Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bush's Pyre

There are many concepts, analogies and events Bush evidently doesn't understand, from (as a recent post explored) Vietnam to World War I to a "Pyrrhic victory." But Pyrrhus at least saw the cost of war, and it doesn't take a Cassandra to see that while Bush thinks he's King Leonidas, in truth he's much more like vain Narcissus, petulant Ares, and Wilfred Owen's bloody Abram:

The Parable of the Young Man and the Old
By Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Iraq and Vietnam: Selling the Stab-in-the-Back Myth

(Cartoon by John Sheriffius)

Bush's recent speech comparing Iraq to Vietnam justifiably garnered a great deal of attention. Most commentators tackled one or both of the two glaring issues — how inaccurate Bush's analogy was, and the question of why he made it. Here's the video of the speech and the transcript.

How Wrong was Bush?

Bush's erroneous, outrageous revisionism received the first wave of reaction. Froomkin delivered a great survey of reactions in three columns last week, "The Analogy Quagmire," "Behind Bush's Vietnam Revisionism," and "The Lost Year."

The Los Angeles Times obtained two on-target reactions (highlighted by Froomkin):

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized Bush's speech, saying the president "continues to play the American people for fools."

"The only relevant analogy of Vietnam to Iraq is this: In Iraq, just as we did in Vietnam, we are clinging to a central government that does not and will not enjoy the support of the people," he said. "Unless the president acts on that lesson from history and works toward a federal solution in Iraq, there is no prospect that when we leave, we will leave anything stable behind.

"In fact, the president's policies are pushing us toward another Saigon moment -- with helicopters fleeing the roof of our embassy -- which he says he wants to avoid.

"Al Qaeda in Iraq didn't exist before we invaded. It is a Bush fulfilling prophecy," he added.

Historian Robert Dallek, who has written about the comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, accused Bush of twisting history. "It just boggles my mind, the distortions I feel are perpetrated here by the president," he said in a telephone interview.

"We were in Vietnam for 10 years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives, the second-greatest loss of lives in a foreign conflict. And we couldn't work our will," he said.

"What is Bush suggesting? That we didn't fight hard enough, stay long enough? That's nonsense. It's a distortion," he continued. "We've been in Iraq longer than we fought in World War II. It's a disaster, and this is a political attempt to lay the blame for the disaster on his opponents. But the disaster is the consequence of going in, not getting out."

Senator John Kerry, who actually served in Vietnam, made a statement that received plenty of coverage:

“Invoking the tragedy of Vietnam to defend the failed policy in Iraq is as irresponsible as it is ignorant of the realities of both of those wars,” Senator Kerry said. “Half of the soldiers whose names are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall died after the politicians knew our strategy would not work. The lesson is to change the strategy not just to change the rhetoric. We want democracy in Iraq, but Iraqis must want it as much as we do. Our brave soldiers can’t bring democracy to Iraq if Iraq’s leaders are unable or unwilling themselves to make the compromises that democracy requires. No American soldier should be sacrificed because Iraqi politicians refuse to resolve their sectarian and political differences.

“It is unfortunate that President Bush would want to invoke a false comparison of Vietnam to Iraq, but not surprising that he would oversimplify the differences and overlook the tragic similarities. As in Vietnam, we engaged militarily in Iraq based on official deception. As in Vietnam, more American soldiers are being sent to fight and die in a civil war we can’t stop and an insurgency we can’t bomb into submission. If the President wants to heed the lessons of Vietnam, he should change course and change course now.”

Crooks and Liars has the video of Republican David Gergen's reaction on CNN:

[Bush has] tried all along to say this is not Vietnam. By invoking Vietnam he raised the automatic question, well, if you've learned so much from history, Mr. President, how did you ever get us involved in another quagmire? Why didn't you learn up front about the perils of Vietnam and what we faced there?...

But here's the other point, that if you look at Vietnam today, you have to say that Vietnam at the end, after 30 years, has actually become quite a driving country. It's a very strong economy. So there are those who say, yes, when we pull back there were bloodbaths in the immediate aftermath, but after that the Vietnamese started putting their country together. Is that not what we want Iraq to do over the long term?...

The other issue and why it's dangerous territory for him to go into Vietnam and the Vietnam analogy is reason we lost Vietnam in part was because we had no strategy. And the problem we've got now in Iraq, what is the strategy for victory? If the strategy for victory is let our troops give the Maliki government enough time to get everything solved, and the Maliki government is going nowhere, as everybody now admits, you know, what strategy are we facing? What strategy do we have to win in Iraq? It's not clear we have a winning strategy in Iraq. And that's what cost us Vietnam, and that's why we eventually withdrew under humiliating circumstances."

The White House was proud of this speech, and sent out extensive excerpts in advance. Before its delivery, Josh Marshall (who has a doctorate in American history) observed:

According to advance reports, President Bush will tomorrow invoke the specter of Vietnam in defense of his failed Iraq policy.

But isn't this quite possibly the worst argument for his Iraq policy?

Going forty years on, it is not too much to say that virtually none of the predicted negative repercussions of our departure from Vietnam ever came to pass.

Asia didn't go Communist. Our Asian allies didn't abandon us. Rather, the Vietnamese began to fall out with her Communist allies. With the Cold War over, in strategic terms at least, it's almost hard to remember what the whole fight was about. If anything, the clearest lesson of Vietnam would seem to be that there can be a vast hue and cry about the catastrophic effects of disengagement from a failed policy and it can turn out that none of them are true.

Even more interesting is another argument President Bush is poised to make: namely, that Vietnam is more than just an analogy. He will argue that the terrorist threat we face today is in some measure the result of our withdrawal from Vietnam, as it emboldened the terrorists to attack us.

Rick Perlstein demolished both Bush's Vietnam and Cambodia analogies. Steve Benen examined how, as with Bush's Vietnam analogy, Bush's Korea analogy was accurate, but not in the way Bush intended, how Bush perversely distorted the arguments of the historian he quoted but did not name, and how the Bush administration, for all its rhetoric, may be giving up on the whole democracy thing.

Frank James and Greg Mitchell were among the many who questioned Bush's invocation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American. Hilzoy touched on it in her superlative piece here (and offered a fun counter-analogy contest here), while Digby delved into the depth of Bush's extremity and Driftglass quoted the late Steve Gilliard.

Bush's analogy is all the more remarkable because as many commentators noted and Jon Stewart shows, Bush has vehemently rejected Vietnam comparisons in the past. As historian Allan Lichtman puts it, Bush's speech "is not revisionist history. It is fantasy history." Bush and the movement that supports him learned the wrong lessons from Vietnam and stubbornly insist on repeating its most disastrous mistakes.

Why Did Bush Deliver That Speech?

(Cartoon by conservative Michael Ramirez on 2/19/07, as previously featured in Rightwing Cartoon Watch.)

So Bush's analogies were spectacularly, even offensively wrong as well as dangerous. Why did he make them? I think there are three broad reasons. One is that the Bush administration has rarely truly been challenged on its abuses of reason and rhetoric, and they just don't care. It sounded good at the time, so they went with it. They think they define reality. (The digs against The Quiet American and unnamed reporters were also characteristic anti-intellectualism by Bush.) Another is that they are true believers; they actually think their distorted view of history is the truth. The third reason, related to the previous two, is that Bush is stalling for time, trying to hang his historically disastrous ineptitude and mendacity in Iraq on the Democrats. He is once again seeking to divide the country, save his own ass and that of his party by vilely pushing another Dolchstosslegende, the stab-in-the-back myth. ("And we would have fostered democracy in the Middle East, too, if not for you Defeatocrat kids and your damn hippie dog!")

