A Philosopher's Blog

A Virtual Economy

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on March 31, 2010
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Spending money for games that allow you to play in an imaginary world is nothing new. However, a new way has been found to monetize games: selling items within games for real money. While this has been done in various online games against the terms of service of such games, Playfish has this as their business model. Facebook users can play their various games for free, but they buy the items in the game with real money (and lots of it).

Of course, virtual commodities are nothing new. People buy music, videos and software online. It can be argued that the virtual items in online games are similar-after all, they are digital “entities” that are purchased for enjoyment or use. Of course, music, videos and software do seem a bit more “substantial” than items in a video game, but perhaps this is not really a difference in kind but one of complexity.

While buying such game items might seem odd, it actually does make some sense. After all, if it makes sense to buy a song on iTunes because you enjoy it, it seems equally sensible to buy items in a game so as to enjoy the game. While the song might be seen as real, the game item is also real insofar as it creates enjoyment (as Mill argued, anything that can produce an effect is real).

In the case of competitive games, the selling of items does create the obvious problem of game balance and does violate a rather common principle of gamer ethics regarding buying advantages in a game with real money (that is, this is wrong).

Interestingly, this virtual economy is being lauded as not just a rather clever way to make money,  but also as a way to gain excellent data about economic behavior. While gathering such data in the real world can be costly and difficult (and often yield dubious results) the virtual economy in such games can be tracked with  precision.

However, there is the obvious concern of whether or not the online behavior matches real world economic behavior. Another concern is whether the people engaged in the online games differ in important respects from the general population. However, this is certainly interesting to folks who are into economics.

To close, I cannot help but think about Pet Rocks. When I was a kid, some clever people found a way to sell rocks as pets. When I think about people buying virtual things for real money, I keep picturing Pet Rocks.

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Scientists & Public Perception

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2010
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Academics in general and scientists in particular are often stereotyped as being brainy but lacking in social skills. While this is a stereotype, it does have some merit.

One example that illustrates this is the debate over climate change. While the scientists present data and logical arguments, they seem to be ill prepared to deal with the political machinery that has been arrayed against the idea that the climate is changing.

Part of the problem might be that scientists have faith in reason and think that because they find numbers and logic compelling, that other people will as well. However, as I always point out in my critical thinking class, people tend to be more swayed by emotions, rhetoric and fallacies than by good logic.

Part of the problem might be that the scientists generally do not get how the political process and public perception works. Anyone who has suffered through a painfully lifeless and dull lecture in a college class is well aware of this phenomena. To be fair, the job of the scientist is not to amuse or entertain and, of course, the most important facts and theories often strike people as dull. However, the reality is that being unable to deal with the persuasive component of dealing with the public is a serious flaw and can render all that logic, data and science ineffective.

As a final point, it must also be noted that scientists sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by being arrogant, condescending and creating the impression that those who dare to disagree with them are fools. While this works for many pundits, it seems to be less effective for scientists.

While learning to play the social game requires some effort and perhaps some natural talent, it can be done and is well worth doing. After all, if you have something to say and no one will listen, that is almost as bad as having nothing at all to say.

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Originality & Authenticity

Posted in Aesthetics by Michael LaBossiere on March 29, 2010

It has been said that “there is nothing new under the sun” and that “good poets borrow, great poets steal.”As such, it makes perfect sense that David Shields would “write” Reality Hunger. This book was created by taking what others (ranging from Elvis to Yeats) wrote or said and combining it into a single work. While he did not want the work to properly cite the original sources, the publisher’s lawyers decided otherwise (for obvious reasons).

Since I am a professor, I tend to see this sort of thing as plagiarism rather than a creative work (although I have seen some creative attempts at plagiarism). However, some folks do not see it this way.

One recent example is provided by Helene Hegemann. Her book, Axolotl Roadkill, allegedly contains plagiarized text. In her defense, she asserted that “there’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” This remark nicely mixes “there is nothing new under the sun” with Tolstoy’s view that sincerity is of critical importance in art. However, Tolstoy did have the view that originality was important, as did many other great writers including Edgar Allan Poe.

