Nature vs. Nurture at the Movies: Hollywood Turns on the Blank Slate

If Hollywood is any guide, we can put a fork in the Blank Slate.  I refer, of course, to the delusional orthodoxy that was enforced by the “Men of Science” in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century, according to which there is no such thing as human nature.  Consider, for example, the movie Divergent.  It belongs to the dystopian genre beloved of American audiences, and is set in post-apocalyptic Chicago.  A semblance of order has been restored by arranging the surviving population into five factions based on what the evolutionary psychologists might call their innate predispositions.  They include Candor, whose supreme values are honesty and trustworthiness, and from whose ranks come the legal scholars and lawyers.  The brave and daring are assigned to the Dauntless faction, and become the defenders of the little city-state.  At the opposite extreme is Amity, the home of those who value kindness, forgiveness and trust, and whose summum bonum is peace.  Their admiration for self-reliance suits them best for the agricultural chores.  Next comes Abnegation, composed of the natural do-gooders of society.  So selfless that they can only bear to look in a mirror for a few seconds, they are deemed so incorruptible that they are entrusted with the leadership and government of the city.  Finally, the intelligent and curious are assigned to the Erudite faction.  They fill such roles as doctors, scientists, and record-keepers.  They are also responsible for technological advances, which include special “serums,” some of which are identified with particular factions.  One of these is a “simulation serum,” used to induce imaginary scenarios that test a subject’s aptitude for the various factions.

As it happens, the simulation serum doesn’t always work.  When the heroine, Tris, takes the test, she discovers that she can “finesse” the simulation.  She is a rare instance of an individual whose nature does not uniquely qualify her for any faction, but who is adaptable enough to fit adequately into several of them.  In other words, she is a “Divergent,” and as such, a free thinker and a dire threat to anyone who might just happen to have plans to misuse the serums to gain absolute control over the city.

Alas, there’s trouble in paradise.  The “factions” are groups, and where there are groups, there are ingroups and outgroups.  Sure enough, each “in-faction” has its own “out-faction.”  This aspect of the plot is introduced matter-of-factly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  And, of course, since it can be assumed that the audience will consist largely of the species Homo sapiens, it is.  Most of us, with the exception of a few aging behavioral scientists, are familiar with the fact that it is our nature to apply different versions of morality depending on whether we are dealing with one of “us” or one of the “others.”  It turns out that Abnegation is the outgroup of Erudite, who consider them selfish poseurs, and weak and cowardly to boot.  That being the case, it follows that Abnegation is completely unsuited to run the government of Chicago or any other post-apocalyptic city state.  That role should belong to Erudite.

Which brings us, of course, to the “bad guy.”  You’ll never guess who the bad guy is, so I’ll just spill the beans.  It’s none other than Kate Winslet!  She plays the cold and nefarious Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews.  These smarties are planning to overthrow Abnegation and seize control for themselves with the aid of the martial Dauntless, whose members have been conveniently mind-controlled with the aid of one of Erudite’s serums.  Eventually, Jeanine unmasks Tris and her amorous partner, Four, as Divergents.  And with them in her power, she treats them to a remarkable soliloquy, which nearly caused me to choke on my butter-slathered popcorn.  Once Erudite is in the saddle, she explains, they will eliminate human nature.  Using a combination of re-education a la Joseph Stalin and mind control drugs, all citizens will become latter day versions of Homo sovieticus, perfectly adapted to fit into the Brave New World planned by the Erudites.  The utopia envisioned by generations of Blank Slaters will be realized at last!

There’s no need for me to reveal any more of the plot.  It’s a very entertaining movie so, by all means, see it yourself.  Suffice it to say that, if Hollywood now associates the denial of human nature with evil bad guys, then the Blank Slate must be stone cold dead.  Or at least it is with the exception of a few ancient Blank Slater bats still hanging in the more dark and obscure belfries of academia.

For the benefit of the history buffs among my readers, I note in passing that Hollywood never quite succumbed to Gleichschaltung.  They were always just a bit out of step, even in the heyday of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Consider, for example, Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 movie Straw Dogs.  It was directly inspired by the work of none other than that greatest of bête noires of the Blank Slaters, Robert Ardrey.  The first to taste of the forbidden fruit was Strother Martin, best known for his portrayal of the sadistic “Captain” in Cool Hand Luke (“What we have here is a failure to communicate”).  He, in turn, passed on Ardrey’s African Genesis to Peckinpah, with the remark that the two seemed to share similar attitudes about violence in human beings.  Peckinpah was fascinated, and later said,

Robert Ardrey is a writer I admire tremendously.  I read him after Wild Bunch and have reread his books since because Ardrey really knows where it’s at, Baby.  Man is violent by nature, and we have to learn to live with it and control it if we are to survive.

