Sunday, January 25, 2009

The View from the Tank: Still Life (2006), The Reader (2008), and Slap Shot (1977)

Still Life (2006; U.S. release 2008)
A quietly stunning film. Again and again, I caught myself marveling at the incredible cinematography in this movie -- despite that often the vistas were of crumbling demolition sites, shirtless workers eating in a hovel, or partially submerged neighborhoods. I don't know why the director, Jia Zhang-ke, felt the need to include the bizarre sci-fi elements throughout -- they seemed almost comical.

The film is an interesting book-end to the excellent 2006 documentary Up the Yangtze, which also focused on the massive displacement wrought by the Three Gorges Project. The film demands to be seen: it feels like one of the most relevant and realistic pictures to be had of the crumbling, exploding, confused, gigantic confusion of China today. Four tentacles (out of five).

The Reader (2008)

A confusing, but intriguing work, which seems to struggle between convention and something completely different. The movie is, in some sense, a Holocaust movie, and includes a visit to a preserved concentration camp, a review of cages holding thousands of victims's shoes, the protagonist's hands touching barbed wire ringing the camp, etc. The source of the film's controversy is that it focuses on a former SS camp guard, Hannah Schmidts (Kate Winslet), and her young lover, Michael (David Kross -- the older Michael is played by Ralph Fiennes, who is not that good here). Hannah is illiterate, which you inevitably know going into this film; in one of the weaker points in the film, the director tries to build a sense of revelation during Hannah's trial, when Michael "figures out" (via a cheesy montage) that Hannah is illiterate. This unfortunate piece is filmmaking catering to the lowest common denominator of the audience, and comes off as vaguely insulting to the viewer.

More to the point, the film, through Michael's point of view, puts the viewer in the impossible position of trying to decide how to feel about Hannah's past, as we watch her being put on trial two decades or so after the war. We're made to feel that Hannah was just signing up with the SS because she "heard there were jobs", though we also learn that she knew that the prisoners under her watch were being sent off to their deaths. The film offers us a lot of Hannah's present humanity, and only verbal testimony of her past inhumanity, so the emotional "evidence" is a bit stacked.

Winslet plays Hannah as a conflicted and haunted woman (and she is excellent, though I was probably more impressed with Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married), though we are never quite clear on what Hannah feels about the past. She seems to think of it as something completed and finished -- what is the point of contemplating it? she suggests. There are some interesting discussions of the purposes of punishment for individuals like Hannah -- can punishment, in the form of a life sentence, serve to make her "learn" something? What is the purpose of having her "learn" something? What does the film want us to feel for Hannah? Forgiveness? That seems impossible. Understanding? Again, we are tempted, given the humanity of present-day Hannah we are shown, but it is impossible to square that empathy with her SS duties. There seems to be a larger indictment of all of Europe -- and a suggestion that the singling out of individuals such as Hannah for education through punishment is somewhat misguided or a mere distraction -- lurking in the film, but it's not fully expressed.

Perhaps the sense of confusion I was left with was the very point of the film: recognizing evil, the evil in the otherwise humane, and the humanity in the otherwise evil. Is it better to complicate the picture of the Holocaust rather than simplify it? I'm not sure, but this film (and the underlying novel) have put a tremendous amount of thought into that question. It took some bravery to make a film with so clouded a message. Three and a half tentacles.

Slap Shot (1977)

I don't know why it took me so long to see this movie. I am not a huge hockey fan, and I don't really watch too many sports comedies these days, but I'm supremely happy that I did finally see this movie: it has to be the most hilarious movie about sports I've ever seen. It's certainly one of the funniest movies, period, I've seen in years.

Paul Newman is in great comic form here, but at the heart of the movie are the Hanson Brothers: the bespectacled, man-child goons who show up on player-coach Reggie Dunlop's (Newman) failing minor league hockey team in the failing mill town of Charlestown, West Virginia. The Hanson Brothers became such a hit through this movie that they apparently still go on tour throughout Canada, where fans of the film (and its two sequels) are legion.

The film features what has to be one of the more inspired endings in sports-film history. An all-time classic: four and a half tentacles.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Something I Hate about L.A.

So I do actually like L.A. a lot. However, one thing I hate about L.A.: you have to fucking plan everything in advance. You can't simply call someone up and say "Hey, feel like seeing a movie?" or "Want to grab a drink?" because that would be thoughtless and rude: you wouldn't be allowing the person enough time to print out directions, make their way across town, and -- most importantly of all -- figure out where to park.

