Friday, January 1, 2010

2010: "Go, set a watchman."

Gustave Dore's Babylon Fallen.

"Never make predictions, especially about the future." -- Casey Stengel

The new year dawned cold and rainy here in Pinson -- leaden, gray and nasty. Roman augurs would look for portents in the activities of birds and the divination of their entrails. The only birds around here this miserable morning are crows -- Randall Flagg's familiars if Stephen King is to be believed. While I have no objection to shooting crows, the gunshots would have a startling effect on my hungover neighbors. The divination of entrails, however, is something I'd rather not waste time on.

The only thing I can offer for an omen was that I woke up in the middle of the night in the middle of dream, the soundtrack of which was Hendrix's version of All Along the Watchtower.

"There must be some kind of way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None will level on the line, nobody of it is worth."

"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through life, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the cold distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl.

Bob Dylan wrote this song after a motorcycle accident darned near killed him. He spent some of his recuperation reading the Bible and some reviewers have pointed out this passage from Isaiah:

Isaiah 21:5-9 (King James Version)

5Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.

6For thus hath the LORD said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

7And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:

8And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:

9And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.

Watchtower of the Knights of St. John on Malta

Watchtowers, like tracers, work both ways. They can be set up as a means of giving early warning to a community of danger to it from without. Or, they can be used to oppress that same community by allowing the authorities to monitor and, with the advent of machineguns, use deadly force against, any people who object or try to escape from the oppressors' tyrannical system.

Watchtower at Buchenwald.

Perhaps my dream-state replay of All Along the Watchtower came from a movie I saw a few weeks ago, Watchmen.

Set in an alternate-universe America of 1985 where costumed superheroes were once counted on to deal with society's evil-doers, Richard Nixon has just been elected to his fifth term as President. It is a dark world, a fascist world, where the streets of the country are filled with immorality and filth.

When one of his former colleagues is murdered, the washed up but no less determined masked vigilante Rorschach sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion - a ragtag group of retired superheroes, only one of whom has true powers - Rorschach glimpses a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future. Their mission is to watch over humanity... but who is watching the Watchmen? --

"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" is a Latin phrase from the Roman poet Juvenal, which is literally translated as, "Who will guard the guards themselves?" or "Who watches the watchmen?"

The Founders had an answer for this: the people. The armed citizenry, they felt, were the best guards of their own liberty, property and security. Over the centuries, like the Romans, we have become comfortable with hiring that responsibility to be done for us. Watchmen gives us a glimpse of what the end of that road is.

At one point in the narrative there is a police strike and the Watchmen are hired by the government to deal with it. As two of them, Edward Blake, "The Comedian" and Dan Dreiberg, the "Night Owl" are brutally dispersing a mob:

Edward Blake: God damn I love working on American soil, Dan. Ain't had this much fun since Woodward and Bernstein.

Dan Dreiberg: How long can we keep this up?

Edward Blake: Congress is pushing through some new bill that's gonna outlaw masks. Our days are numbered. Till then it's like you always say, we're society's only protection.

Dan Dreiberg: From what?

Edward Blake: You kidding me? From themselves.

The Comedian, as can be deduced from the reference to Woodward and Bernstein, has been in the pay of the Nixon administration for some time which is why Nixon is now in his fifth term. There is also a scene in the opening montage that places him with a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle at JFK's assassination. Whether the masked superheros are doing the government's bidding or working out their own well-intentioned but bloody and tyrannical plans, the result is the same -- a hubris of the elect where the people are mere pawns in a deadly game that involves the extinction of mankind.

One of the Watchman, a man who in the end murders millions of innocents around the world in pursuance of his plan to save mankind, enunciates this clearly early on:

"We can do so much more. We can save this world... with the right leadership. . ."

And later:

"The only person with whom I felt any kinship with died three hundred years before the birth of Christ. Alexander of Macedonia, or Alexander the Great, as you know him. His vision of a united world... well, it was unprecedented. I wanted... *needed* to match his accomplishments, and so I resolved to apply antiquity's teaching to our world, *today*. And so began my path to conquest. Conquest not of men, but of the evils that beset them."

In truth, the only "hero" who elicited my sympathy was Rorschach, a seriously twisted guy, who is only interested in exacting justice and tells the Night Owl just before his death:

"Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon. That's always been the difference between us, Daniel."

In the end, it is Rorschach who has the last laugh, by using a weapon as old as mankind: the truth.

