Tag Archives: Naomi Wolf

Why Zero Dark Thirty is not an apologia for torture, or, don’t shoot the messenger

10 Feb

Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial account of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals in a CIA-led operation in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, has been described by feminist Naomi Wolf in The Guardian as “the handmaiden of evil,” and a successor to Germany’s notorious first female film director, Leni Riefenstahl.

Riefenstahl’s most famous work was the 1934  Triumph of the Will, regarded by many as an instrument of  Nazi propaganda, as well as by others as a brilliant aesthetic and technical achievement.

It has not taken us long to arrive at Godwin’s Law.

The opening sequences of Bigelow’s movie portray torture, including waterboarding. This is carried out rather genially by the male CIA interrogator and witnessed by the film’s central character, Maya, a young female agent who has made it her mission to hunt down Osama bin Laden. Initially Maya struggles with her role as witness to inhumane cruelty, but she rapidly overcomes this squeamishness and enters into the zeitgeist. This depiction of Maya’s rapid moral disintegration from someone capable of discomfort in the face of torture to someone who wholeheartedly embraces the process, signifies early in the film the deadening and dehumanising effects of torture on its perpetrators.

Yet here, to me, is where critics of the film have confused the narration of events with apologia. Torture at that time was fully endorsed by the Bush administration, and renamed “enhanced interrogation techniques” in order to normalise the practice and make it publicly acceptable. Interrogators conducted their dark craft fully supported by their CIA masters, and their government. It is not Bigelow who endorses torture. It was the entire apparatus of the state. Bigelow is quite right, when she claims in her defence that her movie realistically depicts the situation that existed at the time, and depiction does not, and should not be assumed to, correlate with endorsement.

Not only do the scenes of torture provoke horror in the viewer, it seems that Bigelow’s refusal to take a moral position  also provokes profound unease. How can she not use this opportunity to convey the absolute wrongness of the act? Why does she veer from the well-trodden path of traditional story telling, in which there is good and there is evil and the author has a point of view?

It’s true that if one stands by and allows certain events to take place, one can be held morally culpable. However, it is a different matter when one is narrating past events, and the climate in which they took place. At that time, the President of the United States encouraged his agents to torture. Do I really need anyone to spell out the horror of that for me? Has Bigelow failed me by not pointing this out in her film?

In declining to impose a moral vision, critics claim Bigelow has opted for what has been described as an “obscene neutrality.”

I am not sure that what Bigelow chooses is an “obscene neutrality” because I am not certain that neutrality in art is “obscene.” I think of The Sopranos, for example. Is David Chase similarly  guilty of “obscene neutrality” because of his morally neutral depiction of the unspeakable violence repeatedly perpetrated by Tony Soprano and his mob? Is it not the creator’s privilege to refrain from expressing a moral viewpoint? Is it not an expression of the creator’s trust in her or his audience to thus refrain, and in so doing, respect the audience’s ability to think for itself without authorial imposition?

Is it inevitably the artist’s responsibility to take a moral perspective in her or his work, and if she fails to do this, can her work be described as “obscene?”

And why, out of all the unspeakable horrors wrought by human beings on one another, should torture be singled out as the one that must not be portrayed “neutrally?”

Slavoj Zizek writes in The Guardian that “to depict torture neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement,” and goes on to say that “with torture one should not think.” Of course he is right in his call for a world in which the notion of torture is unthinkable, however, that is not the world in which we live. Given that torture remains a weapon of the state against its enemies, of course we must think about it, and of course it must be depicted in our art forms. Nobody ever changed or prevented anything by not thinking and not talking about it. That we must have this particular conversation is indeed indescribably sickening, but have it we must, otherwise there will be no opposition to torture. This is our reality. This is the reality Bigelow so bravely portrays. The critics are shooting the messenger.

