Gangsters Movie Night: Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (feat. Spencer Ackerman)
Happy belated new year! We are dangerously close to the Jan. 18 release of Gangsters of Capitalism, my book about Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s empire. (Thanks to everyone who has pre-ordered so far—if you haven’t, here’s a link.)
Since I’m doing a bunch of interviews around the debut, I wanted to do something a little different with the book here. Gangsters of Capitalism is to a large extent about historical memory—about how the first great wave of U.S. overseas imperialism has (and hasn’t) been passed down through the generations, including through movies. So, we thought, why not watch some movies about the themes and places in the book? And invite interesting people to talk about them?
We are calling it “Gangsters Movie Nights.” And we are starting with a banger. Spencer Ackerman, author of Reign of Terror, writer of Forever Wars, and Pulitzer Prize winner for his work on the Snowden files, joins me to talk about the place where Smedley Butler’s career and America’s overseas empire both began: Guantánamo Bay.
As I note in the episode, there aren’t many movies that deal with Gitmo. There’s A Few Good Men, but it’s set in the days before the prison camp. There’s a recent Jodie Foster film that didn’t make a huge splash. Then Spencer came up with the answer: 2008’s Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.
What does a gross-out/buddy/stoner comedy have to say about American empire? How long can two investigative journalists talk about what was originally slated to be a direct-to-DVD sequel to a movie about a trip to White Castle? To find out, hit play above or download this episode wherever you get your podcasts—Spotify, iTunes, etc. If you’re more of a reader, a transcript is below.
Thanks for listening and spreading the word. Please subscribe below to make sure you don’t miss an episode.
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Also a reminder that the online launch event for Gangsters will be next Tuesday, January 18, at 6 p.m. ET, featuring me in conversation with Mike Duncan of the Revolutions and History of Rome podcasts. It will be hosted online by D.C.’s Politics & Prose bookstore. You can RSVP to virtually “attend” here.
Transcript (may contain errors)
Harold Lee (John Cho): Do we have the right to make a phone call?
Ron Fox (Rob Corddry): Oh, oh yeah. Oh yeah. I'm sorry. You want rights now? You want freedoms right now? Is it time ... is it freedom o'clock?
Guess what? Where you guys are going, they have never even heard of rights.
Harold: Well, where are we going?
Jonathan M. Katz: Hello, you are listening to The Racket, a newsletter and podcast, which you can also find online at theracket.news, that's dot N-E-W-S. I am Jonathan M. Katz and I've got a really cool episode of the podcast newsletter for you here today.
So this is part of the run up to the release of Gangsters of Capitalism, my book, which comes out on January 18th. Go pre-order it if you have not pre-ordered it yet. There's a lot going on as we move into pub date. The first excerpt is up at Rolling Stone. You can go read it right now at rollingstone.com. It is about the main figure in my book, the Marine Smedley Butler and his foiling of an alleged 1934 fascist coup to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt, which has a lot of very clear tie-ins to the crises of democracy that are happening today and January 6th, and all those things.
For those of you who are not familiar, Smedley Butler was a Marine who fought in basically every overseas war, invasion, occupation of the early 20th century. And the book looks at Butler's life to understand American empire, both from our perspective and the perspective of the people whose countries we've invaded. It's, I think, a fascinating book. I think you're really going to enjoy it.
We here at The Racket thought we would do something a little different in the run up to the book's release as a way of exploring the many places and themes discussed in Gangsters of Capitalism through the medium of film. We're calling it Gangsters Movie Nights. So each week we are going to be talking about a film set in one of the places that I talk about in Gangsters of Capitalism. One of the places that the United States and Smedley Butler invaded, occupied in the early 20th century. So, China, Haiti, the Philippines, it goes on from there, and we have a really exciting roster of guests who are experts in the regions, the histories of the places that I wrote about who I have constricted to watching these films with me. Some of them are movies that I talk about in the book. Some of them are movies that you have possibly heard of. Some of them are extremely obscure and some of them are absolutely horrible.
