Saturday, October 01, 2005

Through A Glass, Darkly

Through A Glass, Darkly

Like many people, I really enjoyed the Battlestar Galactica summer "season finale." I'm not alone in arguing that this is the best show on television (and certainly one of two that I actually bother to watch, the other being Lost).

One of the reasons it is so good is its willingness to explore the complexity of issues, as well as the writing team's consistent ability to raise the stakes to the highest possible levels.

In this episode, the Galactica discovers the battlestar Pegasus, commanded by Admiral Cain (in one of the show's frequent nods to classic Sci-Fi, Cain is portrayed by cult fave Michelle Forbes).

The story works on several levels, but the most interesting is also its most controversial. The episode reveals that the ruthless Cain has authorized the gang rape of a Cylon prisoner as an "interrogation tactic." She then sends her interrogator over to the Galactica to do the same to the Cylon Sharon Valeri, who just saved the Galactica from a Cylon virus in the previous episode (and is with child).

The father of the child, pilot Helo, and her former lover, Chief Tirol, rush to her defense and end up killing the rapist before he can carry out his task. They are arrested, taken back to the Pegasus, and condemned to be executed by Admiral Cain.

This is the last straw for Commander Adama, who launches his fighters and bluntly tells his superior officer that he's coming for his men. The cliffhanger ends with the the two fighter wings about the clash.

The storyline is relatively simple; its brilliance lies in the density of resonances within the narrative, as well as the way in which it eludes easy characterization. The audience is meant to feel outrage at Cain's behavior. Yet at the same time, earlier in the series, Adama has allowed the torture of other (albeit male) Cylon prisoners. And remember, the same Cylon model that Cain has tortured is also the Cylon model who in the show's pilot miniseries A) engineered the death of 99.99% of the human race, and B) killed an innocent baby with her bare hands.

Cain's behavior is clearly wrong, but it sheds an unpleasant light on our heroes' earlier behavior (as well as our own in the real world...military tribunals and lack of due process are crimes regardless of whether they take place in our world or a fictional one).

Furthermore, the contrasting reactions of the crews of the two battlestars (the Pegasus crew approves and even seems to relish Cain's policy of rapine) illustrates the different sides of war. The same pressures can drive both the highest and lowest forms of behavior.

The great historian Stephen Ambrose once commented that in the spring of 1945, the most terrifying thing in the world was 12-man platoon of teenaged soldiers. If those teenagers were German, Russian, or Japanese, the platoon meant rape, killing, and wanton destruction.

In fact, this description isn't limited to World War 2. Throughout history, raping, looting, and pillaging, have been an integral part of war, especially after long sieges.

However, as Ambrose points out, this wasn't the case if the platoon was made up of Americans. Those soldiers meant, in Ambrose's memorable words, "Candy, C-rations, cigarettes, and freedom."

There will always be those who claim that the ends justify the means, that the bad guys deserve what they get, and that bad things happen during wartime. But that isn't the American way. Or at least it hasn't been.

I generally don't like to talk about anything that can be remotely construed as politics. To paraphrase Michael Jordan, both Democrats and Republicans buy shoes. But thinking about these issues really crystallized in my mind what I thought about the war in Iraq.

It's clear that the war there is costly, both in terms of dollars and lives. It seems quite likely that the US was led into the war by faulty or even fraudulent intelligence. Yet anyone who believes that Iraq was better off under Saddam Hussein's bloody regime needs their head examined. The U.S. military is doing its best to live up to Ambrose's words, and considering the circumstances, it is doing a pretty good job.

Where the U.S. is failing is in its policymakers' willingness to skirt or outright flout U.S. and international law when it comes to its treatment of prisoners. As Phil Zimbardo showed, it doesn't take much to take normal individual and turn them into brutal jailers. While some of the blame has to fall on the individual soldiers, the primary fault lies with the policymakers who decide from afar, like Cain, that our enemies don't deserve humane treatment, and that the ends justify the means.

Like all good science fiction, Battlestar Galactica holds up a mirror to our society. Sometimes, we don't like what we see.

Link-O-Rama: Trends, Blends, and Friends

Link-O-Rama: Trends, Blends, and Friends
10 years of the Lycos 50...and Pamela Anderson comes out on top. The greatest invention of all time, and the best we can do with it is to look up celebrities with artificially enhanced mammaries and bad taste in men. To quote Bill Simmons, I will now light myself on fire.

From one role model to another.... Ivy League women want to be stay-at-home moms...and people act surprised. I'm not. As an Ivy League dad, I'd rather spend more time with my kids too. But I do object to a double standard which forces women too feel bad whatever choice they make--if you stay at home, you're wasting your education. If you work, you're abdicating your parental responsibility to nannies and daycare. Just what do people want us to do?

Of course, if you're Britney Spears, you may not feel too guilty about fobbing your newborn off on the nanny so that you can catch some rays.

One of the reasons we have so many two income families is how expensive it is to buy a home--and as a Palo Alto resident, I should know. But it looks like the bubble is finally ending.

But if things are looking more reasonable in the real world, they're just getting started online. Let the virtual land rush begin...Wells Fargo has bought an island in Linden Lab's Second Life to help them market to MMOG players. Yet again, the real and virtual worlds are blending. Somewhere, there's an arbitrageur figuring out how to short real world housing and go long virtual land.

Speaking of videogames, regular readers know that I often argue that games are an ideal teaching method for today's world. Looks like I'm not the only one who thinks this. Tucked away in this article, below a profile of my friend Kristin's new mobile gaming company for women, is a brief mention of Dave McCool's Muzzy Lane, which has launched an RTS (real-time strategy) game to teach kids about World War II.

At some point, I'll post a longer comment on Web 2.0. While it feels like a bubble to me, at least some of the companies are profitable. Even if they were started as a joke!

Finally, there's just one last story out of the Katrina debacle. Coyote Blog reports that the Feds actually stopped a volunteer doc from resuscitating a dying patient because he hadn't been able to get through the clogged phone lines to get a FEMA credential. Folks need to remember that laws are supposed to protect us; when a rule doesn't make sense, people need to use their own best judgment, rather than hiding behind Eichmann's famous defense, "I was just following orders."

Back in Black

Back in Black
It's been a crazy couple of weeks. Between weddings and kicking ass at BEAWorld, I just haven't had time to post. I'll be making up for lost time with a couple of major link-o-ramas. Glad to be back!