Against Aesthetic Stalinism

As always on the subject, what Roy said.

There seem to be serious questions about whether the portrayal of Zero Dark Thirty as being pro-torture is accurate. But even if it is — and I obviously take no position on either the politics or aesthetic merits of the film, having not seen it — it is in fact entirely possible for great art to have bad politics. Conversely, anyone who’s had the misfortune of sitting through a late-period Robert Redford movie or a couple episodes of The Newsroom is well aware, acceptable politics and atrocious art can certainly go well together.

…also, I’d appreciate it if Freddie deBoer would cite some of the unnamed “liberals” who “want to be forced to support torture” and take the stupid ticking time bomb hypothetical seriously. The only one he discusses is Ackerman, who defends the film’s treatment of torture because he believes it to show torture as being both brutal and useless. This may be a misreading of the film, but it’s a weak basis indeed for an assertion that Ackerman is a secret torture apologist who also speaks for all liberals.

270 comments on this post.
  1. scott:

    I think assigning art and poltics to separate atmospherically and ethically sealed compartments is naive and quite stupid. Birth of a Nation may have been quite the advance in cinematic art, but that didn’t stop anyone from wondering about its factual claims or worrying about the message it was sending. I haven’t heard anyone say that those concerns belonged solely to aesthetic Stalinists, and using language like that doesn’t border on self-parody but leaps over it.

  2. Scott Lemieux:

    A film’s politics are certainly fair game, but the assumption that the quality of a film depends on having politics one finds agreeable is much more problematic.

  3. ajay:

    I am pretty confident that Zero Dark Thirty will take the same sober, realistic approach to modern war that Bigelow did in The Hurt Locker. I am looking forward to the sniper duels with inexplicable British mercenaries, the midnight jogs through the streets of Baghdad, the innovative infantry tactics (“You go down that alley on your own! I’ll go down this one!”), the bombs with Great Big Red LCD Countdowns, and the other meticulously researched details that have come to serve as her trademark.

  4. Fraxin:

    The title of the Greenwald post Roy’s responding to:

    Zero Dark Thirty: new torture-glorifying film wins raves: Can a movie that relies on fabrications to generate support for war crimes still be considered great?

    With its release imminent, the film is now garnering a pile of top awards and virtually uniform rave reviews. What makes this so remarkable is that, by most accounts, the film glorifies torture

    That is totally aesthetic stalinism.

  5. Scott Lemieux:

    Precisely.

  6. mark f:

    Christ, deBoer actually says:

    Monday, December 10, 2012
    bad faith and Zero Dark Thirty
    One of the things I realized very early on in the post-9/11 world was how many people wanted to maintain the pose of sophistication and skepticism that was important to their self-conception while still embracing the militaristic, racist propaganda that was the common language of our country at that time. For a brief time, a kind of showy sincerity predominated; even the most sarcasm-drenched plastered their cars with those mini American flags. But the shelf life was short.

    So a new method for protecting our national self-image of righteous violence against the subhuman Muslim throngs was developed: not unironic embrace of embarrassing patriotism or gauche militarism, but rather reflexive denial of left-wing criticisms of the same. Rather than making the affirmative case for America as the shining redeemer, fighting against the heathens who had wronged us, many among the culturally liberal elite instead reverted to a purely negative argument to undermine and ridicule left-wing critique of our military adventures. So the typical move was not to endorse Bush administration foreign policy but to deride as cranks and loons those who proposed an alternative. I know because from 2002 to 2005, antiwar activism was a 20-30 hour a week job for me, and I learned very quickly that cultural and social liberals did not want to hear about our abuses in the Muslim world. They preferred to deride any talk of American brutality abroad as conspiracy theorizing, the domain of the “loony left,” and cluck their tongues at the incompetence and excess of the Bush administration, never really articulating the fact that complaints about incompetence and excess suggest an essential endorsement of goals.

    I bring this up in regards to Glenn Greenwald’s thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty. Based on his Twitter feed, it seems he has caused a conflagration for daring to criticize the movie. The typical, and typically cheap, response is that he has no right to judge the movie without having seen it. Which would be true, were he commenting on its quality or its perspective. Instead Greenwald has a very basic point, one that is being roundly ignored: a film that has repeatedly and proudly been sold as “documentary” and “journalistic” contains a lie of profound importance. The movie, by all accounts, shows torture as being an indispensable part of the capture of bin Laden, an idea that has been roundly debunked and specifically denied by many people on the inside of the government. (Adam Serwer, with typical thoroughness and fairness, has the run-down.) To say that your movie is “a hybrid of the filmic and the journalistic,” as the writer of the film did, when your movie depicts the use of torture as essential to captuing bin Laden is to tell a lie. And in a country of vitriolic anti-Muslim hatred, a dangerous lie. Whether you’ve seen the film or not.

    What the pompous film critics defending this film will have to grapple with is the fact that in this country, at this time, when we are continuing our decade-long policy of collective punishment against the Muslim world, it is a certainty that many people will leave the theater after seeing Zero Dark Thirty convinced that torture was used to find Osama bin Laden, and that Osama bin Laden was at the time a threat to the United States (when he certainly was not), and so we must continue to torture. That’s just a fact. So: how do they feel about that? “You haven’t seen the film, unlike me!” is not an argument either way.

    Even if he’s wrong, some idiots will probably misinterpret it, so he’s right anyway! You pompous jerks!

  7. thusbloggedanderson:

    They can’t be wholly separate, though. A wonderfully made film about how the Nazis bravely strove to eradicate the Jewish menace, would still be a bad movie.

    In fact, this “aesthetic Stalinism” bit is getting tiresome, because the complaint is precisely that the movie in question is itself propaganda. So retorting “you’re insisting on seeing art as propaganda!” is more clever than helpful.

  8. mark f:

    Er, don’t know how I quoted all of that. Just the last of those paragraphs was intended.

  9. thusbloggedanderson:

    Peter Bergen *has* seen the movie.

    “Zero Dark Thirty” is a great piece of filmmaking and does a valuable public service by raising difficult questions most Hollywood movies shy away from, but as of this writing, it seems that one of its central themes — that torture was instrumental to tracking down bin Laden — is not supported by the facts.

  10. thusbloggedanderson:

    Hey, just use the EDIT button … oh wait.

  11. Malaclypse:

    A wonderfully made film about how the Nazis bravely strove to eradicate the Jewish menace, would still be a bad movie.

    Triumph of the Will is an undeniably evil movie, but it is not a bad movie.

  12. jprs:

    Isn’t it possible to have a balanced critique? Something along the lines of “Triumph of the Will is beautifully shot AND has a terrible message”?

    The question of whether or not to make the film has already been taken; the question of whether or not to view it is moot, since beholding it is necessary prior to judging it. I guess we could be arguing over whether or not to support others’ seeing it, but those who have already seen it are at a distinct advantage, and if they argue to avoid it but not on the basis of its beauty/execution/style etc., then they are undermining their own judgement, since isn’t that just going to promote it via “controversy” (as Greenwald has done)?

  13. Erik Loomis:

    “They can’t be wholly separate, though. A wonderfully made film about how the Nazis bravely strove to eradicate the Jewish menace, would still be a bad movie.”

    Actually I don’t think this is true.

    Birth of a Nation is an absolutely wonderful movie in service of an absolutely horrible cause.

  14. Steve:

    Yes. The question that hasn’t been answered about Zero Dark Thirty is, “Is it art?”

  15. thusbloggedanderson:

    De gustibus etc., so let’s shelve that, and try another angle:

    Instead of Atlas Shrugged Part XXIII, the same producers make a movie about how Dubya and Cheney forced a sluggish bureaucracy to confront the threat of Saddam’s hidden WMD, and heroically led the nation into war; the WMD are discovered but must be kept secret because we store them for future use in the war on terror, which the liberal media can’t be allowed to hinder.

    Okay? And suppose the producers are tired of losing money, so they actually get good people to make the movie, and hey, it’s pretty good.

    Would LGM still be so pissy about people who complain “hey, this movie is peddling bogus propaganda”?

  16. Incontinentia Buttocks:

    Actually “you haven’t seen the film” is a pretty good argument against any criticism of any film by someone who hasn’t seen it.

    You know how to avoid falling victim to this argument?

    See the f**king film before writing about it!

    Or, if you’re really interested in decrying American militarism and your criticism of the unseen film is but a vehicle for that larger concern, choose another vehicle (lord knows, there are plenty of others available).

  17. Steve:

    Was Freddie always this pious grad student wanker, or is that new?

  18. thusbloggedanderson:

    Yah, glad I’m not the only one. I think we were just supposed to be grateful there *was* a movie about the Iraq war.

  19. Erik Loomis:

    If the movie was actually good, I’d be fine with it. Of course it wouldn’t be so this is strictly theoretical.

  20. Robert Farley:

    “There’s a whole cottage industry, like that, for fretting liberals who want to get to the tough guy routine in the end.

    If Zero Dark Thirty shows torture as the key to killing bin Laden, that’s what it’s for, and I’m sure performing that service will prove very profitable. ”

    Jesus. And if it doesn’t, then is it performing some alternate service for the overclass? How fucking lazy can you get, Freddy?

  21. Malaclypse:

    Instead of Atlas Shrugged Part XXIII, the same producers make a movie about how Dubya and Cheney forced a sluggish bureaucracy to confront the threat of Saddam’s hidden WMD, and heroically led the nation into war; the WMD are discovered but must be kept secret because we store them for future use in the war on terror, which the liberal media can’t be allowed to hinder.

    Less hypothetically, JFK. And note that the question of whether JFK is a mad movie is entirely separate from whether it is bad history.

  22. Malaclypse:

    Bad movie, that is.

  23. mark f:

    I think both work, actually.

  24. ajay:

    I am actually now trying to think what Zero Dark Thirty would be like if it is roughly as accurate as The Hurt Locker.

    10. CIA discovers Bin Laden’s location through torture
    9. CIA discovers Bin Laden’s location through remote viewing
    8. CIA discovers Bin Laden’s location by closely studying background of illustrations in Pakistani editions of “Where’s Waldo?”
    7. Bin Laden found to be living in Santa Monica, CA
    6. Bin Laden linked to Al Jolson terror group
    5. Bin Laden played by Danny De Vito
    4. Bin Laden has British accent (because, you know, villain)
    3. Bin Laden has underwater hideout/headquarters
    2. Bin Laden killed during raid by being hit on head with enormous frying pan carried by heroic US army enlisted mouse

    1. Raid conducted not by Navy SEALS but by actual seals; movie originally titled “Zero Bark Thirty”

  25. thusbloggedanderson:

    Okay. So you’re pretty much indifferent to whether a film grossly misleads the public about the Iraq war, or unions, or torture, or whatever.

    I guess you’re entitled to think that, but you shouldn’t be particularly surprised that other people disagree with that.

  26. janastas359:

    This is pretty typical Greenwald. Here is a more sober way to handle this:

    “Zero Dark Thirty, early reviews, has some commentators believing that it glorifies torture, and that torture is inaccurately depicted as necessary for the death of Bin Laden. While I will wait to see the movie before commenting in greater depth, it’s at least interesting that the movie is ambiguous enough in this message that it has produced such a varied response.”

    But then “Glenn Greenwald,” and “Sober analysis,” don’t really belong together.

  27. Erik Loomis:

    I am somewhat curious about the fetish for accuracy in movies like this.

    Do you want a documentary?

  28. janastas359:

    +1

  29. Robert Farley:

    And Ackerman says that the movie doesn’t support this interpretation. Moreover, Ackerman notes (and Bergen acknowledges) that Bergen saw an early cut; not the final cut.

    Maybe this movie has been carefully designed to force liberals to think torture is awesome, just like Freddie says. Or maybe Freddie and Glenn are talking out of their respective asses. I think maybe somebody should watch the movie and find out.

  30. Erik Loomis:

    I’m not saying I’m indifferent. I’m saying that judging the film’s art and the film’s politics are two completely different things.

  31. thusbloggedanderson:

    A movie can have good acting but a stupid plot. It can have a great script but laughable special effects. Etc., etc.

    In a historical film, accuracy is another element. I don’t see why it should be cordoned off.

    So just as the acting can make an otherwise good film bad, why can’t historical inaccuracy make an otherwise good film bad?

