The American Empire As Santa Claus

Peter: …and who voted for this administration's foreign policies? People from red states. And red, I remind you, is the color of hell.

Me, after rising and being recognized: May I remind you, sir, that red is also the color of Santa Claus.

Peter: Ah yes, Santa Claus. And may I remind you, sir, that Santa Claus was a creation of the Coca-Cola company as a way to sell more products. More of the greed that characterizes this American Empire.

Me: Do I understand the government to be arguing that Santa Claus does not exist?

Peter: Yes. Santa Claus does not exist.

Me, shouting: Think of the children, sir!

—Paraphrased from last night's student-faculty debate on the resolution "U.S. foreign policy is going to hell in a handbasket." We had flipped a coin, and Peter and his student partner were assigned the role of the government -- speaking for the resolution -- while my student partner and I were assigned the role of the opposition -- speaking against the resolution. But because of the phrasing of the resolution, I and my partner were in effect defending the Bush Administration's policies, while the government side was critiquing them.

I should explain that this was a parliamentary style debate, in which the audience gets to vote afterwards -- and in which the point of the debate is to entertain and amuse in addition to argue. People rise to ask questions and place one hand behind their heads to hold their imaginary wigs in place, and getting off topic to provoke laughter and catcalls is promoted. Such as in the above exchange.

I love doing things like this, in which I get to interact with students more informally. The classroom is a space for more of less structured interactions, and there's a measure of professorial authority that always follows one around in that environment, no matter how hard you try to shake it -- and in most cases it's good to retain that authority, because in the end I still have to grade the students. But a setting like these debates (I've done three now, going 0-3 -- a perfect record!) is somewhat different, because my authority is diffused and I can interact with the students in a different context -- more as a fellow human being, and less as a PROFESSOR. Which also helps students feel comfortable in coming to talk to me about other things outside of the strict confines of their classes with me…plus, it's a lot of fun.

Later, we determined that the American Empire is a lot like Santa Claus:

It sees you when you're sleeping
It knows when you're awake
It knows when you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

Okay, so maybe not so much like St. Nick, unless he was really pissed off.

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Red Dawn

Showed a film last Thursday evening for my World Politics class -- Red Dawn, a delightful piece of early-1980s cheese about a Communist invasion of the United States. My favorite thing about the film is the fact that it takes itself so darn seriously -- it doesn't set out to be a satire, but with moments like the shot where the camera focuses on a truck's "they can have my gun when they pry it out of my cold, dead fingers" bumper sticker and then pans to the dead American on the ground clutching a pistol so that we can see the Cuban officer prying the pistol out of his (presumably cold and dead) fingers…or Charlie sheen's earnest proclamation that drinking the blood of a freshly-killed deer changes a person forever, which is followed by the shockingly abrupt transformation of the Star Wars-cap-wearing geeky kid into a ruthless killer…you just do not get crap like this in a self-conscious satire!

I wanted to show the film as a bit of a change from what I traditionally show at this point in the course, which is Three Kings -- a more overtly critical-political film. But the point I wanted to make this time concerned the establishment of "common sense" through the mass media instead of using a film to raise questions about the understanding of the other; Red Dawn seemed a perfect accompaniment to our ongoing discussion of Todorov, since we are getting up to the Cortes section starting tomorrow. While the effect I was after can be achieved in a satire -- Starship Troopers comes to mind -- it's even better to have a primary-source document for analysis.

I don't think of the showing of a film as a way to reinforce a particular theoretical point, however, as might be the case if I showed Patton to talk about IR realism or Enemy Mine to discuss liberal-Habermasian constructivism (albeit interspecies in that case). Instead, I want to use the film -- any film I show -- as an additional text to fuel the discussion. So we talked about the gender roles in Red Dawn (the transformation -- seemingly overnight -- of the two female Wolverines into a suicide bomber and a viciously accurate gunner), the similarity of anti-communist and anti-terrorist scripts, and the power of imagery in establishing a case that is politically plausible if not logically coherent. Films are primary sources, not secondary sources, in a pedagogical environment like this; I am not interested in having people learn from the film as they might learn from a book or an article, but instead am interested in having people sharpen and practice their analytical skills on the film understood as a text. And based on the brief conversation we had after the film, it seemed to work decently.
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Bad Publicity

Someone really needs to speak to Bush's publicity people about the kinds of images that they release to the press. This picture, which I found in this morning's Washington Post, is designed -- I think-- to associate Bush with the two great 'Western' leaders of the Second World War. However, compare the effect with this picture from the Tehran conference. Bush is occupying the place occupied by none other than Josef Stalin, friend of truth and liberty and Doing Whatever Is Necessary In The Name Of The Cause, Even if That Means Sending Millions Of People To Gulags.

Perhaps not the best choice for the Bush publicity people. I wonder if this is what happens when you have an administration made up of people who do not consider themselves to be a part of the "reality-based community" -- they pay little or no attention to history either?

I continue to look for the exact image from which the mural was taken. Granted, it appears to be a picture from the Quebec Conference in 1943, at which Stalin was not present. But the image is still, to my eye, quite striking, since it creates a new Big Three -- with Bush occupying Stalin's position.

