Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Red Dawn Redux: A Shaky Parable For Our Times

The Guardian has taken a first look at the trailer for the remake of the 1980's-vintage action flick Red Dawn, and it raises a few questions much deeper than you'd expect from a movie this vapid.

Just in case you're not up on your late Cold War cinema, the original Red Dawn was the story of a bunch of high school pals in rural Colorado turned guerrilla fighters after the Soviet Union, with an assist from Cuba, decided for some reason to invade the United States in 1985.  The 2012 remake pretty much sticks to the original script, swapping rural Washington state for Colorado and China for the now-defunct Soviet Union in the role of the antagonist.

Or maybe it is North Korea? As I wrote when the Red Dawn remake first went into production, the film's creative team pulled back from the logical substitution of China for the Soviet Union – possibly fearing a political backlash, a loss of Chinese distribution rights, or both – and instead substituted North Korea as the resident bad guys. Though the producers seem to have later decided that the idea North Korea, a nation of 25 million that struggles just to feed its own citizens, could stage a large-scale invasion of the United States stretches credibility too far even for a Hollywood action film (though Hollywood also recently decided that a movie version of Manimal is somehow credible), so now, according to The Guardian, the antagonists are from a “unidentified Asian” country.

Near the end of The Guardian's demolishing of the Red Dawn trailer, writer Stuart Heritage raises a good point: the original Red Dawn was released in the mid-1980s, at a time when the United States was offering moral and material support to the mujahadeen of Afghanistan as they tried to repel the mighty Red Army of the Soviet Union.  The original Red Dawn offered up a kinship to be drawn then between our plucky band of Colorado high schoolers and the scruffy Afghanis, who each took to the hills to fight the foreigners who invaded their lands.

Fast forward 27 years though and America's perception of Afghan insurgents has morphed from the heroic mujahadeen into the dastardly Taliban jihadi; the foreigners they fight are no longer the evil Soviets, but rather good red-blooded American boys and girls in uniform.  So while the new Red Dawn is still making the same visceral appeal to the audience to identify with the tragically over-matched band of fighters who want only to free their homeland from an invading foreign military force, the underlying role of the United States in the world has flipped – rather than supporting the insurgents on the sly as we did in the 1980s, we have become the invading heavies in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  In reality, Red Dawn is now asking us to emotionally identify with the very people fighting against American troops today. (If the producers of Red Dawn wanted to keep the emotional and subtextual consistency of the original, then instead of fighting, the high school kids in RD:Redux would join a local reconstruction team headed up by a government official from the unnamed Asian nation that might be North Korea).

It does beg the question of what exactly the producers of the Red Dawn remake were thinking in dredging up this largely forgotten bit of 80s pop culture? Why ask an American audience to identify with a band of local insurgents fighting against a vastly superior military power, when at that very same moment American troops are being attacked a half a world away by bands of local insurgents fighting against a vastly superior military power, which, in this case, just happens to be the United States.

Or maybe I am giving the Red Dawn producers too much credit for being able to make these intellectual connections in the first place. After all, their choice to play the All-American lead in this film was Chris Hemsworth, a British actor best known for playing a Norse god. 
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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Another Sign That Pussy Riot May Soon Be Free

The latest signals out of Russia regarding the world's most famous protest band are that the three imprisoned members of Pussy Riot:  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina; may soon be freed.

This comes after Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was quoted on Wednesday as saying that additional time in jail for the three women would be “unproductive”.  His statement echoes one made by Russian President Vladimir Putin last month when he said he hoped that the three women would not spend a long time in prison shortly before they were sentenced after being found guilty on charges of “hooliganism driven by religious hatred” following their performance of a “punk prayer” last February at Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral.  The women received sentences of two years in prison, though originally they could have faced sentences of as long as seven years.

The case of  Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina has become a source of international condemnation for Russia as artists and human rights groups around the world have rallied to Pussy Riot's cause.  Their case is set for appeal on October 1.
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Friday, September 14, 2012

CNN Charged With Censorship Over Mid-East Documentary

Last week media critic Glenn Greenwald of the UK's Guardian newspaper/website published a pair of hard-hitting articles aimed directly at CNN that received surprisingly little coverage in the United States given the severity of their charges, namely that CNN is engaging in acts of censorship to protect the patronage paid to them by foreign governments.

