Balancing The Noir Shadow In US Culture

Following a decade of military invasion and occupation in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, the United States is becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of empires: “We get no respect!”

The undisputed post-World War Two top dog in the world, on virtually every front the United States is more and more playing catch-up with two-faced, Clintonian shuttle diplomacy around the world and a well-entrenched regime of secrecy and sophisticated public relations aimed at keeping the dismal story of decline out of the domestic mind-space.

Economic realities dictate that the US government ratchet down its exorbitant military from the strutting days of Colin Powell’s two-front shock-and-awe doctrine to a leaner doctrine centered on highly mobile, focused assassinations. Instead of bombing cities and structures like a boxer who batters the body, we now go for quick, well-placed head shots, especially to the key, sensitive areas of the brain that provide inspiration and leadership to the movements we deem threatening to our declining future.

US citizens are absorbing this accelerating imperial decline without being informed that’s what’s going on. The myth of exceptionalism must be kept alive and the donut hole of our global empire — the American homeland where we all work and raise our families — must carry the burden of sacrifice.

The imperial system isn’t working like it used to; and much of it is being held together by political fantasy. What else can explain the incredible degree of unreality and nonsense more and more at the core of American politics? As the secrecy rises, formal bullshit, as defined by Harry Frankfurt, has become an American language.

Democrats are accomplished with it, but for the masters of bullshit you have to witness the current preposterous level of argument and thinking among the presidential candidates in the Republican Party. There’s no presumption of even a grip on reality; it’s a struggle for power and nothing else — with the mainstream media keeping score.

We Live in a Noir World

As part of a personal study, I recently watched two classic RKO noir films from 1947 – Out Of The Past and Born To Kill, the former very famous and the latter more obscure. The sensibility of these black and white films seems perfectly in synch with the incredibly corrupt times we live in.

(Noir means black in French. The symbolism of blackness as evil goes way back in white, European culture, so unfortunately noir imagery as used here does collide today with the desire to be racially neutral. Human symbolism is complex; for example, in places like Haiti, funeral hearses are often white.)

The Nagasaki bomb and Robert Mitchum in Out Of The PastThe Nagasaki bomb and Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past

In his book Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City, Nicholas Christopher suggests the late 40s and 50s noir films were mining and expressing the deep-seated anxiety – the “collective shudder” – of a culture on the threshold of the post-Hiroshima atomic age that had not yet fully sorted out the demons of the Great Depression.

“The war ends but there is no closure,” Christopher writes. “Forces are unleashed. Organized crime, street violence, political corruption, poverty. … GIs returning to the United States from Europe and the Pacific carry, not microbes, but lethal infirmities of the mind and spirit after four years of living day in day out with brutality and violent death, and surviving a war in which 1,700 cities and townships were destroyed and 35 million people were killed.”

No society can just turn off this kind of “black energy,” which is the fertile ground and dramatic fodder of all fictional and film noir — popular art that taps into Jung’s notion of the Shadow. Jungian Robert A. Johnson defines the Shadow as the flip side of the Ego/Persona that we present to the outside world. The Shadow is the “refused and unacceptable characteristics … that collect in the dark corners of our personality.” This Shadow, Johnson says, “often has an energy potential nearly as great as that of our ego.”

Freud talks about the “seducing influence” of war on people and culture. This is connected to his ideas on the death instinct and Thanatos. When a society finds itself overwhelmed with this kind of black energy, he suggests, it slides toward moral bankruptcy. At this juncture, “[T]here is an end of all suppression of the baser passions, and men perpetuate deeds of cruelty, fraud and treachery, and barbarity.”

Christopher again:

“Between the economic poles of opulence and squalor, and the overlapping social codes of rapacious laissez-faire capitalism and organized crime, the indelible motto of the postwar American city in the so-called boom years becomes ‘Anything Goes.’ ” And key to the noir sensibility, “Power’s inescapable twin is violence.”

