Facilitate the power of love - confront the love of power

Sat, 24 Apr 2004

Davids and Goliaths

Each day throws up some more or less in your face example of domination. Yesterday there were several. One was self-induced. For a year or more I had had a DVD of King Kong, a film I had seen a couple of times, but of which as it turned out I remembered very little, except the grotesque distortion of our ideas about gorillas. And second, out of the net appeared a picture (with news of more) that matched those from alJazeera of dead children in a day or two back, the interior of a plane bringing back US soldiers killed in Iraq. And there was this picture of Palestinian youths throwing stones at an Israeli bulldozer coupled with an article about the effects of the use of hugely disproportionate force. More on that later. And Falluja again, grief stricken relatives in an improvised cemetery.

Theme for today Damage. The damage that cultures of dominance generate and that dominant elites work to keep hidden, not least from themselves.

Damage comes in several varieties and flavors. There is the physical damage of loss of life and injuries. There is the damage of denial, the need for dominant elites to maintain and refuel the stories that rationalize their behavior as OK and even the epitomy of civilization; there is the damage of victimization, of being forced into subordination and subjection which generates its own stories and we might suppose includes the enervating need to maintain an essential form of denial, resistance, of refusing the dominant wish for compliance and obedience. There is another deep and pervasive layer of damage that rolls across generations, the traumatizing of the young, the very young, and the unborn.

Before I go on I want to acknowledge another closer to home form of damage that surfaces when the temptation to launch into a rant against the more obviously brutal and crass tyrannical exponents of full spectrum dominance arises, which I feel fairly often these days. Satisfying but not necessarily illuminating. Dangerous because it can support the false promise that we can somehow be outside all of this. And so we might deny the probability that, at some times, in some places, with some people, we are all highly likely to be acting as a dominant elite. And even if we become refuseniks, we will still be seen as such by some people. However in an inquiry such as this, awareness of our own heavy-handedness can a valuable lens through which to better see the damage that industrial strength dominance inflicts.

I'll return to King Kong but first Iraq. One of the components of the dominance trance inductions of the present US administration that evoke 'freedom', 'security', 'terrorist' and so on has been the suppression, since the Gulf War of media access to photos of the 'remains' of US soldiers killed in Iraq (I was going to say 'fallen' but that is one of the euphemisms that keep the denial of damage in place). The release this week of pictures that break that taboo brings into focus the denial/splitting that suppressing them was intended to support—that damage be kept out of sight, out of the national consciousness. Pictures of actual damage if they escape trance central control can be trance-breaking. Will the US media collude with the Pentagon, who realizing their error in releasing 300 pictures of the dead arriving at the dover Air force base tried to suppress them? As of this moment, apart from a single picture in the Seattle Times I haven't been able to find any of them. Though a little goes a long way, as you'll see if you open the image.

So—A guiding rule of dominant elites is that evidence of damage resulting from the pursuit of their interests that might be trance-breaking must be denied, hidden, or blamed on the victims. Self-censorship is one of the ways we do it, another is through the euphemistic naming that I referred to above. (and to which I will return another day). This process, even if we are persuaded that we are some kind of Top Gun, is itself damaging since we are denying to ourselves feeling the pain of others suffering. Such denial has its price in terms of depression and other symptoms of denied emotionality. As Daniel N. Nelson spells out, the price also commonly includes defeat:
'defeat comes through arrogance. Capacity-driven behaviors are preceded by an assumption that power is deserved, and that deserved power embodies one with a mission to use such capacities for a greater goal. Such a missionary vocation is irrevocably intertwined with hubris - the conceit of power. Yet such arrogance conceals fundamental weakness. Every utterance of arrogant power generates fear, alienation and, ultimately, the development of countervailing and often asymmetric force. With each deception or evidently cosmetic spin, the power of trust and the legitimacy of just force wither'.

And it perhaps goes without saying that to be the object of coercion, exploitation, and discrimination is damaging. The persistent denial of rights, of actual violence, or painful punishment if we don't comply with demands erodes self-esteem and builds the victim trance—which it occurs to me as I write, is the intention of much of a dominant elite's actions— submissive compliance i.e. don't even think those out-of-the-box thoughts.

Resistance and dissent
Just because enslaved populations submit to superior force doesn't mean that there are not many among them who are awake to the trance inductions that are literally targeted at them, and who see through them. This generates a dissenting position, where we may from time to time get caught up in either victim or dominance positions but aren't believers. The special form of damage that standing aside from the herd, from the collective trance entails is at least self-chosen, it takes the form of enlivened feelings. Feeling the tension between the stories that dominant elites tell and the facts on the ground. Feeling empathically the pain of other's oppression and not infrequently, feeling the pain of not being able to interrupt or influence much of what we find objectionable.

The illogic and irrationality of the use of overwhelming force in acts of retribution or revenge continues in both Iraq and Palestine. The Falluja siege continues as I write, with denial on the part of the US military that the hundreds of civilian dead could be due to their fire-power and evidence that the main hospital housed US snipers. Falluja feels like an archetypal version of Israeli-style confrontation that fights fire with fire. The Israeli suppression of Palestinian resistance at Beit Lahia on the Gaza-Israeli border and especially this image from yesterday's London Guardian of Palestinian youths stoning a huge bull-dozer also seems to me to carry the psychic quality of the dynamic of powerless and oppressor that the Israeli colonization of Palestine daily reinforces. A footnote to the events in Beit Lahia Ewen MacAskill's report mentions that:
'During the fighting, behind a screen of tanks and soldiers, Israeli bulldozers destroyed, apparently as a punitive action, a sewage works built for the Palestinians by the Swedish international development agency. An hour before leaving yesterday morning the Israeli army blew up a police training centre and a newly completed - but never used - school for disabled children'

Having visited places like Dachau and KD Mauthausen, near Linz in Austria, where so many Jews were tormented and murdered, I feel a deep sadness that, faced with threats to the viability of the Israeli state carved out by force by the colonization of Palestine, the Israelis can do no better than mimic in so many ways the methods of their former persecutors.

