Saturday, December 22, 2012

Cassandra Victorious

Best to state it baldly, up front: Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture.

Its makers have protested that its treatment of torture is artistically ambiguous and therefore morally responsible. Torture, they say, was a regrettable and necessary evil. But torture does not deserve such ambiguity. And this defense is false for two more reasons besides. First, director Bigelow makes an artful cut from raw 9/11 audio to a torture session two years later -- linking the impotent fury of that attack to the psychotic punishment we rendered afterward. There is nothing whatever ambiguous about this first edit.

Second, Bigelow repeatedly stretches to make torture instrumental to her foreground plot. It reveals the first clue for her protagonist to follow to the climax. Her research montage is laced with countless hours of enhanced interrogation. One suspect cooperates because he can't remember what he said while he was being tortured (a gambit we used to achieve through mere drugging and patience). Another suspect says he'll cooperate just to avoid torture. A CIA staffer bemoans the loss of his beloved detainee program. At several junctures in the plot, therefore, torture is either the decisive link or the long-lost tool that could have advanced the story faster. This is a willful falsification of fact that consequently ennobles torture and rationalize its use. Of course Bigelow is right to draw torture into the bin Laden manhunt narrative, but once drawn she draws the wrong drama.

A year after the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which we displayed appropriate disgust for torture, we discovered that its various pranks, poses and punishments were not, in fact, the mere excesses of stressed-out bad apple grunts. Richard Bruce Cheney, together with Addington, Yoo, Rumsfeld and Gonzales were very calmly, very deliberately crafting a regimen of torture as standard operating procedure. The most popular rationale proffered at the time was the Jack Bauer "Ticking Time Bomb Scenario." It appeals to Kohlberg's third stage of moral development: the post-conventional violation of some conventional rule in order to advance a larger, more imminent good. For example, most of us obey traffic lights, even when some asshole cuts us off, because we recognize that our safety is bound up in the very intersections of life where we may fatally collide with others. But with a loved one bleeding to death in the backseat, we will break that law late at night in order to get to the hospital in time. And we would be right to do so.

For the Ticking Time Bomb Scenario to retain its moral authority, several things must first be true as prerequisites. First, you have to have an imminent objective that you are trying to advance or confirm -- the bleeding person in the backseat. You can't just aimlessly and repeatedly break the law and hope something worthwhile will come of it. If you have reason to believe a detainee possesses knowledge of a specific imminent attack, say, or if you have reason to believe a detainee possesses knowledge of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts, you may have grounds to torture. And you will be justified for that breach after the fact only insofar as your action actually advanced a greater good. There must be a reason to break it beforehand that matches the reason after breaking it. Neither of these were true in the Cheney program or the scene that kicks off Zero Dark Thirty. In both situations, torture is simply the way the agents shake the trees to harvest something -- anything -- that might be helpful for ... something. "Give me a name. Give me a date." As it happens, Bigelow's narrative has her heroine present for the revelation of a detail about bin Laden's courier that had already been unearthed through conventional methods years prior. This elision of fact doesn't just dredge up our shameful legacy of torture in all the wrong ways for all the wrong reasons, it also elides the fact that torture-as-SOP was supremely ineffective at harvesting useful information and, worse still, actively counterproductive: the freshest terrorist recruits in that era all cited torture as their main motivation for enlisting in Al Qaeda. How in the world is it artistically ambiguous or morally responsible to edit the story this way?

Second, for the TTBS to be valid as a post-conventional moral exception, you have to have the antecedent conventional law in the first place. In other words, just because I can imagine a scenario in which it would be more righteous for me to violate traffic law, I cannot therefore abolish traffic lights altogether. Yet this is precisely what Cheney et al sought to do and what President Obama righteously reversed. In Zero Dark Thirty, it is just business as usual. Heinous and ugly, but so what, we are left to assume, such is war, right?

The film's protagonist, Maya, is a monomaniacal agent blessed with the full faith and credit of Hindsight. In a late scene where CIA director Leon Panetta asks Maya's team to offer their odds at finding bin Laden in the Abbottabod compound, the team members offer the sober stats we all heard after the fact: about 50% to 60%. But in the scene, Maya flatly asserts 100%, to the embarrassed astonishment of her colleagues. Certainly someone in the chain believed with all their heart and gut that this was the case, but we the audience are given no reason besides Hindsight to accept Maya's certainty. Within the strictures of any good drama, Maya's certainty is ridiculous.