In L.A., when we are not all writing screenplays, we spend most of our time figuring out where to park. You could have hour-long discussions with people in L.A. about parking, various notorious parking structures in the city, where to park at L.A.X., how to get special parking permits, etc.

And even if the person you were trying to hang out with did have enough time to figure out how to get to where you wanted to meet, find out where to park, etc., they still wouldn't be able to come: they'd already be booked because everyone plans out their schedules three weeks in advance in L.A. so they know where they will be able to park.

But Taco Trucks. And Vitamin D from the sun. And Thai Town. And Zankou Chicken!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

FDR's First Inaugural

From what followed "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself":
In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.

More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.
FDR's First Inaugural, March 4, 1933.

The anti-capitalist tone of Roosevelt's speech is striking. It's hard to recall now, but during the depths of the Great Depression, the conclusion that capitalism had failed was quite widespread. The conclusion that capitalism -- in its unfettered, unregulated form -- has failed us once again, is hard to avoid in the face of the current mounting evidence. Some have suggested that the current conditions set the stage for a resurgence of interest in anti-capitalist critiques, and a revival of interest around the globe in Marxist thought. Roosevelt's rhetoric in his first inaugural address was almost Marxist in its disgust at the commodity fetishism and vampirism of Capital; Obama's rhetoric so far has been much more restrained, but his actions may be more dramatic than we have yet imagined. Indeed, the times may demand no less.

Oscar Circle Jerk: Preliminary Notes on this Year's Nominees

My reactions to this year's Oscar nominations cannot help but be pedestrian, expected, and uninspired, because the nominations I am reacting to are so pedestrian, expected, and uninspired.

I guess I should know better, but it still seems deeply lame to me when the Academy creams itself about a prefab, by-the-numbers Oscar Nomination Product like Benjamin Button (or Frost/Nixon, for that matter). It’s too bad that Gran Torino, Rachel Getting Married, and even The Dark Knight (which I actually wasn’t a huge fan of) were shut out of the Best Picture category. Those films apparently didn’t follow the proper Oscar Nomination Product protocols(i.e., magical negroes, symbolic hummingbirds, etc.) (Hat tip to my friend over at Colonel Mortimer.)

Also, can we just accept that Brad Pitt was not that great in Benjamin Button? Keeping a laconic, expressionless face throughout a movie – half of which is spent as a Gollum-like CGI figment – is not great acting. Eastwood was robbed! And it may just be me, but I can’t help but feel that the nominations for both Pitt and Jolie are part of the industry-wide worship of these two pretty mediocre actors – the polysemous word in that sentence, of course, being “pretty”.

I am happy about Slumdog’s Best Picture nomination (though I wasn’t blown away by it). And I really should qualify my griping by noting that I haven’t yet seen Milk, or The Reader, which I hear are excellent. (For an excellent – and exhaustive – analysis of The Reader, check out the review posted by my good friend the Tonic Blotter.) So maybe I should keep my complaints to myself until I bother to see those last two films.

Finally, Man on Wire better not win for best documentary.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The View from the Tank: Costco Edition

In this review: The Wrestler, Wendy & Lucy, Frost/Nixon, Rachel Getting Married

The Wrestler (2008)

A very European movie, but with a Bruce Springsteen theme. European in that it was a very focused character study, with not too much going on. Well, besides the staples being shot into Mickey Rourke's body with a staple gun, the suplexes, and the pile drivers. Mickey Rourke is excellent, as everyone is saying. His devastated face, ravaged by plastic surgery and years in Hollywood wilderness, is perfect for this character, a faded wrestling star trying to learn to leave the ring. Marisa Tomei gets naked again (see also Before the Devil Knows Your Dead) as the stripper with a heart of gold, and is also fantastic.

There's something mildly interesting going on in this movie with identities and names. The main character, "Randy the Ram" is known as the Ram among his fellow wrestlers and his diehard fans from the 80's. After he's forced to take a humiliating job at a supermarket deli counter, he's forced to wear a name tag with his real name: "Robin". His love interest is a mostly washed-up stripper (Tomei), whose stripping name is Cassidy; her real name is Pam. Randy cannot accept life as "Robin", though that's the only way he could have Pam -- as opposed to the purchased artifice of "Cassidy".

