Tag: comedy

Nuland: Comic misunderstanding?

Have Duck readers been following the latest glitch in U.S.-European relations? Josh mentioned it in his recent roundup. Here’s how the Washington Post explained the story:

On Thursday, a video was posted on YouTube in which Victoria Nuland,, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, disparagingly dismissed European Union efforts to mediate the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine by bluntly saying, “F— the E.U.”

On Friday, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, through press attache Christiane Wirtz, described the gaffe as “absolutely unacceptable,” and defended the efforts of Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief. Continue reading

Africa for Norway

This video from Africa for Norway provides a humorous way to think about foreign aid:

Continue reading

Academic Rigor in the Classroom: Time to Get Serious?

Star Trek convention Las Vegas 2009
Charli, Dan and Patrick at ISA 2013?

The academics/educators who write this blog often locate their research and teaching interests in texts from popular culture. Dan has co-edited a book on Harry Potter and IR. Patrick teaches a course on science fiction and social science. Dan offers a course on science fiction and politics. Charli blogs frequently about science fiction and has a working paper on “Security or Human Security? Civil-Military Relations in Battlestar Galactica.” I’ve frequently taught a class on “Global Politics Through Film” and am working on a project about “the comedy of global politics.” I could go on and on, referencing most of the bloggers on the sidebar.

But you already get the idea. Nerdy Duck of Minerva bloggers like to think about popular films, television series, and novels through the lens of international politics. Resistance is futile. We are serious about nonsense, or at least that is likely how critics and skeptics would view these efforts. The other bloggers at the Duck have frequently explained why they do what they do, but I’d like to revisit the issue in light of some recent social science research.

So, here we go again: Given what we know about the ability of higher education to achieve its aims, are we letting our students and colleagues down by focusing on battle stars, death stars, dark materials, the dark side, hunger games, super-heroes, wizard worlds, or zombies?

I have sometimes heard colleagues in the hard sciences snicker at the unusual titles and subjects of courses, papers, and conferences in the social sciences and humanities. Many assume we are all practicing post-modernists, dedicated perhaps to the reification of fantasy. Many colleagues in IR want all of us in the field to spend much more time thinking about the policy relevance of our work. Even sympathetic friends in the social sciences fear that paying parents will be unhappy when they hear about the courses their offspring are taking next term. We had a big debate about this at Louisville when trying to name the new Peace Studies program.

Granted, much of this is familiar ground on this blog and elsewhere. Thus, I’d like to consider the topic in terms of basic student learning outcomes.

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Richard Arum, one of the co-authors of Academically Adrift, the much-discussed recent work demonstrating that colleges are failing a huge portion of their students. Perhaps even worse, the work explains the problems Arum and colleagues identify by finding that too many college classes lack basic rigor. Long-time readers may recall that I previously blogged about Arum’s work with Josipa Roksa back in February 2011.

For those unfamiliar with their study, Arum and Roksa used “measures developed by the Collegiate Learning Association (CLA)” to determine what students are getting out of college. They tested students entering school and then tested them again two and four years later. The results were troubling as more than one-third of respondents ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over four years of college.

Keep that basic point in mind: apparently about 35% of students are wasting tens of thousands of dollars and four years of their lives to gain almost nothing from higher education.

It gets worse.

While speaking in Louisville, Arum revealed that he and his colleagues have continued to follow the student cohort that they started studying in 2005. In other words, they have data from the sixth year after entry into college and now know more about graduation rates, (un)employment, and graduate school entry.

The results are again disturbing, especially for the students who did not significantly improve in college:

Graduates who scored in the bottom quintile of the CLA were three times more likely to be unemployed than those who scored in the top quintile on the CLA (9.6 percent compared to 3.1 percent), twice as likely to be living at home (35 percent compared to 18 percent) and significantly more likely to have amassed credit card debt (51 percent compared to 37 percent).

They also found that their results had political implications, at least for those of us interested in the responsibilities of citizenship, the state of deliberation in the public sphere, etc.

Graduates who exhibited high academic engagement/growth in college were significantly more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students who displayed low academic engagement/growth. Graduates who scored in the highest quintile on the CLA in their senior year were more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students in the bottom quintile.

