From the annals of "Bold Leaps of Causal Inference"

The New York Times' Robert Worth and Nazila Fathli take a bold step for inference in their story on Iran's demonstrations: 

Unlike the other protesters reported killed on Sunday, Ali Moussavi appears to have been assassinated in a political gesture aimed at his uncle, according to Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an opposition figure based in Paris with close ties to the Moussavi family.

Mr. Moussavi was first run over by a sport utility vehicle outside his home, Mr. Makhmalbaf wrote on his Web site. Five men then emerged from the car, and one of them shot him. Government officials took the body late Sunday and warned the family not to hold a funeral, Mr. Makhmalbaf wrote.

Whoa there, big fella.  Talk about jumping to conclusions!  Sure, this looks suspicious, but I can think of several other plausible reasons for why this could have happened:

  1. He was behind on his payments to bookies.... that'll teach him to bet on the New York Giants.   
  2. He was in the market for an SUV that could run over people and the haggling over price got out of hand.
  3. The Basij are playing one of those college assaassination games across all of Tehran, and they forgot to use their dart guns rather than real guns.
  4. It was a hit and run accident, and the men in the car decided to put him out of his misery after seeing how badly wounded he was. 
  5. Moussavi was really an agent for the Mossad.  The men in the SUV were really agents of the Mossad.  In  fact, 95% of the protestors in the streets of Tehran are actually agents of the Mossad, MI6, or the CIA. 

See, these are all plausible alternative storylines, and should be investigated thoroughly before calling this a "political assassination."   

Daniel W. Drezner

The two dimensions of Avatar

Having now seen Avatar, I'm not surprised that the political reviews of the film either go in the direction of Adam Cohen's paean to its cultural sensitivity in the New York Times ("The plot is firmly in the anti-imperialist canon, a 22nd-century version of the American colonists vs. the British, India vs. the Raj, or Latin America vs. United Fruit") or Analee Newitz's takedown of Avatar as the uber-example of White Man's Guilt at IO9 ("Watching the movie, there is really no mistake that these are alien versions of stereotypical native peoples that we've seen in Hollywood movies for decades"). 

It's because, for all the 3D wonder that is evident on screen, this is a movie with two-dimensional characters and two-dimensional storytelling -- and you will either embrace those dimensions or not.  What you can't do is escape them when watching the film.  Any time your brain tries to inject possible subtleties into the story, director James Cameron is lurking around the corner to whack you over the head with some 3D crowbar to make it absolutely clear what is right and what is wrong.  This is screenwriting that makes George Lucas' second Star Wars trilogy look multi-layered by comparison. 

[WARNING:  SPOILERS AHEAD].  To demonstrate the absurdities that Cameron is willing to go, here are two plot points that make absolutely no sense whatsoever:

1)  The Omaticaya clan of the Na'Vi is forced to flee because the humans have destroyed their Hometree.  The movie takes great pains to show how the humans wreaked unbelievable amounts of carnage in the process.  So, what's the very first thing the Omaticaya do after becoming refugees?  Bury their dead?  Care for their sick?  Nope.  Why, they drop everything to attempt to save the life of the human scientist played by Sigourney Weaver!  Never mind that, based on the movie, Weaver's character has contributed exactly nothing to saving the Omaticaya.  This is exactly what a people stripped of their homeland would attempt to do!! 

2)  The movie makes it very clear that the only reason humans are on Pandora is to acquire the "unobtanium" on the planet -- the richest source of which happens to be under the Hometree.  So, after the destruction of Hometree, do the evil rapacious humans proceed to stripmine the ground to get at the mineral?  No, that would be too logical -- they decide they must wipe out the rest of the Na'Vi in a "pre-emptive" strike.  Because suddenly it's much more important to exterminate out the indigenous population than to extract the resources!   

Charli Carpenter, who liked the movie more than I did, correctly concludes, "the brilliance of this film is not that it makes you think - it doesn't. You will enjoy it more if you don't try. However, it does makes you feel."  Unless you try to think about it -- then you're in trouble. 

I'm probably too much of a technological Whig to care for narratives like this one, but just once, I'd like to see a film that embraces the complexities of how indigenous cultures incorporate new ideas and new technologies into their societies.  In other words, some movie producer really needs to hire Tyler Cowen as a technical consultant.