Thursday, March 26, 2009

Revolutionary Road

There have been many potent critiques leveled against the American Dream. From Death of a Salesman to American Beauty, the darker ‘untold’ story of American suburban life has been told. While joining this long list of criticisms, Revolutionary Road departs from it in some important ways.


Like many, this story begins with a young couple that falls in love, marries, has children, and finds a house in the suburbs. The husband, Frank, takes a job he hates and is ‘too talented’ for and his wife April feels trapped and bored in her role as suburban housewife. Sounds typical, right?

Wrong. Most other stories have frustrating but likeable characters who end up sticking it to the man or living the life they always imagined upon an enlightening/ empowering experience. Lester Burnham of American Beauty fits this bill well. In Revolutionary Road, nearly everyone is despicable, blind, and completely lacking in courage. The one man who sees clearly the world Frank and April find themselves in is John Givings, a recently released psychiatric patient and former math professor. Here are a couple of his more powerful insights:

In speaking about the suburban way of life, he says, "Hopeless emptiness. Now you've said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness."

Then, in an argument with Frank about April's second (surprise) pregnancy and why Frank took a promotion at a job he hates instead of moving his family to Paris to start over as he had planned, Givings remarks, "I wouldn't be surprised if you knocked her up on purpose, just so you could spend the rest of your life hiding behind that maternity dress."

Unfortunately, Givings sees only ugliness, so much so that he is completely incapable of finding a role in society. Herein lies the underlying theme of the movie: There is no alternative to a seemingly absurd world. While one leaves the film convinced about the futility of suburban married life as an end in itself, a deeper angst comes from the film’s intentional failure to articulate an alternative. I left asking myself, “If no this, then what?”

It’s a tough pill to swallow but, once taken, I think it unearths our deepest insecurities as young American hopefuls.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Impotence, not coincidentally, is the unifying theme of Watchmen. I've posted before that the story, as told by Gibbons and Moore, is essentially a freudian analysis of the psychosexual complexes that motivate people to dress in leotards and fight crime, and (therefore) that motivates readers of the genre to commune with the medium with fervent intimacy. When you look past all of the story's remarkable trappings, it is ultimately a tale of freaks and failures, of men and women who believe they're heroes and villains but in the end are little more than slaves to their own subconscious feelings of powerlessness. It is here that I take issue with Snyder's adaptation.

Dave Gibbons' name appears in the credits of the film; Alan Moore's does not. This is appropriate, but it is not because Snyder failed to attempt to preserve the integrity of the text. Indeed, both authors' work, as it appears in the ink on the page, is preserved with remarkable fidelity here. Scenes from the novel are regularly reconstructed panel-for-panel and line-for-line. The problem is simply that Gibbons' vision is well-served by the big-screen costuming and special effects; Moore's is not.


To show Night Owl and Spectre engaging in kung fu heroics is not only an exaggeration of the text, it is a fundamental misreading of their characters. These aren't action heroes; they're people who get their capes caught in revolving doors and are brutally gunned down. Moore's greatest insight with Watchmen was to realize that if flawed people choose to engage in heroics that are infinitely beyond them, the results of their efforts are not comic (as was, and is, so widely popularized in comedies of bungling superheroes), but tragic. Snyder seems to be completely oblivious to this. These aren't people who are uniquely endowed to be heroes, as the Night Owl/Spectre fight sequences would imply, but are either tormented into doing so (like Rorschach and the Comedian, the moral centers of the work), or are looking to get off (basically everyone else).

(via Mark)

Watchmen (the book) benefits in a variety of ways from its medium, but the comic format has its drawbacks. Because of the ease with which its pages turn, one can miss the many subtle themes Watchmen has to offer. As the above highlights, the movie's greatest flaw is not that it gets the story wrong (J. Hoberman actually argues it gets it too right) but that it misses one of Alan Moore's fundamental points.

