No wonder it made $100m last weekend: “American Sniper” is a unique hybrid of right-wing and liberal pro-war movies

if Zero Dark Thirty (a film I really love a lot) had been anything like the flag-waving, jingoistic, torture-endorsing film its detractors claim it to be, it probably would have made twice as much money. –Film website comment

The past week, Clint Eastwood’s Chris Kyle biopic American Sniper made $120 million over its 4-day opening weekend. Not only is Sniper the highest-grossing January release ever, it’s the biggest opening weekend of any film not part of a franchise—Warner Bros. pictures was expecting an opening-weekend gross of between $40 and $50 million. Not only was Sniper a huge commercial success, it’s been lauded by critics. The film’s huge success with both the “real America” contingent and coastal élites would indicate that the film is something unique—“a bona fide cultural phenomenon,” in the breathless words of CNN’s Brandon Griggs. Despite the protestations of critics like Griggs that Sniper is “a human story, not a political one,” though, there’s been a political controversy.

However, one of the first misconceptions is that American Sniper has prompted a controversy—rather, there are two. One dispute is between the left and right, over the valorization of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper with cryptofascist politics and a gargantuan body count. This is sometimes diminishingly lumped in with a discussion about Selma and tepidly called an issue with historical accuracy—as though making a hero of a cruel mass-murderer is analogous to a PR headache for the estate of Lyndon Johnson. The second controversy is between liberal film critics and American Sniper’s detractors. These critics, bolstering the film’s reputation against the ugly facts about the late Chris Kyle, are arguing for the film to be appreciated as a liberal war movie, rather than a right-wing one.

Against claims that Kyle was a vile individual, the film’s liberal supporters argue that it’s not an overtly jingoistic work, but a “morally ambiguous” one. Both sides are correct, in their respective, separate discussions—Chris Kyle was a reprehensible human being, but Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is informed by liberal conceptions of warmaking. The film’s tremendous huge box-office and critical success is due to Eastwood’s accomplishing a unique hybrid—the story of the ultimate right-wing war hero, with the themes and narrative signals of liberal pro-war films. The resulting intervention on the part of supportive film critics, arguing for an ahistorical and apolitical reception of American Sniper, is about shoring up liberal imperialism versus its more distasteful, unsophisticated sibling.

American Sniper’s subject, along with its mass appeal and huge box office success, might indicate that it’s a right-wing war movie—something overtly bellicose, jingoistic, and “flag-waving.” The film has definitely been a success with right-wing audiences, who’ve both turned out in droves and targeted what Sarah Palin called “Hollywood leftist” critics. Directed by a filmmaker whose last prominent work starred an empty chair at the RNC, Sniper isn’t just about any hero, but the epitome of reactionary heroism. The actual Kyle, in his own words, was an unrepentant mass-killer—someone who “loved” killing the “damn savages” that he “hated,” even finding it “fun,” and whose only wish was that he “had killed more.” Kyle saw himself as a Christian warrior in a civilizational battle against Islam, adorning himself with a tattoo of the red Crusader’s cross popular among other identitarian Christian fascists like Anders Breivik. However, not only was Kyle an enthusiastic racist murderer in reality, but in the legend he cultivated about himself. Kyle was an unrepentant bullshit artist, building himself up as the embodiment of a violent right-wing archetype—a Free Republic comment come to life.

Amongst his many lies, Kyle repeated a popular authoritarian myth about liberal treachery, claiming to have been called a baby-killer in the highly right-wing area of San Diego where the SEALs are based. He claimed to have found WMDs in Iraq. He also claimed to have acted out the sort of racialized vengeance fantasies that fuel the right-wing id: inventing stories about shooting two carjackers, and gunning down “looters” in post-Katrina New Orleans with impunity. The last point is particularly ironic since Kyle described looting Iraqi homes during the war, making him the sort of thieving petty criminal that private property-loving “stand your ground” types see as the lowest form of scum. It’s actually surprising that Kyle never claimed to have taught a lesson to an avowed atheist and ACLU-member college professor, who one day challenged God to knock him off his platform.

