Learning the Techniques of Persuasion

Learning the Techniques of Persuasion

by

Howard Adelman

Against a background of coal miners in hard hats, Donald Trump signed a measure a week ago that rolled back a last-minute Obama regulation restricting coal mines from dumping debris into nearby streams. Patricia Nana, a Cameroonian-American, insisted that, “If he hadn’t gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work. I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything – you could see how happy they were.” Pictures are worth a thousand words, they say. The reality: the regulation would have cost very few jobs that would more than be compensated by new jobs created through the clean-up of the streams.

The Washington Post on 21 February 2017 reported this as “an example of the frequent distance between Trump’s rhetoric, which many of his supporters wholeheartedly believe, and verifiable facts.” These supporters at a Trump rally in Florida received their news regularly from Fox News and right-wing radio. Those interviewed were aware of what they read and what they saw, but knew virtually nothing about topics embarrassing to the president, such as the recent resignation of Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, because he lied to the Vice-President. If they knew that, they knew nothing of the broader charge, that he spoke inappropriately, frequently and possibly illegally about lifting the sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, before Trump was even president. Some did not even know that Flynn had resigned and had been replaced by Lt. General H.R. McMaster.

One cannot win an effort at persuasion unless one has access to the other side. Even then, what is said will be filtered through a set of beliefs largely resistant to the information and arguments being put forth. And we are not speaking of Donald Trump himself or his immediate acolytes. We are talking about the Trumpists, the true believers in his entourage who voted for him and would vote for him again even after a month of chaos and mismanagement.

Do not attempt to practice the arts of persuasion on Donald Trump, on his acolytes or on the true believers that are his followers. There are plenty of others who cast ballots for Donald Trump who do not approach issues with a pre-formed mindblindness. The first rule: select your targets who may possibly be open to listening to the case you wish to bring. But such a rule creates its own problems. Do we end up only talking to those who share our bubble? Do we retreat to our “safe spaces”? Does that reinforce intolerance and even deeper misunderstandings, especially with the almost total breakdown in the consensus, led by the president, in respecting the media and in engaging in civil discourse? There is no longer even a consensus on the civility expected of a president.

Even when dealing with those more malleable than the ardent Trump supporter, there is a problem in conducting discourse within the larger climate of fear and suspicion. In his Florida rally, Donald Trump may have stoked that fear by referring to a non-existent event in Sweden the night before, but what he did see and hear was an author, Ami Horowitz, who claimed that statistics on rape and violent crime in Sweden had increased since the large influx of foreigners in 2015. Don Lemon on his CNN show interviewed the author and challenged both his misuse of statistics and his conclusions, but without another expert present, the interview disintegrated into the interviewee insisting that what he claimed was true while Lemon kept offering evidence and arguments for its false representation of the situation in Sweden.

A quick subsequent review of some authoritative evidence from Sweden indicated that Don Lemon was much more accurate than his guest and supposed expert in representing rape and violent crime rates in Sweden. What had been offered was hyperbole and distortion by pointing to a one year spike and ignoring the overall pattern of declining rates of violence and sexual assault. Even when there were outstanding examples of violence, as there was two evenings ago, the riots looked tame compared to those that have occurred frequently in American cities. And they are much rarer, one about every second year. In these cases, Middle Eastern refugees were involved.

But there was no rape. There was no violence – though one police officer was slightly injured. When there is violence, the perpetrators were much more likely to be right-wing extremists than immigrants. Swedes seem to know this and a majority continue to support the intake of refugees and migrants. Nevertheless, Trumpists insist that there is a media conspiracy to cover up the incidents of rape and violence in Sweden.

However, even if we have some glimpse of what we face in the world of persuasion, how can we use our rational and communicative skills to best effect? When we try to persuade another, do we first attempt to establish the facts or, as the ancient Sophists did, focus on arête or virtue, on values of the highest order – excellence in other words? If the latter, what rhetorical and philosophic techniques are required? Or do we set aside argument and discourse altogether and instead opt for authenticity, opt for giving witness to what you believe to be true as opposed to the claims of the Other.

Mel Gibson’s totally unsubtle and sometimes saccharine Hacksaw Ridge, with the most gruesome and graphic scenes of the maelstrom of war I have ever seen, tells the “true” story of a conscientious objector, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), as the true believer and saint-like figure who served as a U.S. medic in the war against the Japanese in Okinawa. He won the highest award for bravery, the U.S. Medal of Honor. Doss volunteered to serve, but given his faith (he was a Seventh Day Adventist) and promise to God, he would not bear arms. In Gibson’s interpretation, this superhero combined an open-hearted approach to life with steely determination to defend his beliefs.

Some of his fellow soldiers viewed that as cowardice and bullied and beat him. His commanding officers treated his behaviour as disobedience and undertook an effort to have him court martialled. But through witnessing to his faith, through his unqualified brave actions in battle, he proved them all wrong. He did not use argument to defend his case, but he did need an order from a superior officer in Washington that conscientious objectors serving as medics need not bear arms. But most of all, he needed to prove they were wrong and more than did so in repeated acts of outstanding bravery in rescuing his fellow soldiers.

There are other ways to win arguments than with words and arguments. There are also other ways to lose arguments regardless of one’s skill with words and reason. Does the payment of money in exchange for such teaching these skills corrupt the process as Socrates proclaimed as he sought to establish the pursuit of Truth, Wisdom and Courage as the superior values for a warrior and aristocratic class? After all, Trumpists and anti-Trumpists often insist that supporters or opponents respectively are being paid to be there.  And senior executives of companies may indirectly be paid for touting the Trump presidency when they attend his “job” rallies because the company benefits from the positive publicity and the president promoting their products and their commitment to America. It is not they who have to pay off the president but the president who may be paying them off for being touts for himself.

Modern universities, though periodically invaded by corruption, have overwhelmingly proved the falsity of Socrates’ claims and shown that guaranteed wages and the principle of academic freedom have overwhelmingly protected the independence of scholars and scientists in both their teaching and research functions. By and large, responsible media outlets, and even irresponsible ones, have largely succeeded in drawing a line between the sources of their ad revenues and their news and editorial content. It should not be presumed in advance that material influences trump intellectual ones.

We have also learned that, contrary to Socrates, knowledge is not a single craft, but a multiplicity of tasks each with its own specialized vocabulary, techniques, objects of study and standards for assessing results. There is no singular path to knowledge. There is not even a singular Truth with a capital “T.” There is a difference between being a sage and being a scholar or research scientist. Most of the latter are not sages, as much as they may contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

In the ancient Greek world of Socrates, rhetorical skills were valued more than parsing arguments and evidence in a written work or stringing together depictions in a coherent way in a story or a novel. The latter was exemplified in the movie, Genius, the biopic of renowned Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins (Colin Firth), and his exuberant unboundaried novelist, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River were, arguably, both made into coherent, readable and popular novels because of the concise effort of editing the logorrheic outpouring of the poetic prose of the American Walt Whitman of the twentieth century. In a book culture, arguments and evidence in science and scholarship, or narrative plots, themes and characterization in fiction, must be coherent to facilitate communication.

This is not the case where alternatives to persuasion are used. Incoherence, boring and meaningless repetition of phrases, body language and snorts or their equivalents in tweets, may be used to confound coherence and disparage criteria such as truth and consistency. When the message requires audience fragmentation, traditional and legacy media with standards of correspondence to facts and coherence in presentation must be regarded as the enemy to be undermined and debilitated. Following Donald Trump’s rant as an excuse for a news conference last week (16 February 2017), in a tweet the next day, he dubbed the news media “the enemy of the American people.” In the original version, he wrote: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!” Given the grammar and style, he should have written sic! The illogic was best exemplified when he dubbed the leaks about his election campaign’s links to Russians authentic, but the reporting of those leaks, “fake news.”

We have four different groups in contention, however, not two. There are the modern scholars and scientists, journalists and writers who, like the ancient Sophists, adhere to standards of reasoning and establishing evidence, to techniques of differentiating truth from falsehood. In the other corner are the modern cynics, the dogged or dog-like (κυνικός – kynikos) celebrators of fame and fortune, of strength and power. Modern cynics are the very opposite of their Athenian predecessors – Antisthenes and Diogenes made famous in Plato’s dialogues. The latter became ideologues who insisted in turning the rigour and discipline of argument into an ascetic life style. Trump and his followers have replaced rigour and discipline with incoherence and rants.

The modern version of ancient cynicism are evangelicals with their narrow adherence to ideology. Paradoxically, they unite with modern cynics because both disparage rigour in thought and use of language. The two groups are united in a single camp because of their opposition to the use of reason and reflection, attention to facts and follies, as a method for establishing truth. For contemporary cynics as ideologues as well as cynical inversions of those ancient practitioners, Truth is either revealed or it is whatever I believe. It is not something to be pursued.

In addition to the Sophists, there is a fourth group. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. From very different perspectives, they were philosophers. Like the ancient cynics and their modern evangelical ideologues, they believed in Truth with a capital “T”. Like the sophists, they believed Truth, along with the virtue of Justice, could be established by adherence to the principles of reason, of consistency in argument, of correspondence with facts and of coherence in weaving it altogether. Unlike the sophists who revered the techniques of rationality and made no claims about an ultimate revelation, these philosophers believed that they could reveal that Truth and uncover the principles of Justice through reason alone.