  32. thusbloggedanderson:

    “Zero Bark Thirty” is the funniest thing I will read all week. Thanks for that.

  33. Erik Loomis:

    I feel like this is the equivalent of saying every World War II film was bad because none of them were anything close to historically accurate.

  34. ajay:

    I am somewhat curious about the fetish for accuracy in movies like this.

    Ask SEK to explain it to you. A lot of people quite like their movies to be realistic.

  35. djw:

    It’s not so much that I’d be indifferent to that, as it would lead to two separate judgements:

    This is a great movie.

    This is an evil movie.

    Both observations would be worth making, but neither would negate the truth of the other. As with Triumph of the Will, Birth of a Nation, etc.

  36. thusbloggedanderson:

    Either the CNN piece has been updated, or Ackerman reads poorly:

    Along with other national security experts, as an unpaid adviser I screened an early cut of “Zero Dark Thirty.” We advised that the torture scenes were overwrought. Al Qaeda detainees held at secret CIA prison sites overseas were certainly abused, but they were not beaten to a pulp, as was presented in this early cut. Boal said that as a result of this critique, some of the bloodier scenes were “toned down” in the final cut of the film. I also saw this final version of the film.

    Do you want *videotape* of him actually watching the movie?

  37. Erik Loomis:

    I’m asking you. Are you looking for a pseudo-documentary with big explosions or what not?

  38. mark f:

    I think a few things are getting conflated here. Mostly “Is X a good movie qua movie?” and “Is movie X a good thing?,” where the latter question is almost wholly contigent upon the first answer being “Yes” (Because otherwise who cares?).

  39. thusbloggedanderson:

    It’s relative, right? A movie can have some bad acting but still be good overall. Mary Poppins is good despite Dick van Dyke’s accent.

  40. Fraxin:

    Because film isn’t history.

  41. ajay:

    Especially when they’re about real events. If Lincoln had featured regular scenes in which Lincoln was interviewed on camera for NBC, that wouldn’t have worried you? If you saw a film set in modern Japan in which every male character wore a kimono?

    And the context of this post, I should add, is an argument about whether the film accurately represents real events.

  42. Scott Lemieux:

    The fact that one critic says it doesn’t mean it’s true. There are plenty of critics and viewers who think that to portray something without condemning as explicitly as Aaron Sorkin would is condoning it; we’ve had this debate here before multiple times.

  43. ajay:

    In The Hurt Locker, I was looking for realism – “that is recognisably how real people behave”. In Zero Dark Thirty, since it is supposed to be a depiction of real events, I will be looking for both realism and accuracy – “that is how these real people really did behave”.

    Your own co-blogger seemed to think that accuracy was pretty important when it came to Lincoln.

  44. Erik Loomis:

    I certainly had no problem with the idea of Abraham Lincoln killing vampires.

    Or Inglorious Basterds blowing Hitler away in a movie theater.

  45. mark f:

    If Lincoln had featured regular scenes in which Lincoln was interviewed on camera for NBC, that wouldn’t have worried you?

    This maybe raises an interesting question. We have enough remove from and general knowledge of Lincoln’s era that such scenes would be universally understood to be poetic license. Except for the fact that they’d probably be Sorkined-up bullcrap, I don’t see why their presence would automatically disqualify Lincoln from being a good film.

  46. ajay:

    Well, that would be a question of “accuracy”, wouldn’t it. Those films weren’t pretending to represent real events. “Realism” is different – even fictional characters can behave unrealistically.

  47. Fraxin:

    And the context of this post, I should add, is an argument about whether the film accurately represents real even

    No, it isn’t. The argument is about making aesthetic judgements based on non-aesthetic criteria, as the word “aesthetic” in the title should indicate.

  48. thusbloggedanderson:

    “Because film isn’t history.”

    Nonresponsive. A film can have such a lousy story that it’s a bad film. One thing that can make a story lousy is historical inaccuracy.

  49. gmack:

    If Lincoln had featured regular scenes in which Lincoln was interviewed on camera for NBC, that wouldn’t have worried you?

    Er, not necessarily? As I recall, Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” pretty clearly linked the character Marie Antoinette to the contemporary cult of celebrity, and even used contemporary music as part of its sound track (the scene I remember most vividly involves the use of a New Order song). Similarly, in the book, “Immortality,” Milan Kundera imagines the meeting of Goethe and Napoleon as if it were a photo-op.

    Now, these scenes might fail, but their failure has nothing whatever to do with the historical inaccuracies.

  50. thusbloggedanderson:

    “Your own co-blogger seemed to think that accuracy was pretty important when it came to Lincoln.”

    This.

  51. Djur:

    I seem to remember Freddie not long ago questioning Corey Robin for criticizing the Lincoln movie without seeing it. Huh.

  52. Joey Maloney:

    I’d want to know why the director made that choice. I once saw a production of Titus Andronicus where the soldiers were all dressed as Israeli and Egyptian infantrymen from the 6 Days War.

    The answer to “why did the director make that choice?” can well be “because he’s an ignoramus” or “because she’s pandering to the audience” but just departing from the historical record is orthogonal to the piece’s artistic quality.

  53. Erik Loomis:

    So is any World War II movie acceptable to you given that very very few are anything close to something we might call accurate?

  54. mark f:

    Can make a story lousy, not unavoidably makes a story lousy, is the point.

  55. ajay:

    Fraxin, I’m just going to drop in a quote here from the post:

    “There seem to be serious questions about whether the portrayal of Zero Dark Thirty as being pro-torture is accurate.” That’s the context of this post. The post itself is about aesthetic judgements.

  56. thusbloggedanderson:

    Sure, but here I’m addressing the specific “silly Greenwald didn’t even see the movie” line.

    I would not want to see a movie that rubbed my nose in “torture is bad!!!” – that’s not the point.

  57. Erik Loomis:

    First, this is misunderstanding Scott’s point.

    Second, we do have a company line on this or any matter.

  58. Malaclypse:

    One thing that can make a story lousy is historical inaccuracy.

    That’s why The Great Escape sucked so very much.

  59. Robert Farley:

    Ah, hadn’t seen that. Nevertheless, here’s another account saying Bergen and Edelstein are wrong.

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/12/11/zero-dark-thirty-doesn-t-promote-torture.html?source=socialflow&account=thedailybeast&medium=twitter

    Seems, again, that a minimally responsible approach to writing on this question would be to either wait for more definitive claims, or see the damn thing yourself. Although I suspect that this point that Glenn and Freddie are preparing to retreat behind the “but people could interpret it as pro-torture” line of defense.

  60. Joey Maloney:

    Whether or not Greenwald is sober while writing his analysis, I confess to finding it easier to take if I’m not sober while reading it.

  61. ajay:

    So is any World War II movie acceptable to you given that very very few are anything close to something we might call accurate?

    No, you are wrong about that. Quite a number of them are extremely close in terms of both accuracy and realism. And even the ones that don’t make any pretence to accuracy can still be realistic.

    To use one of the films you might actually have seen as an example:

    Adolf Hitler gets shot 25 times in a cinema in 1944 France and dies: not accurate.
    Adolf Hitler gets shot 25 times in a cinema in 1944 France and walks away: not accurate or realistic.

  62. mark f:

    I suspect that this point that Glenn and Freddie are preparing to retreat behind the “but people could interpret it as pro-torture” line

    Freddie already does:

    What the pompous film critics defending this film will have to grapple with is the fact that in this country, at this time, when we are continuing our decade-long policy of collective punishment against the Muslim world, it is a certainty that many people will leave the theater after seeing Zero Dark Thirty convinced that torture was used to find Osama bin Laden, and that Osama bin Laden was at the time a threat to the United States (when he certainly was not), and so we must continue to torture. That’s just a fact.

  63. Erik Loomis:

    Hitler getting shot 25 times and walking away sounds kind of awesome.

  64. Fraxin:

    Definitely. Someone (not Sorkin) could probably even tell a more accurate story that way: use modern conventions that the audience intuitively understands and you can make it that much easier to understand what was going on then… I’d see that movie way before I went to the Lincoln that actually exists.

  65. njorl:

    You want to avoid inaccuracies that bounce the viewer out of an immersive experience. In that regard, accuracy is art. That being said, most of your audience will not be infantryman, and fewer still will be commandos.

  66. Richard:

    I would disagree that Birth of a Nation is an absolutely wonderful movie. It was indeed groundbreaking but, putting aside the racism and other politics, its unbearably slow, stilted and impossible to watch.

    Some politically conservative movies are great art but Birth of a Nation isn’t.

  67. mark f:

    Yeah, why does ajay keep proposing interesting movies and telling us they suck?

  68. Richard:

    I think you have to watch it to make that determination. And then, it will depend on your definition of “art”. Does it mean things I like to watch or something more?

  69. Fraxin:

    Well, there’s also a link to the Roy Edroso post about the Greenwald post which is about the aesthetics, but fair point!

  70. Josh G.:

    On the one hand, I agree that we shouldn’t reduce all art to politics, and that as others have noted, a film can have a profoundly evil message and still be a great work of art (Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will are two of the most obvious examples).

    On the other hand, we do need to take seriously the fact that influential fictional works can cause real-world harm. Birth of a Nation played a major role in the rise of the second KKK. The atrocious TV series 24 was cited over and over again (even by public officials and Supreme Court Justices) to justify the use of torture during the “war on terror”. More broadly, the prevalence of cop shows where the protagonists regularly rough up suspects and threaten them with prison rape has almost certainly had a coarsening effect on our culture, and has helped to normalize these deplorable tactics.

  71. ajay:

    You want to avoid inaccuracies that bounce the viewer out of an immersive experience.

    Thanks. That’s exactly what I meant but expressed better and more concisely.

    That being said, most of your audience will not be infantryman, and fewer still will be commandos.

    Very few cinemas these days are pants-optional.

  72. Richard:

    But movies can have a historical context, be totally untruthful and still be great, or at the least highly enjoyable, movies. The last Tarantino movie for example. The lack of historical accuracy can impact your enjoyment of a film but I dont think it disqualifies the film from being great.

  73. ajay:

    That’s a good point, and it reminds me of what Ian McKellen said about his Richard III: they’d decided to do it in modern (well, 1930s) dress rather than 15th century dress for the simple reason that it made the power relationships between the characters much more obvious.

  74. Erik Loomis:

    I guess I’d want to know how often you watch silent films before I commented further on your thoughts.

  75. Patrick:

    The M48s in Patton totally broke it for me.

  76. Kurzleg:

    As a thriller, I think JFK works really well. You have to set aside the alternative history aspects, but once you do that, it’s actually kind of fun.

  77. Fraxin:

    In that regard, accuracy is art.
    Only if accuracy (and that sort of immersion) is one of your artistic goals, though. You can use deliberate and obvious inaccuracy to further your art if you so choose. (It better also be obviously deliberate)

  78. Erik Loomis:

    I’m a big fan of that version of Richard III.

  79. Steve:

    Sure, you have the right to watch it. My god. But is it worth defending on the grounds that it’s art, if those grounds are shaky?

  80. sharculese:

    “By most accounts” seems to be stretching things a lot. I mean, I saw this a couple places on the progressive blogosphere, but calling that ‘most accounts’ seems to be a really blinkered way of describing a movie that already has 27 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

  81. thusbloggedanderson:

    “not unavoidably makes a story lousy”

    Sure. I’m not arguing the indefensible position that every inaccuracy makes a movie bad, any more than one bad actor makes a movie bad.

  82. ajay:

    The lack of historical accuracy can impact your enjoyment of a film but I dont think it disqualifies the film from being great.

    That was an odd one, because it struck me as being a very good movie which had become stuck to a terrible movie. Tarantino could have done a great story about Jewish refugees and Resistance fighters and SOE officers in occupied France. But instead he did half a one and intercut it with this bizarre thing involving Brad Pitt’s southern accent and tiny little Jewish guys with baseball bats.

  83. Fraxin:

    Exactly!

  84. Bijan Parsia:

    Erik writes:

    I’m saying that judging the film’s art and the film’s politics are two completely different things.

    And djw writes:

    It’s not so much that I’d be indifferent to that, as it would lead to two separate judgements:

    This is a great movie.

    This is an evil movie.

    Both observations would be worth making, but neither would negate the truth of the other

    I really want to push back on the extreme versions of these claims. It’s certainly the case that aesthetics and moral worth do not march lockstep, but this is also true of legality and moral correctness. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an important connection (or set of connections) between the two.

