Posts Tagged ‘podcasts’

Delete Your Account, Episode 49.5: The Culture Industry

May 26, 2017

I’m quite pleased to say I was the guest on this week’s subscriber-only edition of the leftist podcast Delete Your Account! Basically, host Kumars Salehi and I are both unhappy with how various factions of the Left talk about art these days, so we tried to come up with a left-wing discussion of politics and pop culture that won’t make you want to kill yourself. We cover Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, The Walking Dead, prestige TV, horror, the Four Worst Types of TV Critics, and more. It’s for Patreon subscriber’s only, so smash that motherfuckin subscribe button and give it a listen!

Chapo Trap House/Laid Waste

December 12, 2016

Those nice boys of online at the Chapo Trap House podcast had some very kind words for Julia Gfrörer’s new graphic novel from Fantagraphics, Laid Waste, on this week’s episode. Oh yeah, they also interviewed some guy named Adam Curtis, I think he makes movies? Anyway please listen, and visit Julia’s webstore if you’d like to know more.

“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode 11: “Present for Duty”

April 5, 2016

The DUSTWUN Bowe triggered cost a ton of resources and caused a great deal of suffering (not least for Bowe himself), and for that he should be punished. Certainly the portrait that emerged of him as a samurai wannabe is not a particularly endearing one, and this dopey set of ideas had real-world consequences for thousands of people. He may deserve punishment, Koenig says, though she obviously holds out the possibility that his time with the Taliban was punishment enough. But does he deserve blame?

To pin the tail of guilt on Bergdahl leaves an awful lot of jackasses roaming around with their hindquarters un-pinned, camouflaged in the undergrowth of plausible deniability and endless variables. Koenig cites several missions in which multiple soldiers died, in which their deaths might have been avoided had their units been given their requested access to surveillance drones and other supplies that had been diverted to the Bergdahl search. But is that Bowe’s fault, or the fault of the Army for not having enough equipment? Of the commanding officers (like gravel-voiced Ken Wolfe, who blames himself for one such death and emerges as a voice of moderation regarding Bergdahl’s culpability) who ordered the missions to go forward anyway? What about Defense Secretary Robert Gates, or Gen. Stanley McChrystal, or President Obama? What about the Taliban themselves, as one bereaved parent points out? And finally, to bring it back home, what about the armed forces, who let a man unfit for duty enlist despite his previous, proven inability to serve? Meanwhile, other soldiers who fled their bases—including one who did so with a ceremonial sword and battle ax in an attempt to reach Eastern Europe on foot, in an echo of Bergdahl’s he-man Last Warrior routine—escaped punishment entirely, because they were intercepted by allies rather than enemies. Is it fair to take Bergdahl’s failure out on him? To single out Bergdahl for his link in the chain is to let an awful lot involved parties off the hook.

I reviewed the season finale (!) of Serial Season Two for the New York Observer. I learned a lot about Bowe Bergdahl and the cultural context around him, but there’s no compelling reason why it had to be taught in this format.

“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Ten: “Thorny Politics”

March 18, 2016

Which brings us back to both the nonexistent investigation into deaths incurred during the search and rescue attempt and Trump’s hang-‘em-high routine. Who’s to blame for the Bergdahl debacle? The Obama Administration certainly broke the law by not informing Congress of its intentions, though as Koenig points out this is hardly unprecedented where the invocation of executive authority is concerned. And pretending there’s no evidence anyone died because of Bergdahl’s actions when the truth is no one ever bothered to try to collect any is impossible to excuse. Civilian oversight of the military is vital to a democracy, even when those civilians are Republican congresscreeps. At the same time, the Administration lied to Congress because Congress, and the entire Republican governmental, political, and media apparatus, has made it a matter of course to deny Obama anything he wants, ever, as well as maintain an hysterical level of fear-mongering about the Gitmo detainees (whose detainment, by the way, is also completely illegal, though you don’t hear HASC complaining there) and terrorism generally. Distrust met with distrust, intransigence with mendacity, illegality with illegality, until traditional political action became impossible. The result: an escalating pattern of hatred of the political enemy and a precipitous loss of faith in the existing institutions to do anything about it. Thus, a market is created: Gee, if only someone whose hatred of the enemy and contempt for the institutions could, somehow, make America great again.

How the battle over Bowe Bergdahl prefigured the rise of Trump: this week in my review of Serial.

“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Nine: “Trade Secrets”

March 5, 2016

Serial Season Two is a lot like the Afghanistan peace process, actually. Good intentions? Check. Grand plans? Check. The slow collapse of both due to institutional unsuitability to the task at hand? Check. There’s a great story to be told about the capture and release of Bowe Bergdahl. There’s a great story to be told about the decade-plus-long attempt to get us out of the mess we made in the country where he was captured. There’s just not a great story to be had by wedging the latter into the former on a podcast.

I reviewed this week’s rambling episode of Serial for the New York Observer.

