Sunday, June 24. 2012
AMC's two-year run of The Killing, adapted from a Danish series called Forbrydelsen, was interesting to watch but both seasons ended with really egregious missteps -- so bad that I feel like commenting on something normally way out of my domain. For a great deal of detail on the series, see Wikipedia and its various sublinks (list of characters, season overviews, list of episodes, individual episode summaries -- damn near everything but the video is on-line, and AMC's website has at least a taste of that).
The setup is that you have one case -- a teenage girl, Rosie Larsen, was drowned in the trunk of a car that was rolled into a lake -- and one episode per day of the investigation as it drags out. The original Copenhagen was moved to Seattle, but actually shot in Vancouver. Several things stretch the case out compared to the usual concision of crime whodunits. They focus a lot on the grief of the victim's family -- a decision that is touching at first but threatens to become deadly mundane, so they wind up juicing the story up with all sorts of unlikely tangents -- the father used to be a mob killer, the father beats up one suspect and his friend/helper shoots another and kills himself, the father turns out not to be the biological father, the mother runs away from her family, the aunt moonlights as a hooker involved with the father of Rosie's ex-boyfriend, and in a really bizarre twist turns out to be the killer.
The case also stretches out because it gets wrapped up in a mayoral campaign, and both sides throw up multiple obstructions to the investigation. It also doesn't help that the detectives are often incompetent -- the senior, Sarah Linden, is psychologically haunted by a similar past case (although, to be fair, her fiancÚ and son appear to be bigger problems, so much so that the writers eventually had to pack them away), while her junior, Stephen Holder, is an ex-junkie promoted because he was regarded as corrupt. But they are mostly victims of the writers, who make a difficult case all the worse by throwing out red herrings, which the detectives snap at helplessly, and bureaucratic harassment -- the hapless lieutenant of the first season was replaced by an equally useless one in the second.
Still, Linden and Holder could have solved this case if only they had been a bit smarter and had a bit more help. To get an idea how far wrong this went, consider the two season "finales":
The decision to make Aunt Terry the unknowing murderer typifies the half-assed anything-is-fair-play approach to the storyline. (I used to think that fiction was constrained by some sense of integrity, but for these people it just means you can make any old shit up.) Still, Richmond's meeting is far more disgusting. I reckon what we're supposed to take away is the Who's "meet the new boss/same as the old boss," but before buddying up to Jackson and Ames, let alone dumping Eaton so callously, he really needs advice of counsel. (In fact, the absence of lawyers around any of the principals here is more than a bit surprising.) We still don't know all the facts in this case, but consider what we do know:
That's a lot of baggage for one scene, but it's typical of the show. An episode or two back Linden confronted Mayor Adams with her knowledge that he had falsified evidence to get Richmond arrested, then declared she'd let that go for his help in getting the actual murderer (at the time believed to be either Eaton or Wright). But she was wrong in letting Ames go: by then the conspiracy had taken over the murder, and the only way to the truth about the murder was through tearing apart the various conspiracies. That would have been more work, but it would also have been more rewarding than just getting to the end and tossing up your hands, decrying how all politicians are inevitably corrupt.
Also worthwhile to take a look at the piece by Jace Lacob comparing The Killing to the original Forbrydelsen (which I would like to see some day). In partiuclar, here's a short list of changes:
I'm not a fan of all the psychological troubles detectives go through, even if that seems like a realistic occupational hazard. (We just saw another example, Thorne; nor is going nuts limited to detectives, as Homeland showed.) And I see a lot of merit in the Indian casino angle -- indeed, Chief Jackson is the most plausible villain in the series (give or take a mob boss).
By the way, at AV Club Meredith Blake compiled a list of things that didn't make any sense at the end of season one. I won't quote them here because there are 20 of them (only one I recognize as resolved in the second episode), and then adds another 10 "stray observations (or 'other things that don't add up')." Also at AV Club, Todd VanDerWerf picks up the same thread for season two. Note that for both seasons, the lowest-rated episode was the finale (D+ and C).
Will have to write about something non-fiction next time. In the meantime, I'm reminded of the Valerie Plame affair, where the only one charged was Scooter Libby, not because he was the only one guilty but because by perjury he made it practically impossible to prosecute the crime. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald explained: "The truth is the engine of our judicial system. If you compromise the truth, the whole process is lost . . . if we were to walk away from this, we might as well hand in our jobs." Libby was convicted, but escaped doing jail time thanks to George W. Bush, the benefactor of Libby's lying -- along with Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, etc. You'd think that such utter contempt for the law would have destroyed any semblance of respect for the Bush administration, but the whole affair has been quietly forgotten -- as if the ending of The Killing has become a cultural norm.
Wednesday, April 18. 2012
Atrios has run a series of posts, starting with nine runners up and converging on "the one true wanker of the decade." He distinguishes "wankers" from "wingers" so as to give a pass to the furthest right ideologues, propagandists, and lunatics -- possibly because there's no end of them, also because the research quickly overwhelms anyone's sense of humor. So his game are mostly self-professed centrists who repeatedly wind up doing the right's dirty work. He also looks for writers perched on big media outlets. (Alex Pareene has done similar, more comprehensive lists. See his Hack Thirty from 2010 and his 2011 Hack List.)
The Eschaton list in top-to-bottom order:
I don't have strong feelings here, mostly because these are people I almost never read -- Sullivan is an exception, and I find his ranking a bit puzzling -- and in some cases have never heard of. (Fred Hiatt is one, but I'm told he runs the Washington Post's editorial page, which makes it possible to knock all these blokes off with just one slot: "Krauthammer. Broder. Hoagland. Kristol. Novak. Cohen. Lane. Cupp. Thiessen. Kurtz. Samuelson. Diehl. Kelly. Noonan. Will. Ignatius. Parker. Marcus. Milbank. Gerson." A couple names there don't ring a bell either, but I can fill in first names (and more) for most of them -- Robert Samuelson being a particular pet peeve.