I also find it difficult to agree with the description of the torture scenes as “neutral.” They were horrific and horribly confronting.  I cannot find any way to interpret those scenes as “neutral,” and I cannot find anything in the film following those scenes that  goes anywhere near “neutralising” them. I find it difficult to understand the mind set of a viewer who allows the impact of those scenes to be ameliorated by subsequent conversation and justification.

Indeed I would argue that Bigelow’s stark depiction of torture conveyed as nothing else could the abhorrent inhumanity of the practice. Nothing she did afterwards could erase that impression, indeed CIA justification only made things worse, as far as this viewer is concerned.

Bigelow seems to me to be a director who makes a conscious decision to withhold moral judgement, at least in her last two movies, The Hurt Locker & Zero Dark Thirty. The former, which is perhaps the most terrifying film I have ever seen, is told without embroidery of any kind: Bigelow embeds her audience with the  bomb disposal squad on its tour of duty in Iraq, and leaves us to make of it what we will. In interviews she’s stated that “what we are attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film” and this approach is supremely successful in The Hurt Locker.  Of course she is referring to journalism as it used to be, before it became opinion.

In Zero Dark Thirty there are later scenes in which Maya is warned that torture is no longer acceptable in the new administration of Barack Obama, indeed, television footage in the background shows Obama famously stating that America does not torture. It’s clear Maya may find herself held to account if she continues the practice, and the original genial interrogator quits in the nick of time and returns to Washington.

Critics claim Bigelow’s movie implies that torture led to the discovery of Bin Laden’s hideout. This is the CIA’s position, though it is increasingly contested within the organisation. The victim supplies his interrogator with a name, over a civilised post torture lunch, after he has been sufficiently broken. This name, together with a myriad of other intelligence, eventually leads the operatives to Bin Laden’s hideout.

Bigelow does not endorse or contest this sequence of events. In my opinion she does not need to, and I would not have welcomed a directorial intrusion at this point. It is obvious that the CIA would justify the use of torture exactly as Bigelow depicts. Bigelow is not inventing this story. She is telling it how it is.

Earlier torture scenes demonstrate the unreliability of information gained through inflicting pain, when the victim claims any of the week as the date for the next terrorist attack as he is forced, after waterboarding and other vile humiliations, curled foetal-like into a hideous box.

Bigelow made her film with extraordinary co-operation from the CIA. There is no doubt the story she tells is the CIA’s story, and indeed at this point there is no other story to tell. One day a Seal or a CIA operative may break ranks and reveal another point of view. It’s hardly likely the survivors of the attack on Bin Laden’s compound will have much to say, and who would believe them?

This has brought condemnation down on her, as if in the very telling of the CIA’s version of events she has inevitably aligned herself with that organisation and its methods. She should have deconstructed the CIA story, she should have critiqued their methods, she should have made another film altogether and by god she should have taken a moral stand, otherwise she is agreeing with it, or so some critics would have it. To me, as audience, I needed no authorial or directorial instruction on the morality of the CIA and its methods in this event. I wanted to know what was done at the time, and the justifications that were made in the context of the times. I didn’t need to know what Kathryn Bigelow felt about it.

I can see how Zero Dark Thirty can be interpreted as an apologia for torture. I believe that is a limited interpretation, and we need to push ourselves harder than that. I don’t believe for a moment that Bigelow intended to make a pro torture film. The director put a great deal of perhaps misplaced faith in her audience. She treated us with respect, and honoured our intelligence. She did not expect to have to tell us that the CIA’s story is horrifyingly flawed, she expected us to recognise that.

It is not Kathryn Bigelow who is the apologist for torture. It was the Bush administration, the CIA and the revenge society that sought to kill bin Laden, rather than arrest him and publicly try him for his crimes. In focussing on Bigelow, the bigger issues are lost. She is the chronicler of the times, not the advocate.

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Greer at the Opera House, Eva Cox, Julia Gillard and MTR. Feminism today. *Sigh*

7 Feb

There’s been a debate raging in the media for over three weeks now as to whether or not morals campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist’s claim to be a feminist is legitimate. Some of the arguments are addressed here and here.

