Hard Landings

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We tend to assign major significance to minor occurrences, especially where travel and potential accidents are concerned. “Thank goodness,” we think, “I stopped to check the mail, or I might have been involved in that crash I just passed.” We may even hesitate to change seats on a plane, or to change flights when an overbooking voucher is offered, for fear that, in the (very unlikely) event of an accident, we will have made a fatal mistake.

I thought of that tendency while watching an early scene in Sully. Three men (father and sons, as it turns out) rush to catch an alternative flight after their intended flight has been cancelled. They share high fives all around as the gate attendant relents and lets them board the plane, happy that their fishing vacation will not have to be delayed or postponed. Of course, we in the audience know that they just thwarted their guardian angels’ attempt to protect them; they’ve just boarded US Airways 1549, headed for the Hudson River and a whole new kind of fishing expedition. The dramatic foreshadowing continues as one son opts for the lone seat at the back of the plane so that his brother and father can have two seats together. Will this generous offer be his last?

The film opens with scenes of the low-flying plane, but something is wrong.

It’s risky to make a movie about an event so recent and fresh in the public’s memory as the miraculous water landing of a jet plane on the Hudson River in January 2009, after a flock of geese got sucked into the engines. And the entire event took just 208 seconds, plus another 20 minutes or so to rescue the passengers and crew. We all watched the news clips and interviews. What could a director — even one as skilled as Clint Eastwood — do to stretch the event into a full-length feature more interesting than what we’ve already seen on the news?

Despite my skepticism, I was fully engaged throughout this film. Eastwood chose to focus most of it not on the crash — er, I mean, water landing, as Sully (Tom Hanks) is quick to point out — or on Sully’s heroism, but on what he endured during the aftermath.

The film opens with scenes of the low-flying plane, but something is wrong. Instead of a river, we see buildings. This isn’t right. This isn’t the way it happened. Then Sully wakes up, and we realize that our hero, this man who managed to save 155 passengers and crew without a single casualty, is having recurrent nightmares about what happened, and what might have happened. Unable to sleep, he puts on jogging clothes and runs through the streets of New York, but he can’t run away from his fears.

This conflict drives the story and engages the audience’s ire at Big Government and Big Business.

Worse, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is having similar thoughts about what might have been, except that their thoughts aren’t nightmares. The NTSB actually sets out to prove, using computers and cockpit simulators, that the plane had enough thrust, altitude, and time to have returned to LaGuardia or landed at nearby Teeterboro Airport, thus sparing the plane and the trauma endured by the passengers. If they find against the captain, his career, his reputation, and his retirement pension will be gone. This conflict drives the story and engages the audience’s ire at Big Government and Big Business. We are outraged that they would sully Captain Sully’s reputation, and for a while I’m outraged at Eastwood too, for making this the focus of the film.

Eastwood knows best, of course, and the positioning of the NTSB simulators against the tense, calm, and quick-witted actions of Sully and his copilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) in the real cockpit make for a conclusion as exciting as the moment when we turned on our television screens and saw a plane sitting pretty as a duck on the Hudson, with 155 people huddling on her wings, surrounded by ferry boats. Watch for Vincent Lombardi playing himself as the ferry boat captain who was first on the scene, and stay for the credits to see the actual passengers and crew in a cathartic reunion with Sully and his wife (played by Laura Linney in the film).

Another eponymous biopic that opened this week also tells the story of a man whose reputation has been “sullied” by the government — or so we are led to believe. But we aren’t sure about Edward Snowden. Is he a hero who sacrificed essential freedoms in order to blow the whistle on government snooping and intrusion? Or is he a traitor who put patriots and foreign operatives at risk when he revealed sensitive, top-secret documents? Real people have real questions about this case, and those questions are not addressed in the film.

