Posted by TD Steiger, PhD on 30th June 2013
There are two recent works of investigative journalism that should be required for all American citizens. The first is a book called “Drift” by Rachel Maddow, and the second is the film “Dirty Wars” by Jeremy Scahill. Both tackle the issue of American military power and its use in the post-9/11 world, but with very different granularity.
In “Drift” – subtitled “The Unmooring of American Military Power” – Maddow takes a very high-level view and documents the gradual shift in the way in which the US decides to go to war. The US Constitution mandates that a declaration of war be accomplished through an act of Congress, however, the last time that Congress formally declared war was 70 years ago in 1942 for World War II. It is worth noting that there were actually 6 declarations of war associated with WWII as we declared war on Japan, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania with separate Congressional votes. Such niceties seem almost incomprehensible today.
Instead Congress has gradually ceded its oversight of military matters to the Executive Branch to such a degree that today the President can unilaterally order a military action virtually anywhere on the globe via drone-launched missile strikes without even having to admit that a strike took place. The reason for this is clear: The public does not like war. In an open democracy the lack of popularity of war could infringe upon the government’s ability to act freely in pursuit of its policy goals. Hence, the less the public knows the better.
As Maddow points out, this process started before 9/11. In fact, it was a key driver of the elimination of the draft in 1973, since it is difficult to hide the fact that we are at war when people are being randomly plucked from the street to go and fight. However, the process accelerated dramatically after 9/11 when we, as a nation, accepted without question the ludicrous proposition that we were going to war with a noun.
Merriam-Webster defines war as: “A state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations.” And herein lies the problem. Terrorism is not a state or a nation. Neither is al Quaeda. A classically defined war ends when one of the nations involved surrenders. “Terrorism” will never surrender.
On a side note, it is true but not often pointed out that George W. Bush was actually correct when he stood on that aircraft carrier under the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner: The war between the US and Iraq ended as soon as Saddam Hussein was overthrown. What followed for a good decade longer was not a war, but rather an occupation. This is inconvenient because history doesn’t tend to paint occupiers in a favorable light and so Americans don’t like to think of themselves as occupiers. Nevertheless, words have meanings and when the government of Iraq fell the war was over, by definition.
While the trend toward less public oversight of the military is certainly worrying, Maddow takes a fairly academic tone and paints this as primarily an issue of public policy. By contrast, in “Dirty Wars” Jeremy Scahill puts his boots on the ground and examines the direct consequences of this policy up close and personal. While important, the film is difficult to watch because Americans are brought up to think of themselves as the Good Guys. When talking to the survivors of the collateral damage caused by hellfire missiles it becomes difficult to see Americans as the Good Guys.
In one particularly chilling episode, Scahill is interviewing a Somali warlord in Mogadishu who is known for his ruthlessness. It is worth pointing out that he is not known for ruthlessness when compared to average citizens; he is known for ruthlessness when compared to other Somali warlords. This warlord calls Americans the “masters of war” and claims that he has learned a lot from us. Think about that for a moment.
Scahill backed into this story almost unintentionally. He was a reporter in Kabul doing fairly standard war reporting when he became curious about the terse summaries of “night raids” that were being issued on an almost daily basis. Little more than a location and the number of al Quaeda killed and usually containing the phrase “no civilians injured” these updates made Scahill curious as to who, exactly, was conducting these raids with such incredible precision.
So he went to find out.
His first stop was Gardez, Afghanistan, a place far outside any zone considered remotely green where journalists seldom, if ever, went. What he found there was a family who told a horrific story about a joyful family gathering to celebrate a recent birth that was terminated by a hail of gunfire from US Navy SEALs. The dead included an American-trained local police commander and two pregnant women. From a strategic perspective in the War on Terror this was an unfortunate failure of intelligence resulting in collateral damage. These things happen. But from the perspective of this Afghan family it was not only an event of life-altering devastation, but also an act of incomprehensible evil. The next time you’re at a baby shower try to imagine soldiers from a far-off nation dropping out of the sky from helicopters and shooting up the festivities.
