Ai Weiwei’s Harrowing Film on the Refugee Crisis Is a Must-See

A still from Ai Weiwei’s new documentary, “Human Flow.” (Screen shot via YouTube)

Once called the “contemporary art world’s most powerful player,” Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei has turned his focus onto the most urgent humanitarian issue of our time: the global refugee crisis. In a new documentary called “Human Flow,” the artist—who has made political statements the core of his art—explores how war, violence and climate change have made refugees of 65 million people.

Ai, who traveled with his camera crew to 23 countries over the course of a year, captured intimate moments of desperation that have driven refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Palestine, Myanmar and elsewhere, risking their lives to escape violence. The film is sweeping and vast, with drone-camera shots utilizing aerial views to showcase the extent of the crisis, combined with intimate iPhone footage taken by Ai.

“Human Flow” is essential viewing for Americans, whose government has not only had a hand in creating many of the crises that drive migration, but is also actively closing the door to refugees. “The U.S. does have a responsibility,” Ai told me in an interview about his film. “Very often people in the United States think that something happening in different continents doesn’t really affect the U.S.” But, he says, “Look at U.S. policy and what’s happening today: the travel ban, or the building of this ‘beautiful’ fence or wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It all shows that the leadership has a very, very questionable position in dealing with migration and refugees.”

Indeed, President Donald Trump—with the help of the Supreme Court—has kept in place a de facto blanket ban on refugees entering the country. It is perhaps easy for most Americans, who live so far from where this misery is unfolding, to ignore the global refugee crisis, especially given the near-daily assaults on the Constitution and good sense emanating from the White House these days.

But by embedding himself for months in the flow of refugee life while making his film, Ai developed an understanding of what it is like to flee violence and danger. Through “Human Flow,” he takes viewers into intimate spaces: the heart-rending decisions as families weigh whether to stay or leave, the pain they feel from losing their loved ones in the choppy seas of the Mediterranean, and the frustration and rage that emerges from being blocked from reaching their destinations by barbed wire and armed police.

One moment in “Human Flow” is seared in my memory—a moment no Hollywood studio could reproduce. Two young brothers are sitting on the muddy ground outside their meager tent in the semi-darkness of a refugee camp. One is crying, promising to follow his brother anywhere, no matter what. Ai added context to that remarkable scene, which he and his crew witnessed. “They had no idea where they would be accepted,” he told me. “They had been refused. They had been stopped at the border and had spent all their money on the dangerous journey to come to a place which will block them and maybe send them back.”

In another harrowing scene, an Afghan woman agrees to speak with Ai, but only if her face is not on screen. She sits with her back to the camera and begins answering questions about her family’s torturous journey from Afghanistan. Minutes later, she loses control and throws up.

One middle-aged man takes the film crew to a makeshift graveyard, where multiple members of his family were buried after they drowned while trying to flee. He breaks down in tears as he sifts through the identity cards of the dead—all he has left of his kin.

At a time when Europe and the U.S. are rewriting their rules for entry in direct response to the massive demand by people looking for safe haven, Ai’s film puts faces to the numbers. “You see people really feel betrayed,” Ai says. “They think [of] Europe as a land that protects basic humanity.” The cruelty of European anti-refugee policies emerges as a central theme, as Ai explores the abandonment of lofty ideals of humanity on a continent that promised never again to turn away refugees after World War II (ironically, tens of thousands of European refugees fled the violence of World War II and found refuge in camps in the Middle East, including in Syria). It was, perhaps, easy to make pronouncements like “Never Again” in hindsight, but when the opportunity arises to prevent another human disaster, all the familiar political reasons re-emerge, like zombies from the grave.

Not content to showcase the fleeing refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, the film also includes the stories of refugees who are less popular in mainstream media: Palestinians displaced from their homes and languishing under Israeli siege in Gaza, Rohingya Muslims fleeing Buddhist Myanmar’s persecution, climate refugees from various African countries, and even Latin American migrants desperate to enter the United States.

Bizarrely, it is the story of a wild animal that best expresses Europe and America’s abandonment of humans. A tiger, having entered Gaza through an underground tunnel, is housed and fed by a local organization. “Human Flow” shows the extraordinary lengths to which local, regional and state authorities cooperate with one another to ensure the safe passage and relocation of the tiger—a privilege not afforded to the refugees stranded on the same lands. Unlike the “flow” of humans seen throughout the film, Palestinians living in Gaza are “stuck,” according to Ai. “It’s like jail for millions of people living in such unbelievable conditions,” he says of the unending Israeli siege of Gaza.

The artist-turned-filmmaker has broken a number of barriers in his film by focusing on the humanity of tens of millions of people that the world would rather forget about. But he has also broken some rules of filmmaking. There are few talking heads in the film and little discussion of politics and policy. News headlines from media outlets scroll along the bottom of the screen, filling in the blanks in terse text. And really, do we need any more films about the well-documented causes of human suffering in the global refugee crisis?

What Ai’s film offers is what is missing most from our discussions of the refugee crisis: the fact that those who are fleeing are real people who bleed when they are injured, who cry when they are hurt, among whom are innocent children and tired elders, who are all being abandoned in a moment we will collectively look back on in shame.

“Human Flow” opens in theaters nationwide in October. Learn more online at

Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…

Michael Moore in TrumpLand grovels in praise of Hillary Clinton

By Fred Mazelis
27 October 2016

Michael Moore in TrumpLand is a bare-bones documentary, essentially the recording of a one-man show presented by the American filmmaker in Wilmington, Ohio earlier this month and released just days later, three weeks before the presidential election.

Moore, who previously backed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and then became a reluctant supporter of Hillary Clinton after she won the Democratic presidential nomination, has now gone all-out to portray the former First Lady and Secretary of State as “our Pope Francis,” a positive standard bearer for the “left.” The man who occasionally used satire and a comic flair to scandalize the corporate and political establishment (Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine) has come forward as the defender of the favored candidate of that establishment.

Michael Moore in TrumpLand

With the message that Hillary Clinton will be the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Moore has made a movie whose laugh lines fall flat and whose peroration in praise of the voice of Wall Street and the Pentagon is both politically appalling and pathetic.