    Granted, the stupid, “A movie is good to the degree that it comports with my current political fetish” attitude is crap and there is a reasonable argument for a methodological clean separation, esp. for people suffering from the above mentioned crap attitude. But I don’t think the clean separations exists. I think it’s possible for a morally poor movie to suffer aesthetically as a pure function of it’s moral poverty (and not because it led to other aesthetic errors, e.g., being ham fisted or preachy).

    As a separate point, I think it’s perfectly fine to avoid art that is politically or morally reprehensible. I fine the Bechdel test useful, for example both for the education of my taste and for guiding me to things I might enjoy more.

    (Note that enjoying art because it resonates with your political views, even if it is crap by many metrics, is perfectly fine. One should be careful, in many cases, to distinguish enjoyment from aesthetic judgements, but they cannot, and should not, be entirely separated.

    So, just as we might want people to separate the claims of evil and greatness a la djw above, it’s common in intro to philosophy of art to distinguish things I love from things I judge to be great. That can be reasonable, but taking these features as entirely separate leads to far more problems both theoretically and substantially.)

  85. ajay:

    This, also. I can manage something like Richard III in a jeep, or Coriolanus with an M4, much better than I can manage something like The Hurt Locker.

  86. Murc:

    Hitler getting shot 25 times and walking away sounds kind of awesome.

    From the amazing Christopher Bird:

    “Okay, so if we wanted to do a straight-to-DVD project, what would be a good concept?”

    “Has to be horror, of course.”

    “Right, but it has to be good horror. High concept horror. What’s a good bad guy?”

    “…Hitler?”

    “Good, but it needs something more. What’s worse than Hitler?”

    “…Hitler and he’s a ninja?”

    “That’s not a horror movie, though.”

    “Hitler and he’s a vampire?”

    “YES.”

  87. sharculese:

    I haven’t seen the movie, and probably won’t before it’s on video, but one of my first thoughts when I saw this blow-up was ‘well isn’t this just tailormade for a Daily Beast/Slate death race to see who can be the most huffily contrarian,’ so I’m going to take them with a grain of salt.

    But I’m also not going to try to have an opinion on what this movie does or doesn’t portray, because again, not seeing it any time soon.

  88. sharculese:

    Hey generating that much purple prose about your leftists bona fides isn’t easy.

  89. Richard:

    Not that often but I’ve watched a fair amount in my lifetime. Some silent movies are really good (the Buster Keaton movies in particular) and some aren’t. Birth, I think, is vastly overrated because it pioneered cinematic techniques but I don’t think its a very good movie.

  90. Fraxin:

    One thing that can make a story lousy is historical inaccuracy

    Only if you’re expecting or demanding accuracy, and then I’d say it’s your enjoyment of the story that’s ruined, the story might be fine.
    That said, it’s deeply irresponsible for filmmakers to claim that their inaccurate films are accurate.

  91. Richard:

    Depends on the movie. Hurt Locker was great. I consider it art. If you don’t consider Hurt Locker to be art than I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusion about Zero Dark Thirty

  92. Sly:

    Okay. So you’re pretty much indifferent to whether a film grossly misleads the public about the Iraq war, or unions, or torture, or whatever.

    I think its fair to say that someone who has professional training as a historian automatically assumes that any film on any historical subject will grossly mislead the public and be surprised when they don’t, if only to avoid being constantly frustrated.

  93. ajay:

    If you don’t consider Hurt Locker to be art than I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusion about Zero Dark Thirty

    I do consider The Hurt Locker to be art. Just bad art.

  94. matttbastard:

    This. ‘Aesthetic Stalinism’ is somewhat of a derail from the real fail on the part of Greenwald and Sully: jerking their knees based on someone else’s (subjective) interpretation (which may or may not accurately reflect what appears on screen).

    As Edroso aptly put it:

    Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a shadowy political figure whose hidden movements you track by eyewitness reports. It’s a fucking movie. Have your editor buy you a ticket.

  95. ajay:

    And, really, is “it was made in a time when most movies were shit” a good defence against the charge “this movie is shit”?

  96. rea:

    (1) Anything fictional in a historical setting is necessarily to some degree inaccurate; otehrwise it wouldn’t be fiction–there was no Rick’s American Cafe in Casablanca.
    (2) Too big a departure from reality means that the fiction lacks verisimilitude, which may (but does not always) detract from the work’s effectiveness.
    (3) Fatasy can work as art, but we uually require it to be plainly so labeled–enough people have a tenuous grasp on reality that unlabled fantasy can be dangerous! See, e. g., Atlas Shrugged.

  97. Fraxin:

    “But is it worth defending on the grounds that it’s art, if those grounds are shaky?”

    Who is “defending” it?

    What would make it “not art”?

  98. Karate Bearfighter:

    I thought the contrast was intentional; it was a movie about WWII movies and how we watch them, not a movie about WWII. The juxtaposition of the cartoonish depiction of the Basterds with the thoughtful, humane portraits of French Jews and Nazis alike was supposed to draw your attention to how foreigners are usually characterized in WWII narratives.

  99. Jeffrey Beaumont:

    Can we agree that an artistically/aesthetically well-made movie with a morally bad/evil message (like the possible “torture is a necessary evil” idea) is, in total, bad for society? I think the concern that a good movie which gives people the message that the ends justify the means might be an overall negative, its art aside.

    I mean you can make a positive artistic judgment about Leni Riefenstahl’s work, but glorifying the Nazi party is bad, period.

    I think the inseparability of these two ways of judging something like a movie that has a lot of message-conveying power might be true. Pretty pictures that promote bad things are bad.

    None of this has anything to do with Greenwall, as usual, jumping the gun, but the “aesthetic stalinism” criticism might be too strong.

  100. Jeffrey Beaumont:

    Yes, my point too.

  101. Malaclypse:

    I mean you can make a positive artistic judgment about Leni Riefenstahl’s work, but glorifying the Nazi party is bad, period.

    Yes it is. And, nevertheless, Olympia remains a brilliant work, which genuinely advanced the art of film.

  102. brewmn:

    I find it hilarious that both Greenwald and deBoer, who allegedly favor a more tolerant, humane approach to politics, are two of the most dismissive, snide, presumptuous assholes on the internet. To any normal person who feels they are lumped into one of the goups these guys routinely spit on, the emotional reaction is to embrace Cheneyism and the dark side out of spite.

  103. wjts:

    If Lincoln had featured regular scenes in which Lincoln was interviewed on camera for NBC, that wouldn’t have worried you?

    Having seen and enjoyed Alex Cox’s Walker, I can honestly say I might like that version of Lincoln. Meticulous historical accuracy is not the only benchmark by which period pieces can or should be measured.

  104. joe from Lowell:

    Dear Mr. DeBoer,

    Whining that the people who keep winning arguments against you are bad people is what an unreflective, not very bright person does when he lacks the honesty to engage in some critical self-examination.

  105. Jameson Quinn:

    That William Walker movie from 1990 or so wasn’t a great one, but it was decent, and in a mostly-period piece, it did have Walker as Newsweek Man of the Year. So it really can be done.

  106. djw:

    I’m not arguing the indefensible position that every inaccuracy makes a movie bad, any more than one bad actor makes a movie bad.

    But you do seem to be arguing that historical inaccuracies have a distinctly, consistently negative aesthetic valence, which strikes me as pretty wrong. Some historical inaccuracies can improve a film, under the right circumstances.

  107. Jameson Quinn:

    oops, I said much the same thing above-but-later.

  108. Scott Lemieux:

    “Your own co-blogger seemed to think that accuracy was pretty important when it came to Lincoln.”

    ? 1)I have made no aesthetic judgments whatsoever about Lincoln, and 2)I criticized the historical accuracy not of the movie but of a statement made by Kushner in an interview.

  109. joe from Lowell:

    Does everything he writes read like what someone who badly loses an argument spends the rest of the day muttering to himself?

    Or is this piece unique?

  110. joe from Lowell:

    His viewing of the early cut must inevitably color his impression of the final cut.

  111. Erik Loomis:

    What actually gets me about historical inaccuracy is unforced errors on small things.

    Example A: In The New World, the size of the corn the Indians were eating was way way too big.

    Example B: The portrayal of Martin Van Buren as an idiot in Amistad. I hate that movie for many reasons. But making one of the political geniuses of American history out to be a moron added nothing to the plot and just irritated me.

    But having Lincoln kill vampires, I’m totally down with that.

  112. joe from Lowell:

    Good thing there’s not cottage industry for fretting leftists who want to be told that they’re better than those terrible liberals.

  113. joe from Lowell:

    Their ignorance is deliberate. Greenwald and DeBoer object to the killing of bin Laden, but they know they won’t get anywhere trying to argue that, even among their marks target audience, so they ginned up a new angle, and the truth of that angle is just not that important to them.

  114. LoriK:

    The phrase “by most accounts” is a bit of a tell.

  115. scanner:

    “pompous” should be on the list of words Freddie never, ever must use to describe another.

  116. JL:

    I have enjoyed plenty of his stuff even though he’s usually kind of a jerk. But he has this irritating habit of picking blog-fights with other left-of-center writers – not just ones he thinks are too centrist either, I remember him doing this in backhanded-compliment form recently with The New Inquiry – way too frequently, and often with not much to back his side up.

  117. joe from Lowell:

    It’s the conservative internet circle-jerk, acted out by the Professional Left bloggers. Ahem: “Three well-respected liberal bloggers have claimed X. I will now write a piece based on that. Hey, look, now four well-respected liberals bloggers have claimed X. We have confirmation, people.”

  118. Erik Loomis:

    I was very excited by Freddie’s post in October that I was going to have an interesting 2013 since I was such a hypocrite for supporting Obama or something something Obot etc.

  119. Hogan:

    The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.

  120. joe from Lowell:

    People who label this phenomenon “purism” get it wrong.

    It’s just oneupsmanship.

  121. Malaclypse:

    And the two sentences immediately before those very fine sentiments:

    One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.

  122. djangermous:

    think assigning art and poltics to separate atmospherically and ethically sealed compartments is naive and quite stupid.

    Especially when it comes to a movie that’s, you know

    literally about the literal hunt to literally kill osama literally bin laden

    i am pretty comfortable saying this movie that is completely made out of politics can go get fucked if it doesn’t get the politics right but, like, the action sequences are really good and they really make me care about the guys on the squad.

    call me stalin idk

    i agree that people should either wait to see the movie or write somewhat more circumspectly when writing based on what they’ve been told is in the movie.

  123. wjts:

    Yeah, and Walker might not be the best example to trot out with regards to the importance of historical accuracy in film making. Cox’s anachronisms are (for the most part) deliberate, obvious choices designed to highlight the parallels between 19th century filibustering and 20th century Cold Warring. This is true even when he plays fast and loose with historical facts figures (e.g., Walker’s relationship with Vanderbilt). That’s all fine. Compressing events and composite characters are also fine, provided they work in the service of a better story.

    But all this can (and probably should) be distinguished from inaccuracies stemming from lazy research or lazy storytelling – which is why I’m OK with Cox depticting Vanderbilt bankrolling Walker, but not with De Palma showing Eliot Ness dropping Frank Nitti off the top of the courthouse like a preincarnated Harry Callahan.

    Not having seen the movie, I can’t say which side of this poorly-defined line I’d put Zero Dark Thirty on. (And I probably won’t see it, partly because I don’t enjoy war movies very much, but mostly because as a Parks and Recreation fan I doubt I’ll be able to stop myself from shouting, “BERT MACKLIN! NAVY SEAL!” every time Chris Pratt appears on screen.)

  124. Richard:

    “I do consider The Hurt Locker to be art. Just bad art”

    My opinion differs. I really liked Hurt Locker. And I don’t analyze whether a movie (or record or book) is art or not. I only care whether I liked it or not (and the reasons why I liked it).

  125. Erik Loomis:

    Yeah, I don’t get the hate for Hurt Locker. It didn’t change my life or anything but it was a worthy movie and better than the average Best Picture winner.

