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Cultural foreign policy from the Cold War to today

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominees for the 2015 Academy Awards, the James Franco/Seth Rogen comedy The Interview wasn’t on the list. That the Oscars spurned this “bromance” surprised nobody. Most critics hated the film and even Rogen’s fans found it one of his lesser works.

Those audiences almost didn’t have a chance to see the film. The Interview, of course, centers on a half-baked but accidentally successful plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea, though, didn’t like jokes about the murder of its leader. In one of the most remarkable episodes in the recent history of the entertainment industry, a group of computer hackers calling itself the “Guardians of Peace” (linked later with the North Korean government) infiltrated the computer servers of Sony Pictures, shutting down the studio’s communications and throwing its data open for anyone to see. The “Guardians” demanded that Sony scrap The Interview, and the studio acquiesced if only for a moment.

Apart from some of the obvious questions here—has Hollywood so convinced itself that the Kims are cartoon villains that it thought it could play up the assassination of a sitting foreign leader for laughs? Would a studio greenlight a comedy about the killing of Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad?—this incident evokes the larger issue of the place of art and popular culture in international relations. Does the United States really want smirking irony to be the face of our culture? What sorts of art and culture would tell the stories we want to tell foreign populations about who we are?

Currently, two of our greatest foreign-policy challenges (the confrontation with fundamentalist Islamism, and the standoff with an expansionist Russia) have important cultural dimensions. Both Islamism and Putinism put themselves forward to the world as defenders of traditional values, and depict American popular culture as a threat to those values. How should the United States respond to this? As the Cold War began, both adversaries and allies viewed the United States as having nothing to offer the world but military and economic domination and a crude, violent, hypersexualized popular culture. American cultural diplomats had to win over skeptical intellectuals in allied nations, and counteract enemy propaganda generated by the Soviet Union that we were just Mickey Mouse and cowboy movies. Even American politicians were concerned with this. In House and Senate hearings, elected officials worried about the effect of exporting movies like The Blackboard Jungle and Tobacco Road, books like Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County, or trashy paperbacks with lurid covers. In response, the United States offered up not just high culture, but avant-garde high culture. The US government and cultural organizations organized exhibitions full of abstract expressionists and non-figurative painting, subsidized publication of American modernist writers abroad, sent William Faulkner on goodwill tours, and asked modernists like William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore to talk about their hometowns on Voice of America radio.

It worked. By the end of the 1950s, Europeans who had scoffed at the very idea of “American culture” were enthusiastic about its writers and artists, and—perhaps more importantly—about how American art expressed the values of freedom and individualism.

What relevance does “Cold War modernism” have today? Primarily, that what makes popular culture so appealing and satisfying—its snappiness, its immediacy, its ironic comments that so quickly become dated—are also its dangers. Pop culture, whether The Blackboard Jungle or The Interview, is ephemeral. Pop culture seeks a quick and intense response from a broad public; whether that response is rapturous or furious doesn’t matter.

Cold War modernism, by contrast, was aimed at cultural elites, intellectuals, opinion-makers. Strategists in the State Department and Ford Foundation reasoned that once they converted those people, their influence would sway the larger populations. Then, positively disposed toward the United States, these larger populations would see that America wasn’t just its shallow—but often appealing—pop culture. We sometimes tell ourselves the glib story that Coca-Cola, Levi’s, and Bon Jovi brought the USSR down, but that leaves out decades of careful work by cultural diplomats who won the respect of dissident intellectuals.

Of course, it’s likely that no kind of cultural diplomacy would work with North Korea, whose regime needs to foment periodic confrontations with the West in order to maintain control. Putinism seems to have a similarly cynical basis. The Middle East, though, could be different. For decades, even as our diplomacy supported repressive governments in Egypt and Iraq and Iran, cultural diplomats simultaneously reached out to liberals and intellectuals and—through exchange programs and cultural events and American libraries and the like—earned their admiration. A revival of that program could help the forces of moderation in at least some of those volatile places.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Columbia University Press blog.