The premise of TrumpLand is that Mr. Moore, the fearless stand-up comic, has ventured into the lion’s den. Wilmington, a town of some 12,500 in southwestern Ohio, is typical of cities and towns throughout the US where the fascistic candidate of the Republican Party has won support by appealing to the anger and frustration of working class voters who have seen their jobs and living standards decimated in the years since the 2008 financial crash and the decades of deindustrialization leading up to it.

Showing somewhat more flexibility than Clinton exhibited with her notorious comment about Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables,” Moore welcomes both Trump and Clinton supporters, as well as those planning to vote for third-party candidates, to Wilmington’s Murphy Theater. After some lame and reactionary gibes at Trump partisans—referring to “angry white guys” whose “days are numbered”—Moore declares his sympathy with the “legitimate concerns” of the Trump backers.

He warns, however, that while a vote for Trump will be a “human Molotov cocktail,” “the biggest ‘Fuck you!’ ever recorded in human history,” it will “only feel good for possibly a month.” Comparing the US election to the Brexit vote in Britain, he warns that “using the ballot as an anger management tool” will leave working people even worse off than before.

“Can’t we start saying something nice about her?” says Moore. He proceeds to poke fun at right-wing critics on such issues as the 2012 Benghazi attack in Libya, but says nothing about Clinton’s actual record as US Senator and Secretary of State: her notorious gloating about the murder of Muammar Gaddafi, the WikiLeaks revelations of her Wall Street speeches, her appeals for the prosecution of Edward Snowden, and her calls for aggressive military preparations or actual escalation of US intervention in Iran, Syria, China and Russia.

Advocating a vote for Clinton, Moore goes much further in TrumpLand than the bankrupt lesser-evil argument advanced in some quarters. He rhapsodizes about a first 100 days of a Hillary Clinton administration, filled with executive orders that will usher in a new era of social reform. Clinton will stop the deportation of immigrants, rescue the residents of lead-poisoned Flint, release all non-violent offenders from prison and prosecute all police who shoot unarmed black men. Clinton will supposedly “kick ass in Congress”—never mind her constant appeals for Republican support and promises to seek “compromise.”

Michael Moore in TrumpLand

Qualifying his praise slightly, Moore goes on to explain that his dream of Clinton as a reformer isn’t going to happen “without a revolution behind her.” Repeating the argument of Sanders, who shifted quickly from denouncing Clinton as the candidate of Wall Street to boosting her as a progressive champion, Moore calls for mobilizing support to “get behind” Clinton and “hold her” to the promises of the Democratic Party platform.

“If for some reason” Clinton does not deliver, Moore promises, tongue planted firmly in cheek, to run for president himself in 2020.

Moore goes beyond attempting, à la Sanders, to sell Clinton as a progressive alternative. The climax of the filmmaker’s plea on behalf of Clinton in TrumpLand is entirely within the deplorable framework of identity politics.

Running through Moore’s 70-minute show is the theme of Clinton as the first woman US president, and the supposedly earthshaking significance of gender. “Hillary is genuinely the first feminist of the modern era,” he proclaims, after screening a clip of her graduation speech from Wellesley College. Like the current Pope, Moore says, Clinton has “bided her time.” She endured all the attacks as First Lady, the failure of her attempts, supposedly, to secure universal healthcare. Now, however, “the majority gender has the chance to run this world.”

There are millions of young women and men, of course, firmly committed to equal rights, but unimpressed with Clinton or the claims that a woman president will reverse inequality or change the nature of the capitalist system.

Moore does not mention Margaret Thatcher, one of the most significant figures in the social counterrevolution that has been waged by global capitalism for the past 40 years. Nor does he allude to the current or recent female prime ministers or heads of state in Britain, Germany, Finland, Norway, Brazil, Chile, Australia, Argentina and elsewhere.

It is not an accident that the prominence of female leaders coincides with this period of reaction. The politics of identity, based on gender, race and sexual orientation, has been used to cultivate an upper middle class constituency that directly benefits from austerity and inequality, while the vast majority of the population, of all races and genders, suffers the consequences.

Moore is now the proud spokesperson for this brand of politics. His right-wing trajectory is one that has been followed by many others. There is some continuity, however, between his current love affair with Clinton and his earlier middle class radical posture. Even at his best, Moore depicted the working class as victims. Today his assigned task is to convince angry millennial voters who are justifiably disgusted with the two-party system to give Clinton a mandate, not for social reform, but for austerity and war.


We’re not the “good guys”: American drone warfare is terrorizing the Middle East

The Obama administration clings to Hollywood fantasy about the war on terror, even as its whistleblowers call foul

We're not the "good guys": American drone warfare is terrorizing the Middle East
Ethan Hawke in “Good Kill”
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

In a trio of recent action-packed movies, good guys watch terrorists mingling with innocent women and children via real-time video feeds from halfway across the world. A clock ticks and we, the audience, are let in on the secret that mayhem is going to break loose. After much agonized soul-searching about possible collateral damage, the good guys call in a missile strike from a U.S. drone to try to save the day by taking out a set of terrorists.

Such is the premise of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill, and Rick Rosenthal’s Drones. In reality, in Washington’s drone wars neither the “good guys” nor the helpless, endangered villagers under those robotic aircraft actually survive the not-so secret drone war that the Obama administration has been waging relentlessly across the Greater Middle East — not, at least, without some kind of collateral damage.  In addition to those they kill, Washington’s drones turn out to wound (in ways both physical and psychological) their own operators and the populations who live under their constant surveillance. They leave behind very real victims with all-too-real damage, often in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder on opposite sides of the globe.

Sometimes I am so sad that my heart wants to explode,” an Afghan man says, speaking directly into the camera. “When your body is intact, your mind is different. You are content. But the moment you are wounded, your soul gets damaged. When your leg is torn off and your gait slows, it also burdens your spirit.” The speaker is an unnamed victim of a February 2010 drone strike in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, but he could just as easily be an Iraqi, a Pakistani, a Somali, or a Yemeni. He appears inNational Bird, a haunting new documentary film by Sonia Kennebeck about the unexpected and largely unrecorded devastation Washington’s drone wars leave in their wake.  In it, the audience hears directly from both drone personnel and their victims.

“I Was Under the Impression That America Was Saving the World”

“When we are in our darkest places and we have a lot to worry about and we feel guilty about our past actions, it’s really tough to describe what that feeling is like,” says Daniel, a whistleblower who took part in drone operations and whose last name is not revealed in National Bird. Speaking of the suicidal feelings that sometimes plagued him while he was involved in killing halfway across the planet, he adds, “Having the image in your head of taking your own life is not a good feeling.”

