Checking Chickenhawks: the limited leverage of enlisting the elites

For a term deployed so often on the left, chickenhawk has a conservative core. The accusation—that someone is agitating for war only because they’re not affected—implies that someone should be fighting in a war, rather than war should be opposed, point blank. Maz Hussain has a piece at The Intercept on the latest generation of Americans to serve in what was once called the Global War on Terror, which he concludes with a bellicose call to “finish the job,” preferably using the children of the Bush administration and their supporters.

Millions of moviegoers might remember this idea from the highest-grossing documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. In the film, Michael Moore, a Marine, and his crew cruise Capitol Hill, trying to convince Congresspeople to enlist their kids for the war in Iraq. In Rachel Maddow’s 2012 book Drift, she connects the “unmooring of American military power” to a constellation of factors, one of which is the perceived disconnect between America’s leaders and the families who fight “our” wars for us. Conservative historian Andrew Bacevich makes a similar point in his 2013 book Breach of Trust.

The idea is that if the elites bore a greater brunt of the suffering, there would be less war. Again, there’s a conservative idea at the core, and it’s an appeal to an imagined time when such a relationship restrained American warmaking. In their critiques of American power, conservatives like Bacevich or Garry Wills harken back to a pre-Cold War golden age, when Edna and Mabel happily forewent their nylon stockings for our boys Over There. A liberal may point to Vietnam as a high-water mark—Maddow’s book begins with this period. In the ’70s, the draft caused such opposition to the war that President Nixon felt compelled to sneak out of the White House for 4am parlays with anti-war demonstrators.

The narrative goes that these links created leaders who were circumspect about the use of American power—like Colin Powell, the “most popular man in America” circa 2000. The “Powell doctrine” provided a template for a war that even liberals can love, and sure enough, Powell enumerated it on the Rachel Maddow Show in April 2009. The archetypal divide between the “reluctant warrior” produced by a holistic elite-military connection and irresponsible, trigger-happy politician is best illustrated in an anecdote from the Clinton administration. Powell, with his knowledge of the realities of combat and son in the Army, sagely reined in American military power, leading an exasperated Madeleine Albright to scream “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

American imperialism would like to align itself with the image of the “reluctant warrior”: reasoned and mature, strong but justified. However, the Empire isn’t Colin Powell, it’s Madeline Albright—nakedly, murderously amoral in the calculus of its own interests. Though the Bush administration obliterated Iraq, it was Clinton’s “genocidal” sanctions regime that murdered more than half a million Iraqi children. In 1996, Albright famously remarked it was “worth it.” War is a racket, but traditional wars are just one tool of opening up markets. More often, as with sanctions, Empire exploits, immiserates, and kills without firing a shot.

The idea that war would be “better” with a more ideal alignment of the elites and the armed forces sacrifices this wider critique for a criticism riddled with conservative tropes: it’s rhetorically tepid, substantively empty, and strategically counterproductive.

As Nathan Fuller points out, the accusation of chickenhawk-ism is weak. It can’t be leveraged because it’s not remotely actionable. Is it a call for a 1% draft? Does it attend a proposal for a ratio of elites, which the armed services must meet before war can be waged? If a hawkish Senator supports war and has military-age male children at Georgetown instead of Forward Operating Base Lightning, what then, exactly? Continue reading

In Defense of Civilization

tumblr_mqq956AbRv1qjleemo1_500Bill Maher is in the news again, as a result of his long-time campaign against Islam. I didn’t really have anything to add, given that I’ve already said everything I think about Islamophobia in the past, and people like Roqayah Chamseddine have good summaries and dissemblings of his recent statements. Anyone who’s familiar with colonialism generally and anti-Muslim bigotry specifically can already imagine what was said. The comments by Maher and Sam Harris are merely the latest in a centuries-long line of colonialist discourse, positioning the Empire as the civilizing force that brings Enlightenment values to the subjugated.

However, Maher situates his hatred of Islam on a defense of liberal values, so let’s talk about these. This happens to be a very opportune moment to take stock of where democratic ideals stand in the Western civilization of which Maher is such an ardent defender, because it’s clear that they are genuinely under attack.

In defense of his comments, Maher made a vindicating observation:

“When I used to talk about it, it was just either stony silence or outright booing and now I notice quite a shift…When I talked about it at the end of last week’s show, they stood up at the end—they cheered during it and they stood up at the end.”

I don’t doubt that people are increasingly receptive to Maher’s message, because these are reactionary times. Islamophobia is a bipartisan project in the States, but it’s not unique to the US. Islamophobia is “the premier form of racism in Europe today,” or at least the fastest-growing (since Europe’s treatment of the Roma borders on genocidal). India has elected an ultra-right wing president, whose complicity in anti-Muslim pogroms and Hindu nationalist platform make him no friend to the Muslims within India or its neighbors.

