Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Mad Workings of a Neocon -- Part 1

David P. Goldman, aka Spengler, has written a piece for First Things which I offer as a typical example of neoconservative drivel. It's entitled "Be Afraid -- Be Very Afraid" and is ostensibly about the growing horror movie market.

It's true, in the cyclical nature of the movie business horror is on an upswing. It's climbed to around six percent of the market. A reasonable person would see six percent as a niche. And the numbers are somewhat subjective anyway so we have to be careful not to overplay the significance. Not so for Goldman: "what used to be a Hollywood curiosity" is now "a mainstream product." To create his sense of foreboding he imagines an invasion:
"Among all the film genres, horror began as the most alien to America. The iconic examples of the genre in the 1930s required European actors and exotic locales -- vampires from central Europe, for example, and zombies from Haiti."
But how alien was horror to America? As early as 1910 Edison Studios -- an American company if there ever was one -- made a 16 minute short of Frankenstein, the world's first. Staring as the monster was not some European import but Ohio-born Charles Ogle. Another early Frankenstein was the 1915 American production, "Life Without Soul", directed by Massachusetts born Joseph W. Smiley.

In 1913 a short American film called The Werewolf might have been the world's first Werewolf film and it was based on a Navajo legend, not the European.

In 1914 Kentuckian D.W. Griffith released The Avenging Conscience: or 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe.

In 1917 there was an American adaptation of Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" called The Darling of Paris which stared Ohio native Theda Bara as Esmeralda. Five years later America produced a more faithful "Hunchback of Notre Dame", this time famously staring Colorado native Lon Chaney and directed by American Wallace Worsley.

Chaney appeared in the 1923 American production While Paris Sleeps, a horror movie based on the novel "The Glory of Love" by Britisher Leslie Beresford. Another Chaney notable was A Blind Bargain from 1922. In 1925 he appeared unforgettably as The Phantom of the Opera. Two years later he appeared in the vampire film London After Midnight written and directed by American Tod Browning. That same year Browning and Chaney teamed again in The Unknown. This time Chaney's character has his arms hacked off for true love, an act which ultimately means nothing since his girl falls for someone else. "A visit to the dissecting room in a hospital would be quite as pleasant," claimed the New York Evening Post review. It's certain that Chaney, not Bela Lugosi, would have been the 1931 Dracula had it not been for Chaney's early death.

Also notable in 1927 was The Cat and the Canary based on the American stage-play and staring American Laura La Plante.

Simply following the career of Lon Chaney or Missourian Vincent Price would convince us horror was not alien to America. It did not require European actors. It's true that many horror films were set in "exotic locales," but most movies were set in exotic locales, including romance. Is romance foreign to America? I suppose it's not fair to expect honest analysis from a neocon. They have higher interests.

Goldman continues: "By 1948, the few horror films being made were the likes of Abbott and Costello encountering Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s monster. Laughing at monsters was emblematically American -- and remained so, as when Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder did it, perhaps best of all, in 1974 with Young Frankenstein."

However America did not wait for Abbott and Costello to discover comedy in horror. We were laughing at The Monster and Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde in 1925, followed by The Bat (1926), The Gorilla (1927), The Old Dark House (1932), Bob Hope's Ghost Breakers (1940), Zombies on Broadway (1944) and even Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Goldman wants us to believe after 1947 "nightmares of tormented Europeans were mostly naturalized as sight gags for American adolescents." But it's difficult to understand how anyone could reach that conclusion. Quite a lot must be ignored. Here's a partial list of traditional horror produced in America during that time period:

Thing from Another World (1951)
The Black Castle (1952)
Donovan's Brain (1953)
House of Wax (1953)
Them! (1954)
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
The Mad Magician (1954)
Cult of the Cobra (1955)
Dementia (1955)
The She-Creature (1956)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Back from the Dead (1957)
Blood of Dracula (1957)
The Cyclops (1957)
Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957)
The Disembodied (1957)
From Hell It Came (1957)
I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957)
I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)
The Undead (1957)
Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
The Blob (1958)
Bride and the Beast (1958)
Curse of the Faceless Man (1958)
The Fly (1958)
Earth vs. the Spider (1958)
Frankenstein's Daughter (1958)
I Bury the Living (1958)
Macabre (1958)
Monster on the Campus (1958)
Thing that Couldn't Die (1958)
War of the Colossal Beast (1958)
Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)
Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)
Curse of the Undead (1959)
The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)
The Giant Gila Monster (1959)
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)
The Tingler (1959)
13 Ghosts (1960)
House of Usher (1960)
Psycho (1960)
Tormented (1960)
Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)
Homicidal (1961)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962)
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Premature Burial (1962)
Tales of Terror (1962)
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
The Birds (1963)
Blood Feast (1963)
The Haunting (1963)
The Haunted Palace (1963)
Color Me Blood Red (1963)
Dementia 13 (1963)
Diary of a Madman (1963)
The Raven (1963)
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)
The Flesh Eaters (1964)
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Incubus (1965)
Chamber of Horrors (1966)
A Taste of Blood (1967)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Last House on the Left (1972)
Sisters (1973)
The Exorcist (1973)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Obviously American audiences were not laughing at every monster between 1948 and 1974. The "national mood" was much more complicated. Goldman insists with the "height of the national self-confidence that followed" World War II "the genre almost disappeared from American film." But the truth reveals a booming horror/sci-fi business in the 1950s. [1] Goldman is simply wrong.

