June 22, 2022
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The Noir Principle

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Some years ago, in my endless work on the free speech treatise I call the Mad Manuscript, I coined a Defined Term (one of hundreds): The "Noir Principle". This Analogized all earthly life to a Film Noir, always, no matter how promising the beginning, ending with Knives in Darkness. For example, a film about Russian outcomes might begin with Gorbachev explaining the concept of glasnost to an appreciative, freesh-faced group of young people, then end with Putin giving a public award to a henchman who had recently committed the murder by radioactive substance of a dissident in London. A film about Israel might borrow at the outset the Kitschy ending of Schindler's List, in which the freed Auschwitz inmates walk over a gleaming hill into the Promised Land, then end with footage of IDF soldiers beating down coffin-bearing mourners at a West Bank funeral. A film about South Africa, on a somewhat more farcical note, would begin with Nelson Mandela taking his famous long walk from prison to freedom, then end with the current President facing an embarrassing press conference about the burglary, unreported to the police, in which his bribe money was stolen from his mansion. And a film about America might begin with Benjamin Franklin's "A Republic if you can keep it", and end with the Trumpoid Object inciting the crowds on January 6, and then a montage of them savagely beating Capitol police.

Throughout the composition of the MM these twelve years, and also during the twenty-seven years I have been publishing the Ethical Spectacle, I have wrestled with the reason human projects always come to nothing. Basically, the answer is that we are Wired Deeply Wrong. I had a tiny little Case Study in my own life last week, which should not have deeply shocked me. I have a friend where I live, Rona Klopman, to whom I felt I owed a life long debt of gratitude; in 2014, when my community was facing an intemperate attack by people whom a year later would sign up as the MAGA crowd-- Trumpism slightly before Trump-- she had helped me defend against it when she didn't have to. People doing things that put them at even slight personal effort or risk, when they don't have to-- when, if they don't come forward, you will never even know their names or be aware that they didn't help you or even that they existed-- are quite rare.

I suppose my own reciprocity is in its own way as extreme as the MAGA crew's savagery. Two years later, I sued the local Democratic Committee to correct a wrong they had done my friend. This came at some nontrivial degree of financial and social risk, both within the case and in daily life in our Town. When otherwise sympathetic public figures no longer wished to be seen with my friend, I was proud to sit with her in Town Board meetings.

I do not remember from what film noir I am quoting a line of dialog (I can't have invented it) that a friend is simply someone who has not betrayed you yet, because they haven't been offered the right price. Recently, the attack on our neighborhood surged up again, this time championed by a Town Board member who seems to be playing to the Trump base. Rona invited me to speak at a meeting of a quasi-public advisory group she chairs-- and then, in the presence of the Town Supervisor, aided him in a verbal beatdown in which she asked me to leave the stage as I was attempting to answer a "question" he had asked me which was premised on a falsehood. On the phone that night, she "explained" that she is barely hanging on to the Committee, that she felt she had to give in to the pressure of the Supervisor on her right and her equally intemperate co-chair on the left. I suspect but can't prove that it was more than a moment of panic, that the price of our friendship was a quid pro quo, that she gets to retain her Committee for example. When my wife responded to a cheerful, everything- is-normal Facebook post by reproaching her and dropping her as a friend, Rona replied with a grammatical sentence that really Does Not Scan, along the lines of "So you think friendship is only doing what you want?" No, I think friendship is based on a cornerstone of mutual gratitude, loyalty and reciprocity. Sadly, I thought Rona was one of the few people I knew who would be incapable of cheesy behavior. The extreme distress verging on depair that can result from these misadventures is when you come to doubt your own radar, and wonder if you are crazy even to have tried to lift a boulder off a friend.

A kind of secondary wave of annoyance is that the ending of a friendship was so tacky. Karl Marx said that all historical events happen twice, once as tragedy, then as farce. He didn't note that some human adventures begin as tragedy, then end in farce. This mixing of genres is itself another insult (first the betrayal, then its silliness and triviality). Imagine Hamlet ending with someone spraying the prince with goo, or covering the toilet in cellophane. But when you team up with people who are not up to the larger challenges, that's what happens.

