Zero Dark Thirty: What was the question?

The film Zero Dark Thirty, a docu-drama about the search for and killing of Osama bin Ladin, has been met with a maelstrom of controversy. Hovering primarily around charges that the film promotes the use of torture, many critics feel Zero Dark Thirty shows that information gained from people Americans tortured contributed to identifying the location of Osama bin Ladin. These critics—ranging from senators and activists to journalists and movie stars—seem incensed by this possibility, insisting that torture has been proven ineffective, particularly in the bin Ladin case, and that by suggesting it was the filmmakers are “apologists for evil.” But doesn’t such criticism imply that if torture works, it is acceptable?

A more pointed question may have been lost among the pitchforks.

Is torture a crime?

Maybe information from America’s torture victims did help find bin Ladin. Perhaps torture is the most effective interrogation technique ever. Or maybe it’s not only ineffective, but counterproductive. Who cares? Debating the efficacy of torture is a red herring—something that draws attention away from the central issue: Torture is an unconscionable crime, and the United States should not do it. But we did.

I watched Zero Dark Thirty before reading any criticism. Here’s what I saw: a compelling reminder that after the World Trade Center attacks, our government instituted and engaged in unconstitutional activities and international war crimes. The main characters —the fictional ones and those representing real people such as then-CIA director Leon Panetta—are depicted as ordinary human beings doing their jobs day after day, which meant in some cases carrying out unconstitutional activities and international war crimes. At times, simultaneously, that meant staying focused on the mission when the official parameters of allowable action constantly shifted, along with the level of public concern about these actions and, indeed, about the mission itself.

This is an ugly and shameful time in the culture of our country’s approach to national security. Many critics assert that this film glorifies the improprieties, not just rationalizing and excusing them but promoting them. Is Zero Dark Thirty, then, a mirror or an advertisement? To me, the film reflects the shameful acts, forcing the audience to face some of what happened during this period (whether remembering or learning for the first time). As Caroline Frost put it, “Torture happened, she shows it. It no longer happens, and she showed that too.”

“…I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen,” director Kathryn Bigelow said. Confronted by our disturbing history in Zero Dark Thirty, people of conscience are called to consider what to do when our government commits atrocities in our name.

Drones, anyone?


For a sample of opinions and analyses of Zero Dark Thirty, here are several that represent points along the range:

Glenn Greenwald (The Guardian), Michael Moore, Jane Mayer (The New Yorker), Steve Coll (The New York Review of Books), Caroline Frost (Huffington Post/UK), Ramzi Kassem (Al Jazeera), Roger Ebert, John Mulderig (Catholic News Service), Peter Bergen (CNN), Rich Lowry (National Review), Mark Hughes (Forbes).

For the most intelligent critique that I found putting Zero Dark Thirty in the context of cinematic history, see Niles Schwartz.

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Here Comes the Sun: Field Notes from Election 2012

The meme_ster apologizes for going MIA over the past 48 hours since Barack Obama won the 2012 presidential election. I succumbed to an overwhelming desire to avoid  (and, to be honest, complete inability to assimilate) verbal information in any form but especially tweets, stats, and opinions. I’ve read and heard nearly nothing during this brief period and while I look forward to reading the stack of newspapers in the living room and catching up with Tivoed broadcasts, before I do I’d like to send out a few notes from the field of Election 2012.

