Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Quiet American

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

American Sniper has racked up $500 million in global receipts, including over $100 million overseas. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor, and it won for best sound editing. American Sniper has also generated impassioned debate to match its half a billion dollar sales. An article from The Guardian is titled, “The real American sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?The New Republic published a piece that stated, “The Real ‘American Sniper’ Had No Remorse About the Iraqis He Killed.” Salon disclosed what it called “7 heinous lies ‘American Sniper’ is telling America.” These responses appear mild by comparison to many other reviews found on the Internet. The film is not without its admirers, of course. A.O. Scott in The New York Times praises much about the film (it is almost a great movie), though he also expresses serious reservations—which he doesn’t care to develop or emphasize. Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post argues that the divergent reactions the film has engendered testify to its quality as a film.


What made American Sniper the highest grossing film of 2014 as well as the highest grossing war movie ever made, surpassing Steven Spielberg’s romantic war porn epic Saving Private Ryan? Many Americans love to affix yellow ribbons to their cars and hang flags from their houses; the same faux sacrificial gesture leads them to buy movie tickets to support their troops. But Eastwood did something American audiences desperately wanted in a contemporary war film of a violent unstable world they do not understand and cannot abide. He enacted an America that takes for granted its essential, unquestioned goodness. This is not to deny that Eastwood folds a bit of moral nuance into the film, especially through Chris Kyle’s cinematic double (Bradley Cooper). Eastwood’s departures from Kyle’s memoir, a fairly basic Hollywood whitewashing, were necessary to make the idea of a movie based on Kyle’s service palatable. No one wants to watch a war movie about a racist psychopath. Yet Eastwood’s introduction of minimal moral complexity serves a much greater political master, American thoughtlessness, which is one key to the maintenance of America’s national self-conception, its way of life, and self-assigned role in the world.




The film opens with Kyle on the roof of a building in an Iraqi city providing protection for American troops on the streets below. In a post-apocalyptic landscape, what appear to be a mother and son emerge from a building in the path of slowly advancing American forces. She looks suspicious to Kyle and he is right. She is concealing a grenade which she hands to her son who then makes a move toward Kyle’s comrades. He has no hope of success whether or not Kyle is watching. Nevertheless, Kyle drops him. The mother picks up the grenade and Kyle drops her, too. These kills impress Kyle’s bodyguard, but not Kyle. He wants no plaudits for what he’s just done. This is his duty, his profession. He’s supposed to be good at it. Circumstances alone dictate how his skills will be deployed. Kyle’s modesty, moreover, enables American audiences to take undue pride in what he does. Throughout the film, Kyle merely tolerates the praise that he generates and the reputation he earns. His nickname, the Legend, does not seem to please him very much. Again, the more he seems unimpressed, the more an American audience will insist that he is a true American hero. He saves American lives. No criticism can trump that brute fact. Of course, German snipers protected their own soldiers during World War II in the foreign cities the Wehrmacht invaded and conquered and they don’t tend to be subjects of admiration, as far as I know.

Yet American Sniper has touched a (raw) nerve in American audiences. We are effectively forced to see Iraq through Chris Kyle’s apparent God’s-eye view. Without warning we find ourselves thrown onto a rooftop looking through his sniper scope. The spatially superior position mimics and reinforces the moral superiority we (Americans) feel. The scope also induces a sense of claustrophobia. This is unlike Apocalypse Now, which folds dissonance into the operatic assault that launches the film when the eye of the helicopters joined to Wagner’s “Die Walk├╝re” is punctuated by another view of the villagers as the attack is about to commence. Coppola disconcerts: are we appalled by a thrilling attack or thrilled by an appalling attack?  In American Sniper the world seen through the rifle scope is reduced to a simple matter of life or death, where violence must be employed for good (for life, for American life). A split second before Kyle registers his first kill shot, Eastwood pauses to offer Chris’s backstory. The interruption feels interminable. We know we’re being manipulated. American troops are in mortal danger. We want the war to continue. We want him to pull the trigger—now. We feel the urgent necessity of violence. Eastwood has seized hold of us at a visceral level, no matter what we think of the war.


Since Kyle is credited with 160 kills, we know what’s coming next. But Eastwood makes us experience it right along with Kyle—often as Kyle. We see what he sees. We hear what he hears. We breathe when he breathes. We’re calm if he’s calm. We’re tense if he’s tense. We decide as he decides. We kill as he kills. Eastwood draws us in cinematically, forcing us to identify with Kyle. He also forces us to react. We anticipate Kyle’s kill shots. In his baptism of fire, having killed the son, we can’t believe he hasn’t shot the mother already. What is he waiting for? Shoot! She actually manages to throw the grenade in the direction of American troops. That was (too) close. He’d better do better next time, we say to ourselves. To make sure of it, as he watches over American troops, we watch over him. The film is called American Sniper, after all. It refers to Kyle, but only to Kyle?


Either way, one function of the opening scene is to disclose the tactics to which the enemy resorts. It’s matched by a later scene of the Butcher, a resistance leader fighting American occupation, disciplining with a power drill Iraqis who collaborate with the invaders. What kind of upside down world has America entered? What kind of people does these things to their own? Kyle refers to Iraqis as savages and speaks of the evil he sees. Kyle tolerates no criticism of America, of the occupation, of his commitment to his calling and saving American lives, including from his wife. He even blames one fellow soldier’s death on a letter he wrote home that was dubious of the American war.  Kyle’s narcissistic callousness is so profound that he routinely talks to his wife while in combat, a sadistic habit that on more than one occasion leaves her wondering whether she’s listening to his death, especially when he’s unable to respond to her pleas to know what’s happening and if he’s alright. He is an unthinking patriot. His shallowness poses no problem, however, because he is right. America is the greatest country in the world. What we do is justified because we decided to do it, anywhere in the world. Do you actually need to think to reach these self-evident positions? Indeed, thought might get in the way and complicate things. Chris Kyle is one degree separated from Forrest Gump.


Kyle served four tours in Iraq out of a burning hatred for a world that does not recognize, let alone appreciate, American exceptionalism. While the bombings of American embassies in eastern Africa in the 1ate 1990s may have triggered Kyle’s enlistment, the September 11 attacks on the United States extracted a more visceral reaction from him. Having just learned the news, while his wife is in tears, he stares at the television screen—not unmoved but enraged, no doubt thinking that someone has to answer for these attacks on America. He will make sure of it. Kyle is the right man for the job. He has been hunting and killing living creatures since he was a young boy with his father unmoved by the taking of life. His father divides the world into three: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. He insists that his son be a sheepdog, a protector, but he has raised a wolf, a predator. Does the military make him a serial killer? Or does the killer in him find a home in the military? A moment of undecidability in the film.

What does seem certain is that the likes of Chris Kyle make it possible for the United States to fight imperial wars, which means that the putative warrior class to which he aspires does not serve American democracy but routinely endangers and compromises it. Not only do they unthinkingly serve their imperial overlords; they also reflexively support them at the ballot box to keep them in office and in position to wage their wars. The true democratic heroes of this era were those young people like Ehren Watada, who refused to serve in Iraq and risked court martial and jail as a result. As William James once remarked, it doesn’t take much to rush into battle and kill when you are joined by tens of thousands of others hell-bent on doing exactly the same thing. Refusing to join the military herd and participate in its depredations, on the other hand, is a genuine act of civic courage, perhaps one that a democracy should value above all others.


Not Eastwood, though. The American military has been assigned a task, perhaps an impossible one, and it will execute it to the best of its ability. If it finds itself in distant urban wastelands, don’t ask how it is that cities have been emptied in the wake of America’s liberation. It doesn’t matter. Eastwood focuses the narrative on narrowly defined missions—clear Iraqi cities of murderous fanatics house by house and kill them; locate the Butcher, an al-Qaeda in Iraq leader of those fanatics, and kill him; hunt Mustafa, Kyle’s rival superhero sniper hunting American soldiers, and kill him, too—the war is reduced (and distorted) to simple, immediate terms: us or them. In this context, Kyle represents American military power and efficiency on full display. Thanks to several tense battle scenes, America can let itself believe it is winning a war it should not have waged in the first place and “concluded” disastrously. And even though American forces suffer some horrific casualties, they succeed in their assignments and, in Kyle’s last, most daring and dangerous mission, escape in the nick of time. It has all the characteristics of a classic western with a reluctant hero.


Like John McCain in Vietnam, however, Chris Kyle in Iraq is no hero. He can’t be. The illegality and illegitimacy of the Iraq aggression won’t allow it. But Eastwood’s film is structured to allow American audiences to reach that conclusion anyway at a visceral level. One veteran who runs into Kyle in Texas thanks him for saving his life and makes a point of telling Kyle’s son that his father is a hero. Once again, Kyle is uncomfortable with any such praise. This only means the audience has to do the work of accepting it for him, which Eastwood arranges. On his last tour he is once again faced with the prospect of shooting a young boy, this one perhaps only 6 or 7 years old. That he does not have to impose the penalty of death to which all Iraqi males have been tentatively sentenced on another child provides him with a deep sense of relief. The war has taken its toll on him and he is no longer capable of fighting it. Nor is he comfortable with what he has had to do to win it, his bluster to the contrary notwithstanding. We have to do terrible things to protect our country and those who defend it, but we suffer moral loss in having to do them. American goodness shines through even heinous actions. American Sniper thus approaches a limited grandeur and simultaneously sabotages it. Perhaps most important of all, accordingly, whatever damage war does to the people who fight it, they soon recover, as Chris Kyle did. Having shown signs of PTSD, they soon disappear as he spends time with other vets who revel in his mere presence. They heal each other. Thus, neither the country nor its mercenaries have to live very long with the consequences of their morally problematic actions. Any sense of moral loss is temporary, which is not how moral loss works. The film plays with moral complexity but ultimately privileges comforting resolutions, that is, thoughtlessness.


Would it occur to American audiences that Kyle’s beloved country had laid waste to a sovereign nation for no good reason, that it put him in a position to murder mothers and sons and treat it as self-defense? Would it occur to an American audience that Kyle’s first victims were right to do whatever they could to resist and inflict damage on the foreign army that occupies but cannot conquer their country? Would it occur to an American audience that while Chris Kyle may be protecting his fellow soldiers he is also an active participant in a sequence of war crimes against the Iraqi people for which he will pay a price but not those who sent him there? Would it occur to an American audience, accordingly, that they are on the wrong side and “rooting” for the villains, that Mustafa is the real anti-hero of American Sniper? What do the numbers say?


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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Naomi Klein: In The Eye of the Anthropocene

William E. Connolly
Author, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, Democratic Activism.

“The truth is that this is the hardest book I have ever written.” (Klein, p26)

Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), knows that climate change is an eerie thing. To engage it deeply is to rethink a set of engrained categories organized around subjects and objects, culture and nature, capitalism and communism, and the trajectory of time itself. So we often try not to think about it. On the other hand, discernible changes in arctic glacier flows, inedible fish, rising global temperatures, depleted coral reefs, floods in low lying islands and cities, ocean acidification, rapid species extinctions, and extreme weather events draw us back to the issue. So many people go back and forth.  To and fro.
 That was the yo yo logic Naomi Klein followed, too, until a few years ago.  Near the end of the book she reviews struggles she went through to conceive and bear a child.  After various medical strategies failed she talked with some naturalists. She then retreated from the rigors of air travel for a while, spent more time in western Canada away from a hectic Toronto life, hiked a lot, and altered her diet. A pregnancy followed that was carried to term, though she does not guarantee the life regime changes were the cause. Nonetheless, now she folds the outer ecology of life more intimately into its inner quality. She also thinks about the future facing her two year old son.   
Klein does not, at least on a charitable reading, tether attachment to the future to a universal, reproductive logic. Rather, this is the way her own attachments crystallized to make climate change THE topic to pursue. Numerous singles and couples build rich lives without children. We are nonetheless variously tethered to the future through the things we build, the houses we repair, the students we teach, the writing we undertake, the communities we support, the labor unions we sustain, the churches we attend, and the movements that vitalize us.  The dilemma is that the extractive system in which we participate is now based upon a future that is self-destructing. It rings increasingly hollow to many who carry out its role imperatives. The danger is that many respond to this bind with aggressive denial, insistent withdrawal, or even the back and forth logic that plagued Klein until recently. Klein’s project is to intensify our ties to a possible future at odds with the one the extractive culture is building. 
Advanced capitalism generates innumerable pressures, ambitions, compensatory  consumption desires, and temptations to delay, resist or deny pursuit of such critical attachments.  Cynicism, withdrawal, opportunism and aggressive denial are merely four of its temptations.  But Klein’s wager is that, once we connect the future trajectory actually underway to the climate induced shocks we increasingly face, the disparate social movements now in play may expand to transform our condition. You encounter a new event--a severe flood, a storm that floods the city, a fracking corporation rumbling into your neighborhood, an oil pipeline projected for your area, water bubbling up from storm pipes onto streets, a devastating hurricane that breaks through flimsy bulwarks built for another era. Now you become ready to rethink and connect. 
This is a critique of the way late capitalism assaults human ecology, and more besides. For, as she says, Soviet communism also spawned a huge extraction and emission machine before it collapsed, generating more per capita CO2 emissions than several capitalist states. And Mao Zedong insisted that "man must conquer nature". Moreover, some capitalist states---e.g., Germany, with its recent drive to renewable energy—secrete far lower CO2 emissions than others—e.g., the United States and China. Yes, the trajectory of climate change is entangled today above all with neoliberal capitalism. But it is also tied to compensatory modes of consumption not entirely reducible to that source, to specific religious traditions, and to a powerful drive since at least the time of Francis Bacon to treat nature as a deposit of resources for human mastery and exploitation. It is important neither to give short shrift to the primacy of neoliberal capitalism nor to ignore other forces with some degree of autonomy that contribute to this drive. 
In chapter One Klein argues that climate deniers are right about one thing: If the climate science is accepted and we respond adequately, radical changes must be made in the neoliberal organization of life. That truth, indeed, is a key source of denialism among many neoliberals, Fox talking heads, and corporate chiefs.  The deniers say that the changes proposed would subject the free market to extensive regulation, that taxes for the rich would soar, that the basic structure of consumption would change. They are correct on all counts. The thing they are wrong about is the repeated assertion that an impersonal organization of capitalist markets ensures impersonal rationality---each new meltdown disproves that assumption.  Klein could do a bit more to show how changes in the infrastructure and ethos of consumption are closely linked. For when you move from the state and corporate mandated infrastructure of hi-tech medical care, private health insurance, massive road construction for auto and truck travel, and a fossil fuel energy grid you can also move toward an infrastructure that is more ecological, inclusive and egalitarian.  Such changes, in turn, make it more possible for people to alter the ethos of consumption in which they participate, so that a positive spiral between ethos and infrastructure is set into motion.   

Early in the book Klein fastens our attention on the small island of Nauru in the South Pacific. It was a beautiful little gem before, first, guano hunters dug out its center, second, ocean acidification decimated sea life in the area, third, rising sea levels began to reduce its size from the outside, and, finally, it was deployed by Australia as an outpost for concentration camps to imprison boat refugees from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Pakistan seeking to escape war-torn areas.
Nauru has been destroyed from inside out and outside in. It is simultaneously a sad reality and a powerful metaphor: “the lesson Nauru has to teach us is not only about the dangers of fossil fuel emissions.  It is about the mentality that allows so many of us, and our ancestors, to believe that we could relate to the earth with such violence in the first place—to dig and drill out the substances we desired while thinking little of the trash left behind...This carelessness is at the core of an economic model some political scientists call extractivism… Extractivism is a nonreciprocal dominance based relationship with the earth, one purely of the taking.  It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue. “ (p.169) Here, as at other junctures, Klein folds care for the future into detailed engagement with a specific situation. The power of this text, to my ear, thus exceeds that of her earlier work on capitalism, useful as that was. As she analyzes each situation we feel visceral dispositions within us begin to ripple.   

Klein offers excellent reasons why big, high-tech climate fixes are dangerous, even as she reports how (and why) large corporations, politicians, and moderate think-tanks favor such fixes. She also reviews how, in the 1980s and '90s, several leading environmental groups lost their way by becoming closely tied to the “market solutions” the corporate world was prepared to fund and entertain. Though she does not note it even a critic of neoliberal avoidism such as Paul Krugman is too closely linked to market solutions than to more radical changes in production and consumption priorities. This part of the book is effective stuff, if familiar to some degree in other books, such as Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters
 The most compelling chapter to me is chapter 9. It is entitled “Blockadia: The New Climate Warriors”. Here Klein engages locals on the ground at numerous sites who pierce through old market schemes and advertising strategies as they mount protest movements. “Blockadia” is in fact a floating collection of movements popping up whenever open pit mines, fracking, or tar sands pipelines are in the works. These movements expose and contest the latest stage of extractive capitalism. As we roll through such movements in Greece, Nigeria, New Brunswick, Ithaca, Manchester, New South Wales, Inner Mongolia, Oregon, Alberta, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota, as we encounter urban and suburban protesters, indigenous activists, and academics exposing and contesting false promises, health hazards, refinery explosions, aquifer damage, river pollution and soaring C02 emissions, the sense of a burgeoning cross-territorial constellation begins to crystallize. Klein helps us to discern how a series of disparate movements could begin to merge into a larger constellation, how each provides ammunition, tactical insight, publicity, and moral support to the others.
  She also shows how academic research, exposing accidents, effects and dangers that states and extractive companies cover up, have become more active in some of the very areas now under attack. Research into toxic effects by geologists and others at Cornell provides a case in point. It was probably spurred by a fracking campaign close to home in central New York State. Here is Klein: “The various toxic threats these communities are up against seem to be awakening impulses that are universal, even primal—whether it is the fierce drive to protect children from harm, or a deep connection to the land that had previously been suppressed... Social media in particular has allowed geographically isolated communities to tell their stories to the world, and for those stories, in turn, to become part of a transnational narrative about resistance to a common ecological crisis.” (p.303) 
Klein could have talked about the “blowback”-- those ugly practices of "pacification" traditionally farmed out to colonies by imperial states and then brought back to control urban minorities at home. Here, blowback takes the form of destructive extractive practices previously hidden in places that elites, liberals, and innocent citizens could ignore. Blowback now means that the "center" and the "periphery" are merging as extractive industries move into previously protected territory.  

I hope it is clear how impressed I am with this study. That is not to say that the book is entirely sufficient to the huge task it sets itself. I will list a few things that might extend Klein's work, in the spirit of augmentation. 
First, to understand why the United States is an outlier among the older capitalist states, it is important to grasp how neoliberalism in this country has been bolstered by angry energy emanating from the right edge of evangelicalism.  The "tea party" is not a new thing, despite media suggestions. The “evangelical/capitalist resonance machine”, as I call it, has been active for at least four decades. Its two entangled constituencies—neoliberals and evangelicals—intensify the worst in each other. This constellation is thus not well understood by those who think the explanation of economic life must invoke economic factors alone. In this machine neoliberals demand market deregulation in pursuit of power, privilege and ideological hegemony. 
The right edge of the evangelical movement, on the other hand, is insulted by the very assertion that human economic activity could change something in (nonhuman) nature that God has created such as climate. And several of its leaders now invest the providential hand of God in the operation of capitalist markets. The two constituents together thus intensify opposition to exactly the things egalitarians and ecologists care about most. As I have written in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, evangelism and neoliberalism resonate together… [they] are bound by similar orientations to the future. One party discounts its responsibilities to the future of the earth to vindicate extreme economic entitlement now, while the other does so to prepare for the day of judgment against nonbelievers. These electrical charges resonate back and forth, generating a political machine much more potent than the aggregation of its parts. (48-9). What’s more, their combined strength in southern and western states gives  climate denialism impressive power in Congress. To overcome this reactionary resonance machine a pluralist assemblage of workers, professionals, farmers, minorities, nontheists and church/temple/mosque devotees of several types is needed. 
Second, Klein is correct in saying that an accumulation of role changes by individuals and groups cannot resolve the climate crisis.  Rapid changes in state supported renewable energy, the infrastructure of consumption, and the structure of taxation, etc. are needed, as she shows.  But the truth of this point may encourage her to underplay another. As people adopt new practices--buying used clothes and furniture from volunteer organizations, dropping the use of lawn pesticides, bringing new speakers to their church, trading bikes, buses or zip cars for cars, using trains whenever possible, supporting local pressure to reform garbage and waste collection, installing solar panels if they can afford to do so, writing and publicizing eco-centered blogs, joining community gardens in the city, teaching new courses, supporting eco-concerns in their labor unions, and so on endlessly--the cumulative result does not only improve things modestly. It connects participants as constituencies, and it works on the subterranean dispositions and inclinations of the experimenters themselves.  It prepares us to heed new climate events and to support larger pressures to restructure the economy.    

Third, while Klein digs into the details of how corporate practices impinge upon climate, she avoids exploration of the partially self-organizing processes of climate, ocean currents, species evolution, cross-species disease transmission, wetlands, and glacier flows themselves.  It is indispensable to join her work to studies doing exactly that, as for example Fred Pearce starts to do in With Speed and Violence. Then we will understand how melting glaciers become self-amplifying as the enlarged amount of open water absorbs more heat rather than reflecting it; we will grasp how the West Antarctic Shelf responds to human induced triggers with its own amplifiers that greatly exceed the effect of these triggers. We will deepen our insights into how triggers, amplifiers, and tipping points work and how they intersect with capitalist extraction, pollution and emissions.  “[The] dampening of destructive elements” in self-organizing systems, I have written, “requires self-reflective intervention by the human uses of that system. You can call the latter a self-conscious regulation of the system needed when its self-organization creates dangerous or exploitive results” (The Fragility of Things, 83). 
Photo by ANDREW C. REVKIN
We may also begin to work more actively on those nature/culture and subject/object dualities that helped to blind so many scholars to the Anthropocene until so late in the twentieth century.  If sociocentrism is the attempt to explain political economy through categories that give too much autonomy to social forces such as profit, or relations of production, or markets , or state practices, or preference schedules, or some combination of these, critical studies today must mix accounts of planetary, nonhuman systems with active self-organizing powers of their own into accounts of capitalism. And vice versa. To the extent climate change involves planetary forces with partial self-organizing capacities, sociocentrism in the human sciences and cultural internalism in the humanities must be revised significantly. That is one of the reasons I am drawn to the theme of the Anthropocene—the 200 year period when industrial emissions have helped to reshape climate. Supported by many geologists and climatologists, it explains both how climate, ocean currents, and glaciers periodically went through rather rapid changes before modern economies were founded and how today emission and pollution triggers emanating from neoliberal capitalism galvanize natural amplifiers that exceed the force of those triggers.  
Finally, the bracing account of diverse anti-extraction movements that Klein provides may encourage us to project a cross-country beacon that could draw them together. In the near future it is both urgently needed and perhaps possible to organize a cross-country general strike to place pressure on states, corporations, unions, churches, banks, universities, and localities from the inside and outside simultaneously, pressing all of them to take rapid action to reorganize the economies of extraction, production, consumption, and finance.  I have explored such a need and possibility in a couple of posts in The Contemporary Condition. (my Latour piece and the Obama Swarming piece). The idea may also grow organically out of the accumulated movements Klein supports. Such an action would speak to the planetary condition and urgency of today. 
Each of these points, I believe, is consonant with the spirit of Klein’s endeavor; none detracts from its analytical power or inspirational force. Indeed, This Changes Everything is an exemplary study, informing and illuminating us as it jostles the molecular habits that help to define us. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate to allow Klein the last word: "When I started this journey, most of the resistance movements standing in the way of the fossil fuel frenzy either did not exist or were a fraction of their current size. All were significantly more isolated from one another that they are today...Most of us had never heard of fracking... All of this has changed so rapidly as I have been writing that I have had to race to keep up… In these existing and nascent movements we now have clear glimpses of the kind of dedication and imagination demanded of everyone who is alive and breathing during climate change's 'decade zero'." (pp. 451-452)

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