Tag Archives: Dystopia

Thinking about my birthday …

Thinking about my birthday …

Happy Birthday Boxing Gloves

This morning, I was tickled to learn that Richard Boone, the actor who played Paladin on the late 1950s-early 1960s show Have Gun Will Travel, was born on my birthday.

Richard Boone, Paladin, Have Gun Will TravelBoone’s character, Paladin was a soldier-of-fortune/knight in not-so-shinging armor.

Between jobs rescuing people and otherwise righting ambiguous wrongs, he lived in a hotel in San Francisco, played poker, enjoyed the classics and let loose tidbits about his background as a West Point graduate and former Union Army officer during the Civil War.

On the trail though, he always wore black: black shirt, pants and neckerchief, black boots, black hat, and even a black holster with his trademark silver knight’s chess piece emblem on the side. As a nine-year-old watching him on reruns, I thought he was cooler than cool, maybe even cooler than Bat Masterson because there was something a wee bit dangerous about a character whose only allegiance was to his own code of ethics.

I got to thinking about Paladin and the ambiguity he represented during the height of the Cold War. Here was a man who could be mistaken for an Eastern “dandy,” but brought sensibilities to his tasks as a gun-for-hire that eschewed the easy answers of black and white morality for the grayer tones that teased out the palate of black and white television images.

Having been a kid in the midst of such things as the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy’s assassination, characters like Paladin seemed to make their way through the thicket of issues that pitted civilization versus barbarism as a frame for the collective discomfiture of living under the threat of annihilation while coping with the angst of allowing our humanity to shine through.

Flashing forward what amounts to me to be a healthy lifetime later–the world I grew up in is altered beyond recognition. Watching an old episode is to step back in time to moral choices that seem simple and naive, with ideas about women and men that seem laughable and anachronistic. And yet, we still dither among them; finding ourselves in wars that make no sense, still telling ridiculously offensive jokes that have impossibly made it more into the mainstream.

The outgrowth of Paladin, a mere five years later was James T. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise, pushing their way into space toward a utopian future that belied the nightmare dystopic visions of such programs as Rod Serling’s Twilight ZoneAnd yet Star Trek‘s utopian ideal did not embrace the spaciness of Kennedy’s call to technological wonderment. Gene Roddenberry’s future (who incidentally wrote 25 episodes for Have Gun Will Travel) was more in line with Thoreau and  Emerson. The ideal was a simple life fulfilled by meeting one’s essential needs as part of a small communal existence based on a natural order of elders leading novices, and where technology, in service to the greater good, remained hidden under the covers of houses which resembled the adobe buildings of the Zuni tribe from the American Southwest, or as malevolent interlopers manipulating the simplicity of natural living.

The Paradise Syndrome, Star Trek

The Paradise Syndrome, Star Trek

Certainly the economics of 1960s television had something to do with the simplicity of Star Trek’s sets, but the visions, not so unlike the western frontier towns of Paladin’s world were also very contrary to 1960s America which was on fire–literally–as part of the daily diet of nightly news. Why not envision a simple communal existence when the alternative was watching entire portions of cities being clear-cut by riots not unlike the swaths of jungle in Viet Nam carpet-bombed by napalm.

Having lived through the extraordinary shifts of the past half century and more: I am amazed to be in a world where marriage has been redefined to allow young men in love to marry other young men; where women box in the Olympics, and on that wonderful show that leaks tears called So You Think You Can Dance intricate Bollywood numbers are standard fare.

To consider all of this and the myriad of stuff that’s happened between my nine-year-old self watching Paliden and catching the second installment of the Star Trek reboot a couple of weeks ago, is to realize that the life I am living and the larger society around me is one that was never particularly anticipated. The 2013 we all thought about in the 1960s had flying cars–and in Star Trek canon would have already seen Khan and his group of genetically enhanced super beings propelled into space in frozen animation.

It puts in mind the thought that no matter our visions for the future whether utopian, dystopic or somewhere in between–we really can’t know what it is going to happen or how one incident or another will cause us to pivot and realign. It is what happened to the world globally in 1914 when Prince Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and is repeated over and over again as large scale events and tiny happenstance that causes each of us as individuals to move through life in directions we never thought we’d find ourselves in. Sometimes those changes are for good and at other times wreck terrible havoc that may take generations to recover from, if ever.

What I’ve discovered on this journey from then until now is that life is analogous to riding on the back of a truck facing behind. What I can seeing unfolding is only the road as it comes. And while I have plans for the future that will keep me busy for as long as I can stay afloat on this wonderful place called planet Earth–I really never quite know what is going to happen. All I can do is live each day with as much love as I can muster in my heart along with enough good fortune to keep on truckin’ (hat tip for that last bit to my dear friend Pren).

… Peace!

What’s with all the shooting?

What’s with all the shooting?

Clint Eastwood

My first awareness of violence was of the family kind. I have no memory of witnessing the violence, rather my memories are of mind-numbing fear that started in my stomach before it froze my bowels as if I’d been stabbed through and through with huge icebergs of pain. It took me until my adulthood to comprehend that I’d witnessed that kind of violence–and to come to terms with what it meant.

That searing experience changes a person one way or another and goodness knows how many children walk around with PTSD without the fanfare that accompanies soldiers coming home from war or the counseling that’s available to first responders after they experience something particularly horrific.

Gun violence adds yet another patina of pain, suffering and misery to the litany of personal violence that is a seeming epidemic that keeps rolling on.

My own relationship to violence was odd.

On the one hand, my parents were radical pacifists for a time and organized “Ban the Bomb” rallies in the late 1950s and early 1960s while violence at home remained in the hidden recesses of our family’s psyche — with no sense of the remarkable contradiction between the public and private spheres of our lives.

