Tag: pop culture (page 1 of 2)

Torture as War Victory: 'Zero Dark Thirty' and the torture reports

This post is the first of our ‘Throwback Thursday” series, where we re-publish an earlier post on a topic that is currently in the news, or is receiving renewed attention or debate. This original post was published February 23rd 2013 (right before the Oscars) but the main arguments about the utility and rational behind torture expressed in the movie may be worth revisiting given the recent release of the CIA’s ‘torture report.’

“This is what winning looks like”

I have to confess, I was late to watch “Zero Dark Thirty” (ODT). I read a handful of reviews and blogs about the movie, had arguments with friends about its message, and even wrote it off completely–all weeks before I bothered to watch it. I wasn’t interested in watching another American war movie, nor was I keen to see the lengthy torture scenes I had read about in the reviews. I figured I already knew exactly what the content was (are there every any real surprises in American war movies? and, didn’t we all know how this story ended anyway?) and that there was really nothing left to say. BUT, I think there is something left to say about the film.

First, let’s all be honest: most of us walked away from this movie saying to ourselves “did I miss something?” What about the film deserved all the Oscar hype, debate, and acclaim? By most standards, this was a classic, boring American war movie. In this case, the lack of plot and acting skills are made up with using violent torture scenes rather than expensive battle scenes. There is no emotional journey, no big moral dilemma that the characters are going through (I’ll get to torture soon), little plot twist (again, we all know how it ends after all), and no unique or interesting characters (don’t get me started on Jessica Chastain–what exactly about her stone-faced performance warrants an Oscar? perhaps she deserves an award for for ‘most consistent blank expression’). So what gives? Is this just another “King’s Speech”? Meaning, is this just another big movie that people talk about and get behind, but no one actually can put their finger on what was remotely interesting about it (never mind what was destructive about it)?

So I’m calling it. Not only was this movie soul-less, boring and poorly made, everyone seemed to miss the message (and it is easy enough to do). The real question about ODT is not whether or not it is condoning torture. Continue reading

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Friday Nerd Blogging: Preparing for the Future or the Past

I was a fan of X-Men long before I was a fan of Poli Sci.  So, I am eagerly awaiting the chance to see Days of Future Past, which may or may not do kind things to one of the very best X-tales. +

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Friday Nerd Blogging: Make Mine Marvel

This summer may be the most Marvelous yet with Captain America 2, Spider-Man 2, X-Men Days of Future Past (otherwise X-Men First Class 2) and Guardians of the Galaxy.  Sure, not all are by Marvel Studios but all are based on Marvel Characters.

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8 Unanswered Political Questions from the Oscars

I know it has already been a week, but I’m still thinking about the Oscars. Not the fashion (boring!! predictable!!), or the hostess (boring!! predictable!!) or the winners (boring!! predictable!!), or the speeches (ok you get my point)- but rather a short list of questions I still need help with. Answers welcome.

1. Was bell hooks right? Was 12 Years a Slave “sentimental clap-trap” that “negated the female voice?” What were the politics of white washing, white guilt, and white erasure at the awards?

2. How the hell did Joaquin Phoenix NOT get nominated for ‘Her’ and how DID Leonardo DiCaprio get nominated for ‘WOWS’? Does this tell us anything about hegemonic masculinity….or more about pity for Leo?

3. Why were so many of the best pic nominations fixated on some distorted nostalgia (about slavery, HIV, they ‘golden era’ of American history/finance) and what does this tell us about our (in)ability to cope with the present?

4. Are strapless peplum dresses and backward necklaces ironic now?

5. If Mathhew Mcconaghey hadn’t lost weight, would we care about his performance? Would he have won the Oscar? As Ted Kerr noted in his excellent post 47 Things I Talk about When I talk about the Dallas Buyers Club, “It is interesting how Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto get rewarded for losing weight, and acting sick, while people living with HIV have to fight to be well, appear well and be recognized. #everydaysurvival” Continue reading

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Friday Nerd Blogging: Textual Analysis Edition

Everything is awesome!  But I do wonder if the song from the Lego movie (see below) is not just a secret appeal to irredentism:

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The Pop 5: feminism at a pop culture glance


The Pop 5 is a new ‘test’ series of posts touching on events in pop culture and linking them back (briefly, hopefully, and sometimes loosely) to IR and politics. The posts are meant to be LIGHT, but also to take seriously the influence of popular culture on how we understand the world. It is, after all, one of the dominant lenses through which our students frame IR. I’m a self diagnosed pop culture addict with a list of shameful (and juicy) fixes (one of my most shameful pop culture habits will be revealed later in the post).
The focus today is on five recent pop culture events and what they might/might not tell us about the state of feminism.
Here’s the list of some of the most popular/talked about pop culture recent events related to feminism (let’s hope it was just a bad sample). More about each after the tab.

