Saturday, September 25, 2004

On Iraq

John Derbyshire, the resident paleocon at National Review has written a "goodbye" speech for President Bush to give to the people of Iraq. Here's a speech I wish Bush could give -- perhaps, for a start, to his own Cabinet.

My fellow Americans:

Lately liberals and conservatives alike have stated that we can't ask or expect the reconstructed Iraq to become a democracy. The reasons, they claim, are manifold: A democratic impulse simply isn't present in Islamic culture; it would be presumptuous for us to "impose" our democratic values on a fundamentally undemocratic people; we must be contented with a benevolent dictatorship; and so forth. In one respect, at least, they may be right. People who live in direct democracies have a sad habit of voting away their civil and human rights, often out of mere anger or spite. Such a democracy in Iraq might easily yield to the forces of despotism and theocracy, in which case the current conflict would become the disaster that my critics have claimed it was all along.

What we must insist on, is a free-market capitalist republic, guaranteeing individual liberty under the rule of law. This is not merely a desirable or preferable outcome. It's essential for a reconstructed Iraq. War has always been less profitable, and less popular, than self-defense -- which explains why republics usually don't wage war unless provoked, and why capitalists are seldom interested in destroying things or people. But despotisms, especially theocratic ones, could not care less about profits, and they need never listen to their serflike subjects. They need ceaseless warfare to perpetuate their oppressive regimes, and they almost always find a way to get what they need. For an entire decade, Iran and Iraq fought each other as their rulers slowly tightened the reins, or the noose, of power. And the never-ending jihad that Middle Eastern sultanates and sheikhdoms continue to wage against Israel, distracts their peoples' attention from social and economic hardships which invariably stem from absolute rule. Why would these leaders discuss governmental corruption and mismanagement, when they can blame their countries' problems on the Jews?

Friedrich Hayek and George Orwell explained this phenomenon better than I can. For now, we have a hard road ahead in Iraq. If we take a hands-off approach, and allow the country to become a theocratic dictatorship, as some say we should, the Middle East will be even worse off -- less secure, and more hostile -- than if we had permitted Hussein to remain in power in the first place. If America's policy toward Iraq should succumb to what, in a different context, I have called "the soft bigotry of low expectations," we will find that even though we cast out one demon, several others have taken his place.

This administration shall not renege on America's obligations to Iraq, and we will do everything in our power to see that it develops into a truly free country. Good night, and God bless.

Update (9/26): A loyal reader and "proud leftist" responded to this post, and now I'll respond in turn.

Tim, Bush can never give this speech. Let's ignore that he's way in bed with the Saudis. There's just too much in that speech that he's been doing himself. People "voting away their civil rights out of anger or spite"? Shit, Tim, that's just like the Patriot Act. And you're queer, you know what's going down with Bush and gays is just like what Hitler did to Jews. Bush is putting religion into government just like they did in Iran.

Well, any resemblance between Bush and Hitler is, as they say, "coincidentile." Still, I think my reader may be on to something. Many so-called conservatives in the US don't believe in individual liberty anymore. Instead, they subscribe to a curious admixture of multiculturalism and authoritarianism, and use the one to reinforce the other. America, they claim, is "a Christian nation" -- or at least certain regions of it are -- and it's in keeping with "Christian culture" to make and enforce laws that discriminate openly against certain groups of people who happen to exist outside the Christian pale. Right now, their targets are pretty much limited to Gays and Lesbians, but there's no reason (aside from constitutionality, which is far less of a barrier than it used to be) that it couldn't expand further. It is, after all, our "culture" -- and you, auslander, have no right to question it.

Naturally, these people claim, Iraq's Islamic culture will mandate second-class citizenship (or no citizenship at all) for women. It shouldn't be condemned if it refuses to tolerate religious or ethnic diversity in its government, or if it eventually decides (in accordance with its religion) to impose the death penalty on homosexuals. After all, we are told, Iraq can't be expected to share Western values -- and increasingly, it would seem, neither can we. Some religious-right "theocons" seem to admire Middle Eastern regimes, in the vaguely Orientalist sense that fetishizes "The Other" as somehow possessing a simple solution to all the problems we have here at home. True, the mullahs "over there" rape nine-year-old girls, and hang sixteen-year-old women for speaking too freely. But at least these societies haven't lost all semblance of morality and decency; indeed, if Chuck Colson is to be believed (and he never is), their sense of morality is so superior to our own, that they may eventually triumph over America's immorality and "decadence."

