A fitting post for Memorial Day: a reminder of how George W. Bush and his administration quite deliberately lied us into a war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and whose repercussions, including ISIS, plague the world still. Paul Waldman writes at The Week:
None of the conservatives running for president want to be associated with the last Republican president — not even his brother (for whom stepping away is rather complicated). After all, George W. Bush left office with an approval rating hovering in the low 30s, and his grandest project was the gigantic catastrophe of the Iraq War, which we’re still dealing with and still debating. If you’re a Republican right now you’re no doubt wishing we could talk about something else, but failing that, you’d like the issue framed in a particular way: The war was an honest mistake, nobody lied to the public, and anything bad that’s happening now is Barack Obama’s fault.
For the moment I want to focus on the part about the lies. I’ve found over the years that conservatives who supported the war get particularly angry at the assertion that Bush lied us into war. No, they’ll insist, it wasn’t his fault: There was mistaken intelligence, he took that intelligence in good faith, and presented what he believed to be true at the time. It’s the George Costanza defense: It’s not a lie if you believe it.
Here’s the problem, though. It might be possible, with some incredibly narrow definition of the word “lie,” to say that Bush told only a few outright lies on Iraq. Most of what he said in order to sell the public on the war could be said to have some basis in something somebody thought or something somebody alleged (Bush was slightly more careful than Dick Cheney, who lied without hesitation or remorse). But if we reduce the question of Bush’s guilt and responsibility to how many lies we can count, we miss the bigger picture.
What the Bush administration launched in 2002 and 2003 may have been the most comprehensive, sophisticated, and misleading campaign of government propaganda in American history. Spend too much time in the weeds, and you risk missing the hysterical tenor of the whole campaign.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of weeds. In 2008, the Center for Public Integrity completed a project in which they went over the public statements by eight top Bush administration officials on the topic of Iraq, and found that no fewer than 935 were false, including 260 statements by President Bush himself. But the theory on which the White House operated was that whether or not you could fool all of the people some of the time, you could certainly scare them out of their wits. That’s what was truly diabolical about their campaign.
And it was a campaign. In the summer of 2002, the administration established something called the White House Iraq Group, through which Karl Rove and other communication strategists like Karen Hughes and Mary Matalin coordinated with policy officials to sell the public on the threat from Iraq in order to justify war. “The script had been finalized with great care over the summer,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan later wrote, for a “campaign to convince Americans that war with Iraq was inevitable and necessary.”
In that campaign, intelligence wasn’t something to be understood and assessed by the administration in making their decisions, it was a propaganda tool to lead the public to the conclusion that the administration wanted. Again and again we saw a similar pattern: An allegation would bubble up from somewhere, some in the intelligence community would say that it could be true but others would say it was either speculation or outright baloney, but before you knew it the president or someone else was presenting it to the public as settled fact.
And each and every time the message was the same: If we didn’t wage war, Iraq was going to attack the United States homeland with its enormous arsenal of ghastly weapons, and who knows how many Americans would perish. When you actually spell it out like that it sounds almost comical, but that was the Bush administration’s assertion, repeated hundreds upon hundreds of time to a public still skittish in the wake of September 11. (Remember, the campaign for the war began less than a year after the September 11 attacks.)
Sometimes this message was imparted with specific false claims, sometimes with dark insinuation, and sometimes with speculation about the horrors to come (“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” said Bush and others when asked about the thinness of much of their evidence). Yet the conclusion was always the same: The only alternative to invading Iraq was waiting around to be killed. I could pick out any of a thousand quotes, but here’s just one, from a radio address Bush gave on September 28, 2002: . . .
And they all got away with it: none of those who quite deliberately lied the US into a war has faced any accountability whatsoever. Shoot and kill one unarmed person, and you’re a murderer and appropriately tried and punished ((unless you’re in law enforcement). But start a war in which hundreds of thousands die and more than a trillion dollars is wasted, and you get off with not so much as a slap on the wrist.
A college friend who has lived in the Netherlands for decades passes along this report by Mihal Greener in the Huffington Post:
The Dutch are a contented lot, but it’s not tulip fields and clogs that are keeping them happy.
