24 February 2007

On talking and torture

Sorry for the spotty posting: I'm close to the end of reading week, and waist-deep in assignments due in the coming days.

It's no great leap from schoolwork to torture, so let's take another nibble at the ball Jane Mayer started rolling (ahhh, a week away from metaphors...) in her Feb. 18 article "Whatever It Takes," an examination of the televison show '24.'

Here, on a YouTube talk that repays watching, Mayer (above left, with Jill Abramson) discusses torture and television, with clips from '24.'
"It used to be, before 9/11, that it was just the evil people who'd use torture, but at this point, many of them are heroes who are representing America or working for the American government, which is the case of Jack Bauer."
Mayer is doing some important work these days. (She helped bring to light the Americans' use of waterboarding [demonstrated here] at Guantanamo Bay.) Writers like Mayer relieve, if momentarily, my worry that my journalistic future will be one of penury, alcoholism, and fractured relationships. I might do something useful. Then again, I might end up like Heather Mallick.

Heather Mallick is a Canadian journalist well known for her barbed, astringent style. She wrote for the Globe and Mail until late 2005, and now does a twice-weekly column for cbc.ca. She has, according to her bio, "a nice old-fashioned M.A. in English literature from the University of Toronto." Isn't that charming?

Some of Mallick's jaunty thoughts on torture in '24':
"If it weren't for bathroom breaks and my concerned, appalled husband luring me away from the television with Valpolicella and osso bucco ("You can have all the marrows, here's your fork, I'll put it in your trembling hand shall I?"), I would still be sitting there [watching the show] bleeding from the eyeballs."

"U.S. TV audiences have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. They are gullible and easily led. They are literal. They are insular and do not try to view their country through the eyes of others."

"Americans tend to be literal. 'I saw it on 24 so it works.' (This is why I never watched The West Wing. It pained me to think Americans actually believed it plausible that a highly intelligent president had been elected.)"
Mallick goes on in this vein. The gist: Americans are stupid, Brits are cynical, and Canadians are a nice blend of the two, with superior access to doctors.
Stephen Connolly: "It’s difficult to know where to begin refuting this insulting drivel."
Sandwalk: "The column is wonderful."
Where you come down on Heather Mallick has to do, I suppose, with your feelings about writing. E. B. White, a patron saint of the Plain Style (and of the New Yorker) had sure feelings about it. In 1935 he commanded us: Do not affect a breezy manner.
The volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. "Spontaneous me," sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.

The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.

Heather Mallick makes a decent case against the redundant ticking-bomb plot of '24,' but, mired in nationalistic cliché and busy showing off, she is a poor advertisement for smart criticism.

Thank God that for smart criticism we have the comedian and Fox News analyst Dennis Miller, who once described his swerve to political conservatism this way: "You see, they give me these little pieces of paper with presidents' faces on them." Here are his thoughts on waterboarding, and, later, if you're still feeling him, his broader ideas about the war on terror.


Stephen Connolly said...

Nice work JJB. Citing E.B. White? Colour me impressed.

JJB said...

I wish ole E. B. could just take us all and jog us on his knee. I still get excited reading An Approach to Style.

Anonymous said...

"It is quite strange, in fact, that as yet there is no such thing as the science of peace, since the science of war seems to be highly advanced, at least regarding such concrete subjects as armaments and strategy. As a collective human phenomenon, however, even war involves a mystery, for all the peoples of the earth, who profess to be eager to banish war as the worst of scourges, are nonetheless the very ones who concur in the starting of wars and who willingly support armed combat. Confronted with the question of natural disasters against which man is powerless, many scholars passionately devote themselves to the study of the hidden causes responsible for such phenomena. War is a human phenomenon and should thus be all the more accessible to inquiring human minds. Since this has not proved to be the case, we must conclude that humanity's achievement of world peace is linked to complex indirect factors, which are unquestionably worthy of study and capable of becoming the objects of a powerful science.
What is genearally meant by the word peace is the cessation of war. But this negative concept is not a description of genuine peace. Most important, if we observe the apparent aim of a war, peace understood in this sense represents, rather, the ultimate and permanent triumph of war. The primary motive of the wards of antiquity, in fact, was the conquest of land and the consequent subjugation of entire peoples."