One of the men Scahill interviewed said that he had wanted to strap on a suicide vest and go kill as many Americans as possible. Not because he hated our freedom, but because we killed his pregnant wife and his sister for no reason that he could discern or comprehend. Fortunately his father talked him out of it, but the episode illustrates the difficulty in attacking an ideology through military means. There is a tendency to create more enemies than you eliminate.
Initially, unfortunately, the military denied the version of events reported by Scahill and others and tried to discredit the journalists. In fact, the Afghans claimed that the American soldiers had actually used knives to dig the bullets out of the dead bodies in order to leave no evidence behind. But eventually the commander of the SEALs who conducted the raid, Vice Adm. William McRaven, visited Gardez to apologize to the family in person, oddly offering to sacrifice a goat in penance.
At the time McRaven was in charge of the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC: a shadowy counter-terrorism organization that reports directly to the President. And it is with JSOC that Maddow’s book and Scahill’s film really overlap. JSOC is, effectively, the personal hit squad of the President of the United States. They operate on direct orders from the President, with no Congressional oversight and without the knowledge of the normal military command structure or even the CIA, much less the American public. JSOC is the ultimate logical conclusion of Maddow’s drift from America being a country that goes to war rarely, but goes to war together, to us being a country in a continual military conflict that takes place out of sight and is conducted by a tiny few.
One of the consequences of this policy that Scahill documents is the extrajudicial execution of an American teenager at the order of the President. This was not collateral damage; this 16yo US citizen was the intended target. Regardless of how you feel about the President, the military, or the effectiveness of the War on Terror, surely this sort of power is too easily abused to be tolerated.
Neither Maddow nor Scahill argue that the US is evil or that we are killing innocent people on purpose. And neither deny that US policy has been incredibly effective at dismantling al Quaeda. Rather they point out that our (perfectly understandable) desire for safety has created a system without checks and balances that single-mindedly pursues its goals with no thought to any unintended consequences.
How did we get here?
I believe that the American public tacitly adopted a “zero tolerance” policy after 9/11. Those events were so horrific and traumatizing that we, as a nation, declared “Never again!” The government, as is perfectly correct in a democracy, took us seriously and started going about the business of figuring out what would be required to completely eliminate terrorism. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in American foreign policy, the military option was not only the primary solution considered, but was really the only solution considered. This put us on a slippery slope, and the public’s agreement to look the other way as long as there were no more attacks led us straight to JSOC.
The problem, I believe, was in the initial assumption of zero tolerance. This was perhaps understandable as we were reeling in the aftermath of 9/11, but it was never revisited. We just sort of assumed that obviously as Americans we should not have to put up with terrorist attacks and we never questioned whether that makes any sense.
It doesn’t make any sense.
This may sound radical at first blush but it really is not. Let me explain. Let’s take a look at a couple causes of preventable deaths that are far more common than terrorist attacks: gun violence and traffic accidents. Both gun violence and traffic accidents cause a little over 30k deaths per year in America. Each. Roughly speaking that’s a 9/11 per month. Each. A 9/11’s worth of people are killed by guns in this country and another 9/11’s worth of people are killed by cars in this country each and every month. And we tolerate it.
It’s tempting to say that this is sad and unfortunate, but it is unavoidable. Let’s put aside guns and just look at traffic deaths. Are they really unavoidable? Anyone who has ever watched a NASCAR race has seen a car slam into a brick wall at 200MPH only to have the driver walk away without a scratch. What this tells me is that there is really no technological reason for people to die in car crashes. We have the technology to make cars essentially totally safe. The downside, of course, is that these totally safe cars would only cary one person and would cost a couple hundred thousand dollars. Alternatively, we could mandate that all cars be constructed so that they are physically incapable of exceeding a certain safe speed. Pick a number: 25MPH? 35MPH? Sure it would take longer to get places, but think of the lives saved!
We don’t do this, of course, because either of these solutions would be an incredible imposition on what we have come to accept as the American way of life revolving around individual freedom of movement. You can dress it up in fancy patriot language, but the bottom line is that we don’t do it because it would be inconvenient. We don’t generally think of it in these terms, but essentially we as a culture have decided that we are willing to tolerate the equivalent of a 9/11 attack each and every month in exchange for the convenience of owning an affordable car.
