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By Bryan Newbury
October 20, 2008


Nearly six years ago, the United States committed itself to a costly and embarrassing debacle. In the end accounting, we’ll be looking at a $3 trillion price tag, in addition to the 4,181 (and counting) servicemen who’ve died in country (the statistics on casualties are subject to some creative accounting… it is hard to know the true number of American soldiers killed and maimed because of this), the 300,000 to 1.5 million Iraqi deaths (who’s counting?), and a few generations of international leprosy that make the 21st Century a hell of a time to manufacture Canadian flag backpack decals.  

While it is obvious that the likes of W., Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice and Kristol, among others in the neocon rogues’ gallery, were the team that brought us the fiasco, much has been made of who the bench team of blame might be. Is it the Congress, for rubber-stamping virtually any action the administration suggested? Is it a complicit media, who took a pass on their charge as the Fourth Estate and assumed the role of official stenographers? Could it be the American people, who should’ve known better despite government and media propaganda that seemed to fool only us?  

As Errol Morris artfully depicts in Standard Operating Procedure, the above list of possible co-conspirators has come to their own comforting conclusion. The people to blame, as it turns out, are low-level enlistees of the United States Army. 

While S.O.P. is a film about the Iraq War, specifically the sickening spectacle of Abu Ghraib, it is also a meditation on the role of women in the military, the idea of complicity in evil, and the digital camera. Morris is keen to point out that photographs are, in some ways, the central characters of the film. We begin with them and end with them, and most of S.O.P. pontificates on how a still photo, or even a moving picture, can simultaneously rescue events from the memory hole and frame our perception of events.  

Morris makes his case through a host of interviews with people involved in our war crimes theme park. We see the story through the eyes of the men and women who were implicated in the photographs our nation will not live down any time soon, from the PFCs and sergeants who actually took the fall, to a private contractor, up to Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who fell on the sword the way generals do, not by way of a jail term but by professional hand slapping. As her interviews progress, it is hard to see whether even the hand slapping was merited, and she offers a few names who could be added to our ever-growing Nuremberg list.  

The film challenges our perceptions at every turn. More surprising than any revelation we get about the infamous Lyndie England are the photographs and letters of SPC Sabrina Harman, best known for her smiling, thumbs-up shot with a severely beaten dead man in a body bag full of melting ice. The question seems obvious, but, until Morris bothered, seems to have gone unasked: the shot is pretty gruesome, and obviously this young woman is quite disturbed… but, who killed the guy? This scene is the major chord around which the Abu Ghraib torture photos ascend and descend. When these pictures came out, people the world over were rightly disgusted, saddened and angered. Given the visceral reaction they elicited, it should be little surprise that the scope of investigation was myopic. The emotional impact of on-the-ground proof that we do indeed torture was such that the only psychological response for the vast majority of people is to recoil, punish the act and not go into the matter any further, giving birth and breath to the “bad apple” account of events. Send the grunts to the brig and this water will make our hands clean. Read the rest of this entry »


By Sarah Boslaugh
October 16, 2008

Seldom has a film been more aptly titled than Saving Marriage, a new documentary by Mike Roth and John Henning which traces the political course of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts from November 2003 through June 2007. The film presents a diversity of voices, both for and against same-sex marriage, and makes one point crystal clear: people on both sides of this issue believe they are, in fact, saving marriage.  

No wonder tempers run high. On the one hand the film includes people such as Mitt Romney (governor of Massachusetts, 2003-2007) who states his belief that “marriage is a special institution between a man and a woman” and Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute, who says he believes that “Same sex marriage degrades the value of my marriage. It says to me that my uniqueness as a man, as a father and as a husband is irrelevant.” For both men, traditional marriage is part of their identity as well as a fundamental institution which they feel is crucial to American civil society. 

