Monday, February 11, 2013

Zero Dark 30, art and politics

Gustav Grundgens in Fritz Lang's M (1931)
The conflict between sympathy and justice is a great subject for art as it is for philosophy, but if it's hard to watch people struggling to face responsibility for their actions, it's harder when their victims are people other than themselves, and even harder when the subject is drawn from recent news.

Velazquez' paintings don't comport with his beliefs but they're true to his perceptions. His kings are sad; their slaves are proud. He's the first artist in the Western canon to make works that less describe faith than the desire for it. I love Titian's paintings of Charles V and Philip II, both murderers on an epic scale. The paintings' craft is at odds with absolutist order and they mark that change with great subtlety, but I wouldn't expect a 16th century Protestant, Jew or Amerindian, to want to stand in front of a portrait of the leader of the men who killed his family.

I didn't want to see Zero Dark 30.  I'm too close and aware of the world outside the American imagination to want to watch a document of American attempts to come  to grips with the last 10 years of war. The US is responsible for more destruction than bin Laden was capable of. Chomsky is right: "Uncontroversially" George Bush's crimes "vastly exceed bin Laden's." But that says nothing about the films as art, only about my ability to be a disinterested observer.

Objectivity is impossible. It's tempting to moralize if you know enough about a given thing but generalizing from indignation alone leads to disaster. Zionism has been to American liberalism what climate denialism is to the American right, and that overstates the relation since history is not a matter of prediction and Zionists claim a right to conquest. But we're creatures of sense and experience and blind spots are a given. I was surprised not shocked to find out Chomsky's still a Zionist. The assumption that only Americans, or men, or whites, or heterosexuals, or those living under capitalism, those living in the woods, atheists, the religious, or people with or without PhDs, are capable of magical thinking is itself magical thinking, absurd, but this country and Anglo-American culture specialize in such absurdity. Americans have a taste for soul searching and patting themselves on the back, celebrating the recognition of error as yet another triumph. It's less American at this point than the product of the sort of individualism this country helped to create, a self-blind confidence: looking out with ironic detachment while guilelessly looking at yourself in the mirror, or any reflective surface.

If objectivity is impossible, the question becomes how to acknowledge opinions and responsibilities, while being aware of the frailty of reason. That's a problem of art, not science, and less of ideas than behavior: the relation of ideas to action.

The best defense of journalism I've read is by Nir Rosen, commenting on a post at Small Wars Journal, responding to accusations of treason after embedding with the Taliban. [formatting is in the original]
objections to my article have been silly so far. i'm a journalist, not an american journalist. my job is not to serve as a propagandist for anybody, just to tell stories and my advantage is that i can tell stories that are hard to come by[.]
any comparison to WWII or the nazis always shows a lack of imagination, but in this case also a lack of understanding. the whole reason why its important to have people like me, able to hang out with militias in somalia, afghanistan, iraq or lebanon, is because they are not a formal army of a formal state, with clear goals, structure, hierarchy etc. on the contrary, their motives are not known and diverse, often at odds, they take up arms for different reasons and as anybody remotely interested in COIN knows by now (except for sassaman perhaps), they do not put down their arms through force, unless you're willing to use force like the russians in chechnya (and that hasnt worked for the israelis), but instead their goals and motives must be understood, and eventually a political accord must be reached.
moreover, journalists regularly embed with the american military when it is conducting operations, attacks, killing. whats the difference?
imagine if that one taliban commander had not screwed up my plans to go with them when they conducted attacks, and i had seen that too. isnt that interesting? isnt it important to understand who they are? and most importantly, wouldnt it make for a fun read?
That's not a defense of objectivity; it's a defense of disinterest, verging on amorality; yet on questions of morality I'd trust Rosen more than most, and the reasons are in the same paragraph. He argues less from superiority than for honesty. He admits he's an adventurer and makes the case for intellectual seriousness. Judgements of his own moral seriousness are left to others. A good surgeon knows he loves cutting people open. His first responsibility is to be good at his job.

