Friday, May 16, 2003

i really like this red candy

Note: A review of the Matrix: Reloaded, chock full of spoilers.

With the Matrix: Reloaded barely open, the backlash has already begun from those who want their appreciation of the Superior Original duly noted. I, like Gene, enjoyed the original movie. Unlike him, I enjoyed the sequel every bit as much, if not more.

On the plus side of the ledger:
- Breathtaking action. Literally breathtaking. I was, so to speak, jazzed by the action sequences of the original, but its novelty lay mostly in the fact that it was kung fu wirefighting action that actually had a rationale. Never did I find myself actually gasping and saying the word "wow." This time, I did. The extended freeway scene simply has to be seen to be believed... and I usually hate car cashes in action movies.

- Plotting. The Wachowski Bros. set themselves an enormous challenge in creating a suspenseful tale around a character (Neo) who is hyper-potent where most of the action takes place. They rose to the challenge and then some, and delivered a world and story that feels truly vast.

- Philosophy. Some people were turned off by the pseudo-Gnostic any-means-necessary attitudes of the heroic hackers in the original. I was one of them; the whole ideology just seemed uncomfortably close to religiously-inspired terrorism. Turns out the Wachowskis have been thinking about this, too; they deliver some new surprises and twists about the nature of the Matrix and its relationship to the real world, and include a whopper twist about the "prophecy" that guides Morpheus & Co and their supporters on the Zion Council. It's every bit as audacious and memorable as the scene where we first see the physical infrastructure of the Matrix in the original film.

- Characters. Forget Monica Bellucci's brief, much-ballyhooed appearance; the Merovingian and his ghostly twin enforcers are the real scene-stealers, every bit as enjoyable as baddies like Cypher and Agent Smith were in the original. [Favourite moment of Matrix pseudo-philosophy: the Merovingian's discourse on causality, power and... dessert.] Some of the new Zion characters, especially Link and Niobi, hold up similarly well.

On the minus side:
- Yes, it's kind of lame that Zion's "temple" ceremony is basically a big rave. This is, however, no more annoying than the gothy hacker fetish of the original.

- Now that Morpheus is no longer a Mysterious Sensei, he comes off more as a pompous and self-important ass than anything else. The good news is we don't have to listen to him talk as much; instead, he's at the core of much of the major action, and most excellently so.

- The only recurring character who felt contrived was Agent-no-more Smith. In the first film, Agent Smith exuded a kind of blank, menacing cool that made him the epitome of every tinoil-hatted black helicopter-watching X-phile's definition of evil. It was that sensibility that made his interrogation scene with Morpheus a classic moment in film. Weaving takes him too far over the top in Reloaded. The idea of a self-replicating virus in the Matrix that can affect anyone connected is great; they just didn't need to use Weaving for this. (Nevertheless, Neo's Battle Against the Hundred Smiths is another classic Matrix moment.)

- Some of the visual puns are a bit much. In one scene, the Oracle gives Neo red candy, and eats a licorice that looks suspiciously like the Red Pill. Yes, that was clever. We. Get. It. (OTOH, there's a cameo by a Japanimation-style giant robot that's all too cool.)

On the whole, though, the quibbles are minor and the achievements major. The Matrix: Reloaded surprised me by living up this well to its predecessor.

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Back from the trenches
Almost two months since I've posted here, I know -- aside from work, the onset of war kept me busy doing other things, among them flailing away on Stand Down. Now, the time has arrived to come up for air... at least until the next war drive begins.

One of the more depressing things about war is that, often, arguments over it can put you at odds with people you admire. Such was the case for me with Mark Rosenfelder, a.k.a. "Zompist," one of the most single-minded world-builders I've ever seen on the Web, and also one of the best-read and clearest-thinking folks from any profession I know. Certainly more so, than, say, certain high-profile WebPundits I could name.

It therefore came as a surprise to me, although perhaps it shouldn't have, that under the deluge of war propaganda, certain curious memes had made their way into Mark's discourse. His recent rant on the topic (which bears traces of the latest political thread on the Zompist board) repeats some of the most surprising of these.

For example:

"Liberals and lefties had better watch out: the neocons have turned the table on us. Twenty years ago, it was consie doctrine that "authoritarian" regimes were necessary for reasons of realpolitik; it was laughable idealism to seriously believe in democracy and human rights, and they could see no difference between Ted Kennedy and Stalin. Now the neocons are talking about democracy washing over the Islamic world, and many leftists find themselves muttering about how Iraq is not ready for democracy and how Bush's human rights record is worse than Hussein's."

