Friday, August 23, 2013

Nixon, Obama, and the weight of paper


[This is an excerpt from the latest lecture in my Studying Sociology Through Film paper. You can find the texts of a couple of previous lectures here and here.]

This week one and a half thousand people filled Auckland’s Town Hall to protest against a new law which will make it easier for their government to spy on their e mails and other communications. The dissidents listened to speeches by a range of politicians, including the leaders of the Labour Party, the Green Party, and the Mana Party, and also heard from the German-born billionaire IT businessman Kim Dotcom. 

Last year Dotcom’s mansion on the edge of Auckland was stormed by seventy-six armed police, who were backed by two helicopters. The police arrested Dotcom at the request of the United States government, which wants to deport him to face charges of internet piracy. Dotcom is free on bail while he appeals against his deportation. The Dotcom case has become controversial, because it has been revealed that the New Zealand government spied illegally on him at the request of the United States.  

The meeting in Auckland echoes recent protests in the northern hemisphere against spying by governments and large corporations and related misuses of power. In May of this year Edward Snowden, a computer specialist who had worked with the American government, leaked a large amount of information to Britain’s Guardian newspaper and to the Washington Post. 
In the opinion of many experts, the material that Snowden passed on showed that the United States had been using ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation passed after the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to spy on the e mails of millions of its citizens, as well as to spy on the people and governments of many foreign nations. The United States has been attempting to arrest Snowden for passing on this information, but he has fled to Russia, where he is hiding. 
This week David Miranda, the partner of Glen Greenwald, one of the Guardian journalists who took information from Snowden, was detained for nine hours at London’s Heathrow airport in an operation which seems to have been jointly organised by British and American security forces. Miranda had his computer confiscated, and the Guardian newspaper has had its offices raided by British security forces.
Protesters against the treatment of Snowden, Miranda and the Guardian have accused the American and British governments of harassing the media and repressing free speech. Supporters of Snowden say that he should be congratulated rather than arrested for exposing the extent of America’s electronic spying.
It is appropriate that, at this time when alleged abuse of power by the American government and its allies is such a hot topic, we should watch All the President’s Men, a film which documents the way that two young journalists at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, and Carl Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman, discovered a series of ‘dirty tricks’ being used by the government of Richard Nixon against its opponents. 

In 1972 Nixon was elected to a second term as the President of the United States. During his campaign for reelection, though, Nixon allowed a group of his supporters to break into offices of the opposition Democratic Party and steal documents from those offices. Nixon wanted to read the documents and discover the plans of his Democratic opponent for the presidency, George McGovern.
Unfortunately for Nixon, the burglars he had employed were caught at the scene of their crime. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became curious about what the burglars were doing and who was paying them, and launched an investigation which led them all the way to the president. The Democratic Party offices which were burgled were located in a Washington, DC building called Watergate, and the controversy that developed as a result of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigations became known as the Watergate scandal.
Nixon used a variety of tactics to try to avoid being linked to the burglary. He forced two of his advisers to resign and take the blame for the event. They were sent to prison, but Nixon was unable to convince the media and the public that he was not involved in the crime. As he became increasingly fearful of the investigation that Woodward and Bernstein had started, Nixon began to spy on staff at the White House and elsewhere in government. He secretly recorded tens of thousands of hours of conversations, partly to find out if his staff were loyal to him and partly to try to gain material he could use to blackmail anyone who turned against him.
Eventually, nearly two years after the Watergate burglary, Nixon resigned as president. He would have faced criminal charges and a likely prison term if his successor as president, Gerald Ford, had not offered him a pardon for any crimes he committed during his term in office. Nixon is the only American president to resign from office, and his reputation has never recovered from the Watergate scandal.
When Edward Snowden showed that the Bush and Obama administrations had spied on huge numbers of Americans, many commentators were reminded of the Nixon era. But where Nixon was only able to spy on a relatively small number of people, owing to the pre-digital technology of the early 1970s, governments of the twenty-first century can use the internet and advanced software to monitor the communications of millions of people around the world. 
All the President’s Men was directed by Alan Pakula, and based on the book of the same name published by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1974. Where Woodward and Bernstein’s book covers the whole of the Watergate saga, from the initial break-in until Nixon’s resignation, Pakula’s film covers only the first seven months after the burglary. All the President’s Men won several awards at the 1976 Academy Awards, and is still highly regarded by film critics.

