Blind Man with a Pistol

The ‘Impartial’ BBC

Oh, BBC, never change. When the BBC is not ‘reporting’ on the elections of former crown colonies in Africa with the trademark British smirk that communicates both imperial disdain and condescension, it is mired in sensational controversies surrounding Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and Andrew Sachs’s granddaughter. So it is with ironic bemusement that I read that in their recent decision not to air an emergence appeal for Gaza aid by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the BBC have rooted their refusal in ‘impartiality’.

The BBC decision was made because of question marks about the delivery of aid in a volatile situation and also to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story. However, the BBC will, of course, continue to report the humanitarian story in Gaza.

Well, it is comforting to know that the BBC is as impartial to suffering in Gaza as it is partial to the endless barrage of real estate  and cooking programs that make up its daily schedules. Also bizarre is the appeal to ‘question marks’ about the prospect of aid actually being delivered. If they are truly concerned with impartiality, shouldn’t those ‘question marks’ be left up to the viewer, or, indeed, elaborated and exposed by the crack BBC news team? Instead, such concerns seem tacked on in a desperate attempt to prove that the BBC is not just some heartless crown corporation. Too bad that such concerns look to disappear, and BBC Director General Mark Thompson admits that ‘this reason for declining to broadcast the appeal will no longer be relevant’.

So the BBC is tying its masts to the ‘more fundamental’ reason of  ‘impartiality’. The implication, of course, is that acknowledging human suffering in Gaza would indicate bias against Israel. That asking to assist non-combatant victims who have had their families killed, their homes and livelihoods destroyed, and their basic human dignity stripped from their persons would somehow, in the mind of BBC brass, favours Hamas. So in a grotesque sleight-of-hand, the BBC denies the humanity of one-and-a-half-million Palestinians and calls it honesty.

Luckily, the British public aren’t fooled, despite the fact that Britain as a whole is still highly divided on the crisis in Gaza. This division is due, ironically enough, to the refusal of the BBC to prosecute the violence and criminality of Israel’s apartheid policies. A group of 60 MPs are expected to lead a motion today at Westminster, urging the BBC to air the appeal. Now of course, if the BBC reverses its decision (which would be the right move), it will be seen as ceding to political influence—a now inevitable predicament the initial decision was meant to avoid.

However, what is most discomfiting about the pathetic floundering of Mark Thompson and the BBC, is that they’ve got the absurdity and tragedy of the current political climate exactly right. The most devastating moment of Ari Folman’s powerful animated film Waltz with Bashir (2008), which recounts an Israeli soldier’s memory of the massacre of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Phalangist militiamen and the complicitness of the Israeli Defence Forces, arrives when a ghostly hallucination of the protagonist switches abruptly from animation to live action. Since the film mostly surrounds the reconstruction of national memory through interviews with former soldiers and friends, the object of the massacre, the Palestinians themselves, are largely absent from the film. Indeed, as the film opens, the protagonist has a memory hole where the massacre should be. Palestinians are relegated to fleeting shots through telescopic lenses. The only time they feature centrally in any scene is in Ari Folman’s recurring hallucinatory dream, where a spectre-like stream of veiled women flow past him, open mouths frozen in soundless wails. Then, suddenly, at the film’s conclusion, these women become real: we can hear their screams and see the expression of suffering etched upon their faces. We are confronted with their humanity for the first time.

The Palestinians are an absent people. In the minds of Israel and the West, they simply do not exist. So when the BBC decides that the spirit of impartiality dictates that acknowledging the suffering of Gaza is not an option, they are correct. Because to acknowledge such suffering would be to acknowledge their humanity, which would in turn demand that Palestine’s right to self-determination, to sovereignty and to basic human dignity is upheld.  As long as Palestine is reduced to the caricature of an illegal, hostile, genocidal Hamas launching indiscriminate rockets at Israeli civilians, the West can remain ‘impartial’ to a humanity it cannot see.

‘Partial’ means ‘biased’ or ‘one-sided’, but it also means ‘incomplete’. It is a shame that the BBC thinks it can be less partial by refusing to broadcast the humanity of a suffering people. Click here to assist in the DEC’s appeal to Gaza aid.