  • Hate is not a strategy. Romney enjoyed skewering the Obama ’08 slogan of “hope and change” by saying “hope is not a strategy.” True enough, but the Republican Party might observe that hate is not a strategy either, at least not one that wins elections. They’ve tried it twice and are 0-for-2.
  • Neither is disappointment. Already I’ve glimpsed the tribe of disaffected progressives resume their griping about how they’re quite sure President Obama will continue to fail to buy them a pony—even though they voted for him again! Suggestion: Use this Democratic administration to actually work toward your goal of a world without drones, or pipelines, or climate change or banksters or plutocracy or income inequality. I know you think you do, and some of you really do, but take a moment to quantify how much time you spend dwelling on your personal disappointment compared to hard-core persistent organizing to make change. Don’t agonize. Organize.
  • Bill Clinton is not a hero. He owes us.
  • James Carter IV is a hero. Period.
  • Billionaires are low-information voters. Who knew? The handful of one per-centers who threw their money down a rat hole believed what the Republican operatives told them, and apparently didn’t do a background check or educate themselves. Now they feel had. Suggestion: Bookmark 538. (That’ll be $34M, please.)
  • Note to Karl Rove: You’re laughing all the way to the bank, I know, but don’t count on unlimited cash in the next cycle. You jumped the shark in full view.
  • If it helps, think of math as a philosophy, not a science. Or an art form. Whatever the case, remember that 2 + 2 = victory, and accept the excruciating calculation that there will never again be enough angry white men for a party built on white supremacy and race hate to prevail in the US. Ease into it by practicing with this math problem: If there are more poor people than rich people, and the poor people vote, who wins the election? By responding to this calculus with wide-spread voter suppression efforts, the Republicans have demonstrated such contempt for the electorate and for the democratic system, their rehabilitation will be challenging. But America loves a comeback story, so go forth and suck up to the “minorities” that control the future. Start here: “I once was lost but now I’m found,” etc. etc., you know, the amazing grace angle.
  • There is no Republican Party. I’ve heard the term “conservative movement” picking up steam already, as if there is a Republican Party with more than conservatives in it. Not true. There is only the Conservative Party. Claim it, flaunt it, and do what you can with it, but don’t perpetrate the fraud of a party with a range of views. The progressive, liberal, and moderate Republicans have all been purged from the party. They’re all Democrats now, and believe me, we know we’re stuck with them. The Conservative Party ranges from Joe Scarborough on the left to Todd Akin on the right. (You know when Joe Scarborough is considered Republican-in-name-only [RINO], there is no “left” left in the party.) If someone thinks differently, start the reel of the Republican primary debates. Evolution, anyone?
  • Your conservative cred depends on how much you hate Obama. Don’t look at me, that’s what Joe Scarborough said “the morning after.” (See above: Hate is not a strategy.)
  • Note to Tom Udall: Filibuster reform was a brilliant idea.
  • Note to Harry Reid: Do what Tom Udall says.
  • Community organizing rocks the vote. Resistance to turnout is futile.

Time for my nap now.

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How Do I Suppress Thy Vote? Let Me Count the Ways

Mid-way through Election Day 2012, my thoughts turn to voter suppression. The obvious ways the democracy-haters employ have been on public display for several years, as Republican-controlled state legislatures rubber-stamped ALEC-conceived voting restriction laws (such as needing to present identification) and Republican secretaries of state delicately crafted voting schedules to provide likely Republican voters with disproportionate access—reducing early vote, reducing hours, reducing polling locations for voters likely to vote Democratic. Some of these overt methods have been successfully challenged in the courts, but on election day, voter suppression takes to the shadows and skulks around trying to avoid detection.

Here are some examples of the sneaky version of voter suppression:

  • polling places with an inadequate number voting machines to accommodate the turn-out
  • presiding judges and/or poll workers who misinform and/or mislead voters about requirements (asking for identification or specific forms of identification)
  • poll watchers working for biased organizations whose intention is to dissuade or intimidate voters
  • billboards announcing “Voter Fraud is a Felony” erected in likely-Democratic precincts
  • electronic voting machines with uncertified patches rigged to misrecord or miscount the votes
  • mobile “convenience” vans claiming to be collecting absentee ballots and delivering to the proper authorities (and trashing them instead)
  • distributing misinformation about the voters’ polling location
  • making it so time-consuming to vote, that people give up (they have jobs, or kids, or physical issues that make standing in line for 2 or more hours impossible)

And I could go on, but these are the first that come to mind, and incidents of all have crossed my desktop screen in the first six hours of voting today.

Which is not to bum anyone out (“Keep Calm and Trust Nate Silver,” dontcha know?) but rather to say stay alert and notice that virtually none of these efforts are being perpetrated by Democrats.

