Sunday, 9 September 2012

Paths and Progress in Pocahontas

One of the more nuanced Disney women I have seen so far, I must say.

There are a lot of things one could say about Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) concerning gender roles and indigenous peoples, but I am not going to say them. This is in part because I feel like a lot of it has already been said, and in part because I do not feel equipped to discuss the history of European-American contact. But I am still going to refer to the website I gave you a few weeks ago ranking Disney princesses according to how feminist they are. Pocahontas ranks fairly highly, and when I first read the rationale, I was not especially unnerved:

...she isn't interested in marrying the guy her dad wants her to marry or in following a set path. She has another calling in life that she wants to pursue. Interestingly, she's the only princess who doesn't end up with the man she's in love with; her destiny is larger than a man, and she even breaks up with the guy with a whole "it's not you, it's my path" speech.

Upon watching the movie and giving it some thought, I felt a little less comfortable. A lot of that discomfort is autobiographical, but I thought I could maybe explore it a bit here. The ways Pocahontas talks about the path she feels she must take reminds me of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? and of European justifications for the kind of invasions Governor Ratcliffe heads in the film.

Pocahontas has a dream of an arrow spinning and then selecting a direction. Her magical talking tree mentor Grandmother Willow informs her that she has a path set out for her. While her father believes that her path is to marry Koucom for the good of the tribe, Pocahontas feels that it lies elsewhere. When John Smith arrives, she thinks it lies with him, an interpretation supported by his possession of a compass, which was the arrow she saw in her dream. So when John Smith’s life is threatened and war between her people and his looks inevitable, she intercepts and argues for peace. At this point we may think that her path lies with John Smith, but at the end of the film she knows differently: her path is to lead her people and not to be with him, though loving and protecting him was a part of it. A lot of Pocahontas’s character development is focused on her discernment of her path.

I use the word “discernment” because that’s a word that comes up a lot in Protestant, maybe specifically evangelical (?), circles. There is a sense that every person (or every Christian? it’s unclear) has a specific purpose or life plan that God has set out for them, and part of each person’s role as a Christian is to discern what the next part of that plan is and perform it. Having a destiny is an attractive idea, one that I detect in quite a lot of my generation’s up-bringing (secular or religious). I remain skeptical that we have a specific purpose, however; if we do, I remain even more skeptical that we can have any reliable access to what that purpose might be. Part of my queasiness is that this kind of thinking can support exceptionalism, the idea that my destiny makes me special or entitles me to certain things. It is interesting to notice that, of all the characters in the film, only Pocahontas has a clear path, only she has dreams about that path, and her path leads her to take a place of prominence in her tribe. Rulers have destinies, maybe, and common people do not? When only the protagonist’s path seems to matter, I get even more nervous.

It can also be difficult to untie the path you sense that you have from the path that your society and institutions assigns you. The struggle to make that decision is a central theme of the film, and not just for Pocahontas. While she rebels against her father’s marital plans for her, all of the English characters are encouraged to react to the indigenous people with hostility. Ratcliffe is the one doing the active encouragement, but he can only do so because he has the twin discourses of colonialism/imperialism and masculine/military expectations to give him the rhetorical resources. Ratcliffe uses the latter most pointedly when he says to young Thomas, unsure about his order to kill any aboriginal people on sight, “You've been a slipshod sailor and a poor excuse for a soldier. Don't disappoint me again.” Thomas is in his own coming-of-age narrative, and Ratcliffe makes it clear that murder is necessary for the successful completion of that story. Part of Thomas’ character development is to find out that Ratcliffe’s claim is wrong.

Historically, however, imperialists used the idea of a God-granted destiny to legitimize their invasion of the New World. We get a short look at this in John Smith’s attempt to sell Pocahontas on the glories of progress: roads, “real” houses, and the like. In the film’s most famous song and dance routine she rejects the doctrine of progress (though, I might say, in a profoundly dissatisfying way—when your rebuttal to the idea of Enlightenment-ethos progress is that the natural world is pretty and literally magical, you have fallen right into the dichotomies that produce the progress myth). The connection between the practice of discerning one’s destiny and the imperialists’ belief that God had destined them to produce an empire is obscured, however, in Ratcliffe’s stated motives: he wants gold. He even talks about gold and personal success more than he talks about civilization. As a result, the emphasis is on how Ratcliffe, and people like him, prevent people from following their own private paths in order to meet materialistic ends, and not on how the rhetoric of paths and destines can legitimize things like exceptionalism and conquest. (As an aside, this is why I am not sure that criticizing American foreign policy as being “just about oil” is really all that productive: a lot of the problem stems from supposedly-well-intended Western belief that “the American way of life” is a coherent thing that sits along the path to progress, a path which all societies should be striving to follow. Put another way, is international violence less horrible if it is performed for ideological rather than materialistic reasons? Are base motives necessary for an act of accusation?)