The partnership of sceptical sophists and rational philosophers, Camp A, opposed the members of Camp B, the union of believers in sincerity and goodness of human motives and actions (evangelical ideologues) with the contemporary cynics of disbelief and insincerity who regard human motives and actions to be fundamentally base. Linking the evangelical ideologues and the contemporary cynics are the economic ideologues who believe human motives are strictly self-interested, but, like the evangelical ideologues, have constructed an ideology, materialistic rather than value-based, indifferent to facts and arguments that predetermine how the economic order is to be constructed.

The question then is when there are no rules of discourse, when frameworks trump dialogue, how do the members of Camp A persuade those who belong to Camp B? The members of both camps speak the same language with the same grammatical rules, but the rules of logic and the rules of falsification differ dramatically. They are not shared. At least by the core members of one camp versus those of another. That is where one finds an opening in the gaps between the core and the periphery and in the divisions among the sub-groups in Camp B. Before one can take advantage of those openings, it is necessary to establish common grounds for Camp A.

In the next blog, I inquire into what we can learn from ancient Greeks caught up with the question of persuasion.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Malignant Narcissism and Empaths

Malignant Narcissism and Empaths

by

Howard Adelman

The list of characteristics described below have many similarities to the ones published by the DSM describing the symptoms of narcissism as a mental disorder and to the depictions in Michael Brenner’s email on the subject, but the organization and sometimes the emphasis is somewhat different. My concern is less with the person afflicted with the condition – I contend that he is a lost cause – but with those caught up in the mass psychosis stimulated and reinforced by the condition. I want to make clear how the skills of persuasion can or cannot be used to penetrate the minds of those caught up in the madness – including my own – and to peel them away from an obsession with the narcissist towards a greater concern with the damage done and how to deal with it. I want to pull away from the very narcissist who would colonize my mind and my attention yet not ignore the individual who inserted into a presidential executive order, not what the president in his legal capacity is allowed by law to do, but the “I” who will absolutely permit or deny.

Let me begin with contrasting the characteristics of a malignant narcissist with those of an empath, the latter clearly not a mental disorder though often regarded by others as strange or alien. The characteristics of the latter are probably rarer than that of the malignant narcissist, but just as readily recognizable. In the Denis Villeneuve’s film, The Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s inventive “Story of Your Life” and a script by Eric Heisserer, Louise (played by Amy Adams), a professor of linguistics, is an empath of an extreme order, capable of anticipating even more than just picking up another’s feelings; she is able to adumbrate the future. That is why her daughter has the name, Hannah, which is a palindrome spelled the same forward or backward. Louise is the real alien in the movie. (As a side note, the film was made in Montreal and used two McGill professors as consultants for the linguistic issues in the film – Jessica Coon and Morgan Sonderegger.)

The fact that Louise is a linguist is not accidental, and not simply because of the function she plays in translating an alien language into our own. She is a linguist because she is totally attuned to the logic of grammar, of syntax. Language is inherently interactive. And alien languages can only be deciphered as children do by starting small with the ordinary rather than grandiloquent statements. She can decipher coherent patterns of thought where others read only chaos and still others use language as only a chaotic representation of their own internal souls. Linguistic self-indulgence is the use of speech, broken sentences and fractured thoughts, diversions, excursions and free associations, to reveal internal incoherence and absence of both reflection within and an ability to reflect the conversations of others. Such an individual is indifferent to established customs and norms for the preservation of coherent communication.

Donald Trump is the alien in all our lives who has totally dispensed with the “grammar of hard thinking” in preference to using speech as a mode of self-reference and self-preservation. He uses language to impress himself on others and to inflate himself among others. Impression, however, is not communication. His is a malignant and dangerous presence and precisely the kind of person who would have attempted to blow the aliens from another part of the universe up even though they demonstrated no evil intent and even though they self-evidently belonged to a civilization far superior to our own.

Words lose their meaning – “false facts” is an inherently contradictory phrase. If something is false, it is not a fact, and if something is a fact, it is not false. Words also lose their contact with reality, so any word can mean just what you want it to mean disregarding customary or traditional use. Those who speak the language of “false” or “alternative” facts would confound coherence and logic in favour of sheer nonsense. While humans still converse through the medium of language and words, the medium disintegrates before our ears in favour of noise and grunts of affirmation or shouts of “Arrest her.”

Reality becomes totally plastic in the process. In fact, reality is reduced to process. The distinction between the virtual and the actual world gets lost.  Since a malignant narcissist is the gatekeeper of his own reality without balance and certainly without any checks, he alone is entitled to determine what is true and what is false so that anything he dislikes and would challenge his mental portrait is a disturbance. Such assertions are banned as false facts and relegated to the recycling bin. It does not matter who did what; there is virtually no accountability. There is no need to decide what happened since the fault is in asking the question not the failure to offer an answer. And it is impertinent to ask why something happened since the ultimate answer is always because that is what The Donald wanted. Donald Trump truly lives in a world that is both truth-challenged and memory-challenged where all norms of measuring truth have been discarded.

In contrast, the aliens are represented as communicating through visual images, the logic of which Louise has the task of deciphering. However, those images on the glass barrier between the aliens and humans seem clearly to be reproductions of the representation of the nerve patterns of hubs in our brains and suggest a mode of communication that can dispense with the mediation of language. Just as some estimate that we have twelve main mental hubs, the aliens land twelve “spaceships” – really timeships – from twenty-five hundred years hence – at twelve different places on earth. I was sure the landing places formed a pattern, but as far as I can recall, the movie never revealed that pattern though the window drawings were broken down into twelve elements.

My concern here is not with the movie, but with the character of Louise who stands out in such stark contrast to that of Donald Trump. Whereas Amy Adam’s character is tremulous, soft, quiet and inviting, that of Donald Trump is hard, bombastic and repulsive. Whereas Donald’s world is made up of enemies and allies, and the greatest enemy is characterized by those committed to communication – the media – the world Louise encounters is one that is grasped through networking rather than through the barrel of a gun sight or a piece of artillery.

That is why The Arrival has very little action and virtually no violence. The Arrival is the story of reason and thought dominating fear and violent action. The Arrival is the story of feeling in tune with thought rather than radically separated from it. The Arrival is the story of female sensibility and reason winning over male schizophrenia. The Arrival is the story of integration rather than differentiation and specialization, of dynamic interaction rather than either/or thinking, of connecting various specialized faculties, whether seeing, hearing, language use and conceptualization as well as feelings.

The tone of Louise is always modulated and lacks any of the immoderate hysteria of that of Donald Trump with his broken sentences, fragmented thoughts, eruptions and disruptions, with the eternal recurrence of self-reference. Louise explicitly and directly feels and experiences the emotions of another, even of the supposed “aliens” or heptapods on the other side of a glass barrier. Louise is so clearly claustrophobic and cannot stand the “space suits” or contamination protection outfits that the military insist she wear. She strips that costume off at the first opportunity so she can come closer to her own thoughts and feelings as well as that of the aliens.

Louise, given where she lives and how she responds to the mass and mob movements, is a moment of serenity in a sea of panic. And she flees the panic. She flees the crowd. She is an independent thinker and feeler. She does not feed off fear, but struggles to overcome it. Donald Trump, by contrast, loves mass rallies and mass events. He draws his energy from the masses instead of drawing out energy from an inner being to give to others.

The greatest difference, however, is with respect to truth and falsity. Louise knows when she is being handed “false news.” She knows when others have got it wrong and especially when they are lying. She is an empath. Donald Trump is a malignant narcissist who cannot even discern when he is telling a lie. “Look at the incident in Sweden last night,” he will shout out at his rally, even though no one can locate the incident to which he was referring. MN are the enemies of empaths. As Michael Brenner wrote, “Attentiveness to the feelings and emotions of others risks subordinating the imperial self to someone else.”

Donald Trump always reminds me of carnies I worked with and about whom I wrote an essay for my anthropology professor in first year university. When they told a story, the time references never made sense because the past experience in Windsor the year before or in London, Ontario last week were as real as the events the evening before and were woven together in an amalgam where it was almost impossible to separate fact and fiction.

The biggest difference between malignant narcissists and empaths is that the former suffer from a disorder, but have a disproportionate influence in this world, whereas the latter belong to a truly higher order of being, of thinking and of feeling, but are generally considered as aliens. If malignant narcissists are bottom feeders, empaths are givers. If a malignant narcissist loves discord, an empath is tuned into harmony. If malignant narcissists reject anything that will challenge their prior beliefs, empaths are open to the novel and the new. If malignant narcissists love the garish and the kitschy, an empath is entranced by true beauty, creativity and subtlety.

