The ‘Trivial’ Roots Of Resentment

Some three decades ago, I went to buy tickets for a major sports event. I was a teenager, eager to see top-class athletes in action; I woke early, caught a bus to the ticket box-office and joined the long queues that had already formed by the time I arrived. The lines grew and grew; tickets were sold slowly and inefficiently; the pushing and shoving began. There were policemen in charge of this mass of disorderly humanity; they decided to restore order by a series of pushes and shoves of their own.

I complied with orders: I moved, keeping my position in the queue. But clearly, I had not moved quickly enough. Suddenly, I received a hard blow to the back of my head. Stunned, my head spinning, I looked around to see what had happened. A policeman stood there, glaring at me, “What are you looking at! Move!” (This translated version sounds considerably milder than the original.) He was bigger than me; he carried a hefty baton that I knew could easily crack my skull open.

I moved.

I hadn’t done anything wrong as far as I could tell; I had complied with instructions; I had been in the wrong time and in the wrong place, in the firing line for an officer of the law, one easily inclined to descend to violence when things didn’t go right, when his easily exhausted patience ran out.  In the space of a few seconds, I had been physically chastised and humiliated; I had been put in my place; I had been reminded I had very little power when it came to confronting these guardians of the peace.

So I smarted and glowered and fumed. For days and weeks and afterwards, every policeman I saw reminded me of that day when I had been abruptly slapped upside the head and told to get my ass in gear. Later, in my university days, I heard a story of how a policeman had made the mistake of harassing two young men–out for a late night smoke and a stroll–who had decided to fight back. He didn’t have backup, and he had thought he could simply bully them the way he usually bullied his usual victims: the homeless, the initerant poor, the cabdrivers on a night-shift. They had grabbed his baton, thrown it away, and then delivered a series of quick blows to his head before running away into the night. When I heard this tale, I grinned and snickered. “Fuck that motherfucker. Serves him right. That’ll teach him a fucking lesson. He’ll think twice before he messes with some kids again.”

I was not a juvenile delinquent. I was not someone was repeatedly accosted by the police (though I had several more edgy encounters with them in my university days, all of them reminders of their ability to swiftly, crudely, bring blunt power to bear.) So I often wonder: if I could, thanks to one violent and disempowering encounter with the police, a humiliating and reductive one, develop such a chip on my shoulder, just how angry and resentful would someone get if such interactions were a daily or weekly occurrence?

I know, I know. I should have moved on. I should have brushed off that chip. I should have matured. But I wasn’t old enough to know better.  And again, I know, that the cop who got beaten by those youngsters probably cracked down a little harder the next time he saw a couple of ‘punks’, and made sure he took some buddies with him to crack heads.

But pushing folks around, rendering them weak and vulnerable, reminding their of their helplessness in the face of those who enjoy a monopoly on coercion and the exercise of state power remains a deadly recipe for the generation of resentment and anger.

Of Broken Windows And Broken Spines

It was a dark and stormy night. But I was not swayed by the forces and the voices that commanded me to turn back from this lonely road I had set out on. For I was righteous, and I knew I was on the right path. Yea, for even though I was midway through life’s journey and in dark woods, I had not lost the right road. I was headed for the mountaintop, where my appointment with fate lay waiting. With head bowed, infected by a spirit of appropriate and comely humility, I pressed on. Far greater rewards than any this material world could promise me would soon be mine.

Soon, the moment was at hand. There was no need for incantations, no call to burn incense or fall on my knees. I had made the journey; I was here; my presence was adequate testimony to my standing as deserved recipient for the revelations that would follow as sure as night follows day.

And then the voice was heard, its sonorous, majestic tones momentarily hushing the peals of thunder that periodically threatened to split the firmament apart:

Speak, my child! I am your deity tonight. Your perplexities are for me to resolve; your darkness is for me to dispel. Speak!

I could not help myself. I fell to my knees, even as I knew that such obeisance was hopelessly old-fashioned, a holdover only required by the archaic gods and not by these egalitarians. When I had composed myself and dared to look up, I spoke, my voice trembling:

I am perplexed my Lord, by the violence that perpetually stalks my land. I am mystified by this scourge that claims the lives of men, women, and children, that turns us into killers and victims, into widows and orphans. How may we be freed from its clammy clutches? How may we reduce its toll? How may we bring the mourning and wailing to an end?

The voice spoke again, calm and measured, even as I thought I detected some thinly disguised impatience coursing through its tones:

You come to me with a seemingly perennial mystery, my child, which is only intractable insofar as you refuse to penetrate to its transparent and accessible core, its clear and limpid solution.