1. Melissa Harris Perry and bell hooks
2. Miley Cyrus
3. Miss Universe
4. Kaye West
5. Short hair/Bachelor Australia

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Human Rights Treaties Are Like Virginity Pledges

In the category of “pop-culture-not-talked-about-by-normal-Ducks,” People magazine’s cover story last week was on ABC’s The Bachelor, Sean Lowe, and his pledge to remain a virgin re-virgin until his wedding night.  As someone who graduated high school in town of less than 1500 in Kansas, I think this type of pledge is pretty typical: many teens and young adults make a pledge, usually in front of an audience, to avoid sexual conduct until marriage.  And, not surprisingly, most teens do not keep their pledge.[1]  In fact, there are some studies that indicate that these virginity pledges are associated with riskier sexual behavior.

In many regards, the academic literature on UN human rights treaties sees their effectiveness as extremely similar to virginity pledges: in most circumstances, these human rights “pledges” don’t work to improve human rights practices.   In some circumstances, they can actually lead to a worsening of governmental human rights practices.  Why is this? Below, I outline 3 reasons why human rights treaties and virginity pledges don’t work.

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Friday Nerd Blogging: Presidential Edition

Twitter went nuts when President Obama said he could not get the Republicans to do what is right because of his finite powers, that he could not do some sort of Jedi mind-meld!

He mixed his space franchises–Jedis may have Vulcan-like abilities, but the mind meld thing is of Star Trek.  So, this sent twitter on a wonderful spiral for awhile.

Some of the highlights:

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I find your lack of faith…disturbing

Full disclosure: I am incapable of being completely, or even mainly, a detached observer or commentator when discussing either Star Wars or Disney, having grown up largely surrounded by both enterprises in equal measure. Anyone who walks into my office sees, hanging over my computer, two posters: a 50th anniversary Fantasia one-sheet, and an Episode I theatrical teaser poster. And chances are if it’s the first time you’ve come to visit me there, I’ll end up telling you why “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and the saga are the largely same cautionary tale about hubris. And scattered around the rest of my office, a plethora of Star Wars toys and Legos, a number of Disney collectibles…you get the picture. And I have on this blog been accused of being a corporate shill, incapable of saying bad things about the media companies that own the copyrights to the raw cultural materials out of which we craft the meanings of our lives.

All that by way of saying that today’s announcement that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion and is planning a new Star Wars film for 2015 (Episode VII, reportedly, and expect massive argument within Geekdom At Large about just what that means right up until opening day, which for the sake of tradition better be late May 2015) produced the following reactions from me in this order:

1) speechlessness.

2) [a few minutes of frenzied Internet fact-checking to make sure that this was not a massive hoax]

3) you know, this could work.

4) OMG a new Star Wars film! In only three short years!!

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Premature Friday Nerd Blogging

 Too good to wait (spoilers for Dark Knight Rises):

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Is Feminism Back in Vogue?

SURVEY: Ladies: Do you like having the option of wearing pants, do you enjoy taking time off after giving birth and do you like that people don’t freak out if you have to breast feed in public, is voting something you’re glad you can do- what about getting a university education, short hair, tampons, female doctors, bras that don’t torture, or working in fields like engineering?

Gentlemen: Is it nice to know that the women you may date will likely have an education, opinions, and that if you choose to get married you’re not going to be expected to be the sole family earner? Do you like not getting belittled for wanting to take on an active parenting role? 

Ladies and Gentlemen: Do you like the fact that premarital sex was an option, that birth control meant that your first experience of pre-marital sex didn’t make you a parent? Isn’t it nice that rape (against men and women) within and outside of marriage is a crime?

If you answered yes to any of these (of course there are many more non-heteronormative possibilities), you might be a feminist. Gasp!
According to some, feminism died in the early 1980s. You know, when we achieved equality…

Even fashion weirdo public intellectual? Donatella Versace declared that “feminism is dead in the world, it comes from another era.” She should know, she basically replaced her face over the last few years and works for an industry that established a 12 year old boy body as the norm for women. Similarly, a year ago, French blogger Leona Lo announced that French Feminism was dead in light of the apathetic (and even sympathetic) reaction of women to the DSK affair.

But Donatella and French women might just be behind the times- after years (maybe even decades) of feminists having a tough time attracting new recruits, we may be experiencing a feminist renaissance of sorts.

I’m pinpointing the shift to international media frenzy caused by law student Sandra Fluke’s testimony regarding birth control and health care in the US. Women and men rallied behind her message, Rush Limaugh was professionally castrated (temporarily) for his sexist remarks towards Fluke, and an widespread debate under the heading of ‘the war on women‘ ensued.