“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight: “Hindsight, Part 2”

February 21, 2016

This time, we’re not just counting on fellow soldiers and childhood friends to explain just how ill-suited Bowe and his delusions of heroic grandeur were to army life—we’ve got the man himself. In an interview with screenwriter Mark Boal, Bergdahl describes himself as “lost in the fantasy” of being a soldier—not the modern-day kind, the only variety actually on offer, but a mythologized hybrid of soldiers from World War II, the 1800s, the era of the samurai, and the completely fictional world of kung-fu flicks. Bergdahl’s conception of the soldier’s life was entirely based around outmoded, if not outright invented, ideas of valor and honor. Bowe realizes his viewpoint was not realistic, but sticks with it nonetheless, insisting that the conditions he found unacceptable “shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone.” And since he believes in the bushido code, he doesn’t take any of the more readily traveled roads available to him, from speaking with an embedded reporter (not soldierly enough) to contacting any one of the dozens of officers at the forward operating base he was at days before he wandered off (not heroic enough). Reality had disappointed him, and the ideas he’d generate to reclaim his fantasy would be invariably grandiose—and doomed to failure.

What better writer to give voice to this childlike view than the philosopher queen of take-my-ball-and-go-home right-wing extremism, Ayn Rand? Bergdahl’s friends groan to Koenig as they recall a group email he sent out just prior to his departure, titled “Who Is John Galt?” and cribbing extensively from the Objectivist ur-text Atlas Shrugged, demanding that institutions shape themselves around men of worth, not the other way around. A copy of the novel winds up arriving at his old friend Kim’s house, along with his valuables, days after his disappearance. It’s a shame, in a way, that Bergdahl didn’t go into politics, where Objectivism is often a ticket to the august ranks of the United States Senate and a subsequent failed mid-tier presidential primary campaign. Instead, he went into the Army and “went Galt” when the system failed him, demanding it all grind to a halt in his service. The results were entirely predictable.

I reviewed the second installment in last week’s Serial doubleheader for the New York Observer.

“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Seven: “Hindsight, Part 1”

February 21, 2016

Over the episode’s relatively short running time of 38 minutes, Koenig presents a litany of first-hand testimony to Bergdahl’s unique psychology. She begins with the many, many soldiers who highly doubt his retrospective rationale for running away from his post, arguing he had years to cook up this flattering story. Some proffer an alternate theory: According to them, Bergdahl sometimes wondered aloud about faking his death, going AWOL, running off to Pakistan, making his way to India, joining the Russian mafia, working his way to the top as a mercenary and hitman, killing the boss, and taking over. Hey, he’s nothing if not ambitious! In the end the story is even less credible and logistically possible than Bergdahl’s version, but it speaks to his overwhelming desire to be seen as a great warrior, a self-made ubermensch.

If this version of Bergdahl is a bit on the Bane side, interviews with earlier acquaintances paint him as more of a Batman type. Growing up isolated and homeschooled on a remote farm, Bergdahl eventually fell in with a slightly artsy crowd clustered around on a performing arts center and teahouse in a nearby town. There he learned how to fence, became famous among his circle for testing his own mettle (seeing how long he could go without speaking, punching trees and rocks to strengthen his hands), and began amassing makeshift weapons to protect his little clique in the event of…god knows what. His friends describe him as a young man obsessed with the concept of virtue and determined to arrive at his own definition rather than follow someone else’s. What he came up with—basically, you can only be a good person if you’re doing everything in your power to solve any problem in the world that you can observe—could be considered crippling in its impossibility to implement…if your goal really was to ameliorate every problem you encounter. If your goal is to be seen as the kind of man who does that, by both yourself and others, then the course is a bit clearer. For Bergdahl, who friends say wanted to be seen as “a silent protector” of the innocent, it was plain as day.

I reviewed the first of last week’s two, count ‘em two, episodes of Serial for the New York Observer.

Jonesing for Jessica Episode 13: AKA Smile

February 16, 2016

Longtime friend of the blog Elana Levin and her cohost Brett Schenker invited me on their Graphic Policy Radio podcast to discuss the season finale of Jessica Jones, as well as the whole season itself. It was contentious and fun. (Spoiler Alert: I’m Officer Simpson’s Bad Fan.) Give it a listen!

“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Five O’Clock Shadow”

February 8, 2016

The contradictions inherent in Bergdahl’s personality emerge clear as day. It’s not that he’s opposed to danger per se; his DUSTWUN misadventure and his two subsequent attempts to escape from the Taliban prove that. Moreover, Koenig reports his friends and fellow soldiers recalling him frequently agitating for more engagement with the enemy, more “killing bad guys.” Not that he’s there to “rape, burn, pillage, and kill,” mind you, to quote the gallows humor he reportedly took very poorly when a higher-up joked that this was not their mission in a briefing before deployment. Heaven forbid anyone believe Bowe Bergdahl is anything less than a real American hero! He was equally keen on COIN, the well-intentioned but impracticable boondoggle of a military doctrine whereby soldiers slowly gain the trust of the locals and cut off insurgents’ support at the roots, effectively impossible to do in a series of brief months-long rotations. Sgt. Bergdahl was there to help, goddammit, to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. It wasn’t danger he feared, it was danger that didn’t help him prove he’s a supersoldier, a man of honor and valor, a true knight. (This was the thinking behind his pointless acts of Arthurian self-abnegation, like sleeping directly on his bedprings instead of a mattress and snuggling a tomahawk to sleep every night.) Getting yelled at bothered him because he expected a hero’s welcome; not receiving it was tantamount to a threat against his personal safety. And if he couldn’t be a hero playing by the rules, then by god he was going to break them. Thus was the ludicrous AWOL mission that began the season conceived.

