2009/09/01

I think it's like an arch

An arch is a structure that spans a space while supporting weight (e.g. a doorway in a stone wall). Arches appeared as early as the 2nd millennium BC in Mesopotamian brick architecture, but their systematic use started with the Ancient Romans who were the first to apply the technique to a wide range of structures.[1]
So saith Wikipedia.

And that, I think, is a good visual for the problem(s) faced by a free and principled democracy whenever it comes to questions of social justice. We have oppositional values, and we need them if we wish both to span space and to support weight. We need justice and kindness. We need generosity and everyone working. We need profit and philanthropy - not just as individuals, but as a people.

We wish to be fair, not preferring wealth and privilege over poverty or a bad start in life; but we also want each man to pull his own weight and earn what he has. We do not believe that law enforcement has a moral right to bully, intimidate, or coerce - no, not even to behave that way toward the criminal. Or maybe we do.

Maybe we do think the good guys have immunity from moral obligation.

I saw the movie Public Enemies this summer. It's not a movie to make the cogitator comfortable or happy in any way. It's also not for the squeamish (lots of brutality) or for anyone who has a problem with motion sickness. (Could we pulleaze stop all the jerky camera work and just get into the scene? Seriously. There are some fatuous film students who need to study the greats or stop studying altogether because jerking the camera around does not make the viewer enter the scene, but step back instead, trying to stand still in order to see what's going on because the story is compelling but someone keeps jiggling the floor. Geeeez Louise, that was frustrating!)

I really liked this movie - despite the jumpy camera man. It is about the famous bank robber, John Dillinger. I went to see it on the strength of Ebert's review. I agree with Ebert about most of the movie - especially this bit.
This is very disciplined film. You might not think it was possible to make a film about the most famous outlaw of the 1930s without clich├ęs and "star chemistry" and a film class screenplay structure, but Mann does it. He is particular about the way he presents Dillinger and Billie. He sees him and her. Not them. They are never a couple. They are their needs.
But I do not agree with his conclusion that
I'm trying to understand why it is not quite a great film. I think it may be because it deprives me of some stubborn need for closure. His name was John Dillinger, and he robbed banks. But there had to be more to it than that, right?
I don't agree with that bit because I think the movie was asking a much, much larger question. Closure or the answers to how Dillinger ticked ... those aren't the point. I think this movie asked the question Charles Dickens asked. He too wanted people to notice that the underclass of criminals was joined at the hip to the law enforcement policing them. Nice people in nice houses want neither criminal nor cop in the living room - and thus it has always been. (This, I discovered during my 19th Century Lit course, is a very clear theme in Oliver Twist. But it's just as obvious in the stories of Jeeves & Wooster.)

I think this movie, and Charles Dickens, and every police corruption case and every horrifying truth of what Americans have done in the name of acquiring information for the sake of a safer citizenry - these have all asked the same question. The question is this.

At what point does the cop become a criminal? Where is the line crossed? When is it valid to do harm in order to do good? Who are the good guys when the power is used for evil?

This isn't a blog post about torture or the questionable information it obtains. And it isn't a blog post about nationally funded health care or whether or not all the things it would pay for are moral or good or healthy. This is a blog post about the need for opposing values.

If you try to build an archway with more weight on one side than the other, it collapses. If you try to build an archway without joining the sides at the top, it collapses. If you try to build an archway without 1. Keystone 2. Voussoir 3. Extrados 4. Impost 5. Intrados 6. Rise 7. Clear span and 8. Abutment, it will not stand.

And if you try to build a strong, functioning, healthy, prosperous society without kindness for the less fortunate, or without a moral sense that says, "I will not do that - not because I cannot, but because I should not," it will not stand. Not everything can be for expediency or for profit.

In the movie Public Enemies, there is a moment when the agent goes too far. He is determined to bully information out of Dillinger's girlfriend. The others in the office are horrified at his behavior ... but no one stops him. The Lucifer Effect has the right name. It masquerades as light when the moral "good" outweighs morality. When we try to pass through the archway made that way, we all get crushed in the collapse.

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