Reflections From a Black Mirror: S3 E5 “Men Against Fire” Review (Netflix)

Reflections From a Black Mirror (Netflix)

This is a review of the Black Mirror episode "Men Against Fire" (S3 E5). Part of my series of recaps of the Black Mirror series.

That tweet above is from Butcher Billy, a Brazillian Pop-Art genius. If you get a chance to look through all of Mr. Billy's work you have to do it. His stuff is all amazing. He did comic-style cover art for all of his favorite Black Mirror episodes, but the rest of his stuff is even more jaw-dropping.

Anyway, Black Mirror is one of the best shows on television.

It is unusually deep and powerful social criticism, sometimes it is so seamless (and contemporary) that its criticism can often be mistaken as a celebration of elements of the status quo (much like many of the fans of Starship Troopers love that movie for its call to fascism).

Many have compared Black Mirror to the Twilight Zone.

I guess that is fair but most Twilight Zone episodes operated in defense of the social order while I think of Black Mirror as an excoriation of our ethical status quo and a window into how technology has magnified our cultural hypocrisy and cruelty (I will admit that this might be unfair to the TZ).

Unlike my other writing about television, I think this will probably end up more commentary than the usual recap.

My last "Reflection" was the episode "Nosedive"

Standing Tall Before The ICE Man

No surprisingly, Butcher Billy (see art above) immediately saw the connection between James T. "Joker" Davis' (Matt Modine) situation in the classic Stanley Kubrick movie Full Metal Jacket and the character Stripe (Malachi Kirby) in the Black Mirror Episode "Men Against Fire."

In both cases, the soldier in question lives in the gray zone between their desire to be a good citizen (patriot) soldier while at the same time trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance between patriotism and committing the murders often required by patriotism.  

The title of this episode "Men Against Fire" is a reference to S.L.A. Marshall's book of the same name which claims that the vast majority of soldiers have a hard time bringing themselves to fire on enemies because, at a very basic human level, no matter how just the cause, they don't want to be responsible for the killing of other human beings.

One of the tricks the propaganda organs of government have used over time to confront this problem has been to reduce "enemies" to sub-human in information released through all official and contracted agencies (check out the political cartoons of the Japanese from WW2 and you will get the basic idea). This process of officially sanctioned dehumanization, at its worst, can be seen in what happened in Nazi Germany and during the Rwandan genocide. 

The "future" military in this episode of Black Mirror has secretly solved the "Men Against Fire" problem by equipping every soldier with a neural implant called a "MASS." I have said this throughout, Black Mirror uses technology as a device to create distance between the watcher and what is happening on the screen. What is reflected in the Black Mirror is us now (not some future citizens in some dystopian future).

The soldiers are told that the MASS only enhances their reflexes and senses but we find out, during the episode, that the MASS device also induce sex dreams (so that soldiers have good memories of their sleep) and also masks targets as genetically inferior humans (it is not clear how they identify between the genetically inferior and the normal humans) called "Roaches" so that they appear sub-human to the MASS-implanted soldiers (they appear to have  blurred and insect-like features).

But you can find examples of this kind of dehumanization all around us in people without MASS devices. Last week, for instance, ICE agents removed a woman scheduled to have brain surgery to remove a tumor to a detention facility because she also happens to be an illegal immigrant.  

All it takes in the United States now to justify the removal of a critically ill mother of two is for one passionate but cynical blowhard yelling for months about "bad dudes" and insisting that he only wants to remove the people who have come to the United States to "rape" and "murder" Americans. Of course, President Trump isn't carrying out mass deportations, this is a simple and just military action to protect Americans.

And that is the other side of what Brooker is getting at here, continual fear has to be produced and manufactured to maintain a fascist security state. Manufacturing fear is part of the security state which becomes dependent, almost addicted, to funding and power. 

Anyway, Stripe is a soldier in a war of extermination against an enemy that has been described as an existential threat to the "purity" of the human race (very Nazi Germany).  he doesn't fully understand and doesn't entirely feel committed to exterminating but he is on a live mission and believes that he is ready to do his duty (threats to purity in Germany and security in the United States seem pretty easily interchangeable here).

