Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 6: Description vs. Prescription

This is meant as a look at some of the areas where Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti differ most visibly in their analysis and biases. Given their similarities, comparing the two provides a rare opportunity at substitution analysis: to quote Chomsky himself, “you can’t do experiments in history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us.” In short, the differences in Chomsky versus Parenti’s positions makes for a useful case study in what ideas genuinely make one a candidate for marginalization, versus what ideas are actually quite acceptable despite their transgressive veneers. Click here for an all-in-one post.

If you haven’t seen it before, and even if you have, take the opportunity to watch this brief clip of Michael Parenti discussing the Cuban Revolution, from a 1986 lecture:

While this clip represents Parenti at his best, it’s quite typical of his work. In addition to being well-informed and well-argued, Parenti is passionate and inspiring. Watching this video would make most listeners feel quite good about what humanity is capable of when we band together and demand our fair share. If this segment has any shortcomings, it’s that it doesn’t convey how funny Michael Parenti is. It also contains a clear prescription: if people want to enjoy lives of safety, welfare, and dignity, they can do as Cubans did in 1959—organize and seize society’s productive forces from the exploitative ruling class, and employ those forces for the good of the many. Keep this clip in mind for later. Continue reading

Chomsky vs. Parenti, part 5: Lesser Evilism

This is meant as a look at some of the areas where Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti differ most visibly in their analysis and biases. Given their similarities, comparing the two provides a rare opportunity at substitution analysis: to quote Chomsky himself, “you can’t do experiments in history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us.” In short, the differences in Chomsky versus Parenti’s positions makes for a useful case study in what ideas genuinely make one a candidate for marginalization, versus what ideas are actually quite acceptable despite their transgressive veneers. Click here for an all-in-one post.

Chomsky is never more visible than during the presidential elections season, and there’s one reason why: “As the electoral spectacle kicks into full gear and forces itself into every sector of American political discourse, Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most celebrated dissident intellectuals, continues his longstanding tradition of reminding us that the looming apocalypse must be delayed by any means necessary,” writes Kevin Dooley, “which really means voting for the certain Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.”

Just as he is never more visible than during this quadrennial spectacle, he is never more prescriptive. Here is a sample of what Chomsky says and how he says it:

  • January 2016: In an interview with Al Jazeera’s UpFront, Chomsky says “he would ‘absolutely’ vote for Hillary Clinton over any Republican candidate” and “there are ‘enormous differences’ between the policies of the Democrats and the Republicans.”
  • March 2016: Chomsky says Hillary Clinton is “kind of hawkish” and “much more militant than the centrist democrats,” but “If Republicans are elected, there could be major changes that will be awful. I have never seen such lunatics in the political system. For instance, Ted Cruz’s response to terrorism is to carpet-bomb everyone.”
  • May 2016: Chomsky calls Donald Trump’s ideas “almost a death knell for the species,” telling his readers “If I were in a swing state, a state that matters, and the choice were Clinton or Trump, I would vote against Trump. And by arithmetic that means hold your nose and vote for Clinton.”

This is similar rhetoric to the previous election, at which time Chomsky said “the worst didn’t happen, and it might have…I mean, there are some differences; it’s not zero impact, you know.” This year, “almost a death knell for the species” is extraordinarily strong language coming from the professor, and many of Chomsky’s readers likely take his counsel to heart come voting day. Chomsky is indeed correct that global warming will likely kill the majority of aerobic life on Earth within several human generations, making it an effective cudgel. He proffers that global warming is an urgent reason to show up next November and vote for Hillary Clinton, but it’s anyone’s guess how a Clinton presidency will lead to a more stable climate. Chomsky says that Donald Trump is too close to climate change deniers, but the same is true for Clinton, a fracking enthusiast who Chomsky concedes is “more militant” than Obama and who is Wall Street’s preferred candidate. The US military rivals animal agriculture for the world’s most egregious polluter, and a servant of big business would never meaningfully threaten the continued operation of capitalism. So voters are left with tonal differences: Trump adjoins people who say climate change isn’t real, while Clinton will admit it’s real and perpetuate it. There is no practical difference between these two positions whatsoever—any capitalist may as well be a climate change denier. Like the many urgent reasons Chomsky offers, this is a small superficial change the brilliant professor is inflating into a life-or-death matter with verbal smoke-and-mirrors. Continue reading

Uncritical Critics & The Death of Political Film Criticism

dark knight lucius fox

Batman’s panaudiocon (The Dark Knight, 2008).

