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Archive for July, 2012

All Good Things…

[ 17 ] July 31, 2012 |

The Alyona Show has ended. Say what you will (and by this I mean “make every entirely reasonable critique of RT”) about the sources of funding and oversight, Alyona was willing to have guests and tackle subjects that could be found nowhere else on television.  I can’t think of another show of its type that would do a short segment about the Zumwalt class destroyer.  Best wishes to Alyona and her producer in their next endeavor.

Speaking of Russia, see this Dan Nexon post on the origins of Romney’s anti-Russia rhetoric.  I’d place my bets on numbers 2 and 3; anti-Russia sentiment is convenient, low stakes rhetoric for Romney, and those surrounding him seem resoundingly committed to a (hysterical) anti-Moscow position.  I’m not sure I’d use the term “steeped,” because I don’t have a sense of what Romney actually thinks; the think tank network that effectively constitutes the modern Republican foreign policy establishment is in many ways structured to prevent candidates from straying from a very narrow strip of “hawkish” orthodoxy.


Walking and talking with Louie and Liz

[ 24 ] July 31, 2012 |

Jim Emerson’s appreciation of Louie captures something I don’t think I quite did in my initial comments about the relationship of form to content in The Dark Knight Rises. The episode, “Daddy’s Girlfriend II,” largely consists of a slow-motion Sorkinian walk-and-talk around New York City. The key features of the typical Sorkinian walk-and-talk are present in the linked clip: the characters approach a camera at a brisk clip and end up in a medium or medium close-up with a shallow focus. The world recedes into blurriness because the emphasis is on the dialogue and the characters’ reaction to it. The blurriness also imparts an unearned importance to the dialogue because it creates the impression that the characters have no time to waste and people with no time to waste are very important people. The viewer knows exactly where to look and how long to be looking there because there are, essentially, only faces in the frames and the one with words departing its mouth is the one to be paying attention to. But whatever narrative momentum the Sorkinian variation provides to what amounts to endless conversations between bureaucrats in the hallways of the Circumlocution Office comes at a high price: boredom.

Sorkin’s shows are exhausting not because of the amount of information his characters breathlessly provide, but because Sorkin leaves his audience with nothing to do. In any given sequence, he indicates exactly where we should be looking and dictates exactly how long our eyes should linger there. Thinking is not required to watch an episode of Sorkin’s shows, and not thinking for forty-two consecutive minutes dulls the wits. Not so with Louie. The stills Emerson pulled from the episode bear this out. Consider this medium shot of Louie and his date, Liz, stopping-and-chatting in front of a pool hall:

Note the depth of field. We can clearly see what’s happening behind Louie and Liz, and even though the director, one Louis C.K., wants us to pay attention to the conversation. The movement of the pool players—which occurs, significantly, in the dead center of the screen—threatens distraction throughout the entire conversation. Our attention shifts from the conversation to the pool and back to the conversation and then back to the pool. It makes for uncomfortable viewing because we aren’t entirely sure what we’re supposed to be paying attention to. But it makes for compelling viewing for the same reason: when we don’t know what we’re supposed to be paying attention to, we start scouring the frame for visual cues. As our eyes dart from Louie to Liz to the pool players, unsure of where to find safe harbor, it becomes possible for us to be surprised. Because when we don’t know where to look it becomes possible to not see something coming.

The formal qualities of this stopping-and-chatting sequence create an awkwardness that borders on discomfort, but despite our misgivings we want to keep watching because we have no idea what might happen next. Do you know what that situation happens to be? Identical to the one Louie is experiencing during this conversation. Liz had informed him that him that her name was actually “Tape Recorder,” and as she spins out the story of how her parents named her that Louie is visibly uncomfortable. The medium shot allows us to watch his face as her increasingly improbable tale develops, and what his face tells us is that a mental assessment of Liz is being performed behind it.