Remember what conservative ideologue Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation said in 1980:

“Now many of our Christians have what I call the ‘goo-goo syndrome.’ Good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

What we are seeing with widespread voter suppression across the nation is the implementation of a long-range strategy: Republicans know they cannot win an election by legitimate means on the merits of their policies. They can only buy  it or steal it.

Who would have thought we’d be facing a time in this country that makes the Jim Crow years seem quaint?

But this is also a fact: Resistance to turnout is futile.

Stay in line, for democracy’s sake.

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Our Not-Quite-White-Enough President

On Election Eve 2008, the world held its collective breath wondering how people in the United States would react to a black president. Riots? Burning crosses? Mass exodus? Assassination? Four years later, we know the answer. For the most part, the white supremacy undergirding the classic American identity seemed to sit in stunned silence for a few days, then settled into a simmering anger marked by frequent outbursts of frustration and fear. But in those first quiet days, we also know now, Republicans decided on a strategy to reclaim the presidency by sabotaging the new administration (and sacrificing the common good). On Election Eve 2012, it seems likely they will fail.

The Sunday news shows gave us a glimpse into the Republican Party’s state of mind. Confronted with what appears likely to be a decisive win in the electoral college by President Obama, various pundits, strategists, and analysts put forward an amazing perspective: that because such a victory was dependent upon “non-whites and women” it would be, apparently, somehow lacking.

From the website Politico came this astonishing statement: “If President Barack Obama wins, he will be the popular choice of Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites. That’s what the polling has consistently shown in the final days of the campaign. It looks more likely than not that he will lose independents, and it’s possible he will get a lower percentage of white voters than George W. Bush got of Hispanic voters in 2000. A broad mandate this is not.” (Pondering the meaning of “broad” and “mandate,” one wonders how Politico will characterize Mitt Romney’s portion of the electorate, if he prevails. “Broad whitemandate,” perhaps?) Yes, at least for Politico, apparently only white people put the “broad” in “mandate.” Republican Senator from South Carolina Lindsay Graham put it this way, however: “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long haul.”

Since Barack Obama was elected, it has been my contention that his meteoric rise took the White Party—oh, sorry, I mean the Republican Party—by surprise. The Republicans were totally prepared to run against Hillary Clinton (not so much a woman as a Clinton) and they were ready to disguise their misogyny with a campaign that vowed to protect us from the evils of a balanced budget, scary surpluses, and a booming economy—otherwise known as the first woman president. When candidate Obama defeated the Clinton machine and inspired enthusiasm unseen in presidential politics in generations, however, the Republicans didn’t know quite what to do with their racism.

They figured it out, of course, and we’ve been treated in the past four years to many splendidly creative expressions of white supremacy. More graceful perpetrators developed a sudden urgent obsessive concern with the deficit! the deficit! after eight years of running that same deficit up, for instance, without a peep of dismay. At the other end of the racist extreme were those who developed a sudden urgent obsessive concern with whether Obama was born in the United States, an issue that to my knowledge has never before come up in presidential elections. And then there was the smorgasbord of supposed anxieties about liberalism, socialism, communism, Europe, Muslims, Kenya, immigrants, community organizing, voting, and many more anything-but-black reasons. At times, I’ve felt some would be permanently consigned to the chiropractor’s office for twisting themselves into pretzels again and again to find any objection to Obama, save the fact that he’s black.

Or at least, half-black.

Yes, now, this is something to ponder, isn’t it?  Because in fact, Barack Obama is half white, and half black. One white parent, one black parent, even-steven. But as with the “one-drop rule” that in years past legally defined Americans as black if they had a single drop of “black blood,” our president is not quite white enough for today’s Republican Party. And this fact exposes their pathetic and obvious white supremacy, a term far more accurate than racism.