During his first live action raid on a "roach nest," Stripe finds himself at a disadvantage against two "roaches" and fights back to protect himself killing both of the assailants. For this, he is treated like a hero of his unit and lauded by one of the members of his unit. His jealous friend Hunter (Madeline Brewer) wishes that she could be the one taking out some roaches. But Stripe doesn't feel as great about what he did. 

I Came Here to Kick Ass and Chew Bubblegum

In addition, during the encounter with the "roaches" Stripe's Mass starts to malfunction after he encounters a LED device. For much of the rest of the episode, he sees the world as it is and not as it is projected through the MASS Device. In this way, Stripe becomes a bit like John Nada (Roddy Piper) in the campy John Carpenter classic "They Live."

In "They Live" a John Nada finds a cache of sunglasses that when worn expose the truth of the world they live in, namely that the Earth has been taken over by aliens who look a bit like Roaches (when seen through the sunglasses). At all other times, humans and aliens look exactly the same. People wearing the magic sunglasses can also see the difference between alien advertisements to humans and the actual meaning of the messaging (which creates some humorous moments throughout the movie).

You Must Choose

So, Stripe and his cohort go out hunting Roaches again, and this time Roach prevents Hunter from earning her kills because what she sees as Roaches now look entirely like normal humans to him. And so now he sees the truth, that the "roaches" are just terrified people who have fallen out of favor or are seen as undesirable to the government and are seeking sanctuary in what the government is calling "roach nests" (and the so-called roaches do seem to all fit predictable ethnic lines as well).

And here is where we find out the truly terrifying truth that surrounds us today, the people who live in the neighborhoods and do not have MASS devices fully participate in the brutality against the so-called "Roaches" even though they 100% know that they are just marginalized people. And here is where "They Live" becomes such an interesting counterpoint, we cheer John Nada as he slaughters aliens left and right after he finds the sunglasses because once we humans think it is okay to see someone as subhuman, everything becomes okay. 

In other words, Brooker is suggesting that the "Men Against Fire" problem is overcome by social permission and access to getting to sit at the cool kid's table (it is high school all over again) and doesn't really require much technology. 

This conclusion is hammered home when we learn two more facts:

1. Stripe was fully aware of what he was about to do before he became a soldier (something about the MASS device also erases your memory of things that might be upsetting or something like that).

2. After Stripe has been confronted with the reality of the Roaches and the reality of his earlier choices, he chooses to return to the MASS Matrix (Like Cypher) rather than remain living in a cell full of cognitive dissonance. Human beings like Stripe, Trump, and Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) often choose to look the other way or even participate in great cruelty if it comes with social acceptance and whatever passes for success or accomplishment.

Fascism and cruelty don't require humans to have MASS devices implanted in their heads. No, fascism only requires that normal people embrace intolerance and do nothing to stop cruelty.

But more often, what we see people do is enthusiastically get on board with atrocities. This is the John Nada problem mentioned above, all it took was for him to "see" that many humans were aliens in order for him to erase all of his cognitive dissonance about slaughtering them.

Recently, I saw people at the CPAC convention cheering the removal of Transgender bathroom protections. Even if you feel uncomfortable with bathroom protections for Trans people, why in the world would you celebrate their pain and discomfort? 41% of Trans people report having attempted suicide in comparison to about 4.1% of the general population

I get that we are afraid of ISIS and Al-Queda inspired terrorist attacks, but even opponents of accepting refugees would have to admit that of the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Syria, the vast and overwhelming majority are fleeing (often with families and small children) for their lives. Why in the world would you celebrate locking them out of our country? 

Tough choices should be painful, not a time for celebration. What should scare everyone is how quickly our love for a shared humanity drowns in the embrace of America First. As much as Trump supporters hate when people talk about privilege, what we are really talking about is maintaining privilege. Exceptionalism and America First are calls to maintain the privilege of military protection. Nationalism is really about saying "sorry about your damn luck" to everyone else in the world.

When Cypher is eating that digitally created Matrix steak he is really asking for Agent Smith to put the scales back in front of his eyes (so that he can enjoy life and not have to see the suffering of himself or others (behind the curtain). We can stand up in opposition, we can ask to be anesthetized, or we can become celebrators of cruelty.

As sanctuary movements return to activity after all these years all around me, this seems like a perfect time to remind everyone that we all are going to be asked or forced to choose.

When your time comes, will you choose the blue pill or the red pill?