Notes on how things seem to me from out here in Hollywood... As seen from Just Above Sunset
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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Wednesday, 23 June 2004

Topic: Dissent

Less in no longer Moore, and never was.
Time to pull together what seems to be happening regarding this:
'Fahrenheit 9/11'

MPAA rating:
R for some violent and disturbing images and for language. Explicit footage of dead and badly wounded Iraqis, shots of charred bodies of Americans being beaten and suspended from a bridge.

Details and all that sort of thing:
Lions Gate Films and IFC Films and the Fellowship Adventure Group present a Dog Eat Dog production, released by Lions Gate Films.
Director - Michael Moore.
Producers - Michael Moore, Jim Czarnecki, Kathleen Glynn.
Executive producers - Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Agnes Mentre.
Screenplay - Michael Moore.
Cinematographer - Mike Desjarlais.
Editors - Kurt Engfehr, Christopher Seward, T. Woody Richman.
Music - Jeff Gibbs.
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
The film is in general release, or will be at the end of the week.

As this comes to you from Hollywood (a few doors down from Hollywood Boulevard and a block above the Sunset Strip) the key review is, of course, in the general newspaper of record here, the Los Angeles Times.

You can find that here:

'Fahrenheit 9/11' - Michael Moore's partisan yet provocative film commands attention.
Kenneth Turan, June 23 2004

Ken likes it. Ken likes Zola too.
He didn't call it "J'Accuse!" but he might as well have.

Like Emile Zola, whose celebrated 19th century open letter assailed the French government for being a party to intolerable injustice, Michael Moore in "Fahrenheit 9/11" has launched an unapologetic attack, both savage and savvy, on an administration he feels has betrayed the best of America and done extensive damage in the world.
I've not heard Moore invoke Zola, but that works for me.

Snippets from the review?
Unabashedly partisan, wearing its determination to bring about political change on its sleeve, "Fahrenheit" can be nitpicked and second-guessed, but it can't be ignored.

... Both in form and effect, "Fahrenheit" goes a step beyond Moore's Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine." He's never made a documentary that so literally embodies the clich? of being ripped from today's headlines, that arrives in theaters precisely as the issues he's concerned with are getting maximum attention within the context of a heated presidential campaign. In fact, neither has anybody else. "Fahrenheit 9/11's" determination to rewrite the rules of what Americans go to see in theaters has more kinship with Mel Gibson's equally convention-shattering "The Passion of the Christ" -- but the audience it seeks to galvanize is at the other end of the political spectrum.
Many are making that comparison - Gibson and Moore. The idea is to have some influence.

Turan says the film is propaganda. Of course it is. But he comments that propaganda is most effective when it has elements of truth, and that too much here is taken from the record not to have a "devastating effect" on viewers.

And propaganda is best when there's a point of view, and some passion in the presentation, and we get that -
Now, seething with a controlled fury, Moore is angrier than ever; like Peter Finch's anchorman in "Network," he's fed up and not about to take it anymore. As outraged about Sept. 11 as any neo-con, he's livid about what's been done in its name. And he gives no one, least of all President Bush, the slightest benefit of the doubt.
So any critique that the film is not "fair and balanced" just misses the whole point. It is, well, opinion, and a seeing things in a way that others do not.
This film isn't about the Bush family relationship to Saudi Arabia, the excesses of the Patriot Act or the pitfalls of the invasion of Iraq, though it touches on those topics. Instead we get a full-blown alternate history of the last three-plus years. Moore makes a persuasive and unrelenting case that there is another way to look at things beyond the version we've been given.
And Turan trots out examples and caps his list with what many have focused on and may be the core argument Moore is making -
Perhaps the most disturbing of all is footage showing the president on the morning of Sept. 11, continuing with a photo op involving a Florida elementary school class reading "My Pet Goat" for nearly seven minutes after having been told that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center.

It's an unflattering picture of irresolution and even paralysis, one that informs Moore's thesis -- of a president in over his head -- and pervades the entire film.
We are told George Bush is wise, resolute, clear on what he knows needs to be done (even if he cannot seem to express that very articulately) - a man of "Moral Clarity."

Turan points out Moore finds Bush and his crew anything but -
Appropriating some conservatives' tendency to go for the jugular, Moore is not above making people look silly. We see extensive use of "the feed," embarrassing moments culled from TV outtakes -- images like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz grotesquely licking his comb to help his hair stay in place.

The Wolfowitz clip, one you won't be able to forget even if you want to, is a clear example of Moore at his most vulnerable and most effective. It leaves him open to charges that he's being unfair, that he's mocking human frailty. But he's willing to take the risk to make his point.

