Saturday, October 28, 2006

That's What You Get Folks, For Makin' Allegory

The person who pointed out this article in The American Prospect, which examines the reactions of conservatives to Battlestar Galactica--first latching on to the show as an emblem of right-wing thinking in modern media (“The more I watch the new Battlestar Galactica series, the more the Cylons seem like Muslims"), and now recoiling in horror as it supposedly makes an ideological shift to the left (one fan 'took exception to the use of suicide bombings, which he said wouldn’t work against Cylons because “terrorist tactics only work against the United States and Israel because we’re too good to wipe all of them out”'), takes its author, Brad Reed, to task for not delving into the complexities of Galactica's moral outlook, and for accepting unthinkingly the interpretation that these conservative fans attach to it. Which I think is a little unfair, as the focus of the article isn't Battlestar Galactica, but rather the alleged tendency on the part of right-wing politicians to draw comparisons to and inspiration from works of fantasy and SF when discussing real-world politics, the most famous example of which, of course, is GOP senator Rick Santorum explaining the US's policy in Iraq by drawing comparisons to the strategy devised by Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.
"As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else,” said Santorum, who went on to explain that the Iraq war had drawn the “eye” of the terrorists away from America. “It’s being drawn to Iraq, and it’s not being drawn to the U.S. And you know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don’t want the Eye to come back here to the United States.”*
The question of whether or not Battlestar Galactica can be read as a simplistic political allegory isn't really within the purview of Reed's article, but in laying out his argument against Republican politicians, he does partake of the conventional wisdom, that to take advice from a work of genre fiction (here defined as an undifferentiated lump encompassing both Galactica and Star Wars) is an indication of an infantile outlook and an inability to face reality head-on. The cliché of the genre dork, in other words, extended to the beltway set. In that sense, it is, of course, only right and proper that he should be taken to task (although whether his greater crime is that he oversimplifies the mindset of his opponents, or whether it is that he offends genre fans by once again perpetuating the mouth-breathing, Klingon-speaking stereotype, is not entirely clear to me). As fans of all genres know, taking inspiration from art is only a problem if you reduce that art to suit your own preconceived notions, and use it to prop up whatever decision you had already made.

The Lord of the Rings, for example, can be taken as an allegory of WWII (although personally, I prefer Neal Stephenson's interpretation, which is that WWII itself was an allegory for a much older and more primal story), but only through a extraordinarily superficial reading. Tolkien himself famously shied away from that reading. He understood that, as M. John Harrison puts it, to explain something so completely is to explain it away, reducing it to a single, temporary significance and, ultimately, to an ephemeral half-life as the shadow of the thing it purports to represent. When Rick Santorum used Tolkien's work as a crutch for his government's policies, political commentators may have recoiled from the absurdity of his rhetoric, but Tolkien fans were sighing at yet another simplistic interpretation of a work that, although by no means unproblematic, deserves so much more care and attention than Santorum gave it.

The same, however, can't be said of Battlestar Galactica. The conservative fans quoted in Reed's article may have misinterpreted Ronald D. Moore's political affiliations (at least to begin with), but their brand of unthinking, politically blinkered viewing (and Reed's willingness to buy into it) is exactly the sort that Moore and his writers have been aiming for lately, and thus no more than they deserve. If Galactica's writers prioritize being "topical" and "daring" over the integrity of their plots and characters, then they should be prepared to be watched on that level and that level alone.

There are always going to be stupid viewers. Against every fan willing to surrender themselves and their real-world prejudices to the complexity of an invented universe, there will always be at least one other who believes that all fiction is a roman a clef. In its most recent installments, Battlestar Galactica has been speaking to this latter subset of its audience, willingly surrendering its complexity, and whatever chance it may have had to endure as a work of art, for the sake of causing controversy. For this choice, it deserves to be dismissed as unthinkingly as Brad Reed does in his article, and as blindly as the former fans he quotes.

