Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christopher Nolan and Fascist Cinema

Christopher Nolan's recent space-epic Interstellar has done well at the box office and garnered a great deal of critical acclaim. The Dark Knight director seems to have found a comfortable space dancing between the big-budget blockbusters devoid of thought and the art-house devoid of heart. Some of his detractors argue his films make little sense, are overall jargon heavy, and dumber than they think. Debating the finer points of the worlds he creates is not of interest to me. I don't need the internal scientific logic of the film to be accurate to make it enjoyable (although I do think Nolan is prone to bludgeoning his audience with exposition that is inherently unnecessary). What I find much more interesting is the discussion currently ragging over the political and social themes apparent in his work.

Eileen Jones at Jacobin Magazine sees Nolan's films as fascist and imperialist in design. Noting the lack of interest in the world the characters leave behind, she sees a brutal celebration of the pioneer:
And they live on a flat plain in Middle America, so there’s no gazing out on beautiful trees or mountains, taking a last look before blowing dust blots them out forever. No one laments the lost lakes and rivers. No one looks at old photos of a green world. The Nolan boys don’t cast a backward glance — the Earth is unsalvageable and there’s no further point in trying to figure out how to live here. It had gotten to be a bad place for us anyway, in existential ways preceding catastrophic conditions. Good conditions made us too comfortable, soft, and decadent. We were practically turning back into Europeans again. Far better to devote all scientific brainpower to a billion-to-one shot space adventure of maximum danger! 
The mysterious forces that seem to operate in the world, the “gods” or “ghosts” or “aliens” who were trying to communicate with and possibly aid the characters early in the film, turn out to be just human characters from the future, maneuvering to redirect their past selves onto more favorable courses. In order to save humanity, see, Cooper has to go adventuring forward in time so his wiser future-self could come back and send Morse-code messages to Murph through the space-time continuum bookcase. Or something. The Nolans have dreamed up an appalling anthropocentric cosmos in which, ultimately, no living thing, no force of any significance exists but the human. That’s my idea of Hell, by the way. But the Nolans have other views that seem widely shared — celebrating humanity as it enacts American-style “dominant individualism” all alone in the empty universe.

Some might see this is as nothing more than an over-analysis from some hard-leftist, but she isn't the only one who sees such themes. Over at right-wing Radix Journal, Mark Barhim celebrates the rise of Nolan's ethos:
It is, of course, a mistake to view Interstellar as a racialist or “right-wing” film. Yes, Nolan is, quite admirably, calling for a return to nobler virtues embodied in the great explorers of the Age of Discovery and the American Astronauts of a more recent period. Though beyond this explicit message lies a crypto-Christian allegory. Here, it seems, Nolan is implicitly endorsing Christianity as the faith of the West, intrinsically bound to it, as its bedrock even, and as a necessary or inevitable part of cultural, civilizational, and even scientific renewal, much as Spengler fastened Christianity to The West through his coinage of “Faustian.” And Nolan optimistically seems to be signaling for a Faustian Indian Summer, if not the appearance of a new Faustian Age all together. Here are the clues.
Quite explicitly, there is a Christian theme of death and renewal (or resurrection), of which even the characters in the film are cognizant. They have named their missions, which are intended to save all mankind, Lazarus missions. Nolan also slyly follows James Cameron in The Terminator; both give their protagonist the initials of Jesus Christ—John Conner and James Cooper, respectively. And there is also doubtlessly a reference to Christ’s (and Dionysus’, Balder’s or Adonis’) pre-resurrection descent into the underworld or hell, seen especially in Copper’s disappearance into the black hole. In this myth, it is understood that Christ’s resurrection and apotheosis (as is the case with his pagan equivalents) is only possible by his suffering and gaining of wisdom in hell. Likewise, this is the case with Cooper. Additionally, Cooper becomes a sort of Holy Father in Heaven (or Space), contrasted with Murphy, an Earth Mother or Mary, both daughter and, as it will be revealed, mother and liberator of Christ (Cooper). To wit, Murphy is virginally “impregnated” by the Spirit, Message, and Word of God, as the Catholic Nun is, and thereby becomes the mother of the world as well as the mother of Cooper, The Savior, who is also reborn by her efforts.
It is the Faustian greatness of Nolan's films that I find appealing. Sure, his Batman films are still big, dumb superhero movies (regardless of what comic fans may try and tell you), but the Batman he crafted does have its "fascist" characteristics and bring to light some politically-incorrect truths. In the Nolan Batman universe, order in society requires someone taking extrajudicial action against the enemies of the common man. Bureaucrats, politicians, and legal authorities are at best ineffective, and at worst corrupt.

Yes, Batman defeats totalitarian villains, but his very approach thrashes at the soft, liberal state we live within. It takes a strong individual, willing to break the law, to protect "tradition." By tradition, I mean a community that exists prior to the current state of affairs in Gotham (i.e. order, family, and community prior to the unknown and unresponsive bureaucratic state). What we must understand, is that this element of Nolan's Batman is what we, as an audience, find most appealing. We intrinsically know that the forces responsible for protecting us and our way of life are unable to do so. Capitalism and finance are a multi-headed hydra that has no center and yet has sway over all levers of life. Globalization, mass migration, and eviornmental destruction continue unibated regardless of their unpopularity. We want a "Batman" to confront the problems we know the authorities can not.