Moore refuses to pass up an opportunity to show us how ridiculous, how awkward, how vain are the people who've successfully sold themselves as all-knowing Great White Fathers who have the gravitas to be trusted absolutely. It's a daring ploy, and, silly though it may seem, it shows us how willing Moore is to use any tool he can to get his job done. Wake up, America, he's saying, these are the people you've trusted your children's lives to.
And that seems as good a summary of the film as any.

Well, there are other views of the film.

This week Christopher Hitchens, in a point-by-point analysis of events shown in the film and the implied contentions of those images, pretty much tears Moore's film to shreds.

See Unfairenheit 911
The lies of Michael Moore.
Christopher Hitchens, SLATE.COM - Posted Monday, June 21, 2004, at 12:26 PM PT

The general idea?
To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 911 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of "dissenting" bravery.
And the Hitchens goes on to explain what he means by this, point by point.

The analysis in long and detailed, and the link will take you there.

Hitchens simply disagrees with Moore's view of many of the facts, and certainly disagrees with the facile conclusions Moore, he says, draws from these facts -
... in spite of the film's loaded bias against the work of the mind, you can grasp even while watching it that Michael Moore has just said, in so many words, the one thing that no reflective or informed person can possibly believe: that Saddam Hussein was no problem. No problem at all. Now look again at the facts I have cited above. If these things had been allowed to happen under any other administration, you can be sure that Moore and others would now glibly be accusing the president of ignoring, or of having ignored, some fairly unmistakable "warnings."
Moore is rabble-rousing, it seems, from a position of willful ignorance. And he contradicts himself. And Moore hasn't thought things through, or thought very deeply at all.

Read the detailed argument and you might agree. You too might begin to wonder if in this film there may be a whole lot more feeling - rage, perhaps patriot rage, and despair - than there is much deep thinking, or careful thinking, or even logical thinking.

Does that matter at all?
Some people soothingly say that one should relax about all this. It's only a movie. No biggie. It's no worse than the tomfoolery of Oliver Stone. It's kick-ass entertainment. It might even help get out "the youth vote." Yeah, well, I have myself written and presented about a dozen low-budget made-for-TV documentaries, on subjects as various as Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton and the Cyprus crisis, and I also helped produce a slightly more polished one on Henry Kissinger that was shown in movie theaters. So, I know, thanks, before you tell me, that a documentary must have a "POV" or point of view, and that it must also impose a narrative line. But if you leave out absolutely everything that might give your "narrative" a problem, and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft. If you flatter and fawn upon your potential audience, I might add, you are patronizing them and insulting them.

... If Michael Moore had had his way, Slobodan Milosevic would still be the big man in a starved and tyrannical Serbia. Bosnia and Kosovo would have been cleansed and annexed. If Michael Moore had been listened to, Afghanistan would still be under Taliban rule and Kuwait would have remained part of Iraq. And Iraq itself would still be the personal property of a psychopathic crime family, bargaining covertly with the slave state of North Korea for WMD. You might hope that a retrospective awareness of this kind would induce a little modesty. To the contrary, it is employed to pump air into one of the great sagging blimps of our sorry, mediocre, celeb-rotten culture.
But otherwise he liked the film?

I just caught Hitchens being interviewed on MSNBC about the film and he mentioned a term one uses in the scientific community in the realm of pure and even applied research. When someone comes up with a theory or an explanation that is so mind-bogglingly stupid and so divorced from any facts or observations anyone has made, well, one says, "It's not even stupid." That how Hitch sees this film.

On the other hand, he was scathing about the efforts to ban the film or intimidate theaters from showing it. [See Asking the right questions? in last weekend's Just Above Sunset for an discussion of that business.] " How dumb or thuggish do you have to be in order to counter one form of stupidity and cowardice with another? By all means go and see this terrible film, and take your friends, and if the fools in the audience strike up one cry, in favor of surrender or defeat, feel free to join in the conversation."

Fair enough.

One also see at SLATE.COM the Michael Moore thinks folks will charge him with libel. My friends who have websites, and I, don't worry about such things. I'm no lawyer, but this below strikes me as a good primer on libel law.

See Libel Suit 9/11
Michael Moore's hysterical, empty threats.
Jack Shafer - Posted Monday, June 21, 2004, at 4:16 PM PT - SLATE.COM

The key conclusion?
The first peculiar thing about Moore's libel-mongering is that most American journalists disdain libel suits as a matter of principle. Even when they have good cause for a suit, most journalists refrain from filing, believing that libel threats keep topics of controversy from being aired. They'd rather contest hostile attacks on their work in the marketplace of ideas, not courtrooms. Why Moore, the former editor of the Michigan Voice and a regular purveyor of controversial journalism, has chosen to break with this tradition is anybody's guess.
What's this about?

