One of the projects I did at a big company once upon a time was evolving
organically, and we eventually realized we needed a "dashboard" of
sorts. That is, we wanted an internally-hosted page that would let
anyone load it up and see what was going on with the service. It was
intended to be simple: ping our server, ask for the status, and then
render the response into a simple list. Later on, we knew we were going
to want to add the ability to send a "panic" signal to our server from
this page, so that anyone in the company could hit the "big red button"
if things went haywire.
This, then, is a story of trying to make that status page happen at a
big company. I'm going to use dates here to give some idea of how long
a single task can drag on. We'll start from January 1st to make it
easy: dates are correct relative to each other here.
January 1: we put up a terrible hack: a shell script that runs a
Python script that talks to the service to get the status and then
dumps out raw HTML to a file in someone's public_html path.
January 29, early: there's this team that nominally owns dashboards, and
they got wind of us wanting a dashboard. They want to be the ones to
do it, so we meet with them to convey the request. We make a mockup of
the list and the eventual big red button to give them some idea of what
it should look like.
January 29, late: asked "dashboard team" manager if they had been able
to get the network stuff talking to our server yet via chat. No reply.
February 13: random encounter with that manager. Asked about it. Our
dashboard "is on the roadmap now".
February 14: an added detail: "no telling when, though"
February 20: still waiting around for something to happen.
March 20: I mention to the rest of the group how I'm losing faith in
that dashboard team. "Pretty sure we're going to need to hack up a
terrible page to get them moving on this".
March 24: talking to the group again: "we still don't have a status
page", and "how long does it take to make a single page?"...
March 25, early morning: I hit the wall and start doing it myself. It
means writing code in a language I never use, with frameworks I have
never seen before, dealing with data structures that are completely
foreign. It's slow going. I have to ask questions that probably seem
stupid to most people because this frontend stuff is SO not my domain.
My first iteration doesn't even talk to the server: it just has a bunch
of data hard-coded and is all about writing the renderer to spit out a
March 25, mid-morning: someone notices that one of the necessary steps
to talk to the server from the frontend side of the world was never
done, because we're having to do it right now to get my terrible new
code to work. That is, you have to basically copy across some RPC
definition type stuff to talk cross-systems, and they would have needed
that as soon as they started messing around in the problem space.
The fact it's never been copied across means that nobody ever even
started looking at things. It's one of those things that takes like
five minutes and lets you continue with the rest of the project.
This spawns the notion of a
- a critical early step in the project that never happened, so you can
tell that nobody ever got that far.
March 25, early afternoon: having synced the RPC stuff, the network I/O
now works, and the terrible code written in this crazy moon-man language
and frameworks is now talking to production and getting Real Data.
March 25, mid afternoon: and now it's a page that other people can load
up from my testing server instead of being a lump of stuff on disk that
only I can run.
March 26, morning: all of the "finishing touches" that need to exist on
an internal page are added: security context stuff, permission domain
stuff, that sort of thing. The code is split into functions so it won't
be a giant stream-of-consciousness top-to-bottom blob of garbage.
Various people take pity on me and help me understand how to make it
sort server-side so it doesn't load up, then freeze the browser while
some JS code sorts it on the client. They also help me understand a
bunch of data structure/framework stuff that is completely foreign to
March 26, mid-afternoon: code ships and is online for anyone in the
company to see. It's just a status page (no big red button), but this
means we can now kill the terrible shell+python thing that's been
running every two minutes in a screen session all this time.
March 26, late afternoon: I told the dashboard team that we went and did
it ourselves. I am advised that the person nominally assigned the task
"hasn't even started designing it yet".
March 30: dashboard team manager randomly drops by my desk and is
suddenly *very* interested in the terrible page we wrote, and asks what
else we need. I advise that we need the big red button that lobs a
"panic" RPC at our server. Manager advises they will "bring the details
to (the assignee)".
April 8: it seems there's now a mock-up of sorts from the team. Inside
the group, we start talking about that situation where if you mail the
$open_source_project mailing list asking for help with a legitimate
problem, nothing happens, but if you make up a shitty version of
something and fire it off, then suddenly 50 million people show up and
go OI! DO IT THIS WAY! But, three months earlier when you politely
asked for help, zip, nothing, nada, zilch.
April 14: someone points out they've Done Something to the page, and oh
no, what have they done? The existing page now has this godawful
rendering of a very large piece of equipment. Put it this way, if the
project's codename was "bulldozer", there was now a little graphical
bulldozer up at the top of the screen, complete with all of the other
crap that you'd expect to see around a bulldozer.
Also, this isn't just a PNG or something. It's not some stock artwork,
and it's not something someone drew. Oh no. This thing is a whole pile
of CSS crap that manages to spit out a *dynamic rendering* of the damn
So nothing happens for months, then two weeks after we ship something
terrible to show how it's done, they now have time to go and screw
around with this ridiculous (and ugly) thing? What?
The group's chatter continues. "This is what they spent time on?", and
"We don't have a big red button, but we sure as hell have a CSS-ified
bulldozer", and "how long do you think that took", and finally "if it
was longer than 30 minutes, we got ripped off".
April 27: the all-CSS-bulldozer-thing disappears from the top for those
of us in the group, because they do something to exclude us from seeing
the new rendering, so at least we don't have to look at the damn thing
and be reminded of how badly this is going.
May 14: still nothing useful to report. The page is now in tatters:
what was a single file is now split across multiple things of different
types: frontend framework A, frontend scripting language B, and so on.
We ponder just reverting the whole mess to get it back to a simple
single file that we actually understood and could work on.
June 3: meeting with the dashboard team manager in which we ask why they
put a CSS bulldozer on top of the page and still haven't given us the
big red button, which we actually need to keep production safe. The
response: the person assigned to the project went off to spend a month
doing something else on some other team.
I may have said something like "it's like you asked me to clean up the
parking lot and I just decided to paint my nails first".
We pointed out that this was not a request for priority. We are just
going to end up doing it ourselves. We just can't understand why all of
this stuff was done and just dumped there. It was one simple file...
and now it's *five*. The official answer is "this is the only way we
can maintain it".
Finally we pointed out that this is customer feedback: i.e., you've
already lost my business, please don't rush to save it now. You should
take this feedback and recalibrate so as not to leave future people in
the lurch like what happened here.
Someone noted that it would probably have been okay if the person went
"here's your button and by the way we added pretty things". Instead, it
turned into "look how I amused myself, made you wait for months, and did
nothing to improve your experience, but I had fun and that's the
June 4: manager goes and writes the panic button thing.
June 13: turns out, no, wait, the button is there, but it doesn't ask
for confirmation (as we had asked), and... it didn't send the RPC to our
server, so it didn't actually DO anything. It was just an image or
June 17: someone on the team reports that the button now works.
So, whenever you wonder what it's like at a big company... sometimes,
it's like this! And, hey, sometimes it's even worse!
After the California Gold Rush, in 1870, two Kentucky swindlers whipped up a scheme to prey on thirsty financiers’ FOMO. They invented a diamond field out West. Investors sunk millions in today’s money into the scheme. All of it, of course, was for naught—a cautionary tale about believing anyone who claims they have a surefire plan to get rich quick.
A hundred and fifty years later, a new generation of amateur investors is equally desperate not to miss the next big thing in the finance world. After watching the great GameStop stock boom play out on sites like Reddit and Discord this winter, hundreds of thousands of hopefuls are joining Discord groups that promise big earnings from manipulating the crypto market—also known as crypto pump-and-dumps. Step 1: Buy in early, when the coin is low. Step 2: convince other people to join you—the more, the merrier, the bigger the potential gains as the price of the coin goes up. Step 3: Sell out before the price tanks. Get the timing right, these groups promise, and you come out a winner (and richer). Losers are left holding the bag.
There are two facts that I have sometimes found it difficult to reconcile. The first is that Tesla, Inc. makes innovative and genuinely impressive electric vehicles that can hold their own against the fastest performance cars in the world. The second is that the CEO of Tesla, Inc., celebrated entrepreneurial genius Elon Musk, is a liar, huckster, and moron, who regularly says things so ignorant that I cannot understand how they can come from a human adult, let alone one treated by his fans as a super-genius. Is one of these facts untrue? Are Tesla’s cars actually bad, their deficiencies carefully covered up and their quality over-hyped? Is Elon Musk actually not a liar, huckster, or moron? If you look more closely, are things that look like fraud and stupidity to me actually signs of brilliance? Or is there a way for both facts to be true?
