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Saturday, February 19, 2005

Dirty Harry and The VRC

We watched "Dirty Harry" last night. It was produced in 1972 (the same year as the "Godfather"), but in look and feel it was much closer to the hardbitten detective stories of the '50's and '60's. The director, Don Siegel, had been considered a quality "B" movie craftsman until he hit it big by teaming up with rising western star Clint Eastwood.

I first saw the film when it was released, and, along with millions of others, enjoyed it immensely, but left the theater feeling, vaguely, that our society was heading down a bad path.

Seeing it now I am appalled at the level of (conscious or unconscious) political manipulation. Couple this with the traditional emotion-impacting nature of a well-crafted movie and the situation becomes problematic.

The storyline follows the attempt of badass cop Harry Callahan (Eastwood) to collar a psycho killer (a flambouyant Andy Robinson) before a woman he has buried alive suffocates. By the time Callahan catches up to him, we have grown to loathe the killer, and cheer as Dirty Harry beats the info out of him.

Usual "vigilante cowboy" fare so far. But now the film gets into the meat of the matter. In the next scene an unbelieving Callahan is castigated by the liberal DA. The psycho will be turned loose and it is Dirty Harry's fault for not following procedure and denying the killer his rights. To add insult to injury a liberal judge (educated, slight, balding,milquetoast) is there to add his own admonishment. At this point it is not just Callahan who is angry, but we, the audience, are furious. "This is Wrong", we shout in our minds, "this is Insane". And then we look around for someone to blame. And the answer is provided, ready made, for us. It is the egghead liberals who think criminals' rights are more important than victims' rights. The leftwing judges and lawyers are soft on crime and only out to make a buck. It is their fault, goddamn their souls.

What the audience forgets is that, although we know he is guilty (because we have watched it all unfold), the DA only has hearsay and tainted evidence upon which to make a decision.

So this brings me to the points I want to make:

1. Media (including entertainment media) has an overwhelmingly powerful affect on the formation of our opinions. And these opinions, because they are emotion based, are more properly "frames" than "opinions". (see George Lakoff, "Moral Politics") In watching "Dirty Harry", we begin to form the frame: Liberals are not like us.

2. Americans (by happenstance or design) are losing the ability to think critically. The underpinning for this is the ever shrinking "fact file" that makes up Americans' knowledge of the world. Without "facts", opinions are formed by emotion. Without "facts" there is no basis for critical thinking skills. Without "facts" opinions are more susceptible to manipulation, and, prey to propaganda. These factless opinions then become "frames" which are a lower level (more basic) surety. And as George Lakoff states, "frames become hardwired in the brain. When presented with opposing facts, a person will refuse the facts and maintain their frames". If we were to apply critical thinking to the situation presented in "Dirty Harry", we would see that by following the law every time (even though it is distasteful sometimes) all people are protected.

3. The law (the Constitution) is what makes America, America. Consequently, every time we circumvent or minimize, or abuse, the Constitution, every time we take short cuts (no matter how well meaning), America becomes less America. The topicallity of "Dirty Harry" is obvious. In 1972 we wanted the DA to lock up the killer, even without evidence, because we FELT he was "evil" and because we FELT he would kill again. Even if we didn't know for SURE, it was better to be safe than sorry. In 1972 this thinking was the beginning of a frame. Today this frame has come to fruition in the opinions of Alberto Gonzales and John Ashcroft, the statements of Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney, and the US actions at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison.
Dirty Harry solved the plot dilemma in the mythic American fashion: Taking matters into his own hands, "proving" that the end does justify the means. He has many contemporary counterparts, including John Negroponte, Oliver North, Elliot Abrams, and John Poindexter. These men all broke the law but (or because of it) are considered heroes by the rightwing.

Tonight we are going to watch "Magnum force".


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