While Hegemann’s remark can be dismissed as an artist’s hyperbole (or an attempt to justify plagiarism) she does raise an interesting point about art.

On one hand, it can be argued that there is no originality. After all, artists recycle old ideas that themselves are ultimately just imitations of life. True, it might be said, artists can put together old content in new ways (such as Avatar) and achieve great success. But, this sort of originality cannot be considered true (or authentic originality).

In regards to authenticity, perhaps that is what matters-to speak in a genuine voice and, presumably, with the sincerity that Tolstoy praised.

On the other hand, originality does seem to be possible in various degrees. After all, it is easy enough to distinguish between outright copying and works that provide some new element. Having graded papers for years, I have a rather clear insight into that sort of distinction. Also, if there is no originality, there would seem to be little reason to buy or experience “new” works, because there would be no such things. We would be wiser to save our money and avail ourselves of the art already in the public domain.

As far as authenticity goes, that presumably means that the work presents what the artist really thinks or feels. Presumably people can feel and think the same things, so the work of another could, for example, be an authentic expression of what Hegemann thought or felt. However, this hardly seems to be the grounds for claiming authorship. After all, suppose a student of mine turned in a paper she copied from the internet claiming that it authentically expressed her views on Descartes’ skeptical arguments in the First Meditation. Even if this claim were true, she would hardly be entitled to claim the work on her own. After all, if I see someone doing a job and say “gosh, I would work just like that” I am hardly entitled to a cut of his paycheck.

Interestingly enough, I have had students try that approach-they have said that the text they copied expressed their view and hence they regarded it as acceptable to copy it without citing the source. Obviously, I did not buy that reasoning. After all, if I caught a student copying off another student’s test, I would not accept “well, those are the answers I would have put anyway” as a legitimate excuse. The same would seem to apply in art as well.

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Rhetorical Overkill

Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 28, 2010
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As part of my critical thinking class, I teach a section on rhetoric. While my main concern is with teaching students how to defend against it, I also discuss how to use it. One of the points I make is that one risk with certain forms of rhetoric is what I call rhetorical overkill. This is  commonly done with hyperbole which is, by definition, an extravagant overstatement.

One obvious risk with hyperbole is that if it is too over the top, then it can be ineffective or even counterproductive. If a person is trying to use positive hyperbole, then going too far can create the impression that the person is claiming the absurd or even mocking the subject in question. For example, think of the over the top infomercials where the product is claimed to do  everything but cure cancer.  If the person is trying to use negative hyperbole, then going too far can undercut the attack by making it seem ridiculous. For example, calling a person a Nazi because he favors laws requiring people to use seat belts would seem rather absurd.

Another risk is that hyperbole can create an effect somewhat like crying wolf. In that tale, the boy cried “wolf” so often that no one believed him when the wolf actually came. In the case of rhetorical overkill, the problem is that it can create what might be dubbed “hyperbolic fatigue.” If matters are routinely blown out of proportion, this will tend to numb people to such terms. On a related note, if politicians and pundits routinely cry “Hitler” or “apocalypse” over lesser matters what words will they have left when the situation truly warrants such terms?

In some ways, this  is like swearing. While I am not a prude, I prefer to keep my swear words in reserve for situations that actually merit them. I’ve noticed that many people tend to use swear words in everyday conversations and I found this a bit confusing at first. After all, I have “hierarchy of escalation” when it comes to words, and swear words are at the top.  But, for many folks today, swear words are just part of everyday conversation (even in the classroom). So, when someone swears at me now, I pause to see if they are just talking normally or if they are actually trying to start trouble.

While I rarely swear, I do resent the fact that swear words have become so diluted and hence less useful to make a point quickly and directly. The same applies to extreme language-if we do not reserve it for extreme circumstances, then we diminish our language by robbing extreme words of their corresponding significance.

So, what the f@ck do you think?