It turns out it’s all true. The cars are impressive and their flaws get covered up. Musk is a lying ignorant grifter and he has inspired innovation in the electric car industry. Understanding that these seemingly contradictory things can be true simultaneously is important, because societies who cannot hold these two ideas at the same time may end up following scam artists and false prophets off the cliff and into the abyss.
Musk’s tenure as CEO has seen Tesla become the most valuable automaker in the world and has made Musk one of the richest people on Earth, if not the richest. He is treated in the press as a tech visionary who dreams big. Every few months he announces some seemingly hare-brained scheme and pundits sing its praises without much scrutiny about whether it could work. The Simpsons, in a sign of the show’s declining satirical bite, portrayed him not as the second coming of monorail salesman Lyle Lanley, but a brilliant rocket scientist, “a being with intelligence far beyond ours,” “possibly the greatest living inventor.”
Now that the president of the United States is no longer a climate change denier, and there may be some kind of broad national effort to electrify American transit, Musk may take on an even more important role in shaping our national vision for transit, power, and the human future in space. It is therefore vitally important to see through the myths around him, to understand the bleakness of his vision for the future, and to present something better.
Let’s admit: Tesla does make some very cool cars. The acceleration on the Model 3 matches some of the fastest sports cars in the world. When Consumer Reports tested the Model S, the car “performed better in our tests than any other car ever has.” This has made Tesla useful in hastening the global transition to renewable energy and zero-emissions vehicles. Once upon a time, electric cars were seen as crunchy and uncool. Tesla made electric sexy, futuristic, and desirable. A Tesla SUV can beat a muscle car in a drag race. They’ve helped to make electric cars that a person who doesn’t care about electric cars might buy, and they’ve contributed to the emerging consensus that it’s only a matter of time before internal combustion engines are entirely outmoded. (It’s a good sign when YouTube Car Guy Jay Leno—hardly an environmentalist—is telling his millions of Car Guy viewers that they’d better resign themselves to the fact that they are going to be driving electric soon, but that this is alright, because they’ll be driving Teslas.) Now, as we’ll see, Tesla is also frequently deceptive and in many ways inept. Yet it’s a fact that the company has revolutionized electric cars, and the established automakers are only just beginning to catch up.
But then we have Elon Musk himself, who is constantly saying incredibly dumb things. Every time I hear him talk I am impressed by how unimpressed I am. The first time was when I read his comments on why the United States was “the greatest force for good of any country that’s ever been,” citing our participation in both World War I and World War II as examples of the U.S. “saving democracy.” Not everyone can be expected to have read Chomsky, but one might at least expect someone who is going to publicly express opinions on historical events to understand the causes of World War I. On the scale of ignorant Musk comments, however, this one turns out to barely even rank. His takes on the COVID-19 pandemic make Donald Trump look like the dean of Harvard Medical School. “The coronavirus panic is dumb,” he tweeted early on, and “danger of panic still far exceeds danger of corona… If we over-allocate medical resources to corona, it will come at expense of treating other illnesses.” Musk predicted that by April 2020 there would be zero daily cases, and said that “kids are essentially immune to the disease.” More than 500,000 deaths( in the U.S. alone) later, this looks very, very foolish.
On Twitter, Musk has become infamous for comments that are juvenile (“69 days after 420 again haha”), offensive (“I absolutely support trans, but all these pronouns are an esthetic nightmare”), and flat out wrong (COVID is a “specific form of the common cold.”) A former Tesla executive toldVanity Fair that “there were times Musk would say or tweet something that was just too embarrassing to even try to defend.” At one point, “Twitter shut down his account, assuming it had been hacked,” when Musk began posting “pictures of manga women with captions like ‘im actually catgirl here’s selfie’ and solicitations to buy bitcoin.” Musk’s account was restored when he confirmed the posts were authentic.
Musk’s itchy Twitter-finger has had some unfortunate consequences for his company, as when he infamously falsely tweeted that he had secured funding to take Tesla private, which landed him a $20 million fine from the Securities & Exchange Commission, and when he tweeted that Tesla’s stock price was too high, which instantly wiped $15 billion off the company’s value. When a group of Thai schoolchildren were stuck in a cave, Musk not only pretended that he personally would save the children with a special mini-submarine—he did not—but smeared one of the actual cave rescuers as a pedophile.
Reports from inside Tesla confirm what we might expect, which is that Musk is a genuinely awful boss who throws fits and treats people abominably. A WIRED report based on conversations with those close to Musk describes what is politely labeled “a high level of degenerate behavior” and which one person in Musk’s circle describes as “total and complete pathological sociopathy.” One engineering executive said: “If you said something wrong or made one mistake or rubbed him the wrong way, he would decide you’re an idiot and there was nothing that could change his mind.” During a temporary production problem, Musk strutted onto the factory floor, “red-faced and urgent, interrogating workers he encountered, telling them that at Tesla excellence was a passing grade, and they were failing; that they weren’t smart enough to be working on these problems; that they were endangering the company.” WIRED reports that he picked on one young engineer, asking vague questions, and when the worker looked puzzled, shouted, “You’re a fucking idiot! Get the fuck out and don’t come back!” Random firings like this are apparently not uncommon—he was “so prone to firing sprees that Tesla employees were told not to walk past his desk in case it jeopardized their career.” One former Tesla executive says Musk is even known to come to work saying, “I’ve got to fire someone today,” resisting those who politely point out that there is no need to fire people for the sake of it.
Reports overflow with the kind of spoiled child behavior that only the super-rich can get away with, because only the super-rich are surrounded by flunkies who do not dare push back. Sometimes it genuinely seems as if Musk is the protagonist of a film about a middle schooler who is put in charge of an auto company. On an earnings call, Musk refused to answer “boring bonehead questions” about such matters as the company’s future capital needs, once again causing the stock to drop. His insistence that the Tesla Model X have “falcon wing doors” turned into an engineering nightmare.
Musk subscribes to the theory of management that the Vision matters far more than such trivialities as reasonable hours and safe working conditions. Workers have called the factory “a modern-day sweatshop.” Musk had little interest in trying to keep them safe from COVID-19, forcing them to keep working, resulting in 450 coronavirus cases. Dangerous conditions didn’t begin with coronavirus; in 2019 Forbes reported that Tesla outpaced rival automakers in racking up workplace safety investigations and violations, with 24 investigations and 54 violations from California’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration over a four-year period. Even when Tesla’s unusually high rates of workplace injuries improved, a Reveal News investigation showed that the company had been cooking the books, “fail[ing] to report some of its serious injuries on legally mandated reports, making the company’s injury numbers look better than they actually are.” One former environmental compliance manager was shocked at the conditions, and wrote an “alarmed” letter to HR saying that “the risk of injury is too high… people are getting hurt every day and near-hit incidents where people are getting almost crushed or hit by cars is unacceptable.” Incredibly, she was told by the safety team that “Elon does not like the color yellow” as an explanation for the failure to put brightly-colored warnings. He also didn’t like “too many signs” or “the warning beeps forklifts make when backing up,” and these “preferences… led to cutting back on those standard safety signals.”
Naturally, Musk has aggressively squelched union organizing at Tesla. He falsely accused a worker of being a paid union agitator, and workers report that “anything pro-union is shut down fast.” In March, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Tesla had engaged in unfair labor practices, disciplining or even firing workers for union organizing in direct violation of federal labor laws. Musk also sent a tweet implying that if workers unionized, Tesla would take their stock options away, which the NLRB has demanded be deleted. Musk had previously lambasted unions in correspondence with workers, promising them free frozen yogurt instead.
