Let’s switch tracks for a bit, because politics is getting a wee bit tiring. I’ve been watching some movies recently and I figured I’d (hopefully) entertain you all with some observations about them. So here we go:
To Live And Die In L.A.: This one has long been one of my favorites, though I hadn’t seen it in a while. It’s perhaps best known for starring a bunch of young, pre-fame stars like John Turturro and Willem Dafoe (in his first movie), and for a car chase that ranks among the best ever. In my opinion, it is the best ever, it’s practically an embedded movie within the larger movie whose beats echo everything that’s happened in the story to that point, and includes some insanely desperate choices. This story is at heart a cat-and-mouse story between a secret service agent played by William Petersen and a counterfeiter played by Dafoe, but it’s much more than that. Petersen’s character makes a lot of dangerous choices, he basically sees himself as invulnerable and is frequently prone to hubris. As his partner points out, he could just blow Dafoe’s brains out anytime, a course of action that would be much less dangerous than driving the wrong way down an L.A. freeway. But it’s a game for him, and he doesn’t want to make it too easy because, you know, hubris. And Dafoe treats it like a game as well, at some point he learns who he’s dealing with but still goes through with it, probably because he’s bored doing the same thing over and over again in printing money, and because he’ll never become the artist he wants to be and has a bit of a death wish. I found a lot to think about even though I’ve seen the movie a bunch of times before, which is a sure sign of great art. IMO the movie overdoes it a little bit with the cynicism at the end, but I do think at its root this is the story of a man who would love to be a successful artist, but can’t, and found another skill to get by on that he’s bored by but can’t help but have it become a big part of him. It is, to some extent, a twisted version of the crisis a lot of working people face.
Hey, look at this:
Braveheart: Thesis, meet antithesis. Unlike the last movie, Gibson’s film is morally uncomplicated and has so little cynicism it almost feels guileless: good guys are good all-around and easily identifiable, bad guys are bad all-around and are also easy to spot. (The only characters with significant moral ambiguity are the Scottish nobles, though most follow the program and go onto one side or other after a fashion.) Putting it mildly, a film this straightforward was a few decades out of fashion in the 1990s, nowadays you’ll only find this kind of completely straightforward moral reasoning in something like Courageous, straightforward religious fare by people who literally believe the Devil is making them sin. But I must say that, in spite of this (or because of it?), it’s still a pretty great film. Gibson being behind the curve more often than not works to his advantage, as little things like pacing that modern movies struggle with are particularly strong here–there’s not a single act of violence until 45 minutes into the film, something that is hard to imagine an equivalent film doing now. It’s called build-up, people! Also, considering just how loud the debate over the film’s violence was at the time, it really is notable now for its restraint, as there are so many places where the gore could have been much more over the top than it was. The movie succeeds because it tells an interesting story well, sadly, another anachronistic goal in the age where movies bombard us with sound and image for however long they last. If you’re worn out on Gibson or can’t stand even looking at his face right now, then by all means avoid it. And there are plenty of things to complain about: he refashions the struggle between Longshanks and Wallace into a pagan vs. Christian one, which is self-indulgent and ahistorical, and his preoccupation with violence is as ever it was. It is also the kind of movie that wraps everything up in a nice bow for you, where there’s only really one way to see the characters. But if it’s not all that challenging intellectually, it’s a deeply felt film, highly engaging and astonishing to look at. Many of the key moments continue to have a strong emotional impact. The plot is well-constructed, the performances are solid, and the thorough romanticism of the film is refreshing. This is yet another way in which the film’s old-fashionedness works for it, the kind of power that movies rarely try to channel nowadays. Gibson has to be credited with some really terrific filmmaking throughout, as this three-hour film never drags and often sparkles. Now that I think about it, maybe being anachronistic isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe we could use more anachronisms out there.
Cobra: I have an endless fascination with the Golan-Globus film partnership. The two Israeli schlockmeisters are a fascinating lot, especially their ultra-opportunistic, never-quite-right attempts to nail the American zeitgeist spanning over several decades. They were always just behind the cutting edge, feting hippie culture during the late 1970s (with the loopy The Apple) when conservatism was rapidly beginning its ascent, then spending the ’80s making up for that with “tough on crime” films, like several sequels to Death Wish, that were so over the top in their portrayal of urban crime that it effectively parodied the pathologies of the entire genre (and no, they weren’t smart enough to know it). Death Wish III is to its first film what Cobra is to Dirty Harry, an attempt to exploit the zeitgeist without understanding it one bit, without a similarly compelling story or characters, or much of anything. Sylvester Stallone plays the title character, a Harry Callahan knockoff cross-pollinated with those quirky TV detectives from the ’70s, which is to say that he has affectations, like carrying a match in his mouth like a toothpick, driving a ’60s car, and dressing like Mad Max in repose. The comedy of the affectations undermines the theoretically “gritty” plot in which Cobra has to confront a cult of serial killers. Seriously, that’s what the movie’s about! Stallone of course gives a number of tough-on-crime speeches that are supposed to sound like what Clint would say, only the way they’re written, they sound downright fascist. In Dirty Harry we see justice tragically misapplied in a way that makes you wish that Harry Callahan was out there to protect us from the psychos and justifies his tactics, whereas, in Cobra the misapplication is not shown, merely assumed, which makes the film pretty damn repugnant morally, as if anyone could take it seriously. Though at least they cast Andrew “Garak” Robinson as a detective, which is in itself another Harry ripoff as he played the killer in that film. Still, the guy’s a great actor and always watchable. After their Death Wish sequels and Cobra they avoided social politics with Over The Top, also with Stallone, which was obviously a wise decision.