What I'd like to see are some more specific lists: especially, which journalists/pundits were most effective at shutting down any sane discussion of 9/11 and the march to war in Afghanistan? I have a much clearer picture of Iraq (Judith Miller and Kenneth Pollack are key figures there, also George Packer). And what about the insanity of thinking it safe to turn Congress over to Republicans in 2010? I mean, a lot of "opinion makers" were simply negligent in not realizing what that would mean.
Wednesday, January 18. 2012
Some timely reading today:
Saved the latter for last because I wanted to quote from it:
Some of the companies that are lobbying against SOPA and PIPA may well have their own dreams of a rentier dystopia, and that's something to beware of. Unfortunately, we live in a political system dominated by conflicting special interests, almost completely oblivious to the idea of a public interest, especially one unable to line the pockets of politicians.
Update: Also see the post-blackout report at Wikipedia.
Saturday, November 27. 2010
Alex Pareene: The War Room Hack Thirty: One view of the "worst columnists and cable news commentators America has to offer." Looks to me like more print than broadcast, but I watch so little TV, read so few of their papers, and never listen to radio, so I'm not to best person to sort this out. I don't recall ever reading Richard Cohen, and several other names come up blank. On the other hand, I can think of others who escaped the list. Perhaps Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and their ilk were exempted as entertainers, or maybe their demagoguery is so blatant that they don't pretend to be anything else. This isn't really a list of right-wingers, although they figure prominently, and isn't a ranking of vile political opinions (otherwise Michael Savage and Max Boot and Mark Steyn would have ranked high). Pareene namechecks Ann Coulter, then picks the decidedly more mediocre Laura Ingraham. Self-conscious centrists figure prominently, especially ones who fell hook, line and sinker for the Bush war line (lies not least of all). But that may be less because they're centrists than because they're gullible when the propaganda winds blow strong, and that's ultimately what defines them as hacks. As for active right-wing propagandists like Jonah Goldberg, Bill Kristol, and David Brooks, they tripped themselves up so repeatedly they couldn't be ignored as mere ideologists.
This was done as 31 separate posts, so work through the Earlier Articles links or pick and choose from the index. Nearly all are worth reading. And the Thomas Friedman one has links to two Matt Taibbi reviews that nail him perfectly. [Links: The World Is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded]
I scanned through the comments for more names. Most often nominated, by far, was Charles Krauthammer, but also: Fouad Ajami, Fred Barnes, Bob Beckel, Wolf Blitzer, Max Boot, Neil Bortz, L Brent Bozell, Andrew Breitbart, Tom Brokaw, Pat Buchanan, Alan Colmes, Joe Conason, Monica Crowley, Victor Hanson Davis, Lou Dobbs, Ross Douthat, Paul Gigot, Bernard Goldberg, David Gregory, Sean Hannity, Melissa Harris-Perry [aka Melissa Harris-Lacewell], Christopher Hitchens, David Horowitz, Arianna Huffington, Al Hunt, John Kass, Michael Kinsley, Nicholas Kristof, Matt Lauer, Michael Ledeen, Mark Levin, Mara Liasson, Rich Lowry, Gene Lyons, Michelle Malkin, Ruth Marcus Chris Matthews, Megan McArdle, Dick Morris, Keith Olbermann, Bill O'Reilly, Kathleen Parker, Daniel Pipes, Frank Rich, Cokie Roberts, Charlie Rose, Michael Savage, Laura Schlessinger, Bob Schieffer, George Stephanopoulos, Mark Steyn, John Stossel, Andrew Sullivan, Cal Thomas, Chris Wallace, Juan Williams, Bob Woodward, John Yoo. I left out the Salon writers (e.g., one commenter repeatedly taunting Joan Walsh), and I'm inclined to dismiss Sullivan and most of the liberals (Kinsley, Rich) as pure right-wing snark.
One letter writer complained about the parochial American viewpoint and suggested some more names: Nick Cohen, Mick Hume, Melanie Phillips, Brendan O'Neill, Frank Furedi, Helen Guildberg, Josie Appleton, Bernard Lewis, Barry Rubin, Sam Tannenhaus, John Podhoretz, Emanuele Ottolenghi, Giulio Meotti, Reuel Marc Gerecht.
I'm an habitual listmaker myself, so let me say something in defense of lists: the ranking may be near-arbitrary, but building lists forces one to think of aggregates rather than individuals, and as such it puts individuals into a reasonable context. Clearly, a lot of thought goes into who's in/who's out/who ranks where here, and it provides not just a useful guide to individuals but to the whole practice of the opinion wing of the mainstream media. Given its breadth, this strikes me as the most useful broad survey since Matt Taibbi took on the presidential news reporters in 2004 by refereeing Wimblehack (won by Elisabeth Bumiller, something to keep in mind any time you see her byline).
Wednesday, May 26. 2010
Laura watches a lot of TV. I listen to a lot of music. The doors between our spaces are usually closed to keep those two worlds at bay, but on rare occasions I wander into her space. She had so raved about the first three seasons of 24 that I started watching it with "Day 4": the one with Muslim terrorist Habib Marwan, who causes a nuclear power plant to meltdown, shoots down Air Force 1 killing the president and bringing a weak and wobbly Charles Logan to power, and launches a nuclear-armed cruise missle which fails to detonate over Los Angeles. I figured it might tell me something about the terror-deranged mind of America, but it turned out to be too absurdly sensationist for analysis. The main point I drew from the series was that it posited a future state of America where both terrorism and counterterrorism had been scaled up to industrial levels: in other words, a dystopian warning against allowing such activities to happen.