A malignant narcissist is obsessed with himself and evaluates everything in relationship to himself. An empath is attuned to the other and easily picks up otherwise ignored cues. An MN can be told a feeling, can have that feeling demonstrated before him, but will be blind and deaf in the face of it, as Donald Trump was to the Muslim couple whose son died fighting for America. An empath senses based on only the slightest cues. That is, of course, why The Donald can go on and on creating barriers to any unwanted incursions from what is going on around him while an empath is highly sensitive to negative vibes and disruptive environments. A negative environment can overwhelm an empath. A MN works to dominate and overwhelm his environment.

A MN seems to lack any intuition. When an ultra-orthodox reporter asked Donald Trump at his recent inchoate press conference about what he planned to do about the rising spate of anti-Semitic incidences in America, instead of treating this as a lob from a pro-Trump supporter, and even though he should have recognized him from their conversation the day before, Trump cut him off, ordered him to sit down and went on a diatribe on how he was the most non anti-Semitic person around. Trump cannot read a room or a person even when its stares him in the face. All conversation can only be excessively self-referential. But Trump can manipulate a room better than anyone as he picks up and plays on negative feelings and responds to and exaggerates fears.

And hopes. For everything he blesses is the best and the brightest, the most beautiful and the most wonderful, the most glittering and the most captivating, the most splendiferous and the most stupendous. Alternatively, it is trash, the worst treaty ever made, the worst medical plan ever introduced, the worst slums ever seen and experienced, the worst mess that any new president could inherit. There are only these two extreme poles. There is no middle ground.

Trump is said to have a thin skin since he allows satirical sketches and negative statements about himself to irritate him so much that he cannot help scratching. But I have learned that this is not because his skin is thin and he is sensitive to criticism, but because he has a very thick almost impenetrable skin, but nevertheless allows any minor irritant to become and be read as an overwhelming assault on his very being. Unlike an empath, a MN has the body armor of an armadillo. It should be no surprise that empaths dislike narcissists and malignant narcissists heap scorn and abuse on “feelies.” A MN would rather grab for the pussy of a woman than have her emotionally touch him; it is as much a defensive as an aggressive gesture.

Donald Trump has an attention span of 2-3 minutes. He has a hard time listening to others, let alone an intelligence briefing which is a distillation of enormous effort and analyses. He always knows better – better than the intellectuals, better than the scientists, better than the generals and better than the intelligence officers. An MN is almost incapable of listening since his own voice drowns out almost any intrusion through the senses. An MN is the precise opposite of an empath.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Our Communication Culture

Our Communication Culture

An Open Letter to My Youngest Son

from

Howard Adelman

As we both bewail the current political situation indicated by the rise of Donald Trump, we seem to have a dispute. You have been vitriolic about satire that is debasing and insulting rather than probing and informative. You are not at all opposed to satire. You are just critical of satire that is overwhelmingly offered to solicit laughs and not employed to enlighten and instruct. You are specifically critical of Saturday Night Live that has the resources, the audience and the talent to aim far higher than it does. Though the program sometimes meets your mark of standards, too often in the pursuit of ratings, it ignores the loftier mission of satire. Initially, I defended Saturday Night Live. We needed comic relief. I felt good calling The Donald, Trump Two Two or Orange Top. But the more I thought about my own writings on humiliation, I too began to question the use of comedy as retort and diminution of the Other.

When I call Donald Trump a serial liar and a malignant narcissist, is this a description, a put down or both? If both, can I communicate the descriptive content without the insult? It is hard, much harder than I thought. For I want readers and listeners to attend to my words. But in desiring attention instead of understanding, was I not playing into the lowest denominator of media that required short attention spans? Was I not using language to produce shocking images rather than reflective thought? Was I not, in a less successful vein, merely imitating the ability to shock, the ability to be a loud bully and make one inflammatory statement after another of the man who now occupies the White House, not as Big Brother repressing my words, but as Big Bully blasting my sound bites to smithereens with his own much louder and piercing noises?

Son number 4, you are correct that insult and mockery do not enhance public discourse, do not add to the civility of civil society, do not encourage the substitution of thought for instant response, do not replace the monologues and bubbles we live in with the dialogical mode we need to inhabit. Ideological narcissism based on perpetuating lies and creating myths that bear no relationship to reality can only be counteracted if we keep our feet on the ground and continue to insist on the relevance of both a correspondence and a coherence criterion for truth. There are NO alternative facts. There is no way that inconsistency and incoherence should be allowed to substitute for trying to comprehend the world.

I believe that civil and human rights are not descriptors, but transcendental conditions for both justice and democracy. But when a man occupies the office as a democratic monarch based on checks and balances, that man has a latitude to make decisions permitted by law, but also boundary conditions for both the process and the content imposed by law in conformity with that system of checks and balances. Trump adviser Stephen Miller is indeed correct when he says that, “The powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial,” but he is dead wrong when he continues, “and will not be questioned.” When that man in the White House trumps democracy, when he views democracy as continually opening doors to new vistas and images produced by his imagination, when he and his acolytes tout blatantly false claims about millions engaged in voter fraud, instead of electoral politics as an entry point to occupy a home that operates based on traditions, on norms, on rules, on regulations and on laws, then what we have is a case of both civil and human rights being reduced to the only right that is right, Trump’s right, his own right, the monarch’s right. We have authoritarianism and demagoguery.

Donald Trump’s constant preoccupation with his image and his repetitive and inappropriate efforts to shape that image is perfectly understandable for a politics of imagery rather than a politics of principle and reflection. Donald not only never has to be consistent, he cannot be consistent, otherwise we would not be waiting with gaping mouths and startled eyes for each new revelation from on high that is crazier than the previous one. We are living in a world in which those who love and respect traditions have been hoodwinked by a soap salesman determined supposedly to “drain the swamp,” by a man for whom the very term “tradition” has no meaning and can have no meaning in a world constructed by tweets and responses to each image he sees on television.

My Judaic tradition has prepared me to sense and fight against any system “where the gates begin to close,” but I get lost when the problem is not closing gates but opening them wide to every clown and harlequin, to every bit of nonsense and amusement one can find to fill one’s hours. I was prepared for the Devil taking power, but not the Joker. Trump does not have to be a dictator who bans books, for our current period has made books the sideshow; amusement has entered centre stage. And how can a book compete with a good joke? Trump inundates us with so much false news, so many variations of his own imagery, we soon have as much difficulty focusing as he does.

There is a principle that if democracy is going to work, we must not only stand for principles, but stand up for them. But when we are bombarded with images that principles belong in the ashbin of history, then irrelevance and indifference increasingly become the order of the day. Donald Trump almost exhausts our ability to deal with most let alone all of it.

I have begun to understand your obsession with the deforming nature of modern technology, with the satirical depth of the series, Black Mirror, instead of just being entranced by its imaginative brilliance. I have begun to catch a glimpse of your criticism of the way satire is often used, particularly by Saturday Night Live, where chasing a joke becomes more important than the mesmerizing effects of good mirroring. I need to re-read Marshall McLuhan and Jacques Ellul as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Dad

The following five essays on “Our Communicative Culture”, “On Satire,” both the Stages and its Function, followed by two essays, one “On Persuasion” and a second on its techniques, were inspired by the debate above and the questions posed.

Our Communicative Culture

by

Howard Adelman

Andrew Postman in The Guardian recently wrote an essay entitled, “My dad predicted Trump in 1985 – it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World.” (2 February 2016)

(https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/02/amusing-ourselves-to-death-neil-postman-trump-orwell-huxley?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+main+NEW+H+categories&utm_term=211477&subid=15946302&CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2)

Andrew’s father was Neil Postman, a professor of media ecology and chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University until 2002. He wrote, Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. Like Jacques Ellul, an analyst of technology, he was most critical of the cultural effects of television and the internet in our information age. His 1982 book, The Disappearance of Childhood, argued that television infantilized adults and allowed children to be as expert, if not more expert, about culture than their parents making them both apathetic, on the one hand, and cynical about what an older generation could teach them. As a result, there had begun to emerge a convergence in dress and style, in attitudes and desires, between adults and children as adults began to live in a perpetual adolescent mode. In the 1985 book cited above, Postman criticized a show that was a favourite of most parents I knew, Sesame Street, for not teaching children to love learning, to love reading, to be literate and critical, to love school and, more important, schooling, but, instead, to love whatever you can learn from television, the art of imitation and the reality of the imagination.

As many of us know, George Orwell’s 1984 has once again become a best seller. Postman argued that the real danger was not the spread of the Soviet system of state censorship and control of the media, of Berlin Walls and a requirement to have an exit permit to leave one’s own country, of a system in which the individual was crushed by the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. The real danger is a system of information profusion unfiltered by any quality controls, saturated by a myriad of new media rather than restrictive use of the old media, a society oriented around consumption rather than the state ownership and control of production, a system based on the quest for instant gratification rather than founded on forced sacrifice of the masses to build the future. The real danger, in sum, was not the external threat of the spread of the communist system – which would implode five years after Postman’s book was published – but the internal threat of the system of technology and information-sharing developing in the West.