Shouldn’t we be willing to tolerate a 9/11 attack a decade – or heck every year – in order to guarantee that our President cannot kill pregnant women or American teenagers on a whim without repercussions? Benjamin Franklin once famously said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” In other words: Freedom isn’t free. For the incalculable benefit of living in a free and just society we should, nay we must, accept the cost of increased danger. This would be true even if the danger were appreciable, but it is not. The death rate from terrorism never has and never will remotely approach the death rate from traffic accidents. And no one is arguing that we should eliminate cars.
It is time that we reign in our out-of-control security apparatus, restore a system of checks and balances, and bravely accept a future that is (slightly) less certain. Please vote accordingly.
Posted by TD Steiger, PhD on 24th June 2013
Shot in a few days for roughly the catering budget of The Avengers, Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing appears, at first glance, to be a trivial dalliance between Whedon and his circle of intimates. The cast looks like a class reunion in the Whedonverse, with alums from Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and even The Avengers playing prominent roles.
The film is set in the modern day, but employs the original Shakespearian dialogue. This, and the fact that it is shot in black and white, makes the film a little disorienting at first – especially with all the talk of valiant princes returning from the wars in the opening scenes. But you soon get your bearings, in no small part due to Whedon’s deft direction.
Joss Whedon is known primarily for plot and character, but with Much Ado he shows that he has a director’s eye. Shot within the confines of his own house using digital cameras, Whedon turns these limitations into strengths and consistently finds angles for his shots that are interesting and engaging without being overpowering. This skillful presentation of familiar domestic settings helps to offset the unfamiliar dialogue and lack of color and draw the viewer in. Whedon also throws in several subtle visual gags that feel like little in-jokes with the audience.
But make no mistake: this film lives or dies at the hands of the actors, and they produce magic. They are not Delivering Lines, trying to impress you with their ability to remember every verily and forsooth. They dig down into each line of dialogue, extract the meaning, and then emote that meaning while speaking the lines in such an unaffected and natural manner that you often barely hear the Elizabethan English at all. Freed from the need to project their voices to the back of a theater the actors concentrate all of their energy on, well, acting. It’s thrilling to watch.
Sure, there are some instances of comic over-acting, particularly on the part of Alexis Denisof as Benedick. But this is largely intentional and very much in keeping with Much Ado’s role as arguably the first RomCom.
When staging Shakespeare the first and most important decision is what to do with the dialogue. It is always tempting to update the dialogue to make the production more accessible to modern audiences. The problem is that there is no middle ground. You can’t clarify the meaning of the more archaic passages without losing the soaring poetry used to express universal themes. By updating the scenery but not the dialogue Whedon finds a way to invite the audience in so that his actors can deliver the goods. If this is what he can accomplish on a few days off from his day job one wonders if there is anything this man can’t do.
Posted by TD Steiger, PhD on 9th June 2013
You know how toddlers think that adults are indestructible? They will run across the room and launch themselves to land knees-first on your chest not because they want to hurt you, but because they don’t understand the concept that they CAN hurt you. I think in our modern celebrity culture this is the perspective of the Haters. They see anyone in the limelight not as people but as untouchable, invulnerable deities – even if the limelight is only a spotlight in a dive bar.
Recently I have had the extreme pleasure of watching some wildly creative and talented musicians take some of their first furtive steps on their careers as Touring Musicians. The experience was illuminating, heart-warming, and bracing. It was revelatory for me, and part of the revelation was, perhaps, a possible explanation for how people who have not had such an experience could end up as Internet Haters.
Boston-based bands Jaggery (@JaggeryMusic) and Walter Sickert & the ARmy of BRoken TOys (@WalterSickert, @armyoftoys) recently completed their first-ever West Coast tour. One show, in particular, was memorable. The venue was an absolute dive, complete with pinball machines and a pool table. And the show got off to a late start due to the necessity of repairing a hole in the stage floor. There were few people in attendance, and most of them were randoms off the street who didn’t even know there would be bands, let alone who the bands would be. Two magical things happened.