Pakula’s movie avoids sensationalism. There are no car chases or explosions, and Nixon never appears in person, though he is often shown on television. The excitement and tension increase incrementally rather than suddenly, as we observe the careful and sometimes frustrating work of Woodward and Bernstein, and share their gradual realisation that what they had thought was a minor crime is in fact a scandal big enough to change the course of American history.
Last semester, in the Modern Pacific History paper, we discussed the strange fate that Sylvester Stallone's Rambo movies had enjoyed in the Pacific. Rambo was supposed to be a violently nationalistic American, but in Tonga he has become a local hero, and in Bougainville he was an inspiration for the independence movement which shut down a massive foreign-owned mine and defeated an army that was trained by Australia and supported by the United States. 

The reception of the Rambo films in the Pacific reminds us that any piece of culture underdetermines its interpretation. An artist may set out to encode one meaning in a picture or statement, but her audience may give her image or words a quite different meaning. I want to talk about a couple of aspects of the visual style of All The President's Men, and suggest ways in which those aspects might be interpreted today. 

Pakula's imagery emphasises the power of the United States government, and the relatively tiny resources of two young journalists. He repeatedly shows Woodward and Bernstein hurrying around Washington, DC, dwarfed by the massive and austere buildings of organisations like the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Sometimes the director seems to have placed his camera crew on the rooves of these joyless palaces. When the two men visit the the Library of Congress, that literary arsenal of the American political class, Pakula's camera adopts a ceiling's-eye view, so that we can often see only their hands and the tops of their heads. 
Viewed from the rooves and balconies of Washington, the heroes of All The President's Men seem almost pitifully vulnerable. As Pakula's cameras follow Woodward and Bernstein down a sidewalk or up a staircase, we imagine a sniper sizing them up. 
Pakula's shots of his protagonists seem even more sinister today, when the American government commands a fleet of sleepless and deadly drone aircraft. Obama was hailed as a peacemaker when he took office in 2009 - the academics of Sweden even embarrassed themselves by awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize for that year - but he has ordered drone attacks which have killed at least three thousand people in the Middle Eastern nations of Yemen and Pakistan. Today it is easier than ever for the leader of the United States to dispose of his enemies. 
But some of Pakula's other visual devices perhaps now produce effects he did not intend in 1975. 
All The President's Men is a movie filled with paper: there are the piles of typescript on the desks of Woodward and Bernstein and their fellow Washington Post journalists, the sheets hanging like tongues from hundreds of stuttering typewriters, the overstuffed files and folders of the archive rooms in government departments, and the columns of books in solemn libraries. 
In the world of All The President's Men, information is captured and corralled on paper. Sometimes, as they slog their way through an archive, or struggle with the fifth draft of an article, Woodward and Bernstein seem about to be defeated by the weight of all that paper. 
Pakula is not the only artist to make paper into a symbol of the complexity and obscurity of the world. In Franz Kafka's studies of bureaucratic absurdity, the typewriter and the file become tools with which truth can be evaded rather than revealed. Kafka earned a living writing confidential reports on insurance claims, and so understood the power a few pieces of paper could attain over human beings. In Orson Welles' film adaption of Kafka's The Trial we visit a lawyer's home, and see it filled with millions of pieces of loose paper, the detritus of a legal system whose workings are chaotic and malign.
Don De Lillo's great novel Libra introduces us to Nicholas Branch, an FBI officer who has spent patient and fruitless years investigating the assassination of John F Kennedy. After receiving consignment after consignment of documents from his FBI colleagues, from sympathetic academics, and from sleepless conspiracy theorists, Branch has surrendered much of his office to paper. The rising piles of photocopied articles, mimeographed newsletters, blown-up photographs, and confidential reports are slowly consuming the pocket of air around his desk. De Lillo makes Branch into a symbol of the intellectual paralysis that can be brought on by an oversupply of information. 
I would like to suggest, though, that some of the symbolic properties of paper have changed in recent decades, as digital technology has altered the way that we collect, store, and transmit information. 

