A Month of Writers, Day Fifteen: David Louis Edelman

I have a funny story about meeting David Louis Edelman. Before I met him, I interviewed him for my AOL site, as he did his first round of interview for his then newly-released (and eventually Campbell Award-nominated) book Infoquake, and as a matter of course was sent both an image of the book and a picture of David. A short time later, I was on my way to the Readercon convention in Boston, and my flight itinerary had me making a connecting flight at Dulles International, outside DC. As I’m waiting to make my connecting flight, the guy sitting a couple seats down from me looks vaguely familiar, and I can’t quite place him. But I look at what he’s reading — a China Mieville book — and figure he’s got to be going to Readercon, because China was the guest of honor that year. And then it hits me — hey, I just interviewed that dude. It was one of those small world things.

Before I could say anything to David, he notices that I’m looking at his book, and starts a conversation with me… and it’s clear he has no clue who I am. And because, you know, I’m a jerk, we have a whole conversation without me telling him who I am, because I want to see how he’ll react when he finally figures it out (his reaction: vague embarrassment at the time; now he just berates me for having been a bit of a dick, which I accept and celebrate. Hey, I already said I was a jerk). In any event, it was an amusing way to have met.

David writes a number of long think pieces on his blog, on a more than irregular basis; his Month of Writers contribution is a prime example of this, and looks at what a popular series of films tells us about our national psyche. And it’s not even a science fiction or fantasy series — at least, not in the ways we usually define them.

DAVID LOUIS EDELMAN: The Bourne Paranoia

Here are a few things that every American knows.

  • The world is a vile and dangerous place.
  • America is blindly and irrationally hated by just about everybody outside of our borders.
  • If we left our security up to the peaceniks, bureaucrats, and Boy Scouts we elect to national office, the United States would be a smoldering ruin in a matter of months.
  • Therefore it’s necessary that we fund a zillion intelligence agencies and black ops teams who routinely conduct secret assassinations in the name of defending our country.
  • Nevertheless, despite our massive economic and military power, the United States is drastically outnumbered and constantly on the verge of apocalypse.

imageAt least, these are the assumptions behind just about every spy thriller ever made. Now I find myself wondering: When the hell did these assumptions become so ingrained in our psyche? When did we blithely start accepting this worldview? Who says the United States should behave this way — and, for that matter, when did we all decide that the United States actually does behave this way? What the fuck happened to my country?

These assumptions are also the ones that underline 2002’s The Bourne Identity. It’s a nice little popcorn flick with a plot so familiar you can slip into it like an old bathrobe. Matt Damon plays Matt Damon, playing a CIA-funded black ops assassin who has a change of heart because the agency has Gone Too Far. Now after a bout of amnesia, he finds himself on the run from the very organization that funded him. Car chases and dead bodies ensue. Spoiler alert: the heroic Matt Damon gets the girl, and the villainous Chris Cooper gets shot in the head. (Oh, and FYI, there are more spoilers below.)

And then someone had the inspired idea of hiring Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, United 93) to take over the franchise. To call The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum better films than their predecessor is kind of like calling a fine aged pinot grigio better than a Zima. They’re among the most intelligent, well-crafted, thoughtful thrillers about American paranoia that I’ve ever seen. (And holy crap, did you realize Matt Damon could act?)

Suddenly our protagonist is no longer just a youthful maverick spy fleeing across Europe with a spunky German chick in tow. Jason Bourne is not so much a character in Supremacy and Ultimatum as he is a manifestation of the American subconscious. He’s an unstoppable force who never tires, who never gives up, who can never be killed. Imagine a cross between Batman and Patrick Henry who knows how to kill people with a plastic pen.

Richard Corliss clearly noticed the transformation in his Time magazine review of The Bourne Ultimatum:

That’s the secret of this character, and Bond and John McClane and all the other action-movie studs. They are a projection of American power — or a memory of it, and the poignant wish it could somehow return. In real life, as a nation these days, we can achieve next to nothing. But in the Bourne movies just one of us, grim, muscular and photogenic, can take on all villains, all at once, and leave them outwitted, dead, disgraced. That’s a macho fantasy of the highest, purest, most lunatic order.

Corliss is on to something here, but I think he’s got it exactly backwards. Jason Bourne isn’t just an action stud in the James Bond mold; Bourne is, in fact, a calculated response to James Bond, or more than that, he’s the anti-James Bond. James Bond on the Bizarro planet. Is it an accident that Jason Bourne and James Bond have the same initials? (Well, actually it probably is. But you’d have to ask Robert Ludlum, who created the character, and he’s dead. But apparently Greengrass didn’t read the Ludlum novels anyway.)

James Bond uses an assortment of high-tech gadgets helpfully provided to him by the British government. Sleek guns, high-tech cars, gizmos that are notable mainly for the way they’re camouflaged inside ordinary objects. Over the years, Bond has used:

  • A remote-controlled BMW with rocket launcher
  • A tricked-out surfboard with a hidden compartment for guns and explosives
  • A ballpoint pen grenade
  • A wristwatch with a built-in laser cutter
  • An escape pod concealed in a ski jacket

Jason Bourne, by contrast, uses such glamorous weapons as:

  • A cheap rotating fan
  • A rolled-up newspaper
  • Laundry pulled from a clothesline
  • A beat-up Cooper Mini
  • A plastic pen
  • A hardback book

But even more interesting than the contrast of weapons is the contrast of attitudes towards government. James Bond is, in many ways, a manifestation of how the British would like to see themselves: debonair and worldly; as technologically adept as the Americans, without sacrificing class and gentility; dangerous when crossed. In the world of James Bond, the British government might be stodgy, but its heart is in the right place.

imageJason Bourne, on the other hand, is a maverick who was once broken by his own government and is now on the run from it. In the world of Jason Bourne, the United States government is composed of equal parts corrupt slimeball and impotent douchebag, with a small contingent of do-gooders skulking around the fringes.

We can discuss Great Britain and James Bond another day. As for America: how did we get to this point? When did we get to the point that the assumptions outlined at the top of this article became commonplace?