All of this would be just another tale of how Silicon Valley Geniuses are cruel and stupid in private—and how companies that portray themselves as ethical world-changers are internal dictatorships. But Musk is more than a CEO, he’s a hugely influential public Visionary. Essential Magazine says that, “In an age when we desperately need visionaries to lead the way, Elon Musk is a multidisciplinary engineer, inventor, entrepreneur and futurist with the drive to do what today’s politicians can’t – change the world for the better.” When Musk issues a pronouncement or prophecy—e.g. “A Million Humans Could Live on Mars By the 2060s,” “Artificial intelligence will be superior to humans within five years”—it is often reported uncritically in the press, as if the very fact of his believing something makes it newsworthy. The Washington Post says he is “arguably the world’s most important entrepreneur,” and the Guardiandescribes him as a man with a “desire to push the limits of what was possible for private enterprise… the archetypal serial entrepreneur.” Musk inspired Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of billionaire superhero Tony Stark in Iron Man. Musk’s hagiographer, Ashlee Vance, writes that he is “the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted” (Vance’s book is called Elon Musk and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.) Four different children’s books aim to inspire young people to be more Musk-like, including Elon Musk: What YOU Can Learn From His AMAZING Life. The New York Times says reading of Musk’s life should imbue us with “a sense of legitimate wonder at what humans can accomplish when they aim high, and aim weird.”
Musk is not just admired for improving electric cars and privatizing the work of NASA, but for his forward-looking philosophy that dares to dream of transformative new human achievements. As Essential put it, we “desperately need” visions, and, well, at least he’s got one. Unfortunately, it’s bleak. Much of it seems to center around colonizing Mars, where Musk has vowed to send millions of people. Like Jeff Bezos, he appears to believe in a future of privatized corporate space colonies. He has said that on Mars, SpaceX will be subject to its own laws and free of international jurisdiction (legal experts call this “gibberish”). He has even suggested a kind of indentured servitude program whereby people take on debt by going to Mars and then work it off.
None of it is likely to happen. But Musk is likely to shape people’s views of what possible human futures can and should be like. And the one he imagines is a dystopian one. In fact, the very reason he wants to go to Mars is that he believes it is important for the “continuance of consciousness” when human beings destroy themselves in World War III. Now, I certainly share the fear of human self-annihilation, but Musk (like many other billionaires) seems to treat some kind of apocalypse as almost inevitable and think we’d better spend time plotting escape routes for the rich, rather than working toward world peace, stopping climate change, and eliminating nationalism.
You can see Musk’s dystopianism in the design for Tesla’s much-ridiculed Cybertruck, which looks to me like the preferred conveyance of 22nd century cyborg death squads. Legendary auto designer Frank Stephenson (of BMW, McLaren, Ferrari) says in a blistering review of the Cybertruck that it shows brutality and paranoia (Musk has emphasized how bullet-resistant the truck is, as if we are resigned to a future of shooting each other on the highway.) Stephenson points out that the Cybertruck shows the bad kind of futurism, the kind that believes the future is something that happens to us, rather than that we dream and then create ourselves—meaning that a “futuristic” design is one that looks like “what we think the future is going to be” rather than what we want the future to be. Musk has said that “you want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great.” But for Musk, this seems to mean maintaining same neo-feudal social relations, but with the cyberpolice driving sustainable electric death-mobiles.
It makes me deeply sad that Elon Musk is seen by many as our biggest Dreamer, because his dreams are so pitiful. Because he is a 12-year-old, they often just involve having the same shit, but bigger and faster, rather than actually doing the hard imaginative work of figuring out how to solve our hardest social problems. Take Musk’s approach to transit. His company has improved electric cars, but he doesn’t have any idea how to address the problems flowing from car culture. Musk has insisted repeatedly that the solution to traffic problems, from California to Miami, is to simply dig tunnel after tunnel after tunnel. He has even started a tunneling company that proposes to solve urban transit problems, which has been given a nearly $50 million contract by the city of Las Vegas to construct a short (less than 1 mile) tunnel around the city’s convention center. It’s being billed as an “underground people mover,” but Curbednotes that “what’s being built appears to be more of a mechanism for giving one-minute test rides in Teslas” (on the city’s dime, of course). Other tunneling plans have already been scaled back or abandoned.
There are two interesting things about Musk’s tunnel schemes. The first is that they can’t work, and the second is that there is something else that can. YouTuber Justin Roczniak aka “donoteat01” has an excellent explainer video going through the flaws in Musk’s plan to relieve urban congestion through tunnels. Musk proposes to shoot electric vehicles on tracks at very high speeds through extremely narrow spaces, but there are huge safety problems and logistical problems, and the tunnels, even if built, would likely just move traffic jams to the tunnel entrances. Yet some people are genuinely counting on Musk—the mayor of Miami seems to believe Musk’s promise that he can build a tunnel under the city for about 5 percent of the cost initially estimated by local transit officials.
Everyone wants a cheap and easy solution to extremely difficult problems. Roczniak usefully uses the distinction between “AM” and “FM,” which in this case stand for “Actual Machines” and “Fucking Magic.” In the world of Actual Machines, engineering is slow and difficult and costly and often boring. In the world of Fucking Magic, all you need is a concept and a cool-looking rendering. See, for example, Musk’s “Hyperloop,” which was proposed to great fanfare in 2013 as an alternative to building high-speed rail (it would shoot people in an enclosed tube at 650+ miles per hour). Talk of the hyperloop has since dissipated, and it now appears to have been reconceived as the plan to drive ordinary street cars in a tunnel. The Daily Beast reports that excitement about the loop appears to have fizzled as plans “slam into cold hard reality,” and when Musk invited the press to a demonstration, “instead of a pod rocketing passengers at high speeds, reporters climbed into electric cars made by Musk’s Tesla and were treated to a 40 mph ride along a bumpy path.” (Strong echoes of the Simpsons’ Lyle Lanley here.)
What is frustrating is that there are already known ways to improve transit infrastructure, namely through subways, buses, and trains. But Musk hates public transit, and has never disguised his feelings:
I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where [sic] you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time. […] It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons people like public transit. If the network is good, then it does go where you want it to go, it does go regularly, and you don’t have to hunt for parking when you get there. And it’s far better than being stuck in traffic. Musk, who says that he wants to get the economy off fossil fuels and end traffic congestion, is only willing to entertain solutions that don’t require rich guys to come face to face with commoners—who, after all, might be serial killers. Plus, because Musk is a 12-year-old, the quotidian world of planning departments, transit authorities, and city traffic engineers bores him. Does it have falcon-wing doors? No? Booooooring.
Musk’s preference for hype and exaggeration over follow-through and diligence has created a great deal of dysfunction within Tesla, as journalist Edward Niedermeyer reports in Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors. Little that Musk says can be trusted. He has promised to fill space with his satellites to provide a powerful new alternative internet infrastructure—but this isn’t going to happen, though it may well massively inhibit the ability of actual scientists to do their work and ruin the night sky. His Neuralink company talks of uploading brains to computers and implanting chips that will be “like a fitbit in your skull”—but this is unlikely to happen either, and the MIT Technology Review says what has been revealed so far is “neuroscience theater” with little evidence to back up Musk’s astonishing promises. From the announcement that Tesla would switch to building ventilators to help COVID patients to the “mini-sub” that proved inferior to old-fashioned diving skill in the cave rescue, Musk comes up with flashy world-saving schemes one after another and rarely delivers. (Some of the schemes aren’t world-changing, just obviously doomed, as when he attempted to launch a competitor to The Onion called Thud.) Niedermeyer notes that, “Each of these announcements struggled to withstand close examination, ranging from mere exaggeration to quasi-delusional fantasy” but “many outlets reported these developments unquestioningly,” contributing to Musk’s “legend as a twenty-first-century Renaissance man.” So many of these plans are from the “FM” world, and when you read analyses by science and tech writers from the “AM” world, you realize that the line between Elon Musk and Elizabeth Holmes is thinner than you might think. (When the Barnumesque BS is exposed, it can be extremely amusing, as when in a live demonstration, the “armor glass” windows on the Cybertruck were easily smashed.)
Niedermeyer documents the way that Musk’s claims sometimes border on outright fraud. Niedermeyer believes Tesla may well have pretended it could charge cars faster than it could in order to qualify for a state tax incentive scheme, and as he reported began to see that “potentially massive gaps existed between Tesla’s carefully cultivated image and reality—yet the company was capable of saying and doing whatever it thought it needed to maintain its reputation.” Tesla even required some owners to sign non-disclosure agreements when it agreed to repair problems with their cars, which created a minor scandal when it became clear that the agreement’s text would keep people from being able to tell government regulators if there was a safety issue. Niedermeyer also reports a shocking incident in which Musk personally called the employer of a blogger who had been debunking Musk’s claims online (the blogger was anonymous but had been doxxed by Musk’s fans). Musk threatened vague legal action, and the employer asked the blogger to stop commenting on Tesla, which he did. (Niedermeyer says the company has also repeatedly engaged in “blatantly defamatory smear[s]” of journalists who report critically on it.)
