23 January 2015

The conservatism of satire?

This week's New Yorker -- the one with the "Dream of Reconciliation" cover -- has an article about French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Submission, a fantasy about an Islamic takeover of his country, looks to be one of the hot-topic books of the year. I've read several of Houellebecq's novels and am looking forward to this one, but the words that caught my eye in Adam Gopnik's article were: "Like most satirists worth reading, Houellebecq is a conservative....Satire depends on comparing the crazy place we're going to with the implicitly sane place we left behind." It's a strange comment but there may be something to it. It's strange because Gopnik ranks George Orwell among the satirists and describes 1984 as a satire. To my knowledge, Orwell remained a Socialist his entire life, though he might be considered conservative relative to Stalin, depending on whether you define Stalin by his radicalism or his authoritarianism, and arguably a cultural conservative to some extent, as certain remarks reveal him to be something of a homophobe and someone who would have despised hippies had he lived to see them. Many people certainly have adopted 1984 as a conservative book, seeing Big Brother's regime as the inevitable end point of all socialist experiments if not any expansion of Big Government, but does Orwell's satire of totalitarianism imply his satisfaction with the world he lived in? The evidence of his writing suggests otherwise. The problem with Gopnik's formulation is that he confuses conservatism with a certain pessimism that more likely is essential to satire. Satire is not reactionary, but it is skeptical. Is it possible to write satire with a conviction that the world can be changed creatively for the better? I wouldn't rule it out but it probably would be a challenge. Satire needn't presume that things were better in the past; I'm not sure how many of the great satirists actually assume that. But satire seems grounded in an irrepressible awareness of human futility or plain old stupidity. Satire would become its opposite if it assumed that present or past was the best of all possible worlds, but while it may satirize both present and past, it tends to imagine that things can always get worse. It's understandable that progressives and the left in general may find satire conservative if not reactionary (or treasonous), but conservatives finding their own values satirized might tell a different story.

21 January 2015

A 'Dream of Reconciliation,' -- emphasis on dream

In modern times The New Yorker, of all American magazines, has come the closest to the offensiveness of Charlie Hebdo, though in the New Yorker's case the covers usually draw out the prejudices of the offended rather than expressing prejudice themselves.This week's issue marks the Martin Luther King holiday with a cover by Barry Blitt portraying Dr. King at the head of a march of the dead. He marches with arms linked with, to the reader's right, Wenjian Liu, one of the two policemen assassinated by an anti-cop crackpot in Brooklyn last December, and to the reader's left with an eternally uncomfortable looking Eric Garner, the husky dealer in loose cigarettes who died after getting choked out by a policeman who has to date suffered no legal penalty for the deed. In the second rank of marchers are Michael Brown of Ferguson fame and Trayvon Martin, the 2013 poster child for violence against blacks. Blitt titled his cover "A Dream of Reconciliation." To judge by reader responses to an article about the cover in the Washington Post, reconciliation, on Blitt's terms at least, is a long way off. Many readers take offense at what they infer as Blitt's portrayal of "thugs" like Brown and Martin (if not Garner) as moral equivalents of King, much less Officer Liu. I was only surprised by no one thinking to ask for a representative white victim of black crime on the cover, but the respondents may have seen Liu as an honorary white man, not to mention "blue" rather than "yellow." In their obsession with hunting down "moral equivalence" arguments, critics of Blitt miss his more obvious, simpler point. In his dream of reconciliation, people would acknowledge that neither Liu nor Garner deserved to die, and neither King nor Martin nor even Brown (presuming the worst case scenario in which he tried to take a gun from a cop) deserved to be killed. If some Americans can't accept this premise, then Blitt's vision of reconciliation will remain only a dream for some time to come.

20 January 2015

American Sniping III: Are snipers cowards?

