Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 7, 2007

Godfather of Film

Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) is one of those men who, along with Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, made the modern world—for what is more characteristic of the modern world than motion pictures? For his sequential photographs of leaping horses, made in the 1870’s for California governor Leland Stanford, and his monumental Animal Locomotion (1887), Muybridge is justly regarded as the godfather of the movie. And yet for a generation he has been the victim of sustained academic calumny. Two events this month make clear the extent of this injustice.

The first is the publication of Marta Braun’s Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904), a study of Muybridge’s French counterpart. The subject of a respectful New York Times review, Braun’s book argues that Marey was the true innovator, in contrast to Muybridge, who supposedly manipulated his images to make them more pleasing and to ensure that they reinforced Victorian sexual stereotypes. This is a theme that Braun has been restating since her 1984 article “Muybridge’s Scientific Fictions,” which has become the prevailing scholarly wisdom.

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Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) is one of those men who, along with Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, made the modern world—for what is more characteristic of the modern world than motion pictures? For his sequential photographs of leaping horses, made in the 1870’s for California governor Leland Stanford, and his monumental Animal Locomotion (1887), Muybridge is justly regarded as the godfather of the movie. And yet for a generation he has been the victim of sustained academic calumny. Two events this month make clear the extent of this injustice.

The first is the publication of Marta Braun’s Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904), a study of Muybridge’s French counterpart. The subject of a respectful New York Times review, Braun’s book argues that Marey was the true innovator, in contrast to Muybridge, who supposedly manipulated his images to make them more pleasing and to ensure that they reinforced Victorian sexual stereotypes. This is a theme that Braun has been restating since her 1984 article “Muybridge’s Scientific Fictions,” which has become the prevailing scholarly wisdom.

In that article, Braun made much of the fact that Muybridge photographed women in domestic settings—sweeping, pouring tea, getting out of bed. She implies that Muybridge could see women only as housewives (or objects of sexual fantasy), and that this lessens the value of his work. In truth, it is remarkable how liberated Muybridge’s women are. They are also shown jumping over hurdles, throwing baseballs, leaping over sawhorses—activities conveniently ignored by Braun (and the scholars who cite her, not subjecting her work to the same skepticism that she brought to Muybridge’s). That her interpretation should become the prevailing wisdom, enshrined even at the National Museum of American History, says less about Muybridge than it does about the debunking mood of art scholarship in the mid-80’s, when Braun first emerged on the scene.

For an antidote to this sort of reductive scholarship, one turns with pleasure to Equus Unbound, a small but terrific exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania that highlights the activities of Fairman Rogers, the chief sponsor of Muybridge’s motion study experiments. Rogers was an engineering professor and amateur horseman, whose interest in horses was scientific, aesthetic, and social (he was the author of the celebrated Manual of Coaching). The show makes clear that Muybridge was supported in his pioneering work by some of the nation’s leading engineers, biologists, and physicists. It is a first step in removing a generation’s worth of tarnish from Muybridge’s unfairly besmirched reputation.

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The Sermonizing of the Surgeon General

The U.S. Surgeon General has just released a report bemoaning the evils of teen drinking. Underage drinking can certainly carry with it serious problems, but the tone of this report (and indeed the very fact of it) says more about the peculiar role of the Surgeon General as a national moralizer than it does about teens hitting the bottle.

The post of Surgeon General, created in 1871, originally involved management of the nation’s military hospital system, and then eventually of the Public Health Service. But in 1968, responsibility for running the Public Health Service was handed over to the Assistant Secretary for Health in what was the predecessor to today’s Department of Health and Human Services, where it still resides today. The Surgeon General thereby lost the bulk of his administrative responsibilities and became instead a kind of national spokesman on public health issues.

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The U.S. Surgeon General has just released a report bemoaning the evils of teen drinking. Underage drinking can certainly carry with it serious problems, but the tone of this report (and indeed the very fact of it) says more about the peculiar role of the Surgeon General as a national moralizer than it does about teens hitting the bottle.

