Monday, December 20, 2004

For the love of God--don't let him resign!!! (you're out of your #@! element, donnie!)

Calls for Rumsfeld's resignation here, here, here, here and here. I say NO FREAKING WAY!

Don't let him go! It's very important that Donald Rumsfeld stay on as the leading spokesperson of the war, the fearless leader, the wise old man, le directoria, the big tomato, the head cheese, the schoolmaster, the man with the patch, the man behind the podium, the man behind the curtain...

The chief poet of the new dawn, the general's general, the sexy old secretary, the walker of the talk, the talker of the walk, the doctor in the house, the poster-boy, the stands-on-his-feed for eight hours a day, the man with a way with words, the wordsmith, the boss, the big boss, the man on the lawn, the man in the suit, the smiling ringmaster, the guy with something to say...

Please, let him have something over the President that makes it impossible for Bush to tell him to get lost. Please, let him have proof that Bush copulates with goats, drinks beer from a straw, takes baths in grape jelly, and smacked Lynn Cheney's behind.

"What's that, Mr. President? You wanna fire me? I don't THINK SO! Now excuse me while I go explain to the press that the absense of a signature is not the signature of an absense..."

Monday, December 13, 2004

Relevant Rhetorical Criticism

I have been fortunate this last semester to lead an incredible seminar on post-September 11 institutional rhetoric and response. I am amazed at the research the participants in the seminar have done. Each day of class discussion has been full of pluralism, relevance, and critical excitement. I would like to share some previews of the students' final projects.

These students represent every end of the political spectrum...there are punk-rocker anarchists and socialist feminists, moderate republicans and democrats, and conservative, evangelical Christians. What they all hold in common is a commitment to exploring tools of rhetorical criticism to better understand and participate in political life.

One student is doing a narrative and symbol-imagery analysis of the Creative Commons Movement, an alternative licensing system that gives creators the choice of how much copyright protection they want. Since intellectual property is such a central component of contemporary power arrangements, and since traditionally the debate has been contained in a dichotomy between absolute protection and absolute commonization, this movement strikes at the very heart of the concept of "ownership" that contextualizes current bourgeois society--a society that is, in many ways, fundamentally under attack--and said attack is partially strengthened by the "spectre of free information."

Another student is taking a rather ironic route towards contemporary criticism of President Bush. Using as his starting point the derisive comparisons of Bush to a "rogue cowboy," this student is analyzing three John Wayne movies as tools for comparing Bush to a cowboy. These movies, "The Searchers," "The Cowboys," and "Stagecoach" feature Wayne in different functional "cowboy" roles: Fighting "savage" Indians, moving cattle, riding through dangerous territories, themes that offer symbolic tools to analyze just how much of a cowboy Bush really is. Themes of chaos-versus-civilization permeate both classic western movies and post-September 11 institutional rhetoric. This essay shows a great deal of promise in examining the attributions of such themes and images in politics.

Another student is analyzing David Rovics' song "Oppositional Defiant Disorder" in a framework modifying Richard Gregg's model of the ego-function of protest rhetoric. Rovics invokes a community of rebels through reappropriation of an institutional label normally designed to medicalize and theraputize dissent. Rovics reappropriates this diagnosis to create a community of proud, "sick" protesters.

Another student is applying a model based on Marx, Foucault, Gramsci and Goffman to analyze the rhetoric of the English-Only movement. This student argues that language is important to power; it reconfigures power relationships and this power bleeds into the material sphere of political life. Arguments in favor of English-Only include appeals to English as "The Language of Opportunity," and other rhetorics of empowerment, including arguments that English is the language of "responsible citizens and productive workers."

Randall Lake's landmark article on Native American protest rhetoric is the basis for one student's application of Lake's model to the rhetoric of Hamas. Are their arguments designed to convince those outside of the organization? This student doesn't think so. Instead, rhetoric might be an end in itself, or serve a self-justifactory or internal cohesion function. What happens, however, when outsiders notice this rhetoric? What happens when splits within the movement problematize the rhetoric? What happens when the rhetoric doesn't accomplish its mobilizing function?