At Interrogating the Reel, Ian Goodrum asked a question that I’ve also thought about for a long time: “What the fuck happened to film criticism?”

“Now, I suppose that really should read ‘What the fuck happened to English-language, mainstream film criticism?’ since that specific category of film scholarship is all a significant portion of the population reads, but the incredulity remains. What the fuck happened? Because it seems like since Pauline Kael stopped writing, there haven’t been any political indictments of the kind she rained down on the most deserving of cinematic atrocities. Where’s the critical courage?”

If there was ever a time when film criticism made space to interrogate the politics of a film text, that time is long gone. For Goodrum, as well as me, the denaturing of film criticism was best represented in the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty. There was a debate over the film’s textual support of monstrous, authoritarian tactics like torture and extrajudicial killing—but the film’s supporters were almost all film critics, and its detractors were journalists. “Even in the reviews that bring up the movie’s politics, this minor quibble is dismissed as insignificant in the face of what the critic considers to be a monumental achievement in filmmaking.”

The dynamic repeated itself most recently with the release of the genocide documentary Watchers of the Sky. The film posits liberal imperialist Samantha Power as a great human rights hero, and film reviewers have regurgitated this whitewash uncritically. Only journalists have done the work of reporting on Power’s role as “Obama’s atrocity enabler,” as Max Blumenthal put it. The critic/journalist split reflects the fact that film criticism has abandoned its most-needed critical faculties. “Mainstream criticism,” according to playwright John Steppling, “isn’t really criticism, it’s reviewing.”

Humanitarian hero Samantha Power takes time off from defending the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to explain that the US's war against ISIS aims for regime change in Syria.

Humanitarian hero Samantha Power takes time off from defending the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to explain that the US’s war against ISIS aims for regime change in Syria.

The reason why I love film and the art of criticism is because film matters. Film is a tool of unparalleled power for imparting messages, and unpacking those messages is a worthwhile pursuit. “From geopolitics to lifestyle through politics and history, Hollywood movies have become the key global delivery system of US culture, thanks to the nature and strength of its narrative and medium,” according to Al Jazeera. President Obama said that “entertainment is part of our American diplomacy.” It seems like the only people who don’t see the political dimensions of the multi-billion dollar beast sometimes called “the culture industry” are contemporary establishment film critics.

If political film criticism is dead, Charles Bramesco at The Dissolve has written a piece that would merit mention in the postmortem. I can hardly imagine an essay that better encapsulates the perception of politics as a facile, substance-free set of signals, coupled with a total lack of knowledge of recent history, and undergirded by a latent disdain for criticism with the courage to say something challenging. The Dissolve has several great, thoughtful writers, and obviously Bramesco is merely representative of malignant trends, rather than the cause. However, the piece, titled “The slippery politics of The Incredibles and other superheroes,” advocates for all the politically ignorant, historically illiterate, and anti-intellectual threads that have fed into the death of political film analysis.

To close out a week on Brad Bird’s 2005 film The Incredibles, Bramesco discusses the “curious” observations that many film critics made about the film’s seemingly Ayn Rand-inspired ethos. Bramesco declares that this reading is curious, but then enumerates all the evidence in the film and ultimately concedes that “it isn’t difficult to see where they were coming from,” because “The Incredibles offers up a roundly solid foundation for an Objectivist reading to hold water.” In the very first sentence, Bramesco describes the act of reading a film politically with a weaselly adjective, before repeatedly conceding that the reading is supported by evidence. Not a great start, but a sign of things to come.