I imagine it began in the aftermath of World War II as we ramped up to fight the Communists in their quest for world domination. It was fertilized by the suspicious assassination of John F. Kennedy, watered by Nixon’s dirty tricks in Watergate, nurtured by Reagan’s Iran/Contra hijinks, and ripened by George W. Bush’s global war on terror. And no, it wasn’t just the province of Republican administrations; Johnson was as manipulative a son-of-a-bitch as they come, Clinton did very little to stop or reverse the trend, and Carter played right into the paranoids’ hands by letting a bunch of religious maniacs hold Americans hostage in Iran without consequence.

The end result is that we the people don’t believe in the United States anymore.

Oh, sure, we believe in the people of the United States. We believe that our neighbors here in this country are largely honest, decent, hard-working citizens. But all the things the United States is supposed to stand for — the idea that free and open societies work better than closed ones, the idea that we can work out our differences through courts and legislation, the idea that we should live by principles of law and reason rather than mere tribalism — we don’t have faith in those things anymore. The courts are rigged against us, the government is laced with corruption and undue lobbying influence, the police are either too hampered by bureaucracy or too brutal and bloodthirsty to trust.

No, we need maverick heroes like Jason Bourne (and John McClane, and James Bond, and Indiana Jones, and Batman, and Jack Bauer, and every character that Arnold Schwarzenegger ever played) who can skirt the law, who can actually break the law when they deem fit and not be held accountable for their actions because we know they’re really good, just, honorable people acting in our best interests. And every situation we face is a 24 situation. Al Qaeda has agents infiltrating your living room, they’re going to blow up the Sears Tower at any minute, there’s a ticking bomb about to go off! What, you want to trust the police at a time like this? You want to follow stupid laws hammered out by some ignorant yahoos in Washington who spend all their time in bed with lobbyists? Are you crazy? We’ve got to do anything we can to prevent this! Law and order be damned, we’ve got to act now now now!

It would be one thing if this was just the exaggerated attitude of the movies. But it’s not.

When a handful of jihadist fanatics murdered three thousand people in 2001, we didn’t trust that we could resolve this through the international cooperation of law enforcement agencies. No, we needed to lash out, we needed to send a disproportionate response, we needed to punish those states who were sympathetic to our enemies. Osama bin Laden isn’t just some robed lunatic with a gun in a cave; he’s evil incarnate. He’s Adolf Hitler! And when you’re facing Adolf Hitler, you can’t resort to ordinary tactics. Extremism in the defense of liberty tain’t no vice.

When Barack Obama recently suggested that even bin Laden should be given due process and his day in court, the nation scoffed. Due process? Man, due process doesn’t work! If we capture that son-of-a-bitch, we need to string him up but good. If you put him in a courtroom with F. Lee Bailey as his attorney, he’ll argue his way out of a conviction and be walking by sundown! Nope, only a secret military trial and execution will do.

(It’s the same mentality that’s at work with the Bush Administration’s runaround of the FISA limits on wiretapping. This just astounds me. FISA allows secret, anonymous, unaccountable intelligence agents to stretch the bounds of the Constitution by conducting wiretaps on U.S. citizens simply by getting rubber-stamp permission from a secret, anonymous, unaccountable judge — and the Bush Administration doesn’t think that’s enough?)

imageI just don’t believe this paranoid worldview is sustainable. And director Paul Greengrass doesn’t either. Like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart or Irving’s Headless Horseman, these things come back to haunt us. And for Greengrass, in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, that Headless Horseman is Jason Bourne.

Notice the look of fear in the eyes of the various intelligence impresarios that Bourne runs across (played ably by Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, Joan Allen, and David Straitharn). Bourne isn’t just a renegade spy; he’s the twitch of conscience that you feel in the middle of the night, he’s the thing that haunts you after you’ve just violated international law in the name of the United States of America. Soil the Constitution, and Jason Bourne will get you.

Interestingly enough, the manifestation of the American subconscious isn’t a bloodthirsty killer. Time and again in these films, we’re subjected to the image of Bourne approaching a target with gun in hand, only to turn away at the last moment and not shoot. Bruce Willis’s John McClane gives a cheerful “Yippeekayay, motherfucker” before he kills; James Bond’s whole signature move is to turn towards the camera, strike a pose, and fire a gun until cartoony blood flows over the lens. I haven’t seen all of the Bond films, but from what I remember every single villain meets some kind of nasty demise in the end. I can think of at least six distinct scenes in the Bourne films where the hero has the villain in his sights, unarmed, gun in hand, and he fails to pull the trigger.

But if Damon’s character isn’t a killer at heart, he isn’t a do-gooder either. He’s not on a righteous crusade to bring America back to lily-white purity. In fact, he’s almost completely self-absorbed; he doesn’t particularly seem to care about America or the government or international law. Sure, he cares for the various mousy white women who get into trouble because of him, but only insomuch as they intersect his path and get in trouble on his behalf.

All of this culminates in what is, to me, one of the most stunning, jaw-dropping, unforgettable scenes in the past decade of film. At the end of Supremacy, Jason Bourne drops in on the teenaged daughter of two of his early assassination targets. And he apologizes.

There’s something incredibly primal about the scene. Bourne is exhausted, gruff, half in shadow; he seems immense alongside the poor girl, who mistakes him at first for a burglar. But Bourne quickly calms her down. He tells her that, contrary to what she’s been told, her parents didn’t die in a murder/suicide. They were gunned down by him, on assignment from the CIA. “It changes things, that knowledge, doesn’t it?” says Bourne. The terrified girl nods. And then Bourne gets up, mumbles “I’m sorry,” and walks out of the room.

It reminded me of that grass-roots campaign that went around the web in the wake of John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 presidential elections. Remember that? It featured thousands of Americans taking pictures of themselves holding up signs for the world to read expressing how sorry we are that we couldn’t stop George W. Bush from taking office for another four years. (Update 10/4/07: The name of the campaign was “Sorry Everybody,” and you can see the photos at www.sorryeverybody.com.)

When does the American paranoia end? And who will stand up and apologize once it’s over?

(Original entry, with comments, here)

73 thoughts on “A Month of Writers, Day Fifteen: David Louis Edelman

  1. What Scalzi kindly fails to mention about the story of me meeting him is that I thought I was so incredibly cool because some anonymous guy in the airport recognized me. I’m thinking: Wow, my book’s only been out for two weeks and already I’m a celebrity in the SF community! I rock!

