Archive for ‘Culture’

Zero Dark Thirty: A Review

By , 20 February, 2013, No Comment

Last night, I saw Zero Dark Thirty. I expected to be disappointed, but I did not expect just how much the film would irritate me. Here are the four biggest problems I had:

1. The film is inaccurate.

Despite screenwriter Mark Boal’s promise not to play ‘fast and loose’ with history, there is a lot of sloppiness to his script.

The majority of the film is set in Pakistan, where CIA employees work out the U.S. embassy compound. The protagonist, Maya, drives her own car in and out of this compound, something few women in Pakistan, and no senior officials, do.

When two agents sit down with a prisoner for a meal, he’s served hummus and tabbouleh. This is laughable. Pakistan is not a Middle Eastern country, and no one there is eating hummus, unless they are going to ethnic restaurants.

When CIA operatives masquerade as aid workers offering vaccines to get bin Laden’s DNA, the film misstates the vaccine being offered (it was hepatitis B, not polio) and doesn’t address the consequences of using humanitarian workers as a cover, thereby discrediting NGOs that provide real aid to Pakistanis.

I could go on a long time picking out details like this, but the point is: to anyone who has any firsthand experience of Pakistan or the ‘war on terror’ in South Asia, the movie is highly implausible.

2. The film glorifies torture.

It is no secret that there is a lot of time spent on torture in this film, from the opening water-boarding scene to later segments featuring forced nudity, dog collars, and a grown man confined in a small wooden box.

What makes the film abhorrent, however, is not that it depicts torture – it would have been inaccurate to exclude it entirely. The problem is in the way it is depicted. Maya’s initial discomfort with torture is something she has to overcome, and we are encouraged to view it as part of her personal growth when she does. Later, when President Obama ends the torture program, we are encouraged to see it as a bureaucratic annoyance.

When the White House asks for hard evidence – photos, phone logs or DNA – that the Abbottabad compound houses bin Laden, Maya’s boss replies, “We lost the ability to tell that when we lost the detainee program.” That statement is presented uncritically, with no one in the room challenging it. It summarizes the position of the film on torture, which is that it was central to CIA success.

As people with knowledge of the matter have pointed out, this is a highly inaccurate claim, not least because in a real room of intelligence officers, there would have been more dissent. Yet it would be an immoral claim whether it was accurate or not, because torture is unequivocally wrong even if it can be effective.

3. The film pretends to be journalism.

My biggest problem with Zero Dark Thirty, however, isn’t in its Orientalist depiction of Pakistan or its abhorrent justifications of torture. It is the film’s utterly dishonest attempt to cloak these views under the mantle of journalism.

Its opening title, “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events” is a claim to journalistic authority. It’s a much stronger claim than the standard “based on a true story” we’re used to seeing in historical fiction. Presenting it at the start of the film, rather than during the credits, accompanied by audio of real phone calls from the collapsing World Trade Center, is a way of making an explicit plea that we interpret what follows as fact. Director Kathryn Bigelow herself has referred to the film as a ‘reported’ work and an ‘imagistic version of reportage.’

Lots of viewers – the ones who don’t have any expertise on this topic – will take these claims at face value, and thereby walk away with the conviction that all the film’s fictionalizations are factual, that this is a work of journalism. That is wrong.

Bigelow and Boal are retreating behind the argument that art should be weighed against its fealty to a ‘higher truth’ not against political context. I am skeptical of this notion, but it simply doesn’t apply to a work that has been marketed as nonfiction.

4. All art is political.

Even without its pseudo-journalistic framing, the film would still be problematic.

All culture happens in a political context. Art that aims to be ‘neutral’ by simply presenting ‘the way things are’ is still political. When you present political context as ‘the way things are’ as opposed to ‘the way individuals have chosen for things to be’ you are normalizing the prevailing political order, and thereby helping to sustain it.

This film normalizes not only the torture apparatus, but also the validity of spending ten years and billions of dollars on the bin Laden search in the first place. Plenty of reports suggest that the al Qaeda center of gravity long ago moved away from bin Laden to splinter groups elsewhere, or to lone militants radicalized online.

There are good arguments for the significance of catching bin Laden, but the film does not allow its characters to have this debate. The head of the CIA’s operation in Pakistan voices skepticism about Maya’s project. But he is never taken seriously by his peers (or the audience) and is fired from his post in disgrace. The film is on Maya’s side by default, and the audience in my theatre clapped at bin Laden’s death.