It is, of course, false that opposition and support of the war can be boiled down to "left" and "right" positions (Chris Hitchens, mentioned in the same rant, is at least nominally still a leftist) -- but whatever the realities, it's not too surprising that that myth should remain potent. The left would in many ways still like to think of itself as the soul of American oppositional politics, while the antiwwar right is still -- to a large extent -- deeply uneasy at finding itself on the same side of the fence as Those Damned Hippies. The two tendencies show encouraging signs of learning from and about each other, and trying to move beyond the ancient barricades of stereotype, but there's still a long way to go. (Somewhere in that mix are the libertarians, whose assessment by Mark is mostly agreeable to me, although I've been pleasantly surprised to discover that, contra early indicators in the 90s, some of them really are serious about the civil rights-oriented parts of their agenda.)

No, what's more curious about that paragraph is that Mark appears to think there is something new about the neocon "liberation" rationale -- as though "defending" democracy had not been one of the canonical excuses for numerous American interventions and allegiances (whether or not they involved democracy) since at least Wilson's day. (George Kennan was railing against overuse of "democratization" as a rationale for foreign policy in 1948; defense of "democracy" was invoked too many times to count in favour of opportunistic US-backed thugs during the Cold War; Bush the Elder, in 1981, toasted Ferdinand Marcos with the words "We love your adherence to democratic principle, and to the democratic processes.") That rationale was usually cynical, of course, and undercut by "he may be a bastard but he's our bastard"-style realities -- but the use of this rationale, as well as its very probable cynicism, strikes me as one of the most canonically conservative of the neocon tendencies on Iraq.

This has also contributed to a very traditional leftist position (though not only a leftist position) that democracy must be rooted in populism rather than externally imposed-- jiving with a very traditional leftist anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. So, from that standpoint, there is little rhetorically new in the situation as "left" and "right" on either side of the war fence go -- and claim that there is seems a little bizarre coming from someone who is usually historically aware enough to catch such contradictions.

Even more bizarre is the claim that "many leftists find themselves muttering . . . how Bush's human rights record is worse than Saddam Hussein's." Maybe leftists in Chicago are a different breed? I move in pretty ultra-left circles from time to time, subscribe to an activist listserv that runs from centre to pretty much as far left as it gets, and regularly read a variety of antiwar and self-identified leftist sites and rages -- and I know of no-one who claimed this, even among the most virulently anti-Bush outlets on the Web. Noam Chomsky has never claimed this. Indeed, if anything the canonical leftist position has been to emphasize that the US was connected with Saddam when he was at his horrible worst.

So, where on earth could this claim be coming from?

Well, maybe Mark is basing this on some unverifiable private conversation, but it looks a lot to me like the torturous logic of a kind of pseudo-McCarthyite confessional politics is at work here -- a suspicion, I'll admit, born partly of Mark's quoting a Salon article employing just such logic on his board. This is the logic wherein someone who fails to ritually condemn the enemy of the day in any sentence in which they criticize a President is ipso facto a traitor who is rooting for the enemy (or at minimum, a delusional who thinks the enemy is better than his own government).

If you ask me, this is the key political achievement of the neocons. Would Mark ever accept an insinuation that the critical timeline of American interventions in Latin America that appears on his website is ipso facto proof that he thinks America has a worse HR record than the Soviet Union? The answer is probably no. Yet he sees nothing a teensy bit off in levelling an almost identical charge at contemporary leftists who oppose a programme of aggressive, ummm, "liberation." In this instance he seems to have internalized, without noticing it, a mode of argumentation disturbingly reminiscient of neocon attack dogs like David Horowitz.

I'm starting to think of this as an intellectual affliction of North America's liberal left -- the disease, we might say, of False Compromise, wherein commentators are often so intent on seeming fair, detached and impartial, on providing some kind of face-saving boost to their opponent in the name of intellectual honesty, that they are actually reduced to repeating intellectually dishonest arguments from one side or another as a rhetorical tactic. Arguments which, in other contexts, they would normally reject out of hand.

Another affliction, especially for "liberal hawks" -- or, in Mark's case, "liberals-who-would-like-all-the-war-criticism-to-now-go-away-please": the illusion that a war being waged by neocons will actually be the war you want to be waged: "let's hold the neocons to their word: let's insist on real democracy in Iraq," says Mark. An admirable goal, and one I happen to absolutely agree with, but it makes one wonder what political leverage Mark actually imagines he has to get the neocons on this page. Does he believe that liberals have more pull with the Bush Administration than, say, people like this?