A provocative film like Clint Eastwood's American Sniper rounds up the usual suspects by itself. Michael Moore felt it necessary to tell us that his family, which had lost his uncle to a sniper in wartime, had taught him that snipers were cowards. In a possibly cowardly move of his own, he quickly revised and extended his remarks, claiming that he meant snipers in general without casting aspersions on Chris Kyle or the Eastwood film. That did him no good. His remarks and Seth Rogen's snarky comparison of the movie to the Nazi propaganda film about a super sniper (badly directed [on purpose?] by Eli Roth) screened in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, sufficed to enrage Republicans and reactionaries who had already grown defensive about the Eastwood film and its subject. Sarah Palin, who knew Kyle personally and had used him for security on at least one occasion, got her name in the news today by denouncing the film's critics, none of whom, she argued, were worthy of polishing Kyle's combat boots. This latest exchange of opinions only cements the impression among reactionaries that Hollywood, excepting Eastwood and producer-star Bradley Cooper, hates the military -- or at least the American military -- or at least when it takes commands from a Republican president ...

People get really angry when we debate who is or isn't a coward. A decade ago Bill Maher infuriated people when he argued that the September 2011 suicide terrorists were not cowards. Now Moore gets in trouble for claiming that sniping is a cowardly form of warfare. By the standards of a pulp-fiction barbarian, I suppose it is, as is anything less than hand-to-hand combat. The error here is the implicit assumption that there's an ideal form of honorable warfare according to which we can judge unorthodox and presumably dishonorable tactics, when there really is no honor in war. Laws of war you can have, but honor in war is a myth. It has never been a war crime, to my knowledge, to shoot the enemy from a distance, nor am I aware of strong arguments for making that a crime. General Patton might remind us at this point that the point of war is to win -- to kill the enemy without getting killed yourself. In any event, Chris Kyle was a soldier acting on orders -- except when he himself found it vaguely cowardly to stay relatively secure on a rooftop while fellow soldiers were encountering the enemy face to face. To his credit, at least according to the movie, he often left his sniper's nest to join the men directly in harm's way.   As a rule, however, his job was to protect larger formations who might come under attack by individual guerrillas, including the other side's own snipers. It's hard to say that doing your job under orders is cowardly, especially if you don't buy into any idea of actually honorable warfare.

A real coward would be more like the mass murderer Charles Whitman, who set up a nest in a school tower and mowed down civilians in his own country, even if he expected to die at the end. Cowardice may be such a hot-button topic now because, instead of judging people for not doing what they ought to out of fear, we tend to measure cowardice by the damage done by "cowards" who are cheating by using weapons (or passenger planes) unfairly to magnify their destructive power when they are presumptive weaklings and losers if left to their own physical resources. In the past the weak man was a contemptible coward when he ran away from a fight; now he is a coward when he tries to compensate for his weakness with acts of mass destruction. If that's really most people's idea of cowardice today, you can see how Chris Kyle doesn't fit into that category.

But I wonder what viewers of American Sniper think of the movie's fictionalized enemy counterpart to Kyle: the Syrian sniper Mustafa who crosses into Iraq to kill Americans. Many will no doubt see Mustafa as some sort of coward simply because he's the enemy and has no right to kill Americans. But Eastwood, a subtler filmmaker than many critics and fans alike give him credit for, leaves us with reasons to see Mustafa as exactly the same as Kyle, down to leaving behind a wife and small child to risk his life -- and sniping in Iraq was never without risk -- to defend his friends with his special skills. According to Kyle's own division of humanity into sheep, wolves and sheepdogs, Mustafa is as much a sheepdog -- or most likely sees himself that way -- as Kyle himself, even if Kyle presumably sees Mustafa as a wolf. If people watch American Sniper without thinking through the implications of what Eastwood shows us, then many of the film's most ardent fans are probably guilty of a form of intellectual cowardice themselves.

19 January 2015

American Sniping II: the battle of Selma

One year after Twelve Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the Academy is being criticized for a lack of racial diversity in its latest slate of nominees. For the first time in several years, none of the twenty people nominated for acting is a person of color. For some observers, the worst snub is the lack of nominations received by Ana DuVernay's film Selma, a historical drama about the 1965 civil rights marches. Perversely, Selma is one of eight films (including American Sniper) nominated for Best Picture, but it received only one other nomination, for an Original Song. It seems strange that the film itself has been shortlisted, yet none of the creative talent behind or in front of the camera made the shortlists in their respective categories. What goes on here?

