Tuesday, April 26, 2016

We Are What We Eat

From childhood on, we are often given the exhortation “you are what you eat,” usually as a caution against bad eating habits. There is another way of using this phrase, one that is not a caution but rather an observation about the informal cultural shifts and customs that are reflected in our food.

The documentary film The Search for GeneralTso provides insights into this alternate view of being what we eat. Ostensibly, the film seeks to answer an old culinary question – what are the origins of the ubiquitous dish “General Tso’s chicken.” The basic questions are rather obvious – who was General Tso? And did he really like chicken? The film demonstrates that this is not necessarily an easy question to answer and that the search for the answer is intimately intertwined with the emergence of Chinese ex-patriot culture and identity.

The beginning of the film travels to China where a variety of people are shown photos of the dish. Those shown the photos are alternately intrigued, perplexed or rather disgusted but regardless their initial response, the consensus is that the dish before them is not Chinese. Indeed, they typically have not seen or heard of the dish before. The next stop is in Hunan province, where the film chronicles the existence of General Tso as a powerful warrior. His familial line still exists and a descendant interviewed is both proud that his ancestor has been recognized so broadly and dismayed at the form of recognition taken – as a food rather than a great warrior. The conclusion of this portion of the film is that there was a General Tso, who could indeed have favoured chicken, but that the dish known across the US was not created by or for him.

From there the quest returns to the US and begins a trek that parallels the steps taken by Chinese immigrants to the US from the 1800s onwards. Here the film presents not only the quest for the origins of General Tso’s chicken but also how the dish – and Chinese immigrant culture and food – was framed by the surroundings in which immigrants found themselves. Discrimination was always rampant against Chinese immigrants and was made worse upon the promulgation of the Chinese Exclusion laws in the US. Discrimination – legal and societal – restricted the career options for Chinese in the US, although one option available was to run and/or work in restaurants. These restaurants cooked what they knew, Chinese cuisine, although with time and the migration of immigrant communities from the West Coast through middle America and to the East Coast this cuisine changed.

Through poignant interviews with those who opened restaurants in different communities or who are second or third generation restaurateurs, the film documents the overall adaptation of foods prepared and offered at Chinese restaurants in the US from authentic Chinese fare to foods that were (and still are) more recognizable and appealing to local palates. This was (and is) done to increase revenue and also to bypass local prejudices regarding culture and food across the spectrum of communities in which Chinese restaurants emerged. In this way, the film chronicles how the food on the menu at Chinese restaurants is a reflection of the cultures in which the restaurateurs find themselves and the struggle to preserve their identities while being accepted by – and acceptable to – their new home.

The film also documents the impact that things beyond the control of these communities had on sought after forms of Chinese cuisine, and on the identity of Chinese-American communities. Through the lens of restaurant culture, the film presents the mechanisms through which Chinese-American communities and food became separate from China itself and were not fully Americanized, leading to the creation of a cuisine that represented the new identity of the community. What emerges in this part of the film is a discussion of other dishes – chop suey for example – as part of the American culinary and cultural lexicon and the adoption of the belief that these dishes form an essential embodiment of Chinese culture.

Returning to the quest for the name, the film’s cross-country journey ends in New York City, where a story of international intrigue over General Tso’s chicken unfolds. Decades ago, a chef at a well-known Chinese restaurant brings back a recipe from Taiwan, incorporates it into his menu and the American General Tso’s chicken is born. He appears on a major television show’s cooking segment and it becomes a sensation in the US. In the international portion of the story, a famous chef who fled to Taiwan creates a chicken dish and is asked the name. In response, he says “General Tso’s chicken” because he is aware of General Tso’s reputation and his own style of cooking from Hunan. Although both the Taiwanese and Americanized version of General Tso’s chicken existed in New York at the same time, ultimately the American version prevailed with consumers.

At the end of the film, the audience has the answer to the question of where General Tso’s chicken originated and how this reflects the reality of societal evolution. It shows the audience the evolution of a culture and set of societal practices from their homeland to their new home and how both places are impacted. By telling the story from China to the US and across the US in a parallel journey to that experienced by Chinese immigrants, the film sheds light on how the norms and mores of a culture are unbound from geography, transplanted and then rewritten to fit the needs of the community in a certain time and place.

