Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Film Analysis: Hot Fuzz

This will be the first in what I hopefully will make a long series of – let’s call them analytical film reviews. I’m beginning in a strange place. It would probably be a stronger opening if the first review I offered was either something that could be called classic or something current, whether now playing or just released on disc. But I intend to do these for just whatever I happen to be watching, and I am, for better or worse, starting the project now, rather than, say, after watching for the first time Fritz Lang’s “M” a couple of months ago. I can’t afford a ticket to a movie theater, either, so we’re stuck with the last film I returned to Netflix, which was the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg action-comedy “Hot Fuzz.” Of course, as evidenced by the earlier “Shaun of the Dead,” the people responsible for this film take their comedy seriously, so it is by no means without content upon which to comment. Nor is it without personal significance to me as a starting point for this aspect of my blog.

A definite part of the reason why I’m starting this now, in spite of having meant to for numerous weeks prior, is that my cohabiting relationship has just ended, and my now ex-girlfriend has left me with much time and space to use to think, and write, and entertain myself, and perhaps do all of these together. I am determined to be personally productive now that my environment has been abruptly rattled. But this relationship is an upsetting loss, having been unusual, transformative, and of quite a long duration. The sort of odd significance of “Hot Fuzz” being the subject of my first analysis is twofold: Firstly, the major reason I’d chosen to watch it was that I knew my girlfriend was under serious stress, and the mood of the household in the last week or two before she left was dour, so I thought we were in need of a dose of comedy. Secondly, the film was released in the spring of 2007, just before she and I met and fell in love, hence it being in the Netflix queue that she and I had been sharing. There’s this weird sense of serendipity, then, in the fact that it is the first movie I’ve watched on my own since the very time it was released. Perhaps I’m making too much of it, but then I make too much of most things; that’s why I find it would be a worthwhile project to analyze films like this.

Even if I had watched “Hot Fuzz” while alone, heartsick, and overly reflective, it may not have exactly been the thing to lighten the local mood. I found it to be quite different from what I had expected, in that it by and large worked better where it presented itself as a thriller than where it was a comedy. It is a rather darker movie than I anticipated, a fact which I noticed straightaway. The atmosphere is too heavy for boisterous laughter. That is not to say that it isn’t funny, but most of the humor is subtle, and had me nodding inwardly rather than laughing out loud. The rest seems like comic relief, meant to stand in contrast to a plot that is driven by death and mystery.

While so much of the humor is subtle, much of the thematic content is not. As with “Shaun of the Dead,” which utilized common, almost cliché elements of the zombie horror sub-genre, and actually made them more explicit, “Hot Fuzz” draws on another cliché in horror: the idyllic small town with dark, deeply hidden secrets. However, by the end, after the plot makes a series of sharp turns towards increasing absurdity, there is nothing that is not in the open. While that probably sounds like criticism, the absurdity is clearly both intentional and useful, allowing the action-packed climax of the film to be perhaps the only segment that really is uproariously funny. In that sense, the film is quite well structured, though on the other hand, the variety of false-leads and subplots that lead the audience to the satisfaction of witnessing a shootout between two cops and a dozen sexagenarians can make the whole thing feel a little cluttered.

Along the way, it is probably easy to lose sight of some of the less direct thematic statements that the story makes. As I said, though, much of it is perfectly obvious. By the time the Neighborhood Watch Alliance is revealed as a cabal of secretive, black-cloaked manipulators of local events, there is no mistaking the criticism of suburban and rural lifestyles in all their potential to commit a person to the acceptance or active pursuit of an illusion. But the film overall is just a bit more cynical, or else more even-handed, than all that. If one keeps the entirety of the story in mind, he can see the way the criticism extends to urban life, as well. Two things are of clear significance in leading one to that conclusion. First, the story begins with Pegg’s character, officer Angel, being forced out of London by the entirety of the police force because they don’t want his excellence as an officer making the rest of them look bad. Then, in the end, the same officers request that he return, having discovered that his departure did not preserve the status quo, but rather interrupted it, in that the crime rate increased without him, but Angel determines to stay, saying that he likes it in Sandford. This is not what one would expect, given his evident boredom during his time there. To my thinking, after his victorious battle with the town elders, Angel decides that the small town is well worth staying in, after all, likely because its cultural landscape is more changeable than that of the big city. There is no greater reason to return to London, because the powerful residents of both places are given to the same human impulses toward manipulation in favor of a perverted concept of the common good. What differs is only the method. In a small town, the locals remain entrenched in fear of what harm a thing might do, whereas in the city, the good of a thing might be recognized, but it may still be rejected, whether because of shame or for the sake of political efficacy. That is, the problem with the city is built into its fabric, but the problem of the small town is a problem of perspective, which is more easily rectified.

