Saturday, February 09, 2013

THOUGHTS ON CRIME and MORALITY

Three dramas have recently been part of our entertainment diet (one still at mid-meal). They have very different backgrounds but loosely similar themes: morality and crime, but they could hardly be called Morality Plays in the old sense: Les Misérables (book, film, musical); Breaking Bad (TV series); and Scandal (film about the real-life Profumo Affair in Britian in the 1960s.)

The stories prompt one to question commonly held rigid opinions of what is right and what is wrong. Is the law always right? Can there be moral justification for committing crime? Are crime and morality related, is crime always a moral indicator? In two of the dramas there are activities which, though against laws in place at the time, stemmed from valid personal reasons, considered by the law-breaker extreme enough to warrant his actions.
Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.
― Fyodor Dostoevsky

Les Misérables
In Les Misérables the main character, Jean Valjean, stole a loaf of bread because his sister's children were starving. For this crime he was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. 14 extra years and hard labour were added to his sentence because of his attempts to escape. He had broken the law, but wasn't it the moral responsibility of the governing body of France to make certain its citizens were not starving? Who would not steal bread to feed starving children? That's just the beginning. When his sentence is over he's put on probation, he has become hardened and inhumane, which is understandable. At the first opportunity he steals silver from a priest, who then forgives him, prevents his re-arrest and lifetime imprisonment, but tells him that it is on condition that, from then on, he will live a good life. He does so, changing his name as well as his lifestyle. An "establishment" figure, police officer Javert, hounds Valjean with a burning determination, obsessed by a need to adhere rigidly to the letter of the law. Javert wasn't wrong - but he wasn't right either.
A criminal remains a criminal whether he uses a convict's suit or a monarch's crown.
― Victor Hugo


Breaking Bad
In Breaking Bad, an acclaimed TV series we're watching via DVD, a highly qualified chemistry teacher in New Mexico, Walter White, discovers that he has inoperable lung cancer. He's a mild-mannered, easy-going family man. He has a pregnant wife and a teenage son who suffers from cerebral palsy. The treatments Walter White needs are horrendously expensive, will not be covered by insurance. He turns down the offer of help from a former business partner. Instead, he uses his rare expertise to begin "cooking meth" (the drug methamphetamine) and selling it, in partnership with a younger guy who knows the business. The expensive chemo therapies, paid for by ill-gotten gains from selling his high quality meth, do cause an improvement in his condition. Improved health means he's able to withstand an operation, set to cost some $200,000.....even more meth cooking and selling is needed.

Over time Walter White becomes hardened psychologically, he meets and does business with criminals and drug lords, as well as dealing with dark thoughts of his own early demise. He is closely involved in murders, multiple deaths, and other crimes directly and indirectly, as well as ensuring that more young lives are destroyed via drug use. We are only at Season 3 (of 5) so I cannot say how it will unfold, but Walter is gradually being turned to stone, morally, mentally and emotionally by results of his crimes.
When a man, before innocent, commits crime, he passes, by a sudden transition, into a new world. The significance of all objects around him is changed; the laws of association in his own mind are changed; a viper is born in his breast which stings and goads him. Sounds that he never heard before ring in his ears; a violated conscience turns avenger and scourger;--the foe is within him. Were it merely an external enemy, assaulting the criminal from without, perhaps he might be fled from, resisted, bribed, or would at last remit his inflictions through very weariness of tormenting. But not so with the consciousness of wrong.... It will not sleep, nor tire, nor relent.
HORACE MANN, Thoughts
Breaking Bad, though its crimes are on a far more serious level from those in Les Misérables raises similar questions. If you were diagnosed with inoperable cancer with, at most, months to live, no means to pay for expensive treatment, and had the skill to make meth (or carry out some other illegal activity), so that your family would not be left with huge medical bills, with likely loss of their home. Would you forgo treatment and face certain death within months, or use your skills, illegally, to make money enough to finance your treatment? There are other similarities to Les Miz too: Walter White's brother-in-law, Hank, is leader of a DEA (drug law enforcement) team pursuing some new mysterious meth-lord. So, Hank = Javert. Walter White takes the alias "Heisenberg" for his meth-dealing persona; Jean Valjean used "Monsieur Madeleine".

