Friday, April 17, 2009

Teabagging update

Well, the Tax Day Tea Parties in the States have come and gone. In lieu of boring everyone with a recap of the absurdity of it all, I leave the commentary to those better suited. First, Jon Stewart.

And secondly, a guide to conservative teabagging.

That is all.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Weekly wisdom

"Getting an education is a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It makes you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you have the urge to pass it on."

--Terry Pratchett

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The triumphant return of the Paranoid Style: the case of 24

I must admit to being a fan of the television series 24, but also to being a bit ambivalent about that. I imagine I don’t need to elaborate too much on the reasons for that ambivalence: the show’s explicit endorsement of torture as a necessary interrogation tool and its antipathy to issues of civil rights, to say nothing of the way in which Jack Bauer has become something of a folk hero for the pro-Patriot Act right, all sit uneasily with me. In my mind I can reconcile the show’s unpalatable politics with the pleasure of watching a fast-paced, exciting action-based drama for the simple reason that the series’ plots are so ludicrous that they are effectively pure fantasy. And with each season, the show ratchets up the absurdity to the point where you wonder what they’ll do next season to top it. (In the words of Stephen Colbert, they “crank up the crazy and rip off the knob”).

The Ticking Time Bomb

That is however a rather big cop-out on my part. The particular fantasy being peddled by 24—the “ticking time bomb” scenario, and the correlating need on the part of federal agencies to be able to act as they see fit irrespective of law and individual rights—is essentially a fallacy, and has been debunked in a variety of forums. That has done nothing however to mitigate its power as both a narrative hook and a point of paranoid fascination. Series like 24 normalize a particular conception of threat and the strategies to counter that threat. The relationship to reality is more or less irrelevant.

The “ticking time bomb” scenario was first used, for all intents and purposes, in the 1963 novel Les Centurions by Jean Lartéguy. Set during the Algerian war, the novel follows its protagonist’s desperate attempt to find and disarm bombs laid all over the city by Algerian terrorists. The initial discovery of the plot, incidentally, comes when the hero beats the fact out of an Algerian woman.

Significantly, the novel is generally credited with salving French liberals’ discomfiture at the brutal treatment of Algerians—depicting them as brutes who only understood the language of violence. Sound familiar? I would hope so, considering that 24 has accomplished something remarkably similar, insofar as the show’s various life-and-death scenarios have been considered seriously as hypotheticals in a number of high-level debates over the validity and efficacy of torture. Antonin Scalia in particular is fond of invoking Jack Bauer. (More encouragingly, a group of army officers met with the producers of 24, asking them to please stop, because both academy graduates and new soldiers in the field were increasingly taking their leads from the show).

The ticking time bomb may have originated in France’s Algerian quagmire (there’s something to taunt Republicans with—Jack Bauer was invented by the French!), it finds fecund soil in the American imagination at least in part because of the obsession with speed and expedience that marked the Cold War. Most significantly, it is an outgrowth of a discourse of “fast-response” scenarios that Elaine Scarry critiques in her essay “Citizenship In Emergency.” Scarry observes that:

“Speed” has occupied the foreground not only of our descriptive statements about our national defense but also our normative statements. Our military arrangements for defending the country have often been criticized for moving increasingly outside the citizenry’s control.

This preoccupation with speedy response has led to a situation in which “The constitutional requirement for a Congressional declaration of war has not been used for any war since World War II”; speed, she continues, has continually been cited as a counter-argument to objections about weapons policy and war-making practices sliding increasingly beyond the scope of democratic and legislative oversight.

Scarry’s larger argument—that for all the military’s preoccupation with fast-response, the only effective defense mounted against the attacks on September 11th was the democratic consensus for action reached by the passengers of United 93—is at least partially beside the point I am trying to make here. It does however highlight a broader cultural discourse that has come, in spite of evidence to the contrary, to privilege the “whatever-it-takes” attitude embodied by Jack Bauer and 24.

Conspiracy’s Bait-and-Switch

My interest here today is not so much to debunk the ticking-time-bomb scenario as to highlight the way in which 24 employs it in relation to what we’re calling the paranoid style—and how the show has really come to be almost a parody of the classic conspiracy narrative.

