Sunday, March 29, 2009

Now a Major Motion Picture!

Due in part to the recent(ish) chatter about how faithful an adaptation The Watchmen is or is not, I've been thinking about book-to-movie adaptations. Personally, like most avid readers, I think, I'm a purist. I want the movie to be the book, just on screen. I'm upset at anything being cut, I'm upset if the actors don't have the right look, I'm upset if the general feel isn't the same...

But isn't it almost impossible to be entirely faithful even if that's the goal? Simply put, there is no way to make a movie that is the book in all its important aspects. The media are too different, our way of interacting with them is different, and it just doesn't work. Most obviously, any length book, from Where the Wild Things Are (trailer!) to Les Miserables, have to fit into basically the same length of movie time, so something almost always has to get cut, or occasionally things have to be expanded.

Then also, books are often advanced through characters' thoughts or descriptions, and these may not translate to film very well. Nobody wants to watch an A Clockwork Orange that is virtually indecipherable because of all the slang (and that takes place in an almost-constant voiceover). Descriptions of scenery or people pretty much have to be conveyed by simply showing them, which isn't quite the same (depending on the author's style, I guess). It's quite difficult to convey the same sort of feeling visually that is conveyed through words, especially as the words definitely don't convey the same sorts of things to different people, and the images may not either. So as a movie maker, you're stuck making decisions about whether to transfer a given set of words into voiceover or rework them into dialogue or whether to convey the same idea visually or set the stage with background music.

Some of the worst book-to-film adaptations I've seen are the word-for-word entirely faithful ones (e.g., anything ever viewed in an English class—Julius Caesar is my personal example of this). Boring! Maybe the problem there is that most canonical books don't ever get to be big-budget movies; they're always stuck being made by literary purists on shoestring budgets. They're not at all artistic. And really, artistry is necessary to make a good adaptation. But this is where you get into trouble with the purists. "They cut out [minor character]!" Yes, because they take up too much time / aren't essential to the plot / whatever. "That's in the wrong order!" Sometimes flashbacks or otherwise chopped-up timelines that work in books are disorienting in movies.

Personally, one of the issues I have in watching movies based on books is that the way I visualized settings or characters isn't ever the way the people who make the movie visualized them, and probably isn't the way the author or any other reader visualizes them. That's kind of the point with books, right, is that you get to visualize it however you want? I can usually get over this, except when it's a book who has main characters who are (a) small children, or (b) animals. In these cases, I think one must be very careful not to take the movie making too seriously and be too faithful. Talking animals that may be perfectly reasonable in a book (largely because you—or at least I—do not fully envision them as real, live animals but rather some slightly fuzzier and less realistic representation of one) look pretty ridiculous in a movie. (e.g., Aslan and the beavers and such from The Chronicles of Narnia) When I first found out they were making a movie of Ender's Game, I was quite concerned, because although when you read it, you know he's only six years old or whatever, it's not quite the same as staring at a tiny six-year-old actor being a freaking genius, or worse, trying and failing. (I guess I won't have to worry about that, though, because they ended up canceling the movie idea.) I guess I can only suspend belief in certain areas—in a book, a talking lion is no biggie, but when there is a lion on the screen, moving his mouth and looking all serious, I find it a bit ridiculous. I would prefer animated versions of these sorts of movies, probably, to relieve my discomfort over this sort of thing.

I think the problem with movies based on books is that fans of the book, other moviegoers, and movie makers all have different expectations from the process. Readers want what I described above (mostly), but can sometimes handle a few well-justified cuts or changes. Everyone who sees the movie without having read the book either wants to know what the story is about or just wants to enjoy a movie. ("Oh, there's a book this is based on. Cool.") The movie makers, however, want to create something. Yes, they took the idea from a book, but their goal is almost never to recreate the book. They want to create something new, a parallel version of this story, or even a much-adapted version emphasizing the parts they think are most significant (or introducing things they think would make it better). I'm sure there isn't much artistic satisfaction in simply translating the written word to the screen; they want to make something new and yes, probably different, to reinterpret something interesting through another medium, to look at it from another angle. I'm trying to realize this and have a more open mind for adapted movies.