* And by the way, I find it very interesting that so many of Santorum's political opponents have latched on to his admittedly fatuous comparison, instead of pointing out that, once the analogy is decrypted, what Santorum is saying is that the US plans to prevent terrorist attacks on American civilians by using Iraqi civilians and American servicepeople as a human shield.


Andrew Stevens said...

The most amusing thing about Mr. Reed's article, by far, is his attempt to associate sci-fi "dorkery" with the right wing. It used to be that the accusations of "nerd" and "geek" in America came from the right and were aimed at the left. In fact, this accusation is still true. The vast majority of sci-fi "dorks" I meet still are of the left, though perhaps that is changing. Oh, sure, there's an occasional Heinleinian on the right, but most sci-fi fans are still utopian leftists.

I'm not sure what it says about the political culture here in America that accusations like this one are now coming from the left, rather than the right. I suspect it means that the left is now in the position that the right was in about 30-40 years ago. Small and powerless (despite their still iron grip on popular entertainment), they're left hurling insults at their much more powerful opponents. As you point out, sci-fi fans don't have a very good reputation, so you can slander your political opponents by implying that's what they secretly are. Perhaps this will change if Democrats recapture the House in the midterm elections.

Santorum, by the way, for those who are not already aware, is not an easily pigeonholed politician. Deeply informed by his Catholicism, I'm hardly surprised that he sympathizes with Tolkien who was similarly informed. Santorum is principally known for a couple of essentially Catholic positions: a fierce opposition to abortion and a deep concern for the world's poor. He rarely gets credit from the left for this latter position, but he has done more to try to help alleviate poverty and AIDS in Africa than any Democratic politician in the history of the United States. Bush has given more aid to Africa, even in real inflation-adjusted terms, than any other President in U.S. history and Santorum is the principal mover behind that. However, as Bono, a friend of Santorum's, said, Santorum has a kind of political Tourette's syndrome and always seems to say really unpopular things. Whether this is because he just doesn't have good political instincts or whether it's because he's just too straightforward, I can't say.

Janice said...

In its most recent installments, Battlestar Galactica has been speaking to this latter subset of its audience, willingly surrendering its complexity, and whatever chance it may have had to endure as a work of art, for the sake of causing controversy.

Having just watched episode 5, "Collaborators", I cannot agree that BSG has "surrendered complexity". Yes, it is certainly controversial, but controversial does not equate to simplistic or easily read. When your main characters -- your protagonists -- are shown doing terrible things over and over again, it is hard to see how the creators are leading the audience to an obvious conclusion.

I agree that at times BSG's straining for "relevance" hasn't worked as a narrative. (Mid-season 2 was the worst in this way.) But so far season 3 has been a pretty gripping story.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I hadn't seen "Collaborators" at the time I wrote this post, Janice, and I agree that it offers a significant improvement in the show's treatment of complex ethical issues (not just in comparison to what's been on offer recently, but on first season 'issue' episodes like "Litmus" or "Flesh and Bone"). I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised - almost from day one, Galactica has shined when dealing with the tension between the desire to conserve democratic institutions, and through them the ideals they stand for, and the recognition that in a time of war and upheaval, those institutions may not serve a useful function. I was pleased by the fact that the circle of jurors vacillated, not only as a group but also within themselves, between clinging to the legality of their actions and using that legality as an excuse for pursuing vengeance.

That said, I can't say that "Collaborators" is a shining success, or that it doesn't embody some of the show's more glaring problems. The episode is essentially an exercise in sustaining a single emotional tone - the aforementioned tension between justice and vengeance - with plot completely sublimated to the needs of that emotion. Lip service is paid to the notion that the deaths of collaborators are being investigated, but that investigation only comes to a head once the jurors' plotline arrives independently to its climax. At that point, Roslin and Adama descend on the scene like Mommy and Daddy here to break up a play date that's gotten a bit rowdy (or, alternatively, like the gods descending from heaven to clean up the affairs of messy mortals). The result is to disassociate Roslin - and through her the fleet as a whole - from the question of dealing with collaborators. We don't see her struggle with the impulse to get even, or with the question of how best to serve her community. The episode's central dilemma is thus enclosed in a bubble - it's an issue that affects a few characters, not the entire fleet.