And within the strictures of actual fact it happens to be more ridiculous still. It was President Obama who moved the hunt for bin Laden back to the front burner at the CIA. It was President Obama who asked the same Leon Panetta to assemble the most credible plan to find him. And it was President Obama who disbanded the detainee and torture program that this film repeatedly credits for the successful mission. It was President Obama who made covert action in Pakistan a presidential campaign issue, to the derision of his opponent John McCain. And it was President Obama who authorized the extra chopper in the mission itself, without which the whole enterprise would have collapsed at the very doorstep of success.

The film pauses briefly to hear President-elect Obama reaffirm his stance on torture and to see our heroes gape ambiguously at their commander in chief's statement. But the whole second act of the film is about Maya's frustration with bureaucratic resistance to her blessed powers of hindsight. Thankfully, one White House staffer tells Maya's boss that the agency's credibility isn't exactly top-notch following the disastrous Iraqi WMD scandal. But the facts of the timeline deflate the drama Bigelow has laid out for her heroine. Obama's actions against torture and for Pakistani intervention only made a project like Maya's far more likely to succeed. But Bieglow wishes to tell a story about an avenging angel, a triumphant Cassandra held back by higher-ups who don't happen to share her intuition. To preserve this arc, she must deny and actively repress a whole history of cruelty that we desperately need our artists to help us confront. There is no larger emotional truth to be gleaned from such artistic choices, except the emotional truth we were fed all along during the dark days of Bush: psychotic devotion can only be defeated with psychotic devotion.

Torture's means are physical but its aim is psychological: how else to prosecute a war against an emotion like terror but through the prism of psychosis, of living death, of torture together with novel, extra-legal dimensions like Guantanamo. How else to arrest the anxiety of helpless homeland civilians but through a benevolent, omniscient surveillance state and flying robot army? The capture of bin Laden was a long-overdue achievement that provided a rare tangible objective in a vast decade-long campaign of vague omni-directional aggression. For a film to steal this triumph and dog-cuff it to the worst excesses of the War on Terror is both an artistic and moral failure.

It bears repeating that the War on Terror, by its very terms, its very name, was the grandest psychological war yet waged by mankind. On its own terms, it necessitates torture, surveillance and Guantanamo's numerous invisible franchises. And on these stated terms, we will only "win" when we ... feel better. Shorn of any hard objective in the real world, this most subjective of wars easily migrates from country to country, tactic to tactic, black site to black site. This kind of warfare is ripe for artistic exploration because it engages the same theatre of operation: the psyche. Tragically, Zero Dark Thirty starts with this possibility but hews straightaway to bloody melodrama, taking with it any hope that we the audience could confront and reconcile our terror.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Correlation v. Causation: The Romney Campaign's Only Hope

In his convention speech, Obama said more about Mitt Romney’s foreign policy with a slight pause than Mitt Romney managed to say in a whole week of free advertising:

OBAMA: Now my opponents are … new to foreign policy.


Evidently this stuck in Romney’s craw. He’s now so trigger-happy to attack the President on foreign policy that he couldn’t hold his wad until the 9/11 moment of silence was over. Or until he knew what had actually happened in Libya.

Slate’s John Dickerson has been a strenuous apologist for Romney lately and the apology runs something like this: sure Romney got the Libya timeline wrong. But we should respect the “larger truth” of his critique. The Arab Spring saw a handful of countries begin the democratic overthrow of their longstanding dictators. In Romney’s view, this rash of democracy happened because Obama has “apologized” for America. In the absence of relevant questioning, one is left to suppose Romney preferred the dictators. Certainly Sarah Palin does, as evidenced by her ever-classy remark, “How’s the Arab Spring working for you now?” The “larger truth” that Dickerson and others are trying to sustain is this: Obama may not have apologized for America after the embassy attacks, but we should seriously consider that his non-existent apology tour caused the attacks.

By my count, Romney’s latest snipe is the third in a string of desperate associations. First, we had the welfare-to-work attack. Sure, the apologists say, it was factually wrong from start to finish. But come on! Black man want welfare money. That’s a larger truth! Second, the Obama-wants-to-take-God-off-our-money attack. Sure, the apologists say, Obama never did that and actually intervened at the convention to restore God language to the platform. But come on! Socialist Obama hates Jesus. That’s a larger truth! And now, the embassy “apology.” Sure, we’re told one more time, Obama did no such thing. But …

Come on. Each of these attacks has one thing in common besides their outright falsity: they are flimsy associations. Impressions. Correlations in place of causation. You may have noticed that ice cream consumption and murder both spike in the summer. Well, according to Romney we must fight crime … by prosecuting Ben & Jerry. I know, I know. He never said that. But consider the larger truth.

