Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Washington Post

The war of ideas

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Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about a pair of tweets. One is from Susan Hennessy, an editor for the national security blog Lawfare, who wrote: “Much of my education has been about grasping nuance, shades of gray. Resisting the urge to oversimplify the complexity of human motivation. This year has taught me that, actually, a lot of what really matters comes down to good people and bad people. And these are bad people.” This is a remarkable statement, and in some ways a heartbreaking one, but I can’t disagree with it, and it reflects a growing trend among journalists and other commentators to simply call what we’re seeing by its name. In response to the lies about the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—including the accusation that some of them are actors—Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote:

When people act like cretins, should they be ignored? Does talking about their misdeeds merely give them oxygen? Maybe so. But the sliming—there is no other word for it—of the survivors of last week’s Florida high school massacre is beyond the pale…Legitimate disagreement over policy issues is one thing. Lies, conspiracy theories and insults are quite another.

And Paul Krugman went even further: “America in 2018 is not a place where we can disagree without being disagreeable, where there are good people and good ideas on both sides, or whatever other bipartisan homily you want to recite. We are, instead, living in a kakistocracy, a nation ruled by the worst, and we need to face up to that unpleasant reality.”

The other tweet that has been weighing on my mind was from Rob Goldman, a vice president of advertising for Facebook. It was just one of a series of thoughts—which is an important detail in itself—that he tweeted out on the day that Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russian nationals for their roles in interfering in the presidential election. After proclaiming that he was “very excited” to see the indictments, Goldman said that he wanted to clear up a few points. He had seen “all of the Russian ads” that appeared on Facebook, and he stated: “I can say very definitively that swaying the election was not the main goal.” But his most memorable words, at least for me, were: “The majority of the Russian ad spend happened after the election. We shared that fact, but very few outlets have covered it because it doesn’t align with the main media narrative of Tump [sic] and the election.” This is an astounding statement, in part because it seems to defend Facebook by saying that it kept running these ads for longer than most people assume. But it’s also inexplicable. It may well be, as some observers have contended, that Goldman had a “nuanced” point to make, but he chose to express it on a forum that is uniquely vulnerable to being taken out of context, and to unthinkingly use language that was liable to be misinterpreted. As Josh Marshall wrote:

[Goldman] even apes what amounts to quasi-Trumpian rhetoric in saying the media distorts the story because the facts “don’t align with the main media narrative of Trump and the election.” This is silly. Elections are a big deal. It’s hardly surprising that people would focus on the election, even though it’s continued since. What is this about exactly? Is Goldman some kind of hardcore Trumper?

I don’t think he is. But it also doesn’t matter, at least not when his thoughts were retweeted approvingly by the president himself.

This all leads me to a point that the events of the last week have only clarified. We’re living in a world in which the lines between right and wrong seem more starkly drawn than ever, with anger and distrust rising to an unbearable degree on both sides. From where I stand, it’s very hard for me to see how we recover from this. When you can accurately say that the United States has become a kakistocracy, you can’t just go back to the way things used to be. Whatever the outcome of the next election, the political landscape has been altered in ways that would have been unthinkable even two years ago, and I can’t see it changing during my lifetime. But even though the stakes seem clear, the answer isn’t less nuance, but more. If there’s one big takeaway from the last eighteen months, it’s that the line between seemingly moderate Republicans and Donald Trump was so evanescent that it took only the gentlest of breaths to blow it away. It suggests that we were closer to the precipice than we ever suspected, and unpacking that situation—and its implications for the future—requires more nuance than most forms of social media can provide. Rob Goldman, who should have known better, didn’t grasp this. And while I hope that the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas do better, I also worry about how effective they can really be. Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed recently argued that the pro-Trump media has met its match in the Parkland students: “It chose a political enemy effectively born onto the internet and innately capable of waging an information war.” I want to believe this. But it may also be that these aren’t the weapons that we need. The information war is real, but the only way to win it may be to move it into another battlefield entirely.

Which brings us, in a curious way, back to Robert Mueller, who seems to have assumed the same role for many progressives that Nate Silver once occupied—the one man who was somehow going to tell us that everything was going to be fine. But their differences are also telling. Silver generated reams of commentary, but his reputation ultimately came down to his ability to provide a single number, updated in real time, that would indicate how worried we had to be. That trust is clearly gone, and his fall from grace is less about his own mistakes than it’s an overdue reckoning for the promises of data journalism in general. Mueller, by contrast, does everything in private, avoids the spotlight, and emerges every few months with a mountain of new material that we didn’t even know existed. It’s nuanced, qualitative, and not easy to summarize. As the coverage endlessly reminds us, we don’t know what else the investigation will find, but that’s part of the point. At a time in which controversies seem to erupt overnight, dominate the conversation for a day, and then yield to the next morning’s outrage, Mueller embodies the almost anachronistic notion that the way to make something stick is to work on it diligently, far from the public eye, and release each piece only when you’re ready. (In the words of a proverbial saying attributed to everyone from Buckminster Fuller to Michael Schrage: “Never show fools unfinished work.” And we’re all fools these days.) I picture him fondly as the head of a monastery in the Dark Ages, laboriously preserving information for the future, or even as the shadowy overseer of Asimov’s Foundation. Mueller’s low profile allows him to mean whatever we want to us, of course, and for all I know, he may not be the embodiment of all the virtues that Ralph Waldo Emerson identified as punctuality, personal attention, courage, and thoroughness. I just know that he’s the only one left who might be. Mueller can’t save us by himself. But his example might just show us the way.