Both Snowden and the 2014 Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour present just one side of the issue: Edward Snowden’s side. I tend to be on that side, but as pointed out in my review of Citizenfour, Snowden controlled the famous interviews he provided to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewan MacAskill (played in this movie by Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, and Tom Wilkinson) at the Hotel Mira in Hong Kong. They never challenged him or did any additional investigation (that we know of) to see whether U.S. operatives were harmed by his revelations. So the story is undeniably one-sided.

Snowden's patriotism feels a little odd, since he names Ayn Rand as one of his early influences, and I don’t think she would have approved of passionate service or statism of any sort.

The movie’s interviews, which provide the running narrative of the film, are almost identical to what we saw in the documentary, prompting me to question the point of making this narrative feature. However, Snowden provides a satisfying backstory we didn’t see in the documentary’s interviews, and that makes this film worth seeing.

Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems to have been a patriotic young man with a fervent desire to serve his country. (This felt a little odd to me, since he names Ayn Rand as one of his early influences, and I don’t think she would have approved of passionate service or statism of any sort.) He serves first in the military, then as a computer coder for the CIA, and then as a private contractor providing services to both the NSA and the CIA. A brilliant mathematician and analyst, he was able to crack codes and create complex computer programs designed to thwart hackers and aid government surveillance. But soon he discovers that the NSA and CIA have been spying on virtually everyone’s private phone calls and emails; they even have a program that can remotely activate your computer’s built-in video camera and watch you inside your office or bedroom — whether your computer is turned on or off. (Yes, I have a post-it taped over the camera on my laptop as I write this, and it will remain there. You start to feel sort of paranoid after watching this film.)

As depicted in the film, Ed Snowden is a quiet, soft-spoken young man without the outgoing charisma we normally associate with courage and heroism. He doesn’t have enough personality to engage potential operatives at a cocktail party, although he does come alive when he’s with his girlfriend, amateur photographer, pole dancer, and left-leaning semi-activist Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Her glowing smile and natural charisma, and her unrestrained love for him, help us to care about him too. Their relationship also serves to convince us that his motives are pure: how could he leave this charming young girl behind, unless he truly believed in the rightness of what he was doing? On the other hand, could her left-leaning politics have influenced his actions more than his own patriotism did? She left the United States to join him in Russia. For love or politics? We don’t know, and nothing in the film suggests that she is anything but innocent.

They even have a program that can remotely activate your computer’s built-in video camera and watch you inside your office or bedroom — whether your computer is turned on or off.

At 134 minutes, Snowden is about 30 minutes too long. The scenes that show what the CIA and NSA were doing, and how, are heavy on technical jargon (although I suspect they worked hard to simplify it), and we spend a lot of time watching the characters watch screens. But the second half of the film, especially the part beginning when Snowden realizes that he has to blow the whistle in order to protect the public, is tense and exciting. The final scene, when Edward Snowden himself appears, is thrilling. I wanted to applaud him in the theater. (We are hoping to bring him to FreedomFest this year through Skype.)

Both these films present interesting character studies of unlikely heroes — men who never craved the limelight or set out to change the world but rose to greatness when presented with crises that only they could address. Sully is the better film, but Snowden is worth seeing as well.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Sully," directed by Clint Eastwood. FilmNation Entertainment, 2016, 96 minutes; and "Snowden," directed by Oliver Stone. Endgame Entertainment, 2016, 134 minutes.



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Clash of the Superheroes

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Two films opened this week with similar topics and settings but with vastly different stories and film styles. Both deal with AI (artificial intelligence). Both employ the Internet to give their AIs omniscience. Both are set in Norway, of all places. Both create metaphors for the “peacekeeping” NSA. But one is yet another mindnumbing blockbuster installment in the neverending Avengers series, while the other, Ex Machina, is a thoughtful, intelligent, well-acted suspense thriller.

I don’t know whether I’m the one getting old or the Avengers franchise is, but I’ve had enough of computer-generated hammers, shields, swords, tanks, and building parts barreling toward my face in an attempt to wow the 3D audiences in the theater next door. Give me a story — a story that I care about — please! In Avengers: Age of Ultron, once again an evil superpower is set on destroying and/or enslaving the human race, and once again our band of heroic mutants, endowed with special powers, must save the day. Between battles, the crew gives us some clever patter and barroom shenanigans, but even the charm of their personal squabbles is starting to wear thin.