Using food as a lens through which this occurs allows the audience a tangible (and edible) visualization of the process and also allows the audience to relate its own experiences along the process spectrum – be they as immigrants, as restaurateurs, or as patrons. These lessons are in varying ways the story of all immigrants and much of the food that comes across anyone’s table. In this way, perhaps the old saying is true and we really are what we eat.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Joining Law

It is generally assumed that we are all subject to law regardless where we live and the system under which we live. As the recent film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny demonstrates, these laws do not necessarily have to be codified to be extremely powerful influences culturally or personally. Indeed, when individuals elect to join these types of informal legal systems their impacts can be profound.

Sword of Destiny is a sequel to the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film and follows the lives of several integral characters 16 years on, particularly Yu Shu Lien. The film is set in Qianlong China, at a time when there is an emperor but also a system of powerful clans. At the beginning of the film, Shu Lien journeys from her secluded home to the house of Sir Te’s clan. This is not a journey she undertakes happily – Shu Lien travels to revisit her old clan and surrogate family for the funeral of Sir Te, the leader of the clan and her father figure. Sir Te’s death is well-known and there is a sense of outrage when the carriage conveying Shu Lien to the house is attacked by the West Lotus clan, a rival family, while she is traveling to the funeral. This attack is unlawful according the generally accepted laws of conduct and is particularly egregious since she is traveling to pay her respects to the dead.

It quickly becomes clear to Shu Lien and Sir Te’s son that Hades Dai, the notorious head of the West Lotus clan, has begun a campaign against the house in order to steal the fabled Green Destiny sword and use it for the destruction of his enemies. As a response, Sir Te’s son sends out a kingdom-wide call for those who follow the Iron Way to come to his aid in defense of the house and the sword.

The Iron Way is a core of values and martial arts training that sets followers and practitioners apart from others and binds them together in an unwritten law of solidarity. The Iron Way requires discipline, hard work, dedication to fellow adherents, and is an overall value system. The Iron Way represents an unwritten code that binds complete strangers from disparate geographical areas and philosophies. This is evident in the results of the call, which attracts men and women followers from across the kingdom. It is clear that there are differences in personality and beliefs between the followers of the Iron Way and yet these are secondary to their shared adherence and dedication to the Iron Way itself.

At the same time, a sub-plot emerges between Snow Vase and Wei Fang, two teenagers. Snow Vase is a new recruit to the clan, who seeks to follow the Iron Way and has received extensive martial training in it in the past, although she needs to better understand the mental aspects of it to become a master. Wei Fang was a member of the West Lotus clan until he was captured while trying to steal the Green Destiny sword. In captivity, he befriends Snow Vase, who tells him the story of his true identity as the son of a renegade former member of the Iron Way who was killed by Hades Dai. The same woman raised Snow Vase as her own, training her in the Iron Way and making her understand the need for adherence to it even though she had abandoned it.

Sensing an opportunity to take the Green Destiny sword and assert power, Hades Dai launches a raid on Sir Te’s house. During this raid, the tensions between members of the house are put aside in favour of adhering to the Iron Way and following its law in terms of ideology and martial skill. Indeed, after he saves her life, Snow Vase frees Wei Fang, who has agreed to fight for the Iron Way that had formed his mother and against the man who killed his mother.

Ultimately, the forces of the Iron Way are victorious, although at an extremely heavy price. Many of the warriors who answered the call for defenders lay dead, as do many who were training in the Iron Way. Absorbing the costs of protecting the Green Destiny sword and knowing that the potential for future violence imperils the sword and those protecting it, Shu Lien and her companion take Snow Vase, Wei Fang and the Green Destiny sword on a journey to a remote location where the sword can be kept safe.

There are many plots and subplots within the Sword of Destiny film. The overarching theme, however, is the adherence of multiple characters in many diverse situations to the Iron Way and the potential that the Iron Way has to change the lives and identities of those who follow it. Throughout the film, the Iron Way is portrayed as an unwritten yet extremely powerful set of laws and rules that controls and shapes adherents in a way that even the laws of the state cannot.

As the audience observes, the Iron Way governs the actions of Shu Lien even years after she has retired from active participation in its enforcement. Similarly, the Iron Way causes adherents from across the empire to come together to protect the clan of Sir Te although they share different philosophies and methodologies. The laws of the Iron Way bring these groups together and also require that they create a functioning group that operates according to the abilities of each member of society. In this society, there is a hierarchy of knowledge, training and technique that is bonded together by fidelity to the tenets of the Iron Way.