Featured image credit: “Visitors bowing in a show of respect for North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansudae (Mansu Hill) in Pyongyang, North Korea.” by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Mythology redux: The Force Awakens once again

For some time now, I have been among those who have argued that the fandom associated with the Star Wars franchise is akin to a religion. There are those who will quarrel with the word choice, but it is hard to gainsay the dedication of fans to the original films, to the point that (as I have argued) the most devoted fans were made livid by the changes to the “canon” made by George Lucas in the special editions of Episodes IV, V, and VI—arguing with great passion, for example, that Han really did shoot Greedo first—in a way that suggests these films have taken on the character of sacred texts for the fans. In addition, as is well-known, Star Wars has its own mythological structure of the “hero’s quest” which Lucas borrowed freely from the works of Joseph Campbell, and which underlies the original trilogy as the hero is called to an adventure that leads him to confront his own “dark side” complete with Oedipal dimensions.

The fans of the original films (myself included) also did not disguise their distaste for the prequel films (Episodes I, II, and III) which were widely viewed by them as a gigantic disappointment after waiting some 16 years between Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Phantom Menace (1999). For the true believers, then, the anticipation that has led up to the release of The Force Awakens has been a mixture of dread and hope—as they feared it might be impossible to make a good Star Wars film that lives up to the originals, but they also hoped that fellow fan and director J.J. Abrams might create an episode worth watching.

So far, the fans seem pretty happy. A fan thread on reddit.com, for example, contains some criticisms of the film, but overall favorable reviews that see it as delivering a good story and good characters. An addition to the myth has been vetted and accepted.

Of course, there are other additions to the “canon” that have been considered. Besides the prequel films, Lucasfilm created two animated television series, The Clone Wars (which also included a theater-released film) and Star Wars Rebels. And there are also video games, novels, and fan fiction that occur in the so-called “Expanded Universe” of Star Wars, although once Walt Disney Corporation acquired Lucasfilm in November 2014, all these materials were rebranded and dubbed Star Wars Legends to indicate their “non-canonical” status. The debates about what should be included in the authoritative story canon are dizzying, and mirror the sort of debates that religious traditions have had throughout the ages about their own scriptures.

“Star Wars” by aldobarquin. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

But The Force Awakens is somehow in a different category. As an official addition to the film episodes, it really had to find a way to be authoritative for all, and further the myth in the process. And it’s not easy to add to a myth.

The success of the film for fans then had to be built on it not quite being a remake, but something close to it—a mashup or remix of elements that have worked before, as Christopher Orr wrote in the Atlantic, but sufficiently new to be interesting. And this is what J.J. Abrams delivered.  As “Captain_Flemme” put it in the aforementioned reddit thread:

“I think Disney and Abrams decided that episode VII had to be a copy of episode IV because it is the backbone of the Star Wars saga. Now that this episode exists, the new trilogy will forever be linked to the original trilogy. They have completely eliminated the risk that people say ‘This is not Star Wars’, because it is exactly Star Wars.”

Those of us who have been talking about the mythic power of Star Wars for decades should not be surprised that this film has succeeded not by being novel, but by being derivative. What interests me is that the fans fully understand and accept this. They are not unwitting dupes who consume whatever the culture industry produces; they didn’t like The Phantom Menace because it didn’t follow the myth closely enough, and they will like The Force Awakens because it does, with enough interesting additions for them to discuss for years. And this also should be no surprise, because this is how religions operate, by returning to their foundational stories even as they find new ways to look at them—and films offer one way to do so. Think of all the film versions of the life of Jesus Christ that have been made in the last hundred years; the people who flocked to see them were not looking for a new episode, but “the old, old story.”

Featured image: J. J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley & Oscar Isaac by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.  

