Thursday, September 07, 2006

Debate Over "Path to 9/11" is a Path We've Been Down Before

ABC's "Path to 9/11" has already managed to affect the way that the American public will look at the years leading up to that fateful September morn when the WTC Towers came crashing down. Before the piece has even aired, we have witnessed the hue and cry of former Clinton Administration members, President Clinton himself and those on the left who seem to resent any negative portrayal of the last Democratic Presidency. On the one hand, they could be trying to set the record straight. On the other they could be trying to safeguard the Clinton legacy (whatever it may be at this point).

Military historian Mark Grimsley was willing to give the docudrama the benefit of the doubt until someone with whom he is ideologically opposed indicated that he really liked the movie. After that revelation, Grimsley first became suspicious, and then convinced, that Path to 9/11 was "blatant Right-Wing progaganda." Meanwhile, his fellow ideological travellers have gone to great lengths to reveal the conspiracy that lay behind the production of the movie. All the while, very few have actually seen the movie and are relying on the characterizations of those with their own agendas, on both the left and right, to predetermine how they will view the movie before they themselves actually view it.

Why make a judgement based on what amounts to hearsay from legacy-guarding Clintonites and partisan reviews from the right? As Grimsley wrote:
There's an argument to be made, I guess, that judgment ought to be postponed until the film is aired. But the swift boating of John Kerry is much on the minds of those who have followed this story...
"Fool me once...Fool me twice...." It is unsurprising that those on the left would believe the line of argument coming out of the Clinton camp. And from what I've read, the Clintonites seem to have a couple valid criticisms of the docudrama. But it is ironic that the glowing reviews emanating from conservative circles actually help to reinforce the suspicions of the ideological left, who can't help but focus on those portions of conservative reviews that dwell on examples of Clinton Administration shortcomings.

In their rush to condemn the movie, the left seems to have forgotten that much of what they have heard about the negative portrayal of the Clinton Administration has come from former Clinton Administration members who have their own legacy to vouchsafe and who may be overly sensitive in the first place (aren't we all?). But I suppose it would be too much to ask to question their motives, wouldn't it?(As Glenn Reynolds writes: "Call me crazy, but I don't regard Sandy Berger as trustworthy on the historical record here, as given his document-removal activity I think he had something to hide.")

Nonetheless, perhaps one corrective solution would be to read a few reviews by the regular, non-conservative entertainment types. One such example of a mainstream review is also quite a negative one. According to Entertainment Weekly:
The first night of The Path to 9/11 blames bin Laden's persistent freedom on the Clinton presidency, portrayed as distracted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. On the second night, that blame shifts to the Bush administration, where Condoleezza Rice reads the intelligence report saying bin Laden was ''determined to strike in U.S.''...and then ignores it. This unwieldy opus is hamstrung by the very thing ABC is so proud of: using The 9/11 Commission Report as its source and the chairman of the commission, former governor Thomas Kean, as its ''senior consultant.'' The results strain so hard to be objective and evenhanded (see, the Democrats and the Republicans both made mistakes) that they're useless as drama.
According to this review, then, Path to 9/11 doesn't succeed as a drama because it tries to be too fair. But it appears that such reviews are too late to pull people back from the brink. The assumptions have already been made and the ideological glasses will be on when Path to 9/11 is seen by the nation. Partisans will see every slight they want to see.

Needless to say, I think that Grimsley's initial predilection to reserve judgement was the proper one and he and other historians should have refrained from getting caught up by the assumptions that have led to this partisan melee. I wonder if he's a "victim" (sorry for the scare quotes) of ideological amplification, which was recently explained by Cass Sunstein:
[I]deological amplification occurs in many domains. It helps to explain "political correctness" on college campuses--and within the Bush administration. In a recent study, we find that liberals in Colorado, after talking to one another, move significantly to the left on affirmative action, global warming, and civil unions for same-sex couples. On those same three issues, conservatives, after talking to each other, move significantly to the right. (Sunstein has more thoughts on ideological amplification here).
I don't think there can be any doubt that places inhabited by Kossacks or Freepers can amplify ideological predispositions.

Additionally, as I've already alluded, the consistently similar theme that runs throughout most reviews done by conservative pundits--that the Clinton Administration is finally being correctly tagged for its ineptitude in dealing with terrorism--is evidence of a sort of rhetorical amplification, which is undergirded by the conservative antipathy of all things Clinton. If they can be accused of anything, conservative reviewers can be tagged for seeming a little too cheerful about pinning said blame on the Clinton crowd. This serves to obscure that the result of any such failures was a national tragedy.

