Monday, November 28, 2011

"Law and Order" Is So Conservative It Makes Michael Savage Look Like John Rawls

Why am I even blogging about this. I'll admit this latest "Law and Order" rant originates with a pretty tense and potentially-explosive moment in the shower the other day (why do these moments always seem to happen in the shower?), when the girlfriend admitted that she had watched a couple episodes of "L&O" with a friend of hers, to which I replied, "Ugh I can't stand that show, for reasons I've probably shared with you like a hundred times by now," to which she replied, "well, what are they," to which I replied....well, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. It's just that it occurred to me, while simultaneously disputing and washing myself, that the case against "L&O" is about much more than television or artistic tastes, that "L&O"'s malignancy is rooted in things that matter like, a lot, and that its sustained popularity over the course of two decades and about a half-dozen spinoffs and iterations reveals something actually quite dark and terrifying about the state of American society. I didn't convince her that this was the case, but I was able to convince myself that this was the case, which is really all that matters for the purposes of this introductory paragraph. I became so convinced of my own rightness on this issue--so convinced that "L&O" is reactionary and authoritarian at its core, and that it both appeals to and exposes a reactionary and authoritarian strain in American culture and politics--that I now find myself writing a blog post as a result of it.

I want to say, first of all, that I haven't actually watched an episode of "L&O" for several years now, and few specific episode synopses or plot points are coming to mind right now. My anti-"L&O" brief won't be based on any specific, anecdotal evidence, but this hardly seems to matter: "L&O" is marked by its extremely repetitive and formulaic nature, and the structure of an "L&O" episode is so rigid, so codified, that the episodes are virtually identical.

In my own experience, as well as in my own cultural and individual vocabulary, repetition and sanctification are inextricably linked. Holidays and liturgies are repeated; the Torah is repeated once a year according to a reading calendar from which no Jewish sect, no matter how liberal, would ever dream of deviating. With prayer, repetition sanctifies: if you've ever witnessed a Hardei Jew driven to near-madness with kavanah during a Tuesday night Shemona Esrei, then you understand what I mean. Someone who only reads through Shemona Esrei a handful of times of year--someone like me, that is--is incapable of transcending the stilted and often quite-difficult reading of the words in front of him, and is therefore incapable of being driven to near-madness with kavanah while reading Shemona Esrei on a Tuesday night. In religion, the deepest regions of spirituality and mystical truth are often accessed through repetition, and "L&O" is quite possibly the most repetitive show ever made.

What exactly is "L&O" sanctifying? What is this nightly or, in some cases, hourly (my dad once remarked that it seemed like "L&O" was on TV virtually every second of the day) ritual of crime/investigation/red herring/arrest/trial/trial nearly bungled as a result of clever lawyering and/or technicalities/trial saved at the last minute/punishment meant to consecrate? The answer is fairly obvious, at least when you contrast "L&O" to a show that I'm guessing most people have completely forgotten about.

"Juvies" ran on MTV for what, like a season? Maybe it's still on? I don't know. It was probably one of the bravest things the channel has ever broadcast, and a reminder that MTV was once capable of displaying a surprising sense of responsibility towards the same youth culture it does so much to encourage and create, as well as degrade and destroy. Basically, "Juvies" was a jarring look at the criminal justice system, as told from the perspective of people who were roughly the same age as most MTV viewers (much in the same way that "16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom" is a jarring look at the pressures of motherhood and family life, as well as at what an unforgiving and difficult place the real world can be, as told through the perspective of people are roughly the same age as most MTV viewers).

"Juvies" allowed MTV viewers to witness simulacra of themselves--attractive, suburban, mostly upper middle-class teenagers with families and schools and aspirations in life--navigating the Byzantine corridors of American Justice and having a pretty rough time of it. They'd be arrested for extremely dumb shit, have all of their clothes confiscated, be forced to chill out for a couple days in a featureless, soulless building in which they're treated like human turds, and then go before a judge (and because "Juvies" was filmed at a single correctional facility, it was the same judge every single time) who wielded a highly arbitrary power-of-life-and-death over befuddled and often terrified high school kids whom she had never met before. I don't know if this was the producers' intent, but "Juvies" invited its audience to imagine themselves in a similarly Kafakaesque situation. It was, in its own way, a powerful example of dissident journalism, a reminder of how massive and fucked up and insurmountable The System can be, and is:

In contrast, "L&O" is all about how The System is always just and right and working in our very best interests. Every episode is a canned, fairy-tale rendering of authority in action; every conviction a semi-ritualized confirmation of the inherent rightness of the prevailing moral and social order. Hell, the word "order" even appears in the title. Law and Order, in this context, represent the triumph of the liberal, technocratic state over society's most intractable problems. The show invents monsters--rapists, mobsters, serial killers, psychopaths, child murderers, sex traffickers, terrorists, loners, losers, wife-beaters--and a small group of extremely intelligent and often-attractive people employed by the government slay them, every single time, one after another. My professor Ross Posnock (in the course of discussing The Sun Also Rises) once explained bullfighting as imperialism in miniature, as the ritualized assertion of the Spanish national will over not just nature, but over some monstrous and easily-victimized Other. "L&O" is the American version of bullfighting (or at least the American version of Ross Posnock's version of bullfighting). It's a vindication of The System, repeated again, and again, and again, with only cosmetic variation, with Sam Waterson as matador, and Jerry Orbach, Richard Belzer et al. as picadors.