Monday, February 17, 2003

trans-bloggerism, questions 3-5

I'm behind on my answers and it's roundup posting time, so here are some quicker answers to questions 3-5 from the Cross-Blog Debate.

3. American and British military force has allowed Northern Iraq to develop a society which, while imperfect, is clearly a freer and more open society than existed under Saddam Hussein's direct rule. Do you agree that the no-fly zones have been beneficial to Northern Iraq --- and if so, why should this concept not be extended to remove Hussein's regime entirely and spread those freedoms to all Iraqis?

At least one premise of the question is false. The no-fly zones have nothing to do with humanitarian intervention -- their humanitarian benefits have been indifferent at best. Their preservation is very obviously not a goal of the planned invasion -- as even erstwhile flack Kanan Makiya has noticed. The argument that any part of Western policy viz. Iraq is in any way about humanitarianism is, to me, by far the smarmiest and most repulsive of pro-war memes -- but it's constantly pushed by those sectors of the pro-invasion movement who imagine their opponents to be a band of bleeding hearts, or those who have genuinely bought into the notion of themselves as "pro-liberation."

Even if there were anything humanitarian in the contemplated Iraq policy, would I support it? Given that what I'm basically being asked is "do you support the short-term slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in faith that the US government will then 'liberate' the rest," the answer is no. There is no reason to believe at this stage that whatever indifferent "freedoms" happen to be "enjoyed" by Northern Iraq as a side-effect of being a staging ground for a twelve-year bombing campaign will survive the invasion even in that region, let alone being spread to all Iraqis.

4. Do you believe an inspection and sanctions regime is sufficient and capable of keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of the Hussein regime ---

The inspections regime in particular has obviously been quite successful, given that proponents of war have been reduced to making their case largely in terms of hypothetical future threats.

and should this be a goal of U.S. policy?

Better question: has this ever been a goal of U.S. policy? Not particularly. Why not?

Well, perhaps we should be asking why the Bush Administration isn't bothered by Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, which is in the hands of a government far more beholden to Muslim extremists and terrorists than Saddam Hussein's. The answer: WMD is already deterrable by conventional means. The scenario of dictators handing off weapons to terrorists has never really answered why those dictators wouldn't keep those weapons for their own protection -- which tends to be their greater concern. (No, "they hate America and they're mad!!!!" isn't an answer to this question.)

That's not to say that willy-nilly proliferation is the way to go. America should certainly take a stand against proliferation -- but anyone who imagines that such a stand can consist merely of invading anyone who has weapons you don't like is living in a fantasy world. If anything, that approach heavily motivates proliferation of WMDs and encourages people to point them at you. A better approach might be to throw some serious weight behind non-proliferation treaties... which the Bush Administration has not done, for reasons that probably relate to their National Missile Defense baby.

In what way is an inspection/containment/sanctions regime preferable to invasion? Civilian casualties? Expense? Geopolitical outcome?

Inspections and containment are preferable because they don't kill people and destabilize regions the way war does. Given that they've proven effective, it makes no sense to abandon them out of sheer impatience. The sanctions regime as it stands is counterproductive sadism fuelled by a number of pernicious myths, and is not necessary to containing Iraq; it has already generated an unacceptable number of civilian casualties. But better-targeted and more effective sanctions are theoretically possible and shouldn't be ruled out.

Geopolitical outcome? Likely a good deal better than alienating most of one's long-term allies and most of the Muslim world with an invasion of at best dubious legal, moral, strategic and military justification. If you're looking for leverage to remake the Middle East -- well, Iran, had a pretty robust reform movement going before the whole "Axis of Evil" thing started...

5. What, in your opinion, is the source of national sovereignty? If you believe it to be the consent of the governed [remainder of question irrelevant]

Consent is the source of justice, not sovereignty. There are good reasons why the West has made a practice of dealing with nations as sovereign whose leaders are not there by consent of the governed. First among them is pragmatism. In terms of advancing either democracy or its own economic and military interests, the West gains little from treating such nations as non-sovereign and has had a poor success rate in enforcing whatever is imagined to be "the consent of the governed" by invading foreign countries.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

trans-bloggerism, question 2

Just before I get to answering the second question in the Cross-Blog Debate from the pro-war crowd, a quick reference to N.Z. Bear's commentary on the "meta-debate". Bear is responding to a concern that the pro-war questions were more "loaded" than the anti-war side. In many ways, the "loadedness" of the questions was to be anticipated, and insofar as it reveals something of either side's base assumptions, I tend to agree with Bear that it's not the worst thing imaginable.

