Archive for February, 2005

War and the Everyday

Just got the good news that a paper I’d proposed for this year’s Visible Evidence conference has been accepted (the paper’s title: “War and the Everyday: Documentary and Representations of the Iraq War”). It looks like a really cool conference, with its “single-stream program,” in which all panels are followed by all of the conference’s participants. The conference has close ties to a series of books by University of Minnesota Press and usually seems to feature lots of good speakers on documentary, so I’m really looking forward to it.

The other good news? The conference is in Montreal. I’ve never been there before, so that should be lots of fun, too.

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Oscars 2005 Open Thread

Will Scorsese finally win an Academy Award? How many times will the show’s producers have to press the mute button? Who’ll make the most overtly political Oscar speech? Who’s wearing the worst tuxedo? Discuss all the important questions of the night right here.

Update: I guess the answer to that first question is “no.” In other news, I recieved a very gracious “thank you” during one of tonight’s acceptance speeches.

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Oscar Goes to Babylon

It’s Oscar night in Bush’s America, one of the most public and most lavish displays of self-congratulation that you’ll ever see. With an auditorium full of people professionally trained in the art of creating eye-pleasing spectacles, you can count on carefully choreographed dances, witty musical numbers, and dazzling costumes. And Dargis is right that the Oscars make public the Hollywood industry’s non-stop conversation about itslef, making the event a translucent window into the belly of the culture industry, or at least one branch of it. But, apparently nobody in Bush’s America is watching (or at least not watching the whole shebang), and Hollywood is worried, because if nobody watches, it’s almost like the whole thing didn’t happen. So, how to recapture audience interest when there are so many distractions in the media landscape?

As Frank Rich notes, this year’s nominees for best picture, as measured by box office numbers, seem to have little cultural relevance. Oscar faves Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator have both made less than $100 million, making the Oscars a less anticipated event than usual. Even I’d forgotten that the Oscars were on Sunday (until Chris Rock reminded me), and I’m a film junkie whose cinema fix can never be truly satiated. But, as Rich notes, those Hollywood types know what sells. There’s a reason why Hollywood seeks out the assiatnace of an accounting firm to ensure the fairness of the Oscar races. And Hollywood knows that indecency (or the possibility of indecency) is hot right now.

Quick aside: is it an accident that these indecency debates often hover around “unscripted” or live events? Is there something about the continegcy of live TV (in which anything could potentially happen) that provokes the cultural police? Even with the countless cameras and quick-fingered producers ready to press the mute button, there seems to be a tremendous fear of the event itself, that it could cycle into something beyond control of the cultural scriptwriters.

Rich notes that the big “live” spectacles–the Super Bowl, the Grammys, the Golden Globes–have all seen their ratings decline in this post-TiVo, post-wardrobe malfunction society where the unscripted is dangerous, a potential threat to innocent eyes and ears. Rich then reasons that Hollywood’s response to this ratings decline is not to promise a cleaned-up Oscars, safe for the children of Bush’s America, but quite the opposite. By tabbing Chris Rock to host, the marketers of the show are selling the idea that they’ll be pushing boundaries. Rock has been happily playing along, stirring up controversy in interviews all week long (the Oscars have a “gay following?” the technical awards are “boring?”), until someone, Matt Drudge, finally took the bait and complained about the potential for offense on Oscar night. Even discussions of Oscar’s self-censorship, in this case Robin Williams’ political hot potato musical number, feed the anticipation of potential controversy. Just what will that Patch Doubtfire guy do next?

Of course, as Rich points out, it’s no secret that many of the same right-wing organizations that rail against indecency are also part of the same media conglomerates, such as Comcast and, until recently, Adelphia, that sell “indecent” materials. Fox is the classic example here, with Rupert Murdoch’s FOX News openly supporting family values canddiates while the FOX network traffics in some of the sleazier network TV shows currently being broadcast. This game is beatifully supported by organizations such as the Parents Television Council, which features a concept known as the “Worst TV Clip of the Week,” allowing “concerned parents” to view the worst that TV has to offer. Such an approach only feeds the shows’ notoreity, and I’d be willing to bet that being featured on the “Wosrt Clip of the Week” only increases one’s audience as a show, which is why Desperate Housewives, love or hate it, has become such a ratings machine. In my own experience, those Sunday School classes during my teenage years that warned against the seductions of rock-and/or-roll only fueled my desire to go out and listen to Led Zeppelin and the Eagles (and, yes, those classes were about ten to fifteen years behind the rest of the music world).