So, although I agree with you that, this week at least, Galactica's writers haven't surrendered complexity, I still don't think they've achieved the correct balance between addressing topical political questions and telling a coherent story.

ca said...

So I am just starting 2.5 at this point, and therefore am not equipped to comment on (or even fully read the comments on) this post, but this is interesting, because one of the things that I love so far about BSG (I tend to blot out of my memory the preachy episodes like "Litmus" as the missteps) is that, though it is essentially a political drama, it continually confounds my expectations of what a politically motivated show would do -- in a way that the West Wing, though I loved it, never did.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

though it is essentially a political drama, it continually confounds my expectations of what a politically motivated show would do

Would you care to elaborate on that, ca? By politically motivated, do you mean to say that BSG is driven and informed by a specific political agenda or outlook? Because I'm not sure I can get behind that description. A coherent ethical philosophy, maybe (albeit a fairly simple one), but not a political message.

I'm also interested by the comparison you draw between BSG and The West Wing, a show that wore its political colors proudly. What does BSG do that TWW didn't?

Andrew Stevens said...

CA can speak for him or herself, but my wife and I independently came to the conclusion that Ms. Nussbaum missed CA's point (though she probably agrees with it). I think what CA was trying to say is that, despite being a political show, BSG is not trying to sell a particular political agenda. It is simply presenting a controversy and letting the viewers make up their own minds, rather than trying to tell its viewers what to think. It is, therefore, unexpected and surprising for a politically informed show. Most politically motivated shows, like The West Wing, want to preach. They are politically motivated because the writers want to spread the gospel. BSG does not appear to be this way. If I am right about what CA meant, then I agree with CA (and based on the previous comment, I suspect Ms. Nussbaum does as well).

I also think Ms. Nussbaum has been a little too hard on the show for simplifying issues. For example, the suicide bombings in BSG were defensible (whether or not you approve of the tactic as it was used in BSG) in a way that the majority of real suicide bombings just aren't and I think that was precisely the point of the episode. It was simply meant to present a morally ambiguous situation and not meant to tell you what to think about it. If they had used children blowing themselves up in markets, there would have been much less ambiguity since that's pretty plainly an indefensible tactic and we really wouldn't have believed Tigh doing it anyway, no matter how desperate he was. BSG was trying to push the limits of the morality, in this case by making the bombings more morally defensible, in order to push it into a grey area. The viewer is left to decide to agree with Baltar (suicide bombings are always wrong, full stop) or agree with Tigh or be morally conflicted like the ex-President.

Another example would be the abortion issue in an earlier season. They were trying to present a situation in which even the most stalwart pro-choicers would wonder if banning abortion didn't make some sense. (By the way, in that episode it was also Baltar who presented the absolute position in that one - banning abortion is always wrong.) Again, I don't think the writers were trying to tell us what to think. In fact, I'm not even sure if the writers know what they themselves think about the issue they presented. I think the writers are intentionally trying to create situations which are so ambiguous they have no idea what the right solution is. This is an interesting approach and different from almost any other show I've seen.

Having said all that, I still pretty much wholeheartedly concur with virtually every criticism Abigail Nussbaum has made of BSG from beginning to end.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

(Second attempt, this time, hopefully, with the right people's names and everything.)