If the thematic conflict of the story is not the conflict of city versus suburb, then the climactic battle is all that much more significant in crystallizing the overall theme, which is focused instead on generational conflict. It then makes surprisingly much sense that the relatively young main characters do battle with an army of villains who are significantly older. The conflict of the story represents the potential for a more educated, tolerant generation to supplant the entrenched, often wrong-headed ideologies of the one that preceded them. The final resolution of the gunfight, after the chase scene, taking place in a scale model of the town, squarely places the characters of Pegg and Timothy Dalton – the latter practically being an emissary of older action films – as two giants, representing opposite ideologies, the progressive and the regressive, fighting over the very soul of the town. And as if to make it more clear that the future is determined by the outcome, the film places a solitary child in the middle of that struggle, with the potential to be made a victim or a thing to be protected. But because the conflict is generational, the child is not merely a prop. He participates briefly in the fight, and it may even be a plaything of his that ultimately fells the regressive force.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Legitimation as Bias

I cleaned the bar my brother works at this morning, and the television there provided me a small amount of exposure to the cable news. I gathered that the tea bagger march in Washington has been garnering a lot of media attention. This would not so much piss me off in and of itself – I’m pleased to see anyone’s political engagement having an effect on the public discourse, even if that engagement is based on irrational fear and unjustifiable anger – but I’m viewing it from the perspective of having previously engaged in leftist political protests. That being the case, I believe the first words out of my mouth when I saw the live footage on CNN were “Why are they covering this shit?” My annoyance was compounded by some of the dialogue I heard in the background as I went about my business.

“It doesn’t look like there’s THAT many people behind you just yet.”

“No, not YET.”

On the plus side, this has reminded me of, and given me a decent context for, exposition of a new theory about the myth of the liberal media, which had occurred to me earlier in the course of this health care fiasco.

The notion that the media is liberally biased is, to be frank, insane horseshit. Anybody with genuinely liberal ideologies and an impulse to express those publicly knows that it is horseshit. If I had had any doubts that it was horseshit, they were dispelled in March of 2006. On the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I took a bus to Washington D.C. to participate in a widely and elaborately organized demonstration against the war. Now, I am not good at estimating numbers of people even when they’re in small groups of dozens or hundreds, let alone when they are clustered on and around the national mall, stretching seemingly endlessly in every direction, and appearing as one expanse of solid texture in photographs from the top of the Washington Monument. But in identifying the numbers of people at the anti-war protest that I attended (one of several, in fact) I believe it is sufficient to use the vague, but still impressive phrase “hundreds of thousands.” Hundreds of thousands of left-leaning, politically active individuals came together from around the country, organized on political advocacy websites, and without promotion on CNN, MSNBC, or any other major outlet so frequently accused of being champions of liberal propaganda.