So of course, Hollywood had to turn Tony Stark's entrepreneurship into greed and demonstrate what happens when heroes look out for themselves instead of sharing with the group.

Others have been raving on Facebook and fan pages about the new Avengers, and I confess that I took a little nap part way through my viewing (okay, I was asleep for about an hour), so I went back two days later in order to see what I missed and write this review. Sadly, I hadn’t missed much — just another slew of building parts (and a whole city!) barreling toward my head. I think those who are raving about the movie on Facebook might be trying to convince themselves that their continued hero-worship is deserved. Or maybe they’re just Stark raving mad. (Stark. Tony. Iron Man? Oh, never mind.)

In this installment Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the unwitting bad guy who, through his greed and desire for personal advantage, unleashes Ultron, an AI of enormous size and strength who has managed to download all the information from the internet into his memory. (Ultron was originally designed as a peacekeeping program, so there it is — the NSA!) Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) is my favorite Avenger because his superpower is not a mutation or a weapon; it’s his brain. He uses it to solve problems, such as building a prosthetic body suit when his heart fails. He’s a successful entrepreneur, too, and a lot of fans are starting to admire that about him. So of course, Hollywood had to turn his entrepreneurship into greed and demonstrate what happens when heroes look out for themselves instead of sharing with the group.

You really don’t need to know anything else about the story. Heroes get beat up. Humans fall off bridges. Robots get shot. Robots get up again. Humans change sides. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) fall in love. (Say what?) Tony’s sidekick Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is wisely away on business throughout this episode. I give this film a 2 for entertainment and an 8 for snoozability. But it’s going to make a mint in box office sales.

Ex Machina is another story entirely. First, it has a story. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a brilliant-but-nerdy computer programmer (aren’t they all?) who works at the world’s largest internet company. As the film opens, the company’s reclusive founder and president, Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), has sponsored a competition for one lucky team member to participate with him in a secret project. That lucky team member is Caleb. Soon he is whisked away to Nathan’s mountain retreat somewhere in the Pacific Northwest (but filmed in Norway; the Norwegians must be offering some attractive benefits to filmmakers right now).

Nathan is nothing like the stereotypical bespectacled computer geek. He is ruggedly handsome and hip, lifts weights, boogies down with the cook, and likes to throw back a few brews while hanging out with Caleb in his in-home bar. He’s friendly and cool, yet his eyes betray an air of sinister cynicism as he jokes about his projects. Caleb’s task is to perform a Turing test on a breakthrough robot imbued with humanlike intelligence and emotions. Named for computer inventor Alan Turing (see my review of The Imitation Game, based on Turing’s work to break the Nazi code), a Turing test decides whether a computer is interacting in ways that are indistinguishable from a human. Can it recognize idiomatic expressions, body language, and other nuances, for example? Can it create jokes, express sincere compassion, know fear or love?

He has uploaded to Ava’s memory all the data on the internet. In a sense she has become the Cloud, the god, the NSA.

Soon Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful robotic creature with whom he has conversations each day. He grows more and more convinced that she passes the Turing test — she not only recognizes sophisticated nuances in language, but she demonstrates human emotions. A game of cat-and-mouse develops among those residing in the house — but who is the cat, and who are the mice?

The title is a reference to a dramatic technique employed by the Greek playwrights called deus ex machina:“the god descends in a machine.” Ancient audiences learned the moral of a story when a god swooped down from Mt. Olympus (literally inside a machine operated by stage hands) to rescue the poor mortal protagonist who was incapable of rescuing himself. (Remember that plays in ancient times were sponsored and paid for by church and state.) Nathan tells Caleb, “It used to be God watching us. Now it’s the Cloud.” He has uploaded to Ava’s memory all the data on the internet — all the conversations, photos, texts, emails, websites, documents, Wikipedia entries, everything. In a sense she has become the Cloud, the god, the NSA. And yet she acts and feels and reacts as a young woman would, because that’s all stored in her memory.

