Archive for January, 2013

Idyll Never Again

January 29, 2013

I sympathize with Idle No More, but I don’t think the goals realistic or desirable

The aboriginal peoples of Canada have gathered in common cause. Idle No More; a movement with the explicitly stated goals of environmental protection and native sovereignty. From squalid reserves to broken treaties, the indigenous people of Canada are in desperate plight and can demonstrate legitimate grievance. However, if there is a fundamental flaw in the institution that uniquely addresses Canadian aboriginals, it might be that it exists at all. Reserve life is a failed experiment, and would be in no way worthy of rehabilitation if we weren’t mired in it for the foreseeable future.

When Europeans, armed with steel and pox, came to Canada 400 years ago, they came into conflict with a people very familiar; warlike, greedy, racist, proud, prone to convenience, and not very bright. In other words, the Europeans and Canadian Aboriginals were human beings alike, and what separated them was technology. Speaking as someone who grew up in Canada, exposed to endless vignettes and culturally sensitive middle school textbooks, I was influenced by all manner of stories about “using all parts of the buffalo” and the profound spiritual connection of Native Canadians to the land. Such stories are pure invention, as buffalo jumps and the setting of massive fires to drive game strongly attest. The Native Canadians of yesteryear were a defeated people, outclassed by a European tribe with motives akin to their own.

As Canadians, we lean toward the mosaic side of the cultural mosaic versus melting pot debate, and in the case of the aboriginal people of Canada, that attitude has not served us very well. Allow me a brief aside and an analogy to illustrate my point. In a episode of Law & Order, Lt. Van Buren (a black woman, and the person in charge of her precinct) is told by a racist perp to “Go back to Nairobi, or wherever it is you came from” to which Van Buren replied “I’m from Brooklyn.” Van Buren wins the argument by the simple fact that she is an American, no matter her African heritage.

Now picture a post antebellum America, where former slaves are herded into reserves, guaranteed certain rights, and encouraged to preserve their African culture in isolation. We’d have another case of “our culture” and “their culture.” Instead, despite all the problems still facing the American black person, American culture is part black, and that subculture grows organically and influences every part of American life – from the presidency to the listening habits of suburban white kids. In Canada, in the case of our aboriginals, we have encouraged “their” identity…

It might seem easy for a white male living in a country dominated by white males to dismiss the value of another culture. To insist that “they” integrate instead of preserving their heritage. And yes, it is easy. However, cultures since the dawn of humanity of come and gone, and perhaps more importantly, mutate and change. Artificially preserving cultures despite their lack of material success results in stagnation, and as has been proven by the grotesque failure of reserve life, promotes little more than a perpetual reminder of what once was, and can never be again.

Robin Lindsay



Zero Dark

January 26, 2013

Naomi Wolf’s critique of Zero Dark Thirty is disgraceful and silly.

As an Al Qaeda junkie (that is, a junkie for Al Qaeda, not a drug addled Islamist) Zero Dark Thirty was essential viewing if only to maintain contact with the zeitgeist. Vetting the specifics of the top secret decade long hunt for UBL is a task above my pay grade, but fragmentary information both insightful and compelling is available to those patient enough to sit through every Peter Bergen interview on Youtube, and forgo Jon Stewart for Charlie Rose.

Third Wave Feminist and author Naomi Wolf panned Zero Dark Thirty, and compared Kathryn Bigelow to Leni Riefensthal. Her thesis reads as follows:

Your film Zero Dark Thirty is a huge hit here. But in falsely justifying, in scene after scene, the torture of detainees in “the global war on terror”, Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent.

The first 45 minutes of Zero Dark Thirty consists mainly of a series of difficult and escalating torture scenes. The victims are Arabs in the employ of Al Qaeda, and the torturers are agents of the US government. There is some debate, and a denial by the Senate Intelligence Committee, that the torturing of detainees led to information relevant to the UBL hunt, but Naomi Wolf’s accusation that Bigelow is a shill for the CIA or that the torture was motivated by race (Abu Grahib notwithstanding) lacks even the appearance of credibility.