Bigelow is a talented director and the film is well made. But she uses the war on terror and claims of historical accuracy as a cheap backdrop for her characters’ stories, refusing to engage in any real way with the moral implications of doing so.

That’s not artistic subversion. It’s disgraceful callousness, and deserves to be called out as such.

How Unilever Got Caught Discriminating Against Women (And My Part in Getting Them To Change)

By , 10 February, 2013, No Comment

It’s been a very good week for journalism and feminism.

It actually started a few weeks ago, when my friend Kate wrote a piece about a contest she’d entered to win a commercial space flight. The contest was sponsored by Axe (or Lynx as it’s known in the UK), the men’s deodorant brand, and Kate was disturbed by the sexism of the contest’s marketing. Ads feature damsels-in-distress saved by handsome men (lifeguards, firemen) who subsequently ditch these men for other, less Hollywood-looking men in astronaut suits. The tagline: ”Leave a man. Return a hero.” The campaign gives the impression only men can be astronauts, and that only men can enter the contest, and Kate was right to kick up a fuss about it.

On Sunday, one of these ads aired during the Super Bowl, and I noted the sexism of it to the friends I was watching with. To my amusement, not one person had picked up that there was a contest being advertised at all. And when I told them, everyone was convinced that it had to be for men only even though I told them I knew of at least one woman, Kate, who had already entered. So I wrote my own post about the campaign, noting that in addition to being sexist, it appeared to be thoroughly counter-productive.

That’s when things started to get interesting. Late on Monday, both Kate and I got word via our blog comments that in other countries, the contest was open to men only. Countries such as Russia, Mexico, the Ukraine, Indonesia, Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. That was despite the fact that Axe spokespeople had told both of us that the contest was open to women when we’d asked.

I was angry that Axe had lied to us, and that they had confined the contest to men in the markets where they thought they could get away with it. But equally, I wondered if they had misjudged which markets those might be. At least *some* of those countries had to have anti-discrimination laws.

So I did some digging. A Russian lawyer pointed me to clauses in the Russian Constitution and Criminal Code that barred “abasement of dignity” on the basis of gender “in mass media.” A Mexican lawyer sent me to the country’s advertising regulator, whose code of ethics bars sexism in marketing materials. And a quick scan of the Unilever website (Unilever is the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate which owns Axe) found that the firm’s own code of ethics bans gender discrimination. I wrote up the relevant laws and codes in a second post and asked Axe to clarify how it was going to square the contest rules against them. That was Thursday.

Meanwhile, the sexism of the advertising was beginning to get press coverage elsewhere, at Discovery magazine and the BBC and the #astrogrrls hashtag on Twitter was busy.

Late on Thursday night, Axe came back to me with the following statement:

Unilever has communicated to all markets in all regions, that the contest is open to both men and women. Upon review, certain markets are currently revising their terms & conditions to reflect this directive.

Wow.

I write a lot about sexism and a lot about companies behaving badly, but as much as I advocate for the significance of journalism, it’s really quite rare when it leads so quickly to this kind of change.

What made it work was the fact that we – myself, Kate, Remco Timmermans, Carmen Victoria, reporters in Russia and around the world, and space geeks on Twitter – were able to coordinate with each other and eager to share information instead of jealously guarding our own scoops. One of the big surprises for me about Unilever’s mishandling of this was their assumption that it would be possible to have different contest terms in different countries, and to tell reporters and activists in different countries different things about the contest, without any of us comparing notes. Discrimination and false PR statements are always wrong, but in a digital age, they are also stupid. You will get caught.

I rail a lot against the state of contemporary feminism and in particular at the disappointing vitriol-to-substance ratio of online feminist discourse. If you’re following me on Twitter, or have the (mis)fortune to know me offline, you probably hear enough about this in one day to last you a lifetime. This week was a much-needed reminder of all the good the web can do for feminist organizing, when we’re using it to make each other stronger and not to tear each other down.