However, despite the fact that North America, Europe, and India are becoming more hostile to Muslims, democratic values are in something of an open retreat. Under terrorism charges, secret trials have been conducted by the United States, Canada, and soon, the UK. The US imprisons people over YouTube videos, Spain imprisons people for tweets. The pretense of Magna Carta protections being abandoned should be cause for concern to someone interested in defending liberal values

While the democracies of North America and Europe legally regress back to the age of feudalism, the biggest gains have been made by the world’s most reactionary forces. In the US, the Tea Party advances a right-wing neoliberal agenda while venerating guns in an open threat display. Every election cycle in the EU empowers more fascists and neo-Nazis. The pro-Russian government in Ukraine was overthrown last February with the help of neo-Nazi Ultras partially bankrolled by Washington. The world media was turgid over the election of Narendra Modi in India, ignoring that his party and its allies are neo-fascist and focusing more on his awesome campaign holograms.

To a proponent of Western liberalism and its virtues, these should be grim developments. Where is this far-right resurgence coming from? Is it Islam, which noted civilization-defender Harris recently called “the mother lode of bad ideas?” Continue reading

The Reluctant Killjoy: “Moebius” & “I Saw the Devil.”

Thoughts on art-house ultra-violence, the killjoy, critical consensus, and the power of signs.

A while ago, my fiancé and I got invited to go see Moebius, the new film from Kim Ki-duk. I agreed to go, based on a vague positive memory of his film The Isle and the knowledge that Kim is a darling of the international art-house circuit. In the first 5 minutes, we watched a mother—looking like the sort of bedraggled ghoul common to J- and K-Horror films—cut off her son’s penis and eat it—a lot to take even for an action-movie buff like me, to say nothing of my screen-violence averse fiancé. We tried to tough it out over a subsequent penis-removal, a durationally filmed gang rape, and some beatings, but I ended up crapping out about halfway through the movie, when the father rediscovered the joy of the orgasm through sanding off his skin. The film seemed never-ending, like some sort of plane with no beginning and no end—a one-sided strip, if you will.

After getting home a tacit moratorium on discussing Moebius settled over us, but I went online to check the film’s reviews. A bit surprisingly to me, there was a critical consensus that Moebius was something like a minor masterpiece. The film has a lot going for it, formally—it’s exquisitely shot, and it’s remarkable how much Kim is able to accomplish without any dialogue. Then again, 100 minutes of gruesome set pieces don’t need to be hung on a framework of verbose exposition, and as Nathan Rabin said, “sure it’s handsomely mounted, but then so are the heads of dead animals.”

Most reviews describe the film as a black comedy, with “the laughs drowning all.” According to a writer for IndieWire, “those who hadn’t left to vomit…were more often than not howling in the aisles.” Maybe it’s because I saw Moebius at a film festival in Bulgaria, and Sofiantsi aren’t the “howling in the aisles” type, but the emphasis on the film’s humor doesn’t add up. After watching Moebius, I’ve been trying to reconcile a widespread consensus on the film’s hilarity with something that I didn’t see in the text.

I got the same feeling recently with another work of critically beloved, hollow ultra-violence: 2010’s I Saw the Devil. I’ve liked and loved a lot of films from South Korean cinema’s New Wave, and Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil is one of the most popular entries in the cycle. Plenty of sources call it one of the absolute best, and I was expecting to become one of those fans.

As with Moebius, my experience watching I Saw the Devil may as well have been watching a different film. I Saw the Devil was in the news last week because it got picked up for an American remake. In announcing the US version, producer Adi Shankar described the 2010 film as “perfect,” a sentiment reiterated by many critics.

I Saw the Devil is many things, but it’s not perfect. Well, a caveat—it functions very efficiently as a delivery vehicle for gorgeous ultra-violence, but not much else. The characters are paper-thin to the point of being ciphers, and the film’s plotting is all over the place. I Saw the Devil frequently veers into absurd and contrived territory to keep the protagonist moving on his quest for revenge. More than anything, it wallows in misery as art, and has the same misogynistic core as Moebius—women exist solely to be graphically raped or murdered in order to motivate the protagonist.

It feels strange to describe the films in these terms—enumerating only their repulsive imagery and casual misogyny. Most critics bring up the violence to elaborate on both films’ deeper meaning, of which I think there’s little. Given their overwhelmingly positive reception, it’s almost like an exercise in reconciling entirely different texts.

It’s not that I’m not used to seeing films differently. As a film buff who’s politically an anarchist, I’m used to being pissed off by subtext that the overwhelmingly liberal crowd of film types don’t. However, part of the difficulty in damning a beautiful ultra-violent film while not becoming one of the most reviled creatures in pop culture criticism: the killjoy. Still, when I think about the films I saw versus the films critics describe, I think I see things at work that have bigger echoes in the world of criticism.

To be clear, I’m not trying to impute bad-faith arguments on the part of these films’ boosters. What I’m trying to do is reconcile a widespread consensus about these works that’s widely divergent from the texts I saw. If critics are giving more credit to art-house ultra-violence than it deserves, I think several factors provide the impetus. Continue reading