Friday, July 30, 2010

The reality virus, ctd: warriors and catches, deadly or otherwise

OK, here's a telling glimpse into the working of my mind, and further evidence if you like for a mild case of attention deficit disorder ... or at least my fairly spectacular talent for tangents. You see, today's post is the one I had in mind when I sat down and wrote what became my rather long reality TV post of a few weeks ago (technically, two and a half months ago ... but who's counting?). The opening preamble there was meant as a lead-in to the observation of how reality television has sort of split itself into three or four sub-categories, and I was going to talk about one specific one. Except that then I didn't, and ended up talking about reality TV more generally.

That being said, I was pretty pleased with the way the post turned out, and now have some decent raw material should I pursue it as an article. Sometimes distractions can be fruitful ...

ANYWAY ... what initially prompted my televisual musings was that the previous Sunday evening I had been treated to several episodes in a row of my new guilty pleasure, Deadliest Warrior—a show that posits hypothetical battles between soldiers and warriors from different historical periods and places. Drawing on contemporary combat experts, medical science and computer simulations, the weapons and techniques of a given warrior are variously tested on dummies made of bones and ballistic gel, pig carcasses, and other, rather gruesome hybrids, and the results plugged into a computer. While parts often feel contrived, the show is like crack to military history geeks like myself. I have so far watched showdowns between a Maori warrior and Shaolin monk, Viking berserker and samurai, ninja and Spartan hoplite, Commanche and Mongol, and Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun.

Afterward, I reflected that the explosion of specialty cable stations catering to niche audiences has really facilitated the growth and spread of reality TV, though generally speaking a different species than you find on the major networks. The networks are generally attracted to the Survivor / American Idol form I discussed in my previous post on this subject, i.e. the competitive elimination show. Specialty cable tends to be all over the place, to the point where what has become known as "reality TV" shades into what I think we still term human interest—cooking shows, design shows, mini-documentaries, and the like. One only has to look at the Food Network however (as I do, frequently) to see the influence reality TV has exerted. When I started watching the Food Network some ten years ago, when it was in its infancy, it was principally cooking shows hosted by well-established chefs, with a handful of endearingly gimmicky shows tossed in for good measure (I really wish they'd rerun Two Fat Ladies). While some actual chefs remain, more often than not the shows have moved from straightforward this-is-how-to-cook shows to shows with a novelty basis or a competitive edge. Perennial Food TV favourite Bobby Flay is exemplary in this regard: one can chart the trajectory of his original show Grilling and Chilling, a straightforward cooking demonstration, to the most recent Throwdown, in which he travels around challenging chefs to a contest in cooking their signature dishes. Throw into the mix Top Chef, The Next Food Network Star, Iron Chef America, Chopped, The Ultimate Food TV Challenge, among others, and you have an impressive array of competition/elimination shows.

All this, incidentally, is not to complain. I'm still an avid Food Network viewer, and certainly will be as long as Alton Brown has a home there. This is just an observation of reality TV's rather invidious influence.

To return however to Deadliest Warrior ... watching that show, I had two big thoughts: (1) I lose interest rather quickly once the warriors involved employed firearms (such as in the Jesse James vs. Al Capone episode, or the Waffen SS vs. Viet Cong), and I wonder if I am not alone in this regard. Perhaps gunpowder is too contemporary for the military history geek in me; or perhaps the necessary distance between warriors that guns introduces makes the exercise less interesting. After all, and this was thought (2): the grim skill set required for the hand-to-hand combat that was the standard for the vast majority of human military history makes the differences in weaponry at points in the past more acute.

I must admit that there is something fascinating about the up close and personal warfare that predated modernity, and that's not merely my own vaguely creepy predilection—I'd argue that a great deal of the appeal of fantasy fiction derives from the appeal of sword-and-armour warfare. However, the more I've watched Deadliest Warrior, the more I've thought that it is of a piece with a significant sub-genre of the kind of reality TV one sees (most frequently) on the Discovery Network.

There have been a relatively small but still noteworthy number of series that feature a particular brand of working-class jobs. What kind of brand? The über-masculine, of course. The most popular of these is Deadliest Catch, which is now in its sixth season. For the uninitiated, Deadliest Catch follows a group of boats fishing for crab off Alaska. There is a limited window each season for Alaskan King Crab, and it happens to be during some of the worst winter weather, which is a recipe for crews working up to thirty-six hours at a go in freezing, dangerous conditions. A frequent theme deals with which people (that is to say: men) have the strength and stamina to do the job, versus those who do not. Just for good measure, many of the boats have a little father-son drama thrown in as well, usually with the boat's owner agonizing over whether his son "has what it takes" to take over the family business, or whether it should be bequeathed to the loyal first mate who has showed his chops over many years of service.