Additionally, the Iron Way serves as a guide for the two somewhat wayward teenagers. For Snow Vase, it was something that she was trained in and taught to respect although her teacher had fallen from the graces of the Iron Way herself. For Wei Fang, the Iron Way was something in which he had been trained as a young boy but then was taken from when he was claimed by Hades Dai. It was only when he was imprisoned at Sir Te’s house that he began to appreciate the justness of the laws exercised under the color of the Iron Way. His adherence to the Iron Way was solidified when he learned of its link to his identity.

Overall, Sword of Destiny highlights the place of informal, unwritten law as a means of crafting identity, structure, a code of conduct and respect, and allowing those who are involved with it to join law in a way that is very different than being subject to hard laws.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Visualizing Violence

It is often said that the world is becoming more violent and that media is an instigating factor in this. Critics point to a purported increase in violence in movies, television and video games as a means of glorifying violent conduct, frequently with little regard to the aftermath that such violence begets. The virtues of these arguments are another matter, however it is true that many forms of media portray violence – notably assault – without regard to the impacts it leaves on its victims. The Netflix series Daredevil, based on the Marvel comic series, and particularly the recently released series 2, demonstrate the power of portraying the aftereffects of violence through physical manifestation.

To begin with, throughout prior seasons the show has demonstrated the aftermath of the punishing combat Daredevil engages in by allowing his alter ego, attorney Matthew Murdock, to sport bruises and scars that last several days or longer. Murdock is able to pass these visible signs of assault and violence off as the result of his blindness – walking into objects, falling, and other sources of injury that would be odd to those around him if he were not blind. Those who know his secret identity are more concerned, however in general the character is able to conceal his wounds in a way that society used to deem appropriate for abuse victims – claims of nearly impossible continuous mishaps. Few are willing to seem indelicate enough to question whether his wounds are the result of something more. And when his legal assistant, Karen, asks Foggy, his dedicated friend and law partner who knows Murdock’s true identity, questions about the increasing severity of Murdick’s injuries, Foggy believes it more appropriate to claim that Murdock has a drinking problem. Again, this is a socially sensitive topic behind which few are willing to seek more information.

Season 2 goes further into the manifestations of violence through the storyline of military hero Frank Castle, who takes on the identity of the Punisher after his family was gunned down before his eyes during a picnic in New York City’s Central Park. The Punisher then goes on a rampage, killing members of the multiple organized crime rings that were responsible for the gunplay that killed the Castle family. A complex relationship develops between the Punisher and Daredevil, who share different outlooks on the value of criminal life, however it is ultimately Daredevil who helps to save the Punisher from being tortured to death by members of an organized crime family he had decimated. Knowing that the Punisher needs trained medical intervention to save his life, Daredevil calls a friend on the police force, who arrests the highly sought after Punisher and brings him to a hospital.

From this point on, a complex storyline develops as the Punisher is targeted for vengeance-fueled prosecution by a corrupt and fearful District Attorney who is able to bring a highly suspect justice system under her sway. Unbeknownst to the Punisher, his law firm is that of Murdock and Nelson, allowing Murdock to help defend the man who knows him best as Daredevil. When his new attorneys arrive to see the Punisher there is no attempt to hide the impact of the blows and torture that he received at the hands of the gang that wanted to kill him or the officers under the control of the District Attorney. His face is discoloured, disfigured and both eyes are clearly blackened by punches. These manifestations of the violence inflicted on him do not disappear stylishly over a matter of hours or days but remain as a vivid testimony to the physical impacts of violence.

At trial a week later, the Punisher’s physical wounds have progressed along a natural healing timeline, some turning yellowish in color, some fading to different shades of purple, but all visible for the public and the jury to see. Indeed, as he is giving testimony, his nose still appears slightly out of place – the result, it is presumed, of a break. During the trial, there are many references to the mental impact that seeing his family killed had on Frank Castle to turn him into a vigilante, however there is no discussion of the wounds he has more recently sustained – perhaps there is little need to since they so obviously speak for themselves.

While in prison, the Punisher is presented with the opportunity to kill several men associated with the death of his family and who are also in the way of another inmate’s rise to kingpin of the prison world. He takes this opportunity and finds that it was a set-up that was meant to result in his own death as well. To save himself and continue his quest for the truth, the Punisher successfully defeats a wing of prisoners who were set upon him. He emerges from this encounter alive but severely bruised and battered. The result is an escape at the behest of the new kingpin, who had not anticipated the Punisher’s survival. When he emerges from prison he is in disguise in terms of attire but not in terms of abuse – indeed, his face looks worse than it did during his hospitalization.

