Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Another Kind of Nazi?

We have a ritual. On Monday night we watch The Wire while we eat dinner.

I have my own ritual. I watch it Monday while I eat lunch because I have no patience whatsoever. If it wasn’t on so late, I’d just stay up and watch it.

Last night when we sat down I told Kevin that I thought his opinion of one of the characters would be adjusted in this episode. Oh, I didn’t think he’d suddenly like the guy. I just thought he’d hate him less.

You see, The Wire is the kind of show that can make you love the “bad” guys. In season 1 I was hooked on D’Angelo Barksdale, a murderer and in line to inherit the Barksdale drug enterprise.

And I still am crazy about Omar, the gun-slinging killer who robs drug dealers.

But a new breed of dealers has been in town, courtesy of Marlo Stanfield, and his muscle is a new breed of muscle. A kind of calculated heartlessness. And every week, Kevin mutters about why those two haven’t been offed yet.

Well duh. Because everyone shits bricks when those two come around. You take a walk down an alley with them and you don’t come back.

One of the other storylines being developed this season centers around a boy. Young teenager. I’ve known for ages that this kid was sexually abused by his stepfather. It’s never been said but the character is played brilliantly. It is just the looks, the way he responds to being alone with men, that clue you in.

So, last week he was at his limit. Stepdaddy has come home, and he’s trying to assert control over the family. The kid isn’t quite big enough to give the ol’ man a whipping. He also doesn’t know how to trust people who seem to be nice.

Which is why he turned to Marlo Stanfield’s hitters. Specifically, Chris.

Now, we all know Chris is a killer. That’s pretty much all I’ve seen him do – that, and drive his boss around.

Last night, his job was to help Michael out with his problem. Felicia, or Snoop as she’s called, asks Michael, “What the fuck he ever do to you?”

Chris looks at Michael. And Michael looks at him, and not a word is said. Chris breaks it off and says it’s on.

And when he meets up with stepdaddy later, he asks him if he likes little boys before he beats the man to death, leaving him a bloody pulp in an alley.

You know, you have to have a certain respect for a character like that. Episode after episode Chris has gone around, killing someone. And usually it’s someone he knows. He and Snoop have a systematic approach that’s kept them from getting caught. They use a plastic drop sheet, usually make it one clean shot, in a vacant building where the bodies won’t be readily found.

Yeah, they’re smart. Cold. Calculated. Professional.

This is the first real time I’ve seen emotion from Chris. That I’ve seen proof of his ‘code’ or that he has one. It added a dimension to the character that I hadn’t seen before.

To me, that’s genius. I’d love to be able to develop something far enough that you can see both sides of a person. I swear, every end to a season leaves me with mixed feelings. I was upset at the end of season 1 when D’Angelo went to prison. I was upset season 2 when he was murdered. I cheered season 3 when another popular drug figure was killed. I’m still rooting for Omar.

I remember when I read my first hard-boiled novel – Simon Kernick’s The Business of Dying. I felt so guilty for liking someone who was so wrong. That’s exceptional characterization, in my opinion, because you haven’t made me warm up to someone likeable.

You’ve made me love someone I should loathe. Drug dealers and murderers. Humanizing the bad guys.

Now, I had been thinking about all of that, when I saw a bit of news. An odd bit of news. You’ve probably been wondering what this has to do with Nazi’s, right?

Well, an artist’s depiction of gingerbread Nazis has caused quite a stir, and he was ordered to remove them from the store window he did the display in. The artist said: "I can differentiate between real Nazis and that the atrocities they performed compared to these little gingerbread men, but I guess some people can't," said McGuckin, 50.

You know what? I feel like a complete hypocrite, because I can sit here thinking about brilliant characterization on The Wire, but in my opinion there are no two kinds of Nazis. They’re all evil.

There would have been more to be amused at if the gingerbread men had had horns, pitchforks and tails.

I actually really find the concept of this display offensive. I’m surprised that it stayed up as long as it did.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe I’m just a hypocrite, and as Patrick has pointed out, it’s better to be a sinner than a hypocrite.

I just find this concept repulsive. There are certain things that just represent evil in this world. Nazis. The Ku Klux Klan. And I hear about a display like this and think more about how it contributes to conditioning young minds. Nazis are suddenly cute. Did anyone read The Boys From Brazil> I did my grade 13 major essay and presentation based off of that book. That book scared the crap out of me.

And this is one case where I would be inclined to think that the artist has some responsibility. Perhaps if this was a painting in a gallery where adults would see it, I could accept the argument that he wants to make people think. But putting it on the window of a store in town where kids will see it? Why not make them stripping gingerbread men with breasts and genitals?

What’s your verdict? Am I a hypocrite? Do you agree or disagree about the display?


S. W. Vaughn said...


I think I need to watch The Wire some time.