However, despite the exhaustively documented argument made by these critics, Bramesco has found a silver bullet that renders all these readings baseless. “Except that Brad Bird isn’t an Objectivist. He’s an avowed centrist, stating in multiple interviews that any Rand-sympathizing ideology in the film was completely incidental.”

60 years after the heralded “Death of the Author,” it’s a little weird to declare a filmmaker’s “centrist” intent with godlike certainty, as though that’s a definitive statement about the text. It doesn’t take Roland Barthes to see that films, maybe more than any other art forms, are collaborative efforts, and countless creators go into making them. Rick Altman proposes that films be read as “events,” legible as a structure with culture and history influencing the product. It doesn’t take Chomsky and Herman, either, to see that a film with a 9-figure budget fronted by a giant corporation during an extraordinarily reactionary time will reflect of the dominant culture that created it. Continue reading

Tortured Conscience: the Rise of the “Morally Ambiguous” Torture Film

Americans in Times Square celebrate the assassination of Osama bin Laden with a traditional ritual: the chanting of U-S-A! U-S-A!. Courtesy Josh Pesavento Flickr.

Americans in Times Square celebrate the assassination of Osama bin Laden with a traditional cultural ritual: the chanting of U-S-A! U-S-A!. Courtesy Josh Pesavento Flickr.

We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” –Unknown

“Some men are created evil” Big Bad Wolves Tagline

Contiguous with our “golden age of television” is a cycle of works, in both TV and film, whose protagonists’ “moral ambiguity” is a selling point. From Jay Gatsby and Walter White to Louis CK and Hannah Horvath, moral ambiguity marks a work as mature, complex, and thought-provoking—worthy of being called great art. The last few years have also seen the rise of a new genre with deep political ramifications: the “morally ambiguous” torture film.

The most recent entry in the genre is Big Bad Wolves, an Israeli film that Rex Reed called “a sensation” and Quentin Tarantino called “the best film of the year.” The film deals with a group of men who kidnap and torture a suspected child-murderer, and is visually and thematically dark. Among positive reviews (the film enjoys a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes), the film is widely praised for its “moral ambiguity.” The film has been called a “morally ambiguous fairy tale,” whose “haunting meditation on the morality and efficacy of torture…only increases the moral ambiguity,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Thematically and ideologically, the film shares the most DNA with another dark revenge-thriller from 2013, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Prisoners also deals with a missing girl, whose father then kidnaps and tortures the suspected abductor. Villeneuve’s film was similarly hailed as another “morally ambiguous” film, sophisticated enough to “navigate a maze of moral ambiguity.” “Prisoners puts all other morally ambiguous movies to shame,” in the words of one breathless reviewer.

Both Big Bad Wolves and Prisoners follow the first “morally ambiguous” torture film: 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. When it was released, Katherine Bigelow’s film about the manhunt and murder of Osama bin Laden rightly generated a lot of controversy around its depiction of torture. However, for as many people who called the film out for its torture apologia, there were many who praised the film for its “moral ambiguity,” erecting the strawman that to not depict torture would constitute a whitewash. In a Time magazine interview, Bigelow defended the film as “a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force.” Where Zero Dark Thirty generated controversy, Prisoners and Big Bad Wolves have generated unreserved praise. Mother Jones celebrated Prisoners as a welcome corrective to Zero Dark Thirty, calling it “the strongest anti-torture argument that has come out of the movies in years.”

The idea that these films are “morally ambiguous” is central to their reception. It tells viewers that, rather than functioning as torture apologia, there’s a nuance at their core that prompts deep ethical probing. However, viewers tend to side with the character through whom they see the world. Dodge paid for Walter White to drive their cars for a reason, and Jay Gatsby’s parties look pretty fun. Quentin Tarantino’s sensibility draws heavily from the simplistic worlds of comic books and exploitation films—If Big Bad Wolves gets the Tarantino seal-of-approval, the ethical complexity of this genre is probably being oversold. The man’s most morally ambiguous choice is giving the world of cinema its most congenial Nazi—he’s not exactly St. Augustine.