During his subsequent interactions with people, the Punisher hides his wounds and his face from those he seeks to protect – the innocents in society who are represented as good, hard working, honest people. This is not only to avoid detection and re-arrest but also, it seems, to shield them from the violence that his wounds manifest. However, when he encounters those who are criminal, the Punisher does not attempt to hide his identity or his wounds, seemingly using them as a psychological weapon. The exception to this is when he helps Daredevil from the shadows and then reveals himself quickly, but this is perhaps not a surprise given the complexity of their relationship.

This season’s installation of Daredevil provides contrasting windows on the ways in which violence is visualized through media and demonstrates that there are instances in which the true gravity of violence – assault – is directly represented rather than glorified as something that disappears the next morning.

On one hand, the ways in which violence against Daredevil manifest themselves are covered under the shield of disability and, when that fails, under the shield of addiction. In this scenario, the wounds and scars are the result of something deeper within the person bearing them and tend to be regarded as private matters. When they are discussed it is in a delicate and almost timid fashion that seems more of a last resort of concern. The ease with which the wounds and scars are explained by Murdock provides such a natural cover for his activities that he does not seem bothered by them.

On the other hand, the ways in which violence against the Punisher manifest themselves are overt and do not enjoy the same societally constructed shield. While perhaps there is a willingness to recognize the private violence that he suffered due to the death of his family, the Punisher’s wounds and scars are visible for the world to see and manifest the violence done to him. These wounds and scars do not go away simply or with makeup, but instead mark him as having been assaulted with great violence. Those who see them cannot hide them behind the veil of disability, but rather are confronted face to face with the reality of assault and the dangers of it. The same can be said for audiences, who see these impacts front and center and who also come to see how blows delivered in an assault have a lasting impact on the victim even when the victim is a powerful person. In this way, the series manifests the reality of violence for audiences to see and allows audiences a view into the ways in which violence is visualized and regarded by society.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Pirate Pluralism

Old-fashioned pirates and video games might make for a good sales pitch but are less often thought of as connected to legal pluralism. And yet, the popular video game Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag provides an example of the ways in which plural communities can be constructed and the boundaries needed for their functioning.

The story used in the game follows the evolution of Welshman Edward Kenway from a lowly pirate roaming around the Caribbean to an illustrious pirate captain. Kenway begins life as a poor yet law-abiding member of society in Wales, who believes that he is constrained by the existing legal and social system. His wife is content to live the way that her family did but Kenway wants more and leaves to become a privateer, promising that this will only be for a few years. A few years turn into many and the more socially acceptable privateer status gives way to piracy as Kenway seeks to maximize profit above all else.

At the opening of the story, Kenway steals a ship and changes his identity from a freelance pirate to a pirate captain in charge of a ship and her crew and seeking out goods and fortune. On this ship, the Jackdaw, Kenway’s word is law – as was standard for ship captains. In the process of outfitting the Jackdaw with a crew, Kenway meets Adewale, an escaped slave from a Caribbean plantation, and makes him the quartermaster, thus establishing a rule that capability, not race, is the benchmark for service on the Jackdaw. This is reinforced later in the story when Adewale goes on a separate path and Kenway brings on a woman as the new quartermaster. Kenway also establishes rules for the ship’s pirating activities and emphasizes that innocent civilians will not be targeted for attack or killed.

Kenway’s motives may have been monetary however the story explains that others within the loose community of pirates throughout the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico had other motives. Key among these motives was freedom from their home laws and legal systems, which are viewed as repressive, unfair and prejudiced. With this in mind, many of the pirates come together and agree to turn the city of Nassau into a city run under pirate control. Kenway is sceptical of this idea, arguing that the idealistic goals will not work as a governing system, nevertheless the city falls under their control and the British authorities retain only nominal jurisdiction.

 The city operates under loose sets of laws and mores that are imposed through society rather than through an official constabulary force. This is done with good intentions and in order to counter the rigid legal regimes that many of the characters sought to leave behind when they initially took to the sea. Despite these intentions, as the story progresses and Kenway makes frequent returns to Nassau, it becomes apparent that the city descends into physical and societal decay under such a lax system. This is particularly evident when a disease outbreak threatens to become an epidemic and the necessary supplies to save the inhabitants are not  readily available.

Ultimately, the story ends with a British force arriving to retake Nassau. The newly appointed authorities publicly make an offer of amnesty for any pirates who are willing to accept it and agree to give up pirating in the future. The offer is made on behalf of the British Crown, however it is soon clear that the new authorities do not intend to live up to the letter of this law and instead target any pirates – including those who are willing to comply – for death or imprisonment.