Another student is taking on quite a task: A symbolic convergence/fantasy theme analysis of the division in the current anti-war movement. ANSWER, a Workers World Party front group that ended up very influential in the entire American anti-war movement, demanded a framework for protest that tied opposition to the Iraq war with opposition to capitalism as a whole. This allowed those outside of the movement to identify ALL participants in the movement as dirty communists...but it also forced those inside the movement who were NOT anti-capitalists to distance themselves from important avenues of organizing and protest. Successful movements create shared meanings. We create worlds of symbols together. This is an example of symbolic convergence not occurring. Like so many of the papers in this seminar, this one is not merely an application of a model, but a commentary on the effectiveness and flexibility of that model.

The tendency of media organizations and politicians to call certain areas in a war "hot zones" is the basis for another student's application of Chris Cuomo's critique of stability rhetoric, and agenda-setting theory, to current representations of the war. The idea that war is a singular event means we ignore that which is "outside the battle." Everything outside of the "hot zone" is assumed to be stable and peaceful. Clearly, such assumptions are breaking down right before our eyes and ears.

Another student is analyzing the rhetorical failings of punkvoter.com. Utilizing Gregg's ego-function theory as a starting point (but not an end point), this student argues that the site, organized by Fat Mike of NOFX, is little more than a glorified voter registration site, even though it is laden with punk symbols and an empty appeal to radicalism. The site promises the ability to confront the system, but offers no real political strategy to do so, and is myopically opposed to Bush, appealing to the imagery of "punk identity" rather than good political analysis.

Two students are applying Dana L. Cloud's model of the "affected public" to media and Presidential support for the Iraq War. Cloud's "affected public" is one that is constituted in response to crises like 9-11, abandons reason and causal analysis in favor of individualist, emotion and religious-based therapeutic imagery. One student is concentrating on the media's complacency in the essential lack of public reasons and justifications for the war, while the other student is demonstrating how Bush himself created an affected public through invoking images of absolute good and evil, as well as dehumanizing rhetoric. Cloud's alternative to an affected public, by the way, is a materially-supported Habermasian public forum, where reasons, and argument, are valued.

Another student is analyzing the "Boycott France" movement through Marsha Vanderford's frquently-cited model of social movement vilification. Although the boycott movement isn't very rational, serious, or cohesive, it still contains the fundamental elements of vilification that so many rhetorical scholars have cited Vanderford on: The creation of an adversarial force, revealed in an exclusively negative light, with diabolical motives, which are magnified during the vilification process.

If you've seen "support the troops" magnets on people's cars, you'll enjoy one student's analysis of what such magnets tell us about ourselves. This student argues that the commodification of troop support strokes our egos more than affecting any positive outcomes for the troops. He uses both commodification theory and Gregg's ego-function theory to analyze the fundamental convenience and content-free power of those magnets (many of which, by the way, are made in China).

When elite media outlets refuse to air certain ads they deem too "political," are they engaging in strategies of power maintenance? One student thinks so, and is arguing that the recent refusal by a major TV network to show a Move-On.org ad can be explained by Andrew King's theory of elite power maintenance.

Finally, one particularly ambitious student is taking on the entire pro-life and pro-choice dichotomy by arguing that traditional pro-life appeals to religious fundamentalism and absolute individual responsibility will ultimately fail. This student is drawing on the very small but articulate pro-life feminist movement (along with some collectivist and socialist arguments against abortion) to suggest ways to re-invent and re-orient a centrist-left anti-abortion movement. Central to this movement is the argument that abortion is essentially a form of patriarchal oppression, a sign of late capitalism's pro-death culture, and, in essence, tells women to respond to their own oppression by transferring that oppression to a weaker social entity--the unborn. I'm looking forward to the explosive responses this project might inspire from both sides of the abortion debate.

I will ask these students whether I can post their papers to a new weblog I am creating over the holiday break, a site entitled ARGUMENT NOW! With their permission, I will post the essays and works cited, and have space for commentary. Each essay will have its own unique link so that scholars and students can utilize and cite those essays relevant to them. ARGUMENT NOW will ultimately serve as a space for collecting and posting student and other work on rhetoric, argumentation and debate.