In this sequence, then, Louis C.K., the director, replicates the discomfort felt by the characters in his audience via the formal elements of his shot composition. Which, to bring this post full circle, is why the formal incoherence of The Dark Knight enhances the film while a very similar one nearly ruins The Dark Knight Rises.

Mittens/Rocker ’12!

[ 53 ] July 31, 2012 |

Not only would John Rocker provide some needed sectional balance to the Republican ticket, he knows just as much about the First Amendment as the previous Republican vice-presidential nominee:

Technically, as our Founding Fathers intended, we are all given the undeniable right to voice our thoughts and opinions freely without fear of scorn and/or ridicule derived from non-agreement.

Technically! Anyway, I think it’s safe to say that the vice presidential search is now over.

The War on Roe

[ 33 ] July 31, 2012 |

I have a piece up on the two awful recent decisions in federal courts that uncritically accept anti-abortion junk science. One court at least made the same kind of mistakes as Casey and Carhart II, while the other judge just decided to flat-out ignore that he was dealing with a rare case where Casey actually imposes a clear requirement.

By the way, that latter judge was a Clinton nominee. I’ll get to this eventually, but let’s just say that I continue to find Sean Wilentz’s “Clinton was as liberal as he possible could have been” narrative…unconvincing.

Stupid boomer tricks

[ 113 ] July 31, 2012 |


I have a piece in Salon about the new generation gap, and how annoying it can be when The Graying of America fails to notice it’s not 1968 any more.

“Social Darwinist” of the Day

[ 36 ] July 31, 2012 |

Chuck Lane.

Of course, we should force sick and disabled people back to work so we can focus on real rights — you know, the right not to pay a tax penalty if you free ride in the health care market, your right against nonexistent requirements to purchase brocolli, stuff like that there.

Chris Marker, RIP

[ 57 ] July 30, 2012 |

Chris Marker, one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, died today. Best known for his science fiction short La Jetée, in my view the greatest science fiction film ever made*, Marker really should be known as an experimental creator of political films, most notably his opus, Grin Without A Cat, his lengthy 1977 documentary about the hope and collapse of the revolutionary European left in the late 60s and early 70s. What I love about Marker, and I feel this even more strongly about Agnes Varda, is his ability to experiment while creating politically and socially relevant film. He could subvert and play with narrative while not abandoning it entirely. I contrast this with so much experimental American film, which too often tends towards exercises in imagery without even a pretense of storytelling (the descendants of Stan Brakhage). Or if the filmmaker does try to tell a story, the person is afraid to break away from early 21st century faux-ironic posturing and craft a story that not only fits the experiment but moves it forward (basically this is how I sum up the whole mumblecore thing).

A great loss.

* Note that I actually dislike science fiction as a genre. Put something in space, the future or with a monster and I am basically disinterested. This is probably why my two favorite science fiction films are La Jetee and Solaris. Solaris may be in space but basically nothing happens at the same time that everything happens. Anyway, take my science fiction opinions with a grain of salt. And this is real salt that is on Earth. Not some phony space salt.

…[SL] Kenny has a great Marker quote about Vertigo. I will also add that I think Sans Soleil is almost as great as La Jetee.

…[EL] Reading that Marker quote on Vertigo Scott references, I not only think that sums up so much about Marker himself, but it reminds me that his generation of French intellectuals really did some amazing film criticism.

Print the Legend

[ 43 ] July 30, 2012 |

So SEK put me in an unusual position in his post on so-called “Social Darwinism.” My professional persona is very interested in his arguments. SEK present a compelling argument, at least from what I can tell in such a short post. I was somewhat aware of Richard Hofstadter’s role in creating this narrative and given his influential role in making a generation of American intellectuals think the Populists were a bunch of reactionary yokels, I’m not surprised he would create a past to serve his New Deal political aims. If my work dealt with these issues in any way, I’m sure I’d at the very least mention SEK’s dissertation in a footnote if not center it in the argument.

