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What Act of Killing tells us about our powers of self-denial

Imagine if the Nazi regime was still in power – perhaps with the leadership changed, perhaps slightly less murderous and more pragmatic – but with no reconciliation or recognition of former crimes. Imagine if the Holocaust was celebrated, with aging veterans of Auschwitz wheeled out for public adulation, to show their medals and tell stories of the killings.

That is the Indonesia that Joshua Oppenheimer shows in the remarkable documentary, Act of Killing, which will hopefully win the Oscar for Best Documentary this March.

In 1965, the Indonesian army and various paramilitary organizations reacted to a failed coup attempt by the Indonesian Communist Party by embarking on a massacre of suspected communists. It’s estimated that, in under two years, between 500,000 and 2 million Indonesian and Chinese suspected communists were murdered.

The massacre and reign of terror helped bring President Suharto and his New Order to power. And while Suharto may have died, that regime is still in power in Indonesia. There has never been any attempt to bring the perpetrators of the massacre to justice, or to achieve ‘reconciliation’ with the families of the deceased.

Oppenheimer lived in Indonesia, where he was working on a documentary about some workers’ struggles to put together a union. Many of them had lost relatives in the 1965 killings, and they would point out people in their villages who had taken part in the massacre. Oppenheimer went to interview the murderers, and discovered that they were only too happy to talk about the murders, and even to act them out. They were proud of them.

Eventually, his research brought him to an elderly and dapper gentleman called Anwar Congo, who was a gangster in the 1960s in North Sumatra, and who took part in the murders of perhaps 1000 suspected communists, in partnership with a paramilitary organization called Pancasila Youth.

Anwar was more than happy to talk to Oppenheimer about the murders. Early on in the film, he showed him a rooftop in Medan (a town in North Sumatra) where he and his mates carried out many murders. He shows how they wrapped chicken-wire around their victims’ throats and pulled, for a quick and easy kill, then dumped the bodies in a river. Then, he tells Josh, he would go out, take drugs and dance. He even performs a little cha-cha-cha for the camera there on the rooftop. ‘This is a happy man’, says a friend of his.

Anwar is feted for his heroic part in the genocide by the Pancasila Youth, which still has around three million members today. He’s invited on their TV show to talk about it, and congratulated for developing such efficient methods of killing. And yet, at night, he is haunted by nightmares, and as the documentary goes on, he begins to wonder if what he did was wrong.

The state as organized violence

Act of Killing is one of the most interesting and disturbing films I’ve ever seen. Two things particularly struck me when I watched it.

Firstly, it’s a brilliant picture of a modern gangster-state, of which there are many around the world (I lived in one, Russia, for several years – it’s also failed to address the mass genocides of Stalin). You get a picture of the hierarchy of thuggery, from street gangsters like Anwar, to paramilitary organizations like Pancasila Youth, run by a horrific little goon called Yapto Soerjosoemarno, to the businessmen who profit from their connections to the thugs, all the way up to the biggest thugs of all, the government.

The gangsters’ narcissism is so overwhelming, they have no idea quite how awful they appear. They display a casual sexism, for example, treating the women who run around them as sex objects, and one Pancasila elder even boasting of having raped 14-year-old ‘communist’ girls. ‘I would tell them: this will be hell for you, but heaven for me’, he cackles. In one scene, Yapto Soerjosoemarno visits a museum full of stuffed animals, including a display of a lion pouncing on a terrified gazelle. ‘Imagine that is a man and a woman’, he leers.

The gangsters take pride in their violence, their status as ‘big men’, their ability to extort money from little people. They take pride in being a gangster, which they insist comes from the English for ‘free man’. Words, and morals, seem to have slipped from their moorings. There is no longer any moral law, except the strong do what they want. ‘I feel like we’re at the end of the world’, says Anwar at one point, looking out on a black night lit up by lightning.

A scene from the Pancasila Youth’s TV station, celebrating the genocide

One former murderer, Adil, has a particularly Nietzschean view of things. He says he has no shame or qualms or regret about the 1000-or-so people he killed. We see him going round a shopping mall with his wife and daughter, looking slightly bored. Josh asks him if he is worried he might one day be tried for his crimes. Perhaps, he replies, the Geneva conventions won’t last anyway, perhaps they will be replaced by the Jakarta conventions.