Sometimes the misrepresentations are extremely dangerous. Musk has long been obsessed with fully autonomous self-driving cars, and has been on a mission to beat Google in developing the technology. In Niedermeyer’s words, to do this Tesla tried to“develop a product that would create the impression of a self-driving car as quickly as possible without tackling the toughest safety challenges…” Tesla even sold drivers on the idea that its existing cars have an actual “full self-driving mode,” and Musk strongly implied that the cars did not need drivers. This turned out to be a huge exaggeration—there is a world of difference between the kind of augmented cruise control that exists today and a fully self-driving car. But Musk, wanting to show that Tesla had beaten Cadillac’s Super Cruise system, made grandiose claims. He had to make “the system seem more advanced and autonomous than anything else on the market” because otherwise “Autopilot would be almost impossible to distinguish from any other ADAS [advanced driver assistance system], and Tesla’s supposed advantage in autonomous-drive technology (and the billions in market valuation that it brings) would disappear.” There was internal dissent among engineers about Musk’s insistence on branding the system “self-driving,” with some resigning and one criticizing “reckless decision making that has potentially put customer lives at risk.”
Indeed, customers’ lives were very much at risk. Tesla drivers took Musk’s claim of an “autonomous” car seriously, and some over-relied on the system and got themselves killed. Now, sensible auto journalists are even refusing to use Tesla’s term “Full Self Driving Mode,” believing that it is false and dangerous. Musk has nevertheless charged customers $10,000 each for the promise of a “fully self-driving” feature on their cars. The fact that no such car is here, and none appears likely to be here soon, means there is already talk of class action lawsuits among those who forked over large sums on the assumption that when Musk said the cars would drive themselves he meant it. As Jalopnik asks: “Is [full self-driving] a genuinely earnest project with real goals and deliverables, or an elaborate scam to get a lot of money while delivering nothing?” If the latter, it’s the kind of deception that one might expect to result in a criminal trial—Elizabeth Holmes is currently facing felony charges for misleading people about what her blood tests could do. But Musk seems to skate through every scandal.
Of course, one of the biggest Musk Myths is that he is a self-made entrepreneur, whose work shows what “private enterprise” can accomplish. Despite Musk’s contempt for regulations, Niedermeyer shows that Tesla was unable to survive in the free market, and only exists today thanks to a $350 million Department of Energy loan that came at a crucial time. A Los Angeles Times investigation in 2015 revealed that Musk’s empire was built on $4.9 billion in government support. People were able to buy expensive Teslas, for instance, partly because the government paid them to buy electric cars in the form of tax credits. Travis County, Texas, “has offered a $14.7 million (at minimum) tax break for the building of a Tesla factory” and “[a] Nevada factory was built on the promise of up to $1.3 billion in tax benefits over two decades.” Now, with Joe Biden’s giant infrastructure bill set to give out $174 billion more in electric vehicle investments, Musk is sure to receive a new windfall.
It’s good that the government stepped in to make electric cars more attractive. Supporting innovations that the market doesn’t find profitable is part of what the state is for. But the fact that Musk takes public money while presenting himself as the heroic libertarian opponent of stodgy government bureaucracy is maddening. So, too, is the fact that he, rather than the public, is the one who ends up getting rich. (Ah, but he told Bernie Sanders he is only “accumulating resources to help make life multiplanetary & extend the light of consciousness to the stars.”) And if present trends continue, cities may end up giving Musk giant sums of money based on promises he has no intention of fulfilling, and our space exploration budget may go to help Musk set up his sky-polluting for-profit satellite company and quixotic “space servitude” mission to Mars.
It’s easy to see how the myth of Musk as a planetary visionary has survived. First, unlike Elizabeth Holmes, Musk has actually done some of what he has promised, and often despite great odds of failing. Niedermeyer notes that succeeding as a startup in the auto industry is devilishly difficult, because of the immense capital expenditures required. It’s not like producing a piece of software, when once you’ve made it, it can be copied infinitely. Once you’ve got a brilliant prototype car made, then the difficult part begins, which is figuring out how to mass-produce the thing. Tesla may have missed production targets and had quality control issues, but they have been competing against centuries-old car companies that have had many generations to iron out kinks in the production process. True, Niedermeyer reports that Musk seemed uninterested in adopting industry best practices and proven quality control measures. But it’s not all smoke and mirrors, and if Tesla begins deploying its electric semi trucks, it will do something to curb emissions. I want the damn company to succeed.
But there is clearly a serious problem with the notion of Musk as a Genius Visionary. First, it’s not clear how much those he employs succeed because of him rather than in spite of him. Clearly some of it is just horrible management—wild firing sprees based on nothing except the desire to wield power do not do anything to help an enterprise flourish. The CEO of a company frequently gets undue credit for the labor of the diligent but non-publicity-seeking workers who are mostly responsible for the institution’s accomplishments. (Musk began actively trying to diminish the degree of credit others got for Tesla’s work early on, according to Niedermeyer, and he fought to become listed as a co-founder of the company, even though he wasn’t.) One engineering executive said that “when people were shielded from Elon, Tesla was amazing” and did “incredible things.” I believe it, although I can also believe those who say they were inspired by Musk’s insistence on objectively impossible things. There can be some positive consequences to having an institution ruled over by a demented child-emperor. Sometimes the child demands the impossible, but then all the smart people have to figure out how to do something approximating the impossible and appease the child. Ultimately, I think democracy is a much more stable and just form of government, and do not think the benefits of being ruled by a tyrannical madman outweigh the considerable costs.
The idea of “genius,” even of being “smart” itself, also needs to be ditched, because it implies that if someone is impressive at some narrow task, they are Intelligent and thus worth listening to on subjects going beyond their tiny area of expertise. Timothy L. O’Brien, of Bloomberg, laments the way Silicon Valley techno-kings’ “observations about the social order and commonweal get more attention and take on more gravitas than they deserve, boosted and hurried along by the idea that great wealth confers great wisdom.” In Musk’s case, a certainty about his genius results in an indulgence of his cruelty and a lack of scrutiny of his delusional (sometimes even dangerous) schemes. I have read reports of those who worked with Musk calling him the “smartest guy in the room,” and while I believe that they believe this, it’s important to note that the guy nobody is allowed to question for fear of losing their job will often appear to be the smartest guy in the room when he is just the most powerful. One reason Elon Musk has succeeded is that in many ways, our economy rewards those who create the appearance of value rather than actual value. Tesla’s stock price baffles analysts—its “valuation doesn’t make sense by any traditional measure.” In part it thrives, and Musk continues to build his wealth, because he has successfully convinced people to pin their hopes on him, because he is a genius for whom it will all work out in the end. Musk’s following is quasi-religious in nature, as anyone who has incurred the displeasure of his online fans knows all too well. But we live in the age of the NFT, when it’s easy to sell the holographic appearance of a thing rather than the thing itself. Musk is selling delusions about a future that only looks cool because the alternatives on offer are so bleak.
But we can do better. Shannon Stirone of The Atlantic contrasts the futurism of Elon Musk with that of Carl Sagan, the great humanist astronomer, who had a far more socialistic vision, one that emphasized the universe’s beauty and mystery, and the folly of our earthly power struggles:
Sagan inspired generations of writers, scientists, and engineers who felt compelled to chase the awe that he dug up from the depths of their heart. Everyone who references Sagan as a reason they are in their field connects to the wonder of being human, and marvels at the luck of having grown up and evolved on such a beautiful, rare planet. The influence Musk is having on a generation of people could not be more different. Musk has used the medium of dreaming and exploration to wrap up a package of entitlement, greed, and ego. He has no longing for scientific discovery, no desire to understand what makes Earth so different from Mars, how we all fit together and relate. Musk is no explorer; he is a flag planter.
It is natural to desire a “fantastic future.” Personally, I’m sad that we no longer have World’s Fairs showcasing what we think humankind might accomplish in the next decades. Musk fandom arises in part because he is offering something resembling a path to clean energy and space exploration, both of which are appealing and important. But it’s a mirage, and following it will take us further in the direction of dystopia. Instead, we need a humanistic vision of a high-tech future, one that rejects workplace tyrants, privatized spacefaring, and ever-multiplying underground freeways in favor of democratic governance, strong public institutions, and transit for the people. It can be done, even in the world of Actual Machines. And it can be more inspiring than anything Elon Musk has ever dreamed of.
