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Five Things I Learned at ISA

[ 0 ] February 22, 2010 |

Apologies for the long absence during my foray to the wireless-dead-zone of the New Orleans Riverside Hilton. Brainier post-ISA posts to arrive as soon as I’ve settled back in with the kids and dealt with those angry students in my class who believe good grammar is only important in English classes.

But meantime, here are a smattering of “insights” from the ISA conference:

1) Academic conferences get a great deal more fun as you get closer to having tenure.

2) It is very hard to find good vegetarian food in New Orleans. Even harder to find good vegetarian food service.

3) The International Studies Association is a very, very white organization. Nobody talks much about this. They do like to talk about how male and how heterosexual it is.

4) If in an effort to out-geek your geek friends you plan to show up to a panel on science fiction and world politics in full Colonial dress, beware of purchasing costumes on the Internet and having them shipped to your hotel – or at least, be prepared to improvise. (Lesson learned. Lt. Starbuck would never wear skin-tight leather pants and high-heels…)

5) Joseph Nye likes my “Blog Wars” video. Snap.


When We Define Our Politics Primarily Through Loathing

[ 0 ] February 22, 2010 |

This is mildly amusing. Jamie Kirchik:

Just when you thought Joe Lieberman couldn’t frustrate and perplex liberals any further, he is going off to become chief sponsor of the most significant piece of socially progressive legislation that Congress will deal with this year.

Myself, I don’t find it frustrating at all that Holy Joe has decided to sponsor DADT-killing legislation. Perplexing, yes; it’s bloody difficult, from day to day, to try to figure out precisely where Holy Joe’s Independent Moral Compass is going to lead him, but it’s generally sensible to bet on “evil.” In any case, however, I suspect that the central problem is that Jamie is mirror-imaging liberals. Jamie has made a career of anti-liberal contrarianism; he’s not terribly bright and doesn’t have any ideas of his own, but when he can manage to successfully figure out what progressives think, he astutely takes the opposite position. While this doesn’t differentiate him from most other contemporary conservative journalists, he is almost striking in his emptiness; there’s literally nothing there beyond the hatred for whatever he believes liberals want. As such, it’s very hard for Jamie to understand that anyone could be motivated by an actual policy concern. Most progressives, however can distinguish between a policy they like (ending DADT), and a politician they don’t like (Holy Joe Lieberman).

Conservatives…. not so much. Indeed, (and this is just a crazy thought experiment) I suspect that if liberals came out against something as nasty as, say, torture, that conservatives might even be for it…

Does "to Rob" Require Some Kind of Physical Coercion?

[ 0 ] February 22, 2010 |

Doesn’t this imply that I should have become a burglar, or at least a stick-up artist?

I recently came across a psychological study showing that Americans tend to choose careers whose labels resemble their names. Thus the name Dennis is statistically overrepresented among dentists, and the ranks of geoscientists contain disproportionately high numbers of Georges and Geoffreys. The study ascribed these phenomena to “implicit egotism”: the “generally positive feelings” that people have about their own names. I wonder whether some of the Dennises in dentistry school ended up there by a different motivation: the secret wish to bring arbitrary language in tune with physical reality.

Don’t Count Your Money While You’re Sitting at the Table

[ 0 ] February 22, 2010 |

While I can understand the enthusiasm about the first American win against Canada since 1960, I think prudence dictates leaving this kind of post until after the medal round.

Still, the game amplifies two points that could be seen before the tournament. One the one hand, the Americans aren’t as good player for player as Canada or Russia, but Miller is as good as any goalie in the world right now, which makes the Yanks as live an underdog as they looked tonight — one can see something like the Czechs in Nagano happening. On the other hand, the game won’t comfort any Canada rooter who (like me) was concerned about the team dipping into its nostalgia file. It’s pretty hard to argue that at 37 the immortal Brodeur is as good as Luongo. But it’s even more clear that Brodeur’s former teammate and fellow aging player of immense career accomplishment Scott Niedermayer (-17 this year) isn’t close to being an elite defenseman anymore, but seems to be on the ice at crucial moments. (This isn’t just about age, of course; the unlikely American star Rafalski is 36 too, but unlike Niedermayer is having an excellent year.) They’re certainly good enough to win anyway — and playing these declining first-ballot Hall of Famers is nowhere near as egregious as, say, going with a washed-up Todd Bertuzzi in ’06 — but these marginal choices mattered tonight and may keep mattering.

Glenn Reynolds suggests defaulting on the federal debt as a way to balance the budget

[ 0 ] February 20, 2010 |

Reynolds will probably claim he was joking, but he seems to forget that a lot of people these days aren’t getting the joke.

I have a vague memory of some Werner Herzog film set in Wisconsin in the winter, in which a couple of developmentally disabled fellows are sold a Winnebago RV even though they have no money. It’s repossessed and sold at an auction during an incredibly bleak midwinter afternoon. In the course of the auction one of them turns to the other and says something like, “You know, I thought we might have to pay for that thing one day.”

