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Archive for January, 2014

Why U No Write Good Game of Thrones/Battleship Galactica Natsec Piece?

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

(by Adam Elkus)

Daniel Nexon’s recent piece at his new blog asks a depressing question: why do so few political scientists that write on popular culture regard methodology as an afterthought? When not justifying the study of popular culture, people that write “____ and my favorite subject” pieces become literary scholars:

[S]cholars advanced social-theoretic arguments — almost always linguistic-turn in nature — for close readings of popular-culture texts. At the extreme you find what Iver and I refer to as “radical intertextuality.” If everything is intertext, then why study a foreign-policy speech when you can study KillzoneWhy read the FOMC minutes when The Wolf of Wall Street beckons? These approaches are deeply theoretical, but they often aren’t terribly interested in methodology. Indeed, some variants of the “aesthetic turn” are  inflected by an anti-method stance. Analyzing popular culture becomes a subversive act aimed at those who insist on ‘rigorous science.’

One possible answer is that even intertext is actually simply a means to an end. In video game studies, there is a split between those that focus on narrative and those that focus on gameplay mechanics — though many bridge the gap. But when a natsec writer or scholar writes “what ___ teaches us about my pet subject” pieces (I often am guilty of falling into this category), they are often taking an instrumental approach to the object they are trying to explain. They want to use it as a prop to advance some point they are interested in making, and could easily have made elsewhere. If they are diligent, they will try to use close reading of the pop culture artifact to back up their points — as they would in a high school English class term paper. But they are still mostly imposing a reading of the narrative as to bolster their larger points about the academic or current-events subjects that really interest them.

The problem with this is that something like Star Wars is a world model with its own rules and mechanics. If you try to write a piece for Foreign Affairs about what the Deep Blue-Kasparov chess game tells us about the future of artificial intelligence in world politics — and somehow totally ignored the rules of chess in doing so — your piece would be of little value to anyone. One of my lessons from the Hoth roundtable in Danger Room I participated in was that the dynamics of the world model matter. Almost everyone ignored the Jedi-Sith conflict’s centrality over the Rebellion vs. Empire. Similarly, neglecting to mention Minovsky particles in my io9 piece on Gundam was fatal to the credibility of my argument. Without Minovsky particles, there is no justification for close-in robot or space fleet battles. The tactical and strategic system of the Gundam animes is built around the implications of long-range firepower being negated by Minovsky interference.

Of course, a world’s rules may not be coherent or consistent for a variety of reasons. The writer may have a muddled idea of how the world works, so like a perpetually glitchy computer program there are aspects of the fictional world that are aberrant or inconsistent. The probability of such “glitches” occurring approaches 1 if the world model tackles questions such as time travel that are actually the source of substantial debate in the sciences and philosophy. Second, for reasons external to the fictional world rules might be ultimately inconsistent. A reader familiar with the entire Marvel Comics canon might find it difficult to detect any underlying structure or regularity in a universe full of reboots, characters brought back to life, multiple conflicting timelines over different comic book titles, and various supernatural, mythological, extraterrestrial, and extra-dimensional lifeforms. Given the multiplicity of writers and artists that worked/work for/in the Marvel community and the commercial ups and downs of Marvel as a corporate entity, this is to be expected. The latter factor is particularly important, given that Lucas famously structured many aspects of Star Wars (the controversial Ewoks and the much-loathed Episode I) to sell kids’ toys.

Actually using methodology beyond just close-reading implies comfort with four dimensions of analysis:

1. The narrative of the pop culture object (the who and the what)

2. The underlying mechanics, rules, and laws of the pop culture object’s world

3. Basic subject matter expertise in the discipline you are trying to explain in terms of the pop culture object

4. Analytical methodology

This is a bridge too far for most people looking, as Nexon implies, to get out of the academic or analytical requirements of their own disciplines. But it’s a problem that really goes far beyond just the issue of “International Relations of Westeros”-esque pieces. It’s about the problem of assuming an a symmetry between one’s own world and that of the object of study. And it’s something that comes up quite frequently in history and area studies. Ignoring the underlying rules and mechanics — and by implication filling them in with your own.

Crony capitalism, the choice of 1912, and bully for you

Monday, January 20th, 2014

[given unnatural long life by Lynn C. Rees]
The United States presidential election of 1912 was fought over one fundamental issue: how to handle the political repercussions of the emergence of large concentrations of economic power between the American Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century.

All power is fungible: one form of power can, with varying degrees of difficulty, be converted into another. Economic power can become political power. Political power can become economic power. This means there is ultimately only one market for all forms of power. Change in the division of economic power within an economic market is always followed by change in the division of political power within a political market. Shifts in the division of political power within a political market always impact the division of power within a political market.

