Category Archives: maunderings

Isolated Thoughts: What’s Next?

THE WEST WING, clockwise from top left: Janel Moloney, Stockard Channing, John Spencer, Dule Hill, B

I find myself missing The West Wing. I don’t miss it because I can’t watch it (Netflix might have dropped it, but I have the first four seasons on DVD); I miss it because I can’t watch it in the way I did when it first aired, or when it was comfort food TV to rewatch over the years, or when I turned to it as solace in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. The series is, of course, fantasy—liberal utopianism of the highest order that is (or was during the Sorkin seasons) unapologetically earnest and invested in the ideals of intellect, expertise, and good governance. Like all of Aaron Sorkin’s television series, it depicted extremely smart people who are extremely good at their jobs, and who place high value on the work they do. And for all of the unrealistic, soaring rhetoric spoken in perfect paragraphs, it always foregrounded the conviction that democracy functions best when forged by smart, committed people arguing with each other in good faith. At its worst, the show could be pedantic, implying that all wrong-headed people needed was one more lecture to bring them around; at its best, it embodied a credo voiced by Robert Guillame’s character on Sports Night, Sorkin’s first series: “It’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve come around to this: If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”

Honestly, can you imagine anything that would be more anathema to Donald Trump? Any more than you can imagine Trump employing President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen)’s oft-iterated prompt, “What’s next?”

One thing The West Wing gets right that many former White House aides and staffers have pointed to is the hectic, breakneck pace the contemporary presidency; this is something perhaps best exemplified by the series’ oftparodied but directorially bravura “walk and talk” sequences, in which meetings happen on the fly at breakneck speed through the West Wing. “What’s next?” became Bartlett’s catch phrase indicating the completion of one item of business and the imperative to move on (consonant with “what’s next?” was the admonition “break’s over!”).

I have a hat, which I purchased from the podcast The West Wing Weekly’s online merch store, that asks “What’s Next?” However, given that I bought it about two years into Trump’s presidency, the sentiment is now less about wanting to move on to the next thing on the agenda, than it is something of an expression of existential dread. The unspoken words in the middle are “what could possibly be next?” and the tone one of baffled incredulity, as the cumulative effect of the Trump presidency piles up more detritus at the feet of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.

what's next?

What’s next? The other day I vented on Facebook about Donald Trump’s new custom of holding two-hour press conferences, in which he shares the latest “news” about the pandemic and the response to it; and while he periodically gives over the lectern to experts, business leaders, and Mike Pence, these briefings are really just The Trump Show, something to substitute for his rallies, which are, along with Twitter, his preferred method of communication. He obviously relishes having a captive audience, and frequently boasts of his ratings; but he just as obviously misses the adulation of his rally crowds, and gets sulky and resentful of the fact that the handful of carefully spaced reporters won’t congratulate him on doing an amazing job and indeed have the audacity to challenge his assertions and pose “nasty questions.”

What led to my Facebook rant was the sudden realization that Trump is giving over two hours out of his day, every day, to conduct his infomercials (a recent one of which literally included a campaign-style montage of Trump looking decisive and the media looking dishonest). What surprised me about the realization was that it hadn’t happened sooner, that I hadn’t really thought “this isn’t normal” from the moment Trump started running the coronavirus task force briefings. Well, I suppose I did think that, but it was such a relatively minor blip in the overwhelming noise of the Trump Experience, that it did not register as significant. But on reflection, it serves to exemplify so much about the discordance of this moment in time.

Put simply, taking two hours out of the day to address the press is not something presidents do—that’s why they have a large staff of people, including communications directors and press secretaries, and the small armies of experts from across the executive branch and the military, whose job it is to keep the public informed. The president only emerges on occasion, to make announcements of significance; previous presidents might make themselves available at a press conference once or twice every few weeks, and they rarely talk for long, for the simple reason that they have shit to do. The American presidency, John Dickerson writes in The Atlantic is “The Hardest Job in the World,” perhaps untenably so, which is why it is typical to watch presidents age in real-time, emerging at the end of their term(s) with grey hair and wan, lined faces.

We are by now however quite familiar with Trump’s lack of interest in the job and his utter incuriosity with anything that does not flatter him: chafing at any briefing lasting more than a few minutes; aides instructed to reduce the their notes to a single page of bullet points, and to include colourful pictures and charts, and press clippings that mention Trump favourably; his contempt for expertise and his unfounded confidence in his own instincts; his lack of preparation with any scripted remarks, obviously reading them for the first time as they scroll up the teleprompter; and above all his monumental laziness, with hours of his day given over to “executive time,” which numerous anonymous sources have confirmed as essentially Trump watching cable news, about which he live-tweets.

I suppose if there will have been any benefit to the Trump saga in the aftermath of this debacle, it could well be the definitive demolition of certain myths and illusions that have sustained the status quo for so long, not the least of which is the false premise of The West Wing that the key players within a democratic system might disagree, but operate on a basis of rationality and good faith. It’s a nice thought, but Trump disproves it—not so much through his own behaviour as by the simple fact of his election, and the rise of his army of opportunists, sycophants, enablers, and cultish adherents, whose only concerns are the arrogation of more power to them and their donors, basking in the reflected orange glow of their god-king, and owning the libs.

Trump should not be possible. The fact that he was, and is, makes it difficult to find comfort in Sorkin’s idealism, not least because it exposes to me my own oblivious privilege. After Trump won, white liberals like me were stunned and caught flat-footed. You know who wasn’t surprised that a critical mass of white people would pull the lever for Trump? Everyone else—people of colour, undocumented immigrants, queer folk, women, the working poor … anyone for whom the illusion of people in power arguing in good faith has always been obviously an illusion.


“What’s next?” is now the most important question. What does a post-coronavirus and (oh gods, please) a post-Trump world look like? We need to resist formulation of “getting back to normal.” Normal gave us Trump.

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Thoughts on D-Day and Generational Memory

When Tom Lehrer was asked why he quit doing political satire, he famously quipped, “Because Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.” Translation: where do you go from there? What kind of parody or satire can rise to the level of the architect of Pinochet’s coup in Chile and the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia being lauded as a peacemaker?

If the years since Lehrer’s quip have taught us anything, it’s that metaphors of bars being lowered and new depths being plumbed no longer work. There is no bottom, and new normals will always provide a basis for ironic, satirical critique—even if that critique comes to feel more and more like affectless laughter in the dark. Since Kissinger’s peace prize, a B-movie actor was elected president, a subsequent president was essentially impeached for getting a blowjob, and the Terminator was elected governor of California … and that only brings us up to 2003. The fact that a critical mass of liberals would probably be happy to swap Donald Trump for either Reagan or Schwarzenegger both speaks to the fact that they had depths belied by the prior entertainment careers, but also how far down the political slope arse-first we’ve slid.

(Just as an aside: I will maintain to my dying day that Saturday Night Live missed a golden comedic opportunity when, apropos of Schwarzenegger’s re-election campaign, they did not stage a skit in which the Governator debated political opponents Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude van Damme).


All of this is by way of saying that, if Kissinger’s peace prize was what drove Tom Lehrer out of political satire, I wonder what he makes of the spectacle of President Donald Trump, he of the bone spurs and dictator-envy, speaking solemn words on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The layers of irony are thicker than the Burgess Shale: a president whose slogan “America First” was originally used by isolationists and Nazi sympathizers like Charles Lindbergh, who wanted to keep the U.S. out of the war; a president who has consistently attacked NATO and the European Union, both of which were established with the express purpose of preventing another war in Europe; a president who has refused to condemn neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and whose presidency has indeed proved to be a clarion call emboldening the racist and anti-Semitic right; a president whose racist populism has been mirrored in the rise of comparable alt-right groups in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and in the viler strains of Brexit rhetoric; a president who loves the idea of military thuggery but seems incapable of recognizing honour and sacrifice, who is so thin-skinned that his aides panicked at the thought of him seeing the name “John McCain” on a ship or its sailors’ uniforms; a president who is even now poised to pardon actual war criminals; a president who, sitting mere feet away from the graves of American war dead, petulantly smears the name of Robert Mueller, a decorated veteran; this president recites the prayer delivered on D-Day by Franklin Roosevelt—a president whose legacy is the antithesis of everything Trump embodies—and speaks some boilerplate platitudes before returning to his golf course in Ireland.