The first magic occurred on stage. Both bands torched their sets and absolutely brought the house down. And this despite the fact that Walter Sickert was so sick that he could barely stand. They could easily have taken a night off and phoned in a lack-luster performance, but they poured out every ounce of their prodigious talent.
But the real magic happened after the show: The response of the largely indifferent crowd was phenomenal. New fans were created as person after person came up to the performers and expressed their gratitude and awe. Talking to the members of both bands after the show was mind-blowing. Being a bit of a misanthropic cynic myself, I expected some griping about the lousy venue or the meager turn-out. Instead, the performers were incredibly energized and animated. They knew they had performed well, but to have that knowledge validated by complete strangers was intoxicating for them and it showed.
And I thought, ‘This is how it starts.’
Not long after, New York-based piano prodigy and electronic music wizard Tristan Allen (@tristanmmallen) had a similar experience, coincidentally in the same city – Phoenix. Tristan arrived at the venue (which was only slightly less divey than the one where Jaggery and Walter Sickert played) and said, “I’m here to play tonight!” only to be greeted with, “Who are you?”
The promoter had given the bar the wrong date and they were not expecting him.
He could have easily given up and left; there were only ~10-15 people in the bar. But he soldiered on, set up his equipment, and took the stage at around 1:30AM. Three bands had already played that night, and they were all … well … let’s just say they were strongly influenced by Classic Rock. Tristan is an electronic musician and even he describes his music as “experimental.”
Again, magic. Tristan ripped off a killer 40-minute set and there was no room on the floor for more jaws. People who had probably never heard of, much less heard, electronic music before came up to him afterwards to say how blown away they were. One guy handed him a business card and said, “I do some rap and if you ever want to do something with an MC I’d love to work with you.” And again, though it would have been easy to be disgruntled about the mix-up and the tiny crowd and the fact that he was barely paid, Tristan was ecstatic.
And I thought, ‘This is how it starts.’
It’s fairly unlikely that something will come from that specific encounter with the MC, but music careers are built out of a myriad of exactly those types of interactions. Not just the connections, but also the encouragement.
And I realized that music careers are like trees: They start out tiny and fragile and easily destroyed by a stray footfall. But with a little luck and nurturing they can grow healthy and strong and enduring. When you see the beginning of the process up close you realize how brave these people are and how tenuous is their position. Touring is exhausting and the rewards – if you count them in money – are tiny. A tour that breaks even, leaving the band with no money, but no debt, is considered a success. A few Haters in the audience – maybe just one – could be the final straw that causes someone to conclude that it is just not worth it.
I doubt many if any Internet Haters have this perspective.
This lack of perspective might explain the odd thoughtless comment, but why actively hate? Imagine a young hero (I’m thinking Harryhausen flick here) who feels he has been beaten down by the distant, uncaring, immutable gods. He is filled with impotent rage and his quest becomes to strike back at the gods, even in a small symbolic way. What if he could hurt the gods, even a little? Wouldn’t they then have to acknowledge him? Wouldn’t this be an accomplishment to set him apart from the nameless, faceless masses?
I think maybe at least some Haters are not thinking, ‘What can I say to drive my point home?’ but rather, ‘What could I possibly say that could hurt a god?’ They see creative people being praised and they don’t see all of the struggle and strife that went into whatever modicum of success the creatives have achieved. From the Haters’ perspective the praise is just handed to the creatives for no good reason.
An understandable response to such Haters is to disengage and avoid them. But this is akin to the gods retreating to an unattainable Olympus and may even provoke more extreme hatred. However, social media now provide celebrities of all statures with a way to engage the public constructively. By sharing their tribulations as well as their triumphs, celebrities can reveal their humanity as well as the difficult process by which they have achieved success.
Unfortunately, this will not eliminate Haters overnight, but a gradual cultural shift in this direction may demystify the creative process and remove some of the motivations of the Haters. I can’t imagine that anyone who has seen what I have seen – how success starts late at night in a dive bar with a handful of people – could want to do anything but help and support artists. And not just those struggling musicians in the dives, but all artists everywhere. Because even the mightiest oak in the forest was once a tiny seedling, easily crushed.