I don't think you're a hypocrite. It's the same deal as the latest OJ debacle.

One of these days, people will associate my series with The Wire. Yes, I am living in dreamland. :-) I like it here.

Anonymous said...

Ah Oberlin, OH. Home of Oberlin College, a great music school. Naturally people there tend to be artsy, free thinkers. What they don't like however, is oppression and cruelty, as their opposition to the little Nazi men shows.

No, I don't think you're a hypocrite. If the guy had made caricatures of them, with the pitchforks, etc... it might have been different, but to make cookies that look like Nazis (as we must assume they did-I didn't see a photo)-somehow that's just wrong.

It's a big fuzzy grey area, but I think there is a difference between the gangsters on the street and Hitler's Nazis. Of course I'm not sure that either deserves to be glorified, but the Nazis definitely deserve to be condemned. norby

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call you a hypocrite, but I think displays like the one you described are important and valuable because of how uncomfortable they make us feel.

On the one hand, you have gingerbread men. What could be more benign? (Though, to be sure, I don't care for gingerbread.) Then you have Nazis. What could be more malignant?

But combine gingerbread and Nazis and what do you get? In my view, you get something that forces you to confront a very big truth -- the line between malign and benign, because good and evil, is often thin indeed. Read Erich Fromm on the banality of evil.

I tend to applaud artists who challenge us on this level, and I am always disappoint when some scold comes along and says "This is across the line," because I see it as a missed opportunity to challenge ourselves on a very profound level. Right now, Nazi gingerbread men, in effect, run the White House. I'll get dunned for calling Bush and crew Nazis, but that's just another way of not confronting ugly truths. A man can wrap himself in a flag, invoke Jesus, and still be evil. And a cookie is just a cookie, no matter how it's decorated.

Sandra Ruttan said...

SW, you must watch The Wire. Seriously, you'll love it. It's brilliant. Rent season 1 on DVD. I've learned so much about writing and characterization and dialogue watching The Wire.

As for OJ, argh. Yes, I'm guilty of judging the man.

Norby, how wonderfully hypocritical of the artsy types who don't like oppression and cruelty. Of course, I do agree with you, about the difference between Nazis and 'gangsters'.

I think one of the reasons I like The Wire is that it really doesn't glorify the life. If you watch season 1, you'll see why I loved D'Angelo.

Bill, that's a fascinating perspective. But I couldn't get past the fact that you don't care for gingerbread. How can any brother of mine not like gingerbread? The world is on her ass. :(

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry. For the record, I do find gingerbread perfectly fine for building houses or crafting little evil men.

Sela Carsen said...

I'm thinking you're right. Despite the increasing fuzziness of the line, no matter how thin it may be sometimes, there are still some things that are Right and some things that are Wrong. Calling it art doesn't change that.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I also love rice krispie houses Bill.

Next you'll be telling me you don't like pumpkin pie...

Sela, it seems we are, for the most part here, all in agreement. I don't feel so bad anymore.

Anonymous said...

I must be evil too, then. As soon as I see Right and Wrong declared with capital letters, I get suspicious. Says who? think I. But then I'm not one who believe in absolutes. Yes, I agree the Nazis were evil, but I also believe the difference between a saint and Nazi is often very slim. And in the end, I believe that absolute declarations of Right and Wrong, no matter how well-intentioned, are more likely to produce Nazis than saints. But maybe I'm wrong. Still, I support the existence and presentation of the Gingerbread Nazis, not because I like them, but because free expression is critical in the unending battle against oppression. I will fight to the death to defend the right of artists to create even the most distasteful art. I'm not afraid of the art, but I'm deathly afraid of the suppression of it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Although, in this case, if you hire someone to decorate your store window and you have an issue with it, then I think you're well within your rights to have it taken down. It's the nature of the job. I understood the guy was hired to do Christmas window art, and there's a big difference between that and 'freedom of expression'. It's like ghost writing. Fuck your freedom of expression - you're writing the book you're told to write.... Right?

Anonymous said...

Well, in the end, yeah, anyone gets to put what they want in their window. Sure.

I was speaking in a big picture sense. Nazi cookies as empirically Wrong, which is the vibe I'm getting. This is a story because it was Nazi cookies, not because the artist put something in the owner didn't want. If it had been bunnies (say the owner had bunniphobia), this wouldn't make it onto anyone's radar screens. It's the Nazi that has folks worked up.

So then it becomes, well it's Wrong because it's Nazis, and calling it "art" doesn't make it Right. As if such absolutes actually existed.

Here's the thing. Nazi cookies aren't Wrong. They're just cookies. They make people feel uncomfortable, but why? I might argue because it reminds us of how close the darkness really is inside us. Which, I would suggest, makes it all the more important for us to face it.