This is the Chris Kyle in the public record leading up the release of Eastwood’s film. He is firmly associated with the American right—and one controversy has played out along these lines. Americans of the cryptofascist political persuasion send those who denigrate him death threats. Some liberal celebrities, like Seth Rogen and Michael Moore, have made mild critical comments, which they immediately walked back under pressure from the right. However, Seth Rogen provides a valuable object lesson in what division is manifesting itself here. Among many critics with principled stands against warmongering are liberals like Rogen. Famously, Rogen propagandized on Israel’s behalf during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, so he obviously doesn’t have a substantive issue with slaughtering Arabs. However, people like Rogen, who support warfare in the name of democratic pluralism, are actually one of the film’s natural constituencies. Continue reading

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Free Speech spectacles are civic-religious rituals in service of colonial civilization

“Imperialism is becoming everyday less and less the creed of a party and more and more the faith of a nation.” –Lord Curzon, 1898, governor general and viceroy of India

“‘The power that dominates the United States’ [is] unwilling to tolerate the slightest suggestion of culpability for the crimes that it has perpetrated across the globe. At the height of the ideological society lies the conviction of a moral mission, even a divine destiny, authorizing its almost inadvertent drive towards global domination.” -Hamid Dabashi

Colonialism and imperialism, in their classical or contemporary guises, have many ways of appearing palatable, even decent. Those tropes are easy to identify, because they’ve been reliably deployed for hundreds of years without changing. First, Empire targets a group of people, usually because the population sits on top of great territory or resources, then reduces them to an undifferentiated mass (“Muslims,” for instance). They’re given essential characteristics in order to obscure the aggression against them (“Why are Muslims so angry?”), and imbecilic, power-serving bromides are proffered as an explanation for the current historical moment (“They must hate us for our freedom”). One of the central characteristics, attributed to all targeted groups, is an inherent primitiveness, a lack of civilized values if not civilization itself (“They don’t understand our noble, enlightened Free Speech.”)

It’s that last point, about how progressive values are invoked in the service of imperialism, that makes the fact that Charlie Hebdo is liberal a non-substantive point. It’s been said that the magazine antagonized France’s neo-fascists and advocated for immigrant rights, but those aren’t the ideas being mined from this week’s events. In the English-speaking media, there’s been a back-and-forth about how the more shocking images in Charlie Hebdo are meant to be received. However, even defenses of the magazine from charges of racism concede that the magazine itself (and “the French satire tradition” as a whole) has often made a target of Muslims. Sure, Charlie Hebdo mocked the Pope—if it frequently dehumanized a marginalized group in the Empire’s sights as though they’re as strong as one of the world’s most powerful men, then it’s easy to see how that’s useful to power.

While Charlie‘s cartoonists may have claimed that they targeted Islam’s “extremists,” this project fits firmly in the liberal wing of imperialism. According to Professor Deepa Kumar, a key characteristic of liberal Islamophobia is “the recognition that there are ‘good Muslims’ with whom diplomatic relations can be forged.” As opposed to Islamophobia’s “troglodyte version, which is just blatant,” Kumar explains, “there are very complex, sophisticated, and liberal forms,” which make allowances for two types of Muslims: extremist/fundamentalist/terrorist “bad” ones, and “good Muslims, which is people who actually support what the U.S. is trying to do, and nothing in the middle.” According to Vox, separating “bad” Muslims from “good” ones is exactly what Charlie‘s editors claimed to be doing: “The magazine’s own editors have said…its lampooning of radical Islam is aimed at separating out radicalism from mainstream Islam, which is ultimately a service in favor of Islam.” For the sake of progress, Charlie was circulating Arab caricatures to save Islam from itself.

Liberal ideas of progress aren’t opposed to racism and colonialism, nor are they just complementary, but essential to those projects of domination. This has been the case since at least the 18th century—empires have always presented conquest as gifting reason and pluralism to backwards people. Plenty of today’s most strident anti-Muslim bigots, like the New Atheist luminaries, identify as liberals defending the Enlightenment tradition, and they sound identical to both colonial proconsuls and Anders Breivik. Liberalism’s role in Empire is why John Kerry sounds identical to George Bush on the question of why the terrorists hate us (it’s our freedom). France offered pluralist reasons for banning both the wearing of hijab and pro-Palestinian demonstrations last summer during Operation Protective Edge.

