Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Maybe You Can Fight The System

Post-dated from June 8, 2008, 1:30 PM. This expresses my mood today as much as when I wrote it. There's a new afterword, but the rest is as it was.

[Even confined to his chair, Sheridan manages to overshadow his interrogator. Image credit: Screenshots by Cujo359. (See NOTE)]

One of my favorite science fiction television episodes is the Babylon 5 episode "Intersections In Real Time". In that episode, John Sheridan, a war hero who has led a rebellion against Earth's corrupt and sadistic government, has been captured. He is now being held in secret in a prison facility that apparently is used mostly for the purpose of handling political prisoners.

The show is basically what its writer, J. Michael Straczynski, refers to as "two people in a room". It is about the interplay between Sheridan and his interrogator, who never actually reveals his name. The interrogator is a fascinating character - he swears to Sheridan that he will only tell him the truth, a promise that he actually does keep through the show. Yet he is as duplicitous as the worst liar you've ever met. He cannot be trusted to do anything except fulfil the role his superiors have given him. As he tells Sheridan, he has no interest in the truth, or justice, or fairness. All he wants is a signed and sealed confession.

How he tries to obtain that confession is a mixture of threats and attempts to gain Sheridan's confidence by, as he puts it, being the only one who is on Sheridan's side. He disavows any responsibility for what he is doing to his prisoner, blaming it on his superiors, or on Sheridan. While it's true that he is ultimately responsible for his own actions, odds are he actually believes what he is saying. He can probably be summed up in this line, which he says to Sheridan about two thirds of the way through the episode after Sheridan says they'll just kill him after he confesses:

If anything, they'll encourage you to travel, so that more people can see you as a symbol of the preeminent truth of our time - that you cannot beat the system. I'm telling you the truth. Sign and speak and you can leave here. It's really that simple.

He is, in short, a company man, someone who is only loyal to those above him.

If you haven't seen Babylon 5, I heartily recommend that you rent or borrow the DVDs, starting with Season One. This episode is from Season Four, and while it can be appreciated on its own, it probably will make more sense if you know Sheridan's background and the history of the show. B5 was a complete work, with some elements introduced in the first season not explained until the last. It is a unique thing in television, and I think it's well worth the time even if you're not big on science fiction.

There are what could be considered mild spoilers below, so if you haven't seen the show yet, be warned.

Toward the end of the show, Sheridan and the interrogator have this exchange, which starts with the interrogator storming into the room and waking Sheridan up. Sheridan is, as he has been for much of the episode, confined to a chair:

Interrogator: Right. Now, listen to me. Wake up. There's something you have to understand. Focus. Focus on me! Do you know why they're doing this to you? It's because you're a war hero, one of the few to come out of the Minbari War. They've invested a considerable amount of time and effort making you a hero in the public's eye. The problem is, when a war hero starts believing certain things and saying certain things, the public listens. They figure maybe there's something to it. Your credibility has become a threat to their credibility.

So one of them has to go. The best way out for everyone is for you to confess and lay the blame for what's happened on the alien government. Whether it's true or not doesn't matter. Truth is immaterial. They can sell it. And they will let you live.

Note, I said it is the best way. I did not say it was the only way.

The other way, Captain, is a posthumous confession. Your signature is not a problem. They have your image on file. They can create you reading the confession. That's not as good as having you where people can see you so they know it's true that even you can be broken, you cannot resist. With a video record there will always be doubt. It's not the same as breaking you, but I'm told that as of this morning, .. it is an acceptable option.

I can save your life. Right now. If you'll let me.

Sheridan: You know, it's funny, I was thinking about what you said. That the pre-eminent truth of our age is that you cannot fight the system. But if, as you say, the truth is fluid, that the truth is subjective, then maybe you can fight the system. As long as just one person refuses to be broken, refuses to bow down.

Interrogator: But can you win?

Sheridan: Nods Every time I say "no".

This dialogue encapsulates much of the madness of our own time. Sheridan, a war hero who managed to survive a suicidal war, is considered by those in power to be someone they made. They blame their actions on the circumstances they find themselves in, refusing to acknowledge that they had a choice of actions, if not an entire universe of possible alternatives. They deliberately chose a path that they must have known would lead to having to victimize people like Sheridan in order for them to escape the consequences of their actions.