I would not have thought to put the two together, but Bernstein’s argument about torture and foreign policy actually makes quite a bit of sense. Do read it in full, but the thesis is that the Obama Administration’s forgive and forget torture policy has, among other things, made foreign policy much more contentious and difficult for Obama because of the lack of accountability for people like John Yoo, David Addington, et al. I think there’s a lot of merit to the argument, but I’m not sure I agree with this part of it:
I’ve long argued that the best way out of this would have been (and would still be) blanket pardons for everyone involved in Bush torture policy, along with generous words from Barack Obama about how even when they went terribly wrong, the people involved were fine public servants reacting to a terrifying situation after the September 11 attacks—followed by a truth commission designed both to clarify exactly what happened and to show why torture was a horrible mistake that should never be repeated. Granted, that would require what many would see as a terrible injustice (letting war criminals walk) in the pursuit of a larger goal (reconciliation that included restoring the anti-torture consensus). And it couldn’t guarantee that goal, although in my view it’s the best chance, and better than the leading alternative of prosecutions.
I’ll admit that my skepticism of this solution comes from hearing the judge who presided over Pinochet’s trial speak. His argument that in the case of executive lawbreaking that trials are the only real way to move beyond it informs my thinking here. Critics can pore over the evidence of a trial, critique parts or decisions the judges made or the verdict. But the official weight of a trial makes the situation very different, and it pretty much ensures that everyone’s having the same conversation. No doubt the right would have exploded had Obama gone this far (as if, right?), but I’ve not been convinced that a truth and reconciliation commission would mean anything in the long run, not at all certain it wouldn’t have been dismissed among the right by FOX/Rush/Drudge as liberal vengeance (and therefore not as a chance to re-evaluate their positions), and pardoning lawbreakers because they’re powerful and because it would cause a disruption in the country sends a worse message than merely doing nothing, IMO. It shouts that partisan politics is enough to allow anyone to get away with any crime, that powerful people will never be called to account no matter what. At least doing nothing only whispers that message and leaves the question open, making it a slightly better decision. Also, it’s likely that an investigation and trials would actually lead to educating the public about what the law says on the subject of torture, which could be beneficial since there’s a lot of bullshit about. It’s possible that trials could significantly worsen tensions in the country. Republicans would be irate over them, but they’ve been irate over everything Obama has ever done, and many things he hasn’t. It’s also possible that such an event could undermine opposition to torture even further. But it could also be a real turning point, in a way that pardons and a commission simply wouldn’t be, since the former would have much bigger stakes. It could also, to be fair, have no effect on public opinion at all in general, though substantively full-on prosecutions would matter going forward.
Not that there’s much point of arguing which approach would be best. Obama missed the one time he could have really done something about it politically, which would have been in January 2009. He was unwilling to do it then, for reasons that are all too obvious. To do it now would invite endless questions as to his motives even if he were fully inclined to do it. I guess all we can do is hope that Republicans fall in line behind Rand Paul’s foreign policy sooner than later.
If the Obama administration loses, many might not realize the full-fledged political crisis the president will face. His congressional opposition will be more emboldened, if that was possible. (Any advantage the Democrats hold in the upcoming fiscal fights ahead could quickly disappear.) A year before the 2014 midterms, Democrats will start hitting the panic button with a wounded Democratic president in office. (If you’ve paid attention to politics over the past two decades, when the going gets tough, Democrats often jump ship.) And any lame-duck status for Obama would be expedited. (After all, a “no” vote by Congress would rebuke the nation’s commander-in-chief.)
This implicitly follows the concept of “political capital”, i.e. that power is some sort of ethereal quantity that presidents use up during the course of presidenting. In reality, presidents tend to accomplish victories when there is a strong coalition for what they want to do, and tend not to when one is lacking. Obviously, the coalition is strongest during the first few years of a presidency, when lawmakers swept in on the presidents’ coattails are able to pass more laws that the president desires. Typically, midterm defeats diminish those numbers, and it’s also often the case that presidential re-elections also involve the president’s party losing further in the legislative branch. This is why a president’s influence tends to diminish over time. It is not, though, due to some intangible quality so much as numbers, issues and personalities.