I used to get outraged at George W. Bush’s blithe ignorance, but that was before I knew what was coming: first Sarah Palin as a potential VP, but then Trump himself, someone not just ignorant but functionally illiterate. I’m hardly a monarchist, but I do admire Queen Elizabeth’s capacity to deliver a diplomatic fuck-you, as she did in her choice of gift for Trump: a first edition of Winston Churchill’s history of WWII, something entirely appropriate for the occasion, but also painfully discordant with this president’s aggressive, ahistorical ignorance. Back in the halcyon days of late 2016, such a gift might have encouraged the naively optimistic—those poor souls who fervently wanted to believe that assuming the office would transform Trump—to hope that Trump would read and learn. But that was then and this is now, and so the subtler insult of the gift—the Queen gave him the abridged edition—is lost in the mere fact that simply giving Trump a book, any book, is to draw attention not just to the fact that he doesn’t read, but to his arrogant incuriosity. The Queen could have given him a boxed set of the Harry Potter series and made the same point.

The Queen’s gift and the insult it delivers, sadly, is a potent symbol for the present moment, in which the felt history of WWII and its transformative effects on the 20th century have become abstract and mythologized. I teach a class on American literature after 1945, and I always begin with a lecture on the sea-change wrought by the Second World War. I ask my students: where do you think the U.S. military ranked, globally, in size and strength in 1939? My students are astute enough to recognize that, if I’m asking the question, there’s a trick in there somewhere. But they’ve also grown up in a world in which American military might is indomitable, and if they know anything about WWII, it’s probably through movies like Saving Private Ryan that depict the vastness of the U.S. war machine. So … Fourth? they say, tentatively. Fifth? A more audacious student might suggest tenth.

No, I reply. Nineteenth. And by 1945, a scant four years after Pearl Harbor, they were rivaled only by the Soviet Union. And then went the way of the rest of the century. Without a grasp of the war at mid-century, one cannot properly understand what came next, and indeed what is happening today.

American troops approaching Omaha Beach.

D-Day occurred 75 years ago, which means that the youngest person who stormed those beaches or parachuted in behind German lines would be 93 years old today (assuming they didn’t lie about their age). We’re on the cusp of losing the last of the Greatest Generation, and when the last of those people die, so too does the generational memory they carry. We’re already seeing the effects: there’s an awful lot of reasons for the rise of the alt-right, but baked in there is a cultural amnesia, a collective forgetting that isn’t just about the passing of the generation that fought WWII, but an erosion of historical consciousness. Ask any student of mine and they’ll tell you (presumably with an eye roll) that I reliably harangue pretty much every class I teach at some point about the need to read history. The last few years I’ve taught Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, an alternative history that imagines what would have happened if Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, had run against FDR in 1940 and won. I taught the novel once before, when I first started my job at Memorial, but it didn’t get much traction with students. Now, however, I assumed it would grip them with its eerie prescience: a story about a populist celebrity with autocratic and racist tendencies upsetting an establishment politician with the message “America First.”

But no. It did resonate with a few students, but overall the reaction was meh. A colleague of mine has also taught the novel a few times in recent years, and he reports much the same response.

In my very first year here at Memorial, I taught Martin Amis’ novel Time’s Arrow in a first year fiction course—a Holocaust novel that takes place with time reversed, the conceit being that only when witnessed backwards can the Holocaust be understandable. Backwards, it becomes a story of German munificence, in which they call down smoke and ash from the sky to create inert bodies, into which they breathe life and send them on trains out into the world. My argument in lecture was that Amis works to defamiliarize the narrative of the Holocaust as a means of combatting the way in which repeatedly hearing a story inures us to it, and reawake the reader to the pure unthinkability of the atrocity. I cited Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus and Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful as texts that perform a similar function, but by that point the blank expressions on my students’ faces made it clear that defamiliarizing the Holocaust was a bridge too far when mere familiarity was lacking.

To be clear, I don’t blame my students. They have grown up in a culture that has de-emphasized history, both within the educational system and without, and terms like “Nazi” and “fascist” have more traction as online insults than as historical actualities. Millennials are understandably more preoccupied with the future, given that the realities of climate change mean they may not have one. But if the future is to be secured, it must needs be with global and internationalist solutions—we’re well past the point when nation-states can turn inward. The European Union was hardly a perfect construct, but it emerged from the recognition that the world would not survive another conflagration like WWII. Now that that memory has faded, the EU looks to be on a knife’s edge, and nativist autocracies have been making a comeback worldwide. We should of course honour the sacrifices made by those who fought and died 75 years ago, but more importantly we should remember the collective sacrifices of nations mobilized to large-scale action, and the ways in which alliances and cooperation made the defeat of Nazism possible.

The generational memory of WWII is fading. Let’s lose the platitudes about freedom and sacrifice and the why of it all, and honour the dead by not forgetting the how.

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Of zombies and rabbits

Warning: spoilers ahead for Watership Down and The Walking Dead.

Watership Down

I have done a lot of thinking and writing about zombie apocalypse and what I’ve been calling (in my as-yet unfinished scholarly articles on the topic) the “spectre of catastrophe.” So imagine my surprise when, after watching a recently-dropped limited-series show on Netflix last night, I had a weird revelation.

Much zombie apocalypse, but most especially The Walking Dead, is essentially based on Watership Down. Or, rather, not based on Richard Adams’ 1972 novel about rabbits—but the uncannily similar tropes and themes are somewhat illuminating.

This past weekend, my girlfriend and I watched all four episodes of the Netflix-BBC co-production, and quite loved it. The one major downside to this version is that the animation is quite terrible, and makes it very difficult at points to differentiate between the characters. On the upside, voice-cast is truly staggering: James McAvoy as the reluctant leader Hazel, Nicholas Hoult as the runty Fiver, whose oracular visions prompt them to flee their warren at the outset, Gemma Atterton as Clover, Olivia Colman as Strawberry, and a host of others like Daniel Kaluuya, Gemma Chan, Tom Wilkinson, Rosamund Pike, Mackenzie Crook, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (aka Simon Adebisi from Oz), and Ben Kingsley as the menacing General Woundwort. But for me the standouts were John Boyega as Bigwig, a bruiser  who has to learn subtlety, and, in one of my favourite bits of voice-casting ever, Peter Capaldi as the caustic and sarcastic seagull Keehar.

I read Watership Down when I was in high school and loved it; but I am also of the generation of children who were absolutely traumatized by the 1979 film, which doubled down on the violence and death in the novel to create an animated spectacle that I think was burned indelibly on my young cerebral cortex (even doing a Google image search made me tremble somewhat). My experience in this regard is not uncommon, given the number of parents who thought, “Oh, a cute film about bunnies,” little knowing the horror they were about to visit on their children.

watership down 1979watership down 1979 - 2

The 2018 iteration retains the novel’s sensibilities with regards to the precarious existence of prey animals, but dials back the violent visuals. It still builds tension extremely well: we are never not aware of how vulnerable the rabbits are all the time, and indeed the prologue to the first episode relates the rabbits’ creation mythology in which the sun god Frith punishes them—the earth’s original animals—for their proliferation by introducing a host of predators to cull their numbers.

So basically, they live in a word where everything wants to eat them—dogs, foxes, cats, owls, hawks, and, of course, people … and when people don’t want to eat them, they want to domesticate them and put them in cages as pets. More pernicious, however, is humanity’s rapacious need for land, which is what drives Hazel and Fiver and their small band of believers from their warren to start with. Fiver has visions of death and destruction that baffle him, but which we recognize as backhoes callously digging up the land for the construction of a new subdivision with no regard for the society of animals living below. Hazel and his tiny band of followers get out, and later on hear of the destruction from the warren’s sole survivor.

watership down 2018

But … what does this have to do with zombie apocalypse, you ask? Good question, though I will draw your attention to my above observation that everything out in the world wants to eat these rabbits. Leaving the safety of their warren and its environs, Hazel et al are exposed and endangered, and every step they take into the unknown world is one that could end suddenly with claws and teeth.

