October 24, 2014

Friday Review: The Monuments Men

The story of the Monuments Men - a group of about 350 Allied soldiers who were tasked with safeguarding and liberating looted art during World War II - is fascinating and a part of the war that's frequently been overlooked.  That, thankfully, changed last year with the George Clooney flick, even though it didn't turn out to be the awards season champ it seemed designed to be.  The movie a fictionalized account of the story laid in the book by Robert Edsel.  For such an interesting story, it's a shame it doesn't get a better telling.

Edsel makes an admission right at the beginning of the book that doesn't bode well:
I have taken the liberty of creating dialogue for continuity, but in no instance does it concern matters of substance and in all cases it is based on extensive documentation.
I admire them for being up front about this, but it immediately calls into question what comes after.  More problematic, however, is that if the dialogue doesn't concern "matters of substance" then why include it at all?  In the end, the dialog doesn't add much drama or tension to the book, which is otherwise sorely lacking.  It's both an odd choice and a missed opportunity.

Perhaps one reason I'm particularly down on the dialogue is that in the Audible version, the reader tries to do most of them in accents and fails miserably.  I've rarely cringed while listening to an audiobook, but did so time after time with this one.  It was particularly jarring because early on when all the speakers were Americans, there didn't seem to be any accents at all (this changed, unfortunately).  The cliched French and German that came later, therefore, really grated on the ears.

Beyond that, part of the problem with the book is that the Monuments Men tend to blend together until it's hard to remember who's who.  They have very similar backgrounds and face the same kind of obstacles so that none of them really stand out.  In fact, the biggest help I had in keeping them separate in my head was to picture their counterparts in the movie (fictional characters based on actual people).

In fact, the two most memorable people in the book (aside from Hitler, Eisenhower, etc.) are ones that don't quite fit the "Monuments Men" label.  One was Rose Valland, a French woman who spent the war in the midst of Nazi Paris keeping track of plundered art, then became the key figure in tracking it down and recapturing it.  She, obviously, was not a man (nor American, which is the primary focus of the book and film).

The other is Harry Ettlinger, who was a man, but unlike the more sophisticated, educated, and high class art types who became Monuments Men, was just a private who wound up doing his part.  It's his back story that makes that part compelling.  Ettlinger was a Jew, born in Karlshrue and forced to flee before the war.  He was, we are told, the last person to have a bat mitzvah in that city's synagogue before it was destroyed.  That he returned to Germany an American GI, helping right the cultural wrong perpetrated by the Nazis (including a fulfilling personal mission) is the best part of the book.

The other problem is that, once things get going, the activities of the Monuments Men are pretty redundant.  During the initial periods after Allied landings in Italy and France, they are tasked with keeping valuable buildings and works from being carelessly destroyed.  Important, no doubt, but not that thrilling once we're past the initial instance.  Things pick up a bit once they're on the trial of looted art, but those trails mostly lead to a series of mines in Germany and Austria where the Germans stashed the loot.  The mere fact that untold treasures are stuffed down mines, much less the challenges of getting them out, are interesting but, again, become a bit redundant.

In the middle of this section comes an interesting, if not altogether relevant, diversion.  The most impressive of the salt-mine stashes was found in the Austrian town of Altaussee.  The Nazi governor of the area planned to blow the whole mine up, destroying all the looted artwork rather than let it fall into Allied hands (all based on an order from Hitler that may, or may not, have been rescinded and/or modified).  A group of locals managed to trick him into delaying the plan long enough for the Allies to arrive.  It's a neat story and, from Edsel's telling, one that's been untold in its true depth, for years.  However, it doesn't really have much to do with the Monuments Men, as they arrived after the drama was done.

But most of that is nitpicking.  What Edsel has done is to celebrate not just a group of people who did important (and often overlooked) work.  He notes just how unusual this focus on preserving and repatriating art was and what a worthy endeavor it was.  Armies just didn't do such things.