UPDATE [SL]: His response is actually worse than Paul guessed. Needless to say, it contains no defense of his idiotic idea on the merits, but does claim that Obama is “trying to turn the United States into Zimbabwe.” (This is even more hilarious when you remeber that Reynolds calls Bartlett’s substantive response “intemperate.”) Let’s leave aside the problems with comparing a program that would leave the United States with a smaller state than such failed states as Canada, the UK and Germany to Zimbabwe. If running deficits makes you Robert Mugabe what does that make Reynolds, who favors upper-class tax cuts (they allowed him to buy a six-burner grill, so they must be good public policy!), many more ruinously expensive wars, and as far as I can tell no non-trivial specific spending cuts?

Sarah Palin’s Murphy Brown Moment?

[ 0 ] February 20, 2010 |

Of course, it’s Family Guy, not Murphy Brown, which is suitable for the new century.

Like any right minded curious individual with a shred of a sense of humor, I’m a big fan of Family Guy. Indeed, for my first 18 months or so on facebook, Brian was my profile picture (because, well, I guess I identify with a cynical, lecherous alcoholic dog, but at least he talks) until my partner insisted that I have a picture of me instead of some cartoon dog. What was she thinking?
I’m not going to weigh into this more than superficially, but in my quick read, the balance of sympathy is squarely with the cartoon, and not the cartoonish ex governor of Alaska.

Stop the Presses!

[ 0 ] February 20, 2010 |

Apparently, defense lawyers may have represented people accused of crimes. This is truly shocking in its own right, but here’s something more shocking: they’re being permitted to work in the Obama administration! Oh the humanity!

I suppose it’s difficult for anything else to be the dumbest winger faux-scandal of the week given the assertions that anti-communist books about communism being in the White House library prove that Michelle Obama is a Maoist, but York sure has given it an Olympic-caliber effort.

ISA Blogging Panel Redux

[ 0 ] February 20, 2010 |

Alex Parets live-blogged yesterday’s ISA panel on blogging, policy, and the political science discipline. Check it out. I should further note the blogs of the various questioners and participants, including Steve Walt, IPEatUNC’s Will Winecoff, Peter Feaver, and Duck of Minerva’s Stephanie Carvin.

Al Haig

[ 0 ] February 20, 2010 |

A life like Al Haig’s couldn’t help but to touch so many people. I most fondly remember his failed 1988 campaign for the Republican nomination for President, where he managed to place substantially behind Pete du Pont in the Iowa caucus. In comments, feel free to share your own memories of Al Haig…

Point of trivia: This drops us to nine living Secretaries of State. I’d give roughly a 50% chance of getting back to ten, but only about a 10% chance of breaking the record of ten living SecsState.

Great Moments in Misprision; or, Why I always thought Lost in Translation was an anti-racist film, not the other way around.

[ 0 ] February 20, 2010 |

I’m having one of those moments in which I wonder whether I was watching the same movie everyone else was. At Racialicious, Thea Lim discusses Complex Magazine‘s list of The 50 Most Racist Movies You Didn’t Know Were Racist, and while the majority of the list disappoints (on account of me already knowing the overtly racist films listed were racist), some of the entries simply baffle me. Foremost among them is Bulworth, Warren Beatty’s film about the centrist penchant to use blacks as electoral pawns—Bulworth won’t die in defense of his principles, but he will commit suicide for a lobbyist payday, at least until he realizes that black people are really people, at which point American political logic demands he be assassinated—but not far behind is Sopphia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, which Lim glosses thus:

[T]he whole point of the movie disgusts me. As in, the nauseatingly self-indulgent focus on the deep, brooding subjectivity of two Anglo-Americans, against a backdrop of depthless Japanese people who, with their hilariously absurd subcultures, bizarre language and affinity for bowing, are all exactly the same.

Lim then quotes a section about self-involved white cluelessness from Restructure!:

[W]hat disgusts me about Lost in Translation is that it centers on the lives of white people in a country where they are the minority, and it suggests that the social isolation that comes from being a minority is something that could only happen to white people.

I’m not sure why either writer assumes that the experience Coppola describes in the film is something that can only happen to white people, because to me, the film seems to do the exact opposite: it demonstrates that white Americans are emotionally and intellectually unprepared to understand the non-majoritarian social experience. So maybe it does describe an experience that can only happen to white people—but only because white people are alone in being unable to recognize their privilege for what it is. Neither Bill Murray’s “Bob” nor Scarlett Johansson’s “Charlotte” have given a moment’s thought to the plight of non-whites in American society, so the events of the film represent their first encounter with any form of double-consciousness—even one in which their whiteness still affords them privileged social stature.

