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I intended to return to the subject of portrayals of violence in media even before the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, but somehow it seems more urgent, now. Because, as I've inferred before, we have a complex relationship with violence in America, one which we don't always fully understand. I am not, nor will I ever be, one of those people who blame societal woes on gratuitous violence on TV. But I do think it sound to have a deeper relationship with our stories, to understand the relative difference between, say, the massacre at the end of Hamlet and the nonstop flying bullets of a Vin Diesel movie. This is a function of understanding literature, and alas, it's one that Americans often only seem to grasp shallowly.

The American mythology is an odd process of explosions of violence and the subsequent sanitizing of violence. Have you ever notice how a good many depictions of The Revolutionary War appear bloodless, even though more than 77,000 American, British and German soldiers died in the course of the war, either through battlefield injuries or disease, or some combination of the two? It seems distant, somehow. But it was a real war, and like a good many countries, America was born in blood. That's probably something worth remembering, on occasion.

When looking at literature, having a protagonist that's "born in blood" is significant. When you're talking about Superman, the destruction of Krypton and his parents' death is important, but he has no actual memory of it, and in most versions, he only learns it all as an adult. With Spider-Man, the death of his Uncle Ben at the hands of a robber he could have stopped earlier is what spurs him to become a hero, but again, that's a choice he makes as an adolescent. The reader understands the motivations behind Clark Kent or Peter Parker's decisions, but honestly, they could have gone different directions. They're noble, but arguably not predestined. 

But with Batman, who famously witnessed his parents' violent murder, that he's immediately marked to make some pretty big life choices. One does not encounter violence in that way and remain unaffected. Bruce Wayne might not be predestined to become a hero at that moment, but he's obviously going to do something. He might become a psychopath. Certainly, Dexter Morgan's witnessing of his mother's brutal murder is at the heart of his sociopathy, the event that leads him on the path to becoming a serial killer. Although some poorer interpretations of the Batman story have insinuated otherwise, Wayne remains sane, whereas Morgan does not. Wayne is driven, yes, but uses his tragedy as fuel to help others (aided nicely by a personal fortune, which must help.) Helping others is never a priority for Morgan. Wayne never intentionally kills, Morgan has no goal to anything but. (I'm actually a little surprised this comparison doesn't get made more. It seems a natural.) Both character are in a constant state of dealing with the effects of violence and putting it in a place where it won't consume them. The violence never really leaves there system. It never does.

As I said before, I'm not a proponent of blaming media portrayals of violence for anything the discussion of its many manifestations, from cartoon violence to its use as a metaphor to more realistic portrayals, is worth a constant cultural conversation. As most Americans become more and more sheltered from its real-world consequences, we end up with a disjointed understanding of its realities. We only have a small subset of Americans who are faced with violence in any concentrated manifestation, mostly soldiers and their families and the urban poor. I think that disjointed perspective goes a long way toward explaining the culture's schizophrenic view on the subject, and why, perhaps, when real-world political violence uses violent imagery and rhetoric, it has potentially lethal results. That violence, inserted into a culture, does not go away. It's fundamentally different than, say, gunning down virtual virtual aliens in a video game such as Halo. It's real people who are ostensibly among the nation's leaders seemingly condoning violence, or at least the iconography of violence.

Writes George Packer, for the New Yorker, "for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words 'treason' and 'traitor.' The President isn't a big-government liberal—he's a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He's also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor. Even the reading of the Constitution on the first day of the 112th Congress was conceived as an assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Administration and Congress."

Again, I think no sane person looks at Sarah Palin's map of the U.S. -- with gun targets aimed at 20 politicians, including Giffords -- and thinks that Palin means that someone should assassinate these people. But when you escalate political rhetoric to the levels they've been, lately, and when a 24-hour news cycle ratchets tension to unbelievable heights on even the most prosaic subjects, then ... yes. Eventually someone will take them up on it. Just as someone crashed their plane into an IRS building. Just as a constant demonization of those who don't fit a particular cohort group eventually leads to persecution and violence. The same impulse that led a rash of gay teenagers to suicide is what leads a lunatic to open fire on a congresswoman in a Tuscon supermarket: Empathy, political disagreement, tolerance ... they've become marginalized in our discussion.