Increases in large concentrations of economic power from 1861-1912 intensified an age-old problem: private wealth often finds that it can generate higher returns on investment by investing in one unit of violence than it can by investing in ten units of product improvement. Buying a congressmen or senator is frequently cheaper than building a factory. This imbalance led to many a cozy arrangement between the new men of capital and the old purveyors of political power on all levels of American government.

The three presidential candidates running in 1912 offered three different approaches to mitigating this crony capitalism within the United States’ political system:


Recommended Reading

Monday, January 20th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, by “zen“]

Top Billing! Pete Turner  Afghan Polling and what it Really Means 

One last thing about the DoS and it’s polling. My personal experience working near the DoS folks is they lack the ability to know what the “people” think. They usually make decisions in a vacuum and tend to disregard the people they are seeking to serve.

This is a critical statement, but I’ve seen on any number of occasions large scale decisions, assessments and plans being worked without the presence of an Afghan. The “Accountability Ladder” of DoS is culturally ignorant and often times offensive, even dangerous, to the people the DoS seeks to help.

Second, Glevum Associates. How do I say this succinctly? I don’t trust anything they produce. My direct experience with Glevum has shown a serious lack of credible information being collected by this organization. One example should suffice…We requested a survey for the district I was researching. Keep in mind, I had previous experiences with Glevum in Iraq that made me reluctant to use their data. This time, when we received our data, I laughed. Glevum Associates had managed to survey more people than the reported population of the district. Again, they found more people than actually exist in this district. 

The Orthosphere –  Post-Literacy and the Refusal to Read 

….Increasingly students tell me that they “can’t understand” the reading.  If they referred to Plato’s Symposium, the confession would be easy to interpret.  Abstract argument, syllogisms, and the refutation of syllogisms pose difficulties for inexperienced readers.  However, the texts that students tell me they “can’t understand” are The Odyssey or a novel by Hawthorne or Melville or a short story by Ray Bradbury.  In the case of The Odyssey, I assign Palmer’s WWI-era prose translation, so as not to traumatize the readership by confronting it with narrative in verse.  Students are telling me that they can’t understand stories, where one thing happens which leads to another and so forth.  Students give voice to a different, a radical species of incomprehension that bodes ill for the culture, the society, and the polity that they will constitute.  Their bafflement harbingers the age of post-literacy.

….The post-literate subject somewhat resembles the oral subject: His world is a purely personal world; he is ego-centered and yet his ego is a strictly limited one in correspondence with his limited intellectual horizon; he does not precisely lack objective standards, but he tends to resent and therefore to reject them as infringements on his libido.  Like the oral subject, the post-literate subject communicates through what Ong calls the verbo-motor activity of gestures, body-language, and face-making.  He is demonstrative and body-centered.  Like the oral subject, the post-literate subject thinks not for himself butwith the group. Like any tribesman or clansman, the post-literate subject is quick to be “offended.” His is not E. R. Dodd’s “guilt culture,” that product of the higher, scriptural religions; his is, rather, Dodd’s “shame culture,” the default ethos of pre-literate societies.

On the other hand, post-literacy is not a relapse into orality, which, in its intact form, has institutions of its own such as folklore and social custom that codify the knowledge essential to living.  Post-literacy can draw on no such resources, for these have only been preserved in modern society in literature, and post-literacy has not only lost contact with literature, but also it simply no longer knows how to read in any meaningful sense.  It cannot refer to the archive to replenish itself by a study of its own past.  Post-literacy is therefore also, to borrow a phrase from Oswald Spengler, history-less.

Hat tip to James Bennett 

Oil Review Middle-East  (Christopher Gunson) – US shale revolution poses no threat to Middle East market 

Many commentators have speculated that this will create a new geopolitical balance, one that will weaken the traditional oil and gas producers of the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia. But the impact of the shale revolution on the global oil and gas supply chain is misunderstood.

The role of Middle East oil exporters in the global economy remains secure and the direct impact of US shale on the global market is commonly overestimated.

Crude oil comes in different density grades (heavy or light) and with different levels of sulfur. Shale oil is light with little sulfur, yet many US refineries are designed to accommodate heavy sulfur-rich crudes, typically imported from Canada, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. These refineries cannot be easily recalibrated to refine light sweet shale crude oil, which means that heavy high-sulfur crude oil will continue to be imported into the US oil refining and petrochemical supply chain.