On L.A. NPR show Left, Right and Center (on Friday, 8/24/07) conservative Tony Blankley suggested that two "myths" existed on Vietnam. Basically, he claimed that liberals view Vietnam's grand lesson as not entering into a quagmire, whereas conservatives view the lesson as, essentially, the stab-in-the-back — America could have "won" if not for liberals and the press eroding public support. Blankley then waggishly suggested that Bush offered his Vietnam analogy because the number of people that believe the stab-in-the-back story (Blankley posited 45% of the country) outnumber those who approve of Bush; Bush did it to raise his poll numbers. I'd love to see actual poll numbers on the matter, but I highly doubt it's anywhere close to 45% (all the readers participating in a Washington Post online discussion with reporter Peter Baker were outraged by Bush's analogy). Meanwhile, Ariana Huffington rightly challenged Blankley for pretending that both narratives were equally valid and there was no objective reality to the Vietnam War.

Regardless of the actual numbers, conservatives do exist who believe, or at least promote, exactly this sort of revisionism (and apparently have never seen The Fog of War). This attitude is already on display for the 2008 presidential race. Consider Rudy Giuliani's recent piece in Foreign Affairs magazine (mentioned in the Digby post above). Almost certainly ghost-written, the piece is unvarnished Norman Podhoretz, Giuliani's foreign policy advisor, one of the fathers (literally) of the neocon movement, and one of several neocons insisting we must now bomb Iran. Giuliani/Podhoretz urges:

America must remember one of the lessons of the Vietnam War. Then, as now, we fought a war with the wrong strategy for several years. And then, as now, we corrected course and began to show real progress. Many historians today believe that by about 1972 we and our South Vietnamese partners had succeeded in defeating the Vietcong insurgency and in setting South Vietnam on a path to political self-sufficiency. But America then withdrew its support, allowing the communist North to conquer the South. The consequences were dire, and not only in Vietnam: numerous deaths in places such as the killing fields of Cambodia, a newly energized and expansionist Soviet Union, and a weaker America. The consequences of abandoning Iraq would be worse.

This is of course, completely wrong in almost every respect, with the Cambodia charge particularly outrageous. Podhoretz almost certainly believes it, and Giuliani at least believes it will sell. (Giuliani has also outdone himself in demonizing his opponents with more abusive rhetoric.) But it's not just Podhoretz, Giuliani and Bush. After Bush delivered his speech, Digby exclaimed:

Holy shit. I didn't hear the whole speech, just read the excerpts and the saw the cable coverage. Bush didn't really evoke The Quiet American did he? Setting aside the fact that he almost assuredly hasn't read it, unless he's admitting that the US involvement in Iraq was a dangerously naive and arrogant undertaking, it wouldn't exactly bolster his case.

Who's writing his speeches these days, Jonah Goldberg?

Prescient, as always! While Goldberg didn't write the speech himself, he heartily approved:

The mainstream media and a lot of liberal-leaning analysts seem to think it's politically foolish or reckless for Bush to compare Vietnam to Iraq because they have one very specific narrative in mind when it comes to that war: America shouldn't have gotten in, couldn't have won, and then lost. What they have long failed to grasp is that's not the moral of the story in the hearts of millions of Americans who believe that we could have won if wanted to and it was a disaster for American prestige and honor that we lost (whether we should have gone in is a murkier question for many, I think). This is a point the Democrats fail to grasp: being on the side of surrender in a war is popular enough during the war, but if you succeed lots of Americans will later get buyer's remorse and feel like it was a mistake and the next generation will see things very differently than their anti-war activist parents. Karl Rove made this point in his exit-interview with Gigot, I think, and he's right. Pulling out of Vietnam was an enormous short term victory for the Democrats and a long term curse.

Leaving aside that it was two Republican presidents, Nixon and Ford, who oversaw our withdraw from Vietnam, Goldberg is expertly debunked by Barbara O'Brien (Maha):

I agree with Goldberg that there are “millions of Americans who believe that we could have won if wanted to and it was a disaster for American prestige and honor that we lost.” In a nation of more than 300 million you can find several million people who believe just about anything. However, I doubt that remorse over what happened to southeast Asians flickered through all that many wingnut hearts. It was, as Goldberg said, all about “prestige and honor”…

He fails to understand that millions of Americans in the early 1970s wanted us to stay in Vietnam, and these are the millions who kept alive the “we could have won had we stayed” notion. It wasn’t “buyer’s remorse,” because minds didn’t change. Somewhere in America there may be a handful of people who opposed the Vietnam war at the time but came to regret ending it, but I’ve never met such a person. The hawks, on the other hand, nursed their bitterness and shame, stubbornly refusing to notice that leaving Vietnam had no bad effects on the United States. Which, IMO, amounted to big honking empirical proof that what happened to South Vietnam was not a vital interest of the United States, and we shouldn’t have sent troops there to begin with.

What Really Happened in America is that once we were out of Vietnam the whole nation dropped the subject like a hot potato.

The stab-in-the back myth holds infinite appeal for conservatives. As Digby and others have observed, conservatives believe that conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed. That's why so many Bush backers such as Goldberg, Peggy Noonan and many neocons have since tried to claim, ridiculously, that monumental failure George W. Bush isn't a "true" conservative (as I've discussed elsewhere, while he's not a Goldwater or fiscal conservative, he's absolutely a conservative, merely a far right authoritarian one). Similarly, conservatives believe that conservative policies cannot fail, they can only be failed. The stab-in-the-back plays perfectly into this. Add to this the traditional conservative addiction for demonizing someone, an evil Other, whether it be foul communists, nefarious terrorists, or those America-hating liberals. Consider the traditional conservative outlook that the poor are poor because of a lack of character (it's their fault), while the rich and powerful deserve their station without question. All of it amounts to a mindset that is profoundly unreflective and opposed to introspection, that always finds fault with someone or something else. (The religious faith of authoritarian conservatives also dovetails with this.) The conservative conceit is that the Republican party believes in personal responsibility, and while this may be true of some of the rank and file, for at least 40 years it hasn't been true of most big Republican players. Blaming others for their own faults is one of their defining characteristics.

Why is all this important? Because these people will never stop. The current administration and their backers are the Nixon and Reagan gang all over again (literally, in some cases). Even the less revisionist conservatives seem haunted by Vietnam and driven in dangerous directions by it. During the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush remarkably exclaimed, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all." The current crew and their intellectual brethren on the right wing blogs clamor for reductive thinking. This black and white, we're good-they're bad, simplistic mindset leads to bad policies and disastrous decisions. In her fantastic post "The Power of (Right Wing) Myth," Barbara O'Brien examines the right wing hunger for reducing every conflict to simplistic caricatures of Churchill, Chamberlain, and Hitler:

In the rightie mind, any attempt to avoid war is “appeasement.” In his new book A Tragic Legacy, Glenn Greenwald writes (p. 177) that when Ronald Reagan signed the INF treaty with the Soviet Union in 1988, rightie editorialists everywhere evoked Neville Chamberlain and accused Reagan of “appeasement.” Earlier, in 1984, Newt Gingrich scorned Reagan’s rapprochement with Gorbachev as “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolph Hitler met with Chamberlain in 1938 at Munich.”

Got that? All “enemies” are Hitler (whatever you think of Gorbachev, he’s hardly Hitler). So much as meeting with “enemies” is Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich. So how do we deal with nations whose interests don’t harmonize with ours? Rightie mythos leaves us with no option but war.

Poor reasoning leads to poor policy. The stab-in-the-back myth in particular is not merely more political bullshit to deploy after the latest screw-up that inevitably comes with a corrupt, inept administration. The Vietnam edition of the stab-in-the-back myth significantly contributed to our invasion of Iraq in the first place.