In Breaking Bad I see another immorality equal to, or worse than, that of Walter White - the lack of a proper, affordable health care system in the USA, such as is available in most other developed countries, where citizens would not face bankruptcy if catastrophic illness hit them. That is the single, over-riding, wrong which spawned though hardly justified, Walter Whites' huge crimes.
The more insidious kind of crime is writing the laws that make your crimes legal.
― Brandon A. Trean
Wrongs, crimes, immoralities are like trees and plants, they grow from a tiny seed, develop roots that spread, often in unexpected directions; stem and branches grow, bear poisoned fruit and they too, over time, spread beyond anything a person looking at that first tiny seed could have envisaged. In both Les Misérables and Breaking Bad "the seed" can be identified in societal wrongs: deliberate uncaring mis-management by government or ruling body.

Scandal
Circumstances of the third drama, the movie Scandal are somewhat different, and relate to a real-life slice of immorality - and vice rather than crime. It could stand as a morality play for politicians and powerful wealthy guys who like to prey on young women. The Profumo Affair from Britain's early 1960s, is storyline of the film. The film almost certainly skews and embroiders some facts for better dramatic effect. It can tell only basic facts we were allowed to know about the affair. There will be much more still hidden, and will remain so if certain powerful individuals have their way.

John Profumo, Britain's disgraced Minister for War was at the centre of this scandal, which had potential to bring the entire government down. Profumo was one of Dr. Stephen Ward's "clients". I see Ward as "the seed" in this story, for it was from his activities that all other actions grew. Oddly, some saw him as "fall guy". In acting as a high society procurer of young women for the Great and the Bad, Ward had no extenuating circumstance. He apparently did what he did just for the hell of it, and because he could. He wasn't in need of money, a successful osteopath with a client list filled with some of the wealthiest individuals in the UK.

Profumo, in betraying his wife (film star Valerie Hobson) and carrying on a affair with Christine Keeler, one of Ward's "young ladies", thought his powerful position made him invulnerable. There have been many men in similar situations since, there were many before, and will be many more in the future. Profumo, though, was particularly careless in that his chosen extra-marital lover, Christine Keeler was also extra marital lover of a Russian naval attaché, the pair were also introduced by Ward. Minister for War + Russian naval attaché : hot sex + cold war = alarm bells! The young women involved, Christine Keeler and of lesser importance Mandy Rice-Davies, were not forced into doing what they did. They were showgirls from poor backgrounds, willingly coerced, hankering after more bright lights and good times. They were teenagers - not an excuse, but a fact to be taken into consideration. There are no good guys or gals here, nor even any good intentions by bad guys. When eventually arrested Stephen Ward was accused of living off immoral earnings, he committed suicide rather than go to jail.
(Photograph: Ward and Keeler. Getty Images.)
The vices of the rich and great are mistaken for error; and those of the poor and lowly, for crimes.
~Lady Marguerite Blessington

15 comments:

mike said...

Wonderful commentary, Twilight! I'm attracted to the philosophy of moral terpitude and the twists and turns that exempt some, but ensnare others. The best summary I can provide is a quotation from Edgar Cayce, "There is the worst in the best of us and the best in the worst of us."

I like your Gandhi side-bar offering the "Seven Deadly Sins". I can perfectly understand the first six, but the seventh is more complex. Number six and seven are very difficult to fulfill in the USA, if completely honest about daily choices and the effect upon all inter-connections.

♥ Sonny ♥ said...

Breaking Bad is the only portion in your post that I know much about:)

with that said--
for as long as presidents and popes and drug company folks/&sales people can lay their heads down at night and sleep, the rest of us can , regardless of our spiritual beliefs , be assured of a joyful, blissfully paradise that awaits us on the other side..
I need to remember what I just typed here, when my sleep or heck, awake time, is hampered by guilt or worry. :)

gosh thanks Twilight. I just felt my depression lift by at least 60% ..

Twilight said...

mike ~~ Thanks! Yes, that's a good and true quote.

Re Gandhi's 7 Deadlies - agreed on #7 - I don't "get" that one - it is too bound up in organised religion.
And yes, #6 nigh on impossible to find both in today's USA.