Nolan's work grasps this core emotional fact and why his films, regardless of their anti-liberal qualities, have such a strong connection with audiences. In fact, I feel that it is the anti-liberal (even fascist) qualities that speaks to the average viewer.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

New Right Meets New Left

I have written a number of things on the convergence between the Far Left and Right over the years, and became increasingly interested in the topic upon entering UC Davis as a graduate student. I spent my formative, youthful years on the Far Left, but found myself disillusioned with many of its core beliefs and organizations towards the end of my undergraduate life. After leaving school, I began to read many works in “the opposition,” and found that I had a very shallow understanding of the alternative ideological precepts active in the political realm. By the time I entered graduate life, I was familiar enough with Right-wing thought to see the similarities between it and my Left-wing counterparts at Davis. I won’t rehash my previous arguments on this subject, but you can find some of them here.

Counter-Currents and Radix Journal are two of the leading “traditionalist” or neo-fascist publishing houses/blogs on the net, and reading their work the last few months has been intriguing on a few levels. For one, it is clear that both sites recognize that the Right has an image problem. If you drop in to sites like StormFront, or attend a white-power hardcore show, you will likely be exposed to a crass portion of the political community. Men with little education and intelligence, celebrating Adolph Hitler, and engaging in tactless violence over political engagement make up a majority of participants. It is easy to paint the Far Right as nothing more than a handful of brutish thugs when exposed exclusively to this crowd. Counter-Currents and Radix definitely (and defiantly) bring an academic focus and facade to their side of the debate, one that is required if the Far-right is to extend its reach beyond a few ruffians.  

While I have no way of knowing just how extensive this outreach has extended into radical communities, from my experiences, it appears that the philosophical underpinnings of their arguments have found allies well beyond a skinhead mosh-pit. A recent piece published at Counter-Currents by Eugène Montsalvat titled “Turn Left, New Right!” demonstrates how the Right has embraced many of the Left’s main tropes, and provides a place for significant crossover between communities.

I will start with some praise for Montsalvat’s piece, and a recognition that the existing Left/Right divide has always been more complicated than it is made out to be at universities and in the media. Many of the traditional conservative arguments (both in Europe and America) for keeping stable, vibrant communities afloat, and the nefarious role finance plays in breaking said community’s bonds, mirrors arguments made by leftists intent on preserving “indigenous, ethnic communities.” Additionally, fascist and totalitarian movements of last century almost always contained working –class and socialist roots. With large portions of the working class embracing fascism prior to the war, and their unwillingness to work towards the New Left’s stated aims in the 60s and 70s, continues to produce animosity and conflict between activists and workers.
With just a few alterations, this statement from Montsalvat could easily be found in a slew of Left-wing publications (and one I found myself finding shreds of truth within):
“First, we must recognize the real enemy. The enemy is liberalism, which is the global imperial agenda foisted upon the world by the United States and its allies. Their goal is the creation of an atomized, global consumer society, a pleasure dome police state. Our enemy is the totality of the system, the empire, consisting of those who control the government, corporate, media, and academic institutions globally.”
As Montsalvat uses liberalism to describe the American political and economic system, one can simply change the world to “capitalism” to better meet the tastes of his leftist brethren. Eugene makes the following point about culture and identity that may also ring true to many post-modernists on the Left.

“Colonialism can also take upon a cultural form, the advocacy of Western standards, or lack of thereof, to people who have yet to reach our stage of enlightened progress. Western capitalism exports cultural norms of the west through media and entertainment, the McDonaldization of the globe. In addition to market mechanisms, cultures are often subverted by the governmental sponsorship of anti-traditional movements, such as the CIA funding of abstract expressionist art, or the National Endowment for Democracy’s connections with the feminist, anti-Orthodox, punk collective Pussy Riot. Whether it uses the avant-garde or pop schlock, the ultimate goal is the dissolution of a nation’s unique cultural identity into the wider trends set in Hollywood.”

While he won’t win scores of friends on the Left with his support for Orthodox Christianity and his disdain for Pussy Riot, the heart of his argument is that a community should not be forced to conform to American liberal, capitalist norms and practices. Diversity of political practices and norms is a hallmark of the New Left, as it looks to defend nations and states that do not conform to the predominant American practices.
It is Montsalvat’s attack of Capitalism that may surprise those on the left unaccustomed to the diversity of opinion coming out of the Right. He writes:

“Capitalism knows no country, no faith, no ideology other than the pursuit of money. The capitalist will gladly abandon whatever roots his corporation has to gain a competitive advantage. Moreover, capitalism will fight any ideology that seeks to impose a limit on the quest for profit, its goal is a world where anything is possible, so long as it gets paid for. The traditions, identity, or beliefs of a society that get in the way of business must be discarded. Thus capitalism calls for open borders, fluid identities, and social liberalism.”