The scenes with Randy's daughter felt a little out of place to me -- especially the sudden dancing in an abandoned hall. And the ending felt a little abrupt. The extended fade to black seemed to have been a choice the director made in recognition of the suddenness of the ending. I guess there was no other way to close out the film. Three and a half tentacles (out of five).

Wendy & Lucy (2008)

This felt like a trip back to the mid-90's: you know, Slacker had just been released, people were wearing thin plaid shirts from Goodwill, Austin seemed like a cool place, everyone was talking about video, and Don Delillo and the JFK assassination were really in. Anyhow, this film, the story of a young woman and her dog, on a long trip to Alaska in a 1988 Honda to look for work in a cannery, finding themselves broken down and stuck in a depressed post-industrial Oregon mill town, felt very sketched out, and empty. Much of the film was taken up with shots of Wendy (Michelle Williams) walking, waiting, looking -- at first with her dog Lucy, and later, without.

The film gives us nearly nothing about Wendy's background, why she's so desperate to get to Alaska, why she has nowhere else to go. I found it hard to truly care that much about Wendy, when I was given so little to care about. Wendy says nearly nothing in the movie, and her face gives us only resignation and stiff resolve -- with only one break into despair. I can appreciate a film like this being made, and its emphasis on the desperation of those Americans who are scraping by on the edge of oblivion is necessary and welcome. However, the film left me a little cold, despite the cute dog. The tune Wendy hums through the film is a lullaby of sorts to herself and Lucy, helping herself to believe that things will work out, even as they clearly won't. Two and a half tentacles.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

A perfectly satisfactory movie. At first Frank Langella seems a little wrong for Nixon -- his face too long, his voice not quite right, but then, during the course of the movie, Langella steadily, magically, in fact becomes Nixon. His face takes on the deep, hound-dog leathery folds of late Nixon, his voice takes on the deep growl of animal menace and hurt. Langella captures Nixon's bizarre charm, his infinite capacity for self-pity, and his perpetually nursed sense of inferiority and resentment. The rest of the cast is also quite good.

The film shows much more thought than the standard mid-level Hollywood Oscar Product -- that's likely because this was a highly successful stage production before being brought to the screen. Three tentacles.

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

I've thought about it for a day now, and I have come to terms with the fact that I loved this movie. I really wasn't expecting to like this. The story was compelling and moving, especially the sibling issues between Rachel and Kym (Anne Hathaway) and the background of family tragedy. As much as I am surprised to be saying this, Anne Hathaway was incredible in this role. She deserves an Oscar for this performance.

The casting was excellent; and the acting was fantastic all around. Debra Winger, though playing a small part, was very powerful.

The movie did present a somewhat utopian vision of an interracial marriage in which race just didn't matter, or was beside the point. Everyone had more pressing issues to worry about. Many critics appear to have been turned off by the "smug PCness" of the family and the wedding party -- but those critics seem to be missing the point: the whole Benetton feel of the wedding (which managed to feature jazz, hip hop, reggae, indy rock, and guests of all colors) was really secondary to the main issues in the film. The movie didn't have to spend a lot of time preaching about -- or even mentioning -- diversity or tolerance, because everyone in the movie was too busy dealing with the more pressing issues of keeping the family together through the pre-wedding crisis, managing Kym, dealing with the past family tragedy. (When crazy shit is going down, there's no time or energy left to be hung up on race -- it's the last thing on our minds. Draw whatever parallels you will to the election of our 44th president.)

As utopian as the image presented was, it was, to me, utterly believable, and felt like a mirror of the ways Americans really are learning to get beyond some of our racial hangups. (I thought Gran Torino made a similar point, through a much different approach.)

The main flaw in the film was an excess of dancing and music footage from the party itself -- a lot of that seemed like indulgent fluff, and could have been trimmed. The film's flab may be an inevitable byproduct of the director's stated intent to create a "home movie" of sorts; at times it felt a bit like some of the more tedious excesses of the Dogma 95 movement.

I may have reacted so positively to the film because I absolutely love wedding speeches of any kind -- especially the ones that break down into cringe-worthy self-absorbed free association. And I might have liked it for the wonderful image it presented (in most part) of my home state: my favorite line was probably "Welcome to Connecticut and our complicated tax structure."