I suppose that if you are really sold on the idea that we have paths and can determine them, what you could take from this is that we need to be really careful when discerning what our paths are. In particular, the major movement of Pocahontas seems to be to reject any authority figure’s idea of what that path might be (a sentiment not unexpected from a film that seems to be belatedly discovering the ethos of the 70s). I cannot pretend to dissuade you from that idea any further than I already have. But I would like to suggest an alternative. Pocahontas is invested in finding her path, true, but she also seems invested in assessing people honestly, in acting with integrity (regardless of how her own people measure it), in preserving her people’s way of life, and in preventing unnecessary violence. She is concerned about doing the right thing. In fact, trying to find her path is in many instances the same thing as trying to do the right thing. Most of the time it seems that her path is commit to her responsibilities and her integrity according to where she is positioned socially. If we have a path, I would argue that this is it: to act with integrity, honesty, responsibility, and altruism according to our social position, our relation to other people’s strengths and vulnerabilities, our own strengths and vulnerabilities. But to say this is to render talk about paths unnecessary, and that would make me far more comfortable.
However, as you can surely see, a lot of my concern stems from personal doubts about the discernment process's legitimacy. I am willing to listen to other's ideas on this, so please comment if you have anything to add. This post is intended to be exploration, not didacticism.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

A World Without Justice in /The Man Who Knew Too Much/

My introduction to G. K. Chesterton’s work was somewhat belated for a university-going Christian, I think. It was with The Man Who Was Thursday that I began, perhaps a year ago, and having enjoyed that I decided to put The Man Who Knew Too Much on my Kobo for vacation. I rather enjoyed it, but perhaps only because I have been cultivating a taste for the bleak. Chesterton strikes me as something like a very slightly bitter Catholic analogue of C. S. Lewis. (They even share the convention of using two initials rather than a first name.) This discussion of The Man Who Knew Too Much has no real argument, but is rather a reflection on mystery stories and the search for justice, truth, and the greater good. Because it may not be clear from this meditation, I would strongly recommend the book, but I will warn that it is causally sexist (women are only mentioned at all in two chapters) and very racist (in particular anti-Semitic and Islamophobic).

In the Tarot, the Lady Justice is not blindfolded but stares at the viewer. I wonder which iconography is more reasonable?
For those who do not know, The Man Who Knew Too Much is about Horne Fisher, as seen through the eyes of Harold March. March is an idealistic young man who is attracted to Fisher’s intelligence and curiosity; in the dynamics of the novel, he is the Watson. Fisher is a jaded older man, vaguely aristocratic, who travels in the highest circles of British politics solving assorted mysteries with his knowledge of human hypocrisy, folly, and guilt; in the dynamics of the novel, he is the Holmes. While the book is broken into unconnected chapters based on different mysteries, it may also be read as a character study of Fisher, the man who knows too much, or, as he says, knows too much of the wrong kind of thing. Yet he is interested by any topic and anything, and has learned eventually to find the good in some people, but even that with his own brand of pessimism: “Believe me, you never know the best about men till you know the worst about them. [...] God alone knows what the conscience can survive, or how a man who has lost his honour will still try to save his soul” (Chapter 8). When Fisher here uses the word “conscience,” he repeats the word with which March was accusing his mentor. March had been shocked that Fisher could know as much as he did without acting on it. Why not expose the government? Why not explode the government? (In both of the Chesterton books that I have read, there seems to be the perpetual threat of dynamite-throwing anarchists. It’s deliciously quaint.) Why, March asks Fisher, has he been complicit if he has known about all of this guilt and corruption? March intends to reveal all because he has a conscience.

 For this has not been a regular mystery novel. In most mystery novels of this type, the cases follow a certain pattern. First, the context is set: the Watson and the Holmes are invited to a location, or the Holmes begins to recount an episode of his youth. At this time, the principle cast are introduced. Second, the mystery begins: a body is found, or the police discuss the hideout of a suspect, or an artifact goes missing. The social order has been ruptured. Third, the Holmes gathers evidence: he asks questions, he goes on errands that baffle the Watson, he examines or sends the Watson to examine scenes surrounding the crime. Fourth, the Holmes reveals the killer, the act of crime, and how he solved the crime (for Fisher, it usually revolves around some feature of human character or cognition). Fifth, the denouement concludes the story: the guilty party is taken away, the goods are found, order is restored, and some feature of human nature is discovered. The interest and emphasis is always on the Holmes’s explanation (the fourth point). This is what closes the suspense opened by the crime (the second point). The denouement has the effect of a logical conclusion; the necessary narrative clean-up following the emotional completion. Most of this pattern remains the same for The Man Who Knew Too Much, but for the denouement. The criminal is never apprehended. Fisher always knows who did it and why, and he always tells March, but part of his explanation is often also why he cannot reveal to society at large who the killer is. (This is not always so. Usually, though, when someone is sentenced with a crime, there is nonetheless the feeling that justice has not really been done—often because someone involved in the legal process was the guilty party.)

