Wednesday, December 10, 2008

O Those American Values

I recently watched two documentaries: “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Bigger, Stronger, Faster.”

I selected “Taxi to the Dark Side” from Netflix because, based on the blurb, I thought it would be an examination of the U.S. government’s approach to torture. No, it was the typical bash Bush (George W.), young American soldiers are sheep - although one soldier admitted to kicking a detainee so many times that he had to switch legs - who should not be held responsible for their actions, detainee treatment on Gitmo is so terrible, etc. (I found the section on torture as ‘violation of cultural sensitivities’ especially hilarious.) For all that was oh-so-typical about this treatment on the subject of recent government actions, there is something that I always find shocking from both the left and the right: the expectation that the U.S. government just wouldn’t do such things. After all, it doesn’t fit with American values.

The climax of the film is how the false information al-Libi gave to interrogators created a cause for the invasion of Iraq. For those who don’t remember, he was the prisoner who claimed that Iraq was training al Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical weapons, the evidence that Powell provided to the UN in 2003 to justify the war on Iraq. The filmmakers conveniently underplay the fact that al-Libi was handed over by the CIA to Egyptian authorities to get that confession. In other words, they got the false confession the old-fashioned American way: not through some Bush administration redefinition of torture, but through handing him off to a foreign government that uses even more aggressive tactics to get info. Since I was once such a good member of Amnesty International (tongue firmly planted in cheek), I know that the outsourcing of torture is standard American practice, has been since early Cold War days. At least the Bush administration may have, in other cases, showed advancements in the American values of doing the job yourself and showing some personal responsibility.

But for the filmmakers, providing the actual facts could also expose the truth: the American government has always been willing to get its hands dirty in one way or another. After all, hasn’t Chile thanked us for Pinochet? Isn’t this the federal government that refused to do anything about terrorism against its own citizens – as long as it was done by other citizens - for over 100 years? Why in the world do we think this country is some type of moral entity that always acts in the good? It’s almost as if some have traded in belief in God for belief in this otherworldly America. I’m not as cynical as it may seem here, simply because I believe that government is usually just that – government. A neutral body, possessing no inherent morality, that functions to do the will of whomever is in charge of it. In a democracy, it then becomes a question of – why don’t those in power think exactly the same way I do? Well, because they are usually not exactly like you.

A much more fascinating perspective on those things called American values was presented in “Bigger, Stronger, Faster.” This documentary is a bit Michael Moore-style, with the filmmaker beginning by presenting his family portrait: three brothers raised on WWF wrestling in the age of Rambo, Rocky, and Schwarzenegger, who all become weight-lifters, body-builders, or wrestlers. Two of the three also end up as frequent steroid users.

But is steroid use really such a bad thing? Is it actually so much more dangerous than other prescribed drugs? The medical community says no. Most people who use steroids do so for medical reasons, and its use should not be recommended for adolescents (see East German athletes), but the incidence of complications from steroid use are surprisingly low, considering how vilified it is. As the filmmaker makes clear, our problem with steroid use among athletes is that is violates our sense of fairness in competition. Yet Olympic athletes train in high altitude conditions and cyclists sleep in chambers with lower-than-normal oxygen levels. In other words, athletes are poked, prodded, and trained with some of the highest technology available to insure maximum performance and all that is perfectly fine as long as they don’t consume one of the drugs that some committee has decided to ban, though they may consume a number of other drugs designed to increase performance. We don’t really think that Michael Phelps got all those medals by just swimming a lot of laps in some backyard pool, do we? And yet the use of specially designed material that reduces friction in the water and slightly increases buoyancy for swimming gear is A-ok.

There’s more to this documentary: how easy it is to make, advertise, and sell OTC herbal supplements and claim anything you want about what’s in them and what they do, since they aren’t tested by the FDA (we have Orrin Hatch, Utah senator to thank for that – I hope the Vikings’ Williamses and Deuce and Will Grant are harassing him right now). I learned a bit more about the weight-lifting and professional wrestling businesses than I knew previously, too. The principal focus however is how we have a “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” culture, and yet we want to admonish those who will do anything to win if it involved taking some pill, even though that pill’s only real benefits are to allow them to train harder, recover faster, and resume training more quickly. Their bodies still have to do all the hard work.

We have this idea of the Western frontier man, a John Wayne type, accomplishing what he does through hard work and grit alone. But he’s not an American hero unless he wins. Maybe the Bush administration was just old-fashioned. If the filmmakers of “Taxi to the Dark Side” are going to give a pass to soldiers violently beating up detainees because they were brainwashed by the military culture under the Bush administration, I’m going to give Bush and pals a pass for similar reasons: they were brainwashed by American culture.

P.S. I enjoyed watching the first documentary if only to see clips from Rummy’s press conferences again. He had a true gift for the one-liners and pithy comments.