So what we have, yet again, is another giant distraction. Media watchdog organizations will continue to decry the state of entertainment, while the market for controversial material will prevail. As Rich notes, “it is still the American way to lament indecency even while gobbling it up.” So, yes, the name of the game is profit, and since controversy sells, that’s what we’ll see on Oscar night, even if there really isn’t any controversy. The illusion of potential controversy is enough to keep us tuned in (except druing the technical awards montage). Meanwhile, this family values rhetoric does have real consequences in silencing certain PBS shows, making the network far more timid than it used to be, as the documentary about soldiers ilustrates. The blackmail of PBS also prevents potentially productive conversations about sexuality, especially if Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has her way. Of course, I’ll probably be right in front of my TV, waiting for any potential controversy, any disruption in Oscar’s seamless spectacle. And like last year, I may live blog the whole thing if I’m in the mood.

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“The Stuff that they had Discarded”

The third installment of the Film Love series, “NOW! Short Films on African American Experience in the 1960s,” gave a fantastic overview of documentary and experimental film being done in that era. Andy Ditzler, of Frequent Small Meals, presented a great selection of rarely seen footage in a variety of formats (DVD, VHS, and even 16mm).

The night opened with a 1966 CBS-TV interview between Mike Wallace (weird to see him so young) and the rising star of the Black Power movement, Stokeley Carmichael, who was portrayed in this broadcast as a potential threat to Martin Luther King’s leadership in the Civil Rights movement. This interview was interesting to me on several levels. First the sequence opened with the presentation of Carmichael speaking at a rally using low-angle shots to portray him as looming over camera. But, more than anything, as Ditzler noted, it’s interesting to watch how the major networks “presented” these conflicts within the Civil Rights movement.

The CBS broadcast was followed by a screening, in 16mm, of experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs’ Perfect Film. Jacobs, who frequently made use of found footage, reports that in the case of Perfect Film, he essentially left this footage alone because it was already “perfect.” The footage, discarded outtakes from a TV studio, primarily consists of an interview with a black radio reporter giving his eyewitness account of Malcolm X’s assassination. Mixed with the interview footage, we see other interviewees on the street, and a detective giving his account, but what makes this film more intriguing are the gaps of black leader and the “silent” exterior shots of Harlem buildings, to which the director would have presumably added voice-over or music later. The effect of the footage as it stands is to produce contemplation about Malcolm’s life and that era of American life.

There were two major highlights for me. First, Santiago Alvarez’s energetic agit-prop film, NOW!, powerfully uses Lena Horne’s civil rights anthem over still photographs of lynchings and police brutality mixed with shots of protest and revolt. Despite the heavy use of stills, Alvarez’s restless camera pans and zooms, giving the film a very energetic feel. Worth noting: Extreme Low Frequency Films has re-relased some of Alvarez’s work, including NOW!, on a 2-DVD compilation, He Who Hits First Hits Twice: The Films of Santiago Alvarez (here’s an Austin Chronicle review).

The other major highlight was a 1964 cinema verite-syle documentary by Eugene Marner and Carole Satrina, Phyllis and Terry, which focuses on two black teenage girls. The two girls have an incredible sense of comic chemistry, playing off each other, finishing the other’s stories, with an ease in front of the camera that is utterly compelling.

Another item on the program was “Malcolm X: Nationalist or Humanist,” an episode of the NET public TV series, Black Journal, a newsmagazine-style show about black culture, politics, and arts. The episode was made several months after Malcolm’s death and emphasizes his attempts to internationalize the Civil Rights movement. Some great footage of Malcolm giving a speech in Mississippi. This Malcolm X material fit nicely with Third World Newsreel’s presentation of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In both cases, the emphasis seems to be on the role of alternative media in addressing African-American experience in the 1960s.