Over in the Netherlands they’ve worked out the ways to make life for themselves just that little bit better.
1. Comfort Food
There must be a connection with the endless months of rain and grey skies, but the Dutch know how to keep warm by hitting the mark in the comfort food stakes. Think thick-cut hot chips served with lashings of mayonnaise (the combination really does work!), bitterballen, small balls of meat thrown into the deep flyer, frikandel, another sort of deep fried meat, croquettes, deep fried meat, fish or potatoes, and you’re getting the idea. The Dutch proficiency in keeping their stomachs satisfied extends beyond the deep fryer to the pannenkoekenhuis (pancake house), where large flat pancakes are served savoury or sweet. Start with mushrooms and ham covered in melted cheese and finish off with another sprawling pancake for dessert, served with your choice of baked apple, chocolate sprinkles, cream or jam. Just the food to help you get through an eight month-long winter.
Ask any foreigner leaving the country what they will miss most about living in the Netherlands and odds are they will say cycling. And they are absolutely right. There’s nothing not to like about cycling on the flat, clearly designated cycle paths, except the rain/hail/snow. As motorists get stuck in traffic jams and stress levels spill over into road rage, cyclists are enjoying the breeze in their helmet-free hair, being out in nature and knowing that at the end of their leisurely ride they can hop off and leave their bike without trawling for a parking spot. Even smack bang in the centre of town you can park your bike outside a department store, quickly pop in and out and continue to do your errands on two wheels. No parking tickets and no worrying if you can have that second drink before you get behind the wheel. Not to mention the incidental exercise it gives you every day – the only explanation I can find for why the Dutch remain so svelte despite their love for the deep fryer and carbo-loading.
3. Giving Birth . . .
Georgia sheriff claims 17-month-old baby was to blame for the flash-bang grenade the SWAT team threw into the crib in which he was sleeping
A good example of how misconduct by law enforcement is protected. William Grigg writes on his blog:
It was the baby’s fault that he was nearly burned to death in his own crib.
Bou-Bou Phonesavanh was barely a year and a half old, just learning to walk, and unable to speak, but those limitations didn’t stop him from engaging in “deliberate, criminal conduct”that justified the 2:00 a.m. no-knock SWAT raid in which he was nearly killed.
The act of sleeping in a room about to be breached by a SWAT team constituted “criminal” conduct on the part of the infant. At the very least, the infant was fully liable for the nearly fatal injuries inflicted on him when Habersham County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Long blindly heaved a flash-bang grenade – a “destructive device,” as described by the ATF, that when detonated burns at 2,000-3,500 degrees Fahrenheit – into the crib.
Merely by being in that room, Bou-Bou had assumed the risk of coming under attack by a SWAT team. By impeding the trajectory of that grenade, rather than fleeing from his crib, Bou-Bou failed to “avoid the consequences” of that attack.
In any case, Bou-Bou, along with his parents and his siblings, are fully and exclusively to blame for the injuries that nearly killed the child and left the family with more than one million dollars in medical bills. The SWAT team that invaded the home in Cornelia, Georgia on the basis of a bogus anonymous tip that a $50 drug transaction had occurred there is legally blameless.
A tax-subsidized settlement was reached about a month ago in which the National Fire Insurance Company will pay $964,000 to the family — a little more than $538,000 for medical expenses, and multiple installments of $200,000 to the infant after he turns 18 in 2033. This arrangement will leave the family facing at least a half-million dollars in current medical expenses, a figure that will be matched or eclipsed by future costs incurred by Bou-Bou’s ongoing medical treatment.
In familiar fashion, nobody responsible for this crime will be compelled to make restitution, or be held accountable for the nearly fatal injuries inflicted on the child – and the significant but non-life-threatening injury suffered by his father — during the 2:00 a.m. home invasion that took place nearly a year ago.
Nearly every lawsuit begets a “defendant’s reply” disputing all of the factual allegations and legal claims presented by the plaintiffs. Where the defendants are law enforcement officers, the objective is to build a case that the actions of the officers were “reasonable” and in compliance with established “policies and procedures” – and thus protected by “qualified immunity.” From this perspective, the assailants are innocent of all liability even though they did everything wrong – and the victims are fully to blame even though they did nothing wrong. The reply filed on behalf of Sheriff Joey’s deranged deputies will serve as a legal clinic for other departments involved in similar Soviet-grade atrocities in the future.
