Politics, privacy and other issues, including stuff that just seems relevant today.


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2 weeks Ago

Problems with Kunstler’s social politics

Published by marco on

I find James Howard Kunstler to be worth reading more often than not. He writes engagingly and his insight into the devolution of capitalist society can be quite valuable, But he’s been more and more prone to going off the rails when he discusses issues of race. It’s usually not out-and-out racism; there’s a kernel of an idea that’s worth discussing, but usually not the way he’s discussing it. His phrasing betrays a tone-deafness that underlies much of his opinion in these areas.

For example, in a recent post The Agonies of Sensible People (Clusterfuck Nation), he writes:

“Finally, on top of his Wall Street connection, Bloomberg is Jewish. (As I am.) Is the country now crazed enough to see the emergence of a Jewish Wall Streeter as the incarnation of all their hobgoblin-infested nightmares? Very possibly so, since the old left wing Progressives have adopted the Palestinians as their new pet oppressed minority du jour and have been inveighing against Israel incessantly. Well, that would be a darn shame. But that’s what you might get in a shameless land where anything goes and nothing matters.”

That’s a lot of incoherent, vaguely racially charged and misguided babble. It suggests that Kunstler views the plight of the Palestinians as just some issue picked up by bored liberals, not an actual, serious war crime perpetrated by a state that the U.S. 100% supports. This is not the first time that Kunstler got very flustered and incoherent when he sees the need to defend Israel at all costs.

Kunstler further idly wonders whether America could even contemplate a Jewish candidate—as if poll-leading Bernie Sanders had been hiding his Jewishness somehow.

Yes, Kunstler got so swept in his fantasy that America would reject the otherwise-perfect Bloomberg just ‘cause he’s Jewish, he completely forgot that Bernie Sanders is way Jewier than Bloomberg and is doing just fine in polls—even in Iowa.

The reason I noticed is because this paragraph just swept in out of the blue, after a more trenchant analysis of another topic. Its presence is jarring and demands extra attention. It makes Kunstler seem hyper-sensitive about a largely non-existent anti-semitism—so much so that he invents it in order to be offended by it.

That he hasn’t written a word about Sanders is revealing. Sanders is Jewish, so Kunstler is unlikely to want to be too disparaging—lest he become that which rages against. But, because Kunstler doesn’t like socialists, he’s forced to forget entirely that Sanders exists. More of a libertarian bent, is Mr. Kunstler.

Where Israel deserve’s Kunstler staunch protection, however, he feels that black people complain too much and he cheerfully downgrades their issues in his depictions of them. In his 2016 predictions article Pretend to the Bitter End (Clusterfuck Nation), an otherwise well-written and insightful article contained a section titled “Race Relations and the Cowardice of the Thinking Classes” who’s content was incongruously ungenerous (as the depiction of the Arab-loving liberals above).

In defending his opinion that black Americans are disadvantaged because they are not getting a proper education in how to communicate grammatically in English, he leaves his conclusion deliberately open as to who he thinks is to blame for that. It’s not an uninteresting thesis—David Foster Wallace wrote quite eloquently and non-controversially on the topic in Present Tense[1]—but he quickly moves on to phrasing that reveals a less refined and less helpful underlying thesis. It’s perhaps easy to miss because he signals with only a few words, but Kunstler is far too good and generally careful a writer for this to be unintentional. He writes,

“I suspect that many people of good intentions are running out patience with this racket — and it is a racket for extorting preferential treatment and money from guilt-tripped white people. (Emphasis added.)”

The reader can only conclude that, while Kunstler never heard a concern of Israel’s he found trifling, the concerns of black people in America amount to a racket about which Mr. Kunstler has heard quite enough, thank you very much. Further on, he writes:

“The martyrs of the movement act in ways likely to get them in trouble, for instance the hapless 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot brandishing a BB gun designed to look exactly like the US Army 1911 issue .45 caliber ACP”

There is no other way to interpret this than to understand that Kunstler thinks that Rice brought his shooting on himself because he doesn’t know his place. A black boy cannot play with a gun in America. When he is shot by the police in record time, it is the black boy’s own fault for not paying attention to this obvious rule.

“[…] Trayvon Martin beating down George Zimmerman”

That’s about the least generous interpretation of what happened in that case that you could possibly have. Zimmerman triggered the confrontation when he could have avoided it in myriad ways, then shot Martin, then avoiding any sentencing. Martin is dead for no other reason that that he was black and somewhere where Zimmerman thought he shouldn’t be. Zimmerman went unpunished because America agreed with that statement. Kunstler can only remember that Zimmerman was beaten unfairly and seemingly out of the blue.