I sometimes felt a revulsion at the moral climate of Indonesia, and wondered (no doubt xenophobically) what an Asia-dominated world will look like. But the fact is, the West conspired to bring Suharto to power, turned a blind eye to the massacres, profited from his regime, and still profits from it. We depend on gangster-states like Indonesia for cheap goods.

Art as a mirror

The second thing that struck me about Act of Killing is what it says about the imagination, and the stories we tell ourselves.

Oppenheimer says the film is a new kind of documentary, which he calls a ‘documentary of the imagination’. It strives not for historical accuracy, but instead lets the participants act out their impression of events however they want. This, after all, is how our memories work through impressions and narratives and vivid scenes, the recreation of which is its own kind of reality.

And the ‘heroes’ of Act of Killing are well versed in the language of cinema – they were known, in the 1960s, as ‘cinema gangsters’, because they’d hang out outside cinemas selling black-market tickets, and modeled themselves on American stars. Anwar recounts how he’d come out of an Elvis movie feeling happy, and then happily go about his bloody work. They recreate moments from the massacres in various movie genres – there are cowboy sequences, film noir scenes, war movie scenes and even musical numbers. One of the gangsters, fat Herman, dresses up in drag (it’s normal in Indonesian theatre apparently), lending the scenes a particularly surreal quality.

The film gets across how we tell ourselves stories to aggrandize ourselves and deny our ‘shadow-side’. We are highly selective in where we point the camera and how we edit reality. And we’re always the heroes of our movies. The film even celebrates the exuberance and – dare I say it – surreal beauty of Anwar’s imagination. There’s one particularly batshit crazy scene, on a waterfall, where dancing girls sing ‘Born Free’, and two actors playing victims of the genocide present Anwar with a medal for his services to the state and for sending them to heaven. Is the film, then, simply offering a mass-murderer the chance to aggrandize themselves and increase their legend? ‘I never thought this would look so stupendous, Josh’, Anwar tells the director while watching the rushes.

Yet the film also shows how we’re not entirely in control of our imagination. The shadow returns, into our dreams, into our narratives. Banquo’s ghost appears at the feast.

Fellini explores this idea in 8 1/2, which is also about our imagination and its powers of self-denial. In one scene, the hero is being confronted for being a philander by his miserable wife. ‘How can you live with yourself?’ she asks. He smiles, and slips into a reverie, in which he imagines all his girlfriends living together in a harem, welcoming him home and pampering him. He lives with himself because he can weave a version of reality where he’s the hero. And yet his dream gets away from him – the girls start to bicker and accuse him, and he has to beat them back with a whip.

In Act of Killing, Anwar is haunted by nightmares, in which his victims return and accuse him. He says he is haunted by their eyes, staring at him. They recreate some of nightmares – hellish scenes where his head is cut off and a demon (played by fat Herman in drag) feeds him his own intestines.

He seems to have a troubled conscience. But his co-murderer, Adil, says he is weak for being thus troubled. ‘Go to a psychiatrist’, he advises. ‘They’re like nerve-doctors. They will give you vitamins for your nerves’. He takes refuge in a materialist amoral view of sin.

The question, then, is the one asked repeatedly by Plato: do we have an inner conscience, a daemon, which haunts our imagination and gives us an intimation of our fate in a moral universe? Or are morals merely conventions set by power, so we can do whatever we want as long as we’re in power?

And what is the role of art in this world-view? In Act of Killing, art initially seems to be a mirror in a narcissistic sense, in which the gangsters preen themselves. Yet when they see their past crimes reenacted, they are often struck not by their heroism but their ugliness and brutality.

In one recreation of a village massacre, a deputy minister comes along to lead the Pancasila Youth in a chant of ‘kill the communists!’ He stops the scene, saying it seems a bit bloodthirsty. But then he insists the scene go in the film, as he doesn’t want to admit their acts were in any way less than heroic. The gangsters’ own children act in the massacre, and one child continues to bawl after the cameras finish rolling. ‘Stop crying’, her father tells her. ‘It’s just a movie.’