Infallible Imperialism

The Boston Globe provides a nice, quick overview on Vietnam revisionism, foreign policy and the Bushies, and highlights statements from Dick Cheney and neocon and bomb-Iran advocate Joshua Muravchik (a member of the far right American Enterprise Institute (AEI)). Meanwhile, "An Unfinished War," chapter one of George Packer's excellent book The Assassin's Gate, focuses on the neocons and the formation of their worldview. One of the key players Packer profiles is Robert Kagan, co-founder of the infamous Project for a New American Century with William Kristol, his frequent collaborator and co-author. (Frederick Kagan, Robert's brother, also works at AEI and has been publicly credited as the author of Bush's current "surge" strategy in Iraq.) Packer describes Robert Kagan's sense of history:

The son of a Yale professor of Greek history, Kagan is about the same age as I, but we learned the opposite lesson from the historical moment of our early years. After Vietnam, I (and everyone I knew) feared American overreach; Kagan (and the new generation of conservatives) feared American drift. "When I was in college in the late seventies, I remember all of us thinking that those hippie antiwar guys who came before us were a little ridiculous," Kagan said when we met in Washington in early 2004. "That somehow wasn't the way to be. I came of age really after Vietnam. The seventies were my formative experience in the broadest sense, because then it was all — at least as far as I saw — American weakness, leading to these catastrophes: Iran, Afghanistan, Nicaragua. Just the weakness and the embarrassment of Jimmy Carter."


Kagan might be more sophisticated than Goldberg or Podhoretz/Giuliani (or Ron Dreher), but he shares the same basic outlook:

The end of the Cold War, he argued, was precisely the moment not to withdraw but to extend. America shouldn't mourn the loss of balance of power but instead use its unrivaled power all around the world to pursue its interests and its values — which almost always go together. No corner of the earth is too distant or obscure to be allowed to fester dangerously or be deprived of the benevolent effects of American hegemony, namely democracy and a stable peace. Seeking to revive the spirit of Reagan, Kagan reached farther back to Theodore Roosevelt and "the idea that the American people should take a hand in shaping mankind's destiny, that playing such a role accords honor, and that the right to such honor must be earned." For Kagan, the extension of democracy around the world was as much about America's national destiny as it was about doing good things for unhappy people in foreign countries. The values might be universal, but only one country could secure them. Kagan was expressing a kind of nationalism, not so different in ambition from the British nationalism of Kipling's white man's burden (without the racial baggage), the French mission civilisatrice (without the religious baggage) and the antique Pax Romana (without an actual empire).

The strain of national messianism is as alien to the hard-boiled realism of Nixon, Kissinger and the first Bush as it is to the Wilsonian utopianism of liberals who believe in international law. Though they supported many of the same interventions in the nineties, Kagan dismissed these liberals as "a shrinking camp of internationalists with nothing but airy 'humanitarianism' on their side." Unlike them, he was a nationalist, and he had no faith that the Clinton administration would carry out the call to greatness. "The present generation of Democratic leaders simply does not have the stomach for world leadership," Kagan wrote. The only hope lay in the Republicans. His mission was to purge the party of realism and restore the higher aims of the great ex-president who was disappearing into the sunset of senescence out on the coast.

[pp. 20-21]

At its heart, this is an imperialist mindset, however nobly intentioned — but then, Alden Pyle embodies that in The Quiet American. Glenn Greenwald has examined how widespread and accepted imperialism is in the "serious" foreign policy community. However, the neocon version is often even more militant, bloodthirsty and callous. Johann Hari, on the National Review cruise, interviewed Norman Podhoretz, who delivered (emphasis mine):

…the standard-issue Wolfowitz line about how, after September 11, the United States had to introduce democracy to the Middle East in order to change the political culture that produced the mass murderers. For somebody who declares democracy to be his goal, he is remarkably blasé about the fact that 80 percent of Iraqis want U.S. troops to leave their country, according to the latest polls. "I don't much care," he says, batting the question away. He goes on to insist that "nobody was tortured in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo" and that Bush is "a hero." He is, like most people on this cruise, certain the administration will attack Iran.

"I keep telling people we are in World War Four," Podhoretz declares. He fumes at Buckley, George Will, and the other apostate conservatives who refuse to see sense. He again declares victory. And for a moment, here in the Mexican breeze, it is as though, thousands of miles away, Baghdad is not bleeding.

(Digby delves into Podhoretz in more depth here.) Podhoretz' aggressive denial of reality is bad enough, but this is essentially the Vietnam-era attitude "We had to destroy the village in order to save it" (touched on by Hilzoy here, as linked previously above). This is the mindset that cares little for the actual wishes of the "liberated," but obsesses that they should show gratitude. Bush in particular has been consistently fixated on this, and was frustrated and mystified last year when his clearly-deserved accolades did not pour in:

"President Bush made clear in a private meeting this week that he was concerned about the lack of progress in Iraq and frustrated that the new Iraqi government -- and the Iraqi people -- had not shown greater public support for the American mission, participants in the meeting said Tuesday. . . .

"[T]he president expressed frustration that Iraqis had not come to appreciate the sacrifices the United States had made in Iraq, and was puzzled as to how a recent anti-American rally in support of Hezbollah in Baghdad could draw such a large crowd."

That's one large, tough bubble he's in. How can he not understand why he and America are so disliked, or learning of it, not make an effort to understand it? Bush's imperialist attitude and personal, arrogant narcissism coheres perfectly with the stab-in-the-back myth — every setback is someone else failing him, someone else's mistake. Currently, blaming Maliki and the relatively powerless Iraqi government is the fashion. If only those ungrateful Iraqis would get their act together, everything would be fine. Just as previously, in his mind, the intelligence officers Bush's administration browbeat, misrepresented and ignored failed him, the state department he rebuffed failed him, the generals failed him, the press failed him, and those damn Democrats failed him, somehow even when they were out of power and Bush and his gang called every shot exactly as they wanted. But Bush believes, or wants to believe, that history will not fail him, for he has been Righteous. How dangerous is it when people with such power believe they can do no wrong? How dreadful is it when they view Vietnam not as a cautionary tale, but a battle that must be re-fought?

Prior to invading Iraq, the neocons and other key players in the Bush administration — Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush himself — did have minor differences in focus. Regime change in Iraq was probably most ardently pushed by Wolfowitz prior to 9/11. However, all of them shared a hawkish if not pugnacious approach. And as many commentators have noted over time, almost all of them lacked any type of military service. Almost all of them subscribed to some version of Vietnam revisionism, at least to the degree that they fervently believed they could do things better and wanted the chance to prove it. They thought they were smarter than even Kennedy and Johnson's "best and brightest"; they were infallible. As isolated crackpots they could do little real harm, but now they were systematically spread throughout the government. As Packer writes:

..After the disputed election, when the younger Bush's national security team began to take shape, one found sprinkled throughout the government the names of neoconservatives who knew one another from years in and out of power, and whose ideas for the post-Cold War world had come into focus in the nineties: Wolfowitz, Feith, Wurmser, Shulsky, Stephen Cambone, and others at the Pentagon; Wolfowitz's former aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, John Hannah, and William J. Lutti in Vice President Cheney's office; Stephen Hadly, Elliott Abrams, and Zalmay Khalilzad on the National Security Council; John Bolton at State; Perle, Kenneth Adelman, and R. James Woolsey on the advisory Defense Policy Board. Their patron was Cheney and the new secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was a hard-edged old Cold Warrior, an aggressive nationalist. Cheney, Rumsfeld's protégé, colleague, and pal through several administrations, came from the same stock.

[pp. 37-38]

The superb Frontline episode "The Dark Side" focuses on how this simpatico group worked their will across departments. Packer continues:

Many of these officials had served at the middle levels under Reagan, embracing his hawkish idealism. The fall of communism and the emergence of the United States as the world's only superpower had given them a sense of historical victory. They had spent the nineties watching the first Bush administration return to narrow realism and the Clinton administration founder from crisis to crisis, squandering Reagan's triumph. They had made their long march through the think tanks and policy journals, honing their ideas and perfecting their attacks. Now they were coming back to power as insurgents, scornful of the entrenched bureaucracy, the more cautious moderates of their own party (including the new secretary of state, Colin Powell), and the tired, defeated Democrats. They were supremely confidant; all they needed was a mission.

[p. 38]

A conflict Bush rarely invokes is World War I, where many of the major players were eager for war and had absolutely no idea what they were entering. Carrying the shame of Vietnam and the hubris of WWI and countless other conflicts, the Bush administration eagerly, viciously fought against all wise counsel, common sense and empirical data to create the worst foreign policy blunder in American history.