Searching around just now I found a website on "TV Tropes" and "The Justified Criminal". Two of my three were listed there - among many others few of which were familiar to me: Les Miz and Breaking Bad. It may be a trope used in fiction, but the situations could equally be applied to real life.....that's why the stories are so compelling - and in some cases survive the centuries only gaining momentum (Les Miz).

Extract:
Justified Criminal -
This is a trope for when a person becomes a criminal because of socio-economic reasons, or just plain horrible circumstances. Basically a person or a group of people are in dire straits and need money immediately and become bank robbers, and drug dealers out of necessity. This trope usually occurs in crime dramas (specifically urban dramas). Also may be considered Truth in Television. And more often than not it's usually overlapped with Plethora Of Mistakes. Also can be a case where a hero has to choose to do what's right despite being illegal. Or something morally dubious for a greater good. This trope almost always fall on the Grey and Grey Morality side.

Some social analysts have also have been known to refer to this as "Survival Crimes".............

Half the point of Les Misérables; justified because the messed-up justice system of the time is what the book is about. Making Valjean a justified Justified Criminal. The book also makes it clear that the poverty of the Thenardiers is no excuse; so perhaps it's the Heel Face Turn that's important and Valjean is really The Atoner.

Valjean's original crime was stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her children, however he broke a window to steal that bread, making it burglary. By the time he gets out of prison, he can't get a job (because he's a convict). It should also be noted that most of what Valjean steals he might have been given, had he asked (the bread, and bishop's silver). Also, Valjean only stole from those who could afford it, whereas the Thenardiers extortion forced Fantine into prostitution, which caused her death.


Deconstructed in Breaking Bad. Walter White, a chemistry teacher starts cooking meth to pay for cancer treatment and leave an inheritance for his wife and children. Through the series, his justification slowly falls apart, and it becomes clear that he's doing it out of pride of his own accomplishments for the most part.

He also doesn't want to take "pity money" from a former partner of his, who inexplicably offers to share his successful company with Walter, citing that they planned to start the company in college together anyway but had a falling out. Walter quickly figures out that his wife told the guy about his cancer. Yes, he would rather make drugs and kill people than take money from a friend...

Twilight said...

Sonny ~~ I'd bet that those people you mention do indeed "sleep the sleep of the just", whether entitled to do so or not. ;-)

Karma though.....there's that!

Breaking Bad is good for feelings of depression - in a roundabout way, I think. Though it is basically grim, it can make the viewer very glad that they don't have to worry about many of the pitfalls Walter and his companions and family have to face over and over again.

Reverse uplift. ;-)

mike (again) said...

The word trope is new to me...I like it! Quite often, the difference between conviction and exoneration is the price of a quality lawyer presenting a creative defense. A typical expression I hear in the national news regarding a rogue corporation: the company has agreed to pay the fine, but admits no wrong-doing. Now, why doesn't that apply to me as an individual?!

Wisewebwoman said...

Yes I am a total fan of Breaking Bad, the character development is stellar and extraordinarily intelligent in today's dumbed down world.

As to Les Miz, how petty crimes can be overblown. Similar circumstances in Ireland in the days of starvation. Men sent on stinking ships to Oz penal colonies for life for stealing a loaf of bread.

The greater the crime the lesser the punishment,or none, just look at the criminals on Wall Street.

XO
WWW

Twilight said...

mike ~~ One law for them, another for the rest of us - it does seem that way at times.

Trope is an odd word, an "in-word" the literary and drama community has adopted, and twisted a bit too I guess to fit their purposes. It seems to have more than one precise meaning - I'd come across it once before and had looked it up.
Why don't they just use the term "plot device" I wonder?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trope_%28literature%29

Twilight said...

Wisewebwoman ~ We're enjoying Breaking Bad in spite of its grim subject matter. The acting is first-class, the writing and pace of the unfolding of the story are excellent - lots of intriguing cliff-hangers always egg us on to need to see the next bit. :-)

Yes, Les Miz is a classic example of how unjust the law can be. Same applied in England too. I worked as assistant to the County Archivist in East Yorkshire for several years, and was able to see for myself, from official records dating back centuries, how unfortunate wrongdoers were treated for minor misdemeanors.
Deportation (usually to Oz) was common there too.

