Katheryn Bigelow and Pop Anti-Analysis

Earlier this month, a FOIA request yielded another hundred pages of documents relating to the CIA’s collaboration with the filmmakers behind Zero Dark Thirty. As is customary when these things happen, the typical response included a few recurring threads. The first is film and culture writers tripping over each other to declare that there’s nothing unseemly about the CIA having veto power over a “first draft of history” like a big Hollywood film. See, the CIA cares about accuracy, which probably explains all those spies in newsrooms. The second is that “It might have been one thing if the finished film was unrepentant pro-CIA propaganda,” but the main character squirted a few at the end. That basically makes the film anti-war–and man, the CIA accidentally made an anti-war movie, those guys must be even more inept than we thought!

The third trope in all these is the idea that critics are actually censors. For instance, in 2013, a couple former ACLU directors wrote a letter to the New York Times arguing that Americans should watch Zero Dark Thirty in order to make up their own minds about CIA torture. As Tarzie wrote at the time:

Oh mercy me, no. Congress mustn’t interfere, via polite letters, with the free artistic expression of CIA operatives and their Hollywood collaborators. How else but through manipulative, formulaic films with scrappy CIA heroines can we, as a society, determine whether torture and extrajudicial killing are good or really good?

Now, in 2015, a Katheryn Bigelow quote I hadn’t seen at the time is getting a second life, and it’s worth highlighting. A couple years ago, Bigelow claimed that “confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds.” “Confusing depiction with endorsement,” according to Bigelow, is the first step to chilling speech. From what I can tell, Bigelow is the first Hollywood millionaire to shift the evils of censorship from doing something to thinking something critical. The slippery slope that ends with the Bill of Rights in flames now begins in the critic’s mind.

There’s been a strain of thought that holds that viewers can only read a film based on statements of the author’s intent, which are passed down with God-like clarity as though they’re the 10 Commandments or something. According to the anonymous author behind the blog “Fables of Faubus,” this idea was first articulated in a modern way by Walter Benn Michaels and Stephen Knapp in their article Against Theory, which argued that a text’s “meaning is whatever its author intends.” The writer points out that Michaels and Knapp are “extremely prescriptive” about the fact that most theory-based analysis should end. The anonymous author also points out that their idea found purchase in left-liberal literary journals that were (at least) the spiritual heirs to a lot of the CIA-funded magazines of the cultural Cold War. At the very least, it’s easy to see why this idea would enjoy the patronage of capital. The idea that people shouldn’t place any stock in their own judgment or substantive analysis, but trust the word of millionaires and their corporate benefactors, is a recipe for propaganda going unchallenged.

If this idea can be called “anti-analysis,” then in the last 5 or so years we’ve seen the rise of pop anti-analysis. When The Dark Knight Rises came out, for instance, there was a lot of commentary on the villain’s Occupy-inspired imagery. Chris Nolan’s responses to the threat of unprofitable controversy were classic pop anti-analysis:

  • “I’ve had as many conversations with people who have seen the film the other way round. We’re going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it’s not doing any of those things.”
  • “It’s just telling a story.”
  • “But what’s politics?”

Who’s to say, like, what politics even IS, anyway? Touché, Chris. Nolan touches on a lot of the tropes of pop anti-analysis, but Bigelow popularized one that he missed. This is one of the central planks: the idea that depiction doesn’t equal endorsement. Like other threads in this tapestry, endorsement vs. depiction is something that depends largely on the artist’s intentionality. The singular focus on “endorsement” removes the text from the realm of analysis and places it into the filmmaker’s mind. Since none of us have access, we just have to take their word for it. And if the artist’s mind can have supernatural power over the meaning of the film, then it’s plausible that the skeptical viewer’s mind has the power to send well-meaning, transparency-minded artists like Bigelow to the gulag.

Of course, last week it came out that the FBI believes that retweets are endorsements–meaning that merely depicting something uncritically won’t save you from getting 20+ years on a material support charge. Hollywood’s going to keep putting out propaganda, and defending it by arguing that no one can draw their own conclusions. The spies and secret police thugs who help them make these films don’t buy that, though, and neither should anyone else.