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Rhetoric & Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 27, 2010
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Threats and vandalism have been following in the wake of the health care bill. Given the acrimony surrounding the matter, this is hardly surprising. While the topic of health care provides a myriad of issues to discuss, I’ll be focusing on the ethics of the rhetoric used in the debate.

While the health care reform bill is a matter of considerable controversy, the language used by politicians and pundits often went to extremes far out of proportion to the reality of the situation. Listening to the rhetoric, one would think that the health care bill was a an ultimate battle in the war between good and evil. Pundits such as Glenn Beck tried to link the bill with socialism, communism and the Nazis. There were calls to “eradicate” people and to engage in vandalism. Some even shouted “baby killer.”

While such posturing and rhetoric is part of politics, I will present two moral reasons why the pundits and politicians should reign in such rhetoric.

First, such extreme rhetoric is inconsistent with good decision making. The public depends on the politicians and pundits to provide information about such matters and the use of such extreme rhetoric serves to contaminate the information pool. It might, of course, be argued that politicians and pundits are not teachers and have no obligation to present matters fairly, accurately and objectively so as to properly educate the people. In fact, their jobs are to push a specific political agenda based on their specific interests.

Of course, the matter could be put even more bluntly: politicians and pundits  have no moral obligation to be honest. However, such an obligation seems to universal and being a politician or pundit does not seem to grant a person a special exemption.

It can be replied that the politicians and pundits are being honest, that they really believe what they are claiming when they shout things like “baby killer” , when they claim that the health care bill will lead to death panels, or when they claim that the bill will save America. In this case, I would say that they have an obligation to be better informed and more in control of their emotions.

What would best serve the public good is an honest and calm discussion of the facts without the extremes of rhetoric. Naturally, if something is truly extreme, then it is perfectly acceptable to use language that is proportional. While it can be difficult to sort out this matter, it is clear that more effort could be used in doing this.

Second, such rhetoric is harmful in that it can influence people to act badly, as the current situation shows. As noted above, there have been threats made against members of congress and acts of vandalism have been committed. Given the intensity of the rhetoric and some specific calls for things like vandalism, it seems reasonable to place some of the blame on the pundits and politicians.

It might be objected that people have free will and that politicians and pundits cannot make them do such things. While it is true that even Glenn Beck cannot control minds, it is well (and legally) established that people can be held responsible for influencing others. While some people would act on their own without such inspiration or encouragement, such rhetoric does help motivate people to act when they would not otherwise have taken action. At the very least, such rhetoric can change how people perceive a situation and can thus influence how they might act. As such, politicians and pundits are morally culpable for their influence in such matters. This holds for both the left and the right.

Health Reform Threats

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 26, 2010

Ironically, the passage of the health care bill seems to have put some politicians’ health in danger. To be specific, numerous Democrats and some Republicans have been subject to threats and vandalism. As of yet, there have been no actual acts of violence against these people.

While people often get rather fired up about politics, the health care bill has generated an unusually extreme response. It is, of course, natural to wonder why.

The easy answer is that people are angry about the matter and angry people sometimes make rather poor decisions. This, of course, raises the question as to why people are so angry.

Some folks would claim that the anger at health care reform is a natural anger arising out of the people. While that might be true in some cases, it seems more likely that the anger has been created and stoked. In any case, it is clear that many politicians and pundits have been quite active in attempting to do just that. After all, folks have been tossing out phrases like “nuclear option”, “baby killer”, and so on that are clearly calculated to incite. Also, the matter has been cast as an epic struggle between what seems to be the side of good and the side of ultimate evil (which is which depends on your political leaning). There have even been calls to eradicate the opposition, which is certainly an extreme position to take.

Naturally, the politicians have been quick to say that they do not condone violence or vandalism. However, such words mean little when they keep up the extreme rhetoric that no doubt helps incline people towards such actions.

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Health Care & Abortion

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 25, 2010
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The debate about whether the health care bill would cover abortions led to considerable controversy as well as the shouting of “it’s a baby killer.” Ant-abortion folks were, of course, determined to abort any abortion coverage and were rather loud about the matter. The end result was that there will not be federally funded abortion funding under the bill. There will be, however, exceptions for situations involving rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger. Those who wish to get abortion coverage will need to buy their own coverage.

