Truth or Justice?

harvard_crest

My friend Pablo Policzer, hearing of my interest in questioning the priority of truth in politics (and, indeed, elsewhere) sends me a link to a talk by Jonathan Haidt: “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice”. And he asks me “Have you gone conservative?”

Now, Haidt claims that there are two competing “teloi” in the modern university: truth and social justice. He makes Mill the flagbearer of the cause of truth, and Marx the inspiration for calls for justice. He argues that right now the movement towards social justice is increasing, and that at some point universities will have to make a decision: “I believe that the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable. Universities will have to choose, and be explicit about their choice, so that potential students and faculty recruits can make an informed choice.”

In fact, of course, for Haidt this is no choice at all: he sees social justice as contaminating the historic mission of higher education, not least because (in his view) it leads to increasing homogenization and decreasing diversity. Social justice, he tell us, is “incompatible with political diversity, since many conservative ideas and speakers are labeled as threatening and banned from campus and the curriculum.”

Now, as it happens myself I don’t think that the raison d’être of the university is either truth or justice, though both are better than the neoliberal logic that has entrenched itself in much of higher education. (And let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that Haidt seems compelled to add the qualifier “social” to justice as though that already delegitimated it; or that his complaints reek to high heaven of bad faith.) But let us say Haidt were right: if we had to choose between truth and justice, is there any real reason not to choose the latter?

 

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Ramiro Gómez, “Happy Hills”

Ramiro Gómez, "Yoselin and the glass of water"

Thanks to Kinsey Lane Sullivan in PolicyMic for her profile of Ramiro Gómez, a Los Angeles artist and (ex?)nanny whose ongoing project “Happy Hills” is devoted to “documenting the predominantly Hispanic workforce who work tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain the beautiful imagery of these affluent areas.”

Gómez’s technique involves a) installations featuring cardboard cut-outs of otherwise overlooked service workers (leaf-blowers, cleaners, nannies) in public places and so plain sight and b) interventions into images of pristine homes, taken mostly from magazines and adverts (but also occasionally high art) to reinsert the figures of domestic labour that have been erased or marginalized but without whom none of this would exist.

I particularly like this image, “Portrait of an Affluent Family”:

Ramiro Gómez, "Portrait of an Affluent Family"

The funny thing is that, according to a note on Gómez’s Facebook page, so does the man pictured with his family. I’m not entirely sure what we can gather from that.

Detroit in Ruins (Again)

Detroit is in ruins again. Here’s Juan Cole on the recent petition for bankruptcy, on the relationship between the city and the country as a whole, and on the fact that Detroit’s crisis is contemporary, not merely historical:

The 1% did a special number on southeast Michigan with its derivatives and unregulated mortgage markets; the 2008 crash hit the region hard, and it had already been being hit hard. The Detroit area is a prime example of the blight that comes from having extreme wealth (Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe) and extreme poverty (most of Detroit) co-existing in an urban metropolitan area. It doesn’t work. The wealthy have no city to play in, and the city does not have the ability to tax or benefit from the local wealthy in the suburbs. These problems are exacerbated by de facto racial segregation, such that African-Americans are many times more likely to be unemployed than are whites, and to live in urban blight rather than in nice suburbs.

Meanwhile, the Guardian took this as the opportunity to publish yet another slideshow of the city’s fabulous ruins. Their aesthetic appeal is meant, I think, as some kind of compensation for the devastation that they document. But it’s not insignificant that these images are depopulated, empty of all but material detritus: the human toll of this ruination is registered and elided at the same time. Here’s “the ballroom of the 15-floor art-deco Lee Plaza Hotel, an apartment building with hotel services built in 1929 and derelict since the early 1990s”:

Detroit ballroom

mutiny!