Of course, sometimes the adaptations/reinterpretations are so radically different that you wonder why they even bothered keeping the title the same. For instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey is apparently a brilliant and groundbreaking movie on its own terms, but as far as its relation to the book? Not so much. I can't decide whether Kubrick expected people to have read the book or not. I can't imagine that anyone unfamiliar with the book has any idea what's going on in the last half of the movie, especially the Star Child bit. Maybe he likes it that way?

I realized at some point in college that I was approaching the impending release of movies of books I liked all wrong. I'd hear a movie of whatever was coming out, so I'd go reread the book to refresh myself. I would then see the movie and, the book being fresh in my mind, would be indignant about whatever (often relatively minor) changes they'd made. On a couple occasions, I intentionally waited until after seeing a movie based on a book I had not yet read to read the book. I don't find this a good strategy either, because then I visualize the characters the way they were in the movie, and I end up pretty conflicted about which version was better because the movie had compromised my starting point. (Since I generally enjoy books more than movies and think of them as the default and the right or original version, I don't want my experience with them to be contaminated by having seen the movie.)

I finally realized the secret is not to know the book like the back of your hand, and then you'll be happier. Having read the book about six months to a year prior to seeing the movie is pretty much ideal. You are familiar enough to enjoy it all and to have the big things straight, but if something minor is changed, you don't flip out about it. It's nice and drama-free. (Your ideal time may vary—I pretty much have a horrible memory for books and movies, so my detailed memory of them degrades pretty quickly. If you're the sort of person who can recite lines from movies you only saw once and that years ago, you probably ought to have a wider window of time.) I think I read The Watchmen around September or so, then saw the movie in March. That worked, but only because I'd never read it before. For a book I've read more than once, a longer period of time would probably be required.

Tangentially related, I hate, hate, hate it when books put out a new edition, the cover of which has the actors from the movie on it. Viggo Mortensen, though I'm sure he makes a very nice-looking book cover, is not the only Aragorn in the world. I find it again limits your visualization process but also seems to give the movie more power over the book than I'd like. The book is the book, and if people really need to see the actors to remember what movie it was to be tempted to buy it, that's sad. Really, Barnes and Noble can put them on the "the book is always better" table, and people will pretty quickly realize, "Oh, this The Reader is what that movie The Reader was based on!"—no Kate Winslet required.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Conscientious Objectors

Narrator: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one.
Woman on plane: Are there a lot of these kinds of accidents?
Narrator: You wouldn't believe.
Woman on plane: Which car company do you work for?
Narrator: A major one.
--Fight Club

To what degree should one's own beliefs play a role in one's job or public role? The general rank and file Nazis are decried for contributing, via their mundane office work, to the deportation, imprisonment, or death of millions of people. From the secure vantage point of modern-day America, it seems obvious they should have taken a moral stand and refused to continue contributing to such a horror. Well, yes. Of course, it's not all that easy, and of course it wasn't as obvious at the time what was happening or especially how it would all end. (Incidentally, I highly recommend Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil about Adolf Eichmann's post-WWII trial to anyone who hasn't read it.) At any rate, most of us think that ideally, the lower- and middle-rank Nazis (the higher ranks all being written off as pure evil, of course) should certainly have allowed their personal moral and religious beliefs (which, yes, most of them had) to trump the demands of their jobs, even if we admit this might have been difficult for them to do for various social and psychological reasons.

Conversely (though also obviously a less extreme example), John F. Kennedy promised to do exactly the opposite if elected to the presidency. He declared that his religion would not influence his decisions: "Whatever issue may come before me as President—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates." (I suppose this is slightly different as he is talking about the church's structure and demands rather than personal opinions, but he is still putting the national interest at the fore.) This was certainly a relief to many at the time, although it seems many people in more recent election years prefer their president's decisions to be heavily informed by his faith (but only when it agrees with their own—so maybe this isn't all that different from the JFK situation after all).

In ordinary life, where is the line to be drawn? Should pharmacists be able to refuse to fill prescriptions for the morning after pill or even ordinary birth control? My opinion: certainly not. They're there to perform a job. Yet there are plenty of circumstances in which I do not feel it is appropriate to use "it's my job; I have to" as a justification. For example, if your job entails encouraging people to take out loans they can't afford, denying needed medical care, covering up for legally dubious actions taken by your employer, or bombing civilians in a war, you should refuse. (These specific situations may not be the most universally morally abhorrent—plug in something better if you think of it.)