This may come across as blasphemy by Republicans and American conservatives, but it would likely find support with many who consider themselves dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. The complete embrace of free market ideals and assumptions by American conservatives has always struck me as odd and disingenuous. There is a cultish adherence to markets, as if all problems in the world can be solved simply by complete economic freedom. Yet, the community, norms and values adhered to by said conservatives are continually dismantled and undermined by the free-market. I have found Rick Santorum to be an interesting case in this regard. He champions the working class and traditional families in stump speeches, but fully embraces the myth that free, unregulated markets will preserve the values he claims to defend.

Simply because something is profitable or popular does not mean it has value and worthy of celebration. One has to look no further than the knee-jerk merriment by the Republicans in response to welfare state attempts to limit consumption of harmful products. Since many people enjoy drinking soda and buying cheap goods from China that remove jobs from the U.S., it must be good right? The Market has spoken!

While I am omitting Montsalvat’s frequent references to Jews and “Zionists” (exposing just how backwards thinking his “New Right” is), this final point is one that requires serious consideration, as it provides a counter to many voices on the Right in regards to immigration. He writes:

“Second, we must distinguish between the agents of the system, and the victims of the system. It is fruitless to criticize immigrants, who have no power, and let the corporations and businessmen who clamor for more cheap labor, and politicians who maintain power from their votes, escape guilt, which is wholly theirs. The Mayan farmer in Chiapas is as much a victim of the system as the unemployed white coal miner in Kentucky.”

One needs look no further than the current refugee crisis on the U.S. boarder to see how this plays out. The working man and woman is often the first to feel the heat for conditions they had little to do with. Workers are uprooted from their communities and the bonds of kinship by an international capitalist system that produces and desires a transient workforce at every turn. For Republicans to relish in punishing poor workers escaping environments directly related to the economic and political decisions made by the U.S. government, while saying not a word about the corporate desire for cheap labor, is treacherous and erratic. I don’t know if this means a sea-change on the Right that may spill over into mainstream conservative circles (rank Jew hatred surely won’t get them very far), but the boundaries between the Far-Left and Right seem to be getting smaller by the day. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The "New Right" is a lot like the Old Right

I recently picked up a copy of New Right versus Old Right by Greg Johnson, the founder and editor of Counter-Currents, an overtly fascist-aligned publishing house and blog operating out of San Francisco. I found a used copy of another book from the publisher called Summoning the Gods, a neo-pagan argument by Collin Cleary stating that we need to search out the old gods of our forefathers and move beyond the Christian moralism now synonymous with "The West." I found it an interesting read, even though I recognized that the argument behind his work was anti-Semitic in its foundation (as some neo-pagan's profess, Christianity is a Jewish conspiracy to undermine traditional European culture). None-the-less, I was intrigued enough to hear how Johnson sees his "New Right" as distinct and dissimilar from the totalitarian, fascist, and conservative varieties that came before him.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the "New Right" sounded just as ridiculous and conspiratorial as the movements Johnson wanted to move past.

Johnson does make an attempt to repudiate genocide and totalitarianism embedded in right wing movements from the last century. Much like the post-modern left, the language of the "New Right" is one of community control, ethnic self determination, and cultural (yet separate) pluralism. In fact, if you replaced all of Johnson's talk about the "white race" with some other ethnic variety, much of his argument would be indistinguishable from the "cultural studies" pushed at many of our liberal arts institutions. I have written about this before, but it is telling how academics on the right have basically adopted the same approach used by their counterparts on the left to push for a white homeland here in North America.

What I did not expect from Johnson's work was an overt fascination with Jews. Anti-Antisemitism and racism was a hallmark of national socialism, and while fascism is not necessarily racist, historically it often manifests as such. I would have thought the old-fashioned Jew hatred would be tossed to make it more palatable and acceptable for the general audience, but I guess the "New Right" still sees Jewish manipulation behind every event.

