Saturday, March 29, 2008

No Missteps, no "Misspeaks"

The rukus is dying down over Hillary's probably fabricated story about being shot at in Bosnia. As everyone now knows, it never happened. Instead she stepped off a plane in complete safety and accepted flowers from a fawning crowd.

Still, the credulous continue to try to make excuses for her. My favorite by far is the Cognitive Science Dodge - proffered by one "Chris" on a blog called, appropriately, Mixing Memory.

Actually, the claim is prima facie quite plausible, and I don't want to dispute the science behind it, which I'm sure is rock-solid. The argument goes something like this: memory is a tricky thing, and never more so when one is telling an oft-repeated story with the purpose of impressing an audience. The technical term for it is apparently source monitoring, but the rest of us know it, as Chris helpfully points out, from campfire stories about our own prowess. Telling stories 'round the campfire is a kind of competiton - and you only get floor space if you can manage to impress the crowd more than the last guy did. And so you embellish. It's natural, it's common, it's expected. And what's more, if you repeat the same story around enough campfires, you end up confusing even yourself as to what really happened and what really didn't. See, some of what you're "remembering" by the 15th go is you telling the story for the 14th time rather than the events that you're purportedly relating.

Fine, fine - no disagreements here. This kind of thing happens. I've done, everyone I know has done it. And so, as Chris puts it:

None of this makes Clinton's version of the events in Bosnia in 1996 more accurate, of course, nor does it excuse her and her campaign from not quickly verifying her memory to make sure she wasn't misremembering. But it doesn't mean she's lying, either, and since she's clearly a rational and intelligent person, it's unlikely she'd lie about something that easily verified anyway. Instead, my money's on a mundane, though potentially costly, error resulting from the reconstructive nature of memory. At least, until someone demonstrates otherwise, I'm willing to give her, and her memory, the benefit of the doubt.

Well here's where I get off the wagon. I'm willing to give my friends the benefit of the doubt when they're telling tall tales around a barroom table for the purpose of impressing their audience. That's all par for the course. But a politician at a political rally? Whose "tall tale" is given solely for the purpose of damaging her opponent's election chances on the basis that she has the better foreign policy creds?

Nope, sorry kiddo, won't do.

If there's one species of human that never deserves the benefit of the doubt, it's politicians. These are people, let's not forget, who are applying for a job that lets them make decisions for us, about how to spend our money, when to put us in jail, when to commit our sons and daughters to war, etc. etc. They don't get the benefit of the doubt. Campaign speeches are the political equivalent of a job interview. The purpose of the speech is for the politician to present herself as the person in the running most qualified to do what's right by all of us. She doesn't get to embellish.

Democrats in the audience, put the shoe on the other foot and see how it fits. We all know, or strongly suspect, that Bush skipped out on his National Guard duty, right? To date, no one has been able to prove it conclusively, but a smoking gun may yet show up before the end of his presidency. If it turns out that he's been bald-faced lying to us about his Guard duty and someone can prove it, are you really going to say "aw, shucks, he's probably just misremembering. I mean, you know, Guard duty sucks, it must've seemed like a pointless eternity to him, so it's easy to see how he might've just forgotten that there were a couple of months when he wasn't there that he was supposed to be." Yeah, sing to someone else. No, you're going to be calling for his impeachment - as well you should be. Bush presented, as a credential for assuming office, that he did his patriotic duty during Vietnam by serving in the Guard. If that turns out to be a proveable falsehood, it's grounds for impeachment, regardless of how honestly he did or didn't believe the version he repeatedly gave to the press.

You see where I'm going with this. Allowing politicians to fudge on the basis of what Hillary calls human mistake:

"I made a mistake -- I'm human, which for some people is a revelation."

is a good way to make sure we can't believe anything they say ever. Well, sure, it's a human mistake. Just like forgetting to do the safety checks at a nuclear plant is an understandable, very human mistake. The point being - there are some circumstances in which we don't allow humans to be humans - and running for and holding political office is, or should be, one of them.

Chris wants to give Hillary the benefit of the doubt. I don't - for the simple reason that if we give Hillary the benefit of the doubt we have to give every politician the benefit of the doubt every time they repeat something from memory. That doesn't sound like a system with very much accountability built in.

For the record - I happen to think Chris' explanation of how Hillary came to "misremember" this incident is completely plausible. I just don't think it's an appropriate excuse for this situation. So maybe she "misremembered." Just like our hypothetical nuclear plant technician might, on a really busy day, just "forget" to run all his safety checks. The very real human condition of forgetfulness doesn't excuse the nuclear technician, and it doesn't excuse Mrs. Clinton - for the very simple reason that she's in a situation where checks are in order. It's nothing personal against either, you understand (though I do admit to disliking Mrs. Clinton quite a lot). It's just that if power plant bosses were in the habit of allowing the occasional slipup because it was "just one of those days," we'd have lots more nuclear accidents. Now, Hillary mispeaking isn't going to kill anyone (at least, not while she's just a candidate), but it does seriously impede our ability to choose a president if there are essentially no consequences attached to "misremembering" in public speeches. Your friends around the campfire - that's one thing. They're not trying to take advantage of you - just trying to entertain - because they like you and want your approval. Telling tall tales around the campfire - that's all part of the expectations built into the situation. Telling lies on the campaign trail - well, we expect that too, but for very, very different reasons. We expect that because we know the lure of power. The very reason we expect it is the very reason we shouldn't tolerate it. It's the same reason there are refs in professional sports. Ideally, of course, athletes should play by the rules. But in the heat of action, it's hard to do that all the time, even for the honest sportsmen. And so we attach penalties to committing fouls. We don't say "Oh, athletes do that - because they want to win." We say "athletes do that, but the game can't function if they do, and that's why there are penalties attached."