This has come at a convenient time for the Sydney Opera House events management team, who have now co-opted the debate and the threats of defamation made against me by Tankard Reist as advertising material for their upcoming event starring Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf. This event is titled “The F-Word,” and up until the legal threat the organisers were worried that nobody was interested in feminism anymore. The resulting internecine wars have gone a long way towards cheering them up.

Any woman who believes she has the right to tell any other woman she may not call herself a feminist is engaging in an act of bullying. A woman may self-identify in whatever way she chooses. Others may disagree with her choice but disagreement isn’t the same thing as attempting to deny her the right to define herself as she sees fit.

There were at least twenty-seven different factions of feminism last time I counted, many with oppositional points of view. Hegemonic attempts to impose just one definition of the ideology as the norm on all women who would thus identify themselves, is antithetical to feminist principles.

In a situation where the group calls itself “feminist” and is but one of many groups identifying as such, on what grounds does this group assume the entitlement and privilege that allows them to declare all others ineligible?

The ongoing fights about who is entitled to identify herself as a “feminist” are a sad indicator of an ideology that is rapidly disappearing up its own fundament. For example, presented with a choice between engaging in public debate about the other issues the Reist defamation threats have raised, such as free speech, our defamation laws, the rights of bloggers and social media users, all of which are or would once have been considered feminist issues, the public feminists decided to ignore all that.

Then we have the pro Tankard Reist argument that she is an “authentic” feminist as presented here. Whenever someone uses the word “authentic” in an argument such as this I wonder why. To cast other feminists as “inauthentic” perhaps? The article is written by women who describe themselves as “radical” feminists. Are they also authentic? Have I fallen down a rabbit hole?

The battle for and against is two sides of the same struggle for sole possession and domination of the feminist narrative. A struggle that is founded on exclusion, expulsion, entitlement, privilege, and an appalling lack of imagination.

If I wanted to define feminism for myself, I would turn to bell hooks

Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys.

 At the risk of incurring the usual old anti feminist slurs, I’d suggest that any woman or group of women who seek to take possession of the term “feminist” are engaging in their own form of patriarchal domination, and one that we could all do well without.

I don’t know if Greer and Wolfe will be discussing any of this. But I am bemused as I watch a defamation threat made against me by a self-described feminist, turned into an advertisement for an Opera House event at which two of the planet’s most famous feminists will discuss the relevance of feminism. Irony, anyone?

Then there’s the furore about whether or not criticism leveled at Julia Gillard is sexist and misogynist. This is difficult. I’m of the opinion that there is a strong misogynist undercurrent, but I can’t prove it. It’s easy enough to find examples of male PM’s whose appearance is subject to mockery, and exaggerating physical appearance of politicians is the cartoonists’ stock in trade.

Gillard comes with baggage of the worst kind. Would the emotions surrounding that baggage have remained so powerfully alive had a man ousted Kevin Rudd? Is it worse when a woman does it? And if so, why? Is this a manifestation of unresolved mother issues from the time when many of us were under some woman’s thumb, and powerless? Does it hurt more when a woman does it because they aren’t supposed to?

Fascinating questions for an analyst of the collective psyche.

I do take issue with the argument that because she’s a woman Gillard has less authority. She has authority, and in my opinion that authority is both increasing and stabilising as she grows into her role.

Rather, there are those among us who resent a woman’s authority. We might like to reframe that as the woman’s regrettable lack of that quality, however I don’t believe that’s the case in this instance. Anyone who watched as Gillard calmly instructed her bodyguards to ensure Abbott’s safety on Australia Day can’t claim the woman has no authority. It’s innate.

The inability to accept and deal with a female authority figure  is often expressed in dismissive contempt.

In many ways turning the Gillard story into a gender argument is not helpful, even though misogyny is undoubtedly present and ought to be outed if possible. Nevertheless, a woman can’t win when gender becomes the focus of the debate, and Bob Brown didn’t do Gillard any favours by attempting to defend her. I doubt it’s a stoush the PM herself is eager to engage with.