  126. Richard:

    “That was an odd one, because it struck me as being a very good movie which had become stuck to a terrible movie. Tarantino could have done a great story about Jewish refugees and Resistance fighters and SOE officers in occupied France. But instead he did half a one and intercut it with this bizarre thing involving Brad Pitt’s southern accent and tiny little Jewish guys with baseball bats”

    We just disagree. I thought, going in, that I would hate the movie but had a great time watching it. The thought of a serious Tarantino movie about Jewish refugees and Resistance fighters is frightening.

  127. scott:

    Wondering (again) why a pretty simple reaction that actually seems kinda vanilla if you’re a liberal (gee, isn’t it a shame when a film seems to characterize torture as positive?) occasions so much “progressive” pushback. Could it be that deBoer isn’t so far wrong and that they don’t want to be seen as shrill bleeding hearts and “soft” on whatever method our state gets up to To Keep Us Safe? Speculative, I know, but otherwise it doesn’t make much sense.

  128. John:

    Are you suggesting that Inglourious Basterds was realistic?

  129. John:

    Again, are you suggesting that Inglourious Basterds was realistic?

  130. John:

    Van Buren was a great political operator, but a terrible statesman and president. I don’t remember much about his portrayal in Amistad, though.

  131. Cody:

    The movie, by all accounts, shows torture as being an indispensable part of the capture of bin Laden,

    Seriously. This is getting annoying. I hate Top Gun because, by all accounts, it is a movie about slaughtering Muslims for personal enjoyment.

    I haven’t seen the movie or anything, but you know – by all accounts – these things are true.

    If they aren’t even going to bother linking to some kind of evidence of this without having even seen the movie how can they make the judgement? Using that damn phrase I can imply anything! This is the Internet, you can find someone who has made an account representing anything.

  132. Erik Loomis:

    He was almost quite literally portrayed as playing with toys rather than dealing with the problems of the day.

    Van Buren was indeed a poor president, but to call him stupid is outrageous.

  133. janastas359:

    Huh?

    Wondering (again) why a pretty simple reaction that actually seems kinda vanilla if you’re a liberal (gee, isn’t it a shame when a film seems to characterize torture as positive?) occasions so much “progressive” pushback.

    What they’re pushing back on is that this isn’t clear at all, apparently. Some of the liberal blogosphere believes that the torture scenes are shown in a positive light; Ackerman, among others, believe that the torture scenes are only in there to push back against the idea that torture works. This is a pretty big deal, because if it turns out that the torture scenes really are portrayed as bad, then it would be a good thing for progressives who oppose torture. I haven’t seen the movie, and it looks like GG hasn’t either. I think you might have missed the point.

  134. John:

    What should be noted about 24 is that it didn’t actually embrace torture until after the Abu Ghraib scandal was exposed.

    The first three seasons of 24, airing from November 2001 to May 2004, generally show torture infrequently and as something done by the bad guys.

    The Abu Ghraib scandal comes to public attention in April 2004.

    Then the fourth season of 24, airing that fall, is suddenly all about torture is hard but necessary, and we need hard torturing men like Jack Bauer to torture people and save us from terrorism.

    This was explicitly pro-torture agitprop.

  135. joe from Lowell:

    “Musta hitta nerve” is what you write when someone rips a particularly idiotic argument to shreds.

    I trust if you had any rebuttal to that “pushback” other than psychobabble, we would have have seen it by now.

  136. thusbloggedanderson:

    “But you do seem to be arguing that historical inaccuracies have a distinctly, consistently negative aesthetic valence, which strikes me as pretty wrong.”

    Not necessarily. Fudging the record to make the plot come out happens all the time. And an outright romp like Inglorious Basterds is playing by its own rules.

    This post took off from what is said by some to be a misrepresentation as to whether torture facilitated the bin Laden raid.

    That would be reprehensible to me, just as if the film had made out that bin Laden carried out 9/11 at the instigation of Israel. And I don’t think either of those would be irrelevant to the quality or value of the film, aesthetically speaking.

  137. thusbloggedanderson:

    Basterds was to WW2 as Pulp Fiction was to what L.A. gangsters actually are like.

    Nobody was misled into thinking they were watching something based on the truth.

    … Yet, if the SS guys had been wearing orange uniforms, that would’ve detracted from the film.

  138. thusbloggedanderson:

    I’m happy not to know who this Freddie guy is, btw.

  139. thusbloggedanderson:

    That is a strange point. All he says he complained about on the rough cut was that the interrogation scenes were unrealistically *brutal* in spots. Then he sees the final cut & goes, hey, misrepresenting the effect of torture.

    So I’m curious: was that something introduced in the final cut, or did he omit to complain about that in the rough cut? Odd.

  140. thusbloggedanderson:

    This was explicitly pro-torture agitprop.

    Which detracted not at all from the quality of the show, apparently.

    Good point, tho, & I hadn’t known that. Interesting how we at least had the morality of torture figured out, before it became a partisan issue. Maybe even 9/11 didn’t turn us around on that.

  141. thusbloggedanderson:

    Funny thing about Basterds was that it’s (3) but you find that out only halfway through the movie. I knew nothing about it & was a bit too startled to adapt; liked it much better on 2d viewing.

  142. thusbloggedanderson:

    Sorry, no. What this thread has established, if nothing else, is that *if* ZDT (1) does portray torture as a handy tool and (2) fulfills certain aesthetic criteria, then many of the folks posting here will say it’s a great movie, and any complaints about the torture part will be dismissed as “aesthetic Stalinism.”

  143. Ed:

    If you don’t consider Hurt Locker to be art than I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusion about Zero Dark Thirty

    Good to know. If Bigelow does for the Bin Laden raid what she did for ordnance disposal, that’s ten or twelve dollars better spent elsewhere.

  144. sharculese:

    Could it be that deBoer isn’t so far wrong

    If he’s correct, it’s only by coincidence, because by his own admission, he doesn’t actually know what’s he’s talking about.

    That is what the scientists call ‘a dick move’.

  145. nixnutz:

    How about Deadwood? I think it’s pretty clear that he’s taking as many liberties as he likes while taking advantage of real characters and events for verisimilitude’s sake, but what is it that makes this plain? And when we don’t grant that same leeway to other authors are we being unfair or are they being lazy? It gets pretty murky in a hurry.

  146. Scott Lemieux:

    Right. Although he’s surely convinced otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful difference between his policy preferences and mine or Erik’s.

  147. tonycpsu:

    Yeah, not really. The aesthetic Stalinism is judging the movie before you’ve seen it. If Greenwald were only criticizing the film for its historical inaccuracy, then it would fine for him to rely on a preponderance of evidence from early reviews, but he’s going a step further to prejudge the movie he hasn’t seen as a piece of propaganda, and to call out reviewers who like the film, and may do so on artistic grounds, perhaps not even knowing it advances CIA propaganda.

  148. Josh G.:

    24 is easier to criticize because it’s a crappy show on all levels. It’s not good art and it’s not good ethics.

  149. thusbloggedanderson:

    “The aesthetic Stalinism is judging the movie before you’ve seen it.”

    Okay, so (1) you don’t know what “aesthetic Stalinism” means, and (2) you haven’t read the thread.

    Which in light of the see-it-before-you-judge-it, is kinda funny. Not very. But kinda.

  150. tonycpsu:

    (1) I do, and (2) I have, but I guess a response like this helps you avoid responding to the substance of my comment, so well played.

  151. Bijan Parsia:

    I don’t think that’s what Erik meant to suggest, but rather that silent film, like many art forms, often requires a practiced or educated eye to enjoy or even evaluate.

  152. Reilly:

    But then “Glenn Greenwald,” and “Sober analysis,” don’t really belong together.

    No. That’s like trying to reconcile “heavy-handed, scenery-chewing overacting” with “thoughtfully nuanced, layered, performance”.

  153. Lindsay Beyerstein:

    The important question is not whether I want a docudrama, but rather what Bigelow and Boal wanted out of their movie. I don’t know what they wanted, but the movie is being promoted practically as if it were a reenactment of historical events: http://wapo.st/USoGZq

    If B&B wanted to create the movie equivalent of a non-fiction novel, then we should judge their work on the terms they set for themselves.

    If they merely set out to spin an entertaining tale about killing Osama bin Laden, then historical accuracy doesn’t matter.

  154. djw:

    What this thread has established, if nothing else, is that *if* ZDT (1) does portray torture as a handy tool and (2) fulfills certain aesthetic criteria, then many of the folks posting here will say it’s a great movie, and any complaints about the torture part will be dismissed as “aesthetic Stalinism.”

    Not dismissed, re-categorized as a (legitimate) critique of the film’s politics, but not a relevant critique of the film as a work of art.

    This has been thoroughly and repeatedly explained at this point, and the distinction we’re making is hardly novel or particularly complex. I’m not sure what you hope to accomplish by pretending to not understand the distinction.

  155. Malaclypse:

    If you think aesthetic Stalinism is “judging the movie before you’ve seen it,” then no, you don’t know what aesthetic Stalinism is.

  156. Reilly:

    Although I suspect that this point that Glenn and Freddie are preparing to retreat behind the “but people could interpret it as pro-torture” line of defense.

    Or perhaps Greenwald will construct one of his pedantic “proofs” of linear logic: “Just because one bases one’s opinion falsely on A doesn’t mean B can’t hypothetically be true given…”
    At which point the children in the audience drop there jaws in wonder at the David Copperfield of reason.

  157. Reilly:

    And I drop mine at having written “there” instead of “their”.

  158. tonycpsu:

    My interpretation of the term is using political viewpoint to determine what is and isn’t art, and the fact that Greenwald has not seen the film puts him in no position to evaluate the film as art or as propaganda.

  159. Medicine Man:

    Just for my own edification, I’m going to ask: Aesthetic Stalinism is…

    Judging the artistic merits of a movie based on how it hews to or diverges from a preferred political narrative or party line?

    Or is it more about placing more weight on the precised utility of a movie rather than its entertainment value?

    Seems like an opportune moment to ask.

  160. Malaclypse:

    I’d certainly go with the first choice.

  161. witless chum:

    I once skimmed an unproduced screenplay about Hitler the Vampire menacing Eva Peron in post-war Argentina.

  162. Hogan:

    Or is it more about placing more weight on the precised utility of a movie rather than its entertainment value?

    We were not put in this world for pleasure. Entertainment is a species of bourgeois decadence (or, in the US right-wing version, coastal elitist decadence) and so carries no weight in real aesthetic judgment.

  163. Jim:

    Top Gun? I thought the only combat there was against Russians in MiGs.

  164. witless chum:

    Wow, never having watched 24, I was not aware of this.

  165. Hob:

    Peter Watkins pioneered that kind of thing – it’s particularly effective in Culloden.

  166. Marc McKenzie:

    “i agree that people should either wait to see the movie or write somewhat more circumspectly when writing based on what they’ve been told is in the movie.”

    Agreed. I will see ZDT before making noise about how it justifies torture.

    And GG can go f*@! himself.

  167. Marc McKenzie:

    “If he’s correct, it’s only by coincidence, because by his own admission, he doesn’t actually know what’s he’s talking about.

    That is what the scientists call ‘a dick move’.”

    Yep. Sad thing, really, but the Internet is full of tossers like this.

  168. gmack:

    But let me just reiterate or perhaps modify what Bijan Parsia discussed above. Assume for instance that Zero Dark Thirty depicted torture as a regrettable but ultimately necessary. My problem with this isn’t just political, but also aesthetic. And the reason is that this little narrative is the most boring and tired cliche one could imagine–it’s basically the tedious crap Jack Nicholson got to spout off in “A Few Good Men”; it adds nothing to one’s understanding of torture, its effects, or the broader questions about, say, the relations between morality and politics.

    The issue here, anyway, is that I think there are cases where bad politics becomes bad art.

  169. ajay:

    Indeed, this is central to his point.

  170. Dave:

    How about Apocalypse Now?

  171. Dave:

    The idea that a major movie about events with such controversial resonances [understatement alert] could be anything other than a fount of assorted political and aesthetic expressions of outrage is surely itself evidence of the insuperable belief amongst some more thoroughly naive and privileged members of the booboisie that ‘good people like us’ don’t actually participate in the horrible society we, in fact, live and thrive within.

  172. The Fool:

    Lemieux excoriates the ticking time bomb argument saying, “The problem both arguments is that if you use the right assumptions about not only the underlying stakes but about the lengths to which one is willing goal to achieve the cited ends, you can justify anything”

    Well, yes, Scott you have put your finger right on the nub of consequentialism. Nothing is ruled out intrinsically — it all depends on outcomes.

