Lord of War - "The Culture of Violence" - "Canadians"
LORD OF WAR
In the section on rhetoric we analyzed the opening credits of Lord of War. In evaluating the following review of this film, keep in mind the following questions: What are the rhetorical aims of a review? Why is it important to keep these aims in mind when evaluating the quality of a review?
By Manohla Dargis, September 16, 2005, from http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/16/movies/16lord.html?_r=1&
Guns Are Evil. Everybody Should Have One
Lord of War, a misfire of a political satire about the international gun market, opens with a killer scene: Nicolas Cage standing on a veritable carpet of bullet casings. Mr. Cage's character, Yuri Orlov, is a gunrunner who has placed untold weapons in untold numbers of hands. Now, surrounded by gutted buildings and dressed to impress, a cigarette burning between his fingers, Yuri looks straight into the camera and wonders aloud how he can furnish everyone in the world with a gun to call his very own.
This carpet of casings also serves as a launching pad for a subsequent and even more outlandish opening credit sequence that tracks a bullet from its manufacture in Russia to its final resting place in the skull of a young African. A bullet in the head always seizes the imagination or at least the audience's attention, but because the African is merely cinematic collateral damage, the image registers both as showboating and as a warning shot for the problems to come. The screenwriter for Lord of War, Andrew Niccol, lavishes a great deal of time and many words building a case against guns; unfortunately, the film's director, who also happens to be Mr. Niccol, enjoys playing with toy guns. His words may say no, but his overworked, overslick visual style says lock and load, baby.
The problem, of course, is that violence is so inherently cinematic, so visually and aurally captivating. Loud pops, big bangs and the sights and sounds of bodies seizing up and spurting blood have long been the stock in trade of certain movies, which partly explains why the bangs are getting ever louder, the bloodletting more spectacular. The noise in these films has grown so deafening that it can be hard to hear the message (if there even is one), especially when that message carries a familiar, been-there, done-that, eat-your-oatmeal-because-it's-good-for-you moralism. Like: guns are bad, corporations are soulless, and some first world governments traffic in third world misery. To which any reasonably informed viewer might be expected to wonder, And your point is what, exactly?
Mr. Niccol's point here, it appears, is both to entertain and to instruct with the story of Yuri, a Russian émigré who rises from humble Brooklyn to become a globe-trotting gunrunner with all the moral reasoning of a flea. Guided by Mr. Cage's intermittent voice-over, the story tracks Yuri's decades-long evolution as a merchant of death saddled with a few familiar distractions: a beautiful model wife played by Bridget Moynahan and a drug-addled brother played by Jared Leto.
Yuri gets his break in the early 1990's when he snaps up materiel in the recently imploded Ukraine that he subsequently offloads in war-ravaged Africa. Like everything else in this film, Mr. Cage's performance is watchable if never credible because his director never resolves the disconnect between this star's function (to entertain) and that of his character (to repel).
“The Culture of Violence”
By Michelle Temple
Were We Really That Bad?
In her essay “The Culture of Violence” (1999), Myriam Miedzian explores some of the causes of violence in American culture and makes a convincing case through her use of examples; however, these tend to be over-selective and too general, and she fails to employ any sources to support her arguments. Miedzian’s main question is “what [do] we teach our boys that makes them become such violent men?” (section 12). One of her main foci is the media and she gives examples of three role models/heroes, namely the action characters Rambo, Chuck Norris, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, indicating that they would be “high on the list” (section 13). On whose list, though? She does not indicate where this list comes from. On review of some of the idols from the 80’s (the time period one would assume she is referring to as per her examples), that list could have included Wayne Gretzky, Michael J. Fox, Michael Jackson, and Christopher Reeve (Wikipedia, 2012), none of whom one would think of as particularly violent. She also discusses music and audiovisual programming, and comments on the prevalence of angry-sounding music and scantily clad women who look like they’re about to get raped, and the example she gives is rock band Poison’s 1987 song “I want action.” While Miedzian’s example does make a case based on the lyrics she provides, it is quite extreme, and that particular song actually only peaked at 50 on Billboard’s Hot 100 (Billboard, 2012), and can hardly be considered representative of the music of the time. “The 1980’s in America were a time of illusional prosperity… [with] music that paralleled an overall sense of satisfaction in American society,” as Thomas Harrison notes in his book Music of the 1980s (2011). Miedzian overlooks all the feel-good pop, rock, and R&B hits that are commonly associated with the 1980s. She also stereotypically blames heavy metal musicians, tying them in with drug use, and then linking drugs to the increase in violent crime. The logic behind this line of reasoning needs to be more fully explored to be plausible and the lack of tangible evidence makes the argument weak. In fact, one study which sought to “quantify a possible relationship between drug use and music style” (Barnard, 1997) actually found that teens who listened to rave/techno music were more likely to be doing drugs, followed by pop, and then by rock-and-roll, with heavy metal having a less significant impact. In summary, while Miedzan’s arguments are certainly compelling, her points are too general and over-selective, making her sound more like an out-of-touch, overprotective parent. Her essay would be much more powerful with a more appropriate range of examples and with well-researched evidence to support them.