Some Recent Things Wot I Wrote

By , 26 June, 2012, No Comment

I try to keep this blog up to date with what links to things I write elsewhere, but (as those who follow me on Twitter will know), this site’s been experiencing some downtime of late, and for much of the last week, I wasn’t even able to log in to it to post a status update. So, just in case you’ve missed these pieces, here’s what I’ve been up to during the hiatus:

1. Commenting on a slightly paradoxical hunger crisis in India: more agricultural output, but less food in the hands of the poor. Cause: Corrupt and inefficient government food subsidy program.

2. Examining the economic impact of Title IX, which is 40 years old this week. Short version: it made American women richer and more successful and helped narrow the gender achievement gap.

3. Taking the Atlantic to task for a cover story about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” My take: neither can men (a fact the author overlooks) and who ever said ‘having it all’ was the goal? The piece is touching a nerve with a lot of readers, and I’m getting a lot of fascinating, often critical, feedback which I may revisit in a follow-up post.

I didn’t mention this in my Forbes piece, but the Atlantic does seem to have a penchant for personal essays in which individual writers frame regrets or frustrations about their experiences in critiques of feminism from within feminism. This piece reminded me quite a bit of last year’s ‘All the Single Ladies‘ and the previous year’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in that respect, even though those pieces were about romantic, rather than professional, struggles. There’s an awful lot that’s wrong with being a woman today, but feminism isn’t the root of it. It’s almost always our best shot at making things better. I’m so very tired of the Atlantic suggesting otherwise.

Are Men Threatened By Women At Work?

By , 23 May, 2012, No Comment

Some of them are, according to a new study I’ve written up at Forbes.

Researchers at Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill surveyed men in three kinds of marriages: traditional (wives who don’t work), neo-traditional (wives working part-time) or modern (wives working full-time). And they found that the more traditional a man’s marriage, the harder he was likely to be on the women he works with.

There is an obvious reason for this: that men who live in traditional marriages are more likely to have more traditional worldviews overall and less likely to have been exposed to feminist or gender-egalitarian ideas.

The more interesting suggestion is that these men are acting out of self-interest. We know that the earnings premium for married men is highest for those whose wives don’t work outside the home, and instead provide supportive labor in the home that enables their husbands to be better employees.

And so the authors of this paper suggest that men with stay-at-home wives are enforcing in the workplace an order that they know benefits them personally, seeing the women who work for them as proxies for what their wives could become. The values these men express – that women aren’t competent at their jobs, that marriages work better when women stay home– are actually rationalizations for a self-interested reaction to a perceived threat.

Read the whole post here.

Baseball and the Marriage Premium

By , 19 October, 2011, No Comment

At Foreign Exchange:

In honor of the World Series, which starts tonight*, I dug out a research paper I’ve been sitting on for a while.

The paper, ‘Productivity, Wages, and Marriage: The Case of Major League Baseball‘ looks at the wages of baseball players and identifies a 16% gap between the wages of married players and unmarried players.

Economists have been documenting the marriage premium – the income boost (anywhere from 10 to 40 percent) married men have over their unmarried counterparts – for decades. But researchers have historically gotten stuck when it comes to providing explanations for the phenomenon: Do married men perform better because their wives are doing more of the housework? Do married men perform better because women tend to marry high performers anyway? Do married men perform about the same, but employers discriminate in their favor because they come across as reliable?  Without data about productivity, it’s hard to say.

That’s what makes the baseball study distinctive: baseball is a geek’s sport, filled with statistics, and – in a post-Moneyball world – increasingly managed by the numbers. That allowed the paper’s authors, Francesca Cornaglia and Naomi E. Feldman, to control for productivity (using both Batting Average and On-Base Plus Slugging) and sorted players into groups by age (early and late career) and ability (low, medium, or high performers). They were not only able to show that there is a marriage premium, but able to test the prevailing theories about why it exists.

Go read.

The problem with Occupy Wall Street

By , 7 October, 2011, 1 Comment

As regular readers will know, I worry that the American left is preoccupied with culture at the expense of economics, more concerned with identity politics than it is with combating inequality. As someone who leans left primarily because of economic issues, that’s made me feel a bit homeless, politically.

So, as a critique, from the left, of our economic malaise, Occupy Wall Street interests me. But I am frustrated by the way the critique is framed.

