Thursday, March 02, 2006

Just Stop It

In Friday's WaPo, Charles Krauthammer's column is a stinging rebuke to the makers of Syriana. His critique is cogent at times (MILD SPOILER ALERT):
The political hero is the Arab prince who wants to end corruption, inequality and oppression in his country. As he tells his tribal elders, he intends to modernize his country by bringing the rule of law, market efficiency, women's rights and democracy.

What do you think happens to him? He, his beautiful wife and beautiful children are murdered, [SNIP)

What is grotesque about this moment of plot clarity is that the overwhelmingly obvious critique of actual U.S. policy in the real Middle East today concerns America's excess of Wilsonian idealism in trying to find and promote -- against a tide of tyranny, intolerance and fanaticism -- local leaders like the Good Prince. Who in the greater Middle East is closest to the modernizing, democratizing paragon of "Syriana"? Without a doubt, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, a man of exemplary -- and quite nonfictional -- personal integrity, physical courage and democratic temperament. Hundreds of brave American (and allied NATO) soldiers have died protecting him and the democratic system they established to allow him to govern. On the very night the Oscars will be honoring "Syriana," American soldiers will be fighting, some perhaps dying, in defense of precisely the kind of tolerant, modernizing Muslim leader that "Syriana" shows America slaughtering.

It is certainly worthwhile to point out where the filmmakers may have made inapt analogies, and become overly focused on the negative. (Disclaimer: I'm not knowledgeable enough to say anything about Karzai other than from what little coverage of him I've seen, he seems like a stand-up guy).

And I have to agree with Krauthammer as to what was the most disturbing portion of the film (SPOILER ALERT):
It gets worse. The most pernicious element in the movie is the character at the moral heart of the film: the beautiful, modest, caring, generous Pakistani who becomes a beautiful, modest, caring, generous . . . suicide bomber. In his final act, the Pure One, dressed in the purest white robes, takes his explosives-laden little motorboat headfirst into his target. It is a replay of the real-life boat that plunged into the USS Cole in 2000, killing 17 American sailors, except that in the "Syriana" version, the target is another symbol of American imperialism in the Persian Gulf: a newly opened liquefied natural gas terminal.

The explosion, which would have the force of a nuclear bomb, constitutes the moral high point of the movie, the moment of climactic cleansing, as the Pure One clad in white merges with the great white mass of the huge terminal wall, at which point the screen goes pure white. And reverently silent.

This scene was profoundly disturbing to me as well, though I strongly disagree with the substance of the moral substance Krauthammer sees. It was disturbing to me because the arc of the story puts the viewer in the POV of this man, and you are almost forced to empathize. As I wrote about an hour after seeing the film:
Undoubtedly, the biggest reason the movie affected me was a single scene where the transferrence Hitchcock invented in Psycho (where we, the audience, begin to subtly root for Norman Bates) is taken to its logical conclusion. It worked on me. And that makes me very uncomfortable.
And so the suicide bomber is humanized. He did not begin the film (or presumably life) as inherently evil. He was twisted, misled and exploited, and it seems to me that recognizing that process is a neccesary step in prevention of repetition.

Those disagreements aside, I almost skipped right over the thoughtful and thought-provoking perspectives because Krauthammer, like so many today, isseems more interested in being incendiary than being persuasive. The title of the essay, you see, is "Oscars for Osama", and it concludes with:
Most liberalism is angst- and guilt-ridden, seeing moral equivalence everywhere. "Syriana" is of a different species entirely -- a pathological variety that burns with the certainty of its malign anti-Americanism. Osama bin Laden could not have scripted this film with more conviction.
Malignly anti-American. Patholigcally so, even. Why are we even bothering to have this conversation, if that's the way you feel?

Similarly, the otherwise lucid Charles Bird of Obsidian Wings at times goes out of his way to short-circuit reasonable engagement. The latest case in point is this roundup of reports from inside Iraq (posted before the Samarra bombing, and the ensuing flashpoint). For some reason, presenting evidence that things might be getting better was insufficient, and Charles chose to sign off with a rhetorical raspberry of sorts:
Finally, this article has been around for a few days, but it shows how the U.S. military has been successfully adapting its operations in Iraq. For those who take the loser-defeatist position that U.S. troops have done all they can, well, they're dead wrong. No matter how cutting and running is reframed, the policy still remains defeatist.
Predictably, a bar brawl spread from the comments of that post to the ObWi Meta-blog over the Schmittian "loser-defeatist".

Unsurprisingly, I'm much better at noting such behavior in those I disagree with than in those 'on my side'. (And my relationship with the 'orthodox left is another subject for another post, I feel.)

And not that I'm blameless on this score myself, I was called out the other day for dismissive use of 'Reality-based'. (In my defense, I think I was being indelicate in my brevity rather than out-and-out dismissive, but YMMV) And certainly, when I hang out in what I consider to be the rumpus room of the blogosphere, my snark to substance ration can be quite high.

But when we are trying to actually discuss, (instead of self-indulgently bleat) what's the f'in point if we simply assume bad faith on the part of those who disagree with us from the off?


RonB said...

KRAUTHAMMER? Cogent? Behold, a red horse with a sword...

Now that I got that out of my system, I will actually read your post.

RonB said...

Is Syriana out on DVD? I guess I should see it.

Pooh said...

I don't think so, though I imagine it wlll be shortly (funny how all the oscar movies come out on DVD last week, this week or next week. You'd think there was a tie-in or something...)

RonB said...

The ObWings discussion gives me an it hold out for the possibility of a somewhat positive resolution in Iraq without intersecting with the bizarro world faith in the spin from the Bush admin and their sycophants?