Meanwhile, there have been several social media trends indicating that feminism is shedding its bra burning, man-hatting, plaid shirt stigmas:

  1. Feminist Ryan Gosling has become almost iconic (and new Ryan Gosling memes still show up across the waves regularly). This phenomena isn’t simple trite eye-candy, it helps displace old ideas of feminism as uptight, boring, unsexy, and female-only.
  2. The huge success of Catilin Moran’s book How to Be a Woman, and her ability to reach a new demographic with her humor and common sense. Her claim “Congratulations You’re a Feminist” in a New York Times interview has become somewhat of a rally cry for the new feminist resurgence. When asked how she responds to young women who are skeptical of the feminism title she responded: “What? You don’t want to vote? Do you want to be owned by your husband? Do you want your money from your job to go into his bank account? If you were raped, do you still want that to be a crime? Congratulations: you are a feminist.”
  3. The influx in blogs and websites re-defining feminism as modern, empowering, and an obvious title for women AND men. Jennifer Hansen gave a (somewhat problematic) list of “6 Reasons You Should Want to Date a Feminist” for any men who might be afraid to date a woman who likes equality. A recent Jezebel post entitled “What No one Else Will Tell You About Feminism” basically comes to one conclusion: you are a feminist, so get over it.

Hopefully feminism will stop being treated like high waisted pants — in one week and out when linked to Jessica Simpson. We all need to remember that we live out feminist politics and we enjoy the fruits of feminist movements’ labor every day- regardless of whether we feel too wimpy to accept the title.

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IR Course Uncovers the Romantic Comedy Foruma

My students and I have unlocked the key to writing a blockbuster romantic comedy script. When lecturing on masculinities in my Gender and Human Rights course I gave students the following challenge: think of an stereotypical, ideal-type character that symbolizes one form of hegemonic masculinity. Remembering that hegemonic masculinities are fluid ideal types that vary across history and context,  students came up with answers like “the macho rugby player,” “the workaholic CEO,” “the playboy” and “the quiet, rugged cowboy.” After getting them to list the qualities that define these masculine types, I asked them to imagine a scenario or event that would completely challenge, undermine, or seemingly contradict these masculine identities and to talk about how their immediate community and society might react. Well, the answers produced almost every romantic comedy script you can imagine.
Here are a few examples:
Scenario 1: Rugby player decides to be a stay at home dad
Result: fans and teammates are shocked, hilarity ensues. I think there is an entire sub-category of comedies dedicated to macho men trying to raise babies: “Three Men and a Baby,” “Kindergarten Cop,” Vin Deisel’s “The Babysitter”
Scenario 2: star athlete reveals a secret love of ballet/opera etc, or, more specifically, hockey player reveals a secret love of figure skating
Result: his mates initially ostracize him but end up being impressed with is skills. This is loosely the real plot line of “The Cutting Edge”, a cheesy 90s romantic comedy.
Scenario 3: playboy falls in love
Result: “Crazy, Stupid Love”and a million other romantic comedies premised on the macho main character ‘softening’ as his goofy sidekick ‘hardens’ up- the result is that both find true love.
Scenario 4: Rugged cowboy comes out of the closet
Result: you see where I’m going here.

So what’s the take home message? Romantic comedies could not exist without very specific and stereotypical ideas about masculinity (and femininity). We tend to over-examine the representation of women in popular culture (for good reason) but are less apt at looking at how the construction and unraveling of masculinity is key to almost any Rom Com script. Never mind the fact that there is almost always a great example of complicit masculinity- those characters that do not fit the stereotype of hegemonic masculinity but who benefit from the power structures associated with the identity. Think “Pretty Woman”, where a hardened CEO softens under the spell of employee while his jerk of a partner grapples with the situation. Go on, think of your favorite Rom Coms and spot the hegemonic masculinity/complicit masculinity at play. Have fun.

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Baseball and American Foreign Policy

Not long ago, Robert Elias, a Professor of Politics at University of San Francisco (and editor of Peace Review), published The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy & Promoted the American Way Abroad (The New Press, 2010). Unfortunately, I have not yet had a chance to obtain a copy of the book — or read it. However, thanks to my SABR membership, I learned this week of his related article “Baseball and American Foreign Policy,” which came out in Transatlantica in 2011 (but was just published on-line this month).

As both a baseball fan and an academic who has taught a course on “Globalization (And Baseball),” I am certainly interested in the thesis Elias develops:

In America’s efforts to expand its frontiers, it soon looked overseas. Baseball was enlisted in America’s imperial quests and it helped colonize other lands, from the Caribbean to Asia to the Pacific. The game was regularly part of U.S. “civilizing missions” launched abroad, either militarily or economically, and sometimes bolstered by the forces of “muscular Christianity.” Baseball was used to sell and export the American way. It took its place in the globalization of the world, even if Americanization was more so the objective. In America’s foreign diplomacy, baseball was often regarded as the nation’s “moral equivalent of war.” And at home, baseball was used to promote patriotism and nationalism.

