Your humble blogger has not been shy in decrying those in Congress, the mainstream media, and the academy who believe that the answer to all of America's problems starts with defunding National Science Foundation research grants for political scientists. As I've blogged about repeatedly, political science research provides significant bang for the buck, and even the jargon serves a purpose.
However, a good social scientist must also acknowledge contradictory data points against his or her hypotheses. And so I must concede that this week the American Political Science Association has highlighted a decision-making process that suggests political scientists shouldn't be trusted with either money or power.
Readers might be aware that Tropical Storm Isaac appears to be bypassing the Republican National Convention in Tampa and is instead headed.... right for New Orleans. It's scheduled to his the NOLA area on Wednesday. This is a wee problem for political scientists because, well, the American Political Science Association annual meeting is scheduled to be held in - wait for it -- New Orleans from Thursday to Sunday. APSA has already cancelled all Wednesday pre-meeting activities, and based on the storm path, I'd place a 50/50 bet on the whole convention being scrubbed (the other possibility is APSA Hunger Games, which would end badly for all the post-materialists).
This gives rise to a very simple question of mine: why, in the name of all that is holy, did any political scientist think it was a good idea to have the annual meeting in a hurricane zone... DURING HURRICANE SEASON??!!
Now, you might think that this decision was made post-Katrina to express solidarity with the city of New Orleans -- it wasn't. According to this timeline, the decision was made in 2003. Still, it's not like hurricanes devastating New Orleans is a recent phenomenon -- there's a long and storied history of tropical storms hitting New Orleans right around Labor Day weekend. Indeed, there's even a history of hurricanes affecting past APSA conferences in New Orleans -- second-hand sources have informed me that a hurricane nearly hit the 1985 APSA meetings held in the Big Easy. Since that's the weekend APSA takes place, maybe places like New Orleans and Miami are bad hosting locales, right? Right?
[So you're saying you don't like these cities?--ed. No, I love both cities. Hell, I'm half convinced New Orleans exists merely to give writers an excuse to use the phrase "seedy charm." I'm saying if the conference is going to be held in late August/early September, avoiding hurricane zones seems like a prudent course of action.]
Now, since Katrina devastated New Orleans, there has been a huge controversy about whther it's a bright idea to hold the meeting there. However, if you look at that timeline, you'll see that the controversy has to do with Louisiana's "Defense of Marriage" constitutional amendment and the effect it would have on same-sex couples. This is a fair issue to raise, but I'm thinking that the whole "possibility of being in a hurricane zone" thing should have come up as well.
Looking over APSA's written guidelines for convention siting, I see that APSA has included criteria about regional diversity, local treatment of same-sex unions and partnerships, labor union strength, carbon neutrality, and ethnic and racial diversity. Might I humbly suggest that if political scientists want to be taken seriously by Congress and the general public, if would be a good idea to add "no city located in a hurricane zone during hurricane season" to the list of criteria?
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.
Since May is Zombie Awareness Month, I thought I would be worth noting a factual statement in Theories of International Politics and Zombies that will have to be changed in the
revived revised edition of the book.
On pages 5-6 of the introduction, I wrote:
The government of Haiti has laws on the books to prevent the zombification of individuals. No great power has done the same in public—but one can only speculate what these governments are doing in private.
Are you prepared for the impending zombie invasion?Actually, had he interviewed a zombie expert, [Cough, cough!!--ed.] I'm sure the Fox News reporter would have learned that this is not all that surprising. Indeed, I found research on the political economy of disasters to be the most useful sources in researching Theories of International Politics and Zombies.
That's the question posed by the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention in a Monday blog posting gruesomely titled, "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse." And while it's no joke, CDC officials say it's all about emergency preparation.
"There are all kinds of emergencies out there that we can prepare for," the posting reads. "Take a zombie apocalypse for example. That's right, I said z-o-m-b-i-e a-p-o-c-a-l-y-p-s-e. You may laugh now, but when it happens you'll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you'll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency."
The post, written by Assistant Surgeon General Ali Khan, instructs readers how to prepare for "flesh-eating zombies" much like how they appeared in Hollywood hits like "Night of the Living Dead" and video games like Resident Evil. Perhaps surprisingly, the same steps you'd take in preparation for an onslaught of ravenous monsters are similar to those suggested in advance of a hurricane or pandemic.
Never Fear – CDC is Ready
If zombies did start roaming the streets, CDC would conduct an investigation much like any other disease outbreak. CDC would provide technical assistance to cities, states, or international partners dealing with a zombie infestation. This assistance might include consultation, lab testing and analysis, patient management and care, tracking of contacts, and infection control (including isolation and quarantine). It’s likely that an investigation of this scenario would seek to accomplish several goals: determine the cause of the illness, the source of the infection/virus/toxin, learn how it is transmitted and how readily it is spread, how to break the cycle of transmission and thus prevent further cases, and how patients can best be treated. Not only would scientists be working to identify the cause and cure of the zombie outbreak, but CDC and other federal agencies would send medical teams and first responders to help those in affected areas (I will be volunteering the young nameless disease detectives for the field work). (emphasis added)
One could argue that the offer of international technical assistance would be consistent with the liberal paradigm, in which a robust counterzombie regime was created.
The question is, would other countries welcome the assistance? Would other countries suspect the CDC of being the very progenitor of the zombie pandemic? Would Pakistan protest if Seal Team Six was dispatched to a Karachi suburb to put down an initial zombie outbreak?
These are Very Deep Questions, and I, for one, encourage further research in this area. In the meantime, however, I would like to applaud the Assistant Surgeon General and the Center for Disease Control for joining the State of New York in thinking about the unthinkable.