Barnard, M., Forsyth A. J. M., McKeganey, N. P. (1997). Music preference as an indicator of adolescent drug use. Addiction, 92 (10), 1317-1325. doi: 10.1080/09652149736828
Billboard.com. (2012). I want Action - Poison, Song Information. Retrieved from http://www.billboard.com/#/song/poison/i-want-action/22802435
Harrison, T. (2011). Music of the 1980s. ABC-CLIO. Retrieved from http://lib.myilibrary.com
Miedzian, M. (1999) “The Culture of Violence.” In G. Goshgarian (Ed.), The Contemporary Reader (6th ed.) (pp. 455-460). New York: Longman.
Wikipedia. (2012). 1980s. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
“CANADIANS: WHAT DO THEY WANT?” (Margaret Atwood)
Here’s a summary of Atwood’s piece (from englishforums.com). Note that the summary does not evaluate.
In her article “Canadians: What Do They Want?,” Margaret Atwood explains why Canadians dislike the United States of America. She says that everyday Americans do not understand Canadian anti-Americanism because they are unaware that their country behaves imperialistically towards Canada. She parallels this situation to how individual men are often unaware that their gender group as a whole oppresses women. The USA, Atwood argues, acts like a typical empire because it assumes that it has the right over Canadian resources, such as Canadian oil, and that Canada should be content with just being a retail consumer of American products. Atwood notes that it is only the revolutionary spirit against economic control entrenched in the USA's history that the country refuses to export to Canada. American laws and regulations systematically place the USA as an empire and Canada as a consumer colony, even if Canada resists American imperialism the same way Gaul resisted Roman imperialism. Atwood appeals to Americans to understand Canada's situation by imagining what they would feel like if Mexico tried to dominate them economically and culturally. Despite the evidence she offers about the USA's fault in this economic relation of empire-colony between the USA and Canada, Atwood says that Canadians are not blameless. She says that Canadians have encouraged American imperialism by allowing Americans to penetrate their economy after World War II and still encourage this imperialism by buying American retail products over Canadian ones.
Evaluation by Roger Clark. Note the way this essay differs from the rhetorical analysis, “The Bristling North.”
Army Boots and Romans: Atwood’s Flawed Comparisons
As Canadians, we have a problematic relationship with our neighbour to the south. We, at least in English Canada, speak the same language and share basic modes of culture and everyday life — in business, sports, entertainment, etc. Yet we differ historically and politically. We slowly disengaged from British control, whereas they revolted against Britain in 1776. We have unresolved history with the Quebecois, whereas they have unresolved history with African-Americans and Latinos. While we both took land from the Natives, the American wars against the Native populations were on a much larger scale. We by and large have a multilateral foreign policy, whereas they often act unilaterally. There’s also a more subtle, emotional difference between Canadians and Americans, one which derives from the fact that they’re so much more powerful than we are. It’s this difference that Margaret Atwood addresses in “Canadians: What Do They Want?” (Mother Jones 1982). In this essay she explains to her American audience that Canadians are justified in their resentment of American power. While Atwood is provocative and at times insightful, her writing is ineffective because her gender comparisons are insulting and confusing, and her argument is unconvincing because her comparison between the U.S. and Rome leaves out crucial elements related to neocolonialism and the British Empire.