In the Black Flag storyline, there is of course action and adventure – it is a game after all. More than that though, the plot provides a complex backstory to Kenway as the main character and to the pirate system in which he operated. The plot provides the framework for a pluralistic system in Nassau that runs the gamut from revolutionary to decayed to repressed.  

At the beginning, the idea of freeing Nassau from what is viewed as an overbearing legal and societal system is revolutionary and motivated not only by profit but also by a desire to create an idealistic system free from the strictures of unjust laws. Those who undertake the responsibility of overseeing Nassau do so in a somewhat cavalier way, demonstrating good intentions and free spirits but little understanding of how to implement laws other than those on ships. It is possible that this is where the cracks in the system begin to emerge – the system is so plural that it lacks significant boundaries and methods of enforcement.

As the system progresses these cracks manifest themselves in a visible lack of public order. This is illustrated by increasingly dilapidated buildings and the inability of city residents to provide for themselves during a disease outbreak that appears to have occurred in no small part as a result of the lack of order endemic in the community. Indeed, this outbreak is only controlled when pirates undertake a dangerous mission that puts their own lives at risk and encourages unlawful conduct.

The system is finally suppressed and residents of Nassau are subject to repression that reinforces the problems from which the pirates initially fled their home countries. Efforts by the British governor to reassert imperial control are ruthless and methodical and include chicanery as well as outright murder. Indeed, the governor requires his men to disobey direct orders of amnesty from the Crown and instead engage in attacks that result in murder and imprisonment. These measures and the efforts at population repression which follow place the residents of Nassau, those who seek to put into port in the city, and the remnants of the pirate population in a worse position than they were in before.

In direct contrast to this, Kenway’s ship presents a system of controlled pluralism that functions well and allows those onboard to profit. Kenway is open to sailors of all races and genders as part of his crew provided they meet the needs of the ship and work with the other crewmembers. He establishes the rules of conduct on the ship and in terms of those who are targets of his ship’s activities. These rules apply equally and it is apparent that the prejudices and limitations that he sought to flee at home do not apply on the Jackdaw. While he sees continuing downturns in Nassau and frets at the seeming futility of the undertakings there, Kenway is the leader of an increasingly prosperous ship and functioning plural society that stands in direct contrast. 

In these ways, the game tells the story of differing forms of pluralistic societies and demonstrates the relationships between pluralism and boundaries in terms of societal success and functioning.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Societal Framing

The first image traditionally used in film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is that of the three witches in the opening scene of the play. They lend a sense of foreboding to the story and are used to frame the unfolding story in terms of otherworldly influences changing the fates of those involved. However, the 2015 film adaptation opens in a different and more nuanced way that provides a subtle lens as to how society frames membership value from start to finish.

This adaptation opens in a stark and foreboding highland scene of grief. A community is gathered around Macbeth and his wife as they mark the passing of their young son during funeral rites. The couple’s loss is palpable and there is an overwhelming aura of hopelessness and futility. The couple is surrounded by a community that seems to lend support. At the same time, the couple stands apart from the community and looks to each other for intimate support. This might not seem remarkable, and indeed might seem logical, however there is a sense of tension in the shadows and space between the community and the Macbeths.

It is only after the funeral that the witches make their obligatory appearance. After this, the story unfolds along the well-known lines written by Shakespeare. Macbeth is victorious in battle and, as predicted, is elevated to the Thane of Cawdor. The elevation is recognized throughout Macbeth’s community in a stunning series of celebrations with the King of Scotland, in which the community and the Scottish hierarchy embraces Macbeth for his valor in battle.

The plan to kill the King of Scotland was already conceived, however Macbeth’s decision to do so appears cemented by the King’s announcement of his son Malcolm as the Prince and presumptive heir. After the celebrations, the plan to kill the King of Scotland is executed by Macbeth and his wife. Malcolm, the erstwhile heir, subsequently encounters Macbeth, who challenges him to take up his father’s mantle. Malcolm rides off in the night to England, unable to assume this responsibility.

With the heir apparent fled, the Scottish nobility selects Macbeth as the new King of Scotland as foreseen by the witches. What should have been a moment of triumph for him is tempered by guilt from the King’s murder and questioning of whether it was worth it. There are of course many moral tensions in these musings, however underlying this is the realization that the achievement was limited because the Macbeths have no children and no line to establish as future kings. Instead, he is installed as a placeholder – someone trusted by society at the moment but in the long run unable to solidify his power because society has defined the ultimate value of a leader as establishing a familial line – and thus establishing a predictable future.