Thus, it is probably the case that the rhetorical amplification (talking points?) of those on the right has resulted in a knee-jerk reaction by those on the left, which in turn have precipitated the now-requisite counterreaction from conservative pundits. Thus, if you decide to watch the movie with your ideological glasses on, you'll find the bias you're looking for.

And so it goes. As Ann Althouse has noted, the movie is now:
a playing field for the forces of right and left, and now if you watch the thing, instead of thinking about America and al Qaeda, you can think about Democrats and Republicans.
Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg reminds us that we've seen this song and dance before:
My basic view is, a pox on everybody. The Democratic Party embraced Michael Moore's movie at the highest levels. Daschle hugged Moore at the premiere. Carter invited him to sit with him at the convention. Etc Etc. Are they claiming that F9/11 is more accurate than the ABC miniseries? If so, I'd like to hear them say it. At the same time, when, CBS tried to come out with that Reagan biopic, conservatives howled in outrage and got CBS to drop it. Why shouldn't liberals have a go at the same thing? Of course, during the Reagan brouhaha liberals got their panties in a knot about how it was "censorship" and a horrifying example of conservative bullying when the Right succeeded. Now, it seems many of the same liberals are cheering as the former President of the United States is trying to bully ABC into dropping the miniseries. Nobody looks good in this one.
For example, take this defense of the Reagan movie over at HNN or the myriad comments about it here and change "Reagan" for "Path to 9/11" and switch the defenders with the attackers and we have the same sort of debate. (UPDATE: Actually, for just such an exercise done by a partisan conservative, go here).

And as the blame game continues and the real import of the movie is being lost amidst the partisan carping. As L. Brent Bozell writes in his review of the movie:
Now I will confess a personal bias here. Whether from our politicians or, more dramatically, from our news media, there is a most unhealthy obsession with criticism. As one network scribe once put it, "Good news is no news, bad news is great news." Yes, mistakes were made. But we cannot, and ought not, overlook the extraordinary work being performed by so many who are so devoted to our nation's security.

And "The Path to 9-11" doesn't ignore this truth. The film underscores that many, many men and women, most of them toiling in anonymity, in and out of uniform, have been working ceaselessly to protect America and are richly deserving of a nation's gratitude. Some individuals, like Richard Clarke and former FBI counter-intelligence expert John O'Neil, the newly appointed head of security at the Twin Towers who died inside the World Trade Center, are presented heroically.

One can quibble with some elements, but only a fool would ignore the message: America's intelligence apparatus was woefully unprepared for 9-11, and remains dangerously inadequate today. It is a frightening, sobering warning.

I hope that we can all take a step back and heed that warning.

4 comments:

Mark G. said...

Actually, what irked me was not that Medved liked the film but that his radio spot went out of its way to trash the Clinton administration and whitewash the Bush administration.

Another thing, which was a purely personal thing with me, is that I heard the Medved spots in heavy rotation while en route to attend a presentation at a conservative evangelical church by a spokesman for AnswersInGenesis.org, one of the foremost advocacy groups for creation science. I myself am skeptical of creation science but was willing to go and hear it presented on its own terms, and not through the filter of the media or the opponents of creation science. To be going out of my way to do that -- the drive was 42 miles each way -- and then hear on the radio -- a Christian Right station, mind you -- a specimen same old knee-jerk political / culture wars bashing, was just plain depressing.

In other words, I try to be available to arguments from people with whom I may disagree. I am decidedly not an ideologue, and it is rather tiresome to have people (who sound like ideologues themselves) portray me as one.

Another thing -- and I've made this clear in other posts -- it's suspicious on its face that a docudrama made by conservative film makers would be made available for pre-screening only to conservatives. Given that fact, and others like it, one does not have to be ideologically driven or stampeded by liberals to think that something is wrong here.

One final thing: I am heartily sick and tired of people on both sides of the political spectrum discounting the views of the other -- impugning their motives, dismissing them as biased, and so on, instead of acknowledging that people may sincerely, vigorously, and legitimately disagree with one another. The current climate is not only uncivil, it's predictable and downright boring -- and it does a grave disservice to the health of the republic.

Marc said...

"I am heartily sick and tired of people on both sides of the political spectrum discounting the views of the other -- impugning their motives, dismissing them as biased, and so on, instead of acknowledging that people may sincerely, vigorously, and legitimately disagree with one another."

On that we can certainly agree, Mark, and thanks for the further elaboration. I understand your point of view and also am aware of your willingness to expose yourself to a panoply of ideas by doing such things as attending meetings of creation scientists and hanging out with Kossacks. I also don't want to get into a semantical debate over different understandings of ideologue and ideological, so I accept that you don't consider yourself one and certainly didn't mean to impugn you in any way. (For the record, I find nothing wrong with ideology or ideological predispositions--probably because of my interest in intellectual political thought and good ol' Bernard Bailyn's work).