In the article, for example, Elias reviews the role baseball has played in America’s various wars and military interventions. Generally, in fact, Elias argues that baseball has long “promoted nationalism and patriotism, and closely associated itself with American militarism.”
Specifically, he argues that organized baseball played an important role in overcoming the Vietnam syndrome by helping to promote jingoism during the first Persian Gulf War. This fall 2001 video may help explain the author’s point in the context of September 11:

Elias claims that Bush “later reported the pitch as the highlight of his presidency.” In the text, of course, Elias makes a much richer argument about the interplay between baseball and post-9/11 America:

After the terrorist attacks, [Baseball Commissioner Bud] Selig ordered all baseball games postponed. Yet he also invoked [Franklin] Roosevelt’s “green light” for baseball, claiming the sport was too central to the national fabric to stop the games completely. Instead, MLB embraced the flag and led the call to “support the troops.” Having the games soon proceed indicated, symbolically, that America was functioning and would be fighting back…

Virtually every major league ballpark was awash with patriotic gestures. Moments of silence were religiously observed, and patriotic music punctuated games. Fields and stands were blanketed with red, white and blue. Silent auctions were held and benefit games were played for the Red Cross. Players wore caps honoring New York’s police, firefighters and emergency crews, and visited shelters and fire houses. Fans held candles, prayed and sang, and chanted “USA! USA!” Yankee Stadium held a memorial service, Mets players raised money for the Twin Towers Relief Fund, and Diamondback players visited “ground zero.” The terrorist attacks immediately politicized baseball. President Bush “used baseball as a major patriotic statement” at the World Series and elsewhere. Maverick Media, the President’s image maker, later repackaged footage from Bush’s baseball appearances, playing them repeatedly during his reelection campaign.

Much of the rest of the article discusses the role baseball played in other dimensions of American foreign policy — espionage, diplomacy, globalization, etc. He also devotes some attention to the way baseball has dealt with dissent.

Référence électronique
Robert Elias, « Baseball and American Foreign Policy », Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 10 juin 2012, Consulté le 16 juin 2012. URL : https://transatlantica.revues.org/5478.

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SHIELD and the US: How Realistic Is the Avengers Movie?

I guess I should not be surprised at this news that the Pentagon did not cooperate with Marvel Studios to make The Avengers movie (h/t to Jacob Levy for pointing this piece out to me).  After all, immediately after seeing the movie, I enumerated the many principal-agent problems illustrated in the movie, and the military abhors P-A problems.  It turns out that the Pentagon found unrealistic not the part about the Norse Gods, the large green rage-machine (best depiction yet by Ruffalo and Whedon), nor the un-icing of a Super-soldier.  Nope, the unrealistic part was:

We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it,” Phil Strub, the Defense Department’s Hollywood liaison, tells Danger Room. “To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything” with the film.

Luckily, I have been training for years to answer precisely this question.  Well, I have been working on a book project on NATO and Afghanistan with David Auerswald that contains the seeds of an answer to this challenge.  See below the break where there might be spoilers:


Let’s start with today’s reality and then extrapolate to a world with SHIELD [Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division].  The US and other countries are quite accustomed to working with international organizations.  There are two basic processes that can potentially be in play here since the military operation ends up on US soil.

The first is a status of forces agreement [SOFA].  The US, when it wants to work in another country, negotiates an agreement that specify the conditions of its presence–can the US forces use force?  Under what conditions?  Are they immune from prosecution?*  The US signed a SOFA with Iraq that ultimately led to the American withdrawal but also established the conditions for the American presence in Iraq before that happened.  The recent US agreement with Afghanistan may not officially be a SOFA (I am not a legal expert) but seems to approximate one or is the basis to negotiate one–what will the US (and NATO) role be in Afghanistan post-ISAF.

 *In the last month or two in my year in the Pentagon in 2002, one of the tasks we were assigned on the Joint Staff was to get exceptions from International Criminal Court prosecution written into the mandates of the various missions in which the US was participating, including SFOR in Bosnia (my desk). 

So, in a hypothetical reality with SHIELD, one can imagine that the US has signed an agreement that allows SHIELD to operate in and over the US under various rules.  Now, one of them may actually be that SHIELD can nuke an American city if the stakes are high enough (this is where the “realism” does fail but we had to have a moment where Tony Stark plays the Kobiyashi Maru test since Captain America raised that scenario earlier in the movie).