National Bird is not the first muckraking documentary on Washington’s drone wars. Robert Greenwald’s Unmanned, Tonje Schei’s Drone, and Madiha Tahrir’s Wounds of Waziristan have already shone much-needed light on how drone warfare really works. But as Kennebeck told me, when she set out to make a film about the wages of the newest form of war known to humanity, she wanted those doing the targeting, as well as those they were targeting, to speak for themselves.  She wanted them to reveal the psychological impact of sending robot assassins, often operated by “pilots” halfway around the world, into the Greater Middle East to fight Washington’s war on terror. In her film, there’s no narrator, nor experts in suits working for think tanks in Washington, nor retired generals debating the value of drone strikes when it comes to defeating terrorism.

Instead, what you see is far less commonplace: low-level recruits in President Obama’s never-ending drone wars, those Air Force personnel who remotely direct the robotic vehicles to their targets, analyze the information they send back, and relay that information to the pilots who unleash Hellfire missiles that will devastate distant villages. If recent history is any guide, these drones do not just kill terrorists; in their target areas, they also create anxiety, upset, and a desire for revenge in a larger population and so have proven a powerful weapon in spreading terror movements across the Greater Middle East.

These previously faceless but distinctly non-robotic Air Force recruits are the cannon fodder of America’s drone wars.  You meet two twenty-somethings: Daniel, a self-described down-and-out homeless kid, every male member of whose family has been in jail on petty charges of one kind or another, and Heather, a small town high school graduate trying to escape rural Pennsylvania. You also meet Lisa, a former Army nurse from California, who initially saw the military as a path to a more meaningful life.

The three of them worked on Air Force bases scattered around the country from California to Virginia. The equipment they handled hovered above war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Pakistan and Yemen (where the U.S. Air Force was supporting assassination missions on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency).

“That is so cool, unmanned aircraft. That’s really bad-ass.” So Heather thought when she first saw recruitment posters for the drone program. “I was under the impression,” she told Kennebeck, “that America was saving the world, like that we were Big Brother and we were helping everyone out.”

Initially, Lisa felt similarly: “When I first got into the military, I mean I was thinking it was a win-win. It was a force for good in the world. I thought I was going to be on the right side of history.”

And that was hardly surprising.  After all, you’re talking about the “perfect weapon,” the totally high-tech, “precise” and “surgical,” no-(American)-casualties, sci-fi version of war that Washington has been promoting for years as its answer to al-Qaeda and other terror outfits.  President Obama who has personally overseen the drone campaigns — with a “kill list” and “terror Tuesday” meetings at the White House — vividly described his version of such a modern war in a 2013 speech at the National Defense University:

“This is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense. We were attacked on 9/11. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces… America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”

That distinctly Hollywood vision of America’s drone wars (with a Terminator edge) was the one that had filtered down to the level of Kennebeck’s three drone-team interviewees when they signed on.  It looked to them then like a war worth fighting and a life worth leading.  Today, as they speak out, their version of such warfare looks nothing like what either Hollywood or Washington might imagine.

“Excuse Me, Sir, Can I Have Your Driver’s License?”

National Bird does more than look at the devastation caused by drones in far away lands and the overwhelming anxiety it produces among those who live under the distant buzzing and constant threat of those robotic aircraft on an almost daily basis. Kennebeck also turns her camera on the men and women who helped make the strikes possible, trying to assess what the impact of their war has been on them. Their raw and unfiltered responses should deeply trouble us all.

Kennebeck’s interviewees are among at least a dozen whistleblowers who have stepped forward, or are preparing to do so, in order to denounce Washington’s drone wars as morally unjustified, as in fact nightmares both for those who fight them and those living in the lands that are on the receiving end. The realities of the day-in, day-out war they fought for years were, as they tell it, deeply destructive and filled with collateral damage of every sort.  Worse yet, drone operators turn out to have little real idea about, and almost no confirmation of, whom exactly they’ve blown away.

“It’s so primitive, raw, stripped-down death. This is real. It’s not a joke,” says Heather, an imagery analyst whose job was to look at the streaming video coming in from drones over war zones and interpret the grainy images for senior commanders in thekill chain. “You see someone die because you said it was okay to kill them. I was always shaking. Sometimes I would just go to the bathroom and just sit on the toilet. I mean just sit there in my uniform and just cry.”

Advocates of drone war believe, as do many of its critics, that it minimizes casualties. These Air Force veterans have, however, stepped forward to tell us that such claims simply aren’t true. In a study of what can be known about drone killings, the human rights group Reprieve has confirmed this reality vividly, finding that, in Pakistan, in attempts to take out 41 men, American drones actually killed an estimated 1,147 people (while not all of the 41 targeted figures even died). In other words, this hasn’t proved to be a war on terror, but a war of terror, a reality the drone whistleblowers confirm.

Heather is blunt in her criticism. “Hearing politicians speak about drones being precision weapons [makes it seem like they’re] able to make surgical strikes. To me it’s completely ridiculous, completely ludicrous to make these statements.”

The three whistleblowers point, for instance, to the complete absence of any post-strike verification of who exactly has died. “There’s a bomb. They drop it. It explodes,” Lisa says. “Then what? Does somebody go down and ask for somebody’s driver’s license? Excuse me, sir, can I have your driver’s license, see who you are? Does that happen? I mean, how do we know? How is it possible to know who ends up living or dying?”

After three years as an imagery analyst, after regularly watching unknown people die thousands of miles away on a grainy screen, Heather was diagnosed as suicidal. She estimates — and the experiences of other drone whistleblowers back her up — that alcoholics accounted for a significant percentage of her unit, and that many of her co-workers had similarly suicidal thoughts. Two actually did kill themselves.

As Heather’s grandfather points out, “She had trouble getting the treatment she needed. She had trouble finding a doctor because they didn’t have the right security clearance [and] she could be in violation of the law and could even go to prison for even talking to the wrong therapist about what was bothering her.”