At a time of great peril, the Republican Party, including their supporters and corporate backers, have sacrificed the common good of our country on the altar of their white skin privilege. They have refused to legislate, to problem-solve, to do the job they were elected to do. They have deflected, projected, and obfuscated. They will say it is anything but race, but history and arithmetic blow their cover. No matter what they say, there is no logical reason for their obstructionism, save protecting institutionalized white supremacy.

Is the ruse wearing thin? Ask Chris Christie.

[Extra credit: The Moral High Ground.]

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Appeaser-in-Chief: Mr. Fix-It Goes to Washington

A new survey released today that’s getting a lot of play posed this question: “Regardless of whom you may support, who do you trust to do a better job of breaking the gridlock in Washington?” The result was that likely voters split 47% Romney to 37% Obama. So likely voters feel more confident that Mr. Fix-It can “break the gridlock.” Why do you suppose that is? Morning Tweets commenting on the survey admonished us to “Defeat Obama. End Gridlock,”  and “A vote for Obama is a vote for more gridlock.” Why is getting rid of Obama the solution for gridlock in Congress? Let’s ponder.

Imagine for a moment that Mitt Romney is elected next week, along with a Republican House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate as seems likely. With Obama out of the equation, this is still “divided government.” The Senate, controlled by Democrats, would continue to have the power to block whatever legislation the House, controlled by Republicans, passes. So why would a goodly majority of likely voters apparently view Romney as more likely to “do a better job of breaking the gridlock in Washington”?

The meme_ster has found one path to that conclusion, and it goes like this:

  • Republicans in the House and Senate have pursued a desperate and party-centric strategy over the past 4 years: If no problems get solved during the Obama administration, then voters will perceive Obama as a failure, and this will make voters more likely to prefer Republicans and thus return them to power in the White House and Senate.
  • To implement this strategy, Republicans in the House and Senate felt it more important to make sure no problems were solved during the Obama administration than to pass legislation to solve those problems (even, ironically, if Republicans were perceived as having solved the problems).
  • However if Mitt Romney is elected, the Republicans in the House and Senate will become interested in solving problems again, or so one hopes.
  • And (this is key) Democrats in the House and Senate will believe it is more important to solve problems than to sabotage a Romney administration.
  • Therefore, it is logical to assume that Romney would “do a better job of breaking the gridlock.” However, rational people can see the locus of power is with the perpetrators of the “gridlock” [a.k.a. obstruction], not with the president, whoever he might be. A more accurate slogan would be: “Defeat Republicans. End Gridlock.”

[Paul Krugman has a fascinating take on this question in his take-no-prisoners 11/2/12 column “The Blackmail Caucus,” in which he says, “The argument is phrased in terms of ‘partisan gridlock,’ as if both parties were equally extreme. But they aren’t. This is, in reality, all about appeasing the hard men of the Republican Party.” I updated the title of this post in Krugman’s honor.]

We might test this theory against Mr. Fix-it’s record as governor of Massachusetts, where he likes to remind us he worked in a bipartisan way with legislators who were “89 percent Democrats.” I’ve always thought that was amusing, because in general Democrats are willing to compromise in order to advance the common good. No proof of bipartisan prowess on behalf of the governor there, just legislators who are willing to do their job.

We can only imagine in our wildest dreams what problems might have been solved during the first Obama administration if the Republicans had been willing to do their job.

Did I mention Mitt Romney is white?

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How To Stop Worrying and Love the Polls

Two weeks to go, the polls are a freak zone, yet I can’t resist checking them. When one looks good for my candidate, I feel great. When one looks bad, I spiral into the vortex of anxiety, then plunge into the cross tabs to ferret out anything that will foster optimism. Failing that, I study the set-up for reasons the sample could be biased. Omfg, I sound like a Fox News host. But I’ve discovered a few principles for poll-tracking that are helping me stay sane while keeping an eye on the numbers.

1. Disregard national polls. That is, a poll that uses a sample from people all over the US is really not telling me anything I need to know. Why? Ultimately, as veterans of the bruising 2000 presidential contest results may recall, the election is not decided by the popular vote, but by the Electoral College. Yes, that means someone who has not received the most votes can win the presidency (I’m talking to you, George W. Bush). Thus:

2. Check how many electoral college votes your candidate has in the bag, calculate how many he or she needs, and then track polls in battleground state polls only. Such a relief!

