On foreign policy grounds, Senator Rand Paul and Middle East analyst Elizabeth O'Bagy have about as little in common as humanly possible. O'Bagy has advocated for the moderate elements of the Syrian rebel movement; Paul has praised Bashir Al-Assad. Really, the only thing the two of them have in common is that they're both considered "right-wing" in their worldviews.
Well, there's one other thing they have in common.
Over the summer, O'Bagy was caught flat-out lying about possessing a Ph.D. from Georgetown. Understandably, this got her fired from the Institute for the Study of War, the think tank where she worked. In the past, this would have been the end of O'Bagy's story in Washington.
Not in 2013. As Gordon Lubold and Shane Harris reported over at The Cable six weeks ago:
Sen. John McCain has hired Elizabeth O'Bagy, the Syria analyst in Washington who was fired for padding her credentials, The Cable has learned. She begins work Monday as a legislative assistant in McCain's office.
O'Bagy was a young but well-respected advisor at the Institute for the Study of War and had emerged quickly as an important voice among those arguing in favor of intervention in Syria. McCain and others had cited her work publicly before her nascent reputation collapsed when it was discovered that her claims to having a combined master's/Ph.D. were false and that in fact she had not yet defended her thesis.
"Elizabeth is a talented researcher, and I have been very impressed by her knowledge and analysis in multiple briefings over the last year," McCain told The Cable in a statement. "I look forward to her joining my office." McCain's office said there would be no further comment on the matter.
So that's a pretty soft landing.
Now we come to Senator Paul. Over the past week, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski caught the good Senator plagiarizing in speeches, his Washington Times column, and his last book. First wished he could challenge someone to a duel as a response. Then a mildly chastened Paul allowed that some mistakes had been made -- even though he also complained that he was being held to a higher standard. Not surprisingly, Paul and the Washington Times agreed to end his column, which seemed the decent thing to do.
Less than 48 hours later, Politico's Hadas Gold reports that Rand Paul has found a new home for his musings:
Just one day after The Washington Times ended Sen. Rand Paul's column over plagiarism charges, the Kentucky Republican's musings have found a new home at Breitbart.com.
With no mention of the plagiarism controversy currently surrounding the senator, the combative right-wing site announced the news in a lead story on the homepage Wednesday evening.
The site took obvious jabs at The Washington Times, claiming Breitbart has surpassed the Times in web traffic and quoting Paul's senior aide as saying the senator is excited to broaden his audience.
"Paul is pleased to partner with Breitbart News and looks forward to the new, wider audience for his columns," senior adviser Doug Stafford said in the piece.
Now this is, in some ways, an unfair comparison. O'Bagy is a grunt-level policy wonk; Paul is a sitting Senator. Elected officials get to do all kinds of crazy s**t and, so long as they're still in office, are still relevant. Furthermore, I seriously doubt that Paul himself plagiarized so much as his apparently incompetent staff.
Still, it seems a bit odd that it's apparently impossible for someone on the right to commit a serious ethical breach and go 48 hours without... landing a cushy new gig.
Now is normally the point in my blog posts where I sum up the lesson learned. Today, however, the only summation I can muster is that the conservative side of the Idea Industry is badly broken. Seriously, when do right-wing thought contributors get to fail?
Am I missing anything?
[WARNING #1: SPOILERS AHEAD]
[WARNING #2: I HAVE NOT READ THE GAME OF THRONES BOOKS. WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN ANALYSIS BASED SOLELY ON THE HBO SHOW. YES, I KNOW I COULD READ THE BOOKS TO DISCOVER WHAT HAPPENS AND MAKE THESE INTERPRETIVE POSTS SOUND INCREDIBLY PRESCIENT, BUT I HAVE FOUND WITH THE WALKING DEAD THAT I DIDN'T ENJOY THE SHOW AS MUCH KNOWING WHAT WAS COMING. JUST DEAL WITH IT.]
As a political scientist, I liked but did not love season one of HBO's Game of Thrones, because of the rather murky ways the fractious politics of Westeros translated into the modern world. I really liked season two, as the War of the Five Kings highlighted variations in political leadership that resonated better with recent political debates.
And season three? I confess to some decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, elements of this season started to drive me bonkers. The overwhelming number of plotlines meant that, from episode to episode, not a lot seemed to happen. There were a few eps where, literally, the overwhelming bulk of the show consisted of protagonists marching from point A to point B while they argued, kind of a poor medieval version of bad Aaron Sorkin. Speaking of marching, those damn White Walkers have been taking their sweet time getting down to the Wall, eh? And finally, the torture of Theon Greyjoy after the first cycle was redundant -- and the opportunity costs of that screen time pretty significant.
And yet the season's high points were pretty friggin' high. There was this:
And, of course, there was the Red Wedding. Any scene that leads to these kind of reactions is clearly doing something very, very right:
Stepping back, as a political scientist I think Season Three of Game of Thrones got two Very Big And Interrelated Things right -- but the risks are very high. First, they f**ked with the viewer's sense of identity. As Jonathan Mercer observed a while ago, it is very easy for humans to form identities and shared understandings that distinguish between in-group and out=group, and somewhat more difficult to dislodge them. Game of Thrones started the narrative by having the viewer sympathize with House Stark. They're good, they're honorable, they seem down to earth, and so forth. Compared to the other Westeroi families we encountered in season one -- the grab-bag of Baratheons, the moneyed, incestuous Lannisters, the decrepit, scheming Walder Frey, and the rent-seeking lot in the Small Council -- you automatically start rooting for the Starks (well, except for Sansa). It's from the Starks' vantage point that we entered this narrative, and we don't like leaving that first point of reference.
By the Red Wedding, however, Game of Thrones has shifted our perspective just a wee bit. Now there are Lannisters that merit some sympathy, such Tyrion and Jamie. There are other Lannisters -- Tywin -- that at least prompt some grudging degree of admiration. The Tyrells have added a more intriguing flavor of politics to Kings Landing. And as for the Starks, their downfall demonstrates the difference between military and political competency. Eddard, Robb, Catelyn, Arya, Sansa -- only in that lot would Jon Snow be considered the master strategist of the group. So while the downfall of the Starks was tragic, it also taught the viewer that, truly, anything can happen in this world. Somewhere, Joss Whedon is smiling, because that's the one thing he has in common with George R.R. Martin. My point is not that the Red Wedding isn't shocking -- it's that after the Red Wedding, one can only look back and think, "man, did the Starks screw up."
The other thing that changed this season was the insertion of actual ideas in the myriad conflicts. From the anarchism of Mance Rayder and the wildlings to the monotheism/anti-feudalism of the Brotherhood Without Banners to the deep anti-slavery sentiments of Daenerys Targaryen, we are now seeing actors whose power flows not just from the traditional sources of blood and treasure, but from new and interesting social purposes. Indeed, this season of Game of Thrones raises a very provocative question: who died and elected any particular house of Westeros to the Iron Throne? Hell, why even have an Iron Throne? By the end of the season, the wildlings' political philosophy seems rather bankrupt, or at least ineffective (one of the nice pieces of symmetry in that narrative was to make Jon Snow seem out of touch north of the Wall, but to make Ygritte seem equally out of touch south of the Wall). Monotheism, democracy, liberty and human rights are pretty appealing, on the other hand.
Going forward, however, Game of Thrones has put itself into a bit of a pickle. Wrenching the viewer away from the perspective of the Starks automatically reduces the tendency to identify with any other group. And it seems like the White Walkers will eventually pay Westeros a visit, which could cause a lot of these transgressive ideas to fall by the wayside. In other words, I'm worried that the very things I liked about this season will be squelched in season four.
What do you think?
So the big push for World War Z is clearly afoot. The second trailer for the film was released a week ago:
So this trailer isn't all that different from the first trailer, which means my qualms about the film version of Max Brooks' masterpiece remain. Still, that airplane sequence at the end was well executed, and offers some promise.
But then we get to the Entertainment Weekly cover story -- out today -- about the long, laborious process of getting World War Z from page to screen. It's a good article that details the myriad screenwriters involved, the location difficulties, and the reshoots. One definitely gets the sense of how Brad Pitt warmed to the subject matter over time. Hell, in the EW article he referenced All The President's Men as his template for the story -- which, if you've read World War Z, you know isn't the craziest comparison.
Which is great, until we get to this long quote from Pitt at the end of the story explaining how the final version of the movie has changed from his original conception:
At the time, I was really interested in a more political film, using the zombie trope as a kind of Trojan horse for asking, 'What would happen to sociopolitical lines if there was a pandemic like this? Who would be on top? Who would be the powerful countries and who would be the most vulnerable?
We wanted to really explore that, but it was just too much. We got bogged down in it; it was too much to explain. It gutted the fun of what these films are meant to be.
Excuse me, I need to go do this for a while:
Here's the thing -- the very reason that World War Z the book is better than every other zombie novel ever written is the global scope and the reasonably realistic take on the politics of a zombie apocalypse. There is action galore in the book, but there's something more as well. The politics that "bogged down" the movie? That is the fun!
Will I go see World War Z? Probably out of sheer professional obligation. But let's be clear -- based on the evidence to date, the odds seem very likely that the movie version of World War Z will be a garden-variety big-budget disaster flick. It's not gonna be great.
While Pitt plans a trilogy of films, methinks this World War Z would have worked even better as a miniseries for HBO or FX. Too bad. Should some shameless huckster desire to procure the film version of Theories of International Politics and Zombies -- which is all about the politics -- then they should contact Princeton University Press.
Am I missing anything?
Over at the Guardian, Ed Pilkington notes a rather curious silence from a powerful American interest group:
The National Rifle Association is so tied up fighting new gun restrictions in the wake of the Newtown shooting that it has failed so far to mount its expected lobbying blitz against a new international arms control control treaty.
With just a few weeks to go until the world's first Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is put to a final vote at a UN conference in New York campaigners have voiced surprise at the NRA's relative silence on the issue. Until the Newtown tragedy, in which 20 young children died in their classrooms on 14 December, the UN's attempt to contain the loosely regulated international trade in weapons had been one of the gun lobby's biggest targets....
[A]head of the final ATT conference, which opens on 18 March, the NRA has been notable by its absence. Though the organisation continues to vow that it will do all in its power to prevent the arms trade coming into effect – arguing that it is a "ticking time-bomb" and "the most serious threat to American gun owners in decades" – it has not been applying the same strong-arm tactics as it did in 2012.
So what's up? Pilkington suggests that the NRA is so distracted fighting against domestic gun control measures that it's taken its eye off the ball of this treaty -- particlarly since, according to the American Bar Association, there's nothing in the ATT to infringe on Second Amendment rights.
That might be true, but let me suggest an alternative hypothesis based on LaPierre's own rhetoric. The standard NRA defense against gun control has been concern about a Leviathan stripping citizens of their right to bear arms. Based on LaPierre's recent Daily Caller essay, however, I think they've switched arguments. The concern is no longer about creeping totalitarianism; it's creeping anarchy:
Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face—not just maybe. It’s not paranoia to buy a gun. It’s survival. It’s responsible behavior, and it’s time we encourage law-abiding Americans to do just that....
Responsible Americans realize that the world as we know it has changed. We, the American people, clearly see the daunting forces we will undoubtedly face: terrorists, crime, drug gangs, the possibility of Euro-style debt riots, civil unrest or natural disaster.
Gun owners are not buying firearms because they anticipate a confrontation with the government. Rather, we anticipate confrontations where the government isn’t there—or simply doesn’t show up in time.
To preserve the inalienable, individual human right to keep and bear arms—to withstand the siege that is coming—the NRA is building a four-year communications and resistance movement (emphasis added).
They say "communications and resistance movement," I say "doomsday preppers."
I'm hardly the only one to notice this kind of doomsday prepper rhetoric from LaPierre. What's interesting is that the NRA's allies in Congress are talking the same way. Gail Collins offers up the following Lindsey Graham quote:
The senator from South Carolina wanted to know what people were supposed to do with a lousy two-shell shotgun “in an environment where the law and order has broken down, whether it’s a hurricane, national disaster, earthquake, terrorist attack, cyberattack where the power goes down and the dam’s broken and chemicals have been released into the air and law enforcement is really not able to respond and people take advantage of that lawless environment.”