If Rosen defends journalism, so does Baudelaire
It is painful to observe that similar errors are to be found in two opposing schools: the bourgeois school and the socialist school. "Let us moralize! Let  us moralize!" both sides exclaim, with the fervent ardor of missionaries. Of course, one preaches bourgeois morality and the other socialist morality, and, as a result, art is a mere question of propaganda.

Is Art useful? Yes. Why? Because it is art. Is there such a thing as a pernicious form of art? Yes! The form that distorts the underlying conditions of life. Vice is alluring; then show it as alluring; but it brings with its train peculiar moral maladies and suffering; then describe them. Study all the sores, like a doctor in the course of his hospital duties, and the good-sense school, the school dedicated exclusively to morality, will find nothing to bite on. Is crime always punished, virtue always rewarded? No; and yet if your novel, if your play is well put together, no one will take it into his head to break the laws of nature. The first necessary condition for the creation of a vigorous art form is the belief in underlying unity. I defy anyone to find one single work of imagination that satisfies the conditions of beauty and is at the same time a pernicious work. 
Everyone I know who's liked Zero Dark 30 has described is as a sympathetic study of human pathology, something between a film by Frederick Wiseman and Scarface. Every criticism by Americans has been colored by a defense of America or its self-image.  Criticism by others may be predicated on the knowledge that it was yet another film by Americans about Americans and that its victims are secondary. That's another matter: politics trumps art. But that's criticism by refusal not obfuscation.

If it's a victory for feminism that American women now are allowed into combat, as they are in Israel. it's a victory for feminism that women are active members of Hamas. We all live within boundaries and I'm not going to moralize about a movie that's more honest than any of its critics who share the nationality of its makers. Spanish painting was about Spain. Russian films about Soldiers in Afghanistan or Chechnya are about Russia. Israelis making movies about Palestinians are making movies about Israelis. Men making films about women are making films about men. If they think they're making films about anything else they're lying to themselves. Honesty is all that's required for art. Honesty and the the acceptance of honesty are necessary for real politics.

Contrast Rosen to Steve Coll, in the NY Review
Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral. Yet state-sanctioned, formally organized forms of torture recur even in developed democracies because some public leaders have been willing to attach their prestige to an argument that in circumstances of national emergency, torture may be necessary because it will extract timely intelligence relevant to public safety when more humane methods of interrogation will not.

There is no empirical evidence to support this argument. Among other things, no responsible social scientist would condone peer-reviewed experiments to compare torture’s results to those from less coercive questioning. Defenders of torture in the United States therefore argue by issuing a flawed syllogism: the CIA tortured al-Qaeda suspects; those suspects provided information that helped to protect the public; therefore, torture was justified and even essential. In his recent statement to agency employees about Zero Dark Thirty, acting CIA director Morrell gave this argument implicit support when he said that the ongoing debate over the CIA’s treatment of al-Qaeda suspects after 2002 “never will be definitively resolved.” 
That is a timid tautology; it is also evidence of a much wider political failure. As with discourse about climate change policy, the persistence of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other forms of argument about the value of officially sanctioned torture represents a victory for those who would justify such abuse. Zero Dark Thirty has performed no public service by enlarging the acceptability of that form of debate.
"Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral…."  It would have helped a bit if Coll had written "should", to remove the implication that he had some authority. As it is the sentence reads as if The School of the Americas or KUBARK never existed, or Henry Kissinger were never born. "Yet state-sanctioned, formally organized forms of torture recur… " because people think it works. "There is no empirical evidence to support this argument…." because no one would be so cruel as to perform the study.

Coll begins with assumptions of moral authority and does what he can to support them. He blusters; he takes the CIA at it's word.  After Julian Assange met with lawmakers in Reykjavik he said Assange was hoping "to transform Iceland... into the "Cayman Islands of First Amendment-inspired subversion." See a good response here.  Unlike Rosen, Coll is an American journalist: the first thing he defends is his own superiority.

Political scientist Corey Robin likes to mock liberals; whiteness is a recurring theme (search the page for references to Israel, Palestinians or Zionism, there are none). He claims the role of a white defender of the legacy of the American civil rights movement; you think he'd link at least once in the past few years to Philip Weiss.