First-time director Alex Garland imbues his film with rich allusions to poetry, art, mythology, and film. For example, in the Bible, Eve (Ava) is the first woman, Nathan is the prophet who chastises David for seducing Bathsheba, and Caleb is an Israelite spy who scouts the Promised Land for Moses. References to Prometheus abound, as do references to Star Trek, a series that was also richly grounded in mythology. Nathan has several priceless works of art casually displayed in his secret hideaway, including a Jackson Pollock and Gustav Klimt’s painting of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, sister of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose work on thinking and consciousness is central to AI development and whose “Blue Book” is referenced in Nathan’s company name, Blue Book. Very subtle, and very cool when you get it. Describing Pollock’s creative process, Nathan tells Caleb, “It was ‘engaged’ art. It wasn’t deliberate, and it wasn’t random.” In a way he is describing God: not random, and not controlling, but engaged.

Recognizing these allusions is not necessary to enjoying the film. In fact, it would probably reduce one’s enjoyment of the film if you spent your time looking for them. But allusion is part of our shared consciousness, and when used subtly, as Garland does, it enriches our experience without our being fully aware of it. Joss Whedon and the other directors of superhero blockbusters would do well to get their heads out of the comic books and read something that has lasted for centuries.

rsquo;s the Cloud.


Editor's Note: Review of "Avengers: Age of Ultron," directed by Joss Whedon. Marvel Studios/ Walt Disney, 2015. 141 minutes; and "Ex Machina," directed by Alex Garland. Universal, 108 minutes, 2015.



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Citizen Snowden

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Thanks to the generosity of a very thoughtful husband, I had the opportunity to attend the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City with my figure skating daughter. Before we could enter any venue or even walk around the grounds outside the venues, we had to pass through metal detectors and bag checks. You probably don’t find that news particularly surprising or appalling; a dozen years later, we take it for granted that our bags will be checked before entering any arena, terminal, school, or public building. But at the time this was brand new. It angered me that strangers were looking through my purse and personal belongings every time I entered the area. The Marines provided aerial and radar surveillance of the event, and we learned later that all email and text communications were intercepted by the FBI and NSA, supposedly for a period of six months surrounding the event. This was the opportunity for the folks at Homeland Security to try out all their new toys and gadgets, and they reveled in it.

Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides.

The 2002 Olympics became a gateway moment for justifying indiscriminate snooping in the name of national security. I couldn’t help but remember that experience while watching Citizenfour, the documentary based on interviews last year with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that provides technology and security services to civilian and government agencies, when he became alarmed by the scope of surveillance being conducted by the NSA. He decided to take the story public by stealing top-security documents and sharing them with two journalists of his choosing: documentarian Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of the London Guardian.

Snowden has been called a patriot, a traitor, a dissident, a thief, a whistleblower, and even an accessory to the murder of those whose covers he blew when he revealed the contents of sensitive security documents. As I watched the film, all I could think of was the courage it took for this 29-year-old man to sacrifice his home, his family, and his relationships to warn you and me that Big Brother is watching and recording everything we say and write.

Poitras was nominated for an Academy Award for her 2006 documentary My Country, My Country. Being selected by Snowden to tell his story was quite a coup. However, while the story is certainly important, I was not impressed with her filmmaking. Basically we watch Snowden talking in a Hong Kong hotel room, and we see clips of Glenn Greenwald being interviewed on the cable news networks after his stories were published in theGuardian. Most of this we have seen before, and Snowden is in complete control of the interviews; Poitras does what he tells her to do and says what he wants her to hear. We never see her onscreen, but she enters the documentary through elaborate typing of their email conversations recreated with white Courier on a black screen.