On the face of it, this seems reasonable. After all, coverage is provided in cases in which abortion is medically necessary as well as in cases when abortion is almost universally regarded as morally acceptable. Cases in which abortion would be a matter of choice rather than medical necessity would not be funded. In most cases, medical coverage should follow this pattern: what is medically necessary should be covered and what is not should require purchasing additional coverage (or perhaps not be covered at all).

However, this pattern is not always followed. In some cases, what is not medically necessary (like Viagra) is covered while what is actually necessary (like the brace I needed after my quadriceps tendon repair surgery) is not covered. As such, it could be argued that if coverage is provided for other medically unnecessary things, then the same should apply to abortion (and if abortion is not covered, then these other things should not be covered either). So, if abortion is not to be funded when it is a matter of choice, the same principle should be applied across the board.

Another obvious point of concern is that the arguments against providing coverage for abortion tended to be moral or religious arguments. To be specific, the general idea is that since abortion is wrong (or people do not want to fund it), then federal money should not be used to fund it. Of course, if that were to be adopted as a general principle (if X is wrong or people do not want to fund X, then X cannot be funded with federal money), then many things that federal money funds (like war) would have to be cut as well.

Of course, if we should use religious views to decide what should be funded by the state, why not save a lot of money on health care and just go with Christian Science?

Turning back to the main point, it could be argued that the state has to fund things that are regard as immoral by some (such as war) for the general good. After all, while money used to buy weapons kills people, this is acceptable for the greater good. Interestingly,the same sort of argument could be given for funding abortion with federal money.

One final point is that the bill does not seem to ban, limit or restrict abortions. While it could be argued that not paying for an abortion restricts it, that is a poor argument. After all, the federal government does not pay for my running shoes, but it does not thus limit or restrict my right to run.

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Buy Insurance or Pay a Fine?

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 24, 2010
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Very soon Americans will be forced to buy health insurance. Individuals who fail to buy insurance and companies with over 50 employees that do not provide insurance will be fined. As such, the compulsive power of the state is being used to force people and companies to buy/provide insurance.

While having health insurance is an excellent idea, it can be argued that this should be a matter of choice. One easy way to argue for this is that people should only be compelled when doing so is necessary to prevent harm to others. The fact that something is a good idea or would be beneficial is not adequate justification for the use of compulsion. Obviously enough, I’m following Mill’s arguments about liberty here. In the case of health insurance, a person not having it would not harm others. As such, people should not be compelled to buy insurance. Another way to argue for this is to contend that such a fine violates the right of choice. If it is assumed (or argued) that people have a right to make decisions about their own well being, then having the state compel people to buy insurance would seem to violate that right. Yet another concern is that people are being forced by the state to buy a commercial product. If the state forced people to buy laptops or books, then that would be seen as absurd. After all, what business does the state have in making us buy things from companies?

Of course, it can also be argued that the state should use it compulsive power to force us to buy insurance. In reply to the first argument, it can be argued that a lack of insurance does harm the rest of us. After all, it has been argued that people who are uninsured cost taxpayers a considerable sum of money. If this is true, then the harm done by the uninsured would seem to justify the state using its compulsive force to prevent such harms. This can also be employed against the second argument. After all, an individual’s right to chose generally ends when that choice can harm another. For example, I can chose to drink, but if I chose to drink and drive, then the state has the right to stop me. Likewise, a person can chose to life an unhealthy lifestyle, but they have no right to expect others to pick up the bill for their medical expenses.

In the case of the third argument, it can be pointed out that we are already compelled to buy auto insurance. But, we are not forced to buy from any specific company, so this might be seen as acceptable. Of course, there still seems to be a concern that we are required by law to buy a commercial product. In this case, the arguments for why the private companies are better than the government can be trotted out. After all, if it is acceptable for the state to compel us to buy insurance, then we have to buy it from someone and the choices would seem to be between the state and the private sector. Assuming the private companies are better, then we should buy our insurance from them.

