Friday, February 16, 2018

The Shape of Water, a film of our times

Last week, in an attempt to check off the remaining films on the list of Oscar nominees, I went to see The Shape of Water, by Guillermo Del Toro.  I'm not terribly impressed by this year's list and my two favorites for the year--The Big Sick, a great film about immigrants, and The Florida Project, a harrowing piece of social realism--were not nominated.  I am not going to discuss The Shape of Water primarily as a film, although I will have to give away the plot. It held my interest as a thriller and included several fine performances.  I don't know much about Del Toro's background--he wrote, as well as directed--but it struck me that the film reflected almost perfectly the new left wing world view, based upon identities, that now dominates our campuses, much of the liberal media, and a good deal of the Democratic Party.  Almost without exception, each character's moral worth is determined by their demographic characteristics.

The film is set in the fall of 1962 (the Cuban missile crisis briefly enters in) inside a secret U.S. government research facility that seems to be working on questions relating to the effort to put men in space.  The protagonist of the film, Elisa Esposito (played by the wonderful actress Sally Hawkins), is part of the custodial staff, and a mute.  Her inability to speak makes her sufficiently marginalized to be the film's hero.  Her best and indeed her only friend at work is Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), who happens to be black.  Zelda, as she lets Elisa and the audience know several times, is married to a stereotypical mid-century man who never helps with housework or talks to her very much.  Of him, more later.  Eventually it turns out that it is only her dual, "intersectional" status as a minority--both a woman and black--that makes her so sympathetic to Elisa.

Elisa's only other friend in the movie lives next door to her upstairs from a movie palace--Giles, played by the excellent Richard Jenkins.  Giles is an artist who is still working on drawings of white bread American families for ads, but his work is no longer being accepted, for reasons that are not initially clear. The most likely reason emerges as the film goes on: Giles is gay.  When he makes a very tentative advance towards the manager of a nearby dessert cafe, he is immediately thrown out and asked not to return.  The same cafe turns some black patrons away without serving them.

The drama in the film comes from the arrival at the institute of "Amphibian man," as he is known in the credits, whom the US military has managed to capture somewhere in the Amazon basin.  He is under the care of security man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). The government--and more specifically the military--are interested in Amphibian man because they think he might have natural abilities from which astronauts might benefit, but they quickly decide that he has to be killed, instead.   Strickland is literally a comic-book villain with no human feeling and a particular contempt for Elisa--whom, at one point, he also harasses sexually.   Meanwhile, Elisa has gotten close enough to his tank to see the humanity in him--which none of the white males in charge, of course, can do--and to fall in love with him.  Amphibian man is also being stalked by two Soviet spies, one of whom has infiltrated the research group.  They also decide that he is a threat who must be killed, but the covert spy--the only white male in the film with a heart--has a change of heart and eventually collaborates with Elisa in a plot to help Amphibian man escape, stash him in her apartment, and wait for the water in a local canal to rise to the level that will allow him to escape into the ocean and swim home.  Elisa's other confederate in the escape is, of course, the gay Giles.

The film takes things to the next level after the escape, when Elisa, already in love with Amphibian man, has sex with him.  This struck me as a paean to sex "outside the binary," as the saying now goes.  Strickland the bad guy gets on to their trail thanks to Zelda's husband, who turns out to be a craven coward, suggesting that not even black straight men can be trusted. Eventually the couple outwits, outlasts and outplays the bad guys, and do indeed swim off to live happily ever after in the Amazon basin, leaving the wicked, white-male dominated US of the early 1960s to stew in its own wretched juice.  One can believe, as I do, that all deserve equal rights, without believing that the United States for most of its history has been ruled by an evil white patriarchy, concerned above all with its own hegemony.

The reason that I did feel The Shape of Water was worth this post is that the world view that it embodies--that of an evil white patriarchy oppressing virtuous women, minorities, differently abled peopled, gays, and perhaps transgenders as well--not only dominates campus humanities departments and diversity bureaucracies today, but is constantly popping up in the op-ed pages of major newspapers as well.  "This is an administration," wrote Lindy West in yesterday's New York Times, "that campaigned, explicitly, on a promised return to some mid century mirage of American 'greatness,' when white men ruled unfettered and the rest of us resumed our places on the spectrum between poverty and servitude."  That is exactly the vision of the 1950s and early 1960s on display in The Shape of Water, and it is the image that young people are getting from their college experience, too.  One would never know that that was an era in which young families could afford to buy homes, in which the prison population was a fraction of what it is today, in which the working and middle classes were gaining, and in which 91% marginal tax rates made it impossible for billionaires to emerge who would dominate our politics.  None of that, however, seems to be very important to many of today's liberals.

