Friday, November 17, 2006

It's a Droog's World, After All

(Note: This essay represents a brief detour from the ongoing series "Opening the Gates of the Gulag," which I intend to conclude tomorrow.)

I was sure I had met these millicents some mesto before. The one who had hold of me, going: “There, there, there,” just by the front door of the Public Biblio, him I did not know at all.... But the other two had backs that I was sure I had viddied before. They were lashing into these starry old vecks with great bolshy glee and joy, swishing away with malenky whips, creeching: “There, you naughty boys. That should teach you to stop rioting and breaking the State's Peace, you wicked villains, you.” So they drove these panting and wheezing and near dying starry avengers back into the reading-room, then they turned round, smecking with the fun they'd had, to viddy me. The older one of the two said: “Well well well well well well well. If it isn't little Alex. Very long time no viddy, droog. How goes?”

F. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

After spending much of their shared adolescence indulging in “a little of the old ultra-violence,” Alex and his erstwhile “droog” comrades took very different paths.

Imprisoned after a bungled attempt to rob an old woman who proves to be more than he can handle, Alex is eventually chosen for an experiment in Pavlovian conditioning that deprives him of any capacity for violence, even in self-defense or suicide.

Despairing of life and eager to end it, Alex repairs to a local library in search of a suitably non-violent method of self-slaughter. The librarian, as it happens, is one of his former victims, and – learning that his one-time tormentor is helpless - the elderly man falls on Alex with a fury, aided by several other bystanders.

When the police arrive to break up the melee, Alex is astonished to see that the two who take visible and obvious pleasure in beating the rioters in the name of restoring “the State's Peace” were two former gang-bangers – his erstwhile droog companion Dim, and Billyboy, former leader of a rival gang. As a gang member, Dim had long resented Alex's leadership role, and it was his betrayal during the robbery – he blind-sided Alex with a length of chain, then left him behind for the police – that led to Alex's incarceration and reprogramming.

Not surprisingly, after being “rescued” from the mob in the library, Alex is taken to the outskirts of town and beaten into a lumpy mess by the police. He eventually wanders into the home of a novelist who had been another of his victims: Alex and his droogs, years earlier, had invaded the home, assaulted the writer, then raped and beaten his wife in front of him. In due course the woman died.

Burgess was inspired to write A Clockwork Orange, in part, by a similarly senseless attack on his own wife, Lynne: While pregnant with the couple's child, Mrs. Burgess was beaten by a gang of four deserting U.S. GIs on a London street in 1943. The mother survived; the child did not. Had the child been born, he would have been the same age at the time the novel was published that its central figure was when the story ends – nineteen years old.

In addition to depriving the couple of their child, the attack on Lynne left her with permanent gynecological damage. Incredible as it seems, Burgess used his novel as a way of empathizing with the young, morally uprooted criminals who committed that atrocity. In what has to be considered an exercise in meta-narrative, the novelist in A Clockwork Orange, F. Alexander, is writing a novel entitled A Clockwork Orange, which the author intends to be a broadside against the rise of the totalitarian state.

“The Government's big boast, you see, is the way it has dealt with crime these last months,” Alexander tells Alex, whom the writer recognizes as a victim of the State's “Ludovico Technique.” “Recruiting brutal young roughs for the police,” continues Alexander. “Proposing debilitating and will-sapping techniques of conditioning.... We've seen it all before in other countries. The thin end of the wedge. Before we know where we are we shall have the full apparatus of totalitarianism.”

“You ... are a living witness to these diabolical proposals,” the writer tells Alex. “The people, the common people, must know, must see.... Would they like their sons to become what you, poor victim, have become? Will not the Government itself now decide what is and what is not crime and pump out the life and guts and will of whoever sees fit to displease the Government?”

In his foreword to the 1986 edition of his novel (containing the final chapter, which had been deleted from previous editions published in the U.S.), Burgess reiterates, and explicitly identifies with, that sentiment.

“[B]y definition, a human being is endowed with free will,” Burgess contends. “He can use this to choose between good and evil. If he can only perform good or perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange – meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with color and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State.”

Even those not in accord with what appears to be Burgess's theology should find his critique of the Almighty State to be unassailable.

Under our present system, which has been defined as “soft totalitarianism,” nothing is either good or bad, save as the State defines. This is made very obvious from the morally contradictory conditioning to which youngsters are subjected.

Is drug use (the practice that gave the droogs their name) evil? That depends. Public school children are run through DARE indoctrination one week, and then forced to take Ritalin the next.

