Monthly Archives: August 2013

No Doubt?

Vice-president Biden says there is “no doubt” who is responsible for the chemical weapons attack in Syria.

No doubt, he says.

I have doubts. Doubts a plenty. I think Mr. Obama must, too, if it’s taken us this long to act in Syria. Doubt made heavy by our collective memory of adventurism in Iraq.

I’m forced to doubt that our military machine can actually achieve human progress at the cost of human lives. I doubt that in a situation as muddled and confusing as Syria is today that we can be confident of who fired what at who. After all, Bashar had everything to lose and the rebels had everything to gain through his use of chemical weapons. Yes, it sounds like a Bond villain move–launch a chemical attack on civilians to frame the government you want to overthrow. It’s something out of a bad Tom Clancy novel, but then Tom Clancy novels pretty much predicted 9/11, so you never know.

You never know.

There is always doubt. Yes, we should doubt whether sitting by and watching 100,000 die in Syria was the best move as surely as we should doubt that launching missiles against its regime is the right move now.

There must always be doubt, Mr. Vice President.

We live in the dusky afternoon–always. There are no precise times. No sharp times. That was the previous administration’s illusion: a world of good vs. evil.

We live in the befuddled world, and we should all shudder at whatever comes next…

Doldrums

Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 8.34.20 PM

Barry–whose real name isn’t “Barry,” but is actually “Ralphie,” though one has to wonder just who would pick “Barry” over “Ralphie”–leans out the drive-thru window down at the face staring sullenly forward at the chip in the blue vinyl of his own steering wheel.

“Hey, man,” Barry says with that bluster of a former high school football player who hasn’t quite yet come to terms with a world that really doesn’t care about high school football players. “Weren’t you here just a little while ago?”

“Yes,” the man replies. The sunken gray pits beneath his eyes tremble like turkey gobbles. “And yesterday also. And several times before that.”

“Man, you must really like the new burrito line-up, huh?”

“No,” the man in the car answers firmly. “This is just the only place I can get to for any food.”

“This is the only place you can afford food?”

“No,” he says again, still looking forward over the slope of his dash. “This is the only place I can get to.”

“Get to? What do you mean?”

“I’ve been stuck in traffic for the last eight days.”

“Huh?”

“At least…I think it’s been eight. I can barely keep time straight at this point.”

“What do you mean stuck in traffic?”

“I leave this parking lot and I go out on the street there. Then, no matter what I do, I…can’t…get…anywhere.” The man’s whole face shakes with each word. “I try to change lanes, but I’m always blocked. Traffic merges around some traffic cone or I’m just cut off by a big SUV. Something’s always getting in my path. A barricade or a police siren with an officer directing me back in a circle. No matter what I do…” He finally lowers his gaze and says to his own lap, “I haven’t been more than a quarter mile from this spot in eight days.”

“You mean you’re lost?”

“No. I’m not lost. I know exactly where I am. I know exactly where I’ve been. I just can’t leave.”

“Dude,” Barry says, his heart full of pity. “I got off at five yesterday and I got home just fine.”

“Just give me my damned burrito.”

 

 

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Elysium

elysium-firstposter-full2

Ah, here it is at last…the last great hope for summer sci-fi. Elysium comes to us from Neil Blomkamp, the man who would’ve directed the Halo movie and who instead gave us a sorta-allegory for apartheid with District 9. Once again, he’s produced a science fiction film with a backdrop rife with potential to comment on our world.

Ahead thar be spoilers…

Okay, so the premise of Elysium is that the rich got the heck out of town, built a big space station torus in orbit and then left the rest of Homo sapiens down on a really, really brown Earth. Best of luck down there, suckas! Except that I guess the elites up on the space wheel are still dependent on Earth for resources–most visibly in the film, for a supply of fresh robot helpers.

The gap between rich and poor has never been wider than in the 2154 of the film (and boy howdy is that saying something). Earth looks pretty much like a land fill in Mexico (because that’s where it was filmed) while Elysium has nearly magical medical booths that cure leukemia or rebuild your whole freakin’ face in, like, seconds.

