Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Wrestling Lessons, Part II

Today I’m going to apply yesterday’s wrestling lessons to international conflicts.

There is always a Good Guy and a Bad Guy. With rare exceptions, people identify with the Good Guy and see his victories as theirs.

Can you remember the United States ever fighting a war in which there was no Bad Guy, or in which America was not the Good Guy?

What makes the Good Guy good and the Bad Guy bad?

First, appearance. The Good Guy is usually good looking, or at least pleasant looking, and the Bad Guy looks unpleasant, if not outright ugly. It helps if the villain appears foreign in some way, or of an unpopular race.

In international propaganda, “we” look better than “they” do. Our facial features are familiar, while theirs are depicted as alien, or distorted into unpleasant expressions in the case of people, like the Germans, who may actually look better than we do. Our soldiers are handsome and familiar-looking, while theirs are, for example, short, yellow, and buck-toothed, with slanty eyes behind thick glasses – or swarthy, big-nosed, and bearded. Our clothing is “normal” while they are “towel heads”. If “they” are from the Arab World (other than Israel), they are usually shown in U.S. photos as poorly dressed in un-American robes, squatting in the dirt next to ruins – not shown in the modern western dress in a well-furnished home one would actually see if one visited middle class and professional people in Arab countries. How many photographs have you seen of an Arab in a business suit, carrying a Gucci briefcase?

Appearance is related to the first aim of war propaganda -- to “dehumanize” the enemy so as to make the Good Guys willing to see the enemy killed, or even willing to help kill him. We must never be allowed to identify with the people our leaders want to destroy. Showing the enemy looking “different from us” is an important step toward dehumanization.

Second, reputation. The Good Guy is good primarily by designation, and not because he has done anything in particular to earn the title. In international politics, unlike wrestling, there is the additional arbitrary factor of where one is born. For most people, where they happen to be born determines where their patriotism lies. Loyalty goes with birthplace, which designates where the “Good Guys” come from . . . whether it’s California, Tokyo, Shanghai, Moscow, Berlin, or Marseilles. Few Americans would ask, “Why should I fight for America instead of North Korea?” It’s just a given.

(Wrestlers know how to use the “patriotism” factor. Some deck themselves out like the star spangled banner for a kind of “Captain America” effect, while some deliberately appeal to the denizens of a certain region, as by wearing cowboy boots and a Western hat. Wait a minute now; I could be talking about politicians!)

Third, demeanor. The hero may be confident and even cocky, but he is not as outrageously vain and boastful as his opposite number. Boasting is less important on the international front than in wrestling, but what Americans cheer as admirable in the shouting bravado of a U.S. Marine would be seen as threatening bluster in an armed Al Qaeda trainee. Foreign leaders we are meant to dislike are almost always portrayed as bombastic boasters.

Fourth, courage. The Good Guy is always brave, even when he is in serious trouble, but the Bad Guy exhibits bravery only as long as he’s on top. When the Bad Guy gets into trouble, he cringes, cowers, kneels and begs, retreats, and even tries to jump out of the ring and run away from the fight.

Yes, “our” people are courageous by nature, by virtue of being born where we were, while the enemy appears brave (if ever) only because of insane fanaticism or outlandish religious beliefs, or drugs, or brainwashing, or some other factor which explains the apparent bravery away. When an American “celebrity” opined that the men in the planes which brought down the twin towers were brave, he was promptly ostracized. The enemy can never be brave. His attacks, no matter how courageous and self-sacrificing, are “cowardly”. Professional military men may acknowledge the bravery of enemy troops, but that remains a private matter.

Fifth, fair fighting and abiding by the rules differentiate a Good Guy from a Bad Guy . . . but only to a point. What the audience wants, and often gets, is a Good Guy who is driven over the edge by a cheating, dirty-fighting villain, so that the Good Guy gives back worse than the Bad Guy gave in the first place. Whereas rule-breaking, sneaky tactics, and torture were booed by the audience when they are used by the villain, they are cheered when used by the hero. The very things which most marked the Bad Guy as a villain are now approved for the Good Guy. Here we see also the holy power of “retaliation” as compared to villainous “aggression”. "Isn't it terrible? But we have to do it."

We Americans were always told – until the past few years when the truth became too obvious to hide – that American soldiers fought cleaner than their enemies, abided by the rules of war and the Geneva Convention, and were in particular distinguished from the enemy because the enemy used torture and Americans didn’t. Atrocity and torture tales – true and untrue – are the staple of war propaganda. Why was Saddam Hussein so bad? Mainly because he tortured people. (How many times before and during the invasion of Iraq did I see that photograph of an empty chair in the middle of an empty room with some kind of line hanging above it, supposedly going to prove Saddam Hussein’s use of torture. It could have been in Minnesota.) Why were Nazis so bad? Because they tortured people. Many a Hollywood “war movie” told us so. And what was the main Nazi evidence that the Soviet Bolsheviks were so horrible? The Bolsheviks tortured people.

What is now the main evidence before the world that Americans are bad? They torture people. While the president of the U.S. says (in ludicrous contradiction of hundreds of photographs and documented reports) that “Americans don’t torture people”, he seeks and obtains laws which make torture legal. Has torture become respectable – as torture by the Good Wrestler is okay under certain circumstances – or has America become a Bad Guy? It sometimes happens, even in wrestling, that a Good Guy turns bad.

(I’ll remind myself, in a future blog entry, that the U.S. was not such a Good Guy in previous wars either.)

To wrap this up, when I read the daily propaganda and the results of opinion polls and man-in-the-street interviews, I often think of that evening of wrestling in West Palm Beach. It was truly illuminating.

2 comments:

Yves said...

In this one post you have said much of what I have wanted to say for a long time, but could never have said as well as this.

Fleming said...

Yves, you are too kind!

Thank you. You underrate your own abilities.