In his "Monsters and mad scientists: a cultural history of the horror movie", Andrew Tudor noted: "Of the 990 horror films released in Briton between 1931 and 1984, 57% were American produced, 25% were British, 8% Italian, 4% French." (p.18) So, if horror was foreign and unnatural to Americans, how come we were the primary exporters of the business to the rest of the world? Ignorance is the neocon's natural resource.

Goldman is about my age so he grew up knowing what I know. All of us kids of the early 60s raced home from school to watch the scheduled afternoon sci-fi monster movie. We waited up late to see Shock Theater. Anyone who cares to argue that horror was, until lately, an American curiosity fed by foreign interests will have to explain Twilight Zone (1959-1964), Hitchcock Hour (1962-1965), Outer Limits (1963-1965), Dark Shadows (1966-1971), Night Gallery (1970-1973), and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975). Sure, we laughed at The Addams Family (1964-1966) and The Munsters (1964-1966), but laughing was the exception, not the rule. Horror was regularly piped into our living rooms.

I suppose it's a given that Goldman's sloppy research would lead to "a pattern to the highs and lows of the horror genre." But with Goldman's shallow expertise there's little hope for deep and solemn thoughts. So prepare yourself for a series of bogus assertions that have no basis in reality nor any relation to the preceding. He asserts: "If you do not believe in God, you will believe in anything;" the corollary being, "if you do not feel God’s presence, you will become desperate to feel anything at all. Terror and horror create at least some kind of feeling."

Does Goldman have evidence that horror fanatics are irreligious? Do atheists and pagans watch more horror than Christians? Do Christians actually ever feel the presence of God? How do we measure and verify this alleged presence? Does Goldman know of a single documented case in which a person who does not feel the "presence" of God becomes desperate to feel anything, anything at all? I mean, do pagans or non-believers have difficulty feeling while Christians are sensory sponges? Where is Goldman's documentation?

There are other questions an honest seeker of truth would consider. How do we explain Christians flocking to Mel Gibson's visual horrorfest, The Passion of the Christ? Were they desperate to feel anything at all? Did bloody torture of their savior fill a vacuum in their sad lives? Did regular doses of horror from the "Left Behind" series leave them lusting for more? Or how about if we merely read the Bible and underlined all the horrific elements? Goldman must have his tongue firmly planted in cheek when he claims Christianity "stands, finally, as the rejection of the horrors that paganism always accepts and often embraces."

His assertions are idiotic and ignorant. But these are exactly the types of things neocons offer as learned observations. This is the neocon's method. It's mythmaking for a self-serving purpose. A dark mist rolls across the land. We should look over our shoulders for that looming demonic shadow. Without those neocon creations, those cultural bogeyman loitering "in dark corners just off the public square," nothing will get done. The people need terror. They react to monsters, not reason. A Straussian looks for the monster that "properly" scares the public, that's the only difference between Hollywood monsters and neocon monsters.

His nonsense continues: "After pornography has jaded the capacity to feel pleasure, what remains is the capacity to feel fear and pain." So now he dumps porn into the mix. It's becoming a grab-bag of spooks. It doesn't matter that nobody runs wires into brains to see if pornographic monsters jade a capacity to feel pleasure or pain. All that matters is that the target audience believes the appropriate ghouls are within striking distance.

Pagans have infiltrated the culture! They summon demons! Your children will be eaten alive!