On the other hand, as others point out, "loadedness" inhibits debate and people's faith in the honesty of their opponents. Though, like Bear, I didn't attempt to eliminate loadedness entirely, I certainly tried to tone it down as much as I could get away with -- perhaps more than Bear did (bringing howls from a couple of the more extreme posters on Stand Down) -- and the result appears to have been questions that more people have an interest in responding to. This may well end up proving a point that many who are anti-war take for granted: that the pro-war side is inherently less interested in honest debate, which gives them a propaganda advantage. (Indeed, many anti-war posters just seem to view the pro-war questions as not worth a response right now, though there's more than half the week still to go before we do the roundup.)

I take a different view. Part of this, for me at least, is a learning process. Though it's fairly clear to me what motivates the Bush Administration, it's less clear to me what motivates its support base, particularly in the States. Certainly the usual collection of armchair warriors, bigots, jingoists and repugnant violence enthusiasts is there, but what's motivating the more intelligent sectors of pro-war sentiment is less clear and, I suspect, not at all unified. Added to which, more honest debate will be effective at smoking out ignorance and dishonesty and revealing them starkly for what they are, so the assumptions driving the less informed sectors of the pro-war camp will be laid bare (or should that be "laid bear") by this exercise. That's worthwhile even if (perhaps especially if) certain events and invasions overtake us.

So, enough meta-debate, and on to question two. The answer to this one is shorter.

2. Is there any circumstance that you can conceive of where the United States would be justified in using military force without the support of the UN Security Council --- or does the UN always have a veto against US military action for whatever reason?

As we all know -- or rather, as anyone commenting on the UN should take the trouble to find out -- Article 51 of the charter guarantees the right of self-defense to member states on the very well-founded logic that self-defense is the only reasonable rationale for war. The real question comes in, of course, when you start trying to define what "self-defense" is.

A militaristic definition of "self-defense" is very broad. In the Bush Administration's parlance, it has become sufficiently broad to include defending not against actual, imminent threats (Iraq poses none), but also against potential threats -- that Iraq might someday hand off such-and-such weapon to such-and-such terrorist group which it might be connected with even if there's no solid evidence of this who might then use it against America, or Britain, or Frane, or maybe even Canada. Of course, potential threats are, by their nature, speculative. There's no way of knowing if they'll come to pass. A situation where waging war on spec becomes normal thus really solidifies only one potential threat, namely the danger of people using military force to self-defensively pre-empt "threats" that are entirely nonexistent and/or unrealistic. Or worse, pretending certain peoples or states constitute "threats" by their mere existence. That approach not only unjustly terminates lots and lots of lives -- and, you know, that's kind of important, because people really hate you when you do that, especially on flimsy pretexts -- it also generates new and unpredictable threats.

In terms of the ethical consensus that emerged after Nuremberg, broad definitions of self-defense are untenable and lead to wars of aggression, which (being what wars are) are illegal, immoral and yes, evil. That consensus wasn't reached by happy aliens from Star Trek, but by people who had directly experienced the horrors of war and knew that tens of millions of people had just learned this lesson the hard way. So, I reject broad definitions of "self-defense" and prefer to confine it to a case of immediate threat to oneself or one's allies.

Of course, there are those on both sides who would like to dismiss the UN as a useless organization -- variously because it's a figleaf for American imperial ambitions or because it's a talking-shop full of European obstructionists. I think the UN is as strong, and as useful, as is the commitment of the greatest powers of the day to making it work. We've seen glimpses in it of the organization it could have been: namely a strong voice for (less often an implementer of) the consensus of international law, which is simply the best tool we have by which to assess the behaviour of states. We've also seen it hang immobilized between the vetoes of superpowers, or issuing only muted condemnations of profoundly destabilizing policies, or (as currently) bullied and browbeaten into ratifying wars as legitimate that plainly contradict its charter.

When the powers that be are overtaken by cliques who hate and fear international law and what it represents, organizations like the UN are pretty much doomed to follow the very path that destroyed the credibility of the League of Nations previously. For that reason, I'm not confident in the future of the UN as it stands. But its fate will fail to eliminate the obvious advantages of having a strong international organization that can legitimate power and provide ways, other than wars between random coalitions of opportunists, for states to vent their grievances. Something like it will always be necessary for stabilizing the international order.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

trans-bloggerism, question 1

I'll be taking the pro-war questions from the Cross-Blog Debate one at a time. First up:

1. If you were President of the United States, what would be your policy toward Iraq over the next year? What advantages and disadvantages do you see in your proposed policies versus the current path being pursued by the Bush administration?