It seems Moore told the New York Times on Sunday (June 20, 2004). "The most important thing we have is truth on our side. If they persist in telling lies, knowingly telling a lie with malice, then I'll take them to court."

Moore "has consulted with lawyers who can bring defamation suits against anyone who maligns the film or damages his reputation," and that he's established a "war room" to monitor attacks on the film.

Really? What for? Shafer say this:
... if Moore wants to sue anyone who maligns his film, he certainly has a legal right to do so. But will he get very far?

Not likely.

Defamation (written libel) occurs when somebody publishes as fact something that is false, is "unprivileged," and harms somebody's reputation by making him the object of hatred or ridicule, causes him to be shunned, or injures him financially or professionally. So unless Moore's critics call him a liar, a felon, a murderer, a chiseler, a Nazi, a child molester, tax evader or any other false statement that is objectively provable, they'll likely not receive a court summons from his lawyers. ...

Likewise, no court would be inclined to find in Moore's favor if a critic accused him of lying once or twice or 12 times in Fahrenheit 9/11, or accused him of bending facts to his convenience, or damned him for being disingenuous. This sort of subjective expression of opinion is protected under the law, and there's nothing the blustering Moore can do to stop his critics from making them. Given the thousands of wildly hostile film, book, and restaurant reviews published each year, court dockets would be overflowing with libel suits if bringing one was as easy as Moore pretends to think it is.
Opinion is protected.

This does seem to be hype.

Our friend Ric Erickson in Paris sends an email - he sees more here, and sees Moore here differently.
I think Moore's open threat to engage lawyers to combat libel has been misunderstood. Moore isn't gearing up to defend the film against charges of libel; he's letting everybody know he's willing and ready to defend himself and the film from libel.

Seemingly forgotten are all those pieces over the last couple of years by maddened and insane right-wing commentators - the ones calling for the 'bombing of Canada,' the ones calling for 'killing liberals.' They were dangerously irresponsible even if their words weren't actionable.

Moore has given them a fair warning - his lawyers are ready to defend the film against attacks from loose-mouthed pinheaded crazies.

I don't think Moore's intent was to prohibit somebody like Hitchens from boring everybody to death.
No, the Hitchens review was not libel. And perhaps it was boring.

But the battle has been joined. The films open here in Hollywood on the 25th and perhaps I'll cover events on the corner, at the Sunset 5 theaters, where I think it's booked. I'll take my camera should there be fistfights and police action and such.

But that is not likely here in liberal-left Hollywood.



But libel is not the issue it seems. Moore is being sued for violations of the Federal Campaign laws.

See - Michael Moore Film Violates Campaign Finance Law, Group Alleges
Susan Jones Morning Editor, June 23, 2004
... A conservative advocacy group says Michael Moore's Bush-bashing movie Fahrenheit 911 violates federal election law, and on Wednesday, the group is taking its complaint straight to the doorstep of the Federal Election Commission.

David N. Bossie, president of Citizens United, said he will hold a press conference at 10:30 a.m. today to release details of the complaint and explain which laws were broken.

... Citizens United's general counsel also will attend Wednesday's press conference to discuss details of the allegations -- and Citizens United said "documents will be hand-delivered to several government agencies immediately following the media briefing."

Citizens United describes itself as an organization dedicated to restoring the federal government to citizens' control through a combination of education, advocacy, and grass roots organization.

The group "seeks to reassert the traditional American values of limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security," its website says.

In recent weeks, Citizens United has run an "anti-Clinton" advertisement "exposing the real legacy President Bill Clinton left for America." The ad was timed to coincide with the release of Clinton's new book.

Citizens United also has run an ad challenging the support of the firefighters' union for Democrat John F. Kerry: "Many of our local heroes, firefighters and first responders are proud of Pres Bush's leadership in the war on terror and stand behind him in the fight to seek justice for those who murdered over 3,000 innocent Americans on 9/11," the Citizens United website says.

Citizens United also offered an online petition calling on Sens. John Kerry and Ted Kennedy to "stop politicizing the actions of a few rogue military personnel" at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. "Stop slamming and demoralizing our troops, and stop using these awful events as a means to fortify the Kerry campaign warchest," the petition said.
I'm not sure I understand this. Moore's film never mentions John Kerry. It never advocates for him.

Well, maybe that is implicit as the film suggests Bush should be voted out of office.

Is the claim Kerry illegally funded the film? Disney did, and the Weinstein brothers bought the rights from Disney to distribute the film. Is the claim that the Weinstein brothers got the six million dollars to do this from Kerry's election campaign fund?

Perhaps this last item is just silliness.