But there is grayer area yet. Working for a fast food chain could be morally problematic if one disagreed with any of the following practices (not an exhaustive list, I'm sure): industrial farming, grain-fed beef, CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), high fructose corn syrup, supersizing, advertising junk food, not providing nutrition information in an easily accessible format, exploiting workers at low wages and limited benefits, and yes, even having gender-differentiated kids' meal toys.

The majority of jobs I can think of have the potential for conflict between one's personal values and one's duty. Health insurance—denying people with preexisting conditions affordable medical care because (gasp!) they actually need it? Marketing/advertising—for toys that turn children's brains to mush, for clothing companies who use sweatshop labor, for gas-guzzling cars? Near-monopolistic corporations (Microsoft, Wal-Mart)? Entrapping customers (Comcast,

Clearly these dilemmas mentioned are slanted a little toward my personal ethical framework and tendency to overthink everything, but in almost any job, there are potentially such dilemmas. How much compromise is too much? To what degree is it desirable that one lose one's sense of agency and become merely a representative of the company while at work? I'm sure, thanks to atrocities perpetuated by people simply doing their jobs, nobody really thinks everyone should do what is requested of them by their employer, no matter what. But obviously society would fail to function pretty quickly if large numbers of people made big ethical stinks about any given aspect of their job that bothered them. (Actually, that's probably not true. Ethical people who made such stinks would be replaced by scabs who would do whatever was asked of them, and the workforce would suddenly be almost entirely unethical.) We can't all run our own businesses, so how should we deal with this?

Thursday, March 19, 2009


This year, I decided, would be the year I learned to cook. I mean, I'm not clueless in the kitchen or anything, but even though I guess I technically can cook (I don't really believe people who say they can't. Follow the directions; it's not that hard.), I don't actually do it all that much. It takes time and effort—thinking ahead, planning, shopping, not to mention the actual cooking—and then leaves you with a sinkful of dishes to clean. (I've had moderate success. I did well for a while, then I got lazy. Time to get back at it.)

Really, I think my problem is that I'm still kind of a novice, so I haven't yet achieved the sense of automaticity. I'm not all that good about timing everything so that the onions are chopped by the time the butter melts, or I'll forget to buy a crucial ingredient, or I don't think about roasting the sweet potatoes until I realize I'm hungry. Basically, I just don't have a good feel for it yet; I need practice. Or I don't think about it until dinnertime, by which time it's too late.

Part of this, I blame on my upbringing. My mother did cook, but not the sorts of things I want to cook, and I don't really remember helping her enough to learn much. I don't think she was really comfortable with the whole cooking thing either, so I certainly didn't learn the fluidity and automatic flow of cooking from her.

I am certainly not unique in this. From what I can tell, my entire generation has grown up unable to feed ourselves. Part of this is due to general shifts in food preparation and consumption patterns when we were children: an increase in working mothers who had less time and inclination to cook for the family, busy schedules so the entire family was never home to eat together, an increase in dining out, etc. As a generation, we've probably eaten the fewest home-cooked meals growing up than any other, so naturally, we don't really know how to create them ourselves.

Additionally, at least in my case (although I doubt I'm alone in this either), I grew up taking feminism for granted. Why should I be the one learning to cook? Domesticity belonged to older generations. Cooking was for housewives in aprons, meeting their husbands after a long day with a cocktail shaker in hand. That was obviously not going to be me. And anyway, I had much more important things to worry about. I should be saving the world, or at least learning things and developing as a person, not spending all my time slaving over a hot stove.

Well, here I am, an adult who needs to eat. Oh, right... (Who did I think was going to feed me? I don't know.) For environmental, economic, philosophical, and health reasons, I don't really believe in eating out all that much. Subsisting on lasagna and chicken divan pie (the few things that have been in my repertoire for more than a year or two), frozen ravioli, or the occasional roasted chicken breast just isn't going to cut it, especially as those days are intermixed with way too many nights of scrambled eggs, canned soup, or (worst of all) realizing around 9:00 that I never actually ate dinner but somehow grazed on enough (presumably unhealthy) food that I wasn't hungry. I need vegetables (especially since the CSA means that I am continually inundated with boxes of vegetables that need to be eaten).