In my own case, I got insurance as soon as I could. After graduate school, I was without health insurance and had to pay all my medical expenses out of pocket. If I had been seriously injured, the medical expenses would have broken me financially. That said, I find the idea of being forced by the state to buy insurance rather annoying and a violation of my liberty. Of course, I also recognize that the general good often requires giving up some liberties. The question is, of course, whether the gain to the general good is worth the cost.

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Health Care

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 23, 2010
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The House passed the much debated health care bill 219-212 on Sunday. While this was a close vote, democracy (as Locke argued) is based on the decision of the majority and the majority (at least in the house and senate) decided in favor of the bill. What the American people think about the matter is somewhat unclear since some  polls show the majority as for it while other polls show the majority is against it.

Various positive and negative claims have been made about the bill. For example, the impact of the bill on the deficit is a matter of debate between the two parties. The Republicans’ claim is that it will be a  deficit disaster while the Democrats who support it allege that it will reduce the deficit. There are, of course, more dramatic claims about the doom that this bill will bring to America.

Since the bill has been passed, we will soon have the opportunity to get data about the impact of the bill. Naturally, the various sides will spin, massage and manipulate the data (and its interpretation) and these factors will need to be taken into account. It will be interesting to see how things play out in the upcoming elections and what impact the passage of this bill will have.

Since we know the bill has passed, we can set aside guessing about that. So the question now is this: what impact will this have on America? Doom? Salvation? Business as usual? Something else? Bonus points for using the most talking points, of course.

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Hollywood & War

Posted in Aesthetics by Michael LaBossiere on March 22, 2010
Inglourious Basterds
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Caryn James presents an interesting assessment of war movies in “Hollywood Goes to War (Again).” Her overall thesis seems to be that in order to resonate, a war movie must be relevant to today.

James presents her view in the context of criticizing HBO’s The Pacific, the follow up toBand of Brothers. James contends that this series lacks cultural resonance, which is presumably a serious flaw. In contrast, a movie like Inglourious Basterds is really about today’s wars rather than WWII (actually, the movie is science fiction-it is set in a parallel reality).

In making her case, James contends that an historical movie  “always reflect two eras: the ones in which they are set and the ones in which they are made.” To support this, she uses the example of Gone With the Wind and the recently mentioned Basterds. As she sees it, Gone With the Wind is about the Civil War, yet thoroughly grounded in 1930’s values, stereotypes and political context.

In the case of war films made today, James contends that they must take into account the changes in the view of warfare caused by Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of  Basterds, James takes the film to be properly set within the contemporary views of war. As James notes, Rachel Maddow takes the movie to show  “the modern strategic history of Al Qaeda.”  The Pacific, as she sees it, fails to take into account such changes and, instead, simply sticks within the time in which it is set.

Naturally, since Band of Brothers was a great success (that is, resonated), James has to explain this. After all, this series was set firmly in WWII. James contends that the movie resonated because the series arrived prior to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, because the United States was still in a “greatest generation” mood and Americans were inclined to pull together in a unity comparable to that of WWII.

The Pacific, she contends, fails to do this. For example, she notes that the movie shows war as matter of controlling territory which contrasts with how she sees contemporary war (winning hearts and minds).

Of course, there might be another reason why historical movies seem to be about contemporary matters. As Oscar Wilde put it, vanity leads people to think that art is about our time, rather than being about itself. It is natural for movies to act as mirrors so that people see in them a reflection of their time, values and so on. However, as Wilde argued, this could be seeing in them something that is simply not there.

As far as why historical war movies need to take into account contemporary matters, the answer is rather straightforward: James contends that movies that do not will fail. She presents Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers as an example of a failure. As an example of a success, she presents Eastwood’s  Letters From Iwo Jima.

Her explanation for the movie’s success is that the characters “echo with the suicide bombers who have become so common, yet remain so alien.” Roughly put, Letterswas a success because it is really about now and not about then.