I think I've probably gone over this issue too many times, both in regard to BSG's treatment of suicide bombings and in regard to last season's abortion sub-plot, Andrew. Let me just say, then, that I disagree with your characterization of BSG's approach as bringing up a controversial issue and asking the audience to engage with it. As I've said before, the show's MO might more accurately be described as manipulatively and dishonestly playing against the audience's knee-jerk reactions to hot-button issues, often by using semantic associations that have little or nothing to do with the reality of the story. If BSG's writers were truly trying to get their audience to think about controversial political issues, they wouldn't treat those issues in a way that doesn't stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny. Which is why, in this entry, I suggest that the show deserves to be treated unthinkingly by both its fans and the author of the article I reference.

And to be perfectly honest, I'm getting a little tired of the notion that not committing to a political agenda is somehow a virtue. We all know that art can be brought to its knees when sublimated to its message, but it doesn't follow that art should be message-less. So long as a work of art expresses its agenda honestly, without manipulation, without resorting to poor rhetoric or emotional arguments, and without trying to bully its audience into agreement, there's nothing wrong with having a point of view. The West Wing was frequently guilty of all of these transgressions, but at its best it managed to be art while still having the courage of its convictions. BSG, thus far, doesn't seem to have anything to say, and I'm at a loss to see how this somehow makes it a superior work.

Andrew Stevens said...

Abigail, you might be surprised to learn that I hardly disagree with you at all. I was agreeing with CA that Battlestar was an unusual TV show in this respect. I expressed myself so poorly (no surprise there) that I gave the impression that I thought that necessarily made it better, which is not the case. (This is probably because I'm a reflexive Devil's Advocate, a bad habit I'm trying to break.)

Where I thought you were being a bit hard on the show is because I don't think Battlestar is trying to get its audience to engage with actual contemporary issues in any way. They're trying to take actual contemporary issues and make them more ambiguous in some way and then asking the audience to engage with that. Perhaps this isn't something a work of art ought to do and you're quite right that what they present has no real bearing on the contemporary issue they've altered. What you think of BSG's suicide bombings and what you think of real suicide bombings probably have no point of connection. What you think of banning abortion in reality may have no bearing on what you think of the President's banning abortion in BSG. All that is perfectly true and, in that sense, BSG fails as any kind of political allegory.

But your point of view, that Galactica is essentially using semantic associations which have nothing to do with the issues they portray, is also a perfect description of what Galactica is doing.

I didn't intend to imply that not having a point of view is a virtue and I apologize for having given that impression. I do sympathize with CA's opinion. Most politically motivated shows lecture at the expense of their fiction or provide us with moral dilemmas whose resolution is obvious to a six year-old (cf. Star Trek). I can see why someone might find Galactica refreshing. It's not that you're not right in your argument, just that agenda-driven art is done poorly far, far more often than it's done well.

To be perfectly honest, I'm very close to giving up on Galactica. Your brilliant posts on novelistic television (the best things I've ever read on the subject) explain the reason why. I got hooked into Galactica because A) 33 was a great episode and B) I thought they knew where they were going with the show. I am now convinced that I was wrong about B and A isn't enough, especially since episodes of that quality have been few and far between.

The fact that Galactica is not very intelligent is not a mark against it for me, though. I can't recall the last television show that was - The Prisoner, perhaps? I view television (and all fiction, really) primarily as escapist entertainment and a great many shows succeed on that level. Galactica did for a while, but I'm not sure that's still the case.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The fault is probably mine, Andrew - I think my reaction to your comment was more than a little knee-jerk.

They're trying to take actual contemporary issues and make them more ambiguous in some way and then asking the audience to engage with that

Well, yes, in the sense that they alter the contents of those issues while still calling them by the same names. As you say, the result is that what we understand as suicide bombings/abortion has no bearing on the BSG universe. Another way of putting it might be that the rules of our reality don't apply in the show. This doesn't simply invalidate the show as a political allegory - it comes close to rendering it meaningless as a piece of fiction.