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Fog everywhere: an extract from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House

This Christmas sees the premiere of Dickensian, a 20-part series, written by a former EastEnders scriptwriter, described as “a beginners’ guide to Dickens’ books for a soap-loving generation”. (Dickensian airs on Boxing Day at 7pm and 8.30pm on BBC One.) To give you a flavour of what you can expect from Dickens, this extract is taken from Chapter One of Oxford World’s Classics edition of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Stephen Rea as Ispector Bucket in the BBC Drama Dickensian. Dickensian airs on Boxing Day at 7pm and 8.30pm on BBC One.
Stephen Rea as Ispector Bucket in the BBC Drama Dickensian. Dickensian airs on Boxing Day at 7pm and 8.30pm on BBC One.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord High Chancellor ought to be sitting here—as here he is—with a foggy glory round his head, softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains, addressed by a large advocate with great whiskers, a little voice, and an interminable brief, and outwardly directing his contemplation to the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog.

Photo of illustration from novel “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be—as here they are—mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might. On such an afternoon the various solicitors in the cause, some two or three of whom have inherited it from their fathers, who made a fortune by it, ought to be—as are they not?—ranged in a line, in a long matted well (but you might look in vain for truth at the bottom of it) between the registrar’s red table and the silk gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters’ reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. Well may the court be dim, with wasting candles here and there; well may the fog hang heavy in it, as if it would never get out; well may the stained-glass windows lose their colour and admit no light of day into the place; well may the uninitiated from the streets, who peep in through the glass panes in the door, be deterred from entrance by its owlish aspect and by the drawl, languidly echoing to the roof from the padded dais where the Lord High Chancellor looks into the lantern that has no light in it and where the attendant wigs are all stuck in a fog-bank! This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”

Image Credits: All-Star Cast: Tiny Tim (ZAAK CONWAY), Bob Cratchit (ROBERT WILFORT), Emily Cratchit (JENNIFER HENNESSY), Peter Cratchit (BRENOCK O’CONNOR), Martha Cratchit (PHOEBE DYNEVOR), Meriweather Compeyson (TOM WESTON-JONES), Young Amelia Havisham (TUPPENCE MIDDLETON), Arthur Havisham (JOSEPH QUINN), Bill Sikes (MARK STANLEY), Nancy (BETHANY MUIR), Artful Dodger (WILSON RADJOU-PUJALTE), Fagin (ANTON LESSER), Inspector Bucket (STEPHEN REA), Boy (BENJAMIN CAMPBELL), Jacob Marley (PETER FIRTH), Ebeneezer Scrooge (NED DENNEHY), Mr Bumble (RICHARD RIDINGS), Mrs Bumble (CAROLINE QUENTIN), Mrs Gamp (PAULINE COLLINS), Captain James Hawdon (BEN STARR), Honoria Barbary (SOPHIE RUNDLE), Frances Barbary (ALEXANDRA MEON) and Mr Venus (OMID DJALILI) in the BBC Drama Dickensian.

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A history of black actors in the Star Wars universe

Nowhere is media’s influence on social attitudes more evident than among the millions of fans following Star Wars. Decades after the franchise’s creator, George Lucas, made his first iteration of the fictional galaxy filled with aliens, Stormtroopers, and the Force, his vision has captivated fans with countless iconic moments. Few of these moments, however, feature black actors. “George, is everybody in outer space white?” filmmaker John Landis is quoted as saying after seeing the first film. The gradual inclusion of diversity in the series’ latest installments, including its prequels, has been a boon for many fans. From the off-screen performance of James Earl Jones in the original trilogy to John Boyega’s central role in The Force Awakens, black representation in films has evolved over the decades, ultimately coming to play a vital role in the trilogy.

Billy Dee Williams
Character: Lando Calrissian
Appears In: The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi
The New York-born actor was a household name from movies like Brian’s Song, Mahogany, and Lady Sings The Blues when he was chosen to be the smooth-talking Calrissian, a pseudo-sidekick to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. Critics pointed out his character was on the stereotypical side, with his penchant for gambling and womanizing. Nonetheless, his depiction of the charismatic ladies’ man left a lasting impression on fans as the only black character with a speaking role in the original trilogy.