Posted by Alan at 18:37 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 23 June 2004 20:02 PDT home

Topic: The Media

The news media wakes up and starts doing its job - when it is far too late to matter and no one much cares.
Oh well.

This week my friend Rick, the news guy, in our ongoing dialog about America and the world right now, and about Steve Holmes' views and all the rest, here, had a lot to say.

Rick has worked for CNN, AP and NBC so he has strong views about the American press. In reaction to Holmes suggesting autistic was a good word to describe how the media have covered the national discourse that led us to war, and the general coverage of what the administrations says (less than skepticism - little more than transcription of the official point of view) Rick commented -
I just so wish we could go back to the days when delivering news was considered a sacred public trust, instead of an opportunity to "enhance shareholder value" by being the most popular kid in school. (I caught just part of Michael Moore speaking with Katie Couric this morning, and thought he was right on when he said something like, "You news people are in the privileged position of asking these people any question you want, and going into this war, you didn't do it. You really let us down!")
Someone at AP might have been listening to that.

It seems someone at the AP where Rick used to work suddenly grew a backbone. One can only speculate why, and why now. The climate is changing? Moore got folks riled?

I sent Rick this unusual item - the press being skeptical... and actually doing something other than transcription.

AP Sues for Access to Bush Guard Records
Pete Yost - Associated Press - Posted on Tue, Jun. 22, 2004
WASHINGTON - The Associated Press sued the Pentagon and the Air Force on Tuesday, seeking access to all records of George W. Bush's military service during the Vietnam War.

Filed in federal court in New York, where The AP is headquartered, the lawsuit seeks access to a copy of Bush's microfilmed personnel file from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission in Austin.

The White House says the government has already released all the records of Bush's military service.

Controversy surrounds Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard because it is unclear from the record what duties he performed for the military when he was working on the political campaign of a U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama.

There are questions as to whether the file provided to the news media earlier this year is complete, says the lawsuit, adding that these questions could possibly be answered by reviewing a copy of the microfilm of Bush's personnel file in the Texas archives.

The Air National Guard of the United States, a federal entity, has control of the microfilm, which should be disclosed in its entirety under the Freedom of Information Act, the lawsuit says.

The White House has yet to respond to a request by the AP in April asking the president to sign a written waiver of his right to keep records of his military service confidential. Bush gave an oral waiver in a TV appearance that preceded the White House's release this year of materials concerning his National Guard service.

The government "did not expedite their response ... they did not produce the file within the time required by law, and they will not now estimate when the file might be produced or even confirm that an effort has been initiated to retrieve a copy from the microfilm at the Texas archives," the lawsuit says.

In the absence of any privacy objection by the president and in light of the importance of the file's release in advance of the November election, says the lawsuit, AP seeks a court order to compel the release of records "that are being unlawfully withheld from the public."
And the item goes on with details of custody and authority and such.

Now this is odd. Such a suit, filed in the years since the September 11 attacks, should have made everyone jump up and scream the AP was being unpatriotic, undermining the president, supporting the terrorists - that the AP hated America and all the rest. The times have now changed.

Of course I'm not clear about the Federal Freedom of Information Act. I thought it has been superceded by provisions of the Patriot Act - rendering it null and void. Maybe not.

Rick's reaction?
No, as far as I know, the Freedom of Information Act hasn't yet been superceded. Then again, we live in times in which all sorts of things you thought you could always count on seem to come and go in the night while we're sleeping, without prior notice and not nearly enough fuss or understanding paid them afterward. ("Back to your homes, citizens! Nothing going on here! We just need to borrow a few of your constitutional rights and protections for a while! But they will be returned to you once we determine that this crisis has passed! After all, there's a war on, in case you hadn't noticed!")

Still, notwithstanding the specific mention in the AP suit of the timeliness factor in light of the November elections, my recollection of the FOIA is that AP may finally get those materials just before the elections in 2008, and there will be nothing anyone can do about it.

Oddly, when I worked for The AP during the Vietnam War, the wire service was famous for reflecting the politics of its owners (newspaper publishers), and therefore tended to support whatever a current administration wanted them to. But this lawsuit looks like a healthy sign.

But I do contend that what anyone did during the Vietnam War era will probably continue to be a non-issue in this campaign, and here's why:

The Democrats, desperately seeking someone who looked "electable," trotted out a Vietnam War hero -- not because Democrats are genuinely impressed with war heroes, but because they thought it would neutralize a "wartime" president who seemingly not only used his father's influence to weasel out of going to Vietnam, but apparently also weaseled out of serving all of his alternative service.