“The trend will be for police to regard certain neighborhoods as “no-go” areas — if only to avoid the gigantic multi-million dollar litigations that grow out of these ambiguous confrontations.”

Now he’s sympathizing with the put-upon police who are repaid for their efforts in policing no-go areas—full of ungrateful animals—with lawsuits that bleed their nearly-empty coffers unfairly dry. Yes, because that’s exactly how things go, right? The poor get away with murder and get paid richly for it while cops kowtow?

“The larger question going forward is whether Black America will continue to insist on being an oppositional culture.”

Kunstler thinks that black America is solely responsible for its own plight because it is “oppositional”. If “they” would just play along, everything would be fine. If they only knew their place, they’d be fine.[2]

Where his financial and high-level international analysis can be trenchant, his national and social analysis is tone-deaf and not really worth serious consideration.

“They also will not recognize the need for a common culture in this nation, a set of truly shared values and standards of conduct.”

This, from the same guy who argues for balkanization everywhere else, who wrote at the top of the article that “[t]he coming crackup will re-set the terms of civilized life to levels largely pre-techno-industrial” and who has argued vehemently and eloquently against suburban culture and the loss of communal life. So while Americans in general should welcome a “crackup” that returns them to smaller, more manageable communities, he also cheerfully blames and shames blacks for not properly participating in the 380-million–strong current American culture. So, blame the outsider for not integrating properly. Ironic, considering his vehement defense of Israel and Bloomberg while espousing his own Jewishness.

I have had my doubts about reading Kunstler for a few years, but he’s usually made it worthwhile—for now. He’s making it more difficult to continue, though, because even when he makes good points, it’s hard to forget the giant pile of petty and racist opinions that lurk beneath.[3]


As usual with David Foster Wallace, you should just read the whole essay because a citation doesn’t do it justice. An excerpt nonetheless follows.

“What I am suggesting is that the rhetorical situation of an English class — a class composed wholly of young people whose Group identity is rooted in defiance of Adult-Establishment values, plus also composed partly of minorities whose primary dialects are different from SWE — requires the teacher to come up with overt, honest, compelling arguments for why SWE is a dialect worth learning.

“These arguments are hard to make — not intellectually but emotionally, politically. Because they are baldly elitist. [38] The real truth, of course, is that SWE is the dialect of the American elite. That it was invented, codified, and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males and is perpetuated as “Standard” by same. That it is the shibboleth of the Establishment and an instrument of political power and class division and racial discrimination and all manner of social inequity. These are shall we say rather delicate subjects to bring up in an English class, especially in the service of a pro-SWE argument, and extra-especially if you yourself are both a Privileged WASP Male and the Teacher and thus pretty much a walking symbol of the Adult Establishment. This reviewer’s opinion, though, is that both students and SWE are better served if the teacher makes his premises explicit, licit and his argument overt, presenting himself as an advocate of SWE’s utility rather than as a prophet of its innate superiority.

“[From a prepared speech he gives his classes…]

“Maybe it seems unfair. If it does, you’re not going to like this news: I’m not going to let you write in SBE either. In my class, you have to learn and write in SWE. If you want to study your own dialect and its rules and history and how it’s different from SWE, fine — there are some great books by scholars of Black English, and I’ll help you find some and talk about them with you if you want. But that will be outside class. In class — in my English class — you will have to master and write in Standard Written English, which we might just as well call “Standard White English,” because it was developed by white people and is used by white people, especially educated, powerful white people. [RESPONSES by this point vary too widely to standardize.] I’m respecting you enough here to give you what I believe is the straight truth. In this country, SWE is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE. This is How It Is. You can be glad about it or sad about it or deeply pissed off. You can believe it’s racist and unjust and decide right here and now to spend every waking minute of your adult life arguing against it, and maybe you should, but I’ll tell you something: If you ever want those arguments to get listened to and taken seriously, you’re going to have to communicate them in SWE, because SWE is the dialect our country uses to talk to itself. (Emphasis added.)”

This is clearly a different subject with a lot of value in and of itself, but I thought Wallace at least was able to present a rational view on it without seeming derogatory. I’m not saying he’s right, necessarily, but that he presents a good point lucidly. While it could be argued that Kunstler is making a similar point, it seems to be coming from a different, far less-constructive place.

