Friday, September 11, 2015

Deadwood--a jolly show about a genocide

From the "later" pile.  That is to say, a post that I started months or years ago, and am editing and finishing now.  Hence the bit about "shoveling snow." I guess I wrote this some time in February...
Also, fair warning, if reading about casual apologias for genocide has the potential to ruin your day, you should consider not reading this.

Shoveling snow turns out to be good for thinking.  While shoveling out my car this morning, I finally put my finger on what's been bothering me about a show I was watching: Deadwood.

It's a western staring Timothy Olephant playing a burnt out law man who moves to a lawless camp of Deadwood South Dakota. The place is entirely law-free (for the whites) because it's on an Indian reservation, with the express goal of taking the land and gold deposits from the Indians living there. The show is, fundamentally, a light and enjoyable show about the experiences and exploits at the leading edge of a genocide.

After watching it, I'm left with the question: Can you tell the story of the perpetrators of a genocide, in a way that makes you sympathetic, and still fall within the bounds of decency?

My first thought was that it's a little like when Nabokov wrote about terrible people in a way that makes you sympathetic (eg. Humbert Humbert), but there you're supposed to feel bad because you're sympathetic.  That's not what's happening here, they just tell the story straightforwardly--you're supposed to root for Olephant's character, and then when the show's over, finish your beer and go to bed, sleeping soundly because Olephant saved the day again.

My first reaction after thinking this through was to be horrified, but I also think there is value in remembering the banality of evil. Like virtually every other Jew I know, a significant part of my family was murdered in the 1930s or 1940s, and while I might be more comfortable thinking of this as an inhuman act of evil, it wasn't.  It was a very human act of evil--some young man, almost certainly younger than me, actually did the deed, and he had hopes, dreams, a mothers and maybe a girlfriend.

Do I want to know his story? Are these stories that we need to tell? Do we need to tell stories like this to remind ourselves that normal people have the capacity to do great evil, or do we need to avoid stories like this, so we don't distract from the horror of a genocide? Is it better to highlight the inhumanity of the act, or the humanity of the actors? I don't know the answers here, just that the questions matter.

All that said, however--I'm pretty sure the writers didn't think this deeply.  My guess is that they just wanted to write a western, and didn't even realize they'd written a happy little show set in the midst of a genocide.

**a somewhat relevant note on timing--the Holocaust was closer in time to the American genocide (aka "The Indian Wars") that inspired it than it is to present day. None of this is ancient history.

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