Noah Millman

Three Questions For J. C. Chandor

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac (making sustained eye contact) in "A Most Violent Year
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac (making sustained eye contact) in "A Most Violent Year

I count myself a big booster of J.C. Chandor on his rapid rise through the ranks of American filmmakers. His first feature – “Margin Call” – is the only film I’ve ever seen to accurately depict the Wall Street that I knew when I worked there (by which I mean: he gets the culture right; the terminological details don’t really matter). His second feature – “All Is Lost” – was a daring cinematic venture, but also an intriguing meditation on the Randian myth of the self-sufficiency of the captains of industry.

His most recent film, “A Most Violent Year,” however, left me puzzled, and dissatisfied. I have a funny feeling that, for the first time, Chandor is either trying to do something that I don’t understand, or that he’s tried to make a relatively conventional movie, and simply failed. My respect for his intelligence and creativity inclines me toward the first explanation. Hence my list of questions.

1. The film is set in 1981, at the time the peak year for violent crime in New York history. This violence was largely of the un-organized variety, and fueled a broad public perception that New York was descending into chaos. ”Escape From New York” premiered that year, for God’s sake.

But there is remarkably little violence in “A Most Violent Year,” and the violence we do see is of the organized variety – a turf war between mobbed-up heating oil companies that carved up their territory generations ago. The city we see feels almost empty – there’s no hint of the frenzied crush of humanity that we get from “Dog Day Afternoon” or “Serpico,” not even when we make our way through a graffiti-festooned subway car as part of a chase sequence that is the only point in the film where the adrenaline really gets flowing. The police never shoot at an armed suspect fleeing a shootout on the 59th-street bridge – and when that suspect later changes his mind about turning himself in, and runs, the police are once again flat-footed, and nobody is terribly concerned or surprised.

Was this all an unavoidable consequence of working with a low budget? And if the latter, why set the film in a period with so much cinematic resonance? Or was the choice deliberate, and is Chandor suggesting that the movies of the time made the city more lurid than it really was?

2. Oscar Isaac appears to be doing something of a young Pacino imitation. He speaks slowly, deliberately, precisely, as if barely husbanding a great deal of energy and potential for violence. But he almost descends into parody, what with enunciating of every consonant and refusing to use contractions. (I was reminded of Matt Damon’s diction in “True Grit” more than once – but there I know the delivery was supposed to be funny.)

Moreover, what his character, Abel Morales, actually says is frequently emptily portentous. For example: when he calls together his various rivals, at least one of whom he knows is stealing from him, and tells them simply: “Stop it. Now.” The tone suggests a quiet, very serious threat. But no actual threat is delivered. Just as with the scenes when he tells his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) that he’ll “take care of” any threats to them or their kids, I get the sense that he’s all bluff. That he thinks he can win any contest by sheer force of sustained eye contact.

Which might have been Chandor’s point. That, after all, is the main technique Morales teaches his own salesmen – maintain eye contact for longer than is comfortable and you’ll close. Perhaps that’s really his only trick. Was that what Chandor intended, I wonder – to send up the whole Pacino myth by pointing out how much of it is nothing more than intense brown eyes? And that this intensity is the only reason we ever bought into Michael Corleone – and all his subsequent defining roles – in the first place? (And, perhaps, is the only reason we take business people seriously as well?)

3. The more I thought about the plot, the more it seemed that the stakes of the film are exceptionally low. Consider: in the opening sequence, we learn that Morales is taking a huge risk in putting down a $1 million deposit on a piece of waterfront property. He has 30 days to deliver another $1.5 million or he will lose the property to a competitor. Leave aside the oddity of this contract – we’re introduced into a world where Morales is daring to go toe-to-toe with bigger, tougher competitors and muscle them out of a property vital to their future prosperity. If he fails, he loses everything.

So the initial stakes are financial, but significant within that realm. One assumes – particularly given the title – that the stakes will only escalate from there to something more personal. But, in fact, every time the stakes appear to rise, they actually reveal that they were never that high in the first place. Thugs who bring guns to his house, and to hijack his trucks, never fire them – and certainly never intended to. Indeed, the thugs are generally polite and even helpful whenever they get into conversation. Perhaps Morales is right not to worry about the violence – that it’s all so much bluff and theater.

As Morales himself describes it, his reluctance to fight violence with violence is pragmatic – he will lose the bank loan if he comes under public scrutiny and they think he is mobbed up like his competitors. But when charges are brought against Morales’s company for corrupt practices, the bank stands with him. And when the bank, later, does drop him, Morales simply goes and gets the money he needs from his competitors – the same competitors who, supposedly, were so desperate to get the property for themselves.

When he doesn’t get the money quickly enough – the seller of the property gives him a grace period of three days to pull it all together. When his wife reveals that she’s been stealing from their company and socking the money away for a rainy day, Morales is furious, fearing this might get him in trouble with the D.A. who is investigating him (David Oyelowo). But it doesn’t. Once he’s closed on the property, and has a clear future as an important local businessman, the D.A. quietly offers to downgrade the charges in exchange for political support. Most notably, when Morales figures out which competitor has been stealing from him, his competitor rolls over and pays him whatever he asks with barely a whimper.

It seems that all that was ever really at stake was Morales’s self-image as someone who could achieve all his goals on the basis of pure sustained eye-contact. His competitors weren’t really determined to ruin him. Nobody was really going to get personally violent. If all went well, he’d get the property free and clear for a great price. But because his competitors made it hurt, he got the property on somewhat worse terms and he has to take on one of them as a partner (and he would have had to take on another if his wife hadn’t socked away money for a rainy day).

So again, I wonder: is this part of Chandor’s point? That these “high-stakes” business dealings only feel that way because of the atmospherics we surround them with? That, in reality, we’re generally talking about the difference between doing fine and doing fantastically well, between being the sole boss or having partners, between doing it “the most right way” or having to cut a few corners?

