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Caitlin Flanagan Demolishes Modern Feminism (Really!)

By Taylor Marvin

Via Scott Lemieux, yesterday’s New York Times has an outrageously dumb piece by the irrepressible Caitlin Flanagan:

“Hysteria is the most retrograde and non-womyn-empowering condition. It’s not supposed to happen anymore (we have Title IX!), but it won’t seem to go away. Both history and myth are filled with stories of girls exhibiting bizarre symptoms around the time of puberty — from Cassandra and her raving, to the girls of the Salem witch trials, to the girls whose households were believed to be the site of poltergeist hauntings, to cheerleaders in New York and North Carolina. Pubescent girls, it seems, are manifestly more likely to exhibit extreme and bizarre psychological symptoms than are teenage boys.”

Do you see what Flanagan’s doing here? In her argument, anecdotal evidence of a possible medical disorder that might disproportionately affect pubescent girls challenges the foundations of modern feminism. Not convinced? Flanagan can give you like five completely unrelated data points spanning from the Trojan war to our womyn-empowering post-Title IX modern day!

I’m always astounded by this level of analysis, whether its Flanagan pretending that half a dozen casual anecdotes validate her worldview or Tablet printing the patently insane argument that Iran’s falling fertility rate’s evidence the whole country has a death wish. This kind of writing would get you laughed out of an undergraduate classroom, but somehow there’s a market for famous, well compensated adults to dream up the unique brand of gloriously self-validating op-eds that spring from the authors’ head like Minerva, born fully-formed despite having never come into contact with reality.

Edit: Slightly edited for clarity/snark.

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Public Execution

By Taylor Marvin

North Carolina Republican state Rep. Larry Pittman wants to reinstate public hangings for “abortionists, rapists, and kidnappers”. Pittman’s getting justifiably mocked in the liberal blogosphere; his entusiasm for the death penalty is revolting, and horrendously tone-deaf in a state notable for a terror campaign of institutionalized public lynchings that ended less than a century ago. But I partially agree with Representative Pitmann’s advocacy for public execution. If our society has decided we’re comfortable with the state routinely killing, then the ugly act of execution should be in the light of day and not the sanitized faux-hospital of the lethal injection. Despite our best efforts, ending human life is never routine, and we should stop the voluntary procedural euphemisms that let us pretend that it is.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

QQiu Shihua, Untitled, 2007.

QQiu Shihua, "Untitled", 2007.

The best links of the week:

The caging of America (via Jill Filipovic).

Somali pirate gun locker: An oddball assault rifle, at sea.

Iran tried to take advantage of the Arab Spring. It failed, miserably.

Locked in the Ivory Tower: Why JSTOR imprisons academic research.

What’s so special about the 1%?

How (not) to defend entrenched inequality.

Is Israel a failed state?

Newt Gingrich is an ideas factory.

Navy Public Relations

By Taylor Marvin

USS Enterprise and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Red Sea. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Rob Gaston

USS Enterprise and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Red Sea. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Rob Gaston

Yesterday I was having an interesting conversation with a friend about the USS Enterprise’s upcoming deployment to the Persian Gulf, and I mentioned offhand that the ship was crewed by nearly 6,000 sailors and carried over 60 aircraft. My friend was shocked — she’d thought that US aircraft carriers carried at most 10 aircraft!

My friend doesn’t follow naval affairs, but she’s a smart graduate of the UCSD International Studies honors program and generally very well informed and closely follows current events. If she has such a mistakenly low impression of US naval power, it’s certain that many less-informed Americans do as well. In the looming era of a reduced Pentagon budget, these public misconceptions could come back to haunt the Navy. Everyone knows what the Army and Air Force does, but if the public consistently underestimates the size and power projection capabilities of USN carriers, it’d be reasonable of them to question exactly why the Navy needs the funding it says it does.

There are important questions about the cost-effectiveness and survivability of future carriers, and whether advances in anti-ship missile technology and ballooning acquisition costs have made big, expensive CVNs obsolete. But restructuring and ultimately shrinking the bloated American military budget will require difficult choices for policymakers in congress and the Pentagon. If the average American doesn’t understand what the Navy does, the public and their congressional representatives are more likely to question if it deserves precious budgetary resources.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Thomas Hart Benton, Cut the Line, 1944.

Thomas Hart Benton, 'Cut the Line', 1944.

The best links of the week:

Conor Friedersdorf’s outstanding attack on the Obama presidency.

No military option in Syria.

Not fade away: The myth of American decline. Robert Kagan confuses power with empire.

Everybody pour out a 40 on their tasseled loafers in memory of Jon Huntsman.

Perry talks crazy about Turkey, but is par for the GOP course.

This crow is sledding:

Alexis Madrigal explains.

Because freedom isn’t free: Why we* blacked out Crooked Timber yesterday. Great summary of why SOPA/PIPA is an awful piece of legislation.

What high school is worth on the free market.

Spencer Ackerman demolishes the case for war against Iran. “For two dudes so apocalyptic about the consequences of a nuclear Iran, they’re absolutely sunny about the ease with which a new era of sunshine will warm southwest Asia once the American bombs drop.”

Yeast experiments hint at faster evolution from single cells.

Dan Trombly on Spain and Syria.

Felix Salmon explains the complex hierarchy of Davos nametags..

Rick Perry experiences overwhelming feeling of clarity and contentment in final moments before death of campaign..

Not a parody:<a href="“If this nation must now move with conviction in the direction of its heart, Newt Gingrich is obviously no stranger to that journey.”

Chase the Sun – Gypsy Woman.