This point occurred to me last night at the end of the most recent episode, which ended with one of the series’ patented cliffhangers (which in the real-time universe of 24 meant that it occurred at one minute to the hour—you’d think that after six and three quarters seasons, the Jack and company would be getting squirrelly as a matter of course at the top of the hour). The plot twist of last night’s episode (spoilers to follow in the course of this post, if you haven’t seen the episode yet) was typical of how 24 rolls. Which is to say, it brought to satisfying conclusion one storyline, only to raise the stakes and reveal that there’s another, probably larger and more malevolent, conspiracy at work.

This is how 24 has developed into the acme of the conspiracy narrative. Each season unfolds as a series of nested conspiracies, like Russian dolls, or ever-widening concentric circles. And that seeming contradiction of those analogies—one getting smaller and more central, the other broadening out in larger and larger and more all-encompassing—is one of the structural paradoxes of conspiracy. It is both a matter of getting to the “center” of the plot, finding the key players and the secret(s) at the heart of the matter; and of discovering the larger shape of the sprawling yet invisible network of power and control.

To use this season thus far to explain: we began with an conspiracy against the U.S. by agents of the fictional African country Sangala, who have acquired a device that lets them hack into, well, everything on a federal grid—power stations, air traffic control, etc.—in retaliation for the President’s plan to invade Sangala and intervene in an ongoing genocide. It turns out the Sangalans have all sorts of people in the U.S. government in their pockets, and what’s worse, the formerly-thought-to-be-dead Tony Almeida (a former associate of Bauer’s, for those who don’t watch the show) turns out to be alive and has gone over to the dark side, working for the Sangalans. But then, we discover, this is merely a front: though he has been since rumours of his death been doing some nasty stuff as a mercenary, Tony has in fact been working undercover with other former colleagues of Jack’s from the (now defunct) Counter-Terrorism unit (CTU). Of course, Jack now goes rogue (which is something he has to do about once a season) in order to assist Tony and company. Together, they recover the hacking device and foil the plot to hold the country for ransom.

So ends conspiracy the first. But even as that one comes to a conclusion, Tony warns Jack of something else about to go down. What it is, he doesn’t know, but we find out soon enough: a group of Sangalans in the U.S., led by their president Juma, infiltrate the White House with the assistance of their agents and take the President hostage. Thanks however to Jack’s derring-do and the sacrifice of one of the CTU people, the Sangalans are defeated, bringing to a close conspiracy the second.

Shift to a Blackwater-style military contractor called Starkwood, and its CEO Jonas Hodges (played by a wonderfully scenery-chewing Jon Voight). It turns out that the Sangalan conspiracy was facilitated by Starkwood in exchange for allowing them to test a biological WMD on President Juma’s enemies in Sangala. The bio-weapon is now in the U.S. and Hodges proceeds to threaten the U.S. President with an attack on America’s cities. His demand is a “seat at the table,” and a free hand in shaping American military policy. However, once again the conspiracy is thwarted—this time by Tony Almeida, who manages to destroy the missiles armed with the bioweapon.

So much for conspiracy the third. But when the President has Hodges arrested, he warns her that she ain’t seen nothing yet—he was just the tip of the iceberg. And sure enough, a Starkwood employee escapes with a tank of the bio-weapon. He is cornered by Almeida and an FBI agent but manages to wound the agent. At which point, Tony Almeida finishes off the G-man, and reveals that he is in league with Mr. Starkwood. Ladies and gentlemen: I give you conspiracy the fourth.

Now on one hand, this is exactly the kind of potboiler plot twist that animates 24, in conjunction with the relentless ticking of the clock. Unless I miss my guess however, we will see over the next few episodes that Tony Almeida has been playing everyone from the start, in the service of an all-encompassing conspiracy that effectively contains all the others. The bait-and-switch that 24 constantly engages in, the false resolutions followed by the ramping up of the action and the stakes, not only follows the standard conspiracy narrative format but cranks it up to eleven (and breaks off the knob). It is, indeed, akin to the way The X-Files worked: each season ended with the promise of revelation, of finally finding the “truth” that was out there … and inevitably the next season pulled the rug out, deferring endlessly the promise of discovery.

