Monday, July 28, 2008

War and Peace

Read an interesting article or two over the past week about Obama, McCain, and their views on the Middle East. Given that the Democratic candidate was recently on a rather whirlwind-like tour of Israel, the Middle East, and Europe, it's inevitable that the major media organizations would begin speculating on the subject of what either he or McCain would do with regards to handling the Middle East's tricky political situation (read: the major conflicts brewing there).

A couple of examples of good articles on the subject from the BBC can be found here: In this article, the BBC discusses the impact of Obama's trip to Europe, and, not to be outdone, there's a companion piece on McCain's criticism, however polite, of Obama's Germany speech of late:

Most of the speculation is on the political impact on the US election race, which is unsurprising. Most of the concern is not so much the policies of the candidates, but how their policies, ideas, and imagery will affect their target audience--the American electorate. There's a lot of good speculation out there about this, and I agree with the former article above that, at the very least, Obama has managed to win the battle for headline space. Of the two, being in Germany and getting that kind of audience is, in the words of my generation, much more awesome than giving a standard stump speech in Middle America. Maybe these sorts of things might be why he's leading in the polls again?

Well, either that or the fact that McCain keeps sticking his foot in his mouth, and now we're not distracted by Clinton vs. Obama..., and let's not forget his constant issues trying to find a decent priest:

All this is interesting... but I'm more worried about what happens after either Obama or McCain get elected. I wasn't a fan of, say, Hillary Clinton becoming the next President of the United States, largely because of my dislike for her platform. I've never been happy with her ever since the Health Care debacle she oversaw while Bill Clinton was President--she's never tried Universal Health Care since-- The article calls her plan bureaucratic and restrictive... what it fails to mention is the sheer amount of corporate backwash she got buried under when she tried to push a public health system through. I guess the HMOs didn't like the idea of losing their monopoly on the ability to abuse their patients. Similar issues arise with her foreign policy agenda--her comment on Iran showed that while she might claim to be "experienced" when it came to foreign policy, her image of a strong-willed diplomat covered a more hawkish attitude (just like her husband during his tenure, I might add)-->

McCain and Obama, meanwhile, represent slightly more unknown factors, but one might be able to hazard a guess on how they would proceed. McCain's made no secret of his desire to continue to keep US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. While he might be willing to continue to increase their numbers, even he has to pay at least lip-service to the growing distaste with the war back home. Now, any change in foreign policy compared to the current regime in Washington is probably going to be at least slightly helpful--McCain, at least, will probably try to hold a peace conference or two for the Israelis and Palestinians, but he still has to support the hawks because that's one of the core constituencies of the Republicans. His comment in this article (mostly about Obama) is telling: "When you win wars, troops come home." Anybody else think he's going to be withdrawing troops anytime soon if he should win the election?

Obama talks big, and that's both what makes me hopeful and somewhat worried about him as President. Clinton talked big, but still was willing to bomb Yugoslavia, an issue which Chomsky has slammed him for on multiple occasions, and which I lack the space to cover in much depth, here. For a better summary, I suggest his book Hegemony or Survival--he basically rips up the idea that the 'ethnic cleansing' (nice word for "forced evacuation at the end of a gun) was "stopped" by the bombing. So, can Obama's big promises work?

He recently dropped in on both sides of the conflict in Israel/Palestine, paying his respects at the Holocaust Memorial in Israel, dropping in on the Palestinian leadership in Ramalla, and so forth, before heading for his appointments in Europe:

He's urged Iran to come back to the debating table, and has commented on several points about holding negotiations with them, with the Cubans, with Syria, and so forth. In short, Obama's position strikes as being a more moderate one than we've seen for two decades from the US, and probably the most sane one I've heard in years. If you want to put an end to the conflicts in the Middle East, you actually do have to talk to the other side, something President Bush was less than skilled at.

At the same time, though, Obama has to appease his own supporters: the so-called "Jewish vote" back home. Some of that Jewish segment of the United States is all for dialogue and for negotiation with the other inhabitants of the Middle East. Most, I suspect, would be happy with such a course of action because they too recognize that force only begets more of itself, and to promote peace one has to show that one is willing to negotiate and to make compromises.

The other side of the "Jewish vote" back home, however, are both those Jews and Christians who unfailingly support the state of Israel, and some of its more hawkish politics. Most of the articles I've listed above about Obama in the Middle-East tend to deal with this in some detail, so I will let you read it for yourself there, but the gist is that there are a lot of hawks in America, and if Obama wants to be the next President of the United States, he has to appease them.