Then there's the biggest association Romney needs to make, the one central to this election: the economy isn’t good, so ditch the guy in office. Snapshot A: the current economy. Snapshot B: the current president. Set your Skinner Box to “stun,” repeat A and B with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, and await your victory.

This is the same shallow trendsmithing that gets George F. Will and Charles Krauthammer out of bed in the morning. Perhaps you’ve heard this breathless warning from Will already:

"If Barack Obama wins a second term, this will be the first time there have been three consecutive two-term presidencies since Jefferson, Madison and Monroe between 1801 and 1825."

Holy shit, that’s right! After Bush squeaked his way into one term and scared his way into a second – a string of catastrophes most Americans would gladly fix if they had the chance -- it’s only fair that we should fire Obama because, you know … Monroe. What on earth is the point? And why should Romney get the crown instead? This is what goes for historical analysis now. Simply elide all sense of history – of one event causing another – and stick to the slippery cosmetics of impression-making.

Krauthammer works even harder to forge such impressions. So hard, in fact, that the overweening impression one gets from each of his columns is the sad spectacle of a former Mondale aide using every ounce of his intelligence to advance the most cynical and stupid thesis he can muster. Here he is on Obamacare:

"What did he suggest to address the plague of defensive medicine that a Massachusetts Medical Society study showed leads to about 25 percent of doctor referrals, tests and procedures being done for no medical reason? A few ridiculously insignificant demonstration projects amounting to one-half of one-hundredth of 1 percent of the cost of his health-care bill."

Damn, sounds pretty bad! Except tort reform is a matter of law, not resources.  Which is why that reform is in the Act, not the price tag. But that doesn’t stop C-Kraut from comparing the cost of the bill’s premium subsidies with the cost of … the paper it takes to print better tort law.

Mitt Romney ran in one of the silliest primary fields in living memory and still never managed to crack 25% of his own party’s vote. Time and again, he offers a haircut in place of an argument. Because when that fails, you can always drown a Santorum or Gingrich in an avalanche of negative ads. He’s really hopes to do the same against Obama, using whatever easy impression comes to hand. Welfare! Embassy! Misplaced Antecedent to the Word “That”! After all, you can’t make Obama’s “you didn’t build that” quote work without a jagged cut in the middle of the footage. No matter! The larger truth transcends the omission of truth.  The impression is what counts. And so we had to watch the RNC convention pin its whole case … on a jump cut.

True to its instincts, the media will enable any development, no matter how frivolous, so long as it keeps the conflict amplified and the election close. This is their biggest quadrennial ratings draw, after all, so what good would it do to evaluate the candidates on their stated intentions and larger record? Anytime we get that kind of analysis, the polls only tilt further towards Obama and reiterate that he can and should proceed with a final four years as President. But there’s nothing new in that news. So if Romney wants to make another schoolyard taunt, in escalating magnitudes of mendacity, reporters and the general commentariat are all too happy to let him.

Recall the cynicism that attended every reaction to the American Jobs Act. Romney wants to spend $5 trillion on rich people again, with the promise that this time -- this time -- it will really work.  All you need is the impression and amnesia. Obama wants to spend one-tenth of that putting 2 million people back to work immediately. In one stroke, we could drop unemployment to 6% and boost GDP by two points, to boot. And the commentary ran like this, “Sure Obama’s plan is good, inexpensive, and economically smart. But Republicans in Congress will never allow it, so mark it down as another failure for Obama.” This same attitude now attends predictions about the next four years. “Sure, Obama would have a mandate for a grand bargain in his second term, but Republicans in Congress will still obstruct him, so we may as well give them the keys instead.”

With cause and effect restored, the simple fact is this: Obama can broker a far better deal with his veto pen than Romney can advance with the rabid caucus of Boehner and Cantor at his side. Starting next year, those same Congressional Republicans will finally have to go back to worrying about their jobs (and ours) instead of the president’s. We should deliver them from that which so distracts them, by keeping Obama on the case.

A final word for the biggest and most hilarious impression of the lot -- that Obama is Carter and Romney is Reagan.

I mean, my god! Look at the R’s in their names! And also did you notice that Romney’s logo is a not-so-subtle anagram for R-MONEY?

Say what you will about the guy ... he’s got the dyslexic vote locked up.