Soundbites, performance, popularity had become the buzzwords of politics. Not only the public, but most politicians became informed about what was going on by watching television. When Chauncey Gardiner, in that classic 1979 brilliant Peter Sellers’ satire, Being There, with his new-found fame, replies to the request that he write a book with a six-figure advance, he responds, “But I don’t read.” The publisher, believing he is being ironic, offers to support him with ghost writers when he also insists he does not write. When Chauncey explains, “I watch television,” he is lauded for his exemplary frankness.

Why be surprised by the emergence of a president who only gets his information either from television or from inside his own head and uses what emerges from his own imagination to browbeat journalists as a “terrible’ source of information and analysis, as purveyors of false news and lies. I cannot publish my essays in most outlets – they have a limit of 700-800 words. I spend no time on formatting for attractiveness. I rely on imagery rather than images. Most of all, my standards remain – true or false, consistent or inconsistent, coherent or incoherent, easily applied to written work, but much more difficult when applied to a performance.

It is much harder if not impossible to ask whether a sketch mocking Trump and his cohort mirrors and exaggerates what is almost impossible to inflate any further, or whether it is engaged in puncturing balloons. If the latter, is that an inferior form of satire or the only satire possible when the target is itself a harlequin? Or is it simply a different way of providing comic relief so we can return to, in Huxley’s term, a soma-tized state?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Vietnamerica: Part II Propaganda

Vietnamerica: Part II Propaganda – A Distinct Form of Documentary Film

by

Howard Adelman

In part I, I insisted that a good documentary should not be a propaganda film which brackets critical thought in favour of a single message pushing an ideological agenda on the public. When critical thinking is suspended, the documentary becomes a propaganda film. Today I will try to show how 10% of the Vietnamerica documentary that was ideological undermined the narrative of the suffering of the refugees who fled Vietnam.

Yesterday, I focused largely on the central core of the film and to some extend on one bookend, the success stories. Both happened to be military successes, one about the son of a refugee family who became the first Vietnamese-American general, and the other about the Vietnamese-American scientist who led the team that created the bunker buster bomb. This emphasis on militarism and a revisionist version of the Vietnam War opened the film. The film was transformed in good part from a view and record of the horrific experiences the Vietnamese had under the communists and in their efforts to escape, into an explicit propaganda film in defence of the theory that America betrayed its ally, South Vietnam. For it argues that the war had been effectively won when Kissinger was responsible for the stab-in-the-back, not only in abandoning Vietnam, but in refusing to re-equip the South Vietnamese army when China and the USSR were re-equipping the North Vietnamese. This thesis is dubious to say the least.

The film does not try to defend its extreme revisionist view, but simply to propagate the tale as a given. Quite aside from the questionable historical account, the effort to combine a historical propaganda film with a film of the experiences of the Vietnamese boat people allows the former to both undermine and detract from the latter.

There are the obvious readily challenged factual claims. A narrator says that half who fled Vietnam died in trying. If the numbers who fled were about two million, that would mean one million died in the effort to find freedom. But the film itself provides the generally accepted figure of 200,000 to 400,000 deaths. My studies indicate that the number was close to the higher estimate and North Vietnamese repression can be held responsible for at least half of those deaths. But not one million. Further, in the movie, there is no effort to resolve the contradiction in the figures cited. Similarly, assertions that 7 million died in the war are dubious. There is scant evidence to support such claims and virtually all authoritative sources cite a total of about 4 million dead and wounded on both sides, including 40,000 troops and civilians in The Convoy of Tears as civilians and military personnel fled the aggression of North Vietnamese armies as they moved against Saigon during March and April of 1975.

As far as atrocities and summary executions go, these were committed by both sides. The most famous was that of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Chief of the National Police, whose shooting of a handcuffed prisoner in the head with his 38 Smith & Wesson revolver became an iconic picture for the anti-war movement. The victim was Nguyễn Văn Lém, a member of the Việt Cộng captured in the Tet Offensive. Given the status of the photo, few knew that Lém was responsible for cutting the throat, not only of South Vietnamese Lieutenant Colonel Tuan, but his wife, six children and 80-year old mother. I do not know which side was guilty of the greater number of atrocities, but I suspect it was the Hanoi regime. Lém was captured beside a mass grave that held 34 civilian bodies.

It is easy to hold the Hanoi regime responsible for large numbers of deaths. After their victory over the French in the north and their breaking up the large estates and targeting large landowners, the Hanoi communist regime introduced land “reform.” that is, transferring all ownership of property to the state. Pacification followed. It is estimated that the Hanoi regime over four years killed almost 300,000 North Vietnamese citizens. In the period preceding the attack on Saigon, as suggested above, “Of the 200,000 refugees that fled the Highlands offensive by the North in March 1975, only 45,000 made it to Tuy-Hoa. Many of the 155,000 missing were killed by North Vietnamese troops; others were captured. Rebel highlanders also fired on the refugees, some were mistakenly bombed by government planes, and still others may have been run over by fleeing government vehicles. Some died by drowning and sheer exhaustion.” Of the death toll from one military advance over two months, Hanoi was probably responsible for almost half those deaths.

Thus, an estimate of those killed after the fall of Saigon of 100,000 does not seem so outlandish, especially if one includes in the total not only those executed, but those who were worked or starved to death in the so-called “re-education” camps. Some estimates go even higher. For a breakdown of civilians indiscriminately killed as a result of or consistent with orders from higher command, that is, democide, I use Bob Rummel’s publications in chapter 6 of Statistics of Democide focused on democide in Vietnam over 35 years.

The central issue of the propaganda element in the film is, however, not about numbers, but about the stab-in-the-back explanation of why Hanoi conquered South Vietnam. The propagandistic aspect of the film begins with two so-called authorities featured near the beginning of the film. One is Robert Turner, a Vietnam veteran and Associate Director of National Security Law at the University of Virginia, the university from which he earned his academic and professional degrees. Turner has been a national security adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and testified before numerous congressional committees. Studying his works offers some hint of the weaknesses of his academic input into foreign policy in the United States. His CV is very skimpy to say the least, largely consisting of op-eds, power-point presentations and submissions to government committees.

Turner is most famous for his defense of presidential prerogatives in military matters without the checks of Congress. In contrast to the vast majority of scholars, Turner has argued against the doctrine that “unchecked” presidential power is incompatible with democratic governance. He defends “unfettered” presidential power to be at the heart of the constitution, namely, that the power of the democratically elected “monarch” is unboundaried. This thesis is not accepted as a very serious perspective by the vast majority of established constitutional experts. Here is how he expressed his view. “Congress exceeded its proper authority in several instances related to war powers and intelligence.” Turner especially stressed the issue of intelligence and often cited John Locke’s doctrine (Two Treatises of Government) that success in war, described by him as a state of enmity and destruction, required unity of plan, speed, dispatch and secrecy

Turner is fond of quoting Chief Justice John Marshall on this issue. “By the Constitution of the United States, the President is invested with certain important political powers, in the exercise of which he is to use his own discretion, and is accountable only to his country in his political character, and to his own conscience…whatever opinion may be entertained of the manner in which executive discretion may be used, still there exists, and can exist, no power to control that discretion. The subjects are political. They respect the nation, not individual rights, and being entrusted to the executive, the decision of the executive is conclusive.”

The problem is that secrecy in John Locke applied to implementation not to strategy and direction. The latter required a shared long term and even permanent conviction and shared by the executive, the legislature and the people of a realm. This required articulation and consent, not deceit and surreptitious behaviour. Strategy applies to long term existential threats. Tactics apply to the management and execution of opposing that threat. A State of peace among citizens requires consent. Conduct of a war against an enemy requires secrecy. The issue is always how you combine secrecy with consent and not have secrecy supplant consent. Interpreting the power of the purse and the approval of appointments very narrowly just does not cut how the dialectical dance works.

However, Turner’s interpretation of the last years of the Vietnam War, while influenced by that non-conventional doctrine, is, if that is possible, even more questionable and, I believe, outlandish. Those interpretations can be read in many of his presentations that presumably informed Nancy when she began making the film: “Reflections on the Vietnam War,” given to the Air Force Military Academy in 2010; “The Consequences of U.S. Abandonment of Indochina” given at the Fall of Saigon conference in April of 2010. For more recent references, see Turner’s power point presentations on the net entitled, “Remarks on the 50th Anniversary of Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Indochina (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution)” given to the National Press Club in August 2014; “The Vietnam War and Constitutional War Powers” (October 2014), “Myths of the Vietnam War,” (2015) and “Views on Vietnam: The Irony of the LBJ Library Vietnam War Summit” (April 2016).

All are part of a revisionist history narrative that is akin to the one Hitler offered to Germans explaining why Germany lost WWI. “I continue to believe,” said Turner, “that a misguided and horribly misinformed Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Indochina, leading directly to the slaughter of millions of innocent lives and the consignment to Communist tyranny of tens of millions more.” Why would you include the testimony of such a questionable authority in a film about the horrible experiences of Vietnamese refugees even if it was somewhat credible? The thesis on the fall of Saigon is a crucial debate and a conflicted issue requiring one form of documentary treatment. The portrayal of the suffering of those who fled is based on a very wide consensus. The cost to credibility of including a thesis about the reasons for the loss of a war in a film about human suffering is enormous.