It is this last element of “deferral” that most specifically differentiates conspiracy narratives from mystery or detective fiction, for the latter—while often engaged in investigating conspiracies of various sorts—does so in a limited fashion that ends with the detective in the study with all of the suspects, reassembling for everyone the disparate and confusing welter of clues into a coherent narrative. Well, OK—it doesn’t always take place in the study, but you catch my meaning. The point is that everything is contained. The detective (or agent, operative, or cop) scores an epistemological victory.

Conspiracy narratives however articulate a deep suspicion of the possibilities for such a victory, while at the same time evoking the desire for it. It is for this reason (as I have argued elsewhere) that conspiracy has had such currency in the postmodern moment. On one hand, the persistent deferral of revelation, which expresses in part a deep-seated suspicion of the concept of capital-T Truth, parallels what Jean-Francois Lyotard characterized as postmodernism’s rejection of “grand narratives.” But while Lyotard more or less argued that this rejection is essentially an emancipatory one (freeing us from the despotism of monolithic discourse), postmodern narratives have also frequently expressed uneasiness with the dissolution of formerly certain truths and what George Steiner famously called “nostalgia for the absolute.”

Hence, conspiracy is at its core a necessarily paradoxical motif, offering the comfort of revelation but too shot through with fundamental suspicion of its truth-value (the two mantras of The X-Files exemplify this contradiction: “The truth is out there” on one hand, but we are also enjoined to “Trust no one”—which effectively negates the possibility of reaching a stable truth). In this regard, 24 is at once the acme of the conspiracy narrative, and its radical simplification. Whatever issues of abuse of power, of the psychological toll torturing takes on Jack, or any other mitigating elements, 24 ultimately lacks the kind of ambivalence that marks the balance of conspiracy narratives. This lack proceeds principally from the series’ profoundly conservative nature, with its moral absolutes, the starkness of its black-and-white choices, the villainy of the bad guys, its disdain for liberal waffling, and its celebration of the exercise of government power.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Postscript: tea parties take a sharp right turn into absurdity

As the lead up to the Tax Day Tea Party Protests continue, the question arises: just how stupid are these people? And by "these people" I mean the rally organizers and their spokesmen. They are now enjoining people to mail tea bags to the White House and to Congress in symbolic protest. And in a particularly unfortunate turn of phrase, they are referring to this process as "teabagging." As in: "Teabag the White House!" "Teabag Obama!" And so on ...

For the sake of my more delicate readers who may be unfamiliar with the colloquial meaning of "teabagging," I direct you to a definition here. Take a moment ... we'll wait.

Yup. Sigh. It's vaguely irritating that this happens right on the heels of taking the time and thought to write out a measured and serious response to the Tea Party Protests, seeing as how this little bit of absurdity really kind of makes treating this with any degree of seriousness kind of a waste of time and energy.

Because really, the only decent way to respond is with snark, and here's Rachel Maddow doing so brilliantly. I can only imagine what kind of mileage Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will get out of this.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Some thoughts on civil disobedience and the uses and abuses of history

Sorry, another interim post here before continuing on with the issue of the paranoid style—though a post that is related, at least tangentially. One of the much-ballyhooed responses to the Obama Administration is a series of planned “tea parties,” modelled on the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The Boston Tea Party, an iconic moment in the history of the American Revolution, was a spontaneous protest against British taxation in which a mob dressed in the guise of American Indians boarded three vessels in Boston Harbour and threw all the tea in their holds into the water.

The story is actually a lot more involved and complicated than that, but the basic story is this: Britain’s autocratic treatment of the American Colonies, especially in terms of their arbitrary taxation coupled with the refusal to allow representation in Parliament—“taxation without representation”—was essentially what formed the basis of what was to culminate in the Continental Congress and the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Party became one of those mythic historical moments accruing far more significance to itself than the actual events merited, but then that’s how history becomes myth. A rag-tag (probably drunk) bunch of angry protesters destroys some cargo; but in doing so at a pivotal moment become exemplars of cheeky American obstreperousness in the face of tradition, models for the future of civil disobedience and resistance to tyranny. All of which is fair enough.