It’s not just Bush who’s gotten this strange rehabilitation. Despite being one of the most significant events of this very strange century, the Iraq War has been thoroughly flushed down the memory hole. So has “enhanced interrogation.” Even stuff that is still happening—the Guantanamo Bay detention camp (still open and operating), the PATRIOT Act (still getting renewed with Democratic support), the Afghanistan War (still, somehow)—are treated both like a vague memory and an inalterable normal. You’ve got Politico reporting on Joe Biden’s historic decision to appoint the first Latino Secretary of Homeland Security, as if the Department of Homeland Security wasn’t created five minutes ago with the express purpose of doing the most horrible shit in the world. Colin Powell lied to the United Nations about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, and he was a star attraction at this year’s Democratic National Convention. Former Bush staffers hoovered up liberals’ money to produce ineffective anti-Trump ad campaigns. The British Labour Party has returned to pining futilely for the glory days of warmongering Blairism, with Keir Starmar sacking MPs who voted against a bill to make British soldiers immune to prosecution.
But why has everyone forgotten the Iraq War, and all the crimes of the Bush administration? The mists of time don’t account for it. It’s been nearly fifty years since Watergate, and everyone still remembers that. Nobody has tried to rehabilitate Richard Nixon. Part if it is how much the war has vanished from pop culture. The Vietnam War cast a much longer shadow on American pop culture than the Iraq War did: basically every American film of the 1970s was about Vietnam, directly or indirectly, and plenty more have drawn inspiration from the war since. The biggest sitcom of the 1970s was set in the Korean War, acting as an allegory for the Vietnam War.The biggest sitcom of Bush’s first term was set in New York but never acknowledged 9/11.
So much of the story we tell ourselves about history comes through pop culture, for better or worse. But the crimes of the Bush administration have left hardly a dent there. I don’t think fiction has a responsibility to be historically accurate, but it nevertheless informs the shape of history in the public consciousness. At its best, art can show us truths a bare analysis of the facts can never quite reach. As activist, cultural critic, and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes, “Unless they’re making a documentary, filmmakers are history’s interpreters, not its chroniclers.”
Few films have tried to interpret the Bush era, but the ones that have are worth examining in detail. W., Vice, and The Report are some of the few major films about the Bush administration that Hollywood has produced, and despite their different approaches to history, each speaks to an important truth: to the personal moral character of George Bush; to the moral character of Republican Party in the decades before Donald Trump; and to why, exactly, America chooses to forget.
W. (2008): “You’re a Bush. Act like one.”
W. is the third of Oliver Stone’s films about the American presidency, after 1991’s JFK, a conspiracy theory movie about investigating Kennedy’s assassination, and 1995’s Nixon. The latter is a film that defies easy categorization: Nixon is Citizen Kane and it’s Scarface, it’s Shakespearean tragedy and a vampire movie. It’s a sprawling epic that plunges its hands deep into Nixon’s psyche. Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon is consumed by self-pity, so desperate for everyone in the world to love and respect him that he ensures the opposite. When JFK is killed, he sulks about not being invited to the funeral, then resentfully says, “If I’d been president, they never would have killed me.” Kennedy’s ghost never stops haunting Nixon— nor do the ghosts of his two brothers (whose young deaths from TB allowed his parents to send him to law school) and eventually, Bobby Kennedy’s, too. “Four bodies,” Nixon says, paved the path to his presidency.
W. is a more straightforward, restrained film than Stone’s previous films about American presidents, never delving into the conspiracy theory territory that is both JFK and Nixon’s bread and butter. Instead, W. is a tight little biopic structured through a series of flashbacks. It’s a funnier film—in a scene where the Bush cabinet brainstorms “axis of evil”, Karl Rove (a perfectly, perfectly cast Toby Jones) suggests “axis of weasels” and Bush (Josh Brolin) snaps “Don’t be cute, Karl!”—though hardly the wacky comedy it was marketed as. But it has the same strain of Shakespearean tragedy that runs through Nixon. If Stone paints Nixon as brought low by self-pity and resentment emanating from the traumas of his childhood, his Bush is defined by his relationship with his father: he wants to impress him, gain his love and approval, and escape from under his shadow, all at once.
While JFK and Nixon were about figures that were quickly being absorbed into history, W. was released when Bush was still in office (it premiered in October 2008). The common refrain was that it was too soon. “Why would we want to see the movie when we’re still in the movie,” the Washington Post asked, “and when it looks like we’ll be in it long after its protagonist has made his exit?” Time Out, in a mixed review, said that “without the benefit of hindsight, it’s probably the best we can hope for.”
But distance can dull our perspective as easily as sharpen it. Critics in 2008 seemed to assume —pretty reasonably—that Bush and his administration would live on in such infamy that there would be lots of chances in the future to commit this story to film in a fuller, deeper way. But hindsight tells me that the waning days of Bush’s presidency was probably the ideal time to make a movie about it, before any attempts to rehabilitate him kicked into full swing. I agree with the Sydney Morning Herald’s prediction: the film has matured quite nicely.
It is pretty funny to read reviews of W. that talk about it being too restrained, too sympathetic, unlike the damning portrait in Nixon, and then read contemporary reviews of Nixon where critics are surprised by its stylistic restraint and sympathetic characterization (grading on Oliver Stone’s curve, admittedly). Much like Nixon, I don’t think W.’s empathy for Bush absolves him of his crimes; it just contextualizes them. There’s a moment in Nixon where John Ehrlichman says, “You got people dying because he didn’t make the varsity football team. You got the Constitution hanging by a thread because the old man went to Whittier instead of Yale.” Nixon treats public office as a site to alternately act out and cure his neurosis—when he tells his wife that he’s running for president again, he assures her that this will be the thing to finally make him happy—rather than to make the world better, and it leads to devastating horror across the globe. (He eats a steak dinner while talking about bombing Cambodia, about dropping the big one if needs be, and there is quite literally blood on his hands.) The sometimes soapy psychodrama of W. makes the same point. You’ve got people dying because Jeb was always Poppy Bush’s favorite. You’ve got people being tortured because Bush hates to be called Junior. The film is called W., and that’s the only part of his name that isn’t his dad’s. That’s his to have, to own, for better or worse. The first time he meets his future wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), he’s introduced as George Bush, Jr. “Call me anything but Junior,” are the first words he says to her.
James Cromwell is great as H.W.: cold, cruel, and openly playing favorites. He reacts to his son’s obvious alcohol problem with a series of increasing contemptuous lectures. “Who do you think you are?” he yells at one point, “A Kennedy?” One night George comes home drunk (again) and challenges his dad to a fist fight. When Jeb explains that George was celebrating because he got into Harvard—“I ain’t going, I just wanted to show you all I could do it,” says George—H.W. doesn’t give him an inch: “Of course he got in. Who do you think pulled the strings?” On the night George is elected governor of Texas, his dad can’t stop talking about how disappointed he is that Jeb didn’t win Florida.
That’s not to say that W. reduces geopolitics to a pop Oedipal complex. There are frequent flashbacks to Bush’s life, but the main narrative of the film is built around the Iraq War, the decision to invade, and what came afterward. Dick Cheney gives a PowerPoint presentation about Iraq’s oil fields while practically salivating: “Sixty of eighty oil fields are still undeveloped… We drain the swamp like Don says. We rebuild it. We develop its resources to the maximum. A nexus of power that won’t be broken in our lifetime.” When Colin Powell asks about their exit strategy, Cheney says, “There is no exit. We stay.”
W. is probably too generous to Powell, who acts as the voice of reason in scenes of the Bush cabinet, pushing back on Cheney’s ideas and expressing trepidation about launching a pre-emptive strike and getting quagmired in a forever war. Yet his characterization—as a man who expresses serious, unambiguous reservations in private but knowingly lies to sell the war to the U.N. anyway—is ultimately damning. But the film isn’t really about the people around Bush. Those in smaller roles, like Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, are basically SNL impressions. “The film sees Bush’s insiders from the outside,” Roger Ebert wrote. “In his presence, they tend to defer, to use tact as a shield from his ego and defensiveness. But Cheney’s soft-spoken, absolutely confident opinions are generally taken as truth. And Bush accepts Rove as the man to teach him what to say and how to say it. He needs them and doesn’t cross them.”
