Tag Archives: National Rifle Association

Post-Intervention Libya: A Militia State

12 Oct

 

            Two apparently related and revealing incidents have turned public attention briefly back to Libya just after the second anniversary of the NATO intervention that helped anti-Qaddafi rebel forces overthrow his regime. The first incident involved the infringement of Libyan sovereignty by an American special forces operation that seized the alleged al Qaeda operative, Abu Anas al-Libi (also known as Nizah Abdul Hamed al-Ruqai), on October 5, supposedly with the knowledge and consent of the Libyan government. The second incident, evidently a response to the first seizure, was the kidnapping a few days later of the country’s prime minister, Ali Zeidan, while he lay asleep in his hotel lodgings in the center of Tripoli. He was easily captured by a squadron of 20 militia gunmen who arrived at the hotel around 6:00 am and proceeded without resistance from security guards to carry off the head of the Libyan state. Such a bold assault on the state’s essential character as the sole purveyor of legitimate violence (according to the famous conception of Max Weber) is a telltale sign of a political system of shadow governance, that is, without security.

 

            The capture of Ali Zeidan was reportedly prompted both by anger at the government’s impotence in the face of such an overt violation of Libyan sovereignty by the United States, as well as serving to warn the political leadership of the country that any further effort to disarm militias would be resisted. Ali Zeidan seizure was largely symbolic. He was held by his captors for only a few hours before being released. Nevertheless, the ease of the kidnapping sent shivers down the spine of the Western countries that had been so proud two years ago of their regime-changing intervention under NATO auspices. The incident also reinforced the impression in the West that prospects for lucrative foreign investment and substantial oil flows would have to be put on hold for the indefinite future.

 

            According to journalistic accounts, which should perhaps be discounted as unreliable rumors, the militia responsible for this daring challenge to governmental authority in Libya, seems to have recently formed, and is headed by Nuri Abusahmen, who is the speaker of the General National Assembly. RMr. Abusahmen sat serenely besides the prime minister as he addressed the nation shortly after regaining his freedom, but there are reasons to doubt the veracity of this account.  For those conscious of Libyan realities, if such a juxtaposition were accurate it would be a further indication that the capabilities of the elected government in Tripoli are modest as compared to that of the militias, and can be overridden at will by recalcitrant civil society forces. Perhaps, more to the point, there appears to be a seamless web in Libya between the government and the militias, between what is de jure and what is de facto, and between what is lawful and what is criminal. Of course, it was also highly disturbing that a prominent al Qaeda operative was roaming freely in Libya, and seemingly enjoying some level of national support.

 

            There is no doubt that Libya is so pervasively armed that even the National Rifle Association might find excessive. Supposedly, every household is in possession of weapons either distributed to Libyans supportive of the Qaddafi government during its struggle to survive or acquired from NATO benefactors. Unlike several of the other countries experiencing a troubled aftermath to the Arab Upheavals, Libya is a rich economic prize, with the world’s fifth largest oil reserves generating a cash flow that could be a boon to the troubled economies of Europe that carried out the intervention, and have acted subsequently as if they have an entitlement to a fair market share of the economic opportunities for trade and investment.

 

            Two years ago the concerns that prompted NATO to act were overtly associated with Qaddafi’s bloody crimes against his own people. The use of force was authorized in a circumscribed March 17, 2011 Security Council Resolution 1973 premised on protecting the entrapped civilian population of Benghazi against imminent attacks by the regime primarily through the establishment of a no-fly zone. The non-Western members of the UNSC were skeptical and suspicious at the time of the debate about authorizing military action fearing that more would be done than claimed, but agreed to abstain when it came to a vote, relying with reluctance on reassurances from pro-interventionist members of the Security Council that the undertaking was of a purely ‘humanitarian’ rather than what it became, a political initiative with a ‘regime-changing’ character.