Strategic deployment of public symbols, anyone? And an ironic, deconstructive undermining of that very deployment at the moment of its articulation?

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Felt pretty good walking into my 9:55 class this morning -- I got up around 4am to grade papers, managed to get through all but two of them, and had the rest of the day well-planned out: deliver sermonizing final lecture (from here on out we have student oral presentations on their research projects) in my methodology class (two take-home messages: don't mix methodologies because this produces philosophical incoherence; and keep science and politics as logically separate endeavors by not conflating empirical research with political advocacy); teach day one of my planned three-day treatment of Tzvetan Todorov's The Conquest of America in my world politics class; meet with a Ph.D. student who is going off to a job talk; hold two hours of office hours meeting with students; spend an hour grading the final two papers and e-mail them back; do some miscellaneous errands for an hour or so and then head home.

Got into my office, dropped off my coat and bag, headed downstairs. Sermonizing lecture went fine -- I think I made my point and also got some appropriate laughter. Ate my yogurt during the break between classes, came back into the classroom to begin the discussion about Todorov -- but when I started asking about Columbus, I got some blank stares, some averted gazes, and a little muttering. Finally someone asked, "are we supposed to have read that yet?" "Sure," I said, "it says so in the syllabus." Someone else brought up the syllabus and contradicted me, showing that the syllabus in fact said that today was supposed to be transnationalism and environmentalism, with Todorov beginning on Friday.


It took me several minutes to re-tool and get us into a discussion of whether there could be meaningful global solutions to problems like AIDS and greenhouse gas emissions without having some major power impose the solutions on recalcitrant others, and whether this posed a moral problem of any significance. We eventually got so some interesting places, but it was not the best performance of my career. for a moment I seriously considered canceling class, actually -- once I'm in a mode for having a certain discussion it's very hard to shift gears radically and have another conversation about very different material. I think we survived, but it wasn't pretty.

Afterwards, I figured out what happened: last year the major development simulation was only two days, so I was able to do transnationalism before Thanksgiving break and devote three of the final four class sessions to Todorov, saving the last day for a wrap-up and send-off. Got to return to that plan next year -- probably by cutting something else earlier in the semester.

Probably one of the most embarrassing moments in my teaching career to date, however.

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Simulation Two, day three

The environment did actually make it on to the final conference document, albeit as the final point on the list. Several people expressed the opinion that they thought that the issue was important, but that they did not want to permit the radical protesters to participate on account of their unclear constituency. So the EU group added the point to their revised list, and no one questioned it during a subdued floor debate about the relative priorities of foreign direct investment, privatization, and anti-corruption measures.

The floor dynamic was interesting, since a) a lot had been done outside of class between sessions, as I had anticipated and indeed encouraged; and b) the local IM network was buzzing, and most of the students had four or five chat windows open at a time as amendments were proposed and discussed. Just like in a real conference, the important negotiation was handled outside of the public exchanges…but this "outside" was more technologically mediated than would normally be the case, I think. Maybe in the future when IM-savvy folks start becoming official representatives.

Of course, the public exchanges weren't irrelevant. As usual, they played an important legitimation role, as people introduced lines of reasoning that drew on public commonplaces so as to create compelling cases for such initiatives as the disappearance of "social policy" from the list of development priorities and the importance of flexible labor markets. This last was particularly interesting, since both India and McDonald's were in support of the notion, but configured it somewhat differently: McDonald's emphasized their need to hire and fire workers to sustain profitability, and India emphasized the claim that more competition would create more jobs overall. Similar patterns of commonplaces, actually, revolving around how markets lead to efficiency and growth. That was basically unquestioned for the whole duration of the simulation, except for the successful Polish opposition to the anti-union amendment…which was nowhere near as radical a challenge as might have been mounted.

So we had a fairly realistic, narrow discussion about the technical details of development. Maybe next year I'll try a different initial proposal, so that the discussion gets broader and more conceptual. There's a time and a place for realistic depictions, but in the end I am not convinced that a class simulation is really the place for that. As a pedagogical tool, simulations are (to my mind) about encouraging people to make arguments and to negotiate, and only secondarily about the exact fidelity of the group to what they are representing. Sure, they can't go too far off the reservation, but there's a lot of room to maneuver and reconfigure; it's this latter that I am more interested in promoting and observing. This is why I don't generally call people for being "out of character," as long as they have a plausible argument connecting their position to some specification of their group's identity and consequent interests. After all, if interests were fixed in advance, there would be no need for negotiation and interaction; reaching an agreement would be a simple matter of calculation, and no need political struggle at all.

Personally, I fear such a world. Three cheers for messy, ambiguous contestation!