In the MM, I Coined another Defined Term, the "Most Wicked Problem". A "Wicked Problem" in sociology was defined as one which is not scientific-mathematical-binary, like, for instance, how to put out a chemical fire. It is a human behavior problem with many moving parts, subjective, psychological and emotional elements, and a huge potential for unintended consequences. The Most Wicked Problem in our world is why it all almost always ends in Knives in Darkness.

Films noir begin with teams working together in apparent loyalty and trust, but about twenty minutes in incentives start to emerge for people to betray each other, until typically at the end, everyone is selling everyone. Often greed is the motivation, sometimes fear or mere convenience. I can steal the heist's entire take when no one is looking; the cops are leaning on me; while my chaotic partner is in the diner bathroom, I take our vehicle and leave.

At a global level, however, this is why we Can't Have Nice Things. Every Noir is also an instance of another Term and Concept in the MM, the Prisoner's Dilemma or PD, a game theory exercise in which there are only two cards available and you play one in every round, "Cooperation" or "Betrayal". I also Coined a term, The Scorpion Move, in which your act of betrayal results in your own destruction, like a prisoner grabbing a guard and leaping to their mutual deaths, or a mass shooting in which the shooter plans a suicide at the end.

Then (too much stream of consciousness?) there is the Tragedy of the Commons, a Noir outcome and PD betrayal motivated by greed. Climate change, whose outcome means Our World is Ending, is the ultimate manifestation of the Noir Principle and Most Wicked Problem: Billionaires are getting rich doing and defending things which will deprive their grandchildren of a world or life. The Times this week had an article noting that certain well-funded Republican dark money sources which campaigned effectively to get conservative judges on the Supreme Court will now fund an appeal of, and likely win, a case which effectively guts the federal government's ability to regulate climate change. We are rushing to our own deaths, a global Scorpion Move.

Another concept in the MM is our tendency to explain systemic failures such as those produced by the core design of Capitalism as mere Glitches, moments of bad luck for which no one takes any actual responsibility, like the 2008 mortage crash which destroyed an entire African American middle class; this was the result of actual visible greed and predation for which no one has gone to prison, and which is understood by most of the American population as merely one of those Strange Things that happens-- or the fault of the Libs or anyone but us, as we blithely sustain in office the same people who plundered us.January 6, minutely engineered by the Trumpoid Object who is free to run for President again and to incite more violence, is similiarly being Retconned (another Defined Term) as a mere Glitch.

As a Spectator, I frequently feel like Kevin McCarthy running alongside the highway at the end of then original Invasion of the Body Snatchers: You're next! Rather, we are all next. The Most Wicked Problem is, how do we all survive in a world of selfishness, greed, and betrayal, where individuals such as Vladimir Putin and billionaire oligarchs (of every nationality) have exploited the betrayal card and the Capitalist system to wield such personal power, with no checks and balances, that they can deploy nuclear weapons or individually buy the outcomes of elections? Elon Musk taking overTwitter and restoring the Trumpoid Object's account is one small example of the kind of machinery we are now dealing with. Needless to say, not as a Glitch but as part of the basic project, all of our own Agency (we, the "little people") as participants in the decision making affecting our own lives has now leeched away. In the Middle Ages, there was, in certain places and times, a correct perception that if you Supported the Baron he would Take Care of You-- but those barons generally had a lot more pragmatism, possibly more compassion, and a bit less greed than the Billionaires in our overheated, end-game environment.

We are really hosed. It is an appalling Spectacle, but I cannot look away. A subsidiary Wicked Problem: how to do no harm, while avoiding harm.

Thomas Webster's The White Devil has an exemplary Noir ending:

Lodovico. Strike, strike,
With a joint motion. [They strike.
Vittoria. ’Twas a manly blow;
The next thou giv’st, murder some sucking infant;
And then thou wilt be famous.
Flamineo. Oh, what blade is ’t?
A Toledo, or an English fox?
I ever thought a culter should distinguish
The cause of my death, rather than a doctor.
Search my wound deeper; tent it with the steel
That made it.
Vittoria. Oh, my greatest sin lay in my blood!
Now my blood pays for ’t.
Flamineo. Th’ art a noble sister!
I love thee now; if woman do breed man,
She ought to teach him manhood. Fare thee well.
Know, many glorious women that are fam’d
For masculine virtue, have been vicious,
Only a happier silence did betide them:
She hath no faults, who hath the art to hide them.
Vittoria. My soul, like to a ship in a black storm,
Is driven, I know not whither.