Commentary Magazine


Topic: Zero Dark Thirty

Conservative Fiction and the Culture Wars

Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

Read More

Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

I eventually went into publishing to fight back against people like these. I had seen them coming a long way off and I knew they meant business. They wanted power and were eager to use it. Their approach to fiction was two-sided: use their own stories and novels to advance their revolutionary aims, and prevent others from using that same descriptive and imaginative power for counterrevolutionary ends. It was an American version of what used to be called socialist realism.

Conservative nonfiction has flourished. “The real problem,” Bellow asserts, turning to his right, “isn’t the practical challenge of turning serious books into bestsellers. The real problem is that we may have reached the limit of what facts and reasoned arguments can do. The real problem is that the whole conservative nonfiction enterprise has peaked and reached its limit of effectiveness.”

I recommend reading the whole thing. But while I agree with Andrew Breitbart–who Bellow quotes, and who everyone quotes on this subject–that “Politics is downstream from culture,” and that the prevailing popular culture is far more heavily influenced by liberals than by conservatives, I find myself far more optimistic than Bellow. Perhaps that is because I think there’s a difference between the culture being influenced by liberals and it being influenced by liberalism.

Bellow is right that conservatives should be creative and their creativity supported. But I think it’s worth pointing out that often “liberal” or politically neutral novels reinforce conservative ideas. The same is true of movies and television, though Bellow concentrates on the written word. One of the right’s guilty pleasures is to watch a card-carrying liberal writer or a mainstream Hollywood director or showrunner produce a piece of art intended to grapple with complexity and be verbally assaulted as a warmonger or a traitor by his or her liberal audience. When Kathryn Bigelow directed Zero Dark Thirty, for example, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, she portrayed torture in the movie, and liberals lashed out and branded her an apologist for the methods of interrogation. Bigelow took to the pages of the LA Times to respond, somewhat incredulous:

First of all: I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Bigelow is a “lifelong pacifist” and opponent of anything resembling torture, but she was making a movie about real life, and real life is complex.

But to come back to the written word. This phenomenon is easier to spot in fiction that requires heroism or celebrates law and order. But I think it happens when the subject turns to the culture wars too. In December, Ross Douthat noted a study that found that “having daughters makes parents more likely to be Republican.” In offering his own theory, Douthat referenced the kind of man increasingly enabled by a sexually permissive culture: Nate, the protagonist of Adelle Waldman’s novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Douthat writes about Nate’s propensity to, as Waldman writes, “provoke” the “unhappiness” of the women in his life:

He provokes it by taking advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn’t been abolished, which means women still operate on a shorter time horizon for crucial life choices — marriage, kids — than do men. In this landscape, what Nate wants — sex, and the validation that comes with being wanted — he reliably gets. But what his lovers want, increasingly, as their cohort grows older — a more permanent commitment — he can afford to persistently withhold, feeling guilty but not that guilty about doing so.

His column touched off an interesting back-and-forth with Waldman herself on the topic of whether the situation portrayed in her book’s Brooklyn social circle calls for a more socially conservative ethic, or whether such an ethic would put too much of the responsibility for the personal misery of these women on themselves. But I think it’s worth dwelling for a moment on Nate.

We meet Nate immediately, as the book opens with a scene in which Nate runs into an ex-lover. She is uneasy and hostile to him. We learn that this is because during their brief involvement (this was not a “relationship”–an important point), she became unintentionally pregnant and had an abortion. Nate was emotionally absent, though he paid for the procedure. Nate is a good liberal–we learn early on he’s contemplating an essay on how rich societies even outsource exploitation just to salve their conscience. When he found out this non-girlfriend–Juliet–was pregnant, he:

felt like he had woken up in one of those after-school specials he watched as a kid on Thursday afternoons, whose moral was not to have sex with a girl unless you were ready to raise a child with her. This had always seemed like bullshit. What self-respecting middle-class teenage girl–soon-to-be college student, future affluent young professional, a person who could go on to do anything at all (run a multinational corporation, win a Nobel Prize, get elected first woman president)–what such young woman would decide to have a baby and thus become, in the vacuous, public service announcement jargon of the day, “a statistic”?

Nate realizes this might not be the case now for Juliet though, who is not a teenager but a professional in her thirties. Here is how he rationalizes the possibility she may want a baby:

Maybe she was no longer so optimistic about what fate held in store for her (first woman president, for example, probably seemed unlikely). Maybe she had become pessimistic about men and dating. She might view this as her last chance to become a mother.