I'm giving this four and a half tentacles our of five.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

David Remnick Still Sucks: Your New Neocon Party Line (it's not a conga line)

Hey, look, it's a new meme, brought to you by Bill Kristol, Robert Kaplan, and your favorite fancy liberal literary magazine editor, David Remnick. What is this exciting new meme, you may ask? The crisis in Gaza, all those schools being bombed? all the blown up U.N. trucks? It's all actually the fault of . . . wait for it . . . Iran!

Let's review the wildly diverse points of view we get from Kristol, Kaplan, and liberal lion Remnick. It's a diverse and spectacular spectrum of opinion.

Here's Kristol:
An Israeli success in Gaza would be a victory in the war on terror — and in the broader struggle for the future of the Middle East. Hamas is only one manifestation of the rise, over the past few decades, of a terror-friendly and almost death-cult-like form of Islamic extremism. The combination of such terror movements with a terror-sponsoring and nuclear-weapons-seeking Iranian state (aided by its sidekick Syria) has produced a new kind of threat to Israel . . . .

But Israel — assuming it succeeds — is doing the United States a favor by taking on Hamas now.

The huge challenge for the Obama administration is going to be Iran. If Israel had yielded to Hamas and refrained from using force to stop terror attacks, it would have been a victory for Iran. If Israel were now to withdraw under pressure without accomplishing the objectives of severely weakening Hamas and preventing the reconstitution of a terror-exporting state in Gaza, it would be a triumph for Iran. In either case, the Iranian regime would be emboldened, and less susceptible to the pressure from the Obama administration to stop its nuclear program.

But a defeat of Hamas in Gaza — following on the heels of our success in Iraq — would be a real setback for Iran. It would make it easier to assemble regional and international coalitions to pressure Iran. It might positively affect the Iranian elections in June. It might make the Iranian regime more amenable to dealing.

With respect to Iran, Obama may well face — as the Israeli government did with Hamas — a moment when the use of force seems to be the only responsible option. But Israel’s willingness to fight makes it more possible that the United States may not have to.

Got it? Israel must destroy Gaza to soften up Iran for the U.S. to then bomb Iran!

Hey, what about this Robert Kaplan guy?
Israel has just embarked on a land invasion of the Gaza Strip after a week of aerial bombing. Gaza is bordered by Egypt, and was under Egyptian military control from 1949 through 1967. And yet in a startling rebuke to geography and recent history—and in testimony to the sheer power of audacity and of ideas—the mullahs in Teheran hold more sway in Gaza today than does the tired, Brezhnevite regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Gaza constitutes the western edge of Iran’s veritable new empire, cartographically akin to the ancient Persian one, that now stretches all the way to western Afghanistan, where Kabul holds no sway and which is under Iranian economic domination.

Israel’s attack on Gaza is, in effect, an attack on Iran’s empire, the first since its offensive on Iranian-backed Hezbollah in 2006. That attack failed for a number of reasons, not least of which was Israel’s poor intelligence on Hezbollah: historically, its intelligence on the Palestinians has been much better. Moreover, this attack seems more deliberately planned, with narrower, publicly stated aims – all in all, a more professional job. But there is a fundamental problem with what Israel is doing that goes to the heart of the postmodern beast that the Iranian empire represents.
The Atlantic.

Hey, do you sense a theme yet? A consistent message, maybe? Hmm, a smart, liberal guy like David Remnick, who brings us wry cartoons and smarty-pants essays from Malcolm Gladwell wouldn't jump on board this bandwagon, right? Oops:
As President, Obama will have to address another dream of homeland––the unrealized dream of the Palestinians. In the West Bank, he will be dealing with a leadership that, while imperfect, supports the overdue justice of a two-state resolution. The same is true in Israel, at least with those politicians to the left of Benjamin Netanyahu. But in Gaza Obama will be dealing, directly or not, with political actors who, with Iranian support, seek ceaseless battle with Israel, and may even hope to destabilize Egypt.
The New Yorker.

But you may say, "Hold on there, you terrorist pinko. Remnick is trying to be so reasonable in his Talk of the Town piece. Give him a break."