    And I should point out vis-a-vis Scalzi’s contention of being a jerk that anyone who uses his fantastically popular blog to help promote so many other writers can’t be that much of a jerk.

  2. This may only highlight my own obtuseness, but I’m not completely clear what the point of Mr. Edelman’s post is. (BTW, I liked Infoquake a lot).

    On the one hand it troubles me greatly. We fund a gazzillion intelligence agencies to the tune of god-knows how much money, and we don’t have one single Jason Bourne who could slip into a cave and quietly dispatch Osama with a shoelace and disappear into the night? How useless are these agencies?

    On the other hand, I’m slightly encouraged. Mr. Edelman voices my concerns re: Bush/FISA more concisely than I’ve seen it explained anywhere else. But think about this. If our intelligence agencies were as all-pervasive, evil, and competent as we’re led to believe, they’d be blithely ignoring FISA and listening to whatever they wanted to and we wouldn’t know a thing about it.

  3. As for America: how did we get to this point?

    Well we can certainly bound the problem between 1980 when the book was published and became a bestseller and 2002 when the movie was released.

    In the book, “Bourne “was not running from the government and the government was not his enemy. And Bourne was not his name.

    In fact, “Bourne” continued to work for American intelligence through the Supremacy and Ultimatum books where he confronted a number of America’s enemies.

    So, I guess, one could say somewhere between 1980 and 2002.

  4. Well, there is international spying, and since the US is a major player on other international fronts, it ends up involved in the spy game also. But I agree that there are about 1000 times as many spy novels/films as there are actual stories of the actual spies. I rarely see these, because the few I have seen were all the same and that gets very tiring. That many people like them doesn’t say anything bad about the country. It says a lot more about how easily entertained some people are.

  5. The America that Mr. Edelman appears to think we’ve abandoned never existed. We’ve had:

    Alien and Sedition Acts,
    Aaron Burr,
    The slavery compromises,
    The engineering of the Mexican War,
    Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus,
    Credit Mobilier,
    The Andrew Johnson impeachment,
    Radical Reconstruction and Redemption,
    Woodrow Wilson’s manipulation of the US into the First World War,
    The Committee on Public Information, and…well, you name your favorite Federal scandal or skullduggery.

    The more thing change, the more they stay the same.

  6. The original Ludlum books are disappointingly dated to the period they were written in, the films are much better. As much as it pains me to say it.

    And has anyone noticed how he (Ludlum) is awfully prolific for a dead guy?

  7. America is blindly and irrationally hated by just about everybody outside of our borders.

    If we’re hated so badly, why do we have an illegal immigration problem? Why do we have to have lotteries and other mechanisms to keep immigrants out of the US?

    I might check out Infoquake, but the Bourne movies? Doubt it.

  8. Remember the Rambo movies? That was similar. In real-life, we lost the Vietnam war, so we turned to movie fantasies in which one American kicks all sorts of Asian butt. Well, most Americans seem to prefer fantasy to reality – witness that religion is STILL wildly popular and widely respected, even after 9/11 and after Bush’s admission (or boast?) that ‘God’ told him to invade Iraq. Well, I can enjoy fantasy fiction, too, but I have no trouble distinguishing it from reality. I’m not so sure about most of my compatriots.

  9. Sergeant E

    I generally agree with you, but I have to disagree on one point: the speed at which they happened. IIRC the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in the late 1700’s and the Committee on Public Information was 1917. Everything between those happened over almost 100 years. I could make a list just as long of the things that have happened in the last 10 that are just as bad.

    So while I agree with you that the America we’d like to exist and the America that does exist are two different things, the rate at which we are circling the drain is definitely increasing.

  10. Remember the Rambo movies? That was similar. In real-life, we lost the Vietnam war, so we turned to movie fantasies in which one American kicks all sorts of Asian butt.

    My personal favorite Rambo movie is when he teams up with the people who eventually became the Taliban. It’s a shame we didn’t have one with him heroically fighting alongside Saddam Hussein against the Iranian menace.

  11. I notice that DLE hasn’t yet discussed Bond and the British, so here’s my 2p worth (or, actually, 2d worth, for reasons I will explain):

    Bond is, fundamentally, a nostalgic character – both in the books and in the films. Even in the 1950s, Bond was part of the New Elizabethan idea – that Britain was still a great power, still innovative, still daring, despite the damage that the war had done. Fleming was in Naval Intelligence during the war, and Bond’s lethal toys – and the character himself – are straight out of Gubbins’ workshop at SOE. Bond roams the world, taking on the Soviet Empire face to face wherever (In “Tomorrow Never Dies”, the Fleet is ordered to sail east to a showdown with China. Could there be a more anachronistic image in a film made in the 21st century?)

    But, at the same time as Fleming was sitting in Jamaica dreaming of empire, two other writers were putting together much more modern worlds – for the officers, John Le Carre; for the Other Ranks, Len Deighton. Both of them have a much more modern British outlook. The politicians are largely shallow and venal. The top brass are following their own agendas; many of them are traitors. The services are underfunded, and the moral lines blurred…

  12. I’m a criminal prosecutor, just to explain my mindset. The action adventure I want to see is where after the climactic battle, it looks like the villain is about to be shot, maybe he even welcomes it as more fitting his dignity than any lesser fate….

    And the hero slaps the cuffs on him, and says, “You’re under arrest.”

    He could even say, “You’re under arrest, motherfucker,” just to maintain his edgy, maverick character. Also, it could be after a moment of obvious temptation – the villain deserves to die, probably painfully – but the hero steps back from the abyss. Cue triumphant music, as street cops lead the villain away and the hero staggers over to his concerned partner who thought he was going to lose it.

    I haven’t been to a lot of movies lately – is there a recent one out there that ends something like that? Am I channeling something I’ve forgotten I’ve seen?

  13. 10: “So while I agree with you that the America we’d like to exist and the America that does exist are two different things, the rate at which we are circling the drain is definitely increasing.”