The voice spoke in riddles. What could it mean?  Only an arrogant disciple would ask for a revelation to be repeated and clarified. But I was at my wit’s end. The toll was too great to bear; we could not be pallbearers at funerals any more. I spoke up, trembling with fear.

My Lord, I am foolish and dense, my mind is addled. What is this great simplicity you speak of? Why are we not privy to it as you are?

There was a momentary silence. And then, again, that familiar aural benediction:

My child, the mystery is not great. You must only learn to grieve for broken spines as much as you do for broken windows.

And with that, the voice was gone.


Gus Fring: Breaking Bad’s Management Consultancy Guru

Yesterday, while writing on the corporate deadliness of The Wire‘s Stringer Bell, I noted in passing, some structural resemblances between that character and Breaking Bad‘s Gustavo ‘Gus’ Fring. But, in many ways, Gus goes well beyond Stringer in bringing the corporate to the corner. In particular, in his channeling indiscriminate violence into murderously well-directed and precise outbreaks of mass murder, his attention to the crystal meth manufacturing process, his deference to the men of science, his marriages of the industrial engineer, the accountant, and the factory foreman to the military general and the assassin, Gus outdoes Stringer. Gus builds his empire by an energetic, quietly confident, and slick union of corporate manufacturing schedules and assembly line management with the trade of the traditional drug dealer and thus imbues the brutal, paranoiac violence of the perennially threatened drug trade with a strategic shop-floor vision.  Stringer is merely a dealer; Gus owns the means of production, the machinery, and the workers.

Gus is modern in a very particular way: he facilitates his projects with the precision, efficiency and sterile beauty of technology, relying all the while on the powers of science and its practitioners to sustain and realize his vision.  It is never too subtle a point in Breaking Bad that some of Walter’s initial allegiance to  Gus is underwritten by his acknowledgment of the scientific and technological excellence of the manufacturing unit Gus has put together. Morally corrupt scientists in hock to those who facilitate their deadly work; think, perhaps, of German scientists in the employ of the Third Reich; science and efficiency, in the service of perversion.

Gus is thus too, a classic bureaucrat, deploying science to bring about the most desired and deadly of outcomes. He conspires, arranges, sets up the blade and makes it fall; and yet, while he is a wheeler and a dealer, he remains smooth, never greasy, mannered, never affected. Interestingly enough, Gus is entirely desexualized, and even here, his sexual austerity sets off the rigor of his management style. His attention to careful detail and his measured responses, conquer, or at least keep under control, the awesome, murderous brutality of the cartels. That management style ensures that one of Breaking Bad‘s most floral and lurid moments–the mass poisoning of the Mexican cartel–possesses a curiously contained edge. For the true genius of the mass murder of the cartel’s top leadership did not lie in Gus’ use of poison, his deceit, his willingness to expose himself to deadly risk, it lay in its logistical details, in Gus’ planning for the aftermath: the medical supplies, the doctors, the getaway mechanisms. Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. Indeed.

In Gus Fring, we were brought face to face with a business talent par excellence. When he finally meets his match and is killed, we recognize it was because for a brief, fatal moment, Gus allowed his anger to get the better of him, to let passions rule where dispassionate calculations had always held sway.

Baltimore Dispatches – III: Stringer and the Deadly Suaveness Of the Drug Trade

In New Zealand, you can get GPS-guided tours of locales used for Lord of the Rings action; tourists snap them up by the dozen. In Baltimore, the city of The Wire, you can get walking and driving tours that take you to Wire locales (like Season 2’s union-run shipping docks, for instance). It’s a pity they don’t arrange meetings with characters from the show. Many tourists would want to meet Omar, some Marlo, and its a fair bet many wouldn’t mind a chance to sit down and chill for a bit with Stringer. For one of the Wire’s most memorable characters was Stringer Bell, who–along with Breaking Bad‘s Gustavo ‘Gus’ Fring in recent times–has done a great deal to bring a deadly suaveness to our standard understandings of a drug lord’s persona. (It never hurt Stringer’s popularity that his role was inhabited by the supremely talented English actor Idris Elba.)