Each year, prominent white-nationalist thinkers gather at a conference called the American Renaissance. Although the conference is overtly radical, prominent conservatives still show up to sabotage their careers. Having followed the conference for years now, I have seen fault lines develop between various white nationalists over "the Jewish question," especially following 9/11. An exchange between David Duke and Michael Hart at the 2006 conference pushed these divisions to the forefront.
"It began when David Duke, the former Klan leader and author of Jewish Supremacism, strode to a microphone after French author Guillaume Faye wrapped up a talk vilifying Muslims entitled "The Threat to the West." Duke thanked Faye for remarks that "touched my genes." But then he went one further. 
"There is a power in the world that dominates our media, influences our government and that has led to the internal destruction of our will and spirit," Duke said, according to an undisputed account in The Forward newspaper. 
"Tell us, tell us," someone in the back yelled. 
"I'm not going to say it," Duke replied. Laughter began to fill the room, until a short, angry man leaped from his seat, walked up to Duke and began to curse. 
"You fucking Nazi, you've disgraced this meeting!" he said. 
And with that, Michael Hart, a Jewish astrophysicist and long-time attendee at American Renaissance conferences, headed for the door. As many as 50 people at the conference began to jeer and point at the rapidly disappearing Hart. 
This extraordinary incident marked the beginning of an open rift between those on the radical right who see blacks, Hispanics and Muslims as the primary enemy, and those who say "the Jews" are ultimately behind every evil -- a split that has usually stayed just below the surface but now threatens a leading institution of American extremism. While in the past he has managed to bridge this divide mainly by ignoring it, American Renaissance founder Jared Taylor now must finally come to terms with the split. His dilemma boils down to this: Throw out the anti-Semites and try to build a larger movement with electoral possibilities like those increasingly seen in Britain and Germany; or openly join hands with the very energetic neo-Nazis even though that means the loss of any remaining shred of respectability."
Jared Taylor eventually came down against the anti-Semites, but it divided his community. Johnson references this specific incident in his book, clearly siding with the David Dukes of the world. Johnson argued that the movement must be bold enough to say what it knows to be true, and not fear the stigma against anti-Anti-antisemitism in our society. In his chapter titled "Why Conservatives STILL Can't Win," Johnson states:
"We few who know the most important truth in the world - that organized Jewry (not "liberals," not "Cultural Marxists) have set the white race (not "conservatives," not "Christians," not "Western civilization") on the path to extinction - have an absolute duty to get this message out and wake our people up."
In his chapter titled "Hegemony," Johnson argues:
"Of course Jewish hegemony extends well beyond two-party politics into all realms of culture - education, religion, the arts, literature, pop culture, economics, etc. - ensuring that all whites are distracted with an endless array of options, as long as they are trivial options that do not threaten Jewish hegemony."
Sounds a lot like the "Old Right" Johnson is claiming to be distinct from. There is even an attempt to present this out-dated, conspiratorial world-view as philosophical sound. The likes of Rene Guenon and Julius Evola are evoked to give this concept (that a grand conspiracy of unimaginable complexity is out to destroy "whites") ideological traction. The fact that both men were instrumental in the "Old Right" Johnson is attempting to distance himself from doesn't help his argument.

Upon finishing this series series of essays, I had the same nagging suspicion that Johnson is doing what the remaining dyed in the wool communists do: claim that they recognize the devastation their ideas have caused in the past, argue that their movement will never indulge in such destruction again, yet support the same initiatives and assertions that produced aforementioned ruin. There is very little in the way of "new" ideas here, just the same failed concepts repackaged for a new generation. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Remembering CPT. Scott Pace

Monday is Memorial Day here in the U.S. While many Americans take advantage of the national holiday by going on road trips and having picnics, the day is intended to honor and remember those who gave their lives serving this country. As the structure of the U.S. military morphed following Vietnam War, fewer and fewer Americans have an intimate connection to the wars our nation has fought since 9/11, and the men and women who actually risk their lives and well-being to serve in those foreign lands. Far too much media ink has been spent lauding celebrities and athletes for their self-congratulatory "bravery," all the while providing nominal time to the honorable members of our community that gave everything when asked by their government.

Anytime a soldier dies in combat, a great deal is itemized and assumed about their personal character. From personal experience, I can say CPT Scott Pace was a man who earned every positive eulogy he received.

We went to high school together in Brawley, CA, although he graduated a few years earlier than myself. I was close friends with his brother, who also attended West Point and served in Iraq. We were all members of the swim team, and spent many summers working at our local city pool. Even in my youth, I could see that Scott was a standout individual. Academically clever, athletic, but compassionate and concerned with applying ones efforts in a manner that made the world better for others. I held a rather immature set of leftist positions in high school, and we would debate these issues during and between our shifts. Never once did I hear anyone say anything about Scott that wasn't laudatory. 

While he always seemed to have his sights set on serving his country, his road to the military was on the unconventional side. The Los Angeles Times writes:
"After graduating from Brawley Union High in Imperial County, he attended Brigham Young University in Utah for a year. He spent the next two years on his Mormon mission in Argentina and then returned to BYU. 
Meanwhile, his brother Rick, two years younger, had entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Rick knew how much his brother loved basketball — he had been all league in high school but wasn't good enough for the BYU team. 
After watching the West Point team play, Rick told his brother he could play there. 
So Scott received an appointment to West Point, where he majored in nuclear engineering. But unlike transferring to most other schools, Scott had to start over as a freshman. Because his brother also took two years out for his Mormon mission, the two graduated together in 2005. 
After West Point, Scott Pace attended flight school, where he learned to fly the Kiowa Warrior OH-58 helicopter. He served two tours of duty in Iraq, where he was hit with shrapnel in the arm and hand, and one in Afghanistan."

Scott would die on June 6th, 2012 in Afghanistan. His father and brother expressed that Scott had always stressed duty and honor, but he took no solace in the death that war brings. "He wasn't like a caricature of a soldier. He was very tender" his father said. I never saw Scott as one to thump his chest and talk up his tough-guy credentials. Unlike the image sometimes presented by members of the left, he was not bloodthirsty nor uninterested in the casualties of war. He believed that serving his country was important, and that it took the individual efforts of its members to make the world a better place.

On the 68th anniversary of D-Day, Scott was flying to a local Afghan political office that had come under attack by Taliban militants in Qarah Bagh. It is telling that on that very day decades prior, countless young men stormed the beaches at Normandy to help bring an end to fascism in Europe. Scott, along with his fellow co-pilot, gave their lives to help a fledgling democracy get its feet. I don't know Scott's feelings on the war or its direction, but his efforts to help defend a population against attacks by religious totalitarians intent on keeping their nation from modernity should not go unsung. 