Before the Oscar nominations were announced last week, the big controversy surrounding Selma was over its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Critics feel that the movie unfairly and inaccurately portrayed the President as an obstacle to Martin Luther King's activist agenda who discourages King's Selma campaign. Defenders of LBJ argue that White House recordings show that he actually encouraged King to do something provocative, hoping that whatever action King took would galvanize the nation and help advance their common civil-rights agenda in Congress. By contrast, the film reportedly (I haven't seen it yet) shows Johnson worrying that provocative action by King will compromise his broader "War on Poverty" agenda. Director DuVernay defends the veracity of her version of events -- she rewrote another person's screenplay without receiving credit -- and argues that she did not want LBJ to come across as a "white savior" of helpless Negroes. Her supporters have defended her version of the story on both historical and artistic grounds.

While the Academy's apparent hostility toward Selma may be explained by LBJ crony Jack Valenti having been a longtime president of that body, the overall dispute over the picture looks like the latest round of a larger debate going on among liberals since the 2008 presidential election. Lyndon Johnson is a 20th century avatar for those who espouse what I've called "Neo-Lincolnism." The Neo-Lincolnians -- the historian Sean Wilentz is their most articulate spokesman and Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln is a virtually coincidental representation of their viewpoint --  seek to correct what they see as a naive belief in the power of rhetoric to effect change. They are less interested in the mighty speeches Lincoln made than in the actual methods he used to get his agenda enacted by Congress. They call attention to the horse-trading and hardball tactics he employed, arguing that these are as necessary if not more necessary than the eloquence associated with Lincoln and other liberal icons, even if liberals today find such tactics distasteful. Neo-Lincolnians tend to give LBJ a lion's share of credit for the passage of the great civil-rights bills of the Sixties, hoping to correct a notion (arguably held only by strawmen) that Dr. King somehow made these things happen with his famous speeches and marches. In this context, the Neo-Lincolnian argument is that activism, at either the rhetorical or the street level, can only take you so far, beyond which the skills particular to politicians are necessary. In 2008, King and Johnson were rhetorical surrogates for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Clinton herself invited the comparison, arguing that LBJ was necessary for the realization of King's dream and presenting herself as the experienced politician and legislator while Obama, with not much less time in the U.S. Senate, was a mere speechmaker. The impression that Obama would rather govern by making speeches has persisted ever since.

Based on my second-hand knowledge of Selma, I'd guess that neo-Lincolnians see it as a vindication of activism and rhetoric -- even though DeVernay was denied the use of King's speeches by his heirs -- as the sufficient causes of the enactment of civil-rights laws. They most likely feel that the film perpetuates a myth if it downplays the absolute necessity of the President's particular skills for the realization of the great reforms. Understandably, on the other hand, DuVernay and her film's fans don't want the essential importance of activism downplayed, and don't want black activists portrayed as ultimately dependent on LBJ. Just as activists today insist that it isn't enough to say "all lives matter" but demand affirmation that "black lives matter," so Selma seems to be an obvious demand for recognition that "black agency matters," even if King has to hand the baton to Johnson at some point. As for whether King actually hurried Johnson's agenda ahead of the President's own schedule, or against his will, I leave that question to the experts for whom the requirements of drama or contemporary politics are irrelevant.

16 January 2015

American Sniping

I plan to see Clint Eastwood's American Sniper this weekend and review it at my Mondo 70 movie blog. From early reports it seems to be the most authentic "Clint Eastwood" movie in a while in its reputed ambivalence toward wartime heroism. "It's a helluva thing, killing a man," Eastwood said in Unforgiven, and that seems to be the ultimate subject of his adaptation of the late Chris Kyle's memoir. After opening in the big cities in time for Academy consideration the film has received a number of Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, although Eastwood himself wasn't nominated for direction. The nomination announcements yesterday, on top of the popularity of Kyle's book, make it look like a big box-office weekend for Sniper. Meanwhile, some people clearly have prejudged the film. While Eastwood has long been on record opposing the invasion of Iraq, Sniper has been derided by some viewers, and by some who haven't viewed it, as an uncritical endorsement of the entire War on Terror, and thus a wicked film. Others say they refuse to watch the movie because they can't forgive Eastwood's eccentric empty-chair diatribe against President Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention. From that partisan perspective, Sniper can only be a hateful picture, if not outright Republican propaganda. Inevitably, partisan prejudice against Eastwood -- who continues to describe himself as more libertarian than Republican -- provoked a backlash from right-wingers who now consider it their partisan or patriotic duty to see the movie and make it as big a hit as possible. If one side sees Sniper as an uncritical endorsement of an unjust war, and hate it, the other hopes to see it as an uncritical endorsement of a righteous war, and love it. The more credible reviews I've read in advance of my own viewing claim that the picture fits neither partisan model. They suggest that proper appreciation of the picture requires more nuanced intelligence than partisans are capable of -- but that's something I can only verify by seeing the thing myself. Check Mondo 70 later this weekend for my verdict.