We rarely get to see the other side of the story – what it was like to be a victim of these gangsters’ delusions of heroism. Just once, an actor admits that his stepfather was one of the victims, and he had to find and bury his body. He then plays a communist in a scene, being tortured, and the line between reality and art becomes blurred – he breaks down in tears, begs for mercy. The gangsters look on uncomfortably at this intrusion of genuine suffering in their epic.

In one scene, Anwar plays the victim rather than the murderer. He is roughed up, threatened, and the old man (Anwar must be 70 or so) has to stop filming, he is so frightened and disturbed. He tells Josh that, for a second, he knew what it was like to be a victim. ‘It was much worse for them’, Josh says, ‘because they knew they really would be killed’. Anwar thinks. ‘It’s coming back to me’, he says. ‘I really don’t want it to, Josh.’

Perhaps, then, art can be a mirror in a less narcissistic sense, showing us and our societies not just as we would like to be shown (Rambo, Die Hard, all the Bond movies) but as we really are. Or perhaps our powers of self-denial and self-aggrandizement are simply too strong for genuine awareness. How many ‘gritty’ gangster movies merely ended up inspiring more gangsters? Will Act of Killing only further increase the legend of its stars?


Lots of good links this week:

Here is a video from the Stoicism for Everyday Life event from last year:

Here is a New Scientist piece on epileptic seizures and how they apparently trigger religious experiences.

Here is a Radio 4 show by Andrew Brown that argues the Church of England is facing extinction for its failure to adapt to our country’s liberalism on issues like homosexuality. I suggested to Brown the Church should reform its attitude to homosexuality, but out of a sense of love rather than simple expediency to polling data (which is unlikely to persuade the faithful). Meanwhile, last Sunday Nicky Gumbel of HTB (one of the growing bits of the CofE) warned that churches can indeed disappear and that the church should become ‘famous for love’. But note (12 minutes in) he only refers to homosexuality obliquely as a ‘lifestyle choice’. It’s not. Who would choose to be gay in a country like Uganda, where it can cost you your life?

Here is a little interview I did with Harper’s Bazaar.

This week I read the astronomer Carl Sagan’s Gifford lectures on natural theology, called Varieties of Scientific Experience. The best and most persuasive book I’ve read by an atheist – his death was a big loss to the atheist movement, and to all of us.

The New Yorker writes up a new study from Ed Diener and others, which finds rich secular societies have higher levels of happiness, but poor religious societies have higher levels of meaning.

Daniel Dennett writes an intelligent disagreement with Sam Harris on the question of whether we have any free will.

Alain de Botton has launched a new book on the News, including a new online paper called ‘The Philosopher’s Mail‘, trying to use celebrity stories as vehicles for wisdom. Part of his broader campaign to bring more moral paternalism into free market liberal capitalism. Not sure it quite works, this time…

Here’s a review of Joanna Moncrieff’s new book on the chequered history of anti-psychotics.

This is old but awesome – two people on a canoeing trip happened to see an amazing ‘murmuration’ of starlings over a lake. I like how one of the girls says ‘shit!’ at 1.11. Probably what I’d say too.

That’s all for this week. If you want to donate to help support the blog, here’s the button below.


Choose Your Own Myth, with John Gray

Sorry I missed last week’s newsletter. I’ve had some hardcore flu which robbed me of all will-power, ambition and desire, and left me flitting like a dead bat through the fevered corridors of my mind. Have you ever seen a dead bat flit? Not pretty.

I managed to get out of bed to run a London Philosophy Club event last week, where the philosopher John Gray gave an interesting talk about his new book, The Silence of Animals. He seemed a very nice guy, who gave up his evening for free, and the audience (the biggest we’ve ever had at an LPC meeting) seemed on the whole to like his humility and humour, bar one lady who said ‘if I’d written your book it would have been very different’, and then left! Ah, the great British public.