So, this leads to my point in all of this: while McCain and Obama may talk the talk on the campaign trail, I don't know, and neither does anyone, what they'll do when they're actually in office. It seems that many people in Germany and elsewhere like Obama (cautiously so in Israel/Palestine, but elsewhere, he's seen as something of a fresh breeze from these shores), and hope that he'll be a force for change (like the campaign slogan says). McCain comes across as more of the same from the Bush camp. Maybe he'll run the war more intelligently, but he still plans to run the war. At least he's being honest with us. I want to be able to trust Obama--indeed, he makes that desire to trust so easy!-- and believe that he'll do the right thing when he wins the election--I say when, not if, because frankly, the only way McCain can win after the disaster that has been the Bush Presidency is if Obama decides to do something really stupid like wander naked down the streets of Washington or kill a litter of puppies.

However, Obama has already received comparisons to that previous Presidential candidate and President, also seen as a "force for change," one John F Kennedy. The problem with that, of course, was that Kennedy talked the talk... but was quite okay with ordering invasions of Cuba and authorizing Nuclear Missile strikes during the Cuban Missile Crisis--see Chomsky, again, or the recent movie Fog of War by McNamara for more details on that.

Like Kennedy, Obama may just be playing to the crowd. I hope that this is not the case, but then, this is politics. And at this point, what really frightens me is not so much that Obama or McCain will flip-flop in office... it's that most of the rest of the world is really, really, really hoping that the US is not going to foul things up again. If one of the candidates makes promises, and then does the same thing as Bush, the US will have probably lost what little credibility it has left. And despite all their mistakes and all the wrong-doing in Iraq (Abu Ghraib, for example), the US is still one of the most democratic countries in the world, and has the potential to do a vast amount of good.

But if even somebody who promises "change" so much as does Obama becomes the next Emperor of the new Imperium Americana... well, say farewell to the Republic, and to any lingering feelings of trust and friendship for the US from most of the rest of the world--and goodbye to much of that potential for good I lauded earlier.

I'm hoping that won't be the case, but, like any good Cynic, I hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, just in case.

Best regards,


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Knights and Jokers

Well, it's finally out. I admit, this is not a political comment, and therefore slightly off-topic, but I didn't think I could let the movie Dark Knight pass without at least speaking on it, however briefly.

First, a bit of a quotation that I think might help folks understand where I'm coming from as I review this movie. Apologies for the length:

"Ladies and Gentlemen! You've read about it in the papers! Now witness, before your very eyes, that most rare and tragic of natures mistakes! I give you: the average man. Physically unremarkable, it instead possesses a deformed set of values. Notice the hideously bloated sense of humanity's importance. Also note the club-footed social conscience and the withered optimism. It's certainly not for the squeamish, is it? Most repulsive of all, are its frail and useless notions of order and sanity. If too much weight is placed upon them... they snap. How does it live, I hear you ask? How does this poor pathetic specimen survive in todays harsh and irrational environment? I'm afraid the sad answer is, "Not very well". Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random, and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this... any other response would be crazy!" - Batman: The Killing Joke

That is from Alan Moore's take on the character of the Joker, written back in the late 1980s. While I can't confirm the veracity of the rumours, apparently, this particular Batman story was given by Christopher Nolan to Heath Ledger, to help him understand the character he'd be playing. As most people know, Ledger died shortly after wrapping up the work on the film The Dark Knight, so there's a bit of a bitter note to reviewing his work in this film: as brilliant as he is, it's even more tragic to see him playing such a morbid character because of his own death, and because it may have been a small part of what caused his death. Part of that makes what he does all the more terrifying.

The Joker is, like Batman, and indeed, like this movie, both a comic book character and an iconic image that reflects as much of the people watching him/them and the way he/they are portrayed as anything else. The character of the Joker started, in Bob Kane's original comics, as a sociopath who just happened to look like a clown. Part of this was the imagery--clowns can be a frightening image, something that looks like its smiling, even if doing something that, out of the context of the circus or the joke, can be quite horrifying. Part of it may not have been intended by Kane, but it certainly comes out in the current era of comics (like Moore's Killing Joke) and in the current Batman film world envisioned by Christopher Nolan.

The 1960s version of the Joker and the Batman kind of put a dent in what is an otherwise fascinating character, turning him into the "Clown Prince of Crime," a joking, wisecracking buffoon who was more witty than dangerous. So too, Jack Nicholson's take on the character. As memorable as it was in Tim Burton's Batman, the character had become, for better or for worse (he was certainly more amusing than Ledger's Joker, who is not, in any way, funny), a clown or a jester who just happened to commit crimes.

Ledger's Joker, and the new Dark Knight, put the Joker back in his original territory. Just like Batman Begins, the previous film in this new, darker, take on the Batman mythos, did for the Batman himself, the Dark Knight returns its primary characters to what, I think, they were meant to be. The Batman and his world is not just comic book territory. Don't get me wrong, the mythos couldn't have existed outside the comic book genre, but it's one of those extremely rare comic books that manages to tap into something more, and can as a result exist as more than its creator may have wanted. The Batman, the Joker, Harvey Dent, and the movie itself all become more than just cartoon characters on a big screen--they become archetypes, fundamental points of view that ask very troubling questions about the human condition.