15 January 2015

The Pope suggests a cartoon topic

If Charlie Hebdo doesn't run with this idea then they aren't what we think they are. Francis I has injected himself into the debate over freedom of expression and the right to mock religion in colorful fashion. After the required denunciation of violence in the name of God, he gives Muslims a shoulder to cry on by telling reporters, in one translation, that "You cannot provoke, you cannot insult other people's faith, you cannot mock it." The freedom to offend is not implicit in freedom of expression, the pontiff argues. Instead, insult practically guarantees a violent response. The spiritual leader of the world's Catholics offered a personal example. Pointing to one of his staff, he said, "If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It's normal. It's normal." If that image isn't the cover of next week's Charlie, it's hard to imagine a better subject. The Muhammad stuff has to get tired after a while.

Meanwhile, His Holiness has said, in effect, that responding with violence to insults of beloved persons or things is wrong but also "normal" -- though it's unclear whether he meant reporters to understand that his punching his friend for insulting his mother -- what about the Mother of God, for that matter? -- would be as wrong as it would be normal. Bergoglio thus accepts the logic of provocation, in which the potential provocateur has a responsibility not to provoke the immoral violence he might suffer in reprisal, as opposed to the more narrower moralism that seems to prevail in the U.S., and which assigns exclusive moral responsibility for violence in response to provocation to the perpetrator of violence. There's obviously room for debate between these positions, particularly over how much provocation any person should be expected to endure peacefully before he can be blamed exclusively for violence. Francis seems to draw the line well before most liberals would, perhaps because liberals lack an appreciation of the emotional power of the sacred. Different things are sacred in that emotionally intense way to many different people, however, and the question those who argue against provocation must answer is how far they want to extend the scope of their principle.

I suppose it can be argued, as the Pope has argued, that insulting a person's faith is like insulting their family, and that while violence beyond a certain point -- would it have been okay for Muslims to have punched the cartoonists? -- is unacceptable, it also becomes inevitable in a way that makes provocateurs responsible for their own suffering. But can we restrict the realm of intolerable provocation to faith and family? Conspiracy theorists, for instance, are often passionately committed to their quixotic quests for truth, and feel that their beliefs give their lives meaning, but are often subject to contemptuous insult for their trouble. If one of them lashes out at his tormentors, whether with fists or firearms, is it fair to say that the provocateurs brought it upon themselves, not because conspiracy theorists are presumably unstable people, but because it's always wrong to mock the things and ideas that people embrace with such emotional intensity. If you dismiss conspiracy theory as mere craziness, how do you answer those who see religion the same way? If the answer is that nothing about conspiracy theory (or ideology) is "sacred" the way faith and family are, the next question is: who are we to say? Is "sacred" (or "honor," a concept implicit in both Islamist rage and Bergoglio's defense of his mom) something subjective, something each person can assign to whatever he will, or is it some verdict of time that we're bound to respect after a certain period of years or centuries?  Apologists for Islam argue today that the west owes Muslims the same sensitivity it shows to Jews or blacks, whether westerners feel the same obligation or not. Is that only because Islam is old and numerous and volatile? If it's a matter of deference to a certain emotional vulnerability as a universal human trait, should the same deference be extended indefinitely, so that no one whose feelings can be hurt by criticism or mockery should have their feelings hurt?At a certain point, to err on the side of deference and sensitivity will insult the intelligence,if not the feelings, of skeptics and secularists everywhere, but what rights have they when provoked? Haven't the people who beat Muslims or burn mosques been "provoked" in some way that makes Islam responsible, in the general way usually deemed unfair, for what befalls individual Muslims? If everyone can play this game, it may be better to abolish the game and affirm the innocence of all provocateurs. Those who recommend that Muslims grow thicker skins should set the example -- but they'd better check to make sure they actually do. As for the Pope, I'm sure I won't be the first one today to say it, nor is this the first time I've said: Lighten up, Francis!