So far.

Where to Now?

Santayana's famous line is that "those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." To the extent that they have studied history, the Bush administration has learned the wrong lessons, defaced and re-written the books, attacked the librarians and other patrons, and burned down the library. Bush, Cheney and others in the administration are so hostile to reason and closed to persuasion it's hard to know where to start. However, debunking bullshit, promoting honest discussion and limiting their power all seem wise.

Debunking bullshit is one of the things the liberal blogosphere does best, and with this Bush speech more historians and journalists spoke out (if not enough, and not always forcefully enough). It's important to get the "first draft" of history right, as well as the second, third and any subsequent drafts. ( Rick Perlstein's fine compilation post "Bright, Shining Lies" is specifically designed to help debunk Bush's Vietnam revisionism.)

The Bush administration has rarely presented the situation in Iraq honestly or with any complexity. In that void, it's all the more important to inject candor and maturity into the national discourse, as Barbara O'Brien does here:

Vietnam and Iraq are similar in that they present the same paradox — that victory could equal defeat. By that I mean using enough military force to utterly crush the warring factions would amount to throwing away our political objectives. The operative phrase, I believe, is “Pyrrhic victory.” To those who continue to complain that we could have “won” in Vietnam, and could still “win” in Iraq, I say, of course. But this isn’t a game. Get over childish ideas about “victory” and “defeat” and see the bigger picture, for once.

Instead of talking about winning and losing, we should clearly understand what our objectives are in Iraq and then consider how those objectives might be achieved. Military “victory” and “defeat” are abstractions that don’t apply to the reality.

Lastly, everything that can be done to constrain the power of the Bush administration must be done. In February, Dan Froomkin penned "How the press can prevent another Iraq," all the more relevant given "The president's escalating war rhetoric on Iran," as noted by Glenn Greenwald and many others. As James Fallows wrote (also in February), "War with Iran would be a catastrophe that would make us look back fondly on the minor inconvenience of being bogged down in Iraq." Congress has been disappointing in not restraining Bush, specifically on Iran, but they must be pushed to do so, because the stakes are very high and Bush and his administration just do not learn. Anyone who looks at Vietnam, then Iraq, and still says, "I want some more of that — let's double-down in Iran," is a madman and not fit to govern.

(Cartoon by Mike Lukovich)

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Hurricane Katrina's Second Anniversary

This great graphic is from Louisiana blogger Suspect Device. (Thanks to Blue Gal for the tip.)

The Washington Post has an interactive multimedia section that shows past and current photos of the areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. They also report:

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 29 -- President Bush marked a moment of silence Wednesday morning for the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and extolled what he called the federal government's "strong commitment" to rebuild the battered city.

Predicting that "better days are ahead" for New Orleans, he said in a speech at a charter school that his administration is "still paying attention" to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, and he pledged that work would be completed by 2011 on improving storm and flood protection infrastructure to a 100-year level.

But the president's appearance here -- his 15th visit to the Gulf Coast since Katrina slammed ashore on Aug. 29, 2005, and killed more than 1,600 people -- was greeted with skepticism by many residents still angry over what they view as the Bush administration's incompetent response to the disaster.

Hmm, ya think? Bush will make a few speeches, but he's hands-off and inept as usual.

NPR has been superb following up on Katrina and the plight of its victims throughout the past two years. They have a three-minute audio slideshow and a page compiling a dozen or so recent stories.

Digby's "Unforgivable" is a wrenching piece on Katrina, and "What Me Worry?" recaps how Bush and his administration astoundingly ignored multiple urgent alarms two years ago today. Meanwhile, Rick Perlstein skewers revisionism on FEMA's response in "Katrina: the "federalist pause"" and examines Haley Barbour's shady conduct in "Katrina: Haley's Come-on." I think the most apt term is "disaster profiteering," and one that Barbour, Bush, Rove and many conservatives, including several think tanks, should be tagged with often. Digby has several great posts on Katrina at Hullabaloo and both she and Rick Perlstein have been writing a great deal on the subject at The Big Con. Scroll through and check out those late August posts. (I'm sure there are many more good pieces out there as well.)

Finally, here’s a video summing things up well in two minutes by Anne Thompson of the Campaign for America's Future. And no, conservatives still haven't discovered compassion. Sadly, like the devastated Gulf Coast, some things just haven't changed.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Unnatural Death in a Non-Existent Country


Last week, in contrast to George Bush's latest forays into fantasy, two radio interviews drove home the reality that is Iraq.

"Iraq doesn't exist anymore."

Nir Rosen has long been one of the most insightful journalists reporting on Iraq. On Tuesday,8/21/07, he was interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! You can read and listen to the interview here (Democracy Now! is free but welcomes donations). Here's two key sections:

NIR ROSEN: Iraq has been changed irrevocably, I think. I don’t think Iraq even -- you can say it exists anymore. There has been a very effective, systematic ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad, of Shias --from areas that are now mostly Shia. But the Sunnis especially have been a target, as have mixed families like the one we just saw. With a name like Omar, he’s distinctly Sunni -- it’s a very Sunni name. You can be executed for having the name Omar alone. And Baghdad is now firmly in the hands of sectarian Shiite militias, and they’re never going to let it go.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of Senator Levin calling for the Maliki and the whole government to disband?

NIR ROSEN: Well, it’s stupid for several reasons. First of all, the Iraqi government doesn’t matter. It has no power. And it doesn’t matter who you put in there. He’s not going to have any power. Baghdad doesn’t really matter, except for Baghdad. Baghdad used to be the most important city in Iraq, and whoever controlled Baghdad controlled Iraq. These days, you have a collection of city states: Mosul, Basra, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Irbil, Sulaymaniyah. Each one is virtually independent, and they have their own warlords and their own militias. And what happens in Baghdad makes no difference. So that’s the first point.

Second of all, who can he put in instead? What does he think he’s going to put in? Allawi or some secular candidate? There was a democratic election, and the majority of Iraqis selected the sectarian Shiite group Dawa, Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution, the Sadr Movement. These are movements that are popular among the majority of Shias, who are the majority of Iraq. So it doesn’t matter who you put in there. And people in the Green Zone have never had any power. Americans, whether in the government or journalists, have been focused on the Green Zone from the beginning of the war, and it’s never really mattered. It’s been who has power on the street, the various different militias, depending on where you are -- Sunni, Shia, tribal, religious, criminal. So it just reflects the same misunderstanding of Iraqi politics. The government doesn’t do anything, doesn’t provide any services, whether security, electricity, health or otherwise. Various militias control various ministries, and they use it as their fiefdoms. Ministries attack other ministries

Later, Goodman asked Rosen what he thought would happen next:

NIR ROSEN: In Iraq? It’s too late for anything good to happen in Iraq, unfortunately. If the Americans stay, we’ll see a continuation of this civil war, of ethnic cleansing, until all of Iraq is sort of ethnically -- or sectarian, homogenous zones, which is basically what’s already happened. If the Americans leave, then you’ll see greater intervention of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, supporting their own militias in Iraq and being drawn into battle.

But no matter what, Iraq doesn’t exist anymore. Baghdad will never be in the hands of Sunnis again. Baghdad will be controlled by Shia militias. They’ve been cleansing all the Sunnis from Baghdad. So Sunnis are basically being pushed out of Iraq, period. They can go to the Anbar Province, which isn’t a very friendly place. I think you’ll see that there won’t be any more elections in Iraq. Maliki is the last prime minister Iraq will have for a long time. There is neither the infrastructure for elections anymore, nor the desire to have them, nor the ability of Iraqi groups to cooperate anymore. So what you’ll see is basically Mogadishu in Iraq: various warlords controlling small neighborhoods. And those who are by major resources, such as oil installations, obviously will be foreign-sponsored warlords who will be able to cut deals with us, the Chinese. But Iraq is destroyed, and I think we’ll see that this will spread throughout the region, and this will destabilize Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, as well.