I could ask more questions of this ilk. Over and over, this film felt to me that it was subverting the expectations we have of the genre and the period, but I couldn’t tell to what end. If Chandor really was trying to make an homage to the great New York movies of the 1970s, stories of crime and corruption and battles for supremacy over a feverish and perhaps-dying city, then “A Most Violent Year” is simply a failure. But if he was trying to say, “no, it wasn’t really like that; it was honestly more like this, with much lower stakes than the lighting, score and line delivery would suggest” – well, he got what he wanted. But I’m not sure how satisfying a successful result really is as a cinematic experience.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . 7 comments

And The Nominees Are . . .

Well, the official nominations are out, and my predictions are batting . . . ok.

What am I surprised that I got wrong?

Well, clearly I overestimated Academy support for “Gone Girl” and “Selma.” And I underestimated Academy support for “American Sniper” and – in a big surprise to me, since I worried I was showing too much love for the film - “Foxcatcher.” That’s partly a consequence of not having seen some of these films. I still haven’t seen “Gone Girl,” “American Sniper” or “Selma.” Perhaps, had I seen them, I would have made better predictions – but perhaps not.

Nonetheless, I am not shocked that “Selma” has been “snubbed” – I had the feeling that most people didn’t really love the film. Indeed, I suspect that the Best Picture nomination is itself a kind of consolation prize, that voters were reluctant to shut it out altogether from the major categories. I understand why some observers are troubled by the unbearable whiteness of this year’s awards. But it isn’t fair for a single film to shoulder so much expectation. If it’s a problem, the problem originated not in this year’s voters but in casting and financing decisions made years before.

I’m a little surprised that “Foxcatcher” got so much love – more than I even expected. But I’m even more surprised that it got so much love and didn’t get a nomination for Best Picture. It had some of the best acting (2 nominations), some of the best directing, and one of the best screenplays – but it wasn’t one of the best pictures? It’s like the reverse of “Argo,” which was nominated (and won!) for Best Picture but was shut out of the other major categories.

I’m glad to see that “Whiplash,” a very interesting film that I’m still thinking about, earned a Best Picture nomination, which I did not predict (but probably should have, over either “Gone Girl” or “Nightcrawler”). Most of the other picks I got wrong across the various categories I don’t feel too bad about – either there was no obvious pick or I hadn’t seen the relevant films or both.

But the biggest shock of all, to me, is no Editing nomination for “Birdman.” Did the Academy voters actually think it was all one take? I’m genuinely mystified.

I’ll make some predictions about winners, and announce my own rooting interests in same, after I’ve seen a greater percentage of the films.

 Tagged , , , . 5 comments

Jeb Bush Is the GOP Front-Runner: A Syllogism

1. Either Mitt Romney’s entry into the race is completely ridiculous and sad, or it is not at all ridiculous, forcing the rest of the field to respond to the challenge of his entry.

2. Since there is a real question about this matter, Mitt Romney cannot himself be the frontrunner.

3. If his entry is not ridiculous, then anyone who does not want Romney to be President now has to very quickly rally behind someone who clearly can beat him and unite the party, so as to prevent a recurrence of the 2012 primaries.

4. Jeb Bush is the only candidate currently running who clearly fits that bill: capable of raising a lot of money very quickly, possessed of near-universal name-recognition, and acceptable to both the establishment and a significant segment of the grassroots (specifically, religious conservatives).

5. Hence, if Romney’s entry is not ridiculous, Jeb Bush is the front-runner.

6. If, on the other hand, Mitt Romney’s entry into the race is ridiculous, then his main impact on the race will be on the early phase of the “invisible primary.” His entry will make it difficult for Romney donors and influential backers to say yes to somebody else, even if they take their time saying yes to him because of his ridiculousness.

7. Jeb Bush, however, has (as noted) a substantial network of his own (and through his family) that he can draw on and (as noted) near universal name-recognition. None of the other major contenders comes close in that regard.

8. Hence, Romney’s entry – even if it is ridiculous – hurts the other potential establishment-acceptable candidates (like Chris Christie and Scott Walker) in this early phase of the contest much more than it hurts potential insurgent candidates like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul or Mike Huckabee.

9. An insurgent candidate by definition cannot be the front-runner until the insurgency has demonstrated very substantial successes in the field – and certainly not during the invisible primary phase.

10. Hence, if Romney’s entry is ridiculous, Jeb Bush is the front-runner.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, by “front-runner” I mean “shortest odds to win” not necessarily “more likely than not to win” much less “prohibitive favorite.” Saying “there is no front-runner” means that you think the odds are pretty well even across a group of candidates.

My syllogism above is therefore compatible with Daniel Larison’s proposition that Romney’s entry makes it somewhat more likely that an insurgent candidate will take the nomination – provided that you also recognize that there are multiple insurgent candidates (so you are comparing one candidate’s odds with the cumulative odds on any member of a group) and that, with or without Romney in the race, none of the insurgents have very good odds of winning the nomination.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . 12 comments

Is Soumission Just An Anti-Feminist Fantasy?

Bill Paxton and Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin and Jeanne Tripplehorn

Something is bothering me about the coverage of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Soumission (which I have not read – I don’t think barely-remembered high school French is quite going to cut it).

Most of that coverage has revolved around the question of its attitudes toward Islam and its diagnosis of what you might call France’s existential malaise. The novel imagines a near future in which the French electorate must choose between an Islamist party and the National Front for President – and opts overwhelmingly for the former. Though one might think this scenario is intended as a warning, Houellebecq has protested that he meant nothing of the kind. He hasn’t converted to Islam himself, but he finds the religion compelling in certain ways – and thought it was worth considering whether a European spiritual revival might be more likely to come from that quarter than any other and, if so, what such a revival might look like.