Today's journalists, bureaucrats, and spies tend to compose their reports and requests on glowing screens rather than typewriters, and to communicate them using fibre optic cable rather than mail bags or drop boxs. Newspapers and government departments have replaced their old, dogeared archives with electronic databases. Even academic libraries, those celebrated temples of paper, have been wowed by digital technology, and today often seem to prefer e books and journals to traditional 'hard copy' volumes. 
It is significant that the net, with its many gaps, and the cloud, with its fluffy fluidity, have emerged as popular metaphors for the new way that information is stored and shared in the digital age. With its global reach but lack of a recognisable locus, the internet is both pervasive and elusive. 
I want to argue that some of the anxiety we suffer when we imagine governments using the internet to spy on us derives from our feeling that the internet lacks both finitude and form. 
In the 1970s the CIA and the FBI and Richard Nixon's private army of goons kept files on thousands of their enemies, using wiretapping and other dirty tricks to gather the information that ended up in those files. But the technical limitations of pre-digital espionage meant that the reach of the bad guys was always limited, and their information was always piecemeal. There were only so many men in trenchcoats available to follow reporters through rainy streets, and so many spooks available to stick a listening device on a phone line.
Today, though, the internet has made the most esoteric information about our lives and opinions easily available to intelligence agencies. A handful of geeks working for the right government can harvest and analyse millions of e mails and skype sessions in an eight hour shift. The spy in the trenchcoat is obsolete. 
It is notable that some of most popular neuroses of our age involve malign electricity and evil computers. Doctors and psychologists have used term 'electromagnetic sensitivity' to describe the (psychosomatic) pain, depression, and anxiety that increasing numbers of Westerners suffer when they get too close to an internet connection or an active cellphone. Psychiatrists regularly encounter patients who are tortured by delusions about the internet. Some of them claim that their minds are being controlled by fingers on a distant keyboard; others fear disappearing through their computer screens into some virtual hell. 
I want to suggest that, at a time when we are increasingly frightened of an amorphous, uncontrollable realm of electronic information, the old-fashioned paper file has acquired a reassuring and almost romantic quality. The office cubby hole bulging with papers and the room full of noisy typewriters have become symbols of the finitude and comparative manageability of information. 
Backward-looking television programmes like Life on Mars and movies like Zodiac dwell lovingly on the paper detritus of the police headquarters and newspaper office, showing off yellowing charge sheets and fat broadsheets as though they were fine works of art. Don De Lillo may have turned paper into a sinister symbol in Libra, but the journalists who interview him are always charmed by the fact that he works on an old-fashioned typewriter, and builds his novels out of piles of loose papers. New York City hipsters have taken to holding 'type-ins', where they try to bang out as many words a minute as Jack Kerouac. 
For me, and I suspect for many other twenty-first century viewers, the piles of paper which are almost constant companions to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in All The President's Men have a strangely comforting quality. They suggest not only the accessibility but the comprehensibility of information. As incriminating files and typed drafts for articles pile up on the desks of Woodward and Bernstein, the progress of our heroes is made tangible.  
[Posted by Scott Hamilton] 

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obama was groomed to be antichrist. His name is Satanic. In Aramaic (the language Christ spoke which was later translated to Greek) Jesus said He beheld “Satan as lightning fall to the earth”. The lightning falling is pronounced in Aramaic exactly as Barack Obama. It would be like saying I saw Satan as Barack Obama. Someone Satanic picked this name for him.

