gunpowder, treason and plot

Two things.

First, I heard Fox News call it for Obama, with CNN and MSNBC following shortly, in the cabaret room at ImprovBoston last night. BostonNewsNet hosted a live election returns party, with a long string of sketches and comedian acts sprinkled between bits of breaking news. I had a couple beers and a cookie and chatted with various theater friends. Every time I made to leave – three times, at least – something interesting happened, or someone I hadn’t seen in a while wandered in.

When the announcement spread across the cabaret room’s three TVs, applause broke out spontaneously; shockingly enough, a Cambridge crowd tends to swing Obamaward. I’d spoken in yesterday’s post about the pre-rational appeal of picking sides and cheering for an abstract entity, and I got sucked into it with the rest of the room. The human brain evolved to respond strongly to us-vs-them impulses, and nowhere do you see that drawn more starkly than in election returns. Grown men weeped openly. Friends pounded me on the back. What I’m saying is: I may have clapped for a man I didn’t vote for.

Lest I come off too deconstructingly cynical, let me say sincerely: I was glad to be in a room packed with happy friends when I heard history being made. So last night was fun.

(Also, BostonNewsNet’s coverage was hilarious. TC, Kevin, Meghan, Bobby, Harry, Marcelo, Robert, everyone – beautifully done!)

# # #

Second: I haven’t made a point of observing Guy Fawkes Day, November 5th, in years. Really, we Americans owe what little interest we have in a failed act of radical religious terrorism to Alan Moore. He forever linked Guy Fawkes with anarchism in my mind with V For Vendetta, a remarkable graphic novel that I discovered in college. My views on politics have changed since then (I can’t say whether for better or worse), as has my fascination with the comic form.

But when Guy Fawkes Day falls the day after one of the most interesting elections in U.S. history? I know of no reason that striking coincidence should ever be forgot.

Reprinted from an earlier post (March 2006, LiveJournal), here’s my take on the two most compelling themes of V for Vendetta. They’re what inspired me the most, and what I think elevates the story from a comic book to a timeless graphic novel.

The message of V for Vendetta, the graphic novel, can be summed up in two lines. Both of these lines come from the book. One is unsettling; one is inspiring.

1. “Happiness is a prison, Evey.”

Part of what makes V such a fascinating character is that he might not be human. The story hints at superhuman alterations made to him at Larkhill, and the detectives surmise in Act One that he might be stronger or faster than a normal man. We never see his face. And he speaks and acts (and attacks) with such rehearsed precision that it’s as if he knew every move in advance.

But V’s ultimate inhumanity – in every sense of the word – comes when he kidnaps Evey and forces her through a faux-Guantanamo, torturing her and trying to trick her into giving up. He reveals this all to her later, only to meet with her shock and disapproval. Yes, most of the oppressed citizens of London are living in misery. But she had a life in the real world with a man she loved. She was happy.

“Happiness is a prison, Evey,” V tells her. “Happiness is the most insidious prison of all.”

That line is, at the same time, absolutely psychopathic and absolutely true.

To say that “happiness is a prison” demonstrates a fundamental detachment from the way humans perceive the world. However you define happiness – gut satisfaction, enlightened contentment, pure giddy joy – you’d have to be insane to say that the very idea is bad. Not just bad but a prison: a cage, a confinement, a restriction.

Let’s make that unstintingly clear. V is insane in every definition we’re comfortable with.

But he’s nonetheless correct. Happiness is the last obstacle to an absolute devotion to liberty. And it makes sense if you think about it. Don’t like your job? You could always quit tomorrow, sell everything you can’t carry, pack the rest in a car and drive off into the sunset. But that kind of freedom is scary: it contains a wild number of risks. If total social order broke down tomorrow in the United States, that would also be a new, unparalleled freedom. It would also be a terrifying ordeal.

Pure freedom, if such a thing is practical, may be too raw and terrible for humans. We all trade a little bit of our liberty in exchange for living comfortably with our neighbors. Every now and then, however, some misfit comes along and asks if perhaps we’ve traded too much. Our first answer is always, “No,” because he’s challenging our security. And we like to feel safe. V, in this role, represents the eternal misfit. He is violently unsatisfied with the fascist England of a postwar future; he would be just as unsatisfied with the United States under George W. Bush. Or under Andrew Jackson. Or under the Articles of Confederation.

The movie shies away from going this far in its agenda. This, along with other touches, makes V a little more sympathetic. Personally, I missed it, though. I don’t know if living the life of a Puritan guerrilla is a healthy pursuit of freedom. But I do know that no one’s going to be challenged by the notion of revolting against black-uniformed fascists. Fascists are easy villains. It’s the ones who tell you that Officer Friendly is your enemy – as V would – that get you thinking.

2. “It is the very last inch of us. But within that inch we are free.”

