Titans of GeoPolitics: Friedrich Ratzel

Ratzel - Frontpiece

As great thinkers go, the reputation that Herr Ratzel enjoys within the discipline of Political Geography (and perhaps even more so in the sub-field of GeoPolitics) is rather unfortunate. He is often considered by modern critics as a somewhat benighted product of his age – a kind of geographical equivalent for the associated sociological and philosophical period of “Social Darwinist” thinkers. At worst, he gets lumped in with the repellent ideologues of the NAZI era, even though he had been dead for 30 years before the rise of Hitler and his ilk, and despite the fact that in his many and varied writings, Ratzel clearly rejects many of the notions that the Übermensch vomit forth in the name of racial purity. However, it is without a doubt that much of the expansionist geographical theory employed by the NAZIs was derived from Ratzel’s work and his notion of the “Organic State” – and in particular his use of the concept of Lebensraum – a relational ideal that posits the habitat of the state as being linked to the health of the dominant culture that inhabits it, hence the need for a healthy state to expand.

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Ratzel’s work was adapted (and I use the term loosely here) by other GeoPolitical theorists (most notably Kjellén and Haushofer), which accounts for much of the negative connotations associated with his name, but as with many of the other Titans of Geopolitics, remarkably few people ever seem to actually read his works themselves. A part of this failure is due to the fact that, as a whole, the discipline is spectacularly Anglo-centric, and if the great thinkers of the day are so inconsiderate as to not translate their works into the “lingua Franca,” well then oblivion awaits. However, despite Ratzel having the audacity to write in the language of his birth, with a little diligent work the enthusiastic student can still sample a little here and there – mainly through the good graces of another seminal geographer of the age, Ellen Church Semple.

Ms. Semple is, in my humble opinion, a Titan of GeoPolitics in 4724360645_260e1ba48c_mher own right, not solely for her contributions to the history of geography in general, but also for her amazing perseverance as a woman engaged in an exclusively male (and decidedly misogynistic) era of the discipline as a whole. For those engaged readers with an interest, I heartily recommend this brief article on the woman and her impact. For the moment, suffice it to say that Ms, Semple was one of the leading disciples of Herr Ratzel, and provided a number of translations of his work for publication in the Anglophone world. The one selected for today is entitled “Studies in Political Areas (II) and lays out many of the fundamental aspects of Ratzel’s understanding of the relationship between territory, culture, and GeoPolitical imaginaries.

As you listen to this piece, it is worth reflecting on the idea that – bad reputation or otherwise – Ratzel stands out as one of the chief architects of what we now call Political Geography. His focus on the idea of the state as the central – indeed pinnacle – achievement of human civilization is not as far removed from the political rhetoric that we suffer through today as we would like to think. Many an applauded “thinker” in the modern context owes a debt of gratitude (unconsciously or otherwise) to Ratzel’s work, and the ways in which he sought to combine geography and the state into a cohesive theoretical framework – Robert Kaplan, I’m looking at you, sunshine!

 

However, as is often the case, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Therefore, I recommend that you sit back, pour yourself a glass of Schnapps, light up a fine zigarre, and enjoy!

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Titans of GeoPol: George Kennan

Kennan Frontpiece

If you happen to have been paying attention to the exciting world of Republican foreign policy during the “interesting times” in which the Grand Old Party finds itself, you will no doubt have already heard about the bold, new strategy that Donald Trump announced, vis-à-vis the US commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Alarm bells are ringing from D.C. to Vilnius over Mr. Trump’s apparent reluctance to stand by the founding principle of US foreign policy for the past 70 years or so. Given the current aggressive position that Russia is increasingly taking in regards to neighboring states, it is not all that surprising that a cold sweat is breaking out on the forehead of foreign ministries the length and breadth of the Western world. In the bizzaro realm of international relations we find ourselves in NATO is already having a rough time of it, what with the fallout of Brexit on the one hand, and a spectacularly unsuccessful (and yet oh so convenientcoup d’état in Turkey on the other – in other words, it would appear to be an odd time to start shaking the foundations of the international status quo.

Still, for our purposes it does afford me an excellent introduction to the second in my 435 part series “Better know a Titan of Geopol” – with what some might argue as the original architect of the Cold War geopolitical era, George Kennan – the fightin’ Historian!

 

Kennan was an interesting fellow, and is chiefly remembered for jump-starting US paranoia over Soviet expansionism in the wake of the Second World War. An historian by training, Kennan was the Deputy Chief for the US Mission in Moscow when he penned his most important contribution to GeoPolitics – the “Long Telegram” – in which he lays out his opinions of Soviet policy towards the rest of the world, and boy, does he lay them out!

Containment BearThe telegram itself is 8000 words long (for which he has the good graces to apologize right at the start) and goes through a variety of phases. Probably the most surprising of these for those of us who have read about the Long Telegram as part of our studies, but never actually got around to reading it ourselves *ahem* is that it starts out with an extensive and delightfully frank quote from Stalin! Kennan then goes on to outline the devious and pernicious ways in which the Red Menace intends to metastasize across the globe. Thankfully, Kennan also knows the appropriate response to the creeping threat of Communism, and it is good old-fashioned US exceptionalism! For a piece of geopolitical hyperbole, the Long Telegram actually ends on something of a positive note, with the main thrust suggesting that if only the poor, benighted souls currently lost under the tyrannical sway of collectivism can be shown the light, then they will see the error of their (imposed) ways. Huzzah!

The entire piece is framed in almost apocalyptical terms, reminiscent of Bernard of Cold War - Statements and Suspicions - CartoonClairvoux at Vezely, and clearly served as impetuous for what eventually became US “Containment Policy” and the Truman Doctrine. I think a fair argument can be made that NATO itself is descended from the ripples cast into the stream by this masterful piece of geopolitical imagery – it truly is a masterpiece of world framing, such as only old-school geopolitics can achieve! Ironically enough, with a couple of years Kennan almost completely renounced this vision of the US-Soviet relations, but by that point the deed was done, and we all now live (to a certain extent) in a world shaped by this imaginary. I wonder if either Mr. Trump or Mr. Putin have ever considered that fact?

Ah well! – as Lady MacBeth put it:

“Things without all remedy

Should be without regard:

what’s done, is done.”

This piece clocks in at about 35 minutes. Enjoy!

ADDENDUM: An astute listener has informed me that, yes indeed, I misquoted the date of the telegram in the first 20 seconds of the recording!  I apologize for the oversight, and have only this to say in my defense…er, …sorry? I’m probably not going to re-record the entire thing, so just keep thinking “1946” as you listen, and you should be good!

ADDENDUM II: There, I changed it! We must strive for exactness in all things, eh?

Titans of Geopol: Halford MacKinder

Makinder Frontpiece

From time to time in my studies it becomes apparent that, all good intentions notwithstanding, some of my contemporaries (and indeed myself, if truth be told) have what can only be described as a rudimentary knowledge of their forebears. This state of affairs is wholly understandable, but also deplorable!