I wrote about Bowe Bergdahl deciding his life was in danger because he got chewed out over a dress code violation, and what that means about him and the show covering him, in my review of last week’s Serial for the New York Observer.

“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “The Captors”

January 7, 2016

With a shorter runtime, a tighter focus, a different remit, Serial Season Two could be a harrowing account of life in captivity. Or it could be an unsparing look at the damage America’s torture of prisoners has done to our moral standing and to the individual lives of its victims, theirs and ours alike. Or it could be an examination of military justice, sentencing, and whether Bergdahl’s prospective punishment fits the crime. Or it could be a look at the lives of Taliban fighters, Haqqani operatives, and the civilians upon whom they rely for support, seen through the window of this one event. Or it could expose the truth, or lack thereof, behind the allegations Bergdahl leveled at his commanders, the allegations that prompted his flight and led to his capture, the allegations the show still hasn’t spent so much as a word detailing. It could be any one of those things. Instead, it’s…this. It’s a weekly slog through an overstuffed tale that simply can’t justify the telling, not in this way. As James Whiting, one of of the Evil Newspaper Editors in The Wire Season Five, put it, “If you leave everything in, soon you’ve got nothing.” In this case it’s actually true.

I reviewed today’s episode of Serial, a textbook case of form impeding function, for the New York Observer.

“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Three: “Escaping”

December 27, 2015

Koenig notes that this second escape attempt puts paid to the notion that Bergdahl’s a Taliban sympathizer. He’d already been badly beaten as punishment for his first escape; why risk going through that again if he thought these people had some good points? Indeed, the severity of his treatment also calls into question the Army’s decision to prosecute Bergdahl now. If all he’s really guilty of is being a big enough moron to think he could Jason Bourne his way from one base to another in order to call attention to a commanding officer he hated (for reasons still unstated), hasn’t he suffered enough?

But the escape attempts could also be seen as part and parcel of the instinct that drove Bergdahl to run in the first place. He’d already constructed a heroic narrative for himself in which he would address a problem of great moral risk (the Army’s horrible commanders) by taking a great physical risk (going AWOL and making his way through enemy territory). How could a man like that not take his chances trying to escape? Succeed or fail, it would feed into that same legend-in-his-own-mind attitude.

I reviewed the third episode of Serial for the New York Observer.

“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Two: “The Golden Chicken”

December 21, 2015

By the time Serial Season Two debuted its second episode this morning, events on the ground had already overtaken it. The Army announced on Monday that Bowe Bergdahl will be court-martialed for desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy,” a serious charge that could earn him a life sentence. Sarah Koenig spent the opening minutes of the podcast detailing this turn of events—an outcome that both the Army as an institution and hawks like Sen. John McCain have backed for some time, but which, she says, flies in the face of the opinions of officials who’ve gotten to know Bergdahl personally. For the purposes of Serial, though, the decision is largely immaterial, since it will likely be weeks before we reach this point in the narrative Koenig and company have constructed.

That disconnect is revealing. When presented a choice between focusing on the facts at hand and wandering back into its rambling slow-reveal structure, Serial chooses the latter every time. No wonder the show settled on Bergdahl for its subject this season: When it comes to wild schemes that leave you lost in the wilderness, no closer to the truth you set out to expose, they’ve got something in common.

I reviewed last week’s Serial for the New York Observer.

“Serial” thoughts, Season Two, Episode One: “DUSTWUN”

December 14, 2015

“War is too important to be left to the podcasters.”—Gen. Jack D. Ripper,Dr. Strangelove (paraphrased)

NPR journalist Sarah Koenig’s unlikely cultural phenomenon has its problems, but laziness in the advancement of its narrative is not one of them. How else could you characterize a show that spells out all of its major problems in a single sentence early in its Season Two premiere? Describing her production partner, Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal, and his discursive 25-hour taped conversation with infamous POW/deserter/whistleblower/traitor/fill-in-the-blank Bowe Bergdahl, Koenig says, “Mark isn’t so much after the facts of what happened, though he wants those too, but more, he’s after the why of what happened—trying to get inside Bowe’s head, to understand how Bowe sees the world.” The reliance on an entertainer of dubious reputation to acquire reportorial truth; the elevation of unknowables like intent over tangible, verifiable, old-fashioned who what when and where; the conviction that a self-described Jason Bourne wannabe has valuable, if not unimpeachable, insight into both his actions and the environment that produced them—the immensely popular podcast’s trifecta of fatal flaws are all right there. The message is as unmistakable as it is unintentional: Question the clarity of Serial’s storytelling at your peril, people.

I’m covering the Serial podcast for the New York Observer this season! Here’s my review of the premiere.