Monday, February 28, 2011

Matthew Alexander led the interrogation team that tracked down al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006.

Alexander, a critic of the harsh techniques employed by the military during the administration of George W. Bush, says he used strategic, noncoercive methods of interrogation to find al-Zarqawi, which he wrote about in his book How to Break a Terrorist.

In his second book, Kill or Capture, Alexander — a pseudonym for the author — recounts how his team of interrogators tracked down and captured another wanted man: a Syrian named Zafar, the leader of al-Qaida in northern Iraq.

But finding Zafar was not easy. Alexander says he conducted hundreds of interrogations and supervised more than a thousand more while trying to track down a man who eluded security forces and had never once been photographed by U.S. forces.

In a conversation with Dave Davies on NPR's Fresh Air, Alexander details the interrogation tactics he used while conducting his kill-or-capture missions in the area of Iraq where Zafar was thought to be hiding. ...

To gain trust with the Sunni combatants he was interviewing, Alexander says, he would admit that the United States had made some strategic mistakes in its approach in Iraq.

"Almost every detainee that I admitted those mistakes to, they all were surprised that I was willing to admit that," he says. "And it moved many of them to hear that, because many of them had lost family members or friends because of these actions — because of allowing the Shia militias to run free. And so when they heard that apology followed by an offer to work together, it was very appealing."

More than anything, Alexander says, it was important for interrogators to understand the detainee and know exactly where they were coming from. Interrogators who believed in misguided stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs, he says, were the single most detrimental factor to undermining interrogations in Iraq. ...

On how he would start an interrogation

"Sometimes I would walk in with my copy of the Quran, and I would recite a line. Usually I would use the first line of the Quran, which is 'Praise be to Allah, the most compassionate, the most merciful,' which would help me with compassion toward my enemy who's sitting in front of me but then also put in place an obligation of reciprocity on their part to show compassion toward me, by providing information."

HOW TO MAKE A LASER OUT OF GIN AND TONIC. Via DLB. This is the only use of gin I approve.
As against a friend no shield is worn nor sword drawn in defense.
--a 1916 Iowa court opinion, quoted in Friend v. Friend

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

WOOD WITHIN THIS WOOD: Last night I watched a recent adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, set (with some condescension and religious illiteracy, but some bicycling fun) in late 19th-c Italy. Here are a few scattered thoughts. Overall I'm glad I saw this, but I'm especially glad it wasn't my first Dream. At this point I can easily cherish the good parts and dunk the stupidities in Lethe; that would be harder if I didn't have a few earlier, differently-flawed productions under my belt.

So, let's go: First, the cast is ridiculous. Kevin Kline is superb as Bottom. Dominic "Jimmy McNulty" West is entirely serviceable as Lysander. Calista Flockhart is surprisingly good as Helena, and Stanley Tucci is as fun as you'd expect as Puck. You've also got Rupert Everett, Sam Rockwell, and other people I'm forgetting.

This production is oddly cavalier about the horribleness of the protagonists. They're just all so awful before they enter the wood! I can understand that as an interpretive choice, but it's not a lot of fun to watch--and made all the harder because

this production ups the humiliation for Bottom significantly. His whole character arc is so complex--for the play to work best, he needs to be better than his reputation and surroundings from the beginning, and then taken into a fairy world which is finally big enough and sublime enough for him; and yet even in that world, where he should belong, in fact he's an enchanted ass. There's a huge amount of humiliation built into this amazing character. No need to ratchet it up by having local yokels pour wine on him as he (brilliantly!) overacts. It just made everyone else seem more horrible. Adding a Disappointed Wife similarly made Bottom way too much of a pitiable victim rather than a comedic-yet-sublime visionary--and I would caution against any directorial choices which shifts the Dream further toward misogyny. Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers of women ever, and I agree with Herr Doktor Professor Harold Bloom that his women are typically more intelligent and stronger than his men; but this isn't his subtlest work on that score, you know?