Thus, there are two things anyone should do before seeing this film: (1) read the book, and (2) read it again. This is not a suggestion so much as a prerequisite. To see this film without understanding the novel's underlying themes is to reduce its real substance to mere plot.

Having fulfilled the above requirements, I left the movie theater last Saturday feeling elated in the knowledge that this movie was probably as good as it could have been. It was true to the book, Snyder's stupid camera tricks never bogged down scenes the way they did in 300, and besides a couple of miscasted roles, the acting was more right than wrong.

And yet, this film's greatest success has nothing to do with what occurs between its previews and closing credits. Unlike the multitude of superhero films released this decade -- Spiderman, X-Men, and Batman among the most popular -- Watchmen serves not to supplement, but to complement (or even advertise) its source material. Since the buzz began for Snyder's adaptation nearly a year ago, the book has seen record sales, and it is currently sitting at the top of Amazon's bestseller list.

Ignoring the merits of  the film altogether, Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. Pictures deserve one helluva pat on the back for igniting a new interest in both a twenty-year-old comic book and the graphic novel medium itself.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Where’s the love?

The nonprofit sector is a strange world. I would like to take this moment to reflect on my experience this year working for a nonprofit among 30 other recent graduates doing public interest work in Chicago. For the record, I am not against nonprofits, but I do think good ones are the exception, not the rule.

Nonprofits are typically built in the following way:
1) Someone has a “new idea” that will solve the “most pressing issue” of our time
2) The founder uses their charm, close networks, and good luck in raising money
3) They operationalize their idea by developing programs and filling an office
4) They find ways to show how well their programs are doing without actually addressing whether the world really looks any different because of their programs
5) The cycle continues: restate the vision, get more funding, run programs, overstate impact...

The following are a few of my high-level critiques and observations:

1) There is no rational process that incentivizes real impact

Every nonprofit has a “unique approach” that validates their existence ad infinitum (though they all claim to be working to put themselves out of business). This leads them to have entirely different and thus uncomparable metrics of success, which also undermines the prospects of real partnership and collaboration. If everyone can define success differently, then there cannot be a mechanism that consistently rewards more impactful organizations. This means that funders do not maximize dollar for dollar impact, but instead rely on their gut, being wooed by emotional appeals, or personal pet interests and friendships.

2) “At least we’re doing something” usually means rationalized mediocrity

Nonprofits often have unbelievably audacious visions and rarely hold themselves accountable to audacious impact goals. One example is Teach for America (TFA). TFA is often discussed as a best-in-class nonprofit, and I would agree; they definitely attract top-talent (read John Boumgarden). However, I think they too fall into this category of huge vision with dissonant impact. Wendy Kopp’s vision is “One day, all children...” The average impact of a Corps Member is one tenth of one grade level better than the average (see study). Are we really to believe that this is the strategy that will lead to “One day, all children?” But hey, at least they’re doing something.

Did Gandhi start a nonprofit? Did King? The two most impressive civic leaders of the 20th century impacted world structures without the nonprofit apparatus. There are obviously many great nonprofits out there (see Harlem Children’s Zone), but I think we have become too quick to channel our desire to do good into the segmented, weakly accountable, and largely unimpressive nonprofit sector.

Vaclav Havel, the great Czech dissident and politician, offers us an alternative to the typical nonprofit approach. He says:

We are looking for new scientific recipes, new ideologies, and new institutions to eliminate the dreadful consequences of our previous recipes, ideologies, and institutions [...] We cannot discover a law or theory whose application will eliminate the disastrous consequences of the application of earlier laws and theories.

What we need is something different, something larger. Man’s attitude toward the world must be radically changed. We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered.

We have to release from the sphere of private whim and rejuvenate such forces as a natural, unique, and unrepeatable experience of the world, an elementary sense of justice, the ability to see things as others do, a sense of transcendental responsibility, archetypal wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion, and faith in the importance of particular measures that do not aspire to be universal [...] The way forward is not in the mere construction of universal systemic solutions. Instead, human uniqueness, human action, and the human spirit must be rehabilitated.