But the more I read about the novel, the more I suspect that the revival being contemplated is rather more fleshy than spiritual, and of very specifically masculine organ.

Houellebecq imagines that, under the new Islamist regime, women would leave the workforce in droves, leading to a rapid drop in male unemployment, and polygamy would be made legal, leading to a male paradise where you have an older wife to organize your household, a young wife for pleasure, and perhaps additional wives for variety, all of them submissive to their husband’s needs. Entry into this paradise is the principal reason why his protagonist converts to Islam.

That’s a potent male fantasy – and Houellebecq isn’t the first man to indulge it in print. But it is a fantasy. It has almost no relationship either to economic or social reality.

Let’s start with unemployment. It’s easy to assume that, if you exclude a large fraction of the potential workforce from employment, there will be more jobs available for the remaining portion of the workforce. Easy – but naive. From the perspective of employers, they must suddenly choose their workers from a smaller pool. By definition, the productivity of the restricted pool must be lower than it was before the restriction was imposed. As well, two-earner families suddenly become one-earner families, with a consequent reduction in aggregate purchasing power. Less demand should equal less employment to meet that demand.

A mass exodus of women from the workforce would lead to a sharp economic contraction, and higher unemployment, until the economy settled in at a permanently lower level, at which point employment at lower wages would pick up.

A quick glance at the unemployment statistics across a variety of countries confirms that unemployment remains elevated in countries with a low female workforce participation rate. Countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria all have female participation rates of below 25% and all have unemployment rates in the teens – and above the current unemployment rate in France. The two EU-member states with the lowest female labor-force participation rates are Italy and Greece; both also have among the highest rates of overall unemployment within the EU.

There are obviously a huge number of confounding variables, not to mention a question of which direction the arrow of causality runs if it is operative at all. But there is neither empirical evidence nor a theoretical basis for the casual assumption that male unemployment would drop if men didn’t have to compete with women.

(As an aside: another appeal of conversion is apparently that the Saudis subsidize salaries under the new regime. This, again, is an interesting fantasy – does Houellebecq imagine that Saudi money is infinite? Saudi Arabia’s entire GDP is a quarter the size of France’s. How big a subsidy could they possibly provide? It seems to me this is another fantasy – of indolent wealth, the appeal of being a rentier. I suspect there is a connection between the two fantasies.)

And what about polygamy? Well, if some of the men get more women, some of the men must also get fewer women, unless part of the fantasy is that the sex ratio is somehow permanently skewed in a female direction. If the top quintile of men, earnings-wise, marry an average of 3 women, and the bottom 80% of men get no more than one wife each, then 40% of men overall will not marry, and must make do with celibacy, pornography and prostitution. Is this the promised polygamous paradise?

In fact, how different is it from the world Houellebecq lives in right now? If you are a wealthy, handsome, successful man, unsatisfied with one woman, do you have any trouble finding more? And if you are poor, unattractive, and unsuccessful, how will polygamy solve the problem that you can’t get a date?

Perhaps it’s a psychological change that matters – the women will be so much more willing in this new world, once they have accepted the importance of submission to the male. Well, has Houellebecq investigated the psychology of women in more traditional Islamic societies? Has he found that, in general, the women of Algeria resemble the Houri one might desire for one’s hareem? And what about the men? Do the men of Saudi Arabia profess a high degree of sexual satisfaction?

I don’t know too much about how polygamy works in practice. That’s one reason I was so interested to see a film like “Wadjda,” a film by a Saudi woman about a young Saudi girl’s coming of age, in the context of the deterioration of her parents’ marriage. You see, her mother and father love each other – but her mother has been unable to provide him with a son, so he has been looking to acquire another wife. He’s an honorable man, so he has no plans to divorce his first wife – he plans to shoulder the financial burden of providing for two households, though it will be a considerable struggle. But his prospective second wife is hardly going to suffer the pretensions of an elder wife when she will be the mother of the heir. A second marriage means the effective termination of sexual and affectional relations in the first.

That feels like reality to me – because the people feel real, with psychologies I recognize as real psychologies. The film is emphatically a feminist film – not because it’s beating an ideological drum, which it isn’t, but because it is interested in these women’s lives and their perspectives on the world they inhabit. It treats them as subjects, not just objects.

But not everybody wants reality, and very few people want reality all of the time. Sometimes we want fantasy. The burgeoning scale of the porn industry suggests that many of us want it more of the time than some of us are willing to admit. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong (in my opinion) with that. But there is something wrong – unhealthy, potentially dangerous – with wanting to live in a fantasy, and with being unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

There are unquestionably women as well as men who understand the appeal of the fantasy of submission. There are women who have run off to join the Islamic State, just as there are women who run off to ride with the Hell’s Angels or to be the groupies of pop stars or pro athletes. And there are men who fantasize about having such women at their disposal. And who wouldn’t like to be free to choose whether to relate to others as a human being or as an object – to have the freedom of superior position and power. That’s exactly the freedom that rock stars have.

Part of the surreptitious appeal of Islamism to men, I suspect, is the fantasy that under such a system you, the vanguard of the Islamic revolution, will get to be one of those men, even though you aren’t a rock star (or a famous novelist). There’s no reason to assume that appeal is limited to the Middle East – indeed, there’s every reason to wonder whether it isn’t even more appealing to Western men who find themselves socially, sexually, economically frustrated. And not just wonder – there’s is at least anecdotal testimony out there to confirm it.

I understand that desire. But I don’t see any reason to confuse it with a spiritual revival.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , . 20 comments

Oscar Predictions (Now Don’t Be Grouchy)


I’m going to start with an overarching statement about this year’s contest: the most important category this year is Best Editing. Why? Because the two most interesting films nominated this year are “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” and both are overwhelmingly editing-dependent films.

