You Can’t Work With People Who Don’t Want to Work With You

•July 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) today:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said today that the Senate would not attempt to pass sweeping health care reform until after returning from the August recess.

“It’s better to get a product that’s based on quality and thoughtfulness than on trying to just get something through,” Reid told reporters.

Reid said the Senate would try to complete a package in the fall.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) yesterday:

I just hope the President keeps talking about it, keeps trying to rush it through. We can stall it. And that’s going to be a huge gain for those of us who want to turn this thing over in the 2010 election.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) last week:

“it will be his Waterloo, it will break him.”

These guys are not even trying to present the appearance of being collegial or of actually, you know, doing something to help fix health care. All they want is a few more buddies to joint them in the club next year. It’s a game. We’re up, they’re down.

We are so screwed.

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The Hurt Locker: Military Propaganda or Just A Film About the Effects of War?

•July 20, 2009 • Leave a Comment

[Spolier Alert: I’m going to discuss some of the specifics of The Hurt Locker below, so if you want to see it clean, feel free to skip out on this post]

Yesterday, I saw The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s intense film that follows a team of three U.S. Army soldiers who participate in “explosive ordnance disposal” (military parlance for “bomb removal”), set in 2004 in Iraq. I thought it was one of the better movies I’ve seen in some time and the performances of Jeremy Renner, as the swaggering bomb technician Will James, and Anthony Mackie, as the play it by the book Sgt. JT Sanborn, were both nuanced and (mostly believable). It’s a movie that treats the characters as real people going through horrific things and examines the ways they attempt to live with the things they’ve seen and done. It was, to me, a rather apolitical film, and for that reason, I think it might get more traction with the public than some of the other Iraq-inspired war movies.

That’s why I really disagree with Tara McKelvey’s take on the movie, laid out in a web essay over at The American Prospect. She says it’s, “…is one of the most effective recruiting vehicles for the U.S. Army that I have seen.” A statement like that makes me wonder if we were watching the same film.

McKelvey writes:

The Hurt Locker sets itself up as am anti-war film. It opens with a quote, “War is a drug,” from Chris Hedges, a Nation Institute senior fellow and author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. Yet for more than two hours, the film imbues Baghdad’s combat zone with excitement and drama. In one scene, a bomb-defuser, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), searches for a detonator in a car loaded with explosives, and later he tries to save an unfortunate Iraqi man who has been forcibly strapped with homemade bombs. The tense moments are set to creepily compelling music selected by composers Marco Beltrami (he did the scores for the Scream series) and Buck Sanders, and the cinematography captures the beauty that is found in the desert landscape and even in the casing of a bullet. It is easy to understand why the soldier, William James, would take so much pleasure in his work as a daredevil bomb-defuser in Iraq, and find so little to be happy about in the difficult, messy world of America when he comes home.

First, I’d take exception to the assertion that the movie “sets itself up as an anti-war film”. That Hedges’ book is anti-war doesn’t mean the movie must be for quoting it and I’d argue that it’s neither pro nor anti-war; rather, it simply attempts to give us a glimpse into how war works on a man.

I think it’s important to note that Hedges’ quote applies directly to Will James, but not at all to his fellow team members Sgt. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge (played by Brian Geraghty). Though his reasons for being a bomb technician are never clearly articulated, it’s clear that James is a thrill seeker who only feels at home in the chaos of war. Like junkies of the narcotic sort, he comes alive when he’s getting his war “hit”, which just happens to involve dismantling weapons designed to kill him and his fellow soldiers. Diffusing bombs seems to be his raison d’etre and for him, war is exciting. Roger Ebert writes in his strong review of the movie that:

When it’s over, nothing has been said in so many words, but we have a pretty clear idea of why James needs to defuse bombs. I’m going to risk putting it this way: (1) bombs need to be defused; (2) nobody does it better than James; (3) he knows exactly how good he is, and (4) when he’s at work, an intensity of focus and exhilaration consumes him, and he’s in that heedless zone when an artist loses track of self and time.