This explanation is certainly appealing. After all, as Hume notes in his discussion of the paradox of taste, people have a preference for their own time and country in regards to art. So, people will tend to like movies that are “about” them. Also, relating to a different time and place can be difficult. Relating to what is based on our current situation is much easier and thus a film that does this is more likely to appeal to a broader audience.

This is an interesting explanation, but not the only one. After all, Letters’ success might have little or nothing to do with its alleged relevance to today’s wars. For example, it might simply have better acting,  a better plot, and have whatever else it is that makes one movie better than others. Letters seems to be a thoroughly WWII film. After all, the suicides in the movie are not anachronistic devices used to make the film resonate with now. Japanese soldiers really did commit suicide.

Of course, it could be argued that the film resonates because it just so happens that the situation is similar to that of today (that is, WWII is like the current wars in certain ways). But, it can also be argued that the film resonates because it addresses themes that are universal. As Hume argues, a fad might take hold for a while and appeal across a limited time or space, but truly good art would overcome such limitations and have an appeal beyond its locality and time.

In my own case, Letters resonates because it addresses matters that go beyond the particular wars of then and now. For example, the young Marine’s letter is not about WWII or today. Rather, it captures something universal across all wars. So, it is about all wars, in a way.

As such, my view is that while a movie might be appealing because it is relevant to the specifics of our time, for it to have true and lasting appeal, it must be relevant in a general way. That is, it must touch on what is universal in human experience.

This is obviously possible. There are movies (and other works of art) that are clearly not about our time in particular that still resonate. To use an obvious example, the works of Shakespeare resonate across time even though they are not grounded in post 9/11 assumptions.

As Hume argued, works might enjoy a temporary or local appeal by being about here and now. However, a work that is too locked into its time will, of course, be left behind as time moves on. This is not to say that such works do not have an appeal or value. However, such works will suffer a diminishing status as they become increasingly irrelevant. They will fail the test of time and this is a mark against them. Wilde, of course, was even more harsh. He regarded modernity of subject matter to be the way to create bad art.

There is, of course, a certain artistry in making an historical movie set in a past war that is really about today’s wars. After all, a movie set in the Iraq War is not a metaphor of the war, it is simply about the war. A WWII movie that is grounded in contemporary views of war can have such a metaphorical role.

However, there is a concern about such alterations. After all, historical films are supposed to be historical and altering the past to please the present can be regarded as somewhat questionable. To use a specific example, if the Pacific were to be altered to so that it followed the assumptions held about wars today, then it would no longer be a true WWII movie, but a movie about today set in WWII. While it is tempting to revise history (and historical films) so they match the views of today, this does violence to the past and violates an important purpose of history: to show us what was. At the very least, I can appeal to a selfish motive-do we want our time revised away in the movies of our descendent’s? Presumably we do not and, as such, should be wary of doing this to our ancestors.

That said, it can also be argued that such alterations can be acceptable. After all, historical movies are not history and their primary purpose is not to show what was, but to achieve certain aesthetic goals. As such, making historical movies grounded in contemporary assumptions is just fine.

This does seem reasonable. However, it also seems reasonable to accept that movies that stick with history can also achieve those aesthetic goals. Unless, of course, audiences have such a poverty of feeling and intellect that they cannot get beyond their own time and place.

James finishes with an obvious concern: what about movies about contemporary wars? James claims that the Hurt Locker, which has been wildly successful, is actually a defective film. James’ criticism is that the film’s flaw is that it “appropriates old-fashioned Greatest Generation hero worship while blithely ignoring the urgent question of whether the war should be fought at all.” She seems to regard the film’s critical and general success as an amazing trick on the part of Bigelow.

Naturally, James is assuming that the film must address this question. While this is a good question, it seems to be an error on James part to assume that a film about the Iraq war must address the question she thinks is important. After all, a war film need not address a major political (and moral)question of the day in order to be a good film. In the case of the Hurt Locker, its quality and the success which it has earned seem to be the most effective arguments against James’ criticism.

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