Do you think Graham spends a lot of time watching old episodes of “Doomsday Preppers?” Does he worry about zombies? That definitely would require a lot of firepower (emphasis added).
I don't know if Graham worries about zombies, but I've given this matter some thought, and I do wonder if there's a fusion of various apocalyptic fears going on in some political quarters.
To get back to the Arms Trade Treaty, since Newtown the NRA appears to have shifted tactics in its arguments about the necessity to bear arms. But the fear of state collapse is a very different logic from a fear of an overpowering state. If you believe that governments will simply crumble at the first sign of a threat, then you're not gonna bother lobbying against some silly international treaty. It's not like the ATT will make a difference when the s**t hits the fan. Rather, groups like the NRA should be more concerned with declining gun ownership rates in the United States.
In the argot of international relations theory, a leader or organization that finds itself trapped by its political rhetoric is suffering from "blowback." In an irony of ironies, I wonder if the NRA's shift in rhetoric has hamstrung its lobbying efforts on the Arms Trade Treaty.
Your humble blogger gave a talk at the "Sex, Tech and Rock & Roll" TEDx event at Binghamton University last month. My talk was entitled "Metaphor of the Living Dead" and was in part prompted by my prior work on zombies, as well as this blog post from last December.
Here's the TED talk:
I look forward to The Onion trying to satirize that talk.
Your humble blogger is taking a vacation at an undisclosed zombie-proof redoubt for the next ten days, so blogging will be on the lighter side.
Speaking of the lighter side, juuuuuust a few friends and colleagues have informed me that zombie preparedness has become a political issue up in Canada. From BuzzFeed's Ellie Hall:
The Canadian government has gone on the record about the zombie apocalypse. In an amazing exchange on the floor of the House of Commons today, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was asked if he was working to "develop an international zombie strategy so that a zombie invasion does not turn into a zombie apocalypse."
New Democratic Party Parliament Member Pat Martin applauded the United States Center for Disease Control's emergency preparedness measures premised on a zombie outbreak and wanted to know how Canada would act to protect its citizens.
Here's the clip:
For the entirety of Baird's response, click over to Huffington Post Canada.
Now, to be honest, I'm a bit disturbed by this exchange. First of all, there were so many better puns that Baird could have uttered.
Second of all, both the NDP representative and the Foreign Minister were poorly briefed. Sure, Martin knew about the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Quebec government's counter-zombie efforts, but why no mention of British Columbia's aggressive campaign against the living dead?! That seems like rank prejudice against Canada's Western provinces.
Third, how in the name of all that is reanimated could the Canadians have this debate without discussing Canada's distinguished contributions to the zombie genre? No mention of Pontypool? No mention of Fido?! Come on!!!
Fourth, the claim that zombies could effortlessly cross borders echoes a leading Canadian perspective on this issue ... but where's the expert testimony? Why no international relations perspective? It's not like Theories of International Politics and Zombies isn't available in Canada.
This is serious business. Winter has come. The White Walkers could be emigrating down from the North at any moment. Until Canada gets its house in order, secures its strategic maple syrup reserve from waffle-eating ghouls, and starts consulting experts on this issue, I for one, am taking my family south.
December 25th is a time of love, gifts, prayers... and thinking long and hard about Santa Claus as an actor in world politics. Sure, one could just compose awesome poems in the holiday spirit -- or one could think seriously about the implications of the jolly fat man for the international system.
I emailed a few of our gravitas-oozing foreign affairs pundits about the true meaning of Santa in our hyperconnected, globalized world. Here's what I got in response:
Santa is the most damning piece of evidence yet that we live in a G-Zero world. This stateless actor commands a vast intelligence apparatus, an apparent slave army of little people, and is not above working animals long past their breaking point. By any stretch of the imagination, he's a rogue actor. And yet, despite these flagrant violations of international norms, there isn't even a nascent effort to combat, contain or regulate his activities. The G-20 continues to dither, revealing itself yet again as toothless and pointless. This would never have happened back when the U.S. was the hegemon!!
On this day of Christ's birth, I will tell you something that the New York Times, which is so in the bag for this administration that one of their columnists kept predicting an Obama victory despite overwhelming mispeception to the contrary, will not: Santa Claus is a force for good in the world. Developing countries will cling to their indigenous Christmas heroes, foolishly hoping that these local legends can guide their country towards peace and prosperity. Wake up, rest of the world!! Yes, Santa can seem a bit domineering with his black-and-white dichotomy of naughty and nice. Let's face it, however -- those countries that have embraced St. Nick are better off. If anything, Santa's problem is that he's not being mean enough to the naughtys of the world. Only when he is prepared to deploy the elves to places like Syria and the Congo will Santa be able to honestly wish all a good night. I hope ole Saint Nick acts in this expansionist manner -- but I worry that the Obama administration, to distract from the fiscal cliff, will declare some kind of "war" on Christmas. Food for thought....
Beltway pundits, serenely sipping their eggnog at those Georgetown Christmas cocktail parties, will offer soothing patter about the merits of a white Christmas and the inherent goodness of Santa Claus. And other powerful interest groups, like retailers and the Catholic Church, will argue in favor of celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25th. Some clever liberal pundits will go so far as to point out that it was an American corporation created the modern-day Santa. Don't let these lobbies fool you -- celebrating Christmas on December 25th and welcoming Santa Claus onto our soil is a breach of American sovereignty that can no longer be tolerated. Why should Americans celebrate this most American of holidays the same time as everyone else in the world? Is it American for our government offices to be closed on this day because of some unelected bureaucrat based in that oldest of old Europe cities, Rome??!! Is it American to have some foreign actor -- a.k.a. Kris Kringle -- make decisions about whether our children have been good or bad?! Americans don't need some foreign list to determine who's naught and nice. I believe that there's a document that already takes care of everything we need, and it's called the United States Constitution. Our elected oficials must take action to protect the Constitution of the United States from these global efforts to affect our daily lives. We're an exceptional country with exceptional children -- we don't need Santa to tell us what they deserve.
It is on Christmas more than any other day that we can appreciate how wrong Chuck Hagel would be for the Secretary of Defense position. The former Senator from Nebraska seems all too willing to compromise in the War on Christmas, suggesting that perhaps "some" public spaces should be free of mangers. This is fully consistent with Hagel's past waffling on various threats to the American way of life, as evidenced by [MINIONS-- PLEASE INSERT LAZY, INACCURATE HYPERLINK HERE--JR]. I've heard exclusively from a top GOP source whose last name rhymes with "Fristol" that Senate Republicans have a master file of statements Hagel made at a Senate Christmas party years ago where he raged against the "rank commercialism" of the holiday. It's this type of anti-free enterprise statements that clearly demonstrate that Hagel is out of the American mainstream in his views on Christmas -- and America's place in the world.
There are many things to admire about Christmas -- and yet I'm left wondering why, on this most nurturing, this most feminine of holidays, it's a fat, aging, affluent white man who traipses around the world offering gifts to children. It could be that Mrs. Claus simply doesn't want to leave the North Pole -- or it could be that she's trapped there by the hidebound traditions of this holiday. Clearly, the current model of delivering everyone's presents on one night makes it impossible for women to have it all. Perhaps we should rework how Christmas operates to make it a more family-friendly model for the Clauses. Instead of everyone getting their presents on one night, it should be staggered throughout the year. This would allow both Santa and Mrs. Claus to participate in the making of the list, the checking it twice, and the bestowing of presents to the world's children. Let's face it -- the more that women take an active part in the management of this holiday, the better for everyone involved.
Merry Christmas, foreign policy wonks!!
In recent weeks there's been a low hum of pretty interesting and not-so-interesting essays asking why there has been so much attention paid in the zombie apocalypse, and what that attention signifies.
I bring this up because the Discovery Channel will be airing it's Zombie Apocalypse documentary this evening. The New York Times' Neal Genzlinger reviews it and finds it... pretty wanting:
Thank goodness we’ll all be wiped out by the Maya doomsday by week’s end. That will spare us the discomfort of having to go through the impending zombie apocalypse....
The National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers,” among others, has already introduced viewers to people who go to seemingly extreme lengths to get ready for terrorist attacks, the collapse of the financial system, nuclear power plant disasters and more, so perhaps it’s no surprise that, at least according to this program, there are some among us who are seriously preparing for a zombie attack. What makes this program different is that among clips of the preppers spewing nonsense about how to shoot a zombie, it intercuts interviews with credentialed academics who say that, yes, a virus or some such that attacks the brain could find its way into humans, disseminate rapidly and cause symptoms that would make us resemble all those zombies we know and love from the movies....
The program also gives you the rare experience of hearing a professor (Daniel W. Drezner of Tufts University) described as the “author of ‘Theories of International Politics and Zombies’ ” — on Monday, No. 40 on Amazon’s list of best sellers in its sub-sub-subcategory of international and world politics. And it provides a new entry for the list of you-must-be-joking organizations: apparently there actually is something called theKansas Anti Zombie Militia.
But it’s hard right now to take this program in the pop-culture way it was intended, especially the idiocy that comes out of the mouths of the various preppers. “Some people’s epiphany,” says one, Matthew Oakey, “is when they realize that the guy that lives on their block with all the guns and ammo isn’t crazy.”
I haven't seen the documentary yet, so I can't really comment on it except what I recall from their interview of me three months ago. Three thoughts, though:
1) Given the reported claim that Nancy Lanza was in fact a doomsday prepper, I have to share Mr. Genzlinger's concern about the unfortunate timing of this broadcast. Some television networks have made alterations to their broadcasts because of the Sandy Hook attack. I'm not sure this program rises to that level, but the timing makes me wince, which is probably not a good sign.
2) Damn, I need to update my Fletcher page. Seriously, that thing is at least three years out of date.
3) Regarding my participation in the documentary, well, I'll just reprint what Newsday's Verne Gay wrote:
One of the "experts" quoted here is in fact a respected scholar in foreign policy at Tufts who has written widely on zombies, though largely as metaphors for chaos in world markets and how people adapt. In an email, I asked Dan Drezner about the program, and he responded that a book he had written on the subject was "intended to be funny [but] one of the points I make is that fears about zombie apocalypses are exaggerated because people underestimate the adaptability of humans." He added, "I have no idea if that got in or not."
Sorry, professor -- it did not get in, and the documentary is not funny.
That's unfortunate... and it gives rise to an almost sacrilegious question: have we hit the law of diminishing marginal returns on the living dead? On the popular culture front, when Twilight-like books and films are being made about zombies (though I gotta admit I like what I see from the trailer) and the sign of Nick's loserdom in The New Girl is that he's working on a lame zombie novel, I fear we've hit saturation point.
On the utility-of-the-metaphor front, I will defend the use of fictional analogies as a way of stimulating creative thinking and calling attention to useful policy measures until my last undying breath. I wrote Theories of International Politics and Zombies because I thought it would make some people laugh and make some people think; it was a subversive way to get some book-learning into the cerebellum. Since the book has come out, however, I find that the questions I get from reporters and documentarians about the living dead have morphed from seriocomic to just dead serious.
I share Alyssa Rosenberg's concern that people are focusing way too much on being in the apocalypse as opposed to how we get to the apocalypse and whether it can be stopped. Analogies free up certain pattens of thought while also constraining others. Because so many zombie narratives assume that no matter what humans do, we wind up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, there's a tendency to presume that this must and always be so. That constraint is starting to become more prominent.
So to sum up: I'm in a zombie documentary this evening, it's apparently not that great, I'm quite confident that the zombie apocalypse won't happen, and my Fletcher page is badly in need of updating. That is all.
We might live in an era of globalization, but its is nevertheless true that travel abroad leads to some odd news gaps when one returns. Last year I took a transatlantic flight and while I was incommunicado, Hosni Mubarak stepped down as the President of Egypt. During yesterday's trip, David Petraeus resigned after... after.... well, insert your own pun involving Petraeus and Paula Broadwell here, but only if you think you can top the New York Post.
