Syria Was on the List So Let’s Attack

Syrian FighterAll I’ve been hearing today is that we have to strike Syria in order to “send a message.” I don’t think this is because people think we really need to send a message about the use of chemical weapons. I think it is because the argument for protecting the Syrian people doesn’t make much sense. After all, we’ve stood by while over a hundred thousand civilians have been killed. Does it matter that this much smaller number of people were killed in a specific way? (For the record: I do think it matters. But I don’t think it should overwhelm all other facts.)

Matt Yglesias pointed out something really important about the whole idea of incentives: they work both ways. He wrote, “For example, did this fierce civil war in Syria break out in part because the intervention in Libya led opposition figures to believe that even a low-probability-of-success military uprising stood a good chance of receiving a NATO bailout?” It’s a good question. But regardless the answer, it shows that bombing Syria for its alleged chemical weapons use will send a lot of messages, many of which we may not be too keen on.

Yglesias also mentioned an academic paper that showed that, “Intervening on behalf of rebels increases the number of civilians who are killed by increasing the desperation of government forces.” So I think we should stop any of this talk about the bombing of Syria being “humanitarian.” And watching leaders speak out publicly for this action has nothing but the self-satisfied air of politicians on the eve of a “bloody good war.”

So if this isn’t about humanitarianism and it isn’t about doing what’s right about chemical weapons, what is it about? I think the key can be found in the video below. In it, Wesley Clark (in 2007) says that shortly after 9/11, he learned of a memo that indicated that the White House didn’t just want to invade Iraq, but 7 countries in 5 years. Those countries? Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran. I don’t mean to suggest that Obama especially has it out for these countries. But it is true that that there are plenty of powerful people in this country who will always be for war with these countries. And clearly, the disaster in Iraq hasn’t lessened their power.

In the end, I think I am hopelessly cynical about all of this. I don’t even think it has much to do with egos of pride. It is just that politicians have control of armies and God damn it, they are going to use those armies. And they will use any justification they can. It’s humanitarian! Or not. It’s to make the world safe in the long run! Or not. And what’s the worst that could happen? Certainly they aren’t going to die. In fact, regardless of what these western leaders do, they will never be held accountable. So let the bombs drop. Only little people will be harmed—like the guy in the picture above, even though we are bombing to protect him.

Hegel, Popper, and the Right

HegelOn this day back in 1730, the proto-Romantic philosopher Johann Georg Hamann was born. One of the founders of mathematical logic, Giuseppe Peano was born in 1858. Novelist Theodore Dreiser was born in 1871. Composer Rebecca Clarke was born in 1886. Here is her Morpheus, which is beautiful:

One of the great surrealist Man Ray was born in 1890. Novelist C. S. Forester (not E. M. Forster) was born in 1899.

And Leo Penn was born in 1921. Who was he? A TV director. He is better known as the father of musician Michael Penn and actors Sean Penn and Chris Penn. I bring it up only to show what ridiculousness the whole idea is of meritocracy. I don’t much care for Chris, but I think Sean is very talented, and Michael is a great songwriter. But example and access have profound advantages. I especially have a hard time believing that Chris and Sean would have become actors, given that neither of them were very attractive. This doesn’t take away from what they’ve accomplished. But it ought to take away from this notion that any kid in America can grow up to be president because it just ain’t so.

Daryl Dragon of Captain & Tennille is 71 today. He is suffering from a “mild form of Parkinson’s disease” which limits his public appearances, although he and Tennille are still married after all of these years. Actor Tuesday Weld is 70. Actor Paul Reubens is 61. (I would have said “great actor” before watching Mystery Men last night.) Actor Peter Stormare is 60. Here he is as Lucifer in Constantine:

And actor Aaron Paul is 34.

The day, however, belongs to the great philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who was born on this day in 1770. I disagree with a great deal of his work, but there is no question of the importance of the work. However, there is an unfortunate tendency to disparage his work today. This mostly comes from Karl Popper, who basically painted Hegel with an extremely broad brush, claiming that he was nothing but a relativist. This allowed him and others (e.g. Leonard Peikoff) to argue that Hegel was responsible for communism and fascism.