So we are starting off in the place where America's overseas empire and Smedley Butler's career began. A place in Cuba called Guantanamo Bay. So I visited there in 2017, which is a trip you can read about in Gangsters and to talk about Guantanamo, I have the best person I can think of to talk about Guantanamo Bay, Spencer Ackerman.
Spencer spent 20 years covering the war on terror from Guantanamo, as well as Iraq, Afghanistan, Washington, all over the place. In 2014, he shared the Pulitzer Prize for his work on the revelations about the national security agency that came courtesy of Edward Snowden. Spencer also wrote an incredible book, which you should go read right now, it's called Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. Spencer also writes the Forever Wars newsletter at substack.com, which I should note is edited by the editor of The Racket, Sam Thielman.
So I've wanted to put Gangsters of Capitalism in conversation with Reign of Terror from the moment I read Spencer's book and our shared coverage of Guantanamo seemed like the ideal place to do it. The problem was that there aren't actually very many movies that talk about Guantanamo, at least those that have come out since the prison camp opened. There was one film, however, and I'm going to blame Spencer for suggesting it. And that is 2008's Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay written and directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg.
So before we get into it, I have a couple of content warnings. First of all, this film contains racist stereotypes, mostly but not, I think honestly, solely for the purpose of mocking them, very graphic jokes about sexual assault, which we'll discuss. We're also going to proceed on the assumption that anyone who would care about spoilers saw this thing sometime over the last 14 or so years. Though, granted, the target audience for this movie may admittedly not remember what they saw when they did.
So I also want to note, it might sound like a weird choice to talk about American empire abuses and the war on terror through the lens of, let's just admit it here, it's a gross out stoner comedy. But I think that it actually is going to provide for a very productive conversation. Gangsters is all about exploring historical memory and there is no better way to do that than ... or there are fewer better ways to do that, I should say, than looking at the documents that a culture produces to delve into its own dreams and its own nightmares. So Spencer, let's get into it.
Spencer Ackerman: So I guess that's a disclaimer to listeners that conceptually, this episode may not work. We came up with the idea of doing Harold and Kumar, not just cause it's one of the only movies we could think of that really does apply here, but also the fact of a movie like that, playing this accidentally cultural outsized role when it comes to the existence of a forever prison is, itself worthy of discussing because when you realize that the Guantanamo post 9/11 cannon prominently features Harold and Kumar escape from Guantanamo Bay, that's a lesson in how normalization proceeds.
Jonathan: Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle came out in 2004 and it is an unapologetic stoner film, as is this one. It's essentially a movie about two college friends who get stoned and try to go to White Castle, and it takes them on basically a picturesque adventure in which they get into all kinds of trouble. Insofar as Harold and Kumar occupied a larger place in the culture than its role in stoner culture. It was one of the first movies to feature two Asian actors, a John Cho, who's of Korean descent and Cal Penn, who's Indian American. So it got some plaudits ... it inspired some people. I think some of my Indian and east Asian American stoner friends saw themselves in that movie. But beyond that, it's a stoner movie. It's just the dumb misogynist kind of stoner movie.
Spencer: Again, this is a pretty bad movie. It's not so bad that respect must be paid, except in some places. This isn’t an irredeemable movie, but I got pretty high watching this and that didn't improve the experience. There's really sublime, stoner humor and then there's whatever Harold and Kumar is.
Harold is the friend with the stick up his ass and Kumar is the irresponsible one who keeps getting Harold into some zany capers.
There's a bit of a subplot that we should mention where Kumar's ex-girlfriend is marrying a Bush administration official. And you know, the guy before going to marry Kumar's ex says something on the order of, "If you ever find yourself in any jams, let me know and through my connections to the president, through my dad, we'll get you out of it."
So our boys get on the plane to Amsterdam and Kumar, wacky guy that he is, can't resist having built a smoke free bong. Basically he invents a vaporizer. And because Kumar is brown, once the device is revealed on the plane, it's suspected that they're terrorists.
