Weekend Film Recommendation: In the Loop

Before he was elected to serve as the next Doctor, Peter Capaldi was a well-recognised face on the British comedy circuit for having played Malcolm Tucker, Armando Iannucci’s thinly-veiled lampoon of Alastair Campbell. Tucker rose to prominence thanks to Iannucci’s wildly successful television show, The Thick of It, which ended recently after its fourth season. The Thick of It formed the basis of two spin-offs, one of which is HBO’s Veep (more on that here), and the other is this week’s movie recommendation, titled In the Loop (2009).

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The film deals with meetings between US State Department officials and UK politicians after a blunderous radio interview, in which a junior MP has unwittingly suggested that we must initiate war in the Middle East as a matter of principle. British and American politicians alike seize on the opportunity either to exercise their trigger finger or to seem like the cautious restrainer-in-chief, depending purely on what they anticipate will make them look good. The rest of the film is about how middlemen and executives shape policy in their efforts to seem competent. It’s that performance of competence, rather than its true presence, that forms the focus of the satire.

A lot of the film plays not only on the political environment and the fickleness of its key players; there’s a hefty dose of ridicule pointed toward the way the political world was often represented in a Sorkin-steeped, Obama-canonising 2008. While the dialogue is precise and lightning-quick, it’s also incomparably crude. In place of the strategic shadowing and earth-tones of your garden-variety political drama, the colours in In the Loop are bright and etiolated, lending to a sense that everyone’s exhausted, and their flaws are always in full view. While the edgy, hand-held camera-work conveys the frenetic atmosphere of snap judgments (recall the famous West Wing corridor walk-n’-talk), the camera clumsily chases behind the characters as they spend time locating the correct room for a meeting. By the end of the film, you feel less like a spectator and more like the bumbling assistant trying unsuccessfully to take notes on scraps of paper. A glamorous ‘halls of power’ drama from a British perspective it ain’t.

Screen shot 2013-09-06 at 00.18.06The challenge with political satire, and especially when placed in the medium of film (where the gimmick has plenty of time to play out), is that it isn’t being done right if the whole thing seems like poking fun at ‘those people over there’ while leaving us unharmed. If we’re not part of the ridicule, then the whole exercise seems a little bit… pointless. In the Loop’s success in making ‘those people over there’ look like self-serving conniving scumbags is ultimately attenuated because they end up being so successful at hiding their incompetence. We (the viewers, the electorate) can’t really be blamed for not having noticed the innumerable screw-ups along the way, so we remain ignorant and blameless. The result is the duality of conspiracy that Keith has referred to on this site before: the architects of the conspiracy must be both so incompetent that they need to construct an elaborate cover-up in the first place, while also being so competent at hiding their charade that most people never notice.

I’d say I have a favourite moment, but really any scene with James Gandolfini will do. The film is a superb showcase for his considerable comic talents. If you watch him spar with Peter Capaldi and fail to chuckle, I’ll eat my hat. As for Malcolm Tucker, well, as one of the most bilious and acerbic abominations to have been coughed up onto the screen, Capaldi brings a whole new, glorious meaning to the term vicarious catharsis. Listen to his improvised excoriation for a few minutes and feel your stresses slide away.

Julian Assange’s heroes

Matt Drudge. Rand Paul. Ron Paul.
And he thinks banning abortion reflects “non-violence.”

Matt Drudge. Ron Paul. Rand Paul.
Oh, and he thinks taxation is “extortion” and that anti-abortion laws reflect “non-violence.”
Well, what did you expect from Israel Shamir’s buddy?

“The libertarian aspect of the Republican party is presently the only useful political voice really in the U.S. Congress. It will be the driver that shifts the United States around. It’s not going to come from the Democrats. It’s not going to come from Ralph Nader. It’s not going to come from the co-opted parts of the Republican party. The only hope as far as electoral politics is concerned, presently, is the libertarian section of the Republican party.”

Progressive? Srsly?

The Manning verdict

Manning was tortured. I’d sentence him to “time served.” But “a medal and our gratitude”? Not so much.

No, obviously Manning did not intend to “aid the enemy.” That charge was gross prosecutorial over-reach.

And no, there is absolutely no possible excuse for the torture to which Manning was subjected in the brig. Those actions will stand as a permanent stain on the record of the Obama Administration, all the way up to the President.

But when Glenn Greenwald tweets, and Katrina vandenHeuvel retweets, the claim that he’s entitled to “a medal and our gratitude,” I have to ask: Whose gratitude? A medal from which country? No government can function without officials being able to communicate to one another without having the contents of those communications published. That’s especially true when the communications include the names of foreign nationals, or Americans resident abroad, providing information or serving as agents of influence, but it’s also true of routine facts about, e.g., which foreign heads of government or senior officials are incompetent, insane, or corrupt.