In that sense, the program fit very neatly together in providing an overview, or introduction, to this material. I would have loved to have seen more of the innovative film work by Jacobs and Alvarez, but this particular Film Love screening has certainly provided me with many other avenues for exploration. In fact, if I can get my hands on the DVD at some point, some of Alvarez’s work might fit neatly into future Introduction to Film or Experimental Film classes. I’d certainly encourage others to attend future Film Love screenings. Ditzler put together a great program of rarely seen films, and this material certainly deserves a wider audience. My only gripe: I would have enjoyed a brief moderated group discussion after the screenings to hear reactions from other members of the audience.

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Friday Movie Links

Just a couple of quick, unrelated film links to brighten everyone’s Friday afternoon. First, I came across this Reuters article on Fespaco (English version), the biennial pan-African film festival, which starts this weekend. Of interest to me: the festival’s top award, the Etalon d’Or de Yennenga, or Gold Stallion of Yennenga, is awarded to the film that best depicts African relaities, a crtiterion that some filmmakers have begun to question (I originally found this story via Cinema Minima, but before I had enough coffee to blog it).

Second, the very cool news that the cinetrix is blogging the run-up to the Independent Spirit awards and teh Oscars for Bravo. If you have any suggestions for Independent Spirit Awards drinking games (take a sip every time a winner thanks the other nominees?), send them her way.

Also via the cinetrix, the MPAA has reversed its initial decision to give Gunner Palace an R-rating, making it the “most profane PG-13 picture ever,” according to Palm Pictures. Here’s the scoop from the World Peace Herald. Turns out that the MPAA is hip after all.

Depending on my ability to get work done (I have some serious dealines for a couple of applications), I’ll be attending at least one of the screenings I mentioned last night. If you’re in the Atlanta area, you should, too.

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Weekend Movie Happenings

Three (really) independent film events this weekend here in Hotlanta. Friday night at the Eyedrum, Film Love 3 will be playing at the Eyedrum. Film Love 3 presents short films made and released in the 1960s that depict African-American experiences during that decade.

Next, Franklin Lopez’s independent media group, subMedia, will be clebrating their 10th anniversary with a a party at Eyedrum, this Saturday, starting at 8 PM. The party will feature a punk band from El Salvador, fire juggling, and indie films by Eyekiss and POPfilms.

Or you might also check out the latest installment of the Dailies Project, Losing Control, playing at Decatur’s Push Push Theater, a series of short film collaborations between local filmmakers and theater artists.

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The Real AARP Agenda

I’ve been thinking about Jimbo’s recent discussion (also here) of “cynical reason” quite a bit over the last few days. Jimbo’s comments arose out of a discussion of David Horowitz’s assertion that university professors work an average of six to nine hours a week while collecting annual salaries of over $150,000. Now, if I lived in such a reality, the last few months of my life would have been far less stressful. Of course, Jimbo’s point was that Horowitz knows very well that professors don’t collect such salaries or work so little. Instead, he’s engaging in cynical reason, saying what he knows to be false in order to further some other goal, whatever that may be.

Today’s New York Times offers yet another example of this kind of cynicism, with Maureen Dowd’s column on the USA Next group, a group which wants to criticize the AARP’s opposition to Bushian Social Security “reform.” In order to criticize the AARP, USA Next recently posted a “comically hyperbolic” advertisement on the American Spectator website alleging that the AARP not only supports gay marriage but also hates the troops, both horrible sins under the Bush regime. The ad suggests that because the AARP opposed the Ohio “gay marriage” amendment, on the grounds that the amendment’s vague wording might afect legal recognition of any union, including older heterosexuals living together, they must by default condone gay marriage. The AARP ostensibly does not “support the troops” because they do not specifically endorse the USA Next position on combat veterans’ health benefits, which is, of course, a non-issue when it comes to the AARP position on Social Security.