Deadliest Catch is however just the most popular example. There is also American Loggers, all about the manly profession of treecutting; Salvage Code Red, which follows the dangerous lives of people who salvage ships on the brink of sinking or being broken up in a storm; Oil, Sweat, & Rigs, whose description reads in part "Oil riggers work at the limits of human endurance, in difficult and sometimes terrifying conditions"; Black Gold, another oil-rig based show; and the one with my favourite title, Ice Road Truckers, whose tagline is "Take an adrenaline-pumping ride on one of the most dangerous roads in the world."

To be sure, these shows comprise a tiny fraction of the reality television on offer, but there are enough of them to now constitute their own sub-genre. And they are striking enough in their representations of a particular form of masculinity to raise the question of just what kind of lack they symbolically address?

The machismo on display in these shows is a specifically working-class version: the manly men populating these shows are not pretty or attractive, and care nothing for that; they are more often than not family men, away from their wives and children for the express purpose of supporting those wives and children; they are defined by their work, which is itself defined as the intersection of extreme physicality and extreme competence; and while they are not "elite" in the common sense the word is used lately (i.e. brainy Ivy League Easterners), they are elite in their unapologetic meritocracy, in which you are only as good as your ability to get the job done.

Now, I should add the caveat that (a) I don't mean to suggest that these jobs are mere artifice—whatever the sensationalism created by making them the subject of reality TV shows, the abilities and skills on display are real, and (b) I could never do any of these jobs (being "elite" in the milquetoast sense). Nevertheless, the shows exhibit a romantic and idealized conception of working-class labour and blue-collar ethic in a culture that has almost entirely devalued working-class existence. There was a time when there was a certain respect accorded the lunch-pail labourer (however much that respect was itself illusory), and the blue-collar individual had a place as a common character in popular culture. While that may be the case these days for the occasional sitcom (King of Queens, for example, or Roseanne), what working-class figures make it onto the small screen usually embody something more than a nine-to-five, simple and honest paycheque ethic—cops, for example, or firefighters (Rescue Me, Third Watch), whose jobs are who the characters are. When a character's career fades into a series' background noise, it is usually something white collar or vaguely office-related and well-paying.

I can't figure out if these manly-job shows simply express nostalgia for straightforward, "honest" work, or reflect a deeper anxiety. They do seem to be of a piece with the various crises of masculinity that infected the 1990s—presumably, Tyler Durden would approve of any man making a living on a crab boat or ice road truck. But they are also symptomatic, I would argue, of a uniquely American schizophrenia for which Sarah Palin is the most extreme example: that is, a valorization of "ordinary," "real," or "authentic" America, typically defined in contradistinction to "liberal," "elite" America (which is presumably inhabited by snobs with Ivy League educations sipping their lattes while scheming about how to tax "real" America). That this figuration is nativist and deeply anti-intellectual is obvious, and nothing new. But it also manages to celebrate this illusion of ordinary Americans at the very same time as it expresses contempt for anyone earning less than six figures. Just four posts ago, I commented on Ben Stein's dismissal of those thrown out of work by the current recession as "people with poor work habits and poor personalities"—whereas in reality, it is the "ordinary" Americans whose corner Sarah Palin and the Tea Party are ostensibly who suffer most in the current economic climate, and who potentially benefit the most from letting the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy expire.

I don't mean to suggest that Deadliest Catch is therefore a pernicious expression of American conservatism, but rather that it is symptomatic of a flawed attempt to imagine a sort of "authentic" American masculinity. Which doesn't mean I won't watch it when it's on. Or Deadliest Warrior, for that matter.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Who is Don Draper?

Mad Men is back for its fourth season, and one of the great things about it is that I don’t have to wait for it all to be done and released on DVD (like Treme—*sniff*). I can watch it as the episodes come out ... though on the other hand, I have to wait a week between new episodes. Watching a series on DVD certainly caters to instant gratification.

But I digress! I won’t do an episode breakdown and analysis here—I’ll leave that to the pros—but certainly if anyone has any thoughts on the first episode and where it seems to be sending this season, please comment away. Myself, I was pleased with the episode, as it promises some interesting new character directions (Peggy’s got some new mojo, Joan has an office(!), Betty’s new marriage looks to be shaping up to be as miserable as her last, and Don suddenly can’t be the inscrutable cipher he has been till now), as well as some comforting consistencies (Roger is still the preferred vehicle for beautifully crass one-liners).

I’d been concerned with Mad Men as early as midway through season two, when it became obvious that certain narrative elements of the show were being pegged to historical markers: Kennedy’s election, for example, the Bay of Pigs debacle, and of course Kennedy’s assassination (the treatment of which, I think, was a tour-de-force). JFK being killed was obviously a crucial event that was going to weigh heavily on the show’s action; Sterling Cooper’s rebirth in the shadow of the president’s death was a masterful little twist that breathed renewed vigour into a workplace drama whose workplace was becoming moribund. Well, Sterling Cooper was always already moribund—that was part of the show’s irony—but the avid viewer in me wondered how long that could yield the kind of acerbic, minutely observed drama that animated the series.