Understandable, in that the annals of geopolitics are veritably stuffed to the gills with a smorgasbord of seminal sermons – but deplorable, in that (just as with economics) many of today’s “Practical men,” who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct geopolitical theorist (with all due apologies to J.M. Keynes). In other words, it is important to know where each particular brand of geopolitical lunacy came from, in order to recognizes its continuing effect on the world at large. Given the current state of the political arena here in the United States it is perhaps even more vital that those of us with an interest in such matters readily attempt to understand which long dead theorist still appears to have their hand upon the tiller of state.

It is with this spirit of inquiry in mind that I begin a new series of posts on GeoPolichinelle – an exploration of the Geopolitician in its natural habitat. I propose to undertake a series of readings that will serve to illuminate the works of the old masters, in the hopes that actually hearing their pearls of wisdom (from the horse’s mouth, so to speak) will help students of the farce to better understand the current inanity in the public forum.

In essence, rather than just hearing what some professional academic has to say about the significance of Kennan, MacKinder, or Ratzel, in this manner I hope to bring you the unadulterated words of the masters themselves– in all their idiosyncratic, period oriented majesty – or at least, as best I can with no guarantees concerning the authenticity of translations, or pronunciations of obscure flora, fauna, and nomenclature!

We begin our adventure with, perhaps, one of the most influential pieces of geopolitical theory every written – Halford MacKinder’s “Geographical Pivot of History” – a 35 minute tour de force of early imperial dogma, wrapped up in a healthy dose of paranoia and Orientalism.

 

Makinder himself was not well recognized at the time – in fact this piece received very little in the way of kudos until much later on, when it was widely considered to have been a major influence on the development of US “Containment Strategy” during the Cold War. Since then, MacKinder has found his niche as one of the founding fathers of old school Geopolitics – often honored in passing, but without much attention paid to what he actually had to say. Every student of geopolitics has been assigned this piece at some point or another, and I think it is a safe bet to say that almost all of them (myself included) have, at best, glanced through the pages, skipping to the juicy part at the end where he lays out his most significant contribution to the discipline – the Heartland Pivot Theory.

Heartland

Astute listeners will note that, for all his embodiment of the imperial age, MacKinder does (sort of) make a few progressive statements. He acknowledges that European civilization owes its existence to the East, that developments in transportation will have profound impacts upon geopolitics (even to the extent of a sort of proto-exploration of “containerization”), and he clearly rejects at least some aspects of geographic determinism, for as he puts it, “Nature informs, but mankind controls.” He was, in essence, an exemplar of his kind geographer.

I will say no more, dear reader, except to recommend that you consider investing half an hour of your otherwise hectic life to this voice from the past. Revel in the language, shudder at the appalling Euro-centrism, marvel at the ways in which geography rejoiced in its position as the hand-maiden of empire, but above all else, enjoy!

Football & Acceptable Nationalism ?

 

Soccer play

As anyone with a pulse, and access to an electronic device must surely know by now, the world of football (or “soccer” if you belong to a nation insistent on changing the nomenclature of other people’s pastimes) is currently in the rabid fever grip of the European Championships. Taking place in France – a country still reeling from the impact of international Islamic terrorism – and involving 24 national teams from across the region, the European Championships are the second most influential competition (after the world cup) of the most popular and participatory sport on earth. Unlike the Olympics, which relies for the most part on sports that require expensive equipment to participate, football only needs a ball, and a couple of backpacks on the ground to act as goal-posts. Everyone, from the poorest street urchin to the trust-fund baby knows what it is like to kick the old pig bladder around, meaning that football is (as close as damn it) truly everyman’s sport.

[I will take a moment here to acknowledge that women also play football, and that it is considered the fastest growing female participation sport – especially here in the USA, where the women’s team are the current World Champions – but for the moment I am going with the hyperbole of a male dominate competition because that is the rhetoric of machismo and chest-beating that we are going to get into in a moment]

For those of us interested in the farcical nature of the geopolitics on display at Euro 2016, the competition already afforded a smorgasbord of nationalistic insanity, even before we made it into the knock-out rounds! Let’s start our exploration by looking at the most fascinating aspect of football in the 21st century – the fact that, in many ways, football is the last bastion of strident nationalism! I might even go so far as to state that it is the last acceptable venue for simplistic nationalist rhetoric outside of a campaign rally – although the advantage of the football arena is that you never have to hear some bloviating windbag use the phrase “what the American people want/demand/need/deserve…etc, etc, etc, as if a) the American people were some sort of monolithic ideal, or b) that the orator in question had some special insight into the hopes, dreams, and expectations of 320 million people.

For the average football fan out there, events like the World Cup and the European Championship provide an opportunity to dress like an idiot, slap on the old patriotic face-paint, and scream at the top of your lungs a variety of quasi-patriotic chants, vaguely amusing insults, and the only verse of the national anthem that you can remember. – and it has to be said, the entire process is fabulous fun! For someone who spends their days reading critical geopolitics papers, bemoaning the level of dialog on the international plane, and finding ever more inventive ways to avoid writing my dissertation while still pretending to be doing “work,” I find myself as easily drawn into the nationalist fugue as the next man. Regardless of how many times I have had to explain Benedict Anderson to some fresh faced Undergrad, I still find myself caught up in the “imagined community” of the football world – chanting “Come on England” despite having been massively disappointed by them for my entire adult life – or perhaps it is actually because they always succeed in failing miserably? My national team is nothing if not consistent – a bit like the Monarchy – meaning that even though governments, politicians, and decades may come and go, the
Queen and England’s ability to be dumped ignominiously out of a tournament are two strangely reassuring constants that serve to anchor the notion of “England” in my head.

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Of course, that is the vaguely cosy version of nationalism that has worked its magic on me since I was but a wee lad. However, alongside this somewhat twee  vision, football also serves to enhance – or at the very least provide an outlet for – a far more disturbing and virulent form of nationalism; that of “hooliganism.” Growing up in the 1980s in England, the constant visuals on the nightly news about football supporters – generally dressed in a beer stained England shirt (if any shirt at all) staggering around some foreign city looking every part the belligerent drunken morons that they were, was also something of a constant. An entire genre of popular fiction arose to explore the “life of the hooligan” – even to the point of making dubiously sourced “real life accounts” into motion pictures that sought to show how the lads would go out and “take the town” from the wops, or the spics, r the frogs, or whatever other degenerative term was in fashion at the time. Who can forget adorable Frodo Baggins as a lean, mean, fightin’ machine in “Green Street Hooligans” – a movie that at least had the good graces to put its territorialism up front and center, even if the battles involved were more tribal than national.