Arabian crude oil share predominately exported eastward to Japan, China, and Korea. This supply chain will remain unchanged. Simply put, US shale oil cannot easily offset traditional Arabian oil supplies to Asia — the oil requires different refining capabilities and there is geographic logic in the existing supply chain. The immediate impact of US shale oil production is to reduce imports of light oil from producers such as Nigeria.

 War on the Rocks (Adam Elkus) – The Odd Sheikh Out: A Complex Problem 

Small Wars Journal – California-Raised Kids vs. Mexico’s Violent Cartel and Recent Santa Muerte Spiritual Conflict Trends 

 Global Guerrillas- Bossnapping 

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross – Interpreting al Qaida 

Science News – Thinking hard weighs heavy on the Brain 

The Volokh Conspiracy – Ninth Circuit to Hear Challenge to Obamacare’s “Platonic Guardians” January 28 

Venkatesh Rao –Consent of the Surveiled 

Slightly East of New – Can America Win Wars? and Boyd Conference in San Diego 

That’s it!

Christian cannibal: first the horror, then the meditation

Friday, January 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — you may not want to watch the video – read the text first, okay? ]

Here’s what the BBC-wallah said:

The Christians were victims; now they’re on top. It’s a dangerous time to be Muslim. A charred and dismembered body is dragged through the streets. Christians have just killed a Muslim passerby. Ouandja “Mad Dog” Magloire was at the head of the mob. He was in a blind fury that day. Muslims killed his pregnant wife, his sister in law, her baby, he tells me. They broke down the door and cut the baby in half. I promised I’d get my revenge. Revenge was an act of cannibalism. First, he stabbed j\his victim. You are Muslim, Muslim, Muslim, he said. I poured petrol over him, I burned him, I ate his leg, right down to the white bone. The victim was just passing through on a bus. Most Christians are horrified, but resigned. No-one tried to help him, say these eyewitnesses. Everyone is so angry with these Muslims. No way anyone was going to intervene.

This happened at two o’clock in the afternoon, when the streets were crowded with people, just like you see today. Everyone we’ve spoken to is still at a loss to know what to make of it. Was it the act of a madman, was it somebody who’d been pushed by sectarian hatred, was it explained perhaps, by traditional beliefs in magic and sorcery. These fighters are Christians but they also believe in magic. their amulets contain soil from their ancestors’ graves. Some carry the flesh of enemies they’ve killed. These charms are a delicate subject, not often discussed with outsiders. We are bullet-proof, says the commander. Mad Dog Magloire went further. perhaps his crime resulted from his own demons, but to some Christians he’s a hero. That doesn’t bode well for this country’s future.

If you want to watch him say it, it’s powerful. Here you go:

Okay, now for the meditation: I want to rescue something out of all this horror.


The very first thing I want to note is this:

We are bullet-proof, says the commander.

I’ve run across this before, it’s a common motif. Remember the Lakota Ghost Dance shirts? Johnny and Luther Htoo, the cigar-smoking twins who led God’s Army in Myanmar…? Televangelist Wilde Almeda of the Jesus Miracle Crusade in the Philippines?

This is just to say that in my view, religion with spiritual bullet-proofing is different from religion without it, no matter what name you tag the religion with.


Next up:

Most Christians are horrified, but resigned. … perhaps his crime resulted from his own demons, but to some Christians he’s a hero.

It could be tribal. It could be magical, maybe. It could be religious, specifically Christian. It could be Mad Dog Magloire‘s “own demons”. It could be, and surely was, that he saw his pregnant wife slaughtered before his own eyes.

But he projected his thirst for vengeance not on the man — a Muslim — who had butchered them, but on a guy in a passing bus who looked like he was Muslim.


Some weeks back, Commander Abu Sakkar of the Farouq Brigades in Syria ate what he took to be the heart of one of his enemies. It turned out to be his enemy’s lung.

  • If you think Mad Dog Magloire doesn’t represent Christianity, maybe Abu Sakkar doesn’t represent Islam.
  • If you think Abu Sakkar is representative of Islam, maybe Magloire is representative of Christianity.
  • I think it is fair to say that any religions with in excess of a billion adherents will find the odd cannibal among them in time of war.


    But then consider this, in peacetime:

    In Ireland this week, a man confessed he’d murdered his landlord over a chess game, and eaten his heart. Forensics showed it was a lung that was missing


    We are, after all, human.

    Joyner and the coup

    Thursday, January 16th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — a bit disconcerted by what I see looming in the futuristic mist — your view may of course differ ]

    Okay, let’s begin this little tour with a recent news flash, to keep us grounded. This comes to you from Indiana:

    Indiana guardsman stopped for speeding in Madison County had 48 bombs, prosecutor says

    An Indiana National Guardsman was arrested outside Columbus on New Year’s Day after a state trooper found nearly 50 bombs and the blueprints for a Navy SEAL training facility inside his car, the Madison County prosecutor said yesterday.