One of my favourite writers is Albert Camus, a French Algerian Noble Laureate. Among his many interesting works are two books in particular that seem to have been borrowed from by Moore, and perhaps unconsciously, the whole mythos. They are the Myth of Sisyphus, and The Rebel. In both books, Camus explores the implications of the nihilist and existentialist position that the universe is meaningless (no higher authority or meaning) and random. Unlike the nihilist, who decides to make meaning from power to escape the void of the meaningless world around him, or the existentialist, who simply lives amid that void, Sisyphus and the Rebel both see themselves as happy in the absurd predicament they are in. Sisyphus is condemned to roll a rock up a hill for all time for his crimes, only to see it crash down each time he reaches the top. When he walks back down to start again, Camus paradoxically calls the Greek happy. The Rebel rejects human attempts to create order in the universe because they can become tyrannical, choosing instead to rebel out of solidarity for his fellow human being--after all, if she cannot know what is true, how can anyone else, and how therefore can she deny anyone the ability to face the absurdist position and make their own choice how to deal with it.

The Joker has always fascinated me because he takes an alternative path out of Camus' dilemma--in a meaningless world, one can either kill oneself (a cop-out, Camus thinks, because that effectively dodges the dilemma instead of struggling to accept/resolve it), live with it as best one can, or become a tyrant and try to impose meaning on the world. The third choice, by the way, is the one that it seems Harvey Dent tries to take at the end of the movie, and one wonders if perhaps that is exactly what Batman is trying to avoid. But the Joker--he slips out the side door! He goes bonkers: "Madness is the emergency exit. You can just step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away... forever." - Batman: The Killing Joke

The most worrisome part of that choice is, of course, that he might be right. In the face of horror, and depravity, and confronted with the utter meaninglessness of existence--mightn't it be saner to go mad?

Now, I doubt that Nolan seriously intended to throw in Camus, or such existentialist oddities as I've mentioned here. My point in bringing them in is to show just how much depth and meaning one can find in both the Batman comics and in this new movie (and it's predecessor Batman Begins). The brilliance of The Dark Knight is that Nolan has crafted a movie that manages to ask these fundamental questions about our own sanity, and forces the audience to come up with an answer. At the end of the movie, everything Batman has gained has been taken back--he's an illegal vigilante again, the man he hoped would replace him has become a monster, and the only people who will know the truth of his struggle are the man who has to chase him (Gordon, for appearances sake), the woman he loves (Rachel, murdered by his enemy), his two confidantes (Alfred and Fox, who will never be able to tell anyone), and his arch-enemy (the Joker, who I suspect would figure out the ruse, and try to tear it all down again). The audience is left without any easy answers--something that's risky in a "Summer Blockbuster" (TM), but that is the right way to end the film. It leaves the audience with all the tough questions, and then trusts us enough to find our own answers. How very much like Camus.

I could nitpick at one or two plot points--Lau, a villain from Hong Kong, is somewhat superfluous to the main plot, and his on-screen death is only barely hinted at; the Joker claims not to plan anything in advance, but his fiendish trick with the two boats is, frankly, something that would require intricate levels of planning. But then again, these are minor, and the latter drives home something about the character Ledger has managed to create--he absolutely believes everything he says to be true, to the point that the audience is left scratching its head, wondering if just maybe he might be right.

Ledger managed to make the Joker both represent an interesting philosophical point, that madness is the only logical response to an insane world, and a terrifyingly frightening villain (everytime that guitar riff hit, when my wife Jen and I knew that he was about to appear, we actually flinched and tried to find each other's hand in the dark of the theatre for comfort!). Bale's Batman is as conflicted as ever, and all the more interesting because despite all his rage, all his terrifying darkness, he is, as Gordon (the ever-brilliant Gary Oldman, who earned more cheers from the crowd when he made his apparent return from the grave on-screen than the truck-flipping action sequence!) points out, the hero that Gotham, and humanity, needs. He makes the right choice, no matter the cost--and at what cost! Aaron Eckhart's Two-Face becomes a bit murkier towards the end, though this may be because of the CGI involved in bringing him to life, and because next to the Joker, Two-Face's more subtle character has to shine very hard to overcome the sheer power of the Ledger/Bale interplay. That said, it's on Two-Face that the whole dilemma of the film revolves, as much as Batman--he is the Joker's point, made manifest, while Gordon and Batman, and the people on the boats, are the only real hope we have that human beings can be decent even in the face of horror.