We watched Mea Maxima Culpa on HBO last evening, WWW. Thought of you. Hellfire!!!
Talk about crime without punishment!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Twilight,

Was looking forward to your commentary about "Scandal" and your opinion. As usual, you never disappoint; it was right on the money.The men involved were spoiled and selfish, the girls,well when you are young, pretty,from limited means and living in a country with a class system,you sometimes make the wrong decisions. It was interesting that Christine Keeler ended up on publis assistance(I don't know what its' called in the UK)and Mandy Rice-Davies (I always thought she the more calculating of the two),married 3 times, each better than the next.Go figure. Profumo spent the rest of his life working with the poor in the East End and I believe was honored in some way by the queen towards the end of his life. I remember my mother and her friends clucking over the fact that Valerie Hobson chose to remain married to her husband,but that was and still is a very American attitude. Very little,if any is known of the Soviet naval attache other than he died a few years ago. I rember reading that Kenneth Tynan and a few other British literary critics called Dr. Wards' friends and clients hypocrits as they would not defend him or go to his funeral.

On a lighter note, my girlfriend and I looked forward to reading the news accounts about this scandal and trial on a daily basis. It all seemed so glamorous to our 14 year old minds. We wanted to dress up for Halloween, me in a red wig as Christine, my girlfriend in a blonde wig as Mandy. Our mothers said "Absolutely No".At least those tweo were always properly dressed when they went to Old Bailey.

anyjazz said...

A pithy subject TW. As you can see, it makes people think about things. With corruption running rampant in our businesses and governments and religions, Morality will soon be a hot topic in our world.

Twilight said...

Anonymous ~~ Hi! I enjoyed the movie, for what it was. Felt that john hurt was a bit too "nice" for the part of Ward though - he's the one I despised over all the others involved, and he's the one for whom I had least sympathy.

It all seems a tad tame now though, there have been so many other "scandals" with even higher profile bods involved - President Clinton for one! But at the time it provided no end of gossip and fodder for writers.

I admire Valerie Hobson for staying with Profumo. She probably knew of his wandering eye when she married him, and accepted that it might lead to problems - same for Hillary and Bill Clinton, perhaps. Being a star herself, Ms Hobson would have mixed with, and maybe even tried to understand, philanderers - of which there seem to be many in show-biz. :-)

Twilight said...

anyjazz ~~~ Well, the RC Church is at the apex of one of today's biggest scandals, and they were supposed to be The Good Guys, Earthly representatives of Jesus Christ.

There's something rotten in the State of the Vatican, and the state of the world in general.

I hope morality does become a hot topic aj - but I'll not hold my breath. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Twilight,
As to the RC Church scandal...Did you see todays' AstroTableTalk post? I didn't resd his blog back in 2012 but it is quite relevent for todays' events. He says the worst is yet to come for the Church and that Benedict was at the center of the cover-up and possible reason for the resignation. Very Saturn in Scorpio. I hope you do a post on this. I always look forward to your personal comments as well as the astrological ones.

Twilight said...

Anonymous ~~~ No - hadn't got around to reading Astrotabletalk today, though I often do read there.
Thanks for the heads-up.

We watched Mea Maxima Culpa last evening on HBO - so it seemed a little spooky this morning when the firt thing I saw on HuffPo was news of Pope's resignation!

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/mea_maxima_culpa_silence_in_the_house_of_god/

That HBO movie is damning to the present pope in the extreme - and there is more to come it seems.

I usually shy away from stuff involving Roman Catholicism, which, in itself gives me feelings of queasiness, even outside of the present scandals. But I'll probably get into a post on it sooner or later. News of Pope-making will be front and centre for the next few weeks I guess.
:-)

Anonymous said...

Twilight,

The Catholic part isn't what interests me so much as your take on this being what seems to me transiting Saturn in Scorpio; secrets exposed, etc. I'm thinking Gen.Petreus,Lance Armstrong,Bengazi,Fast & Furious and I still believe later on in the year, Obama. Another astrologer used the phrase about the 2012 election, "The loser will be the winner".