Obviously, the students entering college in 2005 started exiting college at a particularly bad time, economically.  Indeed, the latest  news about college student unemployment is even worse than Arum and colleagues report. From the Associated Press:

According to the AP’s analysis of government data, about 53.6 percent of Americans who have bachelor’s degrees and are 25 and under are unemployed or hold lower-wage jobs, like waiting tables or serving as office receptionists, that don’t require a degree. That translates to about 1.5 million young people who have not, or not yet, gotten the payoff they expected from a college education.

Who should be blamed for all this misery?

As they do in their book, Arum and colleagues continue to argue for more rigor in the college classroom. The standard employed in the study is not all that difficult to meet — 40 pages of reading per course per week and 20 pages of writing per course. Arum emphasized in Louisville that there is nothing magic about these particular numbers, but they they found that many students had actively sought out courses to avoid anything like this kind of workload. And generally, students had no difficulty finding plenty of courses that do not require them to work very hard. This is true even at good schools as fewer than half of seniors in the sample had completed over 20 pages of writing for a course in the prior semester.


To reiterate, colleges are failing their students because too many instructors fail to make their courses sufficiently rigorous — and many students are flocking to them so that they can complete degrees (and likely earn high grades).

In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa point out that a liberal arts education is highly correlated with rigor and learning. Students pursuing traditional liberal arts majors showed “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time.” Oddly enough, students pursuing degrees in practical and applied fields — business, education, social work, and communications — were more likely to be at the bottom of the rankings.

So, what does this research say about the politics of popular culture? When Duck of Minerva scholars take these texts seriously, they think critically and ask their academic audience and students to do the same. Indeed, in the classroom, they ask students to read a healthy amount of material with the aim of analyzing and applying abstract theoretical ideas to texts that they might enjoy reading or viewing. The students read and write and think. Getting serious in the classroom is a matter of critical and analytical pedagogy, not a matter of studying practical and serious subjects.

According to the analysis of Arum, Roksa, and colleagues, the Duck of Minerva bloggers are apparently on the right track.

Live long and prosper. May the force be with you. Yada yada yada.

Hans Beinholtz: Europe For Sale

The entire bit is good, but the really good part begins about 3:30 into this video from last Thursday’s “Colbert Report.”

“Invest in Europe, where culture, history and fun are always having a three-way.”

Understanding Zombie Comedy

Earlier this week, Tufts professor Dan Drezner tweeted that his Theory of International Politics and Zombies book has now sold more than 10,000 copies. That’s a huge total by academic standards and I sincerely congratulate Drezner on his success.

Fellow Duck of Minerva bloggers have previously written a good deal about zombies and Drezner’s book. For Foreign Policy, Dan Nexon wrote a brief comment about Drezner’s original article suggesting that we should think (naturally) about IR in terms of hierarchy and empire:

America’s unmatched global-strike capabilities will lead most other remaining states to acquiesce to U.S. leadership over the zone of the living.

The result will not, unfortunately, be Liberal Order 3.0, but a global Pax Americana supported by regional client-empires tasked with controlling and eradicating local zombie eruptions.

Likewise, Laura Sjoberg argues that Drezner reifies masculinization in/of IR.

Reviewer Adam Weinstein argues that the book is “a light, breezy volume” laced with “quick dry punch lines” (Drezner is said to have a “weakness for the cheap joke”). While Charli Carpenter conceded that “the book can and must be read as parody,” Vikash Yadav more critically writes that this hint of humor does not compensate for the mainstream thinking he finds both in Drezner’s book and the larger debate about it:

I do not see the discussions about zombies as a type of new or out-of-the-box thinking. If anything, the discussions of zombies that I have noted so far are completely “in-the-box” thinking, except with a touch of geeky humor, parody, and wit that is usually lacking in the discipline.

So what would constitute an out-of-the box critique of Theory of International Politics and Zombies?

In her most thorough Duck blog post about the book, Charli notes a potentially serious failing of Drezner’s work.