First, the naked brutality of the coercive interrogation scenes is counterproductive to a defense of torture, if only on an emotional level. A film can explore torture in many ways; a glossing over, avoidance, hinting, Hostel-style over the top nightmare, etc. Zero Dark Thirty acting as cinematic propaganda on behalf of the CIA could have easily presented torture in a more palatable form, and in a fraction of the screen time. But the film makers chose to expose the audience to “scene after scene,” as Naomi Wolf puts it, of filthy violence and shocking misery.

Second, information gained from torture is a mix of useful intelligence coupled with misinformation and confusion. Zero Dark Thirty tries to tell that mushroomed swamp of a story, not defend or condemn it. If Bigelow had failed to include torture scenes in the film, she could have equally been accused of a coverup. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t take a stance on the ethics of torture, and if the movie has a point of view on the practical results, it’s that the “break” in the case came in the form of a forgotten file, lost in the myriad of post 9/11 tips and only unearthed by years of squatting with a hammer and chisel.

Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the “information” it “secured”, information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden’s capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls “the detainee program”.

Perhaps I am thick or grossly inattentive, but I cannot think of any scenes in the film that can be fairly couched as “redeeming” of anything. Nor can I fathom the rationale behind the scare quotes flanking the words “information” and “secured” in the above paragraph. What caveats of doubt or implication are we to infer? That the information wasn’t information? That it wasn’t secured but something else? Forgive my repetition, but torture is occasionally useful, and the bare facts of that doesn’t speak to whether it is ethical, or if other techniques are more effective. Nor do I think acknowledging that is at all controversial.

Could some of the seduction be financing? It is very hard to get a film without a pro-military message, such as The Hurt Locker, funded and financed. But according to sources in the film industry, the more pro-military your message is, the more kinds of help you currently can get: from personnel, to sets, to technology – a point I made in my argument about the recent militarized Katy Perry video.

Aside from the simple fact that there is nothing inherently unseemly about a film with a pro military message, Zero Dark Thirty’s military message is limited to showing the breathtaking competence and ruthlessness of the Navy Seals, and only in the final 30 minutes of the film. Women are shot. Wounded and defenseless men are shot. Children are terrorized and are subject to lethal risk. What about those difficult truths strikes you, dear reader, as pro military? The mission as portrayed was ugly, and brutal, and ethically complicated, and in no intellectually defensible way could be called “pro military.”

As for the seeming necessity for film makers to grovel and compromise with the military, I draw your attention to the grammar of the second sentence quoted above. The Hurt Locker was made before Zero Dark Thirty, and the success of The Hurt Locker translates to Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow being able to make any movie she wants. The jump in budget from $15 million (for Hurt Locker) to $40 million for Zero Dark Thirty is clear evidence of the trust and confidence of her backers, not for toadying.

It seems implausible that scenes such as those involving two top-secret, futuristic helicopters could be made without Pentagon help, for example.

I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to judge for yourself whether or not the helicopters in the film were, in fact, top secret futuristic helicopters, and not… something else. Oh hell, read about how they were props here if you care to. Naomi Wolf’s credibility is waning fast, and the obvious muckraking is equally disturbing.

Oh yeah, and she compared Bigelow to the Nazis:

But to me, the path your career has now taken reminds of no one so much as that other female film pioneer who became, eventually, an apologist for evil: Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl’s 1935 Triumph of the Will, which glorified Nazi military power, was a massive hit in Germany. Riefenstahl was the first female film director to be hailed worldwide.

Naomi Wolf is blithe with the truth, and does her cause a disservice. Furthermore, the poor marshalling and gaping holes in her arguments suggests either a dull mind out of her depth (something I think not the case, given her body of work) or a person so desperate to bend the world to her view that she will say anything.

Another activist more concerned with her cause than remaining in accordance with the facts. Go figure.

Robin Lindsay


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