The Fisher King Revisited

The following essay is one that I wrote for the most part in July of 2011, but which I didn’t get around to publishing in a timely fashion in relation to the tragedy in Norway that it refers to. That may be for the best in terms of letting everyone’s minds cool a bit and looking at the matter with a bit more perspective, with the 9/11 tenth anniversary also behind us now. Thus I’ve given this a substantial re-edit with hopes that there are still people who might be touched by it.

 “…there’s only three things you need in this world: the love of a good woman, a navy blazer and a satisfying bowel movement on a regular basis.”

That’s just one of many quotes I particularly like from the film “The Fisher King” with Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. It came to mind this summer as I was sorting through my closet, debating with myself about which blazers to take with me as I leave Europe and which to give or throw away. When it comes to love and regularity I’m actually feeling like I’m in pretty good shape these days, but when it came to blazers my dark blue ones weren’t in that good of shape.

But then while I was contemplating these matters still the Norwegian bombing and shootings happened, and the film took on a whole new relevance.

For those who’ve never seen it, the basic plot of The Fisher King is that Jeff Bridges’ character, Jack Lucas, an in-your-face social commentator on talk radio, ends up pushing one vulnerable listener over the edge, resulting in a shooting spree in which 7 people are killed. This leads to Jack having a major breakdown, only to be rescued in the way he would have least wanted or expected by Perry (Williams’ character), the husband of one of the shooting victims in the tragedy he helped cause. Perry has also had a pretty serious breakdown, but he has a clear sense of purpose as to how to deal with the issue… but that’s rather beside the point of this blog.

In case you missed the connection between this 20-year-old film and recent events, on July 22nd in Oslo and its suburbs one particular fruit loop, who was driven over the edge by a bunch of self-promoting American hate-mongers, went out and killed seventy-some people –– mostly teenagers –– and there’s been an open question in the media of what if any responsibility these hate-mongers should bear for the tragedy.

The primary differences between this tragedy and the story in the film seem to be:

1)   There was more than one hate-monger which played a critical role in causing the tragedy.

2)   There were far more people killed in the real life even than in the film.

3)   The tragedy happened six time zones away from the hate-mongers, rather than six blocks.

4)   Apparently none of the hate-mongers in the real-life story have enough of a conscience to be bothered by the events they helped to cause, thus there is no opportunity for a story of redemption in their case.

In fact, rather than recognize their own role in causing this tragedy, those responsible for stirring up the hatred against Muslims and “liberals” that motivated this Norwegian fruit loop, Breivik, to go on his bombing and shooting spree jumped right on their microphones and keyboards the very next day and started blaming Muslims and liberals themselves for what had happened!

At the time this was all happening I was rather busy with my own transitions in life, so I wasn’t reading many newspapers or watching much reporting on television. Thus I first heard about the tragedy on my car radio, and to find out more about the event I went straight to the Internet. Typing “Norway shooting tragedy” into the search engine, one of the first hits to come up was the “Jihad Watch” site, apparently run by a rabid Islamophobe named Robert Spencer. As the first reports were dribbling in, Spencer blogged that experts thought it was Al-Qaeda. He downplayed the alternative theory of a connection with people like himself by saying, “It is interesting that a handful of attacks by ‘right wing extremists,’ as compared to tens of thousands by Islamic jihadists, and yet the suspicion always fastens upon the ‘right wingers’ as much or more than it does upon jihadists.”

This in turn incited the following responses on his board from among his faithful followers:

“The right wing whitewash won’t last long. White, blonde, brown, black – color makes no difference. Ideology is the key culprit and if Jihadist groups have managed to recruit a Native who wouldn’t raise suspicion, then they have succeeded in taking advantage of a phenomenon U.S. officials have been anticipating for years.”

“There is NO WAY IN HELL a lone person could have pulled off something of this magnitude by themselves – the real story will be revealed in the weeks and months to come – it STINKS of islam!”

And then perhaps most radically troubling: “YOU have not seen TERROR BUT the Great and TERRIBLE DAY OF THE LORD GOD OF HOSTS comes upon us suddenly. […] OBAMA IS 666!!! DO not let the debt limit be raised!! and shoot Obama (just to see if he pops up again) AT LEAST IMPEACH him!!”

Then it came out that not only was it a right wing nut job who committed the atrocity; it was someone who had been deeply influenced by Spencer’s very own site.