    But the key point that Lemieux seems to miss is while it is true under consequentialism you can potentially justify anything given the right assumptions, that point about “given the right assumptions” is crucial. You can’t just justify anything tout court — which implication is the primary source of whatever rhetorical power Lemieux’s “argument” has.

    I’ll take Scott’s pronouncements on ethical theory more seriously when he can finally admit that one of the 2 or 3 main branches of ethical theory is not per se “stupid”.

  173. The Fool:

    It occurs to me that Lemieux’s argument is an attack on rationality itself. Consider this parallel argument:

    Deductive logic is stupid because with the right major and minor premises ANY conclusion follows…

  174. Josh G.:

    Are consequentialists required to be short-term thinkers with no understanding of human nature?

    “You can’t torture people, no matter what” is a clear and specific rule. A consequentialist could argue that bending the rule in certain specific situations (the “ticking bomb scenario”) makes sense. But isn’t it just as much a consequentialist argument to say that the actual results of doing so will be a net negative for human welfare: that people tend to exaggerate the usefulness of torture, to overstate their own certainty of a suspect’s guilt, and to think that suspects possess information they in fact do not, and that as a result of all these things we should ban torture outright and across the board even if we are temped to use it in certain specific instances.

  175. The Fool:

    “Are consequentialists required to be short-term thinkers with no understanding of human nature?”

    Uh…no.

  176. thusbloggedanderson:

    That Nicholson dialogue is a striking example, because it gets quoted all the time by people who are oblivious to the irony, taking it out of context and endorsing what the character says.

    Something similar happens with The Brothers Karamazov, where the “Rebellion” and “Grand Inquisitor” chapters actually even get published as a separate book (Laura Bush’s favorite book IIRC), whereas from the author’s POV at least, they mean something very different in the context of the book.

    So even if ZDT is trying to be all ironic about torture, the effect may not work – and if we’re talking aesthetics here, is the effect really so irrelevant, DJW?

  177. thusbloggedanderson:

    And for an example of what is at best misunderstanding, here’s what Andrew Sullivan, presumably a more dedicated reader of Entertainment Weekly than I, calls ” the rave review in Entertainment Weekly by the very talented writer, Owen Glieberman”:

    The suspect finally gives up a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whom he claims works as a courier for bin Laden. Part of the power of Zero Dark Thirty is that it looks with disturbing clarity at the ”enhanced interrogation techniques” that were used after 9/11, and it says, in no uncertain terms: They worked.

    “No uncertain terms.” That’s what a guy who apparently watches movies for a living took away from it.

  178. Corey Robin:

    Scott, if someone else has responded to this question of yours, my apologies (I did a quick scan and I didn’t find any specifics). Anyway, you write, “Also, I’d appreciate it if Freddie deBoer would cite some of the unnamed ‘liberals’ who ‘want to be forced to support torture’ and take the stupid ticking time bomb hypothetical seriously.” Michael Walzer’s “Dirty Hands” argument is the classic case of taking the ticking time bomb hypothetical seriously, and it has generated an entire cottage industry in ethics, and of course it supports the use of torture. In 2004, Sandy Levinson edited a volume with OUP on torture, and he reprinted Walzer’s essay with Walzer’s consent (Walzer hasn’t, to my knowledge, walked back from that position; if anything, he’s amplified it in his book of essays on war, Arguing About War). Levinson also endorsed the position of supporting torture in the instance of the ticking time bomb, as did Oren Gross, Miriam Gur-Arye, and several others in that volume. The only one who came out categorically against torture — and the ticking time bomb scenario — were Henry Schue (and even he got squishy toward the end) and Elaine Scarry. Steven Lukes has written a piece where he takes the ticking time bomb seriously. I don’t know these fields of ethics or legal ethics that well, but I suspect these are just the tip of the iceberg. And Freddie’s absolutely right to characterize the tone of at least these writings that I mention (with the exception of Lukes) as very much being that they want to be forced to torture. That is the whole schtick.

  179. Freddie deBoer:

    You know I could go on a whole thing here– and Corey, as usual, has the goods– but perhaps it’s easiest to just point out that Barack Obama, liberal in chief, daddy figure to the progressive blogosphere, is currently authorizing the torture of Bradley Manning. That’s not just support for torture in the abstract sense. That’s the actual commission of torture.

  180. Erik Loomis:

    A situation which of course no one here supports.

  181. Freddie deBoer:

    But is, clearly, a situation where the most prominent liberal in the country supports torture. Which was the question I was asked. I am, also, putting together a list for Scott, although it may take a bit due to my grading duties for the next couple days.

  182. Freddie deBoer:

    Incidentally, you guys are aware that Alan Dershowitz advocated for a system issuing court-ordered torture warrants, right?

    Oh, right– of course you are. Because everyone who writes for this blog has read multiple arguments from multiple liberals advocating torture. Because this post is a pure expression of bad faith.

  183. Freddie deBoer:

    Mischief managed.

  184. Corey Robin:

    You get a very vivid sense of this “force us to torture” motif in the statement of Admiral Mayorga, who was one of the leaders of the Dirty War in Argentina. This is what he said to Tina Rosenberg: “The day we stop condemning torture — although we tortured — the day we become insensitive to mothers who lose their guerilla sons — although they are guerillas — is the day we stop being human beings.” Now, Mayorga was no liberal. But Levinson is, albeit of a critical sort, and he quoted that quote in his piece on torture, without a hint of irony or disapproval. Indeed, he took it as a straightforward statement of the proper attitude one should have toward torture: it’s terrible, awful, unspeakable, but necessary.

  185. Scott Lemieux:

    Just to be clear, you think that Alan Dershowitz speaks for American liberals? Are you shitting me?

  186. Scott Lemieux:

    1)Please to be citing evidence that Manning is currently being tortured.

    2)Obama, while generally quite terrible on civil liberties, ended the torture regime of the previous administration. If I recall correctly, your moral conscience placed no moral weight whatsoever on this fact when coming to the conclusion that it would be best if the election was thrown to his opponent, who did not oppose the torture regime.

  187. Scott Lemieux:

    I’m not familiar with that volume, but I’m sure there are some small number of liberals who endorse torture. I still do not think that they are remotely representative.

  188. Scott Lemieux:

    daddy figure to the progressive blogosphere

    Also, I’m not sure why you have so much trouble grasping this not at all subtle distinction, but “infinitely preferable to Mitt Romney” and “better than most American presidents” are not, in fact, high bars to climb.

  189. Corey Robin:

    Maybe: I haven’t looked into this in a while, so I don’t have as good a sense of the larger lay of the land. But the premise of your challenge to Freddie was that he could not even cite one and that it was silly for him to write as if there were even one. Clearly that’s not true, and it seems unfair to him to write as if he were being so outlandish; if you want to change the terms of your challenge, we can, but we should then acknowledge that that is what you’re doing. In addition, Walzer, Levinson, Jonathan Alter (who Freddie cites in his post that replies to you), and Charles Schumer — these are not unrepresentative liberals in the various spheres that they operate in. It’s not like taking Dennis Kucinich as a representative of the entire Democratic Party.

  190. ajay:

    I hate to get all Nate Silver about this, but there are actual numbers and facts available to answer the question “Do liberals support torture?”
    Like these, for example.

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/behind-the-numbers/2009/01/on_torture.html

    71% of people who identify as Democrats oppose the use of torture in all cases.

    De Boer can stick with the approach of picking out a few people, saying they’re liberals, and noting that they support torture. But that kind of analysis left a lot of people looking very, very stupid on 8 November 2012.

  191. Corey Robin:

    And I hate to get all close reader on you but this is what Scott said in the original post: “Also, I’d appreciate it if Freddie deBoer would cite some of the unnamed ‘liberals’ who ‘want to be forced to support torture’ and take the stupid ticking time bomb hypothetical seriously.” The clear premise of that statement is that there are no such liberals. Both Freddie and I have now cited “some” of those liberals; I don’t have the time to dig any further, but I’m fairly confident you could easily find more. If you now want to change the goalpost of this discussion to: “I’d appreciate it if Freddie deBoer would prove that all liberals ‘want to be forced to support torture’ and take the ticking time bomb hypothetical seriously,” you’re free to do so. But then you’re having an entirely different conversation — and, of course, it’s not with Freddie but with the straw man you’ve constructed in your head.

  192. Anonymous:

    By “supports torture” you mean “failed to intervene to prevent a prisoner being held in solitary confinement.”

    Now, solitary confinement is a bad thing, but it’s usually not put in the same catagory as waterboarding. There is a long history of it being employed in our prison system in a way that waterboarding, for example, has not been.

    In other words, your accusation that Obama “supports torture” is based entirely on expanding the usual definition of torture.

  193. rea:

    Above “anonymous” is me . . .

  194. ajay:

    Here’s what Freddy said: “I think liberals want to be forced to support torture. What liberals want is ultimately to do what conservative hawks want to do, but only after experts and leaders assure them that they have no choice.They want extreme events to make the choice for them. That’s why every discussion of torture always descends into some absurd hypothetical where you know that there’s a ticking time bomb and you know that a terrorist in your custody has info and you know that you can get that info and stop that bomb if you torture him. They devise these incredibly complex scenarios because they need them to take away their personal choice.”

    The fact that, in reality, 71% of Democrats oppose the use of torture in all cases – extreme or not, – is responsive to that.

  195. ajay:

    In addition, Walzer, Levinson, Jonathan Alter (who Freddie cites in his post that replies to you), and Charles Schumer — these are not unrepresentative liberals in the various spheres that they operate in.

    Unlike most liberals, though (or at least most Democrats), they support the use of torture, which makes them unrepresentative in a fairly important sense.

  196. bradP:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/nov/29/wikileaks-bradley-manning-treatment

    Whether or not you consider it torture, the treatment of Bradley Manning has been reprehensible.

    If Obama and his defenders say that Manning isn’t being tortured, they are just playing with semantics rather than actually addressing the morality of Manning’s treatment.

  197. bradP:

    And Obama is still bottoming out on his climb.

  198. Bijan Parsia:

    This is one thing I find interesting about these debates: The systematic projection of over-emotional misestimation. I think it’s just straight inversion: Purist thinks Obama is superterrible thus anyone who doesn’t agree must think that he is superawesome. After all, the superterribleness is so blatant that only Tru Tribalist Luv can make you think otherwise.

  199. thusbloggedanderson:

    All that proves is that many liberals, like many other people, are stupid.

    (1) The ticking-bomb scenario is self-contradictory: we have mysteriously perfect knowledge that the prisoner has the info to stop the bomb, but we have zero knowledge where/how to do so. How does that happen, exactly?

    (2) So in real life, you are left torturing a person who may not even have the info you need – while the seconds tick and lives are on the line.

    (3) On the theory that time is limited, the victim has the easy out of lying to you, which I call the “Dantooine – they’re on Dantooine” ploy. If you have time to check out his info and discover it’s fake, then why don’t you have time for a proper interrogation?

    (4) If you need honest answers, why use methods that are, literally, designed to elicit false confessions? Wouldn’t those be the *last* methods you would want to use?

    (5) Why do torture advocates love the ticking-bomb scenario so much? Partly, I think, because the scenario so much resembles torture, as defined by U.S. law: “‘severe mental pain or suffering means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from— [inter alia] the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering ….” That’s precisely the situation in which the interrogator finds himself in the ticking-bomb scenario; his choice to torture is affected by the fact that, in a sense, he feels himself being tortured, and retaliates accordingly.

  200. Scott Lemieux:

    ajay beat me to it. If deBoer had said “even some liberals want to be forced to support torture,” this would be unexceptionable. But this isn’t what he actually said. That a number of not particularly influential or representative liberals have the views he attributes to all liberals isn’t a defense. I’m not the one moving the goalposts here.

  201. Scott Lemieux:

    Reprehensible, I agree. Torture, much more problematic.

  202. thusbloggedanderson:

    You are not actually going to get an apology from Scott on this, is my humble prediction.

  203. Scott Lemieux:

    And Obama is still bottoming out on his climb.

    I’m not sure what this means.

  204. thusbloggedanderson:

    Insufficient facts – “lights kept on,” but at what brightness?

