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

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

Fascism is only fascism when it’s bad for business

May saw two big elections: a European Union-wide contest for Members of European Parliament (MEPs), and India’s election of a new Prime Minister. Both held similar results: the empowerment of neo-fascist elements. However, though the far-right has been victorious in both Europe and India, the reporting has been alarmist in the former, ecstatic in the latter. The way most places reported it, one might not even know that the Indian far-right won anything at all.

Map of European far-right Parliamentary gains from the Telegraph.

Map of European far-right Parliamentary gains from the Telegraph.

In the European Union, reactionary parties took advantage of the widespread misery caused by EU-imposed austerity measures. All speak the usual language of right-wing populism–xenophobia, racism, and ethnic supremacy. Ghouls who’ve long haunted the fringes of European politics like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or the Le Pen dynasty in France benefited as much as relative newcomers like Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party. Europe knows first-hand that long-term economic deprivation leads to resurgent fascism, and overt neo-Nazi parties saw gains in Hungary and Greece. Even Germany–where the swastika is banned outright–elected a neo-Nazi MEP.

In India, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory. The election was a “presidentialization” of the campaign for India’s Head of State: rather than resemble a traditional Parliamentary campaign, the contest was a slick, American-style PR offensive. The BJP is India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party, and during Modi’s tenure as governor of Gujarat, he governed as any reactionary ethnic supremacist would. Civil unrest in Gujarat turned into a pogrom in 2002, which killed over 1,000 people, mostly Gujarati Muslims. When he takes office, Modi will be the only Head of State with a US visa-ban, imposed on him by the State Department after his administration’s tacit approval of the violence. Modi will be forming his coalition government with members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the “ideological fountainhead” of Modi’s MJP. It was a member of the RSS who murdered Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, for Gandhi’s perceived accommodation of Muslims. Continue reading

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

Why the surprise over Obama’s comments on Crimea? The President has been whitewashing the Iraq War since before it began.

Many liberals were shocked this past week when Barack Obama dismissed accusations of American hypocrisy on Crimea by defending the war in Iraq. Responding to accusations that the 2003 invasion has robbed the US of moral authority when it comes to condemning violations of international law, the President declared that Russia’s actions in Crimea are worse than the War in Iraq. The liberal reaction to Obama’s whitewashing of recent history was swift. CommonDreams cited “Anger [and] Disbelief as Obama Defends US Invasion of Iraq.” Huffington Post said “Obama’s Iraq War defense [was] met with surprise.” Slate.com asked “Why did Obama just defend the Iraq War?”

Surprise! Disbelief! Why?  Many liberals are stunned that Obama would undertake what amounts to a whitewash of the Iraq War, given that the President was elected largely on a platform of opposition to the invasion.  It’s a testament to the President’s rhetorical prowess and charisma that, six years into his term, he can still manage to “surprise” his liberal base like this. On the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion, Obama has been remarkably consistent. Obama’s 2014 defense of the Iraq War should be no surprise, because he has been whitewashing the War since before it even started. 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