So yes, I am somewhat reluctantly attempting to develop a cooking habit. I think it's important (especially with my recent obsessions over the health and environmental impacts of various varieties of foods), and I admit it's necessary, but I still sort of feel like I'm giving in. I think I've figured out why. I am really worried that, since the rest of my generation doesn't really cook either, by acquiring that skill, I'm setting myself up to be trapped in the cooking role. I feel like I'm giving in and learning to cook from necessity when potential boyfriends/husbands aren't doing so and that I'll then be stuck being the cook of the couple. "But you already know how. It's not that I don't want to cook, but all I know how to make is spaghetti," my imaginary future husband says. It may even be true. He may genuinely want to split everything equally, want to be able to cook, but be embarrassed or generally clueless. That wouldn't change the fact that I'd feel it was a loss for feminism and for my own sense of self.

Note: Obviously there are exceptions, my apartment-mate being one, but since I'm clearly not going to marry him, he is excluded from my subconscious and likely irrational mental freakouts about future hypothetical relationship dynamics.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Conspicuous Nonconsumption

I've noticed in the past five years or so that as any big event occurs, I realize how little I (and everyone else in America) understood about some giant chunk of important stuff. The last occasion was during the primaries, when suddenly everyone paid attention for once and ended up really, really confused. Wait, so the primaries not only take place over a period of months, but their scheduling can be varied (but not too much, or you'll incur the wrath of the party overlords)? The Democratic Party can actually refuse to count states if they want? (Don't they have an obligation to count everyone? Oh, wait, no, they don't. They have nothing to do with the government and can run their primaries however they please...or not at all.) Democratic and Republican primaries are often not on the same day in a given state? Puerto Rico gets to vote in the primary but not in the general election? Texas has a combination caucus and primary system? How do superdelegates work again? I don't know about everyone else, but I learned more about the Democratic Party (no, I didn't pay as much attention to the Republican primaries because none of their candidates were interesting) and the party system in a couple months than I had in the previous several years. I felt the current system of primaries was ridiculous and that it desperately needed drastic reform.

Fast-forward to, oh, now: the economy. Suddenly all of America is learning things they never knew about derivatives, credit swaps, leveraging, and toxic assets (or are trying as hard as they can to). Everyone's wondering how we managed to get into this mess, and everyone's pretty sure (OK, I'm pretty sure, and I'm extrapolating) that if everyone had known what was going on, it wouldn't have been going on for long. Why don't we know more about how the things we use every day work?

What this economic crisis has taught me: I think the economy is stupid, and I hope it dies. I mean, I don't want unemployment and famine to sweep the land or anything like that, but I really think the economy the way it works right now is somewhere past ridiculous. For example: credit is the lifeblood of our economy. It's true; everyone says it: to save more banks from collapse, we just need to get credit flowing again. Um, but why? Why is it that corporations' payrolls are paid each week with money they don't actually have at that time? Why is it that stores go the entire first 10.75 months of the year in the red and only come into the black during the holidays? Why does our entire country run on not having any money right now? Why is this state desirable? Why should we facilitate this?

Andrew and I were talking today, and we have both recently begun to wonder what exactly the point of the stock market is. Oh no, the stock market is down! Which means...someone's opinion of how much someone else will pay for their tiny chunk of voting rights (that nobody actually wants) in a company is less than it used to be! Think about it. The stock market goes down for all sorts of non-economic reasons, including elections and inaugurations (no, not just Obama's). It goes up for all sorts of stupid reasons completely unconnected with the companies whose stock actually involved. Basically, the stock market survives and goes up because stockholders/traders assume that there will always be someone else who wants the stock they own right now. How silly. And to tie everyone's retirement to the stock market in the form of 401(k)s and IRAs? That is one of the dumbest things I think our country has ever done.

Then there's the whole "consumer confidence" thing (a silly term, in my opinion). Everyone's supposed to keep going out and buying stuff; the worst thing for The Economy (capitalized for its almightiness) that one can do right now is to save money and pay down one's own debt. Wait, what?

So what The Economy needs to survive is lots of people going further into debt, consuming stupid crap they don't need, merely to prop up corporations that wagered on people always wanting stupid crap. The Economy needs huge corporations to survive. I have a hard time caring. Why is our economy structured such that it can only survive as long as everyone keeps buying monkey-shaped bookends or a third sofa or gag gifts like rubber squirrel-faced punching bag balloons? (And isn't that the whole point of a free market, that if people decide they no longer need horrid punching-bag animals from the dollar bin that the maker of said abominable creations goes under or starts making something people will buy?) All I really need to purchase right now is food (although if pushed, I could probably live for a month or two on what's in our pantry already combined with the CSA boxes we've already paid for), with the occasional purchase of body wash or whatever I'm out of at the moment. Why do we consume so much utter crap?