His new book has been billed as a sequel to his 2002 bestseller, Straw Dogs, which was a blast of pessimism after a decade of blithe optimism. The problem with liberal humanism, Gray declared, was that it assumed humans were at the centre of the cosmos, when in fact we are contingent. Nature could carry on perfectly well without us, and probably will, if James Lovelock was to be believed.

Liberal humanism prides itself on being more rational than religion, says Gray, but it’s actually just as much of a superstitious dogma, grounded as it is in a religious faith in human rationality and in man’s ethical improvement through science. ‘Humanists are also ruled by myths’, he writes in The Silence of Animals, ‘though the ones by which they are possessed have none of the beauty or the wisdom of those that they scorn.’

Humanists, he says, have a religious faith in progress, in the idea that every day, things are getting better. Nonsense, says Gray! Humans’ capacity for barbarism remains just as strong as ever. Ethical progress is not the same as scientific progress. It’s not cumulative. While we are unlikely to suddenly forget how to build a car, we can and often have suddenly thrown off the shackles of civility and happily started murdering each other in our millions. He repeats these points in The Silence of Animals.

Well and good, though I don’t think modern secular humanism is necessarily so optimistic about human rationality, if you think about Sceptics like Daniel Kahnemann, Michael Shermer or Jon Ronson, who have a profound sense of humans’ capacity for self-delusion.

Choose Your Own Myth!

In The Silence of Animals, Gray ventures cautiously beyond the pessimistic scepticism of his last books to look for something positive to believe in. He suggests that one of the fallacies of secular humanism is that we can rid ourselves of myths. He writes: ‘life without myth is like life without art or sex – insipid and inhuman’ (this is a bit harsh on the large percentage of humanity like me who don’t have regular sex – we’re not just losers, we’re inhuman!) ‘If there is a choice’, he suggests, ‘it is between myths’.

We have to learn to choose between myths, between ‘acceptable fictions’. And how do we do that? In his LPC talk, Gray suggested that some myths are better than others, because they ‘fit better with the enduring facts about human nature’. And some myths are worse than others, because they depend on scapegoating outsiders and on a Them / Us mentality. I agree. I argued in my book that even Skepticism can have a Them / Us mentality – Skeptics are the shining knights of reason, battling the babbling hordes of irrationalism. Good myths, I suggest, teach us to confront our own darkness, rather than projecting it onto others.

Gray then embarks on an extended defence of psychoanalysis, which I found surprising. If there is one instance of religious faith dressing itself up as science, I’d suggest it is psychoanalysis – the prophet-like founder, whose writings are reverently quoted as if gospel-truth, the hated apostates, the grand metaphysical claims without any evidential support (besides the words of the prophet, He Who Must Be Believed).

Gray likes psychoanalysis because it offers so little consolation and hope. Life is tough and miserable, Freud tells us, so get used to it and stop looking for a cure. It’s like a form of Stoicism, Gray suggests, except it’s more pessimistic than Stoicism – there’s no Logos, no over-arching cosmic reason, in Freud. Gray also likes psychoanalysis because it seems to him a sort of ‘acceptable fiction’ – obviously Freud’s theories of Eros and Thanatos are ‘just metaphors’ or myths, but they’re useful myths.

Really? First of all, Freud didn’t think the Thanatos or Death Instinct was a myth, he claimed it was scientific fact, within all of us, just like the Oedipus Complex and his other grand metaphysical inventions. Don’t let him off that easily for being a dodgy scientist, because it was his claim to scientific authority that gave him such power over other people’s lives and minds.

Secondly, Freud did think of psychoanalysis as a ‘cure’ – he actually called it ‘the talking cure’, a phrase used by Anna O, the founding patient of psychoanalysis. That, presumably, was why people would pay so much to see a psychoanalyst every day for years – because they believed it would improve their emotional situation. If psychoanalysis was just a sort of gritty Stoicism, then why pay a therapist for years? Why not just read some Freud? Gray doesn’t seem to like psychoanalysis as a therapy, more as a philosophy or mythology, but Freud and his followers certainly sold it as a therapy. It just turned out not to be a very good therapy, in the sense of actually helping people to recover from emotional suffering.