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 1

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Over the long weekend, both the New York Times and the Washington Post published lead articles on the diminishing public profile of Jared Kushner. The timing may have been a coincidence, but the pieces had striking similarities. Both made the argument that Kushner’s portfolio, once so vast, has been dramatically reduced by the arrival on the scene of White House chief of staff John F. Kelly; both ran under a headline that inclined some version of the word “shrinking”; and both led off with memorable quotes from their subject. In the Times, it was Kushner’s response when asked by Reince Priebus what his Office of American Innovation would really do: “What do you care?” (The newspaper of record, proper as ever, added: “He emphasized his point with an expletive.”) Meanwhile, the Post, which actually scored an interview, came away with something even stranger. Here’s what Kushner said of himself:

During the campaign, I was more like a fox than a hedgehog. I was more of a generalist having to learn about and master a lot of skills quickly. When I got to D.C., I came with an understanding that the problems here are so complex—and if they were easy problems, they would have been fixed before—and so I became more like the hedgehog, where it was more taking issues you care deeply about, going deep and devoting the time, energy and resources to trying to drive change.

The Post merely noted that this is Kushner’s “version the fable of the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing,” but as the Washington Examiner pointed out, the real source is Isaiah Berlin’s classic book The Hedgehog and the Fox, which draws its famous contrast between foxes and hedgehogs as a prelude to a consideration of Leo Tolstoy’s theory of history.

Berlin’s book, which is one of my favorites, is so unlike what I’d expect Jared Kushner to be reading that I can’t resist trying to figure out what this reference to it means. If I were conspiratorially minded, I’d observe that if Kushner had wanted to put together a reading list to quickly bring himself up to speed on the history and culture of Russia—I can’t imagine why—then The Hedgehog and the Fox, which can be absorbed in a couple of hours, would be near the top. But the truth, unfortunately, is probably more prosaic. If there’s a single book from the last decade that Kushner, who was briefly touted as the prodigy behind Trump’s data operation, can be assumed to have read, or at least skimmed, it’s Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. And Silver talks at length about the supposed contrast between foxes and hedgehogs, courtesy of a professor of psychology and political science named Philip E. Tetlock, who conducted a study of predictions by experts in various fields:

Tetlock was able to classify his experts along a spectrum between what he called hedgehogs and foxes. The reference to hedgehogs and foxes comes from the title of an Isaiah Berlin essay on the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy—The Hedgehog and the Fox…Foxes, Tetlock found, are considerably better at forecasting than hedgehogs. They had come closer to the mark on the Soviet Union, for instance. Rather than seeing the USSR in highly ideological terms—as an intrinsically “evil empire,” or as a relatively successful (and perhaps even admirable) example of a Marxist economic system—they instead saw it for what it was: an increasingly dysfunctional nation that was in danger of coming apart at the seams. Whereas the hedgehogs’ forecasts were barely any better than random chance, the foxes’ demonstrated predictive skill.

As intriguing as we might find this reference to Russia, which Kushner presumably read, it also means that in all likelihood, he never even opened Berlin’s book. (Silver annoyingly writes: “Unless you are a fan of Tolstoy—or of flowery prose—you’ll have no particular reason to read Berlin’s essay.”) But it doesn’t really matter where he encountered these classifications. As much as I love the whole notion of the hedgehog and the fox, it has one big problem—as soon as you read it, you’re immediately tempted to apply it to yourself, as Kushner does, when in fact its explanatory power applies only to geniuses. Like John Keats’s celebrated concept of negative capability, which is often used to excuse sloppy, inconsistent thinking, Berlin’s essay encourages us to think of ourselves as foxes or hedgehogs, when we’re really just dilettantes or suffering from tunnel vision. And this categorization has its limits even when applied to unquestionably exceptional personalities. Here’s how Berlin lays it out on the very first page of his book:

There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels…without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit [experiences and objects] into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.