Speaking of Bottom and of Bloom, not even Kevin Kline could come close to the ecstatic experience of hearing Harold Bloom recite Bottom's "dream speech." I saw this in, I think, spring? of 1998, and it was like King Haggard's first sight of the unicorns: "The first time I saw them, I thought I wanted to die." I'm going to try to talk about what it was like, now, but my description is necessarily reductive and inadequate.

What Bloom did, when he recited for us, was to take us completely into the experience of someone who has finally entered into the world for which we long. Our whole lives, we have portrayed a Wall--a wall broken through by a monster. And at last, Bottom follows, through the hole, and finds the monster... and she is just as beautiful as he could ever have hoped. She is the key for his lock. She is the reality of which our entire lives are merely the shadow. She is the quiet hour, the sudden moment when we can be truly present to the crocus and the snow.

(One thing the movie got right: She gives the Nietzschean wedding ring of eternity.)

He was helpless and baffled and sorry, sorry and he didn't know why.

I can't blame Kevin Kline for being insufficiently mind-blowing! I mean listening to Harold Bloom recite the speech... there's a song, some whiny pop song, where the guy whines something which I consistently mishear as, "Being with you, girl,/Is like feeling sorrow." Very few people can carry us--especially through a screen, rather than in person--into that place where a comedic, endearing speech is like feeling sorrow.

That said, there are a lot of dumb choices in this movie. There's mud-wrestling, which I'm sure sounded better in theory than it played in practice. There's Tasteful Nudity which ditto. There's a sequence of a kind I'm usually primed to adore, in which an actor finds his confidence and his true self halfway through a disastrous performance and thereby rescues it (Slings and Arrows s1 had an especially fine example of this), which is robbed of emotional heft because it centers on the guy who plays Thisbe, about whom I didn't care enough, and because the music is horrible and insistent and easy. The music is horrible and insistent and easy throughout, actually.

Again: This is worth seeing! There are some very fun comic-timing moments, and if I were to rewatch I'd look for what I think are real parallels between the barely-named fairies and the lower-class humans. It's pretty and frothy and if you can get past the really painful treatment of the difference between Bottom's dreams and his reality, it's sometimes charming.

Man, I hope they put that on my tombstone.
ABORTION AND/AS/VS. HONOR KILLING. A pretty fascinating post, with no conclusions but some provocative questions.

I especially liked the description of how people can believe something is wrong, but it's the right thing to do--this comes up all the time at the pregnancy center--and the acknowledgment that contemporary American elites also operate with an honor/shame culture when it comes to women's reproductive capacities. The insistent, inaccurate identification of non-elite women's choices with shame, and elite women's choices with responsibility, was one of my least favorite things about Red Families vs. Blue Families. (I suspect the "Tiger Mom" fight/"mommy wars" in general reflect honor/shame culture around motherhood as well.)

And I really liked this point:
Volf, writing some guidelines for dialogue between Christians and Muslims, quotes another scholar saying that in any such discussion there are four participants: you and me, and your image of me and my image of you. Volf adds another dyad to that equation: my image of myself, and your image of yourself.

Friendship is fragile because one may more or less freely disavow a friend; but the bonds are special, in part, precisely because we may walk away at any time. The freedom we all have to draw our own circle of affection does something to help explain why our friends are so precious: they are the chosen ones.
--Ethan J.M. Leib, Friend v. Friend

As you know, Bob, I think this is a simplistic way of looking at chosen relationships--I think very often we seek (or should seek!) to transform what Maggie Gallagher once called "You're mine because I love you" relationships into "I love you because you're mine" ones. My actual experience of friendship very strongly suggests a need and desire for friendships to become, over time, understood as given. Viewing friendships as endlessly-renewed choices may satisfy the Nietzschean, with his suspicion of mere promising and obligation, but I don't think it can truly satisfy the friend. (I acknowledge that this insistence on submission to the friendship and self-sacrifice for the friend, while entirely in line with Catholic philosophy, to some extent undermines the classical emphasis on friendship as a realm where love and equality kiss each other.)

Leib's whole book, in fact, is motivated by the understanding that friendship incurs obligations and constricts choice. So I'm not quoting this bit--from a much longer and more interesting discussion of criteria which mark true friendship--in order to criticize him. I'm just pointing out a commonplace, unexamined assumption that freedom is always the more romantic and admirable state than constraint.