You see, "Day 4" starts with some bus bombings that are the sort of things real terrorists could do given reasonable levels of access and munitions and dedication -- none of which actually exists in anything like critical quantities in the U.S. (Cf. the ineptness of the Times Square Car Bomb or the Underpants Bomber, or the small scale of the Fort Hood shootings.) Then they veer off into fantasy, but the key thing to realize is that every major threat in 24 is made possible by the U.S. military-industrial-security complex and/or its kin elsewhere -- especially 24's favorite target, Russia. Terrorists may love the idea of shooting down Air Force 1, but in 24 it's accomplished by an American mercenary who manages to take a USAF fighter out for a "test flight." This only gets more explicit over the next few series, especially in season 7 where Jonas Hodges (Jon Voight) and his industrial partners have thoroughly infiltrated the government and are actively orchestrating something more like guerrilla warfare than mere terrorism.
Season/Day 8 ended last night in a rather pathetic whimper, but at least the season was relatively free of the familial schmaltz and bureaucratic in-fighting that had routinely substituted for ideas (and action) in the past. That left us with more action, and the action was often impressive -- especially Jack Bauer's pickup of Meredith Reed in a crowd of Russian agents, even more so Bauer's assault on Charles Logan's motorcade, but one can also cite a few notable murders, as when Dana Walsh disposed of Bill Prady (the Arkansas parole officer) and more importantly the season's most annoying subplot, or when Renee Walker ended her affair with Vladimir Laitanan.
However, they missed a few critical turns, mostly because the writers hate Jack Bauer and have been trying to dehumanize him -- death being proscribed by the business plan -- at least since his fake death in Season 4. President Dipshit (as she's been known in these parts ever since she pompously plotted her "humanitarian war" in Africa in Season 7) had a plot-turning personal meeting with Bauer where she could have said: Logan's come to me to mediate with the Russians to keep them tied up in the peace deal, but Logan insists that I lock you down; we know the Russians are guilty in this, and I don't trust Logan for a moment, but I need to keep this quiet until the peace deal is signed, otherwise we're giving in to subversion and terrorism; so what I need is for you, Jack Bauer, to go rogue and investigate this and report back only to me. They might have worked out some details for faking the lock down, turning Bauer loose, and giving him limited support away from Jason Pillar's purview, and she might have gone further and gave him one of those immunity agreements they pass out like candy -- in effect, she could have given him a legit license to kill, justifying it because she couldn't have known who else could be trusted. Instead, she placed her fate in Logan's hands, and we then saw Logan tighten the screws one by one until she broke. But why makes no sense: Logan seems to be driven by nothing more than vanity, and Pillar, who at first looms like the agent of a vast conspiracy fronted by Logan -- don't forget, he's done that before -- ultimately appears as nothing more than an ass-kisser. Bringing in Suvarov raises the stakes, but strains credulity: why is Russia so dead set on scuttling a peace deal ostensibly between the U.S. and I.R.K., when the real Russia is perfectly satisfied to feign neutrality in such matters (e.g., U.S./Iran)? And how (let alone why) was Suvarov the one who decided to kill Renee Walker, when we saw Pavel Tokarev propose the killing to a rather indifferent Mikhail Novakovich?
While I'm relieved that Bauer didn't assassinate Suvarov, which would have created an international embarrassment if not a cassus belli for Armageddon, I'm disappointed that he backed off from a much more interesting opportunity: he could have shot Logan in Suvarov's presence. Doing so would have punished the guilty party -- Bauer had direct evidence that Logan had been in communication with Tokarev, whereas he only had Logan's word that Suvarov was responsible. And it would have made an indelible impression on Suvarov, underscoring both that he was vulnerable to Bauer and had been reprieved -- as Bauer likes to say, "if I'd wanted you dead you'd be dead already." Moreover, it would have saved us Logan's murder of Pillar and botched suicide attempt -- how'd he manage that? -- not to mention Chloe O'Brien shooting Bauer and all that.
The whole Peace Agreement is splattered with incredulity: as to the size and importance of the deal, as to its international participation (especially the critical role of Russia). And what does it mean when Dipshit backs out of the deal? Bauer's line that you can't have peace based on lies is ass backwards: you start with peace, then build trust and openness on top of it. Dipshit's moral nadir was the moment she used nuclear blackmail on I.R.K.'s Dalia Hassan to force her to sign the treaty: given that such a threat could endlessly be reiterated, this shows you what kind of "partner for peace" Dipshit, and the U.S., really is. If the Peace Agreement was fundamentally just, the only step forward would have been to sign it, even if that was for some or all parties just a matter of appearances.
Jack Bauer has had a powerful death wish for the last few years, so powerful in the last few hours that only the prospects of a movie deal kept him breathing. He dives into one suicide mission after another, gets stabbed -- twice if memory serves -- and shot by Chloe O'Brien as a way of wheedling out of getting shot by someone serious (or, more likely, him shooting a bunch of U.S. agents). Incapacitating Bauer for the last half-hour took all the remaining air out of the show. That left the ending to President Dipshit, whose warped sense of morality left her with only one way to take responsibility -- quit and go to jail with her estranged daughter -- an act so selfish that she insisted that Bauer submit to punishment as well. Again, she could have used to moment to make amends to Bauer by pardoning him, and Bauer was hardly the only one she owed something to -- debts that she would never be able to pay once she was locked away in jail. She talked a lot about peace, but didn't practice it or believe in it. She was all pompous poise, and too dimwitted to see anyone or anything around her.
The first few series I came to hate the real time format. In real life things happen more slowly, and it takes time to sort out reactions and consequences. But by constraining the story to the present, they never even ventured suggestions as to where such terror and corruption came from, or what anyone might have learned from the events. What we got instead was a series of slasher videos wrapped up in a blanket of cynical but otherwise confused politics. It was horrible, and sometimes fun, the latter only because it was sheer fantasy.
Tuesday, March 16. 2010
Trolling through Andrew Sullivan's blog today -- something I don't do all that often -- and found a few items of some interest:
More pieces here and there on Israel, including a link to a relatively sane one by Goldberg arguing that Obama's plan is to realign Israel's government to produce a more moderate Kadima-Likud coalition instead of the current ultraright Likud-Beiteinu-Shas alignment -- my guess is that the government would fail first, and that Netanyahu is unwilling to join any coalition that would give Obama the satisfaction of even a lame solution. Also lots of pieces on the Vatican's sex crime cover-ups.