What’s important to keep in mind about Watership Down—and what I’d either forgotten in the intervening years, or (more likely) never grasped to begin with—is that it is essentially a dystopian story. It’s about the violent and capricious destruction of a society and the harrowing journey to find a new safe haven. And for all of the monsters populating that landscape, the greatest danger posed to our main characters is other rabbits—just as, in your average zombie film, the true threat isn’t from the dead but from the living.

Over its eight and a half seasons, The Walking Dead has driven this particular theme home … again and again and again. And again. My biggest beef with the storytelling in TWD is that it hasn’t done much to break from the narrative formula of zombie films: which is to say, the panic and flight following the initial outbreak, fighting one’s way through the undead hordes to sanctuary, respite within that sanctuary for a time (whether it be a mall, a military compound, a pub, or Bill Murray’s house, as in Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland, respectively), until something happens that forces you to leave and once again brave the world without. TWD reiterated this narrative season after season, always with a new safe haven (Herschel’s farm, the prison, Woodbury, Terminus, Alexandria) and a newer, badder big bad to contend with (the dead themselves, their own weaknesses and infighting, the Governor, the Wolves, cannibals, and of course Negan).*

All of which leapt to mind as I watched Watership Down. Hazel and his small band encounter two other rabbit warrens, each of which offers a chillingly dystopic vision. In the first, all of the rabbits are well-fed and welcoming, and our heroes gorge themselves on a massive pile of lettuce and leafy greens and carrots deposited nearby. It seems too good to be true, and of course it is—though only the clairvoyant Fiver sees as much, and refuses to join his fellows at the feast. Bigwig threatens Fiver, warning him not to spoil this for the others, but when he marches off in anger he finds himself caught in a wire snare—because that’s the deal at this warren, they get to live comfortable and well-fed lives, in exchange for one of their number being taken on a regular basis for the local farmer’s pot. And this has become the ethos of the warren: they reject the usual stories told by the rabbit bards that celebrate speed and cunning, instead offering sermons on the virtues of gratitude and complacency, and not questioning generosity that keeps them well-fed.

Dystopian visions of complacency range from the Lotus-Eaters of The Odyssey to Aldous Huxley’s self-medicating society in Brave New World. The devil’s bargain Richard Adams introduces in Watership Down allegorizes more explicitly the dangers of trading freedom for comfort. While there is no obvious correlative in zombie apocalypse narratives, I did think of the Terminus episodes of TWD. Desperate to find safe haven and suffering from hunger and thirst, Rick Grimes et al follow signs leading to a settlement calling itself “Terminus,” which promise safety and comfort and welcome. The promise proves to be merely a lure by which the people of Terminus draw in the unwary and proceed to kill and eat them, trading their humanity for safety and plenty (the first thing some of Grimes’ people encounter is a wholesome-looking women presiding over a grill heaped with meat).



Aside from Bigwig’s close encounter with the snare, the rabbits make their escape without much difficulty, and are joined by Strawberry (Olivia Colman), who tells them that no one in the warren makes friends because they know they might lose them to the snare. At the same time they are eager to welcome newcomers to the warren, as greater numbers lessen the chances of being taken next.

More terrifying, and more actively threatening, is the second warren—an authoritarian regime called “Efafra,” overseen by General Woundwort, in which most of the rabbits—largely females—are essentially held captive in terrified thrall to a quasi-military hierarchy sustained by Woundwort’s chosen “captains,” thuggish rabbits who take pleasure in tormenting the others. Their cruelty is its own reward, as they revel in their authority and privileges. The parallels between Woundwort and Negan, and Efafra and the Sanctuary are fairly obvious, but that likely has mostly to do with the ways in which both stories show how despotic societies are sustained by a cult of personality surrounding the leader, his willing subordinates chosen for their own talent for cruelty, and a cowed populace. Of all the threats faced by Hazel et al, greater than an entire ecosystem seemingly mobilized to snack on them is the threat of other rabbits in thrall to violence. Holly, the lone survivor of the original warren, tells one of Woundwort’s captains that he lacks “animality”—that what Efafra has done is emulate humans, and in doing so, has given up what we might call a basic rabbit-sense.

Not, perhaps, the subtlest of messages, but one that resonates strongly in a world where humans are depicted as thoughtlessly destructive, and the Efafran rabbits are genocidal, determined to exterminate any neighbouring warrens that might compete for resources. As stated above, I was struck by the critical mass of voice talent recruited for this remake, which poses the question of why remake Watership Down in the present moment (aside from Netflix’s voracious need for more and more content, of course)? There are, I have to imagine, many answers, not the least of which is the pressing need to reassess our relationship to the natural world, coupled with the apocalyptic preoccupations of so much popular culture. Richard Adams wrote Watership Down at the dawn of the environmental movement in a moment that saw the first celebration of Earth Day and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. All of the themes baked into the narrative have, sadly, only become more acute and immediate in the intervening half-century. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when a recent retelling of Adams’ story resonates with the various other catastrophic narratives I’ve been writing about.


*To the show’s credit, it has broken this cycle since settling in Alexandria and making contact with the various other settlements in the area. Since the defeat of Negan and the Saviours this past season, TWD has opened the possibility of a more nuanced and open-ended narrative evolution.


Filed under maunderings, television, The Triumph of Death, what I'm watching

Blogging, or The Intrinsic Value of Shouting at an Empty Room

I’ve been a very bad blogger. Every so often I go through a burst of energy and put up a handful of posts in quick succession, but it’s been some time since I posted on a regular basis. Certainly this past year has seen a lot of inaction on this site. If it weren’t for my Game of Thrones posts with Nikki Stafford, I’d have put up next to nothing.

Which isn’t for lack of wanting to. I have journals full of notes chronicling my thoughts on a host of topics, many prefaced with the hopeful header “possible blog post”; and I have a folder on my desktop containing an embarrassing number of half-completed posts that I just couldn’t make work to my satisfaction, or which languished until their subject was no longer current.

One of the reasons for my blogging absence has been one of the more epic cases of writer’s block I’ve experienced in my adult life. There have been a variety of factors contributing to that (which I won’t get into here), but one of them is the way in which writer’s block gets worse the more you don’t write. I haven’t posted much this past year because of writer’s block; but one of the reasons I’ve had writer’s block is because I haven’t been posting to this blog.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my level of blogging activity is a bellwether of my productivity more broadly—sometimes I just don’t really have anything to say here, but am getting a lot of writing done in other arenas—but there’s something to be said for keeping the pump primed by posting relatively clear and coherent arguments or meditations.

What is this blog for? It certainly isn’t aimed at a large audience. If my ambition was to write for thousands of people, I’ve failed miserably here. Fortunately, that has never really been a concern. Most of my posts garner in the neighbourhood of fifty readers, which likely corresponds to the number of my Facebook friends actually interested in what I might have to say on a given topic. The Game of Thrones posts tend to top out at about one hundred and twenty readers. Three years ago, I made it to three hundred and fifty with a pair of posts about that whole David Gilmour thing, and Margaret Wente’s entirely predictable response to it. And the most readers I’ve ever had was for a post I wrote, apropos of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, about The Wire and police militarization, which garnered twelve hundred readers—mainly because a friend of mine posted the link to Reddit.

So, I’m hardly swaying anyone’s opinion on such matters as Donald Trump, as I can say with a great deal of confidence that everyone who read my previous point probably agrees with everything I said. The fact that I’m almost invariably preaching to a (very small) choir has occasionally bothered me. Why go to the effort of parsing my thoughts if I’m not reaching people who will disagree with me, or whom I can engage in substantive, meaningful debate?

That thought underpinned a lot of my more self-defeating capitulations to writer’s block, at least as far as this blog was concerned. But lately I’ve been thinking about it in a different way: less as a means of engaging in a broader conversation, than as a conversation with myself. What I’ve been missing this past year is the exercise of thinking out loud. On my old blog I once compared blogging to shouting at your empty kitchen to something you hear on the radio. I think that analogy holds: articulating thoughts, giving them form and shape, is a valuable exercise even when no one is listening. The difference between writing things out in my journal and composing a post is that the latter is technically public—meaning that the act of composing takes precedence. Only a handful of you are actually reading this, and fewer still will have read this far. For those who have: Hello! I am happy that you’re interested enough in my thoughts that you’re still with me.