 

            As it turned out, almost from day one of the intervention it became clear that NATO was interpreting the UN mandate in the broadest possible way, engaging in military operations obviously intended to cause the collapse of the Qaddafi government in Tripoli, and only incidentally focused on protecting the people of Benghazi from immediate danger. This maneuver was understandably interpreted as a betrayal of trust by those Security Council members who had been persuaded to abstain, especially Russia and China. One effect of such an action was to weaken, at least in the short run, the capacity of the UN to form a consensus in responses to humanitarian crises, as in Syria, and may also have undermined prospects for stable governance in Libya for many years to come.

 

            The Libyan future remains highly uncertain at present with several scenarios plausible: partition based on fundamental ethnic and regional enmities, essentially creating two polities, one centered in Benghazi, the other in Tripoli; a perpetuation of tribal rivalries taking the form of cantonization of the country with governing authority appropriated by various militia, and likely producing a type of low-intensity warfare that creates chaos and precludes both meaningful democracy and successful programs of economic development; ‘a failed state’ that becomes a sanctuary for transnational extremist violence, and then becomes a counter-terrorist battlefield in the manner of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, the scene of deadly drone attacks and covert operations by special forces. There is even talk of the return to power of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who might indeed provide the only road back to political stability. The seizure of al-Libi and the subsequent kidnapping of the prime minister may be metaphors of what ‘governance’ in Libya has come to signify.

 

            The European media and political leaders worry aloud once more about these disturbing scenarios, but rarely hearken back to reassess the imperial moves of 2011 that were at least partly designed to restore European influence and create economic opportunities. It is one more instance of post-colonial unwillingness to respect the sovereign autonomy of states, or at least to limit their interference to operational undertakings in genuine emergency actions strictly within the scope of a UN mandate and truly restricted to the prevention and mitigation of humanitarian catastrophes. The dynamics of self-determination may produce ugly strife and terrible human tragedy, but nothing can be much worse than what Western intervention produces. The logic of state-centric world order needs to be complemented by regional and world community institutions and procedures that can address the internal failures of sovereign states and the machinations of global private sector manipulations of domestic tensions that has contributed so insidiously to massive bloodshed to sub-Saharan Africa. [See Noam Chomsky & Andre Vltchek, On Western Terrorism from Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (2013) for convincing elaboration of this latter contention]

 

            There are obviously no easy answers, but there is no shortage of  obscurantist commentary. For instance, there is an image of a ‘failed state’ as one that poses a threat to Western interests or fails to govern in a manner that precludes its territory from being used to mount hostile violence directed at the West or its property. But is not Egypt as much, or more, of a failed state than Libya, and yet it not so regarded? A strong and oppressive state, especially if not anti-Western, is seen as compatible with geostrategic interests even if it commits terrible crimes against humanity against its domestic opponents as has been the case with the al-Sisi led coup in Egypt.

 

            We can only wonder whether Libya as of 2013 is not better understood as a ‘militia state’ rather than a ‘failed state,’ which seems like an emerging pattern for societies that endure Western military intervention. The parallels of Libya with Iraq and Afghanistan are uncomfortably suggestive.

Forget ‘Normal’ Politics

5 Feb

 

 

            Political life is filled with policy choices that are made mainly on the basis of calculations of advantage, as well as reflecting priorities and values of those with the power of decision. In a constitutional framework of governance the rule of law sets outer limits as to permissible outcomes. The legitimacy of the decision depends on adhering to these procedural guidelines, and the fact that if the societal effects turn out badly it can be corrected by altering the ‘law.’ Of course, all sorts of special interests behind the scene manipulate this process, and the public debate mirrors these pressures. The results of highly contested policy choices usually reflect the power structure (class, race, ideology) more than they do the outcome of rational detached assessments of the public good. At present, the national public good in the United States is being held hostage to the lethal extremism of the gun lobby as led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which combines special interest politics with a political culture that is violent and militarist. Such a political culture seems unlikely to be able to prohibit the sale of automatic assault weaponry to private citizens even in the immediate aftermath of a series of horrific shootings in American schools and public spaces by individuals gaining access to assault rifles and pistols.