Sunday, February 14. 2010
One of my favorite websites, Paul Woodward's War in Context, has a new look and feel, and I don't like it. In particular, it shares one idiosyncrasy with the recent facelift to Mondo Weiss which I hated so much I pretty much stopped reading the website: only the two (or in War in Context's case three) most recent posts are provided complete. After that, the next dozen or so are provided in short synopses in two columns, each requiring a separate click to get to. The two sites have other similarities. This makes me think they're built with the same toolkit. War in Context identifies its toolkit as "Thesis WordPress Theme" and provides a link to the source. I can't make much sense out of their website, but it looks like some sort of proprietary software scheme, which is one more reason to be annoyed. The hype for the software makes some utilitarian claims, but the effect is to throw up more obstacles between the content and the reader. Lots of websites use obfuscation to cover up a lack of content, which is irritating but can easily be disposed of. What's sad is when such things happen to sites that do have something to say.
Sunday, October 25. 2009
I haven't had much to say about Israel lately. Part of this is "same old, same old": the Goldstone report merely confirmed the obvious about Israel's criminal siege of Gaza; the Obama focus on curtailing settlements has been inept and, I think, misses the point; on the other hand, Netanyahu's far right regime continues to make enemies and revulse friends, with Turkey an interesting example; and the Iran focus continues to be a distraction, which is exactly the way Netanyahu wanted to play Obama. But another part is that I've pretty much given up on what used to be my best source for intelligence on Israel, Mondoweiss, and that I blame on a website redesign that limits posts to 80-100 words after which you have to click to read further. The theory there most likely has to do with forcing page hits up, but in my case it's having the opposite effect.
One reason I mention this is that Salon has a redesign to make it look more like, well, a bunch of websites I don't recall because I never look at them -- Daily Beast, Huffington Post, stuff like that. The visual clutter on their home page is worse than the norm, but the thing that's most annoying is that they've propagated the design to their blogs. I've lately been keeping How the World Works, War Room, and Glenn Greenwald open in tabs, but their usefulness is declining: not only are the posts getting chopped up to force extra clicks, the number of active posts is being cut back (except for Greenwald).
I suppose advertising has something to do with this, but I don't see a lot of advertising on either site, and increasingly advertising only counts for something if you actually click it. But as likely as not the root cause is bureaucratic self-deception. The easy way to prove that a given site or feature is popular is hit counts, so they start to turn into a fetish. And like most arbitrary measures, if you can't beat 'em, scam 'em. Something like this happened at MSN to drive the redesign of Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide, breaking up a column that we normally run on one page at robertchristgau.com into more than a dozen separate clicks. (User guide hint: look for the Next links.) I have no idea whether that redesign resulted in more page hits, let alone whether more page hits were a good thing for the publisher. It certainly meant more work for everyone else.
The other driving force is likely to be the designer mafia, who need frequent redesigns for career practice. Sometimes I think I should put more effort into design than I do, but in the end I'd rather put the work into content. The design of robertchristgau.com hasn't changed since the prototype I threw together in an hour or two back in September 2001. It certainly could be improved, but I've never had a complaint from Christgau, who appreciates that it leaves the focus clearly on his writing, and doesn't feel compelled to change for change's sake. Don't recall when I put my current design in -- the blog dates back to Jan. 2005, at which point I adapted a somewhat older design that I had started using (and still haven't propagated throughout the whole website). In principle, I'm not opposed to putting some effort into website design. I just think it should enhance the content -- not bury it, nor substitute for it, which has been happening way too often.
Thursday, April 9. 2009
Alex Koppelman: Liberal blogs vs. the Obama administration. Title isn't real accurate here: it's more like the Obama administration vs. the liberal blogs. I suppose it's natural that the Democratic Party establishment would have looked at liberal (maybe even leftist) blogs during the Bush era as useful propaganda instruments, and that now that the Democrats are in power they still do -- and so they'd like to impose a little partisan discipline, like the Republicans did so effectively (and are still doing in a very disciplined way today, albeit with diminishing credibility). Part of the problem is that liberals, leftists, and free thinkers in general, tend to be contrary -- indeed have become accustomed to as much given the rightward political drift of the last 30-60 years -- but also it's often hard to reconcile the principles that got us here with the triangulations of the Obama administration. I could give you a dozen quick examples that bug me -- e.g., the new defense budget is significantly up (contrary to what Republicans are saying) and it's up specifically in areas which make the US military more likely to engage in operations around the globe, as opposed to pure waste like the F-22 program. On the other hand, there is usually some nuance to Obama's moves, often something that's merely suggested but not publicly committed to -- e.g., Obama on Israel is thus far terrible, but he's put some serious and practical people on the case, rather than surrendering the issue to someone like Dennis Ross (let alone Elliott Abrams).
But Republicans have always had an advantage with their bloggers and propagandists: they've kept them on the payroll. A big part of what this piece cites also has to do with money:
Obviously, their problem isn't my problem, but the problem is a general one. I haven't tried to make a living off this blog, but some good people do, and their efforts need to be supported somehow. Philip Weiss makes a big point of this, and he proved to be the single most useful resource anywhere on the recent Gaza atrocity. The demise of Cursor.org has made it much more difficult to find out what's going on. I sure wish Billmon could afford to quit his day job and return to the Whiskey Bar full time. Of course, the problem is structural: the right can always depend on special interest groups because they see nothing wrong with doing their bidding. The left tries to balance off against established power, to check the excesses of special interests, and to promote the general welfare. While in theory virtually everyone stands to benefit from the left's efforts, in practice few people feel enough of a stake to finance those efforts, and many who wish they could just don't have the cash -- or given the extent to which established organizations dominate political life, see the left as a good, practical investment.