These films share the same ideological core, and it’s not one built on great complexity and shades of gray. The moral world these films create is one of dueling, good-vs.-evil extremes: heroes who grudgingly use torture to defeat monstrous villains. Moral ambiguity is a superficial affectation achieved by a dour visual palette, extended onscreen suffering, and a disingenuous air of ideological neutrality. Films in the “morally ambiguous” pro-torture cycle obfuscate their Manichaean moral framework to remake an unambiguous evil into an ethical gray-area and interpellate subjects into their authoritarian worldview.

Torture Creep

Today, more Americans support torture than believe in evolution. In a piece on Zero Dark Thirty’s “torturer-as-feminist-icon” narrative, Matt Cornell breaks down the shift in public attitudes:

In August of 2012, the Hoover Institution’s Amy Zegart conducted a poll on American attitudes toward torture, and found that Americans had become more supportive of the use of torture in the previous half decade. Zegart reported that: “[between 2007 and 2012,] 41 percent said they would be willing to use torture — a gain of 14 points — while 34 percent would not, a decline of 19 points.” Among the reasons for this shift in consensus, she cited the possible influence of spy movies and TV shows, which have increasingly depicted torture as heroic. According to her poll, so-called “spy TV watchers” were more likely to support a range of abusive tactics.

Zegart’s findings were predicted in 2008 by a Parent’s Television Council report which observed a significant spike in the depiction of torture on prime time television—and more critically a shift in which characters were using torture. Increasingly, it was the “good guys” carrying out the torture.

2012 was a decade after the Bush administration legalized torture and four years into the administration of Barack Obama, who didn’t consider torture a “grave [or] intentional breach” of Presidential powers and consequently immunized torturers. This isn’t to frame America’s current acceptance of torture in liberal declinist terms. From the torture inflicted on black slaves to torture as a tactic to crush the Philippine insurgency to the CIA’s KUBARK manual to the torture lessons at the School of the Americas, torture is as American as an apple with a razorblade in it. Recently, legalizing and immunizing torture has signaled to the culture industry that torture is now something “the good guys” do, too. However, torture is best depicted with a bit of handwringing, and a ghastly villain to justify it. Continue reading

Blood on the Tracks: Politics & Revolution in “Snowpiercer”

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. –Unknown

If the world should end in ice  In days of endless night

I’ll let the snowstorms cover me  In a blanket of white

The Handsome Family

In a piece of contemporary science fiction, making an archaic technology like trains a focal point of the narrative is a statement.

The recent Atlas Shrugged films, for instance, faithfully retain Dagny Taggart’s railway lines as a central feature in the story of a dystopian, collectivist America. By embracing the anachronism, the filmmakers affirm their faith that Ayn Rand’s ode to selfishness is a work of timeless wisdom and prophetic vision. Keeping Rand’s trains reifies the cult of individual strength embodied by Hank Reardon and his exceptional steel.

Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 Snowpiercer takes place entirely on a train in order to make a fiercely political statement. Transpiring after a climate change-induced cataclysm, Bong’s train exists to show how the advancement human technology has simultaneously wrought our planet’s destruction. More importantly, it creates a space that literalizes social inequality, and tells a story of revolution. Snowpiercer is a film about a revolt against the rich.

The path of the Snowpiercer.

The global circuit of the Snowpiercer.

Like a lot of great sci-fi, Snowpiercer handles world-building as it goes, and parcels out only the most salient information at the outset. In 2014, the world’s governments try to combat global warming by releasing an experimental substance into the atmosphere. The plan backfires, creating an ice-age and rendering the Earth uninhabitable. 17 years later, the last survivors are relegated to living on the eponymous Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually circles the Earth.

The film opens in the tail section of the train, where the poorest survivors live. Armed men scour the drab, dingy car looking for a violinist to entertain those in the front section, who “eat steak dinners and listen to string quartets.” In the tail section, the train’s restive underclass subsists on gelatinous “protein blocks.”