In the course I taught for many years, Generations in Film, I nearly always used the 1958 classic, Twelve Angry Men about a jury charged with judging the guilt or innocence of a young Hispanic charged with murdering his father.  Every member of the jury is a white male--but for nearly two hours, they argue violently about what should be done about the case.  The clear message of the movie is not that there is anything particularly virtuous about being a white male--virtue lies in ones beliefs and actions, one's openness to evidence and one's capacity for tolerance.  Today much of the left believes in a world where virtue or the lack of it is defined by skin color, gender, and sexual orientation.

Another glimpse of this new ideology came from the last season of the tv series Transparent, when the younger sister Ali--now studying gender--speculates that among all those silenced or marginalized by "the patriarchy"--women, gays, minorities, those outside the binary--must be the new Messiah.  Indeed, the new ideology resembles certain strains of Christian thought--strains which argued that "the last shall be first," and that the poor are the guardians of virtue among us.  But that is a subject for another time.  I do not believe a functioning free society can be built on moral scheme that specifically links virtue and vice with demographic categories.  Meanwhile--to state the obvious--the new ideology, whatever one may think of it, has no resonance at all among a very large number of our fellow citizens.  And since we live in a democracy, their votes count as much as anyone else's.








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Thursday, February 08, 2018

Nuclear weapons

   During the last two weeks, I read a remarkable book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg's chronicle of his long involvement with US nuclear strategy in the 1950s and 1960s and beyond.  Born in 1931, Ellsberg was a child prodigy as a pianist, but as he explained in a documentary about him (and not in this book), he gave up the piano after his mother was killed in a car accident involving his whole family. He went to Harvard in the early 1950s, became an officer in the Marine Corps after the Korean War, and went to work for the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, working under contract to the Air Force on problems relating to the use of nuclear weapons.  It took him only a few years to begin to have serious doubts about American nuclear strategy, and in the Kennedy year he suddenly found himself within striking distance of the highest levels of the government  Regular readers know that I retain a great deal of respect for the politicians and statesmen of that era, whom I still regard as more responsible and intelligent than those of this one, but one cannot read this book without feeling that we were lucky indeed to survive that era.

I am not going to try to summarize the book, but I will try to present what struck me as its most important findings.  Its principal contribution is to show how the military ran rings around civilian authority, including successive Presidents of the United States, regarding the production and deployment of nuclear weapons.  In the years immediately following our victory in the Second World War, as I found in a short article I wrote more than fifteen years ago, both civilian and military authorities accepted the idea that should war with the Soviet Union occur, we would use atomic weapons to try to secure a complete victory.  That strategy, as Ellsberg shows very effectively in a later chapter of the book, grew naturally out of what the British and American air forces had done during the Second World War, when first the British and then the Americans had adopted the strategy of setting whole cities on fire to try to persuade their opponents to surrender.  (Although he doesn't spend much time on the results, the strategy was a failure in Europe, and only the A-bombs made it a success in Asia.)  But General Curtis Lemay, who had run the firebombing campaign against Japanese cities and who became the head of the Strategic Air Command and then Chief of Staff of teh Air Force in the 1950s and 1960s, naturally regarded atomic weapons as simply an easier way to carry out the strategy he had already used against powerful enemy nations, and civilians did not dissent.

The question of strategy became much more urgent in 1949, when the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb of their own, and we found out that they had been privy to the idea of an H-bomb or "superbomb" thanks to their spy Klaus Fuchs, who worked at Los Alamos.  I did not know that not only J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had run the Manhattan project, but also most of our top nuclear scientists, had opposed the immediate development of the H-bomb after the Soviet explosion, both for technical reasons and because many did not regard such an enormously powerful weapon--a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs--as a usable weapon of war.  I did know that George F. Kennan of the State Department--who was a friend of Oppenheimer's--had written one of his most brilliant papers opposing the H-bomb development himself, on the grounds that nuclear weapons could never serve a positive military purpose, and were therefore useless to a power like the United States. Neither Kennan nor the scientists, however, got anywhere, and development went ahead.