 

            If we agree with this line of interpretation, we must have the courage to raise radical questions as to whether under these conditions a flawed democracy is any longer capable of serving the national public good in fundamental respects. In my view, the only morally responsible position is to mobilize the citizenry around the need for drastic reform of American democracy. At the very least, the role of big money in shaping policy choices and the electoral process must be ended, and the glorification of violence and militarism must be repudiated. To seek such results a reliance on  normal politics is to inhabit the land of illusion. In some respects, a revolutionary situation is present in the country but a revolutionary movement is no where to be seen. Only utopian reasoning can be hopeful about the future of the country, and it is the case of hope against hope. 

 

            This politicization of policy choice is to some extent inevitable, and is usually not so threatening to the wellbeing of a country, but at present there are increasingly harmful repercussions that follow, also with respect to global stability and security. Within societies where policy choice depends on governmental action there is a play of contending forces, but the outcome is at least coherently oriented around a shared commitment to the national public good. Internationally, in contrast, there are no social forces, other than transnational civil society actors (NGOs), that are dedicated to the global public good. Governments, including that of the United States, determine and justify national policy choices by reference to the pursuit of national interests. When a dominant state opts to play a global leadership role as the United States did after 1945, it can sometimes promote a type of imperial world order that is beneficial to itself, but also at the same time helpful to most other states and to the human community generally. Such initiatives as financing the economic reconstruction of Western Europe, the establishment of the United Nations, and the promotion of international human rights illustrate such a convergence of national and global interests. But note that global interests, aside from civil society advocacy groups, have no independent base of support. Even the United Nations, which is supposed to promote peace and justice for the whole of humanity is little more than a collection of unequal states each jealous of its sovereign prerogatives. In addition, the UN gives an unrestricted special blocking power (veto) to the five permanent members of the Security Council. The UN despite its many contributions has been unable to become effective in curtailing violations of international law by leading states and their friends and has not been able to meet such global challenges as ridding the world of nuclear weaponry or fashioning a constructive response to climate change.

 

            In relation to climate change there has been an overwhelming consensus among relevant experts for over two decades that global warming is causing severe harm to the ecology of the planet, and that this situation is likely to reach an irreversible tipping point if the average temperature on the earth rises above a 2°C level compared to what it was at the start of the industrial age. This knowledge had been irresponsibly contested by a well-funded campaign of climate skeptics that has been especially effective in the United States in hijacking the public debate, and undermining policy choices that are in accord with the scientific consensus. The skeptic undertaking is funded by fossil fuel interests, and is being managed by some of the same public relations firms that delayed public appreciation of the link between cancer and cigarette smoking by several decades. This campaign has destroyed the capacity of the United States to play a constructive leadership role needed to establish an obligatory framework for prudent restrictions on the level of greenhouse gas emissions. Without U.S. leadership there is lacking the political will on a global level to act with sufficient seriousness to protect the global interest, and human destiny becomes jeopardized in a highly destructive manner from the perspective of species survival.

 

             Just as national democracy needs drastic reform, so do the structures and procedures of world order. One direction of reform would be to establish institutions with resources and capabilities to serve distinctively global interests. Steps in such a direction would include a global revenue producing mechanism, a global peoples parliament, an independent UN peace and emergency relief force, a repeal of the veto right in the Security Council, a revision of the authority of the International Court of Justice by converting current ‘advisory opinions’ into binding enforceable decisions, convening a nuclear disarmament process, and upgrading the existing UN Environmental Program (UNEP) to the status of super-agency called UN Agency on Environmental Protection and Climate Change.

 

            Such a thought experiment as this is oblivious to horizons of feasibility that befuddle politicians and set artificial parameters limiting responsible debate.  My diagnosis is anchored in an interpretation of horizons of necessity. By recognizing this huge gap between feasibility and necessity it is implied that normal politics are futile, and in their place we are forced to embrace utopian politics, which can be described as horizons of desire, faith, and hope.