Bradley Manning didn’t blow a whistle; he merely supplied a core-dump of diplomatic communications, with no assurance about how anti-Semite Julian Assange would handle them, other than the certainty that they would be used to damage the United States as much as possible. (Still looking for the Wikileaks exposes of Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or Saudi secrets. The actions of Assange associate Israel Shamir in handing over information about human-rights activists in Belarus to the local tyrant tells you what you need to know.)

No, as Manning’s (and Assange’s) supporters keep repeating, the U.S. government has not published the names of individuals killed by foreign governments or terrorists as a result of being outed by the Manning-Wikileak dump. If you want to believe that the number of such individuals is zero, be my guest. But that number seems to me like a very bad estimate.

If I were the military judge, I’d sentence Manning to “time served” and write a harshly-worded opinion stating that since his torture represented more punishment than any human being deserves, additional punishment would be superfluous.

But does Manning deserve a medal? “Our gratitude”? Not so much.

Tolerance for Snooping Among Elites and Masses

Is anyone really upset about government snooping?

Kevin Drum argues that President Obama’s views on the government’s right to snoop have a long provenance:

[Obama] falls squarely into the mainstream of the elite, bipartisan, Beltway consensus on this stuff. He always has, just like every president before him. This isn’t the fourth term of the George Bush presidency, as so many people like to put it, but more like the 16th term of the Eisenhower presidency.

Yet while calling tolerance of snooping an elite viewpoint, he is not sure the hoi polloi are much different:

Will the public finally rebel after learning about the latest way their government is keeping tabs on them? I doubt it. As near as I can tell, most of the public is willing to sell their innermost secrets for a free iTunes coupon.

On Benghazi—An honest plea for specific charges.

On Benghazi: a challenge to conservatives to spell out, with specifics, what the wrongdoing was and who covered it up, when, and how.

Yesterday’s hearings over Benghazi (or as Ed Kilgore is fond of calling it to stress conservative hype, Benghazi!) seem to have been a big nothingburger in terms of actual scandal. As Steve Benen puts it,

Eight months after the attack itself, I know Republicans think there’s been a cover-up, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is they think has been covered up. For all the talk of a political “scandal,” no one seems capable of pointing to anything specific that’s scandalous. For all the conspiracy theories, there’s no underlying conspiracy to be found.

Steve, as a progressive blogger, is admittedly biased. But reading Andrew Stiles’ report on National Review Online I get exactly the same impression. Per Stiles, and stripping away the rhetoric and the table-pounding calls for “more questions,” the testimony of Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Tripoli at the time, revealed the following:

(1) Susan Rice was wrong to call the attacks on the Benghazi consulate a possible result of the infamous anti-Muslim video. But Rice was describing, in real time and with proper caveats, what she thought was the case at the time, and everyone official has long since admitted that her initial, tentative take was wrong. So: who cares?

(2) The State department didn’t want Hicks to meet with a Republican congressional delegation on the subject, and an official without clearance tried but failed to horn in on the meeting. This will surprise anyone who has never read a book or article about a government agency, or known anybody who worked for one, but—really? Reading against the grain, it becomes clear that Hicks did meet with the Republican delegation, which got all the information it needed. Indeed, he told all kinds of investigators everything he had to say.

(3) Cheryl Mills, “State Department general counsel and former chief of staff to Secretary Clinton,” demanded an account of the above meeting and “sought to keep [Hicks] on a tight leash.” Now, like it or not, the U.S. has a system of political appointees in executive departments, and the Secretary of State is kind of expected to have subordinates whom she trusts. As for seeking a report of the meeting—a bit aggressive, sure, but again there was no cover-up; Hicks was able to tell whomever he wanted whatever he knew.

(4) Hicks was demoted to desk officer. He thinks it was because he was too aggressive on Benghazi. I wonder what his superiors think. In any case, this is at most hardball management but no crime.

(5) “The three witnesses present at Wednesday’s hearing were repeatedly referred to as whistleblowers” (by Republicans). But just as in that parable about calling the horse’s tail a fifth leg, that doesn’t make them whistleblowers. That word denotes someone who exposes crimes or acts of malfeasance that have been covered up. But the testimony itself, from the accounts I’ve read, exposed no coverup, and no crime.

That’s it. On the other side, we also learn, from this conservative account, that the State Department’s Accountability Review Board, which took Hicks’ testimony, absolved Clinton of any blame for poor security. (Hicks didn’t get to see the classified report, but I’ve seen no accounts from those who have, including partisan Republicans, that suggests a whitewash.) As a matter of fact, we learn—regarding the substantive matter supposedly at issue—nothing about State having even been responsible for poor security, as opposed to an ex ante decision regarding limited resources that was defensible at the time but turned out badly.