In desperation Heather turned to her mother. “She’d call me up and she’d cry and she’d be upset, but then she couldn’t talk about it,” her mother says. “When you hear your daughter talking to you on the phone, you can that tell she is in trouble just by the emotion and inflection and the stress that you can hear in her voice. When you ask her, did you talk to anyone else about it? She’d say no, we’re not allowed to talk to anybody. I have a feeling that if someone wasn’t there for her, she wouldn’t be here right now.”

Like Heather, Daniel has so far survived his own drone-war-induced mental health issues, but in his post-drone life he’s run into a formidable enemy: the U.S. government. On August 8, 2014, he estimates that as many as 50 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents raided his house, seizing documents and his electronics.

“The government suspects that he is a source of information about the [drone] program that the government doesn’t want out there,” says Jesselyn Radack, his lawyer and herself a former Department of Justice whistleblower. “To me, that’s simply an attempt to silence whistleblowers, and it doesn’t surprise me that that happens to the very few people who have been brave enough to speak out against the drone program.”

If that was the intention, however, the raid — and the threat it carries for other whistleblowers — seems not to have had the desired effect. Instead, the number of what might be thought of as defectors from the drone program only seems to be growing. The first to come out was Brandon Bryant, a former camera operator in October 2013. He was followed by Cian Westmoreland, a former radio technician, in November 2014. Last November, Michael Haas and Stephen Lewis, two imagery analysts, joined Westmoreland and Bryant by speaking out at the launch of Tonje Schei’s filmDrone. All four of them also published an open letter to President Obama warning him that the drone war was escalating terrorism, not containing it.

And just last month, Chris Aaron, a former counterterrorism analyst for the CIA’s drone program, spoke out on a panel at the University of Nevada Law School. In the relatively near future, Radack recently told Rolling Stone, four more individuals involved in America’s drone wars are planning to offer their insights into how the program works.

Like Heather and Daniel, many of the former drone operators who have gone public are struggling with mental health problems. Some of them are also dealing with substance abuse issues that began as a way to counteract or dull the horrors of the war they were waging and witnessing. “We used to call alcohol drone fuel because it kept the program going. Everyone drank. There was a lot of coke, speed, and that sort of thing,” imagery analyst Haas toldRolling Stone. “If the higher ups knew, then they didn’t say anything, but I’m pretty sure they must have known. It was everywhere.”

“Imagine If This Was Happening to Us”

In recent months, something has changed for the whistleblowers. There is a new sense of camaraderie among them, as well as with the lawyers defending them and a growing group of activist supporters. Most unexpectedly, they are hearing from the families of victims of drone strikes, thanks to the work of groups like Reprieve in Great Britain.

In mid-April, for instance, when Cian Westmoreland was visiting London, he met with Malik Jalal, a Pakistani tribal leader who claims that he has been targeted by U.S. drones on multiple occasions. Clive Lewis, a member of Parliament and military veteran, released a photo on Facebook of the meeting. “It’s possible that one of the two men I’m [standing] between in this picture, Cian Westmoreland, was trying to kill the man on my right, Malik Jalal — at some stage in the past seven years,” Lewiswrote. “Their story is both amazing and terrifying. At once it shows the growing menace and destructive capability of unchecked political and military power juxtaposed with the power of the human spirit and human solidarity.”

As that sense of solidarity strengthens and as the distance between the former hunters and the hunted begins to narrow, the whistleblowers are beginning to confront some distinctly uncomfortable questions. “We often hear that drones can see everything by day and by night,” a different drone victim of the February 2010strike in Uruzgan told filmmaker Kennebeck. “You can see the difference between a needle and an ant but not people? We were sitting in the pickup truck, some even on the bed. Did you not see that there were travelers, women and children?”

When the president and his key officials look at the drone program, they undoubtedly don’t “see” women and children. Instead, they are caught up in a Hollywood-style vision of imminent danger from terrorists and of the kind of salvation that a missile launched from thousands of miles away provides. It is undoubtedly thanks to just this thought process, already deeply embedded in the American way of war, that not a single candidate for president in 2016 has rejected the drone program.

That is exactly what the whistleblowers feel needs to change. “I just want people to know that not everybody is a freaking terrorist and we need to just get out of that mindset. And we just need to see these people as people — families, communities, brothers, mothers, and sisters, because that’s who they are,” says Lisa. “Imagine if this was happening to us. Imagine if our children were walking outside of the door and it was a sunny day and they were afraid because they didn’t know if today was the day that something would fall out of the sky and kill someone close to them. How would we feel?”

Pratap Chatterjee is the author of “Halliburton’s Army: How A Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War”. He is the managing editor of CorpWatch.

Killing Them Safely: The big business of police tasers


By Kevin Martinez
15 December 2015

Directed by Nick Berardini

The opening scene of first-time director Nick Berardini’s documentary Killing Them Safely is not easy to forget. A herd of buffalo roam peacefully in a pen. Suddenly, the viewer hears the characteristic clicking caused by a taser’s electrical discharge. An unsuspecting buffalo is shot with darts attached to wires and crumples to the ground, writhing in pain. If such a large beast is stopped dead in its tracks, what chance does a human being stand?

The subject of the film is TASER International, the company that has monopolized the manufacture of “electrical control devices” (ECDs), sometimes referred to as “stun guns,” but most commonly as tasers. The documentary explains how the founders of TASER International, having equipped more than 17,000 police departments around the world with their products, have created a highly profitable business for themselves.

Berardini’s film is a compelling look at a company that exploits police brutality for profits, needlessly endangering people in the process. Masterfully constructed from original interviews, videos of police encounters, news reports and filmed depositions, the documentary is at once objective and emotional, without being overly clinical or dispassionate.

After introducing the company, Killing Them Safely demonstrates how relentless promotion and company-sponsored training sessions have led to police tasing individuals in trivial situations like routine traffic stops. Tasers have been used on children as young as six as well as on women in their 80s.

While promoted as a safe alternative to other forms of police violence, the current generation of higher-power tasers has been associated with approximately one thousand deaths since they were introduced in 2000. So far this year, at least 47 people have died in the US from police tasers, according to a study by the Guardian. Yet the company insists that their product is safe and had nothing to do with any of the fatalities, not unlike arguments used by tobacco companies in defense of cigarette sales.

The documentary highlights cases brought by police-misconduct lawyers that resulted in the exposure of lethal risks the company sought to obscure. One of the attorneys featured in the film, John Burton, ran as the Socialist Equality Party’s candidate for governor of California in the 2003 recall election and contributes as a writer to the World Socialist Web Site .