Well, I'm stopping. I gave up my credit card for Lent (not that I'm Catholic or even Christian, but I had never done Lent before and kind of like imposing arbitrary rules on myself, so why not?) since I am actually carrying a balance on it at the moment (for the first time ever, thankyouverymuch) and need to quit using it while I pay it off. Also, paying for things with cash, you're actually aware of how much you're spending and tend to spend less than if you just charge it (research shows). So I've basically not spent any money in the past couple weeks except on one movie (OK, so I'm still consuming some, but only for movies I've been waiting for for months), one $12 grocery run, and one $3 emergency gum-and-Pringles infusion yesterday at work. No clothes, no shoes, no things. (I considered giving up parentheses instead. One can see why I chose the credit card. I don't think I could actually live without, they don't actually hurt anyone. (Do they?))

Anyway, so yeah, I'm going to see how little I can consume. I know that makes me unpatriotic, because the best thing one can do for the economy in a recession is go shopping, but so what? When it comes down to my duty to myself versus my duty to my country, I'm picking me. Actually, it's not even really a money thing, though money did start it all; it's a simplification thing. I've been saying for years that I own too much stuff, and I've steadily gotten rid of it even as I acquired more. Recently, I have been fed up with all the junk I own. Then I've been looking at it from an environmental standpoint and an economic standpoint simultaneously and realized that the solution to both those problems of waste is simply not to consume.

When everything goes under, blame me. It'll make you feel better.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Customer Service Lines

The advent of automated phone menus with voice recognition was no doubt intended to make life easier for the busy, coffee-and-cell-phone-juggling modern individual. When callers can speak their choices, they no longer have to pull the phone away from their head, look at the numbers, and select one, possibly missing the beginning of the next menu in the process, but can simply stay with handset jammed between ear and shoulder, barking "One. Three. One. One" into their phones until they arrive at the desired information. Even better, they can say things like "account balance," "transfer funds," or their account number/Social Security number/insurance member number/mother's maiden name, all while interacting with progressively more human-sounding prompts, making the entire experience more relevant and less frustrating. Right? Right? Not exactly.

First of all, there is the problem that artificial speech recognition still leaves a lot to be desired. I try to enunciate, which only seems to make the problem worse. "Did you mean 'apply for a mortgage'?" No! I meant "customer service." (Why would I apply for a mortgage on the phone?) I always end up interrupting it to correct it, which throws it into even more chaos, or I end up spelling my name in clipped letters (which it also doesn't like), or I end up screaming, "Customer service, you freak!" into the phone. ("I'm sorry, I didn't quite get that. For your account balance, please press one or say 'account balances'...") Then there are the ones that just ask, "What would you like me to help you with today?" leaving you to scramble, trying to figure out in the space of a second and a half how sophisticated its language processing skills are and what is an effective keyword for what you want to do. Whatever I pick always seems to stymie these, but they also seem to be the ones most likely to just say, "I'm sorry, I didn't quite get that. Please hold for customer service." Yes!

Secondly, phone menus are always horribly arranged. One never knows where the option one is looking for lurks and is so required to listen through each list carefully to ensure a better-sounding option doesn't come along. They also never quite seem to have the option I seek. Phone options for banks, insurance companies, and the like are always really simple things that are much better done online. If I wanted to transfer funds, select a primary care physician, enroll in Keep the Change, or view my statement, I would do it online in about the time it takes to dial the number and select a first-menu-level option. The only reason I call customer service lines is when I need to do something that is not available online or when I have a weird question or unique situation that actually requires speaking to a person. In the past two years (calling publishers from the bookstore excluded), I have never called a customer service line when what I needed to do was ever one of the given options. Imagine, I'm calling customer service when I actually need service. Inconceivable. (They should start having one line for automated banking—account balances, due dates, check cancellation, reporting cards stolen, whatever—and one for actual issues.) So I sit there chanting "customer service, customer service, customer service" until they catch on. I'm told that cursing moves you up in the queue as well, but I'm also afraid that it will trigger a little warning light to inform the customer service rep of a belligerent customer, so I don't generally do that.