Temperamentally, I am completely down with all of this. I dislike mythology of any kind and so I really appreciate having a more accurate accounting of this line of thought. It’s probably a bit too detailed to affect how I teach my Gilded Age course too much, but I will probably change the wording when I talk about these issues to express SEK’s general idea.

On the other hand, I also have a political persona. These two personas may inform each other, but they aren’t the same thing. In the political arena of this blog or the larger national narratives, so-called Social Darwinism evokes a series of thoughts and impressions that do political work for us. People don’t by and large know a lot about the Gilded Age. There’s only a certain amount of terms a writer can use with even an educated audience like we have here at LGM that will create a response. And Social Darwinism is so ingrained with a series of pernicious ideas that allow a writer to move a conversation without getting bogged down in explanations that it’s hard to see replacing it with Lamarckianism or Spencerism or Sumnerism. Nobody would know what I’m talking about and my argument would be diluted or lost.

Social Darwinism may be mistitled, but it is too useful to give up when talking about the Gilded Age in a public forum, even for the noble cause of historical complexity and accuracy. But I probably will include an asterisk with a link to SEK’s post every time I use it here in the future.

Book Review: Pakistan: A Hard Country

[ 4 ] July 30, 2012 |

This is the third in an eight part series on this year’s Patterson School Summer Reading List:

  1. Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters
  2. CJ Chivers, The Gun
  3. Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country

Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country tries to change the extant Western narrative on Pakistan. Lieven has travelled extensively in Pakistan over the course of several decades, and is familiar with virtually all of the major political factions. Lievan’s most important point, made repeatedly for emphasis, is that the social structures that undergird Pakistani society (primarily kinship structures, along witha  melange of tribal and ethnic affiliations) are far too robust for either radical Islamists or the Pakistani state to disrupt. While Pakistan may in some ways resemble a “failed state” (itself a dreadfully over and mis-used term), there is little prospect for any kind of transformational change of state structures. Pakistan is here to stay, and will likely remain genuinely “Pakistani” for the foreseeable future.

Lieven makes clear that a surface analysis of Pakistani politics, even one that takes into account the interplay between the major political parties and ethnic groups, lends little understanding as to how the political system actually functions. He makes clear that party politics fails to adequately describe the interactions of the Pakistani political class, and that the extant parties are themselves little more than broad-based patronage networks with a thin ideological veneer. Not all parties are equally part of this system, although most of those that see any kind of prolonged success find themselves in a system which strongly rewards a kinship-patronage based program. This makes it difficult for political parties to take advantage of broader identifications, including ethnic attachment or class consciousness. These attachments surely exist, but their impact is muted by the deeper social structure. For example, even parties interested in agrarian reform have rarely had much success penetrating the networks of obligation, and have earned enduring hatred from what amount (in some ways) to feudal agrarian lords. However, Lieven makes clear that the feudal model also misses much; rural conditions are less drastic than statistics indicate because the upper classes are themselves bound by these systems of obligation.

State capacity problems extend to tax collection, infrastructure projects, management of the local police, and basic governance of the more restive provinces. Nevertheless, Pakistan has managed to construct a well trained, technological advanced, competent army, albeit one that consistently rejects civilian supremacy. Pakistan has also managed to build itself ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, both of which are centralized, capital intensive endeavors. Consequently, Pakistan only approaches being a “failed” state on certain metrics of domestic governance; its central government can consistently draw on the resources necessary to projecting a powerful international image.

Lieven rejects the argument that Pakistan is likely to fall to the Taliban, or to undergo an Islamic revolution similar to Iran’s.  It’s not just that secular institutions are too strong, although in the case of the Army this is surely true.  More importantly, the network of identities that bind Pakistani society together are too strong for revolutionary forces to tear apart.  While the Taliban has prospered in some parts of Pakistan and has periodically won certain forms of official sanction, it has also discovered hard limits on its appeal, not to mention the tolerance of Pakistani security institutions. The Army and intelligence services have been happy to make limited use of the Taliban and Taliban allies to conduct proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but have moved quickly to crush any serious threats to the Pakistani state.