James Earl Jones
Character: Darth Vader (Voice)
Appears In: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi
It wasn’t just the visuals of space that captivated fan imaginations, but the sounds as well. From the light sabers to the battles between The Galactic Empire and rebel forces, no other sound was more iconic than James Earl Jones’ voice as Darth Vader. The actor who played Darth Vader on screen had a strong regional English accent, so Lucas hired Jones to lend his deep, baritone voice to the character, giving Darth Vader authority and menace.

Samuel L. Jackson
Character: Mace Windu
Appears In: Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith
Samuel Jackson was already a star when he lobbied for the role. Though moviegoers already knew the character wouldn’t survive to Episode IV, seeing a black man have one of the highest statuses in the Star Wars universe was still important for many fans. In keeping with his on- and off-screen “badass” persona, Jackson used his influence to negotiate a more “spectacular” death scene.

Ahmed Best

Character: Jar Jar Binks
Appears In: Phantom Menace, Revenge of the Sith
When speaking of African-American characters in the Star Wars universe, this particular entry is often raised as a negative example. Like Andy Serkis provided the movements and voice for Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, African-American Stomp actor Ahmed Best was Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. While his character was created as comic relief he was not well received by fans and critics alike, in part due to his stereotypical Jamaican accent.

John Boyega
Character: Finn
Appears In: The Force Awakens
While Landro Calrissian was a major character, Finn is the first protagonist of the series played by a black actor. 38 years after the release of the first film, some fans were upset to learn that the First Order Stormtrooper and eventual hero would be black, prompting a call on social media to boycott the movie using the hashtag #boycottStarWarsVII, with some calling the decision “anti-white propaganda.” The response to this prompted a more positive hashtag, #CelebrateStarWarsVII, that praised the casting decision, as tweeted by Selma director Ava DuVernay.

Lupita Nyong’o
Character: Maz Kanata
Appears In: The Force Awakens
Reports of Nyong’o nabbing the role of an alien pirate who provides refuge for freedom fighters came fresh off her Oscar win for her role in 12 Years A Slave. Like Ahmed Best, the stunning beauty lends her voice rather than her physical likeness to her character. Most notably, while co-star Boyega received much criticism for his role as Finn, not much negativity was lobbed at the actress. Perhaps critics of the imaginary world are more comfortable with black stars in smaller, more morally dubious roles than they are with them at the forefront as heroes.

Hugh Quarshie
Character: Captain Panaka
Appears In: Phantom Menace
Relatively unknown in the United States (unless you’re a Highlander fan), the Ghana-born actor and member of the Royal Shakespeare Company portrayed the loyal Head of the Naboo Security Forces who was in charge of Padmé Amidala. While Captain Panaka is not as significant of a character as Lando Calrissian, Quarshie provided much needed diversity to the supporting cast.

Image Credit: (1) “Stars Sky Night.” Public Domain via PublicDomainPictures.net. // (2) “James Earl Jones” by SJ Mayhew, U.S. Embassy London. CC BY ND 2.0 via Flickr. // (3) “Billy Dee Williams at the Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona” (4) “Samuel L. Jackson” (5), “John Boyega” (6) by Gage Skidmore. CC BY SA 2.0 via Flickr. // (7) “Ahmed Best at the Big Apple Convention in Manhattan” by Luigi Novi. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. // (8) “Lupita Nyong’o” by Gordon Correll. CC BY SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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The Big Picture and The Big Short: How Virtue helps us explain something as complex as the Financial Crisis

The star-studded new film The Big Short is based on Michael Lewis’s best-selling expose of the 2008 financial crisis. Reviewers are calling it the “ultimate feel-furious movie about Wall Street.”   It emphasizes the oddball and maverick character of four mid-level hedge fund managers in order to explain what it would take to ignore the rating agencies’ evaluations and bet against the subprime industry—that is, their own industry. The men depicted made a lot of money from hoping that the housing bubble would burst, which would, as they themselves acknowledge, harm countless people. Nonetheless, they are the heroes of the story. As the director Adam McKay says, “you’re rooting for these guys,” even though they are “kind of doing their job. The way the market’s supposed to work is, if there’s a bad investment, you short it.”