Now, the problem with this plan is that, (a) although it makes Democratic voters feel good that their guy doesn't just talk the talk but, as his record shows, actually did walk the walk, (b) Republican voters don't really care about how you may have walked back then, they care only about how you talk right now. In other words, Kerry talks like a wimpy Democrat, not a tough-talking Republican, so who cares about his history? To this dilemma for the Democrats, you can add that (c) Independent swing voters, who will be the ones to decide the election, just don't care about this issue either way; they just want to know which guy is best for the economy.

What's interesting about the Democratic 2004 plan is that it mirrors the Republican plan of 2000, in which Bush made himself available as the likely "electable" candidate very early on, arguing that he was a "compassionate conservative".

But, I further contend, that ploy was not really as foolproof as it looked either, since the word "compassion" is not a word used by liberals as much as by conservatives, and derogatorily at that (e.g., "We conservatives don't measure our compassion by how many losers we can get onto the welfare rolls!")

Then again, the approach did serve the purpose of getting fellow conservatives to think that Bush could pull a Clintonesque "triangulation" trick, which made him look "electable" enough to chase other Republican candidates off the field early, thusly avoiding the "seven dwarves" syndrome that so often befalls out-of-power parties in election years.

(I always imagine some conservative, as he first heard the phrase, asking nobody in particular, "'Compassionate Conservative?' What the hell is that supposed to mean?!? 'Compassionate'? ... Oh! Oh, yeah! Yeah, that's right, our guy is not only a 'Conservative,' he's a 'Compassionate' one! Ha! Let's see them top that one!")

"Yeah," you may be asking, "but since he won, I guess the ploy worked for Bush after all, didn't it?"

Maybe, but maybe not. Ask yourself this: Which candidate got the most votes? Only with the help of the famous fickle finger of fate -- not to mention a cartel of carpetbagging protestors in Florida and "activist judges" (see note) in Washington-- did the Republicans finally squeak through.

So this time around, just maybe the Democrats will get as lucky.

... Rick

Note: I find that every time I hear George W. Bush rant about "activist judges," the term "shouldn't bite the hand that feeds you" comes to mind.
So I gather the AP lawsuit is (1.) a good sign - the press it waking up. But (2.) it won't achieve its goal in time to matter to anyone. And (3.) even if it did produce these military records in the next few months, it wouldn't matter to anyone. Everyone had made up his or her mind about all this stuff long ago, or, if not, doesn't much care.

One in three isn't bad.

Posted by Alan at 15:41 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Tuesday, 22 June 2004

Topic: Oddities

The French. Cats. Madness.

I sent this Reuters item along to Ric Erickson of MetropoleParis and also to the person I will refer to as "The Chicago Francophile" (TCF) for now. TCF just returned from France as you see from the photos in Just Above Sunset here.

There are strange things happening over there in France.

'Panther on the Loose' Is a Cat'
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - The southern French city of Marseille called off a three-week hunt for a black panther on Tuesday after the animal sighted by several residents turned out to be a large house cat.

"The 'panther' is just a black house cat -- a very big one though," said a spokeswoman for the local prefecture, adding the animal was about 24 inches long and weighed some 22 pounds.

Police deployed dozens of searchers this month after reports that a blank panther was roaming around the nearby Calanques area, popular with tourists for its creeks, rocks and beaches.

Searchers finally caught up with the animal and identified it as a cat but were still unable to catch it, the spokeswoman added.
Paranoia everywhere, not just in the White House.

Ric is used to my postings about politics and expected more on Bush and Michael Moore, as we had been scanning the Christopher Hitchens review of Fahrenheit 911 - which Hitchens called vile and more than wrong-headed.

Ric's reaction to the Marseille cat story?
Just when it is imperative to get in the fight against the filthy rotten liars who will be trashing Moore's film, this comes along! I have been in those calanques, in 1976 I think, and the obvious answer is all the panther spotters have been drinking too much pastis. It's the only liquid anybody drinks down that way. Also, in French, any kind of cat weighing more than two kilos is a 'panther.' There's a big fear of panthers in France. Notice that nobody actually 'caught' it. Cat burglaries are another matter entirely.

PS - Last week it was falcons; this week it's panthers. Could France be the last frontier?
Yes, last week in Just Above Sunset in Paris Notes Ric and I did discuss falcons and such.

TCF added -
Loved this item, of course. It's my understanding that there are a lot of problems with car burglaries and pickpockets around the Calanques area, or so I saw on the signs that were prominently displayed. The French really like signs, I think (route perturb? and all the rest), but I digress. Well, I suppose one could blame the disappearance of small items on the panther. (The dog ate my homework, the panther took your wallet, etc).

I really wish I'd thought of that remark about cat burglars.

And I wish I'd seen the bobos at the Palais Royal. [See Paris Notes for that.] Not to have talked to them, mind you, but to have seen them, all white in the moonlight. One wonders what Colette makes of all this.

