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.

China’s ‘String of Pearls’ – Real or Fake?

By , 2 February, 2013, No Comment

I’ve got a new post up looking at the Chinese investment strategy in South Asia, and in particular, the theory that China is acquiring a ‘string of pearls,’ a network of strategic assets in Pakistan, Burma, Nepal et al that will encircle and contain India. My post is a response to a post by Dan Drezner at Foreign Policy, in which he contends that the ‘string of pearls’ is something western journalists cooked up in our imaginations because it feeds into fears about Big Scary China. I disagree.

My post argues that the ‘string of pearls’ is a real strategy, an extension of longstanding Cold War alliances China had in the region, and that its primary function is economic, not military. But I concede that the strategy may be failing or weakening, in part because China is growing wary of Pakistan, in part because China is growing less wary of India, and in part because the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has altered regional dynamics.

Read it all here.

What John Kerry, age 27, would tell John Kerry, age 69, about drone strikes

By , 24 January, 2013, No Comment

I’ve got a new post up at Forbes today (finally!) about John Kerry’s confirmation hearing today. I look back at his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 and ask what relevance it should have today.

Asked by senators to offer insights on Vietnam after any potential cease-fire, and on whether a limited U.S. air presence would be required after ground troops exited the country, Kerry said:

We veterans can only look with amazement on the fact that this country has been unable to see there is absolutely no difference between ground troops and a helicopter, and yet people have accepted a differentiation fed them by the administration.

No ground troops are in Laos, so it is all right to kill Laotians by remote control. But believe me the helicopter crews fill the same body bags and they wreak the same kind of damage on the Vietnamese and Laotian countryside as anybody else, and the President is talking about allowing that to go on for many years to come.

Swap Vietnam for Afghanistan, Laos for Somalia or Yemen and helicopter for unmanned drone and Kerry’s comments could have been made yesterday. “There are no ground troops in Yemen, so it’s okay to kill Yemenis by remote control” is a pretty accurate, and chilling, description of the position the current Administration has taken.

As a young man, Kerry understood that position to be ludicrous.

More, on the critique Kerry made and its contemporary resonance, here. The confirmation hearing can be see live here.

Thoughts on the 3rd Presidential Debate: Foreign Policy

By , 23 October, 2012, No Comment

I watched last night’s presidential debate with a group of wonks and journalists at the Council on Foreign Relations. It was interesting to be among people who care deeply about international affairs, given that most voters don’t.

Indeed, knowing that foreign policy won’t win them this election, both candidates took every opportunity to pivot the discussion to the economy. Moreover, the candidates agreed with one another on almost all the issues they touched on. Together, the tactics of agreement and evasion made for an uninformative 90 minutes.

But, a few things that jumped out at me:

1. As expected, the candidates used the question on ‘America’s role in the world’ to spar over the defense budget. Most viewers will remember this segment for President Obama’s quip equating Romney’s push for greater naval spending to a demand for ‘horses and bayonets.’

But what I found notable was the contrast between Romney’s planned cuts to government social spending and his desire to double down on military spending that even the Pentagon doesn’t recommend. The important thing to understand about this debate over defense spending is that it has very little to do with foreign policy and everything to do with economic stimulus. As Daniel Drezner put it in his comments at CFR yesterday, defense expenditures are about the only form of Keynesianism the contemporary GOP supports.

2. I tweeted on Sunday that it would be a big surprise to see either candidate talk seriously about the centrality of women – their empowerment, their role in public life and in civil society – to American foreign policy. Last night, I was pleasantly surprised to see the topic come up, and even more astonished to find that it was brought up by Mitt Romney. Most likely, that’s because Romney has a wide gap to close with women voters, but I welcomed the comments nonetheless.

3. I was pleased that Bob Schieffer raised the topic of drone warfare. At CFR, Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman Security Project noted that her organization’s polling of its audience indicates that drone warfare is among President Obama’s most unpopular policies, rivaled only by his failure to close Guantanamo Bay. Given that, it’s a shame that Mitt Romney didn’t use the opportunity to push back against the policy: the American public deserves to hear the issue debated in full.

It’s not just a humanitarian issue – though the civilian casualties from drone warfare are an outrage. It’s also a strategic issue, in that the use of a deeply unpopular policy hurts American soft power around the world.

Most concerning to me is the fact that this kind of high-tech war often takes place away from the public eye. We focus heavily on the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of a broader debate about the ground war there. But how many Americans know that the U.S. is also using drones to intervene in Yemen, or Somalia? Because drone warfare can be pursued without putting any boots on the ground, those interventions have happened with little to no public scrutiny. To my mind, a military technology that can be deployed without public debate is a technology that makes wars more likely, and that’s dangerous.

I talked about this, and the rest of the Afghanistan portion of the debate, on Huffington Post Live this morning. You can watch my segment here.

UN Week Blogging

By , 8 October, 2012, No Comment

Belatedly, taking note of two blog posts I’ve written for Forbes recently based on events I attended during UN Week.

1. The UN hosted an event on energy access and sustainability that was notable because it tried to bridge the gap between environmental activism and anti-poverty work.

Energy access is a critical prerequisite to poverty reduction, necessary for everything from heating homes to delivering public services to powering the businesses that create jobs.

Emerging powers sometimes paint these economic imperatives as incompatible with the fight against climate change. They see emissions caps as an unfair restriction on their economic advancement. But they’re wrong.