Woman on plane: Terrorist!
Harold: Goldie? No, ma'am-
Woman on plane: What the fuck is that thing in his hand?
Harold: Not a terrorist. He's just an idiot.
Kumar Patel (Kal Penn): This is just a bong.
Man on plane: He said he got a bomb!
Spencer: So they end up in Guantanamo Bay. I think this movie was released in 2008. I got to say that I did see this movie in the theaters. So, this is a return trip to escape from Guantanamo Bay for me.
This is really the amazing thing about this movie. There's maybe five minutes of screen time where they're actually at Guantanamo Bay. This is more a movie about the country that creates a Guantanamo Bay than it is a movie about Guantanamo Bay. But among the remarkable things that we see at Guantanamo is male sexual assault.
Unfortunately, because this movie is what it is, this is a very serious thing that gets played for laughs. People in U.S. custody, whether it's at Guantanamo or whether it's at the CIA black sites, were sexually tortured. This was not a torture program that somehow found itself able to avoid the pitfalls, shall we say, of the temptation to harm people sexually when you have impunity over them.
Harold and Kumar, again, badly, offensively to play this for laughs, nevertheless, show the reality that among the things that happen at Guantanamo Bay is sexual assault. I'm unfortunately forgetting the detainee's names, but one of the detainees who went on a hunger strike in 2013, a pivotal moment in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility's history wrote an op-ed that ended up getting published in the New York Times, talking about how among the places that U.S. Guards and medical personnel inserted tubes in order, ostensibly, to forcibly hydrate and feed him, was his penis. Again, very, very rarely have we come to terms with that, or even have it as acceptable framing for what goes on there.
Jonathan: The joke here is that the detainees are forced to eat what the guards charmingly call a cock meat sandwich. Harold and Kumar are about to perform the act when two middle Eastern guys in the cell next to them bite off the guard's penis. But that isn't the only form of prisoner abuse that the film lampoons.
They're thrown into the cell. They have a goat shitting on their bed? But that's touching on a real thing, right? The detainees, for years, have talked about animal infestations, the infamous banana rats, that shit in their cells.
Spencer: So a banana rat is an abnormal, even for New York City, large rodent. It's not feral like a rat is, but it's so named because its feces remind us somewhat of bananas. So it's called the banana rat.
Jonathan: So I went in 2017 to do the historical research and also to talk about Guantanamo now. So in this movie, unsanitary conditions and animal infestation is played for a joke at Guantanamo. You probably remember, I'm sure you remember, Spencer, the gift shops at Guantanamo.
Jonathan: There were gift shops everywhere. It was just like American capitalism taken to its reductio ad absurdum.
So Guantanamo is ... it's a Naval station. There's a base town. There is the JTF, the Joint Task Force section, which is the prison. In the main gift shop in the base town, they sell plush toys and one of the plush toys that you can buy for your kid is a banana rat. Those weren't the only bad jokes that were being made in that gift shop.
Spencer: No. Nowhere near.
Jonathan: Yeah. There were t-shirts with iguana in front of barbed wire and it was like "fun in the sun."
Spencer: Yeah. So the first time I went to Guantanamo bay was in 2005 and you can definitely trace the trajectory of normalization of Guantanamo as it has become sort of less and less crass.
So culturally, the way we get here is that, as weird as it is to say, not everything at Guantanamo Bay is a gulag. So, you have Naval operations that don't have to do with detention operations. So that's what the Joint Task Force, the JTF that Jonathan referred to, they are the ones who control the detention operations, which of course is most of Guantanamo now, and also what is relevant about Guantanamo now.
But however, because ... there's really no other way to say it. The U.S. Navy stole this land from Cuba, continues to have stolen this land from Cuba in any understanding of what happened here. This is just simply stolen land that the United States very proudly continues to occupy. There's a radio station that calls itself Radio Gitmo, the heart of rock and roll in Fidel's backyard or something like that.
