrors in the future.

I have two orders of criticism of this alternative.  First, Mendelsohn is incorrect about his description of the real Jewish act of remembrance and second, this alternative, even if descriptively accurate, is the real danger.

Are Jews merely remembering?  No.  Munich (Steven Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan) was based on a true story.  That is clearly not a case of mere remembrance.  Hunting down former Nazis and having them extradited and prosecuted is not mere remembrance.  Some will argue, correctly I believe, that the Palestinian/Zionist issue is also a manifestation of the Jewish attempt to say ‘never again.’  Even if the Palestinian/Zionist issue is not an active policy for revenge, it clearly demonstrates the inaccuracy of Mendelsohn’s remembrance alternative.

Mendelsohn will probably answer this order of argumentation with a distinction based on revenge and (some other process).  After all, what other possible reason can he have had for drawing the quotation marks around ‘revenge’?  He knew his error and still decided to take the palatable position (it was published in Newsweek, after all); drawing erasure around ‘revenge’ was a way to front load the response, to pre-empt, to my criticism.

Second order, memory vs killing.  It is not odd that Mendelsohn valorizes the current Jewish revenge act of remembering.  What else are they to do?  The Nazis are gone and/or already punished.  The reason may not have anything to do with a choice.  The Jews of that time, the kind in the movie, had a choice.  Mendelsohn, however, equivocates them as having the same options before them.  This is a silly burden to place Tarantino within.

In the Tarantino/Mendelsohn binary, I would put my money on Tarantino as being the one with the most horsepower.  An odd prediction for me as I would almost always bet on the critic.  Maybe Tarantino’s larger argument is one not about revenge but rather about violence.  Mendelsohn resonates with me when he says the Jews in the climax scene are nearly the same as the very Nazis they are exterminating.  Yes.  And that is what I found to be the brilliance of Tarantino’s movie.  Both the Jew and the Nazi were acting a violent revenge fantasy.  Mendelsohn’s insight stops short.  Sadly, this does not prevent Mendelsohn from lodging a criticism based upon morality.  This is what is known as exceptionalism (a topic worthy of a career, let alone a blog post).

I will return to the next two paradoxical concepts later: abnegation (acting out to prevent acting future acting out) and interruption.  Both are reasons why Mendelsohn’s alternative is wrong.  It is interesting that Mendelsohn cites ‘inversion’ at the top of his piece (the description) but then forgets its relevance in the bottom (the criticism) because inversion is the product of the interruption.

One last aside.  Mendelsohn foreshadows his own jumping-the-rails in the second paragraph.

Tarantino, who began his career as a video-store clerk,

That’s an interesting aside.  It is accurate.  But why is it said?  There are two reasons, assuming that a good writer (Mendelsohn usually is) uses every word carefully.  First: it is an act of denigration: most filmmakers begin in school, but Tarantino did not hence his lackluster-ness is understandable and predictable; second, as exemplariness: most filmmakers begin their careers in school, hence Tarantino’s magnificence and brilliance.  I decided to default to the second reading, even if I was not a fan of Tarantino’s prior work.  But, I’m an optimist.

Mendelsohn, however, intended the first reading, the lackluster impression of Tarantino.  Fourth paragraph:

[M]ovies aren’t real life, and this is where Tarantino, with his video-store vision of the world, gets into trouble.

Serve that sentence up with a side of anti-intellectualism and you get Sarah Palin (anti-intellectual and privilege masked as populism).  Maybe that sentence was not quite fair: the Sarah Palin function also requires sentimentality.  But wait, the Mendelsohn “morally superior” alternative is precisely sentimentality: historic revisionism where the people of the past are given to-day’s options.

Allied World War II soldiers
Image by Dunechaser via Flickr

I propose that the constancy of militarism and its effects on social reality be reintroduced as a crucial locus of contemporary feminist attentions, and that feminists emphasize how wars are eruptions and manifestations of omnipresent militarism that is a product and tool of multiply oppressive, corporate, technocratic states.(2) Feminists should be particularly interested in making this shift because it better allows consideration of the effects of war and militarism on women, subjugated peoples, and environments. While giving attention to the constancy of militarism in contemporary life we need not neglect the importance of addressing the specific qualities of direct, large-scale, declared military conflicts. But the dramatic nature of declared, large-scale conflicts should not obfuscate the ways in which military violence pervades most societies in increasingly technologically sophisticated ways and the significance of military institutions and everyday practices in shaping reality. Philosophical discussions that focus only on the ethics of declaring and fighting wars miss these connections, and also miss the ways in which even declared military conflicts are often experienced as omnipresent horrors. These approaches also leave unquestioned tendencies to suspend or distort moral judgement in the face of what appears to be the inevitability of war and militarism.  (Cuomo, C.  1996.  Hypatia, 11(4).)