Friday, February 18, 2011

DAY JOB, DRAW BACK YOUR BOW/AND LET YOUR ARROW GO: Now and then I try to sell you guys on following MarriageDebate or, if you want a digest version, at least subscribing to IMAPP's weekly top-5-marriage-and-family-stories newsletter. I do this because I think many readers would find the site fascinating and thought-provoking, not because I'm being paid for it. I think posts a lot of stories which readers interested in gender, sexuality, and family structure would want to read.

So I'm telling you that right now we have earning more than your man, wrestling a girl, the dark(er) sides of oxytocin, High Fidelity vs. your heart, what is and isn't in his kiss, proposed revisions to Chinese law on marriage and adultery, bad stats in the UK, gay marriage in ditto, the best story I've seen so far on Ashley Madison (the adultery company), where have all the Presbyterians gone? (long time passing), and a pretty hardcore column about the emotional realities of a lesbian couple raising children with a "known donor."

Oh and happy belated Valentine's Day, via TKB.

Love is anywhere you hang your head....
Not everything is a social construct. Some things are made out of wood.
--apparently Nicola Karras, on Twitter?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"NOBODY'S PERFECT": I realize none of you care, but I have spent the past five days watching every Christopher Bowman-related link on YouTube, so I have got to talk to someone about him. Internet to the rescue! Skip this post if you don't care about skating.

What I find most striking is the fact that while he definitely earned his "Bowman the Showman" nickname, and would often interrupt more introspective programs to play to the judges or the audience, he's as much an artist as an entertainer. His programs are often musical, sensitive, lyrical, and poignant. (The song "Maria" from West Side Story makes me want to punch puppies in the face, and yet he made a sublime, romantic purse from this saccharine sow's ear.) He spends a lot of time on his knees on the ice; and where unmusical skaters often try to make flailing arms compensate for random footwork, Bowman's feet and legs are usually where he really matches and carries the music. The replays here emphasize how lovely his jump exits often were, despite his struggles with the triple axel.

The more you watch him, the more you understand why Toller Cranston might have viewed him as a possible kindred soul--despite how horribly that particular coach/skater relationship crashed and burned. Bowman shares with Cranston his uniqueness, his angular positions, his musicality, and his straight-up weirdness. He was never the innovator Cranston was, but his style is unmistakable whether he's "going for Camera Six!" or doing a heartbreaking, introverted program (yeah, I saw the finger-gun; see above re: I don't care if he interrupts himself to be awesome).

In the great "Brian Orser or Brian Boitano?" debate, I'm pretty sure my answer will always be Bowman. I hope he's at peace now.
BELATED VALENTINE'S DAY LINK #1: Name a giant hissing cockroach after your Valentine!

I seriously would flip for this--while urban apartment living has made me loathe your common or garden cockroach, the huge Madagascar hissing variety might be my favorite insect. I got to hold one as a child, at the old Natural History Museum Insect Zoo. The hissing is like their equivalent of purring!
[Abba Nilus] also said, "Whatever you have endured out of love of wisdom will bear fruit for you at the time of prayer."
--Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A single protein found on the surface of squid egg capsules will instantly transform a placid cephalopod into a eight-armed undersea terror, scientists discover.


To be fair, I was never that placid. Link via JWB.
A soldier asked Abba Mius if God accepted repentance. After the old man had taught him many things he said, "Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?" He replied, "No, I mend it and use it again." The old man said to him, "If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about his creature?"
--The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Well I definitely hope so.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

GOD LOOKS OUT FOR FOOLS, CHILDREN, AND DRUNKS. EXCEPT WHEN HE DOESN'T. Speaking of Frozen, I've been fascinated by the reviews I've read online. I mean, it is not a great movie--it is not the Hamlet of being stuck on a ski lift. But in a way that makes it a perfect Rorschach test. Virtually all of the negative reviews I've seen point out how stupid these people are, how unnecessary their torment really was.