[2] The same arguments are made about immigrants in the U.S. and Europe. Why won’t they integrate? Why don’t they just shed their identity and become exactly like us? And if they try? Tell them they’re doing it wrong or deny them otherwise. Then complain further that they’re still not integrating. Repeat ad nauseum until you’re allowed to throw them out of the country, exploit them legally, kill them outright or some glorious combination of the three.
[3] Kind of like Donald Trump, actually. For every interesting statement he makes about our foreign policy—e.g. that we wasted $4 trillion on war that would have been better spent at home, that millions died in war on Hillary’s watch in Libya, Iraq, Yemen, etc. or that we should be talking to Putin rather than rattling our cartoonish sabers—he makes at least a dozen ignorant statements about foreigners or the economy.

1 month Ago

Occupy Wildlife Preserve

Published by marco on

I haven’t read much about Ammon Bundy and his gang’s standoff in Oregon. I’ve read so little about it that I had to look up where it was actually happening (other than knowing it was “somewhere in the U.S.”). So it’s some Arizona ranchers occupying a federal building in Oregon. This is definitely a step up from the domestic terrorism of the Unabomber or Timothy McVeigh because at least fewer people are being killed. Still, armed men have occupied federal property and are demanding the release of two of their family members from prison—any non-biased and halfway-objective definition of terrorism would have to include this act.

I admit I haven’t put much effort into reading about it because it sounds so overtly ridiculous, much like the peaceful protest/armed standoff against federal officers by Cliven Bundy[1] and co. a few years ago. It honestly sounds like people feeling oppressed but utterly unaware of the privileges that allow them to even feel oppressed in this way and to protest it without getting killed. Even if the grievance were to be legitimate—which Clive Bundy’s objectively was not and a cursory examination of Ammon Bundy’s leads one to the same conclusion there—armed resistance is not the way to solve problems in a civilized country.

And, even if we were to consider allowing it in cases where revolution truly seems to be the only answer, these guys are definitely not first in line. Last year, during the protests triggered by police violence, there were those quick to opine that blacks should stop complaining and work harder instead of abandoning their families in droves to go do drugs. Those same people now listen carefully with looks of concern to every word that drips from Bundy’s lips about the nearly unutterable obscenities that the oppressive government has visited on them when it’s not otherwise bestowing its largesse on them from its public coffers in the form of ranching subsidies.

Where the grievances of the Occupy Movement were founded in real problems that affect many, many Americans and were based on deep inequalities and injustices in the American system of governance, these grievances don’t seem like injustices at all.

Where Occupy asked how people were supposed to live in a system that imposes such crushing debt for so many simply in order to take part in society, these ranchers simply don’t want to pay taxes, or to pay to use public land or to be told when and how much they’re allowed to set it on fire.

Where Occupy addressed the underlying issues of an economic system that caused global economic collapse and instability, these ranchers are growing what are very personal issues into national grievances with very careful manipulation of people’s heartstrings and miseducation on issues of governance.

Where addressing Occupy’s grievances would lead to a more equitable and viable society for many more than just the 1%, the solutions stemming from these ranchers are utterly unviable. That is, “not paying taxes” doesn’t scale to everybody, else how would you pay anyone to maintain public grazing land?

Though Occupy didn’t offer concrete solutions, the implication that the richest should be reined in by getting a smaller slice of the pie or at least giving up more of it should they unfairly get it doesn’t seem so outrageous, unless you’ve been heavily indoctrinated in so-called “free market” religion. Extending the mantra of “stop taxing us” and “let us use public land for free” doesn’t scale. At all. All it is is “I’ve got mine, Jack” and, once I’ve got it, no-one else gets it, ‘cause that wouldn’t be fair.

Just because it’s a mentality that might just win out in the short term doesn’t make it any less stupid or any more long-term viable.

There might be more to it, I know, but that’s really what it looks like so far. And, even if there were deeper subtleties, I don’t believe that most of the people who are so quick to throw their support behind these ranchers are doing it for those subtle reasons. Americans are trained from birth to simultaneously hate their own government and to unwittingly live off its largesse. The ignorance is often deliberate. This cognitive dissonance goes a long way to ensuring that they shut discussion down immediately lest uncomfortable reality intrude.