Back to cause and effect: Jimmy Carter inherited a bad scene and made it worse. Obama inherited a catastrophic scene and made it better. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan was a charismatic man harvesting a nascent political movement that he had shepherded for decades. He was also riding a larger sea change against a half-century of dominant liberalism. By contrast, Mitt Romney is at best a walking word cloud. And the sea simply ain’t changing in his direction. Not on immigration. Not on gay rights, women’s rights or progressive taxation. Like each of his attacks so far, brute shallowness defines both the man and his cause. Nevertheless, for the press in general and Romney in particular, it’s much easier to show history repeating through a sequence of familiar impressions than it is to show history unfolding according to the very contingencies they’re supposed to be reporting in the first place.

In an election where so much depends on amnesia, we do well to remember that this is the same press and the same party that gave us the fabulous impression -- excuse me, the “larger truth” -- that Saddam Hussein ordered the 9/11 attacks.

Snapshot A. Snapshot B.

Hop in the Skinner Box, kids, and brace for many more shocks to come.

Romney may have enough cash and credulity behind him to wage a campaign on nothing more than special effects.

But Barack Obama actually has a cause.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Barack Obama was playing full-court press against Romney's prancing Rafalca on the issue of tax fairness and was winning.  The specter of Romney's low-tax mega-wealth lowered Romney's general prospects and also advanced Obama's longstanding goal of making the tax system more progressive for a change.  Romney's own plans had come under righteous scrutiny as another repeat of the top-down tax policy that has governed this young and harsh new millennium.  Whoever wins in November will claim some kind of mandate on tax reform and if that winner is Obama, the strength of his veto pen to carve and shape that reform magnifies because Congressional Republicans will be forced to go back to worrying about their jobs instead of the President's.  

Enter Paul Ryan.  You may remember, in the days leading up to the 2008 conventions, the election was framed as a matter of Experience (McCain) versus Change (O).  McCain sacrificed his Experience credential by picking Sarah Palin and tried to outdo Obama on the matter of Change.  The same strategy underpins the emergence of Paul Ryan, though in a substantively different way and regarding a different choice.  Hitherto, Romney's campaign of Experience was losing to Obama's "Forward" slogan.  The public had largely accepted, indeed craved, progressive tax reform as an essential part of any future deficit and GDP-boosting measures.  Now Romney and Ryan will try to seize the "Forward" slogan, just as McCain tried to seize the Change slogan, by pushing Medicare to the fore from the pert, well-shaved mouth of Paul Ryan.

Liberals are confident that the facts and larger public sentiment are on their side.  For the moment, they are.  But this hinges on a vision Obama must articulate boldly and quickly: entitlement reform must go hand-in-hand with progressive tax reform.  Economists agree that deficit reduction and GDP growth will not come at the hands of cutting or taxing alone.  The crown should go to the person who proffers the best bargain to this end.  Romney and Ryan have made clear that they are cutting-only problem solvers.  Obama will look like a taxing-only problem solver if he doesn't seize the last patch of high ground with his "balanced approach."

This means Obama will have to be more explicit about entitlement reform and vigorously defend the reforms he's already made.  He will also have to point out how it has been the Republicans who have remained fixed on the same failed strategy -- cuts only plus massive cash for the rich --  and how Romney and Ryan have a very loud and proud record blocking balance at every turn.  This is, after all, the fight Obama postponed in 2010 after Simpson-Bowles and again in 2010 after the mid-term fight over the Bush tax cuts.  The debt-ceiling debacle of 2011 was yet another postponement.  Somewhere along the line, Obama decided that this issue needed the popular mandate of an election to solve and now one is upon him.  One hopes he's been preparing for this conflict because it just got louder and sharper.  Romney has fastened his stake to an ultra-right wing plan with a pretty face.  That is how they hope to make 2012 like 1980.  But if Obama plays it right from here -- and he's had years to hone this pitch -- he can make 2012 like 1972, where an hysterical out-party overplayed their hand ... and facilitated a landslide for the President.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Profiles in Verbiage

Consider the following crow from the stump and then try to guess the speaker:

For decades, the Washington sun has been rising in the east - Washington has been looking to the eastern elites, to the editorial pages of the Times and the Post, and to the broadcasters from the coast.

If America really wants change, it's time to look for the sun in the west, cause it's about to rise and shine from Arizona and Alaska!

Sounds kinda like the daffy dyslexicon we've known and gleefully mocked for the last twelve years, yes? Coming from W, the punchline would be the bald stupidity of it. What is a "Washington sun" after all? And how will it rise from the West without first anointing that other American Gomorroah: the Left Coast? No, if W said this, we could at least be comforted it with the hope it was another bumbling mistake. You could count on him that way.