Still, I think the biggest shock I encountered upon my return was the new trailer for World War Z, starring Brad Pitt and based on the best zombie novel ever written (by Max Brooks).
I once asked Max -- yeah, I know him, I get to call him Max, just f***ing deal with it -- how he was handling the movie version of his book, and he told me that his strategy was to simply sign over the rights and then not pay an iota of attention to what happened. Once it became clear that the producers weren't interested in his input, he figured that it was the only way to stay sane.
After watching the trailer, I think his strategy is sound, because it looks like what they're doing to World War Z is a travesty:
Now, let me preface my reaction to this trailer with the following caveats:
1) All movies that are inspired by books will deviate from their source material. That doesn't make the films bad (see my review of Argo, for example).
2) This is a trailer, and very often trailers are designed to misdirect your perceptions of how the film will play out. So maybe the movie will play out differently.
3) Even this trailer has hints of the book I love -- there are suggestions of the sweeping global canvas that made the book so great.
All that said, this looks pretty bad.
First off, there's the fast CGI zombies. One of the great pleasures of World War Z the novel was the way in which the degree of threat slowly creeped up, just like the walkers that Brooks used for his zombies. Switching to the 28 Days Later style of ghouls changes the nature of the threat in ways that undercut one of the central pleasures of Brooks' novel. The trailer looks like a globalized version of 28 Days Later. Which would be OK if the zombies in the movie version of World War Z were as scary as that movie's Infected. Which they ain't. You know a movie's Big Bad is in trouble when the Dark Seekers from I Am Legend look positively life-like.
Second, the trailer and the casting make it seem pretty clear that the movie is about how former government badass Brad Pitt reluctantly decides to leave his family for a spell to save the world. Which is pretty much the total friggin' opposite of what happens in the book.
Again, one of the pleasures of World War Z was the almost-pointillist way that Brooks told dozens of small stories about what happened across the world -- and how the sum of myriad small actions paved the way to victory. Indeed, the closest thing to a strategic savior in the book is a despised Afrikaaner who modified a decades-old plan to preserve the apartheid government into a ruthless strategy to retrench and then defeat the undead hordes. Brad Pitt ain't that guy. So instead this looks like your standard reluctant-hero-saves-the-day narrative.
Finally, over 90% of the trailer looks at the U.S. Again, the best thing about the book was how it started with a global perspective and how it managed to keep a global perspective (as opposed to, say, Contagion).
In the course of writing Theories of International Politics and Zombies, my admiration for what Brooks pulled off in his book only grew with time. I hope I'm wrong about how the movie version of World War Z turns out. At this point, however, I have more optimism about Star Wars Episode VII than this bastardization of Max Brooks' magnum opus.
Am I missing anything?
Last night your humble blogger went to see Argo, which Ben Affleck directs and stars in. Here's a trailer:
Now, those readers who care about things like "cinematography" or "editing" will love this film, but let's face it, if you're reading this blog, it means you're really interested in foreign policy and international relations. And let's face it again -- with a few noteworthy exceptions, the film industry has not done world politics proud. So, from that perspective, how does Argo hold up?
With some mild spoilers below, I'm happy to report that the film is pleasantly savvy in the ways of the wonk, and even the ways in which it's not savvy can be productive.
First, the film nails both the stakes and the awful policy choices faced by Americans during the hostage crisis. The prologue -- a clever and brief history of U.S. involvement in Iran prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution -- concisely explains exactly why that country might have been juuuuuust a wee bit angry at the U.S. government in 1979. The film starts on Nov. 4, the day the embassy was seized. The entire opening sequence is well done, but the thing it captures perfectly is the stone-cold realization by the embassy staff that once the compound is breached, there's no escape and no cavalry riding to the rescue. At one point, the head of the security staff explains patiently that their job is simply to buy time for the rest of the embassy personnel to burn/shred all the classified documents. The character also states -- correctly -- that if anyone kills any Iranian, there will be a bloodbath.
Once the hostages are seized -- and six manage to surreptitiously flee to the Canadian ambassador's compound -- Argo is straightforward on both the bureaucratic politics of trying to spirit them out and the bad odds that any exfiltration plan will have in getting them out of Tehran. At one point CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (played by Afflek) and his superior pitch their plan to the Secretary of State. In that scene, they state the obvious, which is rarely stated in films of this kind: there are no good options, and their plan of having the six be part of a film crew scouting a sci-fi movie location in Tehran is simply the "best bad idea" that they have. Welcome to foreign policymaking -- trying to figure out the best bad idea around. Argo doubles down on this sentiment in a quiet but effective scene at Dulles airport, when Mendez and his superior discuss who in his family should be notified if things go south.
Now, as it turns out, in real life, Mendez was driven to Dulles by his wife. This is just one of many Hollywoodizations that occur, particularly in the second half of the film. Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio take some liberties with what went down in Tehran and Washington as Mendez tries to spirit out the six Americans.
Oddly enough, this is unintentionally constructive for anyone interested in becoming a true foreign policy wonk. Here's a fun test:
1) Go see Argo;
2) Try to figure out which parts of the narrative's second half are fiction and which are fact;
3) Go read the Wired story by Joshuah Bearman that partially inspired the movie and the Slate explainer by David Haglund. If you didn't detect at least one of the Really Big Whoppers in the second half of the film, well, then you should probably find a career other than becoming a foreign policy wonk. Because there is some serious fictionalizing going on. If you're buying it as fact, then you either lack the instincts or the strategic chops necessary to operate in the world of statecraft.
Two data points from my morning reads can highlight -- but not prove -- this trend. Exhibit A is a fascinaing column by Gillian Terzis in The New Inquiry on the persistence of superstar economists since the 2008 financial crisis. What caught my attention:
E]conomists have not only retained their prominence in the years since the global financial crisis; they have expanded it. Media-savvy economists have only grown in number, disseminating nuggets of user-friendly economic theory and technocratic liberalism in newspaper columns, blogs, and econo-centric podcasts. Krugman, along with Joseph Stiglitz, Nouriel Roubini, Nassim Taleb, and Jeffrey Sachs have become household names as swaggering political pundits....
With economists becoming mainstream personalities, their econospeak is worming its way deeper into everyday language. Our money is as easily invested as our time: remember to “calculate” your “opportunity cost.” Emotions are “inefficient”: try not to have any. Choosing a restaurant necessarily invokes a “cost-benefit analysis.” Steering the course of one’s life is necessarily about making the right decisions at the right time. And the time for this linguistic evolution is right. In an age of laissez-faire capitalism and precarious labor, what are individuals and corporations doing, if not constantly “re-establishing themselves” as “market players?”....
Underlying all these examples is the idea that a perfunctory understanding of economics, it seems, is society’s best attempt at a code of justice amid endemic institutional dysfunction in political and legislative frameworks. As such, the quotidian economist presents himself (most often, it is a “he”) to audiences as above and beyond the realm of trifling matters like ideology or politics. The everyday economist goes out of his way to portray economics as a social science untouched by politics and ignorant of historical context. But such an approach is at a deliberate remove from the complexity and the uncertainties of modern life. It suggests that because humans are rational thinkers, then our actions can always be predicted, or at least reduced into theoretical epigrams. And so mainstream economics affirms itself as the discipline with an answer to everything, even when financial crises repeatedly underscore the gap between theory and praxis....
Metaphors may make for a great pull-quote, but too often they perpetuate causal simplification. Everyone is assumed to act in a certain fashion under a specified set of conditions, holding all other variables constant. Oversimplifying economic phenomena ignores possible failures and contingencies: how does one account for empathy, altruism, irrationality? Surely, politics must play a part; surely there are objects — sentimental talismans, or the right to decent shelter — to which no market value can be ascribed. It’s beyond the remit of economics to care....
In the online marketplace of ideas, the influence of a few celebrity economists creates an illusion of scarcity of new, heterodox voices. Yet now more than ever, to prevent costly and irreparable policy errors, economics needs its crowded-out Cassandras.
This is such an extreme mixture of fascinating analysis and total bulls**t that your humble blogger really needs to step back and gaze in awe at it. A big problem with Terzis's analysis is that the very "celebrity ecconomists" she cites -- Roubini, Taleb, Stiglitz -- were precisely the economists who were the Cassandras prior to 2008. One would assume that a public intellectual ecosystem that rewards critics who provided trenchant criticism is a good thing. Lamenting their rise seems... odd.
Except that it isn't for Terzis, because she objects to the very idea of a social science that tries to drain the complexity out of modern life in order to model it. Which is a fancy way of saying she objects to social science in principle -- because without simplifying reality a lot, it's simply impossible to model or explain it. In essence, Terzis' argument is that modern society is sooooo complex that radical uncertainty can't be eliminated -- so don't bother.
Terzis is coming at this from a Karl Polanyi-esque place on the left. Meanwhile, on the right, John Podhoretz looks at yesterday's polling in the 2012 presidential race, throws up his hands, and basically says, "Bah!! Numbers!!"
Mark it down on your calendars: Yesterday — Monday, Oct. 8, 2012 — may go down in the annals of history as the day political polling died.
It was the most ridiculous polling day among many preposterous polling days in the course of this long campaign...
The disparity in these numbers and their trends are so broad that even the cautionary method of adding them all together and averaging them out — best done by the Real Clear Politics “poll of polls” — makes little sense....
Pollsters themselves, when challenged on their stats, say they’re just presenting a snapshot of public opinion. Fine, but these snapshots are wildly distorted.
The key hidden fact is that fewer than one in 10 respond to those who try to poll them.
People who screen their calls, hang up on people they don’t know or end the survey because they don’t have time to take it make up more than 90 percent of those phoned by pollsters.
Then there are issues with cellphone users and those who communicate pretty much solely by texts and e-mail, and the like.
All we can be sure of, in the words of the peerless Internet humorist Iowahawk, “political poll results accurately reflect the opinions of the weirdo 9 percent who agree to participate in political polls.”
What yesterday proved is that all bets are off. We’re judging the state of this contest with junk data, and we need to stop. Until pollsters can figure out how to avoid all these crazy mood swings and white noise, they should be put on political and pundit probation.
Yeah!! Until pollsters learn to avoid... um... statistical variance... um... they shouldn't do statistics. And get off my lawn!!
Podhoretz raises some useful points here -- omitting cell phones does introduce a possible bias into polls, and the possible sample bias of low response rates. Podhoretz's core complaint, however, is both deeper and pretty friggin' absurd -- there's too much variance!! Stop the madness!!
The whole basis of statistics is that one is attempting to determine what a population thinks by looking at a small sample of that population. Such an exercise inherently introduces variance in interpreting the results. One day of particularly wide variance does not spell doom for the polling enterprise. Indeed, as a poll-watcher, what's been striking this election season is not the variance in the poll numbers but the relative lack of it compared to past elections. Both candidates' post-convention "bounces" were modest compared to past elections, and the numbers were pretty constant for a pretty long period of time during the summer.
Look, I get that social scientists are easy to mock and ridicule, and Lord knows, we make mistakes. Acknowledging fundamental levels of uncertainty and unknowability is a healthy thing to do. Going from that acknowledgement to rejecting the enterprise of social science entirely -- as both Terzi and Podhoretz do in their essays -- is really, really stupid.
Now get off my lawn.
This television season has been a mixed blessing for those of us who like to study how humans behave under anarchy. On the one hand, in addition to Season Three of The Walking Dead about to start, two new shows have explored that theme at some length. The first to premier was Revolution. On the other hand, Revolution really isn't that good.
What about the other new show? Here's the extended trailer for Last Resort:
So, you get the premise: the nuclear sub USS Colorado gets an order to fire their nuclear weapons at Pakistan. While the codes check out, the order seems just a bit wonky cause it goes through a secondary alert network. After the captain and executive officer question the order to their superiors, all hell breaks loose.
My take? SPOILERS AHEAD.