Will is like every kind of brazen, reckless person you’ve ever met (there’s a little bit of Martin Riggs in him), with the exception that he does reflect, from time to time, on how his actions affect those around him. He doesn’t change, mind you, but we get the impression that he understands everyone else isn’t like him. It’s true, as McKelvey says, that James is in low spirits when back in the states. He’s overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cereal in the supermarket and can’t even make small talk with his ex-wife as they prepare dinner without referring back to events in Iraq, or play with his small child without rambling off the various ways life can, and will, disillusion you. In Iraq, he has a clear purpose whereas that’s not the case at home.

Which leads us to the other team members, Sanborn and Eldridge. The former is presented as an ideal solider: he respects protocol and is cool under fire. He seems to believe that if he follows his training, he’ll be fine. But as time wears on, Sanborn begins to question the point of what they do, saying at one point that if he were to die, nobody but his parents would give a shit (and he says they don’t count, because they have to care). Over the course of the film, he goes from not wanting to have a kid with his girlfriend to being obsessed with the idea of having a son. He’s worn down by the conflict and longs for something simpler.

Eldridge, on the other hand is, frankly, a scared kid. He’s indecisive and fatalistic, certain that he’s going to meet his maker the next time he heads out on a mission. The one time he indulges his inner Will Kelly by charging off into the darkness to track down insurgents in the aftermath of a suspected suicide bombing in the Green Zone, he’s temporarily captured and ends up being shot in the leg during his rescue. Eldridge’s last interaction with Kelly is a profanity laden tirade that directly implicates Will’s cowboy tendencies for shattering Owen’s leg in nine places.

McKevey goes on:

In general, though, you feel empathy for the soldiers when they shoot. And in this way, the full impact of the Iraq war — at least as it was fought in 2004 — becomes clear: American soldiers shot at Iraqi civilians even when, for example, they just happened to be holding a cell phone and standing near an IED, as Colin H. Kahl, a military analyst and Obama administration official, wrote in International Security. Even more chillingly, as Kahl explained, a U.S. commander once ordered that all middle-aged Iraqi men in a certain area could be shot.

I think the movie goes to great lengths to show just how murky these life and death decisions must be for our troops. Is that guy with the video camera on the roof looking directly at me just curious or is hoping to post my death to a Jihadi website on YouTube? Do we shoot the cab driver who just blew threw our roadblock? While I might be able to empathize with the soldiers agonizing choices, watching this film never made me feel like going out to enlist. In fact, it drove home the arbitrariness of life (an issue Eldridge grapples with) and who, besides people like Will James, would want to have to make those judgments?

They Don’t Make ’em Like They Used To

•July 19, 2009 • Leave a Comment

R.I.P. Walter Cronkite.

The passing of such a trusted voice who actually attempted to scrutinize the powerful and call them to account for their actions is especially painful when you consider the recent deplorable behavior of some of our media elite.

Everybody in the White House Gettin’ Tipsy

•July 18, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The stupid, it burns.

When George W. Bush ran for president, one of the things we heard over and over that he was the kind of guy you’d go and have a beer with. So now people are gonna get the vapors because Obama decides to have beer every now and then? Please.

Does anyone really give a damn about this stuff?

I’ll Take “Who Gives a Shit?” for $300, Alex…

•July 17, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Wingnuts are so stupid.

Also, this.

Obviously, though, basketball doesn’t count as a sport in which athletic prowess can be evaluated. I’ll let the gallery ponder the reasons why.

Working Hand in Hand

•July 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

It’s hard to take seriously people who form elaborate conspiracy theories about coordination of coverage/reporting between the Democratic Party and the mainstream media and scream “liberal media bias!” at any given opportunity when they engage in this sort of behavior.

The Uselessness of Op-Ed Pages

•July 15, 2009 • 1 Comment

I see today that the Washington Post decided to hoist upon the unsuspecting masses the latest in a series of uninformed remarks from a soon to be retired governor of Alaska. Today’s topic is cap and trade and you read an effective throttling of the column here and here.