That statement, rough around the edges though it is, actually shows more insight into the thought of Ardrey than that revealed by about 99.9% of the learned book reviewers and “Men of Science” who have deigned to comment on his work in the ensuing 45 years.  Specifically, Peckinpah understood that Ardrey was no “genetic determinist,” and that he believed that aggressive human predispositions could be controlled by environment, or “culture.”  As it happens, that is a theme he elaborated on repeatedly in every one of his books.  The theme of Straw Dogs was taken directly out of The Territorial Imperative.  According to Ardrey,

There is a law of territorial behavior as true of the single roebuck defending his private estate as it is of a band of howling monkeys defending its domain held in common.  Huxley long ago observed that any territory is like a rubber disc:  the tighter it is compressed, the more powerful will be the pressure outward to spring it back into shape.  A proprietor’s confidence is at its peak in the heartland, as is an intruder’s at its lowest.  Here the proprietor will fight hardest, chase fastest.

In Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s diminutive hero, timid mathematician David Sumner, played by Dustin Hoffman, travels from the sheltered campus of an American university to be with his young wife, Amy, in her native village in England.  To make a long story short, she is raped by three of the locals.  Eventually, these muscular miscreants are joined by other townspeople in besieging Sumner in his territory, his house, in the mistaken belief that he is knowingly harboring a murderer.  Ardrey’s territorial boost takes over with a vengeance, and Sumner draws on unimagined reserves of strength, courage, and resourcefulness to annihilate the attackers one by one.  As badly behind the PC curve as any Disney film, Hollywood eventually repented and in 2000 churned out an alternative version of Straw Dogs, in which all the violent behavior was “learned.”  By then, however, getting in step meant getting out of step.  Even the Public Broadcasting Network had given the Blank Slate the heave ho years earlier.

Straw Dogs was hardly the first time Hollywood took up the subject of nature versus nurture.  For those whose tastes run more to the intellectual and profound, I have attached a short film below dealing with that theme that predates Peckinpah by almost a quarter of a century.

South Park and Sex Addiction

I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I caught a great episode of South Park yesterday. It was a spoof on the “sex addiction” meme, starring Tiger Woods, with an “Emperor’s New Clothes” theme, where everyone had to pretend that they believed that rich, powerful men who enjoyed sex with multiple partners were afflicted by some terrible mental disease. It’s absurd when you think about it. Is there some reason why evolution should favor rich, powerful men who decide they don’t want to have children? Have these people never heard of the Genghis Khan effect, repeated on a lesser scale over and over again? And yet, we were all expected to nod our heads sagely and pretend we actually believed the “sex addiction” thing. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have lost none of that ephemeral comic edge that “Peanuts” used to have back in the 60’s, and I hope they can hold on to it for a good while longer.

If you haven’t seen their movie, “Team America,” get the CD. I give it both of my thumbs up. You could probably count the number of films that have hit the big screen in the last decade that are creative, funny, and not relentlessly PC at the same time on one hand. “Team America” is one of them. As for the flap over the latest Muhammed episode, it speaks volumes about the times we live in. Two guys have the nobility to put their lives on the line in defense of freedom of expression, and the people whose liberties they are risking so much to defend react with incomprehension. Meanwhile, the abject sheep on the roof with their crucifixes in urine and caricatures of Mary smeared with elephant dung, who know full well they have nothing to fear from the victims of their scorn, are lionized as heroic fighters against “censorship” and avatars of culture.

Avatar, Racism, and Hollywood Ideologues

Do you think the people on the left who are complaining that Avatar is racist realize that they are exposing their own racism?

Do you think the people on the right who are moaning about the clichés of corporate bad guys and American Indian analog good guys realize that if Hollywood films didn’t reflect the world view of the people who make them they would be completely phony? 

If you don’t live in either one of those ideological boxes, do yourself a favor and go see the film, preferably in 3-D.

A Clockwork Orange: The Last Chapter

A girl I knew asked me to take her to “A Clockwork Orange” back in 1971, when it first came out. It was the first time I’d heard the title, and I had no idea what to expect. I don’t think she did either. She was rather shocked, but I’ve been a Kubrick fan ever since. Of course, the movie became a cult classic. Type “clockwork” on the Google search line, and the first suggestion that comes up is “clockwork orange,” with 2,850,000 hits.
As one might expect, the links run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime, but there’s a lot of amusing and interesting stuff out there. Among the reviews, my personal favorite is here. Of course, the academicians have added their two cents worth. There’s even a site with a Nadsat glossary, and some interesting remarks by a Russian guy on the Nadsat experience.
Many years after I saw the film, I saw Burgess’ novel at a second hand bookshop, and decided to have a look. I liked it even better than the movie. With a few notable exceptions, I’m usually not attracted to novels that aren’t a direct reflection of the author’s own life. This was one of the exceptions. Linguistically, it’s a work of genius. The “Nadsat” in the book is a fantastic concoction with a much heavier tincture of Slavic than Kubrick could allow himself in the movie. If you want to read it, take my advice, and find a copy with a Nadsat glossary in the back or print out the one on the Internet. And one more thing; make sure you get the last chapter that Kubrick left out of the movie. You see, Burgess nursed an enduring grievance against Kubrick, not to mention a classic case of European anti-Americanism, because it was dropped. In his own words, “I leave what I wrote with what Dr. Johnson called frigid indifference to the judgment of that .00000001 of the American population which cares about such things. Eat this sweetish segment or spit it out. You are free.” Brrrrrrr!