Poitras doesn’t do any digging for this documentary, and she doesn’t reveal anything beyond what Snowden wants to say to the camera. She doesn’t tell us what was in the documents Snowden stole and made public, and she doesn’t interview anyone about the harm those revelations may have caused. She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas because of an automated misinterpretation of something they’ve written in an email. She didn’t interview Snowden’s colleagues or parents or his longtime girlfriend, although she knew who and where the girlfriend was. Perhaps Poitras was worried about being charged under the Espionage Act herself, or perhaps it was just shoddy journalism; regardless, I found the documentary one-sided, incomplete, and full of the kind of technical jargon that suggests Snowden is either really really smart, or really really knows how to snow his audience. (Occasionally I felt as though I were listening to a Truther explain how Building Seven came down . . .)

Despite the gravity of the topic, Citizenfour is strangely unsatisfying and lacking in suspense. Yet there was plenty of suspense to be had: US authorities were trying desperately to find Snowden and extradite him here, before he could finish his interviews and secure asylum in another country; and undercover agents were scrambling to find safety as the contents of his documents were revealed.

She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas.

According to Snowden, the NSA engages in sweeping, indiscriminate collection of all telephone and email transmissions and then uses automated language analysis programs to search for suspicious conversations or Google searches. The NSA was tapping directly into search engines such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and others and making assumptions based on reports generated by automated analysis. (Think about this the next time you search to find out the schedule of Viola Davis’ new hit TV show, “How to Get Away with Murder.”)

Poitras includes some footage of congressional hearings about NSA snooping. Several other NSA employees turned whistleblower at the same time as Snowden, including William Binney, who sat down with documentarian Tricia Owen, just days before the Snowden story broke, for the short film Before Snowden: Behind the Curtain, which premiered at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July. Poitras also filmed a training meeting conducted by Jacob Appelbaum of Occupy Wall Street as background for Citizenfour. Watching Appelbaum explain to Occupiers how to avoid surveillance as they planned their sit-ins and protests, I thought of Voltaire’s famous line, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — and to say it without being surveilled.

Citizenfour is important as a piece of history, but it is not a good documentary. Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides. She had a powerfully significant story dropped into her lap, but she let Snowden call all the shots. Patriot? Traitor? Martyr? Simple thief? We may never know the truth. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is set to play Snowden in a biopic next year, and that film will of course have a point of view, determined by the bias of the filmmaker. Laura Poitras was the only one who had primary access to the actual source, and she blew it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Citizenfour," directed by Laura Poitras. Praxis Films, 2014, 114 minutes.



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Pigs R Us

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Responding to President Obama’s January 17 speech about intelligence gathering (i.e., spying on people), some anti-NSA activists opined: "Rather than dismantling the NSA's unconstitutional mass surveillance programs, or even substantially restraining them, President Obama today has issued his endorsement of them. . . . The speech today was 'historic' in the worst sense. It represents a historic failure by a president to rein in mass government illegality and violations of fundamental rights." The madcap Julian Assange commented: "I think it's embarrassing for a head of state like that to go on for almost 45 minutes and say almost nothing.”

For once I agree with the supposed progressives (although Assange could have made the same remark about any of Obama’s speeches). The president has no interest in restraining any aspect of government. In this he resembles his immediate predecessor, and the resemblance is becoming uncanny. From government stimulus of “the economy” (i.e., state employees, welfare recipients, and phony capitalists) to government interference with education to government intervention in foreign wars, Obama has been enthusiastically devoted to Bush’s causes and Bush’s ways of working. The difference is that he has been less “transparent” about how he carries on his work.

While listening to Obama’s monotonous, empty speeches, one often feels one’s mind wandering, just as one felt one’s mind wandering while one tried to listen to Bush. You find yourself doing things you seldom do. You dust that odd place behind the DVDs. You inspect the carpet to see if the edges need repair. You see if you’ve got enough cards to send next Christmas. Sometimes you lapse into fantasy. In recent weeks, I’ve been picturing myself on the last page of Animal Farm, where Clover wonders why everything seems “to be melting and changing.” How is it that when you look at the purported animals and the purported men, it’s impossible to say which is which?