The contrast that Berlin draws here could hardly seem more stark, but it falls apart as soon as we apply it to, say, Kushner’s father-in-law. On the one hand, Trump has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams by harping monotonously on a handful of reliable themes, notably white nationalism, xenophobia, and resentment of liberal elites. Nothing could seem more like the hedgehog. On the other hand, from one tweet to the next, he’s nothing if not “centrifugal rather than centripetal,” driven by his impulses, embracing contradictory positions, undermining his own surrogates, and resisting all attempts to pin him down to a conventional ideology. It’s all very foxlike. The most generous reading would be to argue that Trump, as Berlin contends of Tolstoy, is “by nature a fox, but [believes] in being a hedgehog,” a comparison that seems ridiculous even as I type it. It’s far more plausible that Trump lacks the intellectual rigor, or even the basic desire, to assemble anything like a coherent politics out of his instinctive drives for power and revenge. Like most of us, he’s a mediocre thinker, and his confusions, which reflect those of his base, have gone a long way toward enabling his rise. Trump bears much the same relationship to his fans that Emerson saw in the man who obsessed Tolstoy so deeply:

Among the eminent persons of the nineteenth century, Bonaparte is far the best known and the most powerful; and owes his predominance to the fidelity with which he expresses the tone of thought and belief, the aims of the masses…If Napoleon is France, if Napoleon is Europe, it is because the people whom he sways are little Napoleons.

Faced with a Trump, little or big, Berlin’s categories lose all meaning—not out of any conceptual weakness, but because it wasn’t what they were designed to do. But that doesn’t mean that Berlin doesn’t deserve our attention. In fact, The Hedgehog and the Fox has more to say about our current predicament than any other book I know, and if Kushner ever bothered to read it, it might give him reason to worry. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Bringing up the bodies

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For the last few weeks, my wife and I have been slowly working our way through Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s devastating documentary series Vietnam. The other night, we finished the episode “Resolve,” which includes an extraordinary sequence—you can find it here around the twenty-five minute mark—about the war’s use of questionable metrics. As narrator Peter Coyote intones: “Since there was no front in Vietnam, as there had been in the first and second World Wars, since no ground was ever permanently won or lost, the American military command in Vietnam—MACV—fell back more and more on a single grisly measure of supposed success: counting corpses. Body count.” The historian and retired Army officer James Willbanks observes:

The problem with the war, as it often is, are the metrics. It is a situation where if you can’t count what’s important, you make what you can count important. So, in this particular case, what you could count was dead enemy bodies.

And as the horrifying images of stacked bodies fill the screen, we hear the quiet, reasonable voice of Robert Gard, a retired lieutenant general and former chairman of the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation: “If body count is the measure of success, then there’s the tendency to count every body as an enemy soldier. There’s a tendency to want to pile up dead bodies and perhaps to use less discriminate firepower than you otherwise might in order to achieve the result that you’re charged with trying to obtain.”

These days, we casually use the phrase “body count” to describe violence in movies and video games, and I was startled to realize how recent the term really is—the earliest reported instance is from 1962, and the oldest results that I can find in a Google Book search are from the early seventies. (Its first use as a book’s title, as far as I can determine, is for the memoir of William Calley, the officer convicted of murder for his involvement in the My Lai massacre.) Military metaphors have a way of seeping into everyday use, in part because of their vividness and, perhaps, because we all like to think of ourselves as fighting in one war or another, but after watching Vietnam, I think that “body count” ought to be forcibly restored to its original connotations. It doesn’t take a lot of introspection to see that it was a statistic that was only possible in a war in which the enemy could be easily dehumanized, and that it encouraged a lack of distinction between military and civilian combatants. Like most faulty metrics, it created a toxic set of incentives from the highest levels of command to the soldiers on the ground. As the full extent of the war’s miscalculations grew more clear, these facts became hard to ignore, and the term itself came to encapsulate the mistakes and deceptions of the conflict as a whole. Writing in Playboy in 1982, Philip Caputo called it “one of the most hideous, morally corrupting ideas ever conceived by the military mind.” Yet most of its emotional charge has since been lost. Words matter, and as the phrase’s significance is obscured, the metric itself starts to creep back. And the temptation to fall back on it increases in response to a confluence of specific factors, as a country engages in military action in which the goals are unclear and victory is poorly defined.

As a result, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a return to body count. As far back as 2005, Bradley Graham of the Washington Post reported: “The revival of body counts, a practice discredited during the Vietnam War, has apparently come without formal guidance from the Pentagon’s leadership.” More recently, Reed Richardson wrote on FAIR:

In the past few years, official body count estimates have made a notable comeback, as U.S. military and administration officials have tried to talk up the U.S. coalition’s war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq…For example, last August, the U.S. commander of the Syrian-Iraq war garnered a flurry of favorable coverage of the war when he announced that the coalition had killed 45,000 ISIS militants in the past two years. By December, the official ISIS body count number, according to an anonymous “senior U.S. official,” had risen to 50,000 and led headlines on cable news. Reading through that media coverage, though, one finds little skepticism about the figures or historical context about how these killed in action numbers line up with the official estimates of ISIS’s overall size, which have stayed stubbornly consistent year after year. In fact, the official estimated size of ISIS in 2015 and 2016 averaged 25,000 fighters, which means the U.S. coalition had supposedly wiped out the equivalent of its entire force over both years without making a dent in its overall size.