I take it we’re assuming with this question that I’m stuck with all the actions of the Bush Administration to this point. In which case, to put it rather bluntly, I’ve talked myself into a corner and now have to deliver some kind of credible “regime change” or look like an utter fool not only to my critics, but also to my own power base.

The most realistic option open to me given that: I let the UN inspections proceed. More precisely, I let them go ahead and roam across the Iraqi countryside, crowing with triumph over every decayed stockpile and cluster of huts (sorry, “poison and explosives factory” -- it's a "term of art," see) they find. I then publicly pat myself on the back for having averted a nuclear or “WMD” buildup – it doesn’t matter if said buildup ever had any serious chance of getting off the ground – and I tell the world that my military buildup was a politically ingenious way of getting Saddam’s regime to “change” and enforcing UN resolutions.

- I get to portray myself as a political and/or military genius. The US media will be more than happy to comply, for the most part, since the regime will have “changed”: Andrew Sullivan will declare he knew this was my plan all along; Jim Lileks will crow over how I’ve stuck it once again to those bad old Europeans who thought I was a rude and simple cowboy; general (if somewhat muted) orgasm from most of the WarPundits. The rest of the world will chuckle, but very quietly under their much louder sighs of relief.

- My allies get to save face and return to their accustomed position of more or less supporting US policy, and I can rebuild damaged relationships with them.

- I’m freed up to deal with more urgent regional problems from the American credibility, security and reputation standpoint (the Israel-Palestine conflict) and the anti-terrorism standpoint (Saudi Arabia), and to try to step down the tension on the Korean peninsula.

- I’m freed up to quietly move my own country’s Iraq policy into actual compliance with the cease-fire agreement, so that I really have the moral high ground in future when complaining about Saddam’s violations of same.

- Major advantage: A lot of people are still alive in Iraq whom I would otherwise have incinerated with Operation Shock and Awe. This means future generations don’t regard me as an aggressor and mass murderer.

- This option is a bit past its sell-by date now that I’ve spent so much time tilting at erstwhile allies, talking tough, rattling sabres at every possible excuse and doing everything I could to sabotage and undermine the inspections. Some of my more rabid current backers – people who have seriously proclaimed that France and Germany are now no longer part of the “free world” because they dared oppose me – are likely to turn on me. Fortunately, the “memory hole” should take care of that minor difficulty in the US pretty quickly, so it’s not too debilitating.

- Major disadvantage: Saddam Hussein is still in power in Iraq, which sucks. Fortunately, he’s fairly toothless as a threat; that’s why I picked on him in the first place. And let’s face it, none of the candidates to replace him are exactly prizes themselves (behind door number 1, a Baathist general! door number 2, a Shiite radical! door number 3, a playboy con man with a life expectancy of about two years!) – so at least I’m not taking the real risk of worsening the situation there or directly installing more of the same.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

time to party like it's 1984
I'd rant at greater length, but The Sideshow already has a good commentary up on the astonishing cowardice and complacency that's the order of the day over Patriot Act II. Things get ever-more-surreal south of the border.

Saturday, February 08, 2003

slam dunkley
I encourage all and sundry to check out Wayne Dunkley's Share My World project. I'll be writing an article on Wayne's very interesting work this month, and I'm thinking about posting here those pieces of the article that don't quite fit within my 1,500 word limit -- because I'm sure there will be more than a few of those pieces. So check it out, and stay tuned.
I'm currently taking part in a cross-blog debate on the war, being coordinated through N.Z. Bear's The Truth Laid Bear for the pro-war side and Stand Down for the antiwar side. We're just coming towards the end of the first part of the process, wherein each side is gathering questions from their "team" and trying to round up the best five.

I'm curious as to which five questions will survive from either side. Looking over the comments on Bear's site, I don't see more than two or three clear winners in terms of popularity. To be honest, I'm hoping that some of the more productive questions will survive and get posted -- the ones that are specifically designed to elicit questions about legal, moral and defense rationale for the war. Both sides appear to have elements obsessed either with sanctimonious ranting or crafting elaborate question-begging anti-questions. I suspected this impulse wouldn't win out on Stand Down, and it looks like I'm going to be borne out on that. The pro-war side has its voices of caution on this as well; perhaps I'm biased in seeing them as more muted. We'll see.

In any case, check out both sites for the posted questions at the top of next week. It should, at the very least, be interesting.