Yeah, no. Remnick has shown his readiness to slide into a seemingly-reluctant neocon warrior mode and parrot the neocon party line before. It's important to stay on message if you want to get a real war on! I'd like to retrieve from the memory hole Remnick's oh-so-eloquent and thoughtful endorsement of the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq:
As it happens, the most comprehensive and convincing case for the use of force in Iraq has been made by a government intellectual, Kenneth M. Pollack. From 1995 to 1996 and from 1999 to 2001, Pollack served in the Clinton Administration as director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council; before that, he was a military analyst of the Persian Gulf region for the C.I.A. More effectively than Dick Cheney or Paul Wolfowitz or any other of the hawkish big thinkers in the Administration, Pollack, in his book "The Threatening Storm," presents in almost rueful terms the myriad reasons that an aggressive policy toward Iraq now is the least bad of our alternatives. As Bush did at the U.N., Pollack carefully describes the Stalinist character of Saddam's state: the pervasive use of torture to terrorize and subdue the citizenry and insure the loyalty of the Army and the security apparatus; the acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing; the use of chemical weapons on neighbors and his own citizens; the sponsorship of terrorist groups; the refusal to relinquish weapons of mass destruction despite the humanitarian and economic cost the Iraqis pay through international embargo. We are reminded, too, of Saddam's vision of himself as the modern Saladin, the modern Nebuchadnezzar II, who (after massacring the Kurds, invading Kuwait, and attacking the marsh Arabs of the south) vows to "liberate" Jerusalem, vanquish the United States, and rule over a united Arab world. Saddam is not a man of empty promises. His territorial aggression is a matter of record, his nuclear ambitions are clear.

Unlike the President, Pollack dignifies all possible objections and what-ifs with answers. For example, he concedes that North Korea and Iran are, in some ways, even greater and more obvious threats than Iraq, but he carefully shows why the regional politics of northern Asia require a different tack and why Iran, with its more dynamic, grass-roots politics, is far likelier to undergo a homegrown revolution or reform than Iraq, where politics of any kind are not permitted.

The United States has been wrong, politically and morally, about Iraq more than once in the past; Washington has supported Saddam against Iran and overlooked some of his bloodiest adventures. The price of being wrong yet again could be incalculable. History will not easily excuse us if, by deciding not to decide, we defer a reckoning with an aggressive totalitarian leader who intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction but also to use them.

Saddam's abdication, or a military coup, would be a godsend; his sudden conversion to the wisdom of disarmament almost as good. It is a fine thing to dream. But, assuming such dreams are not realized, a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.
The New Yorker.

Boy, that Remnick is so smart. Anyhow, have you now accepted the proper view for intelligent people? Gaza being bombed means Iran is the problem. Iran is bad and a threat to everything good. Yeah, so I still hate David Remnick. That's all I wanted to say.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

God Bless America

This agnostic lapsed Muslim Bengali-American has tears in his eyes watching this video tonight in Los Angeles.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Nothing is Simple

Q: Is Israel's response proportionate?

A: Each sovereign state has to define for itself what it needs to do to defend itself.
Question to and response from Sean McCormack, State Department Spokesman, January 5, 2009.

Barack Obama may have -- perhaps understandably -- no comment about the current crisis in the Gaza Strip, but I have a few observations.

I want to preface all of these comments with the following clear and unequivocal statements:

1. I reject the use of force against civilians, Israelis or Palestinians. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have any right to deploy force that is virtually certain to result in significant civilian casualties in the current situation.

2. I am no supporter of Hamas. I reject any calls for the destruction of the state of Israel. I reject any calls in support of terrorism or violence.

Now, my observations.

First, consider the implications of the State Department's statement above (and keep in mind that this is the official position of the United States as to the current conflict, Israel's ground incursion, etc.) Do we really mean this? Of course not. Otherwise, how would this principle apply to Iran's or North Korea's nuclear program, Russia's reaction to South Ossetia, or Iraq? This principle applies only when we want it to apply. Moreover, what does it mean to discuss the rights of "sovereign states" when dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict, where the Palestinians still do not have a sovereign state? Does the continued denial of a sovereign state to the Palestinians mean that the Palestinians do not have the right to "define for [themselves] what [they] need to do to defend [themselves]?" Apparently, yes.

Second, let's just pull something out of the memory hole, before it is lost forever. For better or worse (and it's not hard to argue the worse side of the equation) it is a historical fact that Hamas was democratically elected. Does this mean Hamas is a good and noble organization? Of course not. Hitler came to power in a democracy. [UPDATE: See comments] The will of a majority does not always equal the highest good. See also Proposition 8. But it remains worth noting, as a matter of historical accuracy, that Hamas came to power in elections urged upon the Palestinians by the United States. This is a useful bit of trivia when confronted with rhetoric from Bush, Cheney, and others about the need for the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East. How much do we believe in democracy? Do we believe in democracy only when we approve of the victors in a democratic process?

