Political Sniping

Warning:  The following contains spoilers about the movie American Sniper.  Proceed with caution.

Reading the various reactions to Clint Eastwood’s new movie American Sniper, two facts immediately leap out.

First:  No one can seem to agree on the movie’s point of view vis-à-vis the Iraq War.  Some say it’s neutral or apolitical, while others consider it a full-throated endorsement of the theory that American involvement in Mesopotamia was (and is) a good idea.

And second:  In nearly every analysis of what American Sniper is about—and whether it’s any good—the conclusion perfectly matches the politics of the person making the analysis.  Generally speaking, those who opposed the Iraq War also dislike the film, while those who considered the war necessary and just think the movie is great.  Those whose politics are ambivalent, private or nonexistent fall somewhere in between.

Joined with the debate about the movie’s version of Iraq is the depiction of its protagonist, Chris Kyle, the real-life Navy SEAL who killed more Iraqis than any other sniper and, as a consequence, spent the rest of his life struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder.  That is, until he was killed by a fellow veteran who was, himself, stricken with PTSD.

Does American Sniper portray Kyle as a pure All-American Hero and—far more interestingly—should it have?  Here, too, individual answers seem to track with whatever people happened to already think about these subjects.

What is clear, in any case, is that Kyle is given highly sympathetic treatment by Eastwood and is meant to be shown, in the end, as a Good Guy.  What is more, the movie is ultimately meant to be about Kyle and Kyle alone—his experience, his struggles—and is not necessarily interested in the world that is going on around him.

Is this a valid approach to filmmaking?  Can a movie like this be truly apolitical, as so many critics say it is?

In a fiery column in Rolling Stone, journalist Matt Taibbi says no.  Referring to “the Rumsfelds and Cheneys and other officials up the chain” as “the real villains in this movie,” Taibbi argues, “Sometimes there’s no such thing as ‘just a human story.’  Sometimes a story is meaningless or worse without real context, and this is one of them.”

Taking this theory a step further, I think it’s worth considering whether any movie can lay claim to being completely removed from politics of one sort or another.  Or, indeed, whether there is any point in trying.  My inkling is that it can’t and there isn’t, and it’s just as well that this is so.

As it happens, this is not the first time that an ostensibly “personal” Clint Eastwood project has been attacked for having a secret political agenda.

In 2004, Eastwood made a movie called Million Dollar Baby, about a woman who believes her sole purpose in life is to be a professional boxer.  (Warning:  Massive spoilers ahead!)  When she is sucker-punched by an opponent and left paralyzed below the neck, she decides she has no further reason to live, and pleads with her trainer and only friend (played by Eastwood) to unplug her life support and allow her to die.  After a period of struggle and a talk with a local priest, he does just that.

Because both the boxer (played by Hilary Swank) and the trainer are shown as sympathetic characters, the movie was considered by some to be an “endorsement” of assisted suicide, leading to a brief but intense national debate about both the movie and the issue itself.  How irresponsible, many said, for a serious film to portray assisted suicide in a sort-of positive light.

Against this wave of condemnation, the critic Roger Ebert offered the following rebuke“Million Dollar Baby raises fundamental moral issues.  At a moment of crisis, the characters arrive at a decision.  I do not agree with their decision.  But here is the crucial point:  I do believe that these characters would do what they do in this film.  It is entirely consistent with who they are and everything we have come to know about them.”

In other words, movies are about individuals, not causes.  Directors are free to have their characters behave however is natural to them, and it is up to us, the audience, to make moral judgments.  In all cases, however, we should understand such behavior as being specific to those characters—Chris Kyle included—and not infer them to be representative of any larger philosophy of life.

The problem, though, is that we just can’t help ourselves.  As Taibbi points out vis-à-vis American Sniper, movies do not exist in a vacuum.  It’s silly and naïve to think otherwise.

The truth is that everything is political, whether we realize it or not.  Politics is life.  The word itself, in its original Greek form, means “relating to citizens,” meaning every one of us is on the hook.  So long as you’re alive and occasionally leave the house to interact with the rest of humanity (tiresome as it can often be), then you are engaging in the art of politics.