Problem is, Mitt Romney read those words from a teleprompter at the 2008 St. Paul convention and he said them with the same declarative timbre as "ask not what your country ..." I guess one man's gaffe is another man's gospel. Lacking any semantic or metaphoric value, Romney's statement can only be read as a raw expression of desire. But exactly what kind of emotional succor are we supposed to derive from retrograde planetary movement? I'm glad I asked. Because stupidity alone doesn't explain this one. The best I can figure is the man feels oppressed by the Copernican Mainstream Media.

Now consider the name of Romney's SuperPAC: Restore Our Future. How does one restore what hasn't yet happened? I've been dizzy with contemplation of that splendid little koan of a slogan but I'm starting to feel like a cat chasing the dot from a laser pointer: there's nothing to grasp, so what can one do but sink one's claws into the guy at the lecturn?

Romney has hearty, well-funded flanks of marketeers under his command. Say what you will about the guy, even his detractors and outright foes believe he should be good at this sort of thing. If it's not a mistake in the Bushian sense and it's not for want of campaign expertise, then what in the ever-turning world is the strategic angle to this hollow, pithy mush? Citizens on both sides of the aisle have been rightly put off and suspicious of the mechanical where they expected the human -- but that same phenomenon is also the source of all comedy, so maybe Romney intends to numb the opposition with its own bitter laughter? Do Romney's formidble powers of confusion somehow neturalize Obama and Obama supporters like me? Arguing with my once-hippy-now-conservative sister about the election last week, it suddenly struck me that I was in no position to oppose Mitt Romney because I have no earthly idea what the man is talking about.

Pause to survey the fractious field Romney must walk and smooth over: Ron Paul's libertarian cohort puts off the hawks and social conservatives. Santorum's evangelical cohort doesn't welcome Mormons among its ranks. And just for fun, add a plump (or is it rump?) establishment candidate that currently appears in the shape of a Newton Gingrich.* The overthrow of Obama is not enough to unite this motley confederacy and as a credit to their tenacity and sincerity, I submit that Romney can't unite them either because his business experience doesn't translate into political prowess after all. Maybe knowledge of mergers and acquisitions isn't enough to reconcile disparate political interests. Maybe focus groups and marketing acumen cannot yield compelling poetry or even coherent campaign speeches. Maybe, just maybe, running a country is different from running a private equity firm. The last and first MBA in the White House was George W. Bush. And that turned out just awesome. The last businessman in the White House was Herbert Hoover. And that was even awesomer. Which of these futures are we supposed to restore?

We worry Citizens United gave corporations rights they did not need or deserve because corporations cannot feel remorse and they do not cast shadows. Mark it now: this is the defining civil rights issue of our time. Romney not only affirms corporate personhood, he appears to be corporate personhood itself. He emits baffling patter for a product so amazing we don't even know what the fuck it is anymore. But even mangled language casts a shadow of a sort, and this we might interpret. It's not about Restoring (or even Winning) Our Future. We should strive to Prevent Our Past. That's the shadow more telling than the substance. Romney thinks we can do that by forgetting how we got here. And forgetting how far we've come.

Heap those passionate factions above into a diesel-powered content aggregator and you get the cumulous word cloud that is Mitt Romney. The cloud is cottony-white and kinda looks like a confused badger if you tilt your head and squint. But it never seems to provide the rain our parched partisans need. Nor is it capable of any lightning.


*Notice there is no Tea Party candidate in this list. In fact, notice there is no Tea Party: for the most part, they have taken off the tricorns and absorbed into Santorum. The Tea Party was against the Deficit and then against Government Spending and then against Giving Medicine to Poor People and then For Jobs and now? They don't line up behind the libertarian who has fought for the same for much longer; they quietly confess they were really social conservatives in libertarian drag after all. How much longer will the libertarians settle for this? Is it not painfully clear they have much more to gain from an alliance with liberals?

Santorum was right at the thumping heart of the decadent Bush Spree and the economy remains the defining variable in this election. While we've all been yearning for a grand, gooey Santorum closet coming-out party, Republicans secretly know his real skeleton is his affiliation with the Bush years. The Economist -- no liberal rag, that -- called him a splendid candidate for the thirteenth-century, for god's sake. Put simply, Santorum is W without the redeeming quality of alcoholism. If W charmed because he treated every public occasion like a third date, then Santorum charms because he treats every public occasion like a third date with your daughter.