Obama himself chose to bomb Syria. He did this despite knowing that it would cause a split in the Democratic Party. He did this knowing (or not, in which case he’s a fool) that Republican support for anything he chooses to do is about as solid as a sandcastle. His Administration also made a number of key mistakes on this issue, including the backfired scaremongering presentations by Secs. Kerry and Hagel, which were so overwrought, so ineptly characterized opponents of action in a way that made no sense considering how trivial the means and objectives were. “The world will crumble if we can’t make a symbolic statement” is not a strong argument and it appears many politicians treated it as an insult to their intelligence. Additionally, the president’s McCain-first sales job confirmed the worst fears of liberals that regime change was very much the objective, and the hints that he may act absent Congress’s assent are more likely to make Congress want to assert itself in the face of such contempt for its role. Also, jetting off halfway around the world during the key moments of the debate was rather a big mistake, it probably would have been better to put off the entire thing until his return. At the moment it appears unlikely that Congress will authorize the strikes, unless the Obama team proves the be much more adept at operating politically than has seemed the case over the past couple days.
However, the notion that a failure in the House will “end” the Obama presidency is silly. Assuming the Administration loses on Syria (which would be the best outcome for them at this point, IMO), the next debate will be over the debt ceiling, and Obama ought to be able to rally Democrats behind him quite easily. Saying no to a Syrian adventure isn’t going to also entail going wobbly on the sequester or on debt ceiling extortion. An inability to put together a winning coalition on Syria will not mean he’s unable to assemble one elsewhere, what’s more, it’s ahistorical to argue so. FDR’s failure in passing a court-packing bill did not prevent him from winning WWII. Ronald Reagan’s failure to prevent the series of veto overrides in 1987 and 1988–he openly begged Republican senators to sustain the vetoes, to no avail–didn’t stop him from advancing a goal similarly close to his heart: supporting murderous anticommunist Central American militias. Once again, this argument is based on a distorted reading of presidential power, which is that if the president is unable to build a coalition to do whatever he wants, he is therefore a weak president who can not build a coalition to do anything he wants, because he lacks political capital and is therefore “weak”. It is true that political leaders have sometimes managed to get to the point where they have no influence left at all and can’t get anything done period, but typically this involves some kind of major failure or scandal which causes the entire party to lose confidence in their ability to lead. There is simply no reason to believe a botched attempt to bomb Syria would have this effect on Obama.
To put it briefly, the end of the Obama Presidency will be at 11:59 AM on January 20, 2017.
I was just thinking about a recent-ish episode of Dan Carlin’s excellent Hardcore History podcast, in which he said something that really threw me, and that ties into the present Syria debate. He said that, in World War II, Adolf Hitler never used chemical weapons on the battlefield, and might not ever have even considered it. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill intended to use them in the event of a Nazi invasion of Great Britain, after the Dunkirk catastrophe that nearly annihilated the British Army. Which made me think a little bit. We’ve had chemical weapons in various forms for over a century now. And in that time, we’ve had a large number of lawless, authoritarian, sadistic regimes. So why is the use of chemical weapons by state actors as low as it is?
The most obvious answer is that chemical weapons really kind of suck. They present enormous problems to militaries who might use them, since you always stand the risk of gassing your own people along with the enemy. Most militarist authoritarians do not want to do this, as the army is the source of their power. Add in the problems of transportation and maintenance, and you have a genuine security hazard at every stage of these weapons’ use. This explains both why Hitler never was known to consider their usage on the battlefield, and that they’d only be considered by a head of government as a last-ditch, pure desperation move. I really do not think this is a good (i.e. not using chemical weapons) vs. evil (using chemical weapons) type of dynamic. Out of dozens, maybe hundreds, of what anyone would consider evil regimes, almost none have used such weapons. I think it’s fairly logical to infer that what keeps all kinds of regimes from using chemical weapons isn’t a piece of paper, being that most of these regimes are contemptuous of international law and human rights, so much as that the weapons themselves are kind of shitty, new technology introduced during WWI that was deployed in desperation to break a stalemate after generals learned that bayonet charges weren’t going to get it done. Foreign policy liberalists like Barack Obama would like to believe in the inspiring example of a humane, reasonable agreement, but it seems more logical to me that they’re not used because they’re not that good, outside of the psychological terror they create, and there are plenty of other ways of creating that terror that don’t carry the same risks.