Ellsberg reveals that by the late 1950s, our plans for fighting the Soviet Union with hydrogen bombs were so closely held that no civilian, including the Secretary of Defense and President Eisenhower, had ever seen them.  They were referred to as the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan, a name chosen to conceal that they laid out the operational plan for war against the Communist bloc, not just a nuclear order of battle.  And those plans, Ellsberg discovered when he got authority to ask some questions about them, called for the obliteration of the USSR, the satellite states of Eastern Europe, and Communist China.  He interviewed the major commanders in the Pacific and discovered to his horror that there was no plan for fighting the Soviet Union without fighting Communist China.  When he asked a leading Admiral about this, the admiral replied, in effect, that only an irrational President would think of fighting one of the major Communist powers without leaving the other alone.  This raised, for me, another big question, however, which Ellsberg did not directly address.

I learned a lot about military planning for was with Communist China while researching
American Tragedy and more information has come out since then.  Whether such a war broke out over the Taiwan straits (as it threatened to do in 1954 and 1958) or over Southeast Asia (as it seemed likely to do over Laos in 1960-1), our military assumed that it would rapidly escalate to all-out war involving nuclear weapons, beginning with attempts to take out the Chinese Air Force.  But Ellsberg's stories raise the question of whether, at that moment, the military would have wanted to make an all-out attack on the USSR as well.  The answer might easily be yes.  I feel quite sure, incidentally, that Lyndon Johnson understood what the consequences of Chinese intervention in the Vietnam War would be, and that that was why he was so determined not to provoke the Chinese to intervene in the conflict.

Ellsberg was even more interested in issues of command and control.  He eventually was told that the President had authorized subordinate commanders far from Washington to undertake nuclear war in certain circumstances, for instance, if war appeared to have broken out and communications with Washington had broken down.  Ellsberg doesn't seem to know, or perhaps he has forgotten, that 20 years ago, in 1998, the National Security Archive published a remarkable series of documents showing exactly how President Eisenhower had in fact delegated that authority--documents he did not get to see at the time.  I remember circulating the announcement of that publication to my War College colleagues under the subject heading, "The Real Wing Attack Plan R," a reference to Dr. Strangelove. As Ellsberg also makes clear, this was only one of several plot lines in that film that he found uncomfortably close to reality when it came out.  He had also discovered that the military had never trained pilots in returning to base from their fail safe points after being ordered into the air in a crisis, and he became convinced that many would not return, certainly if they did not for any one of a number of reasons receive an order to do so, but would proceed to their targets.

Any war with the USSR, it was assumed, would lead to an all-out pre-emptive attack on its presumed nuclear capabilities, its industrial plant, and therefore, its people, together with simultaneous attacks in Eastern Europe and China.  The Air Force estimated that the attack would kill more than two hundred million people.  When the Kennedy Administration came into office, Ellsberg was spending a good deal of time in Washington, and he got to brief McGeorge Bundy, the President's National Security Adviser, on what our war plans looked like.  It was around that time that satellite reconaissance discovered that the USSR did not have between 500 and 1000 workable ICBMs, as the Air Force had insisted, but rather somewhere between two [2] and four [4] that were operational.  It turned out, Ellsberg discovered, that both Secretary of Defense McNamara and President Kennedy had strong personal reservations against initiating the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances.  They proved that during the Cuban missile crisis, when JFK in particular was determined to avoid war precisely because it was so likely to become nuclear war.  (It was as it happened even more likely than he knew: we now know that the Soviet troops in Cuba would have used tactical nuclear weapons at once if a US invasion had taken place.)  But no President--not Kennedy, not Johnson, or Nixon or Ford or Carter or Reagan or Bush I--had the nerve to order the Chiefs to rewrite their plans for nuclear war along more reasonable lines.  That, to me, is a very frightening piece of historical data.

One reason that some Presidents did not cut back on nuclear options was that they believed nuclear threats had brought benefit to the United States.  Both President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles insisted that the Chinese Communists had agreed to make peace in 1953 because of threats to use nuclear weapons against them, and Ellsberg seems to believe that such threats took place.  He doesn't seem to have read an excellent article from the 1990s by the historian Roger Dingeman that showed that there is really no evidence either that there was such an explicit threat or that it led to the breakthrough in negotiations, which came shortly after the death of Stalin.  Ellsberg also writes that an international peace activist whom he knows heard from Xuan Thuy, one of the Vietnamese Communist negotiators in Paris, that Henry Kissinger, by 1972, had threatened the North Vietnamese 13 times with the use of nuclear weapons.  This raises very interesting questions. I have read Kissinger's own verbatim accounts of those conversations and I am quite sure that those accounts do not include such an explicit threat.  Nor did such a threat ever come up in Kissinger's taped reports to Nixon when he returned from Paris. That does not prove, however, that the story is false--we would have to see the North Vietnamese records of those conversations to be sure.

