All My Little Words

A Few Links to Bits and Pieces

Posted in Cycling, Local, Media, Politics by nickchristian on July 17, 2015

Zero Dark Thirty – Tortured Logic

Posted in Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Media, Politics, Rage by nickchristian on February 19, 2013

After a couple of aborted attempts I finally managed to see Kathyn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty at the weekend. While perhaps not quite the equal of its Oscar-winning predecessor, The Hurt Locker, it’s nevertheless a remarkable piece of cinema, deftly depicting an extremely complicated chronology of the real life events which culminated in the death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011.

One of the things I love most about Bigelow’s films – certainly these last two – is the way she presents location as a catalyst of tension: taking the focus off character scenes are frequently preluded with gloriously wide shots of the mountainous Khyber or tighter, lingering glances through a bustling Pakistani market; several seconds longer than others might dare and accompanied only by a natural background bustle. It’s not that something will happen, but that anything could; when the audience is so familiar with the nuts and bolts of the story this is quite a feat.

Jessica Chastain as Maya, the CIA operative at the centre of the hunt for America’s most wanted, is extremely plausible – certainly more so than Homeland’s Carrie, supposedly based on the same individual – as she doggedly, and arguably coldly, pursues her quarry. While her superiors might challenge Bin Laden’s strategic significance to the war on terror, Maya goes hard not home and it comes as no surprise when she get what she wants.

Nevertheless, as impressively as Bigelow presents the “where” and the “who”, this is a film driven by the “how”, and it is this “how” that has provoked the shitstorm of controversy. Amongst them Glenn Greenwald has said that Zero Dark Thirty “glorifies torture by depicting it as crucial to getting bin Laden” while philosopher Slavoj Žižek states that the film depicts the “normalization” of such methods, analogous with their endorsement. There are numerous others out there like them but these two seem to me to represent the main schools of objection to the film. Falling very much within my wheelhouse, having seen the film – unlike Greenwald before he had his say – I can’t help but engage with the critique.

In my view Zero Dark Thirty does:

Suggest that torture can elicit truthful information that sometimes amounts to useful intelligence.

At the same time however, the film does not:

Depict torture in a morally neutral way.

The first of these forms the basis for Greenwald’s objections. Unfortunately, as difficult and distasteful as it might be for many of its opponents to acknowledge, subjecting someone to torture in order to get them to reveal useful information will – sometimes – do just that. Reduce someone to a powerless, helpless, subhuman state and there’s a fair chance that, if they know something, they’ll give it up.

Sometimes they won’t, of course.

Sometimes, even if they don’t have what’s being demanded of them, they’ll likely want to say something – anything – that might make the pain stop. It might be a lie, deliberately delivered to mislead and misdirect, to waste time for and to buy it. It also might be the truth, but not a new truth as far as the intelligence agents are concerned, rather something that they’ve already picked up, or could pick up, somewhere, or from someone, else, in some other way. Because there is always some other way.

Some other way might require more patience, more energy, more money or more luck but it will not require that someone, as Žižek correctly characterizes it, “forsake his or her soul”. But what Žižek seems to conclude is that either no soul is shown to be sacrificed in the making of this movie or that only one is and that’s okay, because she gets her man in the end.

The truth is torture cannot be depicted in a neutral way and if it is, then what’s being depicted isn’t torture at all. Thankfully the interrogation scenes are brutal as they ought to be: no shot conceals; no cut is premature; every close-up is agony. We are also told nothing of who this man is or what he might have done to find himself in a CIA black site and see him only as helpless, hopeless, and terrified. The worst of the worst? Hardly.

For further evidence of the immoral weight of torture remember that the New York Times for a long while avoided using the term entirely, opting instead for such grim Orwellian euphemisms as “enhanced” or “intense” interrogation. Yet Mark Boal’s script twice reaches for the correct term – one instance of which sits atop this post – and does so pointedly enough to tell us what the film’s authors think about it. Make no bones about it, Slavoj, there’s nothing “normal” going on here.

Greenwald’s fear is that by showing torture as even loosely effective, Kathryn Bigelow serves to justify its practical utility. What he and Žižek both seem to forget is that morality is far more robust than that: if they allow the debate to become about the extent to which torture works – implying that it can be justified or supported if it works 100% of the time or a majority, or occasionally – then it’s the left that has made the moral concession, not the right. Just as murder is murder, torture is torture and Zero Dark Thirty is a very good film.

I Can’t “We”

Posted in Culcha, Media, sport by nickchristian on August 7, 2012

As nauseating as this film.

The Olympics has been amazing. Every cynical cell I have has, for perhaps just two weeks, taken temporary leave of my body. Every negative position that I had been incubating – about it being overly commercial, about the special “Games Lanes”, even about the relative legitimacy of one event’s inclusion over another – has been aborted. They will return, I’m sure, but this two week has been about people, largely ordinary and all the more extraordinary for that, achieving astonishing sporting successes for which they’ve dreamed and worked their entire lives.

My only remaining hostility in all of this – truthfully, just this one – is to the volume of “we” that gushes forth every time a Briton adds to the total haul of medals.