The founders of TASER International, brothers Tom and Rick Smith, have an almost pathological commitment to their product, which spokesperson Steve Tuttle claims to be “the biggest revolution in law enforcement since the radio.” The Smiths founded the company in 1993 with money borrowed from their parents, supposedly motivated by the shooting death of a friend in a road rage incident, a connection that makes little sense.

Berardini’s Killing Them Safely does not demonize the Smith brothers. If anything, one almost feels sorry for the two, hopelessly lost in self-delusion. That is, one would feel sympathy for them if they weren’t multimillionaires with blood on their hands.

Beradini, however, does not need to paint a negative portrait of the pair since more than enough damning evidence comes out of their own mouths. Indeed, the most telling moments are the brothers’ responses during video depositions when asked by lawyers what they know about the dangers of their products. Their answers are as evasive as they are self-serving. The Smiths argue that the fault lies with police training, not tasers, which given the increasingly militarized characterized of police forces has a grain of truth, but obscures the fact that the company has been hiding information about how its product can kill.

In fact, taser training manuals are drawn up by the company, a weapons manufacturer, without any federal or local oversight. Moreover, when forced to acknowledge scientific proof that tasers could induce cardiac arrest if discharged too close to the heart, the company updated its manual and recommended not aiming directly at the chest area—not out of any safety concern but for fear of litigation!

The most moving and effective parts of Killing Them Safely portray victims, along with family members, telling their stories. Several deaths were captured on video, including that of Robert Dziekanksi, a middle-aged man from Poland, who was needlessly shocked and asphyxiated by Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the Vancouver International Airport on October 14, 2007. His death led to an official inquiry, which concluded that the weapons were far more dangerous than represented, and that their use should be significantly curtailed in Canada.

Equally tragic is the fate of Stanley Harlan, 23, of Moberly, Missouri who died after being tasered. Police stopped Stanley for speeding outside his home. One watches the dashcam video in horror as the young man succumbs to a taser-induced cardiac arrest with the police providing no medical attention and his mother screaming in the background. The city eventually agreed to an indefinite moratorium on tasers and paid the family $2.4 million. TASER International escaped liability, however.

In an interview with The Film Stage, Berardini was asked his thoughts about recent cases of police brutality. The filmmaker commented: “It’s good for business when there is strife between the police and the community. It’s good for business when officers use tasers—even when they use them inappropriately—because TASER International is not the one that shoulders the blame. The officers do. I think in a lot of cases, TASER International is as culpable or more culpable.”

Virtually every review of Killing Them Safely has been positive. TASER International has been caught red-handed using its employees as trolls to post negative reviews on Amazon and iTunes, where the film is available fordownload.

The biggest weakness of Berardini’s film is the lack of any broader explanation as to why tasers have played such a prominent role in recent cases of police brutality. Moreover, what sort of environment produces figures such as the Smith brothers, and rewards them so handsomely for their operations? Also problematic is the fact the documentary tends to absolve the individual police officers for their actions. Even if it were the case that tasers were being used “inappropriately,” should anyone be surprised that cops view electroshock weapons as another tool with which to repress the population?

Having said that, Killing Them Safely provides an unsettling look at the link between the police and “security” apparatus and the generation of massive profits. As a postscript we learn that TASER International is now making body cameras for police. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Janis: Little Girl Blue–Amy Berg’s valuable documentary about singer Janis Joplin

By David Walsh
5 December 2015

Janis: Little Girl Blue, the documentary about rock and roll singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970) is currently playing in New York City and Los Angeles. It will have a digital and television premiere on PBS’s American Masters early in 2016. Wewrote about the film when it was shown at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Amy Berg

Amy Berg is making a name for herself as an interesting documentary filmmaker. Her Deliver Us from Evil (2006), about a Catholic priest who admitted to molesting and raping 25 children, and West of Memphis (2012), about the frame-up of a number of young men for the supposed “satanic” murder of three eight-year-old children, were both systematic and compassionate.

In Janis: Little Girl Blue, Berg turns to the life and career of rock and roll singer Janis Joplin, who was immensely popular for the last several years of her life until her tragic demise from heroin and alcohol in October 1970.

Joplin grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, a sea port on the Gulf of Mexico and at the time the center of a large oil refinery network. Her father was a mechanical engineer in the oil industry. In high school, as Little Girl Blue details, Joplin felt persecuted and an outcast.

The civil rights movement and the social developments of the late 1950s and early 1960s were obviously critical to the course of her life. One of her first musical memories, Berg’s film notes, was hearing folk singer Odetta’s version of “Careless Love.” Joplin tried folk singing in Austin, Texas, before first moving to San Francisco in 1963, where she sang but also developed a methamphetamine habit and became “skeletal.”

After a brief period back home in Port Arthur, Joplin returned to San Francisco in 1966 and became the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, a “psychedelic rock” band. A major breakthrough took place at the Monterey Pop Festival, one of the first of the large, well-publicized music festivals, in June 1967, where she sang a memorable version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.”

Janis: Little Girl Blue

Berg’s film follows the vicissitudes of Joplin’s professional and personal life. She left Big Brother in 1968 and went out on her own as the leader of her own band. She continued to use serious drugs. A friend says blithely, “We shot heroin for fun.” She eventually took off for Brazil to clean herself up, where she fell in love with an American traveler.

Berg treats Joplin’s life with a great deal of sympathy. The singer, who exuded confidence and bravado on stage, was beset by anxiety and insecurity. She told a Montreal reporter in 1969, “Send me your review. I agonize over all of ’em. Man, I’m really neurotic. I really want people to love me.”

Joplin’s recordings are not generally as good as they could be and she tended, as filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker remarks, to “shout and scream.” It will elicit cries of outrage from some, but, in my opinion, there is very little of the “San Francisco Sound” that stands the test of time: too much self-indulgence, too many drugs, too much self-delusion.

However, anyone who saw Janis Joplin in person, especially in a more intimate space, is not likely to forget it. This writer saw her in concert three times in 1968 and 1969, including on a bill with B.B. King only a few hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968. I have never from that time to this seen a performer as generous and as giving—and as vulnerable. One almost inevitably fell in love with her.