Rosen and Goodman spend a great deal of time talking about the refugee crisis as well, and the entire interview is well worth listening to or reading.

"Today, in Iraq, to die naturally is considered a blessing."

Fresh Air always has great interviews, but this is a standout. On Thursday, 8/23/07 Terry Gross interviewed NPR's Baghdad bureau chief Jamie Tarabay, who "has lived in and covered Iraq since December 2005. Australian by birth, Lebanese by heritage, she lived for three years as a child in Beirut during the bombings there. Before joining NPR, she worked for the Associated Press." Tarabay starts out by telling the story of one of her co-workers, an Iraqi whose father is kidnapped. It's a heartbreaker.

Rosen gives a fine overview of the chaos in Iraq, and certainly is not lacking in compassion (he spends most of his time on the ground and has spoken with many refugees). Meanwhile, pieces such as Tarabay's amplify the important, very human side of the situation. Every dread number Rosen invokes of the displaced, injured, brutalized and killed has a face. Every person that dies has — or had — a family. This is a world where nearly every family has been scarred by unnatural, violent death.

And, as Jonathan Schwarz remarks on Rosen's piece:

It's all interesting, and all hideous. Did you know Sweden's taken in 40-50,000 Iraqi refugees? And America's only allowed in 700? To be fair, of course, America is just 1% of the size of Sweden.

Politicians can debate whether American troops should withdraw or not, but it would be nice if Bush, Cheney and the rest would at least let the Iraqis who want to "withdraw," do so, and get out of the hell that Bush and Cheney have created. But, of course (as Rosen notes), that's unlikely to happen because that would be acknowledging failure.


(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Rightwing Cartoon Watch #22 (6/4/07 — 8/19/07)

The new installment is here! This super-sized installment of RWCW covers a sizzlin' eleven-week period. RWCW — less punctual than a pizza, but with a longer memory than your MSM! While some of these cartoons might have you saying, "Oh yeah, I remember that!" what may be more distressing is seeing the cartoons that could have been just as easily drawn yesterday as two months ago. (Still, I hope this installment proves to be more than a "historical document.")

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Froomkin Watch

For those that don't make Dan Froomkin's online weekday column White House Watch a staple of their reading, here's several key recent columns.

"Cheney's Secret Escalation Plan?" (Friday, 8/10/07) considers Cheney's latest plotting.

Meanwhile, Froomkin provides a great round-up on the other key force in the Bush administration, Karl Rove, in "Rove's Dismal Legacy" (Monday, 8/13/07), "Post-Rovian Thinking" (Tuesday, 8/14/07) and "Rove's Dilemma" (Wednesday, 8/15/07). I'd quote them, but there's so much good stuff it's better to just read them yourself. Many of the pieces Froomkin links deserve to be read in their entirety as well.

Finally, today Froomkin asks "Whose Report Is It, Anyway?" He considers the LA Times piece, much discussed in the liberal blogosphere, that confirms sensible suspicions about the impending Petraeus "surge" report:

"Despite Bush's repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House, with inputs from officials throughout the government."

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Don't Burn the Flag. Wash It!

The Poetry Man, a.k.a. Mark Prime, has a book of political poetry out. You can buy it here and check out the hubstone of his empire of blogs, A Poetic Justice, here. Check it out, spread the love, feel the poetry.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Moment of Silence: Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

I'm still saddened by the recent death of Ingmar Bergman, although I knew it had to be coming. (When I got the news, I was visiting in Virginia, and had taken with me the DVD of the full-length television version of Fanny and Alexander, which I had been saving up and had been thinking of watching that night.) Bergman and Kurosawa have long been my favorite filmmakers (even though I love comedy). Woody Allen said that Bergman was "probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera," and there's a strong case to be made for that.

The Washington Post featured several good articles. Adam Bernstein penned a superb obituary, film critic Desson Thompson wrote a nice appreciation, Tim Page compiled a useful viewing list of "A Dozen Movies From the Master," David Sterritt lead an online discussion, and there's a nice photo gallery. Meanwhile, The New York Times page on Bergman features a bevy of stories, reviews and links, but of chief interest are Mervyn Rothstein's obituary on him, Stephen Holden's appraisal, A.O. Scott's appreciation of Bergman and Antonioni ("Before Them, Films Were Just Movies"), plus the disturbing news that the Bergman archive may be in danger. (Now there's a cause to support.)

The CNN obit isn't bad, and the Wiki and imdb entries are useful.

Meanwhile, Jon Swift employs his trademark dry, ironic wit to critique some of Bergman's recent detractors, and coins the useful film analysis term Derrièrism. (Then there's Jonathan Rosenbaum's odd, somewhat hostile piece for the NYT. I'm all for a honest discussion of Bergman's films, including their flaws, but I question the taste of those who just don't like him, and based on their comments I sometimes have to wonder if these people have actually seen the films.)

I wrote a piece on Sven Nykvist, one of Bergman's two great cinematographers, when he died last year. The post features many stills of Bergman films.

My dad took me to Kurosawa films when I was a kid at the great, departed repertory film theater The Biograph in D.C., but I had to scramble to find Bergman films on my own as a teenager. Not many seemed to be on video, at least at our video stores. I think my first introduction was reading a TV Week blurb on The Seventh Seal that said something like, "A medieval knight returns to plague-torn Sweden to play a chess game with Death." Being the kid I was, I was extremely intrigued, but we didn't get that station and it took me a few weeks to hunt down a copy. Perhaps I entered Bergman's world easier because I'm part Scandinavian, was raised devoutly Lutheran, and was, ahem, a fairly angstful teenager. At the time, I was very earnestly studying philosophy and scouring plays, novels and films for the answers to life's problems, so the existential questions and conceptual density of The Seventh Seal and other Bergman films were very real, immediate, and urgent.

I begged my way into a Bergman class as a freshman in college, which was a wonderful experience. It was great just to see the films, often projected (crucial for Persona), but also to learn much more about cinematic technique and Bergman's style. I left nearly every film moved, and thinking of it long afterwards. At times it lead to a kind of reverse culture shock. As bad as Kickboxer is, it's even worse when you watch it in the dorm lounge after just coming back from watching the sublime Wild Strawberries (and Predator 2 is all the more painful seen right after L'Avventura — wow. There's a Bergman-Antonioni connection for ya). When I was in college, the National Gallery did a great Bergman retrospective, and I was lucky enough to catch some of it on vacation. Interestingly, though, many of the prints we'd see in class (or at the National Gallery) had bowdlerized subtitles (essays we'd read would sometimes tip us off). There's a scene between Anne and her maid in Smiles of a Summer Night where they just didn't translate at least four lines of dialogue. In DC, this obvious omission made the audience start to chuckle. My Bergman professor told us that one year he'd had a student who spoke Swedish, and every time something wasn't translated, or it seemed suspect, the class would turn and look at her. If she blushed, as apparently she often did, they knew something sexual was being left out of the translation. I don't own all of Bergman's films on DVD, but I hope all of them are free of such silly prudishness.

I understand the criticism that Bergman feels dated or of a time, and for some films and some elements that may be true. Still, I made an effort to see The Best Intentions, Sunday's Child, Faithless and Saraband in the theater. Even though Bergman wrote all four but directed only one of those, I remember leaving each of them more affected than by virtually any other film of that given year. When a friend came over for dinner and a movie earlier this year, she asked to watch Wild Strawberries, which she had never seen. It leaves a mark. It's still powerful and poignant. To each his or her own, but I just can't think of many filmmakers that so consistently achieved that sort of reaction from so many people.