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Postscript/Personalish Note: If anyone is interested in these liberal war films and the types of discourses around them, I’m working on a book on the subject. I’m done with research and have put together drafts of a couple chapters, so it looks like it’s finally moving towards becoming something real. It’ll obviously be in at least e-book form, but if enough people are interested I may have a few hard copies printed up. I’ll keep people posted around here.

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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

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

Yasiin Bey’s travel ban wasn’t true, but it was plausible

Hey, did you hear about Yasiin Bey? In late May, a music festival in Boston announced that Bey’s upcoming shows would be cancelled due to problems re-entering the US. Turns out it’s false: a newspaper in South Africa, where Bey is living, has reported that the story was untrue.

All’s well that ends well! Since the artist formerly known as Mos Def is an American citizen, a travel ban would be an incredibly disturbing development. Especially since the rapper, who is Muslim, was most recently known for bringing attention to the legalized torture currently going on in Guantánamo Bay. In a video for The Guardian, Bey undergoes the excruciating force-feeding procedure to which over a hundred hunger-striking detainees have been subjected. As of now, the video has been viewed over 6 million times.

But it turns out there’s nothing to see here! For some reason, people believed that an American citizen would be subjected to some sort of unequal treatment, just because he’s a black Muslim-American whose political activism sheds light on American government torture. Maybe those credulous people had heard something about Saadiq Long, the Muslim American citizen from Oklahoma who was stuck in de facto exile for more than a decade. Long, an Air Force veteran, was forced to live in Qatar due to placement on the No-Fly list for unknown reasons. Maybe they had heard about Gulet Mohamed, a naturalized American citizen who was beaten by Kuwaiti authorities on behalf of the US, intimidated by the FBI, and then told he was on the No-Fly list when he tried to return home.

If they hadn’t heard either of these specific stories, maybe they had some idea of the tens of thousands of other Americans on the No-Fly list. Or maybe they think that being an American citizen just doesn’t go as far as it used to. The British are publicly stripping terrorism suspects of citizenship, and there is evidence that the US is already holding American citizens in secret, lawless captivity under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. There are Americans for whom citizenship couldn’t protect even from murder, much less exile.

Centering around a hip-hop artist, pieces debunking the travel ban story also have the aspect of playing into gaslight-y tropes about conspiracism in the African-American community. Serious, savvy types sneer at beliefs amongst some black Americans that the government played a role in the AIDS and crack cocaine epidemics. Of course, if you’re a member of a group who’s historically fucked-over by the powerful, it creates a strong incentive–even a self-preservation imperative–to know how power really works. As with Muslims receiving a different tier of citizenship, these theories dismissed as conspiracism have aspects of truth, from the long history of American medical experimentation on people of color to the CIA’s documented collusion with Contra drug smugglers.

Rather than being self-evidently ridiculous, the original story of Bey’s travel ban is actually pretty credible. The only unrealistic aspect is it happening to a famous person.

The only criticism that’s Left

How did “hypocrisy” become the worst accusation leveled against the powerful?

When looking at a recent Daily Show segment that amounted to a whitewash of American assassination policies, I was struck by the focus on “hypocrisy.” To hear America’s most-trusted liberal satirist tell it, President Obama was mostly guilty of the crime of saying one thing and doing another. The focus on hypocrisy elided the fact that the thing in question, which he said he wouldn’t do, was murdering people. From my humble perspective, that seems like a worse sin than duplicity. Once I had “hypocrisy” on my mind, though, I noticed that the accusation seemed to be everywhere. It seems like the worst thing left-aligned people say about the powerful anymore is that they’re hypocrites.

Last month, the new left-most boundary of acceptable criticism, First Look’s The Intercept, wrote about an in-house NSA advice column named “Ask Zelda.” Why was this “Dear Abby for spies” worth writing about? An NSA employee had written in to ask Zelda how they could set boundaries with an intrusive boss. It turns out NSA employees value their own privacy, even as they violate our privacy. We, the American people, charge the national security state—with the grave crime of hypocrisy!

J’accuse!

Actually, no, I meant a different French phrase—no shit. To say that our elites and their spies, enforcers, and state apparatchiks see themselves as subject to different laws and standards as the rest of us should be so obvious as to be totally banal at this point. In fact, I remember reading a book about that years ago.

