Monday, December 10, 2012

bad faith and Zero Dark Thirty

One of the things I realized very early on in the post-9/11 world was how many people wanted to maintain the pose of sophistication and skepticism that was important to their self-conception while still embracing the militaristic, racist propaganda that was the common language of our country at that time. For a brief time, a kind of showy sincerity predominated; even the most sarcasm-drenched plastered their cars with those mini American flags. But the shelf life was short.

So a new method for protecting our national self-image of righteous violence against the subhuman Muslim throngs was developed: not unironic embrace of embarrassing patriotism or gauche militarism, but rather reflexive denial of left-wing criticisms of the same. Rather than making the affirmative case for America as the shining redeemer, fighting against the heathens who had wronged us, many among the culturally liberal elite instead reverted to a purely negative argument to undermine and ridicule left-wing critique of our military adventures. So the typical move was not to endorse Bush administration foreign policy but to deride as cranks and loons those who proposed an alternative. I know because from 2002 to 2005, antiwar activism was a 20-30 hour a week job for me, and I learned very quickly that cultural and social liberals did not want to hear about our abuses in the Muslim world. They preferred to deride any talk of American brutality abroad as conspiracy theorizing, the domain of the "loony left," and cluck their tongues at the incompetence and excess of the Bush administration, never really articulating the fact that complaints about incompetence and excess suggest an essential endorsement of goals.

I bring this up in regards to Glenn Greenwald's thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty. Based on his Twitter feed, it seems he has caused a conflagration for daring to criticize the movie. The typical, and typically cheap, response is that he has no right to judge the movie without having seen it. Which would be true, were he commenting on its quality or its perspective. Instead Greenwald has a very basic point, one that is being roundly ignored: a film that has repeatedly and proudly been sold as "documentary" and "journalistic" contains a lie of profound importance. The movie, by all accounts, shows torture as being an indispensable part of the capture of bin Laden, an idea that has been roundly debunked and specifically denied by many people on the inside of the government. (Adam Serwer, with typical thoroughness and fairness, has the run-down.) To say that your movie is "a hybrid of the filmic and the journalistic," as the writer of the film did, when your movie depicts the use of torture as essential to captuing bin Laden is to tell a lie. And in a country of vitriolic anti-Muslim hatred, a dangerous lie. Whether you've seen the film or not.

What the pompous film critics defending this film will have to grapple with is the fact that in this country, at this time, when we are continuing our decade-long policy of collective punishment against the Muslim world, it is a certainty that many people will leave the theater after seeing Zero Dark Thirty convinced that torture was used to find Osama bin Laden, and that Osama bin Laden was at the time a threat to the United States (when he certainly was not), and so we must continue to torture. That's just a fact. So: how do they feel about that? "You haven't seen the film, unlike me!" is not an argument either way.

It's not that I think liberals support torture. No, I think liberals want to be forced to support torture. What liberals want is ultimately to do what conservative hawks want to do, but only after experts and leaders assure them that they have no choice. They want extreme events to make the choice for them. That's why every discussion of torture always descends into some absurd hypothetical where you know that there's a ticking time bomb and you know that a terrorist in your custody has info and you know that you can get that info and stop that bomb if you torture him. They devise these incredibly complex scenarios because they need them to take away their personal choice. That's why writers like Spencer Ackerman exist, to present the proper level of squeamishness and showy moral grappling-- to say that these scenes "can make a viewer ashamed to be American, in the context of a movie whose ending scene makes viewers very, very proud to be American"-- before the torture happens anyway. The key is to go through the moral indigestion but to eventually get to the all-American pride. There's a whole cottage industry, like that, for fretting liberals who want to get to the tough guy routine in the end.

If Zero Dark Thirty shows torture as the key to killing bin Laden, that's what it's for, and I'm sure performing that service will prove very profitable. It will inevitably be folded into a narrative used to perpetuate violence in the Muslim world. That narrative will come wrapped in the flag and shouting about freedom. That's what it means to be an American today, to talk about defending principles you swiftly abandon in the process of defending them. And that's the message of American liberals today, like the film critics showing their profound sophistication as they snark at Greenwald: do the bad thing. Just make us feel that we have no choice.