Richardson sums up: “As our not-too-distant past has clearly shown, enemy body counts are a handy, hard-to-resist tool that administrations of both parties often use for war propaganda to promote the idea we are ‘winning’ and to stave off dissent about why we’re fighting in the first place.”

It’s worth pointing out, as Richardson does, that such language isn’t confined to any one party, and it was equally prevalent during the Obama administration. But we should be even more wary of it now. (Richardson writes: “In February, Gen. Tony Thomas, the commander of US Special Operations Command, told a public symposium that 60,000 ISIS fighters had been killed. Thomas added this disingenuous qualifier to his evidence-free number: ‘I’m not that into morbid body count, but that matters.’”) Trump has spent his entire career inflating his numbers, from his net worth to the size of his inauguration crowds, and because he lacks a clear grasp of policy, he’s more inclined to gauge his success—and the lack thereof by his enemies—in terms that lend themselves to the most mindless ways of keeping score, like television ratings. He’s also fundamentally disposed to claim that everything that he does is the biggest and the best, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. This extends to areas that can’t be easily quantified, like international relations, so that every negotiation becomes a zero-sum game in which, as Joe Nocera put it a few years ago: “In every deal, he has to win and you have to lose.” It encourages Trump and his surrogates to see everything as a war, even if it leads them to inflict just as much damage on themselves, and the incentives that he imposes on those around him, in which no admission of error is possible, drag down even the best of his subordinates. And we’ve seen this pattern before. As the journalist Joe Galloway says in Vietnam: “You don’t get details with a body count. You get numbers. And the numbers are lies, most of ‘em. If body count is your success mark, then you’re pushing otherwise honorable men, warriors, to become liars.”

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2017 at 8:15 am

The art of obfuscation

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In the book Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, a long excerpt of which recently appeared on Nautilus, the academics Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum investigate the ways in which short-term sources of distraction can be used to conceal or obscure the truth. One of their most striking examples is drawn from The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman, which recounts the aftermath of the brutal assassination of the Guatemalan bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera. Brunton and Nissenbaum write:   

As Goldman documented the long and dangerous process of bringing at least a few of those responsible within the Guatemalan military to justice for this murder, he observed that those threatened by the investigation didn’t merely plant evidence to conceal their role. Framing someone else would be an obvious tactic, and the planted evidence would be assumed to be false. Rather, they produced too much conflicting evidence, too many witnesses and testimonials, too many possible stories. The goal was not to construct an airtight lie, but rather to multiply the possible hypotheses so prolifically that observers would despair of ever arriving at the truth. The circumstances of the bishop’s murder produced what Goldman terms an “endlessly exploitable situation,” full of leads that led nowhere and mountains of seized evidence, each factual element calling the others into question. “So much could be made and so much would be made to seem to connect,” Goldman writes, his italics emphasizing the power of the ambiguity.

What interests me the most about this account is how the players took the existing features of this “endlessly exploitable situation,” which was already too complicated for any one person to easily understand, and simply turned up the volume. They didn’t need to create distractions out of nothing—they just had to leverage and intensify what was naturally there. It’s a clever strategy, because it only needs to last long for enough to run out the clock until the possibility of any real investigation has diminished. Brunton and Nissenbaum draw a useful analogy to the concept of “chaff” in radar countermeasures:

During World War II, a radar operator tracks an airplane over Hamburg, guiding searchlights and anti-aircraft guns in relation to a phosphor dot whose position is updated with each sweep of the antenna. Abruptly, dots that seem to represent airplanes begin to multiply, quickly swamping the display. The actual plane is in there somewhere, impossible to locate owing to the presence of “false echoes.” The plane has released chaff—strips of black paper backed with aluminum foil and cut to half the target radar’s wavelength. Thrown out by the pound and then floating down through the air, they fill the radar screen with signals. The chaff has exactly met the conditions of data the radar is configured to look for, and has given it more “planes,” scattered all across the sky, than it can handle…That the chaff worked only briefly as it fluttered to the ground and was not a permanent solution wasn’t relevant under the circumstances. It only had to work well enough and long enough for the plane to get past the range of the radar.

The authors conclude: “Many forms of obfuscation work best as time-buying ‘throw-away’ moves. They can get you only a few minutes, but sometimes a few minutes is all the time you need.”