With “Boyhood,” you have footage compiled over the course of a dozen years, and a story which, presumably, was structured initially to hedge against the possibility that something might happen over the course of time that would necessitate massive changes. What if Patricia Arquette got hit by a bus? What if Ethan Hawke got really fat? What if one or both of the kids grew into lousy actors? What if Richard Linklater went through a messy divorce, and it changed his view of the kind of story he wanted to tell?

No chance for re-shoots here; you’ve got to take the footage compiled over this long period, and assemble it into a story that is tonally consistent and narratively compelling. However much one feels that Sandra Adair succeeded in this effort, the challenge itself is honor-worthy.

Meanwhile: with “Birdman” you have a story that depends, substantially, on constant, consistent forward motion, on the sense that we are stumbling down a flight of stairs, trying not to trip and fall and break our skulls, but unable to stop to regain our balance. Now add that the entire film is supposed to feel like a single shot.

The unqualified success on the technical side was absolutely instrumental in the success of the film as a whole. But there was no margin for error.

Both “Boyhood” and “Birdman” deserve nominations for Best Original Screenplay and for various acting slots. But in each case, the real stars of the show were in the editing room. So: my overarching prediction is that the winner of Best Picture will also win Best Editing.

Predictions listed in descending order of personal confidence. That confidence is based on very little; it’s not like I’m a Hollywood hairstylist, who might actually know something.


“The Imitation Game”
“The Theory of Everything”
“Gone Girl”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“American Sniper”

Everybody expects “Boyhood,” “Birdman” and “The Imitation Game” to be nominated, and for one of them to win, and I agree with the consensus. Behind them come four films that have obvious Oscar cachet, none of which I really see being snubbed.

After that it gets tougher. I think “Nightcrawler” has enough enthusiastic support to get through (though I didn’t love it); that “Foxcatcher” will get a nomination because of the trio of really interesting performances (even though many people didn’t exactly like the film); and that “American Sniper” was directed by Clint Eastwood (and will do great box office).

But I could be wildly off – it could turn out that this year we have only six or seven nominees. My understanding is that to get onto the list of nominees you need a certain percentage of voters to place you first or close to it on their ballots. So the more consensus there is at the top in the initial balloting, the shorter the list of nominees will be. And this feels like a year where there could be a lot of consensus at the top.

Or perhaps I’m right, and the people who like “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” hated “Nightcrawler” and “Gone Girl” and vice versa, so that we have ten nominees. In which case my list above feels about right to me.


Richard Linklater – “Boyhood”
Alejandro González Iñárritu – “Birdman”
Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Ava DuVernay, “Selma”
Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game”

I haven’t seen “The Imitation Game” yet, hence my low level of confidence in that final slot. I’m also aware that “Selma” has not set the world on fire, though I still think it has a constituency solid enough to get nominated. In any event, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a perennial like David Fincher or a young upstart like Damien Chazelle take one of those two slots.


Michael Keaton – “Birdman”
Eddie Redmayne – “Theory of Everything”
Benedict Cumberbatch – “The Imitation Game”
Steve Carell – “Foxcatcher”
David Oyelowo – “Selma”

Again, I haven’t seen three of these films (I only saw “Birdman” and “Foxcatcher”), so take that list with a grain of salt. There are a lot of other plausible contenders. But I think the Academy will want to reward Carell for doing excellent work way outside his usual box, and the Academy frequently likes actors who play historical figures.

From the films I have seen that have an actual shot, I’d be very happy for Ralph Fiennes to get a nomination. I thought Jake Gyllenhaal did a fine job in “Nightcrawler” but I have some kind of grudge against that movie so I didn’t put him on the list, though he’s probably got at least as good a shot as Fiennes.


Julianne Moore – “Still Alice”
Rosamund Pike – “Gone Girl”
Reese Witherspoon – “Wild”
Amy Adams – “Big Eyes”
Jennifer Aniston – “Cake”

I haven’t seen and don’t plan to see “Cake,” but people seem very eager to show how pleased they are with Aniston’s stretch. As for the win, everyone is saying Moore has this in the bag.


J. K. Simmons – “Whiplash”
Ethan Hawke – “Boyhood”
Ed Norton – “Birdman”
Mark Ruffalo – “Foxcatcher”
Josh Brolin – “Inherent Vice”

I’ll be truly surprised if Simmons doesn’t win this – so many people seem to want him to. Josh Brolin is my wild card pick here; there’s not an obvious contender for the fourth slot.


Patricia Arquette – “Boyhood”
Emma Stone – “Birdman”
Keira Knightley – “The Imitation Game”
Meryl Streep – “Into the Woods”
Jessica Chastain – “A Most Violent Year”

Patricia Arquette may have been my favorite thing in “Boyhood” – I hope she wins this. The others I’m all quite uncertain about. I’m basically assuming you have to nominate Meryl Streep and Jessica Chastain if you are presented with a remotely plausible reason to do so.


Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo - “Birdman”
Richard Linklater – “Boyhood”
Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness – “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Mike Leigh – “Mr. Turner”
JC Chandor – “A Most Violent Year”

If I’m completely honest, I have to assume that “Nightcrawler” has a better shot than “Mr. Turner” or “A Most Violent Year.” But I did not much like that script, and I have great admiration for both Leigh and Chandor. So I’m voting my heart here rather than my head.


Graham Moore – “The Imitation Game”
Anthony McCarten – “The Theory of Everything”
Gillian Flynn – “Gone Girl”
Damien Chazelle – “Whiplash”
Nick Hornby – “Wild”

I’m really hoping I got this one completely right. I think I might have.