And so to the second feminist Australian Legend to be honoured by Australia Post, Eva Cox.

After referring to me as a nit-picking blogger in her article for New Matilda on whether Tankard Reist is a feminist or not, Cox later apologised for the insult.

However, as she then went ahead and published the same article again here I’ve come to the conclusion that her apology meant less than nothing.

It’s interesting being silenced from both ends of the feminist spectrum. Tankard Reist uses the law in an effort to control me. Cox chooses the arguably more subtle method of refusing to name me and dismissing my arguments at the same time. A man would be pilloried for using the same negating tactics against a woman writer.

Cox apparently has no objections to the law being employed to silence female dissent, which surprises me somewhat, but there you go. Tankard Reist has positively seized upon the law as an instrument of personal control, and has now resorted to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as well.

Then there’s this description of me and my kind made by Cathy Sherry, in her article defending Tankard Reist. I am, she writes, an  “unaccountable blogger sneering and abusing from the safety of [my] bedroom.” According to Ms Sherry, I’m not even worthy of an office simply because I blog. In a later comment elsewhere Ms Sherry refers to me as “faceless” as well, while Anne Summers refers to me simply as “a blogger”. Summers also apologised later.

How to explain this feminist contempt for female bloggers? One would think that blogging and feminism were made for each other. The blog offers an ordinary woman a voice where once there was a deep silence that has been broken only by a select few.

At the end of  three weeks of remarkable encounters with a variety of self-described feminists I have to conclude that because I’m unknown, a blogger, and entirely without influence I don’t count as a feminist or as a woman, and am to be shut up one way or another by a feminist who has more of a public presence than me.

I’m not unduly upset by all this, but I am very puzzled, as well as a little aggravated. I fear it says a great deal about where feminism is today, and it isn’t pretty. I fear it suggests that feminism has sold itself out to some of the values it once despised and resisted. I fear it’s going to be all down hill from here, if we aren’t very careful.

Feminist’s theatrical posturing in Wikileak’s founder’s sex case

8 Jan
Author Naomi Wolf speaking at an event hosted ...

Naomi Wolf. Image via Wikipedia


In the Guardian January 5 2011, American feminist Naomi Wolf calls for the two women at the centre of the allegations of sexual misconduct against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, to be publicly named. Thus far, the women have been referred to only as Ms A and Ms W in UK and Swedish legal proceedings. Wolf argues that this is demeaning to the alleged victims. She demands that the women be treated as “moral adults” and named as the complainants. She points out that it is usually only children whose names are withheld in criminal cases, and that to treat women in the same way is to infantalise them. Wolf writes: The shielding of sex-crimes accusers is a Victorian relic. Women are moral adults and should be treated as such.

Is Wolf’s call entirely gratuitous?

There is a certain disingenuous aspect to Wolf’s demands. The women’s names are easily found on the Internet, and have been published in at least one Australian newspaper. (As this writer doesn’t agree with the outing of complainants, you’ll have to go find the sources for yourself.) In the comments section of the Guardian article, a poster alleges that Wolf herself re-tweeted the names when she became aware of them. In her terms, that puts the alleged victims on an apparently level playing field with the accused Assange.

However, Wolf is sidestepping the reality that it is against the law in the UK to name accusers in sex crime allegations, even though she acknowledges this in her article. The current law makes her demands in this specific situation little more than theatrical posturing.

Does Wolf want all victims of sexual crimes to be named? Or just Ms A and Ms W?

It is very difficult to believe that a feminist such as Wolf is indeed launching a campaign for all victims of sexual assault to be outed when they make a complaint. For a person who wished to remain anonymous, and very many do, compulsory outing would be rather like another form of emotional and psychological rape.

Keeping the complainants’ identities secret seems like a sensible move. There is a great risk that women and men who’ve been sexually assaulted will be even less inclined to report their attackers if they themselves are publicly identified. The ordeal of reporting, examination, and facing your attacker in court is a great one, adding to this the risk of seeing your name blazoned across the media for weeks and months is not likely to encourage victims to complain.