Let's examine Goldman's claim that American horror is "all drawn from European fiction: Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray." Even if it were true (let's pretend Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Brockden Brown, and Nathaniel Hawthorne never existed), what's the relevance? Our political system is of European origin. Our religions were drawn from European roots. Our romance, mystery, tragedy and drama were all transplants from Europe. We are a young country. Goldman singles out horror because it's convenient. He ignores the implications of this convenience because it shows his point is practically universal to all endeavors and is therefore meaningless. Neocons have a habit of inventing false issues. They prey on people's gullibility.

So what is Goldman's purpose? What neocon web does he weave? That can be found in his baseless assertion that Christian "civilization stands, finally, as the rejection of the horrors that paganism always accepts and often embraces." In his mind it follows that our current 6% acceptance of those "pagan" horrors means we are a weakened Christian civilization. The "remnants of the old Teutonic nature-religion" are not underground anymore. Are these rumblings of an impending Nazi America? Not hardly. The solid Christian America of 1944, "the land of new beginnings and happy endings," crushed the Nazi monster, "and that was that. Americans did not want to think about it anymore." Good had triumphed over evil. It wasn't worth a second thought. The "neopagan" Nazi who wore "GOD WITH US" on his belt bragged, “We will either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or the greatest criminals.” But "Christian" America knew better. History cannot make that judgment. Evil is evil no matter what history proclaims.

But that was 1944. Today we think too much. We see so many shades of good and evil we may not even recognize which is which. That's the rest of Goldman's fable. It's the Garden of Eden all over again. He's restating the first commandment: "From the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat." In the 1960s a Serpent slithered into our garden. It appeared in "images of civilians burnt by napalm." Apocalypse Now tempted us with "the sense of being lost in a nightmare of pointless and pervasive cruelty." The Serpent's blasphemy was bold yet simple. The monsters were not chasing us, they were us.

That kind of thinking bought a ticket out of paradise.

So where to turn? How about a movie theater? In there "the sense of safety we derive from watching make-believe things helps us tolerate the prospect of real things."

This supposed tolerance -- or lack thereof (he can't decide) -- is Goldman's primary concern. In his article, "The Torture Debate Shows Our Vulnerability to Radical Evil" (May 12, 2009) he worries that "terror and horror will blot out the memory of the good and leave behind only the capacity for more evil." We find here the principal tenet of the neoconservative ideology: "The erosion of the West's theological understanding of good and evil since the Second World War and the Cold War leaves us vulnerable to radical evil." By vulnerable, Goldman is not concerned for your eternal soul. He's worried about your fighting spirit.

With typical neocon inanity Goldman invents a stalking monster called "radical evil." We must not confuse this evil with the more wholesome variation which merely "kills for profit or rapes for pleasure." The newfangled evil "has no object but to destroy the good, that is, to propagate evil for its own sake." As a mythical category it might include a Freddy Krueger, a Hannibal Lecter, various vampires, zombies and degenerate hillbillies with chain saws. But Goldman prefers to nominate Nazis, Vietnamese Communists and Islamic terrorists. So I guess he's kind of right. Islamic terrorists don't seem too radical after fighting off hordes of flesh-eating zombies in the comfort of a movie theater -- at least for those who, like Goldman, have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy.

But neocons are obsessed with fantasy games. Envision Saturday morning practice with plastic swords and magical incantations. Considering themselves first-rate mythmakers, great importance is attached to the power of "salutary" myths in guiding their role-playing games. Civilization itself would disappear without a handful of carefully crafted lies yapping at our feet like sheepdogs.

To further understand the wreck that is Goldman, you should read "Sir John Keegan is wrong: radical Islam could win." Using Goethe's Faust as evidence and the Ayatollah Khomeini as model, he recasts Al-Qaeda as the Great Satan. In what could only be described as nervous delusion and a strange channeling of the prophet Isaiah, he has a revelation. Al-Qaeda is invincible. Where the Nazi war machine failed, expect a handful of desert nomads to succeed. We will be brought to our knees (either in prayer or defeat). With that bombshell he drifts off into mood poetry:
"Evil for its own sake becomes imaginable only when the Christian civilization of the West abandons Christianity and stares into the abyss of its own destruction."
Will someone please translate that for me?