Robin's post on Zero Dark 30 linked to Glenn Greenwald, doing what I'd done in the earlier version of this piece, talking about a movie he hasn't seen.
I have not seen this film and thus am obviously not purporting to review it; I am, instead, writing about the reaction to the film: the way in which its fabrications about the benefits of torture seem to be no impediment to its being adored and celebrated.
Now we've both seen it, and neither of us has changed our minds

Greenwald is a moralist, or he's become one, maybe feeling the aftereffects of supporting the invasion of Iraq. His first book received a lot of praise once, now it seems to be forgotten.  He's left like Coll to proclaim the inefficacy of torture, while continuing the absurd fixation on bin Laden, still a fetish figure for Americans, rather than focus on larger issues: the ridiculous expenditures following stupid policies that have always and will continue to backfire. Greenwald fits the US model of pundit as scold, a reformed drunk defending America's lost honor. His need to feel superior traps him in an argument he should be smart enough to avoid.

Democratic freedom and democratic responsibility are a duality: obligation to self and other, not to "the other" in the language of hypertrophied rationalism but to human beings other than yourself. Democratic states operate under an extension of this duality: to defend equality under law is to defend equality of all under law -if all people are equal, that must include foreigners- but states are exclusionary by definition, and by necessity. To say "No one is illegal" is a statement of perfect justice not law, and law must take precedence. In an imperfect world this is a problem without a solution. It's an aporia, something to be dealt with as a recurring element of a political process where there is no opportunity for sainthood. At the same time, when I read of American authors' concerns over the extrajudicial killings of American citizens, often I'm left wanting to remind them that assassination itself is a larger problem for a democracy.  Even allowing for the necessities of statehood, it's not enough to defend democracy at home, especially because it's so easy to compartmentalize. "Liberal Zionism" in America means defending equality where you live and institutionalized bigotry in the place you claim your heritage.  Zionism is less the equivalent of Irish nationalism than Garveyism for Jews, but the logically obvious parallel has been ignored. The logic of Zionism in the west is the rhetoric of white and non-white, alternating and simultaneously. Blacks never had that option. The extremity of the disconnect even among the intellectual class seems peculiarly American.  Zionism like American nationalism, including Greenwald's wounded nationalism, is not an argument from observation and reason but moralism and exceptionalism.

Peter Beinart:
I'm not asking Israel to be Utopian. I'm not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I'm not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I'm actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel's security and for its status as a Jewish state. What I am asking is that Israel not do things that foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, because if it is does that it will become--and I'm quoting Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak here--an "apartheid state."
Beinart is now the editor of Open Zion. His latest book has caused a scandal, a scandal only worth talking seriously because it shows how much Zionists have been forced to admit how conservative they are by definition.  But this is not a license for a new corrected moralism.  If more and more Americans are able to see through the pretensions of  Zionism it's not the result of any advances in political philosophy. It can't be explained using the terms liberals employ that might give credit to the human imagination.  It's not the result of moral progress, it's economics and demographics. We learn from experience and contact. Ideas are secondary; people do not change as much as they are changed. White liberals and academics tend to forget that the civil rights movement wasn't led by social scientists and political philosophers but by lower middle class blacks and their priests.  If the strength of ideas were enough, there'd be less need for Jadaliyya, it would be just another publication in its niche.  As it is it's another aspect of the changes that have produced the international bourgeois revolution of the Arab spring. You don't have to be a determinist full-on to notice that academics have the habit of trying to showing the effect of determinism only on those other than themselves. As'ad AbuKhalil mocks the NY Times Middle East correspondent for not knowing Arabic.  When the Washington post was hiring six months ago the job posting read: "A strong candidate would bring some familiarity with the Arab world and some knowledge of Arabic, but these are not required." But it's not just the mainstream press that's lazy. And it's not just Americans, but Americans as the product of a revolution and now the reigning world power, have a tendency towards self-absorption that at the moment is unparalleled.