Nor do they much anymore.  Edsel wonders why we haven't had similar operations (at least in terms of scope) in future wars.  Sadly, I think it's pretty easy to figure out.  Edsel frequently refers to the Monuments Men's goal as no less than the salvation, not just of particular cultural artifacts, but of "our" culture in general.  He even goes so far as to call the Altaussee plot one of the great turning points of civilization.  So why, then, were there no Monuments Men units in Iraq or Vietnam or Korea?

Simple - those places aren't part of "our" culture.  The Nazis, after all, were still Europeans and thus part of a long heritage that extended to the United States.  Not so much some others. It's not for nothing that the Monuments Men effort was confined to Europe, with no mention of the Pacific theater.  Nor should it be lost that the genesis of the group that became the Monuments Men was concerns about protecting American art in case of invasion.  We care most about ourselves and those who remind us of ourselves (Bender was onto something), whether that is how it should be or not.

Edsel himself has an interesting story (according to Wikipedia).  He grew up in Texas and made his money in (what else) oil and gas drilling.  He sold out to Union Pacific in the 1990s and moved to Europe.  It was there he first became interested in the subject of the Nazis and art during the war.  He's done yeoman work to bring this issue to national attention and clearly cares deeply about it.  None of the criticisms of his writing should minimize that.

The Details
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
by Robert M. Edsel, with Bret Witter
Published 2009

October 20, 2014

If You're Worried About Rosebud, You're Missing the Point

It's his sled. It was his sled from when he was a kid. There, I just saved you two long boobless hours. 
- Peter Griffin, spoiling Citizen Kane

Saw Gone Girl last weekend.  It's really good, particularly if you like the kind of movie that takes place in an air of dread that's perfectly summoned by David Fincher (with able assists from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross).  I say that even knowing the big twist of the film going into it.  Not because I had read the book on which it's based, but because my wife blurted it out during a TV commercial. She didn't know I wanted to see it.

Point is, she didn't really "spoil" the movie for me, in the true sense of the word.  That's because the flick is good enough that it doesn't rise or fall on the big "twist" (which, for what it's worth, happens about halfway through - this isn't The Sixth Sense we're talking about).  In my opinion, any movie/book/TV show that rises and falls on that twist isn't really worth watching.

What's more, people seem to enjoy things more once they know how it turns out.  At least that's what some research says.

Back in 2011, as The Atlantic reports, a study was published that sounds pretty neat:
Scientists asked 900 college students from the University of California, San Diego, to read mysteries and other short stories by writers like John Updike, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, and Raymond Carver. Each student got three stories, some with "spoiler paragraphs" revealing the twist, and some without any spoilers. Finally, the students rated their stories on a 10-point scale..
The results?  Readers preferred the spoiled stories.  But why would we want to know how it ends ahead of time?
One theory is that our anticipation of surprises actually takes away from our appreciation for the 99 percent of the movie that isn't a monster twist. 'The second viewing is always more satisfying than the first,' Sternbergh said, 'because you notice all the things you missed while you were busy waiting for the twist.' Psychologists have observed that when we consume movies and songs for a second (or third, or hundredth time), the stories become easier to process, and we associate this ease of processing with aesthetic pleasure.
Think about this for a second.  Most of us have some piece of culture that we go back to again and again.  I know that the big escape at the end of Brazil takes place all inside Sam's head, but I still watch it.  I know that Arthur and Ford wind up on a primitive Earth populated by a bunch of idiots expelled from a better planet, but I'll still reconsume Hitchiker's Guide . . . again (in its many forms).  And I know Tommy goes back to being blind, deaf, and dumb at the end, but that doesn't make "Pinball Wizard" kick any less ass.

Of course, there might be other reasons why spoilers really aren't, including the uncomfortable recognition that we really like predictability more than we let on.  But, in this area at least, I'd like to not be completely cynical* and think that, deep down, we realize that works built on the big twist only are, as someone else put it in the Atlantic piece:
like artistic flash paper: It excites for a moment but offers little lasting wonder.
After all, we want to be better than Peter Griffin.  Right?

