October 15, 2010

It’s probably a little bit late for me to urge everyone to start watching AMC’s Rubicon, given that the season finale is this Sunday. But then again, this is the Netflix On Demand era, and maybe a modest boost in online sales will encourage AMC to give it a second season.

TV shows don’t get a lot of time these days to find their footing, and if this week’s episode is Rubicon’s last, that will be why. The pilot had the languid, meandering pacing of a mid-afternoon nap, which would have been fine if any of the characters had come into any sort of focus at all. But there was potential there in the way the lead performers were able to deliver dry exposition with some level of conviction, and in the creeping sense of dread. It was hard to find the show’s pulse, but at least it seemed to have one.

Turns out a lot of that was due to a major personnel switch-up: the lead show-runner (and creator) got swapped out mid-stream, and a conceptual rejiggering ensued. The first three episodes ended up being throat clearing, but the fourth, well. What was originally a fairly generic, if still intriguing, conspiracy thriller turned into a workplace drama-cum-morally ambiguous meditation on the War on Terror. The conspiracy mytharc was still there, but no longer suffocating, and the conspiracy itself started to seem less like an all-powerful Illuminati then a group of very rich, very unscrupulous men who had found that they could get even richer by toying with the lives of millions. That, to me, was a far more plausible and far more unsettling proposition. The banality of evil is always going to be scarier and more interesting than the Dark Side of the Force.

As for the workplace drama side: the supporting cast got fleshed out enormously, and the show finally started to take full advantage of its national security think tank setting. Much is made of the personal sacrifices these characters make, but the big draw for me—and probably for a significant chunk of my readers as well—is how much of the show is kind of porn for national security wonks. Most of our heroes have never fired a gun, but they spend a lot of time debating the relevance of classified documents and fighting the sprawling bureaucracy of the DoD and CIA. Somehow all of this is rendered in a way that’s engaging, suspenseful, even stylish.

Timely, as well. Most episodes remind me of the Washington Post’s Top Secret America at least once. Both draw the same conclusion: national security is a confused, murky business, now more than ever. What makes Rubicon so chilling is how it suggests how easily someone inside the enormous massive security complex to manipulate it to their own advantage and against the interests of the United States. It’s hard to imagine that sort of thing not happening on a micro scale with some regularity; Rubicon imagines it in the macro.

(This post was prompted by a well-worth-reading interview the AV Club did with Henry Brommell, the replacement executive producer. Check it out, and then track down and check out the fourth episode.)

Ahead of the Curve
July 26, 2010

On my way back from #nn10 (from which I’m still recovering), I checked my RSS reader and noticed that the Washington Post was running a piece of analysis titled What the GOP could learn from Britain’s Tories.

Well gosh, that sounds a lot like a Salon column I wrote not one week ago!

While I suspect the conclusions Dan Balz and I draw on what policy lessons the right should take are pretty similar, the differences in our pieces are, I think, pretty instructive. I want the GOP to make a serious philosophical overhaul—Balz, on the other hand, comes to the fairly predictable conclusion that their problems could be solved through triangulation, aiming for the center, etc.

While it’s true that the Republican Party could benefit from coming back from the far right fringes, that seems to me like a pretty banal point. And in this column, as in so many other pieces of political analysis written in objective journo weaselspeak, the good is framed as being entirely a matter of electoral advantage.


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Liberty and Government
July 10, 2010

U.S. Federal Spending FY 2008
Image via Wikipedia

You might remember Alabama congressional candidate Rick Barber as that guy who likes to release ads about communing with the spirit of Zombie Lincoln and how modest health care reform is totally like the Holocaust. Well in today’s Washington Post, he provides—no kidding—an explicit defense of the politics of fear. It’s a predictably schizophrenic argument, based as it is both in the teleological benefits (Fear is a great motivator for change! Change like getting me elected.) and fear on its own merits (The guvimment is trying to make policy! Scary!). As a result, it sort of feels like two half-columns abruptly pasted together with the connective tissue between premise and conclusion left out of each.

But put all that aside for a moment. I want to focus on one particularly bizarre (and, unsurprisingly, unsupported) assertion Barber makes. He writes:

Whenever the government grows, individual liberty withers.

That’s Tea Party gospel right there. And, like most passages from the Tea Party Tanakh, it’s both a simple, appealing platitude, and something no human being actually believes if they think about it for more than fifteen seconds.

Remember, Barber is a former member of the Marines, presumably defending our liberty and whatnot. Of course, the military—that bulwark of freedom—is a part of the federal government. In fact, with almost a quarter of the federal budget going towards military spending (see the above graph), it represents a towering example of government expansion. So if there really is a simple, linear correlation between the size of government and loss of individual liberty, presumably Barber would be in favor of whittling down the United States military to almost nothing. Someone should ask him if that’s how he feels!

I’d also be curious to see what he thinks of the state of individual liberty in countries where the government is, relatively speaking, incredibly tiny. One example that immediately springs to mind, since it’s been in the news recently, is the Karzai government in Afghanistan, which is virtually nonexistent outside of a small perimeter around Kabul. Sure, much of Afghanistan is poverty-ridden, pre-industrial, and ground beneath the heel of brutal warlords, but surely that’s a small price to pay for not having basic government infrastructure breathing down their necks, right?

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Objectivity and Credibility in Journalism
July 1, 2010

In general I was pretty disappointed by the response in the comments to my recent column criticizing the concept of “objective” journalism (a lot of it came down to either ad hominem attacks or grievous misreadings of my argument). But one response from commenter watsonho got me thinking. He (she?) writes:

Journalists and commentators are supposed to be authoritative – they are supposed to know what they are talking about. If they admit they are wrong, they become undependable, untrustworthy and therefore useless. So there is a strong psychological bias against ever admitting you are wrong, no matter how strong the evidence.

However, when you take the position that you are “objective” you can easily change your position as facts change or your viewpoint evolves. In the early days of the Iraq war, for example, many media outlets presented a very positive view of the war. When it became clear that the war wasn’t going well, they started running stories that presented a more critical look. They were able to do this without coming under attack or appearing contradictory because in both cases, they were being “objective.”


If we moved to a system where we discarded “objectivity” and let all our opinions hang out, we would quickly move into a state of journalistic trench warfare, where everyone digs in and refuses to budge out of fear of losing their credibility.

It’s an interesting defense, but it seems ethically untenable to me; it requires the journalist to assume a position of authority which I argued—and note that watsonho did not dispute this particular claim—no one has any right to. What watsonho is suggesting is that journalists must claim false credibility for the greater public good.

My argument is for a more meritocratic system: repeatedly making outlandish, indefensible claims should cost you credibility, as should digging into the proverbial trenches and defending your claims against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If that sounds utopian or overly idealistic, it’s no more so than this belief that journalists can effectively distance their own subjectivity from their reporting.

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