I still worry about that, truth be told, but I have high hopes. Which brings me to my general theme for today’s post: the serial nature of television and the problems that poses for a consideration of television as an artistic form.

By way of explanation: the vast majority of those art forms to which we devote time, thought and doctoral dissertations tend to be helpfully discrete, comprising identifiably self-contained units. However sprawling Bleak House might be as a novel, it is still a unitary piece of work distinct from Hard Times, Oliver Twist or The Pickwick Papers. While a good bit of literary theory is dedicated to deconstructing this particular assumption, we nevertheless tacitly grant the autonomy of the novel, play, poem, short story, etc.

Film complicates the kind of straightforward autonomy granted the novel insofar as it complicates the issue of authorship. While literary works may run a gauntlet of editors and publishers, we still unproblematically ascribe the finished product to a specific author, or authors if co-written. Film is far more of a collaborative medium from the start, however, even if that collaboration tends to fall under the despotic rule of certain strong personalities. The writer—or, almost always, writers—is almost a nonentity, much farther down the totem pole than the director, producer, cinematographer, sound editor, costume designer, and so on. (I think screenwriters may even be less respected than the best boy and dolly grip).

For this reason, when film studies was first making its run for academic respectability, the concept of the “auteur”—someone on a film, usually the director, whose vision unites the final text as an artistic whole—was invoked in an effort to be able to think film in terms comparable to that of visual art and literature. Or to put it another way, the effort was to consider (certain) film art by bestowing upon it an artist.

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that as more television attains critical and scholarly attention, the number of television auteurs has proliferated: David Chase, Alan Ball, David Simon, Aaron Sorkin, J.J. Abrams, David Milch, Joss Whedon, and of course Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner).

Film, however, was also a series of discreetly-packaged texts easily considered in and of themselves. One can find many praiseworthy elements in North by Northwest while simultaneously disparaging Rebecca and establishing a critical narrative for the evolution of Hitchcock’s films, while always recognizing North by Northwest and Rebecca as distinct, autonomous creations.

Television complicates matters because of its serial, episodic structure—along with the fact that this structure necessitates a much broader village of contributing voices and visions. What is the basic, self-contained textual unit of television? The most obvious answer, at first glance, is the episode. But how does one consider an episode out of the context of the series as a whole? Especially when individual episodes rarely stand out? Conversely, when certain episodes do stand out, they tend to effect a discontinuity in the larger narrative arc of the series. To my mind, the greatest expressions of this last principle are three Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, each of which was a minor masterpiece—and each of which occurred in generally uneven seasons: "Hush" (4.10), "The Body" (5.16), and "Once More, With Feeling" (6.7). "Hush" is an episode in which the entire town has their voices stolen, and hence unfolds almost entirely in silence; "The Body" is about the death of Buffy’s mother, and is a brilliant expression of grief that unfolds as a series of jarring and disconcerting camerawork, and which also indulgences in long periods of silence; and "Once More, With Feeling" is the infamous musical episode. Each episode is brilliant, but also jarring in that each stands out starkly from its season’s narrative arc.

Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily—but it reminds that the multiple levels on which we approach television critically (individual episodes versus season-long narrative arcs; complete, finished series versus ongoing ones; series cut short by nervous studios versus those that meander on well past their best-before date), as well as such vagaries of production as the revolving door of writers and directors, sudden cast changes, and network pressures, make for a generally inconsistent text. The departure of a key figure can radically change a series, to the point where it feels entirely different than what came before. Seasons five through seven of The West Wing, for example, are dramatically inferior to the first four, a result of the departure of Aaron Sorkin from the show. Ditto Gilmore Girls after Amy Palladino jumped ship. Can we consider a show like Firefly or Pushing Daisies as an aesthetic whole, considering they were both canned before they really had a chance to get going?

If a film or novel is entirely inconsistent or uneven, it is easy to write it off as an artistic failure—because whatever flashes of brilliance might appear in the midst of mediocrity, whatever redeeming features are present, must be weighed in the balance of the aesthetic whole. On one hand, we can do that with a television series: Rome, for example, was ultimately disappointing because season two was far inferior to season one. However, Rome is also an easier example to consider because it only ran for two seasons, twenty-two episodes in total. This becomes a more difficult consideration the longer a series runs.

As usual, my rambling here is simply me thinking out loud. I find this a very interesting, and important theoretical question for those inclined to look at television from a critical academic perspective, and I haven’t yet encountered anything that has dealt with it substantively. One of the things that intrigues me with the rise of “quality TV” like HBO’s stuff is that the attention it has been getting from academic types looks like it will necessitate a new vocabulary, not so much of aesthetics but the way we designate the boundaries of a text for the purposes of criticism.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Winter is coming

If the title of today's post made you think "Dude, it's still July. Relax." or anything along those lines, then today's post is not for you. Sorry. Check back tomorrow, and I'll try to have something less geeky on display.

