World Politics Question #9

Here's a rather specific question, building on our discussion of "embedded liberalism" in class on Tuesday:

Suppose for a moment that the options for organizing a political-economic system are only two, embedded liberalism and disembedded liberalism, which is to say, a market system in which the market serves non-market social purposes or a market system in which the market is as unfettered as possible and serves only its own goals of economic efficiency. Knowing what you now know about the institutional and political requisites and consequences of each system, which system would you rather have? Why?


. . . not that there's anything wrong with that

So this week, J. K. Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay. (Old news, I now, but I have been crazy-busy grading and report-writing this week, so I haven't had a chance to actually post anything about this until now.) No fewer than seven people asked me when I was going to blog about it, which I suppose makes some sense given my habit of cloaking myself in a Dumbledore-esque comportment when talking about the University College program and my role in it -- I even tend to think of myself as the Headmaster of the program. So on that score, a revelation about Dumbledore might seem like something I ought to post about.

But I don't really have a lot to say. Dumbledore's sexual orientation matters as little to me as his mother's middle name or what kind of music he likes, because none of these things really seem to make much of a difference to what he does during the course of the Potter novels. Yes, I know that according to Rowling Dumbledore's sexual orientation explains why he was so taken with Grindelwald, and thus ought to be relevant to the plot . . . except that Dumbledore's fascination with Grindelwald was perfectly well explained in the books without introducing that kind of attraction, which makes the detail about Dumbledore's preferences in partners rather irrelevant. (What sweets Dumbledore likes is, however, a relevant issue, given his proclivity for making the names of those sweets into the passwords used to access his office.)

I find it fascinating that so many people thought that I ought to have something to say on the matter. I also find it fascinating that Rowling herself waited until after the novels were completed before revealing this bit of information, as though (and according to what one can read between the lines of her public comments) she were expecting people to be uncomfortable with that fact. Certainly some people might be, particularly those who think that homosexuality is some kind of mortal sin, but most of those people probably aren't reading Harry Potter in the first place, given the conservative religious opposition to the whole series. As far as Rowling's avid readers go, I'd say that for most of them sexual orientation is as uncontroversial and ultimately as irrelevant as shoe size. They're like Harry, through whose eyes the books are largely written -- and Harry couldn't care less about such things.

Whether this is a good development or a bad development depends on your perspective, though. For some people, the absence of explicit markers of differences in sexual orientation constitutes a form of erasure: the lack of explicit identification of difference means that difference is being elided and a universal norm is implicitly being proclaimed in its place. For others, the disappearance of identity-categories like "gay" as critical pieces of information, particularly for fictional characters, constitutes a form of progress. Tough call -- and probably looks very different depending on whether you are self-consciously a part of the group not being explicitly portrayed.

Indeed, I suspect that part of the reason why the question of Dumbledore's sexual orientation doesn't seem all that important to me is that I am not interested in claiming him as a fellow-member of a group on that basis. Were I interested in identifying powerful gay male characters in literature, then it would probably bother me that we only have the author's post facto comments to go on. And I suspect that I might even be bothered by the fact that Dumbledore is not explicitly portrayed as a gay man anywhere in the books -- nothing about his experience really seems to have much of anything to do with his sexual orientation. Does this hetero-normalize Dumbledore? In a way, I suppose, in that opportunities to disrupt the reader's sense of the ordinary are foregone. But Harry Potter isn't about disruption, since it's a piece of myth or legend; rather, it's about re-establishing continuities and sustaining themes. It is not, in that sense, political: like Star Wars, its aims are to do something to the basic structure of how we engage with the world rather than to affect any specific changes within that world. And I am firmly convinced that not every work of literature -- heck, not even every work of social science or social theory -- has to be narrowly political (or, to use the term of art for political science, "policy relevant") in order to have value. I don't read the Potter novels looking to advance a political -- even an identity-political -- agenda, so the fact that the novels are very poor sources for such a thing doesn't bother me at all. A different agenda might make me considerably less sanguine about the whole thing, but I rather like the mythical (or maybe "meta-political") agenda I have and I think it would get very boring and frustrating to always evaluate everything in terms of its portrayal of some specific identity-category.

At the end of the day I suppose I agree with the position that says that when writing fictional literature one ought to reveal those aspects and details of a character's life that are actually relevant to the story. Is Obi-Wan gay? (The potential answer changes if you read the expanded universe novels, because in those novels he falls in love with a female Jedi apprentice named Siri Tachi.) Who cares? Would it matter to the story if he were? I can't imagine that it would. That being said, does the complete absence of any openly gay characters from the Star Wars universe subtly reinforce the heterosexual norm? Yes, it does. But the point of a piece of fictional literature is to tell a story, not to advance a specific political agenda. Losing sight of that is what makes for preachy novels, like (for example) every piece of fiction that Ayn Rand ever wrote -- contrast those to the works of Robert Heinlein, who had roughly the same set of values but was less a propagandist than a writer, so his stories work as stories.

So: Dumbledore's gay and I really don't care. It changes nothing.


World Politics Question #8

Whoops -- so busy grading papers that I forgot to post this last night!