Don’t get me wrong: a large audience would be nice, but I’m not about to do all the things necessary to broaden my appeal. To be honest, I’m not even sure I know what those things would be (aside from employing more clickbait-y titles and keeping my posts more succinct. Yeah, that’s not happening).

I do however want to do more with the blog, and write more, and more frequently. One of my favourite series of posts I’ve done is when I taught a course on The Lord of the Rings two years ago, and did a series based on my lectures. I intend to do something similar this fall: I’m teaching a fourth-year seminar course I’m titling “Revenge of the Genres,” which will deal with texts that play with the “genre” appellation in a variety of ways. I’m planning to do a series of posts for each of the texts we cover, which will hopefully fuel discussion both in and out of the classroom. I’ll say more about that course closer to when we begin in September.

Revenge of the Genres

I’ve also got, I’m sorry to say, a cluster of Trump-themed posts on the back burner. Yes, I know … we’re all suffering from Trump fatigue, and I encourage people to actively avoid reading them. They’re more for my own benefit, to clarify my own thoughts more than to make specific arguments.

And I’ll be picking up the threads of research I had intended to do over the past few months. I won’t say much about that now, other than that it involves zombies, crowds, and soldiers.

That’s all for now.

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Paris 1919, Paris 2015

paris1919CORRECTION: It was pointed out to me that the Treaty of Versailles dealt specifically with Germany. The partitioning of the former Ottoman Empire, which I discuss below, was performed by the Treaty of Sèvres. Apologies for the inaccuracy.


Out of a handful of books that I habitually recommend as “required reading for the modern age,” I probably most frequently proselytize for Margaret MacMillan’s magisterial history Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. It chronicles the negotiation and signing of the Treaty of Versailles, that notorious document that now reads like a roadmap of the twentieth century. I’ve been thinking a great deal about that book in the last few days, as I watch the flow of confusion, argument, and fear in my various newsfeeds.

MacMillan, then a professor of history at Ryerson University in Toronto (she is now at Oxford), wrote Paris 1919 in the late 1990s, and at first had difficulty finding a publisher. After September 11th, 2001, however, she was beating them off with a stick: people looked at the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, and watched the ramp-up to the invasion of Iraq and asked a series of questions: how did this happen? why did this happen? who are these people, and why do they hate us? In the triumphal decade that spanned from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of the two towers, when America had apparently emerged as the world’s sole superpower and Francis Fukuyama could smugly announce the “end of history,” no one wanted to read a lengthy, detailed history about a treaty that effectively set the stage for the twentieth century’s bloodiest conflicts. But the West’s rude awakening on that crystalline Tuesday morning made MacMillan’s book and others like it hot property.

Why? The Treaty of Versailles is most notorious for imposing humiliating and punishing reparations on Germany, a punitive measure that served to fuel the rise of Hitler and National Socialism. But among the other provisions for the victorious allies was the carving up of the collapsed Ottoman Empire. The western powers divvied up the oil-rich territory into mandates, arbitrarily setting down new borders without consideration given to tribal affiliation, sectarian division, local geography, or for that matter history. Versailles basically drew the lines of what today is Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, and of course Palestine.


I bring this up because it is so frustrating to see so many assertions, about Syria, ISIS, Iraq, and the monumental clusterfuck that region has become, made with no regard to history, and the role the West has played in bringing us to this Gordian Knot of tangled alliances, loyalties, motivations, and intentions. If the twentieth century has any lesson for us, it’s that every time the West intervenes in the Middle East, we make things worse. Always. The Treaty of Versailles imposed arbitrarily drawn nation-states on a volatile region with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Britain and France governed their mandates in the region through bribery, violence, and the stoking of sectarian and tribal rivalries. The oil-producing regions did not benefit from their resources, as Western stakeholders took the lion’s share of the profits. When the secular, democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossaddegh of Iran moved to nationalize the Iranian oil industry, Great Britain and the U.S. orchestrated a coup in 1953 and installed the dictatorial Shah, who would rule with an iron fist for almost thirty years. When he was finally ousted by the fundamentalist regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini , the U.S. encouraged their ally Saddam Hussein with money and arms to prosecute a war in which millions died on both sides, during which Hussein used American-supplied chemical weapons against his own people. When Hussein went a bridge too far into Kuwait and was routed by the U.S. and its allies, the U.S. encouraged rebel factions within Iraq to rise up, but did nothing to support them. Saddam crushed them.

I won’t rehearse the idiocy of Operation Iraqi Freedom, other than to point out that the incompetence of the occupation gave rise to a large number of disenfranchised men with combat training who now form the core of ISIS. And all the while, even as bloviators vilify Islam and paint all Muslims as potential threat, the West remains faithfully allied to Saudi Arabia, the site and source of the most virulent strain of fundamentalism, Wahhabism, looking the other way while they pour huge amounts of money into ISIS. If for a significant number of people in the Middle East the U.S. is the Great Satan, the House of Saud is the Only Slightly Lesser Satan.

And they are our ally and partner in arms deals.

All of this is by way of saying that when you see people on Facebook or elsewhere asking why their tax dollars should go to support refugees from Syria, you might want to not-so-gently remind them that we in the West have profited hugely from that region in the ninety-six years since the Treaty of Versailles was formalized. And that every time we’ve poured our blood and treasure into military interventions, we’ve only made things worse for the people living there.

Nor is this all a form of geopolitical victim-blaming. France suffered a horrific attack from dehumanized monsters, and it is always a blow to the soul to see such terrible things unfold—and it is always more distressing when it takes place somewhere we consider safe. But we should also remember that there was a similar attack in Beruit the day before, and one in Ankara a month ago, and remind ourselves when someone starts honking off about the “clash of civilizations” that Islamist extremism has disproportionately harmed Muslims.

And it is those people who are fleeing. As a much-retweeted Twitter post pithily said, “To people blaming refugees for attacks in Paris tonight. Do you not realise these are the people the refugees are trying to run away from..?”


I don’t know what a solution in the Middle East looks like, but it cannot have fear and hatred as its starting point. The West deserves to have some skin in this game, by which I don’t mean we’re owed, but that we owe the world at large to help these people whose house is on fire. And when your neighbour’s house is on fire, as FDR famously said, you don’t haggle over the price of your garden hose. The Paris attacks were specifically designed to make us fear, and to translate that fear into suspicion, paranoia, and ideally hatred of Muslims. That’s what they want. Why on earth would we want to hand them such an easy victory?

Always remember that the road to peace begins with compassion.

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Some thoughts on the Hugo Awards and Puppies who are Sad

hugoI’ve been reading a lot over the past few days about the ongoing controversy about this year’s slate of Hugo Awards nominations. For those unfamiliar with the Hugos and what’s currently going on right now, here’s the thumbnail sketch: the Hugos are one of the most prestigious awards for science fiction and fantasy (SF/F); the nominations and awards are voted on by the membership of Worldcon; last year was considered a banner year by many because of the number of women and writers of colour represented among the nominations; this year is experiencing a Gamergate-like backlash, in which a group of very vocal writers and fans successfully lobbied the Worldcon membership to nominate their slate of choices; they did so, in the words of one of their more vociferous agitators, to strike back “against the left-wing control freaks who have subjected science fiction to ideological control for two decades and are now attempting to do the same thing in the game industry.”

This movement, for reasons I haven’t discerned (nor do I care to), has labeled itself “Sad Puppies,” the architects of which are writers Brad R. Torgersen and Larry Correia. The group has spawned a more vitriolic spinoff called (of course) “Rabid Puppies,” led by Gamergate doyen and general aresehole Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day (a sad excuse for a human who believes in repealing women’s suffrage and who referred to the talented N.K. Jemisin as a “half-savage”).

Apparently this is the third year that Sad Puppies has attempted this; from what I gather, this year they were successful to a large extent because they gained momentum off Gamergate. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the Hugo Awards, or really to any literary awards. I haven’t read any of the novels or stories being pushed by the various puppy-related groups, and so can’t pronounce on their quality or lack thereof. But in my reading about this controversy, I came across a rationale written by Brad Torgersen for why the puppy-ization of this year’s awards is necessary, and it so perfectly summarizes the kind of narrow, reactionary thinking that was on full display during the Gamergate idiocy that it is worth parsing.