Writes Michael Tomasky, in The Guardian, "Republicans and even Tea Partiers will have the sense – again, for a while – to steer clear of directly gun-related rhetoric. We won't be hearing much in the near term about 'second amendment remedies' and insurrection and so forth. But this will be temporary. Guns are simply too central to the mythology of the American right, as is the idea of liberty being wrested from tyrants only at gunpoint. For the American right to stop talking about armed insurrection would be like American liberals dropping the subjects of race and gender. It's too encoded in conservative DNA."

If I were to counter anything in Tomasky's argument, I'd argue that guns are instrumental to the totality of the American self-image, not just to conservatives. You can make many of the same arguments of gang culture or the great American Western. Guns remain not only a political hot button, not just a symbol of personal freedom and safety, but a direct connection to the American mythology.

The gunslinger, and it's Japanese counterpart, the Samurai, is a fascinating bit of iconography: the image of a lone individual in a violent, lawless landscape imposing order by force. The reality of the Old West was murkier, of course. People headed that way for any number of reasons -- criminals on the run, soldiers and marshals, deserters of one side of the Civil War or the other, freed and escaped slaves, employees of corporations looking to build towns and railroads, fortune hunters and of course, actual cowboys herding cattle. Never mind Native Americans who were either already there or pushed further West from their traditional lands. The list goes on, and from the penny dreadfuls that first brought us  exaggerated tales of Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and the rest, to 1903's The Great Train Robbery, to   John Ford's films to more recent films by Clint Eastwood, all the way up to last year's reinterpretation of the John Wayne film, True Grit, that romance of the West has been an undercurrent of our culture, and indeed, it may be the most central mythology to the contemporary American identity, a place where law is a luxury and authority often untrustworthy, where force is often needed to to enforce order, and where questions of personal and familial honor trump questions of right and wrong. Indeed, the setting of the narrative is inconsequential: there's very little separating a traditional vengeance-driven Western plot from Hood films such as 1991's Boyz n the Hood, where Ice Cube's Doughboy takes revenge on gang members for his brother's death, eventually dying in retaliation, whereas other characters are able to leave the "frontier" and join civilization by going to college. Vengeance, for Doughboy, is a matter of moral necessity, and he is not naive to what the consequences will be. He bows before the cycle of violence even as he encourages others, such as his friend Tre, to leave.

Westerns, again, share a common lineage with Japanese cinema and literature -- and indeed, many of the great Westerns are actually remakes of Samurai films, so it's probably not surprising that a lot of the more recent Japanese anime is riffing off Western themes (although often with a Japanese twist), such as Cowboy Bebop or Trigun. Perhaps one of the most interesting has been Afro Samurai, which fuses elements of the traditional  Japanese samurai and Western themes, but also iconography from contemporary American hip-hop culture.  The central character is the titular Afro-Samurai, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, a black ronin in a dystopic future Japan who is seeking to kill the warrior who murdered his father in front of him. (It's a bit more complicated than that, but that'll do for the moment.) This singular goal is a consuming desire, and eventually, and it displaces everything else in his life.

It's interesting that, with both Bruce Wayne and Dexter Morgan, neither character is particularly motivated by vengeance. Wayne seeks justice, yes, and at least in some continuities is able to get it through the eventual arrest of their killer, Joe Chill, but his primary motivation, as writer Grant Morrison puts it, is "to heal his city." Morgan, likewise, kills the man who murdered his mother, Santos Jimenez, but really, it's just another kill to him, and it changes nothing in his behavior.

Despite their similar starting point, Afro Samurai is different. The unique circumstances of his path toward vengeance in fact lead him through a wave of violence, mostly in defense from people seeking to kill him to attain status, but also against two people who, for the most part, are innocent, and who are directly engaged in attempting to stem the tide of violence that infects the country. In both cases, he places vengeance and honor above any sense of right and wrong, and makes a conscious, willing decision to kill. Moreover, the latter victim, Shichigoro is killed in front of his surrogate son, who seems positioned, at the end of Afro Samurai: Resurrection, to grow and perpetuate the cycle of violence.

The anime itself seems to recognize the tragedy of this, that no matter how stylish or cool its character or presentation is, the overall story arc is tragic. Afro Samurai is not a psychopath like Dexter Morgan. He can walk away, and is given numerous opportunities to do so. But that sense of honor prevents him from doing so, and eventually, consumes him.
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... but let's face it, the truth is a boring business half the time. The majority of politics is dictated not by grand, all-engulfing issues, but technical minutae that no one but complete policy wonks bothers to read.