Janis Joplin in 1970

Her last boyfriend David Niehaus comments in Berg’s film that Janis “could feel everybody else’s pain.” She could not be oblivious, Niehaus explains, to suffering, her singing represents an “entire honesty.”

Laura and Michael Joplin, Janis’ younger siblings, participated in the making of Berg’s film and are interviewed in it. They were present at the public screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2015. Each makes a highly favorable impression. They spoke with considerable affection, four decades or more later, about their elder sister. Laura described Janis’ emotional life as a “roller coaster” from early on. She made clear that her sister hated “racism” (Port Arthur had an active branch of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s) and felt strongly about “integration” and “equality.” Footage of Janis’s mother, after her daughter’s death, reading a letter from one of Janis’ admirers explaining how the singer had affected her life, is also very moving.

The final and perhaps most apt comment in Little Girl Blue comes from John Lennon, on a talk show following Joplin’s death. Lennon observes that no one is asking the most important question, why people take drugs in the first place. He suggests that it comes from a “problem with society. People can’t live in society without guarding themselves from it.”

Amy, a documentary film about the British singer Amy Winehouse

By Joanne Laurier
12 August 2015

Directed by Asif Kapadia

British-born director Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy, about the pop singer Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), is a straightforward and compelling account of the performer’s life starting at the age of fourteen. Through video footage from a variety of devices and the voiceover comments of friends, family members and music industry figures (Kapadia conducted 100 interviews), the documentary paints a picture of an immensely talented and tortured musical prodigy.

During her eight-year recording career, beginning when she was still a teenager, Winehouse garnered numerous awards, including six Grammys. Her second album, Back to Black, released in October 2006, made her an international singing star. By the time of her death, she had sold more than six million albums in the UK and US alone. Kapadia’s film features a number of her biggest hits, “Rehab” (2006), “You Know I’m No Good” (2007), “Back to Black” (2007), “Love is a Losing Game” (2007), and her soulful duet with Tony Bennett, “Body and Soul” (2011).


From an early age, as the documentary reveals, Winehouse aspired above all to be a jazz singer. Among her most important influences were Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Bennett and others. But she also channeled many of the pop artists and trends of the 1960s and 1970s, including Motown, R&B, reggae, Carole King, James Taylor and “girl groups” like the Shirelles and the Ronettes. In her music and extraordinary voice one encounters a multitude of influences, each one distinct and yet blended together to create a personal and unique sound. A record industry figure notes that she was a “very old soul in a very young body.”

After Winehouse’s death, Bennett commented: “It was such a sad thing because … she was the only singer that really sang what I call the ‘right way,’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer.…A true jazz singer.”

The movie opens with footage of a close friend’s 14th birthday party in 1998, at which Winehouse offers an alluring, mischievous version of “Happy Birthday” à la Marilyn Monroe, and ends with the aftermath of her tragic death from alcohol poisoning in July 2011 at the age of 27.

A friend observes at one point that she was “a North London Jewish girl with a lot of attitude.” Her father Mitchell owned a cab and her mother Janis was a pharmacist. Her paternal grandmother Cynthia was a singer and at one time dated Ronnie Scott, the tenor saxophonist and owner of the best-known jazz club in London.

Kapadia’s Amy follows Winehouse from her teenage years to the beginnings of her professional music career in 2002 and beyond. We see a host of appearances and performances, both private and public, some of them intensely intimate and very affecting to the viewer. In some of these scenes, the young singer is disarmingly genuine, childlike and really adorable.

Three of Winehouse’s friends, including two from childhood, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, and her first manager (when he was 19 and Winehouse was 16), Nick Shymansky, provide the most in-depth and believable portrait. Her father, her ex-husband Blake Fielder and her promoter-manager Raye Cosbert also feature prominently in the film, in a less favorable light.

At a certain point, of course, Amy gets down to business, which every viewer knows is coming—the singer’s [meteoric] Rise and [tragic] Fall, as it were. Much of the documentary details her successes and the severe complications or contradictions accompanying those successes.


Winehouse insists—and one feels, sincerely—on several occasions that celebrity and what comes with it is not her goal. As she told CNN in a 2007 interview, “I don’t write songs because I want my voice to be heard or I want to be famous or any of that stuff. I write songs about things I have problems with and I have to get past them and I have to make something good out of something bad.” Early on in the film, in fact, she asserts, “I’d probably go mad [if I were famous].” Later on: “If I really thought I was famous, I’d f—g go top [kill] myself.”

Tragically, Winehouse, already a bulimic since her adolescence and a heavy drinker early on in life, falls into heavy drug use. Kapadia’s documentary focuses perhaps too much on this aspect, as though this by itself could explain her fate.

The film effectively captures some of the ghastliness of the modern celebrity racket. Countless scenes record paparazzi camped outside her door and snapping photos of her every move, including the most crazed and desperate. Her ex-manager Shymansky told an interviewer, “the paparazzi were allowed to get brutally close…it’s this infatuation with getting up people’s skirts, or seeing someone vomit, or punching a paparazzi.”

As Winehouse goes to pieces in public, the media engages in what Shymansky calls, in the film, “a feeding frenzy.” Kapadia himself told the media, “This is a girl who had a mental illness, yet every comedian, every TV host, they all did it [bullied or laughed at her] with such ease, without even thinking. We all got carried away with it.”

The production notes for Amy suggest: “The combination of her raw honesty and supreme talent resulted in some of the most original and adored songs of the modern era.

“Her huge success, however, resulted in relentless and invasive media attention which coupled with Amy’s troubled relationships and precarious lifestyle saw her life tragically begin to unravel.”

The inquest into Winehouse’s death, according to the Daily Mail, found that she “drank herself to death … Three empty vodka bottles were found near her body in her bedroom. A pathologist who examined her said she had 416mg [milligrams] of alcohol per decilitre [3.38 fluid ounces] of blood—five times the legal drink-drive limit of 80mg. The inquest heard that 350mg was usually considered a fatal amount.”

Kapadia’s documentary is both valuable and intriguing. Because the director lets Winehouse speak (and sing) for herself, the viewer receives a relatively clear-eyed and balanced picture of both her artistry and her qualities as a human being. Amy rightfully points a finger at a predatory industry. Kapadia told NME (New Musical Express, the British music journalism magazine and website), “I was angry, and I wanted the audience to be angry. … This started off as a film about Amy, but it became a film about how our generation lives.” NME continues, “Kapadia hopes his film will force the music industry to re-examine its handling of young, troubled talents.”