In 2005, they would sell t-shirts with the guard towers in silhouette over barbed wire stylized Camp America. And they would have legends on the shirts that would read things like, "Check to the Taliban towers, five stars," representing the armed services.
Kumar: So what are you guys in here for?
Terrorist #1: For giving the United States taste of their own medicine.
Kumar: You guys are real terrorists?
Terrorist #2: Some call us terrorists. Others call us heroes.
Kumar: You think you guys are heroes for killing innocent people?!
Harold: It's because of assholes like you that we're even in this fucking place, you fucking cowards!
Terrorist #2: Well maybe the people in your country stopped eating donuts and started realizing what their government is doing to the world, assholes like us wouldn't exist.
Kumar: Fuck you! Donuts are awesome!
Harold: They're delicious.
Jonathan: They're these very broad Islamophobic terrorist characters who identify themselves as terrorists who stage the escape by biting off the penis of one of the guards. And then one of them tries to escape across the electrified fence and that ends up shorting out the electricity at the prison. And then Harold and Kumar used that to escape.
That is impossible for many reasons. Among other things, the fence that surrounds the military base, you immediately end up in a minefield.
Spencer: Yeah, you're not going to do that. No one's escaping Guantanamo Bay. This has been a ludicrous bugaboo for a long time.
Jonathan: For the rest of the movie, Harold and Kumar are basically trying to escape, not Guantanamo, which they get out of rather easily, but they're trying to escape the national security state.
Spencer: They're being pursued by an idiot played by Rob Corddry, who's a Department of Homeland security official and sadist.
Jonathan: Until Bush himself makes his appearance at the end, I sort of interpreted him as a stand in for George W. Bush. He's full of malapropisms, he's bluntly racist, he's kind of an idiot.
Spencer: An out of control bureaucrat determined to abuse his power.
Jonathan: Rob Corddry's character at one point, literally wipes his ass with the bill of rights. And then because it's a stoner film, he then shows the camera the skid marked page of the Bill of Rights.
Ron Fox: Want to know what I think about the fifth amendment?
Rosenberg (Eddie Kaye Thomas): Oh.
Ron Fox: That's what I think of the fifth amendment.
Goldstein (David Krumholtz): Why the hell is your ass so dirty? Don't you wipe?
Ron Fox: Don't ask questions you don't want the answer to, buddy.
Spencer: Through that broadened, crude parody, I don't want to say that Harold and Kumar escape from Guantanamo Bay has a critique, but nevertheless, expresses a way of getting at the heart of the matter by looking at the war on terror, not through its operations, but through its id.
Jonathan: I kind of hate to say it, but this movie does, in a lot of ways, touch on some very important things, some very important themes, certainly of Gangsters of Capitalism, not tonally. But there are a couple of things here that I'm thinking about.
So I went for Gangsters in 2017 because Smedley Butler, he starts his Marine Corps career, he lies about his age, he's 16 years old and he goes to Cuba during the Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-American war, I guess would be fullest name of it. And it's 1898. And he goes to the just seized beachhead on the Eastern tip of Cuba at Guantanamo Bay. And that is the first place that American troops land in Cuba in America's first real overseas war and the war that really begins our American empire.
And so Guantanamo, to a certain extent, it's the alpha and the omega of American empire, at least to date. It remains in American hands because we intervene in Cuba's independence war against Spain toward the end of the war. And we midwife Cuba into existence as an independent Republic at the cost of their true independence. We force them to essentially become a client state.
And one of the things that we force the new Cuban government to do is to grant us in perpetuity, land for what were known as calling stations, basically refueling depots for Navy ships. And even the communist revolution of the 1950s, which our client dictator Batista opposed with the help of the Americans from Guantanamo Bay, even that was not able to extricate us, evict us from that parcel of land.
