The Moral Ambiguity of The Man in the High Castle
January 17, 2018 § Leave a comment
I’ve been binge-watching The Man in the High Castle. It is truly a TV show for our cynical times. There are no heroes in this show. Everyone is deeply compromised. Some are even horrible people. For those who don’t know, the show is set in a dystopic 1960s in the United States. The Allies lost World War II, and the United States is split in three. The eastern seaboard is the American Reich. The West Coast is occupied by the Japanese, and there is a dodgy, moral vacuum in the middle, the neutral zone, a lawless respite from both.
The main character is Juliana Crain, who is a spoiled, horrible, selfish young woman. She betrays nearly everyone she meets, and leaves a body count behind her. Ostensibly, she’s trying to figure out what happened to her half-sister, Trudy, a Resistance fighter killed by the Japanese security forces. Her boyfriend, Frank, is the closest thing to a hero in this show, as he is drawn closer and closer to the Resistance in the wake of Juliana’s multiple betrayals.
But otherwise, the show gets intimate and personal with Obergruppenfürher Joe Smith, a former American soldier, and his family, creepy as they are. Smith, not surprisingly, is a murderous, horrible human being. And he’s a Nazi. We do get a sense of honour from Japanese Trade Minister Nobosuke Tagami, whose loyalties are never entirely clear. But he is an honourable man who works for a violent, brutal dictatorship. Then there’s Kampeitei (Military Police) Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido. He’s about a milimetre short of being a psychotic killer, so determined is he to make sure law and order is maintained in the Pacific States, and in San Francisco in particular.
The remaining characters are all deeply flawed, morally vacuous, and horrible.
I find it interesting to be watching a TV show that humanizes Nazis, and attempts to play on my sympathies with them. For example, Smith’s son, Thomas, is a teenaged boy who, it turns out, has muscular dystrophy, which comes from his father’s side. The Obergruppenführer’s brother had it as well. As per Nazi ideology, he was liquidated. And that is what Thomas must be too. When the diagnosis is delivered to Smith, he is at a loss as to what to do. He is the most powerful man in the American Reich, though he lives a pretty typical suburban life at home on Long Island (New York City is the capital of the American Reich, as DC was nuked during the war). He must, he knows, kill his son. And yet, surprise, surprise, he cannot. In order to protect his family, he instead kills the family doctor, who delivered the diagnosis. I know, a shock. A Nazi being a nasty piece of work.
Smith’s protegé is Joe Blake, who Juliana kind of falls for. He’s a Nazi undercover, sent to find Juliana, who has knowledge of the secret films of the titular Man in the High Castle (played brilliantly by Stephen Root), and, more than that, has the actual film(s), which Trudy had given her right before she was killed. He finds her first in the Neutral Zone and then follows her back to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Juliana has cozied up to the Resistance herself, and appears to be a member of it as she tries to find out what happened to her sister. She is supposed to lead Joe Blake into the hands of the Resistance. But she doesn’t. Instead she betrays the Resistance and Blake makes it back to New York City.
The summary of Episode 5 of Season 2 notes that Juliana will have to betray someone close to her. By this point in the show, I am left wondering who is left for her to betray. She has already betrayed Frank. And the Resistance, leading to at least three of her erstwhile colleagues being killed. And she seems to have no moral qualms about this.
And this is the thing about the characters of this show. There is no moral compass. Each is an actor entirely interested in her/his own fate. Occasionally there is co-operation, but mostly there is a collection of atomistic individuals who will stop at nothing to get what they want.
And, of course, this is completely compelling TV. I can’t turn away from it. And yet, I can’t help but think there is something deeply wrong with being engrossed in a TV show that humanizes Nazis (whilst still showing what horrible people they are). It would seem to me that perhaps Nazis are beyond the pale. And yet, they’re not. I’m not sure this is a good sign for our culture and society.
Writing the History of the Trump Era
February 14, 2017 § 4 Comments
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked how future historians will be able to tell our history? We live in what is allegedly a post-fact era. First things first, whatever you want to call it, post-fact, post-truth, alternative facts, these are all just lies. I have already commented on this. Nonetheless, whether this is just a re-labelling of lying, we are still in this cultural moment. Every day the Trump administration deals in what White House Counsel KellyAnne Conway calls ‘alternative facts.’ What is the truth now, my interlocutor wanted to know?