Not sure going further down the list will be all that meaningful – I’m assuming “Citizenfour” is the most-likely winner in the Best Documentary category, that “The Lego Movie” is the most-likely winner in the Best Animated Feature category, that “Birdman” is the most-likely winner for Cinematography, and that “Force Majeure” is the leader in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

But the main category to watch this year is Best Editing.

 Tagged , , , , , , . 9 comments

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

north korea satellite nasa lights OLD

Clearly not by launching a massive surprise attack on its military, followed by a massive ground invasion and occupation. That should go without saying, but apparently it needed to be said, so thank-you, Daniel Larison, for saying it. But is there anything we actually can do?

Well, let’s think backward from the end-game, which is a reunified Korean peninsula. If the North Korean regime fell, it would be hard for South Koreans not to want reunification, but the costs would be staggering – much higher than the costs of German reunification. So it would behoove the South to take its time. Stabilizing the North in the meantime, and preventing a massive refugee exodus, would require the help of the Chinese. China is also going to have strong opinions about the orientation of any successor regime in the North – they are not going to tolerate American troops on the Chinese border.

So getting to this end-game is going to require getting China comfortable with it. At a minimum, what I would imagine that would require is committing that a reunified Korea would be non-aligned (formally allied neither with China nor with America and trading freely with both) and denuclearized. That might not be enough – and if it isn’t, there’s probably nothing more we could offer. But perhaps it would. Perhaps China would see that as a net win – replacing a troublesome ally and a dangerous American bastion in Asia with a formally neutral, much more powerful country that would quickly become Finlandized. If they saw it that way, perhaps the Chinese, who have some influence with North Korea’s military, might be in a position to use that influence at a critical juncture in the future to neutralize the Kim family, and create some kind of opening.

I’m speculating wildly – and frankly, I don’t think there is much we can do to help North Korea; I don’t think China is likely to be helpful, and I wonder how helpful they actually could be (and perhaps one reason they wouldn’t be helpful is that they don’t want to reveal how little influence they actually have). But my basic point is: while China may not be capable of facilitating a positive change in North Korea, they are certainly capable of preventing one by shoring up the existing regime. So if there is any possibility of positive change, it still matters whether we convince China to be cooperative.

Earlier this week, there was some discussion in this space about the whole “credibility” argument, and I made the point that it would be more logical for credibility to be a concern for advocates of restraint – because if credibility is fragile then we should be wary of making commitments. But there’s another way in which credibility matters enormously from the perspective of advocates of restraint – and that is: America’s credibility when it promises to be restrained.

Let’s say that America approached the Chinese in secret to say something like the above: a promise that, if China helps ease the way to a reunified and democratic Korea, that America will withdraw its troops and unwind its formal alliance with the new country. There might be any number of reasons the Chinese wouldn’t bite – but a big one is, they would find our promise to be not credible. After all, we promised not to expand NATO into former Soviet territory – and then we did. We promised that NATO was a purely defensive alliance – and then we used it to prosecute non-defensive wars in Kosovo and Libya. Why wouldn’t China simply assume that we would renege on any promise we might make to them regarding the Korean peninsula?

I know I wouldn’t trust us. Why would the Chinese?

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wants to solve an awful humanitarian problem. That’s admirable. He is blithe about the likely massive humanitarian costs of aggressive war. That’s unconscionable. But he’s also blind to the ways that the kind of behavior he’s encouraging – America’s easy resort to unilateral exercise of military power – is one of the reasons why the North Korean regime still has a powerful friend like China.

Of course, a Finlandized but united Korea might not be as free as South Korea is today. Maybe it’s better to be under the American umbrella than to be neutral. I’m not sure that’s true – but posit that it is. And weigh that loss against the gain for the poor people of North Korea. It’s not a close call, is it? But I imagine very few advocates of aggressive action to save the North Koreans would see it that way. Why would that be?

Maybe because the actual humanitarian outcome is less important than playing the part of the savior.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , . 13 comments

Bullets of Pure Love

My first piece at The Week is up today:

The overwhelming reaction to the attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this week has been one of solidarity. “Je Suis Charlie” — “I Am Charlie” — is the expression of the hour. But how would the wags at Charlie Hebdo have responded to their own massacre?

Check out the whole thing there.

 Tagged , , , , , , . One comment

If Credibility Is Fragile, Then Commitments Should Be Rare


Daniel Larison on how hawks use credibility as a bludgeon:

The “credibility” argument is almost exclusively used by foreign policy hawks, and they pay no attention to negative international reactions to U.S. behavior that contradict their assumptions about “credibility.” If other states react to provocative and confrontational policies by becoming more assertive in their respective regions, hawks interpret that as proof of the other states’ inherent aggressiveness and “expansionist” tendencies.

Hawks usually don’t accept that adverse responses that directly follow U.S. actions have any connection to U.S. policies, but any development that happens to take place after the U.S. “fails” to “act” somewhere is preposterously traced back to the moment of “inaction.” Thus the U.S. is blamed for somehow “causing” unrelated events in one part of the world by choosing not to do something in an entirely different part, but it is excused from responsibility for the direct negative consequences of whatever it has actually done. That’s because the only thing that jeopardizes “credibility” in their eyes is “inaction” (i.e., not attacking or threatening to attack someone), and adverse consequences of “action” (e.g., expanding alliances, invading/bombing/occupying other countries) are ignored or spun as the result of later “weakness.”

This is all correct, but the funny thing to me is that credibility arguments should be the almost exclusive preserve of advocates of restraint. Why? Because if credibility is an important asset that allows America to achieve some objectives without deploying resources (by simply making a commitment to respond if some other actor takes some other action), then we shouldn’t squander that asset by making commitments we don’t intend – or cannot – make good on.