No evidence of any illegal conduct was found at the home as a result of the raid. The front yard and driveway of the residence abounded in evidence that children lived there – evidence so clear and compelling that even a police officer would have recognized it. The search and arrest warrant was issued at about 2:00 in the afternoon on May 27; this offered plenty of time for the vigilant and capable personnel of the Habersham County Sheriff’s Office to conduct surveillance of the targeted residence and even to arrest the suspect in more conventional fashion, assuming that this was necessary and justified.
The subject of the warrant, Wanis Thonetheva, was not at the residence when the stormtroopers arrived. He was arrested on narcotics charges several hours later, in broad daylight and in unremarkable fashion, “at his actual place of residence, without any resistance and without the use of a flashbang stun grenade,” the lawsuit recalls.
At the time that arrest was being made, Bou-Bou’s parents were just absorbing the horror of what had been done to the infant by the assailants who had broken into their temporary home without cause and kidnapped the gravely wounded child.
Bou-Bou’s father — in agony from a torn rotator cuff that resulted from being assaulted, thrown to the floor, and shackled by one of the invaders — noticed some blood in the empty crib. The screaming child had been seized by the berserkers and taken away. The frantic parents were not allowed access to the traumatized and bleeding child—“officer safety” uber alles, you know. To cover the abduction, one of the officers on the scene did what comes naturally to highly trained police officers: he hastily improvised a self-serving lie.
“The parents were told by officers on the search team that their son had a tooth dislodged as a result of the search and that the blood that the parents saw in or about the area of the crib was due to the alleged tooth issue,” recounts the lawsuit. The parents “did not know the extent of their son’s injuries (and were not provided truthful information about them by the Defendants) until they were told at the Hospital where their son was taken that he was in a coma.”
Yes, it is possible that one of the infant’s newly-cut teeth had been “dislodged” by the stun grenade. What the people responsible for that act of abhorrent criminal violence did not mention was that the toddler also suffered “severe blast burn injuries to the face and chest; a complex laceration of the nose, upper lip and face, twenty percent of the right upper lip [was] missing; the external nose [was] separated from the underlying bone; and a large avulsion burn into the chest with a resulting left pulmonary contusion and sepsis.”
Sheriff Joey’s underlings told Bou-Bou’s parents that they had knocked out one of the baby’s teeth. They actually blew off his face and gouged a hole in his chest. Exhibit B in the lawsuit is an unbearable hospital photograph of the child in a medically induced coma immediately after the attack. The Defendant’s reply to that piece of evidence is a denial that the photograph “accurately depicts the injuries allegedly sustained” by the infant. . .
Continue reading. There’s even more.
A chilling picture of law enforcement mores in the US today. Apparently the sheriff’s deputies must have felt “threatened” (possibly the baby made a furtive move toward its diaper, making the deputies fear for their lives), so the actions they took were totally justified. At least that is obviously their view.
The NY Times once again fails at the basic journalistic task: Seeking evidence that disconfirms Administration claims
As every schoolchild knows, the way you establish the truth of claims is to seek disconfirming evidence: evidence that contradicts the claims. If you find such evidence, the claim is false; if you can’t find it, even though you searched hard, the claim may well be true. But you certainly do not start with the assumption that the claim is true and then seek only evidence that supports the claim.
Unless, that is, you’re the NY Times and the claims are from the Administration in power and are being made in support of waging war. Then, being the NY Times, you believe the claims absolutely, ignore or minimize conflicting evidence, and provide a platform for anonymous claims by scores of Administration and military officials. In other words, the NY Times embraces its role as a propaganda outlet and drops any pretense of actual journalism.
We saw that clearly in the run-up to the Iraq war: Bill Keller and Judith Miller became advocates for the war, credulously repeating all the lies propagated by Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Pearl, Bush, and others, constantly reporting stories to support going to war and minimizing (or ignoring) evidence that contradicted Administration claims.