Atwood’s comparison between militant men and militant America is insulting. While associating men’s feet with jackboots (army boots and totalitarianism) is a provocative way to start the article, it’s also very likely to alienate or offend her male readers. Even if men agreed that they’re responsible for most of the violence and totalitarianism in the world, throwing this in their faces, when her main aim is to discuss the attitude of one people to another, could make them feel that they’re being used unnecessarily as a negative (and unexamined) premise. The same would apply to Christians or women if she started with a negative comparison involving Christians or women.
The comparison also confuses the issue. How, for instance, do American women fit into it? Do they disagree, because of their gender, with the values and attitudes of their countrymen? Are they immune to feelings of power and dominance? And what about Canadian men? Do they feel, because of their gender, that their military should act eagerly or unilaterally? The comparison could be overlooked if it were only a provocative opening, yet when Atwood returns to it at the end, it raises the following question: if she is so negative in her perception of half of the people around her, how are we to gauge her perception of those who live even further from her, south of the 49th parallel?
Atwood’s second comparison — between American and Roman empires — is far more useful to her argument. That the U.S. is an empire, like Rome, and that Canada lies within this empire, like Gaul, is useful in that it helps to explain the feeling that Canadians often have of being overpowered. Her subsidiary comparison, between present-day America and a hypothetical Mexico ten times the size of the U.S., is also effective: many of her readers could imagine such a ‘Mexicanization,’ especially given the recent reconquista of states like California and Texas. While Atwood is writing in 1982, the trend in Mexican immigration was evident in the early 80s (see the graph below). In addition, Atwood’s historical information (in paragraphs ten and eleven) and her linkage of empires to corporations (Canada being the branch-plant) ground her hypothetical Mexico comparison in the economic realities of NAFTA, lumber, oil, and the auto industry.
Her comparison between American and Roman empires starts off strong yet ends up weak — for two reasons. First, she leaves out the crucial distinction between colonialism and neocolonialism. Her comparison of the United States to Rome makes sense from the angle of power in general, yet it fails to get at the specific way the U.S. has exercised its power, and this specificity is crucial to the Canadian sensibilities she’s analyzing. While the U.S. has indeed used their military to serve their economic and geopolitical interests, they’ve not used it in Canada since the early 19th Century in the manner that Rome and Britain did. The distinction between colonialism (direct geographic, political, and economic control) and neocolonialism (less direct political and economic control) may seem a very abstract one to Guatemalans in 1954, Vietnamese in 1970, Chileans in 1973, or Iraqis in 2003, yet it shouldn’t be lost on Canadians. The fact remains that ever since the war of 1812-14 the U.S. hasn’t exercised against us the type of unwanted imperial power exercised by Rome in Gaul or Britain in India.
Atwood’s comparison is further weakened because she leaves out the positive role empire has played in Canada. She leaves out that the nation of Canada was born under the British Empire, that the British Empire served our interests in the past, and that the American Empire serves our interests now. The land on which we stand — the land we took from the Natives — comes from our being part of an unprecedented colonial enterprise managed from London. In our early years we were protected from the U.S. by the British, and in the present we exist under a Canada-friendly umbrella of American military power. Now that Washington and New York have replaced London (in terms of economic and military power), we resemble more than ever a larger version of Scotland, which benefits from the markets and economic systems generated by its powerful neighbour to the south. In brief, we can deal with the world’s most aggressive capitalist power (the U.S.) because we were a working part of the world’s most aggressive capitalist power (England) for over two hundred years. Lister Sinclair once wrote — referring to the U.K and the U.S. — that Canadians "lie between the greatest and grimmest of the Grim Great Powers" (quoted in Waters, 608). Yet Atwood's only reference to the British Empire — apart from a general reference to America's revolt against its "colonial situation" — is that it behaved slightly better than the Americans and the Mongols, and that it, like Rome, didn't expect to be liked. Yet again she leaves out the crucial part: in English Canada the English were liked.