If however the title of today's post sent a little frisson through you, then it's a good bet you are an avid follower of George R.R. Martin's extraordinary fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire—and if so, then this post is definitely for you. And if you are as avid a fan as me, you probably already know what I am about to tell you: that the filming for the HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones started today in Northern Ireland.

Now, though I am a total TV junkie, I rarely squee. But the news coming out of George R.R. Martin's non-blog (helpfully titled "Not A Blog") has been causing me to squee quite regularly lately. Such as when he posted the above promo pic for the series, which, yes, is Sean fucking Bean dressed up as Ned Stark. Or when he posted the link to the twenty-two second trailer for the series:

But here's some special news for those of us who love both Martin's novels and The Wire (or, conversely, the British Queer as Folk): that most excellently slippery and crafty of Martin's characters, Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, is going to be played by Aidan Gillen—otherwise known to fans of The Wire as Councilman, and later Mayor, Tommy Carcetti.

Squee. Squee, indeed.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wingnuttery continued

Leave it to Newt Gingrich to say something that makes Ben Stein's attack on the poor I posted about yesterday look entirely reasonable and intelligent by comparison. Hoo boy.

Newt, along with a handful of other Republican types, are all in a tizzy about plans to build a Muslim community center and Mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan. This is an insult to the memory of those who died at the hands of jihadists, they say, and would show weakness and timidity on the part of Americans if the building plans were allowed to go ahead. Actually, Newt's exact words were that it would show "the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites."

Seriously? Seriously. But really, the money shot is this statement: "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." I love this. I really do. In effect, Newt is proposing to establish a moral equivalence with Saudi Arabia, who would I think quite cheerfully accept his terms. Newt's upset that Saudi Arabia forbids religious freedom? Excellent—so am I. So do something about it, Newt. Get your Republican friends in Congress to propose sanctions, go to the U.N. and rally the international community behind you to pressure the Saudis to abandon religious tyranny. You do that … I'll be here, totally not holding my breath.

See, this is why the United States' post-9/11 response more or less baffled me. I thought the Patriot Act wasn't an expression of strength, but weakness—a capitulation to terrorism. Why when the right wing went well nigh hysterical at the prospect of the 9/11 plotters being tried in a civilian court in NYC I wished I could go on every Fox News program and demand to know when Americans had become such pussies (Jon Stewart had the best response, as usual—speaking of the fear that the terrorists would be acquitted to walk the streets of New York he said, essentially, "That's what I want them to do!"). Why when, after the Tube bombings in London, I actually applauded when the mayor said (I'm paraphrasing) "We've been through the Blitz and the IRA—you think this is anything new for us?" (A species of the "bring it on" mentality, incidentally, of an entirely different kind that George W. Bush's, which was essentially "bring it on, as long as you do it somewhere we can drop bombs on you").

This is why, to my mind, the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero isn't a sign of timidity or ignorance, but the ultimate expression of the democratic ideal. That, to me, is "bring it on": "You attack us? OK. We're going to build a temple for your co-religionists right by that site. Let's see how that helps your recruitment." As if American Muslims weren't already apostates to Osama bin Ladin. Seriously.

This is all sort of like when Michaëlle Jean was appointed as Canada's Governor-General, and conservatives went apeshit because she had historical ties to Quebec separatism. Can you imagine a better symbol of unity than someone who has been persuaded of the virtue of a unified Canada?

(Just as an aside, it makes me happy that the closest Canadian analogy I could make here involved a kerfuffle over the choice of Governor-General).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ben Stein FAIL

Remember when Ben Stein was the endearingly droning voice in a John Hughes movie, saying "Bueller? Bueller?" over and over? And remember when he was the lovable and funny host of Win Ben Stein's Money? Back then, the fact that he had been a speechwriter for Richard Nixon was just a fun bit of trivia.

In the last five or six years however he has re-embraced his Republican roots with a vengeance, taking advantage of the Fox News / right wing media universe to shoulder his way into the orbit of Glenn Beck and comparable bloviators. Most significantly, he wrote and produced a documentary titled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, an apologia for Creationism dressed up as a critique of closed-minded left-wing university classrooms.

I've always liked Ben Stein, sometimes against my better judgment, and I wish he'd show some of that academic pedigree he boasts of (degree in economic from Columbia, law degree from Yale, a respectable early law career and work in both the Nixon and Ford administrations) ... but instead he seems to want to be the clown, and produce such tendentious and shallow crap as Expelled.

Then he goes and writes things like this about the current state of the U.S. economy:

The people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities. I say "generally" because there are exceptions. But in general, as I survey the ranks of those who are unemployed, I see people who have overbearing and unpleasant personalities and/or who do not know how to do a day's work. They are people who create either little utility or negative utility on the job. Again, there are powerful exceptions and I know some, but when employers are looking to lay off, they lay off the least productive or the most negative. To assure that a worker is not one of them, he should learn how to work and how to get along—not always easy.