Our country (and his family) lost a great man. A man that was great in-spite of his military service, but who demonstrated just how brave and honorable a young, tender man can be in spite of the difficult situation he found himself in. My only hope is that his sacrifice, and that of others like him, is not forgotten in the political debates around the Afghan War. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Indymedia Misses the Cold War

Some things never change. As a young activist, I once used Indybay as a tool to help advertise events and learn about like-minded activities in the Bay Area. When I became disillusioned with this segment of the radical left, I began writing for a website that followed the insane underbelly of the Indymedia community.  Eventually, I stopped following the site closely. I moved away from the Bay, entered my professional career, got married, and lost interest in keeping tabs on some of my old comrades.

With recent events in Venezuela and Ukraine, I figured I would drop into Indybay to see if any protests were planned this coming weekend in San Francisco. Low and behold, I saw that the site had changed very little since the early 2000s, and was still the stomping grounds to totalitarians and useful idiots. Here are just a few choice pieces.
Belarus: President Lukashenko Vows to Prevent a Coup Similar to Ukraine – Steven Argue 
On February 22, 2014, a far right movement overthrew the elected government of Ukraine and seized power in Kiev. They did this with major U.S. and European Union sponsorship. Since taking power that movement has abolished the language rights of Hungarian, Romanian, Tatar, and Russian speaking minorities, banned political parties, announced their intention to ban abortion, given neo-Nazis important positions in the new government, and announced their intention to carry out extreme austerity as demanded by the IMF as a condition for membership in the European Union  
In the wake of the U.S. engineered coup in Ukraine, Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko reflected on the tragedy saying:  
"Our military will carry out duty and tasks to maintain peace and stability in the country. We should not lose vigilance here. We should learn from other people's mistakes and prevent even the slightest manifestations of instability in our country."
With big limitations, Belarus is better off than its former Soviet neighbors due to its planned socialist economy.
I wrote about Steven Argue and his deranged worldview years ago, and I guess I should not be stunned to see that he is still plugging away on this nonsense. Belarus is a poor country, with a highly volatile economy. Yet in the world inhabited by Steven Argue, being a deformed Soviet state with the last standing dictator on the continent, is a positive sign.

All the nonsense about the changes in Ukraine being the product of the U.S. is shared by more than a few of the deranged left. My favorite was the following.
Crisis in Ukraine – Stephen Lendman 
Washington bears full responsibility. European partners share it. Obama claimed another imperial trophy. Whether he'll keep it is another matter entirely.  
Vladimir Putin supports resolving conflict conditions responsibly. Western officials irresponsibly criticize him. Media scoundrels bash him mercilessly.
I spent all weekend hearing that Obama was too weak to deal with the Russian incursion in Ukraine, but on the opposite end of the debate, we see he is the mastermind imperialist! Thus, Putin is the responsible actor, and the EU wants nothing more than a fascist takeover of the country. To live in this ludicrous head space must be disorienting.

What I gather from the entire discussion around events in the Ukraine, is the desire for the old Cold War dynamic that the modern left and right developed within. Some conservatives saw this as a sign that the Soviet Union was again asserting itself and required the hard-nosed leadership to deal with this emerging, global threat. Portions of the left, represented by Lendman and Argue, would like nothing more than to have their old dog back in the fight. Communism may not be the language the Russian state uses to justify its actions, but crass anti-Americanism requires a lion to stand against anything remotely liberal and Western, so Russian and Putin will do. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Around the Web

We are finally getting some rain in my neck of the woods, which helps our water table and my reading habits. Here are a few choice bits.

Martin has an excellent series of pieces on Christian anti-Zionism. The New Centrist is back with a vengeance, and adds to Martin's conversation.

Bob on the recurring "crisis of the left" and an attempt to state what pathological and negative values the broader movement finds itself.

Michael Totten has a book coming out on Cuba in the near future, and he has been posting choice pieces to his blog. His recent bit on the myth of Che Guevara is especially strong.

JD at Shiraz Socialist answers Roger Waters' recent nonsense.

Nick Cohen on the threat the UKIP plays to the right and left in UK politics.

Ron Radosh on the Russia's Olympic fantasies.

A. Jay Adler on academic boycotts and re-colonization by theory.

Tablet has a great interview with Art Spiegelman.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Why You Should Hate the Coke Super Bowl Ad

Perhaps you don’t live in the US. Or perhaps you fall into that large number of Americans that do not bother to follow or watch American football. If you fall into either of those categories, you likely missed the benign controversy over a Coke commercial that aired during the game. The ad in question had “America the Beautiful” sung in a slew of different languages while typical American pastimes played through several clips.

Apparently, this angered some conservative pundits, who felt that this went too far in pushing America down a multicultural rabbit hole. This resulted in a knee-jerk defense of the commercial from liberal pundits, looking to score a few cheap points at the expense of scarce right-wing blowhards. Jamelle Bouie at the Daily Beast argued:

“Every so often, there are cultural hubbubs (like this one) that inspire a little liberal triumphalism—a sense that we’re on the “right side” of history, and that, in the end, we’ll win. This is nonsense. Laugh at the right-wing reaction to Coke as much as you’d like, but don’t think this reflects a favorable balance of political power.”