    Disregard of medical advice, for the purpose of making the prisoner uncomfortable, is abusive, but not necessarily torture.

    Of course, that the military was doing this is reprehensible enough that this Hoctor should probably face a court-martial, but that won’t happen.

  205. Scott Lemieux:

    But the premise of your challenge to Freddie was that he could not even cite one and that it was silly for him to write as if there were even one.

    Actually, the premise of my challenge to Freddie was that it’s absurd to say that all liberals “want to be forced to defend torture.”

  206. thusbloggedanderson:

    And while I’m on my little rant, let me point everyone who hasn’t read it to Darius Rejali’s handy op-ed, “5 Myths About Torture.” Here’s # 2:

    2 Everyone talks sooner or later under torture.

    Truth is, it’s surprisingly hard to get anything under torture, true or false. For example, between 1500 and 1750, French prosecutors tried to torture confessions out of 785 individuals. Torture was legal back then, and the records document such practices as the bone-crushing use of splints, pumping stomachs with water until they swelled and pouring boiling oil on the feet. But the number of prisoners who said anything was low, from 3 percent in Paris to 14 percent in Toulouse (an exceptional high). Most of the time, the torturers were unable to get any statement whatsoever.

  207. Scott Lemieux:

    In fairness, there were initial reports of the treatment of Manning that could be fairly described as torture, but the reports were erroneous. If I understand correctly, he’s not being denied access to television or reading materials or exercise time, for example.

  208. Bijan Parsia:

    I think it’s fair to say that there is a pro-torture wing of liberals (esp. if we include Dershowitz).

    But there’s also a noticeable pro-neo-conesque foreign policy which contains some of these same suspects.

    Being precise about these, however, matters when making such sweeping claims as:

    It’s not that I think liberals support torture. No, I think liberals want to be forced to support torture. What liberals want is ultimately to do what conservative hawks want to do, but only after experts and leaders assure them that they have no choice. They want extreme events to make the choice for them. That’s why every discussion of torture always descends into some absurd hypothetical where you know that there’s a ticking time bomb and you know that a terrorist in your custody has info and you know that you can get that info and stop that bomb if you torture him. They devise these incredibly complex scenarios because they need them to take away their personal choice. That’s why writers like Spencer Ackerman exist, to present the proper level of squeamishness and showy moral grappling– to say that these scenes “can make a viewer ashamed to be American, in the context of a movie whose ending scene makes viewers very, very proud to be American”– before the torture happens anyway. The key is to go through the moral indigestion but to eventually get to the all-American pride. There’s a whole cottage industry, like that, for fretting liberals who want to get to the tough guy routine in the end.

    Not “some liberals”. Not “a significant subgroup”. But “liberals”. Indeed, there’s a COTTAGE INDUSTRY. Thus, I take issue with your reading:

    But the premise of your challenge to Freddie was that he could not even cite one and that it was silly for him to write as if there were even one.

    No, the premise is that to take on the specific set of liberals who either support torture or who arguably “want to be forced to support torture” would exhibit the phenomenon more precise and, I believe, show that the state of liberals as a whole wrt torture is much better, if not ideal, than deBoer insinuates.

    Even the loathsome Dershowitz is proposing torture warrants as a mechanism for restraining, not enabling, torture. E.g.,

    One key question is whether the availability of a torture warrant would, in fact, increase or decrease the actual amount of torture employed by law enforcement officials. I believe, though I cannot prove, that a formal requirement of a judicial warrant as a prerequisite to non-lethal torture would decrease the amount of physical violence directed against suspects.

    Now, this is coupled with some loathsome junk about sterile needles under the fingernails, so, barf for making me defend Dersh in any way. However, it’d better to 1) look at what’s actually said and by whom and 2) what the actual general effects are. That the Democrat populace is 70% against all forms of torture is a very telling sign which is extremely pertinent to deBoer’s discussion.

  209. Bijan Parsia:

    Which is good, because the need for apology runs the other way.

  210. thusbloggedanderson:

    Scott acted like it was absurd to say any liberals supported torture.

    Notoriously enough, some liberals do. Walzer and Levinson aren’t liberals? Don’t get all no-true-Scotsman on me.

  211. mark f:

    Which is terrific, btw.

  212. ajay:

    I think my main problem with Apocalypse Now is that it failed to capture the true weirdness and insanity of the Vietnam War. Walter Kurtz looks like Jimmy Carter next to Tony Poe and the sort of people who were running round Laos and the Central Highlands back then.

  213. witless chum:

    Nobody who uses the construction “daddy figure to the progressive blogosphre” is gonna be taken seriously about anything, ever, by me. Seriously, what kind of idiot writes that?

  214. Bijan Parsia:

    In 2004, Sandy Levinson edited a volume with OUP on torture, and he reprinted Walzer’s essay with Walzer’s consent (Walzer hasn’t, to my knowledge, walked back from that position; if anything, he’s amplified it in his book of essays on war, Arguing About War). Levinson also endorsed the position of supporting torture in the instance of the ticking time bomb, as did Oren Gross, Miriam Gur-Arye, and several others in that volume.

    Hmm. I don’t have access the book, but given this op-ed by Levinson which seems categorically against torture:

    She has, in effect, declared both the president and vice-president to be liars inasmuch as they have systematically denied that the US has engaged in torture. Were this all she had said, her interview would be important simply by making it impossible for Dick Cheney any longer, as he did only last week, to limit those alleging the occurrence of torture to “the left wing of the Democratic party”…

    Incidentally, even if one believes that torture is on occasion justified, at least one should call it by its rightful name instead of pretending, as does the US, that it doesn’t occur at all.

    Given his comments at his final news conference this week, it is clear that George Bush continues to have no comprehension of the wrongs that have been committed on his watch, with the approval of the highest-level officials of his administration. It is up to the incoming president to come to terms with the dreadful legacy Bush has left him. The frank acknowledgment by someone like Judge Crawford of what she observed – and the revulsion it generated in her – is an indispensable step toward extirpating one aspect of that legacy and restoring the good name of the United States.

    So, I find your discussion of these people’s views prima facie misleading: It’s possible to endorse the ticking time bomb scenario and be robustly against torture. (It’s not my personal strategy, but I do think you can construct a scenario which I might agree to it, or at least, not agreeing yields a horrid outcome.)

  215. mark f:

    Lol. Original post:

    I think liberals want to be forced to support torture. What liberals want is ultimately to do what conservative hawks want to do, but only after experts and leaders assure them that they have no choice.

    Examples of sheeperals led by leaders:

    Liberal crush object Barack Obama

    liberal favorite, Bill Clinton

    Attorney General Eric Holder

    Democrat Chuck Schumer

    And a bunch of always hawkish liberalish op-ed columnists and some academics. As everyone knows, Oren Gross, whoever he is, leads us around by a septum ring!

    Left uncited: any statistic or even single person supporting Freddie’s stipulation that rank-and-file liberals are pleased to support torture as long as the daddies they crush on (btw, eww, Freddie; let’s leave Oedipus out of it, please) tell them to.

  216. Bijan Parsia:

    I think it’s fair to note how prison conditions in the US (esp. solitary confinement) is often a form of torture (even putting aside the prevalence of prison rape). However, it’s really not a good idea to conflate this debate with the debate on torture based interrogation practices. It’s much harder to get people to admit that prison conditions in the US are horrible and immoral than it is to get them to admit that torture based interrogation is wrong. (The ubiquity of prison rape jokes supports that.) Thus, assimilating the discussions tends to weaken (I would speculate) resistance to torture based interrogation rather than increase resistance to e.g., solitary confinement.

  217. rea:

    And people don’t seem to grasp how extraordinary it would be for the president of the United States to intervene to alter the custodial regime of a particular prisoner.

  218. bradP:

    And people don’t seem to grasp how extraordinary it would be for the president of the United States to intervene to alter the custodial regime of a particular prisoner.

    Extraordinary circumstances, Rea.

  219. mark f:

    But isn’t that exactly what Barack Obama did when he personally removed Manning’s fingernails? AND YOU SWOONED!!!!

  220. bradP:

    It means that he is having a lot of trouble getting over an extremely low bar, like a Geo Metro trying to get over a curb.

  221. gmack:

    I basically agree with your reading here, but would simply add that there is sloppiness on both sides of the argument. DeBoer doesn’t have the evidence/argument that liberals (or “liberalism”) has a proclivity to want to be “forced” to torture. However, I think Scott’s response is flawed too; I think his statement did imply that there are no liberals who support torture or who take the ticking time bomb scenario seriously. Indeed, like Core Robin my first thought in reading Scott’s demand for citations was to think of the dirty hands literature. Now, I think it’s way too fast to move from this body of literature to broad statements about what liberals want to be forced to do vis-a-vis torture, but it is equally wrong to hint that this literature is non-existent or even that it is irrelevant.

    As a purely anecdotal side note, of the many times I’ve taught the dirty hands problem to students, I don’t believe I’ve every had one–no matter how liberal–reject torture in an absolute sense. The overwhelming response is to embrace Walzer’s position; it is an agonizing choice; one must be held accountable, etc., but there are circumstances where it is necessary. This is one of the sources of my intuition that there is a significant strand in our political culture that operates in ways similar to DeBoer’s description.

  222. bradP:

    Isn’t the “reprehensible” part of the treatment more important than the definition?

    You could circle the wagons around the “But its not torture” line, but I thought you were trying to separate yourself from the Bush crew, not immitate it.

  223. Malaclypse:

    Isn’t the “reprehensible” part of the treatment more important than the definition?

    Yes, prison conditions in the US are deplorable. They are also logically distinct from Obama’s actions, or lack thereof.

  224. Freddie deBoer:

    So you’re going the full “No True Scotsman” on this, eh? Check my post. I mean, I know you won’t actually link to it– you’re a coward and a fake– but you should read it, anyway.

  225. Hogan:

    No, he acted like it was absurd to say liberals support torture.

  226. mark f:

    The difference is that the Bush administration expanded its definition of “not torture” to include practices that are self-evidently torture to everyone, including the officials who pretty openly admitted that defining such practices as “not torture” was done only as a legal formality; whereas Obama has contracted the definition of “not torture” back to where it was pre-Bush, which unfortunately leaves in place some practices that we may dislike and consider torture but which is an opinion, to humanity’s shame, not broadly shared.

    That is an unwieldy sentence.

  227. Bijan Parsia:

    Even worse for your reading of Levinson:

    Levinson: There’s nothing “edifying” about torture. The real issue is whether we’re willing to do it even if, by stipulation, it would prevent a death of an innocent person. Most people would say we can never know that with sufficient certainty. But others, and I am one of them, would say that it is such a departure from any acceptable human-rights norm as to be unacceptable even to save an innocent person (though, as a matter of fact, I think that most people would, albeit reluctantly, accept torture if convinced that it could save, say, thousands of lives).

    This is from an interview about the book.

    Again, I don’t have immediate access to the book (if you want to purchase me a copy, go ahead), but at this point it sure looks like you’ve insinuated that an against-torture-in-all-circumstances liberal is, in fact, a pro-torture or at least torture-curious liberal. Worse, you’ve done this, in part, because they’ve included pro-torture articles in an anthology on torture.

    I’m very interested to see if you’re going to retract or issue an apology! Seems like the right thing to do, at least. I hope this also shows the importance of being careful with deBoerian Sweeping Claims.

  228. rea:

    Well, no. There are thousands of federal prisoners, and the president can’t micromanage their custody. The president has done his job if there are appropriate rules and procedures, and adequate means of enforceing them. If, for example, there is an issue about whether a particular prisoner poses such a risk of suicide that he can’t be trusted with bedsheets, that decision simply can’t be kicked upstairs to the Oval Office. It has to be made by the people on the spot, who know what’s going on, and can be held responsible for the results. We don’t want the president making tactical decisions for platoons in the hills of Afghanistan, either–this is much the same.

  229. Bijan Parsia:

    Scott acted like it was absurd to say any liberals supported torture.

    No, he really didn’t.

    Not only is that not the best (much less the only) reading of Scott’s post, but he’s explicitly disavowed that reading. He’s clearly aware of Dershowtiz et al.

    It’s just a ridiculous reading.

    Again, I think it’s the inversion based projection in action here: If you don’t irrationally hate Obama, you must irrationally love him. Similarly, if you don’t agree that liberals love torture you must be saying that no liberal loves torture.