Of course, one could argue that a society which condones the rape of young children is about as immoral and decadent as it gets. But such quibbles escape not only Colson, but most of the "evangelical right" that Bush is courting this election year. Perhaps, reason America's "theocons," Iraqis would be better off with an autocratic ruler who can preserve order and morality, instead of a republican secularism where, it seems, almost anything goes. Dictatorship and theocracy are, after all, "in their culture."

Left-liberal arguments against a democratic republic in Iraq are, for the most part, boilerplate multiculturalism, a way of thinking that lost its intellectual viability when the Twin Towers fell. The conservative arguments against it cut deeper, I think, and ask whether democratic republics are, in fact, A Good Thing. This raises a few unsettling questions: for example, whether we Americans still believe in the viability of our constitutional government, and whether we know what our government was designed to do. So if we do allow Iraq to succumb to theocracy, I'm afraid it will signal a far deeper failure, among Americans, to appreciate our own system of government.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

DVD Watch: A New Hope for American Cinema

Today is the release date for a long-awaited, long-delayed DVD box set, devoted to the work of a director who, in his time, represented a new hope for American cinema. The films themselves have been lovingly restored, and the extras are both copious and informative.

Granted, the package has a few shortcomings: The documentary on the final disc of this set is about an hour too long, and is perhaps too fawning toward its subject. And the first film in the set represents a missed opportunity, since the original cut was omitted in favor of a later, revised (and partially reshot) "director's edition."

But on the whole, the John Cassavetes box set from Criterion merits at least a rental. It contains his debut film Shadows, though not in its original form (which Cassavetes expert Ray Carney claims was grittier and more socially engaged than the revised, reshot version available here). The set also includes his 1968 masterpiece Faces, the Oscar-nominated Woman Under the Influence, both theatrical cuts of Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and the lesser-known Opening Night (which some believe is Cassavetes' most personal work).

The three-and-a-half hour documentary A Constant Forge rounds out the collection. Die-hard fans have renamed this magnum opus "A Constant Forgery" for the way it glosses over the director's darker, self-destructive side. When I saw it at the 2001 Virginia Film Festival, Ray Carney not only attended the screening, but seemed to approve. Now he's its harshest critic. I'm not saying that Carney has changed his mind for some personal reason I can't quite fathom; I'm just saying that if he thought the documentary was lousy back then, I couldn't tell it. But I wasn't impressed at the time: Listening to endless anecdotes about how the great Cassavetes shopped for groceries didn't give me much insight into his creative process, and at the end of the show, I was no better prepared to experience Cassavetes' independent cinema than I was when I began.

For those who haven't seen Cassavetes' films before, they're quite a shock. They're like nothing you've seen before -- and sometimes they're like nothing you want to see. The recent Blair Witch Project imitates the man's quirky "anti-style" as well as any mainstream film can, though that's not saying much. Blair Witch does not, for instance, share Cassavetes' obsessive focus on interpersonal relationships. However, an even more important difference is that Cassavetes' films deceive audiences with the appearance of constant improvisation, while Blair Witch is precisely the improvised, verite-style document it appears to be.

These films are many things, but cinema verite they're not: Cassavetes replaces documentary realism with an emphasis on "performativity," drawn largely from contemporary theater. In Faces, he concentrates so heavily on his actors that technical concerns like cinematography, camerawork and sound design are all but ignored. This is not, as some have speculated, because he didn't know how to make "normal" movies: His studio films from the early 1960s prove that he could make traditional Hollywood fare as well as anyone. But with his "indie" films, he broke all the rules, experimenting with unusual rhythms and visual textures that complemented his unorthodox methods and subject matter.

As is so often the case with great cinematic stylists, what we see (or think we see) in Cassavetes' work is very seldom what we get. His "improvisational" films were always tightly scripted; his seemingly sprawling productions were closely controlled; his apparently unfocused themes were always narrow and definite. Cassavetes' image of artlessness -- or rather, of fundamental human truth, unmediated by cinematic artifice -- is, paradoxically, a product of much carefully cultivated artifice. Thus the director achieves a sort of "anti-style" -- or just possibly, a corrected style (to borrow a term from film scholar Robert Ray), which claims to reflect extra-cinematic reality more accurately than traditional film grammar. The shaky, handheld camera becomes a manifesto of sorts.