This is also true of the narrative offered by Lewis Sorley, author of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. His thesis is bought hook, line and sinker by Nancy Bui and, in the film, is offered in an abbreviated account. She expanded upon this thesis in my discussions with her after watching the film. The Americans and South Vietnam had defeated the Viet Cong, had allowed the South Vietnamese government to once again exercise its authority in the towns and villages, and the South Vietnamese army had by then been so well trained that it could carry the war forward without the use of American troops on the ground. However, Nixon and Kissinger sold out South Vietnam in the Paris Peace Accord of January 1973 and then double crossed the South Vietnamese by not resupplying them with arms and ammunition. This position has some justification, particularly the first of these two propositions. But the argument that in 1972, the Americans had won the war when General Abrams replaced General Westmoreland and shifted the strategy from the pursuit of the Viet Cong and body counts to a war to secure villages is highly questionable. Essentially, the thesis argues that the war had been virtually won by the American and South Vietnamese military and then the victory was squandered by the politicians and diplomats engaged in the Paris Peace Accords and its aftermath.

Colloquially put, the U. S. bugged out. Having gotten the North back to the bargaining table, Nixon and Kissinger cut a deal – the 27 January 1973 Paris Peace Accord – which allowed the North to keep its forces in South Vietnam. 80,000 North Vietnamese troops were permitted to remain in South Vietnam and this number was surreptitiously expanded to over 100,000 troops as Hanoi prepared for its 1975 offensive. The breach in the Accords was never really challenged by the U.S. or the world. At the time, of the 160,000 American troops once in Vietnam, down to 27,000 when the Accords were signed, under pressure from the anti-Vietnam War movement and a cowardly Congress, America cut and ran.

Further, Nixon refused to resume bombing to enforce the Accords. This enabled the North to use the cover of a cease fire to move more men and materiel into the South. Meanwhile, Congress, with bills like the Fulbright-Aiken Amendment, and extensive cuts to the military budget, pulled the logistical rug out from under the South. At the very time that the North was stockpiling arms, supplied by China and Russia, the South was having its supply of arms seriously curtailed. It was South Vietnam’s bad luck, at its hour of greatest peril, to be saddled with a feckless ally. Imagine having to depend on the U.S. for the logistical support which is your life’s blood at a time when it was being run by Nixon and Kissinger at the executive level and by folks like Ted Kennedy in the congressional realm. Sorley, and Nancy Bui in turn, lays much of the blame at the doorstep of the American political leadership.
Who else were the real villains responsible, in this revisionist version, for the fall of Saigon? The media focused on the protesters and the casualties (57,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War). A fickle public led by students and liberals opposed the war. There is no discussion in the film about the bombing of Hanoi, the efforts to destroy the supply lines, the refusal of the Saigon government to recognize the reality of the Viet Cong and the civil war (the Viet Cong are, to the best of my memory) never mentioned in the film.) and the widespread destruction in Laos, the failure to sustain a representative government instead of corrupt dictators or even a disciplined core of army officers – failures that would be repeated again and again for decades after the Korean conflict when America entered a foreign theatre to fight a war.

South Vietnam surrendered on 30 April 1975. America rescued 10,000 Vietnamese linked to the military effort and subsequently took in tens of thousands of others in the next three years, many or most of whom were linked with the American war effort. But in 1978, the Vietnamese government began a much wider and more oppressive regime that first targeted the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam and then spread to all other middle class Vietnamese. The suppression was horrendous and it was in this period that Canada entered into scene to help resettle refugees fleeing communist repression and not just those who lost the war.

Did a film about oppression and flight of refugees have to be combined with an alt-right interpretation of failure in the war? Obviously not. Interpreting the reasons for the fall of Saigon deserves a separate film in its own right. The effort to marry the two related but separate topics gives the impression that the plight of the refugees is merely being used to advance an ideological viewpoint. An excellent and emotionally powerful film about the Vietnamese refugee exodus is, ironically, almost drowned in a propaganda film about the reasons the South Vietnam government fell. I personally was torn between the tears I shed at the horrors suffered by the refugees and the tears I metaphorically shed at this lost opportunity to create an award-winning feature-length documentary. Though a lost artistic opportunity to make a great documentary of the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people does not compare with the real tears I have shed over the years at the suffering of the Vietnamese refugees fleeing a communist regime, nevertheless I was torn between my sadness at the lost opportunity and the revival of my compassion for the suffering and the dead. The film is valuable for attending to the latter. But it is flawed and distorted by advancing a far out historical thesis. And that is a pity.

An Afterword

One final and minor but relevant academic point arose, not in the film, but in my subsequent discussions with Nancy Bui. Nancy contended that the Paris Peace Accord obligated the U.S. to resupply South Vietnam with military weapons. I argued that the Peace Accords only permitted the U.S. to make up for depletions. As I recalled, the Accords stipulated that the U.S. would stay out of Vietnam after the U.S. army withdrew in terms of supplying military troops or equipment, except to replace losses on a one-to-one basis. Nancy insisted that there was no provision forbidding America from resupplying the South Vietnamese Army. I was not sure if my memory was correct and I promised to re-read the Accords to check whether Nancy’s interpretation was more accurate. The point is obviously relevant to a thesis that faults the U.S. for the fall of Saigon in general and for the refusal to re-supply South Vietnam with military arms.

There is some truth in this. Nixon did evidently secretly promise President Thiệu both that America would be able to maintain its logistical advantage and that if North Vietnam breached the agreement, the U.S. would resume bombing the North. However, chapter V, article 15(d) of the Paris Peace Accords provided that North and South Viet-Nam shall not join any military alliance or military bloc and shall not allow foreign powers to maintain military bases, troops; military advisers, and military personnel on their respective territories, as stipulated in the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Viet-Nam. Article 2 of Chapter II specifically stated that, “the United States will stop all its military activities against the territory of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam by ground, air and naval forces.” This was interpreted as excluding the Americans from acting militarily in any way on behalf of South Vietnam.

Further, the Case-Church Amendment approved by the U.S. Congress in June of 1973 endorsed this interpretation and explicitly prohibited further U.S. military activity in Indochina and at a time preparations were underway to impeach Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal. When North Vietnam resumed the war and launched the 1975 offensive, the U.S. refused to offer further military assistance and certainly refused to bomb the North. The North Vietnamese succeeded in defeating the South Vietnamese army, not primarily because North Vietnam was being supplied by Russia and China but America was not re-supplying South Vietnam, but because morale in the South Vietnam army had disintegrated, because corruption had eaten away at its soul and because most officers fled the field and abandoned their troops as the North Vietnamese advanced. The North Vietnamese did not have to fight very much to win the war. Replacing equipment was irrelevant when the South Vietnamese army was collapsing and the North Vietnamese were seizing more and more American arms and equipment.

Whether South Vietnam lost the war or the war was lost because the American people and the Congress betrayed and let down their partners is at best a matter of controversy. Dogmatic assertion on one side produced a propaganda film that undermines the documentary on the suffering of those who fled the new totalitarian order.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Hell of High Water – a movie review

Hell or High Water: a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

There is a very revealing scene in the movie that we saw last evening, Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie. Jeff Bridges, a crusty retiring Texas ranger, Marcus Hamilton, and his partner, the Comanche Texas ranger, Alberto, played with puritanical stoicism by Gil Birmingham, are riding in their police vehicle attempting to track down two men responsible for a series of bank robberies in western Texas. They are stopped on the highway by old-style cowboys herding their cattle across the blacktop in flight from a prairie grass fire. This is the new West – of oil rigs (and wind energy towers, the latter not seen in the movie because the film was shot in New Mexico). The cowboy tells Jeff Bridges that this is a hell of a way to make a living. “It’s the 21st century. No wonder my kid doesn’t wanna do this shit!”

The movie title harks back to a time when the expression was not “in”, “come” or even the more modern, “through” hell or high water, but just hell or high water. It was a period at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century when ranch hands drove their longhorns to rail heads through the high water of river crossings rather than travel long distances across a parched landscape to find shallows where they could ford the stream with ease. All obstacles, however high, are surmountable. Attacking them head on is a better choice than the hell of taking a circuitous route. This was the ethos of the cowboy. But it is also the grand metaphor of the film. For these Texan white males, there seems to be only two options – they are either struggling to surmount incredible obstacles or they live in a hell of their own and their society’s making.

Texas may still be gun country, but it is no longer cowboy country. Instead of the broad immense rich blue sky of Texas, black clouds from the grass fire blot out much of the sky. The atmosphere is one of gloom, despair and hopelessness. What we are watching is the death of a whole way of life with its deteriorating small towns and crotchety elders. The Texas of the old West is decaying in full view as we watch the strange beauty of this hard-crusted landscape and the human flotsam left over who spend their time shooting at each other in a state where even old men doing banking carry a gun and are ready to use it. “When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I take along Samuel Colt.” (Dust of the Chase)

In another insightful vignette, the two rangers stop to eat at an old-fashioned restaurant called the T-Bone, evidently the only eatery in town. The crotchety old waitress (Margaret Bowman), who has been waiting tables for eons (the actress is 84 years old and deserves an Oscar for her brilliant brief performance), asks the two what they don’t want. The two rangers look first puzzled and then downright totally bewildered. She says that the only thing they serve is T-bone steak. It comes with green beans and a baked potato. Which of the two choices, if any, does each of the rangers want to leave out? As an aside, the old crone tells them that she once had a customer from New York who asked for trout.