What the ranchers are doing sounds for all the world like a reality show, though, and will likely be picked up as a new Netflix-only series by 2017.

The article The Dumb and the Restless by Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone) (sub-titled, “Ammon Bundy and his band of weeping, self-pitying, gun-toting, wannabe-terrorist metrosexuals are America’s most ridiculous people”) closes with the following,

“There’s no doubt that these people are dangerous, but their ridiculousness is a huge part of who they are. Incidentally, this is true of groups like the actual al-Qaeda, too, led as they are by men in beards and Rick-Perry-style “smart glasses” who play at being religious scholars and intellectuals when in fact they are the kind of people who are afraid of cartoons and lie awake at night wondering if it’s permissible to play chess with a menstruating woman. Just because a person is dangerous does not mean he’s not also absurd.

“The Bundy militiamen are an extreme example of a type that’s become common in America. Like the Tea Partiers, they seem to not only believe that they’re the only people in history who’ve ever paid taxes, but that they’re the only people who were ever sad about it. What they call tyranny on the part of the federal government just means putting up with the same irritating bills and regulations and other crap that we all put up with, only the rest of us don’t whine about it in the front seats of our cars while posing in front of tripods.

“Again, these people may be dangerous, but their boundless self-pity, their outrageous sense of entitlement and their slapstick incompetence as rebels and terrorists are absolutely ridiculous. Sure, it may not help, but how can we not laugh?”

The opposite postulate holds as well: just because a person is absurd, that does not mean he’s not also dangerous. While I agree with Taibbi that we should laugh at them to dispel their power, we should still keep a careful eye on who’s not laughing. If there are enough people not laughing, they could react in ways that we don’t foresee because we aren’t taking them seriously.

Otherwise, we’re all self-satisfied and oblivious fools, judging “those idiots” who don’t know anything about anything and then utterly shocked to discover that those idiots are now, for all intents and purposes, in charge.[2]

This advice applies to all interest groups that use numbers—even seemingly small numbers—to exert control over the powerful on behalf of the weak. Sometimes this pressure achieves ostensibly “good” results—a union negotiates living wages or better benefits for its workers and the company for which they work is still profitable—and sometimes it’s bad—groups exert P.C. pressure to force companies and individuals to submit to ridiculous demands.

If we dismiss those who automatically lend credence to such special-interest groups out of hand, we run the risk of being extremely surprised when those groups end up exerting no small amount of control over our own lives.[3]

[1] No relation?

Here is where we often confuse who’s winning and losing. It’s very possible to lose reputation while winning everything else. That is, you think you’ve won against someone because you’ve made them ridiculous, but you’ve only beaten them on an inconsequential battleground while losing everywhere important.

Witness “bankers” (or the financial community) since 2008. Once again, in the wake of the global crash, everyone hates them and their reputation is terrible. On the other hand, almost all economic gains in the last seven years have gone to them. So what do they care if we think they’re losers, when by the only measure that matters in our society—money, in case you haven’t been paying attention—they are very definitely winning?

While we smugly consider ourselves better than “those people”, we continue our lives of quiet desperation while “those people” live lives of luxury unparalleled in history and financed purely by a largesse born of ignorance, self-satisfaction and an utter misunderstanding of power structures.

[3] A good example would be the “whackos” who are against abortion. The really extreme ones are a relatively small minority, but they are constantly winning their war on abortion in the States because only legislators really take them seriously—but that’s all that matters in a republic. The fact about abortion in the States is that, while it is legal everywhere, it is—for exactly those people who would need them—extremely difficult and time-consuming to get one.

1 year Ago

The West deigns to help Islam modernize

Published by marco on

In defense of Islam (3QuarksDaily) cites a same-named blog post by Ross Douthat (New York Times) in which he uses quite-dense prose to obfuscate the central message: he argues that the fanaticism of ISIS rises directly from Islamic scripture and shouldn’t be treated as necessarily crazy. The first step in ending a needless war is the recognition that the enemy is not crazy, but Douthat’s interpretation is more insidious, I think.

“Western analysts tend to understate not only the essential religiosity of ISIS’s worldview, but the extent to which that worldview has substantial theological grounding. It isn’t just a few guys making up a cult out of random bits of scripture; its political-religious vision appeals precisely because it derives “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” And we ignore the coherence of those interpretations at our peril: The Islamic State’s “intellectual genealogy” is intensely relevant to its political strategy, and its theology “must be understood to be combatted.””