The book Obfuscation appeared almost exactly a year ago, but its argument takes on an additional resonance now, when the level of noise in our politics has risen to a degree that makes the culture wars of the past seem positively quaint. It can largely, but not entirely, be attributed to just one man, and there’s an ongoing debate over whether Trump’s use of the rhetorical equivalent of chaff is instinctive, like a squid squirting ink at its enemies, or a deliberate strategy. I tend to see it as the former, but that doesn’t mean that his impulsiveness can’t product the same result—and perhaps even more effectively—as a considered program of disinformation and distraction. What really scares me is the prospect of such tricks becoming channeled and institutionalized the hands of more capable surrogates, as soon as an “endlessly exploitable situation” comes to pass. In The Art of Political Murder, Goldman sums up “the seemingly irresistible logic behind so much of the suspicion, speculation, and tendentiousness” that enveloped the bishop’s death: “Something like this can seem to have a connection to a crime like that.” All you need is an event that produces a flood of data that can be assembled in any number of ways by selectively emphasizing certain connections while deemphasizing others. The great example here is the Kennedy assassination, which generated an unbelievable amount of raw ore for obsessive personalities to sift, like a bin of tesserae that could be put together into any mosaic imaginable. Compiling huge masses of documentation and testimony and placing it before the public is generally something that we only see in a governmental investigation, which has the time and resources to accumulate the information that will inevitably be used to undermine its own conclusions.   

At the moment, there’s one obvious scenario in which this precise situation could arise. I’ve often found myself thinking of Robert Mueller in much the way that Quinta Jurecic of the Washington Post characterizes him in an opinion piece starkly titled “Robert Mueller Can’t Save Us”: “In the American imagination, Mueller is more than Trump’s adversary or the man who happens to be investigating him. He’s the president’s mythic opposite—the anti-Trump…Mueller is an avatar of our hope that justice and meaning will reassert themselves against Trumpian insincerity.” And I frequently console myself with the image of the Mueller investigation as a kind of bucket in which every passing outrage, briefly flaring up in the media only to be obscured by its successors, is filed away for later reckoning. As Jurecic points out, these hopes are misplaced:

There’s no way of knowing how long [Mueller’s] investigation will take and what it will turn up. It could be years before the probe is completed. It could be that Mueller’s team finds no evidence of criminal misconduct on the part of the president himself. And because the special counsel has no obligation to report his conclusions to the public—indeed, the special-counsel regulations do not give him the power to do so without the approval of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein—we may never know what he uncovers.

She’s right, but she also misses what I think is the most frightening possibility of all, which is that the Russia investigation will provide the exact combination of factors—“too many witnesses and testimonials, too many possible stories”—to create the situation that Goldman described in Guatemala. It’s hard to imagine a better breeding ground for conspiracy theories, alternate narratives, and false connections, and the likely purveyors are already practicing on a smaller scale. The Mueller investigation is necessary and important. But it will also provide the artists of obfuscation with the materials to paint their masterpiece.

The X factor

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On Wednesday, the Washington Post published an article on the absence of women on the writing staff of The X-Files. Its author, Sonia Rao, pointed out that all of the writers for the upcoming eleventh season—including creator Chris Carter, Darin Morgan, Glen Morgan, James Wong, and three newcomers who had worked on the series as assistants—are men, adding: “It’s an industry tradition for television writers to rise through the ranks in this manner, so Carter’s choices were to be expected. But in 2017, it’s worth asking: How is there a major network drama that’s so dominated by male voices?” It’s a good question. The network didn’t comment, but Gillian Anderson responded on Twitter: “I too look forward to the day when the numbers are different.” In the same tweet, she noted that out of over two hundred episodes, only two were directed by women, one of whom was Anderson herself. (The other was Michelle MacLaren, who has since gone on to great things in partnership with Vince Gilligan.) Not surprisingly, there was also a distinct lack of female writers on the show’s original run, with just a few episodes written by women, including Anderson, Sara B. Cooper, and Kim Newton, the latter of whom, along with Darin Morgan, was responsible for one of my favorite installments, “Quagmire.” And you could argue that their continued scarcity is due to a kind of category selection, in which we tend to hire people who look like those who have filled similar roles in the past. It’s largely unconscious, but no less harmful, and I say this as a fan of a show that means more to me than just about any other television series in history.