As such, once a movie presumes to be about anything at all, it becomes a political document, and we are free—encouraged, even—to wade through any possible larger meanings it might hold, whatever the director’s intent.

In the current Oscar race, for instance, the big pre-Sniper controversy concerned whether Ava DuVernay’s Selma is unfair in its depiction of Lyndon Johnson circa 1965.  Because it’s about the Civil Rights Movement and its present-day parallels, Selma is political to its core.  (Its theme song, “Glory,” even includes a reference to Ferguson, Mo.)

However, take a deeper look and you’ll find politics intruding upon every last entry on the Oscar shortlist.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is ostensibly about nothing more than the experience of growing up in 21st century America.  But it’s also about single mothers, deadbeat fathers, alcoholic stepfathers, inspiring teachers, and the virtues of hard work.  Do you mean to tell me those are not political issues?  Open a newspaper:  When have they ever not been on the front page?

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is a dark comedy about a washed-up movie star attempting to resurrect himself by putting on a Broadway show.  As such, it’s also about the nature of celebrity and fame, the integrity of art and (again) what it means to be a good father.  All political matters.

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is about an aspiring drummer and the terrifying music teacher who pushes him to within an inch of his life.  Which means it’s really about the costs of ambition and the lengths that some people will go to achieve greatness and immortality.  In America’s hyper-competitive culture, coupled with our meritocratic national work ethic, what could be more political than that?

And so forth.

So when people say that American Sniper is not a political movie, they are wrong twice.  First, in the view that the movie has no opinion about America’s adventures in Iraq (to wit:  could it really be a coincidence that the one soldier who questions the war’s purpose ends up getting shot in the face?).  And second, in the implication that a Navy sniper’s psychological profile has no political dimension.  As if killing Arabs for a living were a purely personal matter.

Indeed, if American Sniper were truly non-political, we would not be arguing about it at all.  We wouldn’t need to.  And what a boring, worthless movie it would be.

No, the film’s inherent relevance to our national conversation about foreign affairs is what makes it so valuable and compelling.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t a deeply personal story as well.  Of course it is.  That’s what the cliché “the personal is political” is all about.  Chris Kyle’s suffering is real, but it has a context that we must acknowledge in order for it to make any sense.  We can only heed Eastwood’s central message—America must take better care of its veterans—by understanding what makes their return to civilian life so difficult.  There’s no way to do that without returning, sooner or later, to the policies that sent people like Kyle to Iraq in the first place.

Eastwood has been rightly criticized for simplifying this narrative into an old-fashioned “good guys vs. bad guys” story (every Iraqi in the film serves no purpose except to be killed), but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should follow his lead.  Judging from the contentious response it has garnered thus far, we haven’t.  However unwittingly, American Sniper has re-ignited one of the most important debates in contemporary American life—namely, have the past dozen years of U.S. foreign policy been one giant dead end?

To that extent, the movie has served a useful purpose.  Through the profile of one person, however lionized, it has provoked people to think more seriously about a subject of global importance they would just as well ignore.

Not bad for a movie that isn’t interested in politics.

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Waiting to Be Summoned

Down at the Moakley Courthouse in South Boston, jury selection is underway for the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, aka the Boston Marathon bomber.  The process began on January 5 and is supposed to finish by the end of the month, at which point the actual trial will commence.

I will not be on the eventual panel of 12 jurors and six alternates that will decide Tsarnaev’s fate.  However, I sort of wish I were.  And more to the point, I should be.  It’s only fair, and frankly I’m just about the perfect guy for the job.

I certainly could have been summoned, for starters.  I live within the nine-county splash zone that comprises the Eastern Division of the District of Massachusetts, whose residents were fair game for this case.  As well, I am a U.S. citizen over 18 with no criminal record and no “demonstrable hardship” such as a young child or sick relative to tend to.  And although Massachusetts courts normally excuse anyone who has served on a jury in the last three years (as I have done), Tsarnaev’s is a federal case, which means past experience doesn’t count.