You see, people take Super Bowl commercials seriously for some odd reason. It’s not enough for financial interests to just sell a product, but to make a statement that will reverberate beyond the game itself. This is when American corporations try and convince us that they are as American as apple pie and Taco Bell. As ridiculous as conservative criticism of the Coke ad is, I simply have to ask: when did we buy into the idea that corporations are patriotic and moral based on their unambiguous breed of advertising?

The celebratory nature of this ad demonstrates the shallow nature present in our national discussion on social and economic issues. Columnists and media pundits have merely accepted the ubiquitous role corporations have staked for themselves in our social fabric. Did folks like Bouie consider the fact that Coke is eyeing for the largest market possible, and not interested in pushing progressive social reform? The fact that only a few morons came out in opposition to the ad demonstrates just how safe their marketing strategy is. Taking a swing at the likes of Glen Beck and Allen West is not bold, just easy. Worse yet, Coke knew that they would be championed by pundits and media personalities for free in the pages of their newspapers and outlets.

For Christ’s sake, Coke sells fizzy water packed with corn syrup. The only reason they make a “political statement” is to generate more buzz which keeps their brand name in the public discussion. We have let these soulless, nationless, capitalists frame the entire debate in a way that benefits them and their financial interests. We treat them as if they are part of our social fabric, a representation of our culture as a whole, when they are nothing more than massive companies intended to sell us goods they know we don’t need. You might enjoy a cola from time-to-time, but don’t buy some soda company’s line that they are part of our nation.
And with that, I have now added time and bandwidth discussing Coke’s ad like it matters.

God damnit. 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Future of the EU

This is a little vault clearing on my part, as this is a paper I put together a few years back. On my recent trip to Europe, I discussed the future of the European Union with a number of folks throughout my travels. This paper helps explain some of the theoretical explanations used to describe past and future enlargements of the EU.

In 2004, the European Union experienced its fifth and largest enlargement in its history, allowing eight Eastern European countries that had previously been under Soviet influence into the organization. With the accession of Romania and Bulgaria three years later, the European Union experienced an incredible growth in the number of member states involved in the Union, bringing increased attention to the enlargement process from academics and theorists. Neofunctionalists (NF) argued that the scope of enlargement was due to “transcendental spillover of European integration” (Mariscal, 2004, p. 4), and that the process was in tune with the theory’s precepts. Liberal intergovernmentalists (LI) on the other hand, argued that the enlargement process reflected the “national interests and state power” of existing member states and the major actors responsible for domestic political decisions in leading states (Moravcsik, 2003, p. 43). To examine these competing theories of European integration, their principles will be applied to the 2004-2007 enlargement of the European Union, the economic benefits and as well as the potential future accession of Turkey into the union. While each approach claims to demonstrate an overarching theoretical explanation for EU enlargement that cross over into a number of different policy realms, I argue that while the economic benefits to major actors involved in each member state’s (MS) domestic politics verify LI precepts, the European Commission’s vital role in pushing the process forward and creating compromise between MS has been a necessary part of the enlargement process underemphasized by LI theorists.

The enlargement of the European Union to include seven new states can be seen to justify NF arguments, specifically in the role the EU played in the political process. At the heart of Neofunctionalist claims is that the “essence of integration lies in the fact that this is not the result of conscious choice” (Moravcsik, 2005 p.351) of the member states involved in the process. While enlargement was popular among Western Europeans on social grounds, it was unpopular economically (Eurobarometer, 2006, p. 40). Many Europeans in the West feared that increased enlargement and integration would increase the number of low skilled labourers in their nations, driving down wages (Ibid, p. 40). Because of this, the enlargement process was not approached with the same level of interest by member states throughout the process, forcing the EU Commission to play a leading role in directing the procedure, even though aspects of enlargement were unpopular with member states in 2004 (and continues to be so in the case of Turkey) (Macmillian, 2009, p.804).  

Neofunctionalism’s logic argues that increased power of the EU in the enlargement process comes from the Commission, in a process that developed incrementally over time known as Cultivated Spillover (Macmillian, 2009, p. 801). The Commission was able to play a strong mediating role between member states and accession states, building compromises and pushing the enlargement process forward when MS support had waned. Since member states would view the bargaining process as a zero sum game according to NF’s logic, the Commission played a significant and necessary role in “upgrading common interests” among the actors involved (Niemann, 1998, p. 431). Acting as a power broker, it was able to set the agenda of the 2004 enlargement process, and because it was a central force pushing for enlargement, as well as “its willingness to produce proposals, [it] become a significant player in the enlargement process” (Macmillian, 2009, p. 801). A separate aspect of NF is what is known as Political Spillover, which argues that collaboration and social-integration of elite technocrats at the supranational level have produced a “forward momentum of integration” that is fundamentally inevitable (Moravcsik, 2005, p.350). The collaborative process fostered by the EU brought about increased cooperation between states and actors within them, creating allegiances to the supranational actor that could mediate and press forward in ways national leaders were unable to do (O’Brennen, 1998, p.171). Due to the increased powers provided to the Commission through the integration process following the Paris Summit, its successful engagement with the European Community – Central and East European Countries (EC–CEEC) trade agreement (Niemann, 1998, p. 434), and the PHARE (Poland–Hungary: Aid for Restructuring of the Economies) programme to prepare CEE states for membership (O’Brennen, 1998, p. 172), the Commission was given more leverage by member states to act with authority. The PHARE program is an excellent example of spillover in the enlargement process. Originally intended as an aid program to Poland and Hungary, providing financial and technical support in helping both states makes the transition to a market economy (Niemann, 1998, p. 433), it was quickly extended in 1998 to included 13 countries. The expansion of the program was a result of the Copenhagen European Council, where Member States had agreed to allow Central and Eastern European states into the EU if they desired (Ibid, p. 435). The Commission recognized the functional pressure this goal would have on the EU and its member states (Ibid, p.436), and significantly increased the budget of PHARE as well as providing increased powers to the Commission (Ibid, p. 435).