Inengland-hooligans any event, hooliganism was the scourge of English football in my youth, or at least, that was what I thought. However, Euro 2016 has demonstrated that bad ideas never die, they just lay dormant for a while until a fresh batch of idiots comes along to embrace them. The clashes in France during the first week of this tournament were like having an acid flashback to the bad old days – albeit with one major difference – in this instance, the pot-bellied, drunken imbeciles waving their bare chests and farmer’s tans around were on the receiving end of the “agro”, as a new country stepped up to the plate and assumed the mantle of the “worst fans in Europe” – namely the Russians.

Here is where the really interesting geopolitics takes place because unlike their British counterparts, the Russian “Ultras” appeared to enjoy the tacit backing of at least some members of the Russian parliament. I point of fact, the head of the Russian Supporters Association (and employee of right wing Nationalist MP Igor Lebedev) who was deported by the French authorities was subsequently found to have sneaked back into France in order to attend Russia’s final game (they were also ignominiously dumped out of the tournament, demonstrating the disconnect between prowess on the field, and bullshit in the streets).

352E041800000578-3638517-Ready_for_battle_Russian_ultras_are_not_only_the_most_vicious_sp-a-22_1465824361564Quite why running street battles should prove to be such a point of pride for Russia is a debatable point, although it would appear that at least some members of the British Government see the Machiavellian influence of Vladimir Putin behind the troubles. The Guardian had a delightful piece, brimming with old school Cold War enthusiasm, that posited the bizarre notion of the Ultras as a covert arm of the Russian military, engaged in a form of “hybrid warfare.” As the theory goes, these street battles are a way of demonstrating nationalistic pride and machismo, while at the same time allowing Putin to shore up popular support at home by demonstrating how Europeans hate (and fear) mother Russia for her strength. You might be inclined to see this as delusional paranoia, but there is some precedent for this kind of thing. In particular, I am thinking of Simon Kuper’s excellent book Football Against the Enemy – which I heartily recommend to those of you with an interest. Alternatively, you can take a look at Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An unlikely theory of Globalization which is also an interesting read.

At the end of the day, the tiny minority of idiots engaged in chest-beating (both metaphorical and actual) is insignificant, even though it does tend to dominate the airwaves. After all, the images are just so shockingly visceral, like something out of the Coliseum. Groups of sweaty men, arms raised, chests puffed out, swaggering along in packs like the Sharks and the Jets – yet somehow less believable as symbols of a cohesive identity. – it all makes for excellent click-bait. However, we should also spare a thought for the French authorities, already under enormous strain due to the heightened state of tension from the recent terrorist attacks. One of my faculty committee, Dr. Tom Gillespie, travelled to France this summer to show his support for the host state, and to demonstrate his contempt for ISIL and their ilk. He is probably camped out in the Fan Zone beside the Eiffel tower as I type, preparing for the final match between France and Portugal, and having the time of his life (I am only 90% jealous – the other 10% enjoys watching the games in HD too much).

This leads me to my final (meandering) point about nationalism and football – namely that if you take a good, long look at exactly who represents the state in such a tournament, you get a very different picture of what constitutes the state – and how that has changed over the past 30 years. Take France for example – here is the French National Team in 1984 (when they won the European Championship as host nation):

Soccer - Euro 1984 - French National Team

And here they are in 2016, preparing to try and do the same thing again:

france-football-team

Notice the difference? What I love about the nationalism of football is that is actually affords the opportunity to help re-define what we as the fans understand constitutes the “imagined community” of the state. How can you be French, fiercely nationalistic, immersed in a sense of national honor and pride, wrapped in the tricolour, and watching a veritable melting pot of ethnicities and skin-tones coming together to fight for the honor of the homeland, and not be swayed by that? Of course, some people (many people?) allow that feeling of one-ness and shared purpose to dissipate five minutes after the final whistle has blown – and lets not try to pretend that a state like France does not have some heinous issues with race relations, its colonial heritage, and a multitude of other major problems – but for some of us that shared experience has a lasting effect, and it is a positive one. Even if it is just for one, brief, shinning moment, the state comes together to pin all its footballing dreams on a pretty broad cross section of society – and I for one revel in that part.

Vive la France!

 

AFRICOM – An intro to some research

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In a turn of events almost as surprising to myself as to any of you, faithful readers, I have a piece of research coming out in the next edition of Geopolitics. This is a paper co-authored in conjunction with my academic advisor, Dr. Adam Moore, and it explores the ever expanding footprint and geopolitical assemblage that is the US Military presence in Africa. Dr. Moore has posted some of the findings on his web-page, which you can find by clicking HERE.

Once the paper is released I will link through to it more directly, but in the mean time – Enjoy!

That is not dead, which can eternally play on loop!

 

A slight change of pace my friends, as we explore not the secrets of Geopolitics, but rather the secrets of an all together non-terrestrial variety! Enjoy…

Bowie - HPLOne short month ago, one of the greatest rock and roll stars of all time shuffled off this mortal coil, and joined the pantheon of other celestial luminaries in the great CBGBs in the sky…, or did he? David Robert Jones (also known as Mr. David Bowie), master of reinvention, musical Picasso, and guy you most wanted to look like in a pair of skinny jeans when you were twenty, or a well tailored suit when you were thirty, or a high button jacket when you were…, well, you get the idea, passed away almost exactly one year short of his three score years and ten. The cause of death – while tragic – is not our concern, nor is lionizing the man’s body of work which has been done to far better extent by other, far more talented writers than myself. However, whilst perusing said back-catalog of vinyl masterpieces I was struck by a bizarre notion – one that I think has been tickling the periphery of my cerebral cortex for years without being acknowledged, but has now sprung, fully formed, into consciousness and is screaming for attention – namely this; that David Bowie was, in actual fact, the living reincarnation of the 8th century’s most inspired mental artist, the “Mad Arab” of fortune, master of the esoteric epiphany, and all round metaphysical maestro, the infamous Abdul Alhazred. Yes, THAT “Mad Arab,” author of the Necronomicon, seeker after truth, and a man who REALLY new what it meant to suffer for his art.

Now I know this is a lot to take in at first glance, but stick with me here, people. I have what I believe to be telling substantiation to back up this extraordinary claim. The evidence in question is, I feel, best understood as a direct testimonial from the very lips of the author himself – the recorded utterances of a genius whose mind was stretched to the very limits of comprehension (and possibly beyond them), but who somehow made it back from the abyss, and then also somehow made it into a recording studio in South London during the drug induced free-for-all that was the music scene in Britain in the 1970s – followed shortly thereafter by a sojourn in Berlin. After all, if you are going to delve deeply into the utter horrors of the realms that reside beyond the boundaries of the mundane, then there is nothing like a little German intellectualism to get you nice and depressed for the soul destroying journey ahead. – ask any 2nd year Philosophy student, and they will tell you the same. As one eloquent commentator put it:

“Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism.” HPL

Well, quite!

So pour a glass of your favored Absinth, take a pinch of bhang, and settle in for a stroll in the fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone the early Bowie discography.