Of course, what happens with mythic history is that it tends to get appropriated years, decades, centuries down the line by those wishing to invoke its symbolic power and associate themselves with people, ideas, or events that have become irrevocably romanticized in the popular imagination.

The current “tea parties” are a series of ostensibly spontaneous protests against the Obama Administration’s tax increases, spending, and apparent moves to expand government. They started mid-March, and there are a bunch scheduled to take place on April 15 (the American Tax Day). They have been characterized as grass-roots protests by “ordinary Americans” aghast at Obama’s policies. They are, according to their promoters, examples of ordinary joes and janes rising up like the 1773 rabble-rousers. Here’s assbutt Glenn Beck holding for to Fox News talking head Neil Cavuto:

Now, I’m all for civil disobedience and robust critiques of power and government, so while I disagree with the arguments being made by these people, more power to ‘em. Speaking however as someone occupationally preoccupied with symbolic economies, I do think it’s important to make a few observations here—probably observations made any number of times already, but since I haven’t encountered them, I’ll risk being repetitive.

    It’s pretty obvious what the organizers of these rallies had in mind when they named them “Tea Parties.” That is to say, they’re evoking the spirit of spontaneous grass-roots protest against distant and unfeeling governance, tyrannical governance at that, which was acting in an arrogant and high-handed manner. The 1773 protesters have been memorialized as the embodiment of the American spirit: simple men, moved beyond the bounds of polite dialogue by anger and provocation; get-it-done individuals sick of merely talking (they spilled out of a meeting being held by Samuel Adams, who vainly exhorted them to remain calm); and finally, honest and hard-working souls driven to an extreme by and interfering, remote government.

    The narrative is pretty straightforward, and it’s not unusual: it tends to get trotted out in its various incarnations by activists, pundits and politicians wanting to self-identify as somehow authentically American (just see how frequently the phrase “Founding Fathers” gets employed on both the left and the right as a means of lending weight to an argument). But as the wonderful Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan argues in her slim but powerful book The Uses and Abuses of History, we need to be alive to the ways in which the appropriations of historical myth manipulate or deform their original sources. In this case, we don’t really even need to revisit the particulars of the historical Boston Tea Party—the deviations of the current incarnation from what it represents are sufficient. To wit:

    The 1773 Tea Party was not a protest against taxation, but against autocracy. Remember, the rallying cry was “no taxation without representation.” It wasn’t the taxes that were the problem: it was that the citizens of the thirteen colonies had no say in them. Taxes are onerous, certainly, but as Oliver Wendell Holmes pointed out, they’re the price we pay for civilization. Perhaps the colonies would have agreed that the tea tax was worthwhile, perhaps not. The problem was that they had no opportunity to say one way or the other. Today, of course, there is no King George taxing Americans—just their democratically elected president, who for good or for ill was elected. Which was kind of what the American Revolution was fought for to begin with.

    The tax hikes that “ordinary Americans” are rallying against are (a) not tax hikes—they are the expiry of the tax cuts made by the Bush Administration. Obama isn’t taxing Americans back to the Stone Age, he’s essentially doing nothing as the Bush tax cuts run out the clock. And (b) for all the attempts to portray this as populist rage, the Obama Administration has (or is planning to) cut taxes for anyone under $250K.

    Of course, there’s also the issue of the expansion of government and increased spending. Which begs the question: where was this populist rage for the past eight years while Bush radically grew the government, rolled back civil rights, instituted invasive policies of wiretapping and rendition, and took the government from a healthy surplus to a massive deficit? The protests of Glenn Beck you see in the clip above—representative of the right’s historical revisionism—are at best disingenuous, at worst overtly mendacious. They were for everything George W. Bush did, until they weren’t.