    Can we agree:

    More people + bigger government = the absolute number of things that can happen is bigger, and

    More and better media = the relative number of things that can surface at a national level has almost literally exponentially increased?

    If we can agree on those two things, then can we not further agree that the level of apparently drain circling problems we see today may not be higher per capita or coming more quickly, just that there are more of them in absolute terms and we hear about a lot more of them?

  14. 13: “I haven’t been to a lot of movies lately – is there a recent one out there that ends something like that? Am I channeling something I’ve forgotten I’ve seen?”

    Not that I’m aware of, but I think we have to take into account what the moviegoing public thinks is aesthetically pleasing, thus what they’ll pay for, thus what gets filmed. A little anecdote to illustrate the point:

    Among the Marines I served with in the Eighties, it was a running joke that every Hawaii Five-0 episode that ended with McGarret ordering Danno to “book ’em” should have ended, “Fuck ’em up, Danno.” Now Marines are arguably more bloodthirsty than the average American (though I wouldn’t make that argument), but most US moviegoers want to see a stepped-on bad guy body when the credits roll.

  15. And you could make an even longer list of bad things (indeed, worse things) that happened just during FDR’s watch. Executive Order 9066 wasn’t rescinded until 1976. Y’all do know that one of the Alien and Sedition Acts is still in effect after 209 years? Of the four A&S Acts, two had built-in sunsets, and one was repealed in 1802, but one remains. You can find the Alien Enemies Act at 50 U.S.C. § 21-24. I still haven’t seen anyone with any weight pushing to renew the Sedition Act of 1918.

    Sgt E’s point is a good one. Despite the government oozing in to all the new cracks exposed by technology, it’s the nibbling of ducks compared to the historical record. What scares us isn’t the actual events so much as the potentials they expose.

    I’d go so far as to say that the memory of the bad we’ve historically seen is the very thing that cues up the hyperbole and hysteria on what we see today. Not that we shouldn’t keep a real close eye on it, but for all the panic and paranoia, we’ve seen worse in the history of this country. Much worse.

  16. Neil

    The original Ludlum books are disappointingly dated to the period they were written in, the films are much better. As much as it pains me to say it.

    I completely disagree. The Bourne Identity is a deliciously complex plot with a great number of twists and fakes. The goal to take down Carlos the Jackal is not dated in the least. Plot-wise, it is much more satisfying than the movies.

    Having said that, the movies are terrific. They just have little in common with the books. For all of those fans of the book The Bourne Identity, the only real cinematic option is very satisfying (for the time and it’s fidelity to the book) mini-series of the same name that starred Richard Chamberlin as David Webb (aka Jason Bourne) and that lovely Angel of Charlie’s Jaclyn Smith as Marie St Jacques

    WCG says:

    Well, most Americans seem to prefer fantasy to reality

    Um, the reality is the US never lost a battle with the NVA ever.

    And after the Tet offensive, the NVA were defeated as an effective military force.

    Josh Jasper

    My personal favorite Rambo movie is when he teams up with the people who eventually became the Taliban.

    Not every Afghan fighting the Soviets were Taliban sympathizers. For four years after the Soviets left Afghanistan, there was a pitched battle between the various tribes and the Taliban for control of the country. Ultimately the Taliban won, but not all tribes were defeated. Some continued the fight right up until 2001. It was these tribes that formed the core of Army that eventually ousted the Taliban from power; with the help of the CIA, Army A-Teams, and a whole lot of air power.

  17. Nathan @ 2, Sergeant E @ 6, and Cassie @ 8: What I’m mostly concerned about is the perceptions of (large amounts of) the American people, and how far they diverge from the reality. Perception: America’s teetering on the brink of destruction from Islamic terrorism. Reality: Yeah, Islamic terrorism is a real problem, but a creaky and deteriorating health care system is going to do a better job killing Americans than Osama bin Laden ever could.

    The problem is that these perceptions have a nasty way of becoming realities when people cast their ballots based on these perceptions. And Hollywood has a nasty way of perpetuating these sensationalistic perceptions. And so the circle continues…

  18. Sergeant E said:

    I think we have to take into account what the moviegoing public thinks is aesthetically pleasing, thus what they’ll pay for, thus what gets filmed.

    So, after a couple decades of Hollywood challenging Middle America in every other area of traditional morality or sensibility, this is the one social boundary Big Entertainment won’t push? Law enforcement officers who obey the law?

  19. Sgt. E,

    Yes, you’re right that the increase in people and government is responsible for a substantial increase in government skullduggery.

    The ability to communicate may be more to blame than the media for the remaining part. I think that even if there was a constant stream of governmental malfeasance, the rate at which it was able to happen was limited by government’s ability to communicate with itself. So even if the media was capturing 100% of the neferiousness in the 1800’s (which they probably weren’t), the government was still limited by the speed of communication, and so the rate at which things could happen was slower.

    I think the reason the rate at which government corruption has increased is not entirely due to increased exposure of evil being a SOP for government (via the media) though I grant that more evil is definitely being exposed. More importantly, the potential for evil — and the follow-through — is much easier now that we have lightspeed communication all over the world.

  20. 18: “The problem is that these perceptions have a nasty way of becoming realities when people cast their ballots based on these perceptions. And Hollywood has a nasty way of perpetuating these sensationalistic perceptions. And so the circle continues…”

    People cast their ballots based on the perceptions communicated in the Philadelphia and New York scandal sheets that dogged the Washington and Jefferson administrations. They cast their ballots under the influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They cast ballots and ultimately went to war under the influence of Hearst newspapers. They cast ballots after reading The Jungle.

    I’m really having trouble seeing the problem. The American media have always manufacture reality out of perception and boiled down reality into packaged perception.

  21. Huh. I always though the movies were just about Matt Damon kicking ass and taking names. I enjoyed the first two, but felt no great need to do more than scratch the shiny, shiny surface.

  22. 20: “So, after a couple decades of Hollywood challenging Middle America in every other area of traditional morality or sensibility, this is the one social boundary Big Entertainment won’t push? Law enforcement officers who obey the law?”

    The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Dragnet…even Eddie Mars had to be gunned down by his own boys, not the law.