The only unthinking internationalism in this country outside the social life of immigrants takes place in the culture of finance and its attendant demi-monde.  Club kids in Miami are more internationalist than American students of foreign policy. The romance of educated Americans with Paris or Matisse is little different than a fantasy of Borneo. Absurdities are universal; the absurdity of American political and intellectual life is something else. It's the politics of sincerity. Irony is seen universally as anti-political: reserved for enemies, never for friends and never for yourself.  Young liberals are part of the gentrifying hordes who move into working class neighborhoods and throw the residents out of their homes.  Has there ever been an educated reformist movement so unaware of the perquisites of its own class? And the preferred art -as entertainment- of young technocrats, as it is for their teachers, is cerebral. The literary saints of American political science departments are Asimov and Tolkien, "speculative" fiction and fantasy. The failure of political thinkers to come to terms with the changes over the past decades have everything to do with a preference for theory over observation. The primacy of ideas -of theories of any sort- connotes that one can be either an idealist or a cynic; the mature politics of action demands principled casuistry.

The stupidity of American politics is the stupidity of the individual and the ideal, which is why the most profound American culture embeds in anti-politics. The anti-political comes by its politics honestly. Public politics in the US has been increasingly artificial; more than half the population has abandoned it and those who haven't float above it. Real politics is the politics of conflict not only between people but within them: people arguing with themselves. Arguments in Lebanon and Syria and Egypt, in Iran and even Israel are politically grounded: people know what it is to be pulled in two directions; they don't have a choice.  I picked those countries because they're places where politically-minded Americans either sound off like idiots or refuse to say anything, because there's no way to simplify the issues enough to allow them to say something their friends couldn't call them on as soon as the winds change. In America you can choose to be political and only people who choose to be political talk about it. And politics has become professionalized. The charm of European "continental" philosophers is that if their politics is a choice it's still a politics of amateurs; they're not philosophers they're philosophes. The distinction is cultural but culture is key. Americans by comparison are either pedants of technocracy or if they have fantasies of Europe, of jouissance.

The erstwhile liberal philosopher and Zionist Martha Nussbaum famously launched an attack on erstwhile radical philosopher Judith Butler; Butler now is in the position of defending the liberalism that Nussbaum claims to represent. There's nothing radical to her argument; it's a basic defense of civil and legal rights. For another example see Zizek, in Ramallah.  Nussbaum, Butler and Zizek all indulge magical thinking: they lie to themselves. Zizek is the least offensive because he's the most willing to offend. But I saw him speak in NY with the same filmmaker he joined in Ramallah, both of them with Badiou. Philosophers seem always to prefer their art as kitsch. And for radicality none of them match Rosen.
imagine if that one taliban commander had not screwed up my plans to go with them when they conducted attacks, and i had seen that too. isnt that interesting? isnt it important to understand who they are? and most importantly, wouldnt it make for a fun read?
That quote is dark irony, but it describes something central to democracy. Philosophers who defend democracy pretend it began in philosophers' books, but the books came later. First came coexistence. In politics as in life language comes before grammar. The Greek playwrights were the foundations of democracy; the philosophers preferred kings. Philosophers are utopian by definition; theater can only be anti-utopian. Philosophers identify with judges, not jobbing lawyers. But lawyers are actors playing roles. And even playing parts they choose, they have reason not to lose their sense of irony.

Bassem Youssef "The Egyptian Jon Stewart" went on Stewart's show and defended the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood even as he disagrees with them. They're part of his audience. American liberals seem not to have noticed that Stewart and Colbert never get attacked by the right.  Youssef and Stewart are important in their countries for the same reason: as amateurs, they're free to take politics more seriously than they take themselves; Youssef is the more interesting of the two because his living through his country's crisis. He has skin in the game.  But comedians understand democracy more than philosophers do: comedians and lawyers and novelists and honest journalists who love a good story. Philosophers offer propositions; comedians show us the subtext.

So are Egyptian liberals now going to follow Turkish liberals and "pray" for the army?

The BBC
"I put it to Leila that the man whose departure she was calling for wasn't a dictator, but a man her compatriots had voted for. We got a slightly troubling answer. "Yes, but the people who voted for him," she said, "are uneducated."

I have heard several similar responses. One of those opposed to President Morsi is the political sociologist Dr Saed Sadak, from the American University in Cairo. "Morsi was rejected by the urban areas," he told me. "It was the rural parts of Egypt that voted for him and his Muslim Brotherhood." "Isn't that how democracy worked all over the world?" I replied. "Not everybody gets who they want, they can always vote him out next time."