This little gem of wisdom comes, it should be noted, after he observes that the current recession is the worst he has ever seen and that "many of my friends, who thought they were rolling in real estate equity, find themselves without work and also upside down on their homes, with lofty mortgages to pay, and no ability to sell their homes." So apparently many of Stein's friends have "poor work habits and poor personalities"? Who are you hanging out with, Ben? Oh, right—you live in Hollywood.

But seriously—the "poor people are lazy" meme doesn't tend to get so baldly stated any more, at least not in a crappy economy caused by some of the wealthiest people in the U.S. Before the meltdown, unemployment hovered at just below 6%; it has since jumped over three percent, peaking out here and there in the double digits. That translates into millions of Americans unemployed all at once. Sure, Stein allows, there are exceptions. But in a column where he makes some otherwise good observations about prudence and austerity—noting that those who survived the meltdown more or less intact had kept their money in unspectacular but safe investments—it is very nearly criminal to focus so specifically on the victims of the bad economy and say "really, it's your fault for being unemployable to begin with" as opposed to skewering the high-rolling Wall Street types who played fast and loose with billions of dollars of other people's money and lost spectacularly.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Happy birthday, blog

Yup, this humble blog was started five years ago today on the eve of my move out to Newfoundland. My first post was less than spectacular, just a placeholder promising posts to come. Still, it's interesting to go back to those early days and read about the trip out east, setting up the new digs and settling into the new job. The blog was as much of a novelty, and it shows: I posted thirty-three times in August 2005, which is 1.07 times a day for a month!

Well, perhaps that last sentence doesn't quite deserve an exclamation point, but given the long stretches that sometimes happen between posts, that level of blogging energy seems rather unreal.

This is also my 492nd post--which means that eight posts from now I'll be celebrating another blog anniversary. Dammit, I've got to work on my timing.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Truthers, meet Ockham ... Ockham, meet Truthers. Ockham, go nuts with that razor of yours.

OK, fair warning: this post is a lot longer than I had planned it to be, but it sort of ended up providing an outlet for thoughts I've had a long time.

This morning I watched a Fifth Estate mini-doc about the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement. Of course, their arguments and theories are nothing new to me—having devoted much time and a doctoral dissertation to the subject of conspiracy and paranoia in contemporary America, the tenacious conspiracy theories surrounding the events of September 11th, 2001 are naturally something I pay attention to. However, I did watch this TV show this morning, and it did give occasion for me to work through my own thoughts on the topic (again) ... and so, as so often happens in such an instance, you poor readers of my blog are subjected to my online airing of whatever happens to be pissing me off today.

In almost every way, the brain trust of the 9/11 Truth Movement—or "Truthers"—conform perfectly to Richard Hofstadter's classic depiction of the "paranoid spokesman," who is "overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression" and who as a group "illustrate the central preconception of the paranoid style—the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character."

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last nine years, you know that the Truthers believe that 9/11 was an inside job—that the U.S. government was directly responsible for the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon and the destruction of United 93. There is a range of beliefs under this umbrella, from the less pernicious suggestion that the Bush Administration merely deliberately ignored intelligence warning of the attacks, to the full-fledged accusations that the attacks were entirely planned and executed by U.S. black ops in order to give the government license to clamp down on civil liberties at home and invade Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like all good conspiracy theories, the devil is in the details.nThe Fifth Estate did a good job of outlining the arguments that have become the Truthers' staple objections to the official story.

  1. The collapse of the twin towers was too perfect: they both descended "at free fall speed" directly into the buildings' own footprints, something that could only have occurred by way of a controlled detonation. Therefore, the planes were flown into the building and then the buildings were brought down from without.

  2. It is implausible that there was not an immediate and overwhelming air force presence in the skies about New York and Washington the moment the hijackings became known. The lack of fighter planes in the air suggests that they were ordered to stand down, or never scrambled to begin with.

  3. The damage at the Pentagon was too minimal to have been caused by a jumbo jet, and photographs taken immediately afterward show no debris from a destroyed airplane. The damage must have been caused from explosives set off internally, or by a missile fired from a military plane.

  4. Cell phones lose service once airplanes are above a few thousand feet in the air. However, the timeline of events on 9/11 has been established in part by phone calls made by passengers and crew from the hijacked airplanes, some from cell phones, some from the in-air phones passengers can buy time on. This suggests that the calls were staged by actors using voice alteration software to fool family members into thinking they were speaking with their loved ones.

  5. Building Seven at the WTC site also collapsed, some six hours or so after the north and south towers came down, ostensibly because it had caught fire from the initial destruction. The spontaneous collapse of a 47-story building seems unlikely simply because of fire damage; ergo, it too was brought down by planned, controlled explosions.