His films experiment with genre as well. Beneath the odd stylistic trappings, Woman Under the Influence is the sort of "woman's picture" Douglas Sirk used to make. Opening Night shares the theatrical milieu and several thematic concerns of classic "backstage drama" (of which the best example would be All About Eve). Killing of a Chinese Bookie owes more than a passing debt to the "neo-noir" movement of the 1970s -- though in Cassavetes' hands, the fatalism of classic noir turns into something more freewheeling and less overtly determined. Shadows was his contribution to the "social problem" cinema that Stanley Kramer produced in the late 1950s, even though it ignores or dismisses all the issues Kramer exploited for sensationalistic effect. (Ironically, Cassavetes would film his most important studio project, A Child Is Waiting, under Kramer's aegis.)

Cassavetes' final film, Love Streams, is possibly his most difficult to appreciate, because it carries his corrected "anti-style" and genre-bending audacity to hieratic extremes. Like most of his work, it received little attention from audiences or critics -- and many who saw it condemned it as a self-indulgent mess. Since the film's ownership is currently in dispute, we're not likely to see it on DVD soon. But the Criterion set contains all his other major works, which means that I'll probably hold a special "John Cassavetes festival" in my living room over the next few weeks. I'll probably start with A Woman Under the Influence, just to get reacquainted: Woman contains just enough traditional cinematic grammar to provide the uninitiated viewer with key points of reference, even as it hints at Cassavetes' unique approach to character and performance.

By the way, I'm informed that another heavily anticipated DVD box is in stores today. I'm not sure I remember the title -- something to do with stars, I think ...

Update: A reader notes, "Cassavetes' last movie was Big Trouble in 1986, not Love Streams in 1984." Well, yes and no. Cassavetes is credited with directing Big Trouble, a reteaming of In-Laws stars Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. But according to Ray Carney, Cassavetes was given the project midway through production, after the initial writer/director had walked out. The studio kept the film "on the shelf" for a time, then buried it in limited release; Cassavetes, for his part, disowned the thing. Despite its convoluted history, Big Trouble is not as awful as some critics would have you believe -- Falk and Arkin are charming as always, and a few scenes are actually quite funny. But Cassavetes didn't have much to do with it in the end, so he shouldn't be credited or blamed.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Linky Love

More Bad News: Seventy-eight percent of Louisiana voters approved an amendment to the state constitution which denies all appurtenances of civil marriage to same-sex couples, even if they're conferred through private contract. Does this sound familiar, gentle readers? It should. Virginia has a law just like it.

Curious Omission: In today's National Review Online, Michael Ledeen tells the horrifying story of a forced sex-change operation in Iran. He's right to note this egregious violation of human rights. Yet he can't quite bring himself to condemn the mullahs' belief that all homosexual people should be put to death. Perhaps he's afraid he'll lose his audience.

Academia Nuts: Scott Jaschlik at claims that universities aren't as radical-leftist as many conservatives claim they are. I beg to differ.

Here's my favorite quote from the piece: "The image of higher education as having a single party line helps conservative academic groups raise money. Which in turn leads lawmakers to propose legislation to require colleges to achieve 'balance' in their faculties -- a requirement many academics view as forcing faculty members to justify and perhaps soften their opinions." Now for my part, although I've met conservative academics, I haven't met any conservative academic groups with money. In many cases, conservative and libertarian faculty avoid these groups altogether, believing -- often correctly -- that they can't reveal their political tendencies until they're tenured. Even so, no legislator should ever use a law to "force" professors to "justify" or "soften" their opinions. That's a job for other faculty members, or the students themselves. But how awful, how degrading, that America's academic hierophants should have to defend their opinions, or modify their extremist rhetoric in any way! What do upstart conservatives think the university is -- a place for rational debate and discussion?

Smoke and Mirrors: Also from, here's a bit of junk science that should have urban liberals screaming in panic. (So what else is new?) Check out what the world-famous debunkers Penn and Teller have to say on this subject.

Finally: In a remarkable and unexpected turn of events, Osama bin Laden, Yassir Arafat and Ayatollah Khamenei all laid down their weapons today, proclaiming, "By Allah, the filthy Jew harlot is correct!"

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