Cards on the table: I definitely liked this show more than Revolution, although that's an admittedly low bar. This has a lot to do with the acting. Andre Braugher knows how to project authority, Robert Patrick is perfect as the grizzled and misogynistic chief of the boat, and I'm surprised to report that Scott Speedman is really compelling as the XO. Having watched the pilot and second episode, the tensions within the crew of the Colorado play out nicely. The mystery behind the launch also seems quite interesting. And the pilot does explain why, after a failed first attempt, the U.S. navy doesn't try to take out the Colorado again -- welcome to network television, MAD!!
So there's some potential here -- but there are also some serious, serious problems with the show as it's played out so far. In ascending order of importance:
1) in the pilot, Captain Chaplin relates to his XO an anecdote about Reagan needing to seem just a bit crazy to convince the Russians he could launch a nuke, while Brezhnev had already done that by invading Afghanistan. This ia a good setup for Chaplin's own need to seem just a bit crazy. The problem is that, Steve Saideman points out, it was Nixon and not Reagan who believed this logic.
2) I've met some submariners, and, well, let's just say that they're a different breed from the rest of the U.S. Navy. Any individual willing to be in a small hermetically sealed tube for up to six months has to have a particular mindset, and Last Resort doesn't hint at that. At a minimum, there would have been a few very religiously devout sailors on the Colorado, but that's not talked about at all. This is a shame, because the presence of Navy SEALS on the boat suggests the opportunities for some culture clashes that haven't panned out.
3) The Washington, DC scenes are not terribly convincing, particularly the super-hot defense contractor Kylie Sinclair, played by Autumn Reeser. Now let's be very clear here: I have no prejudice whatsoever against super-hot defense contractors. I do, however, have a problem with the notion that supposedly whip-smart Kylie is going to spill all the beans about her super-secret system that's on board the Colorado to the guy she's about to sleep with.
4) Oh, and about that system that Kylie set up -- essentially, it's a device that renders the Colorado invisible to detection. Not to put to fine a point on it, but this would not be a system that would make deterrence that stable. In fact, if memory serves someone made a movie based on this very premise.
5) Really, though, 1-4 are small matters compared to the elephant in the room with respect to Last Resort. The plot gets moving when the USS Colorado is ordered to fire its missiles at Pakistan. Later in the pilot, we discover that the USS Illinois did obey orders and fire two missiles into Pakistan, "killing millions" as one character later mentions.
After those missiles are fired, 98% of what we see is how Washington and the crew of the Colorado cope with the Colorado's refusal to obey orders. Which is pretty important... but maybe, just maybe, not as important as the U.S. NUCLEAR WEAPONS THAT WERE USED AGAINST PAKISTAN!!!!
Seriously, there are one or two mentions of how things in the world are "complicated" because of this, and that's it. Nothing on Pakistani retaliation, India's reaction, China's reaction, and so forth. In the Washington scenes, all anyone seems to care about is the Colorado, which is pretty funny, since I'd think the first use of nuclear weapons since 1945 might raise a few hackles.
Now you might think that since this is a show about the crew of a renegade sub, that's fine -- except it isn't. The plot in episode two hinges on Russian Spetsnaz forces trying to seize the boat. At one point the U.S. Secretary of Defense gets pretty indignant at a Russian official for trying to do this. In the show, the Russian official just looked sheepish. If this had played out in the real world, the Russian would have said the following:
"I'm sorry, what was that? You, the United States military, initiated the use of nuclear weapons in South Asia, killing millions of people, right? And now you have a rogue sub firing missiles close to Washington. You're asking what the hell Russia is doing? With all due respect, f**k off, Mr. Secretary."
I know I'm not going to watch Revolution again. I'm on the fence with Last Resort... but this whole nuking Pakistan thing going unmentioned might drive me away.
For the past ten days your humble blogger has been doing some intense work on a project that will see the light of day in the spring of 2013. This project has left your humble blogger's brain in a state that most likely resembles tapioca pudding. So today's post is not gonna be about the abstruse nature of the global economy. Instead, I wanna talk about a bad TV show.
The NBC/J.J.Abrams/Jon Favreau show Revolution earned respectable ratings in its premiere and follow-up episode. Your humble blogger must confess that he was intrigued enough by the trailer to check out the pilot to see what all the fuss was about. As a self-identified expert in the political economy of the apocalypse, however, I'm afraid that I must conclude that Revolution is a pile of derivative crap.
So, the basic setup of the show is that at some point in the near future, something happens that causes all electricity to stop working, everywhere. Revolution then fast-forwards fifteen years. In the interim the United States has fallen apart, replaced with authoritarian militias like the Monroe Militia currently trying to control the Midwest. In that area, gun ownership is banned.
The basic problem with Revolution is that it wants to to get to the post-apocalyptic world of, say, The Walking Dead, with the anarchy and the chaos and the bloddletting, but it cheats way too much on its premise to earn its world.
I kinda like the idea of a reset in which electricity simply stops working for some malevolent reason, so I don't exactly have the same problem that the physics geeks have with the show. But Revolution's premise simply neither considers nor respects the lessons from history in trying to create it's post-apocalyptic world. Consider the following historical facts:
1) Countries and empires managed to maintain something resembling territorial integrity prior to the invention of electricity;
2) There's this little invention called the "steam power" which really only needs fire to be able to work, that the show completely elides. This matters one whole hell of a lot. Steam engines can power railroads, steamships, and even cars. So a blackout would have put some crimps in cross-country and cross-border communication -- but it wouldn't have slowed transportation all that much. Steam power would also allow things like industrial factories and foundies to continue -- albeit with considerable retooling. All told, the odds of state collapse are actually pretty remote.
3) Everyone in this show is either walking or riding a horse to get around. Now let's assume that everyone in the world developed historical amnesia about steam power. It's stupid, but OK. Where are the f**king bicycles?! Are those not working as well?
Now I realize that the show's creators are more interested in promoting
anything that gives this show a whiff of that Hunger Games vibe swordplay and hot young archers -- not that there's anything wrong with that. Still, this seems like a wasted opportunity.
Coming up next time in Drezner's TV round-up -- I'll review Last Resort.
Your humble blogger will be winging his way back to the East Coast after a few days at Comic-Con. Now, one of the purposes of this blog is to act as a networked node between the worlds of popular culture and international relations. So while I could prattle on about what's hip (Wonder Woman) and what's not (surprisingly little Battlestar Galactica cosplay) or all of the ways that Joss Whedon is God -- well, a god -- that would be wrong and uninteresting to readers.
Instead, here's another angle. We know that:
B) America remains the world's cultural hegemon; so...
C) What we learn about Comic-Con attendees will tell us much about the future of global culture.
So, what did I learn:
1) America was better in the past. Comic-Con has grown by leaps and bounds in term of attendees in the past few years, and the old-timers are a bit cranky about this fact. And by "old-timers," I mean people who were here five years ago. Still, I was told that the lines used to be shorter, the exhibition hall used to have more open space, and "it used to be about the comics, man." Or, as one person put it, "all these people used to tease me in high school for liking this s**t." Nostalgia for yhe past, it would seem, is hardly limited to political elites.
2) The cultural elite is a hell of a lot more diverse than other elites. A common lament is the maleness and whiteness of the top one percent of anything. Well, rest assured this is not the case at Comic-Con. Based on my own observation, I'd say that while men outnumbered women, it's getting awfully close to gender balance. Similarly, minority representation was quite robust as well. Indeed, one group in particular with a powerful presence at Comic-Con is the disabled. If you ammassed the number of people in wheelchairs at this convention, you'd have a formidable mobile infantry.
3) Americans are cool with bureaucracy and surveillance -- so long as it's about something they want more than something they need. The lines for some of the sessions were staggering. Seriously, Disneyworld employees would have looked at these lines and said, "dude, this is out of control." I don't want to say that people were thrilled about the lines -- but compared to the DMV or even boarding an airplane, there was a minimum of fussing and feuding. Why were people cool with having 10,000 individuals in front of them to see a Walking Dead panel but ten people in front of them at the Starbucks caused complaint? I think it's about want vs. need, but I'll take alternative explanations in the coments.
As for surveillance, it was impossible to walk five feet without passing an interview or a photograph. A third of the attendees at any large panel were recording everything on their cameras.
4) There are tiny pockets of innovation everywhere. The Blog Son and I went to the panel for a forthcoming video game, The Last of Us (here's a trailer). I'm not a gamer, but I get the sense the game is easerly anticipated. What impressed about the panel was the care and craft that the creators had invested into the scenario, the acting, the gameplay, and so forth. Politicians might pooh-pooh the intended effect of all of this energy, but the innovative talent on display was impressive.
Now, this was a big panel, but all around the exhibition hall there were pockets of just brilliant stuff littered around the place. True, there was also a lot of schlock, but even a lot of the schlock was demented and brilliant.
5) Zombies still rule. I mean, c'mon -- they were everywhere at Comic-Con. Everywhere.
Posting will be intermittent for the next few days, as your humble blogger is headed to... Comic-Con 2012 in San Diego. I will be going in two capacities:
1) An expert for the Zombie Research Society panel at 7:00 PM on Thursday;
2) The World's Most Awesome Dad for taking the official Twelve-Year Old Blog Son to Comic-Con.
Beyond that, Comic-Con mostly holds a sociological curiousity for me. As a detached social scientist, I will be closely observing whether attendees have different kind of foreign policy worldviews that ordinary folk, and OMG, THERE'S A FIREFLY REUNION PANEL??!! JOSS WHEDON WILL BE THERE?! AHH!!!!!! OMG!! ZOMG!!
So, anything IR-related that happens in San Diego, I'll be FP's reporter on the scene for the next few days. Otherwise, I'll just be crossing off "Presenting at Comic-Con" off my bucket list.
As a first-time attendee, tips from any veteran Comic-Con-goers will be greatly appreciated in the comments.
I take my cues from the front page of the New York Times just like any other
effete intellectual member of the Media Elite. And today, Jodi Kantor delves into the latest paroxysm of debate about women trying to "have it all," and, hey, whaddaya know, this time it's an Atlantic cover essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter that's set it off. I've had my friendly disagreements with Slaughter in the past, and I'm afraid I'm going to have another one after reading "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." But in this instance I want to stress the "friendly" part of the "disagreement."
Slaughter's title pretty much sums up her thesis: after spending two years in a hard-charging job as the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, she discovered that the opportunity costs to her home life were too great:
I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults.
The essay is worth reading, if not quite as groundbreaking as others would like it to be. It ceetainly references
political minefields issues I've raised here in the past on women pursuing foreign policy careers. Rather than launch a full-blown critique, however, I'd just raise three questions:
1) Is this just about women? As multiple critics have pointed out, the issues Slaughter raises -- balancing work and home life, etc. -- are hardly unique to women. She suggests that women face this challenge more acutely because... well... they're moms:
From years of conversations and observations, however, I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.
Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.
As someone in a more traditional marriage than Slaughter, I'd tweak this just a bit. First of all, unless someone is inheriting a trust fund, there's also really no choice in providing for a family either. Seriously, there isn't. Second of all, a difference between men and women is that when parenting issues come up, it's totally cool for women to anguish about it -- in print, no less -- while it's happening. For men, it's totally cool to drink Scotch, brood and repress feelings about the costs of careerism for years until it all boils to the surface at some family vacation when the kids are grown up and resentments can be aired. But trust me, men have to cope with this as well.
Third, I wonder if the choice is really that stark. There are hard-charging jobs and hard-charging jobs. There's being an active parent and then there's... American parenting in affluent zip codes. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry noted:
YES, you can have it all. You can have a successful career and a good family. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, and there is absolutely no doubt about that.
What you CANNOT have is a successful career AND helicopter parenting. This “it” you cannot have. And if you want the best for your kids, you’ll choose the career and ditch the helicopter. They’ll be better off, and take it from me, they’ll be grateful.