As far as panthers and Michael Moore - well, it's like the falcon story. The world is in need of a little comic relief right now, although there are those who think that politicians are already providing that anyway.

Falcons on the BN - M. Chirac must smile to think of all that merde on M. Mitterand's pride and joy.
And yes, the last item is an inside joke for Francophiles who follow French politics.

My final word to Ric?

Hey! Watch it! I'm rather fond of pastis - which is appropriate for Los Angeles and its Mediterranean climate. We have the white stucco houses on the hills with their red tile roofs, the palm trees, and all in all, we're only missing young North African thugs. We have our own types. Otherwise? Marseille, with freeways and smog.

Cat burglars? Each time it gets replayed on television I dutifully watch Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief" - just to remind myself of cat burglars in the south of France. It's a hoot. The part where she's driving Grant in her XJ-120 way too fast on the corniche and along those cliffs is a little odd to watch, given what happened to her. But better than what happened to Isadora Duncan with her long scarf, the wire wheel and the Bugatti on the streets of Monaco many decades before that. The southern coast of France is a dangerous place, or so it seems. Who need panthers?

France the last frontier? Perhaps so.

Posted by Alan at 20:39 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Topic: Political Theory

Philosophy 101 - Deconstructionist Semantics

Matthew Yglesias has an interesting column up today over on The American Prospect that attempts a political application of Paul Grice's theory of "conversational implicature" of all things.

Really. That's here.

Yglesias is examining all the business in the news these days with our president getting hammered for, perhaps, misleading us about the need for the current war we just had, or really, may still be having.

The current administration line is this. No weapons of mass destruction? Never said there were any, really - just said we and everyone else thought there were lots of them so why take the chance there were none? The UN inspectors were so very slow and there might be some. Only protecting America, you see.

Then the bipartisan commission says, flat out, that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had nothing at all to do with the terrorists flying airplanes into the two towers in New York and into the Pentagon. No proof at all of that. And the commission adds that the sporadic lower-level meetings over the years between representatives of al-Qaeda and Hussein's functionaries show there was no cooperation between the two. The Iraqi government told the al-Qaeda fellows to take a hike - they ignored al-Qaeda requests for training facilities and the like. In short, there was no "operational relationship" at all. And now the administration tells us they never really said there was a direct connection between Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. Yeah, I suppose. Bush really did say that, reluctantly. And now the administration covers the other issue - that there may not have been any "operational relationship" as the commission finds - but says there was a connection, of intent. And that justified taking out the Hussein government.

Well, Yglesias took a philosophy course or two in college and remembers Paul Grice's theory of "conversational implicature" - and does a riff on it.

He points to this summary:
What a speaker implicates is distinct from what he says and from what his words imply. Saying of an expensive dinner, "It was edible," implicates that it was mediocre at best. This simple example illustrates a general phenomenon: a speaker can say one thing and manage to mean something else or something more by exploiting the fact that he may be presumed to be cooperative, in particular, to be speaking truthfully, informatively, relevantly, and otherwise appropriately. The listener relies on this presumption to make a contextually driven inference from what the speaker says to what she means.
The prose is dense so Yglesias unpacks it.

Here's his simple version:
For our purposes, the point is that a canny speaker can mislead his audience without necessarily saying anything false. If I tell you, "they're not all in the meeting yet" when, in fact, no one is in the meeting, I haven't lied to you about anything. If no one is there, then, indeed, they're not all there. Nevertheless, any reasonable listener will have understood me to mean that some, but not all, of the expected attendees are then. Again, if I say, "some people are in the room" when only one person is in the room, I'm not speaking falsely, I'm simply speaking uncooperatively. You'll infer that more than one person is in the room although, strictly speaking, I said no such thing.
This is, of course, splitting semantic hairs (or some such metaphor).

But it is useful hair-splitting when defending yourself against charges you've lied. If you've been charged with perjury, libel or slander your previous careful wording can be a comfort, and a defense.

Will this work to refute the critics of Bush and Cheney? Will the careful wording make people relax and be comfortable with what we've done, or will it come back to bite Bush and Cheney in the ass?
For the purposes of defending oneself against perjury charges in a quasi-criminal proceeding, this sort of argument may suffice. In Bush's case, however, perjury is not on the table. Rather, the question is whether or not he has led the American people in a responsible manner. In this context the important issue is not whether the administration's various claims can, when taken one by one, somehow be defined as factual. The relevant question is whether or not the picture they sketched enhanced or detracted from the public's understanding of the major issues of the day. Various assertions about ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda must, therefore, be put into the broader context of what the administration was saying about the war. This broad picture included the claim that the invasion of Iraq was an act of preemptive self-defense, that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States, that the Iraq War was part of the war on terrorism, that the desire to invade was motivated by the sense that the country had waited too long before responding vigorously to al-Qaeda, and that the lessons of 9-11 were an important factor in the president's thought process.
I added the emphases in bold here to show Yglesias is reframing the question. Bush and Cheney defenders are absolutely right. These two did not exactly lie. But the question Yglesias is suggesting everyone ask is this - Were they acting responsibly? Don't call them liars. That's a dead end. Ask instead if they were doing the right thing, the responsible thing, in their semantic efforts to get us all excited and ready to go to war.