Now, I don’t remember all the details of this protest, or its itinerary. But I recall that we marched past the White House. We marched past Congress. We marched past the Supreme Court. We marched for miles and for hours, filling the streets where most of federal power resides. We chanted, we demonstrated, we danced. We expressed our anger, and we expressed our hope, and we expressed our conviction. We clashed with a handful of opponents on a couple of occasions. Along the course of the march, there was part of a particular block where a group of respectably committed, though to my mind misguided, counter-protesters chose to set themselves up to express their opposition to us, and perhaps give us something to contend with. They shouted at us as we walked past, and we walked past, shouting at them, save for a few who felt some pull towards loudly discussing the issue point-by-point. Physically, the counter-protest was barely a blip on one’s radar during the course of the route and the day. I did, however, consider it to be of particular interest, because it was at the meeting point of the two groups, however numerically imbalanced that they were, that the polarizing nature of the issues came to light. I enjoyed encountering them as a part of the larger experience of our demonstration. They provided an outlet for our anger, but the innumerable masses of people demonstrating against war were a focal point for my sense of hope and purpose.

Feeling proud of myself and my generation, I kept an eye on the news the next day, understanding that it was the attention we had brought to our cause that would show the value in our actions. I didn’t see it on the front page of any of the newspapers that I encountered in New York that day. I don’t remember what the typical front-page story was – but it must have been important. So I figured the coverage would begin on page two, or page three. No. Page four? No. Okay, it wasn’t in there. Newspapers were already starting to die at that time, anyway. The internet – that’s the place to look for the real news! Well, it wasn’t on Yahoo, or AOL, or any of the other first-look sources of news people generally encounter when they log on. Well, that was kind of weird, but I know: how about the bastions of liberalism that are the news networks, like CNN, which I’ve heard doggedly referred to as the “Communist News Network”? Or MSNBC, home of the rabid ideologue, Keith Olbermann? Nothing. There was no coverage whatsoever in any source, or any medium, of any demonstrations in Washington D.C. the prior day.

Actually, that’s not true. I did manage to find one article that fit that description. The headline read: “Hundreds come out in D.C. to rally in support of the troops.” Beneath that, a closely framed photograph of the conservative counter-demonstrators, conveniently angled away from our protest route. Whoever the jackass reporter that stumbled through D.C. that afternoon was, he turned his back on a hundred thousand people to focus his camera on the bearers of a voice that was, by comparison, insignificant. And he took it to his liberally biased editors, and they printed it without a word of context indicating that they were there specifically counter to the movement of which I was a part.

That is how the liberal movement was treated in the media, to greater and lesser extent, throughout the Bush presidency. And yet even then I heard people describing the media as being dominated by liberalism. I honestly do not grasp what that was based on, if not that that media had the audacity to eventually and occasionally point out mistakes and errors of fact coming out of the Bush White House. You hear this refrain about bias even more loudly now that conservatives are the ones who have prominent policies to protest. And the rationalization of this claim, often transparently suggestive of a martyrdom complex, has come to be very much curved around a frustrated expectation of equivalence. About the health care town halls I have noticed several conservative commentators excusing irresponsibly hyperbolic, aggressive, and stupid behavior by saying that there were plenty of people acting similarly during the Bush administration. I saw Fox News air a photo montage of posters that applied imagery as provocative and Hitler mustaches and Nazi arm bands to President Bush when he was the object of the ire of liberals. This they set against similar depictions of President Obama in recent months, toward the end of pointing out that Conservatives seem to be taking flak for the overreaching imagery of their protest, whereas the news hardly showed such things coming from the other side of the aisle during the last administration.

I heartily agree with that superficial assessment. It is interesting, however, that I derive a conclusion from that observation that is diametrically opposed to the conclusion Fox expects its viewers to take for granted. They believe that any failure to criticize equivalent activities coming from distinct groups is automatically indicative of a strong bias in favor of the group not being criticized. But that ignores very pertinent information about why stupid participants weren’t highlights of coverage of liberal protests. There was no coverage of liberal protests. On the other hand, there was no delay in not only covering conservative protests against attempts to increase health care, but also making it the focal point of the discussion.