The Times has recently said that it has learned its lesson—but let’s look for evidence that disconfirms that claim. And we immediately find a story by Eric Schmitt on the front page of today’s Times: “With ISIS in Cross Hairs, U.S. Holds Back to Protect Civilians.” Take a look:
- Many anonymous sources quoted in support of waging a more ruthless and wider war: check
- Credulous reporting of Administration claims: check
- Absolutely no effort made to look for evidence that contradicts Administration claims: check
This story might as well have been reported by Judith Miller under Bill Keller’s editorship.
The New York Times this morning has an extraordinary front-page article claiming that the U.S. is being hampered in its war against ISIS because of its extreme – even excessive – concern for civilians. “American officials say they are not striking significant — and obvious — Islamic State targets out of fear that the attacks will accidentally kill civilians,” reporter Eric Schmitt says.
The newspaper gives voice to numerous, mostly anonymous officials to complain that the U.S. cares too deeply about protecting civilians to do what it should do against ISIS. We learn that “many Iraqi commanders, and even some American officers, argue that exercising such prudence is harming the coalition’s larger effort to destroy” ISIS. And “a persistent complaint of Iraqi officials and security officers is that the United States has been too cautious in its air campaign, frequently allowing columns of Islamic State fighters essentially free movement on the battlefield.”
The article claims that “the campaign has killed an estimated 12,500 fighters” and “has achieved several successes in conducting about 4,200 strikes that have dropped about 14,000 bombs and other weapons.” But an anonymous American pilot nonetheless complains that “we have not taken the fight to these guys,” and says he “cannot get authority” to drone-bomb targets without excessive proof that no civilians will be endangered. Despite the criticisms, Schmitt writes, “administration officials stand by their overriding objective to prevent civilian casualties.”
But there’s one rather glaring omission in this article: the many hundreds of civilian deaths likely caused by the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. Yet the only reference to civilian deaths are two, ones which the U.S. government last week admitted: “the military’s Central Command on Thursday announced the results of an inquiry into the deaths of two children in Syria in November, saying they were most likely killed by an American airstrike,” adding that “a handful of other attacks are under investigation.”
Completely absent is the abundant evidence from independent monitoring groups documenting hundreds of civilian deaths. Writing in Global Post last month, Richard Hall noted that while “in areas of Syria and Iraq held by the Islamic State, verifying civilian casualties is difficult,” there is strong evidence [that] suggests civilians are dying in the coalition’s airstrikes.”
To May 13th 2015, between 587 and 734 civilian non-combatant fatalities had been reported from 95 separate incidents, in both Iraq and Syria.
Of these it is our provisional view – based on available reports – that between 370-465 civilian non-combatants have been killed in incidents likely to have been conducted by the coalition.
A further 130-145 claimed deaths attributed to coalition airstrikes are poorly reported or are single-sourced, while an additional 85-125 reported fatalities resulted from contested events (for example, claims that the Iraq military might instead have been responsible.)
In addition, 140 or more ‘friendly fire’ deaths of allied ground forces have been attributed to the coalition, with varying levels of certainty.
In his article, Hall quotes one of the Airworks journalists, Chris Woods (formerly with the drone-tracking Bureau of Investigative Journalism) as saying “he has ‘no doubt’ that civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, and that the number is probably somewhere in the hundreds.” Local media reports in Iraq have frequently reported civilian deaths at the hands of the U.S.-led bombing campaign.
While compiling exact counts of civilian deaths is difficult, it’s astounding that theNYT would mention none of this, and reference none of these groups’ data or quote their experts, when trumpeting (and complaining about) U.S. restraint. To say that the picture painted by Schmitt is one-sided and incomplete is to understate the case.
One can obviously dismiss these civilian deaths, as many Americans routinely do, by casually invoking the “collateral damage” mantra and relying on cartoon versions of The Threat Posed by ISIS. But it’s outright bizarre for a paper purporting to report on excessive U.S. restraint to completely omit this data, just as U.S. media outlets have done for years with civilian deaths from drones. Beyond the humanitarian matter, killing civilians yet again in Iraq and Syria is highly likely to exacerbate the very problem the bombing campaign is supposedly designed to solve, as the NYTarticle itself recognizes: “Killing such innocents could hand the militants a major propaganda coup and alienate both the local Sunni tribesmen, whose support is critical to ousting the militants, and Sunni Arab countries that are part of the American-led coalition.” . . .
