Apr/May 2003  •   Salon

American Schizophrenia: The Movie

by Tom Dooley

And the Oscar goes to...

I have a few thoughts.

The Oscar for best picture this year should not have been awarded to Chicago. Rather it should've gone to the good ol' US of A. As executive producer, George W. Bush and his company have put together the kind of star-studded, schizophrenic, subtle-as-a-Tomahawk-missile vehicle Oscar loves. If only he had Harvey Weinstein in charge of promotions, there might have been more global support.

Scratch that. Half the the target audience hears the name "Weinstein," and it's Jihad time. Besides that, Harvey's overbearing, corpulent, win-at-all-costs attitude is just what the other half of the target audience keeps saying is the problem with America.

This is how weird the Oscars were. The best director nod went to Roman Polanski, a man wanted for having sex with a 13-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson's house back in 1977. He has, of course, been living in France since then (we would expect nothing less from our trans-Atlantic sister republic than to harbor our pederasts so they might flourish artistically). Polanski's achingly and awfully beautiful movie about the horrors of war in general and the Jewish holocaust in particular provided him the chance to thwart Weinstein's campaign to bestow the best director honor on Martin Scorcese, whose film Gangs of New York shows how the city later terrorized by Bin Ladin's crew was built upon the basest kind of racism, criminality, and nationalism.

If I were a radical, Jew-hating fundamentalist Muslim cleric, what would I be supposed to make of all this? I really don't know, because as a moderate, mostly agnostic, middle-class American, I can't make heads or tails of the country in which I live. I love the US and the ideals for which it stands. At the same time, I hate the rampant ignorance, hubris, and greed that gives us our national identity within the global community. But even at the same time as all that, I think detractors of America (myself sometimes included) fail to appreciate the good in the country, and to keep the bad in perspective.

Meanwhile, Will Smith (aka Muhammed Ali) and others refused to show at the Oscars this year out of deference to the war in Iraq. On the one hand, I can respect that. There's something really sick about people parading around in designer outfits while at the same time a different network in Iraq is proudly showing dead American soldiers. Something tells me, though, if Will were up for best actor this year, he might have had a different perspective. And I think people who make movies perform as legitimate a job as people who work in insurance, transportation, or any other industry, so it seems they should be able to recognize and celebrate their accomplishments, too. I highly doubt the Teamsters or the NAACP would cancel a national convention or an award show for the sake of a war. Besides, like it or not, the movie industry and with it the Oscars are an integral part of American culture. It's never clear if our movies are driven by, or the cause of, our cultural norms, but they're certainly a reflection of same, and in times like these our cultural norms are really what is up for debate.

I just noticed something. The word "award" has "a war" right in it. Weird.

Ultimately, the whole show is so confusing (and I'm not even sure if I'm talking about the Oscars, the war in Iraq, or what), Americans have got to be wishing for some kind of beacon (not a light at the end of the tunnel so much as a lighthouse variety) to show us where we should stand. The fundamental problem, at least for me, is we just don't trust the government. We've been lied to about so many things—not just the obvious like Watergate, Monica Lewinsky, and the Iran-Contra affair, but those serve as three quick examples. We've been disillusioned over and over again. We know that US troops executed pregnant women during the Navajo Long Walk because they couldn't keep walking fast enough. We know our government put men like Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein into positions of power and allowed them to commit human rights atrocities with US-made weapons. We know our agents assassinated democratically elected leaders in other countries. We know an endless list of things for which we can feel justly ashamed, and we suspect a lot more. So when George W. Bush, a man whom many of us really don't trust to begin with, tells us we're the good guys, fighting the good fight, we are in a quandary. I know I am. Because I want to believe we are the good guys, and in fact I do believe it. But I need to see a lot of proof. A lot of cold, hard evidence. Constant reassurance.