Thanksgiving Book Recommendation

By , 25 November, 2010, 5 Comments

I’m surfacing briefly from my food coma induced nap to type out this post, and then I’ll be climbing right back into bed. Those of you who read this blog regularly (all five of you, that is) will know that I’m preoccupied–some might say obsessed–with the conflict between the communitarian and individualist strains in liberal politics. And I keep returning to the subject in large part because I feel I’m doing a lousy job of articulating what I think–or indeed, understanding myself well enough to be articulate. Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, is helping me work through it, and for that, I recommend it to you.

The best analysis of the novel I’ve read is over at Apostrophe, a lit blog by a former schoolmate of mine, Amelia Atlas. Here’s what she says,

There is a totality to what he writes that extends beyond its visible horizons, a moral universe as well as a visual one.  Whether or not one believes in the fundamental enterprise of realism—a conversation for another time—there are few equal practitioners of it working in America today.

… the entirety of Freedom could be taken as one long performance of everything that Mill, in his utilitarian idealism, got wrong.

…In On Liberty, Mill outlines a vision of freedom wherein the only constraints on the actions of any one person are those which entail harm unto others.  He is not so naïve as to believe in an automatic consensus of what constitutes harm, but he does believe that it’s possible for untempered individuality to exist alongside a sense of the common good

…I make no claim that Freedom is by any stretch a kind of one-to-one test of Mill’s harm principle.  What Franzen does do, however, is capture the difference between a conceptual and an experiential politics.  Like his nineteenth-century progenitors, he checks our moral compass against its reality on the ground (this, not simply mimesis, is the heart of the realist tradition).

Really, there’s not much to do except issue a huge +1 to the above.

What spoke to me most about the book is that it solves a problem I have had in explaining my preference for communitarian over individualist liberalism to friends, colleagues etc. What I find is that EVEN when I can make a legitimate case for why the communitarian approach produces a better policy outcome in some area of public life, I face a lot of skepticism for why anyone, personally, should be drawn to it. It always seems to my listener that I’m asking them to trade IN themselves for the community, when in fact the core of communitarianism is the notion that the self is MOST fulfilled when grounded in relationships to others. Very few people seem to buy that notion of positive freedom anymore. Franzen does a pretty good job of making the case in reverse, by showing not only what hollow social doctrines Millian individualism produces, but also–and more importantly–how soul-crushing it is FOR the individuals who participate in it. It is a book about people who believe that they are acting in the general interest by fulfilling themselves personally, and it is a book about the personal tragedy that comes from this delusion.

This makes for tough reading. The characters are unpleasant people, and get worse as the book–and their individualist experiment–progresses. There are no good guys and no light moments of relief from the ugliness the book sets out to expose. It will upset you. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea. One of my former colleagues thought it could have been a better novel if it gave us more lovable faces. But my favorite thing about it was its unrelenting tone, an urgency and desperation, as if Franzen were the last sane man in the asylum screaming to be heard before the individualist madness engulfs him too. The fact is, I’ve not read anything that felt so completely of–and in response to–its moment than this book in about ten years.

Read it. And Happy Thanksgiving!

More on the Rally

By , 16 November, 2010, No Comment

via the voracious media-consumer bjkeefe, I’m watching this video now, Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow on the Rally. I won’t make any comments, as you already know my take on the event.

Really, it’s not funny

By , 12 November, 2010, 9 Comments

Two weeks ago, I joined much of the young American Left at the “Rally to Restore Sanity.” I didn’t travel down to Washington for the occasion; I’m not that much of a Daily Show devotee. I had meetings with various sources, a very good college friend to stay with, and my sister to see in Philly on the way back. The timing and location were convenient.

The rally was, to be honest, boring, certainly not as funny or as compelling as the two television shows from which it derived. Given how little effort I put into getting there, that’s fine. But when I think about how many young folks actually traveled to be there, it’s infuriating. It’s infuriating that the ideas around which young liberals rally en masse are so unsubstantial.

I was not the only person who felt that way. Mark Ames had a screed at The Exiled on the rally, and it’s definitely got a lot of problems [basically, skip the second half], but I think there’s a kernel of truth in the piece that is worth excerpting at some length.

More About Grizzlies

By , 3 November, 2010, 15 Comments

I’ve got a post about GOP women up at Forbes right now: basically, I took a look at how GOP candidates fared with women voters. And interestingly, in this so-called year of the GOP woman, it was GOP men who got the women’s vote, while GOP women were successful with a more traditional Republican base of white men. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m inviting theories from you, so please, go read the data and comment.