28 September, 2011

Scapegoating, Holy Terror, and Catching Hell

This week brought the premiere of two mass media products that serve to enlighten how the past decade has created a very ugly society. The documentary Catching Hell and graphic novel Holy Terror come from people that are masters of their craft: Alex Gibney (Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Taxi to the Dark Side – all masterful documentaries) and Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil, Sin City, where hyperbole and control mix elegantly), respectively. However, what we’re looking at today is not the author, but rather the very artifact of people that cannot let go. By talking about scapegoats and creating a donkey on which people can pin the fears, despair and anger of a certain situation, we feel collectively better about ourselves.

And that’s messed up on several levels.

Catching Hell tells the story of Steve Bartman, the Chicago Cubs fan who grabbed a ball from Cubs outfielder Moises Alou during Game Six of the National League Championships against the Florida Marlins. Though Bartman is never interviewed, Gibney captures moments with fans that were at the game, speaking about the man as though he were less a man and more a force of nature that has impacted the community.  The video of the catch shows how the anger and resentment of fans and Cubs players made Bartman a target for all their woes, regardless of his actual level of involvement.

Bartman was seated in Section 4, Row 8, Seat 113 in Wrigley Field on October 14, 2003. Since that fateful night in Chicago, the seat has become a tourist attraction. What’s even scarier than the silence of the empty seat that Bartman once rented for a fateful evening is the silence that has overtaken Bartman’s life. Literally no one has seen the man out in public since he was escorted out of Wrigley Field by security guards for fear of his life. He was living at his parents’ house in the suburbs of Chicago, and now exists as a shadow that ESPN hunts regularly. He’s the Deep Throat of baseball, an agent of chaos whose catch portended doom for a team that had victory within its grasp. Don’t believe me? Here’s a video of Michael Wilbon admitting that his hatred for Bartman is irrational, but still remains.
Gibney smartly compares the moment of Bartman’s ill-fated grab to another incident that “stopped” a beaten team from winning a championship: Bill Buckner’s error in the 1986 World Series that caused Boston to lose to the New York Mets. Though nine innings were played by both teams, the fixation of Red Sox fans on the painful whiff by Buckner remained until the team finally won a World Series in 2004, and even then some anger has lingered in certain sports fans. More importantly, it has stayed with sports writers that need an easy solution of naming a person that has choked during baseball. Buckner’s name is synonymous with screwing up in baseball, and now Bartman’s name has become a sort of peg on which the woes of others have been hung and compared. The only difference is that Buckner has been forgiven. The only difference is that the Red Sox have won a pair of World Series titles. The only difference is that diehard Cubs fans still blame an anonymous man for eight more years of missed opportunities.

Like it or not, Bartman was trying to avoid the public beating that Buckner received, but he couldn’t escape the scapegoat status placed upon him. What’s ridiculous is that even though he didn’t catch the ball, Pat Looney, the man in the grey sweatshirt inches to Bartman’s right, was also pilloried because of his status as the person that almost caught the ball. Even in proximity to the action, Looney stands out due to his differentiated clothing. He’s the fan that could perceive the jeers of the crowd as Alou began reacting negatively, pelting Bartman with insults before they started throwing beers, peanuts, and fists at him. Looney even stated that he would have been happy to have been the guy that caught the ball, but he too felt the threat of overanxious Cubs fans when television crews began to dig for details surrounding those men. Death threats to his family suddenly became an expectation, not an anomaly.

Looney tried to stand out and help, while Bartman settled back into his seat, headphones on, listening to his whole world hate him. If you want to see people turn ugly, watch as Bartman is escorted out of the game by security, and as the insults fly he puts his coat over his face, a face he hasn’t shown in public for eight years. 

This is the result of the scapegoating of Steve Bartman, the man that can no longer live the life he so chooses.

Holy Terror began as a Batman story in 2006 when Miller conceived of the Caped Crusader as a vengeful agent of America taking on Al Qaeda as a way of paying the terror sect back for its involvement in the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. Holy Terror, Batman! was going to be Miller’s chance to revitalize the Dark Knight (a task he was already working to completion with Jim Lee on All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, which is a title as cumbersome as the storytelling used on it) by giving him an enemy that he could hit while the country gathered around him.