All law ultimately comes down to a man with a gun, pointed at you. All of it. Even the most trivial infraction – a speeding ticket, overdue taxes – will be corrected at gunpoint if you try and ignore it for too long.

That being said, all law ultimately comes down to one choice: obey or perish. For most laws this isn’t a hard choice at all. These are the laws we find moral anyway – don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t vandalize. It’s the fuzzier ones that make us criminals. Don’t drive so fast. Don’t smoke that. Don’t get on the plane with that. Don’t try and sit there if your skin’s that color.

We conform, of course. We go along, because it’s that or our heads. If we break the law, we do it quietly, with soft whispers or when no one’s looking. If no one went along, then there wouldn’t be enough cops in the world to enforce the law. It’s the threat of violence and the consent of our neighbors that keeps our heads down. And it’s not so bad, anyway. Besides, if anyone reproves us later, we can always say we were forced to.

Every now and then, though, we’re reminded that there is a choice. We were reminded in Tienanmen Square, in East Berlin, in Johannesburg and in Alabama. There’s always a choice. You can live in conformity or you can die with your integrity.

The point of V’s insane experiment with Evey is to remind her that there is a choice. No matter how many options are denied us, no matter how much of our property is seized, no matter how numerous our opponents, no matter how high the wall or how sturdy the bars, there is one last inch where they cannot trespass. There’s one sacred possession that can never be taken, only given away. As soon as we give it, they have everything. As long as we don’t, we are still free.

Like the other message of V for Vendetta, this vision – the vision of a life without compromise – is also hard to swallow. But we must occasionally be reminded of the heroic, the ideal, the beautifully naive and the practically impossible. Without such stories our lives are, to borrow Hobbes, nasty, savage, brutish and short.

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you want stylin’, you know it’s time again

A coworker came by my desk waving a sheet of paper. “We’re doing betting squares for the game this weekend. You want in?”

“No thanks,” I said.

“Come on. Only five bucks!”

“Thanks anyway; I’ve got better things to spend my five bucks on.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know … lunch? Movie tickets? Beer?”

“You won’t miss the five bucks,” he insisted. “And you get to play along with the other folks in the office.”

“Really, I’m just going to keep my money.”

“Don’t you like football?”

I stared at him funny. “I love football.”

“Then why don’t you want to gamble on it?”

“That question doesn’t make any sense. There’s more to football than gambling.”

“Like what?”

I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation, but he looked serious. “Like watching the game? Cheering on your team? Wearing the team colors? Following team news? You know, all that?”

“Sure, sure, that’s cool, and I’m sure it makes a difference. But gambling’s what makes it a sport, instead of just something silly.”

“You’re not going to put me on the defensive. I can be a perfectly good football fan without gambling, and that’s that. Give me one good reason why I should bet on a football game.”

“Because everyone else is doing it!”

Another coworker, older and somewhat smarter, wandered by during this conversation; I shot him a pleading look while I answered the first guy’s riposte. “That’s not a valid argument and I think you know it.”

“The reason why you should gamble on football games,” interjected the older coworker, “is because it sends a message.”

I’d never heard an answer so bizarre, so I was at a loss for words.

He took this as a sign to continue. “The players in the game on Sunday know what the Vegas line is. They know that they’re six-point underdogs. That’s bound to discourage them. However, if there’s a lot of betting, Vegas will raise the line to make it a closer bet. They’ll do this to encourage more people to gamble. This will, in turn, encourage the players, since the game no longer looks like such a long shot. That’ll make them play better, and make them more likely to win.”

“Exactly!”, said the first coworker. He had never devoted that much thought to the question of Whether Or Not To Bet On Football. He’d been taught in sixth grade that betting was just Something All Good Football Fans Did. You weren’t really a good football fan if you didn’t bet. The notion of a football fan who didn’t bet on football baffled him.

“So you’re saying,” I said, gesturing with my hands as I struggled to line up concepts, “that if I bet on this Sunday’s game …”

“Right.”

“… and if thousands of other people bet the same way I do …”

“Uh-huh.”

“… that’ll encourage the bookies in Vegas to change the line …”

“Yup.”

“… which will encourage the players to play better …”

“You got it.”

“… which will hopefully make them win?”

“That’s it!” He beamed, proud of his tortured chain of reasoning.

“That’s the weirdest rationalization I’ve ever heard. Why wouldn’t I just go to the game and cheer for the players directly? That’s bound to have a greater effect on their playing than betting on them.”

“Well, sure, you can go to the game and cheer,” the older coworker said dismissively. “But there’s no reason you can’t do that and place a bet.”

“Unless I want to keep my five bucks!”

“Look,” the first coworker interrupted, “don’t you realize how lucky you are, living in a country where you can gamble on professional football? If you lived in the Soviet Union, or Saudi Arabia, or China, you wouldn’t have that privilege. It’s your right – hell, it’s your duty to put five bucks down on this Sunday’s game!”