The following testimonial is compiled from fragments of the collected works of Mr. David R. Jones, Entertainer. Aside from the striking imagery, keen observers will also note the unorthodox quatrain system employed in many of these quotations, not unlike the ruminations of that other most enigmatic of mystics, Michel de Nostredame. I should add that I am limiting myself to taking a few scraps from here and there. To do a thorough examination would take a mind not only more capable, but also more resolute than my own feeble grey matter can attest to.

“God! What wonder that across the earth a great architect went mad” HPL.

 The ever effusive Mr. Bowie had a strangely dichotic love/hate relationship with the notion of madness – not the least of which was the constant theme amongst his more psychotic works of the revelatory nature of insanity as a frame of reference. Reality, it would appear, was not just a construct that served to dull the senses to the horrors beyond, but also a membrane to be pushed aside, in search of greater truth. In “All the Madmen”, Bowie insists that – Day after day they take some brain away – Then turn my face around to the far side of town – And tell me that it’s real – Then ask me how I feel. Quite who “they” are is open to debate, but for those of us who are familiar with the mysteries of the Great Old Ones, it easy enough to divine. Similarly, in “Quicksand” our erstwhile guide states that he is – torn between the light and dark – Where others see their targets divine symmetry – Should I kiss the viper’s fang or herald loud the death of Man – I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought. The imagery here is key, and we will return to this illustration of the quixotic binary choice of humanity or divinity that is so indicative of Lovecraftian prose in short order. On the plus side, Bowie at least holds out a glimmer of hope for those driven mad by the hideous light of unfiltered knowledge, as he attempts to console the despairing listener with the empathetic solicitations of a fellow lunatic – Oh no love! you’re not alone – No matter what or who you’ve been – No matter when or where you’ve seen -All the knives seem to lacerate your brain – I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain – You’re not alone! Perhaps the most poignant recognition of the cost of enlightenment comes in the following eponymous lament, whereby – Clutches of sad remains -Waits for Aladdin Sane – You’ll make it .

“At night, when the objective world has slunk back into its cavern and left dreamers to their own, there come inspirations and capabilities impossible at any less magical and quiet hour.” HPL.

Following inexorably on from this discussion of delusional degradation, we find that this modern day Virgil, acting as guide through the ever descending degrees of the abyss, often highlights the notion of the dreamscape as the conduit through which both the truth – and the horror – of existence is divulged. To be clear, it is both the revelatory nature of the subconscious as a medium for enlightenment, and the malleable nature of time as a construct unhinged from its anchor within the Morphic realm that combine to illuminate and horrify us in our guise as the ever stumbling Dante. An Occasional Dream exhorts that – In our madness – We burnt one hundred days -Time takes time to pass – And I still hold some ashes to me. Given the propensity within the works of Lovecraft to also mock the hideously limiting Euclidian notions of linear progression (both temporal and Cartesian) from point A to B, it is no wonder that Abdul, er…,I mean David, seeks to express his contempt for such crass, illusory figments, akin to Plato’s allegorical shadows cast upon the wall of the cave of ignorance, whereby – Shapes of things before my eyes – Just teach me to despise – Will time make man more wise – Here within my lonely frame – My eyes just hurt my brain – But will it seem the same? This conundrum is a clarion call to those who, in their rejection of so called “reality” also reject their closeted status amongst the quivering masses for whom, “none are so blind, as those that will not see.”

Take that, materialism!

“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” HPL

Still, the question remains of what we should look to for meaning in existence. Or, more to the point, where we should look to, and in this regard our erstwhile Major Tom provides a succinct answer: the vast, inky expanses of the cosmos, with all of the mind-bending reaches of the abyss, the incessant coldness of entropy, and the scattered, blindingly intense pinpoints of light that serve to both frame the darkness, and to burn away the illusion of significance of the individual – the Stars! Indeed, once on the path to – stepping through the door – (of non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics which, in the words of HPL, are “ enough to stretch any brain”) it is little wonder that this Mephistophelian Magellan of the metaphysical described himself as – floating in a most peculiar way – and the stars look very different today. Different indeed, in both a haunting and a horrifying manner – a true Spatium Monstrum if ever there was one, for what is it that lurks in the outer reaches of cold, infinite space, as well as within the hot, dank recesses of human frailty and despair? A nod is as good as a wink, to them as knows the truth, n’cest pas? And herein lies the rub, as it were! For as terrifying as the “truth” may be (and I use that term loosely), it is also compellingly seductive. Bowie is at his most lucid and captivating when he exhorts the charismatic nature of oblivion, and the inexorably appeal of the coiled majesty that exudes from the mighty entity (or entities) asleep within the void How you moved is all it takesTo sing a song of when I lovedThe Prettiest Star. Beautiful because of the limitless intensity of ancient power, and inexorable due to the timeless nature of eternal presience – One day, though it might as well be somedayYou and I will rise up all the wayAll because of what you areThe Prettiest Star.

Is it madness to wait upon the inevitable, or simply a matter of gleefully accepting the approaching darkness? For some it is a matter of attempting to hasten the day of reckoning – Look out your window I can see his light – If we can sparkle he may land tonight – Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright! I should take a moment here to point out that I am not accusing either Ziggy or the Spiders from Mars of being cultists – and yet I believe Longfellow said it best when he opined “Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, With exactness grinds He all.” In other words, it does not do to call down the attention of the Gods, no matter how enthralling they might appear…

 We should consider ourselves suitably warned – for all the good that will do us!

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming – HPL

Which leads, as day (hopefully) follows night, to the most important question of all; for whom – or for what – are we waiting? If you have made it this far into the piece then I feel certain you have a pretty good idea. However, what does the Thin White Duke of despair have to say on the matter? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. One might even suggest that His Grace lays out a very specific vision of the road ahead. A less cautious man than myself might even go so far as to state that the following selections suggest a very clear view from the first floor window of the Gilman House in Insmouth….

Imagine, if you will, a well dressed man sitting with his back to the door, a tincture of laudanum and Amontillado close at hand, while a small notebook crammed with tiny, frantic writing appears to have dropped listlessly to the floor at his feet. His eyes briefly register your presence, before turning once again towards the window, and the somber dying of the miasmic afternoon light. You take a seat, and glance down at the open pages, where you can just make out the last entered passage – And in the death – As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy Thoroughfare – The shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Building – High on Poacher’s Hill – And red, mutant eyes gaze down on Hunger City. Yes, well there is little you can say to that, really, now is there?