Secondly:  For all I have written about the Marathon attack and its aftermath, I don’t have a particular opinion about the case, and I am perfectly willing to be surprised by information that I do not yet possess.

Yes, I have opined at length about various aspects of the whole terrible episode that occurred on April 15, 2013—the bombings themselves, the (over)reaction of the authorities during the hunt for the perpetrators, the psychological underpinnings that could lead an ostensibly normal person to commit an unforgivable crime—but I have very little confidence, in retrospect, that anything I wrote was correct.  I was, after all, relying on what I was being told by news outlets at the time, and we all know how unreliable they can be.

As such—and because of my high levels of skepticism and self-doubt in general—the question of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s guilt—and an appropriate punishment, should his guilt be proved beyond doubt—is one I am still willing to take seriously and with a reasonably open mind.  So far as I can tell, at this stage, I have nothing to gain by being partial.

But the biggest reason of all that I would be an ideal fit for the Tsarnaev jury is also the simplest:  I am completely available.

In addition to having no young children—or any other dependents—I also have no proper hourly job or, for that matter, not that wild of a social life.  I have no major life commitments, no place I absolutely need to be, no routine I can’t drastically disrupt in the service of something important.

In short, I am precisely the person—rare as they are—who could sit in a courtroom for three months or more without my life being completely destroyed.

So why aren’t I?  Why doesn’t the state keep people like me on call for situations like this?  The court needs a panel, I need something to do.  It’s a match made in legal heaven.

The theory about jury duty is that although it’s a huge inconvenience, virtually everyone is compelled to serve at one point or another, so at least it’s fair.  Juries are an indispensable part of our democratic system, and the only way to achieve a true “jury of one’s peers” is through the comprehensive and randomized process we have in place.  As well, it is against the law for an employer to fire someone who has missed work because of jury service, thereby removing the fear of irreparable harm to one’s livelihood.

That’s the theory.  And the reality is that most of the time, the theory is true.  Most trials don’t drag on for more than a few days, after which everyone returns to their regularly scheduled lives, taking with them an enhanced appreciation for the American judiciary and an exciting story to tell their friends.

However, regarding the Boston Marathon bomber, this is not that.

The judge in the Tsarnaev case, George O’Toole, has estimated that the trial—including the sentencing phase, should there be one—will last somewhere between three and four months.  While not quite at O.J. levels, that would be considerably longer than the two-month circus surrounding the gangster Whitey Bulger that consumed the region’s attention two years ago at the very same South Boston courthouse.

Trials of such a length are not unprecedented, but they are certainly unusual, and—to my point—unimaginably disruptive for all involved, particularly for a case as emotionally-charged as this one.

It makes me wonder, then, if our judicial system wouldn’t be better served if we allowed people to actually volunteer for jury duty, rather than simply waiting, fearfully, to be summoned.  Why not make serving on a jury a bit more like serving in the military—that is, as a vocation, albeit a part-time, thankless and low-paying one?  Why should 18 hard-working people have their lives utterly wrecked while less hard-working people like me are just lazing around, begging to be put to good use?

One answer to this—a not-insignificant one—is that the sorts of folks who are especially eager to be impaneled can be, shall we say, a bit suspect.  Lawyers and judges take it more or less for granted that nobody truly wants to spend their days listening to testimony with a group of strangers (I certainly don’t), and so they are trained to treat those with any real enthusiasm with a healthy dose of suspicion.

With the Tsarnaev case, fears of jurors’ “ulterior motives” are especially acute, since the effects of Tsarnaev’s alleged crimes have managed to touch virtually every resident of the Boston metro area in one way or another.  As such, it stands to reason that a handful of the 1,350-member pool might desire to smuggle themselves into the courtroom under false pretenses.  After all, you don’t need to personally know someone who was wounded in the Marathon blasts to harbor a white-hot hatred for the man who (apparently) set them off.

(The question of whether the trial should be moved outside Boston has generated enormous debate.  It’s easy to see why.)