King Kong
King Kong might seem to sit uneasily with this real world pain and yet not so. While it would serve a PhD culture-miner very well, I wanted to check out its portrayal of 'gorilla' characteristics, horrible in several senses. I had seen this film a couple of times in the past but discovered that I had very little recall of it. What concerns us here is less the filmic values, which for the time, 1933, must have seemed astonishing, more the whole film as an unconscious celebration of dominance.

The plot
Carl Denham a filmmaker persuades a New York ship's captain to take him and his camera and a stock of gas bombs to a secret location for his new film. His notoriety prevents him from being able to hire a female star, so he picks up and hires Anne Darrow, a homeless starving woman on the streets of New York. The island turns out to be inhabited by 'savages' who, when the Denham and the ships crew show up, are preparing the sacrifice of a young women. The savages steal Denham's star instead and Darrow is carried off by Kong, a huge gorilla-like creature, that lives in the primeval forest behind an enormous wall across the island.

Kong disappears carrying the terrified Darrow with Denham and helpers in close pursuit of his joint assets. Throughout encounters with several prehistoric monsters, Kong cares gently for his captured sacrifice, but kills all the human pursuers except Carl Denham, and the ship's mate, John Driscol, who against all his macho inclinations, has become romantically attached to the female star. They find Kong and the unharmed Darrow resting on a mountain ledge. While Kong is distracted fighting a pterodactyl, Driscol rescues the girl and they head back to the ship. Kong chases them, breaking through the protective wall, and eventually reaching the beach, where Denham's gas bombs stun Kong.

The scene moves to New York where an audience of gliterati are gathered in a huge theater for the exhibition of Denhams 'Eight Wonder of the World'. The curtain rises on Kong, fastened like a laboratory animal in a huge frame. Carl Denham introduces his star and her husband-to-be rescuer to the audience but press photographers flash bulbs startle and enrage Kong. He frees himself, breaks out through the wall of the theater and climbs up a building in search of his lost beauty, eventually locating her in a room with her rescuer. Kong retrieves Darrow, and with her clasped in his hand, climbs up a high building which turns out to be New York's Empire State building. Panicking police authorities call for fighter aircraft to kill Kong, and after some exchanges they succeed. Having previously set down Darrow gently, Kong falls to the earth and the star is safely re-united with her husband to be.

I guess there have been many commentaries on this film. Psychologically it looks like a replay of the myth that our inner psychic worlds are dangerous territories featuring wall to wall savagery and thus very risky to enter. More important for the task of g.o.r.i.l.l.a. is a political perspective; what does King Kong reveal about power?

It's not hard to find, domination shapes every frame. Carl Denham manipulates and coerces the ship's captain into joining him in a risky exploit that requires gas bombs at a secret location. When theatrical agents refuse to supply a female star for the film Denham picks up a vulnerable woman who is stealing because she is hungry.

Carl Denham, and his 'crew', all men except for the female star, voyage to somewhere near Sumatra and descend in full colonial style with camera and guns on a remote island intent on capturing one of its spectacular assets on film. The film maker's talk is peppered with male bravado lines that betray their ignorance and insensitivity. The island wilderness and its 'savage' primitive society is treated as ripe for harvesting/exploitation. Nature, in the shape of Kong, a gorilla-like creature as big as a building, plus a selection of prehistoric animals, is seen as brutal, a series of fights to the death. The overwhelming physical strength of Kong is matched by the overwhelming technical strength of the 'gas bombs' that the filmmaker uses to subdue it. Kong is gassed and captured. Instead of his intended film, the filmmaker brings back to civilization a 'piece of nature' to entertain the dominant elite of New York, bejeweled, dinner-jacketed top-hatted city-dwellers. Impresario Denham introduces Kong with these words:
'He was a king and a god in a world he knew. Now he comes to civilization merely a captive, a show to gratify your curiosity'.
When Kong breaks out of his imprisonment, aircraft and machine guns, further examples of the reassuringly superior and overwhleming forces of civilization, are brought to bear and Kong falls to his death from New York's Empire State building. This in itself seems an ironic choice that underlines the unaware thread of imperial, colonial domination throughout the film.

For me King Kong echoes uncannily present-time events on the ground. It is a treatise, a primer on the internal dynamics of the myth of domination as natural and inevitable: that the use of overwhelming force, exploitation, coercion and imprisonment are OK because we possess the means to effect them; the notion that nature is a resource to be harvested; that civilization is outside nature; plus the damaging cultural lie of inflating the idea of 'gorilla', an immensely strong but gentle, vegetarian creature, into an iconic Enemy. An icon, it quickly becomes clear, that reflects only too well the crass, domineering masculinity of its colonial oppressors.

As if this needed underlining, since I wrote the previous paragraph I discovered that Merian C. Cooper and Ernet B. Shoedsack, the producer and director of King Kong, played the pilots who enthusiastically gun down and kill Kong. For people, not a few I guess, who felt some sympathy for Kong, Denham is given lines that let him (and the producers) side-step their guilt for Kong's capture and death. Standing next to the dead Kong's body at the foot of the Empire state building, Denham blames the feminine for this macho disaster, 'It was beauty killed the beast' he tells a policeman.

How sad to have to acknowledge that the spirit of King Kong's oppressors still lives on in too many of us and especially in the overwhelming and inappropriate use of force that the Israelis are using daily in its colonization of Palestine, and the US and it's allies in their colonization of Iraq.