2) Is it the international dimension? Slaughter was trying to write as general an essay as possible, but I was struck by how much of her anecdata consisted of women in foreign affairs/national security careers. I have no doubt that professionals in other sectors face this issue, but one of the biggest challenges with "international" careers is that they tend to spawn international travel.
I know and admire some professionals who go overseas and bring their families with them, but that's not for everyone. The one piece of advice I can proffer here is to cram intense foreign experiences early in one's life. One of the jumpstarts to my own career track was spending significant amounts of time in eastern Ukraine during a time when no Westerners wanted to be there. I was able to do that because at the time I was unattached and childless. There is no way -- no way -- I would have made the same choice if I was married and a father. Plan accordingly.
3) Are the solutions worse than the problem? Finally, I am skeptical that Slaughter's suggested reforms will really work. I like her suggestion that we reconceive our career arcs so that they peak in one's late sixties rather than twenty years earlier -- but that won't happen unless wages get less sticky. Older workers woiuld have to be comfortable with declining rather than rising wages, because otherwise Slaughter's suggestion would act as a massive barrier to hiring younger workers.
Furthermore, some of Slaughter's recommendations would likely have unanticipated consequences that would exacerbate the very problems she wants to solve. For example, one of the issues that she raises is family leave for raising children. Now, this is an innovation that has been cemented into the academy pretty well -- but the effects have been somewhat perverse. That's because after maternity leave, paternity leave got institutionalized. This sounds great, but I know from personal experience that women and men use these leaves differently. Women tend to use it by being moms. Men tend to use it by being more of a dad, but also by using it as a semi-sabbatical to publish more. I should know -- that's what I did. So an innovation that was designed to allow redress gender imbalances actually exacerbated them.
Now is ordinarily the time in the blog post when I offer my own suggestions, but I can't say I have any great ideas. So I'll leave it to the readers: what is to be done?
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]
I enjoyed the first season of Game of Thrones but was somewhat underwhelmed with efforts to use it as a window to understanding world politics today. The second season, which concluded this past Sunday, however, did much better on this score. I think this is because in season one the primary narrative dealt with one ruler of Westeros coping with
stupendously naive staff contending factions, whereas this season dealt with a more variegated set of leaders, which worked far better for the show. Two signs of this: First, whereas the Daenerys Targaryen plot in the first season was fun and diverting, I found season two's Dany sections distracting and deadening. Part of this might have been because Dany was whining more, but it was also because she was largely operating in a political vacuum and therefore less interesting. Second, whereas Cersei Lannister seemed like a master Machiavellian in season one, in season two she appeared to be just a little out of her depth. It's not because she got dumber, but because the protagonists who interacted with her were wiser or more powerful than Ned Stark.
Season two's War of the Five Kings allowed for greater contrast between different styles of political leadership and political culture -- and was therefore all the richer for it. Leadership ranged from Stannis Baratheon's humorless determination to Tywin Lannister's stolid competence to Joffrey's sadism to Robb Stark's efforts to preserve humanitarian norms to Balon Greyjoy's sheer bloody-mindedness. The staffers were great too. I'm sorry that Tyrion Lannister and Davos Seaworth never got to share a scene together -- that would have been a hoot. Similarly, the interactions between Tyrion and Varys -- especially this one -- were delicious.
Indeed, the final episode alone is so rich in its contemplation of political leadership alone that it made up for the less comprehensible parts of the plot (why the hell did Bran, Hodor, and company need to abandon Winterfell?) Tyrion's explanation for why he wanted to stay in King's Landing was one of those rare moments in television in which a character was honest about his enjoyment of politics. As Alyssa Rosenberg shrewdly observes, the Throne Room scene in which much political kabuki theater transpired was a powerful reminder of how the victors write the history. And the Varys-Ros alliance bodes well for political machinations in season three.
For all of this -- and zombies too! -- the finale was great. What put it over the top, however, might be the best rejoinder to the Great Speech Theory of Politics that I have ever seen -- Theon Greyjoy's efforts to rally his troops in the face of overwhelming odds during the siege of Winterfell:
Anyone who calls for better political "leadership" should watch this again and again and again. Yes, leadership matters on the margins -- but power and purpose matter one whole hell of a lot more.
The end of the episode promises an even wider array of political actors -- Mance Rayder, the White Walkers, a returning Dany -- influencing activities in Westeros. This bodes very, very well for season three.
What do you think?
Over the years, The Daily Show has tackled issues relating to world politics and American foreign policy with a sharp satirical, somewhat left-of-center edge. I have found most of these takes to be moderately amusing -- and it's pretty hard, sometimes, to make international politics look funny without seeming cruel.
This month, however, marks the four-year anniversary of "Britain's Fallen Soldiers," which I have reproduced below for your amusement. I watch this, oh, let's say once a month since it aired. I have never been able to watch it the entire way through without cracking up.
I will simply note that the crux of NATO's problem, which inspired John Oliver's finest work ever, is, of course, still ongoing. Because intractable international policy problems, like fine satire, have a timeless quality.
Your humble blogger is busy
going into carbohydrate withdrawal celebrating Passover this week. I blogged about the international relations implications of this holiday a few years ago -- but that was pre-Arab Spring. This (and a few glasses of kosher wine) got me to thinking: what would happen if the event that inspires the Passover holiday -- the Exodus -- were to happen today?
With apologies to Colum Lynch, I suspect the reportage would be something like this:
U.N. SECURITY COUNCIL MEETING ON JEWISH EXODUS ENDS IN CHAOS: Permanent Five split on who to sanction for loss of life
Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy
NEW YORK: Attempts by the U.N. Security Council to reach consensus on an approach to the situation in Egypt came to naught earlier today, as different members of the Security Council blamed different actors in the region for the growing human rights and humanitarian disaster.
U.S. Ambassdor to the United Natuons Susan Rice, addressing the Council, blasted China and Russia for their "addiction to obduracy." She concluded, "Over the past decade we have continually raised the repeated human rights abuses and acts of genocide committed by the Phaaroh's regime against the Jewish population in Egypt. Each time, China and Russia have vetoed even the mildest of condemnations, arguing that it was a matter of Egyptian sovereignty. Only now, with the desperate escape of that minority from the Phaaroh's clutches, do the governments of Russia and China take such an acute interest in the welfare of the Egyptian people. "
The United States, France, and United Kingdom have indeed introduced thirteen separate resolutions on human rights abuses in Egypt since the advent of the Phaaroh who knew not Joseph.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin delivered a blistering response, arguing that it was the radical Jewsish leaders who had escalated the situation by resorting to weapons of mass destruction and demanding that Moses be indicted by the International Criminal Court as a war criminal: "It was not the Phaaroh who imposed unspeakable sanctions against the Egyptian people. It was not the Phaaroh who slaughtered every first-born male child in Egypt -- except the Jews -- in a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions. Surely, not a house in Egypt was spared from this , this plague. It was not the Phaaroh who resorted to trickery in the Red Sea, luring innocent Egyptian troops into the kill zone before massacring them. Both sides are equally guilty in the bloodshed, and until both sides renounce violence, a peaceful solution will be nothing but a mirage of the desert."
No agreement on any resolutions were reached. British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant flatly rejected many of the Russian assertions, arguing that only soldiers were afffected by the Red Sea disaster, and that it was not immediately obvious whether the Jews were actually responsible for the harsh sanctions that befell Egypt prior to the Jewish Exodus.
Doctors Without Borders upped the number of Egyptian dead into the five figures, but those figures could not be independently confirmed. The Phaaroh's government again rejected the entry of the U.N. Secretary-General's fact-finding mission on the grounds that it represented an intrusion of sovereignty. Russian and Chinese officials blamed this inflexible position on the civil society campaign to label the Egyptian Pyramids the "Slavery Pyramids."
Humanitarian officials are not sure about the current status of the Jewish refugees. According to unconfirmed reports from Egypt, the Jews left in such a hurry that they lacked basic provisions like bread or yeast, carrying only crude rations into the desert. The disputed status of the Sinai makes drone overflights impossible in that area. The "final status" of the Jews is also unclear, as the Assyrians, Moabites, and Philistines all declared the refugees to be persona non grata in their jurisdictions.
Outside the UN building, the NGO Inside Children annnounced that they planned to release a video entitled "LetMyPeopleGo2012," demanding that the Phaaroh release all Egyptian Jews immediately. The group rebuffed criticisms that this problem had been overtaken by events, saying that calling attention to the cruel despotism in Egypt was still "a worthwhile and noble cause."
Your humble blogger has occasionally demonstrated an interest in the Star Wars saga, and, alas, I see over the weekend that a lot of nonsense and some occasional brilliance has been written about this topic. Let's dive in!
While Star Wars devotees are a cantankerous, obsessive, socially maladjusted and generally the-worst-parts-of-Kevin-Smith lot, but there is general agreement on two statements:
1) The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the movies;
2) None of films in the "prequel" trilogy are better than any of the films in the older trilogy.
Both of these statements might seem so obvious that they can usually be asserted as axioms without justification. These canonical statements have been challenged this week, however. Kevin Drum bravely and gamely tries to argue that Return of the Jedi is the best film in the series. I won't quote him here but urge you to read the whole post. It's not a bad argument per se, if it wasn't so horribly, horribly wrong.
Basically, Drum argues that the film's strengths (the opening, the cinematography, the story arcs, the finale) outweigh the weaknesses (the Ewoks). OK, but Drum elides Jedi's other major weaknesses, which include:
A) Leia's transformation from powerful princess to earth mother of Endor (seriously, her hair alone during the scenes in the Endor village knocks Jedi down a peg);
B) Luke and Leia having The Conversation, which even by Lucas' standards is badly-written and contains a statement by Leia that gets totally contradicted later in Revenge of The Sith; and
C) The Ewok attack on the shield generator. As a kid, I always wondered why the Storm Troopers would wear what looked like bulky and awkward plastic armor that didn't seem to stop blaster fire. I figured, "well, it's gotta be effective against more primitive weapons." Nope, it turns out Ewok arrows can penetrate the stuff too! WTF? Did the Emperor get a special deal on the stuff from some Kamino contractors or what? Even if the $852 quadrillion Death Star itself might have been cost-effective, Storm Trooper uniforms are a classic example of bloated Imperial procurement patterns.
D) Lucas f***ing up this movie even more with the special editions. Oh, yay, now Vader says something in the climactic final sequence with the Emperor! Thank the heavens, we now see Hayden Christensen's pouty face at the very end of Jedi, which, by the way, makes no f***ing sense whatsoever!!
Now, all of this said, I think Drum provides a vigorous defense of Jedi's worth -- I think better of it now than before. It's just that in comparison to Empire, it still falls short. Why? First, in contrast to Jedi, there really aren't any Ewoks to apologize for -- Episode V has none of those howlers. The only weakness I can really think of in Empire is the slightly dodgy Imperial strategy involved in conquering the rebel base at Hoth.
As for the strengths, there are many. Beyond the surprising plot twists and climactic duel at Cloud City, Empire has three sequences that are worth watching:
1) The pursit of the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid field. Just a top notch action sequence. What the Falcon finds in the asteroid field -- and how they escape the Imperial fleet -- are also pleasant and jolting surprises.
2) Luke confronting the Dark Side in the Dagobah swamps. This also contains one of the lovelier pieces of dialogue in the films (LUKE: What's in there? YODA: Only what you take with you.) It also deftly captures the dangers Luke faces as he learned the ways of the Force.
3) Han and Leia deepening their relationship. Contrast their interactions in Empire with, say, Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones. Wait, no, that's too low a bar. Here's another way of thinking of it: with the exception of Harrison Ford and Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, one would be hard-pressed to find a burgeoning romance handled so deftly in the sci-fi/fantasy genre.
Now some of these strengths are more, shall we say, grown-up strengths. As a kid, I recall being frustrated by Empire because of how it left everything at loose ends. Still, I would argue that the payoffs that come from Return of the Jedi are only as sweet because of The Empire Strikes Back.