I think the media is biased in favor of conservativism. I fervently believe that I base this on an assessment of the available evidence, and not on a commitment to a martyrdom complex. I also think that when stretched beyond one sentence, my claim of conservative media bias is rather restrained, and non-dogmatic. I don’t think the media is conservative because I think that most members of it are conservative. That may well not be the case. Put simply, because it is not the topic of this entry, I think that corporate interests tend more often to be in line with conservative policy issues, and that the media serves corporate interests, and consequently favors conservativism as a matter of course. I would also put forth, though, as something that is more in line with the topic I am seeking to discuss, that it may simply be the case that the media, whether conceived as an amorphous entity or a collection of individuals, sees the United States on the whole as more conservative than liberal. That seems plausible, and it also seems like it could be an important claim because it doesn’t require dogmatic conviction that the media is slanted in one direction or another. It allows the media to be effectively neutral, while believing that coverage of political issues needs to be geared towards one side of the spectrum in order to gain the attention of the largest portion of the viewing audience.

That is essentially, if simplistically, what I think the last several years of news coverage has suggested. With a bit of analysis, it also demonstrates a potential reason why conservatives believe that the media is biased against them, when in actuality it is more likely biased in favor of them. The nature of that bias is not a statement of agreement or disagreement on matters of opinion. The news should not and, to its credit, rarely does make such uncompromising pronouncements. What it does do is legitimate one set of views over another. In their minds, liberals don’t deserve news coverage, because no matter how many people turn out to demonstrate against the war, they are in the minority. The conservatives who were cheerleading the war, even though not many of them came out to do so visibly – they are the ones who represent the more mainstream American viewpoints.

Now, under a Democratic president, and in the midst of the health care debate, there is a different modus operandi when it comes to addressing protests. That is, they are addressed. And not only that, every protesting view is considered legitimate, no matter how outlandish and vitriolic. Sarah Palin claimed that Obama would create death panels to judge whether people should live or die, and it remains a topic of discussion even to this day. Some conservative politicians are still trying to exploit it for their ends, and everybody else feels as though they have to keep bringing it up and then saying “But it’s not really true.” Then why do we have to keep talking about it? Why was attention being given so long to the “birther movement”? And for the sake of equivalence, why don’t the liberals who follow Alex Jones get the same kind of attention? I suppose that it’s because left-wing conspiracy theories are considered to be absurdly far outside of the mainstream, whereas right-wing conspiracy theories are just fringe movements that raise real concerns relevant to the mainstream political discourse.

But it’s quite easy to understand how this perception leads to the belief that the media hates conservatives. If you have wildly nutty ideas, people with access to the facts will seem to be making fun of you when they undercut your political prejudices with genuine information. But take it as a compliment that you’re not being ignored. There is, apparently, value in your nuttiness. On the other hand, if nobody’s talking about you, nobody’s making fun of you. But don’t lose sight of the fact that nobody’s talking about you – it probably means they don’t consider you important. That, I believe, is the important distinction to make when it comes to assessing the bias of the media. If a news outlet fails to cover the craziness on one side of the aisle, and that coincides with ignoring the moderate views standing beside it, that does not mean the outlet agrees with that camp, and indeed, it may mean the opposite.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Correlation vs. Causality

This USA Today article was brought to my attention recently, digested into this one sentence summary:

Education matters, a new website will calculate how education influences important statistical indicators such as income, health, voting rates and even the likelihood that a person will stay out of prison.

Two things are naturally true of this brief story: it probably seems innocuous and uncontroversial, and it made me angry to read it. The problem is that the work being presented under this summary is not a series of conclusions, but rather an unsubstantiated claim being offered for uncritical acceptance. And indeed it is accepted uncritically, even in absence of a website specifically devoted to furthering the presumptuous claim. This is directly on a par with the comments from Rahm Emmanuel that I had criticized earlier, about people “earning what they learn.” He had no doubt based that conclusion upon the observation that he and his colleagues had obtained a respectable formal education and had subsequently become successful and wealthy. Now Education Matters is broadening that statistical analysis and including other indicators to make the instrumental good of obtaining institutionalized education seem more fully confirmed. But underlying all of this is what seems to me a fairly obvious problem.