I cannot recall her words disparaging the New Yorker, but I immediately thought of how rural America and the rust belt elected Donald Trump and thumbed their noses at the sophisticates of urban America.

Hell or High Water is a study in contemporary rural cultural geography and in character revealed as much through all the silences as the witty dialogue of Taylor Sheridan’s script. There is almost no plot. Of the two brothers who are the bank robbers, Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced father with two sons with a sense of his own personal failure. As the movie unfolds, it becomes evident that he is driven by a determination that his own sons will not face the same bleak existence that he and his brother, Tanner, did. The latter (Ben Foster) is an ex-con who served ten years in prison. He “double crossed the State of Texas and they gave (him) a little time.” (Dust of the Chase) He is the wild card of the pair. A sociopath whose only moral compass seems to be loyalty to his younger brother, Tanner is the foil to the deeply pained and suffering persona of Toby, so steeped in guilt and a sense of failing to fulfill his responsibilities. The two rob a series of branches of the West Midland Bank. Two rangers chase them down. The end of Tanner is foreshadowed in the lyrics of Dust of the Chase.

“When the times at hand and I kill a man, I say a little prayer.
I come down from Oklahoma with a pistol in my boot
A pair of dice, a deck of cards and a bible in my suit
How small a part of time we share ’till we hear the sound of wings
I’m lost in the dust of the chase that my life brings.”

That’s it. That is the plot. However, all four characters are united by one theme – they are all lonesome would-be cowboys, except perhaps for the Comanche ranger, who evidently has an extensive and close family off screen, but has to spend his professional life being teased in a politically incorrect manner by Jeff Bridges about his half-breed nature as an Indian and a Mexican. This film pays ironic veneration to stubborn individualism writ large, individualism as atomic as it gets. In the lyrics of From My Cold Dead Hands:

“Do what I wanna do
Say what I wanna say
They wanna take it away
From my cold dead hands
The price of being free
And what it means to me
They wanna take it away.”

It is clear throughout the movie that the ranger, Marcus, really loves his partner, Alberto. That is verified near the end of the movie. But instead of intimacy between the two, there is only mutual razzing and the entertainment of dissing. The two brothers also love one another. In one scene, they even engage in some physical play and shoving. But that is the closest one views any caring between two humans. In another scene, Toby sits in the scrabbly backyard of his ex-wife’s home and talks to his son, from whom he is clearly estranged. Toby asks after his son’s brother (he’s at a friend’s house), but cannot express his deep love for his boys except through his efforts to rob banks to ensure his mother’s ranch, which has oil under its ground, is inherited by the boys, debt free. For it is the bank that is viewed as responsible for his troubles, for its efforts,

“to hold us,
Held by our necks.” (From My Cold Dead Hands)

There is no sense of love between a man and a woman in the whole movie. Near the beginning of the film, the lyrics to Mama’s Love portray the situation of a character who cannot sleep at night when the pain comes out, who has sex only to use a woman. The song begins:

“Something’s got my fear,
And then won’t get through my head,
But there’s something missing,
There’s something missing here.
Here I go again,
React without a plan, oh,
But there’s something missing,
There’s something missing here.”

And it is conveyed in the lyrics of You Asked Me To.

“Feel simple love is simple true
There’s no end to what I’d do
Just because you asked me.”

No male-female love, of either son to mother or between a man and his “gal.” Just chasing one’s tail and watching and waiting.

In another scene, the rangers view a tele-evangelist in their motel room. Jeff Bridges opines, “He wouldn’t know God if God crawled up his pant leg and bit his pecker.” In the land of evangelical rural America, there is really no depth of faith, only religion as entertainment. God has become a snake who does not entice men into sex, but bites off a man’s penis.

But there is deep love in the movie, even though it is repressed and deformed. The father, Toby, is devoted to his two boys even though he cannot connect with them. He is attached at the heel to his sociopathic brother. Toby and Tanner clearly love one another and are willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. The two rangers, Marcus and Alberto, even though they pretend to have only disdain for one another, also share a deep love as confirmed in the climatic last scene. When Marcus learns the reason for the robberies, in the post-climactic encounter between Marcus and Toby, Marcus seems to have learned to replace his desire for revenge with a respect and even concern for the bank robber who got away. Toby in turn invites Marcus to drop in to his place in town for a drink.

The devil, as in all the old Western movies, is still the bank, in this case, the Midland Western Bank and the four branches the two brothers rob to “earn” enough money to pay off the reverse mortgage and the back taxes owed by their recently deceased mother, the same Midland Western Bank that moved to foreclose on the mother’s ranch after oil was discovered on the property. The film seems both contemporary as well as lifted from the dirty thirties. The instinct for survival is the dominant motive for living, even when Tanner is engaged in futile self-defence. The brothers simply try to retrieve what they feel is owed them from the institutions that seem to have betrayed them so much. The politics of resentment is on full display.

I cannot recall a film where the movie with such sparse (and very witty) dialogue relied so fully on the soundtrack of songs (evidently available in a separate CD), most by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The songs drive home the full meaning of the movie. The titles are an indication:

1. Comancheria (the original film title, the locale in Texas and New Mexico)
2. Dollar Bill Blues (Tones Van Zandt)
3. Mama’s Room (Aaron Bruno, Jamin Wilcox, Drew James Stewart)
4. Dust of the Chase (Billy Jo Shaver and Ray Waylon Hubbard)
5. Texas Midlands
6. Robbery
7. You Ask Me To (Waylon Jennings)
8. Mountain Lion Mean
9. Sleeping on the Blacktop (Colter Wall)
10. From My Cold Dead Hands
11. Lord of the Plains
12. Blood, Sweat and Murder (Scott H. Biram)
13. Casino
14. Comancheria II
15. Outlaw State of Mind
16. Hate Me (Christopher Fronzak, Sean Heenan, Christopher Link, Nader Salameh and Kalen Biehm)
17. Bakerman (John Guldberg, Tim Stahl and Arthur Stander)
18. Playing the Part (Jamey Johnson and Shane Minor)
19. You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ (Billy Jo Shaver)
20. I’m Not Afraid to Die (Gillian Welch)

The twenty titles alone provide the whole plot and the settings for the various scenes. In the song, Commancheria, a simple chord progression with pauses, carries with it a sense of longing and a lost world. As Alberto, the Comanche ranger, tells Marcus, my people once owned all this land. You dispossessed us and now you are being dispossessed by the oil companies and the financiers.

The lyrics of Dollar Bill Blues start with the chorus:
“If I had a dollar bill
Yes, I believe I surely will
Go to town and drink my fill
Early in the morning.”

The song then refers to a darling as a “red-haired thing” who makes my legs sing and a golden girl mother, whose throat he slit. There’s only going down and no saving of one’s soul.

Hell or High Water is a bleak and melancholic western presented with a sense of humour and irony. Released in August, it is now available on Netflix or I-Tube, I cannot recall which. Much better than a tele-evangelist!

The Accountant – a movie review

The Accountant – a movie review
by

Howard Adelman

Last evening, we went to see a movie, The Accountant, with a large group of friends. It had been one of the few films that all of us had not seen. It would certainly not have been my first choice since the movie was billed as an action-thriller, and I am probably your typical middle class old age movie snob. In fact, after the movie was over and we did a survey of who liked the film, about half said it was just ok and a few did not care for the movie. Without my and my wife’s votes, the film would have been given a 5 or 6 out of 10 average. However, both of us would have given the movie an 8. We were the outliers.

Why the discrepancy?

From the discussions we had afterwards, I attribute the explanation to three factors:
• The difficulty of following three different plots as they were interwoven at very different rates with sudden subtle and frequent shifts
• The large quantity of those twists and turns in that plot
• Missing the underlying symbolic and moral thrust of the movie.
Though most were not put off by the general mayhem and the large number of comic book murders of a thriller of this type, and most agreed that Ben Affleck, whom I do not ordinarily care for as an actor, did an excellent job in this movie. Nevertheless, we evaluated the movie in general terms very differently.

All of us had been entertained, but to very different degrees. We agreed that Ben Affleck had been subtle and suitably subdued, nuanced and even empathetic, playing a very odd comic book superhero, Christian (Chris) Wolff. (This core alias is not just a disguise but a source of revelation.) We also agreed the film was an excellent advertisement for autism, for Chris was autistic, a fact established at the very beginning of the film with the flashback to his childhood, but reasonably disguised in a very stoic performance when he had become an adult and, by and large, strictly controls expressing any inappropriate emotions – except his unusual degree of control.

Chris, however, exhibits all the symptoms of the more serious cases of autism of the 1 in 68 children mentioned in the film, mostly boys. The film, in one of its early flashbacks – and there are many of them – with the peculiar habits of children and the way they line up toys and other objects. As an adult, Chris is very precise in how he places his three pancakes, his two perfectly-made sunny-side-up eggs and broken bacon strips on his plate. He clearly lives alone and the very few pieces of cutlery are placed meticulously in his cutlery drawer.