Still, bravo to Kevin for defending Jedi, because apparently there are some who would dare to argue that Revenge of the Sith is better than Return of the Jedi. Which would be easy to ignore, if it wasn't a friggin' political scientist making this claim:
I would submit that "Revenge of the Sith" is actually a better film that "Return of the Jedi." I recognize that this view, while probably not as controversial as Drum's, is still not the mainstream one. But the "Sith"story is much more coherent, staying fully focused on Anakin's fall. And the fall is masterfully executed and so complete in its outcome....
And Anakin's final fall is so complete, leaving him a smoldering, limbless pile of hate, screaming impotently at the best friend he'd been manipulating into despising, while the woman he was trying to save lays dying. And Obi Wan's final words to Anakin involve (finally!) something like acting. Ewan MacGregor somehow achieves the impossible, delivering an impassioned performance in a George Lucas film, venting both his disgust in Anakin and his own remorse for having trained him
Mercifully, "Sith" doesn't try to distract us with humorous or furry creatures. Jar Jar is silent. The droids do their jobs. The film is dark and bleak and allowed to remain that way. The few final scenes not focused directly on Anakin -- finding homes for the twins, the remaining Jedi going into hiding, the Death Star under construction -- serve only to set up Episode IV.
If I squint very hard, I can see Masket's arguments. Several things hold me back from agreeing in any way with his conclusions, however. First, the script in Revenge of the Sith is just so much worse than Return of the Jedi that I don't know where to begin. In the last 40 minutes of Sith that almost doesn't matter, because the Obi-Wan/Anakin duel and the Emperor/Yoda clash are pretty good. The problem is that, again, except for the bit that Masket references, practically every line of dialogue uttered in this film is either hackneyed or just God-awful. It's not like Return of the Jedi, when you'd cringe at the occasional leaden sentence. In Sith, it's Every. Friggin'. Sentence.
Second, the character development in the prequel trilogy is so bad that it's tough to even care about Anakin's turn to the dark side. I'd wager the only reason Masket cares is because he saw Episodes IV-VI first. Only if you see them first would there be any reason to give a whit about what happens -- which, by the way, is an excellent reason to read this brilliant exposition of how a newcomer should watch the entire series.
The conundrum that political scientists face is that even though the original trilogy contains the better films, the second trilogy has the better politics. There are no politics in Episodes IV-VI, unless one counts Vader and the Emperor's wooing of Luke. In the prequel trilogy, however, there are lots of parliamentary machinations, tussles between the Jedi Council and the Chancellor, Anakin's lust for power, and Darth Sidious' grand strategy for converting the Republic into an Empire.
To a political scientist, that's good stuff. To human beings interested in enjoying a film, it's tissue paper without things like strong characters, a good screenplay, and decent plotting.
So, no, I must take the Very Brave and Contrarian position of defending the conventional wisdom. The best movie is still The Empire Strikes Back, and while Revenge of the Sith is the best of the prequel trilogy, it doesn't hold a candle to Return of the Jedi.
Oh, and this time... I don't care what you think.... because you do agree with me. Move along, now.
I was never formally introduced to either Vaclav Havel or Christopher Hitchens, but I encountered both of them exactly once. I was lucky enough to hear Havel deliver a speech at Stanford University in the fall of 1994. I don't remember much about the speech itself beyond a vaguely metaphysical theme. What I do remember is a specific physical gesture. At one point during the proceedings, at Havel's request, Joan Baez came on stage, played her guitar, and sang a song. After Havel spoke, everyone exited the stage, Havel last. He noticed Baez's guitar, and picked it up. As he left the stage, he looked over his shoulder and raised the guitar over his head. The expression on his face screamed, "can you believe I'm holding Joan Baez's friggin' guitar??!!!"
My encounter with Hitchens was a little more mundane -- we were both participating at an AEI panel in early 2001 on international law. I was on a morning panel, and afterwards, Hitchens gave the lunch keynote. I can recall the standard Hitchens attributes: him reeking of cigarettes and alcohol, but nevertheless giving a very good speech. What I also remember is talking with one of the AEI assistants who was tasked with "handling" Hitchens for the day. We started chatting, and at one point she said plainly, "the minute he leaves here will not be soon enough for me."
I'd love to be able to divine some deeper meaning from their deaths, but I'm not quite as inspired a writer as either of them. It's funny to think that Hitchens started out politically to the left of Havel, swerving a bit to his right about a decade ago, but that's not a theme. Rather, this being a blog, I have two unrelated thoughts.
First, as someone who has written a thing or two about public intellectuals, Havel really was extraordinary as someone who could be trusted with power. As Mark Lilla noted in his excellent The Reckless Mind, intellectuals don't really have a distinguished track record when they actually acquire power. Havel was a notable exception -- perhaps because he never really thought he should have it. In David Remnick's New Yorker write-up of the end of Havel's (politically successful) presidency, the politics of doubt that I like so much shines through quite clearly:
At times, Havel felt thoroughly insufficient, a fraud. A familiar Prague voice, the voice of Kafka, told him what anyone who has grown up in a police state knows instinctually—that it could all end as easily as it started.
"I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my Presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to a quarry to break rocks," he told a startled audience at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, less than six months after taking office. "Nor would I be surprised if I were to suddenly hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow-prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months. The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am the stronger my suspicion is that there has been some mistake."
In Havel's thirteen years as President—first of Czechoslovakia and then, after the Slovaks and the Czechs divided into two states, in 1993, of the Czech Republic—many of his advisers repeatedly begged him to delete, or at least soften, these public moments of self-doubt. What effect would they have on an exhausted people waiting for the radical transformation of their country? (Imagine Chirac or Blair, Bush or Schröder beginning a national address with an ode to his midnight dread!) Havel, however, would not be edited. The Presidential speech was the only literary genre left to him now, his most direct means of expressing not only his personal feelings but also the spirit of the distinctively human politics he wanted to encourage after so many decades of inhuman ideology. "Some aides tried to stop him, but these speeches had a therapeutic value for him," Havel's closest aide, Vladimír Hanzel, told me.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates observed recently, most people are mediocre and, if they were given power, would likely not exercise it all that benevolently. Havel was about as far away from mediocre as one could be.
Hitchens was not mediocre, but neither was he gentle, and so his passing generated a more variegated response. There was the eruption of fond memories from fellow writers at his ability to consume and produce prodigious amounts of prose and other substances -- this one is my favorite. It's also led Glenn Greenwald to grouse about the hagiography that the death of public figures ostensibly produces:
We are all taught that it is impolite to speak ill of the dead, particularly in the immediate aftermath of someone’s death. For a private person, in a private setting, that makes perfect sense. Most human beings are complex and shaped by conflicting drives, defined by both good and bad acts. That’s more or less what it means to be human. And — when it comes to private individuals — it’s entirely appropriate to emphasize the positives of someone’s life and avoid criticisms upon their death: it comforts their grieving loved ones and honors their memory. In that context, there’s just no reason, no benefit, to highlight their flaws.
But that is completely inapplicable to the death of a public person, especially one who is political. When someone dies who is a public figure by virtue of their political acts — like Ronald Reagan — discussions of them upon death will be inherently politicized. How they are remembered is not strictly a matter of the sensitivities of their loved ones, but has substantial impact on the culture which discusses their lives. To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems — enforced by misguided (even if well-intentioned) notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts — is not a matter of politeness; it’s deceitful and propagandistic. To exploit the sentiments of sympathy produced by death to enshrine a political figure as Great and Noble is to sanction, or at best minimize, their sins. Misapplying private death etiquette to public figures creates false history and glorifies the ignoble.
Meh. I read a lot of the Hitchens write-ups, and a fair number of them were pretty blunt about his personal and political dark sides. Even critics like Corey Robin acknowledge the "consistent line" of “Yes, he was wrong on Iraq, but…” in the public responses to his death. This suggests that Hitchens has not, in fact, been a subject of one-sided requiems. even by those who liked him.
I suspect two things are going on in the public reaction to Hitchens' death, one unique to him and one that's more general. What was unique about Hitchens was that he was an archetype brought to life. Here was a real, honest-to-goodness heavy drinking, heavy smoking, occasionally rude Brit who could nevertheless dash off excellent writing on a daily basis. Where do you actually see that outside of the movies nowadays?
The more general trend is that in an age of self-publishing, perhaps the personal and the public are more fused than Greenwald realizes or comprehends. Hitchens hung around with a lot of writers, and as friends it's not shocking that their initial responses will be to talk about the private individual behind the public persona. As time passess, more strangers will push back, there will be more sober reassessments, and eventually some kind of perspective is achieved. The thing about the internet is that it amplifies these cycles of reactions and counterreactions for all to see.
Your humble blogger went to see Contagion over the weekend for two reasons. First, Slate movie critic Forrest Wickman concluded his review by calling it, "the most believable zombie movie ever made." He's not the only one to make the zombie connection, and well, now I've got some skin in that game. Second, the FP editors have asked me to review other disaster scenarios, so I figured I'd just pre-empt their request and join the legions of moviegoers who
get their ya-yas seeing Gwyneth Paltrow die on film be entertained.
So, let me provide the MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT klaxon here and get to the assessment. How well did Steven Soderbergh and company portray what would happen if a lethal pandemic were to break out?
OK, good news first: in terms of both accuracy and suspense, Contagion is a far, far better film than, say, either Outbreak or The Andromeda Strain. The first reason is that Soderbergh does not bother with the anti-government paranoia that those earlier films possessed in their DNA. Instead, the treatment of the Centers for Disease Control, Department of Homeland Security, and World Health Organization officials is fair. They are depicted as flawed but well-meaning bureaucrats, getting some decisions right and some wrong. They also speak in jargon, a surprising amount of which makes its way into the film. I fully expect to see the term "R-0" bandied about by news anchors the next time a flu bug breaks out. A CDC official utters the two most chilling words in the entire movie -- "social distancing" -- to describe the necessary freak-out by citizens to avoid human contact with other humans as a way of slowing the spread of the virus. That's the perfect dash of bureaucratese.
The second reason is that Soderbergh almost perfectly nails the first stage of the pandemic. Unlike, say, most zombie or other apocalyptic films, Soderbergh doesn't get to the breakdown of social order in the first reel. He takes his time, which helps to amp up the pressure and make it seem all the scarier when things do seem to break down (Matt Damon's character is the perfect vessel here; Damon's best work is in his reaction shots to other people behaving badly). He also deftly demonstrates in the first ten minutes how globalization would abet the spread of any kind of superbug.
Despite this slow ratcheting up, I haven't seen a director kill off so many Hollywood starlets since Joss Whedon.
The third reason is that the movie, intriguingly enough, does not end in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Consistent with the arguments I made in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, humans prove to be just as adaptable as the biological threats to humans.
That said, here are my beefs:
1) Really, the blogger is the Big Bad in the movie? Really? The villian of the piece is Jude Law's crudely-named Alan Krumwiede, who detects the spread of the virus early but hawks a homeopathic remedy to enrich himself. Exactly how he gets rich doing this is not entirely clear -- he has some shady meetings with a hedge fund manager, but it's not entirely clear why, after gaining fame and fortune, he doesn't start acting differently as more attention gets paid to him. It's also presumed that Krumwiede has the monopoly of blogging on the issue -- I'm pretty sure that as he gained popularity, a few other health bloggers would try to cut him down to size.
Neither Soderbergh nor his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns like bloggers, like, at all. At one point the virologist played by Elliott Gould tells Krumwiede, "Blogging is not writing. It's graffiti with punctuation." Hah! That shows what Soderbregh knows -- us bloggers are lucky if we remember to use commas, much less semicolons.
Look, as a founding member of the International Brotherhood of Policy Bloggers, I can't claim that actors like Krumwiede don't exist. My skepticism is over whether they'd really wreak as much havoc as Soderbergh thinks. Myths and rumors can spread on the Internet, but so can the corrections of those myths. In the end, someone like Krumwiede would affect a very narrow, already paranoid subculture -- the larger effect would be minimal.
Even if Krumwiede is an absurd villain, I also didn't buy it when the DHS official let him go free once he made bail. At a minimum, they'd hold this guy for 48 hours without charging. I'd also wager that they'd try to deport him too.