They said things and let us draw conclusions. They gave us rope - and we hanged ourselves with it.
The point of all this was to lead the American people to believe that the invasion of Iraq was part of the war on terrorism in a rather straightforward sense: Saddam Hussein was likely to give al-Qaeda weapons of mass destruction for use against the United States. Though many voices put forward many arguments for war in the months before the beginning of the invasion, this was the main case put forward by the administration. Not that we needed to invade to avenge a meeting that took place years ago in Khartoum, but that the long-past Khartoum meeting was evidence of the continuing likelihood that Iraq would become a WMD supplier for al-Qaeda.
We made the assumption this was all straightforward. Bush and Cheney, and Powell at the UN, just plopped down items. We connected them. Our bad. Not Bush's fault.

I can see that. But I don't like it.

Neither does Yglesias.
Simply put, there was never any evidence whatsoever to back up the administration's theory on this point. We know that in the past Saddam has simultaneously sponsored terrorist groups (directed against Israel) and possessed WMD (in the form of chemical weapons), but that he never gave such weapons to terrorists because he didn't trust them. We also know that in the past Saddam has passed up on the opportunity to use WMD against American forces, out of fear for what the retaliation would mean for his regime. We know -- as the 9-11 Commission has recently reiterated and the administration has reluctantly admitted -- that Iraq never had an operational relationship with al-Qaeda and never cooperated with them on attacks against the United States or any other country. Last, but by no means least, we know that Iraq's ties with al-Qaeda were less significant than al-Qaeda's ties with such American allies as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. None of the scattered data points the administration's defenders now wish to point to -- a few inconclusive meetings, and an ambiguous relationship between Iraq and Abu Zarqawi (whose relationship with al-Qaeda is, likewise, ambiguous) -- even begins to support the assertion that Iraqi WMD and al-Qaeda terrorism constituted any sort of symbiotic threat to the country.
But we bought the assertion of a threat.

Well, we were all scared. Bad things had happened. We wanted no more of that!

And the other reason we bought the steaming load of crap?
That the administration is bothering to pretend they never said any such thing is a testament to how little they respect the intelligence of the American people, and how confident they are that the media will not point out facts that can be found in plain sight. What, exactly, was the purpose of constant references to Iraqi sponsorship of anti-Israeli terrorism that never came with the qualifier that this was anti-Israeli, rather than anti-American terrorism? Why note that Qaeda-affiliated groups were operating "in Iraq" without mentioning that they operated in the part of Iraq outside of Saddam's control? Why call Iraq "the central front in the war on terrorism?" Why cite "September the eleventh" as a motivating factor for war? The answer is obvious: The administration wished the American people to believe that the government of Iraq was complicit - if not in 9-11 itself -- then in al-Qaeda terrorism in general. If the war was preemptive, and part of the war on terrorism, then what was it supposed to preempt if not a terrorist attack?
Yep, they knew we were scared, and easy prey - prime suckers. And they knew the news media didn't want to be called unpatriotic for calling them on any of this nonsense. The press would roll. They knew that.

It was all too easy. A little of Paul Grice's "conversational implicature" goes a long way.

A final example?
As the president put it in September 2002, "the danger is, is that they work in concert. The danger is, is that al-Qaeda becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world." Technically speaking, the president didn't say he had any evidence that this would happen, so the fact that there was no evidence it was likely to happen doesn't show that he was lying.
And it does seem no one wanted to see any evidence that this would happen. We didn't need to. We were scared. We could imagine it might. And the press did not want to call our leaders on any of this. The price was far too high.

Yglesias then adds a frightening alternative. Bush and Cheney and crew were NOT trying to mislead us. Regarding Bush's many pronouncements about all these threats - even if there was scant or no evidence for them and we had to take the dire threats on faith, in him and his team alone, because they were our leaders and we should trust them -
... if he wasn't trying to mislead people, then he and his administration are simply in the grips of a paranoid worldview -- leaping at wholly imagined threats and throwing tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines into battle. Under the circumstances, I find the theory that the president is a liar relatively comforting. I'd be more comfortable still if he simply stopped saying things that aren't true.
Yep, better we assume Bush is irresponsibly misleading us, a lying a bit here and there. The idea the he and his crew are just plain old paranoid maniacs is unacceptable, something we don't want to believe.