I’d like to think myself more level-headed and objective than that, and more respectful of the American judicial system, which guarantees a fair trial for even the most seemingly guilty among us.  However, I could be overestimating myself, and I would hope, in any case, that a thorough questioning by Judge O’Toole would settle it once and for all.  In any voir dire proceeding, it is the moral obligation of prospective jurors to answer questions truthfully, but it is ultimately the responsibility of judges and attorneys to choose to believe them (or not).

So long as this is the case—that is, so long as human nature remains the same—I propose a jury pool composed at least partially of volunteers—folks who can more easily and dependably sacrifice their time to participate in America’s judicial process, thereby lowering the odds that everyone else will get the dreaded call themselves.

Seems like a fair deal to me.

Terrorism is a Cliché

If there is anything more depressing about the attack on Charlie Hebdo than the attack itself, it is the fact that there is nothing new or interesting to be said about it.  The context and apparent reasons for the assault are old news; as such, everything has already been said many times before.

Indeed, as I attempt to formulate my own response to this latest obscenity against human decency and the freedom of expression, I find myself merely repeating other people’s responses to other such obscenities over the last many years, both before and after September 11, 2001.

Charlie Hebdo—for the few of you who miraculously still do not know—is a French satirical newspaper operating out of Paris.  It ran continuously from 1970-1981, and then again from 1992 to the present day.  (“Hebdo” is French for “weekly,” and “Charlie” is an inside joke involving both Charles de Gaulle and Charlie Brown.)

Like The Onion here in the States, Charlie Hebdo operates on the principle that just about everything is fair game for parody and ridicule, including and especially organized religion.  As a result, the publication has regularly come under fire for its treatment of such revered figures as the Prophet Muhammad, among others.  In November 2011, such ire turned violent when the paper’s headquarters was firebombed by Muslim extremists, in response to an edition featuring a cartoon of Muhammad on its cover.

Further threats of violence against Charlie Hebdo have periodically surfaced in the three years since, and this past Wednesday, three would-be jihadists made good on that threat by storming the paper’s newsroom and murdering 12 people, including its editor-in-chief and several of its famed cartoonists.  On their way out, the assailants were heard shouting, “We have avenged the prophet!”  The killers have since been killed.  They are believed to have been connected to al Qaeda, although many details are yet unclear.

For those of us on the sidelines—we who have taken it upon ourselves merely to make sense of senseless acts like this—there is a great deal to say:  many principles to defend, many facts to establish.  However, in doing so, we are forced to repeat ourselves rather than come up with anything new.  It’s a shame we have to expend such efforts in the first place—we are, after all, applying reason to people who have none—but then again, it seems we have no other choice.  Better to reintroduce ancient clichés than bear witness to barbarism in silence.

We could start, for instance, with the old trope, “Not all Muslims are terrorists”—an assertion that is invariably preceded and/or followed by its rejoinder, “Yes, but virtually all terrorists are Muslim.”  The first statement is obviously true—only a complete idiot would argue otherwise—while the second is obviously false and yet is nonetheless, shall we say, a bit more true than most of us would like to admit.

In other words, the argument here is exactly the same one we had after the September 11 attacks—namely, “Is Islam the problem?”  If Islam is truly “a religion of peace,” then why are there so many officially Muslim nations that traffic in violence and war, using certain Islamic doctrine as justification?

Alternatively, we could expand the question to encompass religion as a whole, since there is no shortage of Christian and Jewish extremists who also take the dictates of their faiths into their own hands.  Could the root cause of ideological mass murder in the 21st century not be Islam but rather religious-based intolerance of every sort?  Have we really made no progress in this debate since the Twin Towers fell?

Whichever side you take (there are more than two), perhaps the more salient point in the present context is the level of risk one assumes in broaching this subject at all.  The way that Bill Maher’s old joke, “Never say Islam isn’t a religion of peace, because if you do, they’ll kill you,” manages to be funnier than it should be.

Because of course our primary subject of concern in the Charlie Hebdo assault is the inalienable right to express one’s views—yes, even when such views make some people uncomfortable, angry or—perish the thought!—offended.