* I know, you're shocked, right?  How's that for a twist!

October 15, 2014

On Criticism of Islam

So, a few weeks ago, Bill Maher said this:

That stirred up a bit of shit, but the real deal came the next week, when Maher brought up the topic again, this time with Sam Harris and Ben Affleck in the free fire zone:

I like Bill, but I think he's on the wrong side of thing here.  Or, if he isn't, he's not being sufficiently specific in his criticism to convince me.

For one thing, he never actually names the "liberals" he's calling out or provides examples of the kinds of things to which he objects.  Without that, it's hard to tell whether he's right or wrong.  Reading between the lines, he might be talking about people who argue either that (1) it's important to distinguish radical Muslims from those more moderate and liberal ones and who stress the need to not paint an entire religion with a broad brush or (2) religion isn't really the root cause, or is one of many contributing causes, to the violence in Iraq and elsewhere.

I'm leaning toward the first, because Bill is fond of making broad sweeping comments, in this and all other areas.  Also, it's bolstered by something Harris said during the second segment:
There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don't take the faith seriously, who don't want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS.
This is an argument I see pop up with some regularity in the atheist blogosphere that really makes no sense.  I've hinted before that, as an atheist, I really don't have a say in who gets to claim the label of Muslim, Christian, Hindu or whatever.  It's enough to note that radically different people with apparently irreconcilable positions both claim the title and leave them to sort it out.  Thus, it comes off as awfully arrogant to claim that the non-lethal members of a religion are so in name only and really don't take their "faith seriously."

It's also stupefyingly bad politics.  Although there are some atheists who are intent on turning other people into atheists, most of us (I hope) are more interested in ensuring that the government stays a secular institution and that no religions dictates get enshrined into law.  In that quest we can count on a large number of Christians, Jews, and other religious folks who value church/state separation, for whatever reason.  It's beyond counterproductive to tell them they aren't "really" religious because they've signed on to a moderate form of a particular faith that lets them live in peace with their neighbors.  After all, that should be the goal.

Leading the push back against Bill and Sam (or coming to Affleck's rescue, if you like) is author Reza Aslan.  In a New York Times piece he makes an interesting point:
What both the believers and the critics often miss is that religion is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices. The phrase 'I am a Muslim,' 'I am a Christian,' 'I am a Jew' and the like is, often, not so much a description of what a person believes or what rituals he or she follows, as a simple statement of identity, of how the speaker views her or his place in the world.
As a form of identity, religion is inextricable from all the other factors that make up a person’s self-understanding, like culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. What a member of a suburban megachurch in Texas calls Christianity may be radically different from what an impoverished coffee picker in the hills of Guatemala calls Christianity. The cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia. The differences between Tibetan Buddhists living in exile in India and militant Buddhist monks persecuting the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, in neighboring Myanmar, has everything to do with the political cultures of those countries and almost nothing to do with Buddhism itself.
Azlan also argues that "scripture is meaningless without interpretation," which I think is his way of saying that no text, regardless of how explicit it appears, stands on its own.  Everything has to be interpreted, which says as much about the person doing the interpreting as it does the text itself.  Don't believe me?  Read courts taking opposite positions on the same statutory or Constitutional language - it happens all the time.

Which is not to say that Islam itself is off limits from criticism, nor are those who act in its name when they do horrific things.  Fareed Zakaria sums up the situation pretty well:
Islam has a problem today. The places that have trouble accommodating themselves to the modern world are disproportionately Muslim.
In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority. The Pew Research Center rates countries on the level of restrictions that governments impose on the free exercise of religion. Of the 24 most restrictive countries, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities.
And that was before ISIS wrote proudly in its Enlglish language magazine (there is such a thing!) of its enslavement of Yazidis in Iraq.  Yet Zakaria still concludes that Bill and Sam are guilty of being too broad when talking about Islam.

If Bill's problem with liberals and Islam is the second one I laid out above - that they might tend to look deeper than just a "religion=bad" analysis, he's on even shakier ground.  It's easy to point to religious conflicts through history, ones where one faith battled another.  But it's hard to find ones that are really, deep down, about religion itself.