Wolf and “the world’s dating police”

In the Assange case, the women have been vilified and harassed by his supporters across the blogosphere and in the mainstream press, which is a good argument for maintaining anonymity as much as is possible. Wolf has also done her best to discredit them prior to calling for them to be outed. In the article Julian Asssange captured by the world’s dating police Wolf accuses the women of using feminist rhetoric and the law to assuage their injured personal feelings over minimal offences. This may or may not be the case, and that is exactly the point. As yet, we don’t know. Equally, the women may have genuine grounds for complaint. Until the matter is heard, all is speculation and assumption.

When someone is wrongfully accused

There can be dire consequences for the man or woman who’s been publicly identified as standing accused of sexual assault, if he or she is subsequently found to be innocent of the charge. Mud sticks, sexual mud perhaps more than many other types. For the period leading up to the legal processes, the accused remains in an unenviable limbo, during which anything can be and is said about him or her in the media. We have seen this in Australia when, for example, footballers have experienced this process, and the media is seemingly willing to report just about anybody’s opinions on whether or not the man in question is guilty as accused, or innocent, well before the matter ever is heard in the courtroom. (Again, not wishing to perpetuate those issues about which I am complaining, you’ll have to look it up for yourself.) Trial by media is now an unfortunate commonplace.

There are murky circumstances surrounding the Assange allegations, not least of which is that they have already been dismissed by one prosecutor, only to be revived after the Wikileaks cable dump began in earnest. The allegations received new life when the case was taken up again by a right-wing Swedish politician, allegedly close to the US and facing an election, in spite of there being no new evidence against Assange.

Payback time?

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Wolf is conducting a personal vendetta against the two women. To many feminists, it makes no sense at all that the identities of alleged victims of sexual misconduct should be revealed to the world. Wolf’s demands sound at this stage very much like tit for tat  – the women’s complaints have caused Assange great difficulties, and so they should suffer difficulties as well. This ignores the reality that the women have already been subjected to considerable vilification world wide, and that no matter what one’s personal opinion of their actions, they have made a complaint that is now subject to due legal process.

Taking up arms for feminism

As well as the apparently personal aspect, Wolf has also taken up arms in the cause of feminism. She claims that in their pursuit of Assange, Interpol, the British and the Swedish governments have engaged in a form of political theatre, ostensibly pursuing a man on sex charges, in reality fuelled in their pursuit by entirely political agendas. These claims do make sense: as Wolf points out, when did anyone last hear of an alleged sex offender being pursued as relentlessly as Assange, put in solitary confinement, and denied bail while awaiting extradition? (With the relatively rare exception of child sexual abusers.) Governments and law enforcement agencies rarely if ever go to such trouble and expense.

This, Wolf claims, makes a mockery of all the women (and men, though she does not mention them) who’ve never seen justice in similar matters, and worse. In a December 13 2010 article in the Huffington Post, (titled J’accuse, in itself an interesting reference) Wolf claims that the extraordinarily disproportionate pursuit of Assange is not an example of the State embracing feminist concerns about the violation of women, rather it is an example of the State “pimping” feminism. One is tempted to observe that the States’ pursuit of Assange had nothing at all to do with feminism, either embracing or pimping, much as feminists would like to believe the philosophy had an influence in the proceedings. It is far more likely to be entirely politically motivated, perhaps in a futile attempt to silence Wikileaks by incarcerating Assange, or as a means of extraditing him to the USA, via Sweden.

To any fair-minded person, the argument ought be that no identities are revealed in such cases, neither the alleged perpetrator nor the victim. The most sensible solution all round might be to withhold the names of the complainants and the accused in alleged sexual crimes. On the downside, such a move would give the media less to prattle about, and would curb the tongues of many commentators, but it would offer protection to both parties. It should never be forgotten that a person is innocent until proven guilty, and that is sometimes the case with accusers as well.

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