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Jesuits, and Failed Jesuits

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Don’t you hate it when people say, “Let me be clear on one thing . . . Let me make this perfectly clear”? Don’t you think, “So, you’ve been unclear about all those other things, and you knew it, but you went on being unclear anyway?” Don’t you immediately conclude that these people are about to tell you some enormous lie?

President Nixon was always talking in the “clear” mode. He was always “making one thing perfectly clear.” Now, President Obama has become an addict to the same approach.

“So, I wanta be very clear,” he announced on June 7, “nobody’s listening to the content of people’s phone calls.” Please define “nobody,” “listening,” “content,” “people,” and “phone calls.” Surely, the government is listening to somebody’s phone calls. May we simply conclude, from Obama’s clarifying remarks, that the government is listening to your calls, and mine? Or that it would if it could, and it probably can?

This administration began with the famous self-advertisement that it would be the most “transparent” in history. Obama reiterated the claim on February 14 of this year: “This is the most transparent administration in history.” That should have been a clue to several things.

1. Anybody who uses such a clich√© as “transparent” hasn’t been giving a whole lot of thought to whatever he says.

2. For Obama and company, “history” is everything they don’t know, and have no intention of looking up. That covers a lot of territory. Do you think the claim of transparency issued from a careful, or even a superficial, investigation of the forty-some presidential administrations in American history? Do you think that Obama asked someone to research the matter and find out what degree of transparency prevailed in the Buchanan administration? On what basis, do you think, can Obama assert that he is more transparent than Jefferson? Or Truman, who was always blurting things out? Or all those 19th-century presidents who walked freely around Washington, meeting strangers and talking with them, and sometimes being pelted with oranges when the conversation didn’t go so well? So much for “history.”

In the preceding paragraph I noted a number of historical facts that Obama has undoubtedly never heard of: the mouthiness of President Truman, the orange attack on President Pierce, the existence of President Buchanan. Maybe I should add the existence of strangers — persons who are neither enemies nor part of one’s official circle. I don’t think Obama has any knowledge of strangers, although they (i.e., we) are the people he is supposed to be transparent to.

It’s an expression, supposed to be interpreted as sincerity, that most closely resembles the facial contortions of a person about to have a bowel movement, and wondering what this strange phenomenon might be.

But speaking of history: impartiality impels me to deplore the absence of even the vaguest historical sense among the Republican leadership. Consider the remarks of Rep. Steve King (R-IA) at the Tea Party rally in Washington on June 19. Referring to the current spying scandals, he intoned: “This big brother has gotten a lotta creepier than George Orwell ever thought it would get.” No, Orwell thought a lot of things. Read a book, Mr. King.

3. Eventually, the most transparent administration in history would have to spend virtually all its time trying to clear things up after its constant, hilariously comic attempts to fool people.

One of the most notorious clarifiers is Attorney General Eric Holder. He has spent many moons clarifying what went on with Fast and Furious, and look at the damned thing now. And I’m sure you will recall the statement he made on May 15 in response to congressional questions about whether journalists can be prosecuted for divulging or attempting to divulge classified information: "Well, I would say this. With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I've ever been involved in, heard of or would think would be a wise policy. In fact, my view is quite the opposite."

Attorney General Holder, though a total moron, is a fairly accomplished liar. It’s not to his credit, of course.

This remark was emitted with a look that has become nearly universal among clarifiers in the Obama administration, from the chief clarifier on down, but is perhaps most vividly manifested by the attorney general. It’s an expression, supposed to be interpreted as sincerity, that most closely resembles the facial contortions of a person about to have a bowel movement, and wondering what this strange phenomenon might be. It’s the expression of a self-righteousness too pure to be acquainted with self-doubt, a self-righteousness now shocked to discover these strong and painful rumblings, deep inside. Can it be that the truth is coming out? If so, how can this be prevented?