The plight of the liberal/left blogs is an example of a more general trend. A bigger example is the ongoing collapse of the newspaper industry. We live in this bizarre system where we've come to expect unbiased information about the world to be paid for by advertising -- the most blatant form of bias ever -- and responsibly managed by rich establishment corporations. That it has ever worked at all is a tribute to the fact that even the rich and powerful needed accurate information, but the mismatch between what people want from a newspaper and what sponsors are willing to pay for has gnawed away at the moral foundation of newspapers practically forever. When they die now it becomes obvious that we're not losing much -- mostly because we've gradually lost it.
There is an obvious way out of this, which is to provide public support for organizations to provide free information to the public. We're a long ways from the consensus to make this happen: such a system would have to be policy-neutral, which is contrary to every established interest, including whatever political part is in power at the moment; it would hasten the destruction of existing media, at least those based on advertising business models; it would alter the balance of power, e.g. between consumers and vendors. But this is the way technology is trending, and free information groups are sprouting up all over -- inadequately funded, to be sure, but the entry costs are so low that anyone can get started for little more than the willingness to put some time into it. Public funding would add to this trend, providing better support and tools and bandwidth, letting people to graduate from part-time to full-time, from amateur to professional status.
Friday, April 3. 2009
Laura Miller: Goodbye, "Galactica" I hardly watch any TV these days, but got roped into this somewhere in the second or third season, and found it entrancing enough I went back to the DVDs for the necessary refresher course. I did watch a lot of TV when I was a teenager -- sheesh, it's not like we knew any better where I came from -- so I do have some vague recollection of the original TV series, with Lorne Greene way out of his depth and a lot of badly modelled war sequences. Alien bashing was happy hunting in the early stretches here, too, but gradually it faded into a small part of everyday life. I never paid much attention to the mythopoetic overtones -- all the prophecies and shared dream sequences and the like, which were clearly artifices of fiction meant to provide some plot that everyday life lacks. That the finale managed to tie all those loose strings up into a nice, neat ball was less a matter of truth or luck than the writers' will to keep their story straight -- as they put it in Slumdog Millionaire, it was written.
Miller laments this neatness, but I actually found it gratifying, and the whole finale -- indeed, the whole final season -- immensely satisfying. So what if in the end you wind up with another crackpot human creation story. That, of course, is also one of the charms of the The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe -- I loved the movie there, especially for the immense wonder of the graphic construction of the earth. Both cases amount to a form of creationism even further removed from the Bible than Darwin. It's fiction, but at least it's true to itself -- unlike, I dare say, the Bible -- and it's clean and clear enough you can play with the model. Whereas most TV puts your brain out to pasture, this show has been a constant treat to the cerebellum. I doubt that this is really the end of it, but it's nice to see how neatly a piece of fiction can be wrapped up. Verity to real life isn't necessarily a good thing.
Laura Miller: Finale wrap-up: "Big Love" Also watched this series, billed as "America's favorite polygamist drama," as if there was another one. This seemed like the season where they finally jumped the shark, but in the end they scrambled to give Bill Hendrickson at least one episode where some of the things he plotted to do worked out -- a little taste of "Father Knows Best," even though he's really pretty far out on the limb. The thing that really shifted this year was that Barb fell into a deep vat of religious nonsense: obsessing over the future size of the family, with attendant worries about the other wives' fertility; freaking out over her excommunication from the LDS church. She had previously seem to hold reservations not just about the fundamentalist compound but the whole concept, but this year she emerged as the true believer -- and belief you don't share and can't really conceive of quickly turns annoying and creepy. The motivations of the other two (or for that matter three) wives were relatively practical and tangible. Bill, too, seems to be moving off the deep end. His whole fixation on an ultimately fraudulent letter that he saw as legitimizing his polygamy helped to transform him from money-grubbing businessman to ideologist proclaiming his own prophethood. I'm not sure that the former wasn't overdue some come-uppance, but the latter is very likely to bring his downfall, and I can't expect much sympathy when it does.
I figured the original premise of the series was raising the question whether polygamy could be incorporated into an otherwise normal, respectable even, American lifestyle. In that scenario, Juniper Creek was history -- something the Hendricksons set out to overcome. Three years in, however, Juniper Creek has won out, mostly for its prurient entertainment value, turning this more and more into a freak show, not to mention a sit-com. That says nothing much about America, but speaks volumes about show biz.
As I started to lose interest midway through the season, I started speculating on an alternate universe version of the same show. Let's start with the most famous polygamist in the world today: Osama bin Laden. He's tended to marry relatively educated, sophisticated wives, which puts him closer to the Hendricksons than to Juniper Creek -- admittedly, his business downturn has done the opposite, but it may just be a matter of time before Bill Hendrickson is on the lam from the law. Both combine piety, arrogance, and a reckless disregard for the law. Even while the bin Laden version of Big Love remains a faraway concept, it may be amusing to identify the analogies.
Also watching 24, which is currently about three-fourths of the day done. As you know, 24 takes place in an alternate universe, vaguely resembling what the United States would be like if terrorism became a common practice in the corporate world, like bribery and cover-ups. In such a world, it's not surprising that politics should be so routinely infiltrated -- that politicians should be so perversely motivated is another matter altogether. (There seems to be a right-left tradeoff here: the right gets to portray politicians as fools, and the left gets to root evil in the shadowy corporate world.) The show obsesses over torture because the world has been synthetically deranged to form test cases for the efficacy of torture. (Propagandistic as it is, it's hard to find cases where torture actually works except when Jack Bauer is pushing the buttons.)
Half of this season was stuck in a rut trying to figure out why anyone on any side gave a shit about Africa -- except maybe the lady president as humanitarian warmonger, a species of stupidity that is almost plausible on this show. The Africans managed to impress with their technical expertise, an effect somewhat spoiled by a midday shift in villains that at least fits with the degree of government intrusion. Still, Starkwood's motivations remain murky -- patriotism is, as everyone knows, the last refuge of scoundrels -- but they may be a fair measure of the distance between 24 and reality.