How do we implement Havel’s call for a transformed human consciousness based on justice, compassion, and responsibility? I don’t know, maybe I’ll start a nonprofit.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Birds, the Bees & the ICC

Last week, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, President of Africa's largest country and home to the infamous Darfur conflict, Sudan. This post is an attempt to consolidate what is no doubt an array of confusing information and names for those unfamiliar with the infant institution. My hope is to offer insight into this watershed event in international human rights.

A (Very) Brief History of the ICC
With the intent to try perpetrators of international humanitarian law, tribunals were created on an ad hoc basis following WWII (the Nuremberg Trials), the atrocities of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia (the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia), and the Rwandan genocide (the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The results were mixed: while the ad hocs represented successes for the international human rights regime, as well as the victims of some of the most tragic events of recent history, they were also marred by bureaucracy, incompetence and corruption, and were accused of being a form of victor's justice. Some important figures were successfully prosecuted; others, most notably Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, "got away" (Milosevic died of a heart attack after almost five years of criminal proceedings -- no verdict was delivered).

The ICC is a permanent court based in The Hague with the mandate to prosecute individuals for the "world's worst crimes," including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Its creation in the late 90s was an attempt to solve the ad hocs' shortcomings -- to reduce costs and inefficiencies, as well as deter future violations. Most critically, the ICC can prosecute anyone from Joe the Plumber to Barack Obama, which is huge: if this thing works, heads of state will be unable to allow atrocities to happen on their watch, a massive leap -- not a step -- forward for international human rights.

The ICC's founding treaty was ratified by the required 60 states in 2002, and today, more than 100 member-states compose its Assembly of States Parties (ASP). And yet, some of the world's most influential states -- Russia, China, India, and oh yeah, the United States -- have thus far refused to join. But that was Bush, and this is "stem cells are alright" Barry.

In all seriousness, it does seem probable that Obama will eventually sign the US up for the ICC, because frankly, Bush's primary insecurities were largely unfounded. I'd be happy to flesh this out elsewhere, but it's not what this post is really about. So...

What Happened with Bashir?
Who doesn't love bullet points?:
  • Early 2003: Violence begins in Darfur, a conflict that continues today. Roughly 300,000 people have died, more than 3 million people have been displaced, and 4.7  million people now rely on humanitarian aid for food, water, and shelter. It is the world's largest humanitarian crisis.
  • March 2005: In a sly move at the UN, France essentially corners the Bush administration, and the case of Darfur is referred to the ICC.
  • April 27, 2007: The ICC issues arrest warrants for Ahmed Haroun, Sudan's Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs, and Janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb.  Both remain at large and are therefore classified as "international fugitives."
  • July 14, 2008: ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo presents a case against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur.
  • March 4, 2009: The ICC issues an arrest warrant for Bashir on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes, but not genocide as Moreno-Ocampo suggested. It is the first arrest warrant for an active head of state issued by the ICC.
  • In the last week: Bashir is totally not cool with the arrest warrant. The guy's literally dancing in the streets of Darfur and laughing at the ICC's absurd allegations.

Does the ICC have a case against Bashir?

On the one hand, he has presided over wartorn Sudan since 1993. There is a myriad of evidence that his government aided Janjaweed militia in the systematic destruction, rape, and murder of the peoples of Darfur. Most notably, it is well documented that combat training and planes were provided. And back in 2004 when the governments of the world actually seemed to care about Darfur (Bush and Co. even called it a "genocide"), Bashir's government consistently prevented humanitarian agencies from entering Darfur, claiming that they had it all under control.