One final note: I'd love to see Lee Siegel hire Sodebergh to direct and Aaron Sorkin to write a movie about the Internet, just to see the final dystopic product.
2) Where the hell is the Chinese central government? The most absurd subplot is when a WHO official gets abducted by her translator as collateral to protect his infected village. She's held hostage for at least six months -- during which time she goes native -- until the WHO barters some (fake) vaccine for her life.
Apparently during this entire time, the Chinese central government does not bother to intervene to try to rescue her. This seems juuuuuuust a bit implausible. It also leads to the next problem....
3) Where the hell is the rest of the WHO? Beyond Marion Cotillard's character, the WHO does not really appear in the film. It's the CDC's show, and only their show . They act in Contagion pretty much how they promised they would act if the zombies arrive. Maybe that's how things would play out, but I suspect other governments and IGOs would still matter more than this film suggests. Given that the movie virus started in China, and that the head of the WHO is also from China, they might be useful in this kind of situation.
4) Few second-order effects. The virus leads to looting, crime, and other social ills, but I wish they had said something about the total economic devastation that would have occurred. At one point after a vaccine has been developed, Matt Damon's character walks through a mall to buy his daughter a prom dress -- and 80% of the mall looks to be closed. Soderbergh suggests a bunch of unions going on strike because they don't want to ge sick. I'm curious what happens once they find themselves unemployed as well.
Forget the domestic discord however, there's also...
5) No international conflict whatsoever. After the first 15 minutes, almost all of the action takes place in the USA. Once a vaccine is discovered, there is no discussion of the international wrangling that would take place over scarce supplies. No diversionary wars happen. And so forth. Soderbergh doesn't really address possible problems in world politics. Because of this, the film implicitly assumes a liberal institutionalis kind of a world. I hope he's right, but I'm not so sure myself.
To be fair to Soderbergh and his collaborators, I'm not sure it's possible to get everything right in such a film. Unless it's a television series I'm not sure it's possible to get all the nuances and complexities right. Given these limitations, Contagion is a movie worth seeing. Just bring your own Purell.
Here's an open secret -- most American foreign policy observers loathe domestic politics. To those who seek to define and distill the national interest, the notion that factions or parties can get in the way of the common good is very, very frustrating. This is why, whenever gridlock breaks out in Washington, there is a spasm of caterwauling from prominent foreign policy thinkers that Something. Must. Be Done.
This leads to some silly memes, like claims that a third party will break the logjam. It won't -- a glance at Duverger's Law and you know that the first-past-the-post electoral system in this country means that a two-party system is the only stable long-term equilibrium. A third party in the United States could only achieve electoral viability in one of two ways: either supplanting one of the existing parties, or focusing on success in a particular region. Since neither of these outcomes has occurred since the Civil War, I'm not holding my breath.
Gridlock frustration also leads to proposals of Grand Diagnoses and Remedies for Fixing the System. Fareed Zakaria goes down this road, offering a diagnosis of why partisanship has been rising in the United States and then links to Mickey Edwards' essay in The Atlantic of how to fix things. Zakaria, riffing off of Edwards, lists four reasons why partisanship is so high:
1) Redistricting has created safe seats so that for most House members, their only concern is a challenge from the right for Republicans and the left for Democrats....
2) Party primaries have been taken over by small groups of activists who push even popular senators to extreme positions.
3) Changes in Congressional rules have also made it far more difficult to enact large, compromise legislation.
4) Political polarization has also been fueled by a new media, which is also narrowcast.
These sound compelling, except that A) none of them really explain increased polarization in the Senate; and B) only the fourth trend is in any way recent (the rest of these phenomenas can be traced back to the 1970's).
The real problem with Congress is that any proposed institutional reform to correct the problems would require either a dilution of legislative power or a dilution of the minority's power to obstruct. Neither minority nor majority parties in Congress will be interested in moves like that unless and until we're in a crisis that made 2008 look like a ripple in the pond.
If you are looking to this humble blogger for ways out of this current problem... um... look elsewhere. My training is in international relations, and I've found that people with that kind of training tend to prefer policy reforms that provide political leeway and insulation to the executive branch. These measures are appealing because they tend to minimize the number of stupid interactions with galactically stupid members of Congress. Over the long-term, however, even a stupid Congress still serves as a valuable check on executive branch authority.
I'm as frustrated as the next foreign policy observer when it comes to the current policy paralysis. I know my own kind, however, and we suffer from the flawed belief that there was a halcyon era of bipartisanship in the foreign policy days of yore. Be very, very wary when a foreign policy pundit gives advice about how to reform the American system of government. Most of the time they are relying on decades-old Introduction to American Government arguments that are either obsolecent or incentive incompatible.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
For your weekend amusement, check out my latest Bloggingheads diavlog with Daniel H. Wilson, author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising and the released-last-month-and-now-a-New-York-Times-bestseller Robopocalypse. If you're not familiar with Robopocalypse now, you will be when Steven Spielberg turns it into the must-see blockbuster of 2013. We talk about the challenges of writing a book when you know it will be a movie, the future of self-driving cars, and whether zombies or robots are the perfect 21st-century threat through which to think about international relations (Wilson's answer will surprise
Charli Carpenter you!)
Wilson's enthusiasm for the genre is quite infectious, and let me state for the record that a) Robopocalypse is the perfect summer read; and b) despite my strong desire to loathe anyone who stumbles into Spielberg money, Wilson was a great and gracious interview).
The rest of FP's hard-working, award-winning contributors will provide plenty of reactions to Obama's Afghanistan speech from last night. I don't have anything new to add that I didn't say, oh, about a year ago to the week.
So let's talk about.... Game of Thrones!!!
Set in a fictional medieval-type world (that looks juuuuust a bit like England) with a wisp of fantasy, there's a lot for culture vultures and international relations geeks to like. Based on a series of novels by George R.R. Martin, the first season on HBO just ended on a ratings high. Essentially, Game of Thrones consists of a lot of palace intrigue, a healthy dollop of transgressive sex, and a whiff of zombies. So you can see the attraction to your humble blogger.
Having finally caught up with the entire first season, however, I'm still puzzling out the show's applicability to current world politics. I think there are a few, but there's a bias in the show that does suggest some serious constraints [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD].
On the one hand, Game of Thrones' best feature has been demonstrating the importance of strategic acumen in politics. The first season's protagonist, Ned Stark, is a stalwart friend, accomplished soldier, and dogged bureaucrat. He was also a strategic moron of the first order, which was why I didn't bewail his beheading in the season's climactic moment. Yes, it's a shame that the good man died. The thing is, he had so many, many opportunities to avoid that end, had he only demonstrated a bit more ability to think about how his rivals would react to his actions. Important survival trip: don't reveal all of your plans and information to your rival until you have engaged in some rudimentary contingency planning. Or, to put it more plainly:
On the other hand, I'm just not sure how much the world of Westeros translates into modern world politics. Realists would disagree, of course. Cersei Lannister makes the show's motto clear enough: "in the game of thrones, you win or you die." That's about as zero-sum a calculation as one can offer. In this kind of harsh relative gains world, realpolitik should be the expected pattern of behavior.
Which is also part of the problem with Game of Thrones. World politics is about the pursuit of power, yes, but it's not only about that. What do people want to do with the power they obtain? Social purpose matters in international affairs as well, and there's precious little of that in Game of Thrones. Sure, there are debates about dynastic succession, but there are no fundamental differences in regime type, rule of law, or economic organization among the myriad power centers in this world. I hope this changes in Season Two.
My favorite touch in Game of Thrones is the words of each house in Westeros. For House Stark, "winter is coming"; for House Lannister, "hear me roar"; for House Baratheon, "ours is the fury"; and my favority, House Greyjoy, "we do not sow." In case you were wondering, for House Drezner, our words are, "it is time to read." Alternatively, "Chinese food is coming."
Readers are warmly encouraged to proffer the words of House Obama, House Clinton, House Bush, House Saud, House Putin, House Chavez, or House Singh in the comments.
Hey, remember a few months ago, when I wrote that, "the Tea Party's influence on American foreign policy has peaked and will be on the downswing for quite some time."? How has time treated that statement?
Well, it's kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, as Greg Ip notes over at the Economist's Free Exchange blog, the distrust in government that is the fuel for Tea Party activism has waned considerably:
My colleague at Democracy in America imputes from Mitt Romney’s surge into the lead among presidential contenders the beginning of the end of the Tea Party’s influence in the GOP. Now, the latest WSJ-NBC opinion poll contains clues that the movement’s broader appeal may also be waning. As my chart shows, after a brief reversal, Americans are once again getting comfortable with more government in their lives....
[T]ime and events have cooled passions. The bail-outs are receding from memory (and turning a profit), Mr Obama has tacked to the centre, and the economy continues to disappoint. Republicans overreached with Paul Ryan’s budget, thinking the population ready for a draconian restructuring of Medicare to deal with a looming debt crisis. Apparently, it isn’t.
I read several lessons into these results. First, political leaders regularly get out over their ski tips when they think the population is shifting rapidly to the left or the right. Ronald Reagan learned that in 1982, Mr Obama did so in 2010, and it may soon be the turn of the Republican far right.
While this suggests that the Tea Party's animating force is waning, it's possible that foreign policy proves to be the remaining policy dimension through which mainstream candidates like Mitt Romney appease the Tea Party wing of the party.
At a minimum, John McCain ain't pleased:
US Senator John McCain on Sunday expressed concern about growing isolationism in the Republican party, particularly among those vying for the 2012 presidential nomination.
McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee, said he was alarmed to hear various candidates at a campaign forum last Monday express opposition to US military involvement in the NATO military assault on Libya's Moamer Kadhafi.
"There's always been an isolation strain in the Republican party, that Pat Buchanan (a former Republican presidential contender) wing of our party. But now it seems to have moved more center stage, so to speak," he said.
I'm not entirely sure that this is isolationism talking, but the evolution of GOP foreign policy thinking is likely to move in a realpolitik direction. Which, coincidentally enough, is a cheap way to satiate the Paulite wing of the Tea Partiers.
UPDATE: Wow, I might have broken my personal typo record in one sentence. Fixed now.
In first days after Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest, there was a big spasm of media output about how the arrest revealed the massive cultural divide between France and the United States, yada, yada, yada. Led by
blowhard French intellectuals France's cultural elite, anti-Americanism seemed ready to spike back to 2003 levels.
A funny thing happened in the ensuing days, however, a curious countertrend has emerged -- the wave of anti-American sentiment hasn't spiked at all.
Sophie Meunier, your humble blogger's go-to expert on all things French, explains in the Huffington Post that what's happened instead has been far more interesting. DSK's arrest, along with the waves of information about his behavior, have caused French commentators to go through the five stages of grief in coping with the news. Denial and anger did dominate the first few days, but now France is going through the bargaining phase:
With a few days hindsight, however, what is most surprising about the fallout of the DSK scandal in France is not how much, but rather how little displays of anti-Americanism it has provoked. To the contrary, the scandal is now turning into a teachable moment and a frank analysis of the comparative merits of French and American society. Perhaps this is the bargaining stage: if we understand the American system, perhaps we can expect it to treat one of our own fairly?
The flamboyant declarations by Bernard-Henri Lévy who was trying to help his friend by complaining that the American judge had treated DSK "like any other" subject of justice backfired. The next news cycle in France was about introspection. What if the American justice system actually had some features that could be replicated, such as the equality of treatment? A flurry of accusatory articles popped up in the French press denouncing how a defendant of DSK's stature would never have gone through the same legal troubles in France -unlike a random "Benoit" or "Karim." As socialist and DSK friend Manuel Valls publicly confessed, criticizing the American justice system also puts the spotlight on the weaknesses of French justice. This realization that perhaps the Americans might have components in their justice system that should be replicated in France might have left many with the depressing thought - "maybe we are not as wonderful and superior as we thought: so what is now our place in the world?"
