Empire of the Watchmen

[on two types of “rewards” – goals or consequences of one’s actions? – and the implications for human interactions]

“If there is no God, everything is permitted…”

This is basically the challenging idea of Ivan Karamazov, one of the main characters in The Brothers Karamazov, the famous novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). Could this be true in any way?

At the beginning of a new year, I always ask my students the following questions:

Suppose there is no principal’s office, suppose you could never be punished for any of your actions – would you still respect your fellow students and your teacher?

Suppose there are no grades to win, and you didn’t receive any reward for studying your courses and reading your books – would you still listen to your teachers and study?

What would you do if you are not watched, if you live outside “the empire of the watchmen”?

Consider Matthew 6:1-2 & 6:5: Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. […] So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. […] And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

To put things slightly differently:

Suppose there is no hell, no punishment in any way, would you still respect your fellow man?

Suppose there is no heaven, no reward in any way, would you still respect your fellow man?

Actually, this is the kind of challenge Christianity puts us to. Christ teaches us that there isn’t something like a heaven as an established “world” for which we should bring all kinds of sacrifices in order to obtain it. As if heaven would be the ultimate goal and justification of our existence. That’s exactly like the reasoning of a student who is prepared to work hard at his courses and to obey his teachers, not because he’s intrinsically interested in his courses or respectful of his teachers, but because he considers getting good grades as his ticket to success, power and happiness – “paradise”.

Christ subverts this sacrificial logic. Rather than being an ultimate goal that justifies, explains and gives meaning to our life, “heaven” is the potential consequence of our actions. By taking up responsibility for ourselves and one another, by loving our neighbor (which is “the righteousness of God’s Kingdom”), we co-create “heaven”. To use the student-analogy again: the student who learns to be genuinely interested in his courses will get good grades as a logical consequence of his love for studying. And he will have learned something!

Consider Matthew 6:25-34: Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

On the other hand, those students who are focused only on getting good grades and who fear failure will tend to forget what they have learned from the moment they have their grades and no longer “need” the information from their courses. Or they will stop being friendly to their former teachers once they have graduated.

In short, Christ doesn’t want us to respect our neighbor because we fear hellish punishment or long for some heavenly reward. He wants us to respect our neighbor because of our neighbor. He liberates us from a system of fear and anxiety based on punishments and rewards, creates the possibility of responsibility (because only a free man can be responsible) and genuine love – without ulterior motives -, and transforms the nature of sacrifice. In Christ’s view, sacrifice is not a gift to receive something from someone you need, nor is it a necessary obligation to protect some kind of “honor gone mad” (see the tragedy of Japanese kamikaze pilots during the Second World War),  but it is a gift from people who are thankful for what they already received by living up to the possibilities of their freedom.

Consider Matthew 5:23-24: So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Of course, there’s a dark side as well to this liberation. Let’s go to the classroom once more. If a teacher tells his students that he will not punish them or, on the other hand, reward them with good grades, there are two possibilities: there will either be an atmosphere of cooperation guided by a genuine motivation to study, or… total mayhem – “hell”!

In Battling to the End, a book in which René Girard reconsiders the treatise On War by Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the apocalyptic dimensions of Christ’s teachings are related to Christ’s deconstruction of “the god(s) of sacrifice” and of sacrificial systems in general. Girard makes clear that the biblical revelation indeed has two possible outcomes: either a world of ever more rivalry and violence, or a world of ever more Love.

Reading Battling to the End a while ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about two stories in the shadow of a potential apocalypse: Empire of the Sun and Watchmen. In both these stories further mayhem and violence is avoided – at least for the time being – by the restoration of a sacrificial system of fear. Empire of the Sun reminds us how the Second World War came to an end in Japan: by sacrificing tens of thousands of innocent people, victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Watchmen also displays this kind of sacrificial logic. In the fictional story of this graphic novel, the tensions between the US and the USSR during the Cold War are released after an alleged nuclear attack from outer space. Once again the death of millions of civilians provides a “peaceful world”, some sort of “paradise” – however precarious.