And... for me, that was actually one of the best parts of the movie. I loved The Descent in large part because outside of the central terrible decision, the women are hyper-competent. They're better than me. Seeing their terror was a reminder that no matter how amazing and competent you are, there are things in life you can't control, and that's genuinely horrifying and tragic. The best qualities of the people you love won't save them.

But I loved Frozen for the opposite reason. These people screw up the way I've screwed up about one thousand times in the past year alone--except that they get the consequences, and I mostly haven't. I was overdrawn late last year (don't worry, Mom, it's fine!) by my own fault. Last weekend I left my laptop unattended in a public place because it was inconvenient to take it with me while I went to get my cafeteria food, and it didn't get stolen. If it had been taken I would fully expect everyone to tell me that I'd been stupid--even though all of us take risks like that all the time. If you don't take major risks fairly frequently, I'm guessing your caution is the result of neurosis rather than prudence. We walk down dark alleys and we make snap decisions and most of the time this turns out to be either awesome or neutral.

And then one day it's not.

I love that Kindertrauma's review emphasized the "there but for the grace of God go I" aspect of the movie. While I genuinely think it's well-paced and beautifully-shot, neither of those things will mean anything to you if you resist identifying with the characters. And I identified with them not because I have ever skied (I can't think of a recreational activity I'd enjoy less) but because I've often taken my safety for granted, or taken dumb risks. I try to do that a lot less now, because I'm not twenty anymore and I care about the people who care about me, but I'm not going to cram my life into the two-foot-by-two-foot box of sanity and safety.

I know that a lot of horror movies bank on characters making dumb decisions which are really hard to fathom. I liked the kids in Jeepers Creepers a lot, but I thought the initial decision which put them in danger was inexcusably stupid and naive, and threatened more lives than their own. So I get that a lot of the time, "Why the $#@! did you go in the barn?!" is a valid complaint about horror movies! I just don't think it applies to Frozen very well, because the bad decisions are so normal and small, and because the stupidity of those bad decisions isn't glossed over by the narrative at all.

So yeah: The kids in Frozen are stupid. That's why horrible things happen to them. They made a lot of small, understandable bad decisions, each one of which drew them down toward destruction. And when horrible things happen to you because of your own stupidity--I can guarantee, this will happen--you will not want or need people to tell you you should've thought twice.
THE IMAGINATION OF MAN'S HEART IS EVIL FROM HIS YOUTH. A few more thoughts on Black Swan and its reviews.

First, here's Kindertrauma, with prose as OTT as the movie itself! Much love, but as with the movie, you have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the review. I wonder if our mutual appreciation for this flick and Frozen (otherwise vastly different horror-shows) is because we were willing to watch two desperately flawed movies for what they did right? It's so hard to make recommendations, in general, because nothing is perfect, Nina, so it's a question of whether the misses will overwhelm the hits for any specific viewer. For me Black Swan hit hard. (Like this guy!)

Commonweal's review did one thing right, in comparing Black Swan to Repulsion. I wish I'd thought of that! But what's bizarre to me is that the review accused Black Swan of being cold, compassionless, unable to take the audience into empathy with a disturbed mind. And that's a criticism I'd make of Repulsion--despite its astonishing imagery--whereas I thought, as I tried to indicate earlier, that Black Swan actually has a lot of sympathy for all of its characters.

Repulsion also has a much more simplistic underlying psychological theory than Black Swan, I think. (Black Swan's dialogue appears startlingly on-the-nose, which is why I called it "crude," although I do appreciate that no one who speaks about Nina is actually right.)
AND THE MIDDLE AGES REALLY WEREN'T THAT BAD, WEREN'T THAT BAD! That Cato Unbound symposium on tradition(alism) has finished! You can read the whole thing from the top here. A lot of people really seemed to like this exchange, and it's definitely not the usual Cato fare (which I generally like!), so you might check it out.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

OH, ROMANCE IS NOT A CHILDREN'S GAME: A review of Black Swan, finally. [lightly edited bc I initially posted an unedited version--fixed some typos and rhetorical fumbles, but substantively this is the original post--sorry! A bit more on this movie later tonight.]

