Your humble blogger has repeatedly stressed the theme that when it comes to foreign or economic policy, the U.S. public is rationally ignorant. This does not mean, despite my occasional slip of the pen, that Americans are stupid. It means that they lead busy lives and don't see the need to read up on arcane policy issues that do not appear to affect their daily lives.
One of the awesome upsides of being rationally ignorant is that it allows the voter to reconcile what policy wonks know, in their hearts, is utterly irreconcilable.
Two recent polls of U.S. public opinion reveal this point quite nicely. Pew's latest survey of U.S. attitudes about China reveal deep-seated American anxiety about China's rising economic power, but a desire to strengthen relations. This leads to a headline assessment, "Strengthen Ties with China, but Get Tough on Trade," that is already contradictory.
Even better, however, is the Reuters/Ipsos survey of American attitudes about the debt ceiling:
The U.S. public overwhelmingly opposes raising the country's debt limit even though failure to do so could hurt America's international standing and push up borrowing costs, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.
Some 71 percent of those surveyed oppose increasing the borrowing authority, the focus of a brewing political battle over federal spending. Only 18 percent support an increase.…
With the Pentagon fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 51 percent supported cutbacks to military spending.…
Expensive benefit programs that account for nearly half of all federal spending enjoy widespread support, the poll found. Only 20 percent supported paring Social Security retirement benefits while a mere 23 supported cutbacks to the Medicare health-insurance program.
Some 73 percent support scaling back foreign aid and 65 percent support cutting back on tax collection.
How to put this gently… any serious effort to tackle the deficit/debt problem can't be accomplished without addressing Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and tax reform. So any American who says they don't want the debt ceiling raised is logically saying, "I want interest rates to skyrocket and massive cuts in Social Security and Medicare."
Except, of course, most Americans are rationally ignorant -- so they don't see these set of beliefs as contradictory.
It's not a bad way to go through life… unless, of course, you're the one trying to get the books into balance.
As Ian Bremmer announced over at The Call, Eurasia Group recently released their top risks for 2011. Coming at no. 7 is the U.S. political system: "In 2011, headline risk will be driven by both parties loudly promoting priorities for which there is no path forward."
It's telling that political risk assessments need to be used for the United States, but not surprising. The U.S. political system does not always work terribly well.
The events of the past week would appear to expand that sentiment to U.S. political culture, however, which is several cognitive leaps too far. For example, Gideon Rachman compares the murder of a Punjabi governor in Pakistan to the attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords:
Events in both Pakistan and America suggest what happens when you not only disagree with your political opponents - but when you demonise them as enemies of the faith or the nation. At that point, some may conclude that it is legitimate to end the argument with bullets.
Sigh… let's all take a few deep breaths, shall we?
Let's turn to Lexington's response to Rachman:
Well yes, America could become like Pakistan if people concluded that it was legitimate to settle arguments with bullets. But in America, where guns are plentiful and political and religious feelings intense, the telling thing is that almost no one at all considers political violence to be legitimate. The killings have been met with universal condemnation by ordinary Americans and the whole political class. The violent act of one probably deranged individual doesn't show that America is heading down the same road as Pakistan. And the response to it suggests that the political cultures of the two countries are fundamentally different.
Indeed, seen in historical context, Adam Serwer points out that the United States' political culture has trended away from violence:
Political violence in the United States has never been more illegitimate. There was a time when a member of Congress could walk into the Senate and beat a political rival senseless and walk away unmolested. The South was once a place of unrestrained terrorist violence conducted with the tacit approval of local authorities. Even when those authorities were brave or responsible enough to press charges, securing guilty verdicts would be difficult because of a local culture willing to accept crimes committed in service to white supremacy. We live in a time where no major political movement would be willing to openly justify such behavior.
This is why, in the aftermath of the incident, both the left and right began placing the blame on the other side.
Finally, we get to James Pethokoukis:
[P]olitical violence has been rare in the United States in recent years. That's despite the disputed 2000 presidential election, the unpopular Iraq war and the election of the first black president. Indeed, the World Bank ranks America above the UK when it comes to "political stability and absence of violence." And the U.S. rank has actually been on the rise in recent years.
There's going to be a rollicking debate about whether political vitriol contributes to political violence. Fine. But let's put things in perspective -- extremist rhetoric or not, this kind of thing is blessedly rare in the American polity.