You see, I would think that the people making these assertions or putting out these studies, who must thoroughly value education, would be aware of, and resistant to, common logical fallacies, such as confusing correlation with causality. I think that mistake is particularly common in part because it allows people to justify their own presuppositions. And on the basis of that mistake, you can do so in a way that seems scientific, that seems statistically significant. If you believe that college attendance increases income, and civic participation, and social morality, all you need to do is gather statistical data indicating that graduates demonstrate these characteristics, and then assert that it was their going to college that caused all of these things. This sort of misguided reasoning is applied to all sorts of things, but at least in the company I’ve kept I’ve seen it undercut much more readily only with respect to more controversial issues. Educated people often don’t buy the claim that violent video games make children more violent merely on the basis that children who demonstrate violent tendencies often play violent video games. It is recognized, in that case, that children with such tendencies may have a particular proficiency for playing such games, while non-violent children can both play them and retain psychological health. Privileging one interpretation over the other tends to be based on a preexisting ideological commitment to one conclusion.
But the summary quoted above is based on just such a prejudgment of the reasons for the statistical observations. However, that presumption is not so often called into question, perhaps because it is more convenient for people in a position to recognize and refute the error of reasoning. Go back and read that quotation again. Now, what if I were to say instead:

A new website will calculate how statistical indicators such the likelihood of a person staying out of prison, their income potential, health, and voting rates all influence the level of their education.

Does that sound implicitly worse? It’s little more that a change of syntax, but it practically reverses the conclusions suggested by the same analysis. On the surface, there is no sound reason to identify the correlation between these indicators as working in one causal direction.

And I can do the same with the content of the article, which claims that increasing rates of education would consequently have a positive influence on the other things mentioned, and which takes New Mexico as an explicit example. They say:

[M]ove all adults in the state of New Mexico up just one level of schooling — those without high school would graduate, those with a high school degree would get some college (or an associate's degree), and those with some college would earn a four-year diploma — and the tool predicts, among other things, that life expectancy in the state would increase by nearly two years.

New Mexico's murder rate would drop by more than half, from 8.6 murders per 100,000 people to 3.8.

Meanwhile, median personal income in the state would rise, from, $27,927 to $35,253, and the percentage of people who vote would jump substantially, from about 55% to 65%.

Also, the incarceration rate would drop more than 60%, from 640 people per 100,000 to 246.

But I put forth, by contrast, that if, in New Mexico, the incarceration rate were to drop about 60%, the murder rate were to be cut in half, the median income were to rise from twenty-eight to thirty-five thousand, the voting rate were substantially increased, and the life expectancy raised two years, then all adults in that state would move up one level of schooling as a consequence of the improved socio-economic circumstances.

I think the two hypotheticals rather well encapsulate my point of contention with these generally uncontended claims about the value of formal education as a means of upward social mobility. Perhaps it’s not that those who have the interest and commitment to obtain that education become better, more successful people, with more money, better health care, more virtuous friends, and so forth. Maybe it’s that those who are more financially comfortable early in life, and who aren’t exposed to many negative social influences, simply have a greater interest in, and more resources, such as time and money, to devote to obtaining a formal education.

But it seems to me that the authors of this new website, and Americans in general, don’t consider the distinction between these two interpretations. The presuppositions of the given article seem obvious, but the CEO of the United Way is quoted in its conclusion as saying simply "Intuitively, people know these things are connected." Well, of course they are connected. But connected in a unidirectional, causal way? I’m not convinced. And for those that are, that’s where the burden of proof lies – with them. I have yet to see anyone try to lift it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Farewell to Bush in Verse

We have a new president! I remember when he was took office during my sophomore year of high school, and I thought to myself "I can't believe this guy is going to run the country until after I've graduated." Then he took a second term when I was a sophomore in college and I got to say the same thing all over again. Now there's nothing foreseeable through which the Obama presidency will lead me, but it's so nice to have a change, and to see the end of an awful, awful era.
To that end, I've been writing a poem of farewell each day, and sending them to Marc Maron and Break Room Live. They were all pretty hasty, but any motivation is good enough for me. Here's all of them. Maron did read one of them on the webcast, though I think it was the worst of the lot.