Basically, what Torgersen seems to be lamenting is a sort of false advertising: SF/F no longer delivers to fans what they expect, and what its packaging would appear to promise. To make his point, he offers an analogy so torturously obtuse that I really just need to quote in its entirety:

Imagine for a moment that you go to the local grocery to buy a box of cereal. You are an avid enthusiast for Nutty Nuggets. You will happily eat Nutty Nuggets until you die. Nutty Nuggets have always come in the same kind of box with the same logo and the same lettering. You could find the Nutty Nuggets even in the dark, with a blindfold over your eyes. That’s how much you love them.

Then, one day, you get home from the store, pour a big bowl of Nutty Nuggets . . . and discover that these aren’t really Nutty Nuggets. They came in the same box with the same lettering and the same logo, but they are something else. Still cereal, sure. But not Nutty Nuggets. Not wanting to waste money, you eat the different cereal anyway. You find the experience is not what you remembered it should be, when you ate actual Nutty Nuggets. You walk away from the experience somewhat disappointed. What the hell happened to Nutty Nuggets? Did the factory change the formula or the manufacturing process? Maybe you just got a bad box.

So you go back to the store again, to buy another box of good old delicious and reliable Nutty Nuggets!

Again, you discover (upon returning home) that the contents of your Nutty Nuggets box are not Nutty Nuggets. The contents are something different. Maybe similar to Nutty Nuggets, but not Nutty Nuggets. Nor are the contents like they were, with the prior box. You dutifully chomp them down, but even adding a spoonful of sugar doesn’t make the experience better. In fact, this time, the taste is that much worse.

Two bad boxes in a row? Must have been a bad shipment!

Return to the store. Buy another box. Bam. It’s not Nutty Nuggets.

This time, you add bananas, sugar, and berries. This only makes up for the deficit a little bit.

Return to the store again for yet another box. Yup. It says NUTTY NUGGETS proudly on the packaging. You are sure in your heart that you love and adore Nutty Nuggets! And yet, the magic is gone. This is not the cereal you first fell in love with. The box may say NUTTY NUGGETS but you won’t be fooled any longer. Nutty Nuggets are dead. Or at least they are no longer of any interest to you.

So, you reluctantly turn to another brand. Maybe Freaky Flakes or Crunchy Bits? You give up on Nutty Nuggets, and you let some other cereal woo your taste buds. A cereal that is reliably what it claims to be on the outside of the box.

That’s what’s happened to Science Fiction & Fantasy literature. A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.

These days, you can’t be sure.

The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?

There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?

A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.

Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.

Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.

Do you see what I am trying to say here?

I’m pretty sure I don’t need to point out the most obvious flaw in this analogy, but I’m going to anyway: you don’t consume stories and poop them out as you do with breakfast cereal. If your favourite packaged food product changes its ingredients, you’re pretty much shit out of luck. But your beloved space operas and bare-chested barbarians haven’t disappeared: there they are on your bookshelf, or at the library, waiting for you to read them again.

I’d love to be able to say that Torgersen’s jeremiad is disingenuous, but it feels way too earnest. Given that he is himself a SF/F author of some note, one might expect him to be not so … well, ignorant. Lamenting the fact that SF/F is different today than in previous decades, in part because it incorporates new voices and preoccupations, is like complaining that we haven’t had any good new Elizabethan plays lately. Literature reflects its historical moment, but it also reflects the way in which its authors engage with their literary milieu. Torgersen writes: “SF/F literature seems almost permanently stuck on the subversive switcheroo. If we’re going to do a Tolkien-type fantasy, this time we’ll make the Orcs the heroes, and Gondor will be the bad guys.” To which I say: why not? What’s wrong with that? The Lord of the Rings will always be there for you to read. It spawned a huge number of imitations, which ranged from artful homage to derivative dreck, but at a certain point writers of talent are going to transform the genre because they don’t see the point in simply recapitulating the formulae of the writers who influenced them. Neil Gaiman is fond of saying that he became a writer because he wanted to write The Lord of the Rings and was always annoyed that Tolkien beat him to it. So he wrote Sandman and American Gods instead, and we’re the richer for it because he did not simply give us a new variation on Middle-Earth. When Time magazine called George R.R. Martin “the American Tolkien,” they were correct in the spirit of the compliment and utterly wrong in terms of the substance of A Song of Ice and Fire, a series that has done as much to change the parameters of fantasy as The Lord of the Rings did to establish them.

He goes on to list other representative “subversive switcheroos”:

Space opera? Our plucky underdogs will be transgender socialists trying to fight the evil galactic corporations. War? The troops are fighting for evil, not good, and only realize it at the end. Planetary colonization? The humans are the invaders and the native aliens are the righteous victims. Yadda yadda yadda.

Which is not to say you can’t make a good SF/F book about racism, or sexism, or gender issues, or sex, or whatever other close-to-home topic you want. But for Pete’s sake, why did we think it was a good idea to put these things so much on permanent display, that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side? Or even absent altogether?

A few points here. First, a fatal contradiction: the adventuresome spirit of SF/F Torgersen ostensibly celebrates here is utterly absent from his argument. His entire rationale is really about advocating Boldly Going Where We’ve Totally Gone Before.

Second, when he claims that these themes are on “permanent display,” I think of that West Wing episode when the president, having listened to a series of impassioned arguments in favour of an anti-flag burning amendment, is compelled to ask, “Is there an epidemic of flag burning I’m unaware of?” Perhaps I just don’t read widely enough, but I have seen no such “permanent display.”

Third, and most important, is the canard that animated the Gamergate idiocy: namely, that the introduction of new voices and new perspectives, some of which you find not to your taste, entails the wholesale destruction of what you love, whether it be gaming or SF/F. Anita Sarkeesian produced a handful of video essays critiquing the representation of women in video games. As such critiques go, they were pretty mild—mainly just taking images from a slew of games and letting them speak for themselves. Given the vitriol with which her videos were met, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d advocated dictatorial censorship of the gaming industry, incarceration of the game creators, and fines to be levied on those who played them. But of course she didn’t—she just suggested that we be aware of the often unsubtle misogyny of many video games, that perhaps this was something that should be curtailed in the future, and further that the gaming industry would do well to produce more games that female gamers—an ever-growing demographic—would find amenable.

The canard underwriting the kind of hostility Sarkeesian experienced is the idea that this is all somehow a zero-sum game. The gaming industry is vast, and SF/F boasts an ever-growing readership, but the gamergaters and Brad Torgersens of the world seem to believe that for every new novel featuring a transgender hero, or every new game lacking half-naked female victims, that they somehow lose something—that their world shrinks. Torgersen seems to believe this will contribute, ultimately, to the “unraveling” of SF/F:

We’ve been burning our audience (more and more) since the late 1990s. Too many people kept getting box after box of Nutty Nuggets, and walking away disappointed. Because the Nutty Nuggets they grew to love in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, were not the same Nutty Nuggets being proffered in the 2000s, and beyond.

He goes on to say that “there may not be enough cohesive force to keep SF/F tied together as a whole.” Seriously? Seriously. I translate this as “The SF/F that I like isn’t being written in great volumes any more, which therefore means that the genre is in its death throes.” The reductiveness of this kind of thinking is truly sad, as it implies yet another canard—that one can’t do sweeping, epic, Tolkienesque fantasy, or bombastic space opera, and introduce the elements Torgersen derides. Except that you can, and writers do, all the time. It might not precisely be Tolkien or Heinlein, but the last time I was at the bookstore (yesterday), Tolkien and Heinlein were still quite well represented on the shelves.

Yes, SF/F has changed. It is changing. It will continue to change. The generic boundaries defining it have blurred as authors and the reading audience grow more inclined toward crossing those boundaries, as more young adults cut their teeth on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, “literary” authors like Colson Whitehead, Margaret Atwood, and Kazuo Ishiguro venture into the SF/F realms, and prestige television like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones make people less prejudiced toward genres long ghettoized as “pulp.” But then, that opening up of SF/F breeds resentment among those fans who see such changes as encroachment of interlopers, and they take on the querulous tones of an old man yelling at the rest of us to get off his lawn.

sad cat

My cat is sad because he just can’t even with the Sad Puppies.