Lawrence Tierney plotting and the self-expression of an Israeli soldierLawrence Tierney plotting and the self-expression of an Israeli soldier

This is the shadow world of films like Born To Kill, a tightly-scripted tale about a small-time sociopath trying to make it in post-WWII America. Real-life tough-guy Lawrence Tierney easily charms women with his confidence and feels perfectly justified in killing whenever someone tries to “cut him out” of something he feels belongs to him. Despite the title, how much of this predator’s struggle for money and power is nature and how much is nurture is not an issue; the point is his focus and determination to get what he wants. As the deadly dame in the picture, Claire Trevor is his match as an amoral schemer.

Director Robert Wise keeps the film on an even, amoral keel. There is none of the salaciousness found in current films about sociopaths that separates us from them; in this film, the Tierney character is one of us. Hollywood code at the time required Wise to have the character blown away at the end, but in today’s moral climate, with a little more education, some political or financial savvy and rich backers, such a character could be governor of Texas or even in the White House with killer drones at his beck and call. Or he could be at the top of the Wall Street finance game fleecing working American schmucks of their life savings.

Born To Kill was made, and presumably takes place, in 1947, the year I was born as the middle child of a man with a PhD in physiology who spent three years skippering a PT boat in the south Pacific. On his return to domestic life, he had to re-acquaint himself with his pretty young wife, my mother. The equivalent of PTSD was a dirty little secret then. During that marital re-adjustment period I was conceived and born as part of the great baby boom.

As I approach my 65th year and look around at the world my father’s much venerated generation handed down and that my generation is passing on to the next, the levels of corruption and “black energy” have never seemed greater. Jungian cultural shadows loom everywhere. And as Johnson points out, “culture is an artificial imposed structure.” One culture’s Persona may be another’s Shadow and vice-versa. “The shadow of one culture is a tinderbox of trouble for another.”

In this kind of harsh and violent shadow world, power trumps everything. Economically squeezed, those who have power desperately want to hold onto it, while those who don’t have it feel the absence of it more acutely than ever. “Anything goes” prevails on both ends of the vertical continuum — in ghetto drug gangs and in Wall Street board rooms.

The rule is: Do what you have to do but don’t get caught. And don’t give an honest answer when you can bullshit your way out or into some position of advantage. The poster boy for this may be Countrywide Bank’s CEA Angelo Mozilo who got a slap on the wrist after fleecing millions of hard working Americans. The Lawrence Tierney character from 1947’s Born To Kill would have understood Mozilo perfectly.

Our Amoral Noir Military Policy

After eight years of unnecessary war and occupation initiated by the Bush administration, we’re told our military is finally leaving Iraq. Why? Because the Iraqi government refused to any longer give our soldiers immunity from Iraqi laws. Oil companies like Halliburton will remain and their executives will stay in secured, spartan little hotel rooms made from CHUs, or containerized housing units, on a former US base. Americans are not supposed to notice that the Shiite government our bank-busting invasion and occupation of Iraq left in power is virtually an ally of our worst enemy, Iran. To quote Rick Perry, “Oops!”

In Afghanistan, the Afghan people and the Hamid Karzai puppet government we installed to rule them are both adamant we must cease the special ops night raids that have doubled in the past year to an average of ten-a-night. (Research by the Open Society Foundation suggests it’s more like an average of 19-a-night.) These raids – by Army Delta Forces, Navy Seal units and CIA operatives — amount to sophisticated teams of assassins dropped by helicopter at night into communities, followed by harsh, adrenaline-rush, “fear up” cursing and the kicking in of doors and the killing or capture of a target. Sometimes they get their man; sometimes they get the wrong man and/or kill innocents in the process.

Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi told The New York Times the night raids must stop. “People are becoming more and more against the international presence in Afghanistan.” Since this tactic is now the core of our US military doctrine, our military is determined not to give it up. Afghan outrage has little credence. Meanwhile — surprise! — the Taliban and other insurgent elements are increasing their assassination campaigns. Plus, Hamid Karzai is supporting a rule that says a raped woman must marry her rapist to preserve her honor.