Lately, truth has been coming out more quickly than usual. Only a few days were required for Holder’s May 15 testimony to be publicly falsified. Yet the truth about Fast and Furious and most of the other matters about which Holder has been questioned is still to emerge. Holder, though a total moron, is a fairly accomplished liar. It’s not to his credit, of course: he does it by being a Washington insider, known and feared by the rest of them; and by being capable of looking blank on virtually all occasions. I guess that’s easy for him.

Anyway, he is certainly a more accomplished liar than James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. On March 12 Clapper was testifying before a committee that included Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a prominent opponent of secret investigations of US citizens. Clapper had been given a copy of Wyden’s questions in advance. He wasn’t blindsided or bushwhacked by the senator. But look what happened.

Sen. Wyden: So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question: Does the NSA [National Security Agency] collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Clapper: No, sir.

Wyden: It does not.

Clapper, massaging his forehead and trying to look profound, like a professor being pushed to the farthest corner of speculation in the field of his most abstruse research: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.

Wyden: All right. Thank you. I'll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer.

On June 9, after an obscure employee of a government contractor informed the world of the wholly predictable truth, that the NSA collects telephone data on tens of millions of Americans, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News pressed Clapper on the exchange with Wyden. Clapper suggested that the senator's question was unfair:

First as I said, I have great respect for Senator Wyden. I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked “When are you going to start — stop beating your wife” kind of question, which is meaning not answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no.

Clapper indicated that he didn’t think "collection" of phone data was taking place unless government officials were actually reviewing the contents of the (billions of) conversations that they have records on.

Most people, even college professors, know that “when are you going to stop beating your wife?” questions — ordinarily known as “when did you stop beating your wife?” questions — are entirely different from the kind of question Clapper was asked. But this is just one of those things that the Director of National Intelligence doesn’t know. I think that most people — all we strangers and little people out here in the dark — know more about life and human communication than Mr. Clapper does.

One thing that few people know is the word “equivocation.” It means a type of lying, as when somebody asks, “Did you go to the liquor store today?” and you answer, “No, I didn’t, and if I did, it was only unwittingly” — because the place isn’t called The Liquor Store; it’s called Ye Olde Liquor Shoppe. Equivocation isn’t just lying; it’s an especially nasty form of lying. It’s a favorite with self-righteous elitists, who think that any lie they tell is sanctioned by their cause or their position. The Jesuit order was famous for its crafty equivocations; hence the term “Jesuitical.”

Following the Clapper interview, President Obama’s press secretary told inquiring minds that Obama regarded Clapper’s answer to Sen. Wyden as “straight and direct.” This wasn’t a Jesuitical response; it was a blatant, impudent, aggressive, in yo’ face, down home stupid lie, a lie so flamboyant that no one could be expected to regard it as anything other than what I just said it was.

Obama is just such a silly guy with words. He’s always using them in a sneaky though obvious way, like a teenager who thinks that his Eddie Haskell smarm is coming across as sincerity and respect.

Now what? What are we to conclude from this? Is Obama stupider than everyone else? I wouldn’t go that far. His lie prompts the question (no, it does not beg the question — that’s something different): what hold does the intelligence community have on the president?

That is not a conspiracy-theory question. That is a political and personal question.

Ever willing to criticize myself, I am happy to say that there are two reasons for questioning the assumptions from which my question proceeds. One is the possibility that Obama is simply a leftwing proponent of government in all its forms. In his speech to the graduates of Ohio State University on May 5, he took on critics of government:

Unfortunately [he said], you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

The “we,” of course, is he. But the contempt appears to be directed against all the foes of “government” — as opposed to his usual targets, such as “special interests,” non-Democratic “politicians,” Republican voters, global warming skeptics, people who cling to God and guns, etc. So maybe he believes that as soon as someone is associated with a government that is legitimate in his terms, that person can do no ill, say nothing other than what is straight and direct. If true, this would explain a lot.