Atwood shies away from the crucial question: Is the reason Canada has fared so well — despite its proximity to the two most powerful empires of the last three hundred years — that we’ve always been an integral part of these empires? Answering in the affirmative would explain why Canada doesn’t have a negative view of empire — like many other nations do. Canada didn’t, for instance, suffer the fate of Burma during the three brutal wars Britain fought against it from 1824-86, or of China during the Opium Wars against the British from 1839-60, or of the Philippines when the U.S. defeated Spain (which had controlled the Philippines for about 300 years) yet then went on to fight the Filipinos for control of their country, or the fate of Vietnam from the time the French left in 1954. To return to Atwood’s comparison of Canada and Gaul, perhaps we’re less like the Roman province of Celtic Gaul (in central and northern France — "Celtica" on the map below), where Roman legions were stationed in great numbers because of the deep tensions with Rome. Perhaps we’re more like the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul (also called Narbonensis — see the map below), which was so integrated into the economic structure of the Roman Empire that legions hardly needed to be stationed there at all.
Cisalpine Gaul (Gallia Cisalpina above) was part of the Roman Empire until 41 B.C., after which it was integrated into Roman Italy. In my analogy, Cisalpine Gaul stands for land integrated into the United States as a result of the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Oregon Treaty (1846), and the annexation of Native and Mexican land from Texas to California (1835-48). Transalpine Gaul (Narbonensis above) stands for land north of the 49th parallel, which was never completely integrated into the more powerful union to its south. Unlike Atwood, however, I’d emphasize that this analogy only goes so far -- as all analogies do. Moreover, the Rome analogy must be discarded precisely because of the factor Atwood sidelines: Britain. The Rome analogy contains only one imperial power — Rome — whereas in explaining the Canadian relation to the geo-political empire of the United States, two imperial powers must be taken into consideration — the United States and Britain.
One could argue that the French Empire should also be taken into account, and that Atwood ought to have spent more time on Modern France and less on Classical Gaul. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the French Empire abandoned Quebec after 1759, one year before which time Voltaire wrote in Candide that Canada is “quelques arpents de neige,” “some acres of snow.” Voltaire meant that the effort to defend French Canada wasn’t worth the difficulty involved (remembering of course that New England was much larger than Quebec) and wasn’t worth the value obtained from the land itself (for instance, the plantations of Guadeloupe and Martinique were more profitable). Partly as a result of this abandonment, and partly as a result of the rivalry between Britain and revolutionary America, the relation between French and English Canada has involved a unique mentality of compromise — one that doesn’t exist south of the 49th parallel. For instance, the American union is indissoluble, while Quebec is free to leave at any time. Canada’s position is in some ways like that of Scotland, yet it’s also complicated by the rivalry between two Empires, and by an ongoing mentality of negotiation between French and English Canada. It’s this multi-national complexity that makes the Rome-Gaul analogy too simplistic. And it’s this mentality of negotiation that helps explain why both Canadian men and Canadian women aren’t as eager to put on army boots as are their good friends to the south.
Watters, R.E. “Stephen Leacock’s Canadian Humor.” Canadian Anthology. Toronto: Gage, 1974.
Army Boots and Romans: Atwood’s Flawed Comparisons
While Atwood’s provocative and at times insightful, her writing is ineffective because her gender comparisons are insulting and confusing, and her argument is unconvincing because her comparison between the U.S. and Rome leaves out crucial elements related to neocolonialism and the British Empire.
Atwood’s comparison between militant men and militant America is insulting.
— jackboots: provocative yet alienates men
— even if agree, still unexamined premise
— like insulting women or Christians
The comparison also confuses the issue.
— American women? Canadian men?
— returns to comparison at end
— biased against nearby men; biased against neighbour nation?
Atwood’s second comparison—between American and Roman empires—is far more useful to her argument.
— comparison: explains feelings (overpowered)
— Mexico analogy: resonate with Americans re. reconquista
— makes sense in terms of economy—NAFTA, etc.
Her comparison between American and Roman empires starts off strong yet ends up weak—for two reasons. First, she leaves out the crucial distinction between colonialism and neocolonialism.
— makes sense: power, yet not exercise of power
— U.S. treatment of Canada not same as Guatemala, Chile, Iraq
— 1812-14 excepted (Britain)
Atwood’s comparison’s further weakened because she leaves out the positive role empire has played in Canada.
— role of Britain: protector, economic gain
— role shift London to Washington; Canada still benefits
— ‘between the greatest and grimmest’ powers
— Canada fared better (Burma, China, Philippines, Vietnam)
— Canada and Cisalpine (not Celtic Gaul)
— limits of analogy: two imperial powers part of equation
— Conclusion: third imperial power (France); compromise (264 words)