In the article, the President of USA Next, Charlie Jarvis readily admits that he doesn’t believe that the AARP is a front for a pro-gay, anti-troops agenda, but knew that he could count on liberal bloggers to express outrage and moral indignation at his absurd allegations, as I am now. But then Jarvis gleefully admits that that’s exactly what he wants (and that’s why I’ve refrained from linking to–or even trying to find–the USA Next website) because this “viral” quality of blogging spreads the USA Next message for free around the entire blogosphere. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve engaged in my share of liberal outrage blogging, but Jarvis’s stragtegy here calls for a different kind of response, one that brings the cynicism of people like Jarvis into much clearer relief. I’ve been thinking a lot about the economy of linking and how it might be used to promote these conservative ideas, and I’m still caught in this impasse between criticizing groups like USA Next and being complicit with their goals of spreading their anti-Social Security, I mean, “pro-privatization,” message.

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A Company of Soldiers

Frontline’sA Company of Soldiers” follows Dog Company, a group of soldiers from the 1-8 Cavalry, during November 2004. The PBS team worked as embedded reporters, free to film almost anything during their month in Iraq (the Pentagon screening focused on “secuirty clearance” issues only). The filmmakers chose to concentrate primaily on “the Misfits,” a nine-member combat group thrown together from many different parts of Dog Company. This documentary focus on the experiences of a small group of soldiers inevitably led to comparisons with Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, with both films raising, both consciously and unconsciously, questions about the representations of war.

Having watched Tucker’s film just over a week ago, I was struck by the differences between the two films. Gunner Palace offered a far more personalized account of the war, particularly through the heavier use of subjective camera and first-person voice-over narration. Throughout the film, I was consistently aware of Tucker’s presence as a filmmaker. By contrast, the Frontline voice-over approach tended towards sober objectivity, with the result that Company seemed to view the soldiers at a safe distance. While we do witness an extended segment where the soldiers mourn the death of one of their comrades, I never got the sense that the documentary was aware of its role in shaping what we were watching. Instead, we get highly aestheticized back-lit images of soldiers conducting combat operations, with an undistinguished soundtrack that conveyed little more than the sobriety of the subject matter.

I also found the interviews in Soldiers far more frustrating than those in Gunner Palace. Most of the interviewees were career military men (I didn’t see a single woman in the entire broadcast), trained in the PR speak designed to present the war, and the men and women who serve, in the best possible light. Unlike the more critical soldiers in Gunner Palace, the Misfits never speak negatively about U.S. action in Iraq; in fact they are shown at one point complaining about protestors (one oddly suggests that if the protestors don’t like the war, they ought to enlist in the military).

My other major complaint about the film is the almost complete failure to convey anything resembling the perspective of the Iraqi people whose lives have been completely disrupted (and often destroyed) by the war. Company comes close in a few places. One Iraqi hesitates to help out Dog Company because he fears being labelled a spy. A market built by Dog Company in November doesn’t open because a sheik demands an excessive fee to rent the booths that are supposed to be free. But for the most part, the Iraqi people are either left invisible or remain almost entirely unknowable. The film conslcudes with a very brief critique of the decision to go to war in Iraq, noting that while the soldiers are all competent and careful, the effects of the war on Iraq have been devastating. However, because of processes of cinematic identification (camera placement, central characters, etc), this critique, in my reading of the film was utterly lost. This critique comeas across more clearly in film director Tom Roberts’ New Statesman editorial, in which he writes of “the tyranny of unintended consequences,” the violence that often greets even the best U.S. intentions. Roberts himself is skeptical that democracy is currently “untenable” in Iraq, and adds that the situation there is even worse than its representation in teh UK media.

There has been some discussion of the fact that many PBS stations, fearing fines from the FCC, would air a slightly altered version of A Company of Soldiers. The Georgia Public Television station where I watched the show chose to air the edited version, and while I’d certainly have preferred the “raw” version, I’d imagine that the difference between the two was negligible. I’ll also add that the current inability to show the “raw” version illustrates the need for some serious dialogue about restrictions on free speech, but more importantly, PBS’s caution demonstrates the very vital need for a more vibrant role for public television in general.

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Movies Under the Stars

Also via Green Cine, this fascinating collection of newspapers advertisements for Wisconsin drive-in movie theaters, many of which date back to the 1940s. It’s a great collection, not just for the films that are being advertised, but also (and possibly more importantly) for the “lost” culture of drive-in movie theaters found in these ads (originally via Rashomon).