I have been asked this question in a variety of ways in the past year and it is a real challenge we face. But we don’t face in terms of future historians, academics and journalists are already facing the problem. Michael A. Innes, a good friend of mine, has been thinking about this of late too. He notes that
Media outlets come in all shapes and sizes. Some are loud and boisterous, while others are more stoic. “Newspapers of record” are a recognized form of the latter. Some try to report what happened, while others try to convince readers why and how they happened. Media output, in other words, can serve more than one purpose, and only one of them is to provide researchers and analysts with a source of evidence needed to determine the factual basis of past events: what happened, when it happened, who was involved, what they said about what happened and so on. Reconstructing past events is a tricky business, and some media environments are so highly politicized – the rhetoric so overheated and contentious – that verifiable facts are almost impossible to discern from the collection of color and misdirection in which they’re embedded.
Indeed. The reconstruction of the past is indeed a tricky bit and I will go further than Innes and argue that it is an inherently political act. This is true whether it’s on the minor scale, such as I did in reconstructing a version of the history of Griffintown, Montreal (and yes, I am enjoying linking my own book). But it’s also what societies and cultures do anyway.
When we reconstruct the past, we do so from a variety of sources, including printed records, including government documents, diaries, published work, literature. We also use film, TV shows, documentaries, and music. We use oral sources, both those already collected and ones we collect. And we also make use of the digital: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs, etc. We have to make decisions in what gets included in our reconstructed histories.
Historians, we tend to go further than journalists. Innes notes that some media outlets report on what happened, whilst others focus on why and how they happened. And quite often the latter try to convince you of the version of events they are pushing. This is the difference between, say, The New York Times and Breitbart, or the CBC and FoxNews. The Times and the CBC deal in facts in reporting the news, and editorials are clearly labelled. In the case of Breitbart and FoxNews, there is a blurring of ‘news’ and editorials.
When I teach, I always remind my students that we are more interested in the how and the why of history, we need to move beyond facts and into interpretation. How do we do that? Logic and reasoning. We use other scholars as guides. We read what other historians have written on the subject, or an analogous subject. We consider their interpretations based on the evidence. We agree or disagree. Or we agree and see another possibility. And so on.
Back in Grade 2 or thereabouts, my teacher introduced us to the who, what, when, where, why and how? The key questions for all situations. So in writing history, we begin with the who, what, when, and where. We establish the facts. And we establish these from our sources. Even in this post-fact era, there are still facts. They still get reported, they’re still plain to find in doing research. And from there, we ascertain the why and the how.
So how do we source that in the post-truth world? Innes notes the guerrilla archiving of data, creating an archive of truth and records of the real world to counter the post-factual. But there are other, more simpler ways we do this through the ‘reading’ of our sources, whether they are government documents, newspapers, novels, films, music, Twitter, and so on. When we read these sources, we do so within a cultural context, of course. And we do tend to have strong bullshit detectors.
My MA thesis tells the story of the Corrigan Affair, which erupted in Sainte-Sylvestre, Quebec, in late 1855 when neighbourhood bully, an apostate, Robert Corrigan, was beaten to death by a gang of his Irish-Catholic neighbours at the county fair. When his murderers evaded capture for the next six months, all hell broke loose in a highly sectarian Canada. Anglo-Protestant politicians and newspapers were beside themselves over the fact that these Irish-Catholic ‘hooligans’ managed to evade the state’s attempts to bring them to justice. They did so through the help of their neighbours and an intimate knowledge of geography of the Appalachian foothills of southern Quebec.
The local Anglican priest in Saint-Sylvestre, Rev. William King, was ground zero for the ‘alternative facts’ of the Corrigan Affair. In daily dispatches to government ministers and the Quebec City press, Rev. King constructed an alternate reality where the Irish-Catholics of Sainte-Sylvestre were parading around openly armed and threatening Anglo-Protestant, beating them nearly to death for fun. He told of marauding gangs of Irish-Catholics breaking into homes in the middle of the night and tearing homes to pieces and beating the men and boys of the house. Rev. King’s invented reality was accepted verbatim by government ministers and the Quebec City press.
So how did I find out what happened in Saint-Sylvestre in the fall and winter of 1855-56? I reconstructed events through a mixture of sources, both government and official and vernacular. I relied on petitions from the Irish-Catholics of Saint-Sylvestre, who claimed to be brutalized by the Orange Order. I relied on the French Canadian press of Quebec, which watched both sides with bemusement. I read the depositions of the French Canadians of Saint-Sylvestre, who were similarly bemused by their neighbours’ actions. and from these varying sources, I reconstructed the events of the Corrigan Affair. I learned to tell fact from fiction, or at least something that looked more likely to have occurred than not.
And this is what historians will do when they tell the story of our time. They will look at the lies that are produced at the White House and then compare that to what other sources say about what is going on, including the media, but also our Twitter feeds, our Facebook posts, our Reddit commentary. Maybe even blogs like mine.