The post of Surgeon General, created in 1871, originally involved management of the nation’s military hospital system, and then eventually of the Public Health Service. But in 1968, responsibility for running the Public Health Service was handed over to the Assistant Secretary for Health in what was the predecessor to today’s Department of Health and Human Services, where it still resides today. The Surgeon General thereby lost the bulk of his administrative responsibilities and became instead a kind of national spokesman on public health issues.

With time, and through a long line of Surgeons General, the definition of public health has grown more and more expansive, and the Surgeon General has become a finger-wagging preacher calling on the public to give up unhealthy habits. Last year, the Surgeon General released a report on second-hand smoke—the latest in a long line of reports on tobacco use, which has certainly been the favorite subject of assorted Surgeons General since the 60’s. Also in recent years, the Surgeon General has released a report on the role of culture, race, and ethnicity in mental health, and another on youth violence—neither of them public health issues under any but the broadest definitions.

The tone of these assorted documents makes for a telling case study in the way health has come to take the place of virtue in America’s public vocabulary, so that public health is the only language left in which to speak of vice—an old-fashioned word that once would have been the obvious way to refer to, say, smoking and drinking. The mood of righteous wrath that colors the crusade against smoking (and obesity, and other modern sins) is yet more evidence that health and fitness have become the secular religion of the Left, with the Surgeon General in the role of high priest.

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In the Lost Tomb

Viewing producer James Cameron and director Simcha Jacobovici’s documentary film The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which deals with the alleged discovery of Jesus and his family’s burial crypt in Jerusalem, I found myself more favorably impressed than I thought I would be. I was prepared for something sloppily sensationalistic, partly because of the public-relations hype and partly because some ten years ago Jacobovici made a documentary about the ten lost tribes of Israel, a subject I happen to know something about, that was precisely such a film.

True, there are claims made in The Lost Tomb that might wisely have been toned down a bit, such as the film’s argument that a sarcophagus found in the crypt and not implausibly identified as having belonged to Mary Magdalene proves, à la The Da Vinci Code, that she was Jesus’ wife. Also, although I can understand the logic of putting them in for commercial reasons, I could have done without the dramatic reconstructions of New Testament scenes, which detract from the film’s documentary verisimilitude.

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Viewing producer James Cameron and director Simcha Jacobovici’s documentary film The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which deals with the alleged discovery of Jesus and his family’s burial crypt in Jerusalem, I found myself more favorably impressed than I thought I would be. I was prepared for something sloppily sensationalistic, partly because of the public-relations hype and partly because some ten years ago Jacobovici made a documentary about the ten lost tribes of Israel, a subject I happen to know something about, that was precisely such a film.

True, there are claims made in The Lost Tomb that might wisely have been toned down a bit, such as the film’s argument that a sarcophagus found in the crypt and not implausibly identified as having belonged to Mary Magdalene proves, à la The Da Vinci Code, that she was Jesus’ wife. Also, although I can understand the logic of putting them in for commercial reasons, I could have done without the dramatic reconstructions of New Testament scenes, which detract from the film’s documentary verisimilitude.

But having entered these caveats, I must say that The Lost Tomb is not only professionally done; it also makes a persuasive and not easily refuted case—however much the natural conservatism of the scholarly world may pooh-pooh it—that the burial crypt in question indeed contained the bones (subsequently reburied in an archaeological mass grave and no longer recoverable) of Jesus, his mother, several of his brothers, and, as I have said, Mary Magdalene. This tomb was discovered in the course of construction in southern Jerusalem in 1980 and totally ignored by archaeologists and New Testament scholars.

It has been objected that since all four of the New Testament Gospels, the earliest of which were written scant decades after Jesus’ death, speak of his body’s disappearance from its tomb soon after his crucifixion, it makes no sense that his bones should then have been deposited by his family, at least some members of whom are said to have believed in his ministry, in a crypt whose existence would have been known. This is not a point that The Lost Tomb deals with, but I do not think it is a compelling one.

As The Lost Tomb does point out, Jewish burials in the time of Jesus occurred in two stages: first the body was interred in the ground or in a cave to decompose, and then, usually after a year, the bones were collected, put in a sarcophagus, and deposited in a family crypt. Assuming that Jesus’ body was stolen from its first interment immediately after his death, a likelihood hinted at by the Gospels when they go to the trouble of denying it (you don’t bother to deny what people aren’t saying), it would then have been reburied somewhere else while the story of Jesus’ miraculous resurrection began to spread. But its whereabouts would still have been known to whoever stole it, and it is not inconceivable, once it became accepted in Jerusalem that Jesus’ bones were not in his family’s crypt, that they could have found their way to it secretly.