Blomkamp focuses most on this disparity in access to medicine as it’s the starkest and most clearly unjust dimension of the divide between rich and poor. However, the movie doesn’t go much further than that in commenting on society’s great divide. In fact, once Matt Damon has a robo-exo-skeleton thing bolted on to him, the movie becomes a pretty much straight-up action farce. Damon and his criminal/freedom fighter buddies just happen to choose to abduct the one billionaire on the planet who has the codes to override Elysium’s computers (on the one day he was planning a coup with a deliciously sinister Jodie Foster)–which is apparently enough to completely take over their political system, too. Go figure.

A bunch of robo-fist fights later, Damon does the noble thing and lets the data tucked into his brain be ripped out, saving “everyone.” Elysium’s robot helpers are tricked into thinking every last human being is a “citizen” and they begin delivering aid back to the surface.

Yeah, except, a few medical shuttles whizzing down to Earth on auto-pilot does not a societal injustice right. And such a Deus Ex Machina resolution doesn’t really give us anything to think about when it comes to wealth inequality or immigration reform. There is no magic button we can push to cure our ills. At least with District 9, we could nod to ourselves after the bloodbath/gross-out bits when we learned, symbolically, that the other is us and we are the other.

The only note of something deeper in the second half of Elysium is Jodie Foster’s character’s death. About to receive life saving attention, this seemingly power-hungry woman relents, letting herself die with a simple “enough.”

Is clinging to power and privilege ultimately more exhausting than anything else? We’re never sure, because whatever promise that moment had was, like the rest of Elysium’s potential, wasted.

 

Manning, Snowden, and the Great Man Theory of History

One day in 2007, journalist Namir Noor-Eldeen was walking down the street, camera bag slung over his shoulder.

The street was in Baghdad. He would die on that street.

Noor-Eldeen may have only had the faintest glimmer of awareness that his life was ending when an Apache helicopter opened fire with its machine guns and killed him, along with his assistant and several other men. But for three years, the world and the American people did not know the circumstances of his death either–not until a young private named Bradley Manning leaked the video recorded from the nose of that helicopter, along with numerous other documents that detailed American cover-ups in Iraq.

Manning has since stood trial and now awaits sentencing for the crimes he admits committing by leaking classified documents while still enlisted in the United State Army. He apologized to the court, saying that he should have pursued other channels to right the wrongs he had become aware of.

No, Bradley. You were right the first time.

Transparency is our greatest weapon against injustice. The Founders of this republic knew it, and that’s why public trials were codified in our justice system. Secrets are the enemy of democracy, and the secrets our military was keeping made all of us culpable for crimes in Iraq and elsewhere. The death of Noor-Eldeen should have led immediately to review of military practice when authorizing targets in a populated area, but instead it was covered up for three years.

We can not expiate the sins we do not know about.

Manning’s fate, no matter what the court decides, will be complicated. He has now identified himself as transgender and credited some of the emotional turmoil he has felt because of “his problem” for motivating his actions.

By contrast, Edward Snowden–who leaked details of the NSA’s pervasive abuse of its authority to spy on Americans and others, particularly through the Internet–fled the United States instead of facing trial as Bradley did. Like Manning, it took courage. He, too, faces an uncertain future.

These two very different young men, both now martyrs and heroes to progressives who have railed for years against the post-9/11 excesses of the United States government and military, have now each made their small mark on history. We cannot know for some time what impact their actions will have on the course of American imperialism or on transparency and justice in the Information Age.

History makes and remakes those judgements as it marches forward, so we will have to wait and see.

What, though, do their peculiar sacrifices say for the role of the individual in history? Each of them was very conscious that he was stepping out of obscurity and into the river that shapes the landscape–vying to make a difference, to change the course of things.

The nineteenth century thinker Thomas Carlyle has been thoroughly harangued by critics for arguing that “history is…but the biography of great men.” Many have said his theory was unduly celebrating historical figures as “heroes” in a story that was really written by larger social forces, by historical inevitabilities.