He seems to argue, as others did before him—and as contemporaries like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins do—that Islam is inherently violent. This is a spectacularly tone-deaf and unproductive line of argument that fails to recognize the unbelievable level or violence and religious justification for it employed by the society in which Douthat—and all of his tone-deaf contemporaries—find themselves. The U.S. military is an extremely religious organization. It would be much more honest to just argue that humanity is inherently violent, independent of religious affiliation.

Douthat goes on to soften his initial paragraphs to “give the rest of Islam credit for being, well, Islamic as well, and for having available arguments and traditions and interpretations that marginalized this kind of barbarism in the past, and God willing can do so once again.” This is a wonderful sentiment but how is poor Islam to control its worst elements when crusading Christianity is constantly whipping up fervor with its bombs and suffering? And then there is the underlying superiority of these argument in which Douthat talks of “synthesiz[ing] Islam fully with Western modernity” as if there were a natural progression of civilization in which the current Western one was clearly superior to anything else. If we were to dig through objectively, that may end up being the case, but assuming so a priori is not bound to be convincing to those over whom you are claiming superiority—especially when it’s not immediately obvious.

I happened to stumble on an older, unpublished blog post that I wrote in early 2009 that described the exact same attitude of the west toward Islam, in this case as channelled by the late Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens on his friend, Rushdie (Jan. 2009)

Christopher Hitchens is an exquisite writer of English, as is Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s books are, on the whole, amazing reads, and Hitchens’s articles as well, when he’s not raging too hard about some of his more deep-seated, right-wing opinions (the unending justness and rightness of the Iraq war being one particular such hobby-horse). Assassins of the Mind by Christopher Hitchens (Vanity Fair) talks of his relationship with Rushdie over the years and, in particular, the violent attitude that leads followers of a religion to heed a fatwa issued against a novelist.

It is interesting that the violence of Islamic extremists gets consistent copy from Hitchens while examples abound of similarly violent efforts at suppression by others as well. When he speaks of “a shadowy figure that has, uninvited, drawn up a chair to the table”, it is very easy to get confused and think he is talking of the Holocaust, when he is, in fact, speaking of the outbreak of violence one can expect when writing, saying or showing something that may be taken as offensive by extremist Islam. It certainly seems to be granting a tremendous amount of power to a population segment that is (A) much more often getting the shitty end of the stick and (B) on the wane for years now, were it not for the efforts of exactly the governments that Hitchens so wholeheartedly continues to support in their efforts to do the Crusades right, once and for all.

It is especially ironic that the publishing cycle brings this article to the light of day now, two weeks into the latest, ghastly Israeli steamrolling of Gaza, when international commentary has failed to bring any serious form of condemnation to bear against Israel for their having thrown themselves into an attack based seemingly exclusively on tactics that are war crimes. For many that see the problem, that “shadowy figure” of the Holocaust prevents them from speaking out as they would against any other nation that acted in a similar manner.

When Hitchens calls Iran “the prison house that is the Islamic Republic”, he is only partly correct because such a statement can only be an exaggeration with a nation that has such a rich culture. It applies far better to a nation like North Korea, for example. His heart’s in the right place, but his condemnation of an entire nation—the 127 writers he mentions excluded, of course—puts him dangerously close to having his opinion interpreted as an implicit assent to a regime-change in Iran, as has been sought by the same regimes that brought us the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, of which Hitchens still approves, though not unreservedly. So, he’s right, but a bit too enthusiastically and exhibiting a bit of the fanaticism that he so rightly condemns in the target of his ire.

“To indulge the idea of religious censorship by the threat of violence is to insult and undermine precisely those in the Muslim world who are its intellectual cream, and who want to testify for their own liberty—and for ours. It is also to make the patronizing assumption that the leaders of mobs and the inciters of goons are the authentic representatives of Muslim opinion. What could be more “offensive” than that?”

Human Rights Watch is not credible

Published by marco on

HRW is clearly in the pocket of the U.S. government. From a recent tweet, which linked to the article Saudi Arabia: King’s Reform Agenda Unfulfilled (HRW),

“King Abdullah’s reign brought about marginal advances for women but failed to secure the fundamental rights of Saudi citizens to free expression, association, and assembly. […]”

 King Abdullah's Twipitaph from HRW

The verb employed here is not accurate. You cannot fail at something without actually trying it. In the main tweet, they do it again, characterizing a purely imaginary “reform agenda” as “unfulfilled”.