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Fighting Words

Via Green Cine: a link to Monica Davey’s New York Times article on the role of Gunner Palace in sparking the popularity of rap written and performed by US soldiers in Iraq. Davey writes:

If rock ‘n’ roll, the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater Revival, was the music of American service members in Vietnam, rap may become the defining pulse for the war in Iraq. It has emerged as a rare realm where soldiers and marines, hardly known for talking about their feelings, are voicing the full range of their emotions and reactions to war. They rap about their resentment of the military hierarchy. But they also rap about their pride, their invincibility, their fallen brothers, their disdain for the enemy and their determination to succeed.

The article seems to emphasize the play of language, the “ambivalence” of the lyrics of much rap music, allowing the rappers to criticize the military hierarchy while at the same time conveying solidarity with their fellow soldiers. Gunner Palace director, Michael Tucker adds that rap is very much a part of the barracks culture in Iraq.

Davey addresses the relationship of hip-hop to the first Gulf War, noting that several prominent hip-hop artists, including Mystikal, served in that war, while Ice Cube played a significant role in David O. Russell’s Gulf War film, Three Kings. I’m about to set up my students’ film screening, so I don’t have time for a full analysis, but the article includes the text of several raps, all of which work through the ambiguities of the current war in Iraq (one soldier even jokes that they could rap to the rhythm of gunfire during some of the attacks). The article is also accompanied by some audio samples.

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Mbye Cham on African Cinema

Via Cinema Minima, Martin Jumbam’s interview with Howard University film professor, Mbye Cham. The interview is from 1997, but still very much worth reading, as I’d imagine that African filmmakers still face many of the same obstacles. Cham, in particular, notes the difficulties that African filmmakers face in comepting against the US and Bollywood film industries in getting their films distributed:

I think that African film-makers and those working in the film industry in Africa have a difficult task ahead of them. The Indian romance spectacles, the “Kung Fu” movies and all other imported, cheap Hollywood films have an extremely powerful grip on the popular imagination of the ordinary film-goer in Africa as they are usually the only films regularly screened in African theatres. But the key issue here, I believe, is the lack of viable distribution networks for African films. It’s even a miracle, given the limited means at their disposal, that African film-makers are able to make films at all, and once such films are made, the other major hurdle is getting them out to the spectator. People have to see a film before it can make a career, both artistically and commercially.

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Citizen Trump

The Documentary Film Weblog points to an intriguing “aborted” documentary project, The Movie Movie, by director Errol Morris:

The Movie Movie, an aborted project, is based on the idea of taking Donald Trump, Mikhail Gorbachev and others and putting them in the movies they most admire. Isn’t it possible that in an alternative universe Donald Trump actually starred in Citizen Kane?

Morris’ website includes footage of an interview with Donald Trump, in which the The Donald discusses what Citizen Kane means to him. I think the project could have been a fascinating one, and future installments promise Gorbachev talking about his love for Tarkovsky’s The Mirror and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, but also love the idea of Morris devoting a section of his website to “aborted projects,” documentaries that, for whatever reason, never reached completion. I’m tempted to think, in fact, that these aborted projects might say as much about teh filmmaker as the documentary films he actually finishes. And, of course, documentaries themselves often change directions in the course of filming, as is the case with Morris’ wonderfully good film, The Thin Blue Line.

Digging around on Morris’ website, I see that he also has an essay/rant on William Faulkner’s rather celebrated Nobel Prize Address. I’ve always been partial to Faulkner; his Nobel Address never ceases to provoke my thinking, and Morris’ comments illustrate the ways in which Faulkner’s comments remain timely nearly fifty years after they were first spoken (or whispered as the story goes–MP3 of address available here).

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War Documentaries and the FCC

Just read on Yahoo about an upcoming Frontline feature, A Company of Soldiers. The documentary focuses on the U.S. Army’s 8th Cavalry Regiment stationed in Baghdad, following their day-to-day activities in the weeks following the U.S. presidential election in November. This approach sounds similar to the approach taken in Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, so I’ll be interested to see how Frontline shapes this material. Tucker, as I argue, offers what might best be described as a “politically ambivalent” approach, using teh discourses of “reality” to simultaneously support both pro- and anti-war readings. This isn’t political neutrality or documentary objectivity, but something else entirely. The subjective identification with the soldiers works against critical distance, and instead we find ourselves immersed in the images of war, but that identification is far from simple politically, as my original review suggests.