In the interview, unfortunately, the director places too much of the blame on the public itself, as though people were in control of the information they received and were responsible for the operations of the entertainment industry.Amy, at more then two hours, is perhaps overly long because the filmmaker seems intent on driving home to the viewer his or her supposed “complicity.”

In opposition to this, the 2011 WSWS obituary of Winehouse argued that the ultimate responsibility for her death lay with “the intense … pressures generated by the publicity-mad, profit-hungry music business, which chews up its human material almost as consistently as it spits out new ‘product.’”

Comic Russell Brand, in a comment on the death of Winehouse, a close friend, characterized the celebrity culture as “a vampiric, cannibalizing system that wants its heroes and heroines dead so it can devour their corpses in public for entertainment.”

Stepping back, Amy Winehouse was definitely a cultural phenomenon. As opposed to many acts and performers, who ride on the crest of massive marketing campaigns, like bars of soap or automobiles, she came by her fame honestly, almost in spite of her efforts. She truly struck a chord with audiences and listeners.

This was not an accident. Her songs, in part because they brought to bear (and made new) so much popular musical history, registered with audiences as more substantial, truthful and urgent than the majority of current fare. Winehouse’s popularity reflected a dissatisfaction with the lazy, self-absorbed pablum that dominates the charts.

In terms of the combination of factors that led to Winehouse’s death, of course there were the individual circumstances of her background and life. The entertainment industry juggernaut inflicts itself on everyone, but only the most vulnerable collapse under what is to them an unbearable burden.

As always in such cases, the media self-servingly treated the singer’s death as a purely personal episode. The Daily Mirror, for example, fatuously suggested that Winehouse was “a talent dogged by self destruction.”

Surely, something more than this, or what Amy offers as an explanation (drugs, difficult family history, a bad marriage, a cold-blooded industry), for that matter, is called for. Why would someone at the height of her global fame and popularity bring about the end of her life so abruptly and “needlessly”? What made her so wretched and conflicted?

To begin to get at an answer, one must look at the more general circumstances of her life, including the character of the period in which she lived…and died.

She came of age and later gained public attention between the years 2001 and 2011, in other words, a decade dominated by “the war on terror” and the politicians’ “big lie” and hostility to democratic rights (the Blair government in particular prided itself on flouting the public will), as well as by global economic turbulence and sharp social polarization. The generation she belonged to increasingly looked to the future with skepticism and even alarm. A serious darkness descended into more than one soul.

One study of American college-age students in the first decade of the 21st century, and this could certainly be applied to British young people as well, sums them up as a “generation on a tightrope,” facing an “abyss that threatens to dissolve and swallow them,” “seeking security but [living] in an age of profound and unceasing change.”

Amy Winehouse, as far as this reviewer is aware (or the film would indicate), never addressed a single broader social issue, including the Blair government’s involvement in the Iraq War, which provoked one of the largest protest demonstrations in British history in February 2003. Nonetheless, the drama, anxiety and sensitivity of her music speaks to something about both the turbulent character of the decade and the dilemma of a generation whose dreams and idealism came up against the brutal realities of the existing social set-up.

The manner in which Winehouse approached the latter “dilemma” was refracted through the objectively shaped confusion and difficulties of that same generation, which finds itself hostile toward dominant institutions and yet not entirely clear why. In that light, Winehouse’s famous refrain in “Rehab,” “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, ‘No, no, no,’” which from one point of view might simply seem self-indulgent, comes across as a firm (if misguided in this case) rejection of intrusive orders from above.

In part due to an unfavorable and unsympathetic social atmosphere, a conscious or unconscious alienation from official public life, Winehouse turned inward and reduced these significant feelings into purely personal passions and self-directed anger, and ultimately, with her lowered psychic immune system, found herself a victim of that rage and disorientation.

Kapadia’s Amy does not go anywhere near some of these critical issues, but it is a worthwhile introduction to the work of a remarkably gifted artist.

The incredible vanishing editor: What we can learn from Martin Scorsese’s new documentary

They’re invisible until something goes wrong, as in Alessandra-Stanley-gate. But we need editors now more than ever


The incredible vanishing editor: What we can learn from Martin Scorsese's new documentary
Hugh Eakin and Robert Silvers in “The 50 Year Argument” (Credit: HBO/Brigitte Lacombe)

Recently, the author Andrew Solomon, while describing the Amazon reader reviews for his monumental book, “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity,” recounted that one reviewer objected to having to pay more that $9.99 for something that consisted of nothing more than electronic bits. “What about the 11 years of my life it took to write it?” Solomon asked plaintively. “What about the months my editor spent working on it?”

That’s a particularly egregious example of how writing remains a form of invisible — or at least translucent — labor. Solomon’s research for “Far From the Tree” encompassed, among other things, interviews with over 300 families; you can see every hour he spent on the book right there on the page. But no matter how infatuated our culture has become with the digital, we still have a hard time appreciating the value of immaterial creations. Consumers who demand that the price of e-books be slashed to less than half the hardcover list price reveal a belief that the work and expertise of a writer are worth less than a handful of paper and cardboard.

And, oh, that poor editor! (“It’s Nan Graham,” Solomon explained in an email. “And I value her more than gold and silver and precious stones.”) If most readers do grudgingly admit that someone must write the books they purchase, they are less willing to concede that the vocation of helping to bring someone else’s writing into the world has much merit. “You are uninformed in that technology is making many of the functions of editor and publisher obsolete,” one commenter posted to a New York Times story about the publishing industry. “Writers should need little to no editing when computers check spelling, etc.”

Even readers who claim to value non-automated editing have little sense of a editor’s actual responsibilities. The familiar grouse that “no one edits anymore” is usually followed by lamentations over the typos, grammatical errors and misspellings someone has found in traditionally published works. But correcting that kind of micro-mistake is the job of a copyeditor (or in some cases a proofreader), not the editor. So if the editor is not in charge of fixing “spelling, etc,” then what does an editor do?

There’s an expression (taken from “Hamlet”) most often used to refer to a good rule that is frequently broken: honored in the breach. But the phrase might be better deployed to describe a mission whose value we appreciate most when it fails. Like a counterterrorism operative, a good editor had done her best work when you don’t realize she’s done anything at all.