The other problem with the question I asked is that Obama is just such a silly guy with words. He’s always using them in a sneaky though obvious way, like a teenager who thinks that his Eddie Haskell smarm is coming across as sincerity and respect. I picture Obama and his staff staying up late, writing his stuff out, and sharing high fives because this time they’ve really put the horsemeat in the hotdogs, and nobody else will notice.

An example. On June 17, on the Charlie Rose Show, on PBS (where else?), Obama assured every American citizen, “What I can say [pause pause pause] unequivocally [pause pause pause] is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen [jabbing the air] “to your telephone calls.” In other words, you won’t be electronically raped by the federal government. Rose, of course, was hibernating too deeply to ask The President what the hell he meant by “US person.” But Obama didn’t want to say “citizen.” Why? The only explanation I can think of (and one that does not exclude nearly complete rhetorical incompetence) is that he wants all the illegal immigrants (US persons, persons present in the United States at any given millisecond of recorded time) to vote for the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, they can be spied on just the same as the rest of us; that’s democracy.

I think that almost everyone who is sentient, and aware of what Obama said, got the point, and the point is that Obama and his crew cannot be trusted with the English language. Almost everyone concluded that Obama, and whoever writes these things for him, was really talking about immigration, and that when he said that the NSA wasn’t listening to your phone calls, he meant that of course the NSA is listening to your phone calls, but the important thing is that the illegal immigrants be legalized so they can vote for all the Obamas of the future.

So when Obama says that the chief of national intelligence is straight and direct, why should I make a mystery out of it? It’s all nonsense anyway.

Postscript: Yahoo! News has finally done something good: it has tabulated White House spokesman Jay Carney’s verbal techniques for escaping public scrutiny: “Over the course of 444 briefings since taking the job, the White House press secretary has dodged a question at least 9,486 times.” This is a classic.




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The Pharaohs of the Current Dynasty

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The thing that interests me most about the intelligence scandals is the revelation of how amateurish the people who run our Great National Institutions seem to be.

I had assumed that the government was doing exactly what it has been revealed to be doing — getting everyone’s telephone records. I had assumed that any serious terrorist would assume the same. But if Edward Snowden was able to “reveal” the taking of this super-secret information, how many other people could reveal the same, or more?

Snowden is a badly educated young man who in his early twenties began a meteoric ascent through various spy agencies. Either the government’s secrets are so massive and take so many hands to manage, or the government is so ridiculously bad at contracting with people to take care of them, that the mighty inwards of the government’s self-knowledge end up in the grasp of Edward Snowden and the like. The same could be said, and more, about Bradley (Bradass87) Manning, who appears to have been put in a job where he dealt with military secrets because he was so outrageously unqualified for any other job.

Should I now mention some dramatis personae of other current scandals — Lois Lerner, Susan Rice, Kathleen Sebelius, Eric Holder? Qualified to handle secrets? They’re not even qualified to handle the secret of their own incompetence.

Now we have FBI Director Robert Swan Mueller, a 12-year veteran in his job, who received, a week in advance, a list of questions that he would be asked by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, but who on June 13 repeatedly assured Chaffetz’s congressional committee that he didn’t know anything about anything, finally apologizing, not very contritely, for failing to do his “homework.” Tell me, what else does the guy have to do?

If you’re like me, you grew up thinking of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA — anything with three initials — as a monument to strong organization. They were cunning; they were tricky; they might be malevolent; but they were tightly and cleverly administered. They were places where people who looked like David Niven, men who knew the world, subtly schemed to outwit their enemies. As for the US military, they were so hard-assed that they would never even consider hiring a person like me. And they still wouldn’t. But they trained Bradass87 as an intelligence analyst.

The image that now comes to mind is about as far from David Niven as you could get. It’s General James Clapper (USAF, rtd.), current director of national intelligence — the stereotyped representation of a befuddled, forehead-rubbing, double-talking academic bureaucrat, a man who doesn’t seem to understand what he himself is saying, much less understand the world. With people like this posing as pharaohs, what must the rest of the human pyramid be like?




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