As a child, Chris has a terrible time relating to other children, except to his younger and very loyal brother, Braxton (badger, a kind of mole) who watches him with overwhelming frustration at his own impotence while expressing deep concern. Chris, however, does seem to make a connection with the daughter of the head of the Harbor Neuroscience Institute in New Hampshire where his parents take him for an evaluation. She too is an autistic youngster, the daughter of the director of the institute. Chris is very sensitive to sound, especially loud noises, but in adult life seems to have developed a ritual of subjecting himself to very large and loud noises for a period of time as a form of exercise that enables him to keep the presentation of his idiosyncratic behaviour under reasonable control when he is an adult.

There is a paradox, however. Chris as both a child and an adult clearly loves routine and unvaried patterns of behaviour to the point that he returns to his house in his pickup truck at the precise high speed as the garage door manages to just completely open and he stops on a dime at exactly the same spot. But why does he drive a truck?

More significantly, we know that autistic children easily, and worryingly, put themselves in harm’s way, but Chris as an adult unusually seems to have made a vocation of courting danger. It turns out that he is a superhero, but without a cape. Instead, he normally wears an accountant’s suit. But he is far superior to both Batman, who is now barely younger than I am, but he stays ageless and I do not and his civilian disguise as the very wealthy Bruce Wayne with his butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Further, he is plausible for he wears no outlandish disguise and instead wears the costume of an average clerk. Further, Chris seems to be a complete loner.

Chris has other traits of an autistic child – difficulty with speech, which in adulthood is expressed by very precise and very controlled articulation of English. Chris is no Rain Man, and, in fact, the performance seems deliberately opposite to the role played by Dustin Hoffman in that now 1988 classic. Though Chris was hyperactive as a child, especially when sounds and changes set him off, and retains that trait as a super-disciplined adult, not only when he becomes engaged in murderous activities, but when, as a forensic accountant, he is stopped from completing his work in his first job examining the books of a legitimate economic enterprise, a huge business enterprise that makes robotics and prosthetics. Chris goes into a frenzy.

Chris attaches himself to specific objects, such as a dented thermos, the origins of which we only learn when we are well into the film. But mostly he is a loner and aloof, and, most of all, he is a savant like the Rain Man with a superhuman ability to manage numbers and calculations, but also a superior, and very human, ability to engage in all the close-up well choreographed violence. The character of Chris is equally differentiated from either the hapless Khan in a recent Dutch film, when the hero’s idiosyncrasies lead him to being arrested as a terrorist, and the role played by Sean Penn as Sam in an old 1998 film, I Am Sam. For what character on the various gradations of autistic character disorder (not Asperger’s Syndrome) can perform such advanced judo and brilliant sharpshooting from a mile distant?

Though one reason for the different reaction among us could have been my love for comics as distinct from the others, but my wife has no interest in comic heroes and she loved the movie. Nor can it have been the subtle associations with the eighteenth century philosopher, Christian Wolff, who, though an associate of the inventor of calculus, Leibniz, was more of a common sense ethicist than a brilliant mathematician like all the other aliases Chris used to hide who he was. Wolff certainly used the Cartesian model of mathematical deduction for doing philosophy, but he was not a mathematical genius like Descartes or Leibniz. That alone might have indicated that this alias was different.

If I were not a philosopher, especially one who once specialized in German philosophy, it would be very unlikely that I would know that Christian Wolff was the most important German philosopher on the German stage between Leibniz and Kant, who was so preeminent after him and, unlike Wolff, has never been forgotten. Though Wolff should not be, for he was a founder of both applied economics and public administration. He was a proto-accountant. So it is no surprise, rather than phony, that as the proprietor of ZZZ Accounting Services in an indistinguishable strip mall somewhere in Illinois, Chris in the movie offers a series of very mundane lessons to a farm couple about how to save money on their taxes and, thereby, save their farm. The point there is not his mathematical wizardry but his ethics.

In contrast to Kant, who tried to articulate the necessary conditions for scientific thinking, for ethics and for judgement in practical affairs, Wolff was the philosopher of the possible. Though he followed Leibniz in viewing the world as constituted by monads that never interacted, an ideal vision for one with autism, his real and most important contribution was to applied ethics with pre-established harmony viewed, not as a metaphysical presumption, but as an aspirational prerequisite for leading an ethical life. So when Chris near the beginning of the film asks the American Federal Treasury agent Ray King (played with deep conviction by J.K. Simmons) at gunpoint, after Chris had murdered eight important mafia figures in cold blood within minutes, whether he was married and had been a good father to his two boys, this is a poignant as well as suspenseful moment.

King answers yes and you will quickly learn whether he is allowed to live or die. If you were one of the rarities in the auditorium who knew who Wolff was, you would know the answer from the ethics promulgated by Christian Wolff, the philosopher. So the rarity of this glimpse into the underlying play with ethics, the history of ideas and other subtleties in the film, cannot be the critical factor in enjoying the richness of the film as my wife certainly did. For the main themes can be grasped without knowing any of these clues.

However, this does suggest that the symbolism was very important. Most viewers watching the film get the joy of grasping the clues to this film somewhere along the way as the film progresses. I personally believe the experience is actually enhanced the sooner you clue in as you wait in suspense to find out whether you are correct rather than in suspense to find out what is going to happen. But watch at the beginning as the autistic boy puts together a 500-1,000-piece puzzle in no time and then loses his composure totally when the final piece at the centre of the puzzle is missing. Watch how low that piece has fallen and see if you can identify the missing piece in the movie plot.

The film is full of rich allusions. Chris Wolff, the accountant not the philosopher, had received two very famous paintings as payment for undertaking forensic work for international criminal gangsters. Look at the painter and what has been painted. In the Jackson Pollock painting that is mounted on the ceiling of his Airstream recreational vehicle stored with his guns and cash in a storage container (why the truck?), the most important abstract painting star in America, whom Ed Harris portrayed in a biopic in 2001 playing an artist who wants to shut the world out as if he were autistic but needs contact with it in order to express his artistic passion. Why was the painting chosen not a Van Gogh? Why was the biopic not chosen of Alec Guinness playing Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth? A needed strand of comic relief could have been added. And look at the mounted piece. The Pollock is a black and white painting from the painter’s drip period, one I did not recognize, but which is reflective of both the way Chris Wolff’s character and the plot are revealed.

Without saying any more, look at the other painter and the painting which hangs on the wall. It is figurative and expressionist rather than abstract. Think about the figurative character akin to the painter rather than the one torn apart like Jackson Pollok. What is the background to the painter and who do the figures in the painting represent? Why is it an impressionist still life painting without the dynamic explosiveness of the Pollock? Think of the figurative painter’s relationship with his mother.

Though disguised as an action-thriller in a movie about white collar crime, look under the surface for the multitude of clues and pieces to the puzzle. Why does the film mirror John Nash’s mathematical equations written on blackboards and walls in A Perfect Mind, where John Nash, a Nobel laureate in economics, but a paranoid schizophrenic rather than autistic personality? The clues are everywhere and there are many, but do not expect to get more than a view on first viewing. But the more you get, the richer the cinematic experience and the deeper the understanding. For example, why is the love unrequited?

But if the film appreciation depended on putting all the pieces of the puzzle together as if all the viewers were savants, the film would not work at all. I think the problem was in the complexity of the plot rather than the bountiful symbolic clues. For it is easy to get lost otherwise without the help of the clues.

Go see the movie and see what you think. At the very least, it will be a delight to watch an accountant of all types turn into a very realistic action hero. And I believe that I have not given away any more than one bead in each of the three strings of the plot. I can assure you that, although it is a comic book action film that begins with a very bloody shootout of a bunch of mobsters within their home turf, where the identity of the shooter is not initially revealed, and although the movie is full of lot more murdered corpses in very well choreographed scenes before the movie is over, and although it is an excellent crime thriller, at its heart and core it a family film. You soon learn that Chris Wolff is not really a badass. Gavin O’Connor as the director and Bill Dubuque as the scriptwriter have done an excellent job in the pacing, the interweaving and in the series of climatic scenes.

This is not a normal review – most of mine are not anyway. But in this one, I never discussed Robert C. Treveiler as the father who misleadingly comes across initially as a villain, Anna Kendrick as the naïve and eventually love-struck Dana in the accounting department of the robotics firm, but in her own way, also a savant, Cynthia Addai-Robinson as Marybeth Medina, assistant treasury agent to Kay, Jon Bernthal as the assassin or John Lithgow as the head of the robotics company who are all individually excellent. The robotics voice on the cell phone is a particularly nice ironic touch. This is a movie about a puzzle solver that requires all members of the audience to become puzzle solvers, but at a much simpler level.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Denial – A Movie Review Part I

Denial – A Movie Review Part I

by

Howard Adelman

Last evening, I did not attend the community memorial to Shimon Peres. I intended to do so. But I went to an afternoon movie to see the film, Denial. Directed by Mick Jackson, using a script by the British playwright David Hare, the film was based, in turn, on a 2005 book called History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier by Deborah E. Lipstadt. That volume recounted Lipstadt’s legal defence against three charges of libel allegedly contained in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust. The Growing Assault on History and Memory.