On the other hand, Saving Marriage interviews many gay and lesbian people who feel they are denied both the legal protections and the cultural significance of marriage, for no reason other than prejudice against their sexual preference. The cultural significance is not to be minimized: as activist Amy Hunt puts it, you grow up seeing your relatives and friends get married and it’s the most important day of their life, and then you realize that “you can’t have the most important day in your life” because the law doesn’t recognize your relationship with your partner. Neither are the legal protections: one gay man interviewed for the film relates a terrifying experience in which his child (co-parented with his male partner) was seriously ill and when he tried to learn more about the child’s condition a nurse seemed mainly interested in interrogating him about his relationship to the child (which did not fit into any legally-recognized category).  

Saving Marriage presents its story chronologically, alternating between the progress of same-sex marriage through the courts and legislature and personal stories of how members of the gay and lesbian community were changed by the court’s decision. The story begins on November 18, 2003, when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry was unconstitutional. Governor Mitt Romney ordered that marriage licenses be issued to same-sex couples beginning May 17, 2004, and gay and lesbian couples all over the state began shopping for rings and planning their vows. Lest anyone doubt the eagerness of gay and lesbian couples to marry, on the night of May 16, many couples lined up at Boston City Hall so they could apply for a marriage license immediately after midnight. Roth and Henning are there with their cameras, documenting the happy couples applying for their marriage licenses, and some of the subsequent marriages as well. 

However, those opposing gay marriage also launched into action “about one nanosecond” after the Supreme Court decision, according to one of the lesbian activists interviewed in Saving Marriage. The opposition was successful in communicating their displeasure to the state legislature, which in March 2004 voted to allow the public the right to vote on a constitutional amendment which would override the Supreme Court decision and ban same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. This effort was often couched in phrases such as “let the people decide” although, as one of the gay activists points out, matters of civil rights are not customarily left up to a popular decision. What if some of “the people” wanted to ban people of different races from marrying: would that be an appropriate matter to place on a general election ballot? And if it passed, would such marriages be banned? 

Nothing is simple in American politics, and one of the best features of Saving Marriage is the way it maintains focus and a sense of chronology while also relating the complexities of the legal status of same-sex marriage: it was not just won once, but won, threatened, saved, threatened, and saved again. Conveying this complexity is crucial because few things are as exasperating to an outsider as the American political system, which at times seems to have been devised by Rube Goldberg for the purpose of discouraging the uninitiated from even trying to understand the process. And in the gay and lesbian community, politics hasn’t always been considered the coolest way to spend your time: as gay activist Josh Friedes puts it, as a gay man he expected to spend his time “looking for Mr. Right instead of fighting for the right to marry Mr. Right.”   Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
October 12, 2008 

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

H.G. Wells

There seems to be a drumbeat. Through the ages, battles of ideas and territory (and, of course, acquisition of resources, which always brings about ideas on why someone wrongfully holds territory) have raged, to the point that it would seem to most observers that conflict and usurpation are simply part and parcel of the human condition. In the 20th Century, the model was that of the Cold War, where, as Ed Abbey put it succinctly, “In the Soviet Union, government controls industry. In the United States, industry controls government. That is the principal structural difference between the two great oligarchies of our time.” In 19th Century America, it was over the scourge of slavery, or, if you prefer, a clash between an outmoded agrarian culture and a new industrialized one. In the 18th, to venture further into a sort of romantic oversimplification, there was the battle between monarchy and representative governance. And on through the centuries, even back to the sieges of Lisbon, Jerusalem, Istanbul, et cetera.  

The drumbeat that Religulous continues, building on the rhythms of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, might be summed up thusly: Welcome to the New Dark Age. For the more hopeful, it could be tweaked to read “Let’s get a handle on this thing, or we’re looking squarely into the New Dark Age.” As Bill Maher inveighs against the reckless stupidity, arrogance and danger of religion in our time with rapier wit and a type of infectious charm, there is no secret that the thesis behind this comedy is no laughing matter. In fact, he sees the problem as important enough to eventually say it flat out. If those who value rational thought don’t begin to stand up to those of fundamentalist persuasions, we are courting disaster. The 21st Century will not be defined by American economic power versus a rising China, nor by a battle the world over for depleting resources, but by a final battle, pardoning the revelatory tone of such a phrase, between secular and scriptural. 