Would such a scenario, if true, constitute a devastating blow to Christian faith in Jesus’ resurrection? Not being a Christian, I can’t say. It doesn’t seem likely, though. Archaeological evidence that many of the stories in the Hebrew Bible aren’t true has never been a problem for most believing Jews. Believing Christians are presumably as resourceful. Jacobovici’s film made me say “wow!”—but so, to tell the truth, do the Gospels every time I read them. Between one wow and another there’s a lot of wiggle room.

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The Libby Verdict, Take Two

Under what circumstances is it right to lie to federal investigators or to a grand jury? There is only one answer: none. If that is what Scooter Libby did–and it is what a jury of eleven concluded he did by convicting him of four of five counts–then he is guilty as charged. But Libby is still maintaining his innocence. The legal burden now falls on him, not on the government, to show why his conviction should be overturned.

Nevertheless, this case represents a terrible injustice, which was the point of my posting here yesterday that has stirred so much controversy in the comments section. Comparison with the investigation of Bill Clinton, and the perjury charges that were leveled by the House of Representatives when it voted to impeach him, is instructive.

To begin with, both cases featured the familiar phenomenon of runaway special counsels. Although the independent-counsel statute under which Clinton was endlessly investigated and ended in his impeachment has expired, it was a recipe for mischief. By vesting executive authority in a prosecutor not subject to the control of the executive branch, Congress had created a constitutional anomaly, one with unintended and destructive effects that plagued Democratic and Republican administrations alike. True, Fitzgerald’s appointment was the result of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s self-recusal, and he was endowed with a different set of powers from those granted to Kenneth Starr, but he operated every bit like a one-case prosecutor, effectively unchecked by line-authority in the executive branch.

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Under what circumstances is it right to lie to federal investigators or to a grand jury? There is only one answer: none. If that is what Scooter Libby did–and it is what a jury of eleven concluded he did by convicting him of four of five counts–then he is guilty as charged. But Libby is still maintaining his innocence. The legal burden now falls on him, not on the government, to show why his conviction should be overturned.

Nevertheless, this case represents a terrible injustice, which was the point of my posting here yesterday that has stirred so much controversy in the comments section. Comparison with the investigation of Bill Clinton, and the perjury charges that were leveled by the House of Representatives when it voted to impeach him, is instructive.

To begin with, both cases featured the familiar phenomenon of runaway special counsels. Although the independent-counsel statute under which Clinton was endlessly investigated and ended in his impeachment has expired, it was a recipe for mischief. By vesting executive authority in a prosecutor not subject to the control of the executive branch, Congress had created a constitutional anomaly, one with unintended and destructive effects that plagued Democratic and Republican administrations alike. True, Fitzgerald’s appointment was the result of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s self-recusal, and he was endowed with a different set of powers from those granted to Kenneth Starr, but he operated every bit like a one-case prosecutor, effectively unchecked by line-authority in the executive branch.

As it happens, there is no evidence that Kenneth Starr, appointed under the independent-counsel law, behaved improperly in his investigation of Clinton–although, as Richard Posner argued in An Affair of State, he did throw details into his report that gratuitously damaged the President and the presidency. By contrast, there is considerable evidence that Fitzgerald stepped out of bounds, primarily by insisting both to the public and to the jury that the disclosure of Valerie Plame’s identity–the underlying action that he was appointed to investigate–was in fact a crime. This is a point that has never been established, but Fitzgerald’s overreaching on it colored the jury’s thinking about the gravity of the issues at stake, suggested a motive for lying that did not reside in proven facts, and conflicted with the judge’s ruling that the case would not hinge on Plame’s status. All this will undoubtedly form the essence of any appeal.

In retrospect, it is clear that the Clinton case, despite the President’s obviously perjured statements, should not have been permitted to move forward. Indeed, as Posner has also argued, the Supreme Court erred grievously when it ruled in 1997, unanimously, to allow a sitting President to be caught up in civil litigation involving sex.