I suppose this tweet could be just misconstrued as misguided and uninformed, but isn’t HRW supposed to be on top of exactly the type of regime led by King Abdullah for 14 years? What exactly are they for, if not that?

Let’s take a look at another twipitaph, this one for Hugo Chavez and linking to the article Venezuela: Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy (HRW)

“After enacting a new constitution with ample human rights protections in 1999 – and surviving a short-lived coup d’état in 2002 – Chávez and his followers moved to concentrate power. They seized control of the Supreme Court and undercut the ability of journalists, human rights defenders, and other Venezuelans to exercise fundamental rights.”

This is a pretty harsh characterization of a regime that made forward strides in many, much more social ways.

Oh right, HRW is a propaganda arm of the U.S. government. So they write hagiographies of official U.S. allies that ignore all manner of anti-democratic policies while denouncing official enemies of the U.S. that emphasize all manner of slanderous and largely unfounded accusations.

The point is to make sure the reader gets the right impression.

Saudi Arabia good; Venezuela bad?

Not exactly.

The lesson instead is what the U.S. says, goes.

And the U.S. wants any country that even think of having an anti-capitalist and pro-socialist component to think again.

And HRW is here to help in whatever way it can.

Using American Sniper as a microscope to examine America

Published by marco on

I have not seen American Sniper for the same reason that I have not seen Act of Valor, Zero Dark Thirty or Lone Survivor. I did watch one season of Homeland and lasted that long only because my watchin’ buddy refused to stop mid-season. This type of entertainment is mostly just the U.S. military advertising itself through Hollywood’s mouth. I’d rather read the news and come to my own conclusions without the hagiographies.

I watched Battleship ‘cause it had aliens and The Hurt Locker ‘cause the woman who directed it won an Oscar for it. Funny story: it turned out she won the Oscar because she’d managed to make a movie about American war in just as unquestioning a hoo-rah, patriotic manner as any man could have. So when Bigelow’s next paean Zero Dark Thirty showed up, I was once-bitten-twice-shy.

And now we have another hoo-rah movie over which the Academy has spooged six nominations and in which America onanates about its greatness on-screen, all directed by éminence grise Clint Eastwood, whose extreme rightward swing we’re all supposed to ignore in his oeuvres. That should be no problem: I never understood why Republicans hate George Clooney movies just because they don’t agree with his politics and I certainly don’t avoid Bruce Willis because I think his politics are laughable. Because they are. But he’s still a fun actor.

Anyway, I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve read some interesting takes on it. The first of these was the article Learning from American Sniper by Rory Fanning (Jacobin), which advises us to learn what we can from the movie, even if you think it crude to claim that a movie about a highly politicized war that only just ended (kind of) is non-political.

As Fanning put it,

“And American Sniper deserves every bit of criticism the Left throws at it. But the film’s racism and enthusiastic support for American empire shouldn’t blind us to its lessons about the sociological and ideological factors that have allowed the US to stay at war for fourteen years with at least the partial support of an all-volunteer military.”

That the movie has broken all records for January and for movies of this kind says a lot. Anyone with a social conscience and a hope for America should take heed: dozens of millions of people loved this movie, not because they wanted to wallow in the shame of having sent a military to a foreign country to indiscriminately slaughter its populace as “animals” and “savages” but because they approve of all of this. U-S-A. Say it with me.

Even if Eastwood and Cooper have managed to bury some critique of the occupation somewhere, most of the people watching do not notice and they do not care.[1] Most went to watch because they read the best-selling novel about a soldier whose only regret was that he could not kill more of the animals. Hoo-rah.

Fanning continues,

“To simply write off Kyle as a monster would be to ignore the people, institutions, and history that helped create him. […] Eastwood also does a masterful job showing us how a soldier’s view of the world can be narrowed to the size of a rifle scope, of showing us how bonds between soldiers are formed: in combat, it seems the only people in the world are those standing to your left and right, keeping you alive. For someone like Kyle, all he sees beyond his fellow soldiers are wolves. After combat, particularly if a soldier loses a buddy, the racism that is used as a killing and survival tool can be hard to discard.”

