Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Gitmo in pop culture

Looks like there is a new Harold and Kumar movie coming out, and the Nazis who run Guantánamo Bay are not amused.

Guantánamo, Evil and Zany in Pop Culture
This spring, the stoner screwball movie of 2004, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” will get a sequel. This time, because of some unfortunate confusion on an airplane between a “bong” and a “bomb,” our slacker antiheroes are shipped off to the moviemakers’ idea of the worst prison imaginable.


Harold and Kumar’s escape is only the latest cultural road trip through the detention center on Cuba’s southeast corner. And in most of them, Guantánamo is an eerie outpost, with scorpions, five-foot iguanas and banana rats — rodents the size of small dogs.

The image of a forbidding prison camp is not entirely false. But it is not the picture Bush administration officials would prefer to emphasize. They portray Guantánamo Bay as a clean and modern detention camp, where humane treatment of terror suspects is the rule.


But it is a matter of emphasis, said Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, who runs the camp for the Pentagon. In an interview, Admiral Buzby said that countering what he called preconceptions about Guantánamo was “probably the biggest challenge that I face.”

The focus on Guantánamo as a creative subject can lead to distortions, Admiral Buzby said. “It’s as if someone turned up the gain on our life to make it sound really bad.”

Some writers say it may be too late for anyone to change perceptions. “That one word — Guantánamo — has come to symbolize so much,” said Michelle Shephard, a reporter for The Toronto Star, whose book “Guantánamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr,” is scheduled to be published next month. Mr. Khadr was first detained when he was 15.
Ioz's take: It Was Only a Paper Moon takes on the line about the US government portraying Gitmo as "clean and modern" in a manner reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson's character Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction in which he interrupts the b.s. by saying, "Oh, well allow me to retort!":
You know, Dachau was a clean and modern detention camp once upon a time. It is neither the cleanliness nor the modernity that defines the place, but the detention. There are perfectly sterile, orderly, well-run, brightly lit abbatoirs; none of those adjectives alters the fact that throats are slit and blood drained into bins on the floor.

Since there seems to be confusion on the point, I'll elaborate. In many aspects of our empire, we seem to believe that qualitative improvements will obviate categorical wrongs. Thus the prevalence of the idea that the "success" of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan has some bearing on their rightness or wrongness, or the idea that the "humaneness" with which we treat our prisoners somehow negates the fact that we have imprisoned them beyond hope of release or appeal. I suppose that I would prefer sanitary solitary confinement to solitary confinement in my own filth, but after years I suspect that becomes a distinction without a difference. The concentration camp at Guantanamo may have been laid out by the architects of Candyland. That has no bearing whatsoever on the perversion that it represents.
First things first - I loved Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. My first impulse when first reading that they had a sequel, and that it lampooned Gitmo was, "Damn! I gotta see this!" Look, despots and despotic practices have probably been the subject of satire for as long as there have been civilizations. Heck, at least in my lifetime, there have been some great satirical films and novels capturing various facets of wars and warmongers - Catch-22, MASH (the film), Slaughterhouse Five, Dr. Strangelove all come to mind immediately. References to televised lampooning of UK's fictional dictator in the film V for Vendetta would also be grist for the mill. I'd be remiss if I didn't make mention of the parody of regional despot Pontius Pilate in The Life of Brian, or of course Monty Python's "The Spanish Inquisition" sketch from the TV series; while we're at it let's not forget Mel Brooks' Inquisition scene from A History of the World Part 1.

Although I doubt a Harold and Kumar flick will be placed in the same class with, say Chaplin's The Great Dictator, it certainly catches the vibe. When black comedy works, it does so precisely because its writers and performers are blatantly doing what so many fail or refuse to do: call things by their true names. Tyrants and perpetrators of cruelty who become the targets of such comedy, of course, recoil at the veritable curtain being raised to show them and their actions for what they are, in the process stripping them of their ability to terrorize the masses into submission.

Satirizing the War on Terra makes perfect sense, dark times call for black comedy; there is an absurdity to the sheer cruelty committed in its name that deserves to be mocked and ridiculed as much as is humanly possible. To not see the gulags created by the US as perverted would take leaps of the imagination that would create the equivalent of vertigo. At the end of the day, there is no denying that no matter the protestations of "cleanliness" and "modernity", a place like Gitmo exists at least in part for the purpose of warehousing human beings - the vast majority of whom just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time - until they can be disposed of (either by being released somewhere after the physical and psychological damage has taken its irrevocable toll, buried or burned after dying in confinement, or simply slaughtered). Like IOZ, I will accept that perhaps a sanitary cell in which one is held in solitary confinement is preferable to a cell that is filthy, although at some point the distinction becomes meaningless to those confined. It also exists it should be noted to serve notice to the populace that any real or perceived infraction of the government's dictates will potentially lead one to become among the "disappeared." Whatever you do, don't try to sneak a bong onto an airplane - the TSA goons will think you mean to sneak a bomb on board. "Be good. Mind your manners. Look straight ahead. Don't ask too many questions. Be afraid." Thankfully, somewhere a satirist lurks and in the process of flipping the bird to the fearmongers encourages others to do likewise. Now, whether Harold and Kumar are up to the task will remain to be seen.

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