So the NY Times apparently thinks, like the Administration, that we should be inflicting more civilian casualties in fighting ISIS. It’s like that job interview question “What are your weak points?” that is answered along the lines of “I am perhaps too motivated and work too hard to produce truly excellent results quickly” and the like. “Our problem in fighting ISIS is that we are being too careful not to harm civilians. We’ve got to put those concerns aside and slaughter however many civilians we have to do kill the enemy easily.”
The NY Times, back at the old propaganda stand. Jesus.
Terrific shave once more. The Plisson synthetic made a very fine lather from Dr. Jon’s Handcrafted Hex shaving soap, the components of whose fragrance are listed on the lid. I continue to find these soaps quite wonderful, and in fact I have ordered more.
The razor shown is the BBS-1 from the LA Shaving Soap Company, and is made by Wolfman Razors for them. With a Personna Lab Blue blade it is totally wonderful: gentle and comfortable on the face, efficient and effective at removing stubble. And, true to its name, it produced a BBS result with no discomfort or nicks.
A good splash of Ginger’s Garden Havana Cognac aftershave, and the week begins, in effect.
McKenner Stayner (that’s the name) reports in the New Yorker:
In the summer of 2010, Christian Ekström, a diver from the Åland Islands, an autonomous region of around sixty-five hundred isles off of Finland’s west coast, began searching for a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea, based on a tip he’d received from a fisherman. The Baltic’s temperature is unusually consistent (between about thirty-nine and forty-three degrees Fahrenheit* on its seabed), and it has a salinity level that is less than a fifth that of oceans. Its coastal waters are also treacherously shallow. All of this makes it particularly well suited to sinking ships, and then, once they’ve sunk, to preserving them for centuries. (Creatures commonly known to erode wrecks, like shipworms, can’t survive in such brackish waters.) As a result, the Baltic has an estimated hundred thousand shipwrecks, only a fraction of which have been explored.
Ekström and his dive partners soon found a small, wooden schooner, a hundred and fifty-five feet underwater, coated in sand and algae. Its hull had ruptured and there were no name signs or ship bells by which to identify it. Shining his headlamp into the large gash in the ship, Ekström saw some dark-green bottles, lying corked among broken planks of mossy wood. He reached in and pulled one free.
As he rose to the surface with the bottle, the cork began to work its way out. He pushed it in with his thumb. Back on the boat, it popped out completely. “All this aroma came through,” he told me recently. “It was phenomenal. And we tasted it without any knowledge of what we were drinking.”
When he returned to the main island, Åland (pronounced Oah-land), Ekström began researching the mystery liquid, hoping it would also hold clues to the wreck. A wine expert he consulted guessed that it was very old champagne, and estimated that, if it tasted as good as Ekström believed it did, each bottle would be worth up to fifty thousand euros. “That’s when I started getting a little sick, because I recognized that we had been drinking eighteen thousand euros of champagne from the bottle and coffee cups,” Ekström said.
Later testing determined that it was indeed champagne, and that it had been bottled in 1839 or 1840, making it older than any previously discovered preserved champagne. Unlike the ship, the bottle bore a marking. Burned into the cork was an anchor—the logos of two champagne houses, Juglar, which is now defunct, and Veuve Clicquot, which was established in 1772. (At one point, Ekström called Veuve Clicquot and explained his discovery to a senior figure in the company. He recalls the man saying, “It’s a lovely story, Mr. Ekström, but where is Åland? I have heard of Holland and Poland and Scotland, but never Åland.”)
Ekström and his team continued to search the ship, diving twice a day for three weeks and retrieving a hundred and sixty-seven more bottles of champagne, along with spices, olives, and preserved fruits. About halfway through the search, Ekström came across five dark-brown bottles, squatter than the ones that held champagne. Back on the boat, one of the bottles cracked, spilling fizzing, yellow liquid onto his fingers. He tasted it and noticed flavors of tobacco, wheat, and “a lot of egg.” It wasn’t pleasant, but it was familiar. Ekström recalls thinking, “I don’t care about the champagne now. We just found the golden ticket—we found beer!”