Meanwhile, this brings up another point. How commercial interests control and often suppress free expression. Eventually, I suspect, we're going to reach a point where nothing is said except "buy this, buy that" because everything will be owned by commercial interests or government interests beholden to commercial interests.

The store window is, perhaps, a microcosm of the commons themselves, now virtually gone and perhaps soon truly gone. Yet, in the end, yeah, the window owner gets to what's in the window. We'd all want that for our windows.

Anonymous said...

I hate gingerbread, but not as much as I hate Nazis. Placing limits on free speech makes me all sweaty and uncomfortable, though.

Most people practice self-censorship (consciously or not) every day. There are certain things you just know you should not say. Unless you're Michael Richards, Mel Gibson or that racist jerk-off who lives down the street.

Anyway, there is a certain amount of personal responsibility that has to come with free speech. Common sense should tell anybody that a store window full of fascist cookie men will upset a fair number of their fellow citizen.

Should the this guy get in trouble for the display? Absolutely not.

Should everyone who was disturbed by the display tell him he's a jackass? Absolutely.

Sandra Ruttan said...

See, very interesting perspectives Bill and Patrick.

Now, when it comes to self censorship, how does that work for you guys? Bill, you know the scene in your book that everyone talks about - we don't need to discuss that, but did you ever feel pressure to take it out?

Patrick, I think you've split hairs nicely.

Sela Carsen said...

Bill, you're right. Nazi cookies are still just cookies. No big deal. But by saying "Oh, they're just cookies, aren't they cute?" there's an underlying acceptance of depicting a whole lotta evil as cute, given the right circumstances. As long as it's only cookies, as long as it's only little kids dressing up like Nazis for Halloween, as long as it's only a university club, it's cute.

Ok, I hate the slippery slide as much as anyone, but at what point do you look at something in its artistic infancy and say, "That's just not cute anymore."

John McFetridge said...

I think it would be impossible to live with your eyes open and not be a hypocrite sometimes. The world is just too weird.

And Bill's right, free speech won't be killed by fascists, it'll be killed by capitalists (if there's any difference...) because we don't really value free speech. We only talk about it in theory and find too many exemptions.

Someday soon everything in the world will be "owned" by someone, some private company with leaders no one elects. What The Wire shows, really well, (you're right Sandra, it's terrific), is what a real "free" market looks like.

Sela Carsen said...

But, for what it's worth, when I read the article I have to admit that I found the idea of the suicidal snowman under the hairdryer absolutely hilarious!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Okay, to add to my hypocrisy, when Prince Harry dressed up as a Nazi I thought the outrage was overdone. Only because it was a costume party - I mean, what could be more evil than to dress up as a Nazi or a republican for Halloween? ;)

But knowing that there are still people who shudder with fear when they hear a knock on the door because they lived through those atrocities...

A few of my close friends are Jewish and I have a hard time with it. I won't deny that. I've also been to Dachau and Bergen Belsen. In fact, some of my German friends would be the ones to oppose this most strenuously, because they know how getting on a slippery slope led to going downhill.

John, interesting points as well. I fear the day we're all owned.

I'll probably be sold for spare parts.

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with Patrick, but I wonder if calling the guy a jackass is likely to be that productive. What if, instead, people said, "Hey, why Nazi cookies, dude?" and then really, truly listened to the answer.

Maybe the guy actually IS a jackass. But maybe there's something deeper at work there, something we could learn from if we were able to turn off our automatic taboo against distasteful art and instead engage it.

As for self-censorship, I suspect much of it happens on an unconscious level. I try not to censor myself, but who knows. In regards to that scene, well, if someone said it had to go, I'd say no. It's foundational to the entire story. I'm not against cutting, of course, especially redundancies, irrelevancies, etc. But what's the point in writing, or creating any kind of art, if we limit ourselves out of some kind of externally imposed sense of propriety?

I may offend some people, and that's not my intent. The stuff I write isn't for everyone. Rated R, for sure. I would simply ask that anyone troubled by the lurid not read, but I'm not going to apologize for telling the story I have to tell.

I'm starting to think about a story featuring Nazi gingerbread cookies...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, the snowman is funny.

Bill, I think you should write that story for the KY blog a as a Christmas send-off.

Or then again, perhaps the group would vote against it. ;)

Anonymous said...

Nazi gingerbread men being pulled from the ovens.

That is delicious irony.

I like art that makes me uncomfortable. You want nice, look at a Monet.

And unlike the kid's Halloween costume, if you don't like these Nazis you can always bite their little heads off. Sweet.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I like The Group of 7.

My husband likes Salvadore Dahli. His stuff is like a fucking mindbender. I could spend hours wondering what the hell he's getting at with some of it. That's not a criticism - I like that sort of layered approach with deeper meanings.

Just don't analyze it when you're drinking.