Attempting to rally your wits, you lean forward in order to solicit a response from the seated gentleman, who’s shock of blond hair is tousled carelessly in every direction, yet still somehow looks impeccably coiffured. As you lean in you can hear a gentle murmur whispered upon his breath… “Where sad-eyed mermen tossed in slumbers – Nightmare dreams no mortal mind could hold – A man would tear his brother’s flesh -A chance to die – to turn to mold.” Repulsed, you stagger backwards, knocking over the table and dashing the wine glass onto the floor with a crash that sharply pierces the moribund gloom of the chamber. The figure turns to you once again, and appears to see you for the first time. A moment later he speaks, answering the half formed question that sits trapped behind your lips – “I’m not a prophet or a stone age man – Just a mortal with the potential of a superman – I’m living on – I’m tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien – Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation.” What perverse salvation can this be? The dreary light of the Esoteric Order of Dagon shines across the courtyard outside, calling to your subconscious dread from the dilapidated temple on the other side of the street, yet even this is not the real vision that illuminates the madness behind your companion’s eyes. A strong, pale hand reaches out and takes hold of your lapel, drawing you in towards the pleasant, yet frightening, smell and the piercing, mismatched eyes of the self depreciating seer. His one dilated pupil holds you petrified, as he leans in and whispers gently into you ear – “We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when – Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend – Which came as some surprise as I spoke into his eyes – I thought you died alone, a long long time ago.” Oh no! Not him! He never lost control! You’re face to face with the man who sold the world!

And so we take our leave of this time, and of this place. We reflect upon the insight and audacity of the man with a thousand names, and a thousand personas, who exemplified the mercurial nature of identity, and of reality, and of certainty. As the light fades from the world, and the shadows swallow Insmouth, we are left to try and divine what has just occurred to us, and what we intend to do with that knowledge, always supposing we are mentally equipped to handle it in the first place. That is not dead, which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even Death may die. For my part, I choose to believe that Adbul slumbers on, and only a credulous fool would suggest that it is mere coincidence he does so in the cold, dark embrace of Davy Jones’ locker!

The final word should go, as a matter of courtesy, to the great Mr. Bowie. This is, without question, the clearest proof of his reincarnation, and the final warning to those of us left behind on the dead branches of the evolutionary tree.

 

Look out my window and what do I see

A crack in the sky, and a hand reaching down to me

All the nightmares came today

And it looks as though they’re here to stay 

What are we coming to?

No room for me, no fun for you

I think about a world to come

Where the books were found by the Golden ones 

Written in pain, written in awe

By a puzzled man who questioned what we were here for

All the strangers came today

And it looks as though they’re here to stay

Look at your children

See their faces in golden rays

Don’t kid yourself they belong to you

They’re the start of a coming race 

The earth is a bitch, we’ve finished our news

Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use

All the strangers came today

And it looks as though they’re here to stay 

Oh You Pretty Things

Don’t you know you’re driving your Mamas and Papas insane!

Let me make it plain

You gotta make way for the Homo Superior

Tales from the Lunatic Lantern: Gaming and China Edition

Great Wall Defense

Those of us with a fondness for retro gaming and summer blockbusters were all a twitter (both figuratively and literally) when it was announced that Columbia were going to release a film about giant, 80s style alien monsters intent upon taking over the world. The resulting flick – “Pixels” – involves actual “Space Invaders” in full 8 bit graphic glory taking out cities, a thousand gamer “in” jokes, and enough pseudo-nostalgia to potentially make an awesome nerd taco of pop culture references. Unfortunately, it also stars Adam Sandler, thereby stripping away the hope that it would be anything other than abysmal – and so it proved to be.

Casting issues aside, what makes this movie of interest to the geopol crowd is not what is in the film but what is not in it, or to be more precise, what was taken out. Over on Gizmodo, Madie Stone has penned an interesting article about the influence of the Chinese state censors on US film production, and in particular the delicate sensibilities of the CCP when it comes to foreign portrayals of just about ANYTHING to do with China. Detailing information leaked during the Sony hacks of recent memory, Stone shows how much effort US movie studios are willing to make to “sanitize” scripts in order to ensure access to the world’s 2nd largest film market.

I find this topic increasingly significant for a couple of reasons. First, because this story demonstrates the intersection of disparate geopol with popular geopol, as hackers dump reams of data onto the net, thereby making such stories possible to research and analyze, and secondly because I wrote about this exact phenomenon a couple of years ago. At the time, the issue was with two major blockbusters; The Avengers and World War Z. I penned the following article because I was interested in looking at the geopolitics inherent in film production, rather than with the endless discursive analysis of film that was all the rage at the time – and still is, for that matter. I am reposting my previous piece below as it is clear that this is a topic that is only going to become more engaging as time goes by. Clearly, more and more people are beginning to look at not only the nature of popular geopolitical narratives embodied within film, but also the applied geopolitics at work within the film industry. Enjoy!

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60 Years On – The New “Red Scare” in Hollywood

During the collective insanity that gripped the United States in the late 1940s and 50s, political agitators and right wing demagogues alike created the specter of a sinister, lurking boogeyman poised to overthrow civilization as we knew it. The “Red Scare” of insidious communism – literally posited as “reds under the bed” – swept throughout the political narrative of the post war landscape, as well as Cold War international relations. The poster child, and some would say architect, of this paranoia was Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) who managed through sheer strength of personality and calculated populism to bring this specter to the forefront of the national dialog. The term “McCarthyism” has since come to encapsulate the notion of ideological determination, combined with a blinkered perspective, ad hominem attacks, and a willingness to ignore reality when it does not fit into your chosen narrative. At the time, however, the hysteria whipped up was all too real, and had numerous real world effects – particularly here in Los Angeles, in regards to the film industry.

By the time that McCarthyism was in full swing in the early 50s, Hollywood had become a center of attention in an effort to root out what Walt Disney described as “subtle communist touches” in the film industry. Many people know about the famous “Hollywood Ten” blacklist of suspected communists, but by 1950, the “Red Channels” list included 151 major industry players, including Orson Wells, Arthur Miller, and even Gypsy Rose Lee (presumably because her duel roles as a “communist sympathizer” and a burlesque dancer posed a double threat to the morals of the nation). In essence, the fear being exploited by McCarthy was the notion that popular media (as represented by Hollywood) had a strong influence on the development of public opinion, and that the “commies” were poised to exploit this to their advantage – a kind of subliminal fifth column for the “Fourth International.”

Flash forward 60 years, and the situation in Hollywood is very different. The movie industry is a powerhouse of the globalized world, and often posited as a prime example of American “Cultural Imperialism.” Combined, the six major US studios captured 64% of global ticket sales in 2012, bringing in a total of $ 22 billion in income. Literally hundreds of millions of people went to the cinema and consumed their own little slice of Americana, all over the world. By that measure, McCarthy was on to something – he just had the flow of influence backwards.

