Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Memorable Sentence

Last night I finally got around to watching Bastards of the Party on HBO. This is, without a doubt, the most memorable documentary I have seen on HBO since When the Levees Broke (and since that was not too long ago, my expectations for future projects are beginning to rise). Much of my enthusiasm may have to do with the fact that the film demonstrates the first step of the "thinking in time" methodology developed by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May in their study of episodes of presidential decision making in times of crisis. In vernacular language that step says that, when confronted with a crisis situation, begin by asking the question, "How did we get into this mess?" This is precisely the question that motivates director Cle "Bone" Sloan in his study of black gang violence in Los Angeles; and, while Sloan would probably not call himself a historian, the way in which he takes on the question demonstrates that he is as capable of historical thinking as the best of the "accredited" historians.

However, I find that the documentaries that work best for me are those that master the art of distilling the complexity of the expository subject matter into the more "portable take-away;" and sometimes this can just be a single sentence that sticks with you long after the rest of the documentary is a blur in your memory. In When the Levees Broke that sentence exploded like a grenade during the coverage of the evacuation of the Superdome when a woman could no longer contain herself and accused FEMA of treating the evacuees like slaves. In Bastards of the Party in emerges through Sloan's condemnation of a state strategy that seems based on little more than building more prisons. His point is that all these prisons are not being used particularly punitively, nor are they providing much by way of rehabilitation. All they provide is a place to store people who cannot contribute to the economy. This "storage function" then carries a connotation that avoids the question of whether or not any of these prisoners are capable, or even motivated, to "contribute to the economy," because the penal system is grounded on the assumption that the state does not want these people to "contribute to the economy."

Now this is familiar ground to students of history. The ideology of the Third Reich identified certain sectors of the population as being unfit to "contribute to the economy;" and they implemented a similar "solution" of storing the members of those sectors in various isolated locations. Of course that was only the first step of the "solution;" and all but the most rabid Holocaust deniers know where the subsequent steps led. From that point of view, Amiri Baraka's language in talking about post-Katrina or prisons (being well acquainted with the latter) in terms of "ethnic cleansing" should be viewed as neither extreme nor surprising.

In the midst of the folly of the First World War, Wilfred Owen declared that "all a poet can do today is warn." His warning did not get very far, and Owen ended up as one of the many casualties of that War. Spike Lee and Cle Sloan are using their documentary skills to, once again, try to warn us; but, as is too often the case, they are warning us about truths we really do not wish to hear. The risk of avoiding such warnings, of course, is that, like Owen, we shall all end up as casualties.

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