That covers the gist of it. There are numerous iterations of these issues, but they tend to be variations on these five themes. Like all good conspiracy theorists, the Truthers subject film and photography from the day to minute analysis, picking out whatever grainy screen captures appear to support their claims. Again to quote Hofstadter, "The plausibility of the paranoid style has for those who find it plausible lies, in good measure, in this appearance of the most careful, conscientious, and seemingly coherent application to detail, the laborious accumulation of what can be taken as convincing evidence for the most fantastic conclusions, the careful preparation for the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable."

To put it another way, nobody fetishizes documentation and scholarship like a conspiracist.

Whatever the technical and mechanical issues raised by the Truthers, I am myself not an architect or engineer and not, by any means, qualified to debunk them. Fortunately, many other people are, and Popular Mechanics devoted a special issue to that very topic. I will leave that wrangling to the experts, and content myself with observing that, to the best of my knowledge, there have been no technical objections by Truthers that have not been answered.

Which always brings me back to what I think is the key question: why? Why would the Bush Administration, or rogue elements within it (depending on whose theory you listen to) cold-bloodedly murder some three thousand of their own citizens in order to gain political capital to pursue their domestic and foreign policy objectives? It's not that I don't think there are those in American corridors of power ruthless and sociopathic enough to sacrifice American lives for a strategic objective (just go back and read the Cold War arguments rationalizing an American nuclear first strike on the U.S.S.R.), but for something ostensibly minutely stage-managed from the start, 9/11 was a pretty sloppy operation. So to ask the question a different way, why do it the way they supposedly did?

This is where my old friend William of Ockham comes in for me. The fourteenth-century English logician gave us the commonsensical logical rule we now call "Ockham's Razor," which basically states that in choosing between two explanations for something, the simplest one is most frequently the answer. Well, that's the colloquial phrasing: Ockham gave us pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate ("plurality should not be posited without necessity"), or, conversely, entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem ("entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity"). But the bottom line is that when you find yourself constantly adding new assumptions to a theory, you're probably in the logical weeds and should start over.

This is why I believe that if, in the final estimation, Bush et al bear any culpability for 9/11, it lies on their inaction with available intelligence. Were there indications of an impending attack? Yes—we now definitively know this. Did they not act on it? They did not. Was there a deliberate choice to allow 9/11 to happen? If so, we may never know. I rather think not.

But stage-managing a faux terrorist attack from the ground up in a massive plot that involved planting vast amounts of explosives in the WTC and Pentagon and staging phone calls from passengers and crew, all without any word of it ever leaking? One theory claims that the original airplanes were secretly landed, and their passengers and crew loaded on to United 93, which was then deliberately crashed to kill the witnesses. One theory claims the Pentagon was struck not by a plane, but a missile; another says a truck bomb; another, that the explosion came from within the Pentagon.

And why? Well, here the theorists tend to be in agreement: so the Bush Administration could carry out a domestic and foreign policy agenda that ratcheted back civil rights at home and invade Afghanistan and Iraq abroad. Though here, again, Ockham's razor comes into play on several fronts. And it can answer each of the five main Truther arguments enumerated above.

  1. Those arguing that the WTC was brought down by a controlled series of demolition charges have to claim that the explosives—which would have had to have been set on most, if not all of the floors—were snuck in beforehand and affixed to the main structural support beams. Even on weekends, the World Trade Center was a beehive of activity. How feasible is it for that many charges to have been set without it being noticed? Even if it didn't pass as suspicious behaviour at the time, would none of the thousands of workers who survived the attacks have thought to mention it afterward?

  2. The idea that the U.S. military can react in seconds to any threat is, in the words of the editor of Popular Mechanics, "the myth of hyper-competence." Transcripts from the day recording conversations between air-traffic controllers, municipal and civil authorities, NORAD, and the host of others trying to get a grip on what was happening reflect utter chaos. (For one of the best breakdowns of the day's timeline, and a thorough debunking of the military's ability to respond instantaneously, see Elaine Scarry's essay "Citizenship in Emergency"). No-one knew what was going on, and the number of planes in the air was in the thousands; at best, they knew there was a hijacking, which until 9/11 always meant the plane would land somewhere and exchange hostages for demands. It was only when the second tower was hit that everything became clear.

  3. For this one, all I can ask is: why fly planes into the WTC, and then pretend to fly one into the Pentagon?

  4. To be fair, the cell phones objection is the only one that really gives me pause; but then, the alternative of employing voice actors with sophisticated software to mimic passengers and crew to loved ones—which would have entailed a significant amount of intelligence gathering and profiling beforehand so as it pick up on their conversational tics and habits, to say nothing of knowing well in advance that they would be flying—is really one of the more absurd things suggested by Truthers.

  5. Why demolish Building seven 6-7 hours after the main event? Hypothetically granting the Truther thesis, you've just carried out the most spectacular destruction of an American landmark ever. What was to be gained bringing down a much smaller building as an afterthought?