Chris Evan’s Curtis, an aspiring revolutionary under the tutelage of John Hurt’s Gilliam, is trying to track down a protein block with a name in it. Curtis and Gilliam have an unknown source, and all they need is the name of the man who designed the train’s security system—man who will take them all the way to the engine. Before the uprising can begin, people from the front come for another member of the underclass, this time a child. One of the tail’s residents hurls his shoe at the brightly dressed apparatchik leading the impressment gang, beginning a riot.

A friend of mine who writes a lot about the genre distinguishes between “kinky” and “non-kinky” sci-fi.

Non-kinky sci-fi asserts that our future is basically bright and that through cooperation we can conquer the outer and inner spaces, that good things are in store for us and that technology will make us better men, et cetera. Think Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and 2001. Kinky sci-fi sees our civilization as a sham, sometimes our whole reality as a sham. Phillip K. Dick, Neuromancer and Mad Max are all kinky.

The most effective “kinky” sci-fi—fiction that excoriates our systems—builds a dystopian world with enough elements of our own to be recognizable but understated enough to be insidiously creepy. Think of the police state in Children of Men; desperate and securitized, but still functional enough that most people live their lives with a familiar sense of normalcy. It’s not until anyone steps out of line that the state resorts to the Abu Ghraib treatment.

The hooded prisoner of Abu Ghraib stands in a refugee camp in Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006).

The hooded prisoner of Abu Ghraib stands in a refugee camp in Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006).

Continue reading

Jurors rejected from the Cecily McMillan trial are revealing a lot about our elites and their world

Cecily McMillan, a 25-year-old Occupy activist, is going to trial on charges of assaulting a police officer. Chase Madar explains that McMillan is “a 25-year-old student and activist who was arrested two years ago during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Manhattan. Seized by police, she was beaten black and blue on her ribs and arms until she went into a seizure. When she felt her right breast grabbed from behind, McMillan instinctively threw an elbow, catching a cop under the eye, and that is why she is being prosecuted for assaulting a police officer, a class D felony with a possible seven-year prison term.”

This week, jury selection has begun for McMillan’s case. The Guardian reports that the “trial of Occupy activist struggles to find jurors impartial to protest movement.” The selection phase is moving so slowly because the pool is full of people like “Mary Malone–an Upper East Side resident who previously worked for a bond fund and said: ‘I have really strong feelings about Occupy Wall Street and the people involved’–and Peter Kaled, a corporate finance worker from the Upper West Side who said that one of his friends had policed Zuccotti Park at the height of the protests.”

That so many New Yorkers interviewed to serve on the jury have shown strong antipathy towards the Occupy movement isn’t that surprising. Since the city is the world’s financial capital, enough of its citizens see threats to the interests of oligarchs as threats to their own interests. However, the responses of these prospective jurors are remarkable for how they encapsulate what the rich think about the rest of us.

McMillan’s case is one of these events where Middle School civics-lessons about freedom meet the real limits on permissible dissent. Petitioning your government for a redress of grievances is fine until your government’s owners want you out. According to Madar, “Cecily McMillan’s Occupy trial is a huge test of US civil liberties,” and he asks “will they survive?” Now, the process of jury selection is illuminating even more about the boundaries of the world in which we live. In a series of revealing statements to The Guardian, these finance-connected Manhattanites illuminate the contours of the alternate physical, mental, and moral world that capital has created.

The first rejected juror is one George Yih, whom LinkedIn identifies as a “Venture Capital & Private Equity Professional”:

“I’m involved in Wall Street things. I’m on the Wall Street side, not their side,” George Yih, one of a group of prospective jurors…said under questioning from Judge Ronald Zweibel on Wednesday. “They can protest all they want, but they can’t brainwash my mind.”

For Yih, like so many others who are benefitting from the way the world works, widespread discontent is baffling. A movement like Occupy could seem like reality-free “brainwashing” only if one had no connection to the daily, lived reality of millions (or rather, billions) whom capitalism is immiserating rather than enriching. For billionaires and people like Yih making six figures a year serving those billionaires, all this citizen discontent must seem strange and frivolous. Continue reading

Superheroes for the Empire

UpdateThis piece, originally titled “Holy unwashed masses, Batman!”: The anti-populist, elitist message of “justice” in 3 superhero films from 2012, was included in the March-April 2014 issue of Against the Current #169, a socialist, feminist, and anti-racist organization.