…the book actually scarcely mentions critical theory, post-modernism, feminist theory or pretty much any scholarship falling on the “reflectivist” side of the discipline, much less utilizes their tools. (Though to be fair, Dan doesn’t claim to do so, either.)

But if I have one critique of this otherwise brilliant little book, it’s that as a description of “the field” of IR, TIPZ’ relentless focus on rationalist theory to the near-exclusion of identities, language or embodiment frankly bites.

Broadly, Weinstein agrees with this assessment, as he claims that Drezner’s survey of the field is “prone to give short shrift to IR theories he clearly disagrees with [citing social constructivism], and to softpedal on those with which he sympathizes just a bit.”

While those are significant concerns about the book, they are likely not sufficiently unconventional to satisfy Vikash’s critique. Indeed, he suggests a potentially more critical approach — by thinking about the central role of threats in the discipline, especially ultimate “worst case” threats.

I would hypothesize that apocalyptic thinking functions to reassert the relevance of dominant modes of theorizing; apocalyptic thinking disciplines the discipline. Apocalyptic thinking is deeply conservative; it reasserts the relevance of theories which protect the status quo.

This is an especially important concern given some empirical evidence Drezner arguably misinterprets in his book — the meaning of a couple of comedic zombie films, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.

Some readers may know that my ongoing sabbatical project is about “the comedy of global politics.” As I have previously explained at the Duck, numerous realist and other IR theorists have long argued that the discipline is explained in tragic terms. Tragic stories traditionally focus on doomed heroic nobles who find themselves constrained by their situation. The stories tend to be set in the Great Hall or on the battlefield and end in death.

By contrast, comedy potentially provides an important alternative narrative perspective on the discipline. Comedies typically focus on ordinary people and emphasize their regular lives — the human security agenda, if you prefer that language. The stories end happily, perhaps in a marriage. Comedies focusing on elites typically satirize and critique those characters, revealing them to be self-interested buffoons. Satire, farce and black comedy can be subversive, reflecting critical rather than entrenched understandings.

Arguably, the makers of the recent comedic zombie films have both the concerns of ordinary people and subversive ideas about elites in mind. The threat from zombies is mostly played for laughs (Zombieland was criticized for its failings as a horror film) and the lives of the (ordinary) main characters provide alternative narratives that are not centrally focused on apocalyptic threats. The zombies seem relatively easy to slay — though, granted, their large numbers are somewhat worrisome. The lead characters spend a fair amount of screen time thinking about their love lives and families. Both Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland end relatively happily, suggesting romance, family, and a return to (a new) normalcy.

Elite characters in these films, by contrast, are often lampooned and criticized. Obviously, the zombie outbreaks in both films reflect a failure of established order — and the characters in these movies are thus left to construct their own rules and understandings in order to cope with their situations. While Shaun of the Dead relies upon the military to save the lead characters from their situation, the story’s final resolution remains nonetheless focused on the relationships among the ordinary people at the center of the film.

Bill Murray appears as himself in Zombieland , living essentially alone in his mansion and disguising himself as a zombie so that he can have a life outside his dwelling. He plays golf, an elite sport, thanks to his zombie disguise. This way of life proves unsustainable.

Comedic zombie films, despite Drezner’s take (rom zom com?), offer a meaningful pathway to discuss critical theory in IR.

ISA: Renewing my call for comedy

I’m just back from the 2010 ISA conference in NOLA, but I don’t have time for a full convention report right now. Among the highlights: First, I attended a panel on blogging featuring the Duck’s Charli Carpenter on a stage with Dan Drezner, Rob Farley and Steve Walt, among others. Later, over drinks, I got to meet a few of the newest Duck bloggers.

These events motivated me to blog more frequently. We’ll see, eh?

In any case, in addition to networking, a major purpose of ISA is for scholars to exchange ideas in a somewhat formal setting. Ideally, panel members present their latest research and then receive useful feedback from other academics. Since I wouldn’t mind getting more feedback on my latest projects, I’m using the rest of this post to highlight my two ISA papers. Sorry for the shameless self promotion — but I’m in a bit of a panic as I saw something at the conference that made me think that I should work faster.