    The cop as avenger is really just another facet of the new cinema — it was never a challenge to the public that a cop might do his job, the challenge was that a cop could become the apotheosis of society’s disgust with itself, wreak havoc on perceived evildoers, and get away with it.

  23. John,

    International Justice is an aberration which only comes into play when the the fighting is over.

    For a personal level metaphor, one should not concern oneself with filing papers for a suit alleging assault and battery while the person or persons such a suit would name is still in the process of trying to beat your face into a pulp. At least those who’d like to survive the situation should not.

    The larger world of sovereign states and the relations between them bears a much closer relationship to a schoolyard without adult supervision than it does to high tea at the Raffles. Demonstrated strength and the demonstrated willingness to use it are the only historically reliable deterrents to aggression.

    It’s now pretty clear that engaging in a conventional war against the United States will consistently end badly for the nation which engages us. We’re rapidly moving back to better than even odds (Phillipines, Vietnam, Iraq) of a bad outcome for an enemy engaging us in an insurgency type action. Only the new war, the war of NGO’s via terrorism against the United States, is terra incognito. As such, it behooves us to ensure a positive (for us) outcome in the current affray.

    The war in the shadows has ever been with us (Bourne et al), and ever will be. It is merely seldom publicized and rarely publicized accurately. If you doubt me, go talk to SEAL Team 6 (if they’ll talk to you).

  24. Sergeant E @ 22: I’m really having trouble seeing the problem. The American media have always manufacture reality out of perception and boiled down reality into packaged perception.

    You’re exactly right. I’m not saying this is anything new. Doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t point out the problems where they occur and do what we can about them.

  25. David @ #26

    It sounds like what you and Sgt. E are talking about is the result of an enormous simulacra the likes of which Baudrillard would be proud. If that’s the case though, doesn’t that just mean that even if we try to stop it, the simulacra will be able to absorb whatever we do?

    What’s the escape then?

  26. 26: “You’re exactly right. I’m not saying this is anything new. Doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t point out the problems where they occur and do what we can about them.”

    Fair enough, but my opinion still is that it’s just the movies, and recent films are no more reflective or formative of reality than Little Caesar or <Dirty Harry.

  27. G @ 27: Do I have to actually have a solution? I like it better when I can just raise a problem and then skedaddle out of there to let everyone else fight it out.

    Sergeant E @ 28: Probably true. I’m sure the Dirty Harry films have had much, much more of an impact on society than the Bourne flicks.

    Oh, and btw, thanks all for the great back-and-forth. Makes me both jealous that my blog doesn’t have the kind of audience that Scalzi’s has, and thankful that I don’t have to keep up with this many comments. :-)

  28. When does the American paranoia end?

    When people get over themselves, realize that losing an election isn’t the end of the world even if it’s really really close, and stop believing everything some clown in a building in Manhattan tells them.

    Starting with the list of “things every American knows.”

  29. David Louis Edelman @29 Do I have to actually have a solution?

    Yes. You’re a science fiction writer. As such, you’re expected to be in possession of The Truth, and have all the answers. ;)

    That goes for you too, Scalzi!

  30. David @ 29

    Yes you are! I want my science fiction to be full of sunshine and rosepetals, and to make me feel so warm and fuzzy about the future that I’ll start farting bunnies.

    /end sarcasm

    I don’t really think there is an answer, if Baudrillard is right (big if) then the simulacra is like the most evil jar of Pringles ever — once you pop…

  31. At the risk of getting jumped on, I think you guys may be giving Hollywood a little too much credit for purposely pushing social boundaries. Certainly Participant Productions has that as a stated goal for their films. There are actors who certainly look for scripts that fit the mold (George Clooney, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon come to mind.) That having been said, I can tell you without any doubt that Paramount, Warner Bros., and the other majors couldn’t give two shits about pushing social boundaries. Pushing the envelope? Yes. Social boundaries? Not so much.

    The typical conversation when the Producers and Director are discussing the picture?

    Producer: You’re gonna have to blow up that train for 30% less money.
    Director: Are you out of your mind? I can’t blow it up properly for what’s in the budget now.

    I won’t argue that there aren’t now and haven’t always been movies that had a social agenda. I just don’t see it occurring in the organized fashion you guys seem to percieve.

  32. David Edelman wrote At least, these are the assumptions behind just about every spy thriller ever made.

    I think this is important: these are assumptions made for the purpose of the story. Any thriller needs a protagonist, an antagonist, and an objective for each of them. The problems arise when people start confusing the assumptions-for-story-purposes with reality.

    Truth be told, I have absolutely no idea how the “average American” views such agencies as the CIA. I know rather more than most about the CIA, thanks to some stuff I’ve read, but I don’t pretend to think I know everything or even a significant fraction thereof. However, what little I do know is enough to ensure that I can’t take movies like the Bourne flicks seriously anymore. The premise is so stupid that I can’t achieve the required suspension of disbelief. Bluntly put, our “intelligence” agencies are not that competent. The Keystone Kops blunders with the various surveillance programs and the legality of same demonstrates that pretty clearly, as does the current kerfuffle about the destroyed videotapes. To make matters worse, most of what people do know about intel agencies and operations has been twice filtered: first by a leaker who usually has an axe to grind, second by a reporter (and often an editor) who has no understanding of the subject and inevitably distorts it out of all recognition. It’s impossible to form a valid opinion on a subject when most of your information on the subject is unreliable.

  33. CJ-in-Weld@13: I haven’t seen a movie, but there’s a Terry Pratchett book that ends exactly like that and is one of my overwhelming favourites. There is absolutely *no* possible doubt the villain of the piece deserved to die. The cop-hero chooses, and chooses when it’s *harder* for him to choose so, to arrest him and fulfill his duty to the law instead.

  34. America has always had a sense of the “lone wolf” who does the right thing outside of or despite the law. In the 1950s and 1960s, a lot of those lone wolf types were shown riding horses and shooting six-guns. Although it does bother me that “official Washington” is shown as incompetent and/or corrupt, distrust of officialdom is an American thing. (How many old-west sheriffs were portrayed as crooks or drunks?)

    In the spy business, either realistic (Le Carre) or fantasy (Fleming) you’re always dealing with the unsavory characters, many of whom are out to get your country. And in reality, there ARE groups who are out to kill as many Americans as possible.