Edmund Fuller’s edited collection Mutiny! The Most Dramatic Accounts of the Great Mutinies–On Land and Sea–of All Times was published in 1953, and you can tell. In fact, most of the individual contributions were written in the 1920s and 1930s (1907 in the case of the account of the mutiny against Henry Hudson). Hence there is much talk of “tittle-tattle” muttered by dastardly “curs” against “true-hearted Englishmen.” We are in most cases to sympathize with the beleaguered authorities and to despise the knaves who conspire against them.


Still, Fuller’s introduction, “The Nature of Mutiny,” is of some interest, and undercuts (perhaps better, explains) the fierce dichotomies that will follow. For in Fuller’s view, “mutiny is apt to have an intimate, familial quality about it” (xii). In other words, the opprobrium heaped on mutineers comes from the trauma of discovering yourself betrayed by your most intimate companions.

Hence there is an affective distinction between mutiny and revolution:

A man seldom knows personally, or is associated with, the people against whom he is moving in revolution. In most cases of mutiny a man not only is acquainted with, but is in some manner of working relationship with the persons against whom the mutiny is directed. (xii)

Moreover, this is why the shipboard mutiny is paradigmatic: at sea, men are confined together in close quarters for months or even years. And this forced intimacy is two-sided: “It can increase tensions by the inability of people to separate from each other. At the same time it offers a closeness well adapted to conference and conspiracy” (xiii).

Fuller makes a couple of other points. First, he wants to distinguish mutiny from labor disputes. Mere refusal to serve is not mutiny; it is a strike. I think the point here is that a labor dispute is not a wholesale assault on constituted power. Myself, I wonder how far this distinction can be upheld. And second, he argues that the days of mutiny are in effect over: “To all intents and purposes the traditional mutiny at sea has gone out of existence. It died with sails. Technology ended the era of mutiny” (xi). By this he means that mutiny can no longer be sustained, as there is no place to hide: “it just is not practical any longer to try to seize a ship and take it over on an impromptu basis. There’s no future in it” (xi). And indeed its striking that may of the mutinies described took place so far from home that the mutineers could either try to disappear (as in the case of the Bounty) or could spend the long homeward voyage perfecting the stories they would tell before the coming courts martial (as in the case of the mutiny against Henry Hudson).

More importantly, however, Fuller suggests that it is the massification and division of labor that makes mutiny impossible on a modern ship: a few renegades may be able to take hold of a sailship, but “to seize a steamship is another story. It would take a full complement capable of the necessary engineering skills involved” (xi).

In short, for Fuller at least, mutiny is pre-industrial. It involves betrayal within the family (or the gang, the tribe) rather than insubordination from the masses within the workplace.

performativity

Zorro posterAnother day, another Zorro movie. And Alain Delon’s Zorro comes with a cheery theme song, courtesy of Oliver Onions. I defy you to listen to it (and you can find a clip here) and not feel, well, something. And the lyrics…

Here’s to you and me
Here’s to being free
La la la laaa la la
Zorro’s back.

Now, c’mon, what more do you want?

This 1975 version takes the Zorro story from California and transports it to some generic tropical Latin American locale. The skies are blue, the nights are humid, the aristocrats and their servants are baroque and bewigged, the people are enslaved, and, yes, Zorro is back. Indeed, the sequence showing his arrival is splendid: in the middle of a scene taken directly from the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks movie, in which a priest is whipped for allegedly selling underweight goods, parallel edits show the dark figure of the masked avenger gradually coming into focus silhouetted against the azure sky. “Enough!” he declaims. “I want to show you what justice is.”

Power is ever more centrally at issue in this version of the story. Power and its disguises. For here Zorro is the outcome of a double disguise: Alain Delon’s character, Don Diego, whose real origin and role are murky, first stands in for the governor Miguel de la Serna, murdered at the outset by the dastardly Colonel Huerta, before he subsequently also transforms himself into the bandit with a conscience.