Loyal readers may recall my 2007 ISA paper and related Duck post on “The Comedy of Great Power Politics.” At this ISA, I presented two papers related to my ongoing “comedy project.”

One was fairly directly on point: “Teaching Global Politics Through Film: The Role of Comedy.” Here’s the abstract:

Popular films can be employed very effectively to teach international relations theory. Indeed, film creates learning opportunities that are not readily available in more typical formats. As a mass medium, film provides potent access to viewers’ imaginations, even as it serves as a unique alternative text and mode of learning within the classroom. The paper first reviews the traditional realist concern with tragedy to cement the importance of dramatic narratives in the field and to stress the contours and limits of the typical story. The second section develops the case for studying comedy in world politics, emphasizing the importance of the concerns of ordinary people and highlighting the critical value of farce and satire. This section brief discusses the storylines or other cinematic elements of several specific films that illustrate each of these comedic forms.

I’m pretty sure that anyone can download the pdf, but let me know if you have difficulty and I’ll email it. The paper borrows a bit from my Duck series of posts on my film class, mixes in a bit of my 2007 paper, and provides something of a critique of IR theory and the way it is ordinarily taught.

My other paper (“Is Nuclear Deterrence as Dead as the Dodo?”) views nuclear deterrence as a long-established norm that is currently in the midst of an increasingly heated “norm contest.” For decades, some scholars have argued that deterrence is irrational, illogical, or contradictory, but a few have gone even further — arguing that the inconsistencies reveal nuclear strategy to be absurd, fantastic, ridiculous and far-fetched. You know, “not a tragedy but a ghastly farce.”

Since at least the early 1980s, many prominent political figures and former military leaders have taken up these points as well–calling often for nuclear disarmament based on the framing developed by the academics. When I teach Global Politics Through Film, I assign my students a speech by former SAC Commander General Lee Butler, who offered one of the strongest statements against nuclear deterrence in 1998 (perhaps poorly timed in a year of Indian and Pakistani proliferation). Butler noted SAC planning that “defied reason” and reflected “complete absurdity.”

My primary concern in the paper is whether the growing recognition of the contradictions, irrationalities, and even absurdities of nuclear deterrence might usher in the strategy’s demise—and potentially create the conditions for, and/or provide the impetus to, a world free of nuclear weapons. Critical theorists often argue that serious contradictions between public justification and policy action are logically unsustainable and suggest an opening for alternative, perhaps emancipatory, possibilities. Of course, it is possible that the death of deterrence might merely assure the life of preventive war and counterproliferation strategies like the “Bush Doctrine.” The paper looks at that too.

Before ISA, I posted the full abstract and link to the paper on my personal blog. Again: I’m trolling for feedback, so please let me know if you need an emailed copy.

Joking cousins

The most recent Utne Reader includes a short piece from Katie Krueger about the practice of “joking cousins” in Senegal:

This means that whenever we meet, as a sign of friendliness, we insult each other without hesitation. Every ethnic group in Senegal has at least one or two joking cousin groups, so meeting one is rare enough to be a delight but common enough that it is protocol.

Professor Brett O’Bannon of DePauw University (a former graduate student of mine) has written an academic paper arguing that such “joking relationships” are threatened by the forces of globalization. Yet, he notes, these localized relationships ordinarily play important roles in maintaining peaceful order in some societies.

In a short blurb describing his academic work, O’Bannon explains that the “joking relationship”

“binds families, clans or even whole ethnic groups into ties of imagined kinship. For example, when two people of the Ndiaye and Diop families (quite common family names in the Senegambia) meet, they are required to ‘dis’ each other. That is, they insult each others’ family heritage, eating habits, you name it. It’s pretty funny stuff, actually. The important thing is that they are not only required to engage in these insulting exchanges, but they are equally obligated not to take offense.”

“For one, these fictive relationships have been known to bring an end to quite serious conflicts. I document an instance in which a rebel group in southern Senegal actually released a carload of hostages because the driver successfully pleaded for their lives in the name of the Serer-Diola joking relationship. The Serer and Diola are two ethnic groups bound by a mutual pact of non-aggression, so to speak. The rebels in question are mainly from the Diola group and the terms of their joking relationship prohibit the spilling of the other’s blood. The potential for these kinds of indigenous institutions of self governance is significant.”