Tough luck, Bush, your legacy's sunk,
Though into our history you've slunk.
But you should be in jail,
Or out hunting quail
With Cheney, blindfolded and drunk.

Double Dactyl:

Higgeldy Piggeldy
President Dubaya
Leaving the country in
Rampant decay
Yells of his righteousness
After the lawyers have
Put him away.



The Republican party under Bush
Heroically sat on its tush
Because it hadn't gotten dark yet –
So said the free market.


President Dubaya
Did not want to trouble ya
To sacrifice or learn,
So he let the world burn.

Sonnet on the Tongues of Shoes

From all my people, here's this gift to you.
And thousands more just like it lay in wait
To praise that your destruction here is through,
And shower you with symbols of our hate.

Will you accept it standing, knowing shame,
You killer of Iraqis, of our young?
Or will you stoop so low, deflecting blame
That we shall know you not from dirt and dung?

This is your farewell kiss, you dog, you swine -
A love note I pray God more men expand,
Which your own people ought read line by line
For all those signers they might understand:

The widows and the orphans of Iraq;
Men's hearts that in your shadow turn to black.

Change of Tone

It seems, sometimes, as though
I haven't laughed in years
In times when things meant to amuse
Were all too serious for me.

And the worst of the world on my TV
I could barely stand to think about
But if I did, then everything
Could trace right back to you

But Tuesday, can I breathe anew
Or muster laughter once again
To greet relief, and to greet this
A day I thought at times I'd never see?

Yes, now I'll try to laugh you out of office,
And then, thereafter, out of history.


I have waited for your shadow
To rise once more, and then depart,
Even since the moment when
It heralded this era's start.

And I naively thought that we
Could stand our ground while you beset
The nation with your fatal edicts,
Which, in time, we could forget.

But I am older now, and wonder
How I could ever say goodbye
Knowing that your ghost will haunt me,
Perhaps until the day I die?

I see you in all things I hate to see
I hate to see all things you've shown to me.
I see you clear in poverty and grief,
In war, and hatred, and corrupt belief.

I see your eyes, tight closed and dreaming,
In the face of each child who
Has been kept so poor in learning
By schools made still more poor by you.

I see your finger gesture crudely
Disregarding truth and law
And siding with each damned fool who
Mistakes vague thoughts for things he saw.

I hear your voice, persistent, prickling
On my ear its priggish tones
When paranoia rises, clicking
Through once-friendly telephones.

I know the anger, mine and others',
At growing poorer hour on hour,
And think of you and how depression
Has made my sweet friends' lives more sour.

I see vets on dark street corners,
Haggard, wounded, begging, lost
Preceded by the funeral mourners
Whose numbers you dared not exhaust.

And in the distance there, I see you
Brandishing a clumsy sword
Which seeks blood blindly in your passion
Of sacrificing to your Lord.

I see the darkness of your stain
In skies whose clouds I can't discern
As reservoirs of cleansing rain
Or as your poisonous cistern.

I feel your temper in the heat
Of summer and you represent
The virus that's put Earth in fever –
A plague you think is Heaven-sent.

And you have set the benchmark high
Should others seek a legacy
Of havoc, or to incur ire
In volumes from those such as me.

How could I be so disappointed
In my fellow men
As when, twice-duped, they re-anointed
You to damn our lives again?

No, every flaw of faith or reason
Fades in presence of the show
Of foolishness and baseness chanting
"Four more years," four years ago.

And in the fear and doubt of day to day,
I remember how empowerment fled away
When, in my youth, I could not stop your war,
Or stand in the way of all you could stand for.

And I wonder if, in mirrored morning,
You can see, behind your eyes,
Even one such sight worth scorning,
Or do you love what we despise?

And was it just enough for you, then,
To sit and gloat on what you'd won,
Retire, looking satisfied,
And bid farewell, the damage done?

Imagine Justice

Please retire from public life,
Mr. President.
Because if I don't see you again,
There are a million places
I can imagine fate has sent you.