Understanding Hope

Let me begin by saying that I am baffled by America. I do not know how one could possibly fix a nation so polarized, so self-absorbed, so isolated and so pervasive. Is ‘diverse’ even the right word for a country that can as easily lynch a black man as elect one as president? So when I see Barack Obama pick the homophobic and misogynist Rick Warren to introduce his inauguration, I can say that I understand. How else can you reach out to an entire class of people who are afraid, powerless and furious at a country that has abandoned them? If hate is the medium in which you have endured your entire life, what other language can you understand? Yet how can I understand this and condemn in my heart what I know is tantamount to fascism? How can I understand this and look my gay and lesbian friends in the eye?

German writer Bernhard Schlink’s bestselling novel The Reader (1997) (Der Vorleser [1995]) follows Michael Berg, who at fifteen, has a lengthy affair with Hanna Schmitz, a 36-year old tram driver.  Many years later as a law student, Michael observes a war crimes trial for Nazi crimes, in which Hannah is one of the defendants. Michael struggles to understand the position of his first love, while his horror at her crime (unbeknownst to Michael, Hanna worked as a concentration camp guard. She and a group of other female guards watched as a church full of escaped Jewish prisoners burned to the ground, killing all inside) prohibits him from achieving full comprehension, closure or absolution.

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned.When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.

Hanna, of course, is Schlink’s allegory for postwar Germany. Here, too, is America. We find ourselves declaring ‘cautious optimism’ over the Obama administration. How can we, after the last eight years, reconcile Obama’s laudable decision to close Guantanamo in one year (albeit not in 100 days, as The Center for Constitutional Law recommends) with his hawkish cabinet appointments which include Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emmanuel and George W. Bush’s Defence Secretary Robert Gates? Is the twin inauguration invitation to homophobic evangelical Rick Warren and civil rights lion Joseph Lowery inclusive or ingratiatory?

And how can we parse a statement like this, that formed the heart of Obama’s impressive inauguration speech:

Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

Such a statement embodies the tenor of Obama’s presedential actions to date: now conciliatory, now aggressive. A pull-out in Iraq followed by a renewed offensive in Afghanistan. A promise to talk, finally, with our neighbours and with our enemies followed by an unapologetic renunciation and disavowal of blame. And where, Obama, is Gaza? Which world do you live in? Do we want, finally, consensus in America if it is a consensus of messianic warmongering and imperialism?

In Plato’s Ion, Socrates is discussing the art of oration with the great rhapsode Ion. Ion insists that rhapsodes contain multitudes. That is, they must be fluent in the abilities of the characters they channel in order to produce a realistic performance. But, Socrates questions, will you know how to speak of these abilities better than the workman himself? After considering it, Ion demurrs. A fisherman, a spinster, a cowherd, a pilot—they will all know their trade better than the rhapsode. Then Socrates asks, ‘Will he know what a general ought to say when exhorting his soldiers?’

Ion. Yes, that is the sort of thing which the rhapsode will be sure to know.
Well, but is the art of the rhapsode the art of the general?
I am sure that I should know what a general ought to say.
Soc. And in judging of the general’s art, do you judge of it as a general or a rhapsode?
To me there appears to be no difference between them.
Soc. What do you mean? Do you mean to say that the art of the rhapsode and of the general is the same?
Ion. Yes, one and the same.
Soc. Then he who is a good rhapsode is also a good general?
Ion. Certainly, Socrates.
Soc. And he who is a good general is also a good rhapsode?
Ion. No; I do not say that.
Soc. But you do say that he who is a good rhapsode is also a good general.
Ion. Certainly.
Soc. And you are the best of Hellenic rhapsodes?
Ion. Far the best, Socrates.
Soc. And are you the best general, Ion?
Ion. To be sure, Socrates; and Homer was my master.

I don’t throw in with Plato, but he is the caution in our optimism. If a rhapsode, in Plato’s estimation, is good at two things—poetry and war—then how happy can we be that we have the most charismatic and erudite president in living memory? How can we laud his attempts at understanding and keep our moral courage against the forces of hate and fascism that have such a heavy foothold in America? Or is this compromise we have underwritten simply a capitulation to free-market philosophy on an emotional, affective level?

Here’s hoping, America.