14 January 2015

Freedom of speech in France: L'Etat, c'est Charlie

Eyebrows were raised around the world when news spread today that French authorities had arrested more than fifty people recently, not for conspiring to commit terrorism, but for speaking, writing or posting in favor of it -- or for seeming to do so. The most high-profile case involves a famous comedian and provocateur, notorious for his apparent anti-semitism, on the flimsy pretext, or so it seems from reports outside France, of a post in which he wrote that he felt like "Charlie Coulibaly." At my first glance, that looks like an expression of mixed feelings, identifying both with the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and with Amedy Coulibaly, the avowed ally of last week's mass-murderers who killed a police officer and four hostages before the gendarmes got him. He could have identified both with the comic's impulse to provoke and the downtrodden's impulse to lash out at presumed superiority. Maybe the comedian said more than that, but that alone seems to have been sufficient to get him detained as a terrorist sympathizer. Others have been arrested, presumably, for saying they approved of the Paris massacre for one reason or another. The arrests are being criticized in a number of places. Here's a predictable yet arguably admirable comment from the libertarian Reason website, for instance. Elsewhere, Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden's collaborator, is particularly infuriated by the new arrests. Believing the comedian to have been targeted for his anti-semitism, Greenwald sees the arrests as further proof of a double-standard prevailing in France and the hypocrisy of Charlie Hebdo's new fans. Greenwald believes that nations like France have two choices: they should treat offenses to Islam the same way they currently treat expressions of anti-semitism, or they should level the playing field the other way by placing no restrictions on anti-semitism or anything else perceived as hate speech. So long as hate speech is defined and prosecuted selectively, he argues, any laws against such speech simply express the preferences and biases of one group of people. He judges the "je suis Charlie" phenomenon by the same standard, taking the relative lack of outrage in France over the arrests as preliminary proof that the French aren't interested in free speech as such as much as they're interested in preserving their right to insult Muslims while reserving their right to treat other forms of bigotry differently.

Everyone seems caught in a blur of categories. What did Charlie Hebdo stand for? What does the French government stand against? What are people defending or affirming when they say "je suis Charlie?" Greenwald seems to want us to place caricatures of Muhammad in the same category as slurs against entire peoples -- the argument presumably being that Muslims feel the same sort of hurt on seeing such caricatures of a historical person as other groups feel when they're slurred as groups. But he always leaves open the option to go the other way, adopting an indifference to the hurt feelings of Jews, blacks or others equal to the indifference we insist upon when Muslim feelings are hurt. Either way, he won't be satisfied, it seems, until everyone shows equal sensitivity and solicitude to the feelings of Jews and the feelings of Muslims. If we can manage that while retaining a right to prefer one group to another intellectually or politically -- or to dismiss both, along with Christians, as obstacles to human progress -- then it's not an unreasonable request. As for the recent arrests in France, they do seem hypocritical on an intellectual level, at least to this outsider, because my impression had been that what the cartoonists died for and their mourners marched for above all was not the right to criticize or even to right to mock but the right to provoke. The lesson of the Paris massacre, it seemed, was that the right of one person to provoke another by challenging him at one of his most sensitive points trumped any right of reprisal the one provoked might claim. Nothing can be more provocative in France this week than to say you endorse the Paris massacre -- unless you say there ought to be another after the newest Charlie Hebdo came out with its crying-Muhammad cover. Provocation as a category can cover a lot of ground, both legal and illegal, and I don't really want to indulge in the American habit of judging from a presumption of perfect expertise how other countries regulate expression. But if millions around the world really believe in a universal human right to insult others without consequences, then it's the French government that's guilty of insulting their sensibilities this week.