Indeed, I would encourage even more CDC transparency. For example, the scenario that's sketched out that the final episode of the first season of The Walking Dead -- could that, um, you know, actually happen?
Indeed, I would encourage even more CDC transparency. For example, the scenario that's sketched out that the final episode of the first season of The Walking Dead -- could that, um, you know, actually happen?
In Theories of International Politics and Zombies, I noted that "one can only speculate" what great power governments were doing to prepare for the contingency of an attack of the undead. One could argue that the absence of any mention of zombies in the Wikileaks cables suggests that no planning has taken place -- but one would assume that scenarios involving the undead would be classified as Top Secret or higher.
Courtesy of the New York Times' William Glaberson, however, we now know that the State of New York is thinking seriously about this problem:
Major disasters like terrorist attacks and mass epidemics raise confounding issues for rescuers, doctors and government officials. They also pose bewildering legal questions, including some that may be painful to consider, like how the courts would decide who gets life-saving medicine if there are more victims than supplies.
But courts, like fire departments and homicide detectives, exist in part for gruesome what-ifs. So this month, an official state legal manual was published in New York to serve as a guide for judges and lawyers who could face grim questions in another terrorist attack, a major radiological or chemical contamination or a widespread epidemic.
Quarantines. The closing of businesses. Mass evacuations. Warrantless searches of homes. The slaughter of infected animals and the seizing of property. When laws can be suspended and whether infectious people can be isolated against their will or subjected to mandatory treatment. It is all there, in dry legalese, in the manual, published by the state court system and the state bar association.
Uh-huh... this is for "radiological" or "chemical" contaminations. Ok. Right. Wake up and smell the rotting corpses of the undead, people!!!!!
Seriously, fhe foreword of the New York State Public Health Legal Manual (.pdf) opens with the following explanation/justification:
In today's world, we face many natural and man-made catastrophic threats, including the very real possibility of a global influenza outbreak or other public health emergency that could infect millions of people. While it is impossible to predict the timing or severity of the next public health emergency, our government has a responsibility to anticipate and prepare for such events. An important element of this planning process is advance coordination between public health authorities and our judicial and legal systems. The major actors in any public health crisis must understand the governing laws ahead of time, and must know what their respective legal roles and responsibilities are. What is the scope of the government's emergency and police powers? When may these be invoked, and by which officials? What are the rights of people who may be quarantined or isolated by government and public health officials?
These questions must be researched and answered now-not in the midst of an emergency-so that the responsible authorities have a readymade resource to help them make quick, effective decisions that protect the public interest.
Are planning documents like this useful? Yes and no. On the one hand, this kind of thing is a classic example of what Lee Clarke would refer to as a "fantasy document." In Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster, Clarke argued that plans like these have little chance of success, because an actual crisis contains too much randomness to plan out in advance. They serve primarily as a way for the state to soothe the the public that Someone Is In Charge and will provide control, order, and stability. Similarly, Anthony Cordesman argued in October 2001 that pre-crisis government efforts to handle this kind of emergency are likely to disintegrate once the actual crisis emerges.
On the other hand, as many contributors argued in Avoiding Trivia, even if the plans themselves never work out, the effort to plan can be useful both for crisis and non-crisis situations. This kind of exercise forces bureaucrats and officials to think about what standard operatijngf procedures won't be so standard in a post-disaster environment. It also serves as a form of mental aerobics to prepare to the truly unknown unknowns.
So, on the one hand, kudos to the New York State legal community for thinking about these questions. On the other hand, I doubt that things will go according to plan. Plus, I'm really curious to hear whether they think habeas corpus applies to the living dead.
The topic de la semaine around here has been how, regardless or regime type, all governments face domestic politics and political constraints. Just to push back on that theme, however, it is worth remenbering that not all political regimes were created equal. For Exhibit A on this theme, let's wander over to Alistair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores "Disaster Politics" essay for Foreign Arrairs (hat tip: Laura Rozen):
On January 12, 2010, Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, was struck by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that caused widespread destruction and killed approximately 222,000 people. The next month, Chile was hit by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake -- approximately 500 times stronger than that in Haiti -- but only 500 people died.
Why the disparity? For one, Chile rigorously enforces strict building codes, so there was less immediate damage to the infrastructure near the earthquake’s epicenter. The government of President Michelle Bachelet was also quick to act once the earthquake hit. It immediately began to coordinate international and domestic relief efforts to get supplies and shelter to those in need. In contrast, there is no national building code in Haiti, and the country’s government was barely functional even before the earthquake, let alone after....
It is tempting to suggest that a country’s ability to prepare is a matter of money. After all, the United States and Japan are extremely wealthy. However, although wealth certainly matters, politics are more important....
Political survival lies at the heart of disaster politics. Unless politicians are beholden to the people, they have little motivation to spend resources to protect their citizens from Mother Nature, especially when these resources could otherwise be earmarked for themselves and their small cadre of supporters. What is worse, the casualty count after a disaster is a major determinant of the amount of international assistance a country receives. Relief funds can even enhance a nondemocrat’s hold on power if they are used to buy off supporting elites. Given such incentives, autocrats’ indifference to disaster-related deaths will continue. The fix can only be political -- leaders will not use the policies already available to mitigate the effects of natural disasters until they have the incentives to do so.
Smith and Flores have large-N data to back up their assertion. Read the whole thing -- there's some interesting stuff I left out of the excerpt.
This finding shouldn't be that surprising. It's of a piece with Amartya Sen's observation that famines occur in autocracies rather than democracies. It's also consistent with the argument Smith and his co-authors made in The Logic of Political Survival.
If nothing else, it should tell you which kind of government you want to live under in case... well.... you know.
THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.