Bergman had the enviable position in life of being able to do both theater and film, and work with the same fine troupe of actors over and over again, writing parts specifically for them. Bergman could be considered a great director solely due to his facility for capturing brilliant performances on film, and his dedication to creating the atmosphere on a set necessary for that. It's no easy feat, and looking over Bergman's body of work, it's far too easy to take for granted because the work's so consistently excellent it can seem effortless. It's also too easy to take his consistently superior scripts for granted, but that sort of thematic depth isn't simple to achieve. Walking the line of high seriousness and melodrama (as my Bergman professor might have put it) takes a conductor's sensibility for tone, rhythm and shifts. It's easy to parody Bergman. I enjoy many of the parodies out there, and sometimes his somberness has made me laugh. Still, as Holden writes in his piece:

If you revisit “The Seventh Seal” with a smirk on your face, you will likely be struck anew by the power of this life-and-death chess match and the scary ashen face of a black-robed Death. What may seem the essence of portentous symbolism when taken out of context retains its primal force within the film. You are inescapably reminded that in the metaphysical and emotional struggles portrayed in Mr. Bergman’s films, the stakes are all or nothing and extremely personal.

It's also important to put Bergman's innovations in the context of his time, as many of the writers linked above do, including Adam Bernstein:

Bergman's style of intensely personal cinema -- where desire and suffering dominated the characters' lives -- first gained wide attention in the early 1950s. His work contrasted with the output of some American filmmakers, who were making far lighter comedies and dramas or promoting gimmicks such as 3-D and Smell-o-Vision.

Film historian and critic David Sterritt said Bergman made it fashionable among American audiences to discuss movies as an art form. Previously, that distinction was largely reserved for adaptations of Shakespeare or other literary classics.

"He showed that cinema could be a genuine art that could take on the deepest of all human themes," Sterritt said.

In Europe, movie directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut helped break visual and narrative rules. But Bergman stood out for making disturbingly psychological films that explored emotional isolation and spiritual crisis, often about living in a nuclear age.

Women were especially prominent in Bergman's films -- and not as cardboard heroines. Bergman's female characters usually stood on the brink of mental collapse, confused by their doubts and passions.

Men were often hapless bystanders, incapable of understanding their own lives, much less those of anyone around them.

"The people in my films are exactly like myself -- creatures of instinct, of rather poor intellectual capacity, who at best only think while they're talking," Bergman once said. "Mostly they're body, with a little hollow for the soul."

Critics saw in Bergman's films a tendency for characters to use sex as a way of overcoming their sense of isolation and finding tenuous connections with one another. Yet fear of intimacy frequently caused the characters to cloak their true emotions. Bergman underscored this theme by focusing on people who were involved in theater and used disguises and role-playing.

Those are pretty timely, or timeless, themes. Bernstein also features a brutally frank admission by Bergman of what a lousy father he had been, a theme that often appeared in his movies. He does not spare the microscope or scapel from himself at all.

Mizoguchi and Bergman seem to be the only filmmakers of their generation who consistently focused on women (the dearth of women directors being an obvious factor). Like Bernstein, Stephen Holden also focuses on those marvelous performances and their intimacy:

Mr. Bergman’s ruthlessly honest investigation of his demons is what lends such images their crushing weight. However fictional, they are undeniably truthful expressions of one artist’s personal torment, redeemed by fleeting glimpses of eternity and redemption in a long, dark night of the soul...

No filmmaker has explored relationships between men and women with such depth and passion. His achievement is inseparable from that of the extraordinary actresses — like Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson and, most of all, Liv Ullmann (with whom he made 10 films) — who people his work and who embody both the women in his life and his own feminine side.

Whereas the majority of men in Mr. Bergman’s films are selfish, grown-up little boys, at once grandiose, lecherous, feckless and narcissistic, the women whom they love and betray are their connection to what really matters in everyday life.

Bergman achieved greater mastery of the medium over time. Sawdust and Tinsel (1953, his 12th film directed, by my count) features a striking flashback sequence near its opening and some very intriguing visual compositions. Later films were even more assured. He and Nykvist played with light extensively, and focused a great deal on capturing the expressive nature of face and hands. Some of Bergman's detractors intimate he was too stage-bound or even "un-cinematic." In my experience, when people use "cinematic," they really mean "spectacle," as in summer drek such as Transformers (there are both good and bad popcorn films, just as there are good and bad art house films). I'd argue "cinematic" means using the unique qualities of the medium to tell a tale, in the case of film telling a story with well-chosen images, sounds, camera moves and montage (among other elements). It's true Bergman's pieces are primarily chamber pieces. He does use the landscape in his film, often memorably, but not as prominently or relentlessly as John Ford, Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, David Lean or Antonioni. His chief landscape is internal and emotional. But he's cinematic not only because Sven Nykvist and Gunnar Fischer could really light a scene and compose a frame. While the basic "message" of the nightmare sequence in Wild Strawberries has been conveyed in other stories in other media, Bergman fully exploits the tools of his medium: an over-exposed look, surreal images, a creepy and calculated sound design, a specific progression of images, events, reaction and emotion and only very little dialogue to set things in motion. The story is told cinematically, and could not really be told with the same effectiveness in another medium. The Silence offers very little dialogue but a palpable mood, and for the most part tells its story visually. Bergman had wanted to call most ambitious and experimental work, Persona (the word originally meaning "mask") simply "Cinema." It's an exploration of the limitations and power of the medium itself, probably unrivaled in that respect, and the unique experience it offers simply couldn't be told in another form. The medium may not be "the message," but it's a integral part of the story and the storytelling. Meanwhile, in Fanny and Alexander, Bergman opts for a relatively "invisible technique" approach, as he often does (contrast that with what my professor called the "Italian camera" of The Silence, roaming about on its own accord as a character in its own right). The "Making of," documentary highlights some scenes in Fanny..., but as I wrote in my piece on Nykvist:

Not only do Bergman and Nykvist employ a broad palette of color to paint the different locales and moods, they also employ some astounding camera moves – but none of the work draws attention to itself. Unless you’re watching for it, you’re not likely to notice that certain scenes are filmed in one take. The opening of the film starts near Christmas time, with rich reds and greens and a sinuous dance of characters and camera. A middle section at the Bishop’s house is stark, bleak and grey. And near the end, the film employs a mystical, dream-like feel – evoking the daydream of the opening sequence.

I'll add that one of the dolly shots introducing the Bishop's house is brilliantly unnerving. Fanny and Alexander, The Silence, Hour of the Wolf, Sunday's Child and a few other Bergman films feature some of the most effective "horror" moments in cinema.

That's not to mention the much more realistic and unsettling horror of watching a marriage disintegrate in the scathing, engrossing Scenes From a Marriage. While I don't have the same intense emotional response these days that I did when first watching The Seventh Seal or Fanny and Alexander, and am less obsessed about the "big ideas," I find what I really appreciate most about Bergman now is his unflinching honesty about intimacy and relationships in films such as Scenes…, from small cruelties to simple joys. As I remarked in my review of Saraband (bottom of the post):

…There's simply no one else who delves into intimacy, yearning, and alienation with as unflinching a gaze as Bergman. In the Bedroom was a good film, but American Bergman-lite. Eric Rohmer, another great master, comes closest to Bergman in terms of capturing the complexities and subtleties of real life on film, but Rohmer is French and far happier than the brooding Bergman. Rohmer is the cinematic equivalent of Chekhov without the extreme tragedy, while Bergman is pure Dostoevsky...

If nothing else, Saraband delves not only into the redemptive power of love, but also a poisonous, possessive brand of it that can be passed on from generation to generation. While at its most brutal, Saraband, like other Bergman films, deals with characters who feel that one they love has failed them somehow, in the end it becomes more a meditation on the unavoidable imperfections of close relationships. All four characters face this truth, even if some never fully reconcile themselves to it.

Kurosawa once said "The artist must never look away." That exemplified both he and Bergman.