In addition to the accusation of hypocrisy being obvious, it’s also largely exculpatory. The accusation is embedded with the idea that there’s a high-minded ideal being betrayed. We need only to get the hypocrites to see the wisdom of their core beliefs, then get their actions to mirror these deeply held convictions. It’s the same idea at the heart of the hoary, vomit-inducing tall tale about how Obama just needs his liberal base to “make him” enact the progressive agenda that he really desires.

What seems more likely is that hypocrisy is a feature, not a bug, of the exercise of power. The state and our plutocratic class do what they want, and then they tell us whatever they want, regardless of that statement’s relationship to reality. Otherwise, why would we consent to being ruled by the venal mediocrities who are our elites, unless they made overtures towards democratic pluralism, transparency, and the common good? Continue reading

Stewart Sanitizes Barry’s Bombs

A recent popular Daily Show segment exemplifies the worst aspects of the show’s tepid centrism

Though Jon Stewart is quick to tell people that he’s “just a comedian,” The Daily Show has a unique ability to frame politics in the public consciousness. As a comedy show, it’s able to reach viewers who would otherwise be politically disengaged. Large numbers of people who get their news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and these people tend to be better informed than consumers of other media sources—belying the idea that it’s “just a comedy show.” The fact that the show appeals to both an audience who considers themselves politically left-leaning and a wider audience that’s more apolitical gives it the ability to shape the popular discourse that a lot of traditional news shows would envy.

However, though the show is a liberal pop-culture institution, the show is profoundly respectful of the status quo. While Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert skewer the most obvious hypocrisies of our political system, they show respect and deference to a political system that exports tremendous violence abroad and increasing repression and inequality at home. A widely shared Daily Show segment from February 19th illustrates how pernicious show can be. Reflecting the show’s broad appeal, the opening segment received praise and exposure in both mainstream outlets like Yahoo! TV and leftist news sites like TruthDig.  TruthDig called the video “hilarious and scathing,” but it’s anything but.

The opening segment, with the headline “Jon Stewart calls Obama the ‘Barry Bombs’ of drone strikes,” dealt with the Obama administration’s extrajudicial killing policy, specifically the issue of targeting Americans for assassination without due process. When discussing a state claiming an Imperial prerogative to kill its own citizens, Stewart offers only a mild reproach of individual foibles. Worse than insufficient criticism, though, the segment is an active whitewashing of Obama’s assassination policies and his administration’s theories of limitless executive power. The piece is embedded with multiple misleading claims, actually flattering Obama in the guise of a critique. The segment encapsulates all the worst aspects of The Daily Show’s tepid, establishment-serving centrism. Continue reading

Stephen Colbert & Jon Stewart sell millennials military industry propaganda

On the November 13, 2013 episode of The Colbert Report, there was a segment about the Colorado man on a quixotic crusade to institute a “drone bounty” in his town of Deer Trail, CO. Philip Steele, the “brains” behind the proposed ordinance, is an easy target for ridicule. He shows up to a town council meeting in a cowboy hat and duster, demanding that Ennio Morricone play as he entered. As the segment’s straight-person, Colbert has on MIT professor Missy Cummings. While Steele prints up drone-hunting permits from his desktop printer and makes racist comments about Obama’s ancestry, Cummings paints a rosy picture in which domestic UAVs do everything but tuck our kids in at night. To demonstrate Steele’s unfounded paranoia, the show quotes him saying:

There are many reasons to conduct surveillance. Let’s take smokers, how many people have smoke breaks, okay, fly a drone. ‘Oh, did you check nonsmoker on your health insurance form? Oh I’m sorry, we’re going to have to penalize you now.’”

The audience laughs at this, but isn’t it obvious that this is exactly the sort of thing that domestic drones will be used for in the future? Steele sounds like an eccentric reactionary for most of the interview, so consequently the young, liberal audience is laughing even as he says something plausible, if not likely. This is the problem with the tepid liberalism at the core of The Daily Show and Colbert, and how both shows  filter everything into the insipid “Democrat vs. Republican” partisan framework. By choosing a right-wing drone opponent, Colbert primes its audience to laugh at what he’s saying, even when it’s realistic; and trust his opposite, even when they’re a shill for the military industry. Continue reading