I do not want to spoil much, but I can give some outlines. In one case, the person who committed the crime was a person of such political importance, at such a crucial political moment, that the upheaval his arrest would have created would have been disastrous. In another case, Fisher (for good reason) knew that no one would believe him, and he did not have enough hard evidence to back it up. In another case, as a consequence of the facts becoming public, the legend surrounding a person more important as that legend than as a person would be tarnished, at great political expense. And I will not tell about the final case, other than to say that it works well as narrative. For one reason or another—but often for the common good—justice, as traditionally imagined, cannot be done. A blackmailer has been murdered and many heads of state (most of whom were not involved in the murder) are now free from his influence; is this not a good thing? Should those dirty deeds be aired in the name of justice?

I have previously lauded Watchmen for posing a thought experiment concerning consequentialism. [Here be spoilers] Should Ozymandias be punished for his monstrous crimes? If you are a pure consequentialist, you would say that he should not be punished because that would undo the great good his massacre produced (assuming that you are convinced that Ozymandias’ actions did in fact produce more good than evil, but the text strongly supports that assumption). I think many people would be squeamish about that response, though: surely such a huge scale of murder must be punished, even if the overall result is for the best? And if the lack of justice does not bother you, the lack of truth might. Lots of people feel and/or think that the truth has inherent value, and so, regardless of whether we feel that Ozymandias should be punished, we may still say that his crimes should be made public. The truth should out, even if we are skeptical about whether or not it will. (The point of the thought experiment is not to test whether consequentialism is true or false--squeamishness would not show that--but to test the experimenter's commitment to it. Secondarily, it is supposed to show that any moral system can produce horrible atrocities; pointing to the massacre at Jericho is only as effective a disproof of divine command theory as pointing to Watchmen's Ozymandias is a disproof of consequentialism.)

Despite the monstrousness of Ozymandias’ actions, though, I think that The Man Who Knew Too Much does a better job of producing the emotional squeamishness. This might partly be a response of the work’s greater realism, and it might be a response to the theme’s repetition (rather than a single climactic reveal). But it is also because we can see the effects repeated cover-ups have on a character. Fisher may not be a broken man, but he is unhappy more thoroughly than a mere pessimist. He has seen that, if acts which are harmful in themselves must be done or at least tolerated for the good of a greater number of people, that distinguishing between right and wrong will become increasingly difficult. He has seen that ideals of any kind must be given up; he has seen that people must become complicit in miserable crimes. He is a man who has become dirty, knows that he is dirty, and remembers what it felt to be clean. In the world of Watchmen, as miserable as it is, the characters could usually condemn the badness; acts like Ozymandias’ were exceptions. In the world of The Man Who Knew Too Much, it is harder to condemn the badness because it lies so near, and pointing it out would not be too far from pointing at oneself. The world is not without justice because we know what justice is and we can see that it is absent; the world is without justice because in this world justice makes no sense—it produces a paradox—and therefore cannot be. Beyond this, there lingers throughout the latter half of the novel the fear that this cynicism can be dangerous to a person, can warp the characters of lesser (or younger) men.

For what it is worth, I believe that The Man Who Knew Too Much has hit on something true here, both about the world and about the trouble with the very idea of justice. (I have written about justice before.) I should not sell it as so bleak, though. It contains much humour, including my favourite kind of satire, which simultaneously laughs at characters while being endeared by their faults (cf. Emma, Arcadia, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town). And there is room enough still for courage, though of a different tenor than that of glittering knights. When March meets Fisher, the latter is actually fishing, and another character in the novel is called, in a kind of dark parody, a “fisher of men.” The character given this title is not especially Christ-like, despite the title, but Fisher maybe is: he has seen into the hearts of men and their darkness, and he recognizes “that only God knows how good they have tried to be” (Ch 8). He does not fail to notice crime, or to seek it out, or to assess what kind of character a person has, but he rarely judges and he rarely condemns, because society itself could not take that strain. He also takes risks to his own person in the name of that rotted-out civilization that he interrogates. Unlike Christ, however, he is only a man, and a flawed one at that; the grief and frustration have taken their toll upon him. Realizing (or believing) that justice and truth can be opposed to the greatest good is no easy burden to bear.

Does anyone know where this image originally comes from? I found it used on another blog.
I would be especially interested in feedback, if you feel willing to give it and even if you haven’t read the novel. This topic seems as big as asking, what is it that we are seeking when we pursue legal action for crimes? On what ideals should we build our society (truth, justice, greater good, equality), and what do we do if these ideals conflict? How do you prevent such a realization from negatively impacting your own character formation? How do you deal with what necessary complicity does to you?

EDIT: On 27 September, 2012, I edited some grammatical errors.
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