Lieven repeatedly returns to concerns about climate change.  He argues that climate change could destabilize Pakistani society in ways that neither the state nor the Taliban can match, by undermining the fundamental economic substructure. Indeed, next to climate change Lieven sees only a US or Indian ground invasion and occupation as events that could bring about revolutionary change in Pakistan.

The weak state, strong society dynamic helps explain the problematic nature of Pakistani civil-military relations.  Built on a British model perfected during the Raj, the Pakistani Army is a strong institution, capable of managing itself in a more or less meritocratic fashion, of building a security strategy that informs (and to some degree constitutes) Pakistani foreign policy, and of commanding all of the resources necessary to a modern, effective military organization.  It is nearly the only institution in the country that operates on such a Weberian logic. Thus, the military tends to hold a great degree of legitimacy (although this varies across region), and tends to have strong attitudes about the nature and conduct of the civilian Pakistani state.  At the same time, the civilian state remains remarkably corrupt and incapable of reforming either itself or life in the countryside.  Consequently, the military often had both an interest in political intervention and the social capital to undertake such intervention.

Lieven notes on several occasions that the Pakistani public sphere is rife with conspiracy theory.  These include a widespread belief that Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks, that the United States and India support Al Qaeda, as well as a few others.  Lievan makes a good case that these beliefs go beyond what we might account as typical nationalist/political paranoia (such as American beliefs on climate change, President Obama’s religion, etc.) and have a detrimental effect (although perhaps not a significant detrimental effect) on Pakistani public life and foreign relations.

Pakistan: A Hard Country isn’t quite “everything you know about Pakistan is wrong,” but rather “most of what you know about Pakistan needs to be viewed in different context.” To be sure, while Lievan makes certain that his readers get the point, the argument occasionally comes across as repetitive. In part this is because Lieven previews certain discussions in the course of engaging other topics; given that national political problems are often inter-related, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this. However, there’s a degree of truth to the claim that you can get most of Lievan’s argument from his first chapter. You’d miss out on a tremendous amount of supporting evidence and detail, but nevertheless could probably get a grip on his key assertions. Altogether, it’s a worthwhile volume.

Only, there’s no such thing as Social Darwinism.

[ 83 ] July 30, 2012 |

Erik’s posts (here and here) on the seemingly Darwinian politics of modern conservativism aren’t wrong about the lilt of these contemporary thinkers, but they do a bit of injustice to the historical ones, because there was no such thing as “Social Darwinism” during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. There was such a thing as William Graham Sumner, and his collected essays bear the title Social Darwinism, but those essays were collected in and published in 1963. The editor of those essays was following the lead established by the historian Richard Hofstadter, whose Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) identified Sumner as the brains behind the social Darwinist movement in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The problem is that there wasn’t a Social Darwinist movement during the Gilded Age or the Progressive Era. I’m not just kicking against the pricks here—as people writing dissertations are wont to do—as will become clear if you ask yourself a simple question:

When was the Modern Synthesis formulated?

The Modern Synthesis, if you don’t know, is the combination of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian evolutionary theory, and represents the moment when the previously theoretical Darwinian model finally found itself a mechanism of transmission. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was elegant, but prior to the Modern Synthesis scientists lacked a means of proving that it could exist in nature. When was it formulated? Between 1936 and 1942. Why is that significant?

Because prior to the Modern Synthesis there was little consensus as to the driving force behind the development of species. Russian scientists, for example, were working under Lamarckian assumptions about the heritability of acquired characteristics well into the 1960s. (The had an ideological commitment to keeping the Lamarckian faith after the Modern Synthesis, but eventually even they relented.) Point being, during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Darwinian thought wasn’t the dominant strain of evolutionary theory. It lacked the evidence required to back up its elegance, and so its status in the scientific community was as tenuous then as its competitors are now. Vernon Kellogg, then president of Stanford (or not?), wrote a book entitled Darwinism Today (1908) that basically argued that there really wasn’t any. It devoted itself to explicating “the various new theories of species-forming with … names, such as heterogenesis, orthogenesis, metakinesis, geographic isolation, biologic isolation, organic selection, or orthoplasty.” So why do we associate Darwinism with this period?

