Monday, March 10, 2014

The Cult of the Irrational, Part 2

There was a time not very long ago when I believed that most human beings could be reached through reason.  You know:  you make what you consider a solid and persuasive argument, back it up with hard facts, and you assume that the average person will agree eventually with what you have to say.  And if they don't agree, you would hope that it's because they had solid arguments themselves to back up their own positions.
But as I've gotten older I've begun to realize that human beings are influenced much more by things like strong emotions (fear, anger, indignation), ideology, and social prejudices than by logic, reason, or rationality.  Case in point:  The South.  The Huffington Post had a wonderful article recently that shows just how backwards the entire region we call the South is on just about any measure of social progress:
The South is poorer, less upwardly mobile, more unhealthy, and much unhappier than the rest of the country.  One would think that the people who live in these southern states would welcome any sort of governmental assistance that they can get, but that's not the case.  In fact, southern states are at the forefront of the movement to cut government programs that assist the most vulnerable members of the society (children, the handicapped, the mentally ill, substance abusers, the elderly, and pregnant women).   Reason all you want with a southerner who thinks that government is the problem, but it probably won't convince him that many of the social difficulties that he experiences in his state are in fact the result of too little government, not too much.
Prior to the last presidential election, film-maker Angela Pelosi tried to understand the anti-governmental attitudes of people in Mississippi, one of the most backward states in the Union, according to the data in the Huffington Post article. While the people she interviewed may be more extreme than the average Mississippian, the attitudes expressed seem to be typical, insofar as the citizens of this state continue to vote consistently against their own self-interest: 

I'm not trying to pick on the South here.  I'm sure that there are many fine, decent people living south of the Mason-Dixon line.  And I don't think that the cult of the irrational exists solely in the south.   For example, Pelosi also interviewed citizens of New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy to ask anti-government folks there what programs should be cut from the federal budget.  The answers that she received to this question were as painful as they were funny:

Keep in mind that these were all people who thought that the size of government ought to be cut substantially, but, when they had to explain exactly which government programs ought to be cut, they seemed to become transformed all of a sudden into New York liberals.  Once again, ideology and self-interest trump logic and reason.
So, if large segments of our American population seem to be totally impervious to rational arguments and even self-evident facts, how is it possible to persuade such individuals of the "truth"?  Either one has to resort to flagrantly rhetorical appeals to emotion (hardly philosophical) or one attempts to engage in rational discourse, knowing that his or her arguments will inevitably fall on deaf ears. 
In short, how can philosophical argumentation work at all in a society where the average citizen hasn't been educated to understand the value of reason in the first place?   It's a dilemma that I don't have any easy answers for.  I can't help thinking, however, that this great love affair that we Americans are currently having with the irrational doesn't bode too well for the future of our country. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Our Love Affair With Darkness

Michael S. Russo
Molloy College

Ten years ago if you asked me if I watched TV, the answer would have been a contemptuous, “Are you kidding?” Television in the late 1990s and early 2000s was what it had pretty much always been: a wasteland of vacuous entertainment, aimed primarily at the lowbrow tastes of cognitively-challenged Americans. Actually, television had gotten even worse by the early 2000s than it had been in the past, with an endless parade of inane reality shows—remember “Jersey Shore” and “The Real Housewives”?—that served to do little more than make viewers feel morally superior to the crass and callous individuals whose train-wrecked lives they were watching unfold on their TV sets. Men and women with any degree of taste and sensitivity ignored television entirely and turned to film or fiction if they wanted any kind of intellectually stimulating entertainment.

But I have a confession to make: I’ve becoming addicted to television again, for the first time perhaps since I was a high school student. Now, I’m not talking about watching shows on network TV, which is still filled with banal drivel (ever see “Two and a Half Men” or “How I Met Your Mother?”). No, what I’m talking about is the veritable renaissance that is occurring on cable TV—what has rightly been referred to as a new golden age of television, one that, in my estimation at least, may actually surpass those two other “golden ages” that occurred in the early 1950s and early 1970s. In fact, Cable networks like HBO, Showtime, and AMC and the Internet giant, Netflix, are producing series that are infinitely richer and more emotionally engrossing than anything that has ever been produced for television in the past.

There are far too many great programs now on cable TV for me to talk about all of them. Instead, I’ll focus on three in particular that millions of Americans like myself just can’t seem to get enough of: “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “House of Cards.” What these series have in common is that they rely on complex story arcs that span over multiple seasons, focus on complicated, morally compromised characters who evolve as these series progress, and have an almost philosophical preoccupation with exploring the meaning of our human condition.

But there’s something even more important that they all have in common: these series all have at their centers main characters who gleefully embrace lifestyles that can only be described as morally reprehensible and even evil. Walter White (“Breaking Bad”), Don Draper (“Mad Men”), and Frank Underwood (“House of Cards”) are men driven by pure egoistic self-absorption, who don’t give a damn about other people’s feelings or needs, and who will do just about anything they need to (lie, cheat, break the law, and at times kill innocents) to get what they want (sex, money, prestige, and power).

None of these characters would exist, of course, if David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” hadn’t first demonstrated that audiences could come to care about—even love—a completely immoral central character, provided that character was endowed with realistic motivations and feelings that the audience could relate to. Tony Soprano was not just a vicious mobster—although he certainly could be extremely nasty at times. He was a man who was forced to live up to the legacy of his father, had to care for difficult family members, and had his own web of neuroses and insecurities with which to contend. In short, Tony was just like you and me, although his job frequently compelled him to kill people who got in his way. 