It is only when editors fail — as was the case with, say, the three New York Times editors who gave a pass to Alessandra Stanley’s now-infamous “Angry Black Woman” article on Shonda Rhimes — that their importance becomes evident. The same could be said for A.O. Scott’s much-discussed New York Times Magazine essay, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” which was much-discussed in large part because the through lines of Scott’s argument were muddled by the deployment of too many examples that didn’t really fit his thesis. In both cases, a more culturally knowledgeable editor would have invisibly fixed the problem before the piece ever saw print.

Martin Scorsese’s new film, “The Fifty-Year Argument” (currently being shown on HBO) is a rare tribute to another part of the editor’s job: Making writing happen in the first place. A documentary about the history of the venerable New York Review of Books, the film mostly focuses on the Review’s stellar contributors: Joan Didion, Zoe Heller, Daryl Pinckney, Daniel Mendelsohn, and many more. But interspersed with those interviews are quiet scenes that show the NYRB’s 85-year-old editor-in-chief, Robert Silvers, calling up writers and proposing assignments. It’s not great cinema, but it’s far more relevant to the Review’s stature than the more exciting archival footage of Norman Mailer shouting at the audience during a 1971 panel discussion on feminism.

“I needed him so much,” Didion tells the camera, recounting how Silvers had persuaded her to cover several Democratic and Republican conventions “not so much to walk me through it as to give me the confidence I could walk myself through it. … Bob involved me in writing about stuff I had no interest in.” As perverse as this strategy might sound, it does often work. That has been my own experience, particularly with Salon’s founding editor, David Talbot, who was always persuading me to tackle subjects (Michael Jackson) or to cover stories (a murder trial) that I considered off my beat; as a result I learned more than I would have if left to my own devices. Whatever the merits of my own stuff, the culture would be a lot poorer without Didion’s reporting on domestic politics. It shone in large part because, as someone who considered herself uninterested in the topic, she was able to bring a fresh, smart perspective to bear.

While this happens less often with books (it’s difficult to convince anyone to spend that much time working on a subject not of their own choosing), it does occur, albeit sometimes indirectly. James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” for example, although eventually published in book form, originated as an assignment to write about the Nation of Islam for Norman Podhoretz at Commentary. Editors also convince writers to bail on misbegotten projects and switch to more promising ones, or persuade them to reshape and recast books that aren’t working. Daniel Handler was struggling with a “mock-gothic novel for adults called ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events,’” when his agent sent his first and yet-unsold adult manuscript (“The Basic Eight” — highly recommended) to a children’s book editor, Susan Rich. She suggested he try writing for a younger audience, and Lemony Snicket was born.

Literary history celebrates many such cases, as well as instances when aggressive editorial “fat trimming” secured an author’s fame. The hierophant/editor Gordon Lish pared Raymond Carver’s short stories down to the bone, and even if Carver was not happy with this transformation, Lish’s scalpel played a major role in Carver’s exultation as the king of minimalism. Ezra Pound, in an unofficial capacity, performed the same wizardry on T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

Maxwell Perkins, the editor who fought for (and with) such writers as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, is regularly held up as the pinnacle of the editorial profession in years past. This praise is inevitably followed by the complaint that no one even tries to follow his example anymore. But then again, how would we know? It’s not a profession that attracts many spotlight hogs, and besides, the mystique of the solitary genius is so much more romantic than the reality that most good books are the result of a collaboration. I recently found myself sitting with three very talented, highly acclaimed novelists, so I asked them about their editors. “It amazes me,” said one. “They work so hard on our books, and then we get all the credit.” The other two writers nodded in agreement.

If editors like Perkins seem rare today, well, they were probably rare in the 1920s, as well. Not every writer gets the Maxwell Perkins treatment, but then again not every writer is F. Scott Fitzgerald. Furthermore, if every bad book can be held up as evidence that editors are falling down on their jobs, then every good book ought to be admitted as evidence to the contrary. (That includes every book from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alice Munro, Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel and Don DeLillo, to name just five novelists.) It’s in the very nature of editing that the people who do it are doing it best when we forget all about them.

But surely the most endangered editorial role is, not coincidentally, also the most ineffable. In a recent post, Kent Anderson of the Scholarly Kitchen, a blog about academic publishing, reports that scientific and scholarly journals are now spoken of as if peer-reviewing were the only significant part of their editorial process: “one of the most important roles — that of the editor-in-chief or senior editor — seems to have been lost.” Of late, some journals have even been launched without any main editor at all; editorial and advisory boards, combined with peer review, have been deemed sufficient. There is no leader to be held personally accountable for the journal’s choices, and the publication loses something else, as well: vision, character, a personality all its own.

Anderson argues that in scholarly publishing — although the same goes for journalism and book publishing — a good editor-in-chief provides much that is crucial if also intangible. An EIC can be a martinet, a glad-hander, a guru or a sort of veiled prophet, only emerging from her office to utter baffling, oracular pronouncements. The best make their readers, contributors and staff feel like they’ve been invited to the greatest party ever, with the most scintillating, intelligent, profound and witty guests. They attract commercial authors who want to rub shoulders (or bindings) with literary greats, thereby helping to fund the continuing publication of literary greats, and they deploy their charm and expertise to get the best work out of major talents. Gifted younger editors want to work with them and in turn bring in new voices.

While the personality of a journalistic publication is usually clear to its readers, most book buyers are at best dimly aware of the distinct characters of the hundreds of large and small book publishing companies out there. (This includes smaller divisions of big presses, known as imprints, that are frequently named after the individual editors who run them.) Authors, booksellers and other industry types know exactly what each house stands for, but no publisher has had the equivalent of a Steve Jobs, someone whose role is to embody a coherent identity to both insiders and the pubic at large. For decades, this state of affairs has suited everyone just fine. Now that debates over what an e-book should cost — ultimately, a quarrel over the value of the labor invested in it by everyone other than the author — have gone public, that may no longer be enough.

Further reading

Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’ public editor, on Alessandra Stanley’s article about Shonda Rhimes

A.O. Scott for the New York Times Magazine on “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture”

HBO’s page for Martin Scorsese’s “The Fifty-Year Argument”

Kent Anderson for the Scholarly Kitchen on “The Editor — A Vital Role We Barely Talk About Anymore”

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia” and has a Web site,