On days like this, after losing a desperate battle to save our country from the lunatics who run it, I feel as though we Americans are the ones stuck in that chair, with the collection of cowards, fools, and opportunists who are running our government as the interrogators. They already are bleating about having to do this thing, even congratulating themselves for having reached a compromise, when the only thing that's really compromised is the truth. Most will never admit the truth about the shameful act they committed yesterday.

Anyone who understands the swiftboating of John Kerry or the exposure of Valerie Plame Wilson knows that these people don't give a crap about heroes who don't play ball.

It took John Kerry more than four three years to admit that his vote for the Iraq War was pathetically mistaken. As I noted long ago, if anyone should have known better it would have been he. Yet he's spent so long in the bubble that is our nation's capitol, surrounded by his wealthy colleagues and the news agencies their supporters have bought and paid for, it's easy to forget what reality is outside the beltway.

So, we have to be the ones who say "no". We have to do it again, and again, because the people who run things will never admit they are wrong. As long as we keep saying no, they won't have broken us.

Maybe we can even beat the system someday.

NOTE: Babylon 5 is a copyrighted work of Time Warner, Inc. Neither they, nor the producers of the show or anyone else connected with it has endorsed, supported, or even become aware of this article.

Afterword (Apr. 6, 2010): This article was written just after losing the fight to keep the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act from being gutted by the Democrats in Congress back in June, 2008. Since this was written, of course, the Democrats won the White House and large majorities in Congress. Nothing else has changed, as near as I can tell. We're still in those ruinous wars, the government has done nothing to roll back the human rights abuses and grabs for extraordinary power of the last decade, and they clearly don't intend to. The economy has finally taken the dive many folks suspected it was headed for. Then they sold us out to the insurance and drug industries.

I feel just as strapped to that chair as I felt two years ago. Except that now there are even fewer of us still fighting.

This is one of those articles that people have consistently found over the years. I think it appeals to both Babylon 5 fans, and people who need a reminder that nothing that's worth doing is easy. At least, I hope there are some of the latter.

Still, all we can do is keep saying no. As long as we do that, we win, at least a little.

(What follows are the original updates to this article. They aren't quite as topical now as they were at the time. That's why this afterword appears ahead of them. The second update is somewhat prophetic, in that it foreshadows all the later betrayals of progressives by the Democrats in Congress.)

UPDATE (3:16PM) Finally corrected all the spelling and grammatical mistakes. I think.

UPDATE 2: Christy Hardin Smith quotes Jonathan Turley:

OLBERMANN: Have the Democrats blinked or Mr. Feingold and Mr. Leahy are going to kill this in the Senate?

TURLEY: Well, this is more like a one-man staring contest. I mean, the Democrats never really were engaged in this. In fact, they repeatedly tried to cave in to the White House, only be stopped by civil libertarians and bloggers. And each time they would put it on the shelf, wait a few months, they did this before, reintroduced it with Jay Rockefeller‘s support, and then there was another great, you know, dustup and they pulled it back.

I think they‘re simply waiting to see if the public‘s interest will wane and we‘ll see that tomorrow, because this bill has, quite literally, no public value for citizens or civil liberties. It is reverse engineering, though the type of thing that the Bush administration is famous for, and now the Democrats are doing—that is to change the law to conform to past conduct.

It‘s what any criminal would love to do. You rob a bank, go to the legislature, and change the law to say that robbing banks is lawful.

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Thursday, June 19

[emphasis mine]

I disagree that it has no value, but that's beside the point. It makes OK what is not OK, and that is the problem. It looks like even Turley's in the bubble. But the fact that the Democrats hope that this will just go away, and that the only reason they haven't is that we citizens keep raising a ruckus is at least encouraging.

This thing goes to the Senate, and it's not over yet.

UPDATE 3 (Jun. 22): Thanks to Beachmom's comments, I've amended my statement about how long it took John Kerry to publicly recant his vote on the AUMF. Here's a speech he gave three years after the AUMF was passed. See the comments for further explanation. It's too bad he hadn't given that speech a year earlier. He'd probably be President Kerry right now if he had.