When one examines the last couple of decades, the pieces seem to fit. They seem to paint a picture that makes a compelling case for what would have seemed hysterical posturing. Even a few years ago, the concept of our time being defined by a tussle between faith and reason would raise nearly every eyebrow in the room. As political theology morphs and advances, as it becomes more sophisticated and savvy the world over, it becomes very hard to dispute the core statement of Religulous, that just such a battle will indeed define or devour us all.  

Maher’s grand statement is a must-see if only for timeliness and as a companion volume to the aforementioned authors on the subject. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the film is also brilliantly written, sleek in production, direct and coherent in narrative and simply hilarious.   Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
October 11, 2008

To state that the United States of America is increasingly politically polarized will do little to confirm one’s acuity in matters of state. By now, it has entered into bromide territory. The progression from observation to recognized fact to platitude is seldom a straight road, and the oddity with this particular bit of wisdom is just how incorrect – or imprecise, if you prefer – the definition of the division happens to be.  

It doesn’t take long for Split to point out the imprecision in the Red State/Blue State narrative. This is to be commended, because looking to closely at ill-defined macro classifications will invariably end up in a film, or even a conversation, losing the plot. As Jack Hitt and a host of others astutely observe, the notion of a neatly divided group of states defining the political culture of a nominally democratic republic is quite absurd. Were it true, we’d be in more trouble than we have already. Looking at demographic data, it’d be closer to accurate to describe the break as Rural versus Urban. Closer, but not quite there. 

Split certainly succeeds at viewing the political situation, so often represented by the primary colors equation, in a more reasoned and deliberate way. We get to see where the real divisions are and how geography, religion, media and money fit into the picture. There are real issues with the nature of the composition, which we’ll attend to later, but the film can be said to achieve its objective by illustrating how confusing and complex the American political landscape is. 

Religion looms large, and begs the viewer to ask himself whether that complexity is really there. Right now, and for some time before and likely to come, the split between secular and religious worldviews has dictated the debate in most of the world. The main sticking point with defining a person or group with so basic a term is that the definition becomes muddled when one considers that there are some in the “secular” camp that display characteristics more befitting our picture of the religious mindset and the other way about. (Think of the secular humanist who accepts nothing that our limited perspectives and perceptions can’t classify on the one hand and the progressive Christian who espouses the red words of the New Testament as beacons of tolerance on the other.) To make it plain, we could paraphrase an old division into the cognitive versus the moral. What we collectively describe as the “religious” outlook in the U.S. is largely understood to be the evangelical Christian element. Nyks speaks with a few proponents of this quaint watch post against rational thought, and the responses they give are telling, as are those of the people on the other side of the thought fence. What occurs reminds one of the ever- pervasive influence of Islam in western Europe more than any other correlative. 

What happens during Split conjures the debate of the Cologne mega mosque, which quickly deteriorated to a pissing match between pious Muslims and protofascist nationalists. Left on the sidelines to ponder the finer elements were the rational leftists. Eventually, they sided more often with the go-ahead on building. After all, what are progressive western values if not tolerant? That the ambitions behind such structures don’t generally end up on the tolerant side of things had to be tossed aside in the final analysis. One can see the same type of losing battle the cognitive minority fights in an interviewee for the film, who asserts that it isn’t in the national interest (maybe not even possible) to divorce the faith of people from their view of governance, though it is a great danger when such faith can be manipulated and then foist upon the population through legislation and overall atmosphere in the public discourse. While it is pretty to think so, it is madness to assume that religion, when mobilized to a political end, will do anything else. So, there you have why the assorted crackpots and snake oil men, along with their snake handling cousins, are winning the war globally as well as nationally. For the religious section of this split, there are really three factions. The first are the types who insist the Founding Fathers thought the bible should be the law of the land and who illustrate issues of human sexuality with hardware implements. The second are stridently secular or involved with a much more nuanced view of history and religion. The third are of a secular bent, but wouldn’t want to dictate their outlook to the other two. Groups two and three being roughly equal to group one, it is little surprise that the lack of fight in the third opens us all to the whim of the first.   Read the rest of this entry »