Consider two possibilities. In one, we live in a world where credibility matters a lot. Actors in the international system pay close attention to what other actors say as well as what they do. When the two line up closely – an actor who does what he says, and only what he says – that actor’s words carry great weight. They are credible. When they don’t – an actor who mouths off a lot but doesn’t actually do much – not only do that actor’s words carry little weight, but other actors presume that the actor’s behavior indicates essential weakness, and are willing to escalate challenges to find whether there is any point where that actor will act.

This is not an impossible world. In fact, it’s probably what the world would look like if most actors had generally low confidence in their ability to assess each other’s true interests and capabilities. In the absence of objective information of that sort, that assessment would, perforce, be deduced largely from behavior. Consequently, bluffing would play a very important role in the international system.

A very important role – but also a very risky role. Because if this is the way the world works, then credibility is fragile. Bluffing, and having one’s bluff being called, can be devastating to one’s position, and invite all kinds of mischief. In this world, where credibility matters greatly, it is therefore vital not to bluff recklessly – that is to say: not to blithely make commitments that one intends not to honor. If credibility is very important, then we should be relatively commitment-averse, the better to be able to back up all our commitments with resolution and maintain our precious credibility.

Now: consider an alternative world, where actors have higher confidence in their abilities to “read” each other – to know what each actor’s objective interests and capabilities are. In this world, credibility is much less important. Actors in the system may bluff, but bluffs are unlikely to work very often – and for that very reason, nobody in the system cares very much when they don’t work.

But for that very reason, this is a relatively less-risky world for adventuresome hawks. They can make unwise commitments or threats without worrying terribly much about the negative consequences – at least if they aren’t likely to personally be in harm’s way. What determines outcomes is not bluff, primarily, but the objective correlation of forces. Since the outcome of any contest is to some degree uncertain, those with more appetite for combat may roll the dice when the odds look good enough. And they can change their minds if they decide it’s not worth backing up a bluff that is called, without fearing that this will invite catastrophe.

Now, obviously, we live in a world somewhere between these two poles. Most actors in the international system have some degree of confidence in the objective capabilities and interests of most other actors – but far from perfect confidence in any case, and in some cases (North Korea, for example, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the Iraq War) very poor. Some actors go out of their way to make their capabilities clear, so as to make deterrence more effective; others go out of their way to hide the true extent of their capabilities (which usually is a sign of weakness, not strength). America has generally followed the path of projecting objective strength – because we have it.

That’s why I say that credibility arguments should really belong to the advocates of restraint. They should be arguments against extending commitments beyond the bounds of our manifest objective capabilities and interests. So why are they deployed so routinely on the other side, as arguments for making (and then backing up) such commitments?

Well, the United States’s position in the international system is unique, because our power vastly exceeds that of any other actor. For that very reason, we have a much higher degree of discretion in how that power is deployed. While our resources are not infinite by any means, they so far exceed any other actor’s that we can exceed the plain bounds of interest in terms of our commitments for quite some time before paying a significant price in terms of diminishment of power.

So how can another actor determine whether we are going to be more restrained or more expansive in our actions? How can they determine whether we will voluntarily limit ourselves to deploying power only where it makes sense in terms of rational national self-interest? How are they to interpret declarations on America’s part that there are effectively no limits to our interests? Are they to take these sorts of claims seriously?

By any objective measure, the United States has no compelling national interest at stake in who governs Afghanistan, in who controls eastern Ukraine, or any number of other matters in which we are engaged. But we are engaged.

The “retreat” that hawks fear is a retreat to more-readily discernible lines related to the national interest. They want other actors to believe that we will continue to act well beyond that line. Which really does require repeated demonstration, across multiple theaters of conflict, because it cannot be “read” from our objective interests and capabilities.

 Tagged , , , , , . 11 comments

“Broken Windows” and the Urban Renaissance


There’s an active debate going on now in my city about the role of the police, and whether we’ve gone too far as a city in terms of the “broken windows” approach to policing. This approach argues that tolerance of low-level offenses – turnstile jumping, public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, defacement of property, etc. – creates an environment in which more serious criminality thrives, both because criminals believe nobody is watching and because law-abiding citizens do not populate the streets. A vigorous police presence maintaining order both serves as a direct deterrent to criminal activity and incidentally may result in the apprehension for lesser charges of criminals already wanted on more serious charges.

The case against the “broken windows” approach holds on the one hand that an aggressive approach to pursuing minor offenders has had little to do with the historic drop in crime, arguing that it was driven primarily by demographic, economic and possibly even environmental factors; that to the extent that better policing was effective the most important element was simply increasing a visible police presence in high-crime areas, not targeting literal or metaphorical broken windows; and that in practice “broken windows” policing has been implemented in a way experienced as oppressive by minority communities, and has resulted in far too many tragedies like the death of Eric Garner.

William Bratton and George Kelling have mounted a vigorous defense of “broken windows” policing here. A reasonable place to start for a round-up of various theories behind the historic drop in American crime rates is here. The Dish also has a good run-down of the current discussion.

Whenever I read about this question, I think about how much of the discussion glosses over the ways in which demographic and economic variables are inevitably intertwined with police practices. What if, for example, “broken windows” policing is very popular with homeowners – much more popular than can be justified by any demonstrable change in crime. Well, policies that are really popular with homeowners tend to improve home values. Which, in turn, can produce economic and demographic change – which, in turn, can drive down crime rates.

The 1990s saw a massive drop in crime across the country, and a larger and faster drop in the big cities, among which New York was a leader. The 1990s also saw an urban economic and demographic renaissance – and, again, New York was a leader. Was “broken windows” policing pivotal in terms of reducing crime by making the environment less-favorable to criminality? Or did it only have a modest direct effect – but a more substantial indirect effect by facilitating demographic changes in the city? Or did causality run the other way, with more and more aggressive policing strategies the product of a changing demographic (and political) profile of the city that demanded them? Because both trends happened together, it’s undoubtedly hard to tease out the answer to the question.