Look, I’m not a Benghazi expert. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that there’s something here that the media aren’t telling me. But before I evaluate the case, I need to see some concrete charges. My challenge to conservatives is to tell me, very simply, the following:

(1) What, in your view, was the crime? Who did what and which law did it break? No crime, no cover-up (in the usual sense).

But the idea seems to be that what was “covered up” was not crime but incompetence. (That stretches the former meaning of “cover-up,” but never mind.) So:

(2) Who failed competently to perform his or her job, in which concrete ways? Which decisions are we talking about, by whom, at what time, and on what grounds should we believe that a competent person in the job in question would have had to make a different decision? Again, failure to devote unlimited resources to guarding every consulate at all times does not constitute an incompetent decision but rather precisely a competent one. And a judgment (apparently held by the diplomats on the ground at the time) that there was a tradeoff between high security and diplomatic effectiveness is also, absent conclusive arguments to the contrary, quite defensible. We need more.

(3) What information was covered up, and how? What facts do we (a) now know to be the case that (b) were previously concealed from view by (c) illegitimate threats or undue influence (as opposed to agency politics as usual, whereby those higher up would rather sweep mistakes under the rug but grudgingly tolerate subordinates who air them)?

Unless all three of these elements in (3) are  present, there was no cover-up—at most a halfhearted attempt at a cover-up, or an honest difference of opinion about facts. And unless number (1) or (2) is present, there was nothing to cover up.

At this point in the career of a scandal, or attempted scandal, there are often disagreements over whether the charges are true. But I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a scandal where I don’t even know what they are.  I know that this blog has a fair number of conservative readers. And perhaps other sites will pick this up. I hope so, and if so: answers, please. Specific ones, point by point. Then we’ll at least have something we can argue about.

Update: Yes, I know my  bemusement on this isn’t new. The “nothingburger” label I got from Kevin Drum’s post, which can be added to the above links and many others. But I haven’t seen the demand for specifics laid out in numbered points and subpoints before. And sometimes that helps. If nothing else, conservatives may have to ask themselves whether they’ve been sold a bill of goods by conservative media outlets selling a scandal vaguer than they realize.

Second Update: I’d like to stress that I’m engaged in an exercise in arguendum: even if the conservative slant on Benghazi is accurate, there has been no “cover up” that I can see. A less partisan account, e.g. that of the New York Times, casts doubt on that slant to begin with. For one thing, having a department lawyer be present during congressional investigation visits was, allegedly, a longstanding State policy. This should be easily verifiable (or disprovable). For another, State claims that Hicks has not been demoted but given a temporary job, at the same salary, pending a transfer he requested. I’m more dubious about this—clearly Hicks thinks he’s been wronged—but we should note that Hicks’ account has not gone unchallenged.

What price democracy?

There’s an old joke about a man who asks a woman to sleep with him for $1 million. She agrees, whereupon he asks her to sleep with him for $1. “What kind of a girl do you think I am?” asks the woman indignantly. “We’ve settled that,” replies the man, “We’re just arguing about the price.”

This came to mind in response to this story about the price of the Broad Foundation’s generosity to the schools of New Jersey. A recent Broad Foundation grant stipulates that it will be available only as long as Chris Christie remains governor.
Continue reading “What price democracy?”

(Don’t) Keep Your Head Down

Government needs to have mandatory discipline for high-ranking officials who act like jerks, and a mandatory snitch rule for lower-level employees who pretend they didn’t see it.  If Massachusetts had such a policy, we might not be in the mess we now face about faked test results at the state lab.

Have you ever heard the term “disruptive physician”?  Continue reading “(Don’t) Keep Your Head Down”

Mexican justice: ayuda, por favor!

Everyone knows about the river of blood – criminals’, bystanders’, and good guys’ – flowing in Mexican streets as the country tries to get on top of its drug trafficking problem and the corruption of police and military it has engendered.  What’s less well known is the pervasive inability of the criminal justice system to protect citizens from ordinary crime by distinguishing real perps from victims of police setups and frames, a situation that probably has a fair amount to do with the drug war’s gruesome persistence.

Two of our students, Roberto Hernandez and Layda Negrete, have kicked this latter hornets’ nest with amazing results, making a documentary about one murder investigation and trial that is changing the world south of the border, and maybe elsewhere.  But the system to which police and trial judges have accommodated themselves over decades isn’t going down without a fight. After having given false testimony against  defendant Toño, and recanted it in a second trial that was only possible because the defense lawyer in the first had forged his license papers, the sole witness has decided that he would prefer his humiliation not be made public, and a judge in Mexico has enjoined showing the movie.  Of course it’s unthinkable that the cops and prosecutors stood him up for this charade.

These Abogados Con Cámaras could use some help (no good deed goes unpunished: all the profits from the theatrical distribution are being contributed to a criminal justice NGO) in cash, and in print.  Now it’s not just a justice issue, but also a free speech issue; censorship and corruption hiding behind a ludicrous privacy figleaf.