It turns out, by the way, that Ellsberg was an important source for David Halberstam's 1972 book, The Best and the Brightest, which was written at the same time that Ellsberg was arranging for the leak of the Pentagon Papers and then preparing his defense.  Two stories from Halberstam--of a leading McNamara aide (who turns out to have been Adam Yarmolinsky) reporting that neither McNamara nor JFK would ever begin the use of nukes, and another one about the number of Minuteman missiles that the Administration wanted to build--reappear almost verbatim, but with more specific attribution, in The Doomsday Machine.

In his concluding chapters, Ellsberg laments that US and Russian arsenals are still large enough to trigger a nuclear winter and end human life on earth, and that they are once again increasing.  To eliminate the threat of worldwide nuclear catastrophe, he would like to ban land-based missiles.  (As things now stand, the US government claims the right to deny Iran and North Korea such missiles, but without, of course, renouncing our own.)  He wants a Congressional/scientific investigation of nuclear winter, to cripple the miltary-industrial complex; and dismantle the Russian and American and Chinese and other doomsday machines, their nuclear arsenals.  These are the kinds of proposals tht got a serious hearing at least in intellectual and some political circles 40 years ago, in the wake of Vietnam, but they have little resoance today.  Ellsberg knows that neither the current Congress and Administration or another Democratic Congress is likely to pursue such policies, but he takes comfort from the fall of Communism, which proved the possibility of unimaginable, revolutionary change.   I cannot share his optimism.

Despite all the horrifying data in this book, the fact remains that Eisenhower and Kennedy and Khrushchev and Brezhnev and Nixon and Mao and all the rest avoided a nuclear exchange throughout the period of the Cold War.  That was, I continue to believe, an era of relatively enlightened statesmanship, driven on both sides by high ideals. Yet we no longer live in such an age.  The men and women who were even teenagers or young adults at the time of Hiroshima--like Ellsberg--managed to keep the genie in the bottle. Now however they are almost gone, and future generations will discover whether more nuclear war did in fact become inevitable at the moment that the first bombs went off.


 



 

Friday, February 02, 2018

The Nunes memo

Devin Nunes's memo has been released today with the approval of the White House.  Here are my thoughts about the memo as a document and its significance.  I predict that it will inaugurate a constitutional crisis that may well leave us with an Administration immune from investigation into its ties with a foreign power.

The premise of the memorandum is that the FBI obstained a series of FISA warrants to listen in on the communications of Carter Page, a somewhat mysterious figure who became part of the Trump campaign during 2016, in late 2016.  The memo asserts that the FBI should have told the FISA court that it's request was based on the "Steele dossier" compiled by Christopher Steele (originally at the behest of other Republican candidates, although Nunes naturally leaves that out, but later for the Clinton campaign).  It says that Steele confessed his "bias" against Donald Trump during the campaign, and claims that the FBI paid him for his information as well.  It also says that the FBI terminated its relationship with Steele, whom it had regarded as a trusted source, because of his statements to media outlets during the campaign.

The problem--which is undoubtedly what has enraged the Democratic minority of the House Intelligence Committee, the FBI, and the Justice Department--is that the memo presents no evidence for any of this at all.  It does not tell us what exactly from the Steele dossier was used to craft the FISA application.  It does not make clear how such information (if there really was any) was corroborated by other information known to the FBI from other sources.  It is entirely  possible, based on the memo, that the Bureau wasn't relying on information from the Steele dossier at all.  I suspect that will emerge in leaks from the Democratic minority and the FBI in the next few days, but it will never catch up with the original story.

The whole theory of evidence that the memo is relying on, however, belongs on Fox News or in a speech by the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, not in a document issued by a House committee.   The premise seems to be that since Michael Steele was being paid by the Clinton campaign and did not want Donald Trump to become President of the United States, the FBI had an obligation to disregard anything he said, rather than to act on it.  It does not occur to the authors of the memo (on which more later) that a person might become very concerned about the election of a certain person as President because one had received credible information to the effect that that person and his campaign were closely connected to a hostile foreign power.   The memo, in short, is presuming that President Trump and his campaign must be innocent, and that therefore anyone who claims otherwise must be guilty of partisan opposition to him.  And that is why I believe, although I cannot prove it, that the ultimate source of the memo is Donald Trump and people very close to him.