I'm sure having the menu be recited by a more natural-sounding voice is meant to be reassuring, but it's not really. Maybe it even raises expectations for what it should be able to do. It's just human enough to let you down but not human enough that you feel the need to be polite. I never end up screaming, "I said tax forms, you moron!" at a real person. I think dealing with a customer service robot while waiting to talk to a real person (especially when it refers to itself in the first person) probably raises your blood pressure and makes you more likely to be rude to whoever does actually (finally) answer your call. Someone should do a study.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Marking Time

I seem to be stuck (yes, again). Somehow, despite being fiercely independent and despite telling any almighty beings to fuck off, I want someone else to run my life. If someone else could just pick a path for me and convince me that it would work moderately well, I would do it. Instead, I'm paralyzed, simultaneously refusing to choose anything because I might miss out on the "best" option and by default spending my time in a less-than-ideal option. It's like I can convince myself that this time doesn't count because I'm not really trying and it's not "real." Yeah, well, I'm getting older, my resume isn't getting any better, I'm not earning that much money, and despite what I tell myself, I'm not all that fulfilled.

I really am a little jealous of people who truly believe God has a plan for their life and that with enough prayer and waiting, he will either reveal it to them or he will sort of nudge the necessary opportunities across their paths. This is what I really want to happen to my life. Of course, to me, it seems pretty obvious that when people pray about a situation, they end up making their own decisions anyway, placing weight on whatever they think is most important (or whatever they think God thinks/would think is most important), or they attribute happenstance occurrences to God's plan. I feel like I'm too much in touch with my own (no less screwed up) mind that I would never be able to trick myself into this. Even if there were a God-like being instructing me, I would still feel like it were my own mind making a decision for any one of many not-too-great reasons and wouldn't trust it.

I really need to learn to make decisions. OK, interviewers, that's it: my greatest flaw is my indecision. It's crippling. Maybe my problem is that I know a little more than the average person about how people make decisions, and I know it's all pretty pointless and that we're not being nearly as rational as we think we are, so I give up. Do I back off too much so my intuition can pick what's best? Do I try to buckle down and create the world's most intense pros/cons matrix? No, of course not, I careen wildly from one approach to the other—like most people, admittedly, but I seem to be the only one aware of it. If I could only quit paying attention and make a decision—any decision—already, I'd be better off.

My other stumbling block is that I don't ever want to close off options. Rationally, I am perfectly aware that the problem with modern life is not too few areas in which one can exercise choice, but too many. (See: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, a book that would change my life if I could actually put its lessons into practice.) Yet I still panic at the thought of closing off any given avenue forever. I really need to hurry up and figure out that (a) very few avenues ever truly get closed off forever (child prodigy, gymnast—the only two I can really think of), (b) I would be better off closing off as many avenues as possible to narrow down my choices, (c) I'm letting doors close simply by allowing time to pass without action being taken. If I do nothing for the rest of my life, all my possible routes will be shut off; whereas if I just pick one, at least I have a decent shot.

It's not fair. Why is it possible to know something undisputedly but be completely unable to act on it?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Torture and Terrorism

I have a confession to make: I watch 24. Though I am a damn dirty liberal who is very uncomfortable with the entire way the U.S. under George Bush handled its terror suspects, I spend my Monday evenings watching Jack Bauer commit those same illegal acts...and halfway feel he's justified. Because, after all, in every situation where he tortures someone, that person holds the one piece of information that will permit Bauer and CTU to stop whatever terrorist plot is in motion, in time to save hundreds to millions of U.S. citizens. If the terrorist is not tortured, many Americans will die.

I recently re-watched The Weather Underground, the documentary on the activities of the American youth terrorist organization the Weathermen (most recently in the news during the presidential election because Bill Ayers, one of its most active members, may or may not be a fist-bumping pal of Obama's). The first time I watched this, in a college course, I remember having the epiphany that though almost everyone else would judge the actions of this organization as reprehensible, myself included, the Weathermen thought they had the moral high ground, that they were doing what was right and what was necessary to reform our country and bring the atrocities it was committing to the attention of the complacent white middle class. They are so idealistic and full of rage, so convinced they are right, that they feel anything is justified to change the status quo. They truly thought they were right.