    Al Queda’s reach may exceed its grasp, but killing 3,000 folks literally before lunch is a serious threat. No, said threat does not justify invading Iraq, but it sure as hell justifies invading Afghanistan. The 9/11 attacks killed more Americans then at Pearl Harbor, with the added distinction of targeting civilians vs. combatants.

    Before Al Queda, we had the Soviet Union, which had a stated policy of converting the world to Communism, and a track record of invading countries (Eastern Europe, Korea) to make them Communist.

    These were real threats, and, just like sometimes cops have to go undercover, sometimes the good guys need to do bad things. The choice sometimes isn’t between good and bad, it’s between bad and worse.

  35. “The larger world of sovereign states and the relations between them bears a much closer relationship to a schoolyard without adult supervision than it does to high tea at the Raffles. Demonstrated strength and the demonstrated willingness to use it are the only historically reliable deterrents to aggression.”

    So the solution is to just act like the biggest, meanest bully on the playground and ignore the group of smaller kids that are trying to act like the adults they hope we all will survive to someday grow into?

    For those wondering why Bush’s “post-911” america managed to erode its goodwill so fast, look no further than comments like these.

  36. Rens:

    So the solution is to just act like the biggest, meanest bully on the playground and ignore the group of smaller kids that are trying to act like the adults they hope we all will survive to someday grow into?

    Yeah. Like the bully who rescues and helps Tsunami victims, and earthquake victims and flood victims. Who frees people from tyranny (sometimes ineptly, but it learns) and safeguards the sea lanes for everyone.

    You mean a bully like that?

    For those wondering why Bush’s “post-911? america managed to erode its goodwill so fast, look no further than comments like these.

    You may not have noticed, but Germany and France have changed governments and moved towards America, not the other way around.

  37. Frank : Not every Afghan fighting the Soviets were Taliban sympathizers. For four years after the Soviets left Afghanistan, there was a pitched battle between the various tribes and the Taliban for control of the country. Ultimately the Taliban won, but not all tribes were defeated. Some continued the fight right up until 2001. It was these tribes that formed the core of Army that eventually ousted the Taliban from power; with the help of the CIA, Army A-Teams, and a whole lot of air power.

    Well, clearly Rambo was on the good guy side, right?

    PS. Ousted the Taliban from power? Ousted from the seats of power, perhaps. they still control swathes of Afghanistan. And they reintroduced the opium trade, backing out of all of the deals we crafted with them to halt it. More liberal news sources are reporting that we’re essentially loosing Afghanistan. I’m not sure how much credence to give it, but it’s being floated as an analysis.

    For quite a while, we thought of them as allies. Just like Saddam. So in the media, and by our president at the time, they were portrayed as brave allies worth fighting with to defeat the communist menace. Which was sort of my point. But by all means, please continue to cheer lead for the USA.

  38. Rens: So the solution is to just act like the biggest, meanest bully on the playground and ignore the group of smaller kids that are trying to act like the adults they hope we all will survive to someday grow into?

    No. The solution is to lay down a simple rule: “Treat us fair, and we’ll treat you fair. Attack us, and we’ll grind you into dogmeat.” (The Marines put this a slightly different way, but the spirit is the same: “The United States Marine Corps: No better friend, no worse enemy.”) And then stick to it. We and our Allies did exactly that to Germany and Japan in 1939-45, and neither one has ever threatened the peace again. We failed to do it to various terrorist groups in the 1980s and 1990s, and atrocities such as 9/11 and the African embassy bombings were the result. We did do it to Saddam, and he’ll never break the peace again, unless you believe in reincarnation. We’re trying to do it to the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan too, and if the surrendercrats will just shut up and get out of the way, we’ll succeed there too.

  39. Gimme the old Bourne. Asian scholar living on the edge of Vietnam has family murdered by stray plane, becomes the baddest psychopath of all the psychopathic American-run Irregulars in the ‘Nam, gets recruited to go deep-cover as an assassin (though he doesn’t actually do the hits), loses memory and tries to figure out whether or not he’s really an assassin.

    And, for the record, IF the US were to run a nutter as a terrorist to trap terrorists, I’d want them to try and drop him if he stopped making his check-in. The original plot where The Jackal’s people were hunting him made more sense, and was… more ethically realistic and complex.

    As for the movies, I have little to say except, thank goodness they managed to find a way to keep Julia Stiles involved. They were stylistically nice, but fluffy and simplistic.

    I was watching “They Live” the other night. Now there’s a great parable for American class-warfare paranoia that gets right to the heart of the national psyche.

  40. Joah Jasper

    Well, clearly Rambo was on the good guy side, right?

    He must have been or he would have been beheaded for not having a beard.

    Ousted the Taliban from power? Ousted from the seats of power, perhaps. they still control swathes of Afghanistan.

    Actually, we just kicked them out of Musa Qala. This has significance for the overall effort against the Taliban. Ed Morrissey wrote two pieces about this and pointed out in one that as a result the Taliban “have lost fundraising ability, strategic lines of communication, and a much-needed safe haven for their operations against NATO.” and in the other

    “Now that the Taliban has lost its best footing in Helmand, its other forces will find themselves in the crosshairs of the NATO coalition. They still have control in three remote towns in Helmand, but without Musa Qala, those outposts will not last long. The Taliban has to face a decision whether to stand and get annihilated, or retreat back across the border into Pakistan before the coalition finds them — if they can manage the trek at this time of year.”

    I wouldn’t fault you if you hadn’t heard of this significant victory. Victory’s in battle against the enemy are difficult to come by in this day and age.

    This area is also one of the largest sections of opium production supplying the Taliban and al Qaeda with cash. The task remains to help the locals replace that cash crop. But that’s for the Spring. The more immediate need is to keep them from starving during the winter.

    For quite a while, we thought of them as allies. Just like Saddam. So in the media, and by our president at the time, they were portrayed as brave allies worth fighting with to defeat the communist menace.