Third, the origins of this specific conflict in Gaza are nearly impossible to discern in the American media. Nevertheless, the NYT offered this helpful summary of the origins of the end of the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel:
Opening the routes to commerce was Hamas’s main goal in its cease-fire with Israel, just as ending the rocket fire was Israel’s central aim. But while rocket fire did go down drastically in the fall to 15 to 20 a month from hundreds a month, Israel said it would not permit trade to begin again because the rocket fire had not completely stopped and because Hamas continued to smuggle weapons from Egypt through desert tunnels. Hamas said this was a violation of the agreement, a sign of Israel’s intentions and cause for further rocket fire. On Wednesday [24 Dec 08], some 70 rockets hit Israel over 24 hours, in a distinct increase in intensity.

Fourth, let us assume that every human life is of equal value. To this point, according to Wikipedia's entry on the conflict, Israel has lost eight lives (three civilians), and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have lost five hundred and fifty (two hundred civilians). Even putting aside casualties among soldiers and militants, the loss of life has been distinctly out of balance. This is to be expected. Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations have been launching relative primitive Quassam rockets -- which are nevertheless potentially deadly. Israel, on the other hand, has used Apache helicopters, American-made fighter planes, and tanks in the current conflict. It simply cannot be argued that the two sides are engaged in a fight between equals. I do think Israeli spokesmen and their allies do have some basis to argue that they (the Israelis) are attempting to strike militants and minimize civilian casualties, while the Palestinians are targeting civilians. However, I will also note that the Israelis have struck police stations, universities, prisons, [UPDATED: schools] and other civilian locations with American weaponry designed for use against armed forces. In these circumstances, with this type of weaponry, substantial civilian deaths are all but assured. The cynical view would read this use of force as a calculation by the Israeli government that by inflicting a significant number of casualties, among militants and civilians, they will be sending a strong deterrent message, to the Palestinians in Gaza, in the West Bank, and to other would-be foes in the region.

Let us consider that last point from a purely Israeli perspective. From that perspective, how does this strategy make sense? Do we, as Israelis, truly believe that bombing throughout Gaza -- one of the most densely populated areas on Earth -- and the inevitable high civilian death toll will in fact help reduce the use of rockets against Israel? Will we not simply be stoking greater hatred and anger towards Israel? What better recruitment tool for terrorist organizations than the sight of Israeli planes bombing a university or police station? Are we thinking about long-term deterrence of other threats? How does an attack on the essentially defenseless positions in Gaza demonstrate Israeli strength? Does this attack restore the credibility of Israel's military after the debacle of 2006 in Lebanon? It's hard to see how. Is this, as Bill Kristol suggests, a proxy war against Iran? If so, how is victory defined? If 1,000 Palestinians are killed, do we, as Israelis truly believe that this will eliminate the rocket attacks?

In the end, I have to conclude that the Israelis know that this bombardment and incursion into Gaza will not end the rocket attacks on Israel. I understand Israel's desire and need to defend its civilians against the rocket attacks. Israel should not be expected to simply endure the random fall of rockets onto its territory. However, even accepting and understanding the need to defend itself, one must ask if this is the right strategy -- even putting aside whether the actions are justifiable. I fear that the current assault is not in Israel's best interest, nor in the best interest of the region. I am unable to tease out which side bears more blame in starting this particular conflagration. However, I return to Sean McCormack's formulation. In this conflict, one side is a stateless, unrecognized, widely-condemned organization; the other side is a sovereign state. Perhaps in addition to the rights that attend to sovereign states, the sovereign state in this conflict should bear the responsibility of having its actions judged according to the standards that apply to sovereign states.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year's Resolutions

In a departure from previous years, I'm keeping my resolutions relatively simple (and achievable) this year.

1. Lower my cholesterol: exercise at least four times a week and cook at least twice a week.

2. Improve my Spanish: study ten minutes a day.

3. Remember birthdays.

4. Write at least ten pages of fiction or non-fiction a week. (Blog posts do not count.)

5. Volunteer at least four hours a month.