 

Overdosing on ‘Breaking Bad’ (modified and revised)

19 Jan

Unknown(A Message to Readers: under the influence of further viewing, some conversation, comments, and reflections, I am re-posting a post devoted to the TV drama series, ‘Breaking Bad‘; this line of interpretation is based on viewing the first three (of five) seasons of the show. As it changes course frequently, it is likely that the two final years might alter my understanding of the series and its overall cultural and political significance. Is it a mirror of who we mostly are or a warning of who we are becoming or one more look at the dark side, and how it casts its shadows over the bright side of the American reality? I find that the debate on gun control in which the most assumptions of the NRA true believers are unquestioned gives a disturbing clue as to how these questions might be honestly answered. How many suggestions have you heard that suggest that ‘the right to bear arms’ is wildly out of date, and that if we love our children, grandchildren, and country we would propose some radical measures to restore ‘homeland security.’ Since 9/11 how many more citizens and innocent persons around the world have been killed by legally acquired guns in America than by Al Qaeda operatives? We are victimizing our own society by acquiescing in what can only be understood as a ultra-toxic form of auto-terrorism. If this is overheated rhetoric on my part, I would like to know why.)

 

            It could be a telling sign of being out of touch with popular culture to admit that until two weeks ago when our children showed up for the holidays, I had never heard of the cable TV drama series ‘Breaking Bad.’ Of course, this sort of admission damaged my already fragile credibility with those under 30. And when I discovered that ‘Breaking Bad’ was in its fifth season, and had received numerous awards, earning praise by leading media critics as ‘the greatest television drama of all time’ (according to the Megacritic website, ‘Breaking Bad’ is the highest rated cable show ever, gaining a rating of 99/100 on the basis of 22 reviews) my self-esteem took a big hit for being so out of the loop. Having overdosed on the series during the recent past I may be about to fall from one trap to another, now putting myself forward as an ‘instant expert,’ a role not more tasteful than instant coffee. Intimidated by such a prospect, I will myself to several random impressions with a goal of stimulating others to set me straight.

 

            At this time I admit to being in danger of becoming a ‘Breaking Bad’ junkie with serious addiction issues, having watched more than 25 of the early episodes with family members during what has become an almost obsessive nightly ritual. I am left wondering,  ‘what is the source of this fascination?’ ‘is ‘Breaking Bad’ tell us some dark things about ourselves, our inner reality as a nation and globe-girdling capitalist powerhouse state?’ Whatever else, ‘Breaking Bad’ as a tale of crime, violence, and personal adventure is quintessentially American, it could not be set elsewhere. On the most superficial level, the writing, acting, and cinematography are of a high caliber, holding one’s attention week after week due to an engagement with the lives of the characters and the subtle and innovative movements of the plot. It is obvious, as well, that both the technical and dramatic direction is impressive if measured by the industry metrics of craftsmanship and captivating storytelling. The form of episodic presentation, 47 minutes each week, imposes its own constraints. Each episode needs to combine a self-contained mini-drama with continuities of plot and character that create enough links to earlier segments to sustain a flow from week to week and create at the end of each episode sufficient suspense and curiosity about what will happen next to tune in on the following weak. This TV series in many ways incorporates the dramatic strengths of both the most spellbinding soap operas as well as the sweep of successful panoramic moviemaking. Each episode has its own director and is written by one or more of the team of nine writers. Somehow despite this shared responsibility ‘Breaking Bad’ comes across as a coherent, unified work that rarely disappoints. There is only one episode that seems negatively memorable in which the whole dramatic action consists of the pursuit of a hapless house fly that eludes capture, and is viewed by the expert on such matters as a dire threat to the purity of the crystal meth being produced in an underground elaborate lab.

 

            There is no doubt that the series creator, writer and director of some of the most riveting episodes in the series, Vince Gilligan, knows what he is doing (and came to ‘Breaking Bad’ with past credentials as a producer of another killer TV series, ‘The X-Files’), which is to interweave in compelling ways the complex inter-ethnic world of drug dealing in the American southwest with the humdrum nature of suburban living in Albuquerque, New Mexico: throughout, the ordinary is repeatedly trumped and undermined by extraordinary happenings in episode after episode as the perils, pleasures, and temper tantrums of Walter (Walt) White, the hero-villain’s life accumulate. In the process Walt’s struggle for survival is turned upside down, being transformed from an underachieving, overqualified high school chemistry teacher having trouble making ends meet to becoming all of a sudden a cash rich overachieving, under qualified supplier (in the harsh business of allocating and safeguarding drug markets) of crystal meth to local gangs linked to bigger drug cartels.