Apparently, the practice is fairly common throughout Africa — though O’Bannon’s field work (like Krueger‘s travel) has been based in Senegal.

In the Occasional Paper, O’Bannon views joking relationships as “quintessential indigenous governance institutions,” particularly important because rural Senegal faces conditions consistent with state collapse. Farmers and herders, for example, find themselves increasingly in conflict over natural resources. O’Bannon explains that neoliberal economic policies have wrought changes in rural Senegal that impose barriers between herders and ranchers that did not previously exist — individual property rights claims, for instance, which limit access to land. In his words, “the ties between these putative cousins are fraying.”

I find this practice an interesting supplement to my ongoing work on the comedy of global politics. In Medieval and other historical contexts, the court jester was similarly allowed to make jokes at the expense of the king — without fear of retribution. I see these as important elements in critical IR theory.

Note: the Krueger story originally appeared at World Hum.

I also fixed the typo in the title. Blogger doesn’t seem to identify spelling errors in the title.

Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Formidable Opponent – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Stephen Colbert in Iraq

This week the Colbert Report is broadcasting from Camp Victory, Iraq as part of a USO tour. Sporting a suit made of cammo, a regulation haircut, and swinging a golf-club Bob Hope style, he has been entertaining the troops, reminding people that there is still a war in Iraq, and offering some rather brilliant and bold meta-satire of the entire operation.

If you haven’t been watching, you really need to. Right now.

Last night he did what I thought was an exceptionally bold and brilliant sketch–a Formidable Opponent (Stephen debating himself) on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Had this bit appeared as a regular segment on the show it would have been funny but unremarkable. Performed live, in front of an audience of hundreds of active-duty military members, at Camp Victory, in Iraq, its genius. Much has been said about DADT, from polling data showing support for its repeal to the role of his new Army Secretary in building support for repealing the policy. By mocking the policy in front of troops–and not just any troops, but those in a very active combat zone–to legitimate applause, he ridicules the policy to the point of rendering it a farce. From Iraq, the arguments that seem so self-important inside the beltway sound so hollow when forced to occupy center stage in front of military personnel who go in harm’s way each and every day.

The entire enterprise is quite brilliant so far. Its quite the feat. He must respect, entertain, and build morale for the troops he’s visiting. He must be funny and produce a show for air that night. And, he is doing all that while still offering a fantastic meta-critique on Iraq policy. That’s hard to pull off in front of a live (and armed) studio audience. Not to mention the cameo’s he’s been able to secure. President Obama ordering General Odierno to give Colbert a haircut. Greetings from John McCain, Bill Clinton, George Bush (the older).

Really, watch both episodes– Monday and Tuesday.

When Mavericks Go Rogue

This, SNL’s cold-open with John McCain from this past Saturday, was quite funny. As I mentioned earlier, SNL has done a really good job pointing out the fundamental flaw in the McCain campaign

Its not just that McCain is so tied to Bush, or that he’s a true Maverick–a Republican without money–but that he’s allowed himself to become such an object of satire, so open to ridicule. All of the punch-lines in that sketch are points that McCain has emphasized on his campaign. Indeed, at one point or another, things he’s put as the centerpiece of his message, substituting for substance. And, in every case, the more we learn about each of McCain’s gimmicks–from Sarah Palin to Joe the Plumber–the less appealing they become. When sold on QVC, they seem vacuous and empty and invite the comedy that SNL has been able to produce. At this point, McCain seems to be playing a caricature of himself, and all it took was him on SNL to break the way between farce and reality, merging the two in something looks like a Frank Rich column.

Obama, by contrast, is much more difficult to mock in satire–in part because he’s solid, solid as Barack. In displaying a calm, cool, and collected demeanor, he has seemed less energetic at times, but has also not provided the openings for satire, the point where a small exaggeration, a small quirk, a known penchant, can be turned into a devastating critique. I’m sure, in time, someone will figure out how to do Obama in comedy, but it is telling that in the nearly 2 years of this campaign so far, no one has produced a cutting, insightful, and funny send-up of Obama.