Obama is highly skilled in conversational hypnosis which he uses in his speeches. Satanists often use inverted messages and symbols to influence others and identify themselves to other Satanists. Obama’s “yes we can” slogan from the first campaign is spoken with a pacing and inflection to say “thank you, Satan” in reverse. I have personally verified this by editing and reversing the audio from several of his speeches. No one needs to take anyone else’s word for it since it is easily verified.

1:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Troy Jollimore on Nicholas Branch:

Branch’s early theory, the paranoid view that history is “the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us,” gives way to the idea that history cannot be told by anyone to anyone, that it is not merely hidden but essentially inexpressible, that it transcends language and rational thought. In which case the endeavor of the historian, or the historical novelist, inevitably falsifies, is indeed a kind of neurosis, another instance of the paranoid’s projecting meaning onto chaos. “He wants a thing to be what it is. Can’t a man die without the ensuing ritual of a search for patterns and links?” Perhaps, indeed, the idea that there could be a meaning beyond the brute physical reality of violence is precisely what allows us to justify brutality and violence, to regard them as legitimate means to ends. Perhaps the idea that an explanation can be given that will render the events of the world rationally intelligible is precisely the root of the problem.'

3:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Very good. A quick one. I was around when all this was happening.

There were worse than Nixon...

But it also reminds me of a 19th Century book 'Bleak House' by Charles Dickens. For most people the "law's delay' (Hamlet) can be far more frustrating and sometimes damaging than "spying".

The case (Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce) in Bleak House has gone on for so long that that lawyers have all forgotten what it was about, people have died during its process, or have committed suicide,been ruined, gone mad. It's worth it just to read the opening few pages. Cinematically, Dickens uses the fog as his way of emphasising the obfuscation.

Conrad's 'Secret Agent' - another satire, more concentrated on espionage and agents provocateurs etc is another great book.

It's worth remembering that Tsarist Russia was riddled with spies and surveilance, but when the Russian Revolution started happening none of that information helped those in power one iota.

The spying agents have as much difficulty processing their huge mass of information. Eventually they cant process it usefully. (Individuals or groups can be targeted but they reform).

But it is certainly interesting.

I must read that Libra. Even though I was around when Watergate happened I never saw the movie or read the book, or The Pentagon Papers. None of us were surprised at any duplicity of the Imperialist leaders. It continues today under Obama.

12:27 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I did watch that movie, I realized after I posted here: I recall "Deep Throat".

It seems that today the US are still "sabre-rattling" (now in the Mediterranean). In the long run they will achieve nothing.

It seems that even though Blair and Bush are effectively war criminals worse than Al Qaeda (I have some admiration for them, they seem to enact the justice that, if their were a "just God", has been enacted in 9/11 (if we can be sure the 9/11 wasn't "an inside job": then they carried out utu or "karma"), and Saddam Hussein (who the US and the CIA actually helped to get into power), or any other "dictatorship" or non-US or non-British Government.

But their actions in attacking Iraq, Afghanistan and the subsequent deaths of many thousands of civilians makes them effectively war criminals. No one opposes the US when they used depleted uranium or jail thousands without trial, or assassinate legitimate leaders, napalm people, sow the seeds of death with mines in Cambodia, assist the Indonesians to kill nearly 1 million Chinese "Communists", destroy Islands and nations such as those of the Marshalls, and are based on a society built on slavery and the near extermination of the US American Indians.

The US and Israel are closer to being like Germany's Nazis than any other nation in history.

Sadly, NZ, Australia and the UK follow along with what they do blindly.

But their time is limited.

9:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

off topic...but is this factual?
http://www.livescience.com/24614-first-polynesians-settlement.html

10:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In June 1863, when Brig. Gen. Albert Jenkins' cavalry, in the vanguard of the Confederate army, galloped into Pennsylvania, its aim wasn't only to spy and steal supplies.
The soldiers were also determined, as historian Margaret Creighton notes, to round up African-Americans, whom the Confederates regarded as "contraband" that should be returned to "rightful" owners.
The "slave hunt," as contemporaries and later historians called this phase of the Confederate invasion, would last as long as Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia remained in Pennsylvania. It ended only when the defeated Southern troops retreated back to Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg.
• • •
Lee told his soldiers, once the invasion of Pennsylvania was under way, that "no greater disgrace could befall the army," or discredit the Confederate cause, "than the perpetuation of the barbarous outrages upon the unarmed and defenceless [sic] and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country."

PG graphic: Invading the North
(Click image for larger version)
Yet Lee's high-sounding words did not stop Confederate troops from pursuing African-Americans, with the intent of returning them to slavery.
Nor did Lee's order stop raiding parties, such as one near Mercersburg, from threatening to burn down "every house which harbored a fugitive slave" unless the blacks were handed over in 20 minutes.
Nor did the work of rounding up blacks appear to trouble the consciences of the Southern troops. Philip Schaff, a professor at Mercersburg Theological Seminary, asked a Confederate soldier guarding a wagon load of African-Americans, whom the Southerners claimed were Virginia slaves, "Do you not feel bad and mean in such an occupation?"
"He boldly replied that he felt very comfortable. They were only reclaiming their property which we [Pennsylvania residents] had stolen and harbored," Schaff recalled the man saying.
For some Southern soldiers, the slave hunt in Pennsylvania was familiar work: Many had likely served on slave patrols in their home states, even if they did not own slaves, according to historian David G. Smith.
Indeed, the patrols were a bulwark of the South's peculiar institution. In some states, patrol duty was compulsory for most able-bodied white men.
• • •
Estimates vary as to how many blacks were caught in the Confederate dragnet during the Gettysburg campaign. Mr. Smith puts the figure at more than 1,000 -- especially if it includes those seized in Winchester, Va., Martinsburg, W.Va., and Rockville, Md.
Ironically, most of the blacks seized during the Gettysburg campaign were captured in areas where slavery had been abolished.
In Pennsylvania, the gradual abolition of slavery began before the end of the Revolution. The process was largely complete a generation before the Civil War. And President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued Jan. 1, 1863, freed enslaved people throughout most of Virginia.
The chance to make a mockery of the Emancipation Proclamation in a "free" state, such as Pennsylvania, and undo its effects in a slave-holding state, such as Virginia, may have motivated some Confederate soldie


11:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

http://www.allgov.com/news/us-and-the-world/pacific-islanders-ask-us-military-to-not-use-pagan-island-for-target-practice-130518?news=850056

7:57 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Thanks for that link - there is another link related here -

http://savepaganisland.org/

There is an intention by the US to carry out live military practice on the Island of Pagan in the Mariannas.

The US military and Government are insane. They achieve nothing but destruction and pollution. They are not interested in "justice". You can forget all those phoney abstracts.

7:09 pm  
Blogger JULIA NAVARO said...

Good Day !!
I am JULIA NAVARO, CEO of NAVARO LOAN COMPANY a Reputable,
Legitimate & an accredited money Lending company. I want to
use this medium to inform you that we render reliable beneficiary
assistance as we`ll be glad to offer loan at 2% interest rate to
reliable individuals. The Services Rendered include:
*Home Improvement *Inventor Loans *Car Loans *Debt Consolidation Loan
*Line of Credit *Second Loan *Business Loans *Personal Loans
*International Loans *education loans.
(No social security and no credit check, 100% Guaranteed!)
I Look forward permitting me to be of service to you.
You can contact me via e-mail: navaroloancompany@yahoo.com or contact
us with our customer care number +16618356153....
Yours Sincerely,
Julia Navaro.

6:23 am  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home