In addition to diving, Ekström runs a gastropub attached to Stallhagen, a small brewery on Åland. Jan Wennström, the brewery’s C.E.O., told me that as soon as Ekström found the beers, Stallhagen was determined to reproduce them. At a hundred and seventy years old, they were the oldest preserved beers ever discovered, and the fact that they had been bottled indicated that they were of very high quality. (Beer in that era was normally stored in wooden kegs.) The Finnish government and an independent research institute took samples from two of the bottles for physicochemical analysis, a process that involved four years and a variety of methods, including gas chromatography and flame atomic-absorption spectrophotometry. Stallhagen secured exclusive rights to the results of the research.
The scientists’ report showed that saltwater had seeped in through the corks of both bottles. All of the yeast cells were dead, but some bacteria were still alive, which accounted for the fizz that Ekström had noticed. (According to Wennström, this finding has become a source of interest to scientists throughout the food industry. “They can’t understand how it’s possible that the bacteria lived for one hundred and seventy years,” he said.)
Although the beers in bottles were similar, the report noted that one was “more strongly hopped than the other,” suggesting that Ekström had come across an extremely old mixed pack. (There also appears to be a third type of beer among the remaining three, a darker variety, which Stallhagen hopes to analyze in the future.) The two beers smelled of “burnt rubber, over-ripe cheese, and goat,” flavors that Brian Gibson, a senior scientist who worked on the report, told me are likely a result of living underwater for so long. Beer is inherently unstable, he said, especially beer produced before the advent of pasteurization and other preservation processes. DNA analysis of the yeasts determined that, at the time the two beers were produced, they would have had notes of sweet apple, rose, butterscotch, and clove. They would have tasted sweet, too, as they had been fortified with sugar, similar to a Lambic, their closest modern-day analogue.
After receiving the analysis, Stallhagen contacted the Leuven Institute for Beer Research, in Belgium, to reverse-engineer the two varieties. Brewing typically involves only a few ingredients: barley, hops, water, and yeast (although Belgian and some other brewers frequently add other ingredients, like fruit, spices, or sugar). As Burkhard Bilger wrote for the magazine, in 2008, historically, “Yeast was left off the list because brewers didn’t know it existed; beer was naturally fermented, like sourdough bread.” This traditional mixed-yeast, or spontaneous, fermentation allowed for the presence not only of microbes that flavored the beer but also ones that spoiled it; hence the smell of burnt rubber, cheese, and goat. In light of modern brewing science, the Finnish team was in a relatively luxurious position: it could choose only the flavor-producing yeast. “It’s a little bit of an oxymoron, but it’s kind of a controlled spontaneous fermentation,” Wennström said.
Stallhagen and the Institute ultimately brewed, fermented, and bottled fifteen test beers over two years, before settling on two recipes. The brew that matched the hoppier of the original beers became Historic Beer 1842, which Stallhagen released in October, 2014, in a limited run of two thousand hand-blown glass replicas of the original bottles. Each bottle cost around a hundred and thirty dollars, but the brewery quickly sold out. The second, smoother beer, called Historic Beer 1843, was released in May, 2014. It is sold commercially throughout Finland and abroad for close to six dollars a bottle, though not yet in the U.S.
Earlier this month, Wennström sent me a few bottles of Historic Beer 1843. Late one Friday, I gathered a group of testers, who ranged from novice to connoisseur, in a small conference room at The New Yorker’s offices, in lower Manhattan, overlooking a baseball field framed by two high-rises. We drank from an assortment of glass, ceramic, and paper mugs.
Wennström had recommended that I serve the beer colder than I would a typical craft beer; mini-fridge-chilled was as close as I could get. The 1843 comes in a corked, dark-green bottle with a plain label, inked in muted browns, that depicts a sketch of a ship behind the brewery’s name. According to thequantitative parameters of beer character widely used in tastings, the 1843 is on the clearer end of uncloudy, with a frothy, rather lacy head that disperses quickly, and scores a five to seven on the Standard Reference Method, a sort of Pantone scale for beers. (In other words, its color is a golden amber.)