There is another layer to the way in which the memo is presented. Because it omits any specific information at all about the warrant or its content, it does not include any classified information.  But if Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Committee, were to release information refuting the claims and logic of the memo, he probably would be guilty of releasing classified information.  By relying on asserting, rather than demonstrating, its key argument--that the application for the warrant was based on the Steele dossier--the memo makes it harder for anyone to disprove it.

The memo has to be seen in the context of an incident ten months ago involving Nunes, the White House, and the very same investigation, which was described again this week in the New York Times.




"Then, in March, as the investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election appeared to be picking up momentum, Mr. Nunes set off a bizarre Washington drama when he made a late-night dash to the White House, and followed up with a morning news conference in which he claimed that he had been given intelligence reports that Mr. Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies during the campaign.

"Furthermore, Mr. Nunes charged, the identities of the Mr. Trump and his associates swept up by the surveillance, which are supposed to be “masked” in intelligence reports, had been unlawfully revealed in classified reports at the order of senior Obama administration officials.

"It turned out that the intelligence cited by Mr. Nunes was given to him by a pair of senior officials at the Trump White House, and that it had selectively cited certain incidents to show wrongdoing where none may have existed. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, declared that Mr. Nunes was running an “Inspector Clouseau investigation.”

"The incident prompted an ethics investigation and forced Mr. Nunes to recuse himself from the committee’s Russia investigation, a move that Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and a committee member, said almost certainly left Mr. Nunes feeling disappointed."

Rather than doing his job of indepedently overseeing the intelligence community and its relationship with the White House, Nunes was acting as the mouthpiece and shill of the Trump Administration in its efforts to undermine the FBI--efforts which then led to the firing of James Comey.  As it turned out, the ethics investigation cleared Nunes and he witdrew his recusal.  He has now taken a new and bigger step along the same lines. I do not know, but I would not be at all surprised if the "Nunes memo," like the intelligence he claimed to have discovered last March, had come from the Trump White House in the first place.

President Trump, I think, will now use the memo to argue that the investigation of the Russian connection is fundamentally and irrevocably tainted because it began as a partisan withhunt undertaken by the Clinton campaign through Steele.  Indeed, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his press secretary, has already been saying this for some time.  I think the odds are better than 50-50 that the President will fire Robert Mueller, shut down the independent investigation, and fire Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein, who is rather pointedly dragged into the Nunes memo as well.  That, I suspect, is why leading Republicans in the last week have been saying that there is no need for legislation to protect Robert Mueller: they know he'll be fired soon.  Buoyed by the tax cut, the booming stock market, and continued economic growth, the Republicans, like the President, have talked themselves into the idea that they are on the way to a new era and a great political triumph, and that only an unfair, partisan investigation stands in their way. In addition, it now develops that a great many Republican legislators, including Mitch McConnell,. have received large campaign contributions from Russia-lined interests as well.  They too may have a personal interest in shutting down the investigation of Russian influence.

Outrage will break out among the mainstream media and the Democrats if Trump fires Mueller, but the Administration won't care.  Will such outrage move large numbers of swing voters to vote Democratic next fall and give the Democrats control of at least one house of Congress? I don't know, but I'm skeptical.  The Republicans are betting that the mass of our people are sick of Washington scandals, and they may be right.  Having endured Whitewater, Monicagate, Benghazi, birtherism, the WMD controversy, and so much more, our people may just be tired of it all.  Once again, the Republicans in Washington are trying to even the score.  In 1999 some of them admitted they were impeaching Clinton as revenge for Watergate.  But Clinton was acquitted, and now they may be determined to see that Trump gets away with it too.

The President, I suspect, simply has to stop the investigation because it's bound to reveal damaging information about himself and many of those closest to him.  That is why he, like Nixon, had to begin trying to stop the investigation right away.  Nixon's attempts culminated in the Saturday Night Massacre, after which bipartisan outrage forced him to back down. Trump won't face bipartisan outrage.  In our era of all-out partisanship--the fourth great crisis of American national life--he may prevail.