Team GB are my team, of that there is no question, but I am a supporter of that team, not a member of it. Winning Olympic Gold at London 2012 has not been my dream for the last seven years or longer and I have not dedicated an uncountable number of hours to get me to that point where that dream might possibly come true. Despite having developed an uncharacteristically sunny attitude towards these games, I have made not a single sacrifice that might have contributed to a medalist’s success. I might have once or twice bought a lottery ticket, but I suspect my motives for doing so were not entirely pure.

As delighted as I am that the team I have chosen to support have performed so well, as much pleasure as I am able to take from every gold medal won, the victories of the athletes (or marksmen, or mincing ponies) are still theirs and I cannot allow myself to claim from them even the tiniest slither of credit. Because that to me is what it sounds like someone is doing every time they refer to how well “we” are doing in the Olympics. While there might be a huge quantity of glory to bathe in, that quantity still feels to me to be finite; in claiming some for yourself, by “we”ing rather than “he”ing, “she”ing or “they”ing, you are reducing the amount available to someone else, someone who might actually have earned it.

I actually appreciated the re-branding of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland Olympic Team as “Team GB” because I thought it more firmly separates us, the spectators, the bakers and candlestick makers, from them, the competitors. We can all call ourselves British but only an elite few can call themselves Olympians.

It might be a misplaced comparison but haven’t we all experienced the silently seethed rage when that smug bastard at work suggests, with his use of the first person plural, that this endeavour, this accomplishment of yours, was somehow a joint effort? Over the two years of my recently completed masters – did I mention I was doing a masters? In Human Rights. Yeah, makes me noble as fuck – my flatmates have delivered me countless cups of tea and made me more than a few meals. This has been a massive help to me, freeing up many an hour for studying, but I doubt they would say this entitles them to some credit for my low passing grade. “We”, to me, implies parity between yourself and the medalists. Even if you think you helped, as the North London school teacher who suggested that “Mo’s a bit quick ain’t he?”*, or the guy in the corner shop that once sold Jessica Ennis a Lucozade, you can’t seriously believe that this wouldn’t have happened without you?

This is not to say that we cannot share in the delight of a victory, but that we should do so at one remove. Rare is it that one gets the opportunity to witness an individual’s lifetime of work and effort, crystallised into a single triumphant moment of realisation. So let them have it. Let it be theirs.

*No offence to Alan Watkinson of Isleworth and Syon School.

10 O’Clock Live vs The Daily Show

Posted in Media, Uncategorized by nickchristian on March 4, 2012

Channel 4’s weekly satirical news programme, 10 O’Clock Live, is not as good as Comedy Central’s daily satirical news programme, The Daily Show.

The producers and presenters of 10 O’Clock live would probably say that, if you look at the format and structure, they’re demonstrably not trying to imitate Jon Stewart’s style of satire. Except, I think, such protest would be disingenuous: while of course they’re not seeking to produce a direct replica – four presenters not one, LIVE!!!!, very little pre-recorded material and no celebrity interview – they are clearly looking to serve the same constituency aims. Or at least, what they believe those aims to be.

That 74% of America’s young people turn to the Daily Show rather than traditional media sources for their news is a fairly well-known and somewhat impressive statistic. I can’t find a comparable equivalent for the UK but Channel 4’s commissioners have clearly assumed one to exist, approaching the production from the perspective that British “young” people (such a broad cohort as to be effectively meaningless) don’t turn to traditional news outlets at all. 10 O’Clock Live appears to be have been conceived with this opportunity in mind and, regardless of whether you agree that they need it, to seek to inform, engage and educate young people in the world around them is I think, a noble aim. It is, however, hugely condescending to assume that young people are ill-informed and that, following this assumption, the only possible solution is to provide the news with a coating of comedic caramel.

A typical 10 O’Clock live segment starts with the assumption that its audience has no clue what’s going on so first informs, then exaggerates and finally departs from the initial premise entirely. In other words: “Listen to us while we tell you what’s going on in the world, we’ll get to the joke in a minute.” It’s not exactly subtle, it’s not exactly original and it is exactly patronising:

For while a better informed yoof might be a beneficial by-product of the Daily Show’s output, it’s not actually what Jon Stewart and his team set out to achieve. Far from assuming ignorance, The Daily Show is nothing short of deferential to its audience’s intelligence, wrapping any given segment in the bare minimum of context.

What The Daily Show does try to do, is to look at a particular element of a perhaps sidelined story and present it in such a way as to reveal its intrinsic comedic value. They don’t make the news funny, because it already is:

I enjoy Lauren Laverne a lot on the radio; I think David Mitchell is an ascerbic pundit; Charlie Brooker writes good TV and a worthwhile Guardian column; I even have no major problem with Jimmy Carr. It’s just that none of these is an authority on any of the issues that make up the news. Of course Jon Stewart isn’t either but he at least does not purport to be.

The Daily Show is very clever simply because it tries to make clever people laugh. 10 O’Clock Live is not very funny because it tries too hard to be clever.

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