Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Benedict Arnolds we admire--at least at the movies

Today’s Sunday New York Times (Arts Section) has an interesting piece ("Judas as Hero") by the film critic A. O. Scott on the current trend in films for the hero to switch sides, going over to the group that he is supposed to be oppressing. Prominent examples (which I recently discussed) are “Avatar” and “District Nine.”

Why do such radical changes in loyalty occur? One theory is the Stockholm Syndrome, which explains, it seems, how the Patty Hearst of yore could turn herself into “Tanya,” a loyal soldier in the pathetic Symbionese Liberation Army.

Yet is this really an explanation? To me it seems more a description, showing how, under prolonged conditions of duress, the victims will seek opportunistically to join those who are holding them prisoner.

Then there is the matter of gradual drift, as seen in the way in which some NYC Trotskyists of the 1930s morphed into neocons. Well, people tend to get more conservative as they grow older. There is something to this platitude, banal though it may be.

The more interesting question, though, is raised by literal turncoat strategies. How is it that at some point people can suddenly switch sides, sometimes even to their own suprise?

An intriguing answer is found in the work of Jack London. In 1909 he published a sketch entitled "South of the Slot," about a University of California professor who assumes a working-class disguise to investigate social conditions South of the Slot--that is, south of Market Street in San Francisco (the area where London was born). The climax of the story occurs when the two personalities come into conflict. The professor, observing a pitched battle between strikers and police South of the Slot, throws himself into the fight on the side of the workers.

In other words, something snapped in the professor’s mind, and he suddenly shifted from his new identity--prosperous, respectable college professor--reverting to the identity he had been raised in.

This story offers a revealing model of at least one type of role switching.

(Hat tip to Steve Murray, who first pointed out the importance of the Jack London story to me.)



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