Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games ( a review )

Entertainment is a pivotal component of history, meaning, culture, and self-awareness. Entertainment is also a profound instrument (conscious or not) of public policy although only in the long term - which is to say only when it counts! As such, I decided to review The Hunger Games. (Minor spoiler alerts!)

The Hunger Games is, in short, excellent. Totally engrossing, utterly imaginative, and completely disturbing. I suspect it's not an award-oriented film but people will love it and already do. It compares quite well with similar dystopian films of the last ten years but it offers something bigger and more conceptual. The Hunger Games is not a trivial film.

While it did not quite have same 'realness' of Children of Men, it paints a bigger picture not unlike V of Vendetta. It does so by shedding light on the relationship between the state, entertainment, and the individual's effort towards survival and meaning. The premise of the film is that after an apparent major war and revolution in North America, a new state, Panem, has emerged with a dominant capital city. The state has created a system of ritual sacrifice where each of 12 districts stage lotteries called 'reapings' where a young woman and man aged 12 to 18 are selected to fight to the death on television.

As I watched the film I was tempted to compare this premise with certain contemporary wars involving the US. Obviously it's not that simple. But it might be...and thats one of many terrifyingly sobering insights hidden in metaphor throughout the film. As it turns out, Suzanne Collins, the author of the original books upon which the film is based, had a somewhat similar idea. As the story goes, she was changing channels between reality TV shows and footage of the Iraq war and the two subjects blurred in an "unsettling way". It was at this moment where Collins initially conceptualized Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist (played by Jennifer Lawrence).

What is most striking about The Hunger Games is that it comes at a point in history where the forecasts of past from such thinkers as Aldous Huxley, Michel Foucault, George Orwell, and Karl Polanyi seemed to have proven somewhat accurate in foreseeing contemporary industrial and post-industrial life under various forms of administrative government. Even more revealing is how these thinkers have been accurate about the rising power of the state and the falling power of the individual to conduct his of her life. Although descriptions of the future are always destined for failure, the hypotheses that instigated these descriptions seems to have been proven more true than not as though they are merely confirmations of what we see changing before our very eyes.

The Hunger Games very clearly addresses related issues such as the management of human will, the creation of public illusions, and the regimentation of the human body. In a pivotal scene that presumably sets the subtext for all three books, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) give a warning to Seneca Crane (played by Wes Bentley), the 'Head Gamemaker' or producer of the games. The warning is that hope "is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous." The film has many poetic moments such as this.

Another comparable film is Running Man, which I saw as a boy in 1987. The moral distance between the real 1987 and the dystopian vision of 2019 portrayed in Running Man is smaller than the moral distance between the real 2012 and the dystopian vision of about 2100 portrayed in The Hunger Games. And that's a very disturbing idea.

If you examine the sterilization cases in North Carolina, various trends in policing the homeless and foodless, a recent Google patent request that involves using 'environmental conditions' in your home to tailor advertisements, a newly released high-tech Samsung TV that can read your facial expressions and recognize your voice, or last, CIA Director David Petraeus's recent statements regarding the ability to spy on people through their own "personal and household devices"...if you examine these stories, they provide anecdotal evidence that an incomplete but meaningful scientific dictatorship is increasingly possible. Given the economic instability across the planet, the nature of new jobs in the US, rising inequality, global food and water insecurity, you can see other similarities between the story in the film and our own lives. It is for these real and present day reasons that I find The Hunger Games so interesting.

Regardless, The Hunger Games, as a piece of art and art alone, is wonderful. Jennifer Lawrence just about flawlessly holds the film together. A good deal of the cinematography that captures her as a character and a figure is simply beautiful - not to forgot the moving subplot revolving around her protection of a younger competitor in the games named Rue (played by Amandla Stenberg). The pacing of the film is adequate though somewhat off at times. The production design is engaging, especially in the beginning portion of the film; in the capital it sometimes has a digital feel.

Josh Hutcherson is solid in the role of the loyal albeit simple Peeta Mellark. Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks, in particular, play their disturbing roles to a T as game show host and premier escort, respectively. Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz have endearing moments as Katniss's mentor and stylist, respectively. It is perhaps not a film designed to highlight acting but Lawrence and, to a lesser extent, Donald Sutherland are powerful. I suspect it will be among the most popular films of 2012 and, with its sequels, will yield new and refreshing analysis of the approaching now.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Iran and Perpetual War: Kissinger, Dempsey, and Dagan

In March 2003, I wrote letters to a few members of Congress where I basically said the the War in Iraq was a bad idea. I argued it was unsound legally and logistically. Although many people to this day still overlook the legal issues surrounding the War in Iraq during the Bush presidency, some are taking an earlier and more aggressive stance regarding new declarations of war during the current Obama presidency. As for the logistical wisdom of the War in Iraq, most people probably agree it was a mistake or at least we got dragged into supporting it under false pretenses. All these revelations put into focus the psychological, physical, and mortal losses that have occurred in Iraq - on both our side and theirs.