 

            Actually, Walt doesn’t exactly switch careers. He embarks on an elaborate double life, continuing to teach chemistry as his daytime job, a vocational calling, as well as employment, which he never abandons, and although distracted by the challenges of his drug life maintains an abiding concern for his students and exhibits talents as a teacher who knows his subject and how to convey it to young students. Eventually the strains of his secret life finally do take their toll, and Walt is forced by school administrators to take an extended leave of absence during the third season of the show. There is a certain ironic tension between his teaching routine in a high school setting and his use of sophisticated chemistry to produce the highest quality crystal meth available in the Albuquerque market, with an outreach that extends to the cutthroat operators south of the border. Although recourse to violence is characteristic of every major male character in ‘Breaking Bad’, the violence associated with the roles of the Hispanic characters in the series are by far the most sadistic, sustained, and extreme, and they are all given rather one-dimensional identities that leaves no room for sympathy or emotional complexity. A partial exception is the Aftican-American looking, but apparently Latino master dealer, Gustavo (‘Gus’) Fring, who is presented as the most sinister of all drug operatives, but possessing social skills that enable his to have a respectable public persona that embraces the material satisfaction of success in the market. We can only critically wonder why the darkest evil is reserved exclusively for ‘outsiders’ in America, the targets of a resurgent racism that is gospel for the rapidly expanding survivalist, anti-government militias active around the country and allied with such unsavory groups as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and extremist religious cults.

 

            There is no doubt that Walt White (brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston) is as intriguing a character as has ever flitted across my TV screen. Some critics have treated White merely as an acute casualty of a mid-life crisis, where the comforts of the bourgeois life are exchanged for the excitement of the drug underworld, with its violence, risk, double life, secrecy, and big payoffs, but this seems facile and almost willfully misleading. What gives White his fascinating edge is the fact that his ardent embrace of crime coincided with receiving a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, giving rise, among other things to a desperate need for large sums of money to pay the huge bills for medicines and treatment, as well as to the realization that his family will be destitute after his death. Beyond this there is exhibited a rare dramatic tension between the loveable and hateful sides of his character, which is further heightened by unpredictable mood swings and sudden eruptions of repressed violence. Walt conveys by brilliantly expressive facial expressions and adept mastery of body language a sense of deep torment that is at odds with his endearing qualities normalcy when he displays the other side of his personality that allows him to be a tender and sensitive father, husband, and friend. The storyline also offers a bit of caviar to tease those who fancy themselves gourmets of high culture. White, as drug dealer, is known on the local meth scene by the moniker, ‘Heisenberg,’ a cute play on the idea of ‘indeterminacy,’ (just who is White is tantalizingly elusive; and trope that is literalized when a lookalike is actually hired to confuse the police). As well, there are various bonding lines and visual sequences tat draw connections between Walt White and Walt Whitman, especially invoking Whitman’s celebrated poem, ‘Song of Myself.’ Names are clearly given some forethought by the series creator: it cannot be accidental that Walt is ‘White’ while Gus looks ‘black,’ possibly a color coded grading system for degrees of evil, mildly reminiscent of the circles of Hell in Dante’s ‘Inferno.’

 

            To my way of thinking, one of the great achievements of the series is the interplay between Walt and Jesse Pinkman (convincingly played by Aaron Paul). Jesse is an almost likeable young punk who takes many hard knocks, and has a kind of magnetic purity displayed as a result of his commitments to romantic love, kindness to animals, genuine empathy with young children victimized by their innocent involvement in the drug trade or their proximity to maelstroms of pure violence, and by his own childhood victimization at the hands of hatefully insensitive parents. There is left the impression that Jesse manages to survive, but barely, periodically wants a cleaner, safe life, but can’t quite muster the will to escape one and for all. He is at once too tender a person to flourish in the cutthroat world of hard-core drug business and yet too dependent and addicted to overcome his the interrelated entrapments of use and dealing. Jess is unlike Walt in many ways, more consistently emotional and romantic, less calculating, as much an addict as a supplier, a cultural casualty rather than a good citizen who goes awry by succumbing to the lure of the gigantic drug profit margins. Despite these differences, Walt and Jesse need one another, save each other’s lives, and are one of those memorable examples of ‘an odd couple’ that is forever inscribed in our consciousness.