Don Diego therefore impersonates both legitimate power (as his Excellency the governor) and illegitimate counter-power (as the masked brigand). In both roles, however, he is restrained from violence by his promise to the dying de la Serna, in which he swore to uphold the good governor’s ideals. Only in the climactic final scene, in which Huerta cold-bloodedly kills the (same) priest, Brother Francisco, to avert a social revolution, does Zorro feel that he is released from that promise. Huerta is duly despatched, albeit after a protracted fight sequence.

Zorro on his horse in the desertThen, in marked contrast with Tyrone Power’s incarnation, Zorro rides off into the distance, leaving behind even his love interest, the fair (if somewhat ornery) Contessina Ortensia Pulido.

This is, in short, a much less territorialized Zorro than either the 1920 or (particularly) the 1940 outings.

The fictional territory in which the action takes place is named either Nueva Aragon or Nuova Aragona: the movie is uncertain even as to its linguistic affiliations, and is dubbed into English from what could quite possibly have been a Babelic confusion of languages used on set. The colonial outpost depicted is an (almost) any-space-whatever of 70s exoticism: it might as well be Mozambique or Tangiers. (The very similar Burn! was in fact shifted during production from the Spanish Empire to the Portuguese.) What’s important about the locale is that almost everything is out of place. This is a faux-European society imposed on the barren land of the Third World.

So no surprise that Zorro himself is very much a man of no fixed abode, a nomad who can only impersonate belonging. Here, almost everything is a matter of impersonation.

Don Diego and Colonel HuertaWhat’s highlighted is the very ridiculousness of colonial society. In fact, this is a theme that underlies all Zorro films, however much at the same time they attempt to naturalize and legitimate the ideal of a benevolent imperialism.

The films derive their comedy from the antics of Don Diego as fop (here magnificently realized in a scene in which the governor rises from his throne to greet the visiting Pulidos only immediately to trip and fall headfirst on the ground). And Don Diego, in his uselessness, idleness, and futility, is always typical of the ruling colonial class. Which is why, after all, he has to become Zorro, i.e. to step outside that class, in order to reform it.

But whether incarnated in Zorro or Don Diego (here, impersonating governor Miguel de la Serna), what Delon’s film more than any other underlines is the performativity of power.

[Meanwhile I note that Isabel Allende has written a Zorro novel. God help us all…]

(Crossposted from Latin America on Screen.)

corruption

movie posterTyrone Power’s Zorro fights for family honour and the restoration of benevolent patriarchy.

Unlike Douglas Fairbanks’s 1920 version, the 1940 remake depicts Empire, centre as well as periphery: the film opens with the young Diego de la Vega in Madrid, before he is called home to California. Spain, however, is in this portrayal some kind of cross between finishing school and holiday camp. There’s little sense that the colonial enterprise is a matter of economic and political power relations. Empire, in short, is not here seen as a problem.

What is problematic is when Empire is subject to corruption.

For The Mark of Zorro, colonialism can and should be essentially pacific. Diego tells his fellow “young blades” busy learning “the fine and fashionable art of killing” that nothing happens in California: it is a land, he reports, of “gentle missions, happy peons, sleeping caballeros, and everlasting boredom.” There “a man can only marry, raise fat children, and watch his vineyards grow.”

But on returning, Diego discovers that this idyllic somnolence has been disturbed, as his father the alcalde has been overthrown and in his place is installed the avaricious pretender Don Luis Quintero with Captain Esteban Pasquale serving as his vicious sidekick. Lear-like, Diego’s father Don Alejandro Vega has been humiliated, dispossessed, and subject to internal exile. The son therefore masquerades as the avenging Zorro in order to reinstall his emasculated progenitor.

Zorro kills PasqualeZorro’s violence (and he is violent in a way that Fairbanks’s character never is, killing his nemesis Pasquale with very little compunction indeed) is, as Julian Savage also argues, restorative rather than revolutionary. It’s a displaced violence, performed by the prodigal son rather than the father himself, so absolving the virtuous patriarch, who refuses to take up arms, of any taint of coercion.