What made Bell especially creepy was his smooth marriage of the efficient, soft-spoken, deft, Taylorist sensibility of the product-dispenser  with the amoral viciousness of the turf-defending urban ganglord. (Fring, of course, takes that to marriage to new heights with his involvement in the manufacture of the ‘product’). Stringer aspired to a higher calling than the petty crook, and yet, his distancing from the nitty-gritty of the street level trade made him more dangerous, not less.  Stringer goes to night school; as a good student, he is attentive and takes notes; he aspires to the tricks of trade that business majors supposedly know about; he sought to bring the boardroom to the corner. But even as he did so, he became more ruthless, deadlier, ever more capable of the decision–like arranging D’Angelo’s murder–that cuts through family ties to the business heart of the deal. It was the particular genius of Stringer that in watching him, we became aware that the movement away from overt violence was a movement toward a greater danger, that his ostensible taming by the bookish knowledge he so eagerly gleaned from his textbooks and notebooks was actually the harbinger of an even deadlier organizational capacity.

Stringer’s particular dangerousness, then, lay in his manifesting and embodying the combination of single-minded business savvy with cruel disregard for human life. Unlike Fring, he never pulls off spectacular massacres but his devotion to his turf and his trade is no less acute, and we are never left in doubt that he would kill just as much as Fring does. Stringer’s deadliness lies in his movement toward a greater corporate efficiency; it is precisely that sharpened business sensibility that will make possible ever more ruthless decision-making. Part of the genius of The Wire lay in its pointing out the infection of American institutions by the war on drugs: the police, city politics, the shipping trade, the courts. In Stringer Bell, The Wire showed how the most dominant force in American life, the corporate sensibility, did its part in the drug trade and ensured that the conflict that animated it acquired its particular, dangerous edge.

Baltimore Dispatches: The Cask of Amontillado and the Terrors of Immurement

This Columbus Day weekend, I am ensconced in Baltimore, which has meant that, among other things, my thoughts turned to Edgar Allan Poe, the city’s most distinguished literary son, one of a select group of writers whose work I was first exposed to via comic books, and someone who, to put it mildly, gave me the shakes for a very long time. The story that did the most to ensure this clammy place in my heart was the Cask of Amontillado.

One hot Delhi afternoon, as I rode back in a crowded school bus from a fairly typical sixth or seventh grade day, I noticed, next to me, a boy reading a comic book with a lurid cover that spoke of stories of the terrifying, the macabre, the gloomy. I was bold enough to ask to read it when my companion was done, and was soon plunged into its grim world. The first story I read was the tale of Montresor’s deadly revenge. I was horrified by the ending, as Montresor immured Fortunato within the catacombs that lay beyond the wine cellar under his palazzo. I read other stories in the collection, but none of them, including the Murders in the Rue Morgue, had the same effect on me.

The story of Montresor and Fortunato tapped into a childhood claustrophobia, a paralyzing fear of being locked in, of being crushed alive by an invisible weight that drove the air out from my lungs. A recurrent childhood nightmare of mine had been that of somehow suffocating under a blanket. It was one reason I found the winter months especially scary:  sleeping then meant the use of the classic North Indian razai, the heavy, stuffed-with-cotton-wool quilt that made the Delhi winter nights tolerable. Time and again, I would wake at night, shaking, gasping for air, convinced I had been buried by my razai. The razais seemed cavernous, with acres of space beneath them that shrank to enclose me in a woolly grave. I was never able to put my head under one and regarded my brother, who nonchalantly went to sleep with his head shoved under his quilt, with some amazement.

This fear was compounded by the presence of the immurement theme in Indian legend and history. More than one Bollywood movie featured characters walled up alive while plaintive dirges played in the background. One particularly famous instance occurs in the 1960 epic Mughal-e-Azam, which shows the Mughal Crown Prince Salim’s illicit lover Anarkali, immured on the order of Salim’s father, the Emperor Akbar. And immurement didn’t just happen in the movies. The tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, suffered the loss of his two sons to this terrible fate: the nine year old Sahibzada Fateh Singh and the seven year old Sahibzada Zorawar Singh were so condemned on 12 December 1705, by the Governor of Sirhind, Wazir Khan. (The two boys had been captured following battles between Sikh and Mughal forces in the Punjab, and ‘asked’ to convert to Islam, a ‘request’ they had refused). It wasn’t just in the realm of fantasy that immurement lurked.

But there was something else about the Cask of Amontillado that made it more than a story about about a man left to die, walled in and alone. It featured treachery and deception, it spoke of unhinged anger, moved to reach out and exact the most terrible retribution of all. And if I had a fear of being crushed, suffocated, and buried, I felt even more terrified by the thought that such a fate would be facilitated and eventuated by an ostensible friend’s deception. Fortunato’s shrieks haunted me for years; for the love of God indeed.