A decade and change later, when Bush giving Michelle Obama sweets is treated as a light feel-good story, a portrayal that many deemedoverly humanizing in 2008 feels like it has real teeth to it. Bush’s crimes in W. feel vivid and morally urgent, and the film never falls into the trap of portraying Bush as a helpless dumbass exploited by those around him. W. does have all the greatest Bushism hits—“In history we’ll all be dead,” “Is our children learning?” et al.—but it’s careful to acknowledge the degree to which Bush’s folksiness was an affectation. He loses his first congressional race when his opponent paints him as an out of touch Ivy League boy, and he swears that no-one will ever out-Texan or out-Christian him again. When Cheney pitches him on “enhanced interrogation,” the softening language proves unnecessary: he tells Bush that they “utilize fear scenarios”, and Bush says, “You mean like pulling out their toenails?” and laughs, mouth full of pastry.
Vice (2018): “There are monsters in the world.”
If W. was too soon, 2018’s Vice was too late. Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic was one of the most divisive films in recent memory, and for the naysayers, it arrived a decade late and a dollar short to tell us that some guy everyone knows is bad is, in fact, bad. Alissa Wilkinson in Voxspoke for many when she said, “I can’t figure out what Vice’s motives are, or what we’re meant to take away from the film.”
Vice is the second film of Adam McKay’s rebooted career of directing political comedy-dramas after a decade of making wacky Will Ferrell comedies. The first was 2015’s The Big Short, about different characters who predict the subprime mortgage crisis and bet against the American economy. Vice is a messier, more ambitious film than The Big Short, taking a series of swings so big that it inevitably misses a few. I mean, this is a film where Dick and Lynne Cheney have exactly one scene of mock-Shakespearean dialogue, where extraordinary rendition and a “fresh and delicious War Powers Act interpretation” are served up on a literal menu to Cheney and Rumsfeld, where the credits roll halfway through like the film’s over (seriously) when Cheney decides not to run for president. McKay wields montages of archive footage like prime Michael Moore and weaves big, unsubtle metaphors like Oliver Stone. It’s not the best film of his career (Step Brothers, obviously), but it is the most interesting, and probably my favorite.
While Vice is a biopic of Dick Cheney—Christian Bale, who funnily enough was originally cast as Bush in W., is brilliant in the lead, undergoing an extraordinary physical transformation without leaning on that instead of acting—the film is largely an account of the United States’ lurch to the right, telling the latter story through the former. It is, more than anything, an attack on the myth of the Good Republican, with whom you might have policy disagreements but who is fundamentally decent. Democrats have spent years talking about how Trump does not represent the GOP (even as the GOP have supported him through thick and thin). The Good Republican has been invoked throughout Trump’s presidency: it’s an appeal to universal values that reach across the aisle and an attempt to paint Trump as a unique aberration from the ordinary business of American politics. But when you try to locate the Good Republicans in history, they start to seem pretty elusive.
Through the person of Dick Cheney, Vice paints a damning portrait of the Republican Party from Nixon’s presidency to Bush II’s and stretching into Trump’s. We see figures familiar from the Trump administration pop up all the time. Jeff Sessions and Mike Pence appear in a blackly funny montage of politicians from both parties in the United States and United Kingdom arguing in favor of the Iraq War, intercut with bombs dropping and snippets of Budweiser’s famous Wazzup ad. John Bolton is mentioned as one of Bush’s advisors, and archival footage of Ronald Reagan shows “the Gipper” giving a speech about making America great again. “Early on in [promoting and making] this movie, some people asked me to compare [Trump and Cheney], to say who’s worse,” Adam McKay said, “And I answered the question, but really the answer should be they’re both part of an ongoing story, which is the rise of the right in America.”
The key scene, the one that everyone who hates Vice singles out as a reason why they hate it, comes when a young Cheney is working for Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) during the Nixon administration. Rumsfeld points out to Cheney that Nixon and Henry Kissinger are meeting in Kissinger’s office—“Now why would Nixon not be meeting Kissinger in the Oval Office?” “He’s having a conversation he doesn’t want to go on the record?”—to talk about bombing Cambodia. Cheney is confused, since that would require congressional approval and Nixon campaigned on ending the war. Over shots of children playing in a peaceful Cambodian village, Rumsfeld explains:
“Because of the discussion that Nixon and Kissinger are having right behind that door, five feet away from us, in a couple of days, ten thousand miles away, a rain of 750-pound bombs dropped from B-52s at twenty thousand feet, will hit villages and towns all across Cambodia. Thousands will die, and the world will change. For the worse or the better. That is the kind of power that exists in this squat little ugly building.”
(As Rumsfeld speaks, you hear the helicopters. And then a bomb falls.)
Cheney struggles to ask Rumsfeld a question, stumbling over his words. Then he spits it out: “What do we believe?”
Rumsfeld laughs so hard he might choke, and then laughs even harder. “’What do we believe!’ That’s very good. What do we believe!”
The problem with this scene, as pointed out by no less than two separatearticles in the Washington Post, is that Cheney was, even at this early stage of career, a committed neoconservative. If you interpret the scene totally literally, that’s a fair critique. But it seems obvious that the scene is a commentary on neoconservatism, and the American right more broadly. To refute the accusation that Cheney believed in nothing but accumulation of power for its own sake by pointing out that he was a neocon is to miss the point entirely. This scene, and the whole film, is asserting that those words mean the same thing.
Once you look at Vice this way, what might otherwise seem like a series of meandering vignettes snap into focus. The Cheney family watch Nixon’s resignation, and one of their daughters asks if the president is being punished. Lynne forcefully says that the president has a lot of enemies, and that when you have power, people will always want to take it from you. Dick is already on the phone to Rumsfeld with a plan to get into Gerald Ford’s cabinet. Much later, after their daughter Mary comes out as a lesbian, Dick says he loves her no matter what. When Lynne says, “This is going to make things so much harder for you,” she could be talking to either of them, but she’s definitely talking to Dick.
One of the film’s final sequences cuts between two scenes tied together by the most on-the-nose metaphor of modern cinema. I loved it. In one scene, Liz Cheney talks to her parents about her senate race: her opponent is using her gay sister Mary against her, accusing her of equivocating on gay marriage. Since Mary’s coming out, Dick has repeatedly protected his lesbian daughter, including deciding not to run for president because his opponents would go after her. But now, Dick nods his assent, and Liz goes on TV to spew homophobic bile. We cut between this and a separate scene of Dick getting a heart transplant. Dick has had so many heart attacks that they’re timed like a running gag, but before his heart gives out entirely, a donor heart becomes available. Up until now, our narrator (Jesse Plemons) has been mysterious, only explaining how he knows so much about Cheney by cryptically saying they’re “sorta related.” Then, suddenly, while he goes out for a run, he’s hit by a car and dies. His heart provides Dick with a transplant.
Tying these scenes together is almost audaciously obvious—Cheney is heartless, here’s his empty chest cavity to prove it—but there’s more going on there. It sheds the very last thing that made Cheney seem anything less than monstrous (his love for his family) and sacrifices that for power, too. It’s the very last thing that, in a generous moment, you could imagine motivating him other than power for its own sake: the thing that got him to stop drinking and getting into fights all those years ago was a promise that he’d never let Lynne down again. But that doesn’t have any nobler impulse behind it. Lynne also only cares about power. Because she’s a woman and so there’s a ceiling on what she can achieve, Dick is her conduit.
The heart transplant scene is also, as Emily VanDerWerff notes, a metaphor for the way Cheney’s generation “literally stole from the future to enrich themselves.” Jesse Plemons says his heart should give Dick another ten years. We watch all the results that spiraled out from the events of the Bush administration, a teacup on saucer on a teacup on saucer on a teacup on saucer. Flash on screen: the foreclosure crisis, the refugee crisis, the opioid crisis, terrorist attacks, children in cages. They’re all part of the bigger story Vice is telling, of the rise of the American right and the consequences for the whole world. The Bush administration is the lynchpin of that story.
The Report (2019): “They knew it didn’t work, and they did it again.”
Where Vice is big and bombastic, 2019’s The Report (stylized The Torture Report in the opening credits) is practically austere. Written and directed by frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns, it’s a classic formula well-executed: an All The President’s Men-style political thriller about the writing of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture. It’s about the aftermath of the Bush administration’s crimes and in that way, acts as a kind of guide to why those crimes were erased from history. It’s a map of the memory hole.