And I can appreciate that irony, David. Another good point.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

I'm with Bill on this one. In the end, regardless of the thoughts they inspire or the revulsion they create in a person, they're just cookies.

I like art that confronts, that forces people to react and, hopefully, think about what they're reacting to. I'm less worried that the gingerbread Nazis were pulled from the display and more worried that people can get riled up over baked goods more than they can about the fascism that doesn't wear a uniform they've grown to recognize.

"Nazi" has become a convenient epithet, a general category of demon that gets pulled out at the slightest provocation. People get upset that the cookies depict Nazis because Nazis are BAD. No other thought is required. And that's dangerous.

Stereotypes of evil are great for hiding the evil that doesn't fit the mold. As Bill says above, "A man can wrap himself in a flag, invoke Jesus, and still be evil." But if he's not jumping up and down screaming "I'm evil," a lot of of people aren't going to catch on to it because, well, it doesn't look like what they've come to expect. Nazis are easy.

I don't think you're being a hypocrite. I think that's pretty extreme. There's a test on philosophersnet.com that is designed to test the consistency between various beliefs that you have. It doesn't judge one way or another on the beliefs, it just calls out those that contradict each other. The test can be found at http://www.philosophersnet.com/games/check.htm by the way.

It's by no means empirical, and I don't necessarily agree with some of it, but it does demonstrate how people can believe in multiple, contradictory philosophies. The vast majority of people are not consistent. You can have a problem with Nazis being depicted in cookie form, but not think it's as bad as British royalty dressing up as a Nazi officer.

Anonymous said...

Stephen, it appears I'm in a quoting frame of mind today. I left a little Hamlet dropping at Jen Jordan's place and now you inspire me to bring Whitman into this:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

I love that.

Sandra Ruttan said...

As long as Hamlet isn't your pet dog it's probably okay David. ;)

Lisa Hunter said...

Hmm. The artist is getting an awful lot of buzz from this little publicity stunt... er, expression of free speech.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Gasp! You aren't suggesting the artist wanted people to get upset, are you? ;)

Daniel Hatadi said...

Nazi gingerbread men are a safe thing to be offended by. It's easy to complain about, and even easier to stop.

There are far more offensive things happening in the world that most people wouldn't even contemplate trying to stop: it's just too frightening.

What's offended me of late is the conversion of reputable Australian newspapers into trashy celebrity mags. It's like nothing is valid until there's a large amount of money or good looking people attached to it.

*grumble, grumble, need more coffee*

Evil Kev said...

I think the right to free speech has been eroded a great deal by the political correctness and a fear of offending anyone. The measure in law is how a "reasonable man" would act or respond in a situation. Now it is how the most over-sensitive person would respond. Freedom of speech can cause discomfort, but a different opinion should not be censored.

But at the same time, I think to often the same people who invoke the free speech defense too often abuse it. Freedoms are not free, but have costs and responsibilities. All freedoms are based off the principle of fundamental respect for other people and the tolerance to allow them to live without persecution.

I can not stand on the street yelling racist remarks and claim free speech. My actions violate the greater principle.

As far as the cookies go, they are just cookies. But by the same token, why Nazis? This is a powerful symbol that almost everyone recognizes. To inflame and call it free speech is a very dangerous thing, Ask the cartoonists who created those cartoons that defiled Muhammad. Their free speech cost some people their lives.

When an artist chooses an inflammatory topic, I feel they must defend their choice and why that choice was the only valid one they could use to make their point. Why not CIA cookies or North Korean Leader cookies? A freedom as noble as free speech should never be used as a publicity stunt.

Vincent said...

There's a big 'debate' (or so the media would have us believe) going on in the UK at the moment about the use of religious symbols - a Muslim teaching assistant was suspended for wearing the veil, a British Airways employee was suspended for openly wearing the cross.

I agree with Bill in that right and wrong, good and evil is never a clear cut distinction, but the curious thing for me is how symbols are given such significance.

Nazi uniforms didn't attempt genocide, the people inside them did, people very much like those who attempted genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur. Yet this symbol and others are attached with such significance that their expression is at risk of becoming as much of a media issue as the behaviours and ideologies they're associated with.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for the great synopsis of the Wire. I really need to watch it in closed caption to catch all the nuance and plot but my husband says it ruins it for him. This caught me right up.

Lisa Hunter said...

I find it harder to believe that the gingerbread men are Art than that it's a stunt to get the artist a lot of press.

A screenwriter friend in Toronto observed that documentaries about Nazis and chick flicks about weddings are always successful at the box office. He jokingly suggests he should write the synthesis -- "Hitler's Wedding." But even HE isn't that cynical.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Patti, that's why I watch The Wire twice. And there's enough there to warrant it!

Lisa, Hitler's Wedding? LOL! Sorry, but that's just too funny.

Yeah, I lean to your side on this - publicity stunt.