Both Chuck Klosterman and Johann Hari wrote zombie trend stories this week. This comes on the heels of a prior batch of these essays -- and I know there's gonna be at least a few of these in the future. As a public service for writers contemplating these kinds of essay, here's the generic template for the "Zombies are hot. Why?" story:
Section 1: Set up premise that zombies are culturally hot right now. Mention The Walking Dead/zombie flash mobs/spike in movie releases/Minnesota court case. Ask why. Note: try to put as many references to "shambling," "shuffling," etc. as possible.
Section 2: Compare zombies to vampires. Mock Twilight series. Point out that vampires = sex and zombies = death. Observe that zombie renaissance is surprising, because individual zombies are not interesting characters like vampires. Note: if artsy essay, be sure to name-check White Zombie.
Section 3: Propose that interest in zombies is a metaphor for something else that's rotting through American/global society. Possibilities include:
Section 4: Conclude that the current era stinks, and only when things improve will these zombies disappear. Note: try to end with joke.
[And how is this template different from your book?--ed. Um... footnotes. Footnotes and international relations theory. The ingredients for a smash hit! -- ed.]
The opening and closing of today's Tom Friedman's column:
For me, the most frightening news in The Times on Sunday was not about North Korea's stepping up its nuclear program, but an article about how American kids are stepping up their use of digital devices...
We need better parents ready to hold their kids to higher standards of academic achievement. We need better students who come to school ready to learn, not to text. And to support all of this, we need an all-society effort -- from the White House to the classroom to the living room -- to nurture a culture of achievement and excellence.
If you want to know who's doing the parenting part right, start with immigrants, who know that learning is the way up. Last week, the 32 winners of Rhodes Scholarships for 2011 were announced -- America's top college grads. Here are half the names on that list: Mark Jia, Aakash Shah, Zujaja Tauqeer, Tracy Yang, William Zeng, Daniel Lage, Ye Jin Kang, Baltazar Zavala, Esther Uduehi, Prerna Nadathur, Priya Sury, Anna Alekeyeva, Fatima Sabar, Renugan Raidoo, Jennifer Lai, Varun Sivaram.
Do you see a pattern?
OMG, I do see a pattern!! It's the the funky foreign name game! Hey, I can play that game too -- in fact, let's take a look at the first paragraph of that Sunday Times story, shall we?
On the eve of a pivotal academic year in Vishal Singh's life, he faces a stark choice on his bedroom desk: book or computer?
Guess what? He chooses the computer.
I understand what Friedman is trying to say here about American education, but mixing in the "kids are texting too much these days and it's rotting their brains" lament is as distracting a hook as... er... texting itself. Does Friedman seriously believe that the young people in South Korea, Vietnam, and China are abstaining from this technology?
Sorry, Tom, but the North Korea nucleas reactor story scares me far more. [So what do you think of the DPRK's latest provocations? Huh, smart guy?!--ed. I hope to post something on this later today.]
Over the weekend I finally saw The Social Network and read Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker essay about social networks. Both Gladwell and Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter for The Social Network, have their issues with futurists who embrace these technologies as the beginning of a social revolution.
Now I'm pretty sympathetic to these arguments. In the past, I've expressed a fair amount of ambivalence about the power of Internet technologies to transform the world. After reading the essay and watching the movie, however, I can't say I'm all that convinced by their theses.
Let's start with Gladwell, because it's the lesser of the two arguments. Gladwell contrasts the relationships and connections forged on Twitter/Facebook with real-world movements. He argues that the latter work when based on a hierarchical structure with strong ties among the participants. The former is based on a networked structure with weak ties. Therefore:
This sounds good, except this doesn't describe networks all that well. Networks eliminate neither hierarchical power nor strong ties -- they're simply expressed in different ways. Actors in central nodes, with lots of dynamic density among other actors, can command both power and discipline. Not all networks will look like this, but the ones successful at fomenting change will likely resemble it. To put it more precisely: social networks lower the transactions costs for creating both weak ties and strong ties, loose collaborations and more tightly integrated social movements.
It's not either/or, a point Oliver Willis raises:
Things bubble over to real world via social networking when influencers push the influenced to do something. Social networks tend to magnify this, and the web does give some of us who would never be real-life leaders a way of having some sway. I find it odd that Gladwell misses this, because this is the whole point of his bestseller The Tipping Point.
I’ve no doubt that getting your followers to do something in the real world is more complicated than getting them to retweet or “Like” something, but I don’t think the barrier to doing that is social networking’s distributed nature but rather the intensity of the network following you. But this is the same as in the real world. Network leaders need to have leadership skills no matter the medium.