Should parents and school officials take alarm when a youngster displays an interest in firearms, edged weapons, and military gear? Certainly they should, insist enforcers of “Zero Tolerance” policies that punish students for bringing such items as pocketknives to school. But the same officials (with a few exceptions) see nothing amiss in permitting the military to canvass for recruits, often with appeals to droog-like appetites for unrestricted lethal violence.

Here's a case in point: Several children in our neighborhood have had items like pocketknives confiscated for violating Elementary School "Zero Tolerance" guidelines. One such instance occurred during "Red Ribbon Week," which was sponsored by the local affiliate of the Homeland Security Directorate as a way of glorifying the "war on drugs," an exercise that has done nothing to abate narcotics use, but a great deal to liberate and magnify the State's capacity for murderous violence.

The theme of the local "Red Ribbon Week" was to say "no" to both drugs and violence. Yet the activities at the local Elementary School included a tribute to local soldiers stationed in Iraq as part of the gang-rape (no other description is adequate) of that country.

All of this follows the dynamics described in Burgess's novel: Suppression of all violent impulses except those channeled into the service of the "State's Peace."

With that backstory in mind, scenes like this make perfect, albeit chilling, sense.

The same is true of this, and this, and this, and -- especially -- this....

A brief but important postscript:

"Be careful about letting your blood boil with that [first] video," advises a good friend, an aspiring constitutional lawyer who was briefly a law enforcement officer (and whose libertarian instincts are well-honed). "First off, that kid isn't supposed to be there. It's a relatively private library where only ID carrying patrons are allowed in. Secondly, he was told to leave repeatedly, and he did not. The only option left here is use of force - dragging the kid out, which is violent and dangerous to everyone involved, or using coercive tactics to make him get out. The tazer is a useful tool that usually leaves no permanent damage (unlike being tackled and dragged out). From all evidence shown, the tazering seems justified. However, much evidence is not shown. You don't see how much of an ass the kid is being before he's kicked out. You don't see how hard he's resisting leaving a place that he has no right to be in. You don't see how many times he's told to leave. So on and so forth. I was pissed when I first saw it too, but the circumstances of the situation don't place fault, in my opinion, and in this single instance, on the thugs in blue."

These caveats are appropriate and well-presented. From what I understand, the eyewitness testimony confirms that the student was uncooperative, in large measure because he considered himself the target of ethnic profiling. But according to eyewitness accounts, the taser attack occurred while the student was leaving -- after he had demanded that the cops remove their hands from him. And when cops are dealing with a passively non-compliant individual, as this guy appears to be, "tackling" and "dragging" aren't necessary; picking him up and carrying him bodily from a restricted area need not involve any risk either to the officers, the subject, or to spectators.

The most ominous element of this video, however, is not the arguably gratuitous taser attack, but the threat to taser student witnesses who were pressing their demands for information about the police. The student in question may have behaved like an "ass," but most of those who witnessed this incident seemed to have little difficulty recognizing who the real offenders were.


dixiedog said...

Interesting Will. I like dr roberts saw the movie years ago, but I never could reconcile its ominous mechanical aspect to the state and the populace.

And about the cameraman laughing at the carnage as if it's a video game, I certainly deduce from this how a seemingly endless imperial war can eventually create prime candidates for mass-murder upon their return, either at the States disposal or their own psychotic reasons. That is, IF they physically survive. Mentally, however, is obviously another matter entirely.

You know, I've often wondered (in a "big picture" sense since that is how I find myself thinking in the abstract about anything these days, unfortunately) in recent years if the rapid spread of advanced technology even among the least among the commoner class - everything from GPS receivers, mobile phones, computers, etc., etc. - will provide the perfect and precise opportune means to control, not to mention know everything about, much of the world's masses by a future dictator.

After all, techno gadgets of every kind are rapidly becoming commodities these days and everybody from every socio-economic stratum possesses some sort of communications gadget. Either it's a cellphone, a laptop, a digital cam/vidcam, whatever, many with all or some the functions of another device. I can foresee a thoroughly controlled and/or manipulated populace from this reality, rather than the hoped for "freedom" from control that other technology enthusiasts predict.

Remember, "Da Man" always has gotten first dibs at what eventually filters down to the street commoner.

Anonymous said...

Execllent post.

One point of correction:

You wrote:
"Is drug use (the practice that gave the droogs their name) evil?"

"Droog" as a word did not come from drug use, but from the Russian word for friend or companion. I first read that in Burgess's autobiography and it's also mentioned in the wikipedia

"Certain slang words used by Alex and his gang are derived from Russian. Друѓ, which means "friend" in Russian, is pronounced "Droog", which is their slang term for their friends. Another example is how the Russian word for "good", хорошо, has the same basic pronunciation as "Horrorshow".