Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Saturday, January 31, 2004  

Last night I watched the extraordinary movie Monster, which is an honest exploration of how a person gets from here (scraping by) to there (murder). It neither forgives nor exploits, but attempts something few films do--to understand.

This morning, I read a Rich Lowery column in our local paper (King Features, not NRO--no link), in which he wrote this extraordinarily ignorant sentence:

Poverty in America is primarily a cultural phenomenon, driven by a shattered work ethic and sexual irresponsibility.

The contrast between the attempt to understand a human life on the one hand and to willfully ignore tens of millions on the other produced a kind of psychological whiplash. (Lowry was advocating that we culturally engineer the US out of poverty by marrying everyone off. That, apparently, corrects shattered work ethics and sexual irresponsibility.)

Lowry's venal politics here are clear--isolating America's needy from our understanding so that they deserve none of our compassion. It's justification as public policy. When you're trying to give as much money as possible to corporations, there's nothing to spare for programs like school lunches or child care. But as literally taking money from poor kids to give to fat industrialists is a hard sell rhetorically, he instead resorts to a Calvinist view, arguing that the poor are actually the corrupt. Don't think about the flow of money, think about how lazy and slutty the kids' moms are (that's his his argument), and then you won't mind giving their money to Halliburton. Hell, they had it comin'.

I have long found US attitudes toward responsibility mystifying. As a society, we regard a sexually-abused five-year-old as a victim. But when that child turns fifteen and abuses a 12-year-old, he becomes a criminal no longer worthy of help. We divorce cause from effect.

Monster is an exploration of the life of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who started killing johns in the late 1980s and who was executed by Jeb in 2002. In the course of the film, we learn that she first started getting raped at 8 and was a prostitute by 13. Her first murder happened during her own rape and attempted murder by a sociopathic john. During the incident, she managed to break free and kill her attacker. That moment, combined with a blossoming relationship (not quite lesbian, not quite platonic) with a young woman, turned Wournos into a predator.

It's not possible to see Wournos' life as a morality play, to distinguish between good and evil. She is human, and she acts like a human who has suffered intense humiliation and abuse for a lifetime. It is a story of increments--of sliding into the pool of murder one inch at a time. You don't have to imagine how it was possible for her to get submerged, you can see it play out moment by moment.

Lowry, for his part, has also allowed himself to slide into a pool--this one of ignorance. He has trained his focus ever more narrowly on sections of lives, thinking that this may somehow justify cruel policy. He is the viewer who walks into the theater just at the moment Wornous is standing over the bloody body of her first murder victim.

Lowry concludes with this platitude:

You can argue with the particulars of this program, but if you're not talking about how to increase work and marriage among the poor, well then, you're not serious about addressing poverty.

It's the kind of sentiment that makes me want to either punch him in his self-satisfied nose (a base instinct) or offer a platitude of my own (an impotent one). Better yet, I'll just shut up. We already have the rebuttal: Monster. How is possible to see that film and seriously consider marriage as the solution?

posted by Jeff | 9:05 AM |
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