3. Remember that pollsters have their own biases. Some are conservative, some are liberal, some are paid by interested parties. The main thing to remember is that polls, like politicians, have their own point of view, no matter what they claim.

4. Notice the dates the polls were conducted to see whether certain events had transpired (debates, gaffes, etc.).

5. Did you know every pollster has their own definition of “likely voter”? Yup. So if the poll is of “registered voters,” it’s a little less squidgy, in my opinion, though it’s interesting to dig into weeds and find out how the “likely” voters were selected.

6. When getting poll news from pundits and cable hosts, always remember their ratings depend on maintaining a “horserace” narrative: if it’s not depicted as “neck-and-neck” they think people will stop watching. Thus astute viewers will notice that sometimes a one point gain will be described as a “surge,” while a five-point difference described as a “hanging on to his slim lead.” Just depends on what stokes the horserace fable. In a great piece recently, Matt Taibbi suggested it should be illegal to publish poll numbers—for one thing, he said, it would “force the media to actually cover the issues.” Something to think about, along with his other splendid idea to limit the campaign to six weeks.

7. Keep in mind that one reason tracking the polls is so nerve-wracking and seemingly volatile this year is that, as with following the legislative process during health care for instance, our ever-more-real-time communication technology means we are privy to moment-by-moment changes in ways we have never been exposed to before. I’m not sure this is useful.

8. There’s polling and then there’s voting. Answering a poll does not ascertain or insure that the respondent will vote, or has voted.

9. Only votes count, so take a looooooog break from poll tracking and make some phone calls or knock some doors. At this stage of the race, polls mean nothing. The GOTV (Get Out The Vote) ground game means everything.

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Now What? A Post-Debate Pop Quiz for Progressives

What does it take to motivate disaffected progressives to engage in the democratic process in addition to whining about their disappointment in not getting a pony, especially when they get a pony? The president performed exceedingly well tonight in the second debate—I mean, how many people get busted by a fact-check on live teevee, after your opponent says “Please proceed”? Delicious. Still, the jury’s out if the myriad Dems and Progressives and Occupiers who have been so put out over the past two weeks will first make sure they themselves vote, and then volunteer for a few hours over the next 20 days to work for a Democratic victory on November 6th. Because we will have to work for it.

I am sure of one thing: the Republican/Conservative/tea partiers/Koch-heads will not rest until they have stolen, bought, or turned out all their voters while simultaneously suppressing ours. They see themselves as committed to a movement, while most progressives are lost in a fantasy bond with a non-existent wizard. If he doesn’t produce the pony every time, many progressives and Democrats take their little balls and go home—in fact, even when they get the pony, they take their little balls home. [Pause while I brace myself for flashbacks of the 2010 midterms. ] Unlike rightwing warriors, who work relentlessly regardless of whether their candidate wins or loses, Democrats and progressives elect and then abandon, ceding the practice of democracy to their elected officials, yet reserving the right to complain about how those mean old Republicans took over their state legislature or the House of Representatives, and now have the nerve to require vaginal probe sonograms or to deny birth control, for instance, or dismantle unions, or impose impossible restrictions on the voting process. How dare they?

But I digress.

What I’m looking for here are some couple o’ dozen energetic fired up canvassers in every precinct of every district of every state who will walk through their cities and towns and neighborhoods knocking on the doors of Democrats who need a little nudge to make the effort to vote. Canvassing is the essence of democracy: one person talking to another person about the importance of making your voice heard. And when you walk for the Obama campaign, you know you’ve got the most sophisticated Get Out The Vote organization in our country’s history behind you. They make it easy, much easier than facing down the Rombot for 90 minutes on live teevee.

Feeling better, my little progressives? What now? Please go by your local Obama campaign HQ and tell them you have the president’s back, then sign up for a few shifts.

Or how about 90 minutes? A little democracy goes a long way.

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