And so the reason why, and this is how it comes into your world, Spencer and the War on Terror, is because in the 1990s, before the War on Terror begins, the Marines build a holding facility at Guantanamo for Cuban and especially Haitian migrants. And then when 9/11 happens and the U.S. Invades Afghanistan, Guantanamo occupies this strange neither fish nor foul legal status because it is not U.S. Soil, but it is also not under the control of the Cuban government, which puts it in, the George W. Bush administration argues, a legal gray area where essentially, anything can happen.
Which in a way, honestly, makes a stoner film, maybe not the only way to talk about it, but an ideal way to talk about it, because this is a movie where Neil Patrick Harris is eating an entire bag of mushrooms as he drives along the highway and is hallucinating unicorns. It's a crazy absurdist film. Gitmo, Guantanamo Bay prison, it's an absurdist stoner fantasy of international law. It exists in a quantum legal state where the same action in a different temporal place or a different action in the same temporal place is not legal, depending on the exigencies of the person trying to preserve impunity. So, that is not some unexpected deviation from Guantanamo. That's the entire point.
Once in 2008, the Supreme Court grants that Guantanamo detainee have the right to habeas corpus, which means the right to contest their detention, then the real rationale for Guantanamo evaporates because now suddenly, there is the overhang of applicable federal law that's going to normalize it. And what ends up happening instead is that the Justice Department and the Defense Department under the Obama administration very successfully litigate to make sure that in order to preserve military impunity in a variety of contexts, both real and imagined, it goes to court to ensure that the rights to contest their detention functionally end once they file a writ of habeas corpus. No one gets out of Guantanamo that way. And it is a major contributing factor to why Guantanamo persists for 20 years.
Spencer: In the base town, you're just in America. You're like in an American suburb. There's McDonald's, there's an elementary, middle, and high school. There's little playgrounds on ... when I was there in 2017, the kids had just, I guess a couple years before started returning. A while after 9/11, full families were in and allowed for their security concerns, because the military was afraid of, of attacks on Guantanamo. But honestly, to a certain extent, trying to build up the myth of Guantanamo as a horrendous unknowable black hole into which we throw our enemies is also a major project of the United States and of the empire.
Jonathan: Like all of Guantanamo in every respect is a mind fuck. Something like 600 yards away from the detention facility ... this is often remarked upon, you have manicured, suburban style lawns for officers who live on the base and their families. And so as you leave a place that makes your skin crawl, you quickly see kids' big wheels left out on nicely manicured lawns, as you feel an evening breeze coming in off the Antilles and Guantanamo is just sort of like that.
It's one of the ugliest places on earth that also happens to take place in one of the most majestic and just physically beautiful. I haven't been to many places in the world that are just as beautiful as the beaches at Guantanamo and the cliffs above them, looking on onto the Antilles. It's poetic, it's sublime. It's so beautiful and so disgusting, what is concealed there.
Dr. Beecher (Roger Bart): I've looked through the files on Harold Lee and Kumar Patel. They were both born and raised in New Jersey. Other than a couple of traffic tickets, they're clean.
Ron Fox: Oh, right! That's why they just broke out of prison.
Dr. Beecher: It's not even clear that they should have been there in the first place.
Ron Fox: You see this cute little white girl, Beecher?
Dr. Beecher: Yeah.
Ron Fox: Do you want her to get raped and murdered?
Dr. Beecher: Of course not.
Ron Fox: Are you sure? Because this is America. Do you want to rape America?
Dr. Beecher: No.
Ron Fox: Then stop fucking with me. This is serious.
Spencer: And then there isn't really Guantanamo Bay at all in this movie. The escape from part ends up becoming much more prominent. They basically, through a variety of zany circumstances that obviously bear no relationship to reality, they find themselves back in America trying to get to the site of Kumar's ex's wedding. Lots of zany things ensue.
Jonathan: They're betrayed by the fiancé of Kumar's ex-girlfriend. They end up on a military transport headed back to Guantanamo. Their escape is made possible by this sort of liberal foil played by Roger Bart. And he bursts out of, I guess, the cockpit or some other part of the plane.
Rob Corddry as the venal, George W. Bush-y DHS guy has literally been sitting there listening to-
Spencer: Highway to the Danger Zone.