I share this story because I am amazed as I hear many people call for a second pre-emptive war in less than 10 years - this time in Iran. Pre-emptive wars certainly require a great deal of necessity if they are even ever legitimate. I do not think we (or even Israel) have reached that level of necessity. I especially consider two sets of questions as this discussion unfolds.

One, have we reached a point in human history where perpetual war has become inherently necessary? In other words, is our seemingly pathological need for war natural? I do not think so. Although war has a natural role in human life, that role is not perpetual. It is in the very nature of war that it should come into necessity and then fade out of necessity - similar to how individuals have arguments which eventually come to an end (even if they end violently). A world with perpetual war is neither natural nor beneficial to the average person.

So the question becomes, two, why are we in a state of perpetual war? Perhaps we are slowly lurching towards a third world war; and the last 11 years is simply a build up of tensions. Perhaps the answer to the first question is wrong; and perpetual war is the new norm due to population dynamics or some other factor. Perhaps we are simply being manipulated. But why? And by who? A candidate theory is that arms producers and international bankers want more war to sell arms and lend money to all sides of modern conflict.

This theory (T1) deserves careful analysis, which is beyond the scope of this blog. But I wanted to share the idea because, with perhaps two exceptions, I have yet to come across peer-reviewed academic literature or writing from a respected academic in the last 50 years that addresses the subject. Those two possible exceptions are the research of Antony Sutton and Carroll Quigley. I have also read quotes from authentic and informed sources such as Smedley Butler, Douglas MacArthur, and, of course, Dwight D. Eisenhower. But for the most part the subject has remained understudied perhaps for obvious reasons. In truth, perpetual war, if such a state of affairs has emerged, likely has many causes each of which merit attention.

But I digress. Although I can't decisively address the nature of perpetual war here, I can consider the intelligence of a war in Iran as it looks today.

One of my current favorite mainstream sources of news analysis is Fareed Zakaria's Global Public Square (GPS) on CNN. For the time being, I find Zakaria's analysis above average.* As of March 11th, Zakaria has actively editorialized against a war in Iran. He has made several useful observations: 1) Iran has no nuclear weapons, 2) evidence of a desire to possess a nuclear weapon is ambiguous, and 3) evidence that a nuclear Iran will create a nuclear domino effect in the Middle East is weakened by the counter-factual cases of North Korea and Israel.

Although this sunday Zakaria interviewed former US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who shared a somewhat aggressive perspective on Iran, the Sunday before last Zakaria interviewed US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, which had a different tone and content.

The Dempsey interview was revealing in that it illustrated that, despite aggressive political rhetoric, we have unusually analytic, wise, and prudent-thinking people involved in the highest levels of military, which is no surprise. Dempsey made at least three rather interesting points: 1) the Iranian regime has yet to clearly demonstrate the desire to weaponize its nuclear capabilities, 2) "the Iranian regime is a rational actor", and 3) most revealing, it's "not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran."

Dempsey also said that sanctions, international cooperation, diplomacy, and our own military preparedness are working to impact Iranian decision-making. It is unknown whether or not this is true. But time and only time will tell. And although time brings risk so does premature war. A third interview sheds additional light on the question of timing.

On 60 Minutes this sunday Lesley Stahl interviewed former Israeli Defense Forces officer and former Director of Mossad Meir Dagan. The interview proffered several insights. According to Dagan, 1) Iran and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are rational actors albeit in a non-Western sense, 2) the risks of a "regional war" are significant, and, most incredibly, 3) military attacks can only delay the "Iranian nuclear project".

Taken together Dempsey and Dagan paint a calculated picture where the call for war is premature. I am reminded of the Orwell quote: "All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting."

It should be noted that this entire discourse might in its own clever fashion provide the political drama that ushers in the alleged need for war. Just by talking about it, we will inevitably experience it, which returns us to the question of manipulation. Some have called this pattern one application of the Hegelian Dialectic or the problem-reaction-solution process. At this stage we are simply defining what the problem will ultimately look like. It is, unfortunately, a predicable exercise with a predicable outcome. But in having an awareness of the process, we anneal ourselves against the fear, stupidity, and the herd tendency in humanity that might lead us to a possibly unnecessary war.

* Zakaria did a report last March comparing the United States with other countries, focusing on education outcomes, economic growth, life expectancy, innovation potential, and more. It was called "Restoring the American Dream: Getting Back to #1". From my perspective, it was a rare and accurate assessment of American economic and social trends and big picture questions - rare for mainstream media that is.

Some of the analysis was done by Dr. Hans Rosling using Gapminder software, which Rosling helped to develop. It is a very cool tool to better understand how the world has been evolving over the last 200 years. The Zakaria piece is really worth watching because it cuts to the marrow of where we are as a society and provokes questions as to how we may have ended up in the socio-economic situation in which we find ourselves and how to bring about a new generation of innovation, investment, and development.