Newsweek Muslim RageWithin the construct of liberal imperialism, our advanced values are presented as a decisive fault line marking “Western” societies from other, contradistinct civilizations. Spectacles surrounding “Free Speech” are crucial moments for the manufacturing the borders of Empire’s imagined community and creating the Other. These events—often centered on racist cartoons and the consumption of pork—are wrapped up with a panoply of innocuous political stances and capitalist consumer choices “that trigger a warm feeling of self-recognition and superiority among cosmopolitans,” in the words of Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood. After 9/11, Salman Rushdie offered that “to prove [the fundamentalist] wrong, we must agree on what matters: bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, movies, [and] freedom of thought,” along with other basic physical and emotional needs that “the fundamentalist” doesn’t share with humanity, like water and love. This is part of constructing the “assumption of collective Muslim guilt [which] is a common staple of the American mass media,” as Hamid Dabashi recounts in Brown Skin, White Masks. “A particular paragon of twisted reasoning is the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who wondered why Muslims around the globe (not just Pakistanis) did not ‘take to the streets to protest the mass murders of real people?’ Why would they do so when their Prophet is caricatured in Danish newspapers, but stay home when real human beings had been murdered?”

One of the liberal mantras that’s been repeated a lot since the 2006 Jyllands-Posten event involves depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH…how’s that for edgy speech?). Liberals are wont to shake their heads and say that they just don’t understand how Muslims can be so attached to a mere image. The emphasis on a picture is another invocation of the enlightened status of the speaker and their membership in “Western civilization,” versus the inscrutability of a group so atavistic and primitive that they’re made furious by a cartoon of their Holy Prophet. Like every aspect of these spectacles, in which the mob condemns and repudiates and declares what the Bad Men did “unthinkable,” this is meant to delineate civilization against barbarism—the logic that undergirds colonialism.

It’s strange hearing liberals repudiate blind religious totemism during these spectacles, because a reliable constant is the invocation of “Free Speech” like some sort of fetish-object. Free Speech is a value about which “we” must be absolute, since it protects “our” rights like a guardian angel. Furthermore, the story is that Free Speech is something that actually exists, rather than being a socially transmitted, power-serving fiction. In reality, Free Speech spectacles are liturgies for a secular religion—what Dabashi calls “the ideological society”— one that’s driven by domination and demands as much blind obedience as any other faith. Continue reading

Liberals vs. Radicals on the Power of Information

In my last piece, “The Work of Revelations” on the diminishing returns of info-spectacles, I mentioned the liberal-radical split on the power of information:

The notion that information alone has transformative power is the cornerstone of establishment left thinking. It stems from liberal enlightenment ideals that configure history as a linear progression—embodied in the apocryphal quote about the moral arc of the universe. It goes one way, and that’s forwards towards progress.

There’s a more controversial theory that information isn’t inherently good. Even revelatory information—stuff the powerful don’t want you to know—ostensibly in the service of a progressive goal, can be used for right-wing ends if it obscures or moderates a more radical prescription. If information is getting used to co-opt a more radical course of action, then that project is reactionary.

In order to keep a long piece from being even longer, I left a lot out, but I wanted to mention a perfectly evocative exchange in an interview last month between scholar/broadcaster Jared Ball and media theorist Sut Jhally. The interview is a wide-ranging discussion about race and class in media, which at one point touches on Michelle Alexander’s vaunted book on Mass Incarceration called New New Jim Crow. In 2012, Ball’s website i Mix What i Like! published one of the best leftist critiques of Alexander’s book, titled “Why Some Like The New Jim Crow So Much” by Greg Thomas. Continue reading

The Work of Revelations: Snowden, the Torture Report, and the Diminishing Returns of Info-Spectacles