I don’t understand about this conservative attack on Hegel. His major work seems to go right along with conservative ideology. Absolute idealism, for example, is the idea that thought and existence are interrelated. I don’t accept this, but most conservatives don’t even think it is an issue. His historical dialectic is one of the slow advance of progress—yet another idea I reject but which conservatives hold so tight it must be the case that deep down they too know it is garbage. And his master–slave dialectic means just about anything you want it to, and conservatives love that kind of thing. So what is the problem?

Regardless, Hegel was an important thinker in his own time and all the way to today. And I say that as one who doesn’t find him persuasive. But the same can be said for much of Aristotle. People have to be given their due.

Happy birthday Hegel!

MSNBC Still Losing the War

Steve BenenSteve Benen is something of a legend as a blogger. And now he pretty much single-handedly writes Maddow Blog. He is really good, but I often have problems with him. They are usually the same problems I have with Rachel Maddow and the whole of the MSNBC nighttime lineup. First, they are too actively partisan. Second, they are not very effective in their partisanship. I think of them very much the way I think of Obama: in a perfect world, we largely agree. But given political constraints, their priorities are very often not mine.

Today, Benen took an opportunity to go after Rand Paul. That’s all fine. Paul is an idiot. But the framing was all wrong. Benen compared Chris Christie’s “practical conservatism” with Paul’s “ideological conservatism.” Then he argues that there isn’t even much to Paul’s ideological thinking. But he leaves the impression that Christie somehow is practical and therefore, at least somewhat reasonable.

There is a reason that Paul claims the “ideologically purity” throne and Christie claims the “get stuff done” throne. Paul is a United States Senator. Chris Christie is a governor. It is the nature of their jobs. Christie is no less ideologically rigid than Paul. In fact, if you look at the men’s last battle, it was Christie talking about how Rand Paul should shut up regarding NSA surveillance because Christie has to look in the faces of the widows. It was pure politics of the lowest common denominator—absolutely vile, disgusting stuff.

In addition to that, Rand Paul’s position is the liberal position in that fight. I’m sure that Steve Benen has no trouble understanding that regardless of how effective “stop and frisk” may be (it isn’t), if it isn’t constitutional, it’s still wrong. But he’s more than willing to give a shout out to Christie in his political campaign for the surveillance state.

Christie isn’t just a vile man on this and most other issues. He is also running for office. Rand Paul isn’t running for another four years. If you’re going to be a partisan, be an effective one. Christie will likely win his re-election bid with lots of help from liberals who just don’t know what they are voting for. And here is MSNBC portraying him as the anti-Rand Paul, even though Christie is actually worse on the issues than Paul. Brilliant!

Afterword

The title for this article is a reference to an earlier article I wrote, MSNBC Winning Battles, Losing War.

Film Blunder Blunders

The MatrixI found a YouTube account CinemaSins, which produces a series of videos with titles that start, “Everything Wrong With…” It sounded like fun, so I watched Everything Wrong With Jurassic Park In 3 Minutes Or Less. Some of it is remarkably observant and often funny. But it is wrong at times. For example, it notes a page from a tabloid taped on the lab refrigerator that proclaims, “Space Aliens Stole My Face!” The video notes sarcastically, “Exactly the kind of article I would expect archaeologists and paleobotanists to hang on their fridge.” This is not an error. This is the video maker assuming that scientists are stodgy and humorless. When I was in graduate school, I had numerous covers from the Weekly World News covering my lab walls, including the classic “Bat Child Found in Cave.” It was observant of the video maker to see the story, but clueless not to realize it was put up as a kind of joke.

It also makes other errors by simply assuming the worse. For example, it misunderstands what is happening when Hammond gets out of the helicopter. But overall, it isn’t bad. It seems that CinemaSins is mostly interested in humor. Things are far, far worse for MovieBlunders. This isn’t to say that it is bad. As a matter of fact, the level of detail is truly amazing. The problem is that the blunders are sometimes their own, and since they take it more seriously, it is worse when they are wrong. I watched their video Everything Wrong With The Matrix, but it is actually about the whole series:

Before getting to that, the first thing they bring up is something that has always bothered me (although they don’t make it clear). Neo and Trinity cut the elevator cord, sending the bomb down and them up. But how do they get out of the elevator shaft? Wouldn’t the elevator falling cause them to be crushed at the top of the elevator? Of course, this is not actually an error. This is what we call “off screen action.” I’m sure our daring duo jump from the cord out of the shaft in the nick of time. Just because the film didn’t show it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

They ask how Mouse didn’t manage to hit anything as he was firing while being blown away. I don’t want to play apologist here (which I could do for most of the things they mention), but the movie doesn’t indicate that Mouse hit no one. He clearly didn’t hit everyone and so was shot and died. A similar situation goes on when Trinity shoots Agent Jones. We see her when she shoots so we don’t know where he was shot, only where the gun was pointed when the shot cut.

Most of the things they note are amazingly trivial. For example, they note that bullets don’t make cars explode. That’s true. But it wouldn’t be a movie if bullets didn’t make cars explode. What’s more, they didn’t have any problem when later a sword made a car flip over and explode. They also have an odd fascination with guns. Two separate blunders were the lack of rifling marks on the bullets. And two other times they mention the fact that when someone was shot, the bullets did not land in the rear wall. And at least three times they complain about bullet casings.

But there were a couple of things that really annoyed me. One was at the beginning of the film when the phone trace is started on Trinity. The time stamp was 13:24. They note that it was the middle of the night and this would indicate the time was midday. Have these people never heard of local time? This kind of thing is anti-apologetics. It is taking something in a movie and not making a reasonable assumption about it. Instead, they make whatever assumption is worst. That’s not reasonable.

Finally, we get to the real reason I wrote this: painful misunderstand of movie making! When Neo and Morpheus are plopped down on a rooftop in the training simulator, they are far away from the stairway entrance. But after the cut, the stairway entrance appears to be close behind them. This does not mean what these guys think it means. The filmmakers are doubtless using a telephoto lens, which causes all of the scene to be crammed together. This is why I’m not fond of them, even though some of my favorite directors have used (overused) them.

I don’t mean to be down on the people who make these videos. And in fact, I think they are great. What’s more, I’m a same way: I love to over-analyze films! But you have to expect some push back, especially when you overstate your case.

Afterword

No one ever mentions what I think of as the two biggest problems in The Matrix. The first one is really basic: why didn’t the machines power the matrix off squirrels or some other animal that wasn’t constantly trying to reject the matrix programming? After all, they are just using the humans as batteries (Also a ridiculous idea!) so any warm blooded creature would work. But I can get past that. It’s a movie. The second problem is the worst.

Why do the agents “bug” Neo? Couldn’t they just monitor him, wait until he meets Morpheus, and take over his body? Morpheus even tells Neo that the agents can take over anyone still connected to the matrix. It isn’t “any weak minded person.” So why didn’t they just do that? In fact, it is pathetic. Switch holds a gun on Neo until the bug is removed. Some good that bug did! Too bad the agents are too stupid to think of changing into him right before he got into the car! It seems that The Wachowskis were just being lazy, because I can think of loads of ways to avoid the problem.

Loser Superheroes

Mystery MenI was surprised to see that Netflix gave me a “best guess” rating of 4.1 stars for Mystery Men. I recalled watching it a long time ago. I really wanted to see it because it looked like the kind of silly madness that I very much enjoy. But the film turned out to be only okay. There are obvious problems with it. The acting is jarringly uneven. (This is always a problem when Ben Stiller is in a movie, but it goes beyond that here.) Much of the humor is infantile. And the whole thing is over produced and distracts from the charm that the film has.

But I sat down and watched it again. And I have to admit that it was funnier than I had remembered. It certainly suffers from too much high concept, but there are times when it works. I very much liked the whole Bowler character of Janeane Garofalo. She is the sanest of the superheroes, except that she is always having conversations with her dead father whose skull is inside her bowling ball. And Hank Azaria’s The Blue Raja is very funny in that he throws cutlery—but no knives. That would be too obvious.

The main problem is that the script seems like it was written by two writers. Only one writer is given credit, Neil Cuthbert, but I seriously doubt that a $68 million comedy didn’t have a string of writers working on it. Screenwriting credit normally goes to whatever writers nailed down the dramatic structure. But the problem I see is that there are two kinds of loser superheroes. There are those who have bizarre but real abilities like Paul Reubens whose Spleen character can launch targeted farts that incapacitate foes. And then there are those like Ben Stiller’s Mr. Furious who are simply deluded.