But when we look at the story of America since 9/11, it is hard to see what has happened without considering the impact of the individuals who were on stage for this tragic melodrama of war without end. Yes, foreign policies and cultural tension created a hotbed of anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world, but without a charismatic Saudi named Bin Laden, would there have ever been a strike so powerful that it would alter America’s relationship with the world as fundamentally as 9/11? If Gore had won, or if McCain had earned the top spot on the GOP ticket in 2000, would there have ever been a war in Iraq for Manning to expose? Bush was a consequential president. He mattered as an individual. He changed history.

Bin Laden. Cheney. Bush. Hussein.

And now Manning and Snowden.

Whatever else this chapter of history teaches us–or will teach us when the ink is finally dry–I cannot help but think it redeems Carlyle. Most of us in the U.S. have been content to live out our generally comfortable lives and watch the “great men” of history wage their wars and draw their lines on the map. Maybe we complained. Maybe we marched. But Snowden and Manning did more. They tied their fates to a cause, chained themselves to it like an anchor and faced the consequences. Many try to label Snowden and Manning as traitors, but if we look at the story honestly, we have to see them for what they are–the heroes.

They risked, with nothing to gain, everything that was safe and comfortable for one cause, and one cause only: Truth.

 

 

Kill Everyone’s Television

After finishing assembly of my fourth pre-fab bar stool while helping move my niece into her new apartment, I plopped down on the nice, big cushy red couch provided by one of her roommates for a quick rest.

A black slate screen stared back at me from the other side of the room. Instead of clicking it on, I fished out my phone and read a few pages off CNN.com.

“The TV works,” one of her roommates said a moment later. “You can watch Netflix.”

I thanked her and told her I was fine–just catching my breath before the delivery truck arrived with the new bed. She smiled and went about her own move-in business.

I’d known this about my niece’s television. She had told me on our way into town in my overloaded van that she and her roommates were going to save money by only connecting Internet, with no cable television subscription. In fact, that’s why I hadn’t bothered to even consider flipping it on. There wasn’t anything in particular that I wanted to watch, so I’d just left it off.

I’ve heard a lot about folks doing this–TV without TV. This growing trend has been touted mostly in the popular press as a cost-saving measure, a way to escape the screw-you monopolistic pricing schemes of the big cable companies.

But at that moment in the soft embrace of the big red couch, I realized there’s much more to this shift in television viewing, a shift that may presage the future of TV in general.

When you ditch the cable box and its 999 channels, you can still find just as much entertainment through Hulu and Netflix and other streaming video sources.

But you must find it.

You must choose. The passivity that has characterized television viewing since the beginning is completely undone when you go Internet-only. The empowerment that began with TiVo and other DVRs becomes outright liberation–with all of its endemic responsibilities.

And Netflix knows it’s changed the game, too. Just yesterday (on regular TV) I saw a commercial for the service featuring three buddies stocking up for a marathon, an increasingly common practice in which viewers binge on several, if not dozens, of episodes of a show at once. You can do it with the DVD box sets, obviously, but Netflix also puts hundreds of shows at your fingertips from pilot to coda. Between spree-watching and Netflix’s own critically acclaimed original programming, many are predicting a whole new era in what we once called “television.”

There’s a lot wrong with the way we Americans use the Internet, but at least there’s some measure of autonomy in this new breed of couch potato. And maybe, just maybe, it could lead to some real changes in the television landscape if programmers stop asking, “What will people watch?” and have to wonder, “What will people choose to watch?”

trickle

when I finally break the two ends of the joint apart
and peer into the end of the pipe
I see that the deposits have hardened
into a solid sphincter of rock
fifteen years of mortgage notices
and this has been building
the minerals coming together
growing inside the iron
a slow accumulation
without will
or pity
and I think now
I know
this is how the world is made

 

The Future of China, the Future of Us

We in the West often have many, many questions about China. Probably not enough, but we do wonder all the same: What will China’s role be in the story of the 21st Century?

Some Americans believe we are heading back into a world of two super-powers, and fear a military face off like the Cold War. Others imagine that China’s economy might become an unstoppable juggernaut and swallow up the West. Both fears are somewhat mitigated by signs that China’s economic growth is slowing and that environmental and structural limits may put the brakes on even more.