I urge you to watch the movie, if for no other reason than to see the logical results of the people abdicating their responsibility to be their own watchmen, as the Founders intended. Whether it is the government, or Dr. Manhattan, who you count to watch over you, the result is the same: subjugation, tyranny and death as pawns in someone else's well-intentioned Armageddon.

Whatever happens in 2010, this much is clear: we must be our own watchmen.

Minuteman -- the Founder-approved watchman.


Anonymous said...

I'd recommend reading the original comic / graphic novel by Alan Moore + Dave Gibbons + John Higgins, which -- if you liked the themes discussed above from the movie -- is even more powerful. TIME called it one of the top 100 greatest novels ever written, for whatever that's worth. It's as readable for its literary value as it is for its subversion of the superhero genre.

Anonymous said...

Absolute brilliance.

I'm just starting on a space opera meets lord of the flies^animal farm^1984 story. don't know if I can make it into anything, but mind if i steal your latin quote?

Dick's Dad

pdxr13 said...

"All along the watchtower" was used in the recent re-make of Battlestar Galactica.

Bob Dylan is a conduit of prophesy, with the usual question: what does it mean? As with all kinds of art, the maker is merely the instrument of production, while the viewer or listener must assign personal meaning to the work.

We have both kinds of Watchmen in our various towers. It's exciting when both kind end up in one tower.

Happy new year.

Axeanda45 said...

Great post,
I just recently bought "Watchmen" and had no clue what it would be like before I watched it. I enjoyed it and recommend to any who have not seen it yet to do so.

My favorite part in the whole movie was the line:

"I'm not locked up in here with you.... you are all locked up in here with me"

I nearly stood up and cheered, lol

chinasyndrome said...

Point taken.

chinasyndrome said...

That was scary word verication was commi.

David Codrea said...

Yeah, very good movie. Can't figure out why Alan Moore was so upset by it except his thing is to be eccentric and contrarian--but at least he lives his principles.

Mike, this is just so damned absurd and funny, I had to share it with you--somebody did a parody giving network treatment if Watchmen were a Saturday morning cartoon:

Recalling the grisly scene, "Rorschach's friends to the animals" while he's petting German Shepherds almost made me spew coffee.

Kevin Wilmeth said...

I would not presume to speak for Moore himself, but I suspect he was quite fearful that any attempt to organize Watchmen into film would wind up remarkably like that YouTube video, which is after all funny for a reason.

Yeah, it does seem obvious that a certain amount of the Moore appeal is precisely his irascibility, but in all seriousness, Watchmen is a masterpiece of its genre, and translating it into any other format is going to necessarily diminish that. I did not understand this until I read the novel and realized that some parts of the author's craftsmanship would literally be possible only within this art form.

The other likely reason Moore distrusted any film-ization of Watchmen is the obvious one: an accurate depiction of that novel is devastating to the state. It is not a story of which Master would approve.

Steve K said...


I think this excerpt from Rorschach's journal is particularly indicting of the problems that America is dealing with and who has caused them.

"Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "Save us!"... and I'll look down and whisper "No." They had a choice, all of them. They could have followed in the footsteps of good men like my father or President Truman. Decent men who believed in a day's work for a day's pay. Instead they followed the droppings of lechers and communists and didn't realize that the trail led over a precipice until it was too late. Don't tell me they didn't have a choice. Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody Hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers... and all of a sudden nobody can think of anything to say."

I highly recommend, as others have, investing the time to read the graphic novel version of this fantastic story.


Unknown said...

One wonders about the future of this land: Are we an aberration...or an idea, a system that can last?

Kerry said...

In the same way that the authorities responsible did not stop the attack on the plane, and the office they failed to uphold was honorably filled by a volunteer, what events will lead other citizens to step in when elected officials similarly fail to uphold the duties of their offices?
And step in how?

Ed Rasimus said...

Flashing back on Randall Flagg and feeling the sniffles coming on...

Anonymous said...

Sic vis pacem, Parabellum, my friends. We ARE the Legion. We ARE the watchmen. I would die for my country, NOT it's government.

Anonymous said...

>>> One wonders about the future of this land: Are we an aberration...or an idea, a system that can last? <<<

We have been betrayed and enemies from without and within reap that benefit. They must be dealt with as well as everything they have done against us and our children.

It is them or us, the question that remains is who "they" are.