The problem with this is that the viewer is never settled. You’re not sure what world you are in. I think both ideas are brilliant. We all know the successful superheroes. But wouldn’t there be a lot of not so successful superheroes who have lesser powers? The film is based on Flaming Carrot Comics, which takes the other approach. The Flaming Carrot is just an idiot who succeeds through luck and a gun. Indeed, the characters from the series that show up in the movie are of the deluded variety: Mr. Furious and The Shoveler.

But why would The Bowler have anything to do with The Shoveler, a character whose only real super power is the ability to hit people with a snow shovel? Or Mr. Furious who once pushed a bus, although the driver helped by applying his foot to the accelerator? The Bowler is a real superhero—in a bizarre take on Captain America. So is (God help us!) The Spleen—in a bizarre take on every superhero ever. And to a lesser extent so is The Blue Raja. So it’s just a mess.

Add to this the fact that a much better film could have been made out of Casanova Frankenstein and Captain Amazing, and you have a very frustrating experience. It isn’t that I want Mystery Men to be something different than it is (although that wouldn’t be a bad idea). It is just that I want it to be something. The whole script seems like the result of a lot of creativity. But the writer never pulled it together into a cohesive whole.

All of this isn’t to say that it isn’t an enjoyable film. It is, for example, better than pretty much every straight superhero film ever made. Because it, at least, knows that the whole genre is a joke. And Mystery Men does a good job of lampooning most aspects of it. So it is worth watching if you have any interest in superheroes or are just looking for a silly and often funny film. But it could have been great.

Afterword

I think that Netflix is right, though; I have to give it four stars.

Syria Skepticism and Informed Opinion

Steve ClemonsThere was something interesting on The Rachel Maddow Show last night. The Washington editor from The Atlantic, Steve Clemons, was on the show to explain how he believed the government is correct that Syria has been using chemical weapons. He said that in the past he’s been skeptical of government claims. And I don’t doubt that he is sincere. According to him, he was against the Iraq War and the “surge” in Afghanistan. But I’m not convinced in this case.

This really struck me at the end of the interview. Rachel Maddow said to cap it, “Steve Clemons… somebody who is well connected and very candid.” That is part of the problem, isn’t it? After all, Judith Miller was well connected in the run up to the Iraq War. All that being well connected does in these situations is make you vulnerable to a coordinated propaganda campaign from Washington. And there doesn’t even have to be any intent to deceive. Conventional wisdom in Washington is no more likely to be right than anywhere else.

Look: if I had to take a stand on this matter, I’d say it was a toss up. So there’s a good chance that Syria did it. And there’s a good chance they didn’t. And there’s a chance that it isn’t a chemical attack at all. Remember yellow rain? What I do know is that our track record of rushing into war is not good. And even when the cause is just, our interventions do a great deal of harm.

Maddow seems to be pretty much on board. She ended the segment by saying, “It is remarkable hearing what Steve said there about how the overall strategic idea here is about reestablishing that international normal—that international allergy—on weapons of mass destruction while the UN weapons inspectors are there in that country, that we would act before we heard from them what they found is very conflicting direction.” In other words: it’s deja vu all over again.

It’s interesting that there are those of us who are always skeptical. And then there are those who are always ready to go to war. But in the middle are those who just go with our last adventure. In this case, the waters are muddy because Libya worked out reasonably well, but most people still look back to Iraq and Afghanistan. But if it turns out that Syria is indeed using chemical weapons against its people, the next time the onus will be entirely on us skeptics. And we will be off and running after another “bloody good war.”

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Afterword

I don’t mean to suggest that this intervention will turn out well. But if Syria is using chemical weapons, people will throw it in my face the next time I counsel caution. And it won’t matter if the intervention is a total fiasco. This could be the start of World War III, and afterwards the hawks would be saying, “But: chemical weapons!” By tradition, the Trojan War sparked the destruction of the great Greek city states of that time. “They raped our queen, we raped their city, and we were right…” Brilliant!