Rosenbaum's piece muses about the popularity of Bergman today compared to say, Hitchcock, in higher education as well as rep houses and DVD availability. Well, some of the other articles note Bergman's profound influence on other filmmakers, and it's significant. Meanwhile, most of Bergman's films are available in the U.S. or are becoming so, so I question Rosenbaum's accuracy, but as for general "popularity," I think it's simply that he's not an everyday filmmaker. I love Crime and Punishment and King Lear too, but I can't read or watch them every night. Bergman features are more in the vein of "event" films that demand more than a casual viewing. They're also not for viewers who don't want to be unsettled, as A.O. Scott observes:

Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Bergman, for their parts, were the supreme modernists of world cinema. Mr. Antonioni helped to push Italian film beyond realism, infusing landscapes with psychological rather than social meaning and turning eroticism from a romantic into a metaphysical pursuit. Mr. Bergman, heir to a Nordic strain of modernism represented by Strindberg and Ibsen, developed a film language dense with psychological symbolism and submerged emotion. The two of them upheld, as filmmakers, T. S. Eliot’s observation that “poets, in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult.” “L’Avventura” and “The Seventh Seal,” though they have little else in common (apart from exquisite black-and-white cinematography, courtesy of Aldo Scavarda and Gunnar Fischer), are both hard to watch. Not because the content or the imagery is upsetting, but because they never allow the viewer to relax into a conditioned expectation of what will happen next or an easy recognition of what it means.

There was, among certain filmgoers in the 1960s, an appetite for difficulty, a conviction that symbolic obscurity and psychological alienation were authentic responses to the state of the world. More than that, the idea that a difficult work had special value — that being challenged was a distinct form of pleasure — enjoyed a prestige, at the time, that is almost unimaginable today. We would rather be teased than troubled, and the measure of artistic sophistication is cleverness rather than seriousness.

Scott nicely captures the imaginative and intellectual dimension to Bergman's appeal, while Desson Thompson does a fine job of expressing the more personal side of the attraction:

Bergman's art was more than just personal. He offered his perspective as a glistening prism for all of us. And for this fan, Bergman understood his audience's intensely personal secrets -- yesterday's row with the spouse, tormented thoughts about death, foolish dreams of grandeur, jealousy over that well-to-do family next door, the emotional devastation of our childhoods, and so on.

And where we thought of them as silly, private matters, he elevated them with a perspective that made us feel honored to be human. By showing that childhood, family memories and the regrets, ecstasies and sorrows of his own life were important to him, he made us feel our lives were equally significant. And rather than exclude us from his own torments, he drew us in.

Well put. Great art has many measures, but I think one is that it can withstand intense scrutiny and another is that it provokes significant thought or emotion. Great cinema in particular often transports the viewer into another world. You know if you've seen a Bergman film; it does leave its mark. And as with Shakespeare, viewing the same Bergman film ten years later can yield a very different but equally rich experience.

I thought it'd be good to close with a few clips and comments on specific films. Tim Page's list of twelve films, linked above, is quite good. I'd say the four best to see first are Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and Fanny and Alexander. The following have a few slight spoilers, so be warned.

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955): The was the film that first brought Bergman international attention. It's one of his few comedies, loosely remade by Woody Allen as A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and the stage musical A Little Night Music. It's actually got several dark undercurrents, but it's a fun, entertaining and knowing piece.

The Seventh Seal (1957): This is the one most parodied, but it still has power, and further catapulted Bergman's reputation. Death has a human face and uses often casual language — "I'm Death." This was shot rapidly, pretty much guerilla-style, and actually, while many of the images are iconic, the camera work is more rough and tumble than many other Bergman pieces. I believe Jean Renoir, among others, really adored how the scene with the flagellators was shot. I love Gunnar Björnstrand's performance as the cynical squire Jöns, playing wonderfully off the earnest searching of the tormented Antonius Blok (Max van Sydow). Nils Poppe as Jof the clown is also very winning, as is the lovely and endearing young Bibi Andersson as Mia, his wife. The film trivia book Retakes reports:

For extras in the village tavern scene, the director hired residents of a Stockholm geriatric home. The climatic Dance of Death on the hilltop was totally improvised in ten minutes after the regular working day when most of the actors had gone home. A beautiful cloud appeared in the sky; Bergman hastily dressed his working crew in the actor's costumes and filmed the sequence quickly. (Union regulations would now prevent such spontaneity.)

Here's that memorable opening:

Wild Strawberries (1957): This may well be Bergman's best film. It's an episodic tale ("a string of pearls," my Bergman professor called it), following an elderly doctor as he travels by car to accept a lifetime award. As he progresses, he revisits key locations in his life and relives his memories, prompting a re-evaluation of his life and a gradual transformation. The Seventh Seal is a much more confrontational film, whereas this one sort of sneaks up on you. I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who hasn't wound up liking it. Timeless themes beautifully executed. Woody Allen uses some of its devices in Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Deconstructing Harry. (The lead actor, Victor Sjöström, was the "father of Swedish film," an influential director probably best known in the United States for The Wind (1928), a great silent starring Lillian Gish, with a memorable dust storm sequence.)

The film trivia book Retakes reports:

Considering himself retired, Sjöström had been exceedingly reluctant to join the cast, and Ingmar Bergman had to use all his powers of persuasion to enlist the elderly actor. Once working, however, Sjöström was visibly enjoying himself. The only time he became cranky was when Bergman held him on the set beyond the customary hour of his evening whiskey. One such time was the meadow scene in which Sjöström stands with a benign expression of spiritual calm; in actuality, said Bergman, the old man was boiling mad because he was going to be late for his glass of whiskey.... Gunnar Sjöberg's role of engineer Ahlman was based on film critic Stig Ahlgren, who had often attacked Bergman's work.

Here's that famous dream sequence:

The Virgin Spring (1960): This is one of Bergman's Oscar-winners. Also set in Medieval times, it features another great performance by Max von Sydow. It also contains one of the least glamorous rape scenes ever put on film, with Bergman wisely going for an understated, restrained approach with the camera. It's the sort of scene that's disturbing because it should be.

The Silence (1963): This film caused a splash when it debuted due to its frank treatment of female sexuality and nudity. The final film of Bergman's "faith" trilogy (with Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, both superb as well), the original title of this was "The Silence of God." I haven't seen it in several years, but as a college freshman this was one of my favorites. I really loved its minimal dialogue and the palpable mood Bergman creates. Because the main characters don't speak the language of the country they're briefly staying in, they often need to communicate with gesture, and it adds to the feeling of isolation in their struggle for expression and connection. All the performances are great, with a memorable turn by the older man (Håkan Jahnberg) playing the waiter, a smoldering performance by Gunnel Lindblom as the sensual Anna, and a harrowing performance by Ingrid Thullen as the more intellectual Ester. The film lends itself well to deep analysis, but I think its chief virtue is that it needs to be felt and experienced.

I wish a little more of the lead-in was included in this clip (Ester, who has some sort of lung condition, has been writing and talking about her life, including her dissatisfaction with past relationships, with the waiter who cannot understand her). I actually wrote an essay on this key scene:

It's more unsettling in the context of the film, knowing the characters and their situation, but I tend to think sequences such as this are far more frightening than, say, giant spiders on screen. It also really shows off how powerful chiaroscuro lighting can be in black and white film.

Persona (1966): Persona is a great film, but I wouldn't recommend it as the first Bergman film to see for most viewers. It's his most experimental and arguably the most challenging, at least in terms of form. There are times I feel it's more a film one studies than one enjoys, because Bergman intentionally distances the audience at times and reality isn't always clear. Still, many Bergman devotees adore this film above all others, and it features engaging performances by Liv Ullman as Elisabeth, a famous actress who has gone mute, and Bibi Andersson as Alma, her nurse, as they two of them are secluded at a beach house for Elisabeth's recovery. Many of the film's small choices and individual scenes are fascinating. In addition to the signature scenes, Andersson has a riveting monologue as she curls up in a chair, about a shameful episode on a beach in her past. The conventional choice would be to go to a flashback, but with understatement Bergman just stays on her. It's not necessary a "theatrical over cinematic" choice. It's just that what's most important is not so much the incident itself, but its effect on Alma now, and the act of her sharing it with Elisabeth. It's a good indicator of Bergman's sound instincts. Persona is a film that examines the limitations and conventions of cinema itself, but its emotional core centers on issues of intimacy, trust and betrayal (as do most Bergman films). While it's always good to see a Bergman film in a theater, this film specifically depends on being seen projected in a theater for full impact, at least on the first viewing.