 

            Throughout ‘Breaking Bad’ there are numerous implicit and explicit commentaries on the tawdry character of American life, replete with contradictions and complex filmic and cultural juxtapositions that link benign pretentious hypocrisies with lethal, violent realities that lie just beneath the surface. The relationship between law and crime is examined from many different angles, and it can be no accident, that the lead lawyer puts himself forward falsely as a Jew, Saul Goodman, when in fact he is a shabby abettor of criminality whose ethnicity in Irish, and presumably Catholic. It is almost a joking commentary on anti-Semitism that Saul would want to ‘pass’ as a Jew to foster an image of being the sort of lawyer who knows how to twist the law in whatever direction will help his shady clientele.

 

            The lies at the heart of Saul law practice is multiply signaled: a huge balloon version of the Statue of Liberty is attached to the roof above his office, the room where he meets and greets clients uses the text of the U.S. Constitution as wallpaper, and his professional interest in lawyering is to make use of law and lawyers for the sake of promoting crime and safeguarding criminals, and all for the sake of making some extra bucks. There is in the series a second more ‘honorable’ lawyer who is no more loveable, using his knowledge of the intricacies of law to further the cruelties of capitalism. Actually, doctors fare only slightly better than lawyers, offering treatments motivated more by their professional ambitions than a patient’s likelihood of cure, and in the spirit of Michael Moore’s ‘Sicko,’ making even the most urgent health care a slave of one’s bank balance. Implicit in ‘Breaking Bad’ is an indictment of the cultural ethos of capitalism, and its tendencies to commodify every aspect of life except family relations and intimate love, and even then there is tautness between doing well and doing good. There is an ironic note added here in the sub-text in which Hank Schrader, a kind of loser character who works as a middle level enforcer for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), loses his cool, brutally beats Jesse, is demoted and discredited, but helped to pay his medical bills by drug money given to his wife, Marie, and eventually rehabilitated. There is an important coded message here: everything interacts. There is no true separation between criminality and legality, and perhaps, never has been. Are we learning about human nature, the specifics of America, the degeneracy of 21st century modernity?

 

            “Breaking Bad’ also making a damning commentary on the failures of urban development in America. The city scenes amount to a sequence of snapshots of the ugliness and tastelessness of the society, the wasteland that developers and city planners have inflicted on society, signposts directing the citizenry toward alienation and escape. This aesthetic indictment also extends to the middle class home furnishings and decorations that are ever-present in the series as exhibits of cultural decline. Only the natural splendor of the desert and the museum housing the masterpieces of Georgia O’Keefe are put before us as contrasts to this general condition of ugliness and banality.   

 

            The TV series also takes a hard look taken at the hypocrisies that commingle with family values and community camaraderie. Walt is the main focus of attention, but is not alone, being portrayed as someone driven to crime, allegedly by a true and abiding love for his wife and children, and in return receives the unconditional love of his disabled son. He says over and over again that all that he cares about is his family, and this provides him with a mask of decency no matter how pervasively he falsifies his life. Walt faced with the prospect of his own assured death within a couple of years due to cancer and lacking the capacity to provide a decent future on the basis of legitimate work as a gifted high school chemistry teacher or as a helper in an auto repair shop turns to the lucrative work of ‘cooking’ high quality meth in large quantities. In effect, we are informed only a turn to crime can achieve what hard, honest work of a constructive nature cannot provide for most people living in 21st century America.

