Thursday, May 18, 2006

Torture too real

The Washington Post recently published a bizarre story about the MPAA banning the poster for the new doco by acclaimed British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom. The doco, titled 'The Road to Guantanamo", investigates the abuses and torture within the infamous US detention facility, following the stories of three British prisoners who were released after two years but with no charges ever filed against them.

Its poster (as above) was deemed by the MPAA as being too distressful because of its depiction of torture (in particular, the bag over the head). The approved poster (left) was framed to show only the prisoner's shackled hands.

This smacks of political censorship. Especially when we compare it to the posters the MPAA did approve for the recent, #1 box office horror movie, 'Hostel'. Both films centre on torture. The difference? 'Hostel' is fictional and unapologetically exploitative of torture. 'Road', on the other hand, actually proposes to take a serious and concerned look at the issue.

The WaPo article distills the layers of irony better than I can:

"Although Osterberg says that torture is not specifically cited in the guidelines governing print materials, the proscription against violence, blood and disturbing scenes "would probably encompass" it. Thus, the MPAA's decision puts it at odds with the U.S. government, which has repeatedly defended techniques, including hooding prisoners, as not legally torture, and not inconsistent with the basic American values the MPAA tries to uphold.

In a 2003 Department of Defense report, hooding was given a green light, as not inconsistent with the United States' obligations under international conventions or U.S. law. The report also approved prolonged standing, though stipulated that it "should never make the detainee exhausted to the point of weakness or collapse." And that it not be "enforced by physical restraints."

Which means that the MPAA required a change in the image that removed something not deemed torture (hooding) and focused the image on the bound hands and extended arms that clearly depicts someone forced to stand (or worse, hang) under restraint to the point of collapse, which might well be torture."

The semiotics of torture. I get chills.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Karl Indicted...Maybe

Jason Leopold at reported something Saturday that has been ignored by the mainstream media: Karl Rove has been indicted.

According to five of Leopold's anonymous sources, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald spent half a day on Friday telling Karl Rove and his attorney, Robert Luskin, about the indictment, informing Rove that he had 24 business hours to get his affairs in order. The story has been vigorously denied by a spokesman for Rove as well as directly by his attorney. It has still not yet been officially announced nor will you see it confirmed in the mainstream media. Leopold has broken several stories on truthout on the Plame Affair (most reliable some not) and he stands by his latest story, having re-checked with his sources and promising to out them if he is proved wrong. His latest estimate is that the indictment will be officially announced "either Wednesday or Friday" (24 business hours being about three days, and Wednesday and Friday the days when the Grand Jury meets every week).

The story has attracted criticism from the MSM as well as raising a number of issues simmering between the mainstream media and indy media sites. If the story turns out to be true, it will be one of the biggest stories to have been broken by an independent news site and will bring the MSM to shame. If it proves to be a fabrication, it'll not only provide another, huge stumbling block for internet credibility but calls into question whether Leopold himself was set up, either by Fitzgerald looking to entrap possible leakers, or the White House, in perhaps some sort of Rove payback to one of the reporters constantly at his heels.

At the risk of having egg on my face by Friday, here's my two cents: I'm skeptical. Mainly because of Leopold's shady background (a previous breaking story at Salon over Enron and a Bush Administration official could later not be substantiated), but also the vagueness over his sources and the nagging question about why Rove's people would deny the story so outright if they knew they would be disproved later in the week. Granted Rove's spokesman has been known to lie before (remember when he denied Rove was a 'Target' in the investigation?) but Leopold is also a shady character with a history of lying, stealing and even mental illness. Leopold seems to be placing what's left of his career and credibility on this story. It's a leap of faith I'm not quite ready to take.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Colbert: Assimilated or Assimilating?

RR reader Ryan Van Den Nouwelant thinks Colbert may have played into Bush's hands:

When Labour polling showed Tony Blair to be considered too confident they sent him on a number of right of centre interviews to get grilled to buggery. Looking suitably humble and receiving some fairly bias criticism improved public perception no end.
I just hope Colbert wasn't inadvertantly doing Bush a favour, with a swinging public perceiving the leftist ribbing inappropriate for the occasion.

This is an interesting argument. Lee Siegel over at The New Republic raises a similar point, positing that Colbert's criticism was already planned for and assimilated by Bush. But I don't buy it.

More interestingly,Jodi discusses it in reference to Zizek on the contained transgression in ideology. According to the theory, dissidence occupies an escapist and cathartic space within the space of the dominant ideology, thus paradoxically allowing people to accept and conform to the very things they criticise, while privately believing that they play no real part in it. As Padraig says, "The knowing cynical distance from the ruling ideology, the fact that everyone knew it was a sham, actually enabled it to function."

And in a lot of ways, this is exactly what the White House Correspondents Dinner has traditionally been all about: 'Humbling' the President through faux criticism (ie. jokes about how he talks not how he acts), expunging any excess hate and making him more personal to voters. In fact, this 'humility as spin' has been a well used Bush strategy for containment of criticism.

However, in response to Ryan, I think Bush's version of humility has been very different to Blair's. While Blair looks genuinely sympathetic and regretful in those interviews, drowning himself in sweat, furrowing his brow and looking quite helpless, Bush maintains his forceful swagger, his jokey deflections and endless platitudes about how great freedom and differing viewpoints are. While Blair's humility is based on acceptance, Bush's humility is just more denial. And, judging from the consistently declining approval ratings, I think the public are becoming more and more aware (and tired) of this protective level of media spin.

What I think was so sublime about Colbert then was not his critical distance but precisely his over-identification with Bush. And not just in his co-option of the Bush spin to its logical extreme, but the startling visual fact that Colbert was no longer on a contained, fantasmatic, late night Comedy Central spot but transposed six feet from the President in an official White House function containing Karl Rove, Scott McClellan, Fox News and 2,000 'other' political journalists. Colbert's previous subversive distance became a shocking engagement of negation. He was both the attack and the response on Bush, the pin that punctures the circle of spin. Perhaps the reason journalists didn't find him funny in the end was precisely because his humour was all too real. Colbert trounced the fantasmic level of transgressiveness epitomised in Bush's reflexive spin and, through its very acceptance, forced Bush to assimilate. The key problem was that (and people may differ in opinion here) I don't think Bush changed his response. The grim look, the smile and pat on the back after the speech, the angry 'ready to blow' backroom reports afterwards...There was no sincerity, understanding or humility there. Just more denial. If anything, I felt more sympathy for Colbert. With little laughter coming from the audience and only the icy glare from Bush to respond to, you can't help but feel for the guy - if only in the protective feeling of disbelief!
That all said, Ryan raises a good point. With approval ratings as bad as they are and the political crises overwhelming, Bush has got to take on the criticism somehow and the only way may be to absorb it (think about the public's turn of support for Clinton when he got visibly hammered by Ken Starr over Monica Lewinsky). As a future spin strategy then, I think there's a good possibility you might be right.