Greenwald's charges center around a documentary made last year about the democratic uprisings in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain called “iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring”.  The documentary, which Greenwald describes as “unflinching”, centered on pro-democracy activists in the tiny kingdom and was highly critical of the heavy-handed government response, which ultimately put down the democratic uprising.  The Bahraini regime was criticized internationally for their methods, which included the mass arrests of protesters (including doctors who were attempting to help injured demonstrators) and the use of deadly force against unarmed and peaceful protesters.  The CNN documentary crew themselves were even detained at gunpoint by pro-regime forces intent on disrupting their attempts at telling the story of the pro-democracy activists.

“iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring” would go on to garner critical praise along with a number of journalism awards. Yet despite this praise, CNN's domestic network would air the documentary only once, while CNN's international broadcasting arm, CNNi, the outlet for which “iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring” was originally produced, would not air the documentary at all.  The lead journalist on “iRevolution”, Amber Lyon, complained to CNN's upper management about the network's refusal to air the documentary.  Despite being groomed by CNN to become one of their star on-air personalities, Lyon was laid off by CNN earlier this spring after her complaints about CNN's internal censorship became public.

CNN, of course, has denied any attempt at censorship, noting that they have aired many stories about the uprising in Bahrain (just not “iRevolution” apparently).  But it is here, and in a companion piece, that Greenwald lays out his most serious charge against CNN – that CNN has entered into a number of paid partnerships with governments around the world and that CNN is allowing these partnerships to color their reporting from and about these countries.

The CNN “partnerships” with the governments of countries like Kazakhstan, Georgia and Bahrain has led to the production of a series of quasi-journalistic fluff pieces: reports that are meant to look like genuine CNN reporting – using CNN journalists/personalities - but that in reality are public relations spots that allow the “partner” countries to put their best foot forward, with no contrasting viewpoints offered by CNN's stable of journalists. For example, a series of paid reports aired under the “Eye on Lebanon” banner were touted by Lebanon's Tourism Minister not for their journalistic merit, but rather as a way “to market Lebanon as a tourism destination.”   

It's not surprising then to note that CNN has a long-standing partnership arrangement with Bahrain though the Bahrain Economic Development Board, the governmental agency responsible for promoting Bahrain to the world. CNN has included Bahrain in their “Eye on...” country series, among other paid-for network programming. It is not surprising then that CNN has been reluctant to air a documentary that is so critical of the Bahrani royal family.

There is an inherent tension between advertising and journalism, with the open question always being if the news organization will shy away from coverage that could reflect negatively on their sponsors.  But what Greenwald describes at CNN is something different, the countries in question aren't merely buying commercial spots on CNN, they are, in effect, directly paying for positive coverage of their countries. Worse still, the shelving of “iRevolution” and the subsequent dismissal of Amber Lyon is troubling evidence that CNN is willing to let these sponsorships affect their journalistic judgment beyond the paid-for beauty spots.  It is a troubling accusation to make against what has long been one of the most-trusted names in modern journalism, and is a sign of how far CNN has fallen from their own glory days.
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Monday, September 10, 2012

Is The US Dashing Israeli Hopes For A Strike Against Iran?

From the file of news that was overshadowed by the dueling Republican and Democratic political conventions is this nugget from Reuters about a US smackdown of Israel over their escalating rhetoric about a war with Iran (Reuters used the more diplomatic term 'chastised', but you get the idea).

Last week, while speaking to reporters in Great Britain, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said that the United States did not want to be “complicit” in a preemptive  attack on Iran and starkly warned Israel that if they went it alone on the attack that they risked unraveling the international coalition that has levied heavy sanctions on Iran's crude oil industry and banking sector; sanctions that Pres. Ahmadinejad admitted earlier in the week were starting to causing real pain in Iran.