The second process is a transfer of authority.  See the NATO jargon:

Transfer of authority of forces is the formal transfer of a specified degree of authority over designated forces both between nations and NATO Commanders, and between any two NATO Commanders.

This is really what the Pentagon means by “our place in it.”  In NATO and in other multilateral endeavors, countries transfer operational control (but not complete authority) of a unit to the commanders of the multilateral endeavor.  Countries will maintain influence over how that unit is operated, however, via a variety of means that are the subject of the aforementioned book project.  Among these means are surprise and fear the careful selection of senior leadership for the units being transferred, limits on what the units can and cannot do (caveats! more below), the requirement to call home for permission, the enabling of one’s personnel to invoke red cards which means they can say no to a command, oversight, and incentives (such as promotion or demotion) for the officers running the operation.

This transfer of authority process happens all the time and is not new at all and not new to the US.  However, one of the traditional American caveats when it participates in a multilateral endeavor is to insist that the top of the chain of command is an American.  So, Commander of ISAF is an American–General John Allen, who replaced General Petraeus, who replaced General McChrystal who replaced General McKiernan who replaced General McNeill who replaced General Richards.  Ah, but Richards was/is a Brit and his predecessors were Italians, Canadians, Germans and Turks.  The fudge that the US used prior to to McNeil was that COMISAF was a Brit but the commander of all NATO forces–SACEUR was/is always an American.  Similarly, in Kosovo, COMKFOR has never been an American (unlike COMSFOR in Bosnia), so Americans in Kosovo operated under an American general in the American sector but under a non-American general running ISAF.

So, again in alt reality with SHIELD, one could easily imagine an international organization dedicated to unconventional threats (aliens, superpowered folks, whatever) would have worked out agreements where countries would put their troops under SHIELD command.  Countries would still retain some control over these troops via caveats (Americans will not launch nukes on American territory), red cards (any American commander might refuse to obey an order to nuke an American city as an illegal or unwise command or at least call to his or her national command authority NORTHCOM-> SecDef-> President for permission), and so on.

Of course, another way to influence an international organization, as mentioned above, is to make sure that you have a countryman/woman in charge of the organization.  Nick Fury in the comic books and in the movie is very clearly an American.  His deputy, Maria Hill, is also clearly an American (and not Ted’s kids’s mother).  Having two hats, as an American officer and as a SHIELD officer, Fury would then be less likely to follow policies that would be against American interests, such as nuking Manhattan.  Indeed, this is precisely what happens: Fury defies his multinational chain as he prevents one plane from taking off and assists Iron Man and the Avengers in preventing the missile from hitting Manhattan.

The movie does not make clear what the governing council’s relationship is to the US.  It does seem fairly clear that the US is not just a member but a vocal powerful member, as portrayed by Powers Boothe.  The Council clearly included representatives from Russia, China, and Britain** at the very least, looking quite UN-ish (in the comic book source material, SHIELD was sometimes conceived as a UN organization).  Now, this might make SHIELD appear to be the black helicopter folks that various conspiracy theorists fear today, but that is not the claim the military folks told Wired.

**  The British woman was played by Jenny Agutter of Logan’s Run and American Werewolf in London, which I believe was a Whedon nod to some of the key movies of his childhood, but I might just be projecting.

My extended treatise here really leaves only one question:*** Why did the folks who have the authority in the Pentagon on movie clearances not call or walk over to the folks in the NATO division of the Joint Staff to ponder how operations with international organizations work. It is a big building but still coordination among different pieces of the Pentagon is what the folks in the building do every day.

*** We had to add a Libya chapter to our book on NATO and Afghanistan.  I don’t think my co-author will let me add an Avengers paragraph to our conclusion.  

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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.

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Pop Cuture Meets Social Science: Beautiful Marriage

 Check out this post where Brett Keller uses sophisticated social science statistical methods to ascertain how badly fixed the Hunger Games depicted in the novel/movie are. 

All I can say is that we live in a wonderful time where folks can radically over-think some pop culture and then disseminate widely and quickly via Al Gore’s internet.  Indeed, all Alan Sepinwall has to do is ask the internet, and it provides him with the rules for True American must mere hours after the game was presented on New Girl.

Anyhow, back to the Hunger Games analysis–I am now beginning to regret not teaching Intro to IR next fall, as we now have a great example of a collective action problem: why doesn’t every kid in a Panem district ask for the max amount of tessera?  If every kid does this, their odds of being entered into the games does not change….

Read the piece–it is chock full of nerdy goodness.

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Seoul 2012 Nuclear Security Summit


This week is the big nuclear security summit in Seoul, with something like 60 attending countries and over 40 heads of state or government. A friend from a Korean expat magazine here in town asked me for a brief write-up. Here are the issues as I see them from Korean IR and the local media. For full-blown think-tankery on the summit, try here.