I appreciate the correction.


lokywoky said...

Great article Cujo. I have watched a lot of the Babylon 5 series though I don't remember seeing this particular episode. But I will get the series and watch the whole thing now.

I agree - Turley I think misspoke when he said this issue has no public value - and I saw him a day or two ago saying that this was one of the worst bills he had ever seen and talking about the complicity of the Dems in it and how dangerous it was, so I think this little thing was a mistake. I give him a lot of credit for his damning comments of the day before.

Thanks for your efforts!

Cujo359 said...

Thanks, Lokywoky. I suspect if you'd seen this episode you'd have remembered it. It was very distinct in both tone and pacing from most of B5. Some people probably found it boring, but I have generally favoured episodes like this. "Passing Through Gethsemane" was another one that was mostly about the characters, not the broader conflict.

Turley's comments are usually spot on, which is why I was so surprised by this one. Hopefully, you're right.

beachmom said...

Correction: John Kerry said his vote was wrong in 2005. So it was 2 years, not 4. He also called for a timetable for withdrawal in April 2006, and only 13 senators voted for it in June. Now the majority of the Dem party is for it, including our nominee.

One Fly said...

Monkeyfister has called for Obama to lead the effort to stop this in the Senate. That would be something to see.

By not having a TV do miss out on some quality programming. Have never seen an episode of this and it looks good.

Cujo359 said...

Hi, Beachmom,

I remember the timetable, and found a reference to it. I was unable to find a reference to Kerry having either apologized or otherwise expressing regret for the AUMF vote, which was in October, 2002, BTW. While the timetable was a politically daring move, given the mentality in DC at the time (it only garnered 13 votes, according to that reference), it doesn't count as an admission that voting to give Bush war powers was a mistake. In fact, the only Kerry quotes in it suggest that he was only criticizing the conduct of the war.

Hillary Clinton has never admitted her vote was a mistake, but she has said that the war itself turned into a disaster.

I'll stick with my own memory until someone provides a reference or I stumble across one. He apologized for his vote sometime in late 2007, which is the first time I remember him expressing real regret for the vote.

If you happen to have a link or other reference, please feel free to provide it.

Thanks for commenting.

Cujo359 said...

Hi, One Fly,

Yes, it's a terrific series. Well worth finding the DVDs. If your computer has a DVD drive, you can probably play them on it. Macs and Linux have been able to do it for ages, and there's shareware for Windows that will do it, as well.

As for Obama, I'd say to Monkeyfister don't waste your breath, but who knows? We don't have a whole lot of options at this point.

All Obama has to do to stop this thing is to ask Reid to put a hold on the legislation. I bet he's not going to do it, though. I'd be very pleased to lose that bet, but it's not going to happen. No doubt he'll make a pretty speech afterwards, though.

beachmom said...


Sorry I did not provide a link. From a Georgetown 2005 speech:


The country and the Congress were misled into war. I regret that we were not given the truth; as I said more than a year ago, knowing what we know now, I would not have gone to war in Iraq. And knowing now the full measure of the Bush Administration's duplicity and incompetence, I doubt there are many members of Congress who would give them the authority they abused so badly. I know I would not.

He said it even more forcefully in the spring of 2006 at Take Back America:


Let me say it plainly: It’s not enough to argue with the logistics or to argue about the details or the manner of the conflict’s execution or the failures of competence, as great as they are. It is essential to acknowledge that the war itself was a mistake — to say the simple words…


… to say the simple words that contain more truth than pride.

We were misled. We were given evidence that was not true. It was wrong and I was wrong to vote for that Iraqi war resolution.

beachmom said...

Oh, and you're right, the vote was October 2002, so that would be about the 3 year anniversary that he said he would not have voted that way. The war started in 2003.

Cujo359 said...

Thanks for the links, Beachmom. I've updated the article.

You wouldn't believe how many articles came up in a Google search for any variation of "John Kerry regret|apology|recant vote for AUMF|Iraq War". It's amazing how many people have an opinion on that subject. ;-)