08 October 2011

The World is Not in Black and White, Examples From Serpico to Politics

Single-minded determination is a great virtue that can have terrible consequences. Illustrations abound. In the film Serpico (1973), the title character is relentless and unwavering in his determination to root out corrupt cops in the NYPD. Al Pacino gives the real life character heaping portions of passion, piled on to his rigid belief in the sanctity of honesty. This earns him a bullet in the head but also a gold badge and the knowledge that his efforts have helped clean up the police force.

There is a wonderful purity to Serpico the character, a man who wouldn't accept a nickel from a crook. But within there is a complex soul. Taking his war against crooked cops into his personal life he drives away the woman who loves him. Just as he as at war with evil, he at war with himself, unable to compartmentalize a life overrun by his lofty ambitions. Here is someone on the path to  spend an entire career as cop who embraces ballet, opera and fine wines, while eschewing the rough and tumble bonhomie of fellow cops who want nothing more complex from their personal lives than football strategy. Oh and they want their payoffs too.

Sidney Lumet was the director who brought Serpico's story to the screen. Peter Maas wrote the book upon which the film was based and the screenplay was penned by Waldo Salt with an assist from Norman Wexler. Of course Pacino interpreted the character but Lumet re-recreated Serpico's world and stories, bringing to life the underbelly of New York police and their work in circa 1970.

Serpico the character, as with his real life embodiment, is unscrupulously honest. About as much as a human, inherently a flawed being, can be. This kind of devotion to an ideal is admirable, not to mention rare. Think how much trouble you can get into by only playing by the rules and speaking the truth at all times. It can be a quick ticket out of many jobs, certainly the death knell to a political career, and hazardous in forming personal relationships. The last thing people want to hear is what you really, honestly think of them.

But Serpico was doing battle in a cesspool of police corruption. Here was a person who did not deal in subtlety in the best of circumstance. The man could not and would not bend. His efforts led to investigations and a tidying up of the NYPD.

Certain forms of unblinking thinking can lead to trouble that does not have a silver lining. We see it today in our national discourse where discussion points have hardened into battle lines. Anything one side says or does is wrong (because, remember, we're all divided into sides: red/blue, right/left, democratic/republican, and even if we eschew such labels they're assigned to us anyway) and what our side is quite naturally correct. Opinions are abundant, though seldom backed by either facts or reasoned thinking. These opinions are used like sledge hammers to bludgeon the other side. Nuance is dead.

Zealotry has always found a home in religious dogma and we all know that countless millions throughout the ages have suffered immeasurably as a result. Unshakable beliefs are the devil's workshop.

A few mornings ago I rode into San Francisco with a driver who had one of those all news AM radio stations on. There was a report from New York about the Occupy Wall Street movement. The reporter said that many of those involved, and here's a shocker, "are ordinary people."

I was stunned. You mean these people are not all extraordinary? They are not -- every last one -- special or irregular, or aberrant, or exotic or singular or outre or bizarre? Not all resemble three toed sloths or have magnifying glasses embedded in their foreheads or walk upside down on stilts or speak in tongues or have donuts for middle fingers?


All you ever heard about the Tea Party Movement is how they are ordinary, salt-of-the-earth Americans. This would presuppose that Americans are bigoted simpletons who are easily taken in by their corporate overlords. Not hardly.

But people who protest against corporate abuse are naturally assumed to be some amalgamation of crack pot commie, fascist latte drinkers who want to finish the work of Al Qaeda and bring down America. Conservative commentator Ann KKKoulter likened the Occupy Wall Street movement to the events leading to theFrench and Russian Revolutions and to the rise of Nazi Germany. How she left off the Spanish Inquisition is beyond me. 

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