Ban the Bomb Rally, City Hall Park, New York City, 1959

My own education about violence was related to the atom bomb. As a six-year-old, I probably knew more about the effects of nuclear radiation on human beings than most adults do now. I also knew about the shadow people — shadows left behind like one-dimensional ghosts of the people who had been killed mid-stride when the bomb hit Hiroshima. The thought of nuclear war haunted me and if I heard a lone plane flying over head at night I would wonder if that was the “one” that would finally bomb New York.

Annie OakleyMy pacifism aside — I was still attracted to guns.

After all, they were everywhere.

They were America.

They were the good guys: cowboys, soldiers fighting Nazi’s (even at six, and pacifism aside, I figured that one out), and crime fighters.

They were the West: America as rugged individualists.

Heck even Annie Oakley was a sharp shooter. What could be wrong with that?

Also when I was six, and having my tonsils out, I was offered the choice between two presents: a doctor’s kit or a gun. I have a keen memory of agonizing over the choice. I really wanted the gun, but opted for the doctor’s kit figuring it was easier to take the path of least resistance rather than having to “explain” the other choice.

Fast forward to what feels like a million years between 1960 to 2013 in terms of the cultural changes in the United States, and one can find an important constant that remains in place: our fascination with guns. The ubiquitous gun, however, has taken on other meanings. I would argue that it has become a pawn in our continuing cultural wars not only along the fracture lines of our blue state/red state dichotomy, but along our class wars: with images of the slick urban dwelling post-modernist  versus the community loving, church going denizen of “heartland” small towns, not to mention the constant of the racial divides that continue to eat away at our souls.

Tony Montana, ScarfaceIs it any wonder that a youth without prospects for education or meaningful employment would find in a gun an opportunity for empowerment in an otherwise nihilist pit of existential dread otherwise known as a sense that his or her life is without purpose and that the only likely opportunity is prison followed by an early death?

A long sentence I know, but that’s likely what that sort of powerlessness feels like. A long sentence with nowhere to go.

Such powerlessness, however, is not only in the purview of a gang-banger from The Bronx or a meth-head from rural Arkansas.

Along the cultural divide there is the powerlessness against that changes that have brought many of us enormous social progress. That social change can be thought of as a tone poem to President Johnson’s Immigration Act of 1965 (his other Civil Rights act) as it allowed peoples from all over the world without regard to color, religion or nationality, to immigrate to America based on the skills they would bring with them. This has led to an enrichment of the cultures and religions that make up America and has literally changed the social reality that defines who an American is. To those who feel threatened by this new reality, the horizon of the future is often a dystopic vision fraught with images of marauding bands of killers, akin, no doubt, to the thundering hoards from the East who “threatened” Europe in bygone eras. For the preppers and others who follow similar lines of thinking, the answer has been to circle the wagons of old with lots of weapons at the ready just in case the dystopic vision actually happens. In some cases this amassing of weapons has had tragic outcomes as in a recent case where a man mistook a couple in a car who’d rode into the wrong driveway for a pair about to perpetrate a home invasion.

We also have a nightly diet of violence from cop shows and even medical shows — some that run for years and years — all of which rely on guns for drama whether it’s a hostage situation in the ER or the mandatory weekly shoot outs on our favorite police procedurals. They also tend to perpetrate the worst dystopic visions of urban dwelling and often paint the criminals who commit crimes as an assortment of Blacks and Latinos with nothing more on their minds than drive-by-shootings and robbing bodegas.

On the “good guy side”, I’ve lost count as to how many people Michael Weston’s killed on Burn Notice — just about all without remorse, but jeez, along the way, he and Fiona sure have put together a lot of really cool weapons. And I guess that’s the point — it gets to be a form of soft porn. ‘Real easy to watch ’cause it’s not too hard-core, no consequences to speak of and seems in the realm of the possible when it comes to empowering the “little guy.” Isn’t that what Weston’s doing, a sort of vigilante for scared victims of bad guys aka bullies? Sound familiar?

As to where they get all those groovy toys (obviously illegally) — I guess it’s the same place young kids get them: somewhere in never, never land, where “legal” guns disappear and morph into Saturday night specials that kill children in the crossfire. So my question is, if we abhor this kind of violence so much how come it’s still so easy to obtain guns illegally? It’s not as if there aren’t any laws against it.

As for legal weapons, does this infatuation with the gun explain the lone crazies that arsenal up with all manner of assault rifles and related gear, figuring that if they’re going to go out they’ll do it splashed all over the headlines? Does it resolve the dilemma of how many of these shooters have been on prescription drugs for mental problems? Hard to say. I’ll add that some percentage of those medications come with serious side effects that include things that say, may exhibit violent tendencies, homicidal rages and the like. Can we develop the will to resolve that?

I’ll add that before we rush to judgment, warehouse mental patients, ban every weapon or send five-year-old kids to lock-up because they bring their Mommy’s (legal) pistol to school for “show and tell” — we might want to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our infatuation with the gun as a notion of America and as the “peacemaker” that resolves all of our problems. We might also want to ask about our addiction to watching, if not participating in violence given the number of felonious assaults, and instances of rape, domestic violence and child abuse perpetrated on a daily basis in the media and in real-life.

When it comes to violence, we have a remarkable capacity to perpetrate it. What guns offer is that little something extra that threatens lethality with its remarkable power giving one that “big man on campus” rush. It is however, not the “be all and end all” of violence, after all, a million Rwandan’s died not from gunshot wounds but by men wielding machetes.