Digging deeper, in "CRISIS OF FAITH IN THE MUSLIM WORLD PART 2: The Islamist response" we find Goldman doesn't at all believe Islamic terrorists kill merely "for the sake of doing evil." It now seems modernization has created a "crisis of faith." The revolutionary Islamic radical sees "the seemingly unstoppable encroachment of American popular culture and modes of consumerism, and the transparent hypocrisy of the American rhetoric of universal rights and liberties." This creates a "sense of vulnerability and outrage." Additionally, and unlike the West, Muslims know the secret of infertility: "Urbanization, literacy and openness to the modern world will suppress the Muslim womb." So they fear "cultural extinction" even more than death. The desired response is "to create a new kind of totalitarian theocracy that orders every detail of human life." [2]

Goldman is pessimistic. "Of the world's endangered cultures, only one can and will fight to perpetuate itself, and that is Islam." Obviously this version of Muslim is motivated. He kills for self-preservation. Goldman makes culture a reason for self-defense. The plan is to goad us into doing the same for similar reasons. What happened to that carefully constructed idea that Muslims destroy merely "for the pleasure of destruction?" It's dropped when it suits him.

If we are still foolish enough to believe anything Goldman claims, he assures us we cast off the horrors of World War II through adept use of our greatest myths. These myths he collects into a package labeled "civil religion." Through civil religion Americans saw "a contest of good against evil, and thus were inoculated against the effect of" Nazi "terror and horror." We saw ourselves in "a crusade against the forces of evil." A super-powerful civil religion was used as "an instrument of American strategic aims." The Nazi "theater of cruelty did not bring down the West" because "America, at least, understood its war policy as a Christian response to radical evil." But by "Christian" Goldman doesn't mean Roman Catholic, Baptist or Methodist. He means a special sort of civil religion crafted by politicians and pundits, not theologians.

Therefore, America lost in Vietnam "when its government failed to persuade the public that its adversary embodied an evil so great as to justify the use of terrible countermeasures." That is, the civil religion disintegrated because the government failed to see its importance. It mothballed its super-weapon. A civil religion does not fail at the pulpit, it fails in the Presidency, in Congress, and in its political operatives. Civil religion cannot be trusted to the people because it's specifically designed to manipulate the people. The people must not eat from the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. They are incapable of processing "images of civilians burnt by napalm". (Goldman is so transparently Straussian.) Inevitably, "the face of the horror of Vietnam" led to "America's moral collapse."

Now, after witnessing planes flying into buildings and people jumping off burning towers, we have suicide bombers, torture debates and innocent civilians caught in the cross fire. Goldman fears we will lose our nerve, and with catastrophic effects. Why? Because we no longer have that good old civil religion, that special religion that allowed America to drop nuclear bombs on Japan and destroy German cities without a second thought. We caused "not only millions of deaths but also dreadful physical suffering upon noncombatants compared to which waterboarding seems trivial." This misplaced sensitivity is a catastrophe in an open, democratic society. Loss of civil religion permits a country to question policy. It doubts. It might even find a heart. Civil religion protects us from our natural hearts. It gives us permission to be barbaric -- as need requires. "How do we arrogate unto ourselves the right to inflict death and extreme pain upon innocents -- leave aside not-so-innocent terrorists -- without corrupting ourselves?" The answer: unflinching religious faith in the goodness of our mission. Without it, "we cannot envision the Good" so we "stand dumb and uncomprehending before radical evil." Our eyes will be open and we will see the horrors. With it, we are "inoculated against its deadly side-effects."

To neocons this nonsense passes for deep political philosophy. But at the very least Goldman should make up his mind. First an absence of religion creates a numbness and therefore a craving for any feeling at all, including horror. But the same godlessness lets us feel too much when we see the horrors of war. So which is it? Do the godless feel too much or too little?

We are told that in order to protect the homeland we must stop feeling -- terror and horror must have no effect on us. That would imply godless horror-freaks are a good thing. But, mysteriously, when those same godless consumers are "exposed to an enemy that uses horror as a weapon," they lose all taste for the product. So we are told to stop feeling. To do so we need to become glassy-eyed religious zombies.

On the one hand, for those lacking religion, "Terror and horror create at least some kind of feeling." On the other hand, the irreligious feel too much and that makes "the conduct of war too horrible for the West to endure." All of those hours watching horror movies didn't acclimate them to the real thing after-all.

Obviously these contradictions confirm Goldman is seriously confused. He has no idea what he believes. Straussians rarely do.

-- Don Jindra


[1] - One problem is in deciding which genre fits some movies. Is The Amazing Colossal Man a sci-fi or horror? As a child it seemed a horror to me yet it's classified as sci-fi on imdb.

[2] - As a Straussian he has to blame "modern education" for that.

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

I wonder if Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow could be considered as America's first horror story?

As for the invincibility of al-Qaeda, there is supposedly such a thing as Salafi Burnout. While there is no good substitute to neutralizing enemies who want to kill us, this is something we ought to hope returns soon.