    It doesn’t make it any less silly, of course.

    Given that we have some rather nasty smears against staunch anti-torture liberals in this very thread, I stand by my assessment that the need for apology clearly runs the other way.

  230. Scott Lemieux:

    Scott acted like it was absurd to say any liberals supported torture.

    This might be a plausible reading if you completely ignore the post I was directly responding to.

  231. Scott Lemieux:

    20-year sentences for the possession of narcotics are reprehensible, but not torture. Voter suppression is reprehensible, but not torture. See what I’m driving at?

  232. Scott Lemieux:

    He’s really not.

  233. Bijan Parsia:

    Hi gmack,

    I really don’t think it’s a defensible reading of Scott. See my comment below.

    It’s surely relevant that Scott explicitly disavows the “no liberal supports torture” reading. It’s equally relevant that he wrote negatively about Dershy’s (and others) support of torture.

    The sloppiness is very one sided here.

    Criticizing people using universals by pointing out that talking in specifics would lead to a radically different conclusion is not the same as making the contrary universal. It just isn’t.

  234. Scott Lemieux:

    I really wish that alleged tough-minded leftists, who — contrary to pretty much all American history — expect progressive change to be driven by Benevolent Daddies in the White House and that we should be emotionally devastated when this doesn’t happen would leave me out of it.

  235. Scott Lemieux:

    Denying that Dershowitz speaks for all American liberals isn’t so much a “no true Scotsman” as a “Scotsman is not an Irishman” argument.

  236. Bijan Parsia:

    I kept reading “this post” as being about your post which was confusing, albeit more accurate.

    It’s really hard to hold up Dershowitz as a representative liberal thought leader (at least in the progressive blogosphere).

    And it’s really hard to hold up Scott as a supporter of pro-torture liberals.

  237. thusbloggedanderson:

    Ah so. Good stuff – thanks, Bijan!

  238. thusbloggedanderson:

    Sad to hear that about your students, Gmack. I think much of the problem is the ignorant belief that torture “works” – torture is pretty much *defined* in these scenarios as an ugly but effective method.

  239. Bijan Parsia:

    Your welcome!

    Note to deBoer and fellow travellers: Talking in specifics (and being accurate) raises your credibility and might lead to some interesting points.

    For example, I’m by no means convinced that the Democratic consensus against interrogation based torture is robust. I don’t have any strong evidence other that my continued shock that the US consensus against interrogation based torture was so fragile. What would be nice is a good analysis of what the actual contours of the landscape are so I could know how concerned I should be.

  240. Bijan Parsia:

    Indeed!

    Isn’t it pretty trivial to see Obama doing much better, overall, than Clinton under far more adverse circumstances?

    (To give Clinton a bit, the shift in control of the House and the rise of Gingrichism was somewhat novel and might be reasonable to find disconcerting.)

  241. Bijan Parsia:

    Some interesting stats.

    I tried one of the experiments but gave up as the protocol seemed just terrible. Utterly terrible. Lots of criticism of my actual answers along the way.

    I’d be interested to learn how much of our responses to ticking time bomb examples are due to increased awareness of those scenarios and the “right” response.

  242. gmack:

    Sure. I know that Scott doesn’t actually think that no liberals supported torture or that no one finds the ticking time bomb scenarios to be compelling. He does continue to argue that these liberals are non-representative and (therefore?) essentially irrelevant. I disagree with this latter point (i.e., the idea that they are irrelevant), though as of now, I’m not sure how I could prove it. In any case, my broader point is that his expression of his position was inapt, and it helps foster the basically unproductive debate we see here about who is moving the goal posts, etc.

    In any case, let me make two basic points:

    (1) This whole discussion about rhetorical sloppiness goes both ways. His rhetorical move notwithstanding, Scott clearly did not mean to suggest that there are no liberals adopting the position DeBoer identifies. But I think one could make the same argument about DeBoer. In his initial post, DeBoer talks about “many” social and cultural liberals, and he also speaks of his anti-war activism and his encounters with some of these folks, which suggests that he is offering anecdotal evidence and not offering a condemnation of Liberalism as such. Add this to the fact that he never even attempts to trace the dynamics he’s identifying to liberal ideology as such, and it becomes possible to read his position as far less problematic than the criticisms of it here imply. (Granted, the fact that he has not clarified his argument in this direction tells against this reading, which I admit, may be taking interpretive charity to an extreme).

    (2) I’m personally of the opinion that there are productive and interesting discussions to be had about the tendency in U.S. political culture–note that I do not say that it is among liberals, as I think this tendency goes beyond the liberal/conservative divide–toward the kinds of dynamics DeBoer is alluding to. Granted, I find his articulation of the idea to be a bit tendentious and tedious; I also think his discussion of the movie is batty. To that extent, I’m willing to admit that he might not be the best interlocutor for this discussion. But I also think he’s onto something that deserves some critical reflection. I think it’s worth investigating or thinking about the performance where one displays one’s sophistication and seriousness by agonizing and hand-wringing over hard choices, but still ending up supporting various militaristic policies, etc. (By the way I agree with you that there have been some nasty insinuations about some of the folks here being “pro-torture liberals” and I find them annoying too, but to my mind the irritating thing about them is that they unnecessarily distract from what could potentially be a discussion where one learns something).

  243. Scott Lemieux:

    He does continue to argue that these liberals are non-representative and (therefore?) essentially irrelevant.

    They are not “irrelevant” in the sense that they shouldn’t be criticized. I think they’re very close to irrelevant in terms of establishing that liberals as a class are pro-torture.

  244. bradP:

    20-year sentences for the possession of narcotics are reprehensible, but not torture. Voter suppression is reprehensible, but not torture.

    And I’m saying it doesn’t matter. Manning’s treatment isn’t somehow better since we don’t call it torture. Manning’s treatment isn’t somehow worse because we call it torture.

    Under the Obama administration it has become very apparent that whistleblowers alerting the public to military mismanagement and misdeeds will be handled with extreme prejudice, and in many ways worse than the worst civilian criminals, even before they have seen a courtroom.

    I am very certain the reaction would be completely different if this occurred under the Bush Admin.

  245. gmack:

    I’d be interested to learn how much of our responses to ticking time bomb examples are due to increased awareness of those scenarios and the “right” response.

    I think that’s part of the issue. There are several other dimensions, in my view. One is this: I think students at least intuitively understand that the scenario is designed to be artificial; it abstracts away from the concrete problems, lack of knowledge, etc., that confront actual decision-makers, and the scenario makes this abstraction so as to crystalize only the moral calculation (“should I save one person or 20?” Once we’ve reduced the problem to this version of it, then there really isn’t much of choice any more). And indeed, what often happens when I present the scenarios is that I’ll get students who try to complicate it (“how can you know that X or Y?”). These complicating questions are, of course, precisely the right ones, but they also interfere with the whole scenario, so what ends up happening is that the thought experiment ends up getting constructed in a way that dictates the answer. So typically I use these discussions not as a way to test various moral theories, but to teach the lesson that philosophical thought experiments often carry with them essential assumptions that are worth interrogating. The thought experiment is interesting, in other words, not really because it confronts us with a moral dilemma, but because it assumes, say, a particular social theory, or because of the way it defines the realm of the moral, and so on.

  246. Malaclypse:

    Manning’s treatment isn’t somehow better since we don’t call it torture. Manning’s treatment isn’t somehow worse because we call it torture.

    And the same is true for the treatment of several other hundred thousand guests of the state.

  247. gmack:

    They are not “irrelevant” in the sense that they shouldn’t be criticized. I think they’re very close to irrelevant in terms of establishing that liberals as a class are pro-torture.

    OK. That makes sense, and I agree with this point as it is stated. I guess I believe that these positions express something that is of a broader cultural relevance, which I suppose is why I didn’t find DeBoer’s initial post to be as bad as many here did (though as I said above, I think his discussion of whether Greenwald needs to see the movie to make his criticisms is well deserving of criticism).

  248. Bijan Parsia:

    We’ve already dealt with the tendentiousness of the Obama/Manning line (which requires ignoring oh so much). But the Clinton one isn’t great either. First, it relies on Dershowitz’s reporting (which included a statement of Dersh’s “personal opposition” to torture!). Let’s look at Clinton’s statement (alas I can’t quickly find a transcript) which you quoted:

    Look, if the president needed an option, there’s all sorts of things they can do.Let’s take the best case, OK.You picked up someone you know is the No. 2 aide to Osama bin Laden. And you know they have an operation planned for the United States or some European capital in the next three days. And you know this guy knows it. Right, that’s the clearest example. And you think you can only get it out of this guy by shooting him full of some drugs or water-boarding him or otherwise working him over. If they really believed that that scenario is likely to occur, let them come forward with an alternate proposal.
    We have a system of laws here where nobody should be above the law, and you don’t need blanket advance approval for blanket torture. They can draw a statute much more narrowly, which would permit the president to make a finding in a case like I just outlined.

    Uh…this is not an endorsement of torture. It’s an attempt to limit the permissibility of torture by presenting the strongest (but held unlikely) case and demanding that an authorizing statute be limited to those cases. This is damage control.

    Then we have Hillary (in the campaign) first endorsing then backing off:

    But in a pair of interviews with the New York Daily News last October, Clinton outlined the same narrow exception that Russert described, and which had also been floated by former President Bill Clinton in an interview last year with National Public Radio.

    “If we’re going to be preparing for the kind of improbable but possible eventuality, then it has to be done within the rule of law,” Clinton said at the time, in a telephone interview with this reporter, expanding on comments to the Daily News Editorial Board that there should be “lawful authority” for torture in some cases.

    She said then that the “ticking time bomb” scenario would be a narrow exception to her opposition to torture.

    “In the event we were ever confronted with having to interrogate a detainee with knowledge of an imminent threat to millions of Americans, then the decision to depart from standard international practices must be made by the president, and the president must be held accountable,” she said.

    “That very, very narrow exception within very, very limited circumstances is better than blasting a big hole in our entire law.”

    Again, clearly damage control, and she even retracted that:

    “As a matter of policy it cannot be American policy, period,” Clinton responded, seconding the clear positions of Senators Barack Obama (Ill.)and Joe Biden (Del.)…

    On Wednesday, she rejected the scenario embraced by leading Republican candidates, and the basis for several seasons of the popular television drama “24,” in which terrorists are constantly on the verge of detonating a nuclear weapon, and catastrophe is often averted only after they’re tortured by the show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer.

    And, what do you know?! Bill retracted too!

    “I think America’s policy should be to oppose torture (and) to honor the Geneva Conventions for several reasons: One is, it’s always counter productive, if you beat somebody up, they’ll tell you what they want to hear. Two, it really hurts us in the rest of the world and it helps to create other terrorists. And thirdly, it’s makes our own people valuable to torture.”

    So the trend over time has been toward absolutism against torture.

    Clearly, (these) liberals want to be persuaded to love torture.

    (Now, obviously, Clinton did all sorts of awful things as President, as presidents do.)

  249. bradP:

    And the same is true for the treatment of several other hundred thousand guests of the state.

    Yes, but not many of those other guests are being not-quite tortured at a military prison while awaiting trial for conscientious whistleblowing.

    But hey, retributional pretrial mistreatment of the state’s opposition is just like the mistreatment in our prison system.

  250. Bijan Parsia:

    He does continue to argue that these liberals are non-representative and (therefore?) essentially irrelevant.

    Scott’s already responded, but I really want to ask why you saw the “therefore”.

    Let’s pretend there are two general positions at stake here: 1) Torture flirtation is a real and present danger in the Democratic party, e.g., we’re on the verge of a shift in the Democratic power consensus toward something like the Bush adminstration position and 2) the Democratic party is institutionally basically anti-torture, though the boundaries of that are a bit fluid and, of course, presidents and the government do all sorts of bad things and have for forever; but, the public norms and the substantive policy is much closer to the status quo before the Bush adminstration.

    The first line is pretty clearly false. I guess you could build some sort of case based on propensities, etc., but it’s clearly in the space of “Gore would have gone into Iraq”. The latter is pretty obviously true and not hard to verify. The first line is a much less extreme version of deBoer’s post, afaict. The latter is pretty much Scott’s view. He doesn’t think pro-torture liberal elites are unimportant per se (see his post about Dersh that I linked to elsewhere). deBoer really does seem to think that torture curiosity is the substantive consensus view of Democrats.

