No Love For No Country
March 29, 2008, 1:34 pm
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Oscar-winner for Best Picture No Country For Old Men is probably the worst, least satisfying Coen Bros. movie that I have seen. (I believe I’ve seen all of the full-length features they’ve directed; this includes The Man Who Wasn’t There, which was pretty interesting at times.) The story seems determined to withold any sort of payoff or satisfaction from the viewer. The main character (the sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones) goes through the motions of an interesting character arc, but since he does not interact very much with the actual story our emotional involvement is minimal. The result is bleak, misanthrophic, and anticlimactic. The only impression we’re really left with is that this is “that movie where the guy shoots people with a cattle gun”, which is how I suspect it will be remembered two decades from now (if at all).

Contrasting this with The Big Lebowski, which will still be quoted and watched over and over decades from now, and it’s more than a little bizarre that the latter was considered a failure while No Country is an Oscar Winner.

The story on which the film is based appears to have an interesting theme: as far as I can tell, it is a lament for the loss of honor in the world. It is not clear that the Coen Bros. understood this, however, given how fascinated they seem to have become by playing up and mythologizing the role of the killer character. (Which worked; after all, it got Javier Bardem the Oscar too.) This made for an oddly schizophrenic movie, something mostly indistinguishable from an unstoppable-killer flick with the (much more interesting) sheriff’s personal struggles lurking underneath, trying to get out. This could have been forgivable if the surface storyline of Chigurh chasing Polk had been more interesting or come to any sort of satisfying payoff, but the Coens’ ongoing attraction to nihilistic themes seems to have precluded them from going this route. Instead the Josh Brolin character is dispensed with offscreen (I am still not quite sure who killed him to be honest, and don’t much care) and the money-bag Macguffin that was supposed to be the plot thread holding our interest is tossed aside as a distant memory.

Some fans of the film have praised the dialogue, but in practice the cleverness and wit is few and far between, and indeed the fact that I had already seen all the memorable quotes on the internet basically constitutes its own proof that the movie does not have very many others. We are left with a story about nihilism for nihilism’s sake, and the disappointment caused by the fact that the backbone of the story – honor – is still visible underneath, but in the end, remains undeveloped.

What is noteworthy is that three years ago, Tommy Lee Jones starred (and directed) as a border lawman in another – much better – postmodern Western with similar themes of honor, manhood, and father-son relationships: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. That film, too, contained the dark humor, violence, bleak landscapes against which to set a semi-mythological tale. But it also had a soul, giving us an emotional investment in the characters, and when comparing the final payoffs between the anticlimactic No Country and the surprisingly touching Three Burials, there’s just no comparison. Of course, again, the latter was a failure while the former is an Oscar Winner.

But if I were going to rewatch one of them, I’d love to settle in with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada anytime. In fact I may just re-order it on Netflix. By contrast, I shall probably never be watching No Country For Old Men again, if I can help it. Life’s too short.

Planning for 2012
March 15, 2008, 2:30 pm
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Many people are wondering why Hillary Clinton is staying in a primary race that she seems to have no realistic chance of winning. Here is a possible rationale: she wants Obama to lose in November, and the best chance she has of helping to bring an Obama loss about is to drain his campaign of funds now, as much as possible.

Why does she want Obama to lose in November? Because if he wins, she will definitely never be President. Obama will be the incumbent in 2012 and will therefore automatically be the (D) nominee again, leaving 2016 as the next possible non-Obama (D) President. But that is eight whole years from now, and in 2016, Hillary Clinton will be 69 years old. It is extremely doubtful that by that point, after she has rotted for 16 years in the Senate, the (D)s would turn to a 69-year-old woman whose main claim to fame is a vague 1990s nostalgia.

So she cannot afford to wait that long. She must derail Obama now, and ensure an (R) President wins in 2008. This at least leaves the possibility of 2012 open. Hillary Clinton is simply thinking ahead. If this damages her party, so be it; that’s how important it is to her that she become President.

Group rights
March 13, 2008, 1:54 am
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I usually agree with Norman Geras but I think he goes a little wrong here on “rights” and individuals vs. groups.

Groups may also have rights, otherwise we should not be able to speak meaningfully of nations having the right to self-determination.

Norman is declaring that we must acknowledge that groups have rights because if we didn’t, “nations” would have no right of self-determination. But this begs the question. Do “nations” have a “right” to self-determination? Suppose I don’t think they do. (In fact, I don’t.) Then I am not compelled to acknowledge that groups have rights. Norman assumes that nations have a right to self-determination but advances no argument for this.