Here's the opening:

Shame (1968): I wanted to mention this one because I only saw it for the first time a few years ago and it's not as well known as some of the others, but it's fantastic. It features Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman as married musicians on a war-torn island. It deals the most overtly with politics of all of Bergman's works, mainly from the point of view of ordinary people being caught up in situations they really want no part of. The main focus though, of course, is the state of the relationship, intimacy, and the familiarities that come from being long married. When I saw this one, I thought, "damn, how many four star films can the guy make? How can he turn these out so often, and be so consistently good?"

Scenes From a Marriage (1973): Originally made for Swedish television, a shortened (but roughly three hour) version was released theatrically and brought Bergman new acclaim. I only saw this a couple of years ago, rushing to find a copy to rent before seeing Saraband, which features the same characters (but is not a traditional sequel and is self-sufficient). I was rapt the entire time. This may be the most unflinching of all the unflinching Bergman films, and like all his work, is heavily based on his own life for at least its emotional reality even if he changes details. The performances are extraordinary, naturalistic and often heart-breaking. This is the Russian ideal for Chekhov performance, on screen — it's real life, warts and all. I don't think anyone can see this without acclaiming Liv Ullman especially as one of the all-time greats (as Marianne). Both characters are intellectuals, but the sort who rationalize excessively to avoid true self-reflection, especially the self-absorbed Johan (Erland Josephson). I often felt the urge to shake them. His cruelties are all the harsher because they're so unnecessary, and because Marianne so clearly loves him despite everything. He, too, has his lingering affections, and there's a familiarity that binds them that is at times intensely dysfunctional and at times, against perhaps all reason, profoundly calming and lovely. I still need to see the full version, but I sometimes think this film should be required viewing for all couples. I find the very end brilliant and astounding, and a mark of Bergman's true artistry and maturity as a man who really knows life and just refuses to pander artistically. I shan't spoil it, but for me it shares the sublime nature of Uncle Vanya.

Fanny and Alexander (1982): This also won an Oscar (four, actually), and in some ways this may be Bergman's best film. It deals with the pains and joys of childhood, of death, of cruelty, the perils of intimacy and the trials of marriage and other relationships, but it also captures more of the magic and sense of wonder than many of Bergman's others films. It also started on Swedish television and was recut for a shorter, theatrical release about three hours long. Loosely autobiographical, it's just gorgeously shot, and justifiably won Sven Nykvist an Oscar. Bergman references Hamlet throughout, and includes touches of Strindberg, but this film is uniquely him. While the theatrical version is longer than the average feature, it's also one of the most friendly to the new Bergman viewer. Meanwhile, for Bergman fans and students of cinema, it definitely deserves repeated viewings. (The Nykvist post features many stills from this film.)

Here's the opening, the television version apparently, although the quality isn't great:

And that's it for now! As the line goes, the rest is silence.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Originally, I wasn't going to bother with a blogiversary post unless I got to a fifth year, but two years is a long time in the blogosphere. So — umm — yay! Whoopee! Here's to the terrible twos! (It was actually back on July 27th, but I was out of town and wanted to have some actual new posts up before writing a blogiversary post.)

I can't pretend to be the most punctual blogger (case in point), nor one of the most prolific, nor one of the most trafficked (although Blue Herald is doing pretty well). And if Hamlet was right when he quipped that "brevity is the soul of wit," then I must confess myself witless. (I'd certainly love more time to revise and tighten my prose.)

Still, I think I can claim some variety, at least, among my 300+ entries. If you've got a lot of time on your hands, here's some highlights.

Of the blog essays, my favorites are probably "The Aryan Minstrel Show" (on Ann Coulter), "How to Hear a True War Story,", "False Equivalencies" (part of a media series I'd like to finish), and "Knaves of the Bush Administration."

For original digging, there's "Will GOP Senators Face Consequences for Lying to the Supreme Court?" and "Adam Reilly Repeats John Carroll's Mistake."

In the too-slim satire category, my favorites are Proof of Iran’s Perfidy Provided by Anonymous Experts! "Help Fight Math Illiteracy!" and "Political Football Theater."

The Blog Against Theocracy category features a bevy of posts, the most popular being "How Many Deities Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?" (about comedy and religion) and "Faith and Certainty."

The faulty logic category contains a number of posts, but "Dance of the Straw Men," examining Bush's favorite faulty argument technique, is probably the most entertaining.

The posts in The Chart Project feature diagrams and graphics to explore key issues. I think of them mainly as foundational posts to reference later, although "Color Commentary" takes a funnier tact. The others are "The Chart That Explains It All!" "The Social Tolerance Charts," "The Religion-in-Society Charts," "The Bullshit Matrix" and "The Conservative Brain Trust Takes On: Freedom of Religion!"

The questionable metaphors and analogies category is positively overflowing, with comparisons to Groundhog Day, Harry Potter, A Few Good Men, Darth Vader, Bull Durham, some Matrix-Plato's Cave thing, and... the McLobster sandwich?!?

The film category mostly consists of the Oscar/year-in-review round-ups (although those cover over one hundred films in the past two years).

There's also several posts in the poetry, education and the Holocaust categories.

My vote for the most bleeding heart liberal post is "Elegy (and Call to Arms) for the United States Constitution, 9/28/06." (Every blogofascist and DFH needs at least one!)

Finally, there's the series Rightwing Cartoon Watch, which I've been posting over at the Blue Herald site (I've been working on the next installment). Whew!

This blog started from my habit of e-mailing out an Oscar/film round-up every year, sending out round-ups of news stories during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, and a nasty habit of compulsive essay-writing that expensive therapy perhaps could cure. At some point I'll have to write more about theater, poetry, film and all that, y'know, cultural stuff. I know it would make my conservative friends happier. (Did I mention that Bush is probably our worst president ever, and certainly among the worst five?)

As to the title of this blog — there are times I wonder why the hell I picked it. As I wrote early on, I've long thought it would be a fun name for a column, and later learned it was the title of a biography about historian George Santayana. I have a wide range of interests, and until a few years ago, I had spent most of my life moving around (seven states, three continents) studying or teaching. I think of a "scholar" as one who values the life of the mind and the arts, is driven to learn more and who tries to be honest, not someone who possesses all the answers already. There's a saying that "I don't trust the man who says he's seen the light. I trust the person who's still looking." That said, sometimes "Vagabond Scholar" strikes me as a stuffy or pretentious blog title that doesn't quite fit with the more satirical posts or my nom de blog, but I guess it sounds vaguely more respectable than "Semiliterate Bum."

As one more tribute to the recently departed Tommy Makem (and the "Drinking Bacchus" painting by Guido Reni above), here's one of my favorite poems. I first heard it on the tape of a Makem and Clancy concert, and have a hard time reading it without an Irish accent.

Get Drunk
By Charles Baudelaire

One should always be drunk. That's all that matters;
that's our one imperative need. So as not to feel Time's
horrible burden one which breaks your shoulders and bows
you down, you must get drunk without cease.

But with what?
With wine, poetry, or virtue
as you choose.
But get drunk.

And if, at some time, on steps of a palace,
in the green grass of a ditch,
in the bleak solitude of your room,
you are waking and the drunkenness has already abated,
ask the wind, the wave, the stars, the clock,
all that which flees,
all that which groans,
all that which rolls,
all that which sings,
all that which speaks,
ask them, what time it is;
and the wind, the wave, the stars, the birds, and the clock,
they will all reply:

"It is time to get drunk!

So that you may not be the martyred slaves of Time,
get drunk, get drunk,
and never pause for rest!
With wine, poetry, or virtue,
as you choose!"

(The French original can be read here. Of course, conservatives know better to learn a foreign language, let alone French! )