    One of these views is nuts. It’s not Scott’s.

    (Granted, the fact that he has not clarified his argument in this direction tells against this reading, which I admit, may be taking interpretive charity to an extreme

    He doubled down on it. Granted he shifted from an implicit all to a “many” but he put Clinton in as a pro-torture person! (See my comments below.)

    I think it’s worth investigating or thinking about the performance where one displays one’s sophistication and seriousness by agonizing and hand-wringing over hard choices, but still ending up supporting various militaristic policies, etc.

    This is worth thinking about, I agree. But it has to start by identifying real cases! And articulating the landscape better (e.g., from people genuinely engaging in tough decision making to people faking it to people deceiving themselves about it).

  251. Bijan Parsia:

    In case we’re keeping track: Not including Obama, we have had two people (Sandy Levinson and Bill Clinton) tarred as being pro-torture or at least torture curious in spite of clear, explicit statements to the contrary. The “evidence” that they were pro-torture or torture curious was extremely tendentious and mostly revolved around some degree of softness toward the ticking time bomb scenario (which around 74% of all people think is a justifiable case). The Clintons were clearly trying to constrain authorized torture to the hugely unlikely case (similar to Dershowitz’s claim to be trying to reduce the overall amount of torture) and moved in the “wrong” direction: i.e., toward absolutism against torture. Plus, we have a survey that 71% of self-ided Democrats oppose torture in all forms.

    Wouldn’t it be a great thing to back down a bit? Can’t we try to root out and shame people who are actually wobbly on torture? Can’t we work to critique Obama for actual failings and thus to sound sane? Can’t we at least not tar people who are anti-torture as pro-torture?

  252. IM:

    You get a very vivid sense of this “force us to torture” motif in the statement of Admiral Mayorga, who was one of the leaders of the Dirty War in Argentina

    well known leader of the liberal blogosphere..

    You see, sometimes a no true scotchmen argument is quite legitimate.

  253. Corey Robin:

    I’m not at home right now, so I can’t get the quotes; I wish I had seen this last night. I can assure you — and Scott Lemieux can back me up, as he read the very same piece in the book that I mentioned, and in his other post said the same thing as I say here — that Levinson in the essay supports torture and the ticking time bomb hypothetical. I reviewed the book in the London Review of Books when it came out. From memory, Levinson takes Dershowitz’s torture warrants argument seriously; he adds that the person the state seeks a warrant to torture should be present in the courtroom, in front of the judge (so that he not be an abstraction), and also says that after being tortured, the victim should be compensated. Levinson has thought a great deal about this issue. Like I said, I wrote about this at length in the LRB, and if I had misrepresented his position, I’m sure or someone else would have written in in protest. I’d urge you to look to what he wrote, not what he says in an opinion page. But if you’ll email me (corey.robin@gmail.com) to remind me to do this tonight, I’m happy to provide chapter and verse of quotations for you when I get home. This is in no way controversial.

    Just one more quick thing about Levinson and torture: One of Levinson’s positions, which he takes from Walzer, is that one should always condemn the act of torture even as we allow it to happen. This is the paradox of dirty hands that Walzer speaks of. If you think it’s confusing, welcome to the club. But that is the position. So it is hardly surprising that he would say what he says in the interview you cite — yet still recommends that torture happen. I’m not trying to be cute or evasive here: that really is the position these folks take. And it’s why, like Walzer, they think the torturer should be tried for his acts — and please in his defense that it was an act of civil disobedience, a necessary breaking of the law for the sake of a higher law (protection of the community). Again, this is all in the text.

  254. Corey Robin:

    Sorry, Scott, but that just can’t be true. Or if it is, you did a lousy job of responding to what you took to be the premise. If your premise is that it’s absurd to say all liberals want to be forced to defend torture, you wouldn’t — not in any conceivable universe of logic — ask the proponent of that position to name “some” liberals to do so. Because if he did, that would just confirm his point. No, if that were your premise, you’d merely cite one or two or three liberals who didn’t support torture (yourself being exhibit A). That would disprove his point.

  255. Corey Robin:

    Sorry, my error: that passage should have read “you wouldn’t — not in any conceivable universe of logic — ask the proponent of that position to name ‘some’ liberals who do so.

  256. Bijan Parsia:

    I’d love some more detail. I’ll definitely look it up when I get a chance (I’m travelling at the moment). But it’s weird. The interview includes this:

    Levinson: It isn’t such a “bad idea” as some of its critics portray it. That is, even if one rejects it, as I do, one has to recognize that Dershowitz is responding to a serious reality, which is that states torture. The real question is whether an “ex ante” (before the fact) warrant would reduce torture more than an “ex post” (after the fact) system of prosecution. Dershowitz correctly notes that governments are notoriously unwilling to prosecute “wrongdoers for the state”; moreover, juries may be unlikely to convict. One should take the idea seriously and explain what is wrong with it, as against simply condemning Dershowitz as an insensitive lout, which he is not.

    But…that’s not an endorsement of Dershowitz’s conclusion.

    Taking pro-torture arguments seriously is not the same as being pro-torture or torture curious.

  257. Bijan Parsia:

    See my concession to Robin’s point in this comment.

  258. Bijan Parsia:

    I’m arguably wrong about Levinson (as I concede), although he is pretty fiercely anti torture, he will concede torture’s justification in some ticking time bomb scenarios.

    Perhaps this does show the worthlessness of this. If admitting to torture’s justification in some ticking time bomb scenario is being as bad as a Bush official on torture, then it proves way too much. All consequentialists are pro-torture, then.

  259. IM:

    Can’t we try to root out and shame people who are actually wobbly on torture?

    You mean like Levison, that you now try to refashion as fiercely anti-torture?

    You are trying too hard. There is a minority of liberals open to torture. TNR-liberals. But they simply don’t matter anymore.

  260. Bijan Parsia:

    This is really strange.

    Of course, to disprove a universal a single counterexample is sufficient. But obviously, if only Noam Chomsky opposed torture while “Let’s torture tons of people” were a plank in the Democratic party platform, it would be silly to use Noam as refutation. That would miss the point.

    deBoer is pretty clearly committed to a “it’s a central tendency of modern Democratic/liberal/progressive politics to be pro-torture even if they have to do it sneaky like”. (His shift from “all” to “many” is pretty supportive.) For that he needs to provide some evidence. The evidence is still wanting (in spite of my error about Levinson).

    Note that deBoer doesn’t deny the “central tendancy” reading, right? Scott does deny your reading. A little bit of charity would be nice.

    Plus, just as a data point, I read it Scott’s way straight off. It’s a bit of a trope for him.

    Now I know you believe I can’t read, but, I’m not sure that’s working in your favor :)

  261. Bijan Parsia:

    If only you had posted this comment before I had conceded on Levinson! It would have been awesome and you would have totally shown me up! See also this.

    I think being pro-torture in ticking time bomb scenarios (of any realism) is wrong. I think generalizing from such arguments is criminally insane. It’s unclear to me that Levinson does the latter, though the last bit of In Quest of a Common Conscience worries me.

  262. IM:

    Don’t be a jerk. Even after concession you want for some reason depict a wobbler as an steadfast opponent of torture. But he isn’t. You weaken your own position if you are not ready to admit even marginal errors.

  263. Bijan Parsia:

    Don’t be a jerk.

    I commend your own advice unto you.

    Even after concession you want for some reason depict a wobbler as an steadfast opponent of torture.

    I would like to understand what a it is to be a “wobbler on torture”. Levinson had some pretty categorical statements against torture and some other statements where he concedes quite a bit. And so I’ve been reading through what of his writings that I have access to, trying to put together the whole picture.

    Note from the start I also am willing to give Dershowitz (ugh) a bit of slack about his torture warrants. His explicit argument is that torture is practiced (true) and that regulation might diminish the amount and severity of what is practiced (who knows?). (It’s hard to see the rationality of Dershowitz pursuing them as real policy.)

    But he isn’t. You weaken your own position if you are not ready to admit even marginal errors.

    I’m not sure how much more I can admit my error. And I went back and posted a link to my admission every place that was relevant. Plus, I continued to do research! Shocking I know! Doing homework! So, I found stuff by Levinson that made me more disturbed:

    This does seem to open the door and I do think that this could be read as supportive of being persuaded. There is real danger here. I’m rather shocked that Levinson would go this far.

    (I do wonder whether I’m wrong to be so disturbed in the next paragraph. But I stand by that.)

    And more:

    So, Bad Levinson. But it doesn’t seem like he’s on a big slippery slope per se which is a comfort, if a bit cold.

    But…this seems true. I’ve not seen anything by Levinson over several years of writings that suggests anything near an endorsement of anything close to what the Bush administration did (for example).

    I’m sorry that my corrections don’t meet your standards for abjectness. If you’d suggest some wording, esp. on exactly how I should condemn Levinson, I’ll take them into consideration.

  264. Mike D.:

    Good lord.

  265. Mike D.:

    Corey Robin -

    You simply project a meaning onto Scott here. His statement that he would appreciate some examples from Freddie to illustrate just what in the flying hell he’s talking about (and maybe shed some light, based on what those examples turn out to be on how in the world he thinks his generalization about liberals and torture could remotely be justified) is most aptly read as a request to Freddie for some examples from him to illustrate just what in the flying hell he’s talking about (and maybe shed some light, based on what those examples turn out to be on how in the world he thinks his generalization about liberals and torture could remotely be justified).

    That’s how I read it, anyway. Basically: obviously absurd generalization is absurd, but equally obviously you must have some examples in mind to allow your tortured mind to create these sentences. So let’s out with them so we can dispense with this ridiculousness somewhat efficiently.

    From there, a response pointing out the reaching, self-selected, unrepresentative, or even absurd nature of the examples offered is the logical argumentative next step. Freddie made a generalization that Scott would have been justified in dismissing out of hand, because, as you say, it would be trivially easy to disprove it with a single counterexample. In this way, Freddie’s generalization served as a screen obscuring exactly what his real point might have been: to assert a trend among liberals like the one he describes as a general trait. (He didn’t want to simply assert that “some” liberals have this position on torture, because that would be an obvious statement; meanwhile correctly describing the extent of that belief among them is hard. Better to overstate the case, whereupon a technical disproof would still leave alive the unspecified trend he wanted to suggest.)

    It’s perfectly clear that was Freddie’s true (disguised) intent, and it was plain to Scot just as it was plain to everyone else. To address this, it was necessary to draw Freddie out: to elicit examples that suggest the nature and extent of the trend he perceives. So Scott asked for “some examples” to try to shed some clarity on what Freddie was actually saying about liberals. Having done so, Scott was perfectly within he rights to say just what he did or didn’t think those examples suggested. He was certainly never under any obligation to gracefully acknowledge that his request was filled by the author of the grotesque, generalizing smear to which he was responding. He was already dealing with a hostile witness (of long standing) who was blatantly playing rhetorical games with the claims he was making (inasmuch as no one could have ever believe Freddie really believed the generalization about liberals that he wrote). If you have to ask for examples just to get someone to actually engage the claims they actually mean to make – much less to acknowledge explicitly that they are what they are, well, the grace Rubicon has at that point been crossed a few leagues ago.

  266. Mike D.:

    Just to add, it’s actually uncharitable in the extreme to read Scott’s request for examples of liberals with views something like what Freddie describes as a denial that they exist rather than the straightforward request for further illumination from Freddie on what he thought his point was that it was, given that it’s common knowledge that such examples can be found, especially if one allows oneself to go back most of a decade to find liberals whose thinking was as much in flux as others’ at that time – note, by the way, that Freddie strictly uses the present tense when making his claims about what liberals want with respect to torture in his original post.

  267. slightly_peeved:

    The only criticism I can see of Scott’s reply to Freddie is that it is far too polite, in that it actually attempts to continue a good faith dialogue.

    Once Freddie says this:

    It’s not that I think liberals support torture. No, I think liberals want to be forced to support torture.

    he’s engaged in mind-reading. If the request for cites from Scott is absurd, it is only because Freddie’s initial argument is an unprovable absurdity. I mean – how could such a statement seriously be proven? And how could the complete inability to prove such a statement then be blamed on Scott?

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