One thing you can always count on with 24 is that you can hire mercenaries to kill everyone from presidents down, and they can be granted immunity from prosecution to set up the next hour of the show. I keep wondering what the background is: why are there so many jaded mercenaries, and what happened to this country to produce them? Surely something more profound than the political kickbacks from Halliburton and Blackwater. Of course, answers to such questions are beyond the attention span of the show's format. They recklessly push action to a dangerous extent, all to frequently blowing up their story line along with a gaggle of expendable actors. I got hooked on the show not for what it tells me about ourselves but for the sheer perversity of its internal logic.
Tuesday, January 16. 2007
I have a couple brief observations on Fox television show 24. I don't watch much TV -- the active list right now is 24, Battlestar Gallactica, and Rome. Laura's raved about 24 since its beginning. I finally relented and tuned in two years ago, figuring it has something to do with cultural attitudes toward politics and terrorism, and that might be interesting even if more likely appalling. That's about what it is, at least based on the two seasons plus four hours I've seen.
For folks even more out of touch than me, the set up is that each season consists of 24 episodes, which map to real time in one long day: one hour episode equals one hour real time, with 20 minutes or so knocked out of each hour for commercial breaks. Each day/season starts off with the first of a cascading series of terrorist attacks, and follows agent Jack Bauer and the CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) as they eventually thwart the attacks almost exactly 24 hours later. Aside from CTU, the other center of activity is the White House, where Presidents and conniving subordinates hysterically overreact, often making things worse, sometimes deliberately.
There are two basic things to understand about the world of 24. The first is that the one-day-real-time format forces gross distortions on the storyline. I don't know whether it is the cause or effect of having a super-packed action series, but it severely limits the potential for any kind of development. This may have less to do with the real time mapping than the fact that episodes are reliably packed into one hour chunks, often ending with a partial resolution as well as a dangling thread to be picked up next hour/episode. So not only have they reduced some pretty cataclysmic events to a single day, they've chopped them up into 24 single-hour packages. There is an upside to this in terms of action dynamics -- nothing gets stretched out dramatically, as always seems to happen with movies -- but it means they keep having to think of more things to promote more action. So their format itself forces a major distortion on the real world of terrorism: they have to vastly amplify the skills of terrorists in order to fill up 24 whole hours. In fact, terrorists almost by definition are incapable of implementing the sort of cascaded events that 24 depends on. Moreover, even if they could do it, there's no reason they would or should.
But even if we can somehow bracket the format-induced distortions, there is something very strange about the world of 24. This is shown first by the existence of CTU itself, by its methods, and by its relationship to the White House. 24 takes place in a world that sort of looks like ours, but is really quite different. The main difference is that terrorists in 24 are everywhere, in vast numbers, operating with a high degree of professional skill. In fact, many of them are strictly professional mercenaries. It's possible, for instance, for terrorists to hire a former USAF pilot to steal a stealth aircraft to shoot down the President's plane. It's possible to hire CTU double-agents to spy and sabotage. It's possible for terrorists to ally with US military contractors, and it's not always clear whether the shots are being called from the within the US government or by its alleged enemies. The curious thing about this overstatement of the world of terrorism is that it is a logical, albeit somewhat paranoid, projection of trends in existence today: the privatization of the "war on terror" and the lack of controls over covert operations. 24 is science fiction is that it shows us a world based on assumptions that are not true now, but it is also political critique in that it shows us how unchecked trends in our own world could turn out.
There are other aspects of the show that map roughly onto current concerns, although one should be careful and not expect much one way or another. The most conspicuous is CTU's fondness for torture, which Jack Bauer has quite a knack for, and everyone else gets no value out of whatsoever. It's unlikely that the Bush administration actually uses torture in anything like this way, but it's not exactly out of the question, and certainly not off the wish list. So it may be one of those projections from our current political malfeasance, or it may just be an artifact of the format: the dire need to move things along as fast as possible, which requires the equally fast discovery of clues. (Torture also adds to the violence quota, something the producers no doubt appreciate.)
Another trendline comes from the politicians, who repeatedly have to act rashly on ridiculously incomplete and often fallacious info -- to call this "intelligence" would be an act of torture not even Bauer could stomach -- and as such almost invariably make things worse. (I missed the first President Palmer, who presumably was more skillful, or maybe just luckier.) This again has more to do with the format's needs than political reality. Even Bush, who seems uniquely disposed to wrecklessness based on ignorance, would balk at some of the shit these guys have to swat back.
Still, even more profound than what happens on each of these season-days is the big slice of time that separates them. We barely know anything that happens then, which isn't such a big thing as far as the show is concerned. People do come and go, but nothing really changes, so every season starts from the same premise, the same fantasy world. But what's more important is that nobody ever learns anything from what happens. The first season I watched left me wondering what all those people would make of the day in the coming days, weeks, months. But of course they never made anything out of it, because they weren't on camera. And the next round took off so fast there was barely time to figure out who was who. After my second year, it mattered less to me, because I started realizing there was nothing real going on anyway.
Still, there's no reason why we can't learn something: terrorism is a rare event, the acts of people with limited power who feel deep grievances they can't find any better way to deal with; they can be marginalized by providing other means for such grievances, and by providing a more decent, more equitable model for the world. This follows from the fact that terrorism is most often a reaction against the violence and injustice of the state. But then if anyone did learn lessons like that 24 would lose its reason for existence. So no good educating the likes of us.