We will continue to examine history as we always have, sifting through varying and contradictory versions of events to reconstruct what actually did happen. And, of course, being a public historian first and foremost, I will be fascinated by the myth-making at the White House, and the puncturing of that myth by the rest of society, about the hows and whys we choose to remember this time.
Trauma and Memory
January 18, 2017 § 3 Comments
I read David Means’ novel, Hystopia, last week. It is an alternative history of the 1960s and 70s in the United States; a novel within a novel. Hystopia, according to the editor’s notes, was actually written by a Vietnam vet named Eugene Allen, shortly before he killed himself in 1973 or 1974. In Hystopia, JFK survived Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet, and continued on as president and is now in his 3rd term (the scholar in me wonders how he got passed the 27th Amendment, mind you). He oversaw a massive increase in American involvement in Vietnam, much greater than that of his successor in real life, Lyndon Baines Johnson. And, of course, there was no Great Society policy initiatives. He was eventually assassinated in Springfield, IL, in 1970. But this is not the interesting part. The interesting part is what happens to Vietnam vets when they get home: they get enfolded.
A new branch of the government, Psych Corps, has attempted to use drugs to deal with the horrors that the soldiers in Vietnam saw, with a caveat: they only accept men who are not physically disabled by the war. At the Psych Corps HQ, the vets are fed an anti-psychotic drug and ‘enfolded.’ Psych Corps re-creates the source of the trauma and PTSD for soldiers, they are forced to relive it, and in so doing, their memories are essentially wiped. Thus, veterans who have been enfolded don’t remember their experience in the war, such as the ‘hero’ of the novel, a veteran named Singleton. Singleton, we eventually realise was an officer in Vietnam and commanded the unit that also included the other main characters of the book. But he has no recollection of this. The only thing that connects him to Vietnam is a horrible burn scar on his left side. Singleton’s scar comes from a friendly fire caused by a soldier calling in the wrong co-ordinates for a fire bombing, resulting in his own death.
Now employed by Psych Corps, Singleton falls in love (against regulation) with a fellow officer, Wendy, and sets off to Northern Michigan to track down Rake, a former member of his unit and a failed enfold. Rake, meanwhile, has kidnapped the beautiful but deeply troubled, Meg, whose boyfriend and first love was the soldier who got himself killed. Meg is also Eugene Allen’s sister.
Immediately after Hystopia, I picked up Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, for a new researh project I am undertaking. It turns out that Hystopia and The Body Keeps The Score are directly related for my purposes. I am still only about 100 pages into the book, but van der Kolk is talking about his early experiences in the field of psychiatry in the early 1970s (the same period the fictive Eugene Allen was writing his novel, incidentally) and his first clients, including Vietnam vets at the VA in Boston.
He writes about what trauma does to the brain, using a vet as an illustration. This guy was a high functioning, and very successful criminal lawyer in Boston. But, he was completely empty inside. He went through the motions at home, with his family, at work. He felt violent impulses and thus recused himself from his family, spending weekends at a time drinking heavily in an attempt to get his war experiences out of his head. He had been a platoon leader, and watched helplessly as he lead his men into an ambush. They were all killed or wounded. He was not. The next day, he took his wrath out on a Vietnamese village, killed at least one child and raped a woman.
As I read this story, and others, I couldn’t help think of Hystopia, and the vets being drugged to forget stories such as this veteran’s. In the late 1980s, van der Kolk began experimenting with PET scans and, ultimately, fMRIs, by which the traumatising event is re-created, according to a script, in order to discover which parts of the brain are triggered. It turns out it is exactly the same parts of the brain that one would expect to be triggered during a traumatic event. More to the point, the participants in these experiments reported feeling exactly as they did during the original event. And thus, van der Kolk notes, his colleagues began to wonder about how to use drugs to treat PTSD patients, using the information from the PET and fMRI scans to learn which parts of the brain neeed to be treated. Or, in other words, exactly what happens in Hystopia when the soldiers are enfolded upon return from Vietnam. The difference, of course, is that enfolding works for the majority of patients. There is no cure-all for PTSD for us in the real world.
Nonetheless, van der Kolk notes that we tend to respond to deeply traumatising events, whether something as graphic and terrifying and terrible as his Vietnam vet, or other traumas such as sexual assault, rape, being beaten as a child, etc.. And I found myself wondering about how our brains work to incorporate these memories and recast them in terms of society, how our memories and our traumas are never ours alone, but also belong to our wider society. Our memories are formed, re-formed, and re-fined in light of our interaction with society, of course. And it is difficult to tell where our individual experiences end and our societal imports begin, or vice versa.
And as I embark on a this project, I am wondering where that dividing line is between our own personal traumas and where society intervenes in the reconstructions of the narratives we tell ourselves about our experience. What makes our traumas unique and what makes them like other victims of traumatising experiences?