The film begins with caricature and absurdity because these characters are incapable of understanding Japanese society, or their roles as others in that society understand them to be; e.g. Bob is baffled by the arrival of an escort because he is unfamiliar with the sexism endemic in traditional Japanese business culture. Charlotte knows one of her roles—that of the tourist in exotic Japan—and indulges in some Orientalist fare, visiting a temple to watch some monks chant. Their relationship, such as it is, is only possible in an environment in which their previously stable and unquestioned identities have dissolved in the face of their own otherness. I took this to be a criticism of American insularity and arrogance, not an assertion of its eternal provenance.

To an American audience, it may seem as if the Japanese in the film are the foreigners; but from the Japanese perspective, the film registers as a story of two unmoored Americans bumbling through a culture they can’t understand on its own terms. Unlike most films in which the white interlopers have adventures with the natives, Lost in Translation never demands its audience believe that white culture is inherently superior. Bob and Charlotte are not bequeathed the preternatural ingenuity or Rooseveltian ruggedness so common among American characters abroad; they are, in fact, technologically illiterate representatives of an ostensibly superior culture who, in a reversal of the minstral trope, sing the songs of their ancestral homeland, England, from whence Brian Ferry and Roxy Music came.

All of which is only to say, I never realize how contrarian my reading of the film was until I read the Racialicious and Restructured! posts, because I had always thought Lost in Translation a remarkable feat: for white audiences, it only works as a film if they force themselves to imagine a subject position in which they are foreign but not superior—a situation in which white characters are not there to civilize noble savages or ravage native cultures with tongues, guns, or both. These are privileged white people who are, to quote “More Than This,” “hopefully learning” that their identities are contingent upon a social structure and that that social structure is different, but not superior, to the one in which they currently find themselves. For non-white audiences, I can understand why this revelation would feel underwhelming; after all, Bob and Charlotte are learning late in life what they’ve known, exquisitely, for the entirety of theirs.

The Japanese in the film are depthless, but only in the first act—as the Americans learn more about Japanese culture, these characters become slightly less inscrutible. Were this the sort of film in which the white anthropologists almost instantly acquire intimate knowledge of the primitive culture in which they’re immersed, the film would have closed with scenes of Bob and Charlotte conversing with three-dimensional characters in fluent Japanese; but because the pair’s otherness and ignorance is so great, it ends with Japanese characters who are only marginally rounder than they were when it began. Put differently: if we were to impose this narrative onto, say, The Last Samuri, Tom Cruise would have arrived in Japan, been thoroughly confused by what he found, then fled the country feeling alienated and unconvinced of his cultural superiority.

Which, I think, would have been a good thing. In all seriousness, how many movies subvert white America’s innate sense of superiority on the sly?

Ronald Reagan: Soft on terrorism

[ 0 ] February 19, 2010 |

Scott Horton interviews Will Bunch about his book Tear Down This Myth. Bunch’s most interesting contention is that, on terrorism-related issues such as torture, “collateral damage,” and treating terrorism within the confines of the ordinary criminal justice system, Reagan was far to the left of the contemporary GOP (Bunch doesn’t put it this way but, if his description of Reagan’s positions is accurate, he was also to the left of Barack Obama on these issues).

5. Ronald Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture, and his Justice Department indicted and prosecuted a Texas sheriff for waterboarding. How can his views about torture be reconciled with the current Republican pro-torture dogma?

It’s important not to nominate Reagan for sainthood in the arena of human rights. His “Reagan Doctrine” in Central America, leaving the fight to anti-Communist thugs and death squads that the then-president called “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” is arguably the gravest moral failing of his tenure. That said, back on U.S. soil, Reagan was far to the left of the 2010 Republican Party on issues such as torture. The convention that he signed in 1988 holds that there is no circumstance of any kind that permits torture, which certainly would include the 9/11 aftermath and related anti-terror efforts today.

But it goes even deeper than that. As I noted in an early 2010 blog post: “Reagan would not have approved of drone-fired missile attacks aimed at killing terrorists; as president, he several times rejected anti-terrorism operations for the sole reason that civilians would have been killed by collateral damage. In 1985, he surprised aides such as Pat Buchanan by ruling out a military response to a Beirut hijacking for fear of civilian casualties; Lou Cannon reported then in the Washington Post that Reagan called retaliation in which innocent civilians are killed “itself a terrorist act.” And the idea of trying terrorists in military tribunals as opposed to a civilian court of law? The Reagan administration was completely against that. Paul Bremer (yes, that Paul Bremer) said in 1987, “a major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are — criminals — and to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law, against them.”

It’s almost tragic—when you go back to the very recent history of the 1980s—when you realize how seriously an American consensus on human rights and the power of our criminal-justice justice system has been trashed by the modern conservative movement. It’s going to take a long time to get that back—although the words that Reagan and his aides left behind could help America get past this.

Just To Clarify

[ 0 ] February 19, 2010 |

People arguing that civilian trials are never appropriate for terrorist suspects are arguing from a position well to the right of the Bush administration (at least the 2006 version.) And if you have less respect for due process than the Bush DOJ…I think this point makes itself.