This is not Bedford Falls


I always disliked Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as a teenager. I couldn’t buy that George Bailey, the intrepid cavalier whose only reward for discarding his lifelong hopes and dreams for conservative family security was not committing suicide and not losing the livelihood he never wanted. I know there’s suposed to be something about the respect of your peers and the triumph of the human heart, but it always seemed rather thin to me.  This was eventualy compounded with an innate suspicion that because Paramount ‘forgot’ to renew its copyright in 1974 and let it enter the public domain, it became a “Holiday Classic” simply by virtue that broadcasters could play the movie ad nauseum.

Lately, however, my opinion of the film is changing. I’ve decided that Capra’s film is essentially a film noir in sheep’s clothing. Aesthetically, of course, the film uses many noir tropes: voice overs, flashbacks, chiaroscuro lighting and the cynical irony of Jimmy Stewart. But this style evidences nothing more than perhaps the fashion of the times. What truly establishes It’s a Wonderful Life as a noir is its treatment of the noir subject: the tough, ironic specimen of compromised masculinity who is drawn rather than travels through life, a a passive observer to forces beyond his control.

Gary Kamiya at Salon recently wrote about Capra’s opus, in which he hails the part of the film that is most explicitly film noir: the sultry, urban portrayal of a George Bailey-less world.

In Capra’s Tale of Two Cities, Pottersville is the Bad Place. It’s the demonic foil to Bedford Falls, the sweet, Norman Rockwell-like town in which George grows up. Named after the evil Mr. Potter, Pottersville is the setting for George’s brief, nightmarish trip through a world in which he never existed. In that alternative universe, Potter has triumphed, and we are intended to shudder in horror at the sinful city he has spawned — a kind of combo pack of Sodom, Gomorrah, Times Square in 1972, Tokyo’s hostess district, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast ca. 1884 and one of those demon-infested burgs dimly visible in the background of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

There’s just one problem: Pottersville rocks!

It sure does. Or at least, it certainly appears to. But what is particularly striking about this section of the film is that Pottersville more closely resembles the ‘real’ America: dehumanizing and debauched, rife unemployment, and criminally overseen by a General Sternwood-esque capitalist magnate, Mr. Potter. Bedford Falls, on the other hand, the ‘reality’ of the film, comes across as an eerie dream world of community, fraternity and equality (albeit with a creepy dose of privacy forfeiture). This dream world pales in the context of postwar America where a generation of men are searching for their identity, women are searching for their rights, and the capitalist state apparatus is violently rebuking such ideals at every opportunity in the face of the communist menace. Indeed, there is something powerfully unsettling about the film’s opening shot that brazenly declares to the viewer “YOU ARE NOW IN BEDFORD FALLS” when we know, emphatically, we are not. Its uncanniness rivals Rene Magritte’s famous ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’.

Ironically, Bailey’s ‘dream’ world—that is, one where he has left Bedford Falls for college, travels or the war (!)—is the same as the one where he dies (paging Dr. Lacan). It’s also the real America. Essentially, America has dreamed itself, mediated by Bedford Falls where we all (do not) reside. Suddenly, we see the emergence of the noir universe, in which we are parasitic stowaways to our own capitalistic fantasies. How appropriate, then, that in the inflated consumerism of contemporary Christmas, this ‘wonderful’ film has monopolized our holidays by virtue of its repeatability, marketability and libidinal bribery.

Kamiya certainly notices this, although his conclusion is perhaps less jaded than my own:

I have made, I believe, a definitive case that Pottersville has gotten a bad rap and that Bedford Falls is grossly overrated. But if there are any who are still unconvinced, I would just like to remind them of one little detail: in the real world, Potter won.

We all live in Pottersville now. Bedford Falls is gone. The plucky little Savings and Loan closed down years ago, just like in George’s nightmare. Cleaned up, his evil eyebrows removed, armed with a good PR firm, Mr. Potter goes merrily about his business, “consolidating” the George Baileys of the world. To cling to dreams of a bucolic America where the little guy defeats the forces of Big Business and the policeman and the taxi driver and the druggist and the banker all sing Auld Lang Syne together is just to ask for heartbreak and confusion when you turn off the TV and open your front door.

So don’t fight it. It’s a Pottersville world! Welcome jitterbuggers! Get me — (ka-ching!) — I’m giving out wings!

On my last watching of It’s a Wonderful Life I found myself really, truly enjoying it, both its preciousness and its stylistic gall. Perhaps Kamiya’s solution is the best one. If you’re offering a two-for-one Boxing Day sale on wings, I’ll be the first to queue up.

hat-tip to Julio