 

            The message within the message is that there is the scantest difference between Princeton graduates embarking on Wall Street careers with a clear conscience and those making their living from the drug trade, although the former is far less obviously violent and dangerous, but also contains fewer illusions about normalcy, decency, honesty, and morally and socially acceptable life styles. Another note of irony is that those most driven to success on the Wall Streets of the country often use coke to calm down. Of course, ‘Breaking Bad’ portrays those on the top of the drug trade as mimicking in dress and life style the paragons of business and societal virtue, further blurring the boundaries between criminality and legitimacy. Indeed, ‘Breaking Bad’ has a vivid relevance to the entire social space in Gilligan’s America as there seems to be no available option that encourages breaking good!

 

            Part of what makes Walt such a memorable character is his mercurial personality that contain unpredictable, yet plausible swerves and shifts, and is dramatically expressed by completely irrational and frightening out-of-control moments that he often apologizes for on the next day, and are counterpoised against ultra-rational mini-lectures on what line of action is wisest to take. For instance, at a silly poolside party (epitomizing what goes on in polite middle class Albuquerque) when for no apparent reason, Walt diabolically pressures his disabled teenage son, Walt Jr., to get disastrously drunk on tequila. He then gets furious when Hank, his DEA brother in law, Hank Schrader, in a good natured way interferes to prevent this patently improper father-son interaction from doing further self-inflicted damage to Walt. This disturbing incident is out of character for Walt as he normally treats his son with loving kindness.

 

            In another episode, Walt is stopped by a highway patrol officer while driving at a normal speed in the desert countryside. The policeman explains that Walt’s car was stopped because its windshield was shattered, making it unsafe and unlawful to drive. When the officer starts writing out a ticket for driving such a vehicle, Walt goes ballistic. He had earlier told the policeman that the damage to the windshield was caused by debris that fell from a fatal plane crash that had occurred in the city a few days earlier. The policeman responded by saying that it does not matter how the damage was done, that driving a car in this condition is against the law and deserves a ticket. Walt becomes wildly defiant, disobeys orders to stay in his car, yelling insults and obscenities at the officer, uncontrollably shouting he has ‘rights’ that are being denied. After being warned more than once, Walt is bloodied and taken into custody. The police like the drug enforcers seem to have no instruments of control other than when obedience to the norms fails, to have recourse to the excesses of violence. Hank, his DEA brother in law, comes to his rescue, intercedes to obtain Walt’s immediate release from prison. Once again the law, such as it is, takes a back seat to the corrupting play of personal relations. In both of these incidents Walt after the fact apologizes in a tone of solemnity, insisting that he was acting out of character, including vague intimations that his medical condition may have been indirectly responsible.

 

            There is an unusual structural feature throughout the series. There are several dyads or pairings of character. Walt and Skyler (his wife), Walt and Jesse, Walt and Gus, Walt and Hank (DEA), Skyler and her sister, Marie (also Hank’s wife), two lawyers, two drug enforcers, two child foot soldiers for neighborhood drug dealing. In various episodes either Walt and his wife or Walt and Jesse are placed at the center of the action. Skyler is the seemingly good woman and loyal wife, but also dipping her toes deeper and deeper into dirty water by covering up the crimes of her boss as well as indulging in a workplace romance with this sleazy character, and soon shifting from abhorrence about Walt’s meth money to a pragmatic use of such funds for the sake of family values, paying the medical bills of Hank. Nothing is as it seems, especially nothing that purports to be good is really good, except perhaps the sincerity of the biologically damaged Walt, Jr., who also at least flirts with indeterminacy by adopting the name ‘Flynn’ to alter his identity until he reverts to Walt, Jr., when his cherished father is banished from home by Skyler after she finally discovers that he has been lying to her for many months, maintaining a secret double life, and obtaining funds far beyond his salary by dealing in drugs, and not as he has insisted, through the generosity of (hated) rich friends who had actually made a fortune by stealing his ideas.