Regarding Medved, my discussion of ideological amplification should have also mentioned the related confirmation bias. For instance, in your transcription of the Medved blurb, you emphasized "highlighting eight years of confusion and passivity in the Clinton administration", but didn't emphasize the just as damning "As early as 1983 Hezbollah had killed 241 Americans in Beirut, and even four years before that, the embassy hostage crisis in Iran highlighted the new threat from Islamic extremism." Now, I understand that Medved didn't include "during the Carter and Reagan Administrations" when referring to this last, but it seems to me that both this blurb and his subsequent reference to the "long series of atrocities reaching back more than twenty-five years" (which you did emphasize) would make it clear to even casual listeners that the problem went back further than the Clinton Administration. (Incidentally, Medved included the terrorist attacks that occurred before the timeline covered in the movie. Couldn't it be argued--if he was really trying to lay it on the Clinton's--that he would have left that out altogether, just as the movie did?)

Nonetheless, it seemed to me that his direct reference to the Clinton administration is what lit up your radar, despite the inclusion of the (albeit more subtle) damning of Carter, Reagan and Bush I. I also noted that you said his spot went out of its way to "trash the Clinton administration" and "whitewash the Bush administration." By that I assume you mean his statement that "Terrorism was hardly a response to the war in Iraq but that war was part of our response..." His bringing up of Iraq indeed opens him up for criticism. Personally, I don't see it as an attempt to whitewash, but his genuine viewpoint. Nonetheless, as you said, we can "legitimately disagree with one another" and you took what you did from Medved's piece while I think I've shown what someone else could have taken from it. There is no wrong or right interpretation.

The big picture is that I was more interested in examining how ideological predispostions have served to spin up this whole affair and a prediliction to believe those with whom we (yes "we," including "me") find ourselves generally in agreement with most of the time. I think that many conclusions--both correct and incorrect--were reached based solely on these biased opinions (btw, I try not to dismiss biased opinions, I try to recognize them for what they are and evaluate from there). Additionally, in your case, the particular time, place and situation in which you heard the Medved spot was also key factor.

All that being said, I hope you've read my follow up piece, too. The reviews I selected from mainstream sources seem to indicate that "average" (ie; not ideologically minded) people think it was pretty damning of both the Clinton and Bush administrations. I also think I've made it clear that there was a better way to do the Path to 9/11 and that it was a missed opportunity.

Finally, as a conservative, my first reaction was to simply disregard the protests of the Clinton Administration alums. But upon further examination of the story and having just read Cass Sunstein's bit on Ideological Amplification, I turned it into an online brainstorm. I think we can agree that blogging isn't the same as writing and revising a paper and I hope you understand that I'm sincere in trying to work through whatever I happen to be blogging about, even if I take a few rhetorical wrong turns and make a few ideological jumps.

And with that, I'll thank you for again making me think.

Mark G. said...

Thanks for a very irenic response. It's refreshing to see such a thing in the blogosphere, believe me.

You're correct that Medved's timeline tracks back to 1979. But the Clinton administration in the only one mentioned by name, and that's what strikes me as significant. As for not highlighting the passage you mention, it's like I tell my students -- highlighting too much loses the point.

Like you, my initial reading of mainstream reviews suggested it was equally critical of both Clinton and Bush II. But as we discover more about the agenda of its creators (see the excellent series on Orcinus), I found the implied notion that the film was impartial to be untenable. It also purports to be closely based on the report of 9/11 commission report, yet has been shown to depart from that report in ways that tend to be harsh on the Clinton administration while giving the Bush II administration a pass.

The last point I'd like to make is that a partisan film about 9/11, especially on network TV and especially on the 9/11 anniversary, is simply inappropriate. Some have pointed to GOP objections to a mini-series about the Ronald and Nancy Reagan a few years back, suggesting that the Democratic objections to "Path" are no different. I don't agree at all. 9/11 is a national tragedy, the worst in at least a generation. I think it's almost a sacred day. An apt analogy to the Reagan mini-series would be to one that looked inside the Bill and Hillary Clinton marriage in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- which, come to think of it, would make compelling drama. I wouldn't mind if someone did such a mini-series.

Marc said...

Mark,
I'll continue to follow the story and have been reading the Orcinus stuff. I also agree that the fact that the subject matter is 9/11 makes it tough to try to relate to other movies,etc. And that actually calls to mind one of my pet peeves, which we all fall for...the "hypocrisy" argument. Thanks again for the comments and for the dialogue.
Marc