The place we left off in class on Tuesday concerned the proper basis for policymaking, especially for the making of foreign policy. We talked a lot about "interests," but this introduces a dilemma: if states have real, objective interests, then they ought to follow them even if their publics disagree, but if states do not have real, objective interests (as Wolfers appears to argue) then the entire debate about "interests" is just a political game. This suggests the following question: is public opinion, or the will of the people, a sufficient basis for state policy? Or should we be looking for something else, something outside of what people might think, as the proper foundation for state action?

It might be easiest to try to tackle this question with an example. Alternatively, click over here and bounce off of what Liz already posted.


World Politics Question #7

Take at least one of the documents that we examined on Tuesday and at least one of the theoretical perspectives that we have discussed so far in the course, and hold them up against one another. What would the theoretical perspective have to say about the course of action outlined in the document? What would the document have to say about the precepts of the theoretical perspective?

The Force is with us

. . . and I'm talking about that tonight!

An Upcoming KPU Event of Galactic Proportions


Out of print

I really wanted to assign Sheri S. Tepper's brilliant novel Grass for my science fiction course next semester, but apparently it's out of print. That's frustrating. Especially in the era of the 'Net, shouldn't someone figure out how to make all of those out-of-print books available to potential readers in something other than a virtually unreadable text-only format?

Hmm. I think there's a niche there.

The pedagogy of lying

Or: why I sometimes toss out erroneous factual statements in the classroom, and why I expect that my students will not take everything I say at face value but will engage in their own independent efforts to verify or falsify it.

Last week my World Politics class was having a discussion about Iran's nuclear program, and I posed the question: why is the US worried about a nuclear Iran? We talked about regional instability a bit, and then I pressed a bit on the notion of "threat" by asking why we were threatened by Iran's potential possession of nuclear weapons -- seeking to suggest the point that maybe "threat" was not just about material capacities. [This followed my usual rule of pedagogical discussion-facilitation: if I'm going to intervene, it's going to be on the opposite side of whatever group consensus is emerging.] Now, I could have made that point by talking about North Korea, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I saw an opportunity for a pedagogical bonus and instead asked what the second-largest nuclear arsenal in the world was. People tossed out guesses, and I said "Britain" -- a country no one had named. My point: we don't immediately think of weapons possessed by our allies as threats, even if there are a substantial number of weapons involved.

Now, the claim that Britain has the world's second-largest nuclear arsenal is, strictly speaking, wrong. Russia has a far larger arsenal, both in terms of sheer number of warheads and in terms of potential destructive capacity. As Greg rather conclusively demonstrated, there are a lot of Russian nukes out there, considerably more than we would find in Britain. Greg e-mailed me a more elaborate comparative analysis of the issue, the conclusion of which was

By these calculations, the Russian Federation has approximately 1347.85-1697.85 deployed megatons (and this doesn’t count the approximately 6,000 warheads in reserve!). Now, since Britain has a total of four Vanguard-class SSBNs, each of which carry 16 Trident II D5 SLBMs armed with up to three 100 kiloton warheads, they can have a total deployed megatonnage of only 19.2.

19.2 megatons versus 1347.85-1697.85 megatons…I sure wouldn’t want to be Britain in that fight!

I checked the figures with some friends downtown, and the consensus was that if anything Greg's numbers for Russia were a bit low, given the possibility of mating other nuclear devices with delivery systems in the event of a nuclear emergency.

So: my assertion was wrong, as I knew at the time. (I wonder what I was thinking, making such an assertion in front of someone quite knowledgeable about the Russian military . . . hmm.) This doesn't affect the overall point I was trying to introduce, but it does illustrate that no one should ever feel the slightest bit awkward about challenging a factual assertion as long as they are willing to put in the effort to check out the data. The fact that I have degrees in political science does not mean that everything I say should be unquestionably believed.

[Indeed, there's a further wrinkle to this story: part of why I wanted to push this claim was that I had what seems like a plausible conceptual argument to back it up. If it were the case that the Russian nuclear arsenal was largely inoperable because of command-and-control issues, then it might be possible that the actual Russian nuclear capacity would be quite a bit lower than the simple calculation of yield-rates would suggest. Then we'd have an illustration of the old Ben Kenobi line -- "many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view" -- since the issue would move to a discussion about the proper meaning or sense that we should assign to the word "capacity." But it turns out that I was just in error about this, because the Russian command-and-control system has apparently gotten a lot better in the last few years. Were it to come to a nuclear crisis of some sort, Russia would command the world's second-most-powerful arsenal by an order of magnitude. No clever pedagogy this time -- thinking the opposite was just a flat-out error on my part. Yet another reason to check my facts, and everyone else's facts: no one is right all the time!]


World Politics Question #6

Today in class it was suggested that it is perfectly okay to distinguish between groups of people, and even to marginalize groups, if the criteria on which one is doing so are "real" differences rather than something else. So the question is: how does one distinguish between a "real" difference and a stereotype or other misleading characterization? How would you know if you were appropriately marginalizing along actually existing lines of difference? The importance here is that is we admit the category of "real" differences, then some forms of marginalization are justified.

Note that it's perfectly okay to vehemently disagree with the entire premise of this question, if you'd like. And remember that this post, and the reflective post, are both due on Monday of next week since you have the essay due on Thursday.