I don't like the two alternatives. I do not see any third alternative.

Posted by Alan at 19:21 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Monday, 21 June 2004

Topic: Iraq

"On the other hand... The insightful, level-headed News Guy clarifies matters."

Previously in these pages here, and in Just Above Sunset here you will find an analysis of what someone I knew in college, and now a rather important thinker on public policy, has to say about America and the world right now. That would be Stephen Holmes, research director and professor at the Center for Law and Security at New York University School of Law.

After you've read that, you might like to read this response, from Rick Brown, late of AP and CNN, my friend I like to call The News Guy. Rick also knew Holmes back in college -
Although I do agree with most everything Holmes says (at least in your Cliff Notes version), and I do think his focus highlights one of the most prominent failings of Bush and his people, I do take issue with some of the straw men he sets up to knock down.

Specifically, I'm not sure I've heard Bush say the war is between "Democracy versus Terrorism," although I have heard "Freedom versus Terrorism" and the like. I think Bush has generally stayed away from using the "d" word when so many of our allies in the Middle East don't practice it.

Then again, I suspect he promotes democracy in that part of the world in the probably naive belief (held by so many of us Americans) that if these people would just take over their own affairs, they'd stop blaming our country for everything, much in the same way that after we all left our nests, our parents just wished we would quit going to psychotherapists to complain about our upbringing, would get jobs and have children and finally learn the true meaning of responsibility. (This is not to say the U.S. IS the parent, or that all those third world nations are our children, but that's just the way we so often seem to see it.)

And although I like Holmes's take here on Machiavelli, I think the phrase most frequently cited by neoconservatives has NOT been, "it is better to be feared than loved," but has instead been "it is better to be respected than loved." Did Machiavelli ever actually say it this way? Not sure, but if it's a misquote, please blame the neocons, who I'm pretty sure confuse "fear" and "respect" in either case. But in fact, I don't think these American bully-types have any real "respect" for people or things they themselves "hate," so why do they seem to imagine that anyone else does?

... Also, even as I do like Byron Rushing's argument about terrorism being a crime rather than something warranting, as [some] rightly describe, "this vague, undeclared, indeterminate 'war' Bush is perpetrating," that would seem to deny the political nature of al Qaeda as an ideology, rather than some criminal venture based on personal gain. I think that too often in history, thug regimes have made the mistake of throwing political opponents in jail and labeling them "common criminals" as a cover for something much larger. The radical Islam movement may not be the traditional nation-state enemy we're using to confronting, but I think it is bigger than just some gang, and to defeat them, we need to fight them on a larger battlefield than we would a bunch of crooks. (The downside is, of course, that this makes Bush a "wartime president," and a perpetual one, at that.)

One problem I've had from the beginning with this so-called "war" as it's being waged has been that it should be fought specifically against al Qaeda, the enemy that attacked us, and not against some nebulous concept called "terrorism". For one thing, a "War on Terrorism" allows others to ask why we don't go after their particular enemies, such as "Hamas"; for another, it allows us to wander off the trail of Osama bin Laden and attack someone like Saddam Hussein, for no self-evidently good reason at all.

But I would go Holmes even one better in the damage done to us by the Iraq War (although he might have mentioned this in his own non-digested version, which I haven't read) in that it exposed our intelligence weakness in not finding all those WMD that we kept saying ahead of time "we know he has." While before, those who wish us ill, along with their fellow travelers, might have suspected we knew more than we let on, now they're likely to suspect we know even less than we claim.

Finally, even as I am so often a defender of American journalism in these ... exchanges, I do agree with Holmes's judgment of the U.S. News Media. I just so wish we could go back to the days when delivering news was considered a sacred public trust, instead of an opportunity to "enhance shareholder value" by being the most popular kid in school. (I caught just part of Michael Moore speaking with Katy Courick this morning, and thought he was right on when he said something like, "You news people are in the privileged position of asking these people any question you want, and going into this war, you didn't do it. You really let us down!")

Although I don't want to end this on a sour note -- I really do like what Steve has been saying lately, including in this piece -- I must say that I seem to remember reading something he wrote before the war that argued in favor of allowing the post-war Iraq to become a democracy, and probably dominated by the Shiites, which (I think he said) would be inevitable anyway, since they're the majority. I remember thinking at the time that this seemed to run counter to most expert advice -- that it should be a democracy, but one that takes into account the country's multi-ethnic character, in which no one group would have the upper hand.
Enough said.

The damage has been done. The news media certainly haven't helped. Those in power confuse fear with respect. And there are few ways out of all this.

Posted by Alan at 20:07 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

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