On the other hand, Sudan does not provide first year Poli Sci students with a particularly strong example of separation of powers. Sure, Bashir's the President, but the ICC is "arguably chasing the wrong person." Moreno-Ocampo has made him out to be an all powerful dictator, but experts have confirmed the government has numerous centers of power. It is quite possible that others in the chain of command had greater knowledge and authority over the situation in Darfur.

The Unknown
Best Case Scenario
Optimists hope that moderates within Sudan's government will turn Bashir over to the ICC, negotiate a solution to Sudan's multiple conflicts, and that human rights will eventually be prevail.

The Financial Times' William Wallace rightly concludes this would be "somewhat of a miracle."

Worst Case Scenario
Pessimists say hardliners will rally around Bashir, non-political humanitarian aid agencies will be forced out of Darfur, and old conflicts (i.e. a North-South civil war that precluded the violence in Darfur) will reignite.

While arguably overstated, this scenario seems far more likely. In fact, the licenses of 13 humanitarian agencies have already been revoked, and four peacekeepers were "ambushed" and injured earlier today. Simply put, it's not only possible, but probable, that the ICC's warrant could undo the positive work that has been done in the region since the beginning of the crisis.

The Challenge
I would argue that, regardless of the current situation, the ICC has four primary impediments: distance, enforcement, investigation, and politicization. All four prove problematic in the current Bashir case and must be considered if the Court is to be successful.

First, the Court is situated in The Hague, far from the impoverished villages of Darfur. This has two main implications: (1) Bashir and others have deemed the ICC another of the imperialist world's attempts to meddle in African affairs -- in short, it is portrayed as a "White Man's Court"; (2) The separation of the Court from the far reaching locales it has jurisdiction over does little to educate and thus deter would-be criminals from committing crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, I personally believe the Court's permanence is vital to its success and that its seat in The Hague will encourage impartiality (the ad hocs arguably suffered from a biased, regional perspective).

Second, the Court has zero means of enforcement -- no police force, no soldiers, notta. The primary responsibility of enforcement therefore lies with its member-states to deliver those who have been issued arrest warrants to The Hague post haste. Again, two problems: (1) What state is actually going to deliver its current President? (Sudan ain't even party to the ICC); and (2) Other states party can only arrest Bashir should he leave Sudan, something he's not bloody likely to do.

Third, the Court relies on state cooperation in regards to investigation. For Moreno-Ocampo to succeed in bringing Bashir to justice, he will almost certainly require official documents and transcripts of meetings and/or phone calls that prove Bashir intentionally committed these crimes. Moreover, he has to prove these crimes even occurred, something that may prove difficult without unfettered access.

Finally, just like the ad hocs, the ICC is at risk of becoming entangled politically. Personally, I would argue that there was ample foresight in this area to prevent anything fishy from occurring. Even so, we must resist the temptation to assume Bashir is guilty simply because Moreno-Ocampo has brought a case against him. Like they say, "innocent until proven guilty." Ardent supporters of the ICC should see the warrant as a success, regardless of the outcome.

So What?
Even if the arrest of Bashir is somehow orchestrated, Moreno-Ocampo's got a tall order. He'll have to prove the crimes occurred, that Bashir organized them, and that he had the proper intent. Something of this magnitude will take extraordinary patience and conviction on the part of the ASP (read: time & $). Forgive me for being less than optimistic.

More importantly, we must ask ourselves whether this is really worth the risk. It is true that the outlook seems bleak. But it's been nearly seven years since this conflict began, and despite its highly publicized nature, repeated outcries of civil society, and the promise to prevent another Rwanda, children are still dying in Darfur. Can we afford not to try a new approach?

If I sound conflicted, it's because this is some seriously heady stuff with no clear cut answer. Regardless of the outcome, as a student and proponent of human rights, I recognize the tremendous strides that this week's events represent. Their importance cannot be understated.

I remain ever hopeful that sovereignty will be strengthened, not weakened, by a robust system of international law, that crimes against humanity will one day be prevented, not prosecuted, and that the ICC will be successful in its ambitious goals.