Cross-city comparisons are also complicated by the fact that cities and regions compete with each other. Jersey City is competing with Hoboken and Newark for commuters looking for a cheaper alternative to both New York proper and the more expensive suburbs. If Jersey City implements “broken windows,” and thereby convinces commuters to move there, demographic change may drive crime down further. But this, in turn, will drive up housing values, creating “relative value” in Newark even if Newark didn’t implement “broken windows” policing. A rising tide in the region may lift all boats, at least to some degree – maybe to a considerable degree. But that doesn’t mean that there are no benefits to being a first mover rather than passively waiting for the tide.

Then there’s the problem of what we’re using as a baseline condition. For example: compare two jurisdictions, one that implemented “hot spot” policing (which involves concentrating police presence in high-crime areas) and one that did not. There’s evidence that “hot spot” policing can reduce crime – and not merely displace it. But my impression is that “hot spot” policing is not a resource-neutral strategy. At a minimum, you need to invest in the infrastructure and training needed to identify “hot spots” and deploy officers accordingly; at a maximum, you need to increase the size of the force so that “lukewarm” spots don’t wind up being virtually un-policed. So what you really want to know is what the bang is for the incremental dollar. That’s an especially important question when you start talking about much more expensive strategies, from “broken windows” policing (which definitely requires a larger force) to mass incarceration.

I’m sure the sociologists, criminologists and political scientists who investigate these questions are aware of these complicating factors, and I’m sure they try to control for them the best they can. But “best” may not be all that good. And when it isn’t, we fall back on a combination of common sense and personal bias.

So what’s my common sense, and my personal bias?

I know that, as a citizen of New York, I approve of low tolerance for offenses like graffiti and public disorder. I remember New York in the 1980s and I do not want to go back. (Neither does the Mayor, as it happens.) But I want to see order without oppression; I want every community in New York to feel like the police are there to protect them, and not to protect one part of the city from another.

“Hot spot” policing makes a lot of intuitive sense to me – it really amounts to no more than deploying your resources to maximize their direct impact. I suspect that “broken windows” policing has some direct effect on crime rates, but a small one; I suspect it has a bigger impact on gentrification, and that the arrow of causality runs both ways – that is to say, quality-of-life crime-fighting strategies make an urban area more attractive to gentrifiers, and a gentrifying neighborhood will increase political pressure to do quality-of-life policing. “Stop and frisk” was among the more intrusive strategies deployed, particularly when it was applied so widely, and had long ago reached the point of diminishing returns. I’m glad to see it cut back sharply under de Blasio.

I suspect that the average citizen of a high-crime area, likely to be someone in the left half of the income curve, approves of police efforts to improve quality of life and crack down on offenses that disrupt public order even if they are non-violent – and also approves of greater efforts by the police to integrate into and show sensitivity to the community. Neither approach is resource-neutral; the political question becomes whether the city – and the NYPD in particular – sees it as worthwhile to spend money and time on the latter even if it has no direct effect on crime rates (the statistic with the most bearing on the political fortunes of leadership of the NYPD).


Finally, I worry about the public choice consequences of a larger (unionized) police force, which are a big part of what has been revealed in the current fracas between Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD. The sheer weight of the police department means it has much more influence than it did before the 1990s. As well, this is an organization with a sense of mission and of accomplishment – crime, after all, went down an enormous amount in the past 20 years. It is obviously not taking kindly to suggestions that this accomplishment is only partly due to their efforts, or that those efforts are viewed by at a big chunk of the citizenry as self-serving.

But that’s why the head of the NYPD is a political appointee. Bratton does not need to turn against his own legacy – nor does he need to defend it aggressively. The consensus against allowing crime rates to go back up is overwhelming. What Bratton needs to demonstrate is that he has control over his department, and that he is committed both to keeping crime low and to reducing the perception that the police are an oppressive presence.

Which, however, genuinely represents a change of mission. It’s implicitly admitting that driving crime rates ever-lower is no longer the overwhelming priority – that the “change” goal is to lighten the police footprint. A change of that sort could very well be demoralizing – even threatening – to the NYPD. But Bratton surely remembers that CompStat itself was threatening when it was introduced – it meant telling beat officers that the computer knew better than they did how they should do their job.

So there’s a sale to be made: selling the department on the idea that improved community relations and more sensitive policing are really about a more effective and efficient use of police resources – a continuation of improvements in policing rather than a rebuke to the police. Ultimately, that sales job is what will deliver the results that critics of the police are rightfully demanding. I can’t think of anybody better to do it than Bratton. Now let’s see how much he makes that a priority.



 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . 10 comments

Science Is Not Found Through God Either


I see that Damon Linker and Rod Dreher have beaten me as usual to the discussion of (in this case) the Eric Metaxas “God is the most likely explanation for our unlikely existence” piece. There are undoubtedly dozens of possible points of attack on Metaxas’s piece, and I happily endorse both Linker’s (that the God of Plato and Aristotle bears little resemblance to the God of the Hebrew bible or of the Christian scriptures) and Dreher’s (the point isn’t to prove God exists or to believe God exists; the point is to know God).

But I want to grasp the other end of the question. Why, after all, would anyone want to prove the existence of God? If Dreher is right that this is a mistaken way to approach God, why does anybody try to do it?

A frequently-suggested reason is the prestige of science. In our age, supposedly, if something isn’t validated scientifically then it’s hard to justify believing in it. I’m tempted to retort, “tell that to the anti-vaccination movement,” but really I think this kind of “reason” treats scientific discovery as no different from, say, the miraculous appearance of Jesus in one’s breakfast. That is to say: if you are looking for signs, you’ll surely see them, whether you look in the laboratory or in the kitchen.