One only hopes that a pending Obama Administration would be as productive as a Gore administration might have been…

John Stewart provides a constructivist analysis of Bush Administration policies

“With this administration, if a passenger blows up a plane, it’s a failure in the war on terror. But if the plane just blows up on its own — eh, it’s the market self-regulating.”

Click here to stream the full bit.

I watched this on my DVR and thought, gee, I ought to post it. But Kevin Drum beat me too it, hat tip to him.

Mearsheimer on Colbert

Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago is on “The Colbert Report” right now. Check out the video here.

As you might expect, the scholar is promoting his latest book on the Israeli lobby. Perhaps you remember the earlier article.

Why Colbert?

Maybe Mearsheimer, in his critical theory mode, buys into the comedy of great power politics?

Film class — week 11

Film #11 “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Lee Butler, “The Risks of Nuclear Deterrence: From Superpowers to Rogue Leaders” National Press Club, February 2, 1998.

Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006.

“Dr. Strangelove” is one of my all-time favorite films and its powerful 40-year old critique of American nuclear deterrence strategy continues to resonate today — even though the cold war is over and contemporary nuclear delivery technologies are much more accurate and deadly.

In the 1998 speech noted above, retired Air Force General Lee Butler — who served as commander-in-chief of the Strategic Air Command — argues that the comical and absurd premises of “Dr. Strangelove” were all too real throughout the cold war:

I was present at the creation of many of these systems, directly responsible for prescribing and justifying the requirements and technology that made them possible. I saw the arms race from the inside, watched as intercontinental ballistic missiles ushered in mutual assured destruction and multiple warhead missiles introduced genuine fear of a nuclear first strike. I participated in the elaboration of basing schemes that bordered on the comical and force levels that in retrospect defied reason. I was responsible for war plans with over 12,000 targets, many struck with repeated nuclear blows, some to the point of complete absurdity.

Butler adds that American nuclear retaliation against post-cold war threats is “inconceivable;” deterrence itself “serves the ends of evil.”

Given the “stakes of miscalculation” or “of crisis spun out of control,” some of which are emphasized in the film classic, Butler arrived at “a set of deeply unsettling judgements” about nuclear deterrence:

That from the earliest days of the nuclear era, the risks and consequences of nuclear war have never been properly weighed by those who brandished it. That the stakes of nuclear war engage not just the survival of the antagonists, but the fate of mankind. That the likely consequences of nuclear war have no politically, militarily or morally acceptable justification. And therefore, that the threat to use nuclear weapons is indefensible.

Butler’s call for a “reasoned path toward abolition” of nuclear weapons was affirmed by 60 retired generals and admirals, as well as more than 100 current and former heads of state and other senior civilian leaders. See the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons for a report in defense of this conclusion.

Lieber and Press make an argument about nuclear strategy that has been discussed previously here at the Duck of Minerva. Essentially, these scholars warn that the American force posture has nearly achieved nuclear primacy against both Russia and China, which is political science jargon that means a viable first-strike capability.

In the film, of course, General Buck Turgidson makes an argument for launching an “all out and coordinated” nuclear attack against the Soviet Union in the midst of the crisis featured in the film. He considers 20 million dead Americans, killed in response to this action, “modest and acceptable civilian casualties.”

Lieber and Press note that the original US nuclear primacy ended about the time “Dr. Strangelove” was made. But because of American techological advancements as well as deterioration in Russian capability, the US may now be able to “think the unthinkable” again.

In “Dr. Strangelove” and in Butler’s account of the cold war, the risk of any nuclear war is doomsday. Lieber and Press worry that American nuclear primacy might invite “crisis instability,” which means that Russian and Chinese leaders might be forced to use their limited nuclear arsenals in any crisis situation. It would be a case of “use ’em or lose ’em,” as was often discussed during the cold war.

A relatively small nuclear strike launched by Russia or China might not invite the doomsday scenario of mutual suicide feared (and perversely, revered) during the cold war, but it would trigger an unprecedented catastrophe.