Maybe she’s so dejected and desperate that she’ll–gasp!–want a family. You can see how the liberal cultural norms have seeped into Nate. He waits for her to decide: he has accepted the idea of “choice” in full, like a good liberal. This means it’s her choice completely, and he assumes he has no say. “Nate was all for a woman’s right to choose and all the lingo that went with it,” we’re told by way of explanation for why Nate doesn’t feel he can even suggest aborting “the baby or fetus or whatever you wanted to call it.” He doesn’t even know what to call an unborn child! Nate is opinion-less on the matter of human life, and he is so because he thinks this is How To Be A Modern Man.

After the abortion, Nate disappears, because he thinks even having an extended or personal conversation with Juliet–that is, signaling any interest at all–comes with too many strings attached now that they’ve unburdened themselves of the fetusthingamajiggy. But he doesn’t understand what makes him so toxic to these Brooklynite beauties. He’s a good person–he doesn’t even think one should shop at Whole Foods without feeling guilty about capitalist exploitation!

Is Waldman intentionally commenting on the piggish man-child who is the product of a steady cultural liberalism as practiced in the real world? Certainly not. But if you were to write a “conservative” novel, and this novel had a protagonist who was to demonstrate the perpetual adolescent loosed on the world by a yearslong immersion in liberal social values and the unintentional but very real harm he caused, might not that protagonist be Nathaniel P.?

Read Less

Rewriting History on ‘Torture’

Kathryn Bigelow, the Zero Dark Thirty director who has been attacked by senators and anti-war types for her portrayal of how enhanced interrogation helped intelligence officials track down Osama bin Laden, has published a very sharp response to her critics:

On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices. 

Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences. …

Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.

Read More

Kathryn Bigelow, the Zero Dark Thirty director who has been attacked by senators and anti-war types for her portrayal of how enhanced interrogation helped intelligence officials track down Osama bin Laden, has published a very sharp response to her critics:

On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices. 

Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences. …

Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.

From some reason, enhanced interrogation critics hate to admit that opposing these techniques for moral reasons and opposing them because they are ineffective are entirely independent arguments. You don’t see this reaction with other issues. For example, you can criticize Lance Armstrong’s steroid use without needing to claim that doping is ineffective. And people are generally aware that driving over the speed limit is a bad idea, without insisting that it won’t get them to their destination faster. 

But enhanced interrogation opponents get offended whenever it’s pointed out that these tactics contributed to keeping America safe. They’re so intent on ignoring reality that they would prefer Hollywood rewrite history rather than acknowledge the benefits of enhanced interrogation. As Bigelow rightly notes, that historical revisionism is a disservice to the men and women of the CIA who put their lives at risk in the Global War on Terror. They deserve to have their stories portrayed accurately, not airbrushed to fit a political agenda.

Read Less

The CIA’s Big Year on the Big Screen

This past year was a banner year for the CIA on celluloid. Normally the intelligence agency’s operatives are seen in movies as murderous bad guys abusing their power–see for example any of the “Bourne” films or the Denzel Washington flick “Safe House.” This is a theme that dates back to the Church Committee’s revelations of CIA abuses in the 1970s, which prompted paranoid movies like Robert Redford’s “Three Days of the Condor” and Warren Beatty’s “Parallax View.”

But a different–and more truthful–view of the agency’s operations has been presented in 2012′s “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” both of which highlight its triumphs: in the first instance, smuggling six U.S. diplomats out of Tehran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis using a clever ruse of making a science-fiction movie; in the second instance, tracking down Osama bin Laden, making possible the SEAL Team Six raid that ended with his death.

Read More

This past year was a banner year for the CIA on celluloid. Normally the intelligence agency’s operatives are seen in movies as murderous bad guys abusing their power–see for example any of the “Bourne” films or the Denzel Washington flick “Safe House.” This is a theme that dates back to the Church Committee’s revelations of CIA abuses in the 1970s, which prompted paranoid movies like Robert Redford’s “Three Days of the Condor” and Warren Beatty’s “Parallax View.”

But a different–and more truthful–view of the agency’s operations has been presented in 2012′s “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” both of which highlight its triumphs: in the first instance, smuggling six U.S. diplomats out of Tehran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis using a clever ruse of making a science-fiction movie; in the second instance, tracking down Osama bin Laden, making possible the SEAL Team Six raid that ended with his death.

What controversy the movies have aroused has been mainly about the torture scenes depicted at the beginning of “Zero Dark Thirty,” because the movie is hardly out to make even the brutal CIA interrogators out to be bad guys; it is noncommittal in its depiction of them and might even be said to skew the audience’s perspective in their favor by beginning the movie with the sounds of 9/11 to remind viewers of why they are willing to manhandle detainees.