The suit was brought against her by David Irving, the so-called English military historian and Nazi sympathizer whom Lipstadt had described in her 1993 book as one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. In his statement of claim against Lipstadt (as well as the publisher, Penguin Books), Irving cited Lipstadt’s descriptions of Holocaust deniers as those who, “misstate, misquote, falsify statistics, and falsely attribute conclusions to reliable sources. They rely on books that directly contradict their arguments, quoting in a manner that completely distorts the authors’ objectives. Deniers count on the fact that the vast majority of readers will not have access to the documentation or make the effort to determine how they have falsified or misconstrued information” (p. 111)

On p. 161, Lipstadt cited other scholarly descriptions of David Irving, specifically. “Scholars have described Irving as a ‘Hitler partisan wearing blinkers’ and have accused him of distorting evidence and manipulating documents to serve his own purposes. He is best known for his thesis that Hitler did not know about the Final Solution, an idea that scholars have dismissed. The prominent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper depicted Irving as a man who ‘seizes on a small and dubious part particle of’ evidence using it to dismiss far-more-substantial evidence that may not support his thesis. His work has n described as ‘closer to theology or mythology than to history,’ and he has been accused of skewing documents and misrepresenting data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions, particularly those that exonerate Hitler. (Sunday Times, 12 July 1977)”

“An ardent admirer of the Nazi leader, Irving placed a self-portrait of Hitler over his desk, described his visit to Hitler’s mountaintop retreat as a spiritual experience, (Harris, 1986) and declared that Hitler repeatedly reached out to help the Jews. (Canadian Jewish News, 16 March 1989) In 1981 Irving, a self-described “moderate fascist,” established his own right-wing political party, founded on his belief that he was meant to be a future leader of Britain. (London Jewish Chronicle, 27 May 1983) He is an ultra-nationalist who believes that Britain has been on a steady path of decline accelerated by its misguided decision to launch a war against Nazi Germany. He has advocated that Rudolf Hess should have received the Nobel Prize for his efforts to try to stop war between Britain and Germany.10 On some level Irving seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy.”

Canada played a role in the trial. I am not referring to the fact that Lipstadt, like Donald Trump, was born in Queens, but her father was Canadian, a possibly important element in the conflict between truth and lies. Lipstadt in her 1993 volume locates David Irving’s conversion into an outright Holocaust denier to his attendance at the trial of Ernst Zundel for hate speech where he testified for Zundel and, most importantly, was introduced to the Boston engineer of execution machines, Fred A. Leuchter, who had claimed that the chemicals used in the so-called gas chambers were intended to kill the lice on the corpses of Jews who had died from typhoid.

“In his foreward to his publication of the Leuchter Report, Irving wrote that there was no doubt as to Leuchter’s ‘integrity’ and ‘scrupulous methods.’ He made no mention of Leuchter’s lack of technical expertise or of the many holes that had been poked in his findings. Most important, Irving wrote, ‘Nobody likes to be swindled, still less where considerable sums of money are involved.’ Irving identified Israel as the swindler, claiming that West Germany had given it more than ninety billion deutsche marks in voluntary reparations, ‘essentially in atonement for the ‘gas chambers of Auschwitz.’ According to Irving the problem was that the latter was a myth that would ‘not die easily.’”

None of these quotes are cited in the movie that I can recall. However, the Leuchter argument introduced at the trial of Ernest Zundel in Toronto plays a crucial role in the movie, it is simplified and summarized when Lipstadt argues that the amount of cyanide needed to kill humans would be 20X the amount needed to kill lice. Further, as Tom Wilkinson in the role of Richard Rampton pointed out in court, why would one want to sanitize bodies that were to be burnt in a crematorium? And why would you build a shelter for Nazis 2.5 miles from their barracks?

After watching the movie, I lost my motivation to attend the homage to the late Shimon Peres, a man I admired greatly. I was in attendance at the Jerusalem auditorium when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on 20 November 1977 paid his historic visit to Israel and turned politics in the Middle East upside down forever. The visit, his talk and the subsequent negotiations led to the Camp David Accords and the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. In 1978, Sadat would justly win a Nobel peace prize for what he had set in motion. As he had said in his speech the previous day in the Knesset, “Let us put an end to wars, let us reshape life on the solid basis of equity and truth. And it is this call, which reflected the will of the Egyptian people, of the great majority of the Arab and Israeli peoples, and indeed of millions of men, women, and children around the world that you are today honoring. And these hundreds of millions will judge to what extent every responsible leader in the Middle East has responded to the hopes of mankind.”

On the stage of the Jerusalem Theatre the next day in addition to Anwar Sadat were Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Labour Party Chair, Shimon Peres. I was in Jerusalem that year as a Lady Davis Visiting Scholar at Hebrew University. The Jerusalem Theatre occasion was an opportunity to address the world press and I managed to get accredited as a journalist to get into the theatre. If you listened to the three speeches, they echoed much of what had been said the day before in the Knesset. I have not been able to locate their speeches given at the Jerusalem Theatre that day. But my recollection is very vivid – the day was so extraordinary for me.

Sadat’s speech was dramatic and very moving. The words I remember best came near the end: “Love justice and do right.” [I hope I remembered correctly and I cannot recall whether he went on to the echo the psalm and ask that right and justice be allowed to kiss.] In order for that to happen, you had to be straightforward and honest. Truth was not an end in itself, but a prerequisite to a just and peaceful world. I recall how Sadat’s speech exemplified those values.

Sadat did not try to hide the truth about the bitter enmity between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. It was not a manipulative speech, but one addressed to all Arabs and Jews as well as the rest of the people in the world to come together and win together, to win a peace instead of a war. It was also poetic as he addressed the sorrowing mothers, widows, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters for whom the ghosts of their loved ones fill the air like the raindrops in a London downpour. Use that memory, he urged, to fill your hearts with the aspiration for peace where hope transforms the world to create a new reality in which lives can blossom. For Sadat, an international agreement was not the prelude to peace, but the culmination of a radical change in attitude which requires a struggle against both the whim of indifference and egocentric personal ambition.

Sadat had chosen not to dwell on the past, not to rehearse the struggle for Arab independence from colonial rule and the perception that the Balfour Declaration and subsequent events were understood by Arabs as a continuation of colonialism that led to a history of warfare between the Arabs and Jews, between Israel and Egypt, But, while recognizing the need for Israel to be guaranteed the right to live in safety and security, he did challenge Israel to recognize the injustice to the Palestinians, to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to withdraw from East Jerusalem and to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination. He called on Israelis and Arabs together to make Jerusalem a free and open city for people of all faiths.

How did Begin and Peres respond to this prophet of peace? Like Sadat, Begin stressed a belief in right rather than might. However, in contrast, to Sadat’s speech, Begin focused on the past. He began with the Arab rejection of Israel’s offers to live in peace with her Arab neighbours from the very beginning of the founding of the state, only to receive the response of a military attack from three sides of the many against the few. He did not carry the history forward but went back to the history of Jews expelled from their land and sent into exile. Jews never forgot their land, even for a single day, but instead longed for and prayed for return. And they never forgot Jerusalem. But also never forgot the obligation of all religions to maintain and visit their holy sites, something that had not been allowed during the nineteen years of Arab control of the city. Then he dwelled on the Holocaust. For before Sadat addressed the Knesset the previous day, Begin had accompanied him to Yad Vashem. Never again! Israel had been built on the pledge, “Never again.”

Peres took a different course than either Sadat or Begin. Though he too believed in hope rather than cynicism, though he too knew that the past had to be recalled lest it be repeated, though he, like Begin, reiterated the commitment of all Israelis to peace, he stressed that a common past bound Arabs and Jews together and so would the aspirations for a great future, but Peres, ever the pragmatist, focused on the present. He began by recognizing Sadat’s courage in an Arab world hostile to Israel to travel to Israel and, specifically, to Jerusalem. He insisted that, in seeking peace and entering into negotiations, Israelis would accept this as a new beginning, a new start, where it would be necessary for Israelis to free themselves from pre-conceived notions.

On the other hand, Peres was brutally frank. He said that he disagreed, not with the aspirations for peace, but with much of the substance of Sadat’s opening position. But negotiations start with differences and only proceed if each party listens to the other and tries to forge a compromise. Sadat’s courage in coming to Jerusalem was proof that negotiations could now proceed on a new foundation so that with patience, a peace agreement might be forged. He then went on as a total realist, without circumlocution or deceit, to outline Israel’s opening position and then to list the actual steps that would have to be taken to achieve peace.

In the movie, Denial, the theme is not about how enemies can come together to forge peace, but how allies have to come together and make compromises in a peaceful way in order to expand the realm of peace and justice. That is where the dramatic tension is, not between the liar and falsifier versus those concerned with truth. In that case, there is no room for compromise, but one side must win.

With the help of Alex Zisman