Unanticipated threats from outside member states’ governmental control increased the necessity of the Commission and the European Union to participate in the enlargement process. As Philippe Schmitter argued, these unforeseen effects on existing member states by third party forces outside of their collective system, will force them to “adopt common policies vis-à-vis nonparticipant third parties. Members will be forced to hammer out a collective external position (and in the process are likely to rely increasingly on the new central institutions to do it)” (Schmitter, 1969, p. 165). Migration to member states from outside the Union represents an example of this, as the scope of the problem is larger than any single state can adequately address, which lead to an increase in cooperation through the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) department (Boswell, 2003, p.619). While states will still develop policies that reflect their interests in the enlargement process, and look to maximize those benefits, they will be obliged to cede responsibility to the Commission when dealing with issues beyond their control (Niemann, 1998, p. 432).

Turkey’s potential acceptance into the EU also appears to verify NF’s focus on the role of the Commission in keeping Turkey’s bid moving forward, even while its accession into the organization is unpopular with most of the existing MS. Just as it pushed the 2004 enlargement and played a role as a broker between current members, it has worked to minimize conflict between governments which are troubled by Turkey potentially entering the organization. For example, the Commission pushed “member states to keep the accession negotiations going in spite of calls from leaders such as Merkel and Sarkozy against Turkey’s full membership and in favour of a less encompassing privileged partnership (Mcmillian, 2000, p. 803).” The Commission financed a further 199 projects intended to create dialogue between Turkey and the EU. All of these programs signify the strength the Commission has gained through a slow spillover process, and allows the organization to take a central political role in the enlargement process.

Liberal intergovernmentalism contends that member states are always aware of their decisions, how these decisions will affect them in the future, and that “bargaining and delegation by explicit governmental agreement better explains more important decisions in EU history” (Moravcsik, 1995, p.625). However, as O’Brennan argues, LI is “ill-equipped to account for the sheer density of issues and level of institutionalized cooperation (O’Brennan, 1998, p.169),” and is insufficient at explaining the political aspect and role the Commission has played in the enlargement of the European Union. The ability for the Commission to push forward the enlargement process even when it is unpopular with member states tells us that while states may work to guarantee economic advantage, state preferences change, and enlargement is “an ongoing process characterized by member state uncertainty” (O’Brennan, 1998, p. 169). That said, LI offers a compelling account as to why MS formulate their positions. Since states remain the defining players in LI, preferences of both the existing and applicant states, as well as the major actors at play in each state’s domestic politics, explain why states acted as they did in the accession process. Specifically, economic and commercial interests drove the enlargement process forward with the Central and Eastern European countries, and continue to do so in the case of Turkey (Ibid, p.168).  Member state governments are forced to act in the interests of strong constituents in their domestic politics, and in the case of enlargement, capitalist business interests and well-educated elites have the most to gain and are generally in favour of the process (Doyle and Fidrmuc, 2006, p. 522). These actors know what is in their best interests and “employ considerable resources to make sure their views get across to policymakers” (Loretzen, 2000, p.3). European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT), a club of some 40 multinationals concluded that the enlargement process was beneficial for business interests in both existing states and accession applicants (Ibid, p.3). Because the EU is predominantly an economic centered organization meant to deal with globalization, it “remains of preeminent importance due to its material benefits (Moravcsik to Chatzistavrou, 2008)” and beneficial for market interests active in the enlargement process.

The economic advantages to EU membership are noteworthy. Joining the EU will likely generate long-term total gains to new MS “ranging from 23 to 50 billion Euros” (Moravcsik and Vachudova, p.47). All regions that are 75% per capita GDP below the Community average qualify automatically to receive structural funds, even if other parts of their state are more prosperous (Delhey, 2001, p.211).  The 2004 enlargement created significant material benefits for the existing member states by increasing the internal market by over 100 million consumers in swiftly emerging economies (Moravcsik and Vachudova, 2003, p. 50). It is not surprising to liberal intergovernmentalists that the applicant states were willing to sacrifice more to obtain membership. Moravcsik describes this phenomenon as “asymmetrical interdependence,” as states will make concessions on some fronts without the necessity for strong coercive diplomacy because they recognize the overall benefits of these concessions” (Ibid, p. 45). The access to the collective European market, the ability for labour from the east to travel to the west, as well as the structural funds provided by the EU would provide significant economic advantages to the new states, and thus they are willing to sacrifice more in negotiations (Ibid, p. 48). Current member states also added a number of self-interested conditions to membership for the applicant states, such as lower subsidies than previous applicants, and “outlays from the EU budget to new members have been capped at 5 percent of their GDP, far lower than their predecessors.” (Ibid, p. 48) The existing members had less to gain from the addition of the new states, and therefore, were able to demand more from them in the negotiating process.