Wednesday, October 19. 2005
One thing I meant to write yesterday in the comment on Tim Dickenson's "War Over Peace" essay was that the war over peace -- that is, the assault against the very idea of peace -- cranked up almost immediately on Sept. 11, 2001. And this was done by liberals as well as conservatives, even by people I knew and generally considered dependable allies. At the time I remember cautioning people that they shouldn't be hard on pacifists because sooner or later we were going to need them. The worst of this is probably over, but still we read people attacking the antiwar movement in their frustration and disappointment over the vile fruits of war. Gary Kamiya's, in his Salon review of George Packer's The Assassin's Gate, writes:
Packer has many blind spots here, but the most telling is that he thinks this is only about Iraq -- that both prowar and antiwar forces are performing some kind of equations based on Iraqi suffering caused vs. prevented by a US intervention. This ignores the obvious need to factor in Iraqi responses to US invasion and occupation -- you can argue that the anti-US resistance didn't have to make matters worse, but that's a bit like arguing that a rape victim would be better off relaxing and enjoying it. But even more central is the fact that this is an American war -- it's about us, how we view the world, and how we treat others. It shouldn't have taken a lot of introspection to recognize that we are unfit to judge matters of life and death in Iraq, or that trying to do so would compromise us further. Not that war judges -- it's far to indiscriminate for that. To characterize war as evil is to simplify unconscionably. War is far worse than evil -- it not only intends harm, it generates destruction beyond our intentions, it invites retribution. Those who opt for war play god, becoming the ultimate blasphemers. The truly naive are the ones who don't see this -- more invidious still are the ones who see it in general but think they can make it work. You don't have to be an inveterate America-hater to recognize that we're not good judges of what's best for others. Indeed, our cult of self-interest confounds our own domestic affairs so frequently that it's a shame to inflict it on anyone else.
Kamiya picks at Packer's position while trying to preserve his own illusions about what war's good for:
Actually, I chopped that last sentence off while he was ahead: war is failure. As for war sometimes being necessary, the further back you go in time the fewer peaceable options you find, and the stronger martial traditions become. But in the past fifty years no nation has built its economy on plunder, and few have engaged in any sort of war, even by proxy. (That this has gone unnoticed by most in the US says much about how exceptionally belligerent we have become.) Meanwhile, we've built a standard of living, unprecedented in human history, that depends on peace. (True for the US as well: we haven't suffered a war on our own turf for more than a century, and built our economic dominance during WWII when much of Europe and Asia were destroyed.) The fad idea that war can be humanitarian is only held by the overarmed, and only maintained by ignoring much evidence to the contrary.
Kamiya's examples aren't very convincing. The interventions in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan came after prolonged hostilities -- in the latter case, over 25 years of active external promotion of local warring factions, much sponsored by the US and USSR in their global tryst, whereas Yugoslavia bears similar scars somewhat more obliquely. And both nations limp along with crippled economies and continued strife, so much so that it's hard to see just where the benefits from being on the wrong end of US bombing runs are. As for Hitler and/or Saddam Hussein, the less said the better. The real question here isn't how evil the enemy is, but what can be done about it. The US was in a relatively good position at the start of WWII -- attacked by Japan, whose allies Germany and Italy were already engaged in a war to conquer most or all of Europe, we provided a unique combination of innocence and clout to end those wars in rather quick fashion. But even there the long-term psychic damage was considerable, with our triumph egging us into the long "cold war" that followed, that set the stage for further tragic wars (including Yugoslavia and Afghanistan). Conversely, in Iraq we have no such innocence, and not enough clout to quell even a small scale uprising. The result has been a war that compounds itself into further wars, with no real prospect of a resolution.
Most people have some trigger point where they resolve to fight back. For isolationist America in 1941 that point was tripped by Pearl Harbor. Anyone who calls that "the good war" has a pretty selective memory, but the conclusion of that war presented us with two optional paths. One was to build a fair-minded international framework of laws and institutions to prevent further wars from happening. The other was to use America's tremendous economic and political power to police an international Pax Americana. Both paths were approached, but with typical faith in self-interest, the Pax Americana approach prevailed. Post WWII struggles pitted capitalism vs. communism, imperialism vs. national liberation, and ultimately rich vs. poor. As this progressed, the US became hopelessly corrupt, ultimately succumbing to George W. Bush, the very face of corruption. Along the way, those international laws and institutions either fell under America's thumb or were rendered dysfunctional. The result is that we don't have what it takes to prevent the failure of war -- a result so dire that liberals like Packer, and sometimes Kamiya, have turned to the US war machine for hope. That they've become disenchanted is hardly surprising. They'd be monsters otherwise.
Maybe someone should have stood up to Saddam Hussein long before the US did. But to do so you first need to build a framework that can do so without making matters worse. The US alone cannot do so, and given its history since WWII the US has become so punch drunk it should not even try. The US cannot escape the self-interests of its rulers, and the world cannot forget the dirty deals the US made along the way. Anyone who seriously wants to grapple with the many wrongs around the world needs to hold his fire and rebuild first. And that system needs to develop positive results, to help achieve a fairer world, not just to punish wrongdoers. That will be hard. But the easy temptation to sick the US war machine on people you dislike doesn't work at all. The US may once have been a beacon of freedom and progress for the world, but increasingly we are seen as arrogant, self-righteous, malevolent agents of exploitation and dominance. Before we can right ourselves we must first stop wronging others. And that means we have to swear off war.
Tuesday, October 18. 2005
Tim Dickinson has a piece in Rolling Stone called "The War Over Peace," where he asks the question: "While vets march against the war and gold-star mothers mourn their sons killed in action, leftists rant about global colonialism. Is the anti-war movement too fractured to be effective?" He then spends the whole article dumping on the left for tainting the antiwar movement. In a highlight box, he declares, "Bashing Bush is hardly a blueprint for bringing the troops home quickly." Evidently we're not supposed to acknowledge that Bush was the one who put them there, and that Bush is the one who keeps them there. Dickinson quotes one antiwar veteran complaing that groups like ANSWER "hijacked" the antiwar protest, then quotes Todd Gitlin on how ANSWER spells "easy marginalization."
The truth is that the left got to the antiwar movement before anyone else. And the reason that happened is that the left had already made the connections to see how badly the war would turn out. ANSWER's edge was that they had already organized to oppose neoliberal globalization, so they were ready when the Iraq war leaped to the top of their priority list. Same thing can be said for the pacifists (not the same as the left), who again got the the right connections before the wheels fell off. One really should credit both groups for their prescience and at least consider what else they have to offer. But more often than not, even those who came around to oppose the war insist on reasserting their anti-left, anti-pacifist prejudices.