Fanning here possibly elicits more nuance from the film than was probably intended, but still it’s a point worth noting: from the soldier’s perspective, the treatment of other people in this way is completely justified. But we should absolutely not inherit the perspective of the most traumatized and damaged among us. While it’s understandable that they feel like that, in the situation that they’re in, with the training they’re given, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to feel about it. Soldiers “in the shit” will always slaughter everything around them to save their own skins and those of their bodies. It’s been that way in every war or conflict since time immemorial. Instead of getting sucked in to that mindset, people should think about not putting soldiers in such terrible situations for literally no reason. The innocent civilians of every other country would thank you.

While I agree that the movie could be understood to be teaching a lesson about hegemony, blood-lust, alienation of the other and colonization, that lesson will go unseen, ignored and unlearned by almost every single viewer. Most are going to sympathize with Kyle, reaching out with their whole hearts in sympathy with his regret that he just couldn’t kill enough Iraqi animals. This is wrong, horribly, horribly wrong.

However, for anyone who does see the well-hidden lessons in a film like this, there is work to do. It’s time to point it out to others, let them know what you’re seeing if they can’t see it for themselves. Make movies like this—because there will be more—do some work for good instead of letting it serve purely as propaganda for further, future military interventions. It’s an uphill battle, fighting against decades of propaganda and brainwashing about militarism and nationalism.

Fanning again,

“American Sniper can help antiwar activists understand what continues to drive many American teenagers to the military. […] But it is important to say more about the film than the obvious. We can start by asking why it is so successful and why it is appealing to large veteran organizations. […] As Vietnam taught us, if we want to build a successful antiwar movement, we have to engage the soldiers fighting the wars. American Sniper, if we take it seriously, might help us do just that.”

There seems to be less regret about the latest U.S. wars than Vietnam. There are a lot of soldiers and former soldiers whose attitude is no longer nearly as hoo-rah as it once was. The shine is off that apple, but there aren’t nearly enough resisting because the U.S. military still has enough soldiers to keep doing what it’s been doing for dozens if not hundreds of years.

Another review that is more nuanced than the standard “it’s awesome—hoo-rah!” or “it’s imperialistic trash!” is “American Sniper” and the culture wars: Why the movie’s not what you think it is by Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), which discusses how the source material is abhorrent but the quality of the cast and director carry the film to unexpected places—again, as noted above, once if you’re willing to look hard, though.

““American Sniper,” the movie, is a character study about a guy who sees himself as fundamentally honorable and decent, but whose simplistic moral code turns out to be exceptionally poor preparation for the real world and real warfare. How well Eastwood accomplishes that goal, whether or not it’s worth doing and how much that may or may not reflect the real story of Chris Kyle are all matters for debate.”

The movie seems to conveniently skip a lot of information about the third Iraq War[2]: it doesn’t prepare the viewer at all, instead dropping him or her into an ongoing conflict, the origins of which are not questioned, in veracity or morality.

A final take on this film worth reading is the article I Served in Iraq, and American Sniper Gets It Right. But It’s Still Not the War Film We Need. by Brian Turner (Vulture), written by a former soldier and which says that a lot of what’s in the film jibes with reality. That is, if the movie is a racist, hoo-rah, unquestioning, propagandistic pile of shit according to any right-thinking or even partially moral individual, that’s because that’s exactly what the war in Iraq is. The movie gets it right; the problem is the audience. Instead of being appalled by what they see, they scream “America! Fuck, yeah!” and queue up to watch it again. That the movie is being feted to the high heavens by actual supporters is a judgment of our decayed culture.

In the reviewer’s words,

“Those scenes dredged up memories of Mosul and Baghdad, where I once heard the words You are authorized to shoot children come crackling over the radio. I also remember watching soldiers in my own platoon lob plastic water bottles filled with their own urine at village children who would run to us as we drove by — thirsty children who motioned with their thumbs to their mouths in a gesture pleading for water. There is truth in American Sniper, whether you think the film is crass jingoism or a portrait of a hero. (Emphasis added.)”

While the author is “grateful that Eastwood chose to visually elide Kyle’s own tragic death”, I’ve read in other places[3] that this elision allows the further canonization of guns. The film can be seen as a paean to the gun, whose overwhelming power to solve any situation for good could be the overarching message of this film. Again, that could be taken both ways: Guns help America gets its message of democracy and freedom across and that’s awesome…and, well, the same message, but with that conclusion being oxymoronic and not awesome at all. Guns are one of America’s big problems domestically and America’s guns are everybody’s problems internationally. But Kyle was killed by a gun wielded by a PTSD’d fellow veteran, but this murder was crucially off-screen, so we don’t get to see a gun doing anything that even avid supporters of Kyle in all that he does would consider to be definitely bad.