Filed as:

Film class — week 10

Film #10 “Wag the Dog” (1997). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Jane Kellett Cramer, “‘Just Cause’ or Just Politics? U.S. Panama Invasion and Standardizing Qualitative Tests for Diversionary War,” 32 Armed Forces & Society, Spring 2006, pp. 178-201.

The students and I are in the midst of watching a number of comedies about global politics in order to consider various critical perspectives. After all, among other virtues, comedies amplify the ridiculous and help one identify hypocrisy.

The biting satirical film “Wag the Dog” was made in 1997, but it resonated powerfully throughout the political year 1998. In January of that latter year, the Drudge Report broke the Monica Lewinsky story — though President Bill Clinton quite famously and publicly denied the nature of the relationship. In late July, the former White House intern testified to Ken Starr’s Grand Jury under immunity. On August 17, President Bill Clinton went before that same panel to give his side of the story. Clinton gave a speech later that night admitting publicly that he had had an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky.

On August 20, American cruise missiles struck in Afghanistan and Sudan.

By December, impeachment proceedings against Clinton were well under way in the House of Representatives. The impeachment votes were held on December 19.

From December 16 to 19, the US conducted a major air bombardment campaign against Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) because Saddam Hussein was failing to comply with UN Security Council resolutions concerning weapons inspections.

Clinton critics charged that both these uses of force were diversionary. However, the scholar Ryan Hendrickson has developed four propositions for identifying diversionary wars and concludes that these two 1998 cases failed to meet the tests.

After all, missing from the above chronology are a couple of important facts from August. On the 7th, al Qaeda terrorists bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing over 250 people and wounding thousands. The armed US response came less than two weeks later.

Also that month, Iraq terminated its cooperation with UN weapons inspections. The Republican-controlled Congress later passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which Clinton signed on October 31. In November, under US and British pressure, Hussein allowed weapons inspectors to return, but continued to play cat-and-mouse games with them — perhaps to give Iran the false impression that he had weapons of mass destruction. In any case, Clinton had briefed leaders of Congress about the possibility of armed response three weeks prior to the attacks — and publicly declared that the US needed to strike before Ramadan.

These events did not merely provide Clinton with a good cover story; rather, they suggest that he was using force in response to the international context.

Cramer, in contrast, concludes that George H.W. Bush did undertake a diversionary war against Panama in 1989. As I’ve previously noted, Bush the elder certainly used that odd occasion to declare an end to the “Vietnam syndrome.”

During class, the students and I discussed Hendrickson’s proposition’s (as modified by Cramer) in the context of the current Iraq war. I had asked them each to investigate at least two of the propositions vis-à-vis the current war. Given the lengthy public debate and buildup to war, it is very difficult to argue that Iraq was was a diversionary war. Plus, political scientists seldom find evidence for diversionary wars. It was easy to find evidence for a couple of the propositions — the diplomacy was seemingly cut short, the use of force seemed premature and there was great international criticism of the war.

Finally, we discussed the well-known “rally ’round the flag” effect and wondered if Presidents might be tempted to use force to build support for an otherwise unpopular political agenda — or perhaps as a means to consolidate political power. These may seem like scenarios from 1984, but sometimes it seems as if these are Orwellian times.

Filed as:

Film class — week 9

Film #9 “The Great Dictator” (1940). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: J. Michael Waller, “Ridicule as a weapon,” White Paper No. 7, Institute of World Politics, January 2006.

This is a terrific Charlie Chaplin film, which satirizes Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler — and takes on Mussolini and war as well.

Roger Ebert’s review of the film accurately describes Chaplin’s portrayal of Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania. Chaplin, writes Ebert,

…did not find Hitler at all funny, needless to say, and so although he uses his own comic genius to inspire the movie, the comedy is never neutral. It is jugular, as he creates a Hynkel who is a vain, strutting buffoon, given to egomaniacal rages and ridiculous posturing. Charlie never for a moment allows us to laugh with Hynkel, but only at him, and Hynkel thus becomes the only totally unsympathetic character Chaplin has ever played.