I want to see stockpiles of banned weapons proving Saddam was doing all along what we've accused him of doing. I want it to be clear to the world that he really is forcing his people to fight for fear of their lives and the lives of their families. That he did in fact bomb his own people and blame it on us. I want to know, without a shadow of a doubt, all the lives and money we're spending to win this war is justified.

Because in movie terms, I've had all the moral ambiguity I need. More than enough to make for a good script.

The fact that Saddam has paid over $35 million to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers provides a starting point. If it's true. But it doesn't help if one believes the Palestinians are the ones who are fighting "the good fight." Is it possible to give them the benefit of the doubt any longer, though, when they could have made a deal with the Israelis on numerous occasions and refused every time? The Palestinian leadership doesn't appear to want peace with Israeli. They want to destroy Israeli, and because they lack the ability to do so, they have resorted to indefensible acts of terrorism. Or so it seems.

Kind of like how Iraq's Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said the recent suicide car bomb attack was "part of a coordinated effort to thwart invaders who can't be defeated by conventional warfare."

The fact that two crowded markets have been bombed in Baghdad over the past week seems mighty suspicious. Even if my worst fears are true, and George W. Bush really is the anti-Christ, I find it very hard to believe that the US military would a) want to bomb innocent civilians when it is trying so hard to look good in the eyes of the international community, or b) make such a blatant mistake twice. We have the technology to put a missile within 50 feet of any spot in Baghdad, but we just happen to drop bombs nowhere near a military target, just at the right time of day, so as to kill the maximum number of innocent Iraqi civilians who just happen to be poor Shiite Muslims?! I guess it's possible, but what seems more plausible, even to my cynical point of view, is that Saddam bombed those places himself to generate more anti-American sentiment. It would be much easier to dismiss such a disgusting idea if Iraqi troops weren't using the white flag of surrender to ambush US soldiers, or if Saddam's henchmen didn't string up a woman between two poles and publicly torture her to death for waving at American soldiers.

It may turn out that in the case of this war, the means are going to justify the end. The means by which the US is prosecuting the war, even if the war itself is unjust in the eyes of the world, when compared to the means by which Saddam's regime is trying to preserve itself, are, at least in my eyes, justification enough.

And so, if by making a moral judgement—that suicide bombers and torture and faked surrenders and killing your own civilians and encouraging terrorism are bad—if that makes me just another conceited American, then so be it. I don't like the many atrocities and crimes the US has perpetrated on itself and the rest of the world. However, I think people who cast stones at our government should examine their own histories first, and second, they should set history aside for just a moment and examine their current ends and means. Yes, the US had institutionalized slavery for over two centuries, fought one of the bloodiest civil wars in history, committed genocide against its indigenous people, and used atomic bombs to destroy two Japanese cities full of innocent civilians, among other things. Across the Atlantic, our friends the British colonized over half the planet, and as part of their imperial reign sprayed crowds of Iraqis with phosphorus to put down rebellions in the early 1900's. France had Napoleon and the guillotine, Russia had Stalin and Afghanistan, Germany had...

I could talk about apartheid in South Africa, machete massacres in Rwanda, forced starvation in Ethiopia, genocide and rape camps in Serbia, fascism in Italy, China's Tiananmen Square, and plenty of other unpleasantries. The point is not that the US looks good by comparison. The point is that few countries have the moral authority to cast stones based on history.

The question then becomes who has the moral authority to cast stones based on the here and now. I've heard convincing arguments the US would've been better off staying out of Iraq. I've heard convincing arguments the Bush administration is prosecuting this war for ulterior motives. I have not heard any convincing arguments that the way our armed forces are fighting this war is anything but above reproach. If we can keep it like that, I think it'll go a long ways toward winning over the academy voters in the end. And, like a proto-typical American blockbuster, there will be no question as to whom the villain is. [Ed: This essay predated a number of subsequent events and revelations, including—among other atrocities and war crimes—the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib.]


Read more of my thoughts on the Oscars. Think of it as a hidden track on a cd.