It's been a kind of guilty pleasure to participate in the seminar this semester. I have rushed to class every Tuesday and Thursday looking forward to the discussions, arguments, readings and responses these brilliant and energetic people have been generating. I am especially encouraged by the relevance of all this work. These students are learning--and teaching--critical skills that do not merely constitute academic navel-gazing. The skills gained in this type of criticism can be passed on to millions of students, teaching them how to listen to and watch political speeches, advertisements, campaigns and the half-assed institutional justifications thrown at us by a system that, by and large, underestimates the intelligence of the public.


Sunday, December 05, 2004

More on the Morality of Insurgency

Ashreaf Fahim of Middle East International points out in this article that (1) most of the Iraqi casualties since the invasion have been civilians...(2) that the Bush administration has exaggerated the extent to which the insurgency is composed of "outsiders"...(3) that U.S. soldiers in the field understand that the insurgents are Iraqis and will keep recruiting more Iraqis--even if Rumsfeld does not acknowledge this...and (4) that no one in the mainstream media is question the morality of crushing a nationalist insurgency. Obviously, in light of what I wrote on Friday, that last point converges with my own lamentation concerning the lack of any serious discussion on the ethics of the invasion, or its resistance.

Here is a relevant exerpt from the article:

"The failed strategy in Falluja is writ large across Iraq. In its engagements in Samarra, Najaf, Ramadi and elsewhere, the US has tended towards measuring success in terms of body counts. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld bragged that the US killed up to 2,500 insurgents in August alone (many of whom would have fallen in the siege of Najaf). But it is highly likely that the US is creating more enemies than it is killing. A 19-year-old private, Mario Rutigliano, understands this if Rumsfeld does not. After the US attack on the northern border town of Tall Afar in mid-September, which killed 104 Iraqis, Rutigliano told the Washington Post: “It doesn’t matter how many we kill, they’ll always keep coming back. They’ve all got cousins, brothers. They have an endless supply.”

"The upshot of this cycle of death and vengeance is that there are now 8-10,000 hard-core insurgents, 20,000 if active sympathizers are included, according to US officials quoted in the New York Times. Though former members of the Ba’thist security forces may have comprised the original core of the insurgency, its ranks are now swollen with ordinary Iraqis. Combating Iraqis who are fighting to liberate themselves from their “liberators” presents the Bush Administration with serious moral and legal quandaries and, of course, and an acute public relations dilemma.

"To traverse this minefield and salve any unease the American people might have about crushing a nationalist uprising, the Administration has sold the “foreign fighter” argument to the media. Zarqawi, the alleged leader of the Tawhid and Jihad group, has been a particular hit, with the media gratefully wielding him to personalize the amorphous Iraqi quagmire to a befuddled nation. Even a recent headline in the left-leaning Christian Science Monitor read: “Fallujans flee from US-Zarqawi fight”, suggesting a showdown between the Jordanian guerrilla leader and 5,000 Marines.

"The media has also taken the US military’s assurances that the strikes have been “precise” at face value, with occasionally surreal results. A recent CNN broadcast featured raw footage of a house in Falluja that had been flattened by an American air strike, and, as wounded children were pulled from the rubble, broadcaster Carol Lin informed viewers, without qualification, that the US had struck a “Zarqawi meeting place”."