I’ve often said elsewhere that Dana Scully might be my favorite fictional character in any medium, but I’m also operating from a skewed sample set. If you’re a lifelong fan of a show like The X-Files, you tend to repeatedly revisit your favorite episodes, but you probably never rewatch the ones that were mediocre or worse, which leads to an inevitable distortion. My picture of Scully is constructed out of four great Darin Morgan episodes, a tiny slice of the mytharc, and a dozen standout casefiles like “Pusher” and even “Triangle.” I’ve watched each of these episodes countless times, so that’s the version of the series that I remember—but it isn’t necessarily the show that actually exists. A viewer who randomly tunes into a rerun on syndication is much more likely to see Scully on an average week than in “War of the Coprophages,” and in many episodes, unfortunately, she’s little more than a foil for her partner or a convenient victim to be rescued. (Darin Morgan, who understood Scully better than anyone, seems to have gravitated toward her in part out of his barely hidden contempt for Mulder.) Despite these flaws, Scully still came to mean the world to thousands of viewers, including young women whom she inspired to go into medicine and the sciences. Gillian Anderson herself is deeply conscious of this, and this seems to have contributed to her refreshing candor here, as well as on such related issues as the fact that she was initially offered half of David Duchovny’s salary to return. Anderson understands exactly how much she means to us, and she’s conducted herself accordingly.

The fact that the vast majority of the show’s episodes were written by men also seems to have fed into one of its least appealing qualities, which was how Scully’s body—and particularly her reproductive system—was repeatedly used as a plot point. Part of this was accidental: Anderson’s pregnancy had to be written into the second season, and the writers ended up with an abduction arc with a medical subtext that became hopelessly messy later on. It may not have been planned that way, any more than anything else on this show ever was, but it had the additional misfortune of being tethered to a conspiracy storyline for which it was expected to provide narrative clarity. After the third season, nobody could keep track of the players and their motivations, so Scully’s cancer and fertility issues were pressed into service as a kind of emotional index to the rest. These were pragmatic choices, but they were also oddly callous, especially as their dramatic returns continued to diminish. And in its use of a female character’s suffering to motivate a male protagonist, it was unfortunately ahead of the curve. When you imagine flipping the narrative so that Mulder, not Scully, was one whose body was under discussion, you see how unthinkable this would have been. It’s exactly the kind of unexamined notion that comes out of a roomful of writers who are all operating with the same assumptions. It isn’t just a matter of taste or respect, but of storytelling, and in retrospect, the show’s steady decline seems inseparable from the monotony of its creative voices.

And this might be the most damning argument of all. Even before the return of Twin Peaks reminded us of how good this sort of revival could be, the tenth season of The X-Files was a crushing disappointment. It had exactly one good episode, written, not coincidentally, by Darin Morgan, and featuring Scully at her sharpest and most joyous. Its one attempt at a new female character, despite the best efforts of Lauren Ambrose, was a frustrating misfire. Almost from the start, it was clear that Chris Carter didn’t have a secret plan for saving the show, and that he’d already used up all his ideas over the course of nine increasingly tenuous seasons. It’s tempting to say that the show had burned though all of its possible plotlines, but that’s ridiculous. This was a series that had all of science fiction, fantasy, and horror at its disposal, combined with the conspiracy thriller and the procedural, and it should have been inexhaustible. It wasn’t the show that got tired, but its writers. Opening up the staff to a more diverse set of talents would have gone a long way toward addressing this. (The history of science fiction is as good an illustration as any of the fact that diversity is good for everyone, not simply its obvious beneficiaries. Editors and showrunners who don’t promote it end up paying a creative price in the long run.) For a show about extreme possibilities, it settled for formula distressingly often, and it would have benefited from adding a wider range of perspectives—particularly from writers with backgrounds that have historically offered insight into such matters as dealing with oppressive, impersonal institutions, which is what the show was allegedly about. It isn’t too late. But we might have to wait for the twelfth season.

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2017 at 8:56 am

On a wing and a prayer

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“It was the greatest career move in the history of entertainment,” David Thomson writes in an entry in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. He’s speaking, of course, of Ronald Reagan:

He was a hugely successful and evasive president, as blind to disaster, inquiry, and humiliation as he was to the Constitution. And he was as lucky as he had been a loser in pictures…To paraphrase Gore Vidal, the wisdom and integrity of someone told where to stand and what to say for twenty years were made manifest. The fraudulence of the presidency was revealed so that the office could never quite be honored again.

When I look at these lines now, especially that last sentence, they can start to seem rather quaint. But Reagan has a lot to tell us about Trump, and not simply because he looks so much better by comparison. “An actor is playing the president,” Paul Slansky lamented in The Clothes Have No Emperor, a book—with its painstaking chronology of the unlikely events of the Reagan Administration—that looks increasingly funny, resonant, and frightening these days. Yet the presidency has always been something of a performance. As Malcolm Gladwell recently noted to The Undefeated, most presidents have been white men of a certain age and height:

Viewed statistically it’s absurd. Why would you limit your search for the most important job in the land to this tiny group of people? But it’s an incredibly common thing. We do a category selection before we do individual analysis.

In other words, we cast men who look the part, and then we judge them by how well they fulfill our idea of the role.