The consensus among the tasters was that Historic Beer 1843 was . . .
From 2002, but still: Hilton Als writes in the New Yorker:
This is what happens. A young woman wearing a white lab coat is sitting in a cafeteria, keeping her thoughts to herself, when a man carrying a tray sits down across from her. Striking up a conversation, he tells the woman—her name is Joyce—that he recognizes her from years before; they grew up in the same small Canadian town. Joyce then feels obliged to tell the man a little bit about herself. She teaches neurology at a nearby university. Her demeanor is polite, formal, distant. She doesn’t smile much; you can tell that she’s one of those extremely self-contained people who regard smiling—the baring of teeth—as a form of aggression. Outside, the rain falls in sheets. At one point, the man tells Joyce that she’s very beautiful. She says, “Oh, please,” and her irritation casts a pall on the conversation. Still, the man presses on. He says, “You should have been a model.” Joyce says, “Well, that’s the last thing I would want to do.” When he asks her whether she could ever imagine being something other than herself, she says, “No. . . . When people think of their lives as being different, they always make the most trivial changes. ‘If only I’d been to that party, or taken that job.’ They never say, ‘If only I’d had two brains, or been able to photosynthesize my food.’ It’s as if they think the smaller changes are more likely to have occurred, that God might have overlooked them. How could anything be different from what it is?”
Fiction, as someone once said, is always true. As played by Tilda Swinton in the Canadian director Robert Lepage’s 2000 feature “Possible Worlds,” Joyce is one of Swinton’s numerous selves. More specifically, Joyce is the part of Swinton’s self that works to subvert the standard male response to her considerable beauty (“You should have been a model”) with analytical, imaginative, and precise language—to put the watcher in the position of being watched by the very person his vision sought to claim. It is this aspect of Swinton’s presence, in two dozen films (and one music video)—her witty, sometimes eerie ability to turn the screen on the viewer, as it were—that has made her quite possibly the only real film star whose career has been fostered almost exclusively by the art house and the cinéaste. In the eighties and early nineties, in film after film by the late, pioneering English director Derek Jarman, Swinton became the avant-garde’s Garbo, a manifestation of ideas in the flesh. “But that kind of art is dead,” she said not long ago. The film industry takes less and less interest in the kinds of talent that Swinton encountered and, in many cases, promoted at the beginning of her career. “What you can do now,” she said, “is subvert with art that disguises itself as commerce.”
Recently, Swinton has pursued this goal in several roles: as a protective mother in “The Deep End,” a less-than-two-million-dollar art film with a seemingly accessible narrative, which was picked up by Fox Searchlight; as an oracle of sorts in Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky”; as a peculiarly idealistic studio executive in Spike Jonze’s forthcoming “Adaptation”; and as the love object of the heartthrob Ewan McGregor in an erotic film noir, “Young Adam,” which begins shooting in Glasgow this month. But, a dreamer in pursuit of a dream, she cannot relinquish her roots, despite the hard work and scant financial remuneration, and she still takes on parts farther from the mainstream, in films like Lynn Hershman Leeson’s upcoming “Teknolust,” in which she plays three clones who must drain men of their sperm in order to survive. Collectively, Swinton’s current choice of roles reflects the schism between the art film and the populist epic. She is the object that each camp—one headed by The Artist and the other by The Businessman—struggles capture, because of what she confers: power to the former, credibility to the latter. She manages to offer both while seeming to do nothing at all—the stillness of her face conveying a complex and distinctly cinematic presence informed by language and distance rather than the dramatization of emotion.
She is, perhaps, one of the last of the great cinema objects. She has said, “Idon’t exist”—and the job description is accurate enough for a woman whose “I” is not the point. Marrying her image to the audience’s imagination is the sleight-of-hand to which she aspires. She has an interest in the closeup. “What insight it provides,” she said last December. “How many of us can ever say we’ve seen the emotion in the backs of our heads?” Yet she is detached enough from her work to describe her performances disinterestedly. . .