Again, I ask: Is it moral for occupiers to crush nationalist uprisings? And is it moral for those attacked to rise up against the occupiers? I have never been one for abstract moralizing in the past. I am more comfortable with a certain kind of historical relativism than, probably, most of you are (although I find it impossible to reject ethical claims based on face-to-face encounters or appeals to doing the least amount of harm possible). I am posing these questions to the both the moralists and relativists alike among all those reading. It's time for a serious discussion about why what "we" are doing is more ethical than what "they" are doing...and, hopefully, how to construct an account of universal ethical responsibility that might both forgive conscripts and fighters on both sides, and forewarn against such bloody, hopeless, elite-engineered wars.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Iraq: the Morality of Occupation, the Morality of Resistance, and the Morality of Counter-Invasion

Dave Lindorff of Counter-Punch has written a strong piece accusing the Bush administration of having waited until after the election to begin the operation in Fallujah as well as announce a massive increase in troop deployments to Iraq. Lindorff points out that, time and again throughout the election, Bush denied that the U.S. needed more troops; Kerry (not by any means an anti-war candidate) called for more troops and, ironically, Bush made that into a liability for the Democrats. None of these arguments should make you keel over. It's obvious that the Fallujah operation was delayed until after the election, and any thinking observer knew all along that more troops would be deployed.

So what's so provocative about Lindorff's piece? His assertion, no doubt shocking to readers of all political persuasions, that the Iraqis not only have the right to defend themselves against the occupation, but also to bring the war back to the United States in the form of what our established discourse calls terrorism:
...unlike the Vietnamese, who did all their fighting in their own unhappy
country, Iraqi insurgents and their supporters can be counted on at some point
to bring the war home to America--as is their right.

This is tantamount to--identical to, really--arguing that "terrorism" against the U.S. is justified. While Lindorff lacks the nuance or intellectual-ethical rigor to distinguish between terror against innocent civilians and military targets (for even if it can be established that the U.S. is sloppy or negligent in making that distinction with Iraqi civilians, that is not an automatic justification for terror against any other set of civilians), the argument is very important in establishing the parameters of moral inquiry about this war. And I have long believed that such inquiry is the only discursive remedy (if any conversational remedy exists anymore) to the unquestioned, uninterrogated logic of warfare that has swept over all channels of establishmentarian public discourse in America.

Lindorff's assertion that Iraqi insurgents and their supporters have the right to bring the war back to America converges (without necessarily replicating) the starting point of a philosophical conversation I have hitherto only dared have with myself. I begin such an inquiry by calling on Jurgen Habermas's notion of discourse ethics * and arguing that, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the invasion, the invaders (the Bush administration) failed to procedurally justify their actions--not only to their U.S. constituency, but also to the agents most affected by the decision, the Iraqi people themselves.

Drawing upon the very Habermasian (but also, I believe, Unitarian-Universalist, and Christian) sentiment that there is not --there cannot be-- any significant moral difference between American citizens and Iraqi citizens, I simply fail to see the basis for the arguments necessary for a conscientious person to support U.S. action but not Iraqi counter-action. Likewise, I fail to see the basis for any command to close such moral inquiry on the basis of patriotism or nationalism.

I am willing to concede that life in America is much better than life was in Saddam's Iraq. I am willing to grant the possibility that Bush really believed Iraq constituted an immediate, pressing threat to U.S. security. My questions here are not pragmatic (and so I am also willing to listen to a critique of the deontological-sounding nature of my questions here) but hinge on the morality of both the U.S. invasion and Iraqi resistance. My appeal is not to some transcendent morality, but to a set of commitments and justifications derived from the maximum possible consideration of the moral agency of those affected by the decisions of more powerful political agents. In other words, part of the admittedly unfulfillable project of this inquiry is to step into the shoes of the Iraqi people, particularly those who have chosen to take up arms in (as they see it, and undoubtedly as we would see it in their situation) defense of their autonomy. I refuse to reduce that choice to psychopathology, religious fanaticism, or anything that assumes those moral agents are less intelligent, less human, than you or me.

I'd appreciate genuine engagement of these questions, or at least thoughtful criticism of the foundations from which they are constructed. I hope you readers will leave comments on my weblog reflecting such engagement.

My thought-questions, then, are as follows:

1. Given that the Iraqi people were not consulted (or alternatively, that their stated wishes were ignored) as to their preferred course of action to depose or deal with Saddam Hussein, is an appeal to the interests of the Iraqi people a viable, morally defensible justification for the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq? In other words, in the absense of cogent proof that Iraq constituted a threat to the United States or other countries, is U.S. presence there justified?

