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.

[Posted with ecto]


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.
[Posted with ecto]


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?

[Posted with ecto]