With his father back as mayor, Diego can finally settle down with his new-found wife, to raise his own fat children and watch his own vineyards grow–though one presumes that they don’t grow far without some input from the “happy peons” and their labour power.

California, in short, and the Los Angeles in which the film’s action is specifically set, can return to being the California familiar from so much Hollywood output of this period: a place of relaxation and leisure, natural fertility and good living, fortunately somewhat removed from world events. Oh, and underpinned by unacknowledged Latino labour.

Powers as marine aviatorIt would not be long, though, before Power himself would have to gird up his fighting loins, first putting Hollywood on a war footing in an early World War II propaganda film, and then transforming himself from indolent matinée idol to man of war.

All very inspiring, no doubt. But why should we imagine that Hollywood either before or after the war was so very free from corruption?

(Crossposted from Latin America on Screen.)

transition

The superhero as double is common in Hollywood cinema. When he is not out saving the world, Superman takes refuge in his alter ego, the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. Batman is (and is not) the playboy Bruce Wayne. Spiderman and nerdy Daily Bugle photographer Peter Parker are one and (almost) the same.

Don DiegoBut before all these (indeed, anticipating them by twenty years) there was Zorro aka Don Diego de la Vega. As the Zorro Legend website points out, Johnston McCulley’s character, part foppish aristocrat, part avenging swordsman, echoes the Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel. In The Mark of Zorro, Douglas Fairbanks takes this literary doppelganger and makes of him what could well be Hollywood’s first superhero.

(William Stoddard also has a good review and discussion of McCulley’s book and the 1920 adaptation.)

ZorroZorro’s remit, however, is more local and more clearly political than that of most later superheroes. He’s not called in to save the world, but he does aim to change it. Lately returned from Spain to his native California, Don Diego is disgusted with the corruption of Spanish imperial power, a corruption manifest in mistreatment of Indians, of priests, and (what is worst of all) of the beautiful Señorita Lolita Pulido.

Zorro’s task is to rouse what has become a servile and languid creole aristocracy, and to goad them into ejecting the Spanish interloper from their shores.

Clearly, persuasion alone is not going to galvanize the Californian caballeros. Zorro aims to shame his fellows into action. The split between Don Diego, the fop rejected by the beauty Lolita, and Zorro, the dark knight who charms and impresses her with his hyper-masculine sword-thrusts, enacts the sexualized psychodrama of a quiescent upper class being beaten to the prize by new, mobile men of action. The lesson to be learned is immediately affective: the creole class lacks intensity; but shame could lead to revivified pride, and so to political significance at last.

The two aspects to Fairbanks’s character are therefore less different psychologically than they incarnate differing states of the body: tiredness vs. wakefulness; langour vs. vigilance; passivity vs. activity; quiescence vs. tumescence. And the film as a whole is a film of the transition, of the individual but also the collective shift from sedentariness to motility.

Fairbanks’s stunts (most of which he performed himself) are always exaggeratedly physical: his body describes ever more impressive arcs and leaps, jumping on to and over horses, over wagons and up walls. His characteristic movement is something like a sideways combined twist and turn and spring from a standing start.

At the same time, Zorro knows when to keep still. A favoured trick is to hide behind a bush, a door, or a wall, while a horde of pursuers blunder blindly past. It is not therefore movement per se that is valorized: it is the right combination of movement and rest. Zorro’s stillness is taught with the alert possibility of sudden movement at any moment. His body is a spring coiled and ready to leap. It is the instant of contraction before an explosive power is unleashed.

Zorro behind corner
Just a couple of decades after the US had dispossessed Spain of its last imperial possessions (Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines), and a couple of years after Europe had been suicidally bogged down in the First World War trenches, surely Zorro could also be seen as the image of US power ready to unfold. And his warning to Don Diego seen as a caution against the country’s resting on its new-found laurels. Fairbanks’s Zorro marks America’s transition as it becomes superpower.

(Crossposted from Latin America on Screen.)