The New York Times' Sarah Maslin Nir reaches a similar conclusion in her story on the French media's reaction to the American media:
It was easy to spot the French men and women among the media hordes. Despite their fatigued condition, they were, well, better looking than many of their American counterparts, and many of them smoked cigarettes as they stood, corralled together, waiting for something to happen. They greeted one another with double kisses, one on each cheek.
There were some local customs that puzzled the French. Franck Georgel, a television reporter for the station M6, was mystified by how respectful American journalists were of police barricades set up around a Lower Manhattan building where Mr. Strauss-Kahn was staying. “In France maybe the barrier would have been dropped on the ground,” he said. “Here, you’re more, how do you say it? Civilisé.”
As he spoke, a non-French journalist outside the building, at 71 Broadway, helped a woman with a baby carriage make her way down the steps. “That’s American,” he declared. “That’s not really French.”
The Atlantic also has a good round-up on French media introspection.
Today was a big American foreign policy news day. Hamas and Fatah seem to have kissed and made up under the aegis of the Egyptian caretaker government; there's a national defense reshuffle as Leon Panetta is moving from CIA to SecDef and David Petraeus is moving from CENTCOM to the CIA; the FEderal Reserve's Ben Bernanke held the Fed's first-ever press conference.
These are all big stories, and yet the lead of the day is the fact that Barack Obama showed everyone his long-form birth certificate. There's something really sad about the fact that this needed to be done, but there it is.
Today's spectacle prompted Slate's David Weigel, who has followed the varieties of birtherism with an eagle eye, to ask honestly when enough is enough:
Here's the thing. I've spent a lot of time writing about conspiracy theories. I think they're darkly amusing....And if we're being perfectly honest, conspiracy stories do gangbusters traffic. If I were an advertiser, I wouldn't tell a writer to knock off writing about conspiracy theories.
But this is an honest question: How far can people take this stuff? Is there absolutely no downside to using your celebrity to make the wildest accusation you can and watch reporters fight like the monkeys at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey for the right to cover them first? In the past, rabbit hole chases for stuff that would blow the lid off some conspiracy or another have backfired, wildly. (Google "Dan Rather" and "National Guard documents.") And in the past, things that have caused a lot of amusement for a lot of people have gotten predictable and boring, pointless. This has to happen at some point. Tell me this happens at some point.
I'm fascinated by conspiracy theories too, and I'm afraid I have some bad news for Weigel. The truly scary thing is that conspiracy theories do even better gangbuster business outside of the United States. Hear the one about the Mossad being behind the 9/11 attacks? How the United States caused the earthquake in Haiti? It's quick, cheap and easy to create a conspiracy, especially when the truth is usually banal and/or mundane.
As I wrote in The Spectator last year:
What is clear is that, thanks to the technological and globalising revolutions of the last two decades, modern life has become infinitely more complex. The world has become far less easy to understand in terms of its economic and social organisation. Yet humans remain hard-wired to look for patterns in a chaotic universe. As David Aaronovitch recently observed in Voodoo Histories, conspiracy theories offer the comfort of a narrative, no matter how crazy it sounds....
Will anger and distrust be a permanent fixture in the politics of affluent countries? A global economic rebound should lead to increased trust in both business and political elites. Beyond trying to revive their economies, however, there must be something that governments can do to earn back the trust of some of their people. The most obvious first response would be to offer more information to persuade angry and distrustful people that their worst fears will not be realised. Unfortunately, such a policy might backfire. Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler conducted experiments to see whether correct information could erase misperceptions. They discovered that ‘corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects’. The very attempt to correct erroneous beliefs simply causes the most extreme adherents to put themselves into a cognitive crouch. This might explain why, even though an image of Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate can be accessed on the web, many ‘birthers’ still believe the President was not born in the USA.
This has nothing to do with intelligence, either -- a few weeks ago I
wasted spent 15 minutes explaining to a Fletcher student that, in fact, Julian Assange was not a CIA agent. This sounds laughable, except that at least one head of government said the same thing.
As long as trafficking in these questions draws eyeballs, the media will continue to act as an amplifier for these kinds of crazed worldviews.
There is a downside for those who care about their reputation -- ask Pierre Salinger. For heads of stare and almost everyone else, however, these costs likely seem negligible compared to the political and psychological gain that comes from belief.
Think of conspiracy theories like internaional institutions -- they don't actually explain much, but they never go away either. Even global governance structures that have longed outlived their usefulness do not disappear -- they just persist with fewer adherents. Popular conspiracy theories work the same way, because there will always be a hard core of believers who can sustain their belief regardless of things like "facts" and evidence." Indeed, scorn from the mainstream just fuels their conviction that they must be onto something.
Over at Vanity Fair, James Wolcott blogs about the explosion of forthcoming superhero movies, why they will suck, and what this means for American exceptionalism.
Actually, let me put that a little differently: James Wolcott has used prose more bloated than X-Men 3 to attempt a half-assed connection between summer popcorn flicks and America's place in the world.
First, there's his general critique of today's superhero film:
For old-school comic fans such as myself (who had a letter published in the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby Fantastic Four in 1967—top that, Jonathan Franzen), these cinematic blowup editions are lacking on the fun side. The more ambitious ones aren’t meant to be much fun, apart from a finely crafted quip surgically inserted here and there to defuse the tension of everybody standing around butt-clenched and battle-ready, waiting for some laureled thespian (Anthony Hopkins as Odin in Thor) to elocute and class up this clambake. Even the films that play it loosey-goosier, such as the facetious Ghost Rider (Nicolas Cage as a skull-blazing vigilante who chills by listening to the Carpenters), end up laying it on too heavy, faking orgasm like a porn star trying to keep Charlie Sheen’s attention. For all of the tremendous talent involved and the technical ingenuity deployed, superhero movies go at us like death metal: loud, anthemic, convoluted, technocratic, agonistic, fireball-blossoming, scenery-crushing workloads that waterboard the audience with digital effects, World War IV weaponry, rampant destruction, and electrical-flash editing.
Three thoughts. First, this critique ain't exactly new. Second, the reason this critique isn't new is that Wolcott ignores
Drezner's Sturgeon's Law of Crap. Take any artistic or literary category, and 90% of the contributions to said genre will be total crap [Does that apply to your blog posts as well?--ed. More like 95% in my case.] Therefore, the easiest thing in the world to blog about is how 90% of any kind of genre stinks. Third, Wolcott clearly slept through hasn't seen the superhero films that rise above the 90% and possess a fair degree of whimsy, like, say, Spiderman 2, The Incredibles, or Iron Man.
As for the symbolic implications for American power, er, well, here's his key paragraph:
Why so much overcompensation? The superhero genre is an American creation, like jazz and stripper poles, exemplifying American ideals, American know-how, and American might, a mating of magical thinking and the right stuff. But in the new millennium no amount of nationally puffing ourselves up can disguise the entropy and molt. Despite the resolute jaw of Mitt Romney and John Bolton’s mustache, American exceptionalism no longer commands the eagle wingspan to engirdle the world and keep raising the flag over Iwo Jima. Since Vietnam, whatever the bravery and sacrifice of those in uniform, America’s superpower might hasn’t been up to much worthy of chest-swelling, chain-snapping pride (invading a third-rate military matchstick house such as Iraq is hardly the stuff of Homeric legend), and our national sense of inviolability took a sucker punch on September 11, 2001, that dislocated our inner gyroscope. Sinister arch-villains make for high-stakes showdowns, but asymmetrical conflict has no need for them, and for all we know the cavern voice of Osama bin Laden could be a Mission: Impossible tape, poofing into smoke at the first shaft of sunlight. The subsequent War on Terror is one waged within a shadow maze of misdirection and paranoia where the enemy might be no more than a phantom army of apprehensions, viral bugs invading the neural network.
Let me be blunt -- I'm not entirely sure if Wolcott wrote this paragraph or outsourced it to a computer program that strongs together random clauses about American foreign policy. Suffice it to say that the better superhero flicks -- both Iron Man and The Dark Knight Returns come to mind -- contain some interesting commentary on American foreign policy. Indeed, a few years ago Jesse Walker at Reason argued, with some justification, that "Superhero stories may have begun as power fantasies, but it is our ambivalence about power that keeps the modern genre thriving."
I share Wolcott's distaste for hackneyed comic book films, but sometimes, a bad movie is just a bad movie. Anyone trying to use
any film released in January The Green Hornet as a metaphor for what ails American foreign policy really needs to remember that, most of the time, a bad superhero movie is just a bad superhero movie.
I held out as long as I could on the Charlie Sheen fiasco -- but damn Will Winecoff and the IR-relevant horse he rode in on!!
From yesterday's Global Times, Hao Leifeng provides a peculiarly... Chinese take on the whole brouhaha:
Actor Charlie Sheen is a classic example of the difference in Western and Eastern values and norms.
Ignoring public pleas from his father, Sheen has continued a weeklong media blitz, exhibiting obvious signs of mania. With no firm hand to guide them, Western media has deliberately goaded him into making increasingly delusional statements, more concerned about "winning" higher ratings than Sheen's own sense of pride, or the negative example his brash public admissions about his private sex life and unverifiable international conspiracies could be setting for society.
How many young people have been led astray by Sheen's boasts about his substance abuse and freewheeling sex life? And that was when he was in character on national television, as a randy bachelor in Two and a Half Men.
Sheen attracted 1 million Twitter followers in just 24 hours, yet more evidence that microblogs spread the most unhealthy contagions in society like a disease. Chinese family, coworkers, or the authorities would have taken firm steps to make sure someone like Sheen did not make a public spectacle of himself.
It's true: the Obama administration has been ridiculously slow on getting a handle on the Charlie Sheen issue. I mean, you know that if Hillary Clinton got Sheen in a room for an hour, this whole problem would go away. This just reinforces the administration's slowness on handling matters of serious popular culture.
OK, seriously, as I understand it, Global Times is not the same kind of official mouthpiece as, say, China Daily or People's Daily, so I wouldn't take this as the official Chinese Communist Party position. Hell, it might be a parody. Still, a few revealing things from this. There's the swipe against Twitter, and the emphasis on familial loyalties.
I see two other interesting reveals, however. The first is the proposed "Chinese" solution to this problem:
His employers are unhappy that he was distracted with prostitutes and drugs, and didn't show up to work on time. Why not take a tip from the Chinese business community, and make visits to a KTV parlor part of Sheen's workday?
And instead of epic parties at his home with porn stars, why not keep Sheen occupied with business banquets?
Sheen goes on television and boasts that he has two girlfriends, who both sleep in the same bedroom. Is he too poor to set up his wives and mistresses in different houses?
In Chinese society, these problems are dealt with delicately and privately. Sheen is like a typical Westerner throwing fuel on the fire with each interview and tweet. It is almost as if he feels no shame and is loving the attention.
Racism, spousal abuse, addiction, politics, mental illness, boasting about mistresses, - these are all subjects best dealt with behind closed doors.
Er... as near as I can determine, Sheen's bosses have been using this playbook for the entire run of Two and a Half Men. It's only when Sheen thoroughly rejected all outaside intervention that everything blew up. In other words, the Chinese solution to this was exactly the same as the American solution to this -- well, minus the massage parlors. This continued right up until the moment when Sheen decided that the "Charlie Sheen" drug could defeat all comers. And then he was suspended and subsequently fired. Perhaps the fact that the government decided not to send him to the countryside and instead just got his children out of his orbit is peculiarly "western."
Second -- and this is a genuine question to readers -- is Charlie Sheen actually a folk hero to anyone other than substance abusers at this point? I see the attention he's getting now as in the category of, "Wow, look at that massive 12-car pileup on the other side of the road!!! It's horrific, but I can't look away!" Granted, he's now a prime candidate for his own reality show -- but I'm not really sure that's winning the future.
This is the only time I will ask this about Charlie Sheen: what do you think?
[I]t's way easier to slip a humour piece disguised as a bizarre anti-US rant past the Chinese censor than it is to get a serious piece that is even vaguely critical of CCP policy published.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.