There’s no denying, though, that no matter how much China’s economy slows, no nation with a sixth of the human race can fail to register seismically on the landscape of the future. (India, too, but that’s for another day.)

To know what will become of the Middle Kingdom in the world to come, it’s important to understand where it is now. One piece at The Atlantic sums it up neatly. No surprise: China is a manufacturing giant. Their products fill the shelves of the world marketplace. So the scope of China’s role in the modern world cannot be overstated. How their society evolves will influence the future of global society tremendously.

For years the logic has been that if China’s market liberalize, so too must their society. The question we have to ask is: has this engagement failed? Given the Chinese government’s continued censorship and its massive population of political prisoners, at the moment the answer would seem to be “yes.” But liberalism has a secret weapon, that still-at-its-heart-democratic phenomenon through which you are reading these words right now: the Internet.

Another report at The Atlantic provides a little ray of hope that China’s leadership might be opening itself to using the Internet to gauge public opinion on a wide range of issues–not all issues, mind you. Call it a substitute for the role polling plays in our political culture today. Even better, the Internet is allowing for some justice in China, allowing citizens to strike back at corruption.

It’s a long way from the ideal of a government serving its people through representation, but then, so is our system these days. The key difference is that America, however broken, still has civil liberties that allow us to at least placate ourselves with the possibility of change and reform.

Can China’s technocratic regime be just? Is benevolent one-party rule possible? I’m not convinced either way, and I’d obviously lean toward a pretty solid “no.” Unless the leadership of the ruling party accepts that it cannot truly represent the will of the people so long as it silences their voices, then China will remain a paradox–an open economy with closed eyes.

Shark Week Bites

Shark-Week

My family loves science.

I’ve indoctrinated my offspring sufficiently to love the rational, to berate the irrational. So they shared my outrage when one of our favorite annual traditions was sullied by its very source.

In case you haven’t been watching, this has not been the Shark Week of years past. The whole shebang began with a special called “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.”

Except that no, it doesn’t.

The show was a fake documentary with only a single disclaimer at the end tipping the audience off to the fictional nature of the program. We didn’t need to wait for the disclaimer. I cried rat immediately. The story kicks off with a supposed sinking of a charter boat in South Africa in April of this year and presents recovered home movies from the deck of the boat just before “something” happens to capsize the vessel, killing all on board.

The video was obviously staged, and the show just got worse from there. Fake scientists reluctantly became convinced that the boating party had become the first known human victims of a megalodon–an extinct shark the size of a school bus.

Snopes.com is already all over this, and perhaps this sour turn in the network’s programming shouldn’t surprise us. Discovery Channel–home of Shark Week–made headlines (and ratings) with a similar farce earlier this year that purported to show footage of real life mermaids. The travesty of Shark Week continued last night when some cajun hillbillies (oxymoron?) went hunting a legendary bayou shark. Their absurd romp through the Mississippi delta was at least intercut with real life scientists studying bull sharks in the region. Viewers were encouraged to pick sides like it was Survivor by tweeting #cajuns or #scientists. My family and I just groaned while the amateurs had the screen, and were delighted to watch the real shark experts actually perform rapid surgery on adolescent bull sharks to implant tracking transmitters. So the program–“Voodoo Sharks”–had its moments, but the final scene went to the rubes, one of whom made the “lucky” find of a bull shark tail in the reeds, seemingly bitten in half by something monstrous and huge.

Give me a break.

Okay, okay, so losing the Discovery Channel as a reputable source for educational programming isn’t quite the Smithsonian burning to the ground or anything. Still, this is disappointing and it is a sign of something larger and darker in our culture. Call it one part reality TV warping the value of actual reality and one part anti-intellectualism.

Maybe it’s old hat to bemoan the dumbing down of America, but when cynical TV programmers have to try to fabricate ridiculous yarns like these when they have actual footage of frickin’ Great White Sharks leaping out of the water then America’s novelty threshold isn’t set too high–it’s completely broken.