The difference between Hollywood then and Hollywood now is that McCarthy suspected outside influence where there was none, while today the industry openly acknowledges that foreign entities influence the production and content of the movies produced. The number one film in both the US and China currently is Iron Man 3, starring Robert Downy Jr. as Tony Stark— metal clad super-hero and quintessential Neo-Liberal American entrepreneur. However, the version you see in Los Angeles is different from the one you see in Beijing. In an effort to appease Chinese authorities, Foreign Policy’s Suzanne Nossel points out that the Beijing version has additional modified footage (including a special Chinese scene for domestic consumers), product placements for Chinese goods, and the villain of the piece has been renamed from “the Mandarin” (offensive to Chinese sensibilities) to “Man Daren” or “Big Man” in Chinese. These changes could be viewed as attempts to selectively market to a distinct target audience (China overtook Japan as the single largest foreign market for US films in 2012), if it were not for the fact that they demonstrate what Nossel describes as the “meddling hand of the Chinese censor.” As such, you could view the censor’s heavy hand as a sort of homegrown Chinese McCarthyism.

There are more direct influences on US productions though. Originally scheduled for release last December, the upcoming Brad Pitt blockbuster World War Z has been delayed for 6 months in order to re-shoot a number of scenes. This arose because of objections from the Chinese government over significant plot elements in the storyline, including the idea that the zombie outbreak (on which the film is based) originated in China. This is not the first major film to treat the Chinese hinterland as a source of worldwide pandemic – 2011’s Contagion starring Jude Law and Kate Winslet also used rural China as the birthplace of a plague. It is not hard to see why China is unimpressed with that sort of publicity, especially after the negative worldwide attention that revolved around the Asian Bird Flu and H1N1 outbreaks of recent memory. However, the difference between Iron Man 3 and World War Z is that in the latter case there will only be one version of the finished product available for your viewing pleasure– the Chinese censor-approved version.

To be clear, this kind of influence is not the insidious creeping boogeyman of McCarthy’s paranoid delusions. Los Angeles’s homegrown industry is quite open about the effects of market forces, the need to sell and succeed in major markets such as China, and the desire to collaborate with national entities. In another Iron Man-related movie, this year’s Avengers superhero spectacular also had some interesting international relations related issues, but of a distinctly domestic nature. Specifically, the US military withdrew their technical assistance from the production due to the unspecified nature of SHIELD — the shadowy international power hierarchy that controls the actions of a quasi UN-like military force. Apparently, the implication that US troops might somehow fall under the command of a non-US military command structure —even in a comic book adaptation —was simply not acceptable. This was a pity really, as the other major movie that came out at the same time, Battleship, had full US military cooperation but still turned out to be a terrible film. Political considerations do not appear to be very good at backing a winner, alas.

As we look forward over the next few years it is clear that China as a consumer market will exert ever-greater influence over film production. Hollywood will continue to do what it does best—namely, make expensive blockbusters that reel in billions of dollars from across the globe. How much the impositions of foreign censorship will affect the freedom of expression we take for granted is unknown, but it is worth taking note of. The Chinese Communist Party structure and its efficient, dedicated, and ever-present censors have established that they have a role to play in what we consider to be a distinctly US industry. But instead of imaginary “reds under the bed,” in this case, the pressure being excerpted is quite openly done while sitting at the writer’s table.

All facts/figures taken from Foreign Policy, The Guardian, BBC, and ScreenRant.com.

Disparate Geopolitics: Hackers of the world Unite?

316px-Anonymous_emblem.svg_

In the realm of academia we are often confronted with complex phenomena that we then attempt to corral into nicely defined cubicles. Systems of classification are employed ten a penny in order to establish, well, some form of order on a recalcitrant world. Economics, Sociology, Political Science, and all the other branches of the social sciences, look to establish some form of orthodoxy in order to forge a vision of solid ground – a kind of Archimedean point from which to move the world. This is the role of theory, in that it serves to underpin the validity of whatever new classification is currently in vogue.

How then to classify a phenomena that is, by definition, ethereal? I am speaking of the transient, cross-boundary nature of “Hacking” and the fact that as an activity it trespasses across physical barriers, political borders, sociological identities, and legal frameworks. A good hacker is, almost by default, someone who defies classification in the normal sense. However, everyone has to start from somewhere, and in this case we will employ the notion of geopolitics as the defining theoretical framework. The history of geopolitics is complicated, encompassing notions of territoriality and geographic location that would at first glance seem incompatible with a review of hacking. However, geopol does have a few advantages – geography is a heterodox discipline, meaning it is willing to shamelessly steal from anywhere provided the theory makes sense. Also, modern geopolitics is distinctly critical in nature. As such, geopolitical students often pitch their sights at intangible objectives – such as this one.

For the most part, critical geopolitics is seen in four distinct yet interoperable veins: Formal – where academics theorize about the nature of the world, Practical – where policy wonks and politicians try to enact visions onto the world, Popular – where narratives about the world are played out via media, film, video games, and other such mass engagements, and Banal – where the everyday nature of geopolitical narratives are embedded into the environment (think flags above the Post Office, or national symbology on bank notes). Wikipedia has a nice intro, for those with an interest…

In order to look at the issue of hacking, and in particular the identity of hackers, I am going to suggest a term for  another sub-field of geopol – namely Disperate Geopolitics. I chose the name as hacking is by its very nature a disconnected practice in the geographic sense, albeit facilitated ironically enough through the process of global connectivity. In essence, both the activity itself, and the participants involved are quite distinct.  As such, hackers are an odd bunch. It is very hard to create a template of what the average hacker is like, as there does not appear to be an average hacker. Of course, within the community, as oddly dispersed and discordant as it is, there is a lexicon and classification that differentiates newbs and “script-kiddies” from genuine hard-core techies and innovators. Even the term “hacker” is contested (and my apologies to those who are passionate about this. I am simply using the term in the popular geopolitical sense).  However, from an outside perspective it is very hard to define what makes someone an ideal hacker – and that is why they are so interesting.

For example, when you read the term hacker, what do you think of? For many people, their first thoughts will probably turn to either criminal gangs who steal identities online, or alternatively some kid in their mom’s basement with a Guy Fawkes mask, a six pack of Mountain Dew, and a malicious grin. Both of these stereotypes hold some validity, but they obscure so much more in a geopolitical sense. In both instances the reach of the individual is not geographically bounded. Nor is it necessarily focused in the same way that a more earthbound process might be.  A criminal gang may be constituted by individuals who have never met in real life, yet can still operate as a cohesive entity. Similarly, the “cyber hactivist” using a denial of service attack may have no direct contact or even personalized animosity towards the target group at all.

And then there are the distinctly nationalistic/ideologically driven cyber “warriors” who do have a clear, personal agenda. Groups such as the CyberCaliphate have taken to hacking government websites in support of the Islamic State. Others, such as TeaM MADLEETS fight low level propaganda campaigns in support of their chosen socio-political positions. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has been active in support of the Assad regime throughout the ongoing crisis in Syria, striking out at a variety of online targets seemingly at random. They even hacked the UCLA web page in 2011, although as the linked report states, they were “awfully polite about it.”