Reagan, like Trump, was unusually prone to improvising, or, in Thomson’s words, “deftly feeding the lines and situations of Warner Brothers in the 1940s back into world affairs.” Occasionally, he would tell a story to put himself in a favorable light, as when he made the peculiar claim—to Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal, no less—that he had personally shot documentary film of the concentration camps after World War II. (In reality, Reagan spent the war in Hollywood, where he assisted in processing footage taken by others in Europe.) But sometimes his reasons were harder to pin down. On December 12, 1983, Reagan told a story in a speech to the annual convention of the Congressional Medal Honor Society:

A B‑17 was coming back across the channel from a raid over Europe, badly shot up by anti‑aircraft; the ball turret that hung underneath the belly of the plane had taken a hit. The young ball‑turret gunner was wounded, and they couldn’t get him out of the turret there while flying. But over the channel, the plane began to lose altitude, and the commander had to order, “Bail out.” And as the men started to leave the plane, the last one to leave—the boy, understandably, knowing he was being left behind to go down with the plane, cried out in terror—the last man to leave the plane saw the commander sit down on the floor. He took the boy’s hand and said, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” Congressional Medal of honor posthumously awarded.

Reagan recounted this story on numerous other occasions. But as Lars-Erik Nelson, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News, subsequently determined, after checking hundreds of Medal of Honor citations from World War II: “It didn’t happen. It’s a Reagan story…The president of the United States went before an audience of three hundred real Congressional Medal of Honor winners and told them about a make‑believe Medal of Honor winner.”

There’s no doubt that Reagan, who often grew visibly moved as he recounted this story, believed that it was true, and it has even been used as a case study in the creation of false memories. Nelson traced it back to a scene in the 1944 movie Wing and a Prayer, as well as to a similar apocryphal item that appeared that year in Reader’s Digest. (The same story, incidentally, later became the basis for an episode of Amazing Stories, “The Mission,” starring Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland and directed by Steven Spielberg. Tony Kushner once claimed that Spielberg’s movies “are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism,” and this is the most compelling point I’ve seen in that argument’s favor.) But the most Trumpian aspect of the entire incident was the response of Reagan’s staff. As the Washington Post reported a few days later:

A determined White House is searching the records of American servicemen awarded the Medal of Honor in an effort to authenticate a disputed World War II story President Reagan told last week at a ceremony honoring recipients of the medal…The White House then began checking records to document the episode. Reagan is said by aides to be certain that he saw the citation exactly as he recounted it. The citations are summarized in a book published by Congress, but none of these summaries seem to fit precisely the episode Reagan described, although some are similar…The White House is now attempting to look beyond the summaries to more detailed accounts to see if one of the episodes may be the one Reagan mentioned. “We will find it,” said Misty Church, a researcher for the White House.

They never did. And the image of White House staffers frantically trying to justify something that the president said off the cuff certainly seems familiar today.

But what strikes me the most about this story is that Reagan himself had nothing to gain from it. Most of Trump’s fabrications are designed to make him look better, more successful, or more impressive than he actually is, while Reagan’s fable is rooted in a sentimental ideal of heroism itself. (It’s hard to even imagine a version of this story that Trump might have told, since the most admirable figure in it winds up dead. As Trump might say, he likes pilots who weren’t shot down.) Which isn’t to say that Reagan’s mythologizing isn’t problematic in itself, as Nelson pointed out:

[It’s] the difference between a make-believe pilot, dying nobly and needlessly to comfort a wounded boy, and the real-life pilots, bombardiers and navigators who struggled to save their planes, their crews and themselves and died trying. It’s the difference between war and a war story.

And while this might seem preferable to Trump’s approach, which avoids any talk of sacrifice in favor of scenarios in which everybody wins, or we stick other people with the cost of our actions, it still closes off higher levels of thought in favor of an appeal to emotion. Reagan was an infinitely more capable actor than Trump, and he was much easier to love, which shouldn’t blind us to what they have in common. They were both winging it. And the most characteristic remark to come out of the whole affair is how Larry Speakes, the White House spokesman under Reagan, responded when asked if the account was accurate: “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.”

The Berenstain Barrier

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If you’ve spent any time online in the last few years, there’s a decent chance that you’ve come across some version of what I like to call the Berenstain Bears enigma. It’s based on the fact that a sizable number of readers who recall this book series from childhood remember the name of its titular family as “Berenstein,” when in reality, as a glance at any of the covers will reveal, it’s “Berenstain.” As far as mass instances of misremembering are concerned, this isn’t particularly surprising, and certainly less bewildering than the Mandela effect, or the similar confusion surrounding a nonexistent movie named Shazam. But enough people have been perplexed by it to inspire speculation that these false memories may be the result of an errant time traveler, à la Asimov’s The End of Eternity, or an event in which some of us crossed over from an alternate universe in which the “Berenstein” spelling was correct. (If the theory had emerged a few decades earlier, Robert Anton Wilson might have devoted a page or two to it in Cosmic Trigger.) Even if we explain it as an understandable, if widespread, mistake, it stands as a reminder of how an assumption absorbed in childhood remains far more powerful than a falsehood learned later on. If we discover that we’ve been mispronouncing, say, “Steve Buscemi” for all this time, we aren’t likely to take it as evidence that we’ve ended up in another dimension, but the further back you go, the more ingrained such impressions become. It’s hard to unlearn something that we’ve believed since we were children—which indicates how difficult it can be to discard the more insidious beliefs that some of us are taught from the cradle.