Spencer: Air drumming and shit.
Jonathan: Exactly. It's really ... it's real, right? And he comes out with a gun and he says to Rob Corddry, "It's people like you who make the world think Americans are stupid."
Dr. Beecher: It's obvious these kids are innocent but you're too dumb to realize that. You know, it's people like you who make the world think that Americans are stupid! But we're not stupid! And we're not going to take this shit anymore!
Ron Fox: It's okay, guys. It's all over now. everything's going to be all right. Whoa!
Jonathan: At the risk of taking ... one of the reasons why you maybe should take this movie a little bit more seriously, why one could take this movie a little bit more seriously than perhaps we are, Cal Penn who plays Kumar goes to work for the Obama administration. He becomes a white house official in the Office of Public Engagement or whatever.
So this movie comes out in 2008. It's, I guess, filmed probably as Barack Obama ... while he's a U.S. senator pondering his next moves. It ends up being released in the election year and in the years after it, the war on terror, as you talk about in Reign of Terror, really becomes a permanent feature of American life, or at least a more permanent-ized feature in this handoff from Bush to Obama.
And to a certain extent, without putting too fine a point on it, it's a handoff from Rob Corddry's character to the Roger Bart character, and literally to Kal Penn, who ends up as an Obama administration official and we see that handoff happen on that plane as they then get blown out of the fuselage and Rob Corddry's character, in Dr. Strangelove, Major Kong style ends up plummeting to his death.
Spencer: It's a wonderful point because you also get to see in that moment ... because as an audience, we're primed at this point to be done with Rob Corddry, to miss the part where Kumar also says to the NSA guy, "And we Americans aren't going to take it anymore." And you get a great window into, what happens then? Because Harold and Kumar escaped from Guantanamo Bay, but a whole lot of people don't, and there's still a Guantanamo Bay.
When the guy from the NSA says, "It's people like you who make people think Americans are stupid." And it's like, I get why that's going to be as far as a movie, like this is going to go, but it's deeds like this, that show the world that it's not about Americans being stupid. It's that the acts of America are venal and evil. What America does is the root of the problem. Not as either liberals or conservatives during the war on terror wanted to variously contend what America is or the abuses that America commits as if the policies themselves, the acts themselves are not the heart of the problem, but are instead unfortunate deviations that can be trimmed away.
Jonathan: The movie's critique is a liberal critique. It's an Obama-ite critique. In so far as it occupies this larger space in the broader cultural conversation, it is about representation and it's about showing that people of color, to use that term, a Korean American and an Indian American can be as dumb and vulgar and stupid and a couple of stoner bros as only white guys had been up to that point. And it's really carrying that critique forward to Guantanamo empire and the War on Terror.
There's that scene where Ed Helms makes a cameo as an interpreter and he's trying to talk to Harold's Korean parents in Korean, and they keep responding to him in English.
Mr. Lee (Clyde Kusatsu): We've been American citizens for over 40 years. Now, frankly, I find this very offensive.
Unnamed Interpreter (Ed Helms): They're using some sort of dialect I've never heard before, but I'm pretty sure he said something about going on the offensive.
Jonathan: They're making the point, they're like "We are American. We're as American as you. We belong here." But the way that they are sort of positioning themselves is, they are not the them that are in the cell next to them at Guantanamo. At Guantanamo, when they're in the cell, they encounter these two nebulous, middle Eastern looking guys, one of whom honestly looks like a character of a Jew from Der Sturmer.
And the guys basically admit to Harold and Kumar, they're like, "Yes, we wanted to attack the United States because you guys deserve it." And Harold and Kumar, they react as you know, American liberals might. Kal Penn and John Cho, they're positioning themselves with the audience, and the audience is obviously imagined to be a liberal audience who voted for Kerry and will ultimately vote for Barack Obama. That's the frame that they're approaching this.