Adam Driver plays Dan Jones, who is tasked with leading the Senate’s investigation into the CIA’s destruction of interrogation videotapes and, eventually, a much larger investigation into the CIA’s interrogation program. The film cuts back and forth between Dan and his team working on the report (largely sitting on computers going through CIA emails) and psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Elmer Mitchell, who are developing and applying “enhanced interrogation techniques” at the CIA after 9/11. The torture scenes—waterboarding, confinement boxes, sleep deprivation, rectal rehydration—are gruesome and upsetting, but never feel cheap or exploitative. They stand in hideous contrast to the shiny PowerPoint Jessen and Mitchell used in their pitch.
We see practically nothing of Dan’s life outside of work, and it’s made clear that there isn’t anything to see. The report becomes his sole focus, pushing out everything else, including sleep and keeping track of what month it is. He goes from a windowless room in a CIA building’s basement to the Senate offices to update Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) and other senators about his progress, and back again. His updates are delivered with moral urgency and a simmering rage that sometimes boils over. It takes him a long time to notice that he’s the only one who says things like “when the report comes out…”
Dan and his team experience a huge amount of hostility, from both the CIA and the Obama administration. The CIA is uncooperative well past the point of obstructionism. They won’t allow the investigators to interview agents, and then use Dan’s lack of interviews with CIA agents to discredit him. They initially don’t even provide Dan’s team with printers. And despite the CIA agreeing to provide all files relevant to the investigation, Dan says that files have “a habit of going missing.” But the agency goes full mask-off when the 6,700-page report is completed. They tie themselves in knots to prevent its publication, or to have so much of it redacted that it becomes incomprehensible. At one point, they object to agents being referred to even pseudonymously in case it puts their cover at risk. Obama-appointed CIA director John O. Brennan’s official response to the report claims that enhanced interrogation techniques provided unique intelligence. He says that “mistakes were made.” Dan keeps pushing, insisting that giving up means he’d just become part of the cover-up.
The Report has a lot of procedural intrigue, but it’s not dry and bureaucratic. The CIA illegally break in to the Senate computers and accuse Dan of stealing classified documents from the CIA computer system. It’s weird that this isn’t one of the most famous incidents in recent American history: surely it’s a constitutional crisis when an intelligence agency is hacking and browbeating a legislative body for investigating them. To me, it’s insane that anyone could think The Report is boring when it is so horribly stomach-churning. The film portrays the CIA as both endemically evil and terrifyingly powerful. We watch the CIA kill Afghani prisoner Gul Rahman—they dump a bucket of cold water on him and leave him in a freezing cold cell overnight, finding him dead in the morning—and then Dan tells Senator Feinstein that the agent who killed him was recommended for a performance bonus. The film rejects the idea that the CIA has changed in the meantime. As Dan says about Director Brennan, “He was Director Tenet’s Chief of Staff and then Deputy Executive Director when the program started. He grew up at the Agency.” When Senator Feinstein points out that Brennan claims to have objected to enhanced interrogation techniques, Dan says he’s spent five years going through emails and hasn’t found anything to suggest that’s true.
The Report depicts the Obama administration taking more of a softly-softly approach to burying the report, but its goal is the same. As David Klion wrote for The New Republic, “The Report may be the first major feature film to make the Obama administration look bad.” After Osama Bin Laden is killed, Dan is troubled by the CIA crediting enhanced interrogation techniques for leading them to him, which Dan knows to be a lie. Senator Feinstein calls President Obama to express concern, but all Obama says is that the mission was a success (“that’s the headline here”). Dan, confused, asks what just happened. “The CIA just got the President re-elected,” one of Feinstein’s staffers says, “That’s what happened.”
The cowardice of Obama’s technocratic dream team in the film will make your blood boil. Jon Hamm plays Denis McDonough, Obama’s deputy national security advisor and later chief of staff. He casually tells Dan that the report won’t be published when he meets him on his morning run. Dan asks if he’s read the report, to which McDonough whines about how long it is. He pathetically argues to Senator Feinstein that at least Obama admitted the CIA engaged intorture. To the Senate Democratic caucus, McDonough says they should focus on how wonderful it is to live in a country where such a report could even be written in the first place—and warns against taking any further action. “Now we go after Bush and Cheney on this, what’s to prevent the Republicans from coming back at us and trying to repeal healthcare?” he says, “We go after the CIA, maybe they say, ‘okay, well, immigration reform is off the table.’ Maybe it’s gun control.” The Report was made well into the Trump administration, and so this argument rings entirely hollow—not just morally bankrupt, but incredibly politically naïve. There’s nothing to prevent the Republicans from doing any of those things, whether you go after Bush and Cheney or not. They’re going to do those things, and worse, no matter how earnestly you try to meet them in the middle.
At one point, Dan considers leaking the report to a New York Times journalist. The journalist tells him that when Obama was elected, his administration considered setting up an independent commission to investigate the CIA’s torture program, like the 9/11 Commission, but decided not to. Obama had “just spent an entire campaign saying he was post-partisan, so going after the Bush administration flew in the face of all that,” the journalist says, ”…and this mess wound up with the Senate—and you.” The report, the journalist argues, was designed to get buried, to get clogged up in the Senate the same way everything else does. “They sent you off to build a boat, but they had no intention of sailing it. They probably didn’t think you’d get as far as you did.”
The journalist says that if Dan gives him the report, the Times will publish it—all of it, not just the executive summary that Senator Feinstein is fighting for—but Dan decides not to, saying he wants it to come out the right way. Divorced from context, this might seem like a condemnation of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning who leaked confidential information, positioning Dan Jones as more heroic for working within the system. But the rest of the film makes clear that trying to get information about the United States’ human rights abuses to the public “within the system” is as good as impossible. Aside from how hard Dan has to fight to just do his goddamn job, aside from being harassed and threatened by the CIA, The Report’s triumphant ending—Dan’s big victory—is getting the Senate committee who commissioned the report to publish the 525-page executive summary.
The ending seems, at first, like the triumph of liberal bipartisanship. The truth, or at least some version of it, does eventually come out. Annette Bening-as-Dianne Feinstein gives a speech about how this can never be allowed to happen again, and then there’s footage of the real John McCain’s speech that day, about how torture is both ineffective and morally repugnant. We hear a clip of The Rachel Maddow Show on TV, talking about the senators “doing everything they can to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” When the music swells and “In 2015, the McCain-Feinstein amendment was signed by President Obama, banning the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques” appears as superimposed text, it feels like closing the book. But this is sharply undercut when the text epilogue continues:
No CIA officers have been charged for the actions outlined in the report.
Many were promoted.
One of them became director of the CIA.
It’s a gut punch. You remember that torture was illegal anyway and it didn’t stop the government from doing it. You remember Dan saying a CIA officer testified before Congress that the use of coercive physical interrogation techniques in Latin America was proven to be ineffective and resulted in false answers. That before Latin America, they did it in Vietnam. “They knew it didn’t work,” Dan says to someone on his team, shock and disbelief audible in his voice. “And they did it again.”
These things get flushed down the memory hole through a toxic mixture of incompetence, indifference, and malice. The powerful want everyone to forget so that they won’t face any consequences and can do it all over again, and those who are meant to hold them to account— from the media to the opposition party—too often fail to do so, either to further their own ends or through sheer ineptitude. The more commercialized the media environment becomes, the more information becomes just another commodity to be bought and sold, not something precious to be preserved and passed down. Worse, it becomes just another site for the kind of manipulation of facts and history that creates these memory holes in the first place. During the Bush administration, the Pentagon planted analysts on the TV news networks, literally giving them their talking points. But it’s subtler stuff, too. Politicians use the media as a vehicle to present a likeable affect, to be the kind of guy that voters want to get a beer with. Watergate endures so much more in the public consciousness in part because Nixon’s public image was basically a cartoon villain anyway: he’d had a famously antagonistic relationship to the media.
But Watergate is also such a rare instance of there being consequences: a bunch of people went to prison, and Nixon had to stop being president. More often, those who abuse power are quickly rehabilitated. Ronald Reagan ignored the AIDS epidemic, set up an illegal propaganda agency inside the State department, and illegally sold arms to Iran to fund Contras in Nicaragua, but he presented himself as a smiling old patriarch with movie star charm. He not only got to still be president, he became a cornerstone of the Good Republican myth: it’s “thepartyofLincolnandReagan”, after all. One day, Bush’s name might be on that list, with his kitschy paintings and Southern-fried malapropisms obscuring any memory of the millions of lives he destroyed. The erasure of the Bush administration’s crimes is just a remarkably effective case of the system working as intended. You flush the abuses away, then start them all over again.