The Yahoo article focuses primarily on PBS’s decision to present a mildly sanitized version of the Frontline episode, editing out 13 expletives that might have exposed PBS to fines by the FCC (Tucker’s film has faced a similar problem, with the film’s use of profanity earning it an R rating that may limit the audience). In both cases, the discussion of ratings seems to shift the discourse in some problematic ways. By focusing on the soldiers’ use of profanity in the films, these artciles ignore any discussion of the violence (or lack of violence) portrayed in the films. At any rate, I’ll be interested to see how the PBS doc portrays the everyday life of the soldier.

By the way, while digging around the Gunner Palace website, I came across Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Baghdad Diary. It’s clear from the earliest days of the diary that Tucker is thinking about his project in terms of how the war becomes mediated by previous war films, TV shows, and novels. In one early entry, “Jackass Goes to War,” he compares SPC Wilf to Youssarian of Catch-22. In another entry the war is described as the ultimate (pop) “culture clash,” in which we learn about the soldier’s Internet surfing habits.

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Movie Title Screen Captures

I’ve been engaging in some procrastnation blog surfing and came across Steven Hill’s Movie Title Screen Page which has over 3,100 screen captures of movie title screens (via Bitter Cinema). Looks like a useful resource, or at the very least, a fun browse.

And now back to my regularly shceduled grading marathon.

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Debating Horowitz

I haven’t been talking about politics here lately. That’s due to any number of factors, including the desire to appear “politically neutral” during my election-themed class last fall. I’ve also found myself wondering for a long time about the effects of blogging on political discourse. Are these blogs merely adding to the cacophany of Crossfires and partisan talk shows? Or can they add something new? My answers here are much more tentative than they used to be, a whiseperd “maybe” rather than the resounding “yes!” of months past.

This ambivalence comes to mind because of the recent discussions of David Horowitz’s comments about university professors. I usually have mixed feelings about tangling with someone like David Horowitz, whose recent project, “Discover the Network,” reads like a demented version of the Kevin Bacon game. Debating Horowitz seems to grant him a legitimacy that seems unwarranted on most topics. But his recent comments in Boulder, Colorado (registration required, bugmenot recommended), deserve special attention because they so utterly misrepresent professor labor. In the article Vanessa Miller reports that,

University professors are a privileged elite that work between six to nine hours a week, eight months a year for an annual salary of about $150,000, according to David Horowitz.

Of course, Horowitz, who spends a lot of time playing gadfly on various college campuses, knows better. So why make such baldly false statements about how hard professor work or how much we get paid? The obvious answer is explicit in his comments: to discredit professors as wealthy elites, out of touch with the common people. Such claims are nothing new, of course, and charges of elitism have been used to discredit academics for some time. And I’d iamgine that most people don’t really believe these numbers, but I could be wrong about that. Such a claim is more strategic than anything else.

More importantly Horowitz’s comments have now compelled several professors, including myself, to respond. And that’s where I have a question. By taking Horowtitz’s bait and resonding to these absurd assertions, aren’t we playing into his hands, giving his arguments the legitimacy they don’t really deserve? I tried to address this point in my comments to Scrivener’s post on Horowitz several days ago, but I’m not sure I quite got it right, although Bérubé’s satirical response makes sense to me as a useful alternative, as I’ll try to explain below.

So what is the answer here? To continue fact-checking Horowitz or others like him? Such an approach re-creates the Crossfire approach, which doesn’t really take us anywhere new. Our facts compete with his facts and the audience scarfs down a microwave pizza as the spectacle unfolds. I’m not sure it applies precisely here because Horowitz is quite a bit different than Bushworld, but Jimbo’s recent comments about exposing the internal contradictions of Bushworld make more sense to me than a straight rebuttal. I’m not sure what that would look like, but I do want to try to start asking these questions again.

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