    Targeting the SEALs, hunh? Not, I’d imagine, a soft target.


    I guess there’s something like a buzz or ripple going on, and it concerns me. It crops up in various forms in various places, in fact it’s very various indeed, and varied, and variegated too no doubt. Let’s see…

    There are calls in certain circles for a coup of some kind in the US of A. Here’s the televangelist pastor Rick Joyner

    One of Joyner’s closest military friends is Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin — ex Delta Force, Mogadishu guy, also ex Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence — seen here talking with Joyner:


    Joyner is one of the more prominent pastors associated with C Peter Wagner‘s New Apostolic Reformation, so it’s worth noting that Wagner doesn’t limit his ambitions to “Christendom” but is working for Christian dominion over the entire world, much as certain trends in the Islamic world look for global Islamic dominion:

    My favorite term is “dominion eschatology.” Why? Because Jesus did not give His Great Commission in vain.

    The battle will be ferocious, and we will suffer some casualties along the way. However, we will continue to push Satan back and disciple whole nations.

    We are aggressively retaking dominion, and the rate at which this is happening will soon become exponential. The day will come when “‘The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever’” (Rev. 11:15, NKJV)!

    So that’s one part of the context for Messers. Joyner and Boykin, and Joyner’s thoughts about a coup — also for Boykin’s proffered scenarios for foreign policy, which I addressed in a recent post.


    Then there are the Oathkeepers

    Oath Keepers is instructing its 30,000 members nation-wide to form up special teams and sub-teams in each Oath Keepers chapter, at the town and county level, modeled loosely on the Special Forces “A Team” (Operational Detachment A ) model, and for a similar purpose: to be both a potential operational unit for community security and support during crisis, but also, as mission #1, to serve as training and leadership cadre, to assist in organizing neighborhood watches, organizing veterans halls to provide community civil defense, forming County Sheriff Posses, strengthening existing CERT, volunteer fire, search-and-rescue, reserve deputy systems, etc., and eventually to assist in forming and training town and county militias (established by official act of town and county elected representatives). We want our chapters to organize themselves as a working model that we can then take to other veterans organizations, such as the VFW, American Legion, Marine Corps League, etc. in each town and help them establish such teams within their already existing veterans halls. And likewise, to serve as a model and training cadre to help churches, neighborhood watches, and any other civic organization organize.

    These guys are more about resisting government oppression than endorsing a coup, eh? — but there’s morphing potential between one and the other.

    What I’m up to here, y’see, is not about presenting a coherent argument starting from a premise and arriving at a conclusion, but creating a mini-topography, manpping a landscape if you will, by identifying certain features, with the suggestion that they are somehow related.

    Somehow, I said.

    I am not defining the relationships, which may be quite varied, and also subject to individual interpretation. I am suggesting they may be, very likely are, all features of a common terrain — and worth considering as such.


    Picking up on the theological side of things, we have many people, including legislators like Rep. Michelle Bachmann, who view current events at home and abroad as fulfilling one of the various “end times” scnarios now current in both Christian and Islamic circles:

    People who hold such beliefs tend to take them very seriously, as sanctioned by the supreme authority — and may therefore be strongly influenced by them when making policy decisions. But is Bachmann’s eschatology right, or Netanyahu’s, or Khamenei’s perhaps? Or one of the secular eschatologies, global warming, nuclear winter, heat death of the universe?

    My most recent post on the foreign side of things, A Clash of Messianisms: now let me get this straight, fits in here somewhere, too.

    Policies driven by an erroneous eschatology might make an unstable situation even worse, no?

    Caveat emptor.


    Let’s move from preachers and pols to regular folks like, well, Josie the Outlaw. What does she have to say for herself — and us all?

    This (above) was quite a hit with some of my liberal friends… who mostly didn’t notice the Gadsden Flag on its brief appearance…

    They were in some cases less happy with this one…


    And then of course, it has indeed been said that…

    whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security…

    The question then arising of how much prudence — prudence, the virtue — is in evidence in this day and age?


    This is where I should really soar, with a short yet powerful invocation af all those virtues one might wish for. We’ve almost forgotten their names. Humility? Is that something to do with humiliation? Sure sounds like it. Prudence? I think I have a great aunt Pru…

    Joyner and Boykin — if you believe we’re in the end times, then wait up — no need to go all guns and MRE on us — fast and pray, will you please, and wait for the new heaven and the new earth?

    And the rest of you — call your great aunt, we need her STAT!!

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