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come,” wrote Victor Hugo. Isn’t that ultimately the message of Les Misérables? In contrast to the revolutionaries hopelessly slaughtered en masse at the barricades, it’s Jean Valjean’s unimpeachable righteousness alone that ultimately drives his longtime tormentor to suicide. I dreamed a dream…

Rather than just being the domain of French Romantics and office motivational posters, the notion that information alone has transformative power is the cornerstone of establishment left thinking. It stems from liberal enlightenment ideals that configure history as a linear progression—embodied in the apocryphal quote about the moral arc of the universe. It goes one way, and that’s forwards towards progress. This coincides happily with the preponderance of lawyers in the ranks of mainstream human rights and civil liberties groups, for whom information is the sine qua non of preparing briefs and mounting cases.

There’s a more controversial theory that information isn’t inherently good. Even revelatory information—stuff the powerful don’t want you to know—ostensibly in the service of a progressive goal, can be used for right-wing ends if it obscures or moderates a more radical prescription. If information is getting used to co-opt a more radical course of action, then that project is reactionary.

For its part, progressive e-magazine TruthDig doesn’t want people messing with this line of thinking in the case of the Senate Torture report: “When the truth is spoken by politicians…skeptics are right to suspect it’s not merely the truth. It is always tailored to redound to some benefit to the speaker. But there are moments in history when that doesn’t matter.”

We’re being told it’s one such moment now. The Senate Intelligence Committee has released a heavily redacted, heavily abridged “Executive Summary” of its 6,000 page report on CIA torture. Adding to the report’s mystique is the fact that the White House and CIA wanted to suppress the information contained within, with the CIA even hacking the computers of Senate staffers compiling the report. The torture report seems like the most illicit kind of revelatory information, so it’s created an enormous amount of commentary and condemnation.

However, with the exceptions of some specific ghoulish details, most of the information was already known. The most horrific facts—that the CIA raped prisoners, that torture was used to fabricate justifications for the War in Iraq, that human beings were tortured to death, that almost a quarter of torture cases were the result of mistaken identity—had all been reported on within the last decade.

There’s a disconnect between the content of the torture report and the narrative that now surrounds the event itself. When TruthDig called for putting skepticism aside, it was in a piece hailing Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain as their progressive heroes of the week. Feinstein’s fingerprints are on many of the US’s worst abuses of this century, and McCain is one of the most bloodthirsty figures in the US government, and by extension the planet. Given that these newly minted progressive heroes are some of the worst imperialists, and the torture report’s aura doesn’t reflect reality, this seems like exactly the right moment for those meddlesome skeptics to be asking questions.

The journalists and public figures who promote the torture report present it as transformative information, but it’s shaping up to be a spectacle that sets the left back yet again. The report has followed many parallels with the last time this happened, the spectacle surrounding Ed Snowden’s leaks to Glenn Greenwald et al. The Snowden drama provided a useful template for how dissent is going to be managed, channeled, and moderated going forward. The way the NSA leaks were handled has provided the elites a scalable model for taking the release of even revelatory information and using it to come out on top and consolidate their power.

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Fortunately, last October Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media had an acrimonious public divorce with once-hire Matt Taibbi. If Taibbi had been someone with less social capital, then the failure of Racket might’ve just been a momentary hiccup for the internet’s hottest journalistic “insurgency.” As it stands, the fact that people want to be in Taibbi’s orbit has opened up a lot of space for analysis of Omidyar’s would-be media empire, where the establishment consensus was once airtight. It’s certainly vindicated what Taibbi said about journalists being akin to an easily spooked herd of deer, who only get around to asking the right questions “eventually. But far after the fact.”

When the leaks began, they painted a complete picture of a monster whose contours had only previously been hinted at. Stories about warrantless wiretapping and the size of “Top Secret America” had won their authors Pulitzers and hinted that the US government was spying on all of us. There were reports of a secret government data-storage facility of gargantuan proportions being built in Utah. Stories had periodically cropped up in unexpected places about the government’s ability to record and store all our communications. However, now the public knew the truth definitively. There was excitement, talk of change, reform, maybe even something more drastic. Soon, the whistleblower went public. More stories came out, about more countries. Continue reading