Waller’s short paper about ridicule is interesting and the class talked about the broad use of ridicule to reduce the authority of powerful figures — even those who are not dictators. Ridicule, in other words, is a potentially effective means by which to challenge the legitimacy of those who employ power for dubious purposes. It can serve as a non-violent weapon of the weak!

Chaplin also plays
a Jewish barber, who is not named, and much of the film chronicles this character’s life. He fought in World War I, spent many years in an institution because of an head injury sustained in the war, and returned to his shop just in time to suffer persecution from Hynkel’s stormtroopers.

Indeed, Hynkel’s dictatorship makes life quite miserable for the barber and his neighbors and the barber ends up in a concentration camp after exhibiting some willingness to resist the persecution. Many of his neighbors fled to a neighboring country (later invaded by Tomania). Note: the film was made before the Nazis created the death camps and pursued “the final solution” against the Jews.

Late in the film, an unlikely series of events causes Hynkel’s followers to believe that the barber is the dictator. This affords Chaplin an opportunity to give a 6 minute speech — as himself, really.

As I wrote last week, the class is viewing a number of comedies in order to think about meaningful critiques of world politics. Dictators and fascists make for easy targets, of course, but this film also takes on the folly (and fog) of war and contrasts the political machinations occuring in the great hall to the day-to-day life of the ordinary people (who cut hair, wash laundry, etc.)

I highly recommend the film to anyone who has not viewed it and think that it makes a nice introduction to thinking about the comedy of global politics.

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Film class — week 8

Last Monday and Tuesday my university had a brief fall break, so I asked students to view on-line the video of Stephen Colbert’s monologue from the 2006 annual White House Correspondents Association dinner. It is just over 20 minutes long and is widely available on the internet.

I figured they could do that on their own time since we had only 1 hour for class discussion this week.

Reading for Thursday: “Transcript of Stephen Colbert’s monologue at the White House Correspondents Dinner,” April 29, 2006.

Additionally, I asked students to do a little research about the historical role of the “court jester,” particularly in the Medieval court.

Earlier this term, the class viewed a number of violent war films with plotlines that featured tragic choices and outcomes. Classmembers also read a book review of recent realist books by John Mearsheimer and Richard Ned Lebow who argue separately, and with quite different logics, that realists have a tragic vision of international politics. Dramatic tragedy, by the way, is virtually always set in the Great Hall or on the battlefield — and concludes unhappily after the protagonist makes a fateful choice.

Obviously, a look at the syllabus reveals that the semester is about to take a “comedic turn.” I should probably note that my scholarship is likewise taking this turn.

Why explore a serious –often deadly serious — topic like global politics through the lens of comedy?

In the coming weeks, the class will view a number of classic black comedies that take on military dictators, war, nuclear deterrence, and global corporations (including media). These films employ satire, parody, irony and sometimes farce to criticize the use or threatened use of violence — and other common elements of global politics.

As I’ve written before, my scholarship often embraces critical theory, and comedy affords the opportunity to critique global politics.

A critical international theory is explicitly committed to the agency of human action, emancipation from constraints on human freedom generated by practices of economic and political exclusion, and the questioning of imposed boundaries of political community.

Critical theorists are primarily interested in human security, as opposed, say, to state security, and employ immanent critique in order to identify potential points of political transformation. Like court jesters, critical theorists identify and explore the implications of hypocrisy — typically as employed by the powerful.

In terms of human agency and security, the film class will view several features that address nonviolent means of solving conflicts, human rights, and gender equity. Technically, these films are comedies in the classic sense of dramatic narrative because they focus on common concerns of ordinary people. Also, these films have happy endings.

I realize this is a brief overview, but we’ve gone as far as I want to go in this short blog post — and as far as the class went on Thursday. I’ll have more to say as I discuss the films in the next 7 weeks. Oh, and I will have much more to say when I ultimately finish my ISA paper.

Eventually, Nayef Samhat and I intend to turn this into our second coauthored book. The Comedy of Global Politics will hopefully make the case for a “comedic turn” and help make critical theory accessible to a wide range of IR students and scholars.

If anyone reading this is an IR acquisitions editor and is potentially interested in this project, please feel free to drop me a line.

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