    These rallies are not just the protests of the citizenry, but have been enthusiastically embraced by congressional Republicans, many of whom will be featured speakers. This is not itself wrong or really even objectionable, but it does highlight a certain amnesia, and indeed hypocrisy. Let’s remember that the 1773 Tea Party was a specifically anti-government event, and that is the spirit being evoked in the naming of the current rallies. It strikes me as ever so slightly disingenuous for elected members of Congress to join attempts to undermine government when (a) they were part of the chorus over the past eight years decrying any criticism of the Bush Administration as un-American at best, treasonous at worst, and (b) Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, in spite of nearly losing her seat after she suggested that Democratic legislators should be investigated for un-American beliefs and behaviour, is at it again; and in an almost endearingly naked retread of Joe McCarthy, Representative Spenser Bachus (R-AL) has declared that there are seventeen socialists in Congress. Those two should really get together.

    Finally, there’s this whole spontaneity issue. That’s at the heart of the Boston Tea Party mythos: it wasn’t a conspiracy, it wasn’t planned for weeks with scale models of the harbour and contingency plans and code names, and it wasn’t perpetrated by the 1773 version of the Navy Seals. Although it could have been all those things, the mythology of the event lies in its spontaneity—its suddennesss. A bunch of angry guys, and one of them has an idea: “Hey, let’s dress up and injuns and throw all the tea in the harbour!” (Alternative historical theory: it wasn’t actually political protest, it was a serendipitous fraternity prank). In reality, the contemporary Tea Parties have all the spontaneity of a Martha Stewart garden party. Beyond the explicit support of Fox News, which has been hyping them since the start (and will be providing keynote speakers in the form of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Neil Cavuto, and Greta van Susteren), these events have been sponsored and organized by the conservative think-tanks Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works. And lest the term “think tanks” lends these organizations an aura of neutrality or objectivity, you should know that they are operated and funded by lobbyists. They are well-organized and well-funded, and have been taking care of the logistics and publicity (with a helping hand from Fox News, of course). So any depiction of these events as “spontaneous” expressions of populist rage needs to be taken with a grain of salt or five.

    Wednesday, April 08, 2009

    Kumar goes to the White House; sadly, Harold stays home

    This just in: actor Kal Penn, Kumar of Harold and Kumar fame and late of House, has been hired by the White House as an associate director in the Office of Public Liaison. His job will be to act as a liaison between President Obama's administration and Asian-American, Pacific Islander and arts community constituents.

    In keeping with this week's paranoia theme, I would like to observe that Penn was a terrorist and a Guantanamo Bay escapee. This appointment is obviously a blatant move on the part of the Obama Administration to bring the United States ever closer to Islamofascisocialistarianism. People, be warned.

    Tuesday, April 07, 2009

    The triumphant return of the Paranoid Style

    A favourite insult of mine is a Bart Simpson coinage: “Assbutt.” This beautifully economical and redundant epithet at once conveys, with its semantic doubling, utter contempt and a scornful dismissiveness—the person on the receiving end is not worth a fouler combination of oaths, but is nevertheless an ass to the power of two.

    I rarely have occasion to employ this choice insult, but lately an exemplary candidate keeps stepping up to the plate. Ladies and gentlemen: Glenn Beck of Fox News. Assbutt extraordinaire.

    Yes, yes, I have been harping on this sort of thing for the last few months. After the last post on El Rushbo, I promised myself I’d get back to more personal posts and try to distance myself a little from the insanity and inanity (and Hannity) of the Fox News Alternative Universe. But it seems I’m having a Pacino moment: every time I try to get out, they pull me back in.

    Truth be told however, I’m a little grateful to Assbutt and his compatriots at Fox and on the right side of the aisle in Congress. Grateful because their bloviating has taken a decidedly conspiratorial and paranoid turn. Beck is in the vanguard, but is by no means the only voice in the chorus. All of the Obama Administration’s moves, from the stimulus package to the budget to the firing of GM’s Rick Wagoner to his actions at the G20 summit, are all being characterized as evidence that the United States is moving toward totalitarianism of some form—socialist, communist, fascist, it’s unclear. But certainly, the government will be coming for YOU very soon.