Moreover, surveys signify that the EU business community tends to support Turkish accession even when EU member states otherwise resist it (Taylor, 2008). By opening up a huge market, with a young demographic and a growing economy, business will be able to capitalize on these consumers by including them in the EU’s Economic Community. For Turkish business interests and producers, having increased foreign investment in a manner similar to the 2004 enlargement where Western businesses were responsible for helping upgrade the industry in the East (Bauer, 1998, p.13), Turkey can likely expect to see similar results. Due to the political power these actors have in the domestic politics of their nation states, it is not surprising that their concerns would be advanced by nation states.

Balance of power issues in European politics also dictate state policy preferences on enlargement. Britain has been supportive of Turkey’s accession “because it would hinder the process of political integration” (Muftuler-Bac, 2002, p.85) and draw power away from traditional power centers in Europe, such as France. Member States supportive of a more supranational EU fear Turkey’s accession will slow or halt that integration, and empower inter-governmentalists to remove decisions from the collective EU process (Ibid, p.85). Since the interdependence between Turkey and the EU is asymmetrical, and with bilateral interdependence more important to Turkey than it is EU member states, Turkey is willing to sacrifice more in the negotiating process to secure membership (Moravcsik to Chatzistavrou, 2008) (Muftuler-Bac, 2002, p.82).

While both NF and LI offer compelling accounts of enlargement of the European Union, both also fail to adequately explain all aspects of the process. NF provides reasons for why the Commission played a central role in the enlargement process, specifically in its ability to act as a power broker between various states due to the slow accumulation of power from past successful integration overseen by the organization, but oversimplifies the manner in which state actors develop their policies. LI explains how actors within each nation, largely from the commercial and business sectors, put long term goals over short term losses and have been responsible for the push towards expanding the EU’s access to untapped markets. At the core of Liberal intergovernmentalism lies the assumption that governments comprehend and weigh alternative strategies to meet their goals, and that they are not indifferent to them (Moravcsik, 1993, p.497). However, the power supplied to the Commission during the 2004 enlargement and possible future enlargement with Turkey, provides ample evidence that states do not always act to advance self interests above all other considerations. As Moravcsik points out, actors in the enlargement negotiations may sacrifice short term goals for long term objectives (Moravcsik, 2003, p. 43). While national governments may focus on long term aims, the Commission is able to spearhead the enlargement process, and direct it in ways that are not always expected by its MS (O’Brennan, 1998, p.169). As a result, both theories provide plausible explanations to the enlargement process in separate realms, with NF best explaining the political process and LI elucidating the economic leanings that fuel nation state preferences.





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Monday, January 06, 2014

The Joy of Rabbit

Perhaps it is a sign that I am getting older or experiencing a refinement in my pallet, but I have developed a taste for rabbit over the last few years. What started out as an attempt to try more exotic food became a true love for the animal upon traveling to countries that cook it regularly. This winter, I traveled to Europe to spend some time with family in Flanders. While in Bruges, I sat down at an up-and-coming restaurant to try their specialty: locally caught rabbit.

I had never had the animal prepared and cooked so well, and it was a culinary highlight of my trip.
Every culture has its own standards for food, and rabbit is still outside of the mainstream here in the US. While not as insurmountable as raising dogs for consumption, getting rabbit on the American dinner table has significant challenges. I am unsure if the animal's "cute" factor has made it difficult to integrate into the American menu, but it is unfortunate that it remains so elusive. My family in Belgium raised the animals for decades, and my grandparents brought the tradition to the US with them in the early 1950s. Sometime during my father's youth they stopped doing so (along with many European immigrants from that time period). Thus, the meat is harder to come by, and only a few boutique groceries offer if.
Karen Pinchin at Modern Farmer argues that rabbit is the potential new "super meat" if only Americans could get over the stigma surrounding devouring the cute little guy. She writes:
"By all appearances, rabbit could be the food of the future. Touted for years by food activists including Michael Pollan, these fluffy herbivores eat alfalfa instead of energy-intensive soy or fish meal, grow quickly and thrive in clean, disease-free conditions. Plus, while their reproductive prowess may be clichéd, California farmer Mark Pasternak and his wife Myriam can’t build rabbit barns fast enough to keep up with demand. 
Three years ago the couple’s Marin-area Devil’s Gulch Ranch had 250 breeding females, or does, a number that has since quadrupled to 1,000 and makes them one of the largest meat rabbit producers in the United States. At any one time, they have 9,000 rabbits, with 300 to 500 slaughtered every week for regional grocery stores and restaurants, including French Laundry, Chez Panisse, and Zuni Café. A single doe will have multiple litters every year, and those litters will reach breeding age within months; that means a rabbit can produce six pounds of meat on the same amount of feed and water it takes a cow to produce just one pound."
Until then, I will be on the hunt for a meal as wonderful as the one I had in Bruges.