And they're not approaching it from, "Let's get rid of Guantanamo entirely. Let's stop these atrocities and this Imperial war." At no point, are they like, "Why do we have this? Why is there an American base in Cuba? How does this make sense?" At no point are they approaching it from that angle. It is just, "We just need to not be as dumb as W."
Spencer: There's a moment that is super weird, which is they crash land into George W. Bush's house. And they get high with President Bush.
Harold: Listen, about our situation.
George W. Bush (James Adomian): Oh, fuck that. Listen, guys, guys, guys. I am the fucking president. All right? That means I get to pardon in whoever I want. You guys are in the fucking clear. Don't worry.
Harold: Holy shit.
Kumar: Oh my God.
Harold: Are you serious? Thank you.
Kumar: Thank you, Mr. President.
George W. Bush: Yeah.
Harold: Thank you.
George W. Bush: Don't mention it.
Harold: Thank you.
Spencer: It's weirdly humanizing of Bush, the architect of, ultimately, this entire enterprise.
Jonathan: The other thing that the movie does that is interesting is the fact that it acknowledges that Guantanamo is a real place that exists in Cuba. That is a step beyond, honestly, the place where Guantanamo exists in the vast majority of American imaginations. When QAnon is fantasizing about sending Killary and Joe Biden and American liberals to Guantanamo, they're not imagining it as a real place that exists in Cuba. They're imagining it in this place that exists outside of space and time.
To a certain extent, this movie directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, they're doing a little bit of intellectual work.
Spencer: Emphasis on a little bit.
Jonathan: By locating Guantanamo as a real place that exists on earth, which is an intervention that I think is worth exploring.
Spencer: Well, we tend not to think about it as Cuba, except in a simplistic, "Fuck you to the actual Cuban government" sense because when you think about how it is that Guantanamo Bay is in American hands demands a reckoning with the way in which this is really just outright theft.
Every year, the United States, out of the magnificence of its heart, delivers a rent check to the Cuban government that the Cuban government will never cash because it would be acknowledging, and this is the point of the check, to give a sense of probity of ethics and legality for how it is that Guantanamo is there.
As if, "Well, the landlord didn't deposit the check, but we paid the landlord." But what that act is doing is trying to get Cuban government into a circumstance where it recognizes the initial theft of Guantanamo as a legitimate act, which is entailed in the act of cashing that check. All Guantanamo is, is stolen Cuban land.
Jonathan: It was a prominent U.S. senator named Orville Platt wrote this amendment that basically made conditions for the new constitution of Cuba when we basically midwifed into existence by invading it as they were about to win their own independence.
There were a number of requirements, including the idea that we could invade any time we wanted, which we did multiple times after 1898. And then ultimately, the U.S. client government of, of Fulgencio Batista, which is then overthrown by Fidel Castro, that amendment, which is then encoded in the initial Cuban constitution, enables us to hold such lands, meaning Guantanamo Bay, in perpetuity.
That law is then replaced in the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt. As president, he recognizes we're not making a lot of friends in Latin America and so he tries to revise the relationship and he loosens some of the requirements by essentially repealing the Platt amendment. But the one thing that he makes sure to keep is Guantanamo Bay because it was, and is to a certain extent, a strategic Naval base. Guantanamo is unique in that it remains stolen and captured land on essentially enemy territory because Cuba's communist government does not want us there. They would evict us if they could. That's really what the fences are for. That's what the minefield is for. It's not really to keep the so-called worst of the worst, many of whom were pretty low level, if not just outright falsely accused detainees in the forever prison.
Spencer: One of the imperatives about having not just a forever prison like Guantanamo, but a carceral state at all, is that you and I, and everyone listening to this, is supposed to forget that any of it's happening. That you forget about the people who are locked inside. And at least Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay thinks about them.
Harold: Listen, to be honest, after all the shit that we've been through, I don't know if we can trust our government anymore.
George W. Bush: Trust the government?
Harold Lee: Yeah.
George W. Bush: Heck, I'm in the government and I don't even trust it. You don't have to believe in your government to be a good American. You just have to believe in your country.