1A. If it can be established that the U.S. failed to provide positive justification for the invasion and occupation, are Iraqi insurgents morally justified in violently resisting the occupation?

1B. If the justification of U.S. invasion and occupation (and the accompanying de-justification of Iraqi resistance) rests on an appeal to "democratization," don't we return to the original question of why such an invasion and occupation could justly occur without the consent, or any demonstrable sign of desire for such actions, on the part of the Iraqi people?

2. Given that it is reasonable to assume that citizens of the U.S. would aggressively fight foreign invasion and occupation EVEN IF it could be proven that U.S. leaders constituted a threat to their own people and to the rest of the world, do the Iraqi insurgents have the moral right to defend themselves and Iraq from the U.S.-led foreign occupation? **

3. Do the Iraqi insurgents have the moral right to "invade" the United States by encouraging or facilitating acts of anti-U.S. military strategy on U.S. soil?

4. Is there a point at which these questions of moral justification can rightfully be suspended solely based on the national identity of the questioning agents? In other words, are these questions "off limits" because we (those asking them) are American citizens?

To conclude: This is not so much a moral indictment of the U.S. invasion (although that is certainly a compatable element with the analysis as a whole; but it's not necessary to establish this) as it is an inquiry into why and how we can reasonably deny that Iraqi insurgents have a legitimate right to use violence against occupying U.S. and coalition forces...and, for that matter, to use violence inside the borders of both the United States and other coalition nations. I do not condone either such current or possible violence, but I am curious as to what moral basis exists for its condemnation. Again, comments are welcome, highly encouraged, and will be treated with reciprocal seriousness and respect.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Notes:

* The invocation of Habermas's discourse ethics immediately leaves me vulnerable to a very simple answer to my philosophical dilemma: Habermas clearly sees democracy as the only legitimate context for authentic determination of consent. Since Iraqis under Saddam did not possess such ability to consent, then the whole operation of calling for their participation in deliberation is futile.

However, this doesn't even come close to getting the U.S. off the hook, or more importantly, to justifying a condemnation of the Iraqi insurgency's claimed right to fight against coalition forces. First, that objection calls for a violation of the rule of consent based on the fact that consent has already been and is being violated in the status quo. In other words, because Saddam denied his constituency a voice, it's okay for us to deny them a voice. Second, the objection ignores the various conduits of communication the U.S. and the outside world did have with the Iraqi people. There was every reason to believe that, in a context of genuine consultation, a significant portion of the Iraqi people would have said no to an invasion (See:
http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/story.jsp?story=315091; http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/633/sc9.htm; http://www.guardian.co.uk/antiwar/story/0,12809,907780,00.html).

Third, the objection ignores the less-destructive, more creative alternatives to fullscale war, alternatives that those in power would have been obligated to discuss and seriously consider under a strict Habermasian discourse ethics. (See: http://www.bulatlat.com/news/2-49/2-49-readerhammond.html; http://www.winwithoutwarus.org/html/press_3.11.2003.html; http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_041123nv.shtml; http://www.nd.edu/~krocinst/media/iraq.html)

Fourth and finally, the objection fails to distinguish between the initial act of deposing Saddam and the subsequent acts of "reconstructing" Iraq, where such acts involve heavy-handed coercion and have been answered by violent insurgency and rebellion.

** I believe that question #2 renders problematic those justifications which appeal to the (undeniable) brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime. The question is: If Bush declared martial law, began executing and torturing American citizens, and destabilizing the region, wouldn't ordinary Americans STILL fight against outside occupiers? Or, having conceded the desirability of those invaders overthrowing Bush, wouldn't ordinary Americans rightly object to the occupation lasting any longer than necessary to overthrow Bush? Why should we assume that Iraqis ought to be less determined and nationalistic than us?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Deconstructing Capitalist Ethics: Two thought-provoking movies

Watching George W. Bush win re-election--purportedly because of "moral values"-- in spite of serious ethical flaws in his administration and amidst feasible charges of vote tampering and race- and class-based voter intimidation... Listening to friends and colleagues I once trusted and respected call each other names over political differences (and I am unable to exempt myself from such transgressions)... Reading daily of corporate fraud and corporate murder... Watching, over and over again, athletes beat up fans and each other...Reading about the Department of Justice's determination to prosecute sick, dying human beings for using medicinal marijuana; rushing to speed up the prosecutions before the victims die... And through it all, watching and listening to children, college students, and adults celebrate these horrors with a vigor one can only call blood-lust...