Because of the Whigs and their history. The aforementioned Hofstadter wrote Social Darwinism in American Thought in 1944 in order to create a bogeyman whose existence would justify the policies of the New Deal. From what Stephen J. Gould called the “maximal diversity” of evoultionary thought during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Hofstadter selected those thinkers whose work contained implications dire enough that politicians in the 1940s could point to them to frighten the masses. Darwinism, as I demonstrated above, wasn’t regnant during the period, much less the social application of it, but Hofstadter had handed New Deal liberals their bogeyman and they weren’t about to give it up.

Ironically, the scientific community bolstered Hofstadter’s claim during the centennial of the Origin in 1959. In a book titled Darwin’s Century, Loren Eiseley and his fellow scientists created a teleological narrative of Darwinism’s development in which all evolutionary thinkers were groping their way towards the Modern Synthesis. Which is ironic because the key insight of Darwinian thought is that development isn’t teleological—that natural selection isn’t based on forethought and doesn’t working according to a plan. Eiseley and his colleagues transformed the development of Darwinian thought into the stuff of Intelligent Design, and when that narrative was welded onto Hofstadter’s, the result was the impression that Darwinism reigned supreme during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

It didn’t. It only seems to have because people have forgotten all the other evolutionary theories that were in play at the time, the most prominent of which was Lamarckian, not Darwinian, prompting prominent medical thinkers (and popular novelists) like Silas Weir Mitchell to declare:

I have sometimes been led to think that over brain-work tends not only to stunt the body and to contract the pelvis, but, by the law of evolution, to develop bigger headed offspring, or at least offspring with heads relatively disproportioned to the pelvis of the mother.

That’s correct. The most prominent neurologist in America opposed educating women because they would become smarter, pass on their larger brains to their children, then die during childbirth. Outside of giraffes, it’s difficult to find a more classic formulation of Lamarckian thought. I could go on for ages—or pages, hundreds of them—but I think I’ve established that “the Social Darwinism movement” is an ahistorical construct designed to justify policies and theories with which I otherwise agree.

More Social Darwinism for the 21st Century

[ 40 ] July 30, 2012 |

I guess Bryan Caplan isn’t the only member of the plutocracy channeling Gilded Age Social Darwinism. See Mitt Romney speaking about the differences between Israelis and Palestinians today. Noting the economic difference between Israel and Palestine, Romney stated:

“If you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it’s this: culture makes all the difference.”

His campaign responded to irritation about these comments that he also meant it as a difference between U.S. and Mexico.

Oh well then! Of course for a Gilded Age II plutocrat, culture is why people are rich and poor. It has nothing to do with colonization, racism, structural issues, rich nation investment in poor nations intended to exploit cheap labor. And between Israel and Palestine, the occupation and oppression has absolutely nothing to do with economic disparities. Certainly the fact that the Gaza Strip’s main lifeline to the outside world is smuggling tunnels to Egypt is strictly coincidental.

No, what really matters is that Jews are culturally superior to Palestinians. Of course, only the right kind of Jews. Not the ones in the U.S. that support Obama or the ones in Israel who oppose the oppression of Palestine. The Jews that exist primarily in American evangelical imagination, those are the good ones.

And as for Mexico, I mean, haven’t you all seen Speedy Gonzalez cartoons? How much more evidence does Romney have to present in order to make the case that American culture is better?

But with truth so far off, what good will it do?

[ 7 ] July 30, 2012 |

Ruh-roh — apparently Jonah Lehrer keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within caught up with him. It’s pretty hard to imagine that this was the only part of his work that won’t hold up, either, particularly since the fabricated quotes are far from the only thing he got wrong.

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