The SEA is currently engaged in a form of retaliatory war with Anonymous – perhaps the most widely recognized hacktivist collective, who have taken it upon themselves to “swat at Syrian government websites in response to internet blackouts.”

Anonymous are in some ways the archetypal hacker collective, and the embodiment of the notion of Disparate Geopolitics. Anon has no base, no formal membership criteria, no allegiance, no geographic center, no real defining characteristics at all, aside from a general theme of net neutrality and unrestricted access to information. Before the adoption of the Fawkes mask (courtesy of V for Vendetta) even their logo was deliberately obtuse – a figure of a suit with no head imposed upon a globe, as if to mock the vision of world order associated with modern institutionalism and global governance – a kind of anti-UN, or perhaps just a more honest vision of how the world works – after all, where there should be a person, for Anonymous there is just a question mark. The logo raises two dialectic questions, namely who are we, and who actually controls the world? Who, in essence, is scripting the geopolitical narrative?

At the other end of the scale are what might be considered the more “uniform” visions of hacking, orchestrated by the state, and focused through an old school geopolitical framework. It will come as no surprise that all the major world players have dedicated cyber-warriors of their own, from China’s “PLA Unit 61398” to the U. S. National Security Agency’s “Tailored Access Operations” program. However, while these types of hacking might appear to be simple technological extensions of interstate relations and/or trust issues, they are also indicative of a feature that runs through hacking in general – a distinctly disparate feature that posits a shift in who gets to sit at the geopolitical table. Everyone, regardless of size, military, economic, or political power, wants in on this new geopolitical frontier, from states such as North Korea, Israel, and Iran, to free form hactivist collectives scattered across the globe.

There is so much more to explore within hacking from a disparate geopolitical perspective. We have not even touched upon the notions of “Black Hat” vs “White Hat” operatives, the revolving door between legal and illegal operations, or the recruitment of brilliant young minds into either government service or the criminal underworld (and sometimes both – you are as likely to find new talent in a Federal penitentiary as you are at MIT). At the end of the day, what I hope you take away from this brief exploration is the notion that hacking, and by extension the net, affords alternative avenues for exploring the nature of geopolitics. Our world has changed, and we need to theorize in new ways to understand it. On the internet, new rules apply, and new paradigms emerge. To quote from a couple of mainstream popular geopolitical texts, while new geopolitical players are all  aware that “Big Brother is watching you”, the powers that be must also recognize that in the cyber realm “our name is legion, for we are many.”

 

The Tragic Death of a Licensed Fool: Extremism, Freedom of Expression, and the fight for “European Values”

800px-Edwin_Landseer_-_Scene_from_A_Midsummer_Night's_Dream._Titania_and_Bottom_-_Google_Art_Project

 

Readers will know that your humble narrator has something of soft spot for the role of the Fool. Given the nature of this blog, that should be fairly self-evident. However, in addition to feeling a form of kinship with those who seek to point out the absurdity of the modern world, I am also a legitimately certified fool, in that I was once, long ago, inducted into the ancient and venerable “Illustrious Order of Fools and Beasts.” I shall leave it to your best judgment as to which category I was elected for… 

At midday on the 7th of January 2015, three masked gunman forced their way into the offices of a French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and ruthlessly executed ten members of staff, including the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, and his police bodyguard. The men then fled the scene into the Paris streets, killing another policeman on their way out. The motivation for this horrific massacre is very clear – the offices and personnel had been under threat of terrorist attack since 2007, when the magazine participated in the controversial publishing of cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. The situation became even more intense in 2011, when the magazine issued a special edition titled “Charia Hebdo” (a reference to Sharia law), and listed the prophet as the editor-in-chief. A day after publication, the offices were petrol-bombed.

Monsieur Charbonnier (or Charb as he was known in the cartoon world) was an outspoken critic of many aspects of modern day French life, and used his position to ridicule the great and the good alike. The tagline for his magazine was “Journal Irresponsable” and it took pains to offend politicians, social commentators, and religious sensibilities across a broad spectrum of French society. In doing so, Charb looked to fulfill a venerable role within European society – that of the court jester, or fool. Dating back to ancient times, the fool has often been afforded a license to both mock and speak irreverently to power. Gorge Orwell, another outspoken critic of European society, identified the role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Leer as an example of how the position was necessary to provide a “trickle of sanity running through the play.”

Here in the United States, the role of the fool is filled by political comedians such as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They are so effective, in fact, that the Pew Research Center published a report in 2007 identifying viewers of Stewart and Colbert as the most politically informed demographic in the country. The mixture of political satire and sheer lunacy is a potent elixir, and one that a health society suffers from in its absence. Eric Idle, legendary comedian, and founding member of Monty Python, explored this notion when he stated:

“At least one way of measuring the freedom of any society is the amount of comedy that is permitted, and clearly a healthy society permits more satirical comment than a repressive, so that if comedy is to function in some way as a safety release then it must obviously deal with these taboo areas. This is part of the responsibility we accord our licensed jesters, that nothing be excused the searching light of comedy. If anything can survive the probe of humour it is clearly of value, and conversely all groups who claim immunity from laughter are claiming special privileges which should not be granted.”

Of course, the presence of humor is not, in and of itself, a justification for giving deliberate offense. The fool’s role is not to simple make you gasp in revulsion, but is intended to provoke reflection, in the same way that the apocryphal story of the servant riding behind Caesar whispering “remember thou art mortal” is intend to remind the powerful of their humanity. The question for many European societies is how to merge the strong free speech traditions of European modernity, with the resurgent influence of strongly held religious convictions.

In the coming weeks many commentators are going to focus on the so called “culture wars” of European integration. Given the highly charged political situation across the continent, that is not surprising. A mere two days before the Paris attack, tens of thousands of Germans took to the streets to demonstrate against what they see as the “Islamification of the West.” In Greece, an openly racist political party, the Golden Dawn, has begun exploiting nationalist resentment and the scapegoating of foreign immigrants, and France itself has been engaged in a never ending debate over the role of religion in an explicitly secular republic. Having outlawed the wearing of the Islamic burqa in public places (along with overt displays of Christian crosses in public schools, and other such religious symbology), the French state has explicitly attempted to assert a vision of “Frenchness” that sits outside of cultural or traditional religious boundaries.

The more alarmist observers will fall back upon such well worn tropes as Samuel Huntingdon’s “Clash of Civilizations,” regardless of the fact that no-one with any serious academic reputation has given it any credence for the past decade. Those with a more cogent perspective will attempt to fight this redundant narrative as best they can. As has all too often been the case, the Islamic authorities that represent the vast majority of European Muslims will try in vain to make their own revulsion at this heinous act known. Muslim scholars and commentators will do their best to explain that the actions of a few insane zealots do not represent the beliefs of hundreds of thousands of people who see themselves as both Muslim AND French. Perhaps this time they will be heard, although previous experience does not hold out much optimism on this point.