To use a non-Islam example, think of The Troubles that racked Ireland for so many decades.  On the surface, it was a sectarian struggle, between Catholics and Protestants.  Dig deeper, however, and it turns out that those were convenient labels for groups that were actually split between Irish republicans and British royalists.  They weren't fighting over the finer points of the Reformation or Transubstantiation, they were fighting about political control of Ireland.  As Azlan wrote, being "Catholic" or "Protestant" in the context of that struggle was more about a form of identity, not theological rigor.

Hell, even Richard Dawkins is softening a little bit as to whether ISIS and the like are really about religion or not.  If the Grand Poo-Bah Supreme Potentate of Atheism (tm) has come to that conclusion, surely Bill can't complain!

There's nothing wrong with criticism, either of a person or an idea.  However, broad criticism of entire groups of people does very little good in the end.  It doesn't help you understand the nuances of a situation or the deeper currents that may be driving it.  It doesn't help draw those to your cause who may think you're an arrogant dipwad for telling them what they believe.  It might feel good to blow off a little steam and feel superior for a while, but that doesn't get you very far.

October 9, 2014

We're Fooling Ourselves

3rDegree's 2012 album The Long Division is a political album.  In the sense that it's about our modern political world, not that it was trying get people to vote one way or the other.  The verdict of the album's half dozen related tracks is that the system is undeniably fucked up, partly because we, as a nation, have lost the ability to talk with people on the other side of an issue.  The lead off track lays it out well:

But this isn't just a snarky observation by a bunch of musical types from New Jersey (mostly) - it's backed up by statistics.  In a post over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin (quoting a Cass Sunstein op ed) lays out some numbers about the rise of "partyism" in the United States.  They're kind of chilling:
In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said that they would feel 'displeased' if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers had reached 49 percent and 33 percent. Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business.
As Somin then points out:
Increasingly, we assume that supporters of the rival political party are not just misguided about political issues, but also untrustworthy or malevolent people in general.
Although it's sometimes hard to admit, democracy (and life, more generally) is about compromise.  To quote another rock lyric, "you can't always get what you want."  You have to be able to give a little to get a little.  But that's damned difficult when the person on the other side of the aisle isn't just wrong, but is (in Somin's words) "evil, selfish, or stupid."  Compromise with evil is immoral and compromise with stupid is impossible.  So we all throw up our hands and go have a press conference while nothing gets done.  It's the modern equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

So what to do about it?  Do we chastise talking heads and Internet commenters who jump to the worst possible conclusions about their political rivals?  We should, but I'm not sure that's going to get very far.  What I think it's going to take to back the country down from this precipice is the very thing 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats fear - ideological mixing.

Because, here's the thing.  When it comes to most people who hold opinions different from you, they're actually not monsters or morons, evil or stupid.  They're people, with all the flaws that entails, who, ultimately, probably want the same broad things you do (a good life, safe neighborhoods, educated kids, etc.).  They may be ignorant about a particular issue, but we're all ignorant about something (lots of somethings, more likely).  When we forget that, we slide back into ideological tribalism.

I'm speaking from some experience here.  I'm the outlier among my brothers (and sisters in law, for that matter) in being a liberal atheist.  My older brothers have both become more conservative and religious as they've grown up, had kids, and the like.  When it comes to many matters of politics or theology, I think they're wrong.  But I know, because I've known them all my life, that they're not "evil, selfish, or stupid."  We see the world differently, but that's all right.  It makes it a lot harder to demonize the opposition when you know them as real people, not just soldiers for Team Red or Team Blue.

That's not to say all we need is to get together, sing "Kumbayya," and everything will work out.  Like I said, folks on either side of a political dispute are just people.  As there are (generally) good, thoughtful people out there, so to are there assholes, opportunists, the short sighted, and, yes, the evil.  But they're a smaller proportion of the population than we think in our worst "our side uber alles" flag waving moments.