Dr Sadek's response was blunt. "It's like you're telling me to keep the babysitters I hired even if they are beating my child, just because we gave them a fixed term contract."
Istanbul in 2008
Covered women, long seen as backward peasants from the countryside, “have started to be everywhere,” said Ms. Simitcioglu, a sales clerk in an Italian clothing store, and it is making women like her more than a little uncomfortable. “We are Turkey’s image. They are ruining it.”
Egypt is divided, like Iran; the sooner Egyptian liberals accept that the better. And the Black Bloc are no more political than Ultras, but the Ultras don't pretend. Worldwide, urban liberals see the rest of their homelands as flyover country. The sooner liberals understand how often their self-interest overshadows their principles -the sooner they learn to avoid the pitfalls of American liberalism- the better.  Many are still tempted by libertarianism, while more and more libertarians are willing to admit that freedom and democracy are incompatible. This leads us back to where democracy began: less in the demand for individual freedom than for an individual role in decision-making, with a concomitant acceptance of obligation.  Individualism is an ideology and it's infected every aspect of our politics, "left, right and center": the phrase describes an object drifting in a sea of signification.  We will never see ourselves as others see us -all consciousness is partial- and others will never know what's in our heads. What's in America's head these days? It's got something to do with Zero Dark 30.

The US has tortured, and trained torturers, and supported states that used torture in furtherance of what are seen as US interests, which have nothing to do with democracy. This didn't begin after 9-11.  Let's stipulate that torture works, not against any and all. It can work as well as any successful raid in the drug war can be said to work, while being just as counterproductive as policy. It solves nothing. It makes more enemies. It's counterproductive in general and specifically for a democracy, as supporting dictatorships and monarchies is counterproductive in absolute terms and for democracies. Only democracy strengthens democracy.  Realism demands an acknowledgement of the existence of dictators and kings, but not more.

Optimists love to think of our successes.  Art remind us of our failures, and in a very real sense of the inevitability of failure, in death. Attacks on Zero Dark 30 are attacks on entartete kunst, as if it were the cause of decadence. The film is either a symptom or a record: as a symptom it's secondary; as the record it will last, as record and as art.

Film critic Jim Hoberman in The Guardian, on why Zero Dark 30 will never work as propaganda
Like Zero Dark ThirtyLincoln was anticipated as a movie that would naturally reflect well on the current president and, indeed, on the eve of the Zero Dark Thirty opening and at the behest of senate majority leader Harry Reid, Spielberg hosted a special screening for a bipartisan senate audience. Zero Dark Thirty was repudiated, Lincoln embraced. The Oscar wars heated up. The Hollywood Reporter found that "negative talk is escalating", along with whispering campaigns: Zero Dark Thirty justifies torture, Lincoln distorts history. Perhaps so. Still, by putting an essentially positive spin on a bloody tragedy, Lincoln provides a history lesson with a happy ending. Zero Dark Thirty, whose chances at winning best picture seem to be nil, is the exact reverse – a success story with intimations of monumental failure. (Meanwhile, Argo – a movie in which movie magic is put to heroic use – emerged from its Golden Globes victory as an exciting feelgood, industry-flattering Oscar alternative.) 
Whereas Obama and his commanders followed the mission to kill Bin Laden in real time, Zero Dark Thirty presents Maya as its author and sole witness. She is the first to get the good news, the only American to greet the returning Seals, the person who unzips the body-bag and IDs the corpse. Maya is so important that she flies home alone in the empty bay of a cargo plane. Once again, she is blank and then, raison d'etre extinguished, she cries. 
Is Maya, like Ishmael, the lone survivor left clinging to the flotsam of the Pequod? Is she condemned, like Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers, to "wander forever between the winds"? What did it cost the girl (or Obama) or America to kill Bin Laden? Zero Dark Thirty slakes a thirst for vengeance and leaves an aftertaste of gall.
continuing in the next post
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"Moralize! Moralize!" both sides exclaim, with the fervent ardor of missionaries. Of course one preaches bourgeois morality and the other socialist morality, and as a result, art is a mere question of propaganda."

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