Shortly afterward, out of paranoia caused by the witches, Macbeth orders the deaths of his cousin, Banquo, and Banquo’s young son, Fleance. It was predicted that Banquo’s family would create the line that would rule Scotland and thus they are both perceived as a threat to the identity of Macbeth as a leader and to his ability to exercise the power he killed for. Banquo is subsequently killed, however Fleance is able to escape his would-be assassins.

When Macbeth further becomes afraid of the power exerted by Macduff, a nobleman who had been a close friend, and Macduff flees. Macbeth is convinced that all threats from the Macduff line must be erased and orders the murder of Macduff’s wife and children. The rest of the Scottish court acquiesces to the public murders although there is an unsaid sense that this is the tipping point is respect for and loyalty to Macbeth. Even the power-seeking Lady Macbeth is shaken rigid by these murders and is seen talking to the ghost of her deceased son prior to her own death soon afterward. In these conversations, she laments the ways in which the events since his death unfolded and it seems she seeks to make peace with her son in order to make herself understandable to the aspect of her life that was most valuable.

Finally, there is a battle between Macbeth and Macduff in which Macduff prevails and Macbeth dies at his hand. As the audience is left with the image of Macbeth’s body on a deserted plain, abandoned by the society over which he had once exercised supreme power, it then sees an image of Fleance walking across the plain, off to seek the future that Macbeth sought to deny him through assassination. The 2015 adaptation thus closes as it opens, with a single child who had been part of a community and had been used to define his parents’ place within that community.

There are many areas of pluralism in Macbeth. However, the one that is perhaps least discussed but most decisive in the 2015 adaptation is the way in which society frames identity and inclusion. From beginning to end, there is a consistent thread of identity being confirmed through the establishment of a family in which to function. At the beginning of the film, the Macbeths are seen as supported by the community but also apart from larger society and left to rely on themselves, presumably because this is all that is left for them in the future. This is the case even though Macbeth is a revered warrior and his wife holds a high place in society.  

When Malcolm runs away from his inheritance, society is left without a leader and it turns to Macbeth as a protector but limits his abilities and powers by ensuring that Banquo’s line will continue on after Macbeth. Certainly, in Macbeth’s eyes, this weakens him and makes him less a part of society – instead, he is essentially a place keeper who has won his place due to acts done to protect society.

This sense of not belonging is palpable throughout the rest of the film and drives Macbeth to do the unthinkable and murder an innocent family in a quest to solidify his control on an increasingly disillusioned society. Ultimately, this sense of not fully belonging because he will be unable to contribute to societal stability in the long term is the undoing of Macbeth, while the death of their child and their inability to serve as a family overwhelms his wife. Tellingly, this adaptation of the film ends with the image of a child walking off across the plain, offering the chance that he will return to claim the place that was guaranteed for him by society in the future. The 2015 adaptation of Macbeth places particular emphasis on the ways in which societal values frame those who are members of it and define who might operate on the margins in terms of value even when they seem to operate at the center in terms of prestige.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Creating Monsters

Children are often warned about creating monsters, usually in the context of spoiling someone to the point where he thinks he can get away with more than is allowed. Typically, the means of spoiling are rather benign – too many sweets or poor discipline resulting in bad diets or social ostracism due to bad behavior. As adults, the threat of spoiling others is no less real but the consequences are more devastating than the effects of too many chocolates. The film Black Mass, an adaptation of the life of Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger while he was an FBI informant, illustrates the reality of creating monsters on several levels.

The film starts in the 1970s, when Bulger was already an established crime leader in South Boston, heading the Winter Hill Gang. That he had a penchant for crime is unquestionable, although at this point he is seen as a somewhat sympathetic character – he helps elderly women and is a doting father. He has experienced time in prison, which appears to have made him tougher and better suited to lead a criminal enterprise. He has also established a network of trusted associates with whom he shares an increasing affiliation as the depth of his organization grows.

At the same time, the film presents the character of John Connolly, who grew up in South Boston with Bulger before parting ways to join the FBI. Years later, Connolly returns to Boston, this time as a FBI agent. Part of his portfolio involves investigating a rival gang to Bulger’s – neither Connolly nor his fellow agents have a great deal of success in doing this. There is an initial tension between Connolly’s professional life and personal life in terms of past associations with Bulger and continual loyalties to those with whom he grew up.