As many of us well know, Charlie Hebdo is not the first Western publication to be physically targeted for printing provocative caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.  In 2005, a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten similarly rendered Muhammad in cartoon form, in order to make a few points about free speech and religious prohibitions thereof, and within days all hell proceeded to break loose from one end of the continent to the other—an uproar that included riots, attacks on multiple European diplomatic missions and some 200 deaths, all told.

As such, because exactly this sort of thing has happened before—and quite recently, at that—we don’t need to wonder what it all means:  We can just dig up what all the smart people wrote in 2005 and 2006.

As it happens, one of the smartest and sharpest of those reactions came from an old favorite of mine, Christopher Hitchens, who wrote passionately in favor of the right to insult organized religion at all costs.  (“The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species.”)  And so we have a perfectly cogent analysis of the Charlie Hebdo situation penned by someone who’s been dead for three years.

As well, in case you need further proof of the dull repetitiveness of the West’s run-ins with theocratic loony toons, I would direct you to a wonderfully illuminating chat in 2010 between Hitchens and Salman Rushdie—a man who, despite radical Islam’s best efforts, is still very much alive.  Their talk considers several key points about the Danish cartoon fiasco, and watching it today, one is taken aback by how perfectly it corresponds to the mess at Charlie Hebdo, as if the two events were completely interchangeable.  In many respects, they are.

For instance, Rushdie proposes dividing the central question about free speech into two parts.  First:  Are news outlets duty-bound to reprint offensive cartoons out of solidarity with a publication that has been attacked?  And second:  Should that first paper have been more circumspect about printing those images in the first place, knowing the fuss that it would cause?

In other words, is the right to be offensive sometimes trumped by the wisdom to hold back?  Is there a distinction between offending in order to make a point and offending for its own sake?  Is the First Amendment not always as important as good taste?

By now, there has been exhaustive back-and-forth online and in print about these very important questions, including the charge that some of the folks at Charlie Hebdo are just plain racist.  That the “I am Charlie” solidarity is a function of the relatively high level of anti-Muslim prejudice around the world today, and that a comparable paper that had published anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic cartoons would not enjoy such international goodwill following a terrorist attack.  As many have said, it’s easy to defend free speech when you happen to agree with the speech in question.

My answer to this:  Who cares?

The right to free expression should be defended regardless of the content, and the fact that we’re less likely to defend speech we don’t like is precisely why we have the First Amendment in the first place.

The question about good taste is an interesting one, but in this instance it’s also, finally, beside the point.  The only reason we’re wondering whether the editors of Charlie Hebdo should have used more discretion is because their cartoons yielded a violent response.  If satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad were not so radioactive—if they didn’t so predictably lead some people to go out and commit mass murder—then taste would be the only thing to discuss, and the First Amendment would hardly enter into it.  We would talk about provocative religious images the way we talk about provocative non-religious images:  With passion and indignation, but without the hysterical claim that they should not exist at all.

No, the real problem here is the lack of sophistication inherent in those who don’t have the stomach for ideas they don’t share, and who would rather such ideas not be uttered and are prepared to threaten and/or attack those who utter them.

And the problem behind the problem, like every other cliché I’ve noted, has been astutely espoused in the past, in this case by comedian Lewis Black.  The central fact about al Qaeda and their ilk, Black surmised on his album The End of the Universe, is that they have no sense of humor.  That they take their faith literally and without a whiff of irony or self-criticism, resulting in untold misery for millions of people.

“Patriotism is important, and religion is vital,” said Black, “But without a sense of humor, religion and patriotism can get crazy […] and we see that in our enemy.”

Black once wrote a memoir titled Nothing’s Sacred, and satire is founded upon that very notion:  No subject is out of bounds, nor should it be.  This means that so long as satirists exist, someone somewhere is going to be offended by what they have to say.  There is no getting around this fact.  Individual writers and publications are free to self-censor for reasons of taste, but it should be their decision alone, and they should never be compelled to restrict their content out of fear of violence.

The problem, you see, is not the people who offend.  The problem is the people who (to quote Hitchens again) are determined to be offended and, paradoxically, will stop at nothing to prevent the rest of us from offending them.

Maybe I could explain this phenomenon better, but it would just be one more cliché.