Clinton doesn't get the benefit of the doubt for the simple reason that roasting politicians for such incidents is the only way we have of giving them an incentive to tell the truth. If every time a politician lies we chalk it up to faulty memory, we'll quickly be in a situation where no political speech is grounded in reality at all - such is the lure of power.

Nope, sorry Chris, no "CogSci" free passes for Hillary. If she wants a consolation prize, what she can take home is this: the same rule can, should, and does apply to every other player on the field. If Obama similarly "misspeaks" in the coming weeks, she'll no doubt take him to task for it - and I, for one, won't begrudge her the shadenfreude.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Miller's Crossing

I got around to seeing Miller's Crossing yesterday (finally!). Here's my two cents.

Basically, it just continues my love-hate relationship with Roger Ebert. This is one of those he got right.

Three stars, he says. I totally agree. It's a good movie with aspects of greatness, but actually calling it great would be taking things way too far. How does Ebert put it? " seems like a movie that is constantly aware of itself, instead of a movie that gets on with business." Indeed. Even better is Ebert's specific example: Leo's office is too nice. Which, of course, it is. Leo is the Irish mob boss who supposedly runs the city (ah, but which city?), and the furniture in his office is VERY NICE. That bugged me too. Not just about Leo's office, but about everything. The movie is very tasteful. Everyone lives in exquisitely-furnished places. It's not just 1929-style, it's the best 1929 had to offer. The clothes too. Everyone is conservatively dressed - but you can tell they're wearing the best. And all of this is typical Coen Brothers accidentally tipping their hand. They're detail fetishists rather than sticklers for detail - and the furnishings and clothes and tad-too-witty dialogue are all their fantasies of what the 20s must've been like rather than any real attempt to recreate the period. Which would be fine as far as it went - except that it's all clearly meant to be taken seriously. Or - actually, it's worse than that. It would like to be taken seriously, but the Coens are products of their generation, and they can't do anything completely without irony. So one gets the impression that the finery is covering for a certain lack of confidence. Not trusting themselves to pull off a convincing period piece, and honest enough to admit (to themselves, anyway) that the reason they want to pull off a period piece is so they can play with ridiculously expensive lamps and conservative wool suits, they do what they want and hope that those few in the audience who notice will be film-school enough to chalk it up to the Coens' consciousness of their role as fantasists. Fine - but that kind of feint keeps them out of the experts' circle.

The other thought that kept going through my head was just "Scorcese does a better job with these movies." Don't ask me to put my finger on what it is about so many Coen Brothers films that reminds me of Scorcese - but they frequently do. And that's not a good thing - because again all it does is highlight their second-place finish. If I had to say what it was, I would say it's the fascination of both parties with ethnic stereotypes. They love that stuff and can't get enough of it - and in both cases it falls short. But somehow in Scorcese's case I don't mind so much - and I think it's because the movies are still about the individual characters. No one is an excuse for anything in a Scorcese film - the "type" they fit is incidental, a personal indulgence we allow a great director. No one is anything other than an excuse in a Coen Bros.' flick. They have itches they want scratched, and their characters are the fingernails.

The trouble with this movie is that lots of things that it is are excusable in and of themselves, but the excuse falls flat next to other similarly "excusable" things. Take the dialogue. It's very witty - frequently laugh-out-loud funny. And in that sense it's all Phillip Marlowe. Everyone in this movie thinks improbably fast on their feet. Which is lots of fun to watch, of course, and having fun is what watching movies is all about. So fine, it's not realistic, but we don't go to movies to look out the window, after all, so it's excusable. What kills it is that it doesn't jive with other things - like all the faux meditation on the nature of political power and just how, exactly, the Categorical Imperative is in play at all times even if never explicitly named. Maybe I'm being too tight-assed about this, but it seems to me that you can make a movie about philosophy, or you can make a movie about wisecracks, but you can't do both at the same time. Or at least, if you want to, you have to modularize - they can't be part and parcel of the same theme. And yet in this one they are: the Dane's constant refrain about Tommy is that he's "too smart." If you want a movie about a battle of wits - fine - make that. But to pull it off we have to believe in the characters, and we can't do it while their lines are so good that we know the writers just handed them out without regard to the person saying them - merely making sure that our hero gets the last word.

But OK, I'm rambling. Let's distill it down, then. This movie is mostly concerned with covering all its bases. It wants credit for being a period piece, but it doesn't want to take any real risks, so it overdoes things and hopes to get off on "film consciousness." It wants to have an intricate plot, but it doesn't want there to be any holes. So it throws dialogue at you fast and keeps the characters whirling across the screen, keeps making references to events and people the audience hasn't been told about yet, and hopes you won't notice that the plot is actually quite simple and formulaic. For those who do notice it, well, that's OK because it's really about philosophy anywyay. But of course they don't want to get too deep in that either, so they've got that one covered as well: the philosophy is just a way for us to understand Tommy's character. But think too long about that and you'll notice that Tommy is the only actual human in the whole film, so we cover that one by making him an implausible wisecracker. Anyone get to thinking that it's a character study of Tommy, and no, really it's just a fun noir film. And that's it, folks. This is a well-calibrated pleasure-giving machine, but it isn't art. Worth seeing? Absolutely. But know that it's overrated. As with all Coen Brothers films, you should expect to be impressed, but not awed. This one's better than most of theirs, I think, because it's such a neat mental toothpick. There are endless meta-film angles to ponder on - a goldmine if you're into that thing. And hey, I am, so I'm pleased. But Ebert's right - this is three star material. Good most assuredly - but nothing like great.