I’m going to quote Turner at length, because he writes quite well,

“This isn’t the defining film of the Iraq War. After nearly a quarter century of war and occupation in Iraq[4], we still haven’t seen that film. I’m beginning to think we’re incapable as a nation of producing a film of that magnitude, one that would explore the civilian experience of war, one that might begin to approach so vast and profound a repository of knowledge. I’m more and more certain that, if such a film film ever arrives, it’ll be made by Iraqi filmmakers a decade or more from now, and it’ll be little known or viewed, if at all, on our shores. The children of Iraq have far more to teach me about the war I fought in than any film I’ve yet seen — and I hope some of those children have the courage and opportunity to share their lessons onscreen. If this film I can only vaguely imagine is ever made, it certainly won’t gross $100 million on its opening weekend.”

Chris Hedges saw the movie as well and his reaction is predictable: nuanced and probably mostly right, but very predictable. He also cites the scene where Kyle’s father teaches him about wolves who “prey on people” while at the same time menacing his children with the business end of his belt. The tells of a film that depicts a culture utterly unaware that cheering a film that depicts “the belief that we have an innate right as a “Christian” nation to exterminate the “lesser breeds” of the earth”—quoted bits are from the movie dialogue—may reflect poorly on the viewer, or at least reveal rather more than the viewer may have wanted, much as a rebel-flag belt-buckle would.

Hedges also writes well, so I’ll cite him at length, on the anti-intellectualism, the insularity of American thought, the depth of brainwashing:

“There is no shortage of simpletons whose minds are warped by this belief system. We elected one of them, George W. Bush, as president. They populate the armed forces and the Christian right. They watch Fox News and believe it. They have little understanding or curiosity about the world outside their insular communities. They are proud of their ignorance and anti-intellectualism. […] And when they get into power—they already control the Congress, the corporate world, most of the media and the war machine—their binary vision of good and evil and their myopic self-adulation cause severe trouble for their country. “American Sniper,” like the big-budget feature films pumped out in Germany during the Nazi era to exalt deformed values of militarism, racial self-glorification and state violence, is a piece of propaganda, a tawdry commercial for the crimes of empire. That it made a record-breaking $105.3 million over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday long weekend is a symptom of the United States’ dark malaise.”

Where Hedges and some others he interviews about the movie were made “physically ill with its twisted, totally one-sided distortions of wartime combat ethics”, they should be careful not to miss the point that this might be a very accurate portrayal (as noted by Turner above). Apocalypse Now was a visceral, horrifying movie but it was accurate. So was Full Metal Jacket. It’s more horrifying because it’s true. American Sniper may turn out to be that movie, whether it intended to be or not.[5]

That is, the 9-figure opening weekend means that almost no-one else seemed to mind the one-sidedness of it and most probably no-one even noticed it as such. Even the pairing of Iraq with 9–11 in a causal chain is, while factually wrong, correct in the context of the film. Most of America still believes that Iraq sponsored the attacks; most think we found WMDs. Most of the soldiers do too. Their simple mythology is undisturbed by reality. This movie is for them and, for the rest of us, it shows us what we’re dealing with when we try to right this heavily listing ship of state. It’s a lesson we would do well not to ignore.

Hedges quotes at length from the book that inspired the film—and the text is clearly much, much worse than the movie could be. Truly hateful, small-minded stuff. And, yet, this man is a hero. Again, do not look away; learn from it.

[1] And the part of an interview I saw with Cooper had him going on at length about a “presence” he felt during filming and he ascribed it to the “Chris [Kyle]” watching over him and the set. So dispel any notion that good old Bradley Cooper might have had a less jingoistic ulterior motive to making the movie. He’s all but joined the Army himself (and no, I do not care at all of which branch of the military Chris Kyle was actually a member.
[2] The U.S. supported Saddam in his war against Iraq, then turned around and bitch-slapped him in what most consider to be the first Persian-Gulf War and then there is, of course, the war that lasted a dozen years and that is only technically over—because we don’t count the dozens of bases and dozens of thousands of “U.S. military advisors” left in Iraq to this day.
[3] No link, sorry.
[4] The first American boots on the ground were in August of 1990. That’s almost 25 years ago. We never left. Sorties. Every. Day. Imagine what could have been done with that money.
[5] I know, I know, I’ll have to see for myself.