But if this is the way the market is supposed to work, someone needs to explain this to the hedge fund managers on whom the film is based, who, in real life as in their cinematic depictions, cannot get over the insanity of their situation. If anyone is likely to defend the upside of the housing crisis, it would seem to be a person who is benefitting in the tens of millions from it. And yet these men continue to cite greed, stupidity, and arrogance as the reasons for the housing bubble that earned them millions.

Perhaps it is wrong to expect that the financial crisis, or any crisis at all, can be explained through a few characters or clever dialogue. For example, there were more ‘players’ involved in the financial crisis than can be included in any dramatic depiction. Even economists using the most abstract mathematical tools can’t seem to penetrate the complexity of the crisis, especially the ethical (or unethical) dimensions of the behavior that contributed to it. No matter how complex the processes, the psychology of the players, or the motivations behind the actions organizations take, if we cannot make moral sense of our own roles and behaviors, we are in an uneasy position, unable to answer the simplest of questions, such as:

  • Shorting the housing market was a bold thing to do, but what makes it a good thing to do?
  • Not seeing through the implications of various policies put in place was an imprudent thing to do, but what makes it an immoral thing to do?
  • Defrauding investors or tempting clients into unworkable arrangements is recognized as wrong by even those engaging in the behavior, so if it makes a profit, or sustains a system, does that override personal discomfort with the effort?
The Big Short’ shows us that virtue has an important role in explaining behavior,… even in fields as technical and apparently ethically ‘sterile’ as modern finance.

These are questions that ultimately need answering with an account of moral psychology, something philosophers working in virtue ethics are well suited to provide. An account of virtue is a way of proposing and then testing an account of moral psychology that can be incorporated into traditional economic analysis. An account of virtue will answer what counts as good behavior, what motivates it, and even what justifies it, moreso than the traditional modelling of economic choice as a cost-benefit problem.

When developed in isolation from the actual ‘players’ in the financial market, moral psychology can seem like a quaint guide to living well. Applied to the questions we want answered about our financial system, however, it gains a new relevance. It proposes that behavior that makes agents uncomfortable is presumably wrong, and perhaps even imprudent, and allows us to test the implications of this. It asks us to defend our systems in terms of human good, wherein long-term financial well-being is a part but not the entirety of that. To think of virtue in relation to economics—even the bewilderingly ‘scary and very complicated’ aspects that no one explains easily without math and the film’s characters refer to as ‘the abyss’—  is the only way to fully explain our roles within a complex system such as modern finance. After all, even our most advanced economic methods, so complex that the public is never likely to learn them, are still part of our shared and social world. We don’t have to pretend they are simpler, or that it all boils down to character, to question the role they play for us all. We want to know, after all, the contribution that economic spheres of life make to the rest of it.

The film’s main characters are ambivalent about their ability to profit from others’ losses. How can we convince them otherwise? First, we would point out that it is a mistake to assume that virtue is nothing more than living up to the standards of the economic model of the human actor—that is, pursuing one’s self-interests while staying within minimal bounds of morality. Not even those who developed this approach for economic modelling meant it to amount to a model of character, identity, or virtue. No real person behaves exactly as the homo economicus of economic models would predict, and failing to measure up to that standard is no real failing.

Second, no one sphere of life, not finance or business, is capable of working as a guide to life in general. When we replace an account of human good with one meant to explain only economic behavior, we can become confused about what the good means to us. The explanation that shorting the market was ‘business as usual’ is not a comfort to those buffeted by the financial crisis, either.

The Big Short shows us that virtue has an important role in explaining behavior, even in fields as technical and apparently ethically ‘sterile’ as modern finance. More broadly, even though it dates back several millennia, virtue ethics can provide us with new ways to understand modern phenomena such as the recent financial crisis. It does so, not by replacing mathematical economic analysis, but by supplementing it with an explicit normative framework to help explain what went ‘wrong’—in all senses of the word.

Headline image credit: Wall Street sign by Rev Stan. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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