Filed under maunderings, wingnuttery

The Wire and Police Militarization

There is a moment in the final episode of season one of The Wire, when the police are about to raid drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s headquarters, a low-rent strip club. A SWAT team in full military regalia arrays itself on the street, to the contempt of both the criminals inside, and the cops outside. “Look at these Delta-Force motherfuckers, man,” scoffs Barksdale as he watches the SWAT officers on his security cameras as they scurry around outside with their assault rifles. “This isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be,” gripes Jimmy McNulty as he watches from the car, to which Lieutenant Daniels responds, “The SWAT guys do love to break out their toys, don’t they?” “They think they’ve got Tony Montana up there?” McNulty asks, and after a moment he and Daniels leave the car and walk up to the door over the protests of the SWAT members, enter the building, and arrest Barksdale (who knows perfectly well what’s coming) without any fuss.

None of which is to suggest that highly-trained and heavily-armed police aren’t sometimes a necessary evil; but the mockery on display in this brief scene is remarkable for being more or less sui generis in film and television today. Not all cop shows celebrate the paramilitary dimension of law enforcement, but it is practically unheard-of for it to be openly derided. And more and more, this militarization of police forces has become a prominent feature in the depiction of police, whether in the all-too-frequent recourse to assault weapons in shows like Hawaii Five-O, or as the focus of shows like Flashpoint. Since 9/11, the line between films and series about counter-terrorism, and police procedurals has grown quite blurry.

hawaii-five-Oflashpoint dallas_swat
Sadly, this does seem to be one of those cases in which popular culture, as opposed to creating a delusional fantasy about the nature of police forces, is actually just reflecting the current reality, at least in part. On one hand, the diabolical, conspiratorial villains that require Steve McGarrett and company to suit up every week in Maui (who knew Hawaii was such a hotbed of organized paramilitary crime?) are in fact delusional fantasies; but the reflexive recourse by American police to military weaponry is all too real. The New York Times recently posted an interactive map showing counties to which the Pentagon has sold surplus military firearms, armoured vehicles, grenade launchers, helicopters, assault rifles, and other gear. It is truly disturbing.

Alyssa Rosenberg
has a very astute blog post about the gradual transformation in popular culture of the depiction of the police and policing. In particular, she considers that utopian gem of small-town nostalgia, The Andy Griffith Show, in which Griffith played Andy Taylor, the sage sheriff of the idyllic small town Mayberry. She writes:

Even when it began, executives acknowledged that The Andy Griffith Show was a nostalgic portrait of small-town life. But it expressed an ideal that has leached out of American pop culture and public policy, to dangerous effect: that the police were part of the communities that they served and shared their fellow citizens’ interests. They were of their towns and cities, not at war with them.

In case it’s not painfully obvious from this quotation, the impetus for Rosenberg’s post is the current dire state of affairs in Ferguson, Missouri, which has seen the county police there respond to the civil unrest following the shooting of Michael Brown with what can only be called disproportionate force. What has been most striking—and disturbing—about the images proliferating across the media is not just police militancy, but police militarization: assault rifles, armoured vehicles, and, bizarrely, camouflage fatigues. As comedian John Oliver ironically noted, military camouflage is not exactly functional in an urban space (if they want to blend in with their environment, he snarks, “they should dress like a dollar store”).

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man
The ongoing events in Ferguson are deeply depressing, not least because they are bringing so many issues plaguing the U.S. into stark relief, issues that flare up into the public eye from time to time but tend to disappear unless one makes a point of paying attention: racial inequality, systemic racism, police brutality and an increasing lack of accountability for it, the rampant militarization of police departments across the country, and the general obliviousness of white America to all of the foregoing. If Ferguson seems at times bewildering, I suspect it is (in part) because all of these ugly factors are on full display.

I am hardly an expert on any of this. What professional interest I have in writing this post is the same as Alyssa Rosenberg’s, which is to say how popular culture reflects and inflects what we’re seeing on the news. Her point about Andy Griffith and Mayberry admittedly deals with a utopian image of America that likely never actually existed for anyone but oblivious prepubescent white boys in rural towns, but her central observation is spot on: that what we’re missing in the present day is the conception of police as being of their communities as opposed to against them.

In a trio of blog posts about Ferguson, David Simon quotes Orson Welles’ terribly apposite adage that police work is only easy in a police state; I’m tempted to say that “police state” is in fact a contradiction in terms, as what it really refers to is a state in which martial law is the status quo, and that is the antithesis of policing. And I cite David Simon here, because I don’t think there has been a more eloquent and trenchant argument for this principle than The Wire. In what is perhaps my favourite moment from the show, police Major Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom) dresses down Sergeant Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam) for not understanding this basic principle of policing. He tells Carver that he’s a good man and a decent administrator, “But from where I’m sitting, you ain’t shit when it comes to policing.” Why? Because Carver is all about making petty arrests, cracking heads on the corners, and keeping his numbers up … but he knows nothing of the neighbourhoods, about who is running things, or what is generally going on. He has no informants and no allies. “Don’t take it personal,” says Colvin. “It’s not just you, it’s all our young police … the whole generation.”

The speech that follows—which happens toward the end of season three, just past the midpoint of the series as a whole—is as close to an articulation of The Wire’s main thesis as we get. Click the link above and watch the clip (embedding, unfortunately, is disabled on it), but it is worth writing it out:

This drug thing, this ain’t police work. No. It ain’t. I mean, I can send any fool with a badge and a gun up on them corners to jack a crew and grab vials … but policing … I mean, you call something a war, and pretty soon everyone’s gonna be running around acting like warriors. They’re gonna be running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts. And when you’re at war, you need a fucking enemy! And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner’s your fucking enemy. And soon, the neighbourhood you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory …

Soldiering and policing, they ain’t the same thing. And before we went and took a wrong turn and started up with these war games, the cop walked a beat. And he learned that post. And if there were things that happened up on that post, be they a rape, a robbery, a shooting—he had people out there helping him, feeding him information. But every time I come to you, my DEU sergeant, for information, for finding out what’s going on out in those streets? All that came back was some bullshit. You had your stats, you had your arrests, you had your seizures. But don’t none of that amount to shit when you’re talking about protecting a neighbourhood, now.

The Wire is, specifically, about the War on Drugs and its lamentable failures, but it is also a show about the dissolution of community bonds that begins to negate the very concept of community. What’s happening in Ferguson right now has little to do specifically with the War on Drugs, but everything to do with the way in which that transformation of the relationship between police and neighbourhoods has made the current unrest not so much possible as inevitable.


Filed under maunderings, television

24, the CIA, and the Fantasy of Hyper-Competence

I’ve been watching 24: Live Another Day, a so-called “event series” of 24 that brings back everyone’s favourite gravelly-voiced secret agent, Jack Bauer. I’ve watched 24 since its third season (and have since watched the first two on DVD), and it is difficult to pinpoint when my interest morphed from “hey, exciting TV show” to something more academic. Certainly, it was the academic interest that saw me through some of its terrible later seasons, for even when the show got repetitive and (oddly) lugubrious, it always functioned as a fascinating window into a terrified zeitgeist that imagined terrorist threats in increasingly absurd and outlandish ways.


“So, what does it take to be an uber-agent? Training? Tactical brilliance? Ruthlessness?” “No, it’s mostly just shouting.”

Watching the newest season (really a half-season, though I suppose they can’t very well rebrand it as 12), I am struck anew by the way the show rests on the foundation of a sort of symbolic arms race, in which the terrorists possess increasingly sophisticated technology and apparently unlimited funds, which they employ in increasingly, ludicrously, complex and intricate plots against America. Arrayed against such threats is the CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) and, in Live Another Day, the CIA, which possess something resembling omniscient surveillance capabilities and the technological savvy to instantly hack almost any electronic system for information and/or more surveillance. This panoptical apparatus and its operators’ preternatural technological ability (as embodied in the savant-like Chloe O’Brian) is tacitly justified by the terrorist du jour’s own sophistication and resources. A typical 24 plot would never be concerned with a bunch of foreign nationals attending flight school in, say, Florida; it would instead feature terrorist hackers taking over air traffic control communications, or, in the case of the current season, taking control of American drones.