One last thing. One of the reasons why I think I'm putting this near the very top of my list of All-Time Best Movies is that it manages to get my wife and I to agree on its brilliance. Now, that's a good reason for anyone to like a film (i.e., you and your partner can enjoy it together), but the differences between us, again, illustrate the brilliance of Nolan's movie. I'm a political scientist, and Jen is a psychologist. She read a few comics now and again as a kid, but never really got into them as much as I did, and only read more of them after we saw V for Vendetta and I introduced her to the graphic novel version of the film, and some of Moore and Frank Miller's other work. I am a comic book fan and a gamer, meanwhile, in addition to my other pursuits. This film manages to drive home to both of us how the Dark Knight and The Batman itself are both comic book-fare, and something entirely different. It manages to give the audience something to reflect on that will be different for everyone watching it--from the nightmarish version of the Joker's take on the Prisoner's Dilemma, to the political implications of Batman's willingness to use a hyper-advanced wire-tapping system, to the philosophical elements I've already mentioned, above. It is a film that just about anyone could watch, and come away with something different. Regardless of their take on the film, of course, the chilling moral questions will probably remain for a long time, and I haven't seen a supposedly "action" film be willing to gamble and ask these kinds of questions since The Matrix.

I cannot praise the performances of the actors, of the director Nolan and his writing partner (his brother, Jonathan), or the technical wizards who brought the world to life, enough. That this is Ledger's last performance is utterly tragic--the man demonstrates here that he had reached the very top of his game, and he will be all the more missed. One reviewer ( rhetorically asks "Is (...) Ledger in this? I sure didn't recognize him." An odd comment, until one realizes that it is the highest compliment one can give to an actor: that he put aside himself, the actor, entirely, and became his character on screen. A frightening thought, given the nature of this particular character, but I echo the reviewer's praise--while giving him an Oscar for the role might seem like grasping for sympathy, the man deserves it. Everyone involved in the film does a tremendous job--there are so many layers of meaning that one probably should watch it more than once (take that for the free plug that it is!), and can find enough in it to talk about it for weeks afterwards.

I know I will.

Best regards,


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Little Late, Boys

The Liberal Party has always by turns amused, frustrated, enamoured, and repelled me. They can be at turns brilliant and utterly bankrupt when it comes to working to help the proverbial "common man" (whatever that is). More often than not, they are a standard political party, so I suppose I shouldn't complain too much: they exist to serve the powerful, and to ensure that the political hierarchy of Canada remains relatively unruffled. The differences between the Conservatives and their "Liberal" opponents remain, sadly, rather small.

Witness this:

Not a bad thing to do on the surface, right? Blasting the encumbent government for failing to keep text-message costs low sounds like a decent thing to do. But the problem is, what are they going to actually do about it? Are they going to actually call an election over it? Put in a private members bill?

This raises the spectre of a related issue, net neutrality, which is one of my personal pet projects. Here, the NDP put forward a private member's bill to try and ensure that people's browsing speed would not be throttled by the big Internet Service Providers (ISPs):

The key part of this second article, for our purposes here, is the bit at the end: Scott Brison, the Liberal MP mentioned with such thunder and fury in the first article above, has yet to say anything more about the subject, even though he had *already met with Bell and Rogers,* the two biggest ISPs in Canada. So, while I'm pleased to see that Brison is taking on these two corporations with regards to fees for cell phones, that's only half the issue with them.

Welcome to the debate, Liberals. Nice to see show up. After all, Google and the NDP can't do everything themselves (

This is, again, related to my first point: the Liberals and Conservatives alike are mainstream political parties. Their mandate is to get elected, to represent a certain viewpoint of the majority of people and, simultaneously, of the elite, in parliament. The problem is, these two goals are conflicting: what the many desire, the elite do not always agree with. Net neutrality is critical for those of us end-users who rely on the Internet for our news, and for the access to information it provides that those of us outside the elite usually lack access to via regular channels. But, throttling makes sense to the ISPs, to those making money off of the internet, because it keeps their costs low--they charge us the same amount for less service. Easy money.

Again, where do the Liberals come down on this? It seems that Brison is finally weighing in slightly on one of these issues. Even Prentice, the technology minister, has pointed his finger at the ISPs in criticism. But that's not the same as introducing bills to change things for the better. The problem, I fear, is that both major players, the Liberals and Conservatives, want to promise better service and protection for the average user--that's you, me, Jane and Joe Everybody, that amorphous blob that is the "average voter" and their target constituency--but in doing so, they have to take on their other major constituency, the elites that give them their power, from whom they draw the greatest resources and the primary source of their internal membership.

Watching which way the two big players dodge will be interesting. I worry, however, that they will likely be dodging towards the side of safety and the elite, leaving the rest of us to deal with the consequences. As usual.