Hopefully, what will not disappear into the morass of hyperbole and hysteria over the coming months is the strength and conviction of the staff at Charlie Hebdo. Every day for the past few years, each individual walked into their office knowing that a small, insane group of homicidally inclined fanatics had vowed to kill them. Initial reports from the crime scene state that the men proclaimed they had “avenged the Prophet” as they fled from the carnage. Quite why an all powerful creator and His messenger should need the assistance of three rifle wielding lunatics is never explained, but perhaps you have to have a certain kind of faith to understand such things. What is understandable is the position of Charb, and his fellow fools. – they were all true believers in their own right, with an unshakable belief in the function of satire and humor as an essential element of the public discourse.

When asked how he continued to face the ever present threat of attack, Charb replied that he was “not afraid of reprisals, [as] I have no children, no wife, no car, no debt. It might sound a bit pompous, but I’d prefer to die on my feet rather than living on my knees.”

In the words of one of Shakespeare’s most enduring fools: “I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me; to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir from this place, do what they can: I will walk up and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.” Bottom – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Scene 1.

 

This article was originally written for the UCLA Foreign Affairs journal http://www.the-generation.net

 

The Walking Brain Dead

In every modern version of the “Zombie Apocalypse” narrative, small bands of plucky survivors fend off endless hordes of infected, shambling, braindead individuals. The zombies have no appreciation of community, shared responsibility,  or collective security. Instead they are driven by base instincts and a complete disregard for anything other than their own immediate self-interest. The irony in this narrative is that while the world currently faces a very real pandemic crisis, it is the victims who are being forced into the role of desperate survivors, while the non-infected are acting like the brain dead hordes.

For the past few months the world has been struggling to get a grip on the worst Ebola outbreak in history. Upwards of 5000 people have lost their lives to this horrifying disease, with almost 15,000 incidents of infection across West Africa.  To say that this is a tragedy of epic proportions is an understatement.  Aside from the personal toll upon the families of those affected, the communities they live in, and the countries battling to gain control of the situation, the effect upon the entire West African region has been substantial, with the World Bank predicting a possible $32 Billion in economic impacts alone. In other words, the Ebola crisis is not a laughing matter.

If only the international response to this catastrophe was equally as serious. The rather lack-luster response has been so bad that even the normally reserved UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has gone on the offensive. Applauding the efforts of the US, Britain, and France in their moves to (finally) get some skin in the game, Moon called out other major players, stating “It’s time that those other countries who really have capacity … provide financial and other logistical support.” In other words, states such as China and Russia, along with India and Brazil  as up and coming “BRIC” nations, need to step up to the plate and demonstrate why they should be considered pillars of the international community. Similarly, you know things are getting pretty bad when the head of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, calls for immediate actionon the basis that “It is not a matter of choosing whether to do it or not. It’s just a question of when we pay the price for it.” Just in case our national leaders were not paying attention, pretty much everyone with a global agenda has determined Ebola in Africa to be a major threat to regional stability. As international leaders, they might want to get with the program given that this is a textbook example of why international society is needed in the first place.

On the domestic plane, individual countries have responded in a multitude of ways, from Nigeria’s considered approach involving comprehensive public health education programs and exemplary infection control, to North Korea’s outright panic and the imposition of total lockdown in order to avoid an impending Zombocalypse. The idea of Ebola as a kind of pre-curser to a global zombie pandemic is, of course, completely fantastical, but Kim Jong-un’s regime is not the only paranoid group making the same tenuous connection between this disease and the apocalypse. The Chinese state news agency was forced to issue a statement in order to counter rumors running wild on Chinese social media that Ebola victims were returning from the dead in order to feast on the living. Given that these same rumors suggest eating raw onions in order to ward off infection, you can only imagine the eye rolling going on at the Chinese Center for Disease Control.

Having said that, the American Center for Disease Control (CDC) has its own hands full countering the hyperbole and rhetoric that substitutes for analysis here at home.  Under a barrage of attacks from the media and the more insane fringes of the US political spectrum, the director of the CDC, Dr. Thomas Frieden, has taken to pointing out that while Ebola has killed one person on US soil so far, influenza kills upwards of 30,000 a year. Given that less than half of the population bother to get inoculated against an actual epidemic in our midst, you can sympathize with the CDC’s exasperation over the hysteria currently masquerading as the Ebola debate.

A good example of the kind of knee-jerk, anti-scientific response the CDC is facing from our civil authorities is the issue of travel bans. Both international and domestic health experts have stated categorically that travel bans make responding to this outbreak significantly harder. Closing off air links to West Africa means that the most useful bottlenecks for the infection (airports) are rendered useless, as people are forced to cross land borders – a situation that is almost impossible to monitor. Even worse is the imposition of travel bans against international health workers. By far the most pressing need is for more personnel to travel to and from affected regions, in order to fight the disease at its source. By making it almost impossible for volunteers to return home, countries are virtually guaranteeing that the crisis cannot be contained. With what can only be described as a mounting sense of frustration, Ban Ki-moon’s people consistently try to get the world to listen to reason, emphasizing that “the best way for any country to protect itself from Ebola is to stop the outbreak at its source in West Africa.”

The anti-science crowd here in the US goes one step further, professing that the constant efforts of the UN and the CDC only go to prove the dire threat to the country.  Against all the evidence to the contrary, a popular theme among a particular section of the political spectrum has latched on to Ebola as yet another political weapon to wield in the never ending war of attrition that is modern US politics.  For example, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) has gone on the record as stating that “Every outbreak novel or zombie movie you see starts with somebody from the government sitting in front of a panel like this saying there’s nothing to worry about.” In other words, we should all start panicking as the Obama administration is clearly just trying to keep the sheeple quite.

So, the level of our public debate is that politicians are referencing George Romero movies as if they are documentaries. To paraphrase the zombie maestro, “when there’s no more room in hell, congressional representative will walk the earth.” The ironic thing is that if the Ebola virus really were a harbinger of the zombocalypse, we actually have a response ready to put into place. Intended as a “training exercise” in contingency planning, the US Strategic Command report CONPLAN 8888 lays out a series of scenarios for dealing with a pandemic zombie infection. At least you can’t accuse the US government of not thinking outside the box when it comes to preparing for imaginary threats – real world disasters on the other hand, not so much.

At the end of the day Ebola is a trans-national issue, and one that requires a direct, well-supported international effort to combat. From this perspective alone can it be seen as similar to a zombie outbreak. Prof. Daniel Drezner of Tufts University wrote an excellent exploration of this exact issue – Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Perhaps Ban Ki-moon should start leaving copies around the UN Security Council chambers. If rational, scientific, economic, and humanitarian appeals won’t work then maybe a little hyperbole is what will do the trick. You have to hope that at least some of the world’s leaders are not all brain dead, right?

This article was originally written for the UCLA Foreign Affiars Journal – http://the-generation.net/the-walking-brain-dead/