Michelle Fairley, aka Catelyn Stark, as the most recent alpha-terrorist on 24. See? I told them there's be serious blowback from the Red Wedding.

Michelle Fairley, aka Catelyn Stark, as the most recent alpha-terrorist on 24. See? I told them there would be serious blowback from the Red Wedding.

All of the apparatus of an electronic surveillance state is present but unremarked: 24 would be unthinkable without it. And yet, it is invariably vulnerable. In every single season of 24, CTU’s omniscient technology proves insufficient to deter whatever attack is afoot. It falls instead to the indomitable Jack Bauer, whose instincts and intuition almost always trump the conclusions of legions of intelligence analysts.

24 has such an odd paradox at its center, one that is something Fredric Jameson would call a symbolic resolution, in fiction, of an intractable real-world contradiction. On one hand you have the implicit faith in the panoptical surveillance state—and not just faith, but the tacit understanding that such apparatus is necessary and indeed a given, something so universally understood as reality that there is no question of it being, well, questioned. And let’s be clear on what this means: though all we ever see of it are the dim offices of a subterranean CTU station, it represents a vast and omnipresent governmental reach with apparent impunity to spy on both citizens and foreigners. On the other hand, I don’t believe there has been a single season of 24 in which Jack Bauer hasn’t gone rogue in some capacity, because working within the confines of the “law” (however egregiously attenuated it might be) straitjackets Jack and prevents him from doing what has to be done.

Hence, 24 has always been equally invested in pervasive and invasive government and the need to escape it. It’s really no surprise that 24 is a favourite of neoconservatives, as it articulates that contradiction at the heart of their creed: the desire for American omnipotence co-existing with an ideological antipathy to “big government.”

And while the series’ main ongoing controversy—and its most egregious and troubling element—has been the use of torture as a legitimate means of extracting actionable intelligence, more subtly pernicious is the depiction of Jack Bauer’s preternatural competence, as well as that of CTU. This is not, of course, anything different from the dozens and hundreds of films and television shows about espionage and clandestine military ops—from James Bond to the Smoking Man to every film about elite commandos ever, the appeal of these stories lies in their illusion of mastery and control and the unerring accuracy of intelligence, intuition, and interpretation.

Legacy_smpbAll of which is, of course, a patent fallacy. I probably wouldn’t be writing about all this if I hadn’t recently read a history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes (2007), by Tim Weiner. It might as well have been subtitled “A History of Abject Failure,” given that it is a brutal chronicle of the CIA’s chronic ineptitude, from the opening salvos of the Cold War to the clusterfuck that was the catastrophic intelligence failures of Iraq. Much of Weiner’s source material is reams of documents that were declassified in 2004-2005, so the story he tells is not only a new one but decidedly at odds with the way the agency has been depicted in popular culture, and how it depicted itself. Depending on when the CIA has been depicted in film, fiction, or television largely determines whether it is portrayed as malevolent or heroic; but one way or another it has tended to appear as a ruthlessly efficient operation, sometimes riven by internal rivalries and discord, but always a terribly efficacious tool in the service of either good or evil.

The reality of its history as detailed by Weiner is one in which failure, incompetence, and willful institutional blindness are the norm. If the agency has been consistently good at one thing, it is the ability to whitewash those failures, spin them as successes, and burnish its reputation as an omniscient and omnipotent force for American security and freedom.

Weiner starts his book by noting that the CIA was founded for the sole purpose of intelligence aggregation and analysis. Harry Truman basically wanted a small agency whose job would be to present him on a daily basis with a snapshot of what was going on in the world. The agency that developed, however, was very quickly hijacked by men far more interested in covert operations: who instead of keeping tabs on international communism and other threats, saw themselves as freebooters whose job was to actively combat these threats and work to roll them back. As the Cold War took shape and the USSR emerged as the United States’ principal antagonist, their energies went into clandestine skirmishes. They never succeeded in providing the president with what he most desired: a window into Soviet operations and a reliable intelligence that would warn of an imminent nuclear threat.

In fact, the first two hundred pages of Legacy of Ashes reads not so much as a comedy of errors as a tragic farce. It took the CIA over a decade to realize that the Soviets had spies riddling both American and British intelligence. In operation after operation, they trained refugees from behind the Iron Curtain (and in the Korean War, South Korean nationals) in combat and intelligence gathering and dropped them into enemy territory. The failure rate for these operations was one hundred percent, as the enemy knew precisely when and where these drops would take place and often had men there waiting for them. The hapless agents were imprisoned and tortured (if they weren’t summarily shot on sight), and either turned by the KGB or executed. Ten years the CIA bloody-mindedly continued … and that is only a single story from Weiner’s six hundred page litany of incompetence. As he remarks about the early, enthusiastic forays of the fledging agency, the United States was childishly blundering into a world of espionage that Russia had been playing like a chess master for two centuries.


When I watched Homeland for the first time, my initial thought was that here was a series that functioned in part as a corrective to 24—it approached the questions of nation, identity, faith, and loyalty (as well as the business of intelligence-gathering more generally) with a nuance and complexity alien to 24. And yet in the aftermath of reading Weiner’s book, it becomes obvious that even Homeland manages to completely overestimate the CIA’s efficacy and competence.

The figure of the elite soldier or agent backed by a technologically sophisticated agency has become increasingly commonplace in popular culture. James Bond might have blazed the trail, but you see his progeny strewn throughout film and television. I don’t care to speculate on why precisely—that’s a post for another day—but we’ve moved far away from the images of the grunt and the common soldier which dominated war films until the first post-Vietnam movies introducing us to the likes of John Rambo started to focus on the elite, hypercompetent soldier to the exclusion of mere mortals. On one hand, such musclebound commandos as portrayed by Stallone and Schwartzenegger were an obvious overcompensation for America’s symbolic emasculation in Vietnam; but I’m also tempted to say it becomes bound up in the delusions of conspiracy theory that pervaded the 1970s and afterward, so beautifully summed up by Don DeLillo in his novel Libra:

If we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme. Silent nameless men with unadorned hearts. A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. We are the flawed ones, the innocents, trying to make some rough sense of the daily jostle. Conspirators have a logic and a daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find coherence in some criminal act.

Certainly this figuration of conspiracy is what animates 24—the specter of such “cold, sure, undistracted,” perfect schemes perpetrated by “silent nameless men with unadorned hearts,” which cannot be countered with anything so wishy-washy as legal or democratic means.

That is the fantasy, and yet everything we learn from history teaches us otherwise. I’ve never actually met a real 9/11 Truther (at least none who have declared themselves as such), but my counter-argument would have nothing to do with the ostensible physics of building collapses, and everything to do with the simple question “Do you honestly think that the Bush Administration would be competent enough to pull something like that off?” In the aftermath of 9/11, Elaine Scarry wrote a remarkable essay titled “Citizenship in Emergency” which did a wonderful job of taking down all our assumptions about the “fast response” capabilities of the military and civil defense and arguing that there was only one response to the terrorists’ attack that succeeded: the ad-hoc resistance of the passengers on United 93.

The more I dwell on this topic, the more it bothers me, and the more I come to believe that the fantasy of hypercompetence, while appealing as a popular trope, is also culturally pernicious. It affords the delusion of precision and exactitude in spheres of action that are inherently chaotic and unpredictable. It is why Wayne LaPierre’s mantra “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is just so much horseshit. It assumes that the good guy with the gun will unerringly put down the bad guy as opposed to adding to the carnage with shots that go wide of the target. Even highly trained peace officers or soldiers, when put in the crucible of a firefight, can’t shoot with the innate accuracy of a nickelodeon gunslinger; what are we to expect of a well-meaning citizen whose only experience firing his weapon has been on the gun range? When two police officers in Manhattan fire sixteen rounds at a man with a gun and succeed in wounding nine bystanders, the comforting idea that a firefight can be contained sort of goes out the window.

On the other hand, if we all get together and be reasonable about the topic, we can come to the comforting conclusion that the uber-terrorists of 24 are just as much of a fantasy.