Why do I think CBT is better than psychoanalysis? Because it works for more people and helps them recover from emotional suffering quickly and cheaply. It ‘fits with the enduring facts of human nature’ – with how our emotions arise and how we can change them. And it helps people get better without relying on the weird power games of psychoanalysis. The best way to choose between the two therapies, it seems to me, is through scientific evidence, looking at whether people are better after a treatment of CBT or psychoanalysis.

I have no doubt whatsoever that psychoanalysis is better written, more literary, and more mythologically verdant than CBT. It is a Gothic mansion, while CBT is a Bauhausian bungalow. But you can spend years wandering in that Gothic mansion, marveling at its features and designs, getting no better and a lot poorer.

The dangerous power of myths

Myths have a way of wrapping themselves round us

While I agree with Gray’s wider point that myths are powerful things and a life without myth would be boring and insipid, I think we need a way of balancing myths with science, and of using science as a way of choosing between myths. It’s dangerous to turn away from the Enlightenment project, abandon scientific thinking and look instead for a pretty myth to embrace. Dangerous partly because we don’t just embrace myths – they also embrace us. Myths can wrap themselves round our faces like the aliens in Prometheus, and use us as vessels (there’s an interesting thought: Prometheus is actually an allegory for the invention of religions!)

While Gray has a very post-modern, Rorty-esque attitude to myths – he’s able to pick at them like an hors-d’oeuvre while recognising their essential emptiness – for most of us, myths rapidly wrap themselves round our brains and become something of deep emotional significance and sacred power. How do we stop myths from becoming toxic and blinding us dangerously to reality? I can’t think of a better answer than scientific evidence.

I’ve noticed a strange new apologetics for religious faith recently, along the lines of ‘hey, it’s just a story, but isn’t it beautiful?’ I heard it in the Book of Mormon, of all places – hey, it concluded, Mormonism is just a myth. But so what? Star Wars is just a myth too, right? Lord of the Rings is just a myth. We need myths! Likewise in the Life of Pi, which I found a particularly fey and insipid form of magical realism. Was there really a tiger in that boat all that time, or was it just a story, a myth? The answer, we are told, is ‘whatever we prefer to believe’. The shipwrecked boy prefers to believe that God is looking out for him all that time. This helps him survive. But then you’d also have to believe that God chooses to personally save you while also killing your family (and also six million Jews and so on). Why are you so special?

Life of Pi: pretty but insipid

We are desperate for any stories that re-assure us our lives have a higher pattern and the cosmos cares about us. This explains the success of Paulo Coehlo, another peculiarly insipid writer. It also explains why magical realism has flourished in western reading markets in the last 40 years – western readers desperately want a holiday from scientific rationalism, so they read some charming magical realist book from South America, or a book by a white Canadian pretending to be Indian, and for a while they can imagine themselves back in the world of meaning and magic.

But I think we need a better way to ‘choose between myths’ than whatever feels good or sounds pretty. We need to find a way to hold myths to some sort of account – scientific, ethical, rational. We need to find a way to live that connects both our rational, sceptic pre-frontal cortex (Socrates) and the rest of our brain with all its capacity for ecstasy, awe and emotional abandon (Dionysus). At the moment, these two parts of our psyche are somewhat dissevered. Or rather, the Dionysiac has been pushed to the margins by the scientific revolution, into pop culture, which is why pop suddenly became the most powerful thing in western culture in the 1950s.

Gray’s book ends with a strange and rather interesting reach towards ‘godless mysticism’. He tells us about JA Baker, a man who for years would go off tracking a peregrine falcon, simply watching it, and trying to see the world through its eyes. Imagine if we could look on the world like animals, Gray wonders, without needing to change or redeem it, simply seeing it. Well, as myths go I don’t think that one’s particularly going to take off, though Gray’s books certainly sold quickly enough at our event. But Gray is asking the right questions.

As climate change continues to rough up our humanist optimism, I have no doubt we are going to start looking around for myths to give us a stronger sense of meaning and hope in a more cruel and uncertain world. A big challenge of this century, then, will be finding a way to balance myth with scientific rationalism, finding a way to achieve the psychic consolation of myth without abandoning the gains of science.