After failing to infiltrate the rival gang through other methods, Connolly devises an unusual plan for gaining information– co-opt Bulger as an informant. Initially, Connolly’s superiors are reluctant to embrace the use of a known crime leader, particularly when this could lead to them having knowledge of Bulger’s illegal activities but being unable to doing anything based on the agreed upon terms of the informant relationship. Ultimately, the combination of a lack of success through other means and Connolly’s persuasion convince his superiors to use Bulger as an informant. Bulger is at first somewhat uncomfortable with the concept of being an informant since he does not tolerate “snitching” from within the ranks of the White Hill Gang. However, seeing the utility of the arrangement in terms of eliminating a rival, Bulger crafts a justification between informing on his own people and informing on others for the benefit of the White Hill Gang.

Bulger becomes a productive source of information and Connolly is able to use this to further his cases and career. As the information provided by Bulger becomes useful he becomes emboldened, knowing that he has great value to Connolly. At the same time, Connolly and those around him become increasingly amenable to overlooking illegal activities on Bulger’s part – particularly murder, which was strictly forbidden under the original agreement – because of the value of his information. The film depicts a shift in Bulger’s operations from relatively minor to a massive criminal network that operates across other states under the protections afforded by the informant arrangement. At the same time, Connolly draws closer to Bulger and his lifestyle, collecting kickback money, traveling with Bulger and his associates, and adopting a different persona – this is visible to the audience and to Connolly’s wife, an outsider to South Boston who seems to provide a check on Connolly’s growing inability to draw a line with his informant. Even this relationship is shattered, as ultimately Connolly and his wife separate in large part due to his personal and professional involvement with Bulger.

The relationship between Connolly and Bulger continues with few internal institutional checks. There is, it appears, a laissez faire attitude toward the symbiosis that has been created and many are willing to look the other way as long as the arrangement produces successful outcomes. The amount of grey area amassed around the arrangement is thus quite large. This changes when a new Assistant U. S. Attorney questions the true value of Bulger’s information. With stunning rapidity it becomes clear that Connolly has been passing off old or irrelevant information from Bulger as important tips and falsifying other information. In the aftermath, Bulger is publicly exposed as an informant and a wanted criminal and goes on the run for decades. Connolly is arrested. In the end, the informant relationship takes all involved down with it.

In film and in fact, there is no question that Bulger was involved in criminal activity before he became an informant. In this sense, the monster created was not pure to begin with. However, as the film portrays it, Bulger had completed his prison sentence and was working marginally far from the law before the informant relationship developed. Prior to the informant relationship, Connolly is portrayed as a rising star within the FBI.

At the beginning of the informant relationship there was a nexus in needs – Connolly and the FBI needed information and Bulger needed immunity and freedom to develop his organization. Both Bulger and Connolly knew that they were violating some element of the core tenets of their organizations – informing for Bulger and condoning criminality for Connolly – but the benefits appeared to outweigh these issues. It is clear that Bulger and Connolly were operating in a space that was outside the rigid confines of the law – a fact that eventually brought the relationship down – however each believed that they were doing what was necessary to protect their organizations and further themselves.

The risk of creating a relationship that functioned in the grey areas of law – be it statutory law or the code of an organization – was worth the reward and there were certainly rewards to be had for both parties. In this way, the informant relationship functioned symbiotically – each party can be seen as creating a monster in the other through the informal mechanism that was achieved between them. Perhaps obviously, Connolly creates a monster in Bulger by empowering – and encouraging – him to engage in criminal behavior under the cover of providing vital information. What is perhaps less obvious is that Bulger created a monster in Connolly by encouraging him to condone and indeed be a party to criminal activities knowing that Connolly could hide under the cover of his official status. Through the use of informal understandings of the relationship that were allowed to function outside of the formal law per se, all parties to the relationship were “spoiled” in a sense, and all parties became monsters as a result. In this instance, however, the result was far greater than a stomach ache from too many candies.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Protecting Friends and Enemies

The film Bridge of Spies is most often referred to as a Cold War drama – and indeed it is. Apart from this, however, it is also a story of the contours of the relationship between the construct of friends and enemies and the need to protect that enemy from potential harm. This relationship is developed in the setting of informal law that comprises tenets of social and moral norms.