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Slayage: Reflections

WhedonConference_InStoryIt has now been a week since Slayage ended, and I have had that time to reflect on what was, in many ways, one of the best conference experiences I have ever had. As I said in my previous post, it is a pretty singular experience to attend an academic conference at which everyone is familiar with all of the primary texts: normally conferences tend to feature an awful lot of papers on topics about which you know nothing, are only tangentially familiar with, or simply don’t care about. Not that there is anything wrong with that: it is the way of academic conferences, and frequently yields pleasant surprises when you sit in on a panel not expecting to hear anything of interest to you and become fascinated by someone or other’s compelling take on an issue you never knew existed.


I was one of the few people at the conference without Whedon-themed clothing, but then I won this sweet Captain Hammer hoodie in the silent auction. All set for 2016!

This, I should add, is my experience because I have not (until now) attended a specialists’ conference, the kind dedicated to a single author or artist. I imagine there must be much more consonance between conferees at the annual James Joyce conference, or something dedicated solely to the likes or Jane Austen, with what I experienced at Slayage. I suspect that one of the big differences between this conference and those, however, is that there is no real need (unless you’re speaking to someone who dismisses the humanities out of hand) to explain that, yes, there are associations and organizations dedicated to the study of Joyce and Austen. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to Slayage, when asked what this conference in Sacramento I was attending was about, I instinctively went into a bit of a defensive crouch: following up the phrase “Whedon Studies” with “yes, that’s a thing,” or prefacing it with a little laugh and saying, “Believe it or not …”

I’m a little ashamed of that defensive crouch now in the aftermath. Well, not ashamed exactly, because there was never any doubt in my head that the works of Joss Whedon are worthy of academic inquiry and analysis, but I’ll certainly be less instinctively defensive in the future. Indeed, I mean to make it my mission to rope in friends and colleagues who are fellow Whedon enthusiasts to come to future conferences, and one day to bring the conference itself to Memorial.

If I’d had a concern going in to Slayage, it was that the academic rigor on display would be denuded by fanboy and –girlism. It is, unfortunately, something you see in television studies—not a lot, but enough to be dismaying—when you read an essay whose author has obviously let his or her enthusiasm and love for the topic run away from them a bit and erode the kind of scholarly and critical objectivity such work demands. In such cases there is often a subtext of “OMG, I can’t believe I get to write about this!” at work, though that may just be me projecting.

WSA Squirrel Association

The squirrels on Sacramento State campus were disturbingly bold, and in the aftermath a good number of squirrel memes emerged on Facebook among WSA members.

There is an interesting study—probably more than one—to be done on intersections of fan culture and academia. To a certain extent, certainly when it comes to the study of literature and film, all professors are fanboys and –girls. There’s a large number of factors contributing to the masochism that propels people through a PhD (including, but not limited to, actual masochism), but one of the most crucial is the kind of obsession with a series of texts and authors that in other contexts leads people to dress up in costumes and attend comic-cons. There’s a blush of respectability associated with the study of Shakespeare and other canonical authors, of course, but the professoriate has long been lampooned for displaying the qualities often associated with so-called geek culture, from being fashion-challenged, to inhabiting recursive bubbles of self-reference, to obsessing over arcane and esoteric details, to being loners locked away in rooms poring over the minutiae of our chosen field. Oh, and writing endless tracts discussing and arguing all of the aforementioned minutiae and arcana, to say nothing of the blood feuds that erupt when people disagree over foundational tenets.

No blood feuds here. The conference was also great because I got to hang out with Nikki Stafford, whom you might remember from such roles as my Game of Thrones co-blogger.

No blood feuds here. The conference was also great because I got to hang out with Nikki Stafford, whom you might remember from such roles as my Game of Thrones co-blogger.

I’m happy to say that those stereotypes, while occasionally accurate, have far less basis in reality than many might imagine. Both fan culture and academic are far more social, far more gregarious, and far less contentious than often characterized. (That being said, for all of the comity and friendliness at Slayage, there was one moment when I was afraid punches would be thrown, when someone went off-topic and said that Matt Smith was a far superior Doctor Who than David Tennant. At which point there was serious concern about blood being spilled). Whatever fears I had about Slayage descending into Comic Book Guy-style nerdery and nitpicking were totally unfounded: the papers were indistinguishable from almost any other academic conference I’ve attended in terms of their quality and intellectual rigor; I’m tempted to say that they were on average of higher quality than normal, but that might just be because I was more familiar with their primary texts.

And it was this familiarity that was so wonderful. Not only were the papers as good as any I have seen elsewhere, more importantly the discussions afterward were more vibrant, in-depth, and thought-provoking than any I have experienced—again, because everyone was on the same page. Everyone brought to the table the same love of the material, and familiarity with it, as everyone else, and it created a sense of camaraderie that is genuinely rare in such contexts. My new friend K. Dale Koontz sums it up beautifully on her blog:

The WSA [Whedon Studies Association] is devoted to the academic study of Joss Whedon, a prospect that has caused more than one media professional to say, “Huh-what?” I’m not here to re-plow that ground—Whedon’s work often shows depth and nuance that an academic would eagerly pounce on, and the fact that humor is so tightly interwoven just makes the exploration that much—well, cooler. We’re fans of the work … which means we quote, and quip, and wear clever T-shirts. But at the core, Slayage is about scholarship. How does Dollhouse tackle themes of consent and privilege? How can theories of leadership and military tactics be applied to The Avengers? How does the law firm of Wolfram & Hart reflect actual legal principles of a “vigorous defense”? Oh, we do go on.

We do indeed, and it was a great pleasure to be part of it. Any fears I had that it would be a love-fest of all things Whedon ended in the very first panel I attended. The members of the WSA are fans but not slavish fans: there was an awful lot of poking-with-a-sharp-stick going on, especially in terms of Whedon’s gender and racial politics (one of the perennially uncomfortable questions that got a lot of airing last weekend was that, if Firefly depicts a future in which China and the United States emerge as conflated cultural hegemons—to the point where Chinese phrases and curses are part of the vernacular—why is it we see absolutely no Asian faces in the series?). On one hand, a critical mass of scholars and academics has grown around Whedon’s work because of his peculiar brilliance, his humour, and his recurrent themes and tropes. But on the other hand, we should our love as all adults should, but occasionally poking with the aforementioned stick.

Well ... not that kind of stick, necessarily.

Well … not that kind of stick, necessarily.

I also do not want to re-plow the ground of just why scholarly attention to such figures as Joss Whedon is not just justified but vital—I’ll save that for a future post—but to use this forum to thank everyone who organized the conference for a job extremely well done.

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On Arriving at the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything

I’m forty-two years old today. Forty-two doesn’t have the quality of such milestone ages as nineteen, twenty-five, thirty, forty, or so on … but as a number in and of itself, forty-two has always had something of a talismanic quality for me, for reasons I wasn’t aware of until I started to give it some thought.

It all goes back to the multiplication tables, really. The four central numbers there are thirty-six (six by six), forty-nine (seven by seven) and forty-two twice (six by seven and vice versa). Forty-two has always been a comforting number, in its centrality and in the fact that I always liked the equation 6×7. I never had to reach for the answer, or ask myself what numbers multiplied to make forty-two, unlike such products as fifty-four, sixty-three, and fifty-six. Why those numbers always required (and still require) a moment’s thought to remember their combinations, I couldn’t say—other than to speculate that there’s a lot of reasons why I am an English professor and not, say, and engineer or accountant.


I also like the individual numbers six and seven. Seven has the obvious talismanic quality of luck, of prime numberhood, and the fact that it just looks cool. 7. Six seems like a friendlier number, hobbit-like in its cheerful rotundity and evenness. 6. Together they seem like a fun pair.

There is also, of course, the fact of galactic philosophical history as chronicled in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Tasked with coming up with the answer to life, the universe, and everything, the uber-computer Deep Thought calculated for several million years, until finally presenting its answer:

“Alright,” said the computer and settled into silence again. The two men fidgeted. The tension was unbearable.
“You’re really not going to like it,” observed Deep Thought.
“Tell us!”
“Alright,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question …”
“Yes …!”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything …” said Deep Thought.
“Yes …!”
“Is …” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Yes …!”
“Is …”
“Yes … !!! … ?”
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.

I await enlightenment. Hopefully it is not mathematical in nature.

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