1. Obama’s personal commitment to de-nuclearization: I can’t think of any president since Reagan who seems as personally offended by nuclear weapons as Obama. Back in the day, Reagan watched ‘The Day After,’ ‘Wargames’ and other nuclear war movies and came to dramatically oppose mutually assured destruction as it had underpinned US policy since flexible response. This helped Reagan achieve the first nuclear stockpile  reduction in history (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – a point anti-New Start neocons conveniently forget). But Obama is going beyond that, talking about ‘global zero’ – the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere. Wow. This is why there have been two of these summits in three years, but nothing like this under Bush. To be honest, I don’t think the complete elimination of the American nuclear deterrent is probably not a good idea (although we can go pretty low); nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of US sovereignty and democracy, and many US allies, like SK, rely on our extended deterrence. In any case, Obama’s personal interest in this issue is a major driver for this thing.

2. NK, always and again: It takes absolutely no imagination to realize that NK is, inevitably, the big focus on these sorts of gatherings. The placement of the summit in SK is to make that pretty clear. NK is easily the most dangerous nuclear-weapons state in the world. (Even Israel’s most dire opponents would probably accept that; well, ok, maybe they wouldn’t.)  Not only is its policy process incredibly opaque and its leadership capricious, NK has no declaratory policy on use (such as NATO’s ‘no first-strike, but reserved first-use’). So we have no idea what NK’s redlines are (which is probably one reason why no further retaliation for Yeonpyeong was approved). Beyond that, NK is a well-established proliferator with known involvement in the programs of Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. To boot, it is a delivery system (i.e., missile) proliferator too. They’re so desperate for cash, it seems like they’ll sell anything. With Kim Jong Il deceased, a new push to move NK toward denuclearization is likely, and this summit is part of the pressure to get NK back into the Six Party Talks to deal for real this time. Similarly, it is likely that the Summit will strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is also aimed primarily at NK. (On the problem of retaliation and the risk of out-of-control escalation in Korea after Yeonpyeong-style incidents, try here; on nuclear first-use in a Korean war scenario, try here.)

3. Heading off a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East: To everyone’s relief, India and (less so) Pakistan are managing their nuclear stockpiles pretty well. There will be little pressure on South Asia. The US interest in nuclear materials safety within Pakistan probably won’t be mentioned publicly, because we so desperately need Pakistani cooperation in the war on terror. Instead, the geographic focus, after NK, is almost certain to be Iran, and possible cascading Sunni nuclearization (Saudi Arabia and Egypt particularly) if Iran weaponizes. As Obama noted at AIPAC, there is a lot of ‘loose talk’ floating around about war with Iran. So this summit will probably be yet another venue for the administration to blunt the Likud-neocon demand for airstrikes. If Obama can get some global commitment, particularly from Asian states like Japan and Korea, for sanctions against Iran, that buys him time to defuse the war he’s partially backed himself into.

4. Materials Security: In the early post-9/11 years, there was a lot of talk at the conferences about the so-called ‘hand-off’ – a rogue state would hand-off a nuke to a Qaeda-style group who would then use it in a western city. This threat thankfully seems to have been overblown, but there’s a lot of nuclear material floating around. About 2,000 tons to be precise. That’s actually pretty terrifying if even just one-third of that were in corrupt, semi-dysfunctional states like Russia, NK, and Pakistan. In fact, I gotta agree with Graham Allison that it’s fairly amazing there’s no been nuclear use since the Cold War’s end, given how much processed plutonium and uranium there is in weak Eurasian states and how big the black market for it is now. Inevitably, the conference will emphasize security at the source. It’s obviously far easier to prevent proliferation than to rein it in once material is out the door. This also means more funding and inspection capabilities (also informally pointed at NK) for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

5. Fukushima and Nuclear Power: This isn’t technically a weaponization issue but a production one. And under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, states have the right to pursue nuclear power for energy (weaponization is a different story). But clearly the catastrophe of last year hangs over all this. In East Asia, it’s gotten, lots of press as you might imagine. Ironically, nuclear power is fairly safe, but the public has taken an especial fear to it. (My guess is that this fear comes from too many scary images in movies and TV and because if nuclear plants do meltdown, the potential catastrophe is enormous and unusually unpredictable because of the fallout). So there will be long-term commitments to find alternative energy sources.