Recently, I was asked for my definition of an urbanist. In reaching for a definition, I realized that I actually don’t have one–certainly not one that captures the contradictions and nuances that most interest me most about urban life and experiences.
A Google search revealed to me that a settled-upon definition doesn’t actually exist, even though many people are asking.
Many of us may be assuming that who or what we think of when we say or hear “urbanist” is what others think of–that we all share in the same stock images. It’s worth marking what those shared stock images are, and why the identity seems to coalesce around a particular set of behaviors and attitudes regarding the city.
As I started putting together my own sense of who can be called an urbanist and what an urbanist does, I started to wonder whether or not I was an urbanist. It’s an odd question at first: I write for The Urbanist, teach courses about cities and public life at an urban-serving university, and conduct research that centers urban life and issues. More than that, I lend my personal time and energy to supporting groups and organizations whose missions are city-centric. If these things don’t describe an urbanist, then what does?
My unease with applying the term to myself stems from how I came to the work the I do. Beyond that, it has to do with the intended ends of the work I do. In between how I came to this work and what I hope this work accomplishes is someone who can definitely be described as an urbanist, especially if we apply much of what Scott Bonjukian astutely lays out in “Why I Call Myself an Urbanist,” published in this magazine in 2016. But I also think that the work of an urbanist starts before and exceeds those attitudes and behaviors we’ve come to associate with an urbanist identity, and therefore my unease is also rooted in all that we miss when we so narrowly ascribe this identification to those who can make demands of their civic leader and fellow citizens.
Bonjukian’s discussion of urbanism takes much from what former Seattle Mayor Michael McGinn wrote in Crosscut some days before. McGinn’s idea of urbanists settles on what urbanists want: more people living in cities; greater access to and within the city; a prioritization of public space; a preference for bottom-up approaches to dealing with the complexities of living among others rather than top-down processes which tend to privilege external interests rather than local needs. If this is what an urbanist is, then I side with Bonjukian in calling myself an urbanist.
The thing is, I don’t think these preferences are unique to the small subset of city dwellers who claim the identification or are publicly recognized as urbanists. My sense is that there are many people who, given the option, would very much prefer to live within walking distance of their job, the grocery store, the park, the clinic, school. That given the option, would prefer to get their goods and services from their neighbors rather than from a chain or a big conglomerate. That if they could get to shopping and work and school without first having to take out a multi-thousand dollar loan just to be able to participate in the economy because there was quality transit available that they might choose the latter.
Many or most people living in cities don’t have the ability, for one reason or another, to advocate for their preferences as we know urbanists to do, though. I am thinking here of the woman I often see on walks in my neighborhood pushing a stroller along the shoulder of Waller Road in Southeast Tacoma, a busy four-lane road with no sidewalk. Is this woman a nanny who’s taking her charge out for a stroll on a sunny day? Or is she a mother walking back from the market carrying groceries in the stroller? I’m thinking of the couple who I run into on walks in my neighborhood, where the husband steadies himself with a cane and sometimes by holding onto his spouse on the parts of the road where the uneven grade on the shoulder makes even me lose my balance? I’m thinking of the man in his mid-40s who struggles to get his bike up a hill on 72nd near Canyon Road, a main thoroughfare in South Tacoma that is served by one bus line once an hour between the hours of 9am and 6pm.
I’m sure that each one of these persons would say yes to slower streets, to sidewalks, to bike lanes, and to quality transit. But these are people who, despite their preferences, can’t easily engage in the types of advocacy and work we tend to associate with urbanists. These are people who work two or more jobs atop of other responsibilities; who may live in households of mixed legal status; people who’ve, in one way or another, been disinvited from public conversations about their city.
Even before I knew how to talk about and advocate for more equitable and accessible cities, I knew that most areas of most cities aren’t designed or built with people like me in mind. Growing in the child of immigrants, raised by a single parent who didn’t drive but who had to work in order to keep us fed and clothed, gave me an early education in all the ways a city could be made more equitable and accessible for people like me, even if the city I lived in wasn’t either of these. In time, I would also learn that calls to make a city more equitable and accessible don’t necessarily apply to cities in their totality, but rather parts of cities where people who can advocate for themselves, do.
I’ve written about walkability, transit, and density in this publication before, but it would be a mistake to think that these aspects of city life are merely preferences of mine; rather, these are aspects of city life that I think about and advocate for because they relate to my direct experience of the inaccessible city from childhood to now.
I know about the value of density and how valuable accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are because I lived in a lightly converted garage with my mother and four of my siblings between the ages of five and 15; at 15, my mom had saved up enough money to build an ADU in my sister’s backyard, where I lived until I left for grad school out of state. In the summer before I started junior high school, the city announced that it would no longer provide bus service for students beyond 6th grade; because my mom didn’t drive, I walked home from school on multiple occasions. The distance between school and home was about three miles. When my mom could spare the bus fare, I would take transit–two buses–to school.
To be sure, there’s a lot to gain from the advocacy work being done by urbanists. I wouldn’t engage in this work if I didn’t think it did. At the same time, the advocacy work that I and others do under the auspices of “urbanism” seems to me to exclude the important and valuable changes that come to cities through the presence and invisible work done by people who everyday get up and walk the distances even when there’s no sidewalks; who take transit even when service is irregular and gets them close enough; who practice density (sometimes illegally) because it’s the only way to afford a place near work or school. We may not call their presence and their daily actions “urbanism,” and they may not call themselves urbanists, but it’s worth recognizing that over decades and across generations, it’s the people who have made a life in cities despite how these have been allowed to develop unevenly who deserve the most credit.
Before asking the question, What is an urbanist? or Am I an urbanist?, there’s a more pressing question: Who’s job is it to address and solve the issues facing cities? Before the rise of the various professions now tasked with the design and planning of cities, this question was answered by recognizing that everyday people living in towns and cities took up that responsibility. My sense is that that’s still the case, even though the discourse of “making cities more livable” tends to be assigned to those who identify or are identified as urbanists.
In his 2018 book, The Help-yourself City, Gordon Douglas examines many examples of everyday people taking urban planning into their own hands and for their own reasons. The argument Douglas presents reminds us that the project of making a life together known as a city–a rather complex project–has always been an imperfect, not very precise, and spontaneous process borne out of particular necessity.
Douglas’ examples support a thesis suggesting that there’s a distinction to be made between the rise of the professional planner that arose in the 17th and 18th centuries as cities became more chaotic, a rise that fully reached its apex in the 20th century as these professions gained the sanctity that is conferred upon them institutionally, as academic disciplines and actual professions. It’s not a coincidence that this institutionalization and professionalization was/is more readily seen in North America.
This, I think, is a good place to spend more time thinking about the stock images we all seem to deal in when thinking about who is and isn’t an urbanist–how these generalized ideas intersect with different types of privilege and already-existing access. A city that works allows for many solutions to the many problems and issues cities face. The more these solutions can be sourced from more of the city’s residents, the more inclusive a city will become.
There’s been lots of renewed attention to the concept of the 15-minute city lately, and urbanists here and there are rallying around this cause. No doubt, those parts of the city that we manage to remake through these efforts will be able to boast greater walkability, quality transit, and better parks and public spaces. But until our notion of who is or can be an urbanist broadens to include the poor, the undocumented, the disabled, and the aging, we will continue to have various versions of the city all sharing a name. Until our idea of urbanism includes the presence and everyday activities of those we don’t tend to think of when we hear or say “urbanist,” the 15-minute city will also be the hour-long commute city, the pedestrian-death city, the exploitative city.
For now, I want to leave you, reader, with a question: if the idea and sense of an urbanist we all carry with us does indeed premise a person with the time, access, and privilege, how complete and inclusive can the outcomes of our efforts towards more accessible and equitable cities really be? What would an urbanism that recognizes and takes into account the many ways people who aren’t otherwise able to take part in consequential conversations as we are having them in forums like this one look like and be? To wit: what is an urbanist/who is an urbanist if our definition makes room for the urbanism of the poor?