A reasonable person might say it’s time to cut our losses and remove our military from Afghanistan.

But then there’s Pakistan, an even deeper leap into the darkness. Pakistan is a nation the US is presumably allied with, but if the recent bombing of a Pakistani base on the Afghan border that killed 24 soldiers is any indication we may now virtually be at war with Pakistan. The Pentagon says it’s investigating the incident. The Pakistanis, on their part, are furious and say their base on the Afghan border was attacked by US forces and a two-hour firefight ensued that ended with the calling in of a massive US air strikes on the base.

Reportedly following Pentagon advise, President Obama has refused to formally apologize for killing the 24 Pakistani soldiers. He spoke by phone with Pakistani President Asif Zardari, and the conversation seems to have gone something like this:

“Asif, I want to extend my condolences and let you know I’m still not sorry for attacking your base and killing those soldiers. That would make my re-election more difficult. But, hey, let’s keep in touch.”

While the US is keeping details secret and projecting the appropriate public relations, the question is, did US special operations forces who feel it’s their right to enter Pakistan at will let loose on a Pakistani military base put on the border precisely to curtail such US interdictions into Pakistan? US military “investigations” of such incidents in the past have not been very credible. Something smells, here, and the world would benefit from a WikiLeaks revelation of the secret cables.

Our leaders are still trying to get a grip on the inexorable rise of Muslim political power in places like Egypt, where the moderate Muslim Brotherhood won 40 percent of a recent vote and extreme Salafis elements won 25 percent. Muslims have also prevailed in Tunisia and Morocco, as well as in Libya. And Turkey’s moderate Muslim government, considered a model in the Middle East, is riding a booming economy and looking less toward Europe and NATO.

Very much aware of this rapidly changing reality, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has read Israel the riot act. “Get to the damn table,” he told them, referring to negotiations with Palestinians. But like reactionary forces here in the US, the Israeli, pro-settlement right seems to be doing everything it can to circle the wagons around its disastrous settlement policy.

Finally, if there’s anything that smells of corrupt “black energy,” it’s the US Drug War. The Times reports a trend of police officers being fired for questioning the wisdom of the Drug War. It also reports that US drug warriors are actually laundering drug money for the cartels – to catch them! They pulled off a similar scam earlier by selling a gang AK47s that were then used to kill a US DEA agent. The whole 40-year effort is an example of a bad idea that has festered and led to a state of baroque violence in northern Mexico. The Drug War is a case of Too Big To Fail gone mad that makes the noir world of the 40s and 50s look like child’s play.

No one in the US government from either party seems to have the necessary profile in courage – the cojones — to step up and say “the old ways aren’t working and it’s time for radical change.” This state of corrupt stagnancy is, of course, why the Occupy Movement has gotten the legs it has.

The alternatives are out there. There are plenty of good people working their hearts and souls out on localization and green solutions; smart diplomatic and police/military alternatives exist that would make occupations, special ops night raids and drone killings unnecessary; decriminalization and harm reduction programs based on a social and medical model exist that would be much more effective, would cost taxpayers less and be less bloody than the military and police regime of the Drug War; and we could begin to be honest with ourselves about our history, starting with an understanding why Iran hates Britain and the US so much.

All it takes is the will to rework the Myth of American Exceptionalism into a New American Reality that’s humbler, smarter and less addicted to the secret shadow world. It’s a matter of re-balancing the culture by backing away from the dark death-grip of Thanatos and allowing in more of the light, creative side of its counterpart Eros, the life impulse.

Fashions may have changed and the film noir trench coat may be a thing of the past, but the same collective shudder that motivated the classic noir films of the late 40s and 50s is afoot today in our world — and its even darker now.

Culture is artificial, and it’s time to forcefully shine more light into this shadowy, noir culture we’ve made.