The movie The Social Network was far more interesting. There is some controversy over what's been fictionalized, what's been mysoginized, and what's been left out of the film, and I'm sympathetic to some of these arguments. Taking what was intended to be on the screen, however, The Social Network also suggests the ways in which offline and online structures intersect. There were many reasons for Facebook's rise, but I have to think that the site's initial exculsivity helped to give it something that MySpace and Friendster lacked.
The film has many great moments (if Aaron Sorkin was meant to translate any real-life figure onto film, it was Larry Summers). Both the ending and Sorkin's interviews about the film, however, suggests that there's an emptiness at the core of Facebook that hollows out 21st-century friendships.
I don't buy this. Social networking sites giveth as much as they taketh away. Speaking from my own experience, I've found myself becoming closer with some friends and less close with others based on Facebook.
More generally, there seems to be a generational effect whenever a new social technology emerges. Different generations react in radically different ways:
1) The Mature Generation tends to disdain the technology as yet another example of the world going to hell in a handbasket.
2) For the Maturing Generation, the new technology is both a blessing and a curse. The adroit learn how to use the new technology to vault to social, political or economic heights that they would not have otherwise achieved. At the same time, a new technology without new social norms inevitably creates confusion about what is acceptable and what is taboo. Some people lose status as a result.
3) For the Youngest Generation, the technology isn't new by the time they come to use it. They're savvy in the ways that the technology is both an opportunity and a risk, and can navigate those waters without thinking too hard. For this generatioon, the social technology is part of the new normal.
Sorkin has demonstrated his Oldest Generation credentials since the "Lemon-Lyman" episode of The West Wing. Which is fine. But there are other generations out there, and they're not relating to these technologies the way that Sorkin thinks.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Your humble blogger is teaching Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War this week. Now, back in the day, there would be no need to justify the inclusion of such a classic into a course. Nowadays, with the kids and their YouFace, I suppose some justification should be provided. Here are three reasons to read this Greek classic:
1) It will purge 300 from your system. The ancients were all about the purging, and this classic will help you void the non-so-classic film. True, the two stories don't overlap all that much. And true, I like homoerotic goofiness as much as the next hetrosexual. That said, it's a crying shame that far more people have seen that mockery of Greek history than read... any Greek history. Alas, even modern criticisms of 300 wind up infected with stupid and ignorant Thucydides references. So read some Thucydides and you can enjoy
Gerald Butler's abs Lena Headey's abs 300 on a more refined, absurdist plane.
2) You will earn Star Trek street cred. Want to know where the Star Trek franchise gets the names for 90% of its obscure alien species? Look no further than Thucydides. Just one read and you'll discover the source of the Cytherians, the Battle of Tanagra, and other names that will
bore amaze your friends.
3) You will recognize some recurrent patterns in history. Thucydides will help one develop a better appreciation for life in 5th century BC, but it will really help one develop an appreciation for the aspects of human nature that are unchanged through time.
For exhibit A, consider this recent Kindred Winecoff post with respect to American soldiers, war crimes, and nativism. The relevant section:
The Washington Post recently reported that a handful of soldiers engaged in murder campaigns that targeted Afghan civilians for sport. I assume this, like the Abu Ghraib disaster, is an isolated incident, but that's not really the point. After reading the piece a friend remarked:[T]his isn't about U.S. troops, or even about this particular group of U.S. troops. It's too easy to blame this on the type of people likely to be soldiers, or say that this is a group of bad apples. In the right situation, this could be me. This could be you.
War may bring out courage and heroism in the human heart, and many of us like celebrating that. And there's nothing wrong with celebrating valor. But war also brings out brutality and nihilism. And that is why we cannot go to war lightly, why if war is to be an option, it must be the last option, a desperate refuge that we flee to with a heavy heart.
We generally don't think like that, especially in the run-up to wars. It doesn't enter our cost-benefit calculus.
I strongly suspect it enters into the cost-benefit calculation of any officer required to read Thucydides. All it takes is one read of his discussion of state failure in Cocyra to recognize that war has always had this kind of effect on individuals and societies. See if any of this sounds familiar:
The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases. In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes. Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime. The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only proffered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one, since, considerations of safety apart, success by treachery won him the palm of superior intelligence. Indeed it is generally the case that men are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first. The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention.
Seriously, go read the whole thing. [But, like, that was a really long paragraph of unindented text, man!!--ed. Then buy the book -- it looks much better on the printed page.]
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.