In Empire of the Sun, the way the Second World War unfolds in the Far East creates the setting for a boy’s coming of age story. Empire of the Sun actually is an autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, and tells the story of an aristocratic British boy, James (“Jim”) Graham. In 1987, Steven Spielberg made a film based on Ballard’s novel, with a young and astonishing Christian Bale taking the lead role. In the film, Jim’s privileged life is upturned by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, December 8, 1941. Separated from his parents, he is eventually captured, and taken to Soo Chow confinement camp, next to a former Chinese airfield. Amidst the sickness and food shortages in the camp, Jim manages to survive and becomes a token of spirit and dignity to those around him, all the while hoping to get back “home” again. Jim eventually finds comfort in the arms of his mother, after losing his Japanese kamikaze-friend among many others… The scene of Jim reunited with his mother sheds a little light of hope in a world which seems condemned to the sacrificial peace of the atomic bomb – and a seemingly never ending story of fear and worries, with no peace of mind…

I made a compilation using scenes from both Empire of the Sun and Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen. The two stories raise powerful questions regarding humanity’s possibility to cope with freedom and responsibility. I think they’re opening up a lot of issues that are also discussed at the COV&R Conference in Tokyo, Japan (July 5-8, 2012). As Jim learns towards the end of the film: there are no clear-cut, magical solutions to overcome the devastations of a world at war… But to follow Christ’s footsteps, one step at a time, might take us to unexpected and new dimensions. Watch out!

TO READ MORE ABOUT WATCHMEN AND MIMETIC THEORY, CLICK HERE TO READ – PDF

(this essay already appeared at The Raven Foundation and the Dutch Girard Society)

CLICK HERE TO RECEIVE INFORMATION ON MUSIC AND LYRICS USED IN THE COMPILATION – PDF

CLICK TO WATCH:

Big Brother is watching you

BIG SCANDAL!

My usually sedate hometown was startled last week by the discovery of a ‘celebrity sex tape’: our female mayor allegedly had been secretly videotaped by some Polish tourists during a vacation in Spain four years ago. She was caught having sex with her then boyfriend, in a public area, more specifically on a tower. The passersby filmed from a distance, zooming in on the two lovebirds. Although there is no nudity involved, every adult can suspect the couple is doing something more than merely enjoying the view from a high building. All the ingredients were there for a typical tabloid character assassination.

The tape already circulated on the internet, but only last week some people from our small city stumbled upon it. What was to be expected, happened: immediately our mayor became the laughing stock of specially created Facebook groups, she got a new, not really flattering nickname, and a carnival song was made about the event. Of course some people, including politicians and some media, demanded her resignation. I was (and actually still am) in doubt about the whole situation. I’ve been asking myself whether the reactions towards our mayor are in proportion to her misbehavior. The bottom line is that she could be charged with public indecency. However, this doesn’t happen. I guess Spain has got more important things to spend its tax money on. Hence people somewhat take the law into their own hands. They take matters ‘to the streets’, the virtual ones of the internet, and the real ones of their hometown – whose carnival festivities are UNESCO World Heritage, and are known for their mockery of all kinds of people, especially of local politicians.

As I tried to make clear in a previous post, carnival festivities have all the features of old rituals which are eventually rooted in scapegoat phenomena. I have some reasons to believe that what happens to our mayor is exactly that: a scapegoat phenomenon. People who use their time and energy to publicly make fun of her, blame their own actions entirely on the way their victim, our mayor, behaved. In other words, they make our mayor a scapegoat, unwittingly transforming themselves into persecutors. They say She had it coming, she asked for it”, while technically, in purely juridical terms, that’s not exactly the case. There is no proof whatsoever that she asked to be videotaped and to be put ‘online’. The passersby are still responsible for their own actions. They were not obliged to film her, as we are not obliged to mock her.

I must admit I find the situation somewhat hilarious myself, but I think we shouldn’t exploit it to the point of ‘public shame’. I can imagine myself, or someone else for that matter, telling some anecdote about an embarrassing moment in my life (at the doctor’s office, anyone?), as I can imagine our mayor joking about something awkward that happened in her life. It all makes a good laugh. But to use the kind of mistake our mayor made to demand someone’s resignation, seems out of proportion to me. Even more so because she is only partly responsible for what happened. She didn’t steal anything, nor committed adultery, nor killed anyone. She was caught in an act many lovers could have been caught in.