“Now you’re being ridiculous,” I said.

“Don’t you want our team to win?”

“Of course I do.”

“Don’t you like living in a city that has a championship team?”

“I love it.”

“Then why won’t you fill out this betting square?”

I threw my hands up. “You’re not making ounce one of sense here.”

“I give up,” said the first coworker, snatching up the half-filled betting sheet and walking off. “I don’t know how you can say you want our team to win if you’re not willing to wager money on them.”

The older coworker smiled – one of those patronizing smiles that distances one from a louder party, while still trying to draw in the reluctant sale – and leaned in. “Look, it’s not that much money. Is there any reason why you won’t chip in five bucks? Play along with the rest of us?”

“I’m not going to bet on this Sunday’s game,” I answered, “because I don’t want to. It’s my five bucks, to spend however I like, and I choose not to spend it on this. I won’t want to spend it until I hear a sufficient argument for why I should. And so far, I have yet to hear anything that even sounds like an argument, much less a persuasive one.”

He shrugged sadly. “All right. I gave it my best. Sorry to bug you.”

“No problem; I have this conversation every four years or so.”

“See you at the tailgate this Sunday?”

“You know it. I’ll bring the ribs.”

I wear chains that excite the Feds

Melissa and Fraley had folks over on Friday to watch the Presidential debates for a bit. The magical scorecards from CNN entertained us for a bit, though I didn’t see the point of them. “Obama’s up 12 to 8,” Auston would say, tallying the four-faceted scorecards each panelist had. “12 of what to 8 of what?” I asked.

We tried muting the debate and pretending that the candidates were arguing about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (“I have never been a fan of that Shia LeBoeuf vine-swinging scene, and my record is clear on that”), but that didn’t help much. So we put in Idiocracy instead, which is still funny.

On Saturday, I started some laundry, then invited some folks over for gaming. We had an action-packed session, demolishing the Zakim Bridge and a historic house in Salem in the process. Unfortunately, my laundry was still damp by the time we finished, so I had to drive to the Highland Ave laundromat in the pouring rain and buy $10 in quarters.

“You doing laundry here?” the guy asked. “Yes,” I said. Then I took my double handful of quarters, got back in my car (right outside their window), and drove home. That’s probably the most evil thing I’ve done in a long while.

I fought the temptation to stay in on a rainy night and it paid off, as I had a hell of a time at Boston News Net on Saturday evening. I shot the nonsense with Jackie and Jen D., who were working the theater bar that evening, while waiting for the BNN cast to filter out. Once they finished striking their tech-heavy set, I joined them for a quick drink at The Field around the corner.

Confidential sources had told me that Vickie and Michelle B. were hosting a girls’ slumber party at their house, a mere two blocks from my front door. I decided I had an obligation to crash it, so I showed up a little after midnight. “Ladies,” I told them, “I just wanted to offer my services in case any of you need something brought down from a high shelf. Or perhaps any stuck jars that need opening.” They gave me a beer, which was my original goal. Wheels within wheels, my friends.

Sunday was pretty straightforward: I had Gorefest rehearsal, stopped by Marie’s to drop off her leftover Magner’s, then got a grilled cheese from Deli-icious. I got a call back from the apartment manager, after having left a (non-urgent) message on Saturday night. “Is the window still leaking?” he asked.

“Not currently,” I said. “Just when it rains.”

“Okay,” he said. “Is it bad?”

“Not too bad. It’s bound to get worse, y’know?”

“Right,” he said. “You can put, like, a towel or a bucket under it.”

“I have.”

“Right. Well, someone will come by to look at it once the rain lets up.”

“Okay,” I said.

I’d rather be with your friends, mate, ’cause they are much fitter

I will now write the only post that I will ever devote to the news of Sarah Palin being announced as McCain’s VP pick1. Ready? Here we go:

Never having voted in an election bigger than club treasurer, I turn to my more mature and responsible friends to ask: has a candidate’s Vice President pick ever made a difference in how you voted? Have you ever been on the fence about someone but their VP choice pushed you one way or the other? Or has a VP pick ever astounded you so much that you’ve immediately switched sides?

I’m not asking this Socratically or as a trick or as a prelude to a lecture2. I have near to zero insight into the voting process, so I don’t know how much a VP makes a difference. Whether the answer is “yes” or “no,” please don’t get defensive. I just want to know how you make your decisions. I am genuinely and sincerely curious.

And remember, this is for posterity. So be honest.

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1 This promise subject to change, of course, if Sarah Palin starts dating Lindsay Lohan or something equally bizarre. If she goes on just being a VP candidate I have nothing more to say about her.

2 In other words, “not the ways in which I always ask questions.”