 

            As with any imagined fiction, from Shakespeare to Gilligan (and his team of nine writers) what engages an audience is the vividness of the characters and the suspense, illuminations, and hypnotic strangeness of the narrative. The message and cultural critique are secondary to these dramatic qualities, and definitely, ‘Breaking Bad’ holds our attention mainly by taking us on a wild roller coaster ride with its principal characters that envelops the viewers in the unfolding drama. The series brilliantly holds our attention, and doesn’t really need the scenes of extreme violence that are present in almost every episode– bloody beatings and killings with gory details, almost unwatchable brutality, but these are made to seem thematically integral, and punctuate with exclamation points the crude justice of both the underworld of drugs and the socially proper world of law, police, and business. There is even one grisly murder in which a stolen ATM machine is used as a weapon to crush a totally unsympathetic victim’s head. A symbolic eloquence is present in such a crime: the complex interplay of money, violence, and criminality is epitomized. Why? In some ways I believe that ‘Breaking Bad’ is itself a symptom of what it decries. It ‘entertains’ us by its exhibitions of extreme violence and criminality because anything less seems assumed not to engage sufficiently the modern public imagination, especially here in America where even the idea of minimal gun control proposed after a series of horrific domestic massacres is met with collective rage and derision. The gun lobby’s incredibly influential NGO, the NRA, tells us that there will be no ban on even assault weaponry while gun enthusiasts stock up such killing machines because they are fearful that a ban may be imposed, and this would be intolerable, for gun extremists by itself grounds to take up arms against the already hated government in Washington. Also, of course, AMC network and Sony Pictures Television are both providers of the ATM used for making ‘Breaking Bad’ at $3 million per episode, and reap the monetary benefits and prestige of the show’s deserved critical success.  

 

            In the end, the question posed for me by ‘Breaking Bad’ is whether moral, political, and societal authenticity is any longer possible given the overall present nature of American popular culture. The government is far from exempt from such criticism if account is taken of the heavy militarist and carbon American footprint throughout much of the world, and the damage done to young Americans sent off to die in wars of no meaningful consequences for the protection of the homeland. I am someone who has spent his entire life in this country, appreciating its freedoms and supportive of its various achievements of moral progress (for instance, the selection of an African-American to be its president), although long critical of the gap between its proclaimed values and behavior, especially in relations with the non-Western world.

 

            I find myself now for the first time contemplating the adoption of an  ‘expatriate consciousness.’ I interpret this temptation as an expression of political despair on my part, a giving up on the future of the country after eight decades of hope and struggle. It is not only discouragement with the failures of substantive democracy that leaves the 99% in a permanent condition of precarious limbo, while the supposedly ‘liberal’ leadership and citizenry seems to sleep well despite terrorizing distant foreign communities with drone violence inflicted for the supposed sake of our ‘security.’ It is also the increasing failures of procedural democracy, the chances offered to the public by elections and political parties, that makes me feel that the most I can hope for during my lifetime is ‘the lesser of evils,’ allowing me recently the pleasure of a sigh of relief that it was Obama not Romney who was elected in 2012. Yet this was an electoral campaign in which both sides refused to confront any of the deeper challenges confronting the country. Each side refused to take the presumed political risks of raising such issues as the predatory nature of neoliberal globalization, the ecological death trip of climate change, and the idiocy of ‘the long war’ with its global battlefield unleashed after the 9/11 attacks. I fully realize that I am transforming ‘Breaking Bad’ into a metaphor for my own malaise, and I am unsure how Vince Gilligan would react if confronted with such reactions. But does that matter? The autonomy of the viewer is as valid as the intentions of the creator!

 

            Whatever may be the intention of those who put the series together, I do think ‘Breaking Bad,’ whether deliberately or not, raises disturbing political and cultural questions, somewhat analogous to issues powerfully posed a generation ago by David Lynch in ‘Blue Velvet.’ This Lynch movie remains one of the great filmic chronicles of the underside of America that has become almost indistinguishable from the self-congratulatory America of patriotic parades and holiday speeches by politicians. This dark criminality that lurks just below the surface of polite society is air brushed out of our collective consciousness by the mega-escapism of spectacles, sports, celebrations of militarism, and a pacifying mainstream media. What I am saying, in effect, is that ‘Breaking Bad’ works fantastically well as entertainment, but that it is also a reliable journalistic source confirming the bad news about several uncontrolled wild fires burning up the country, and the world.