Well, you might say that the relationship between the twilight of capitalism and the twisted perversion of morals (and the concurrent celebrations of brutality mentioned above) has been much, much, much on my little mind. Watching my sons (two of them about to turn 13, the other one, 19 months old, learning to talk and think) grow up through all this makes the phenomena all the more urgently interesting. I want to know how we ought to expect to raise ethical, loving children in a society that cavorts sanctimoniously about moral values while in reality rewarding and lauding dishonesty, shallow popularity, and above all, shameless and endless brutality. Marx said Money was the modern "jealous God." If so, Brutality is Money's Holy Ghost.

I doubt that either "Napoleon Dynamite," or "Spellbound," were made with any of this in mind...in fact I am quite sure they were not. But both movies contain implicit --and often explicit-- messages criticizing the brutality and emptiness of winning for the sake of winning. Both movies carefully examine the pressures of competition and conformity on children, and even though the movies creator's are probably good old fashioned American capitalists, both movies --the former a work of very believable fiction, the latter an unbelievably true documentary-- have important things to say about the way capitalism reproduces itself in social relationships.

***

Ann and I saw Jared and Jerusha Hess's Napoleon Dynamite in a theater over Thanksgiving weekend. Much has been said about the movie's "Mormon" context (The Hesses, as well as stars Jon Heder and Aaron Ruell, are former BYU film students, and the movie takes place in Lewiston, Idaho, with a Utah-Idaho cast and crew). But this is decidedly nowhere near a Mormon inspirational film. It was a hit at Sundance, where it was immediately picked up by Fox Searchlight, and its themes are dark, universal, and subversive. Napoleon (Heder) and his older brother Kip (Ruell) live outside of Lewiston with their frequently-absent grandmother. Napoleon is a first-class geek who draws pictures of fantasy creatures and has a Dragonslayer poster in his room. Kip chats online for hours every day, finally meeting (and, in bonus footage at the end of the film, marrying) LaFawnduh, an African American woman (Shondrella Avery) in one of the most unlikely (and, again, subversive) hookups in recent screen history.

Unethical greed and brutality manifest themselves in two different ways in "Napoleon Dynamite." First, Kip falls under the spell of the brothers' Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a middle-aged loser who enlists Kip to sell tupperware-like junk door-to-door. Rico even tries to entice high school girls to buy his mysterious breast-enlargement products. Rico's shallowness and self-loathing (he longs to re-live his days as a mediocre high school football player) are directly related to his schilling of these products, and his assumption of the stupidity of the townspeople he seduces. Only Kip's encounter with urban authenticity, in the form of LaFawnduh, saves him from a life of pushing junk door-to-door punctuated by endless online chat sessions.

Second, and more powerful, is the high school Napoleon attends. It isn't so much a high school as an incessant collection of ritualized and administration-sanctioned competition, cliquishness, and brutality. Napoleon is routinely pushed against lockers, harassed by jocks, made fun of by pretty girls, and ignored by teachers.

Here also, I must add, is something that struck me as very significant in the film. Nobody would have been surprised if Napoleon would have reached a "breaking point" after the ten thousandth locker-beating, and stabbed or shot a few people. After all, we've been told that's how geeks respond to jock-induced abuse in contemporary America. Instead, Napoleon maintains his gently irritable nature, scowling and stumbling through his classes and onto the playground, playing tetherball alone, and manifesting no greater abnormality than a few harmless fantasy-lies about his "skills" in martial arts and girlfriends. It makes you feel good, then, that his patience is ultimately rewarded.