I saw this movie I think more than a month ago, but had a hard time figuring out how to talk about it. So this is my flailing attempt to describe why it completely worked for me despite often being crude.

I think The Vault of Horror is really on to something in labeling the movie "expressionist." Black Swan is almost a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for women. I know some viewers were disappointed that the movie pulled its punches on "body horror"; for me, Natalie Portman looking at herself in the mirror was vastly more terrifying than any H.R. Giger-influenced scuttling creation. I explained it to a friend by saying I thought Black Swan had achieved balletic body-horror: camp, because camp is always the razor's edge where tragedy meets parody. Loveless, cruel, and longing: that's how Black Swan woos its audience, all femme-fatale.

Black Swan gives us both repression-is-horror and self-expression-is-horror. I'm not sure I can think of a horror movie which managed to stay en pointe so completely. (For example, and I get that other people have other experiences of this movie, I thought that the hippies [eta: pagans, but you know what I mean!] in the original Wicker Man were so gross and silly that the movie's central conflict never felt real to me. I almost think that a horror movie, to succeed, needs you to love two conflicting sides [cf Juno and Beth in The Descent, for a case in which the obvious enemy is, for the audience, really just a way of raising the stakes and illuminating the conflicts between the women?].) Anyway, I loved Nina, I loved her naive idiot director, I loved her rivals, and I think if I were a better person I would have even loved her mother. I thought TVOH's line, "Nina's startling transformation into the black swan is the transformation of an individual who can only find release in the acceptance of that within her which also has the power to destroy her," was exactly not the point of the movie. Free to Be You and Me was not what this movie is about. More like, "The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n."

One reason I didn't post about this movie before is that I wasn't sure how to talk about the fact that there are at least two, maybe three, scenes in which Natalie Portman simulates masturbation. And I'm kind of intensely ambivalent about that, even beyond the part where I did actually look away from the screen for certain moments of the movie. First, I was reminded of how censorship breeds creativity. If the makers of this movie knew they couldn't get an actress, a human person, to deploy her sexuality in this creepy diffused poly- and abstracted-erotic way, I think they would have found some metaphorical ways to make their point.

But that point would always have been masturbation, I think. Black Swan is actually aligned with Catholic sexual morality insofar as masturbation is one manifestation of Nina's spiral down into herself. Even her fantasies about connection with another woman are presented, by the movie, as masturbatory hallucination. Nina is never granted eros. All she has is self--the hated self, the perfect and exalted self, but never anything or anyone but Nina.
Soldiers, this solitude
through which we go
is I.

When you tell somebody, "Express yourself"--you'd better be pretty sure you know who she really is inside. Black Swan, with its rage against both repression and self-actualization, is a movie against our times.
REMEMBERED DUE TO PREVIOUS POST: For the Yale sophomore (?) who loves Anne Sexton--pretty sure this song is a tribute to her.
SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS: A slightly edited email from a friend, who has traveled extensively in the Middle East and has studied the region (and who noted that these are "random disorganized thoughts," but I thought they were worth posting):
Random thoughts on the ongoing political-economic revolution in Egypt, some my own and others from Egyptian friends - of course things are happening very fast so all this could change:

1. If you have not been watching al-Jazeera English, you ought to give it a shot - their coverage is far better and more interesting than any of the American channels (where the analysis quite frankly borders on the bizarre) - live stream is here:

2. The police were defeated by the sheer number of protesters last week, which nobody predicted, not even the organizers of the original "day of wrath" on 1/25/11. Of course the organizers hit a nerve when they chose Police Day as their day of protest, since hatred of the police has reached new heights since the Khaled Saeed episode last summer: and

3. Nobody fears the 1.7-million strong police anymore after what happened in Tunisia. Tunisians showed Arabs everywhere that the secret police can be defeated, and Egyptians did that on the second massive day of protests, last Friday. The police then disappeared and were replaced by the army. There were lots of thoughts as to why the police withdrew from the streets: they allegedly ran out of tear gas because there were just too many protesters, some were going over to the protesters' side, and it was a regime plot to demonstrate what would happen if there was nobody to maintain security. And indeed, Cairo and other cities were chaotic, but much of the chaos was instigated by plainclothes policemen with police id cards found when they were arrested. Regime thugs also tried to loot the National Museum and burn cars in downtown Cairo. Some others tried to attack random homes to instill fear that would reduce the number of people out on the streets (since they'd want to protect their homes) - this failed too (see below). But the most important thing here is the absence of fear: the people know they can defeat one of the most corrupt and brutal police forces in the world (ranked by Amnesty Int'l as the worst in the world in use of torture).

4. The army is divided. The generals close to Mubarak are career officers and regime loyalists. They gave the orders to enforce the curfew, which proved impossible given the sheer numbers of people on the streets. The soldiers on the ground are conscripts and thus basically like the protesters, and lots of fraternization is taking place between the two sides - tea, sweets, flowers, giving children rides in tanks, etc. They've been told to enforce the curfew, are refusing to obey orders, and also refusing to mutiny. So in the army there is something of a standoff.

5. The Presidential Guard will probably show up tomorrow (today, by the time most of you read this) when the people march from Tahrir Square to the Presidential Palace. Naturally this force is loyal to Mubarak, and may open fire, but any massacre will only increase popular fury at the Pharaoh. Conversely, any concession on his part will be interpreted as a sign of weakness. He is finished - all these appointments of new ministers and a VP are just shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. The people know they can win, and it is only a matter of time, especially since the army has announced it will not fire on protesters.

6. The Muslim Brotherhood is definitely present on the streets, but it is not a leading force at all. A "Group of Ten" has formed in Tahrir Square to coordinate and includes only one from the MB. In any case, the organization is not extremist and its leadership is far closer to Erdogan than to Khomeini. So Egypt will not become Iran, as things are going now. Usually Muslim Brotherhood protests could get about 200K-300K Egyptians on the streets in all of Egypt. The current protests are far, far larger than this, suggesting that normally apolitical people who wouldn't stand for another extremist dictatorship are out marching (a thoroughly apolitical grandmother of a friend of mine went out to march in Alexandria). The Brotherhood will almost certainly be part of a new government, but it will be better for America to deal with it than to be seen as opposing the will of the people (again).

7. Lots of people say the Egyptians aren't ready for democracy and can't govern themselves, etc. This is totally absurd and even if it were true, Mubarak has failed abysmally at governing Egypt. In the last few days, the people organized neighborhood militias to guard against criminals and police thugs (this happened in Tunis as well), appointed a temporary parliament in Tahrir, guarded the National Museum and Library in Alexandria against fire and looting, directed traffic, and - most amazingly for anyone who's ever been to Egypt - actually cleaned the streets and organized garbage collection. In short, this is not Iraq post-Saddam. People know what needs to be done and are doing it.

8. The attempted shutdown of the internet and al-Jazeera was the regime's big mistake and an implicit acknowledgement of its lack of moral authority among the people. The word will always get out. In fact it pushed people onto the streets because there was no other way to find out what was happening. Even now, information is getting out electronically. The government cannot win this battle.

9. The best thing for the US to do is continue to offer messages of support for the protesters, endorse their rights, push Mubarak to step down, and otherwise stay out of the way. We should have used all our covert strength and will to push Mubarak out sometime over the last ten years, but I guess nobody thinks outside the box anymore in Langley. In the end we have far more to gain by supporting the Egyptian people and maintaining a legitimate democratic government than by supporting a hated and incompetent kleptocracy.
COLD FEVER: I would just like to warn you that Saturday Night Fever is one of the most depressing movies I've seen in a while.

No, really: At first you think you're just watching the story of a working-class shlub who has a bickering family and doesn't treat his girl very well. Kitchen-sink, sure, but not kitchen-Titanic.

What's interesting is that things start to barrel downhill right after Tony Manero's brother quits the priesthood. The family is devastated; everyone around ex-Father Manero still treats him like "the priest/he's the doctor/he can handle the shocks"; the disco becomes his confessional, and therefore his purgatory. After that it's just kind of a domino rally of abortion, race war, suicide, and other forms of despair.

Who won the sexual revolution?