There is another more ominous point of comparison as well. Though the unfolding Monica story made 1998 a year of endless entertainment, that was also the crucial year in which American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up by al Qaeda, and the year in which Clinton’s ineffectual response–bombing a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and unleashing a fusillade of cruise missiles on an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan–led to authority-sapping charges that he was reenacting a scenario from the 1997 film Wag the Dog.

We obviously cannot know whether the feckless Clinton would have acted more vigorously abroad had he not gone to sleep every night that year thinking about how to escape from the legal consequences of his own tawdry conduct and lies, and been thinking instead about how to protect the country from its enemies. But all of us have paid a price for having a President distracted from his duties by an unbounded investigation of his private life in a year that his Secretary of State came to call “all Monica, all the time,” but should have been all counterterrorism, all the time. The bill for Clinton’s fun and frolic, and for our own, was only to come due on September 11, 2001.

Now, unlike in the 1990’s, we are at war. We do not yet know what the price tag will be for the Libby distraction, just as we do not know if his conviction will be tossed out on appeal or result in a presidential pardon. But in its broadest ramifications, the case, which arose out of an internecine dispute about the quality of foreign intelligence, augurs ill for any President’s ability to gather and evaluate the intelligence provided by subordinate agencies like the CIA, to formulate foreign policy, to defend what it has formulated from bureaucratic warfare waged by such subordinate agencies, and to keep our country secure.

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The Joshua Generation

Though Hillary Clinton’s delivery of a speech in a broad southern dialect at an Alabama church was perhaps the most entertaining moment of last weekend’s political follies, Barack Obama delivered the best speech so far in the 2008 primaries. Kudos to whoever wrote it.

His remarks, delivered at a church in Selma, Alabama, circled around the central idea that he, the 45-year-old son of an African man and a white American woman, whose “blackness” has been questioned by black political leaders, is a modern “Joshua.” Senator Obama cited a letter he received from a well-known preacher that said, “if there’s some folks out there who are questioning whether or not you should run, just tell them to look at the story of Joshua, because you are part of the Joshua generation.”

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Though Hillary Clinton’s delivery of a speech in a broad southern dialect at an Alabama church was perhaps the most entertaining moment of last weekend’s political follies, Barack Obama delivered the best speech so far in the 2008 primaries. Kudos to whoever wrote it.

His remarks, delivered at a church in Selma, Alabama, circled around the central idea that he, the 45-year-old son of an African man and a white American woman, whose “blackness” has been questioned by black political leaders, is a modern “Joshua.” Senator Obama cited a letter he received from a well-known preacher that said, “if there’s some folks out there who are questioning whether or not you should run, just tell them to look at the story of Joshua, because you are part of the Joshua generation.”

In his own words, Obama continued:

I just want to talk a little about Moses and Aaron and Joshua, because we are in the presence today of a lot of Moseses. We are in the presence of giants whose shoulders we stand on, people who battled, not just on behalf of African Americans but on behalf of all America; that battled for America’s soul, that shed blood, that endured taunts and torment and in some cases gave the full measure of their devotion. . . .

I am here because somebody marched. I stand on the shoulders of giants. . . . I thank the Moses generation; but we’ve got to remember, now, that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was, despite all that he did, leading a people out of bondage, he didn’t cross over the river to see the Promised Land. God told him your job is done. You’ll see it. You’ll be at the mountain top, and you can see what I’ve promised. What I’ve promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You will see what I have promised, but you won’t go there.

In one rhetorical swoop, Senator Obama defined a legitimate niche for himself as a black man who does not share the same history as most American blacks, but who has nonetheless been sent to lead them to a political Promised Land. His legitimacy, he suggests, comes from what he can do now, not from his past. Furthermore, he essentially dispatched the brokers of blackness—Al Sharpton and especially Jesse Jackson—who have questioned him, by complimenting them, giving them great thanks, and pointing out that their job is done.

Those Democratic politicians who have spent years cultivating the black political establishment, including Senators Clinton and Edwards, must be thinking very hard about where they fit into this biblical analogy.

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