    Why is this good for me? As it happens, this sort of behaviour—what historian Richard Hofstadter termed the “paranoid style”—is sort of my specialty. I wrote my dissertation on representations of conspiracy and paranoia in postwar American fiction, film, and popular culture. Since defending my thesis in September 2004, I have made a handful of half-hearted attempts to return to it and rewrite it for publication in book form. There’s a sort of window of opportunity to do this: the longer you take, the more cringe-inducing your own writing becomes to you, and the more like probing the nerve of a tooth it becomes. Also, I had the added strike of having written on a more or less contemporary topic, and with the passage of time I became increasingly concerned that the whole conspiracy theory thing was becoming passé.

    Because honestly, when you think of it, there was not a great deal of conspiracy-mongering happening during the Bush years. Oh, there was the usual expected fulminations, most notably with regards to 9/11—an event that big and that shattering will attract conspiracy theorists like moths to a flame. There was however very little in the way of cultural production: not much in terms of film, almost nothing in fiction, and television series pretty much universally reversed the conspiratorial trajectory of The X-Files, shifting the locus of conspiracy from inside the government to external threat (mostly, anyway—the current season of 24 is bringing it back within U.S. shores in the form of a Blackwater-style private militia). In fact, as I tended to say wistfully, the Bush Administration sort of negated the conspiratorial frisson by being so bald-faced in its malfeasance. It made one nostalgic for carefully calculated cover-ups of Nixon or Reagan.

    However, all that seems to have changed. Spearheaded by Beck, but supported by the other talking heads at Fox and by such political types as Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) and Newt Gingrich, the Paranoid Style seems to be making a triumphant return. We saw the first grumblings of it during the presidential campaigns: Obama the secret Muslim, Obama the Manchurian Candidate, Obama In League With Terrorists and the Plot To Put Bill Ayers In The Cabinet, and so forth.

    All that however, which might well be dismissed as simply the kind of mud one sees slung in any election, was just the warmup; since Inauguration Day, the self-appointed Paranoid Spokesmen (and women) have really been hitting their stride. And they’re doing so in interesting, albeit a little scary, ways.

    I’ve been culling examples for the last few days from the news, from blogs, and online sources with an eye to possibly writing something on this topic. Certainly, I will need a new introduction to the thesis to address the years intervening between my defense and finally picking up the threads again; I’m also considering an article for a media studies journal, but am not yet sure if what I’ve been seeing will have the substance for it. I do want to offer commentary in some forum, however, so I thought I might make use of my blog as something different: a space for working through some of the issues and ideas. I’ll throw stuff up against the wall here, in other words, and see what sticks. So for the next few posts: the paranoid style redux!

    Thursday, April 02, 2009

    Still breathing, just lazy

    OK, so I haven’t posted in a full month, and I feel properly chastised. I’m in a posting slump, which I hope to pull myself out of. I’ve had a couple of ideas for longer posts running through my head, but haven’t really had the time/energy to sit down and work through them. I have however started writing one, so expect something substantive in the next few days. In the meantime, I’ll catch you up. Here is how March panned out:

    • Went to Barbados for a week at the beginning of the month. Yup.
    • If I’d been more blog-assiduous, I’d have posted a celebration of Jon Stewart ripping Jim Cramer a new one. Brilliant. If you didn’t see it, here’s the link here.
    • While the contrast between Barbados and St. John’s weather was just as stark as you would imagine, the weather for the remainder of March was actually relatively pleasant. Which has me wondering if the other shoe is set to drop in April.
    • U2’s new album=yummy goodness. While No Line on the Horizon isn’t the boys’ best outing, there’s a remarkable texture to the songs that has me finding new stuff with each listen. My current favourite track (it changes day to day) is “Breathe.”
    • I didn’t teach on April Fool’s day this year, which made me sad. I usually manage to pull one over on my students. Last year I distributed an exam rubric with sample questions that would have confounded Einstein’s literary equivalent. This year I had to settle for convincing a former student now abroad, as we chatted over Facebook, that they’re building a nuclear reactor in Holyrood.
    • Speaking of April Fool’s, Car & Driver magazine posted a joke article claiming that Obama was ordering GM and Chrysler to cease and desist any involvement in NASCAR. This in itself wasn’t that funny. What was funny was that Anne Coulter read this and immediately wrote a column attacking Obama for dictating business policy. Mmmmm, that’s good fact-checking.
    That’s it. More later.