But I don’t really want to talk about the substance of the column as much as I want to consider what the utility is of a page that would print such a thing in its pages.

I’m taking my first formal class on opinion writing this fall with Peter Beinart, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former editor at The New Republic. I’m very much looking forward to it as I have visions of pursing a career in opinion journalism. I expect it will be rigorous and that a great many of my ideas might fall apart under critical examination. But that’s ok! I’d rather have my half baked ideas knocked down early so I can reexamine the issue and produce a stronger article rather than produce an ill-considered piece of shit.

But to zoom out for a second, there should be a general expectation that a college graduate, and certainly a governor of a state, should be able to articulate a cogent, factual opinion on some subject or another. Indeed, that’s really all a good op-ed should be: a written argument that seeks to inform, advance a point of view or influence discussion by deploying facts in support of that particular point of view while also using facts to rebut contrary claims. So it becomes quite maddening to read editorials about cap and trade that don’t mention obviously related issues like pollution or to see editorials about global warming that misinterpret or manipulate data in the service of advancing an ideological point of view.

One thing the blogoshpere does much better than the mainstream media is that it generally identifies and kills specious arguments before they’ve taken hold and become received wisdom. The ability to link to experts and primary documents greatly speeds up this process, allowing for almost real time debunking. Comment sections and crowd sourcing also aid in this process and that’s why a lot of the more honest bloggers affix updates or strike through and correct incorrect information when they encounter factual data that run counter to their assertions.

This kind of correction rarely happens in a traditional news paper, though. It’s exceedingly rare to see a newspaper ombudsman or editorial board directly confront, retract or disavow a piece that has run on its pages. Yes, you’ll see a fact corrected here or there, but the general premise of the piece, which could be fatally flawed, will be allowed to stand. This makes sense because acknowledging that they’d allowed a factually challenged piece into the paper speaks badly about their judgment. But this is obviously a bad practice for institutions that trade on their reputations as honest, unbiased brokers of information, as publishing these things gives them an air of legitimacy. It also sends a bad signal when newspapers continually hire writers who have a track record of playing loose with the facts.

As a person who reads a great deal of opinion journalism, I value the benefits that come from being exposed to differing points of view. But that value is diminished when you can’t trust that the info you’re reading is accurate. So what can be done? For one, newspapers should obviously employ fact checkers with some sort of requisite knowledge in a given field. I know that newspapers are struggling with layoffs and the like, so hiring might not be a choice available to all outlets. If that’s the case, use the expertise of the reporters on hand to help prevent embarrassing mistakes. If you have a top flight science reporter or editor on staff, at least allow him or her to give the piece a cursory going over. I suppose this might be a violation of some written rule of the newsroom, but I think it’s worth it.

Something else that might be even more useful would be allowing columnists (or outside experts) to directly engage each other on the op-ed page. I know the New York Times has an informal prohibition against this, but I think that in certain instances this should be allowed. I remember the David Brooks/Paul Krugman dust-up referenced at the link and the whole exchange came off as junior varsity to me. I get that it might seem like the height of journalistic narcissism and navel gazing to allow for a couple of talking heads to square off all “Dueling Banjos” style on the Times very valuable op-ed page, but this situation was crying out for it. It played out over a few weeks, other Times columnists got involved, and the entire dialogue manifested itself in a barely veiled code, even though it was painfully obvious to anyone following the exchange what was going on.

Why not let the readers see the sausage being made in this case? It would have given the Times audience insights into how some of it’s most prized assets think and formulate arguments, which surely would have been good for the paper’s visibility. To some extent, the paper has addressed this in a limited fashion with its editors’ “Room for Debate” blog, but an open roundtable with the op-ed writers would be much more useful.

Opinion pages can have a lot of value if they’re done the right way, but all too often they simply serve as launching pads for junk that eventually clutter our collective understanding of important issues.