Just as Kip is saved by outsider LaFawnduh, Napoleon is saved, and the battle against brutality is propped-up, by two delightful and inspiring characters: the pretty, awkward nerdess Deb (Tina Majorino, who I really hope we see more of), who begins the movie like Rico selling crap door-to-door (in fairness, she is trying to establish a college fund, but quickly gives up on the door-to-door venture) and ends up falling hard for Napoleon; and Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a new student whose kindness and sincerity propels him as the symbolic force deployed by the movie against shallowness, competitiveness, and (of course) bigotry.

Pedro runs for school president against the sure-winner Summer (Haylie Duff). In the end, the students pick gentleness of spirit over shallow popularity, although their choice is sealed by Napoleon's surprise dancing skills in one of the most delightful and sincere scenes I've ever seen in a movie. To me, that dance, like Pedro's run for the presidency, Deb's idealism, and Napoleon's refusal to fight back, are all responses to ideologies of exploitation, class hierarchies, and violence. The quiet latino kid isn't supposed to beat the blonde popular girl. Napoleon isn't supposed to be able to dance better than the dance team, nor is he supposed to walk away from abuse unscathed. Deb isn't supposed to be pretty. These things happen because the Hesses and their characters insist not only on protesting the brutal and exploitative ethics of our time, but also in offering an alternative way of being, doing, and relating. See "Napoleon Dynamite" and if you have kids, take them too.

***

Jeffrey Blitz's documentary "Spellbound" actually came out in 2002, but Ann bought the DVD recently and we finally sat down to watch it last night. After being entranced by "Napoleon Dynamite," it's likely that we were conditioned to look for similar patterns of unhealthy competitive behavior, and we weren't disappointed. Like "Napoleon," the movie is about geeks, but in this case, they are real: the movie follows the lives and perspectives of eight young people who all qualify for the 1999 National Spelling Bee championships in Washington, DC. You couldn't ask for a more diverse group of kids--one is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, another a rich, prep-school bound girl from Connecticut, another a poor African American girl from the D.C. projects. One boy and one girl are South Asian immigrant children, although the attitudes of their parents could not be more different.

All of the kids do well at the Spelling Bee championships, and one even wins. But it is the parents who pose the most interesting dialectic between the brutal drive for success and the quiet acceptance of their children's talents. Blitz clearly has more sympathy for the latter parental philosophy, and so do I, but the former is the more instructive of the two. With few exceptions, the wealthier families are the ones who put more competitive pressure on their children. One child, Neil Kadakia, has a father who chatters endlessly about how many thousands of words he and his son have practiced that day, of all the computer equipment he has purchased to help his son win, of how many coaches (coaches!) he has hired to help his son learn the linguistic origins of various words, and how important Neil's success is to his family. Neil's mother unironically refers to their quest for Neil's spelling bee championship as a "war."

But as sickening as that portrayal was, I have to admit that I was even more disturbed by the less-blatant elitism of Connecticut preppie Emily Stagg's parents: Obviously loaded beyond belief, their daughter takes riding lessons, studies endlessly for the bee, and sits uncomfortably at the dining room table with her equally uncomfortable rich parents, pontificating and philosophizing about winning and losing. Mr. Stagg, at one point, opines that Americans are more competitive than Europeans, obviously proud that he knows enough to make such distinctions, and blissfully unaware of the life situations of the less-privileged kids portrayed in the movie...or, it seems, of less-privileged people anywhere.

In emphasizing the positive and supportive responses of the parents (including Neil's) to their kids' gradual and ungraceful eliminations from competition, Blitz is only partially successful in his obvious effort to paint a happy face on this very odd competitive subculture. Those hugs and "I'm proud of you"'s can't really answer the earlier incessant parental rhetoric about the link between this particular competition and success in the cold, cruel world that will finally suck the life out of these talented youngsters. There is, finally, subtle critique, and no solution, in this documentary. And that's a good thing. By all means, watch this movie and celebrate the success and character of these very sincere (if somewhat misled) children. But shake your head in disgust at the partially-hidden system of which the competition is only a prepatory ritual...and those disgustingly rich, smug, hypercompetitive parents.

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