Bonus Silliness: Finally, it wouldn’t be a global conference of consequence in Korea without some cringe-inducing, gratuitously inappropriate K-pop addendum to trivialize it all. Really, who vets this stuff? ‘Enjoy’ that uber-cheese vid above if you can actually make it through to the end. I sure wish the ROKG would stop looking at these sorts of conferences as a marketing gimmick for Korea (don’t miss the daily countdown marker in the top left corner of all Arirang broadcasts now and the relentless advertising blitz) and stay focused on the weighty issues at hand. Just as CNN International blew its credibility by re-cycling Demi Moore (?), complete with drug problems, as a wholly unconvincing ‘anti-slavery campaigner,’ I can think of no better way to drain the gravity of nuclear disarmament than to pointlessly shoehorn in a Korean soap opera actress and boyband with orange hair. Good grief – who thought that would raise the level of discussion? Just a few more rads of gamma rays, boyo, and that hair really will be orange. God save us from Hallyu shallowness…

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog and Busan Haps.

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The Cultural is Political

Recently, Mike Innes tweeted playfully that he feared the Duck had become a “creative writing” blog due to the proliferation of satirical posts about pop cultural topics. This tweet was in response to my refutation of Brian Rathbun’s (also satirical) assertion that nerd / metal-head subcultures in US society are mutually exclusive, a post which also included critiques of the genre-specificity of pop cultural research in IR, commentary on a recent documentary about heavy metal music (itself quite political) and a satirized commentary about the strictures of institutional rules and norms on the identities and research agendas of political science professors.

Admittedly, the post did not deal with any foreign policy issues per se.

Mike’s implication (confirmed in a second tweet) appeared to be that blogging about pop culture, or blogging as pop culture (that is as satire rather than as serious analysis) is not “real” political blogging. However much he may have been teasing, this got me thinking about what we mean as political scientists when we think or write or teach about popular culture as opposed to policy processes, and especially when we produce ‘creative’ products ourselves as political scientists versus what we consider ‘scholarly’ political science outputs. (Because apparently a blog post is ‘scholarly’ if it reflects a certain style of writing or addresses certain themes but is ‘creative’ if it deals with other themes or with similar themes using satire rather than social science jargon.)

In this post, and later this Spring at the International Studies Association Conference, I will argue that culture is politics; and that analyses that blend attention to culture with concern over conventional political and policy issues are particularly appropriate on blogs precisely because they are relatively neglected in the discipline (though, this is changing). However, in thinking through this claim, and in watching the comments thread on Megan’s fantastic gender-violence-fetishism post, I realize that one can mean very different things by “culture is politics.” Taking cultural products seriously, examining the politics by which culture is produced, and creating cultural products ourselves are three different roles political scientists can play as bloggers.

For example, taking culture seriously as a carrier of political values and norms is supremely important to what we do, and has been at least since the “cultural turn” in IR in the late 1980s. Of course by “culture” IR scholars used to mean things like nationalist narratives, religion, or gender norms. Feminist IR scholars have long shown how the stories societies tell themselves and representations they create not only about war and peace but also about more mundane things like sex and soup shape not only society but also foreign policy. And it wasn’t long before the lens was turned toward pop culture as well by the work of Juttes Weldes and others: literature carries these narratives, cartoons and comics do, but so too does TV, film, and music.

(The intersectionalities of creative writing, political action and policy processes these have a politics and a history, often forgotten. Take Dr. Seuss for example: we remember him for his children’s books, which have helped carry American values both throughout our culture and globally, but he got his start drawing political cartoons: World War II in some respects created him as a writer and artist.)

Today, classes on “Film and Politics” are proliferating in political science departments, and with good reason: political scientists are rightly interested not only in how cultural products like films and cartoons represent politics, but also in the causal and constitutive impact of those representations on actual political processes. While there has been less research (that I’m aware of) by political scientists into musical genres and politics, this only suggests a new niche for aspiring political scientists that needs to be filled – like other cultural niches whose political implications have been insufficiently explored, like fashion (but see Cynthia Enloe‘s work on militarism) or food (but see Ansell and Vogel’s work on beef) or sports (but see Tomlinson and Young on national identity and international sports events.)

A second strand of “pop-cultural” analysis here at the Duck (and in the discipline, as a few of the cites above suggest) concerns the politics of cultural industries – rather than analyzing representations in cultural products (like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones) we sometimes analyze, for example, representations in culture-industrial sites (like the Grammys or the Browncoats movement) or we sometimes look at the intersection of the two: how culture-industrial actors sometimes function intentionally as political actors through celebrity diplomacy of different types. In the field of IR, there is more and more literature across methodological divides that deals with these topics – from John Street’s conceptual treatment of ‘celebrity politicians’ to Huliaris and Tzifakis’s case studies on celebrity activism to James Fowler’s elaborate empirical analysis of the Colbert Bump.