But if the Berenstain Bears enigma has proven to be unusually persistent, I suspect that it’s because many of us really are remembering different versions of this franchise, even if we believe that we aren’t. (You could almost take it as a version of Hilary Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment, which asks if the word “water” means the same thing to us and to the inhabitants of an otherwise identical planet covered with a similar but different liquid.) As I’ve recently discovered while reading the books aloud to my daughter, the characters originally created by Stan and Jan Berenstain have gone through at least six distinct incarnations, and your understanding of what this series “is” largely depends on when you initially encountered it. The earliest books, like The Bike Lesson or The Bears’ Vacation, were funny rhymed stories in the Beginner Book style in which Papa Bear injures himself in various ways while trying to teach Small Bear a lesson. They were followed by moody, impressionistic works like Bears in the Night and The Spooky Old Tree, in which the younger bears venture out alone into the dark and return safely home after a succession of evocative set pieces. Then came big educational books like The Bears’ Almanac and The Bears’ Nature Guide, my own favorites growing up, which dispensed scientific facts in an inviting, oversized format. There was a brief detour through stories like The Berenstain Bears and the Missing Dinosaur Bone, which returned to the Beginner Book format but lacked the casually violent gags of the earlier installments. Next came perhaps the most famous period, with dozens of books like Trouble With Money and Too Much TV, all written, for the first time, in prose, and ending with a tidy, if secular, moral. Finally, and jarringly, there was an abrupt swerve into Christianity, with titles like God Loves You and The Berenstain Bears Go to Sunday School.

To some extent, you can chalk this up to the noise—and sometimes the degeneration—that afflicts any series that lasts for half a century. Incremental changes can lead to radical shifts in style and tone, and they only become obvious over time. (Peanuts is the classic example, but you can even see it in the likes of Dennis the Menace and The Family Circus, both of which were startlingly funny and beautifully drawn in their early years.) Fashions in publishing can drive an author’s choices, which accounts for the ups and downs of many a long career. And the bears only found Jesus after Mike Berenstain took over the franchise after the deaths of his parents. Yet many critics don’t bother making these distinctions, and the ones who hate the Berenstain Bears books seem to associate them entirely with the Trouble With Money period. In 2005, for instance, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post wrote:

The larger questions about the popularity of the Berenstain Bears are more troubling: Is this what we really want from children’s books in the first place, a world filled with scares and neuroses and problems to be toughed out and solved? And if it is, aren’t the Berenstain Bears simply teaching to the test, providing a lesson to be spit back, rather than one lived and understood and embraced? Where is the warmth, the spirit of discovery and imagination in Bear Country? Stan Berenstain taught a million lessons to children, but subtlety and plain old joy weren’t among them.

Similarly, after Jan Berenstain died, Hanna Rosin of Slate said: “As any right-thinking mother will agree, good riddance. Among my set of mothers the series is known mostly as the one that makes us dread the bedtime routine the most.”

Which only tells me that neither Farhi or Rosin ever saw The Spooky Old Tree, which is a minor masterpiece—quirky, atmospheric, gorgeously rendered, and utterly without any lesson. It’s a book that I look forward to reading with my daughter. And while it may seem strange to dwell so much on these bears, it gets at a larger point about the pitfalls in judging any body of work by looking at a random sampling. I think that Peanuts is one of the great artistic achievements of the twentieth century, but it would be hard to convince anyone who was only familiar with its last two decades. You can see the same thing happening with The Simpsons, a series with six perfect seasons that threaten to be overwhelmed by the mediocre decades that are crowding the rest out of syndication. And the transformations of the Berenstain Bears are nothing compared to those of Robert A. Heinlein, whose career somehow encompassed Beyond This Horizon, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and I Will Fear No Evil. Yet there are also risks in drawing conclusions from the entirety of an artist’s output. In his biography of Anthony Burgess, Roger Lewis notes that he has read through all of Burgess’s work, and he asks parenthetically: “And how many have done that—except me?” He’s got a point. Trying to internalize everything, especially over a short period of time, can provide as false a picture as any subset of the whole, and it can result in a pattern that not even the author or the most devoted fan would recognize. Whether or not we’re from different universes, my idea of Bear Country isn’t the same as yours. That’s true of any artist’s work, and it hints at the problem at the root of all criticism: What do we talk about when we talk about the Berenstain Bears?

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