Through my forty years, it's just been a fact that (at the national level anyway) one side doesn't get what it wants all the time.  Even during all those years the Democrats controlled Congress they had to deal with fierce GOP minorities or a GOP President.  Neither side will ever triumph over the other completely.  None of this is to suggest that partisans on one side or the other should refrain from calling the other folks out for being wrong. But there's a world of difference between calling someone (or, more correctly, his or her idea/proposal/argument) "wrong" and calling them dipshits, evil doers, or (to pull one example I saw today) a "weasel."

If we don't recognize that and try to at least make a good faith attempt to understand, rather than caricaturize, the other side, then we really are fooling ourselves if we think the country is ever going to get better.

October 5, 2014

Ignorance Is No Excuse . . . Unless It Is

The old maxim goes that "ignorance of the law is no excuse."  That's certainly true when it comes to us plebs, but what about the cops?  Or does "almost" count for law enforcement, the way it does for horseshoes, hand grenades, and atomic weapons?  The Supreme Court, in a case that kicks off the 2014 term Monday, is about to tell us.

Nicholas Heien was driving in North Carolina when he got pulled over for having a busted tail light.  A subsequent search uncovered drugs, which lead to Heien being prosecuted for, among other things, the busted taillight.  But the North Carolina courts determined that state law only required one working tail light, regardless of how many lights the car was supposed to have.  One busted one, therefore, was not a crime, so long as the others were working.

So much for Heien's driving charge. But what about the drugs?  Was the stop good, now that we know it was based on an incorrect interpretation of the law?  The state supreme court decided almost was good enough - so long as the cop's mistake of law was "reasonable," the stop doesn't violate the Fourth Amendment.  Because state law on tail lights was uncertain, the cop's stop of Heien in this case was reasonable.

Orin Kerr lays out the issues and why he thinks the defense should prevail. I agree that they should, but that doesn't mean much in modern Fourth Amendment law.  That being said, this case does have two interesting angles that might lead it to buck the trend.

First, a lot of the modern cases stripping the Fourth Amendment deal not with the amendment itself but with the exclusionary rule - the rule that says that evidence discovered during an unconstitutional search can't be used at trial.  The Supreme Court (and the lesser courts) has, for the past few years, expanded the once-limited "good faith" exception to the rule, giving cops more room to make mistakes and not pay a price for it.  Heien can't be viewed through that lens because North Carolina, in its state constitution, explicitly rejected the good faith exception.  So the Supremes will have to deal with the issue head on.

Second, and hanging over the whole thing, is the goose/gander angle I mentioned above.  As Kerr explains:
it seems only fair to apply the same rule to the police that applies to regular citizens. Mistake of law is a classic subject taught in first-year Criminal Law. Students read cases like People v. Marrero, 69 N.Y.2d 382, 507 N.E.2d 1068 (1987), in which a federal prison guard was convicted of possessing a weapon in violation of a state law that had an express exception for 'corrections officers . . . of any penal institution.' After Marrero was charged, a divided lower court ruled that 'any penal institution' only meant a state penal institution, which to his shock excluded Marrero. New York’s high court then ruled that Marrero could not assert a mistake of law defense in light of this ruling. Ignorance of the law was no excuse, even if 'the law' was handed down in a surprising way only after the defendant’s arrest. This was a harsh result for citizen Marrero, perhaps, but it was needed to give individuals an incentive to learn the law.

That’s the usual rule in criminal law, and I’m not sure why the same thinking shouldn’t apply in criminal procedure.
I wouldn't expect a generic Fourth Amendment case to really catch the public's attention.  We've let it atrophy so much over the past few decades that I wouldn't blame most folks if they thought it had just vanished into thin air.  But I'd expect there to be an uproar if the Supreme's give the cops more leeway when it comes to knowing the law than they do regular citizens.  If the fear of that is what it takes for them to get this one right, so be it.

UPDATE: Scott over at Simple Justice has a more pessimistic take.  Having read about half of the oral argument transcript, he might be right to worry.