You're absolutely right to say that most message-oriented art is terrible because it is enslaved to its message. This, I suspect, is where the 'having and expressing an opinion = bad' attitude is coming from, and I find its recent proliferation terribly depressing. Which is not to say that ambivalence is, in itself, a bad thing either. BSG is probably at its best as a work of political fiction on those rare occasions when it truly engages with a question without taking a stand - the conversation between Roslin and Zarek about the abortive attempt to steal the elections at the end of the third season premiere is a good example.

You should check out Russell T. Davies' miniseries The Second Coming, by the way. The issues it deals with are religious ones, rather than political, but it is that rare artifact - intelligent art with an agenda.

Janice said...

[...] they alter the contents of those issues while still calling them by the same names. As you say, the result is that what we understand as suicide bombings/abortion has no bearing on the BSG universe.

While the show is often guilty of oversimplifying the issues, I don't think what you said above is true. Your objection to the suicide bomber storyline seems very focused on particular uses of the tactic that you say are never excusable. But in the real world, suicide bombers are NOT always blowing up civilians; sometimes their targets are exclusively military. BSG was coming at the question from the POV of the perpetrator, asking "why would anyone do this?" and "how easily does this slide into truly evil behavior?" While there is room for interpretation, I think the show did tentatively answer these questions with the story of Duck (unfortunately, mostly confined to the webisodes) and the discussion about bombing the marketplace.

In comparison, their approach to the abortion issue was half-assed to the point of dishonesty. They completely ignored one of the most important arguments for abortion rights: that women will try to get them even if they're illegal, and this will lead to deaths from coat-hanger abortions and back-alley deals. The fact that Roslin, of all people, didn't even bring this up as a topic of discussion made me want to strangle Ronald Moore.

However, I wouldn't say their take on the issue therefore had "no relevance" to abortion in the real world. It actually said a lot about politicians making stupid pronouncements to secure important voting blocs.

Andrew Stevens said...

Abigail, since it's your blog, you'll have to allow me to take the blame for any miscommunications that might arise.

The idea that having an opinion is bad is hardly new or original. The word "opinionated" has been a dirty word for as long as I can remember. People also have a tendency to prefer the company of people who agree with them on virtually every subject (or, more precisely, who disagree with them on very few subjects). The fewer opinions you have, the easier it is to find such people.

To a certain extent, this explains factions and political parties, groups of people who do seem to agree with each other on a large variety of subjects. Most people decide which side they're on fairly early, usually on the basis of one or two issues, and then adopt the opinions of the group on everything else. If, for example, someone tells me his opinion on abortion, I will be able to predict with surprising accuracy his opinion on a whole host of completely unrelated subjects. On occasion, I will be enormously surprised, but for the majority of people I'll be right. Some will argue that this is because there is actually a coherent underlying premise in dispute, but nobody has been able to satisfactorily explain to me what that premise is. I'll keep searching because, if it exists, then it follows that there are vast unresolved contradictions in my own thought.

And, by the way, this is why I did not care much for The West Wing. Within two episodes, I knew what Aaron Sorkin's opinion would be on everything and he never once surprised or disappointed me. Great dialogue, pedestrian thinker. (I am not here ruling out the possibility that pedestrian thinkers will wind up being right about everything, though.) I won't disagree with anyone who thinks The West Wing succeeded as a work of art anyway, but I found that everything was very predictable. Once you "cracked his code," as it were, you knew where he was going on everything and it drained most episodes of any tension or surprise. This doesn't have to be a bad thing and it wasn't always. The dialogue was always snappy enough to make the journey enjoyable.

I am very interested in the opinions of original, or at least unusual, thinkers because those people could potentially have an impact on my own thought. (This is why I read your blog.) I have very little use for Aaron Sorkin as a philosopher, though he's a superb entertainer. I have even less use for Ronald D. Moore as a philosopher, but I don't sense that he's really trying to be one, so that's all right. Despite his political science degree, he seems much more interested in characters than he is in messages.

I haven't seen Second Coming, but perhaps I'll give it a go some time.

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