But both films, while focusing on successful operations, also highlight some of the agency’s problems.

Ben Affleck and Jessica Chastain play dedicated, highly effective, if relatively junior, CIA personnel based on real-life models–he a clandestine service operative who specializes in exfiltrations, she an analyst working the Osama bin Laden file. Both are convinced, rightly, that they have figured out the solution to a difficult problem: how to get the diplomats out and how to track down bin Laden, respectively. And both consistently find that they are stymied by their own managers who are risk averse to a fault. Affleck nearly has his plan scuttled while carrying it out; Chastain has to constantly badger and harass her superiors to get them to devote the necessary resources to the manhunt amid many other distractions.

Thus both movies highlight the real problem with the CIA. It is not an agency made up of ruthless killers with goon squads standing by to dispose of troublesome agents, as shown in the “Bourne” movies. It is actually a hyper-cautious bureaucracy that too often fails to take chances because superiors are more motivated by covering their collective derrieres than by getting the job done. Thank goodness there are passionate risk-takers like the ones depicted by Affleck and Chastain who really do work for the Agency. Problem is, top Agency executives need to prune back the bureaucracy to let their stars shine.

Read Less

Dems Launch Investigation into “Pro-Torture” Bin Laden Movie

Strangely enough, Democrats didn’t seem too concerned about the Osama bin Laden raid movie “Zero Dark Thirty” back when Republicans were raising alarms about the potentially classified access the Obama administration granted the film team. But now that the movie has portrayed enhanced interrogation techniques in a favorable light, Senate Democrats are suddenly eager to launch an investigation:

After the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairwoman expressed outrage over scenes that imply “enhanced interrogations” of CIA detainees produced a breakthrough in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the panel has begun a review of contacts between the makers of the film “Zero Dark Thirty” and CIA officials.

Investigators will examine whether the spy agency gave the filmmakers “inappropriate” access to secret material, said a person familiar with the matter. They will also probe whether CIA personnel are responsible for the portrayal of harsh interrogation practices, and in particular the suggestion that they were effective, the person said. …

But the film has also produced a series of awkward political headaches for President Barack Obama. Early on, Obama’s Republican critics suggested it was a gimmick to boost his re-election campaign. But now, some of Obama’s liberal supporters are attacking the film and officials who cooperated with its creators for allegedly promoting the effectiveness of torture.

Read More

Strangely enough, Democrats didn’t seem too concerned about the Osama bin Laden raid movie “Zero Dark Thirty” back when Republicans were raising alarms about the potentially classified access the Obama administration granted the film team. But now that the movie has portrayed enhanced interrogation techniques in a favorable light, Senate Democrats are suddenly eager to launch an investigation:

After the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairwoman expressed outrage over scenes that imply “enhanced interrogations” of CIA detainees produced a breakthrough in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the panel has begun a review of contacts between the makers of the film “Zero Dark Thirty” and CIA officials.

Investigators will examine whether the spy agency gave the filmmakers “inappropriate” access to secret material, said a person familiar with the matter. They will also probe whether CIA personnel are responsible for the portrayal of harsh interrogation practices, and in particular the suggestion that they were effective, the person said. …

But the film has also produced a series of awkward political headaches for President Barack Obama. Early on, Obama’s Republican critics suggested it was a gimmick to boost his re-election campaign. But now, some of Obama’s liberal supporters are attacking the film and officials who cooperated with its creators for allegedly promoting the effectiveness of torture.

Senate Democrats argue that the film’s premise–that enhanced interrogation techniques helped locate bin Laden–is baseless. If that’s the case, why would they suspect the CIA granted the filmmakers access to classified information? If there’s no evidence for the argument that waterboarding worked, then why would CIA access make a difference?

The fact is, we don’t even need classified information to know that enhanced interrogation techniques led to a major breakthrough in the bin Laden hunt. The former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, Jose Rodriguez, has already explained how the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and EITs used on Abu Faraj al-Libbi helped identify bin Laden’s courier, eventually leading intelligence officials to the al-Qaeda leader.

The White House is clearly irritated by the perception that Bush-era “torture” paved the way for its big foreign policy achievement, but it hasn’t provided much of a counterargument. White House officials have only insisted enhanced interrogation techniques didn’t produce the “decisive intelligence” that led us to bin Laden, and claim giving all the credit to waterboarding is “not fair to the scores of people who did this work over many years.” But as much as administration officials try to downplay it, they haven’t been able to deny enhanced interrogation played a role. So it’s ironic that a film the White House went out of its way to support ended up making the case for waterboarding.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.