It seems to me that people want there to be a “right of self-determination” that adheres to nations; they want it an awful lot. It sounds nice. But wanting doesn’t make it so. If you take rights seriously, a supposed “right of self-determination” that supposedly adheres to some blob of people called a “nation” (whatever that is?) is incoherent and breaks down upon inspection. Indeed, let us see where Norman’s assumption of such a right leads him:

The right of nations to self-determination is a case in point. The right of the Palestinians to a state of their own and the right of the Jews to a state of their own includes an entitlement to some territory; but this is, irreducibly, a group right. Individual Israelis and Palestinians don’t each have a right to a ‘bit of a state’ that then gets aggregated with all the other rights to other ‘bits of a state’ into one overall right to a whole state (and territory).

This incoherent explanation is a perfect illustration of why the wished-for “right to self-determination” makes no sense. Norman is perfectly correct that no individual Israelis, Palestinians, nor Americans nor French nor anyone else, has such a thing as a “right to a bit of a state”. Whence then comes a “right to self-determination” for a “nation”, if we can’t sum up the rights of the individuals making up that nation?

Norman’s solution is that it is a “group right” that is simply “irreducible”. Well, that’s easy to say, but what does it mean?

To which groups belong this irreducible “right”? If “the Palestinians” have the “right” to “self-determination”, do “the Kurds”? What about “the Basques”? What about “the Cajuns”? What about “the Northern Californians”? In each case, why or why not? One suspects Norman would have to answer on a case-by-case basis, and that his answers would not be consistent. Which is precisely what I’m saying: the notion of “group rights” is incoherent.

Rights (if they exist) belong to individuals, not groups.

UPDATE 3/14: Much to my surprise (and delight), Geras has responded in a characteristically well-stated manner. His most apt observation is that in my post where I complain about an unsupported assertion (or easy assumption, as Norman clarifies) of a right to national self-determination, I too have made my assertion baldly (that rights belong to individuals, not groups). Partially this is because I was cut off by real-life & had to finish the post – I intended to write more. But in fact, I’m not sure I could add much to it: I’m not equipped to argue that “rights” exist at all from first principles (as I’m not even sure that they do). However, like Geras I make the convenient assumption that my 0.1 readers would agree that individuals, if nobody else, have rights, and so there you are.

The main purpose of my post was to deny the existence of “group rights” that include a right to self-determination. My argument for this was and is that it (even if “rights” exist and belong to individuals), an “irreducible” “group right” such as self-determination is incoherent and cannot be consistently defined (let alone applied!) in an understandable way. Norman gives a counterexample of a group right that certainly exists (the right of a university to hold property). But this is not a counterexample at all, it is simply a summed individual right. If the group known as a “university” has the right to hold and dispose of property, it is usually as a corporation or similar legal entity. But corporations do not have any “rights” over and above the sum of the rights of their shareholders. If a corporation can hold property, enter into contracts, etc., this is precisely because the members of that corporation – individuals – have the right to do those things. The shareholders could vote to or otherwise influence the board to dispose of the property one way or another – in other words, exercise their property rights in a precisely analogous way to how they exercise property rights as individuals. So the right of a university to hold property is analyzable into the constituent rights of individuals who make up that corporation to do so, if “members” means shareholders (admittedly, I am not sure what Geras means by a “member” of a university). In any event, there is no significant ‘extra’/emergent group right that universiities or corporations or other such legally-acknowledged groups have that is not also, at the same time, a right of the individuals who constitute it. This at least makes it possible to argue for this sort of group right as following directly from individuals’ rights (assuming the latter exist).

But the problem with this example is that it is completely unlike a situation where a bloc of people in a geographic area form a nation-state (and others are supposedly compelled to accede) because they, being a ‘nation’ or a ‘people’, have the supposed right of self-determination. Doing this necessarily involves (1) seizure and forcible defense of territory, and (2) one way or another installing into power a subgroup of the supposed ‘nation’ of people (“the goverment”) to monopolize force over the territory and the majority of people in it.

Now, individuals banded together may in some circumstances perhaps be understood to have the right to do something like #1 as part of their right to self-defense and property – it would depend on the situation. But there is no conceivable argument that I can see for the existence of a “right” for any of the individuals involved to engage in #2.

Of course, Geras would not argue with this, because the right of self-determination is “irreducible” but still a right. However, I think the fact that it is irreducible is a strong argument against it being a right at all. At least, if it is a right, arguing for this would require something over and above the usual arguments advanced for individual rights, with which (again) I assume most of my 0.1 readers would agree. I have seen no good argument for it however, and as I observed, Geras advanced none. As he says, out of convenience he made the (correct) assumption that most of his readers would find the right of self-determination unobjectionable. The point of my post was that most people are wrong and that the “right of self-determination” ought to be examined more carefully, not assumed to exist out of convenience or because it is desired.


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