There are two assumptions made by the Truther theses that Ockham more or less puts paid to. One is the myth of hyper-competence, which is a phrase I like so much I am hereby appropriating for my own uses. We've really become so indoctrinated by way of popular culture with the idea that the American military is uniformly elite, that lines of communication are instantaneous and infallible, and that government agencies can field well nigh omnipotent and omniscient responses to crises that when incompetence or simple confusion is manifest, the suspicion that it must somehow be deliberate is hard to avoid. We can well imagine the 24 response to 9/11: instant satellite images of the hijacked planes, running commentary from terrified passengers as Jack Bauer talks them through response measures, and a veritable armada of fighter jets surrounding the terrorists. It's discomforting to know that the sheer number of people involved at all levels creates a communicational Gordian knot.

On top of all that, we now have eight years of evidence for just how incompetent the Bush Administration was. If there was a single event that, to my mind, disproves the Truther theses, it was the response to Hurricane Katrina.

The other assumption is the main motive—that the Bush Administration staged 9/11, killing thousands of Americans in the process, in order to justify an invasion of Iraq. Here's the main problem here: 9/11 did not justify an invasion of Iraq. We know now that Cheney and Rumsfeld were already talking about taking out Saddam on Sept. 12th, but there was a long and torturous (and, alas, altogether too successful), propaganda campaign necessary to make Iraq a target. The Bush Administration, or at least its most militant neocon elements, had no interest in Afghanistan; but Afghanistan had to come first, militarily, because its involvement with al-Qaeda and 9/11 was inescapable.

Now, if you were orchestrating a faux terrorist attack to justify invading Iraq, would you not make a point of manufacturing evidence that explicitly implicated Saddam Hussein? Would you not leave a trail of breadcrumbs so blatant that your entire country would rise up with one voice demanding his blood—much as it did for Osama bin Laden's?

Finally, the nature of the attacks as a whole bespeak not a group of conspirators with an understanding of the American society of the spectacle, but a group of conspirators who wish to make symbolic attacks and devise a plan with a series of redundancies built into it. To phrase it another way: when we think of 9/11, we think of (1) the planes hitting the towers, (2) the towers aflame, and (3) the towers coming down. These are the iconic images. The saga of United 93 enters the picture as a narrative of heroism and resistance, but lacks the images of the burning towers. The attack on the Pentagon—and I do not mean to diminish the suffering and deaths that occurred there—has become something of an afterthought in the mythos of the day. If we ascribe to the nebulous American plotters the kind of hyper-competence conspiracy theory always bestows on its bad guys, the attacks becomes sloppy and excessive, with everything but the main target of the twin towers becoming more or less extraneous. The destruction of the WTC as a traumatic spectacle in part because it had been imagined many times before in dozens of disaster films—it was a Hollywood nightmare made flesh, something American conspirators would have known. Why bother with anything else?

In the end, my beef with Trutherism is not the challenging of the public record, which is something that needs to be done constantly, but the hamfisted and paranoid way in which they do it. Toward the end of The Fifth Estate, they showed an interview with actor Daniel Sunjata from the show Rescue Me. He plays a Truther on the show, and in researching the role became convinced by what he read. In the interview he asks "What's the price of not asking these questions? What's the price of just accepting what we've been told?"

My answer to that is that it is the same price conspiracists always pay: in the desperation to project a seamless and cohesive order on a very messy reality, the nuances of that reality get lost, and the important questions don't get asked.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Big Love, ctd—The Alien connection

As mentioned yesterday, the evil Mormon patriarch on Big Love is played brilliantly by the incomparable Harry Dean Stanton. I looked Stanton up on to remind myself of what else he's been in, and could have kicked myself to have forgotten that he was in one of my most favouritest movies ever—Ridley Scott's tour de force Alien. He played Brett, the unfortunate technician who is the first to be killed by the fully grown alien in what remains one of the most terrifying sequences I have ever seen.
That I had forgotten Stanton's star turn as alien food is odd considering that my seamless enjoyment of Big Love is occasionally disrupted by the unbidden but rather insistent memory of Bill Paxton's role in the James Cameron sequel Aliens—a film that, Avatar be damned, remains the best thing the action-film king has ever made.

Paxton's most memorable moment in Aliens comes when his gung-ho marine suddenly freaks out and very nearly loses his mind for a few minutes ...

Whenever his all-American polygamist in Big Love is faced with a problem, part of me (a rather large part, actually) really wants him to start hysterically shouting "Game over, man!"

Now, if they can just convince Sigourney Weaver to guest star for a few episodes ...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Family dramas

So as I mentioned in my return-from-the-dead post yesterday, I've been watching Big Love. While it was a bit of a slow start, I'm quite impressed with the series. It isn't as good as the other HBO flagship series like The Wire or Deadwood, but it is totally worth watching. For the unfamiliar with the premise, Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is a dedicated father and husband who has lived the American dream, rising from dirt poor origins to become an entrepreneurial success, owning two big-box hardware stores large enough to compete with Home Depot. He is earnest, honest, handsome and everyone's stereotypical image of the all-American dad.

