Archive for October, 2012

LIFE LESSONS No. 1: Power Corrupts, Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.

October 30, 2012

The Committee
Iron Mike
Murder Ward

In these three episodes, and the series as a whole, murderers, rapists and con men are not the most rotten of criminals, no matter how destructive: rather, beware the influence-peddling, politically astute, wealthy and influential pillars of society who have lost their humanity through greed and ambition. In this series, corruption is everywhere. In your political representatives, your mortgage broker, your lawyer, the police officer you run to for help. I learned this early on as I watched, and actual real life has not proven this wrong.

The political cynicism of the series is seen vividly in “The Committee”, a brutal story of Starsky and Hutch seeking justice for the victims of two rapists while being hindered by their own people. Atypically, in this episode they are attacked from both sides, above and below, accused by a uniformed officer of being too lenient, and implicated by the brass in a series of vigilante killings. Vigilantism is not only tolerated by the system but actively encouraged by its most senior members, as in police veteran Lt. Fargo, head of Internal Affairs. Fargo is identical to any board member of any institution, commercial or political, with influence and leverage (even the name of his murderous thugs – “The Committee” – is a cynical take on business as usual). Fargo not only undermines the justice system, he seeks to destroy Starsky and Hutch by setting them up to take the fall for complicated reasons of his own (he could have his pick of “deserving” criminals, but he chooses those who are directly being investigated by Starsky and Hutch).

The opposite of Fargo is Mike Ferguson, whose stellar career is due to a cozy relationship with gangster Matt Coyle. In return for looking the other way, Ferguson gets the goods on hundreds of small-time crooks. Like Matwick and Fargo, Ferguson is proud of himself and refuses to acknowledge he’s part of any systemic problem. “I may not always go by the books, but I get results,” he says. Again, iniquity is compounded because it comes from both sides of the equation: Coyle also believes he is making the world a better place, insisting no one “was never bought or bribed.”

All this I watched avidly, learning. And by far the element remaining foremost in my mind is the fact that all these guys had one thing in common: all fervently believed the suffering of the individual is necessary for the rectification of a larger problem. In other words, it’s okay to inflict pain if you want to preserve order. It’s a mantra repeated by results-driven social architects throughout history. It’s why police shoot demonstrators. It’s why internment camps were invented. It’s why chimpanzees languish in cages in laboratories, awaiting death. And it’s turned me into a life-long skeptic of fanaticism of any sort. Fargo, standing before a whimpering, helpless Garner, says, “(shooting Garner) is … righting a wrong. Look upon it as a necessary evil. A greater good. This man’s life to save all the lives that would be forfeited if he were to continue to twist the law to protect the guilty scum he calls clients.” This rationale implies justice is in the hands of the individual rather than a system of law. It negates mercy, and it negates empathy. Matt Coyle insists he turned over “animals and hard cases” thus making the world a better place. In Murder Ward, Dr. Matwick delivers a passionate, self-serving speech explaining his psycho-chemical experiments. “My conscience is quite clear. The work I’m doing is of utmost importance … a few lives is a small price to pay.” He then says, “Criminal psychotics, all of them. They were quite invaluable to my research. Their lives were their only contribution to this world.”

Directly or indirectly, all three men flourished through the willful ignorance of those around them. Responsible for the death of two patients at another hospital, Matwick’s deeds were hushed up by government agencies; he was moved to the west coast and allowed to continue his work preying on the most vulnerable people. This would mean, if he published papers, hired staff, was investigated and then exonerated, that hundreds of people knew what he was doing. We see examples of this everywhere we look, from Jerry Sandusky to Wall Street investment firms. The only difference between life and television, as Nellie disgustedly remarks in “The Committee”, is that on television the bad guys get caught and in real life most evils go unchecked. And yes, here too: in all three episodes, Starsky and Hutch are triumphant in taking down the bad guys, and are helped in the crucial final moments by the right-hand man (and woman) the corrupt official has used, abused, and takes for granted. In “The Committee”, it’s Ginger, Fargo’s sometime girlfriend who turns against him. In “Iron Mike” Starsky and Hutch very cleverly enlist the help of Coyle’s lieutenant Johnny Lonigan by arousing his wounded pride. In “Murder Ward” Nurse Bycroft finally has enough of her boss’s cruel ways when she allows herself to see the anguish in Starsky’s eyes. I can still recall the thrill of sedition as each one of these characters breaks the chain of servitude and does the right thing, and vowed to myself that I too, in a similar situation, would act. I suppose this is the final part of the lesson in morality: evil exists and always will, but it is fed not by the fire of its host, but by the indifference of those around him.

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Through a Glass, Darkly: Life Lessons from Unexpected Places

October 29, 2012

If the majority of hardcore Starsky and Hutch fans first fell in love with the series some time in those impressionable ages between eight and sixteen, then valuable information about how the world really worked was absorbed between the gunshots and car chases. Those years are magical: we are open to discovering things independent of – or perhaps even in direct opposition to – our parents and siblings. We are just gaining the emotional and analytical awareness to judge something as important to us alone. Everything is intense, personal; we are able to form bonds with books, art and music with an intensity nearly impossible later in life.

Depending on your socio-economic, cultural or personal background, the series was either the sole beacon of sanity or part of a network of crucial pre-adult signifiers (choose your own: S.E. Hinton novels, Star Wars, the death of a grandparent, an influential teacher). While imperfect, occasionally inconsistent or faulty, “Starsky and Hutch” can be a solid and reliable template of how to be in this world. Although a successful adult now, I suffered severe neglect as a child, and was unsafe and isolated. I found solace in my own imagination. “Starsky and Hutch” taught me – and mostly likely you, too – important life lessons.

Consistently cynical, often enlightened and always humane, the series hid its politics beneath the beauty of its two stars and the shiny chrome finish of its cars, guns and pretty girls. The next five posts will outline the Life Lessons the series has to teach us and the episodes which most strongly reflect those ideas. I will leave the best and most powerful for the last and start with something incredibly valuable for anyone negotiating their way through this troubling, complex world: the failure of The Institution to protect and serve us well.