George W. Bush: That's just good shit, isn't it?
Kumar Patel: Yeah, it is.
Jonathan: My final takeaway is just, it is a shame that discussions about as important a place in the American imagination as Guantanamo, even discussions that I think would be ripe for a Strangelove-ian broad satire, that it has been left to a gross out misogynist, homophobic and in some ways, low key Islamophobic and racist, and kind of antisemetic stoner comedy as Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. But what do you think?
Spencer: Did we just cancel Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo? It's not ... this whole episode, like we've been saying from the start, this is a bad idea that we've run with. I feel almost bad for it. We've given it much, much more than this movie in its own context really deserves.
If you want to watch wild, bad, often offensive, but ultimately fairly harmless, forgettable stoner movie, that happens to have this backdrop of shit that we write our books about, there you go. Otherwise, I had thought that you could get this on Netflix. Apparently it has been taken off of Netflix. I had to purchase this. So, you guys owe $10 dollars. That's all I got. You owe me $10.
Let me just say before we go that Gangsters of Capitalism is an excellent, excellent book. It is a real achievement that you should be proud of, listeners should purchase and really grapple with. There's not just real righteous moments in the book, but also just real feats of wizardry, in terms of both the reporting and the writing of it. It's crafted extremely well. You write really beautifully about very ugly things. And I couldn't recommend this book higher.
Jonathan: That means the absolute world to me. To hear that from you is just ... it's great. Reign of Terror also ... I'm not even piling on here. Independently, read Reign of Terror. You, I'm sure heard this from many people by now, but it is an absolutely indispensable book for understanding the war on terror and the last 20 years of American history. I leaned on it toward the end of my research on Gangsters and I'm very glad to be able to put Gangsters in conversation with it.
Thank you for being here. Thanks for coming on The Racket.
Spencer: Thank you very much, Jonathan.
Jonathan: That was Spencer Ackerman, author of Reign of Terror and writer of the Forever Wars substack at foreverwars.substack.com. That was a great conversation, Spencer. Thanks. I'll get you the $10.
Gangsters of Capitalism comes out January 18th. Please, please pre-order. There is going to be a launch day event on Tuesday, January 18th at 6:00 PM. It's going to be an online event hosted by Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC. I'm going to be in conversation with Mike Duncan. He does the Revolutions podcast. You might know him from History of Rome. He's a badass podcaster. He's really cool and I'm really excited about this conversation.
I'm also excited to note that Politics & Prose’s employees have now formed a union. That union has been recognized by management there. It was touch and go for a little while. And I'm really excited to be able to be launching this book at a bookstore, an independent bookstore with a unionized workforce that can fight for its own rights. I know that Smedley Butler would be glad that a book about him is being launched there as well. Again, that's Politics and Prose. You can find more of information at politics-pros.com. I'll also put a link to the Eventbrite in the show notes. It's January 18th at 6:00 PM eastern time.
The next Racket podcast is going to be another Gangsters Movie Night. We're going to be talking about 55 days at Peking, the 1963 movie about the boxer rebellion in China, starring Charlton Heston, directed by Nicholas Ray, who's best known for Rebel Without a Cause. It's going to be really cool. So, that's going to be here on The Racket. I'm going to be with Jeffrey Wasserstrom, who's an expert on China and the boxer rebellion.
You can find this podcast anywhere you find podcasts. On Spotify, Downcast, iTunes, wherever. Sign up, subscribe so you'll be ready for when that one drops. A rating will help us if you can give us one, please, as well. You can also, of course, find transcripts, previous issues, all that stuff at theracket.news. That's dot N-E-W-S. There are often written editions of this newsletter, so you don't want to miss those, so sign up there.
Thanks to the Racket podcast team. This episode was produced by Evan Roberts, Annie Malcolm, and Sam Thielman. Our theme music is by Los Plantronics. Stay safe out there. Stay warm, mask up, get your boosters, talk to you soon.