The obvious conclusion being, more people in this country need to become policy wonks. If Americans had a higher threshold for boredom, Washington would be able to get away with less. I wouldn't say they need much, just enough to be able to watch the news on TV and say, "hey! That ain't right!" and no where to go look it up. The magic box you are reading this on gives you the ability to look up the boring math on just about anything happening in Washington, in a fraction of the time it took just a few years ago. Technology has given people every tool they need to be informed and lessened the need for third parties to convey that information. It's incumbent on people themselves to take the wonderful gift they've been given.

What got me going this morning was a note on Salon about the Washington Post ombudsman's commenting that GOP lobbyist and scandal superstar Jack Jack Abramoff "had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties."

Readers acused her of trying to spin the Abramoff mess into a bipartisan scandal, as opposed to a Republican one. The furor was so bad that the Washington Post made the decision to shut down the comments section. (The screenshot linked to above is courtesy Democratic Underground, so you can read some of the furor.)

What I find instructive about this little mess is that both sides are right, and wrong. To be perfectly honest, Abramoff HAS funneled a good deal of money to the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates -- just a good deal less than he has to the GOP.

But it's not the money shoveling that's the issue. Let's change gears a bit. If a candidate is campaigning and says he's in favor ferret legalization, and someone says, "Why, I'm in favor of ferret legalization, too!" and gives that candidate $1,000, there's nothing illegal or unethical happening. Whereas, if a candidate says, "I oppose legalizing ferrets," then gets a check for $1,000 and then changes his position, that's grounds to see if something shady is happening.

Most of the Abramoff scandal focuses on Native American issues, particularly gaming. One of the reasons that the Dems probably get a pass on this is that, by and large, they've traditionally come down on the side of the party giving the money -- they've usually voted in the tribes' favor on the issues Abramoff was lobbying for, and probably would have done so with or without the money. It's when you're seeing politicians disinclined to act on the tribes' behalf doing Abramoff favors and changing votes that you have an issue, and on that side, it's all the GOP, all the time.

It's a fine-but-essential distinction.

Will I go so far as to say there's no one corrupt on the Dems side? No. I'm nonpartisan enough (and, uhm, still not a Democrat) and been a politics watcher long enough to know that would be absurd. Democrat or Republican, most of them are still whores, and if there was a buck to be made, I'm sure there are parties on both sides of the aisle more than willing to take it when they shouldn't have.

But even if there's a couple bad apples on the Dems' side, an entire chunk of the GOP orchard seems to be suffering a rot.
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The Minneapolis/St.Paul City Pages interviews Jonathon "The Impaler" Sharkey about his race for governor, his race for president, and his fledgling Vampyres, Witches, and Pagans Party.

Standout quote:

When I become president, Bush will be charged, tried, and if convicted of murder, I will impale Bush at the White House and enjoy impaling him as much I will [enjoy impaling] bin Laden when we get a hold of him ... A normal, civil, sweet-hearted Christian doesn't have it in them to impale somebody, even bin Laden. There's a saying, fight fire with fire. Well, everybody has an evil side, but because of their personal beliefs they try to subdue it. While me, I'm not going to subdue it. At times, unleashing your evil part, especially in the type of world we're living in, is a good thing. I want criminals to fear me. I want bin Laden and all his al Qaeda buddies to think back to when their ancestors, the Turks, were trying to invade Romania, and Vlad Tepes, Dracula, impaled them for it. I want them to think they're dealing with another Vlad Tepes. I want them to think of me as the impaling governor-slash-president.

At last. A politician who truly appeals to America's latent bloodlust.

Now, to be perfectly fair, I've interviewed a druid running for governor of California once, and on the whole, he was a perfectly reasonable, intelligent man with a few unconventional ideas. Really, he'd probably be better than Ahnold the Gubernator. And perhaps the same is true here. Maybe.

***

In other completely random things that have occurred to me today -- considering its ubiquity these days, a greater number of people you are acquainted with have likely appeared in porn than you're aware. IJS.
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In bureau field offices, the N.S.A. material continued to be viewed as unproductive, prompting agents to joke that a new bunch of tips meant more "calls to Pizza Hut," one official, who supervised field agents, said.

I always knew Pizza Hut was a shifty lot.

It's entirely obvious as this unfolds that not only were these wiretaps not essential, they were a serious distraction from the actual War on Terror. Again.

George W. Bush: He hates our freedom, he hates America, and by God, he hates pepperoni and cheese.

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Victor David Infante

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