The IEA’s most recent World Energy Outlookconcluded (see p. 488) that achieving universal electricity access by 2030 would result in only a 2% increase in global emissions. That’s because the 1.3 billion people living without electricity today live in the world’s poorest countries. And poor countries that do have universal electricity today draw far less power, on a per-capita basis, than rich ones.

Of course, the ultimate aim of expanding energy access is to spur economic growth and allow poor countries to become richer. But even with dramatic economic growth, these countries won’t be approaching the kilowatt-hours consumed in the developed world until long after 2030. And by that time, we could and should have viable, affordable carbon-neutral energy systems in place.

Read the rest here.

2. The Concordia Summit held a panel discussion on women in Afghanistan that was notable because it highlighted the role the U.S. government has played in helping Afghan women achieve economic and political freedom, just days before U.S. government officials began telling the press that the U.S. won’t have much role in the postwar peace.

But the most important, and least frequently discussed danger (it gets no mention in the Timesstory) is the fate of Afghan women. One of the few goods to have come of the ISAF presence in Afghanistan is an Afghan constitution that gives women equal legal status to men (Article 22), the right to go to school (Articles 43 and 44), access jobs (Article 48) and hold political office (Article 84). Not only would a postwar government with Taliban members reverse such gains, but many woman who have made social, political and economic gains in the last decade would be in danger of suffering violent retribution and shaming from the men in their communities.

Read it all here.

I’ll be discussing what NATO withdrawal means for Afghan women on HuffPost Live today at 10:30AM Eastern. You can watch it here.

How to Lie With Statistics, Women and Child Care Edition

By , 3 August, 2012, No Comment

My latest post is up at Forbes, highlighting two research papers that look at the impact women’s earnings and the cost of child care have on women’s decisions on whether to have children and whether (or how much) to work. They are good papers, but they both make a critical error:

Both papers assume that men commit full-time to the labor force, and that the choices families are about the balance of women’s working hours and caring hours. It’s one of the most infuriating aspects of the work-life debates that the choice is so often framed that way. The reality is that in addition to earning potential and cost of child care, the degree to which male partners share in child care duties is a major factor driving women’s career and family choices.

Leaving working fathers out of the choice equation tarnishes the studies’ results, and can have a dangerous effect, if policymakers feel that the solution suggested by papers like these is to expand the choices available to women without expanding choices for men. Framing the work-life conundrum as a women’s issue only makes it more likely that it will remain women’s burden. The research error becomes self-fulfilling.

This case is a perfect example of the problem outlined by Darrell Huff in his classic book, How to Lie With Statistics. I’m a great advocate for inserting more data into debates about work and family, but it’s equally important to be skeptical of the data presented to us. Ask not just, ‘Does this data answer the question we’re asking?’ but also, ‘Are we asking the right questions?’ At the moment, I’m not convinced we are.

Read it all here.

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.

On Unions and Gender

By , 8 June, 2012, No Comment

I’ve got a post up at Foreign Exchange, my Forbes blog, today about some new research on the British labor movement. The paper takes two trends of the last 30 years – increasing numbers of women in the workforce and declining union participation – and wonders whether they are related. The researcher, Getinet Haile, finds a few ways they are:

1. As more women enter a workplace, union participation falls. Namely, workplaces with more than the median percentage of women see a 12-percentage point decline in union density relative to workplaces where the balance is below the median.

2. That decline has more to do with men than women. Men in the workforce are 15 percent less likely to be union members if their workplace – and therefore their union – has an above-the-median level of female participation. Women in the workforce are just 7 percent less likely to be union members in a diverse workplace.

3. In female-dominated workplaces, common in fields like education or social care, union membership is still strong, and indeed, actually increases with overall diversity – i.e. the entrance of men into these fields.

4. All of the above trends are stronger in the private sector than in the public sector.

Haile goes on to explain how cultural tensions inside unions may explain some of these trends. It’s a powerful reminder that while we talk about unions as built on an assumption of class solidarity, the union movement has historically relied on the common demographic makeup of the workforce (mostly white, mostly male) to act as a kind of social glue between workers. As the workforce grows more diverse – something we should celebrate – unions may have to find new ways of binding workers together. Or they may simply fade from relevance.

Grexit: It’s a question of how, not if, Greece will leave the euro

By , 26 May, 2012, No Comment

Over at Foreign Exchange, I’ve got a post up on the euro. Short version: all signs now point to a Greek exit, and Christine Lagarde has given a statement indicated there is no turning back.

It sounds as if she’s essentially saying to the Greeks and others in Europe, you’ve had a nice time and now it’s payback time.

“That’s right.” She nods calmly. “Yeah.”

And what about their children, who can’t conceivably be held responsible? “Well, hey, parents are responsible, right? So parents have to pay their tax.”

That fits entirely with the strict language she used when I interviewed her in August:

She knows this is a tough sell. “You first have a period [after making cuts] where growth takes a hit and goes negative”—and with that come unavoidable human costs in lost jobs and social services. Political feuding over controversial cuts will only make the pain worse. How should ordinary people cope? She pauses. “It takes courage.”

What are the implications of this tough stance:

Hypothetically, should Germany refuse to loosen the terms of its loans to Greece, the IMF could offer a bit of rope on its loans to Greece that would allow a left-wing Greek government to save face without upsetting the eurocart. But. as those of us who have followed her closely expected, Lagarde has unequivocally squashed that possibility in her remarks tonight.

Read the whole post here.