I’m not saying that such experiences are illegitimate, or that nothing in the laboratory could affect you as a sign from God – on the contrary. I just think a more honest way of talking about it would be to talk not about proof but about the experience of awe. It is entirely natural to really look at the vast cold universe, and feel that only exceeding tenderness could have nurtured our little spot of green therein. But that’s a subjective experience, not a syllogism. And the same experience awe can also lead to other feelings, ones that are not so suggestive of tender divine concern.

A more sophisticated reason for wanting to proceed to proof is not to shore up religious belief but to shore up belief in science. Science is a highly unnatural activity that rests on extremely shaky philosophical foundations. We don’t even have a well-grounded reason for accepting induction. Ultimately, the knowability of the universe presumes that there is always a deeper order beneath apparent chaos. That’s a very religious-seeming conviction, and inasmuch as science appears to wear away at religious belief one might reasonably fear that science is thereby wearing away at its own foundations. And not merely the foundations of science – the foundations of reason itself. If you are afflicted with that fear, it would seem entirely sensible to find evidence within science that justifies continued belief in God, and hence that the order and knowability of the universe is real, and not just posited.

I happen to think that, for the philosophically-inclined, this is an important reason for wanting to be convinced that there exist good, philosophically grounded bases for belief in God. But I also happen to believe that it’s a mistake.

Neither as a matter of intellectual genealogy nor as a matter of philosophical necessity does science depend on religious conviction. Religion appears to be ubiquitous in human culture, but it is also very varied, and the roots of modern science can be found in pagan Greece, in Hindu India, in the medieval Muslim world, and in the modern era science was as often as not advanced by non-believers. And what is the philosophical problem with saying that ultimate knowability of the universe is an ungrounded but necessary assumption in order to be able to do science? Meanwhile, the activity of science itself is justified entirely pragmatically: it produces useful results.

If you’re the sort of person who worries about the philosophical grounding of inductive reasoning, then what I just said will sound like pure question-begging. You can’t justify induction pragmatically; that’s equivalent to justifying induction by induction. But belief in God won’t get you any closer to some kind of ground than simply believing in induction directly.

The universe, after all, is in practice too vast and deep to actually be known, not merely in terms of its extent in space but in terms of its structure. The discovery of atoms (named so because they are supposed to be the smallest units of matter) leads inevitably to questions about their constituents, the oxymoronic sub-atomic particles. And these have constituents in turn – and once we’ve mapped the behavior of the hypothesized quarks we have to ask whence comes their considerable variety, and so on and so on. It really is turtles all the way down.

So what does it gain you to add God at the bottom? If the universe is unknowably vast and complex, then God, the ground for the universe’s existence and every aspect of its character, must be even more so. If believing in God feels necessary to justify believing in the universe and its knowability, that really just means you have a too-limited notion of what you are believing in when you say you believe in God. You are, by definition, believing in something much harder to know objectively than the universe itself. (The word “objectively” is there for a reason – perhaps God wants to be known, subjectively, in a way that humans can comprehend. If so, well and good – but that still doesn’t help you if you are trying to ground the knowability of the universe in the knowability of God. We already know we can know the universe subjectively – we do it every waking moment of our existence.)

Fine: so far I’ve argued why I think resorting to proof of God’s existence is pointless if your goal is to find a firm ground for belief in the orderliness and knowability of the cosmos. But why do I go further and say it is actually a mistake?

I said above that people who see proof of God’s existence in the physical constants of the universe aren’t really that different from those who see that proof in a piece of toast. What I meant by that is that there’s a powerful confirmation bias operating. Nobody sees an image in their toast and says: I wonder whether that looks more like Jesus or more like Shiva? Similarly, I don’t know a lot of orthodox Christians who have learned about superstring theory, the possibility of multiple universes, or the theory of evolution and said to themselves: gee, it sounds like the Hindus were right after all and the Christians were wrong. But that’s exactly what you’d expect people to do if they were actually treating the toast or the science as evidence for one or another religious system.

Instead, believers tend to reason apologetically – to explain away phenomena that are troublesome and to point to phenomena that are confirmatory. Which is fine – for religion. But it’s not fine for science.

I want to be clear. Science is not some un-psychological, un-social phenomenon. Scientists operate within the constraints of patterns of metaphor that we use to understand the universe – patterns that may be highly individual or cultural. They can’t operate without some such patterns – nobody can; we can’t process the universe directly. But what scientists have to be open to is shifting paradigms as evidence accumulates that the accepted paradigm is faulty. Their only inhibition in that regard should be a healthy natural conservatism about making any hasty large moves.

Religion is a very powerful nexus of such metaphors. It makes all the sense in the world for religions to be extremely conservative, institutionally, about preserving that nexus. For that reason, it’s highly problematic to import that nexus into the realm of science where it necessarily has to risk being discarded or transformed in ways that are not at all sensitive to the religious implications. It’s problematic for religion – but even more so, it’s problematic for science, and for a scientist’s ability to maintain that openness.

Again: to be clear, I’m not at all saying that it’s somehow difficult for a scientist to be an orthodox Christian believer or an adherent of any other kind of religion. I’m just saying that a religious scientist has to be able to say to herself: I don’t necessarily know how to reconcile everything I believe with everything I posit, and that’s ok. I have faith that they can ultimately be reconciled, and that’s enough for today. That is the diametrically opposite position from a scientist who says: I have come to believe because the science convinced me that belief was more justified than not.

As it happens, I don’t think this is much of a problem for believing scientists. They compartmentalize as well as humans do in all aspects of life. It’s more of a problem for popular understanding of science. But that’s still a problem worth addressing.

 Tagged , , , , . 27 comments
← Older posts Newer posts →