“I had hoped that the…moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From A Birmingham Jail”

“Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice.” –President James Marshall, Air Force One

Ever since Captain America punched-out Hitler during WWII, superhero texts promise the fantasy of invincibility and moral certitude. This promise has been particularly appealing given the last several decades of American global dominance, during which time, our empire’s actions as unchallenged global master have produced tremendous violence abroad and inequality at home. Consequently, our pop culture works to palliate the feeling that “we might not be the good guys.” Ideological messages are best received when they don’t seem to exist at all, and superhero films, with their fantastic subject matter and aimed primarily at young audiences, are particularly effective at concealing their ideology. You’re not being asked to believe anything “political,” you’re just asked to believe a man can fly.

captain-america_hitlerSuperhero movies represent a particular kind of American wish-fulfillment, unleashing our id and assuaging our fears.  Some reviewers and film theorists made the connection that much of Spider-Man’s (Sam Raimi, 2002) enthusiastic reception had to do with its telling a New York superhero story the summer after 9/11. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) was widely read as an allegory for the Bush administration—an ethically just hero who extraordinarily renders, beats up prisoners, and warrantlessly surveils in order to protect his city from the ticking time bomb scenario that is endlessly invoked in real life to justify all manner of horrors. Both Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise and Nolan’s Dark Knight series deal with contemporary anxieties and reified Manichaean ideas of Good vs. Evil, but the War on Terror parallels in Dark Knight were obvious to many, while “very few critics picked up on [Spider-Man’s] symbolic resonance.”

The different ways audiences received both film’s messages illustrates how much more effectively ideology is communicated when it’s invisible. Similarly, three superhero films were released in 2012 with anti-populist messages; one was overt, two communicated that message insidiously. Of The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012), The Amazing Spider-Man (Mark Webb, 2012), and Chronicle (Josh Trank, 2012), only the former was singled out for what was called its anti-Occupy message. In the third act of Rises, the villain Bane unleashes popular outrage against the status quo using the language of economic justice. Over the course of a brief montage, things go very French-Revolution very quickly in Gotham City. Nolan implied that the existing order is maintained—tenuously—for the good of society, and it’s elite plutocrats like Bruce Wayne who do the onerous task of upholding the status quo. If the authorities loosen their grip, it’s only a matter of time before the commoners break out the guillotines. The message was so widely received that Nolan assured viewers that the film “wasn’t political”; as though such a thing could ever be possible.

After attacking Wall Street, Bane unleashes the city's underclass, who ransack the Upper East Side.

After attacking Wall Street, Bane unleashes the city’s underclass, who ransack the Upper East Side. Kangaroo courts to punish the wealthy come next.

No one asked similar questions of Mark Webb or Josh Trank. Their films eschewed overt, politically resonant imagery like the roving underclass mobs of Rises. Where Nolan’s hero was a billionaire ninja, Webb and Trank’s heroes were teenage everymen. The villains in Spider-Man and Chronicle, though, are both motivated by a desire to stop greater criminality. The law being enforced out by the heroes of Spider-Man and Chronicle is the sort of justice that protects the powerful against accountability from the masses they exploit. In 2012, the same year these three films came out, voters handed a second electoral mandate to a popular Democratic president whose first term articulated a clear vision of elite impunity. In his first term, Obama made good on the Democratic embrace of elite lawlessness from the 2008 campaign trail, rendering bipartisan the idea that law is something applied to commoners, not oligarchs. Where Dark Knight Rises evoked the dangers of too little authority in a blunt, obvious way, Spider-Man and Chronicle evinced these ideas much more effectively, masking the ideological underpinnings under their gee-whiz spectacle. With the deceptive oratorical finesse of Obama himself, these films offer audiences an elite, authoritarian conception of order where justice exists to protect the powerful from the exploited. Continue reading