The net effect of this carping about the peace movement is to turn the tables, accepting some or all of war movement's premises. Dickinson illustrates this when he writes:
The first faulty assumption here is the notion that only "serious politicians" count. If that were true Bush's people could afford to be blasÚ about public opinion on the war, but most evidence suggests that they suffer from periodic panic attacks, especially as polls show a majority of voters concluding that the whole war was a big, stupid mistake. Even if the war defenders score points attacking the antiwar movement as leftist and/or pacifist, the erosion of popular support for the war tracks the war itself, not the spin.
The second faulty assumption is the assertion that lack of "a pragmatic exit strategy" disqualifies the antiwar movement from serious consideration. This weasel wording seeks to obscure the real issue, which is that the war defenders have no exit strategy (pragmatic or otherwise). "Out Now" may not be an optimal solution, but it's a clear alternative to their "Out Never" -- perhaps the point of disagreement would be clearer if we just said "Out!" But there are two main problems with trying to articulate an alternate strategy: one is that we don't have the power to implement it; the other is that it divides the movement, since war opponents range from pacifists and isolationists to internationalists and flat-out anti-imperialist revolution symps. To do as Dickinson suggests and purge the antiwar movement of its non-mainstream elements doesn't cut our numbers so much as it deflects the focus away from where it should be: the war, and the people who led us into it and keep us there.
The unwillingness of the Democrats to oppose the war just shows how effective people like Rove have been at shaping the mainstream political dialogue in America. The only conclusion we can draw from that fact is that the political system in America, as practiced by both parties, is based not on popular will but on the ability of the partisan elites to manipulate elections. As such, one thing the antiwar movement does is to show up the undemocratic nature of the system. That doesn't guarantee change, but it focuses attention, and we know from experience that without attention change will never come.
We should thank God for the antiwar movement. Without it, we would be lost.
Wednesday, September 21. 2005
The Sept. 12 issue of The New Yorker dedicated its cover and "Talk of the Town" section to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, but what I found most interesting was the letters section. The first two letters were in response to an earlier piece on small/dead government guru Grover Norquist:
These are good points, but they leave the basic question unanswered, which is why? I don't know about Norquist, but the key issue for some Republican ideologues isn't the size of government so much as their wish to break the poor, and for that matter the middle class, of the habit of looking toward government to help solve their problems. Starving the government beast is one way to do this, but more effective still is to render government incompetent. Bush may have failed the straightforward task of shrinking government, but he's done a bang-up job of making it incompetent -- or at least making it useless to all but his political backers. For Bush, this is a multi-pronged attack, but the main thrusts are: 1) put political agents in charge everywhere, especially to maximize the patronage potential of the government; 2) undermine the civil service system and the unions; 3) muck up all regulatory processes; 4) start a few wars to suck up resources; 5) pile extra security responsibilities on top of all other government functions; 6) cut taxes on the rich, driving the government ever deeper in debt; 7) push as much unfunded work as possible onto state and local governments. In this framework, greater debt does double duty: it provides discretionary rationale for rejecting spending now, and it makes future spending more prohibitive. The resulting government will, for most people, become so useless that they won't mind drowning it in a bathtub. It may not be as clean and principled an outcome as Norquist might prefer, but the differences are more tactical than strategic.
Still, there may well be a growing split between the principled ideological conservatives and the Bush politicos in that the latter are much more concerned with the preservation and extension of their power than any principles they might espouse. The latter discovered that controlling government's purse strings is a dandy way to further their political prospects by rewarding their core constituencies. The latter turn out to include plenty of companies and organizations who have no real beef with government spending as long as they get theirs first. But note that none of the above -- not the anti-government ideologues nor the spoils grabbers, and least of all the politicos -- have shown the least bit of support for the traditional reason behind a balanced budget (the need for long-term stability of the dollar) let alone any concern that a functional, competent government might be a useful thing to have.
This all comes into stark relief in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where the disaster is of such magnitude that even a competent and sound federal government effort is going to be stretched beyond our imagination. Had ideologues like Norquist succeeded New Orleans would have to be written off as a lost cause, leaving a half million people stranded, a giant hole in the economy, and a massive blow to America's self-conception as any sort of power at all. Even Bush understands that's not a politically acceptable position, so the administration has struggled to regain its political footing the only way it knows -- by throwing money down. In the short-term that's no big deal -- adds to the debt, but that just burdens future governments. The real problem is that they now have to acknowledge that there's a part of the government that people expect to work. That's a tough one for those who believe in the government of the corrupt for the corrupt. They couldn't quite get away with failing to reconstruct anything in Iraq; do you think people won't notice the same failure here?
Ever since Ronald Reagan got elected in 1980, America has been in denial, and the Republicans have capitalized on that denial by feeding people fantasies. That worked because until lately it's never really been tested. First Reagan then Bush put together improbable coalitions of the rich and the foolish, and now that coalition is starting to show signs of fracture. Polls show that Bush is losing support among fringe groups like libertarians and racists. The more serious question is whether, or when, the rich will abandon him. The rich have more to lose than anyone -- do tax cuts matter so much that they're willing to countenance such thoroughgoing corruption and incompetence?
The third letter in The New Yorker is relevant at this point:
This is, of course, just one more example of where Bush's coalition of the rich and the ignorant leads to dysfunction -- where the insatiable demands of the anti-abortion diehards lead to greater impoverishment in the not-really-developing world, antipathy to America and its businesses, and worldwide strife. All for a few votes, to rig some tax cuts, to bankrupt the nation. In such lose-lose scenarios, how can the losers claim to be surprised?
Monday, August 8. 2005
The Aug. 11, 2005 issue of The New York Review of Books has an exceptional number of articles/reviews of political interest:
I'm a little too busy to do even a news rundown at this point, especially with the Israel news which mostly reminds me that I'm having trouble getting back to my big essay on that conflict. Also backlogged are a couple of movies and many books.