There was a time (indeed, “was”) when lovebirds drove to an abandoned public area to make love to each other. It’s one of the more recognizable moments in American Graffiti, a movie by George Lucas. When a couple makes love in a car, near a river, two people pass by, but they leave the couple to itself.

This scene is contrasted by yet another early movie of George Lucas, THX 1138, which seems to be a perfect reflection of our current situation. Like 1984, the famous novel by George Orwell, THX 1138 portrays a future society where people are constantly watched by each other and by cameras. The film shows a totalitarian regime, a world without freedom, where people constantly have to fear their neighbor might give away their ‘mistakes’. In THX 1138, a couple is making love while being watched by a band of ‘Big Brothers’, who eventually convict the couple.

The troubling thing is we don’t need a war to end up in a situation like the one described in George Orwell’s 1984, or portrayed in THX 1138, although the atrocities of war facilitate certain social reflexes. For example, after the second world war people publicly shamed women who were known to have a German, Nazi boyfriend. These women were accused of ‘collaboration’, and since official, legal charges take a lot of time to be followed through, impatient crowds took the matter into their own hands. As said, apparently you don’t need stores of rage and vengefulness, built by a traumatizing war, to seduce people to mock someone. You just need a person who ‘stands out from the crowd’ a bit, a ‘public figure’. A mayor, or some other ‘celebrity’. Kurt Cobain, late front-man of grunge pioneers Nirvana, describes it well when he reflects on how the media constantly try to find sensational stories about him and his lover, Courtney Love: “I think we’re just easy scapegoats… We turn into cartoon characters.” Being an easy scapegoat is one of the burdens of being a celebrity, which allegedly made Kurt Cobain commit suicide at the age of 27. But you don’t have to be a celebrity to be harassed, mocked and bullied. Tyler Clementi, a promising young man, was secretly videotaped by his classmates while having a sexual encounter with another man. The video was posted on the internet, as a ‘joke’. Eventually Tyler jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, September 22, 2010. He was only eighteen years old.

There’s no place in this world for over-sensitive people. So it seems. To quote Charlie Chaplin from his magnificent speech in his equally magnificent film The Great Dictator: “Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness hard and unkind.” Indeed, we seem to use our knowledge to gain power over others and to “turn them into cartoon characters”. Yet I still believe we have a choice, as ‘free’ individuals, not to give in to processes of victimization and of scapegoating. We can give in to the power of a Love that wants to know the person ‘behind the cartoon’, that is concerned with personalities ‘beyond labels’. To ‘murder’ a person is to ‘steal’ his or her ‘nakedness’, his or her soul… We have a choice not to do that…

Alice Nahon, a Flemish poet from Antwerp, puts it this way (free translation):

“Before you go to sleep,

Look into your own heart,

And ask yourself:

Did I hurt someone’s heart

In the time between dawn and dusk?”

 

In Dutch:

‘t Is goed in ‘t eigen hert te kijken

Nog even voor het slapen gaan

Of ik van dageraad tot avond

Geen enkel hert heb zeer gedaan.

I’m a weak person and a coward in many ways, and I need this advice every day. I once met a drunk man on a bus who made racist remarks to a black woman. He asked me to hold his bottle of whiskey for him, while he kept harassing the lady. I remember the rage in his eyes, and the way he asked my approval of his behavior. I was too afraid to stand up against what he was doing. I forced myself to laugh. At the next stop, I got off the bus, 4 miles from home (around 6 kilometers), and continued walking. To this day I feel ashamed and sad about what happened then. From this experience I learned that it is necessary to question the deeper motivations of our actions at any time, in order not to commit evil where we see ‘no harm’, and where we think we are entitled to ‘defend ourselves’ or even ‘assert ourselves’… ‘creatively’. Not all of our actions are as innocent as they might seem. I don’t want to point fingers. I just made the next video compilation to reflect on what we are capable of as human beings – and I need this reflection as much, or even more so, as you do, dear reader.

Please click the following image to watch the video, and feel free to post comments (the quote on ‘common people’ is by alternative rock band Pulp, from their song by the same name)

– CLICK TO WATCH: