Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Danny Postel, Robert L. Scott, Iran, Bush, and the Left

In his essay ‘Iran, Solidarity, and the Left,’ Danny Postel examines the 2003 student-led protests against the Iranian government that occurred in Tehran and the coverage of those events by legitimately leftist media. Students were savagely beaten and threatened by agents of the government, often with disappearances that have yet to be explained. Searching the typical progressive websites, he found no mention at all of these events, and after searching through a large portion of the political blogosphere, Postel found only one account of the event, reported by Andrew Sullivan. Where was this account found? On the website of the National Review, a right-wing magazine. (This is also interesting since Sullivan is now a commentator for The Atlantic, a moderately left-leaning magazine.)

Postel goes on to quote Matthew Yglesias, also now a columnist for The Atlantic, who said that ‘Normally, the global peace movement and political left would respond to oppression by an authoritarian, theocratic regime with outrage and protest.’ Instead, there was a seemingly bewildering silence from these communities.

He tries to explain the reason for this silence in the essay and theorizes that while no one on the left could sympathize with the homophobic, anti-Semitic theocrats in Tehran, they seem to hate the American right more. Members of the left, in Postel’s view, are unable to align themselves with the imperialist powers at work on the right, especially when considering that this imperialist rhetoric is emerging from the Bush Administration.

Postel goes on to draw comparisons between the Iranian student protesters and the American left, claiming that neither are pro-imperialism, and therefore the American left should not remain silent merely because their rhetoric would seemingly parrot that of the Bush Administration. He claims that opposing imperialism is essential, but not sufficient. In addition to speaking out against the Iranian government, as the administration is doing, Postel suggests that the left expose their rhetoric for what it is: hollow words, said not to benefit Iranian students but to gain the power and oil that lies there.

This calls to mind ‘On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic,’ an essay by Robert L. Scott. He identifies that the point of view that asserts that man is unable to be certain but must ‘act in the face of uncertainty to create situational truth entails three ethical guidelines: toleration, will, and responsibility.’ Within the context of the first of these principles, toleration, Scott claims that when one’s ‘undertaking involves the belief and action of others, one spoils his own potentiality for knowing…if one fails to respect the integrity of the expression and the action of others.’ The left’s lack of understanding, in Postel’s view, does not respect the beliefs or behaviors of the protesters, and therefore is unethical.

The will to make a change is Scott’s second guideline. He asserts that inaction, failing to take on the burden of participating in the development of contingent truth, ought to be considered an ethical failure. Postel would of course say that the inaction on the part of the American left in supporting the Iranian student protesters as an ethical failure, for they are not helping to define an emerging truth: that from at least Postel’s point of view, the behaviors of the Iranian government are abominable and worthy of public outrage in the part of Americans.

Scott goes on to say that one must be responsible as well; one must ‘recognize the conflicts of the circumstances he is in, maximizing the potential good and accepting responsibility for the inevitable harm.’ Postel strongly argues that the American left does understand the circumstances they are in with regards to the Iranian conflict since they have decided to remain silent rather than produce rhetoric that aligns with the Bush Administration’s condemnations of these acts. But in his view, they are not maximizing the potential good since he feels that much more could be achieved by vocally speaking out against Iran and siding with these protesters. In his mind, they are natural allies regardless of the Administration’s point of view.

Essentially, Postel is claiming that the action of the American left with regards to the Iranian student-led protests have been unethical, and using arguments that reflect the work of Robert L. Scott, is urging the left to start acting in a more responsible way, to maximize the greatest good, and to speak out.

Monday, April 14, 2008

American Splendor: The Film

Imagine a movie based on a true life story, one that is not only based by actually really close to the actual material. Imagine too that the characters in this movie, who represent real people, are regularly alongside these real life counterparts. Imagine a film where the real life person narrates the story of his character, frequently commenting on how this is just a movie and not really him at all. It sounds like something John Barth or David Foster Wallace would come up with, something that would likely require a great amount of attention and a little ingenuity to make sense of.

But that isn’t the case with American Splendor. The directors of this movie have done a remarkable job, but all would have been for not if they would have tried to confound the audience with their aforementioned stylistic choices. These aren’t postmodern tricks, a questioning of identity in the contemporary world. Instead, these choices are just part of the fabric of the movie, the way things are.

Many shots in the movie are framed through the panel of a comic strip, with titles like ‘Our story begins…’ Hilariously, as Harvey and another character walk out of a room and the camera angle switches to a hallway view, the frame in noted with ‘Seconds later.’ The most interesting use of comic panels though is after Harvey has started to get the comic produced, and various actions from his life are transformed on screen into inked drawing from the comics. A waitress fills Harvey’s cup with coffee as he sits in a diner, and the scene is transformed into a drawing with a thought balloon saying ‘I’m desperately lonely and horny as hell.’ Just before Harvey meets his future wife, a person who only knows him from the pages of his comic, she sees various versions of the character waiting for her in the train station.

Both Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, who play the fictional versions of Harvey and his wife Joyce respectively, do amazing work in this film. But the real standout is 30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander, who plays Harvey’s friend Toby. Toby is a truly original character, a guy who has no problem driving across the state to see Revenge of the Nerds. While Toby is likely a borderline autistic, something that is mentioned in the film, he is never treated as less than an equal by anyone. He is a funny character, but we don’t laugh at him in a cruel way.

The film also depicts Pekar’s experiences on Late Night with David Letterman using actual footage from the show, again interrupting the actors with their real life counterparts. I’m sure that many know Pekar from these appearances, but they were a little before my time and I didn’t even know about them until the movie. I do wish we could have seen the actual footage of Pekar’s disastrous last appearance, rather than seeing the silhouettes of Letterman and Pekar from behind, with a poor vocal imitation of Letterman. This was the only point in the movie where I felt friction between the different portrayals of the characters, yet that may have been a necessity depending upon the availability of that footage.

I began to wonder why the director’s chose to make this film the way they did, rather than just presenting a straightforward documentary. Other such documentaries, like Crumb, have been quite successful. But this approach serves to intensify the material since we can see it played out in front of us rather than only recounted, yet also serves as a comic distance between the real life, somewhat sad story of this man and the playfulness the narrative takes

Monday, April 7, 2008

Forged in Fire by Michael A. Martin & Andy Mangels

On the surface, the new Captain Sulu novel, Forged in Fire, is full of a number of good ideas. How did Sulu gain command of the Excelsior? What precisely led to Curzon Dax’s blood oath with Kang, Kor, and Koloth to feast on the still beating heart of the Albino’? And how did the smooth headed Klingons get their ridges back?

However, these ideas are presented in an ultimately unsatisfying way. While the ridges subplot was handled well, it didn’t really fit with the overall narrative of the story. But the story is ultimately going to be unsatisfying when you start from such a flawed premise. The events of the DS9 episode ‘Blood Oath’ are the basis for pretty much the entir
e novel, and it establishes that not only did the Albino escape from the Klingons and Dax, he also managed to kill their firstborn sons. Therefore, we know when starting the novel that the Albino won’t be brought to justice within the novel, no matter what happens. 480 pages that lead up to an unsatisfying conclusion that we already knew was coming. Of course, this is assuming that a reader is familiar with the episode; if one isn't, the book probably seems to just abruptly end without any real resolution at all.

If Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels couldn’t bring something new and compelling to the story to give the reader a sense of closure, then maybe the conception of this novel should have been rethought. That said, their prose was capable, as always, and their characterizations were well done: from people we know well, like Sulu and Sarek, to original characters like Cutler, all seemed like realistic, believable people.

Limited scope is also an issue. While the plot appears at first to be complicated and spanning a range of times, the flashbacks merely serve to set up small plot elements in the story and aren’t returned to afterwards. The narrative essentially boils down to a terrorist attack, followed by our heroes chasing the terrorist for the next 300+ pages. It’s not any more complicated than that.

I sat down to watch ‘Blood Oath’ this afternoon after finishing the novel last night. I’d forgotten how uneven and undramatic it was. (Not to mention how bad an actor I find Terry Farrell to be.) But it did help me put a point on something that I find monotonous and unrealistic.

I understand that vengeance is not accepted behavior by the Federation of the 24th century, but why does every damn Klingon story have to drive this point home? Both Sulu in the novel and Sisko in the episode take great strides to make their abhorrence for the Klingon’s oath known. But are condemnation and understanding really irreconcilable things? Have we not all had feeling of vengeance that we haven’t acted upon? Could we not look at a man whose son has been killed and understand why he would seek the death of the killer even if we felt it would be the wrong thing to do?

For all the permissiveness and acceptance the Federation supposedly has for other peoples and culture, we don’t really seem to actually see it all that much. Perhaps it is the writers’s fault; they use humanity (the Federation) as the inflexible moral line, the white in what is actually a grey situation. But it would be nice to see some of the novel authors try and combat this practice, given that they tout their freedom to go places that the television shows couldn’t.