Which is to say that I don’t buy Obama’s assumptions on this issue. Launching an attack due to a violation of a norm assumes that the thing that violates the norm is inherently appealing. There’s little evidence of this. Indeed, the argumentation seems to assume that chemical weapons use would spread like wildfire if Syria gets away with it. I’m hardly convinced, because it defies basic logic. This did not occur after Iraq used such weapons in the 1980s, and asking ourselves why seems reasonable. If poison gas really were a battlefield killer app (pun unintended), why wouldn’t someone like Adolf Hitler, who partly measured military success by how many genetically inferior people were killed, and who used gas against civilians, have deployed it constantly against enemy soldiers, especially during the darker later days of the war? Why wouldn’t the Red Army have done so during the Stalinist period? Saddam Hussein is the exception that proves the rule since gassing Iranians and Kurds had to have seemed like a twofer for that monster.
Basically, as with virtually everything about this Syria strike, nothing much makes sense and the more you think about it, the more you want nothing to do with it. Also too, Sully gets it right here.
I strongly oppose any sort of military strike on Syria. But I’d like to think that if it happens, it would be just as limited and just as small as the Administration has been claiming it will be. However, it seems like every which way you turn, there’s strong evidence to cast doubt on this assumption.
On the one hand, this could be equivocal:
While stressing that Washington’s primary goal remained “limited and proportional” attacks, to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and deter their future use, the president hinted at a broader long-term mission that may ultimately bring about a change of regime.
“It also fits into a broader strategy that can bring about over time the kind of strengthening of the opposition and the diplomatic, economic and political pressure required – so that ultimately we have a transition that can bring peace and stability, not only to Syria but to the region,” he told senior members of Congress at a White House meeting on Tuesday.
On the other hand, this probably isn’t:
Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday appeared to leave the door open to the U.S. deploying ground troops in Syria in the event the country “imploded, for instance.”
“In the event Syria imploded, for instance or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of somebody else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies — all of us, the British, the French, and others. I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the President of the United States to secure our country,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, debating whether to authorize President Barack Obama’s punitive strike in response to a reported chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime.
And the incredibly broad language of the AUMF is troubling, though it’s possible it could be “anchoring” such that it makes a limited intervention the safe median option between it and nothing. If they’re even thinking along that track, who really knows.
Kerry is obviously just making this shit up as he goes. Which doesn’t make him any different from the rest of the people in charge, from what I can tell. I’m not a huge fan of Fareed Zakaria generally (h/t Goddard) but he really has the Admin. dead to rights here: “ Now a pundit can engage in grandiose speech. The president of the United States should make declarations like this only if he has some strategy to actually achieve them. He did not.” But as with Libya, what we see is a supposedly cool, calculating POTUS reacting emotionally and illogically in the face of pressure from hawks. I see no reason to give him the benefit of the doubt that it’ll stay limited considering that a limited strike would be just like tossing chum to the piranhas, intensifying the pressure significantly from people like Sens. McCain and Graham, which Obama has proven time and again that he cannot withstand. Also, it’s personally disturbing to me that that’s Obama’s first target here, getting those assholes on board.
Ultimately, I do not like the idea of selective unilateral enforcement of international norms through bombing. However, what troubles me the most is that there’s no evidence of any method here at all. If Obama can be pushed into doing something he resisted doing because of some old quote, what happens when something happens and people bring up the “Assad must go” quote? It’s possible that Obama would indeed keep involvement contained to a small strike, but there are plenty of little problems to be concerned with here.
Arkansas state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R) experiences (simulated) armed-school-teacher reality — as opposed to the Westworld/Chopsocky fantasies the mouths on the right seem to float around in — and is informed thereby:
“The first two simulations they were just all bad guys, and so we got used to running in, you’d go to the sound of the gunfire,” Hutchinson said. “And then they threw a twist in on the third one, where there was what appeared to be a bad guy in the hallway, shooting into the classroom. And so, just instinctively, I shot. And then I turned the corner and see that the bad guy that I had just shot was actually shooting with another bad guy, which kind of blew my mind for a second.”
(Well…sort of informed. Like, maybe 2.5 informed out of a possible 10 informed.)
Violent situations are messy, loud and confusing. This statement is so obvious as to be ridiculous, but after a while you get to suspecting that a certain percentage of the voting (and governing) public whose experience with violence is mainly first person shooters and, say, The Avengers, don’t actually realize this.
Antoinette Tuff, the person who talked down the shooter at the Ronald E McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia the other day, mentioned something similar in various interviews:
I was like, if I go to the bathroom, them bullets don’t have no names on it. Nobody is going to know I’m in the bathroom.
When you fire a bullet, the bullet doesn’t choose targets based on the shooter’s intent. It just hits whatever’s in front of it.
I’m sure there’s something here to be learned about “surgical strikes” and believing folks when they say that the war — any war — will be over by Christmas too, but as my girlfriend’s grandma used to say, “can’t hear; must feel” — and then immediately proceeded to the whackin’s and general distribution of punishments.
Ah, well….on with the show.
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