However, the discomfort between DC and Miller grew as his depiction of Batman’s vigilante crusade against Al Qaeda continued. Eventually, Miller agreed to remove the Caped Crusader from the piece in exchange for total editorial control of the project. Perhaps what Miller didn’t take into account was the changing sympathies of the American people towards the War on Terror and its expensive work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over a decade later, our views on the war and its costs have changed, and even the face of terrorism has changed. No longer is it (nor was it ever) an Arabic terror state; now even peaceful Norwegians can become violent sociopaths with a terror agenda. Thus, the idea of what constitutes “the enemy” has changed in our political and rhetorical dialogue, and early reviews have focused on the disconnect between Miller and the comics critics of today.

Yet Miller’s neo-conservative rhetoric (extreme even by the standards of the Tea Party) brings Islam to the forefront of his work as the villains in question. Though he does eventually place blame on Al Qaeda, the group itself isn’t mentioned by name until page 85 of Holy Terror, at which point the audience has witnessed pages of men in turbans committing atrocities against American soil like the detonation of explosives containing nails and razorblades. Miller (and his narrator surrogate Not-Batman character, the Fixer) revels in the torture and destruction of Islamic terrorists, often speaking in half-sentences and grunts when he’s not spouting anti-terrorist rhetoric. The ultraviolence that is common within Miller’s work is even more abrasive here, with its emphasis on cathartic glee when the Fixer annihilates a terror cell.

The image of Muslims in Holy Terror are not silent, but rather hyperbolic caricatures that suit the intended audience of this piece, along with the author. Miller has made it clear that he considers Islamic culture to be backwards and barbaric. Read this exchange between Miller and Neal Conan from his segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation in 2007:

CONAN: A lot of people would say that what America has done abroad has led to the doubts and even the hatred of some of its own citizens.

MILLER: Well, okay, then let's finally talk about the enemy. Somebody, for some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we're up against and the sixth century barbarism they actually represent. These people saw people's heads off. They enslave women. They genetically mutilate their daughters. They do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I'm speaking into a microphone that never could have been the product of their culture. And I'm living in a city where 3,000 of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could've built.

There is a definite problem between the two, and it’s the level of discussion that has been generated about the idea of a scapegoat after viewing. Catching Hell makes us wonder whether the continued decline of the Cubs was worth the destruction of one man’s life; after all, a dropped ball is a dropped ball. Holy Terror makes me question how far we’ve really come after a decade of terror and Homeland Security, and sadly how detached Frank Miller has become from the pulse of America (though there is an epilogue that makes one wonder if the past ten years are actually a greater mirror of our society). These works show how obsessed we are with specific scapegoats of societal ills. Bartman’s sins cost the Cubs a possible World Series, while the barbarism Islamic society forces Americans to face a decade of painful decline (according to Miller).

But what these don’t take into account is that the antagonist of both affronted parties are not provided voices. Bartman is literally silent. He doesn’t exist as a person anymore; he’s a cautionary tale that Cubs fans tell their children about at night, a literal homeland terrorist for the Windy City’s beleaguered losers. Both Gibney and Miller confirm the worst fear of these parties, promising a home that is no longer welcoming to them, when in fact they are symptomatic of a larger cancer inside us that we don’t want to fix. Gibney and Miller provide insight into easy, fulfilling solutions, but they don’t address greater concerns about the mindset that allows such incidents to happen.

The image of Bartman stands as the perfect visage of the scapegoat: silent, scared, and omnipresent. He’s a mythic figure exactly because he isn’t there. The Al Qaeda soldier on the cover has his face hidden, sword over the Not-Batman Fixer’s head. By disguising his face, we begin to see how far removed he is from base humanity, and it allows us to revel in his comic defeat even more. Yet having a scapegoat in popular entertainment only serves as partial catharsis; what is needed is an actual solution to such a problem. 

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