    Actually, if you read the book Charlie Wilson’s War you’d realize that there are two things wrong with your observation

    First is that we never would admit to helping the Afghans in anyway at the time. We went so far as to buy AK-47s from the Chinese and had them shipped in via Pakistan, by Pakistani’s to assure that not even the Afghans knew we were supplying them. Towards the end, there was a big debate about whether or not we would give them Stingers for this very reason. We had the Israeli’s develop a mule-carried surface-to-air launcher so we could avoid supplying Stingers. In the end, it had to be the Stinger because nothing else was feasible.

    Second, Reagan and the CIA did not see an opportunity to confront the Soviet’s in Afghanistan. They felt it was too direct. Their attention was focused on the Contra’s in El Salvator which was a much more traditional Cold War proxy war. Congressman Wilson wanted something more confrontational: a reverse Vietnam.

    So at the time, the President did not portray the Afghans in the light you suggest for both the reasons listed above

    In lieu of reading Charlie Wilson’s War, you could opt to see the movie. But I can’t vouch for it’s adherence to the book. I’d recommend the book in any case.

    But by all means, please continue to cheer lead for the USA.

    When it’s called for.

  41. What a coincidence (if you believe in those sorts of things) but Victor Davis Hanson has a article on putting events in Iraq into some kind of historical context, and he had this to say:

    “We should remember that long before the WMD controversy, the triggers for American wars have usually been odd affairs, characterized by poor intelligence gathering and inept diplomacy—and thus endless controversy and conspiracy mongering: for example, the so-called Thornton affair that started the Mexican War; the defense and shelling of Fort Sumter; the cry of “Remember the Maine!” that heralded the Spanish-American War; the murky circumstances surrounding the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania that turned public opinion against the Kaiser; the Pearl Harbor debacle; an offhand remark in January 1950 by Secretary of State Dean Acheson that South Korea was outside our “defense perimeter”; the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; and an American diplomat’s apparent signal of unconcern to Saddam Hussein immediately before he invaded Kuwait.”

    Add to that the history of US interventions in just South America:

    http://www2.truman.edu/~marc/resources/interventions.html

    And I would say, we’re still pretty much “Business as Usual” in terms of the government. Every war or major event brings an erosion of liberty.

    As far as the impact al Queda could have. The almost 3000 deaths were but a part of it. Economically it nearly crippled us. A much more ingenious attack against our ports, and malls, could definitely cripple us, partly from direct economic losses, and partly from our reaction to it.

  42. I’ll second @44 Frank’s recommendation to read Charlie Wilson’s War. It’s just more grist for the question that bothers me whenever someone picks up the narrative on either side of politics these days.

    Why does everything have to fit the narrative?

    If cause and effect were so bloody obvious, why do we only see it in hindsight?

    And congratulations to Mr. Edelman. Usually Scalzi has to accuse Ayn Rand of being a commie to get this kind of spirited response.

  43. Keith_Indy @45

    A much more ingenious attack against our ports, and malls, could definitely cripple us, partly from direct economic losses, and partly from our reaction to it.

    Or worse, our schools. Our reaction to that will not be pretty.

    Nor will the reciminations if it occurs

    Brett L

    I’ll second @44 Frank’s recommendation to read Charlie Wilson’s War. It’s just more grist for the question that bothers me whenever someone picks up the narrative on either side of politics these days.

    The book is good for pointing out how unlikely the real events are that have significant impacts on history.

  44. It’s a movie. It’s a movie. It’s a movie based on a novel.

    What if most Americans *can* tell the difference between a movie and real life, what then?????

  45. Why does everything have to fit the narrative?

    Reality has no narrative. Reality has no plot. Reality has no script. Reality is stranger than fiction. Reality ignores all attempts to simplify reality to fit the dogmatic categorical preconceptions of those who require narrative to keep their heads from exploding in cognitive dissonance overload.

    Reality just doesn’t care what we think, because mostly we don’t. :-)

    Usually Scalzi has to accuse Ayn Rand of being a commie to get this kind of spirited response.

    Or just accuse her of not being a god. (“Are you a god?” Say yes, Ray, say yes!)

  46. 33: “At the risk of getting jumped on, I think you guys may be giving Hollywood a little too much credit for purposely pushing social boundaries. Certainly Participant Productions has that as a stated goal for their films. There are actors who certainly look for scripts that fit the mold (George Clooney, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon come to mind.) That having been said, I can tell you without any doubt that Paramount, Warner Bros., and the other majors couldn’t give two shits about pushing social boundaries. Pushing the envelope? Yes. Social boundaries? Not so much.”

    And at that you may be giving Hollywood actors too much credit. The ones you named, and quite a few others, think they’re making some kind of dramatic social statement when all they’re doing is shilling for whatever the latest cause celebre happens to be. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night challenged many Americans’ core sensibilities. Dead Man Walking just challenged America’s patience with one-sided sentimentality about scumbags.

    Having said that, I did like Three Kings. At least they got the attitudes and values of the characters correct, even if the plot was surreal.

  47. 52: “Reality has no narrative. Reality has no plot. Reality has no script. Reality is stranger than fiction. Reality ignores all attempts to simplify reality to fit the dogmatic categorical preconceptions of those who require narrative to keep their heads from exploding in cognitive dissonance overload.

    Reality just doesn’t care what we think, because mostly we don’t. :-)”

    Bing-fvcking-go.

    Perfectly put.

  48. I haven’t seen a movie, but there’s a Terry Pratchett book that ends exactly like that and is one of my overwhelming favourites. There is absolutely *no* possible doubt the villain of the piece deserved to die. The cop-hero chooses, and chooses when it’s *harder* for him to choose so, to arrest him and fulfill his duty to the law instead.

    That would be Night Watch

  49. G @ 55: That it would be. :) As mentioned, one of my favourites, among the Watch who slide just barely into being my favourite setting over the Witches.

  50. BTW, before anybody gets the wrong idea, that’s a criticism of the political will and savvy of the administration to be unable to secure the peace after asking our military to win the war in Iraq, by my count, three times now and ignoring Afghanistan until it becomes a crisis. Our military has done everything we’ve asked them to. It’s the other half of the equation, the current administration, that keeps dropping the ball.

  51. Dead Man Walking just challenged America’s patience with one-sided sentimentality about scumbags.

    I disagree. While I understand the movie was shot through a very liberal lens, I thought it did an excellent job of balancing the rights of the victims with the moral quandry that surrounds the death penalty.