My theory for why this spectacle had endured for two decades, 456 episodes and about a half-dozen spinoffs actually contradicts the title of this post. "L&O" is appealing partly because it appeals to the very worst aspects of liberalism and conservativsm both: for the right, it proves that the system is working and that everything is A-OK; for the left, it validates a positivist, utopian notion of liberalism, wherein power is inordinately capable of remedying society's deepest and scariest ills. The idea of empowering a privilaged and in many ways extra-legal interest group to arrest, beat and even kill any minority (or, in many cases, non-minority) they please while prohibiting the rest of us from smoking a harmless herb or drinking wine in parks, is an outrgorwth of the positivist, utopian, power-can-solve-our-problems-if-we-could-just-be-subjected-t0-enough-of-it school of liberalism. Ruddy Guilliani or hell, Barack Obama are both exemplars of this strain of liberalism, to which the Foucaldian idea that Order results not from power, but from a network of socially and historically-informed (and therefore non-consensual) power relationships, is fundamentally opposed. "L&O" occupies a weird political middle ground. "L&O" is reactionary because it kashers and justifies The System, but oddly forward-thinking, since The System--which is portrayed as being freakishly highly-functioning--is itself the logical endpoint of liberal social management.

We, as a society, want badly to believe that the liberal-conservative compromise that "L&O" has drilled into millions of heads hundreds of millions of times is a good and worthwhile one. While "The X-Files" is all about one man's seemingly-delusional insistence that The System is one huge, monstrous lie, "L&O" is about assuaging everyone's--yours, mine, everyone's--discomfort with it. And as Mulder demonstrated, it's much easier to just passively accept things than to consider how profoundly fucked up they may be. To consider that the American justice system is based more on perverse institutional incentives rather than serving the public interest (see Wire, The), that drugs maybe shouldn't be like, illegal (see Wire, The), that The System in its current form is fairly racist (see Wire, The, and this), that America has a massive prison population and that, according to no less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court, many of the members of said population are horribly mistreated--bro, that's some heavy shit. I mean, who wants to think about all that shit? Thinking about shit isn't like, entertaining. Why go to bed troubled, when you can watch Waterson and Co. in full, beast-slaying mode?

What really bothers me about "L&O" is that it ingrains (and even ritualizes!) the popular avoidance of unpleasant truths. It's a slickly-produced, highly entertaining palliative that's also meant to distract from the systemic problems in the American justice system, while also subtly arguing that these problems aren't important and maybe don't even exist. In a fairer, more humane America, such a show will, like minstrelry or Birth of a Nation or Toby Keith's "Boot in Your Ass," be considered a embarrassing relic of a misguided era and its under-evolved cultural values, rather than an enduring source of entertainment.


Last night I caught a few snippets of the Caps-Blues game, and fuck was it strange to see someone other than Bruce Boudreau standing behind the Washington bench. Boudreau was an institution in Washington, that rare sports figure whose out-sized persona was suited to his actual coaching/playing ability. Is there anyone in the past decade of DC sports who matches him in this respect? Gil arguably does, although his tenure in the Nation's Capital ended on far worse terms than Boudreau's--bad enough, I'd say, to taint his entire legacy in this town (well, that town. I'm writing this in New York). LaVar Arrington's current media career distracts from the fact that he wasn't even the most flamboyant or outspoken player on his own team (Fred Smoot wins that distinction). Steve Spurrier--folksy, idiomatic, and like, painfully obviously out of his depth during his brief tenure with the Redskins--was like a walking cartoon character, but could only coach the team to two mediocre seasons. Jim Riggleman, meanwhile, is arguably the most mediocre manager in the history of baseball, although his spectacular kiss-off of an exit (after a win!) ensures he'll be remembered much longer than Manny Acta.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that a legend has passed from the scene. The Falstaffian Mr. Boudreau, the youngest (and undoubtedly most profane) hairless blob ever to reach 200 NHL victories, married skill and temperament in a way DC hasn't seen for awhile, and might not see for awhile yet--at least until he shows up behind the Hurricanes' bench the next time they visit the Verizon Center.


My next post will probably be in about two weeks, and will definitely be a end-of-year music blowout, including top 10 lists and superlatives and other such nonsense.

This song won't be on my top 10 tracks list, since it came out like two years ago:

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