At the beginning of the film, James Donovan – the protagonist and a well-established insurance lawyer – is approached by those acting for the government to represent Rudolf Abel, who is being charged in the US as a Soviet spy. Donovan is reluctant to accept this assignment, particularly given that his only criminal law work occurred as part of the Nuremberg trials. However, the chief partner in Donovan’s law firm is insistent that Donovan take the case.

It is clear from the outset that Donovan is a principled man and advocate who, once representing Abel, wants to provide him with thorough representation. From the first meeting onward, there is a sense of mutual respect between Abel and Donovan. Abel is an unlikely figure for a spy – not dashing and young but rather older and intellectual– and Donovan seeks to understand him. At the same time, he establishes a sense of protectiveness for Abel, trying to ensure that basic dignities are afforded to him. While Donovan continues to follow a zealous path for representing his client and crafting a defense, he is bluntly informed by the government and the judge that it is a case he cannot win. As his representation of Abel continues, Donovan is increasingly dismayed at the pre-determined outcome of the case. When the inevitable guilty sentence is handed down, Donovan does the unthinkable and appeals. The public is not as understanding of Donovan’s concerns for justice and fairness, and he rapidly finds himself at the center of a public controversy over appealing the guilty verdict of an enemy spy. Donovan faces public outrage, threatening comments, ostracising by the law firm partner who once encouraged him to take Abel’s case, and a shooting at his home. Ultimately, the appeal is denied and Abel remains in prison, where Donovan continues to pay him visits. These are not official visits as much as they are visits between friends – Donovan brings amusements for Abel and they slowly learn about each other as people rather than friend-foe or attorney-client.

Throughout the entire trial ordeal, the one victory Donovan is able to win is the judge’s agreement not to sentence Abel to death. Donovan is able to convince the judge that Abel is worth more alive than dead in the event that a prisoner exchange became necessary in the future. Donovan’s value as a clairvoyant is proven when an American pilot is captured by the Soviet Union and convicted of espionage. At this point, Donovan has returned to his private legal practice. An abrupt telephone call changes Donovan’s life yet again. This time, he is enlisted to assist as a private negotiator in brokering his prophesied prisoner exchange between Abel and the American pilot. Later, this expands to include a young American graduate student caught on the wrong side of the Berlin wall on the day it was sealed.

In Donovan’s role, he carries no official capacity and thus has no official protections when he is asked to travel to Berlin to execute the exchange. This of course makes Donovan vulnerable and his experiences in both East and West Berlin emphasize it. Throughout, Donovan is concerned with the lives of the captured Americans and particularly with Abel – while he is willing to assist in brokering the exchange he is not willing to undertake a course that will harm anyone. Abel is a hidden spectre during the negotiation but this does not mean that Donovan is unaware of the impacts of the potential exchange on all parties involved.

Finally, it appears that Donovan has negotiated an exchange of the two American prisoners for Abel. The pivotal moment occurs when the exchange of Abel for the pilot is set to occur. This is a very tense moment and a very personal one for Donovan and Abel, who know that their friendship is what brought them to that moment and also that it will end when the moment is complete. Donovan appears to have second thoughts and is concerned for Abel’s safety once he is returned to Soviet control – Abel remains unconcerned and philosophical, explaining to Donovan how he will know whether Abel is to be warmly welcomed at home. In a poignant moment, Donovan watches Abel cross into Soviet control and they share a look before they each disappear into cars headed for other sides of the world.

The relationship between Donovan and Abel is poetic in many respects, and is an excellent microcosm for the realisms of the Cold War’s impacts on people rather than simply at the state level. Beyond this, however, the relationship demonstrates the informal ways in which friend may protect foe even when the public sees only the enemy. The judicial proceedings against Abel were portrayed as designed to yield a specific result and necessary simply to provide the American public – and the world – with proof that the US justice system applied equally to friend and foe. Indeed, for official purposes Abel’s life was spared only because of the potential utility it could have in the future. The formal was thus protecting the enemy only to the extent that the enemy could be of use.

In contrast, Donovan protects Abel – the enemy – through the informal. At first, this is because of Donovan’s personal and professional sense of morality. Later, this is because of the personal relationship that develops between Donovan and Abel and Donovan’s desire to protect Abel as a friend rather than simply as a client. It is also the informal that allows Donovan to act as a private negotiator and broker the exchange of 3 people deemed enemies by one state or another, thus seeking to protect all 3 by returning them to their friends. Cinematically, the informal makes for a touching story and ending. In application, the film demonstrates the importance of the informal as a means to fill in the gaps created by the formal.