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Acceptable conduct

IM chat transcript:

student: in the simulation... lets see how to word this... do you basically go by the philosophy that anything goes if it is backed up?
for clarification...
some of the issues we wanted to bring up we think are interesting to the simulation, but we dont want it to hurt other people's grades necc....

me: how would it hurt their grades?

student: say if a few groups were going to team up on another group

me: ah
can you do it in character?

student: yes
each of the questions etc, we will ask tomorrow will be in character, but it will be alot of questions aimed at a particular group
but if it is going to reflect bad upon them, i dont think that people would continue with the questions we wanted to ask

me: can they answer the questions?
are they fair questions?

student: well they can answer the questions...
but i think that it is the majority consent that they would have a hard time answering the questions
i think that they are asking questions that they have been asked that are tough, maybe fair...

me: aggressive questioning is an acceptable parliamentary tactic
it diminishes an opponent's power over the debate
as long as things don't get personal, it should be fine

student: ok, great, that is the main point
i will pass that on

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Simulation Two, day two

Or: the Day When We Were Interrupted (planned, of course :-) By Radical Environmentalists. McDonald's Corporation presented first on Friday, by design; about halfway through their discussion of how wonderful franchising was as a way of promoting local development, we were set upon by four chanting protesters who interrupted the meeting demanding to speak in the name of the earth. Their leader tied herself to a chair, setting up the continuation of the semi-annual tradition of having someone carried out of the room in a chair…

The teams discussed the question of whether the environmentalists should be allowed to speak, raising issues related to representativeness (several people wanted to know who the group represented, which was deliberately unclear; transnational social movements often advance universalist claims that are not tied to any specific constituency) and feasibility (the group's spokespeople declared that we needed to put people and the planet first, to which a Pakistani representative replied that for their poor country, any jobs were better than no jobs, and a Polish representative replied that "putting the planet first" was too vague to serve as an actually workable solution to the very serious problems that the meeting had been called to address). The radicals were allowed three minutes of floor-time by a 4-2 vote of the participating teams, after which Security (ably played this year by a willing Ph.D. student wearing dark sunglasses indoors) had to escort the them from the conference.

I think that we were successful in keeping the protest a secret from the students until it actually happened.

One of the things I like best about simulations as a teaching tool for certain topics is that it allows us to dramatize the challenges faced by actors grappling with thorny issues like "development" in a way that simply talking or reading about them simply does not. Student representatives had to try to speak in character, even though I know that many of them are privately sympathetic to those environmental concerns, and had to confront the disquieting intervention of a social movement speaking in categorical terms -- which poses the "politics and morality" question in a way that people cannot possibly miss. Weber argued that politics was the slow boring of hard boards, and that political issues couldn't be settled by science or by reason or even by ethical fiat; everything in politics is therefore the selection of the lesser evil. Social movements provide a dramatic occasion for this dilemma, since they appear to speak in non-political (or supra-political) terms that brook no compromise. And it is unclear what any political representative ought to do with their claims.

We shall have to see what this interruption, which calls the whole framework of the simulated negotiations into question, does to the course of events on the simulation's final day next Tuesday. Will anyone else channel the Lorax, and will environmental concerns make it onto a priority list (the conference document) that is at the moment almost exclusively a neoliberal declaration of principles?

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I must say that my least favorite part of my job is grading. Not so much the reading-and-commenting-on-papers part; that's fine, although the time constraints imposed on it sometimes mean that I can't do as intricate a job as I would like. But the actual assignment of grades is something I continually struggle with -- in part because I'd prefer to simply give feedback and let people improve their essays based on that feedback, in part because letter grades are a rather blunt instrument for expressing someone's performance, and in part because there's a temptation with grades to compare people to one another rather than comparing them to the assigned task. A rubric helps, as does a specific outline of what I am looking for, but those are only guidelines; they do not spare one from the agonizing moment beyond any and all systems of rules when one has to decide on the application of the rules and judge what applies in which context. Wittgenstein was right: there is no such thing as a self-executing rule, and no such thing as a rule-system finely enough detailed to cover all possible contingencies.

People say that grades are "subjective." Not quite. Grades are certainly not objective in the sense that they flow from the Nature Of Things; this is true even in mathematics and physics, where notions like "partial credit" and "elegance" are verbal fillers that cover over those places where the rule-system does not specify precisely how to "go on" in the situation. It's like those unappealable "judgment calls" that umpires make in baseball games; you can disagree, but there's no recourse. A good umpire can use those moments to produce an exciting and fair game, as when Don Larsen's last pitch of his World Series perfect game was called a strike even though it appears that it was well outside of the strike zone (Stephen Jay Gould has a great essay about this in his book Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville). I'd like to think that this is what I do when grading: use my judgment to produce a better performance, a better game overall.

But that still doesn't diminish how frustrating and difficult a job it is. Sigh. Only about half of the research prospecti left to grade…

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Simulation Two, day one

Started the second simulation in World Politics this morning. Just like last year, I asked the students to use digital video to make their presentations; unlike last year, the technical difficulties were avoided and all three of the presenting groups had short films ready to go. It's always fascinating to see what students will do with a blank video canvas and the city of Washington as a backdrop; I was impressed by the creativity that they displayed and how funny the films were while still managing to get the point across; Pakistan used skits, the EU had an informative message delivered in front of various embassies (and a running joke about how none of the embassies were the embassies of EU countries), and Japan showed images of Japanese products as part of their campaign to encourage more free trade in manufactured goods. Can't wait to see what the other three student teams have come up with on Friday.