But finally there is the manner in which, especially on Fridays, bloggers at the Duck post more light-hearted or creative cultural products of our own loosely related to the topics we study – our version of casual Fridays which manifest at other blogs as pictures of cats, children or squid. Here at the Duck you won’t find squid, but you may find polar bears. Sometimes this is truly “casual” blogging and sometimes we put significant creative effort into playfully blending cultural critique, political analysis and satire. It’s true that it’s sometimes hard to tell where political science leaves off and tomfoolery begins. But then, isn’t the very definition of ‘tom-foolery’ socio-politically constructed? Yes.

Though I don’t often give it much thought, if asked to think about it I guess I’d tend to be a fairly loose constructionist myself on which of these roles most befits political science bloggers any day of the week, but I suppose there is room for disagreement there. What do readers think?

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Whitney Houston, Chris Brown, and Grammy Irony


image taken from Jezebel.com

This Sunday the 2012 Grammy Awards attracted more attention than normal due to the untimely passing of Whitney Houston on the eve of the awards show.
During the Sunday night event, numerous artists dedicated their award to Houston or mentioned her amazing talents and the loss her death will mean to the industry.
Interestingly, running counter to this somber dedication theme of the evening was a notable counter story: the ordained comeback of Chris Brown’s career. Chris Brown was made infamous in 2009 when he was charged with beating his then girlfriend Rihanna. Images of a brutalized Rihanna surfaced across the web and Brown’s skyrocketing career was effectively snuffed out with big names in the business like Jay-Z and Kanye refusing to associate with the artist.
But that was 2009 and this is 2012. Since the incident Brown has had a subsequent album that rose to the top of the charts. He’s back in favor with key R&B players, and is largely viewed as one of R&B’s sexiest males (Glamour.com nominated him the hottest male solo artist in 2010).
The 360 turn-around for Brown culminated at the Grammys on Sunday, where he performed alongside the other industry top-players, and won for best R&B album.
There are several troubling aspects of these counter-themes to Grammys.
First, that a man who was publicly associated with domestic abuse would be so generously celebrated at the same awards show that made tribute to Whitney Houston, a woman who herself suffered a public battle with domestic abuse from her former husband Bobby Brown.
Second, the music industry’s general amnesia or hypocritical acceptance of an artist it chose to shun just three years ago- what about all the hype in 2009 about sending a message about violence and respecting women?
Finally, what’s most concerning has been some of the unexpected responses to, and defense of, Chris Brown’s return- including a surge in women not only supporting him, but also sending tweets about their desire to ‘be beaten’ by him (see the following summary of tweets if you want to be completely dismayed).
What does this all mean about the state of domestic abuse generally, and the music industry and its promotion of womanizing, degrading, and violent lyrics and artists? Does no one connect Houston’s drug abuse to her experience of domestic abuse and her tumultuous private life? I don’t look to awards shows to stand as moral beacons, but I do think it is worth considering these counter Grammy narratives as a signal of the state of popular culture and gender relations at the moment.

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Pop Culture and World Politics v5.0

Pop Culture and World Politics v5.0
9-11 November 2012
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Geneva, NY 14456 USA
What do zombies have to do with world politics? How might the Twilight sagas inform and illuminate our way of understanding world politics and changes in the global political economy? In what ways do videogames, the sales of which now exceed those of music CDs and DVDS combined, shape the identities and political understandings of frequent players? Is visual media destined to replace print as the primary source of news and entertainment in advanced industrial societies and how might this affect the construction of meaning of world affairs? As a means of communication readily available to an ever-expanding number of individuals and groups, how might the internet offer paths of resistance to corporate and Western news and entertainment hegemony? How can tango dancing make the world a more peaceful place?
This conference explores the multiple ways of investigating the intersections of world politics and the production, circulation, content, and consumption of various popular cultural forms. Engaging a range of disciplines and practices in the social sciences, humanities and the arts, the conference encourages participants to question what terms such as ‘global,’ ‘popular,’ and ‘culture’ mean both in isolation and when used in conjunction. It asks in what ways and with what effects popular culture has become a series of sites at which political meaning is made, where political contestation takes place, and where political orthodoxy is reproduced and challenged. The conference provides a highly-focused and interdisciplinary environment in which the increasing numbers of scholars that are engaging in culture-related research can present their work and participate in the kind of extended discussion that larger conferences do not permit. The conference aims to provide an intimate forum at which debates about interdisciplinary methods and theoretical approaches can be developed to facilitate debate across disciplines that share interests in world politics and culture. We welcome proposals for performances, screenings, panels, or individual papers, on any aspect of world politics and popular culture.
Building on the precedingfour PCWP conferences, version 5.0 will be held on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, a small liberal arts institution located in the beautiful Finger Lakes (wine-making) region of western New York state.
Inquiries should be sent to PCWP@hws.edu
The deadline for proposals is 15 July 2012
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