One of the things I enjoyed so much about 2666 was its focus on this sort of cultural analysis: how the conditions of possibility for large interstate wars are also the very conditions of possibility for the ubiquitous and often invisible violence in those same cultures.  Bolano tracks this dichotomy and even prioritizes the importance of the micro-level violence, for lack of a better term, vis a vis the macro-level violence.  The first four parts of the book are an increasing crescendo into the micro violence culminating with a painful and gut-wrenching Part Four.  Part Five has Bolano treat the German character to World War II and the analysis traditionally done by those concerned with politics.  This is not, however, to say WW2 was unimportant, but in the scheme of grisly violence that needs to be dealt with the choice is clear and the neocons have it all wrong.

Bolano’s book is an implicit answer to how many people deploy this very piece of evidence: reading the section “While giving attention…declared military conflicts” as a reason why the conflicts of both micro and macro level violences ought to be weighed next to each other.  However, that is a misreading of this evidence.  Cuomo would argue that the divorcing of the two from each other is the very problem, that they are intertwined and only by resolving issues larger than arms control and global trade can we truly achieve a level of peace both internally and externally to the states.

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“The late, great Kurt Vonnegut once wrote in the Nation that world leaders were addicted to war preparations in the same way that alcoholics are addicted to alcohol. He recommended: ‘From now on, when a national leader, or even just a neighbor, starts talking about some new weapons system which is going to cost us a mere $29 billion, we should speak up. We should say something on the order of, ‘Honest to God, I couldn’t be sorrier for you if I’d seen you wash down a fistful of black, beauties with a pint of Southern Comfort.’” Reichel, Matt. (2008, August 22). Cold War 2008: The madness continues. Dissident Voice, www.dissidentvoice.org.

Two things in the Twin Cities these days make me think of the appropriateness of this quotation. First and obviously, the presidential campaign. The hubbub over Obama’s supposed lack of experience, as though the great legislator McCain actually has some, demonstrates the addictive nature of this discourse. Palin has none and yet the debate has turned to her as the guardian of Alaskan territory from Russia. There was never a threat. If there had been a threat then that would only prove the inadequacy of a militaristic approach to world affairs. It has become an addiction to speak of military experience in a time of hostility which is completely self-fabricated.

The second thing that is happening is the militarization of our streets. Meeting kids after a concert with full riot gear is sure to provoke a response. And yet it is that very response that is used to justify the deployment of riot geared cops. People no longer see the fallacy because of the addictive nature of military engagements. We want so badly to speak of ass-kicking Americans that we are willing to create the very tensions that cause such ass-kicking. For proof we can see the pictures of police after these engagements. They beat up young kids that have no training, no discipline and no weapons of any comparable worth to the arms carried by the police. Even if these kids were hooligans why is there so much happiness at the inevitable police triumphs?

“I don’t think it’s out of the question that I would commit physical violence in order to defend my rightful ownership of that console,” Aunt Nina says, suddenly reverting to a kind of dead-voiced frigid calm.
“But that’s not necessary, Nina, because we have created this whole setup here just so that you can give your feelings the full expression they deserve!” Stephenson, Neal. (1999). Cryptonomicon. NY: Harper Perennial. 626)

This passage conjures a few thoughts, none of which are about the suspect nature of an inheritance (the console in question is a piece of furniture Nina’s recently deceased mother owned) as owned property. Instead this passage makes me think of violence and its nature. Nina clearly thinks violence is justified in some, particularly this, instances. Nina’s brother may also share that belief, which is why he created a system to divide the deceased’s possessions as a way to settle disputes without violence. The problem with Nina’s justifications, akin to so many treatises of violence, is their ethics exist in a vacuum. It is easy to say X deserves a violent response but that justification fails to account for other methods of conflict resolution and many times the presence or availability makes the very justification fall short.

This alternative, however, seems to be a double-edged sword. Many times people feel secure and safe because there is a system, even though the system may be seen as bankrupt or ineffective by the soon-to-be-violent. I am not talking here about a revolution, when the alternative is already and clearly indicted by the violent. I am speaking instead about other inter-personal day to day encounters. For example, a friend of a friend, I will call him Pedro, was riding his bicycle home over the bridge by the UMN law school. There were some drunk guys in front of him and these drunkards saw Pedro coming. The bike path on this bridge is narrow, with a concrete wall between it and the car lanes so Pedro had no ability to avoid the drunkards, short of postponing the trip home. One of the drunk men kept moving in front of Pedro chanting “what you gonna do?”

This drunk man clearly thought the system was protecting him, allowing him to be an asshole without consequence – after all, who will respond violently when it is clearly illegal and not worth the assault charge. Pedro asked numerous times for him to move and the man only replied with a slurred, “What you gonna do?” So Pedro punched him; he moved. Pedro rode home.

Was this justified? I contend it was. The alternative (legal system) was absent, in fact it was the potential presence of the alternative which allowed the drunk man to feel secure enough to be an asshole. Pedro was not initially violent, allowing the man opportunities to escape it. All of these circumstances leave me little hesitation in pronouncing his innocence. Would the law find him innocent? Probably not.