    I still think Sean Penn is a left-wing whack-job, but damn that man can act.

  52. Further on In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Dead Man Walking, I seriously doubt that either of the first two movies challenged a single person’s core sensibilities when they were released. They were much loved by people who were already sympathetic to their messages and ignored or reviled by those who weren’t. Hopefully it won’t be too many years before Dead Man Walking is seen as an influential film that had some part in stopping us from lowering ourselves to scumbag s’ level by executing scumbags.

  53. Bravo. [Sorry – this kind of nonadditive but applauding comment should come earlier in the thread, but I was stuck between Albany and New Haven at that point.]

    I think that, although behind ‘What is Poor?’,* this may be my second-favourite Whatever post. Certainly in the top five. Congrats.

    {* does this comma properly come here, or inside the quotes after the interrogative, or should it be omitted entirely?}

  54. {* does this comma properly come here, or inside the quotes after the interrogative, or should it be omitted entirely?}

    No need to concern yourself, Ewan. Those rules are suspended for the next couple of weeks. Grammar got run over by a reindeer.

    (no, that is not original to me, I stole it.)

  55. Okay, I’m mostly content now to sit back and let you all comment without further interruption from me… but I’ll add my name to the list of people defending Dead Man Walking. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but what I remember was Susan Sarandon persuading Sean Penn to take personal responsibility for his part in a murder, and Sean Penn only being able to do it because of the pressure of his impending execution. I didn’t leave that film feeling like his execution was a mistake at all. In fact, it seemed like the kind of film that both Mike Huckabee and Dennis Kucinich would stand up and applaud.

  56. David Louis Edelman

    I didn’t leave that film feeling like his execution was a mistake at all.

    Yeah, if there was a movie that argued against the death penalty, without doing it directly, it would be The Green Mile

    I mean who in their right mind thought it was right that Coffey was executed?

    And admit it, you cried when he was.

    Go ahead, let it out. It’s safe. We’re all friends here.

    No one will laugh.

  57. There is a film with that sort of ending: [SPOILER] “Black Rain” by Ridley Scott, set in Japan. Michael Douglas finally runs the bad guy to ground (literally) after a motorbike chase and fist fight, and he’s about to force him back on to a sharp stake, when it cuts to him and his Japanese partner, bringing the bad guy into the police station in handcuffs. Everything in the film had led up to the bad guy dying…

  58. To echo a bit of what I’m hearing above…

    Some of the best films I’ve ever seen I disagreed ENTIRELY with the obvious in-your-face-with-a-sledgehammer message, thought the writers, actors, and director were all agendized nutburgers and not an agenda I remotely agreed with…and still watched the film the whole way through with rapt interest simply because the craftsmanship and art was SO DAMN GOOD that I had to watch it.

    When I read a book like that, and read it all the way through, simmering with anger over the BS that’s being propounded, BUT STILL READ THE WHOLE BOOK, then I know I’ve just read a helluva writer. Because if they hadn’t grabbed my attention in the first chapter the book would already have gone in the “maybe someday when I’m reaaaaally bored” pile or the “use for firestarter” pile.

    I don’t look to actors (or pop stars, etc.) to give me social or political messages, as they’re mostly idiots who can’t add up their checkbooks without assistance, much less analyze a budget or a policy proposal. But when they are really good at their craft, I can respect the hell out of them for that even when I think they are otherwise looney-tunes morons.

    Examples are legion. I recall dimly an interview I saw with Truman Capote, where he said much the same thing, namely that some of the finest actors were egotistical idiots who had trouble tying their shoes without assistance. The interviewer mocked Capote’s pronouncement, and scathingly asked “What about Sir Laurence Olivier?”

    To which Capote replied, with a smirk, “Good example!”

  59. @53:

    Eh, I’m willing to give Clooney far more credit than a “cause celbre,” as he did co-write and direct Good Night and Good Luck. Clearly, he felt some passion about the material.

  60. Greetings to John and all from Finland, the land of the fucked up winter (anyone who says there’s no climate change is nuts, because it’s christmas in Finland and there isn’t a single flake of snow in Helsinki. There’s NO SNOW IN HELSINKI! This is crazy! But I digress).

    Hello. I’ve been a lurker here ever since I read OMW, and I’ll probably go right back to being one after this, but I wanted to give you a piece of my mind. The very special piece in question is the one which has to do with how I (and I suspect a significant number of Europeans, though I have little proof to back this up) have come to view the United States.

    I’ve had this view for some time now, but it didn’t really crystallize into actual consciousness until after I came across a certain political joke. It goes like this:

    “The United States doesn’t approve of North Korean nuclear weapons programs. They see them as a threat to world peace.”
    “Exactly! Only the United States is allowed to threaten world peace.”

    Now read that first as if it is entirely a joke. You have a country that regularly threatens world peace complaining of another country about to threaten world peace. And they don’t even seem to notice the inconsistency. It’s funny.

    Next read it as if it were completely true. It’s not funny. It’s scary. I don’t care what you stand for or think you stand for. If you threaten world peace you are doing something wrong. There are always other ways to fix things. They are not easy. But they are there.

    Now finally, read the joke as if it was a philosophical idea.
    1. We live in a dangerous world.
    2. Because we live in a dangerous world, a number of potentially very dangerous countries exist in that world.
    3. A number of those countries really are going to threaten world peace. And as long as #1 is true, this will remain to be so.
    4. The philosophical balance of this world is determined largely by which of those countries are the top dogs.

    Therefore, if there has to be a country that threatens world peace, I am perfectly willing to let the United States be that country. Go right ahead. I know you want to. I will let you do it because you are going to draw most of the fire from those countries which I am genuinely afraid of. Also because of all the power mad countries in the world yours is one I could actually live in. And who knows, America might actually accomplish something positive as a side-effect. There’s just one thing I wish for. Don’t get carried away. Pretty please? “World police” could all too easily turn into “world oppressor”.

    But that’s enough of grim potentialities.

    Merry Christmas to everyone, now I’m going to go watch a good Christmas movie. Like Lord of War. I kid, I kid.

    =)

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