So what does he have to say for himself when the BBC asks? “I had nothing to do with it. You know, any nutcase can invoke anything he wants as his inspiration, but that doesn’t mean that the person he invokes has any responsibility.” He then goes on to deny ever inciting violence, comparing his role in the Oslo killings to the Beatles’ role in the Manson killings.

For a person in that position to try to play the tragedy that he helped to cause as a further opportunity for self promotion rather than taking it as a sign of his fundamental failure as a human being, as the Jack Lucas character did, is deeply troubling. It would be shocking, were it not for the prevalence of obvious personality disorders in American right wing politics and media these days.

OK, the “responsible right” can dismiss obvious sociopaths like Spencer just as easily as Spencer himself dismissed Breivik, except that their spokespersons making their own absurd hate-mongering statements are just too established and high ranking within the system. Witness the case of Christian Whiton. Shortly after the realization hit the mainstream media that this atrocity was not committed by Muslim terrorists, but by a regular client of the hate-mongers on the American right, this former Bush aide went on Fox News in an attempt to throw up the clumsiest of smokescreens: Basically, he said, it was the Norwegians own fault that they became victims of a right wing inspired lunatic, because if they had done more to be confrontational against Muslims that would have enabled them to deal with this rare non-Muslim terrorist as well.

That’s roughly the same sort of reasoning as the old Detroit auto-makers’ argument saying that if you have a car with a bigger motor it will make you safer on the road, because you can accelerate out of the way of danger faster. And yes, there are isolated cases where that might happen, but as any insurance agent knows, having faster accelerating cars tends to cause a lot more safety problems than it solves. Given the statistics on the matter it’s only common sense that you would expect to pay higher insurance premiums on a 300 hp. sports coupe than on a 50 hp. economy sedan. If extra power really made you safer it would be the other way around.

Now of course this isn’t a great analogy: the ratio of “defensive potential” to added danger with higher horsepower cars isn’t a very close match for the equivalent ratio with reference to political hate-mongering. The added danger factor in the latter is FAR worse. Encouraging paranoia is a great way of getting people to “kill or be killed,” thus mobilizing a variety of killing machines. But almost by definition this added explosive power is not something that those who unleash it can carefully control. And beyond that, the added danger caused by the recreational use of such power puts lives at risk not just on the same road, as with muscle cares, but all the way around on the other side of the world.

So what is the moral of this story, and the philosophical relevance of all of this? Many things actually. To start with it shows the importance of epistemology: people need to develop some basic skills in terms of stopping to think about their grounds for deciding what information they trust and what information they don’t. Hopefully they can do this on the basis of something other than their ethnic, religious and political prejudices. Not that this would have helped matters much in Norway itself, but at lease it would put ideas like those of Spencer and Whiton and Fox News back in the margins of western culture where they belong.

Then in terms of metaphysics this can provide those who believe that the western world view is the safest world view with a healthy dose of humility. Yes, there is a lot to be said for democratic, relatively secular, pluralistic and tolerant forms of culture and government; but beyond that claiming that westerners have a monopoly on truth and advancement is just silly. And when “conservative” westerners to attempt to make their cultures and governments more authoritarian, dogmatically idealized, homogenous and enforceable in response to perceived Islamist threats, that takes away the very things that actually make their countries advantageous places to live.

And then in terms of ethics, this reminds us once again that encouraging hatred is rarely a good idea. Believing in solidarity, shared dignity and empathy being practiced as widely as possible just makes a whole lot more sense in terms of making our own lives more livable and appreciable.

The Fisher King, the movie, ends with the lead characters contemplating whether or not “cloud busting,” and other grandiose mental games and quests, can have any objective basis in reality as we know it. Their conclusion: not much, but they’re a lot healthier and perhaps a bit more realistic than hate-mongering.

Regarding Islamophobes, Islamicists, American founding father fundamentalists and other sorts of hate-mongers who can’t relate to such ideals, I can only speculate about what they might be missing to make them feel that way. It could well have to do with those three things that Perry said we all need. Maybe they’re just constipated, or maybe they feel a serious lack of romantic love in their lives. Or maybe someone just needs to buy each of them a navy blazer. Whatever the case, I suppose the best we can do is pray that as many of them as possible find some sort of redemption, and try to teach others not to take them seriously in the mean time. Or maybe what the world needs is just more simple-minded fools who believe in the basic values of kindness and friendship.

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Filed under Empathy, Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics

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