Alterman vs. Livingston

Eric Alterman was at my talk on November 12th, at the CUNY Grad Center, where I presented a truncated version of chapter 4 (on movies) from the new book–it’s out, buy many copies.  I had no idea that he was the angry man at the back of the room who seemed quite disgusted by all things post-modern, and quite appalled by my response to his question about Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker.”  Well, I guess I really pissed him off, because he used his December 21 column in The Nation to denounce me as someone who sports an “ideological” notion of truth.  If only he knew how bad it was.

Here’s an excerpt from Alterman’s column, followed by my letter to the on-line version of The Nation, which of course is followed by my two-part take on “The Hurt Locker,” already posted at the old site, here revised in view of comments and Professor Alterman’s anger.  

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In the main, with the help of my fact-checkers, I’ve tried to uphold academic rather than journalistic standards in my work. But one frequently runs into problems in this regard that go beyond one’s own laziness or lack thereof. First, the world moves too fast for such scrupulousness. Accurate information can take decades to acquire and examine, but politicians, corporations and individuals need to act in the moment. Just as justice delayed is justice denied, an awful lot of “news” loses its value when it ceases to be “new.”

No less problematic, however, is the cavalier attitude that some in the academy have demonstrated in recent decades toward easily observable truths. I attended a conference of intellectual historians at the CUNY Graduate Center recently, where the keynoter, James Livingston of Rutgers University, was riffing on the alleged brilliance of the Matrix and Terminator films. Asked about Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, he denounced it as “a lie” because, he said, its portrayal of the American soldiers as decent human beings contradicted the message they received in training to lay aside their human feelings in the service of their military mission. I inquired from the audience whether it had any bearing on the issue that, while Livingston had never witnessed any bomb squad operations in Iraq, The Hurt Locker‘s screenwriter, journalist Mark Boal, had written an eyewitness report on the bomb techs’ lives from the field. As Boal told Alissa Quart of the Columbia Journalism Review, “The milieu and the specifics of the job of being a bomb tech came out of my firsthand observation. There is no way I could have written that screen play without having been to Baghdad and had a nuts-and-bolts view of how bomb techs do their job. This was not public information. There was no other source material to draw on in terms of research.” Livingston responded to my question with an irrelevant story about someone he knew whose son had enlisted in the military. His concept of “truth” insofar as I could discern it was entirely ideological.

I’m not saying universities can’t help with the crisis in a variety of small but significant ways. They can and they should. But we cannot rely on them to replace the honest, disinterested, fact-based reporting structures disintegrating before our very eyes. And so the search continues.

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Here’s my Letter to the Editor.  The Print version of the magazine will do only 300 words, so I cut this down to size for that venue.  What follows should appear intact on-line.

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Eric Alterman gets only one thing right in his recent column.  On November 12th, I gave a talk us at the CUNY Grad Center about the strong resemblance between academic idioms and cinematic representations in the late-20th century.  Otherwise he’s wrong about what happened there.  

In the Q & A that followed the talk, I responded to Alterman’s question about Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker” by saying “It’s a lie,” and then, when pressed, I said “OK, it’s a fabrication.”  My point was that this movie betrays the actual experience of soldiers and Marines, in their training and in their subsequent engagement with the realities of combat.  For it resurrects and glamorizes the very dangerous notion that modern war can be understood as individual acts of bravery, in terms of personal responsibility and honor—and this despite the reassuring epigraph from Chris Hedges to the effect that “war is a drug.” 

Alterman attributes to me something I have never thought, let alone said: “Asked about Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, he denounced it as ‘a lie’ because, he said, its portrayal of the American soldiers as decent human beings contradicted the messages they received in training to lay aside their human feelings in the service of their military mission.” 

He has inverted my meaning with perfect symmetry.  I said that soldiers and Marines are taught, in training and by combat, to put aside their personal feelings and to play the roles they’ve been assigned in the division of labor that is the military in a time of war.  They’re taught to become more human, not less, by playing these roles, by stepping outside themselves, by understanding how others will perceive them—by acquiring identities that negate what they have been in the relatively small worlds they came from.  They’re taught that if they take any of it personally, they put themselves and their comrades at risk. 

If they are well-trained, in other words, soldiers and Marines know that the personal “authenticity” embodied by the hero of “The Hurt Locker”—the lonely risk of death in soulful combat with intricate evil somehow makes life more meaningful—is the drug that will kill them.  Unlike Chris Hedges, Mark Boal, and Kathryn Bigelow, soldiers and Marines know this drug is not addictive.  They avoid it, anyway.

I have another vested interest in setting the record straight.  That “irrelevant story” I told in response to Alterman’s question was, in fact, a lie.  The truth is that my son is a Marine who has been to Iraq and back.  So I have seen, heard, and read a lot about his training and his experience in combat.  I told the story as if it were about a friend’s son because I didn’t want to pull emotional rank on the man at the back of the room. 

I can say in all honesty that my son is a better person—if I may, he has become more human—because he knows what war is like.  His decency was never in doubt, before or after the rigors of basic training on Parris Island.  But the horizon of his humanity now stretches farther precisely because he is a Marine.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Alterman vs. Livingston

  1. Jason Yellen

    Not that you do not already know this, I just thought of your post when I read it.

    http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2010/03/real_hurt_lockers_in_iraq_life.html

  2. Pingback: Tim’s Light Reading (12/17/2009) | s-usih.org

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