Cast of the Sopranos (1999-2007)
But what is it that we love so much about characters like these who, by all counts, would be considered sociopaths were we to encounter them in the real world? Besides being somehow relatable, all of these characters have one other thing in common: they’ve made the voluntary choice to pursue their own selfish wants, needs, and interests at all costs. Don Draper may have an attractive, desirable wife, but that certainly doesn’t stop him from having numerous sexual relationships with other women. When his daughter catches him in flagrante delicto with a neighbor’s wife, it doesn’t cause him even a moment of introspection or generate any desire at all within him to change his ways. He sleeps around with women—single or married—because he enjoys it and because he can….And morality simply does not enter into the equation.

Walter White, on the other hand, seems to be driven at first by the quite understandable desire to care for his family after he is diagnosed with lung cancer, but this, as we all well know, is just a fa├žade. In a telling scene that occurs towards the end of the series’ run, White meets with his wife, Skylar, one last time in order to provide an explanation for the actions he took that destroyed their family:

     Skyler: If you tell me one more time that you did this for the family...
     Walt: I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was, really... I was alive.

Manufacturing and distributing drugs, killing off the opposition, even manipulating those he supposedly cares about—Walter does all these things not out of necessity, but because he loves it, because being a drug kingpin gives him the kind of cool rush and inner satisfaction that nothing else in life can. 

Breaking Bad's Walter White

What we’re talking about here is Nietzsche’s will to power taken to its logical extreme. In a world in which the decks are stacked against the ordinary individual, where power, money and sex provide the ultimate meaning in life, where God is dead, and morality is a cruel hoax, the smart person lives completely for himself and does whatever he has to to ensure that his own emotional and physical needs are met. Since other human beings are merely pawns to be used in this process, they are completely expendable. Even an innocent child killed during the commission of a crime in “Breaking Bad” becomes little more than collateral damage in Walter White’s never-ending quest for—dare I say it?—self-realization. 

Without a doubt the character that best embodies this unabashed, unrestricted will to power is “House of Cards” Frank Underwood. Completely understanding the logic of existence in a morality-free universe, Frank has managed to eradicate from his personality any vestiges of humanity and compassion that might make him weak or vulnerable. There is simply nothing that Underwood won’t do to achieve his goal of becoming the most powerful man in the world, and this includes murder if necessary. In Frank Underwood’s universe everyone exists to be used and the ability to effectively manipulate others becomes the highest virtue of all.   

House of Cards' Frank and Claire Underwood

So again why do audiences love these completely despicable, utterly ruthless characters so much? The answer, I believe, has to do with the unique times in which we live. In the first decade of the 21st century, the economic crisis that has continued unabated (at least for the bottom 99%) has made ordinary Americans feel like helpless victims in a cruel and uncaring world and totally impotent to effect any positive changes in their own lives. Say what you want about Walter White, Don Draper, and Frank Underwood, but they are certainly not victims and they definitely are not impotent. I think that what we love so much about these characters is that in a world in which most people are inert whiners and complainers, these men DO SOMETHING. They take charge of their own destinies and are willing to do anything and everything necessary to ensure that they will never be part of the anonymous herd.

Because they act while most human beings remain passive and because they are willing to take risks to master their fates, we are willing to forgive just about anything these characters do, no matter how despicable it might seem. Is it any coincidence that each of these men came from humble origins and had to overcome tremendous odds to achieve what they did? Subconsciously, I think that viewers relate to these anti-heroes because, compared to an economic elite (the top 1%) that caused the entire American economy to collapse and which has actually benefited financially from that collapse, the actions of men like Walter White, Don Draper, and Frank Underwood almost seem reasonable. It’s like one of our own getting back at “the system,” and that, I think, is what makes us root for them. 

By comparison, consider the female characters in each of these shows and how unpopular they are with audiences. Skylar White and Betty Draper—like Carmella Soprano before them—are viewed by audiences as passive but also morally complicit in their husband’s immoral activities. None of these women intentionally choose the life of evil; they simply accept the social and economic benefits that accrue to themselves because of the more deliberative choices that their husbands make. They may bitch and moan, but they don’t DO anything. 

In this sense, Claire Underwood fits somewhat outside the mold of the poor, beleaguered anti-hero’s wife. She’s definitively Lady MacBeth to Frank’s MacBeth. Like Lady MacBeth, Claire is an active partner in her husband’s political machinations, but, like Lady MacBeth as well, there seems to be a limit to how far her conscience might enable her to go (Can you imagine Frank shedding tears after destroying someone who stood in his way?). Since the show is still in its infancy, it remains to be seen if Claire Underwood will prove more popular in the long run than her female counterparts. 

Television viewing at its best is a cathartic experience. In the 1950s and 60s we wanted television to soothe us. We wanted to feel like the world was an intelligible place, that our social and political leaders had our best interests at heart, and that hard work and dedication could lead to upward social mobility. Today we know that none of this is true and we question whether anything we do in life—whether individually or collectively—will make any difference at all. Apparently, we need men like Walter White, Don Draper, and Frank Underwood to convince us that, despite appearances to the contrary, the individual still matters and the deliberative choices a person makes can actually produce beneficial results. 

In the end, I would argue, it’s not the darkness per se of these characters that we love, but their willingness to act on the great stage of life…whatever the consequences. That’s what separates them from the rest of us, and that’s the source of our unquenchable fascination with them.