It was a bold statement, and one that has sent Israel scurrying back to square one in their efforts to start a war with Iran. The simple fact is that the Israeli Air Force does not have the ability to launch the type of sustained and targeted campaign of air strikes that would be necessary to knock out Iran's nuclear research program.  Or as one unnamed European diplomat was quoted as saying in the same Reuters article: “all this talk of war is bullshit. If they could do it, then they would have already done it long ago.”

For their part, the Israelis are now pushing for the establishment of a clear “red line”, an action by Iran that would guarantee a military response by the anti-Iran coalition (namely the United States). The Israelis are also ramping up their sabre-rattling against Iran's proxy group Hezbollah, threatening retaliation against Lebanon should Hezbollah launch attacks against Israel on Iran's behalf. For their part, the Obama administration is offering up a vague statement that diplomacy cannot go on “indefinitely” and that “military action” remains a possibility if Iran doesn't live up to their obligations.

Of course, it is very hard to imagine the US launching any kind of military action before the November elections, and if reelected, Obama is likely to feel much less pressure to placate the pro-Likud lobby within the United States, which puts into question the likelihood of military action against Iran in Obama's second term.  This does make you wonder if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might not attempt to interject himself into the US presidential race somehow. Netanyahu is a longtime personal friend of Republican Mitt Romney, so it is plausible to think he might try to play the double whammy of encouraging a US strike against Iran and boosting his friend's presidential chances by trying to make Obama look like he is both weak on Iran and putting Israel at risk by not launching military strikes now to stop the imminent threat of the Iranian nuclear program.

This strategy has some real risks attached though: for one, Netanyahu has been saying that Iran was on the verge of getting a bomb since the mid-90s, so his cries of danger have worn a little thin by now; the bigger issue though is that the American populace, mired in a slow economic recovery and weary from a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, might genuinely oppose calls for launching another military campaign in the Middle East, which would weaken, rather than strengthen, Netanyahu's efforts to get the USAF to knock out Iran's nuclear program for him.

If Netanyahu tries to go this route, it will likely be at the United Nations General Assembly set for later this month.
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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Are US-Israeli Relations Changing?

Two recent statements by US officials have me wondering if we are seeing a subtle shift in US-Israeli relations. One is that for the first time, acts of violence by Israeli “settlers” against Palestinian residents of the West Bank have been described by the State Department as “terrorist incidents”; the second is a statement made by the US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro who said that an official Israeli investigation into the death of American activist Rachel Corrie in 2003 was not “thorough, credible and transparent.”

Corrie was only 23 when she was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer as she and others tried to stop the demolition of Palestinian homes in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. The action prompted international outrage and became a rallying point for those protesting the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli government promised a full investigation into the incident (a “thorough, credible and transparent” investigation, which Amb. Shapiro referenced in his statement).  But last week, Israel closed the formal investigation, concluding it was an accident, but also chiding the now-dead Corrie for inserting herself into a war zone.

Turning back to the terrorist declaration against the Israeli settlers, the State Department took the move after recent attacks by groups of young settlers against Palestinians, including attacks on mosques, beatings and one particularly brutal incident: the firebombing of a Palestinian taxi that left six people injured, including two four-year old twins.  The State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism for 2011 included: “Attacks by extremist Israeli settlers against Palestinian residents, property and places of worship in the West Bank.” According to the United Nations, which monitors conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians have increased by almost 150% between 2009 and the end of 2011.

It is important to note that the State Department isn't going out on much of a limb here. The Israeli media and government have been growing increasingly concerned about the actions of extremist settlers, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the fire-bomb attack of the taxi and other government officials have used the word terrorism when referring to some of the actions taken by a subset of extremist Israeli settlers (though the Israeli government supports the expansion of more “mainstream” Israeli settlements in the West Bank).

But given how reluctant the US typically is to criticize the actions of Israel, it is then quite noteworthy that officials with the US government would, in the space of a week, use the word “terrorism” when referring to the actions of Israeli settlers and would condemn an official report by the Israeli government. Could it be the sign of a subtle shift in US-Israeli relations? Only time will tell.
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