More importantly, I realized that despite my distaste for the terrorism they had committed, if I were ever so fully committed to a cause, so absolutely sure that what I believed in was right, I would likely be the same way. If I knew I was right, I would feel justified in doing almost anything. And why not? Isn't that attitude entrenched in our psyche? Saint Augustine wrote "an unjust law is no law at all," an idea that even Martin Luther King repeated. As humans and as Americans, we feel that there are some lines the government cannot cross, and once it does, disobedience is the only option. We applaud those who stand up for what they know is right, even when they face persecution—the loss of a job, villification, even jail. Philosophically speaking, don't most of us even accept the notion that killing one evil person to save thousands of innocent ones is overall good? (In Christianity, even the killing of one perfect person to save millions/billions/whatever of less innocent ones is found acceptable—of course, that was a voluntary sacrifice, but still, very rare is the person who finds the idea of trading one life for many inherently immoral.)

The problem is, though, how can you be sure you're on the side of the right? In 24, it's obvious. The terrorists are always bad. Even beyond that, though, the situation is crystal clear. It's an obvious trade-off between torturing and/or killing one (or a couple) and saving some much larger number. There is rarely, if ever, any doubt that the terrorist has the piece of information, that he will give it up, or that once the information is known, that the danger will be averted. It is always clear: this person has the one piece of information needed to save many American lives. Torturing this person will result in a much greater good. Thus, Jack Bauer is almost always justified in doing "whatever is necessary," as he so often says. In real life, however, it's never that clear. The circumstances aren't as simple. What the suspected terrorists actually know and whether it can be elicited via torture are unknown. Whether this information is itself the single key to protecting Americans from an imminent, specific attack is doubtful. Whether there is no more appropriate way to find out what we need to know is unlikely. Whether there is another attack in the works is even up in the air. Whether a person actually exists in the real world who, like Jack Bauer, exists solely for the better good of the citizenry, with no personal motivations or chance of corruption, is laughable.

Similarly, simply having the gut feeling that a cause is right, that it is are morally justifiable to breaking the law and even kill to achieve worthy goals, is not enough. If there were a universal good that everyone agreed on, and some violent action were seen as necessary to bring about this good (or end the evil), most of us would likely find it justified; however, this isn't the case in the real world. The same people who feel justified in bombing U.S. political buildings to protest the atrocities the U.S. was committing in Vietnam (or Iraq) would likely decry abortion clinic bombers, who feel just as unquestionably justified in their use of violence. Most of us would find both situations unjustified.

The simple truth is that being absolutely convinced of your own unassailability means nothing. The people who believe exactly opposite of you are just as sure in their beliefs.

But of course they're the wrong ones.

Health Insurance

I really, really do not understand health insurance. I think there are two ways to look at the general principle: from the individual perspective or the social perspective. As an individual, one pays a certain amount a month so that when one breaks a leg, gets in an accident, gets diabetes or lung cancer or whatever else, one's medical costs are all taken care of. For some people (the ones who get protracted medical conditions, like HIV, cancer, diabetes, or even asthma or allergies), it's a good investment. Their monthly premiums, even through their healthy years, are probably dwarfed by the cost of the care they eventually receive. Others, though, rarely if ever get sick, don't end up with huge diseases, and even with the occasional broken bone or hospital childbirth or whatever, probably end up spending way more in premiums than their medical care is actually worth. It's the chance you take: you're paying to insure yourself against future calamity.

But then there's the social perspective of looking at things, where insurance companies use the income from the young and/or healthy to pay for the radiation treatments, surgeries, etc. of the less healthy. It's sort of a view across, with all money from a given period of time being redistributed to cover everyone, rather than a view forward, where your money goes to cover you at a later point in time. I think this collective perspective is closer to accurately describing the insurance system. Really, insurance is a way of putting oneself in an isolated communistic pot, using the money from those who don't need it (the healthier ones) to cover those who do (the unhealthier ones).

So if we accept the "spread the wealth" principle within the limited scope of the insurance company, why are we so skittish to adopt a more widespread yet philosophically similar approach as a nation? We have already accepted that nonsmokers and healthy eaters are paying for others' lung cancer treatments and heart bypasses (well, assuming those managed to stick with their insurance and not get stranded without coverage for their "preexisting conditions"), so why not remove the bureaucracy and profiteering of the insurance company and make it a national program?