Also, he's a polygamist.

That much, I'm sure everyone has gleaned from the show's publicity: Bill is married to Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nikki (Chloë Sevigny), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), with whom he has seven children and one more (at the end of season one) on the way. The three wives each have their own house, which all share a common backyard. Bill divides his nights between them, and they all eat meals as one family.

The brilliance of Big Love is the way in which it builds our sympathy for Bill and his family, and establishes the anti-polygamist Mormons as bigoted and narrow-minded. Bill and Barb et al live modern lives in beautiful homes with all the amenities of the twenty-first century, lives set in contradistinction to the Mormon fundamentalist polygamist community headed by patriarch and "prophet" Roman Grant, played with chilling sleaze by the ever-amazing Harry Dean Stanton. The traditionalists live veritable premodern lives on the "Compound," a dusty and ramshackle sprawl set well apart from the Utah suburbs Bill inhabits.

The creepy, cultish fundamentalists, from whom Bill can never entirely disassociate himself (second wife Nikki is Roman's daughter), provide an ever-present reminder of the inescapably misogynistic and exploitative nature of polygamy. When we first meet Roman, he has just affianced himself to his umpteenth wife Rhonda, a fifteen-year old who seems serenely blissful at the prospect of marrying the septuagenarian "prophet." That Roman takes it as his god-given due to exploit Rhonda's obvious youth and naïvety makes the skin crawl, but then we also realize that Margene, Bill's youngest wife, is little more than a teenager herself, and is as slavishly devoted to Bill as the women of the Compound are to Roman and the principle of plural marriage.

At any rate, I've watched season one and am into season two. In my general sketch for a book about HBO, I have a chapter titled "Family Dramas," and vague notes about focussing the chapter on The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Big Love. As is the nature of such outlines, I had little idea what I wanted to write when I jotted it down—but it seemed appropriate to talk at some length about those series and their subversion of the American nuclear family mythos.

One season into Big Love, I'm starting to get some traction, though I'm a ways off from putting together anything of substance. The starting point I'm currently working from is the way in which television has influenced and indeed facilitated the popular conception of the nuclear family. Though American conservatives tend to root many of their arguments against such bêtes noir as gay marriage in their assumption of the nuclear family's innate naturalness, it is in fact a relatively recent concept. The "nuclear family" became a normative concept during the early years of the Cold War, concomitant with the growth of suburbia and television's rise to prominence as the primary medium of entertainment (a rise itself facilitated by a newly affluent white collar suburban middle class, who bought television sets at an exponential rate in the mid-late 1950s).

So without belabouring my point (which is itself admittedly somewhat speculative until I manage do some proper research on it), our popular conceptions of "family" owe as much to television as anything else. And HBO's family dramas offer trenchant critiques of blah blah blah, etc.

ANYWAY ... that being said, what I'm finding interesting right now is that the genre of "family drama" is actually quite rare on television. There really haven't been all that many. Seriously—think about it for a moment and try to come up with a list of one-hour dramas that have focused primarily on one or more families. It's a more difficult question that you would initially think, isn't it?

Now take a moment and list all of the television comedies about family you can think of. Ah, there we are! Perhaps the question should be to try thinking of all the sitcoms not about family in one fashion or another. Even when they're not focused on biological families per se, sitcoms are almost invariably about families of different stripes—be they the friendships of Friends, the barflies of Cheers, or the workplace families of a host of other shows.

So here's my two-part question to my small but devoted readership: (1) What one-hour family dramas can you think of? (2) What gives? Why is comedy the primary medium for investigating family relationships?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Not dead ...

... just otherwise occupied and generally struggling with some malware that screws with Blogger and Firefox. Argh.

Also, World Cup. After England's PATHETIC showing (though better than France, which, really, is all the inner Anglo in me demands), I adopted my lovely girlfriend's Dutch heritage and started rooting for the Netherlands. I even bought an orange shirt with "NEDERLAND" on it in Gothic script.

And then ... well, everyone saw the final. <sob>.

But now I'm back, and the summer is flying by with little consideration for everything I had planned to be getting done. As my friend and guru Tigger is fond of saying, time flies like an arrow ... fruit flies like a banana.

No, I've never really understood that either.

BUT: malware or no, I will soon finish the vampire cage matches, and I have topics for many gripping blog posts queuing up. Soon to come:

  1. Angel vs. Spike! Yes, it will happen soon.
  2. I have finally been watching Big Love—finished season one, about to start season two. Some blog posts on polygamous Mormonism to come.
  3. The sequel to the long-ago post on reality TV.
  4. MAYBE a weekly, or biweekly, or monthly poetry post—picking a poem at random and picking it apart, perhaps in conjunction with my fall section of English 1080.
  5. Glenn Beck has started his own online university. Seriously.
  6. This Friday is the ten-year anniversary party for the Richard III I directed way back when. Perhaps I will post pictures.

So there you have it. More anon.