Surely fate sees that strife
In the present
Returns in future to the men
Who left it as the traces
Of carelessness at what they do.

And if you should vanish,
Perhaps you've gone
To fight a war where fate has sent you
Under-equipped and unclear
Of reason or aim.

And fate then can banish
American dawn
From your eyes and the world you view
With a new sense of fear,
A new respect for pain.

Or fate might take your money,
Leave you poor,
Begging at the feet of princes
Who mock you and believe
They know the world.

And would you find it funny –
Would you want more
Of the humility only this evinces?
Or would you yourself deceive,
And play victim to your world?

A Ballade of Farewell

You accept no blame, feel no remorse,
And never dared admit one bare mistake,
Keeping confidence in the only course
You can accept your legacy will take.
And so you stand well clear of men's concern,
Insisting, self-obsessed, and stubbornly,
That what you know so well we all will learn:
Your truest judge will be our history.

But we know well the trail of tears you've led
This country down, though not how far it goes.
So on one point it's just as you have said:
Your impact's lasting reach yet no one knows.
And though you may not see, or comprehend,
Still your detractors very much agree
That as you say, and finally in the end,
Your truest judge will be our history.

We all expect to feel gratified,
That what we fought, or what we fought for, wins.
But the greater weight of your sick pride
Cannot outweigh the crush of all your sins.
And fast and far it reaches in the blaze
That time cannot outrun, nor you, nor we,
But burns clear through the old myopic haze.
Your truest judge will be our history.

Once a prince, now taken down in notes,
Still baffled by the growing enmity,
And though your ego on itself just dotes,
Your truest judge will be our history.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

"Sharp Criticism"

Here’s an interesting bit of copy from today’s New York Times:

The International Committee of the Red Cross reported finding what it called shocking scenes on Wednesday, including four emaciated children next to the bodies of their dead mothers. In a rare and sharply critical statement, it said that “the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care and evacuate the wounded.”

You know, I think that remaining markedly silent in ordinary or barely exceptional circumstances is marvelously productive of breaking points. The less you speak, the more weight your voice tends to carry when it is raised. And what’s more, the less frequently you are inclined to speak, the more confidence you can have in the significance of a subject that forces language from your lips. I think it is largely because of the strength of my belief in those sentiments that I often find I grow frustrated with myself whenever I go on speaking too long, or get mired in idle talk. I flirt with the idea of vows of silence, which would promise me time enough to reflect on would-be words, and avoid the mistake of speaking too soon and too carelessly. But then I worry. I worry because it is easy to imagine the dire tragedy of reflecting so long, then opening your mouth again to say only “I haven’t learned anything.”

Worse than never seeking one’s breaking point is building toward it, only to lose grip of the object of it, to miss the sight of its power. That, I fear, is the circumstance the Red Cross has come to, with this empty statement, and the New York Times should be ashamed of its use of such strong and beautiful adjectives in grossly mischaracterizing it. A “rare” statement perhaps it was – if the organization keeps to the habit of not speaking out for the people on behalf of whom it ostensibly works, then yes, any statement whatsoever that it makes is technically a rare one. But by no reasonably objective measure can the above words be termed “sharply critical.” To say that the Israeli military “failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law” is the geopolitical equivalent of reprimanding a subordinate in one’s workplace for not filling out the forms deemed necessary by office policy. It carries little more emotional and moral weight than does accusing someone of a traffic violation, which, while illegal and potentially dangerous, is by no means barbarous and roundly detestable.

No, a “rare and sharply critical statement” would be to say that the Israeli military is personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocents; that it is guilty of murder – wholesale murder that with each stage of escalation more closely verged on the genocidal. It would a rare, sharply critical statement to say the Israeli military has come to the endpoint of transforming itself into the monster it thought it was fighting. Statements like these are sharp criticisms. Statements like these are proper to the events that, pray God, have left the region now, and they are the sorts of statements that normally silent parties such as – I suppose – international relief organizations should make when next they feel compelled toward the point of breaking their silence.