No, Iran’s Leaders Aren’t Irrational

By Taylor Marvin

Via Daniel Larison, Mark Adomanis has a very good piece at Forbes demolishing Lee Smith’s argument in Tablet that Iranian human wave tactics during the Iran-Iraq War prove Iranian leaders are suicidal lunatics:

“Anyone who has done anything but the most cursory reading about the Eastern Front in the Second World War knows that the use of human wave attacks is hardly a uniquely Persian phenomenon. The Soviets were infamous for using штрафные батальоны (penal battalions) to do all sorts of grisly and suicidal tasks including, yes, clearing minefields. Indeed the Soviets were, by almost any reckoning, far more reckless with the blood of their troops than were the Iranians. If you want to get some idea of just how brutally careless the Soviets were with human life, and if you have a strong stomach, read about the “Battle of the Kerch Peninsula” an oft-forgotten charnel house that truly makes the mind reel.

Smith seems to make the (very common) mistake of assuming that “rational” means “good” or “agreeable.” If your opponent is more technologically sophisticated than you but you greatly outnumber them (as Iran outnumbered Iraq and the Soviet Union outnumbered Nazi Germany), and have an essentially inexhaustible quantity of poorly educated, poorly trained, and poorly armed young men, it is perfectly rational to use this fact to your advantage. The goal of a war is not to win pretty, but to win.”

Smith’s clearly grasping to make any argument that the Iranian regime is less than a rational actor. His other examples don’t help his case:

It’s pretty easy to make a strong case that the Iranian regime really is suicidal. This is the same ruling clique, after all, that pioneered the use of the suicide car-bombing during the course of the Lebanese civil wars from 1975 to 1990. The Iranians tapped their local allies, namely Hezbollah, for martyrdom operations against Israel, the United States, and other Western powers.”

How is this evidence of irrationality? There’s a clear and obvious difference between using suicidal tactics and pursuing a suicidal strategy, and it’s astounding that Smith completely fails to grasp this distinction. Iran’s willingness to support Hezbollah is a perfectly rational strategy to asymmetrically oppose a regional rival, Israel, and isn’t fundamentally different from the proxy wars the US and USSR rationally used to counter each other while limiting the possibility of dangerous escalation during the Cold War. Smith’s Hezbollah example actually implies the opposite of what he thinks it does: given Israel’s overwhelming military superiority, any Iranian attempt to counter superior Israeli forces conventionally would be less rational than Iran’s actual asymmetric strategy. As Adomanis notes, there’s nothing inherently irrational about using military tactics based on a high tolerance for casualties. Low tolerance for military deaths is a luxury of the powerful.

Smith goes on to make more outrageously misinformed assertions:

No country sets out purposefully to bring about its destruction. And yet history is nothing but the record of nations that have misunderstood the limits of their own power and the resources of their adversaries. Nazi Germany may have been suicidal, but the British Empire was not, and yet at the end of World War II both were finished.”

Does anyone really think that Nazi Germany was inherently suicidal? By late 1944 Hitler’s own behavior was growing increasingly erratic, but for most of World War II Germany’s actions were rational, even if the reasoning they were based on was ultimately misinformed. In retrospect Hitler’s invasion of the vastly larger and more populated USSR seems suicidal, but it’s important to remember that at the time German warplanners rationally predicted a quick victory over the disorganized and ill prepared Soviet Union. Invading the USSR was still a gamble, but given the information he was presented Hitler’s decision to strike the Soviets in 1941 before the USSR could prepare itself for an inevitable conflict with Germany was reasonable, if of course immoral. If Germany had been able to successfully capture Moscow before the end of December 1941 Hitler’s decision to open a two-front war would appear much more ‘rational’ to history. Ultimately Hitler did prefer national death to ignoble defeat at the hands of the hated Soviets, but there’s a clear distinction between suicide when your regime is already lost and actively seeking out national destruction.

Finally, Smith makes the bizarre claim that Iran’s falling birth rate proves all Iranians have lost the will to live:

Perhaps most tellingly, the plummeting Iranian birthrate—from 6.5 children per woman a generation ago to 1.7 today—suggests that it is not just the regime, but an entire nation, that no longer wishes to live.”

There’s really no way to describe how breathtakingly stupid this is. Japan’s 2010 average fertility rate was 1.39 children per woman: is Japan even more suicidal than Iran? With a 1.95 2010 fertility rate can the recklessly suicidal UK government be trusted with nuclear weapons? Nearly all nations have seen birthrates dramatically fall in the last half century: in the US the average birth rate fell from over 3.5 to the present level of roughly 2 children per woman, or just over the Iranian level, in a decade! Is Lee Smith suggesting that America — a country he presumably likes — “no longer wishes to live”? No, because this isn’t an argument; it’s raving, and it demonstrates just how weak the argument of Iran’s irrationality is.

There’s a much simpler explanation for the dramatic reduction in Iran’s fertility rate: a nation’s birthrate is strongly tied to income levels. Iranian real GDP per capita plummeted during the bad years of the late 1980s, but overall has dramatically grown since the 1979 Revolution. This isn’t saying that the Islamic Republic’s government has been good for the economy — Iranian GDP per capita remains relatively low by world standards, and Iran’s relatively low inequality is more indicative of economic stagnation than social equity —  but average incomes have improved since the 1970s. Iran’s falling birthrate isn’t evidence of some national psychosis, but of gradually improving standards of living. Even opponents of the Iranian regime should celebrate this. There’s strong evidence that democratic reforms become more likely after standards of living reach a middle income threshold and even if gradually rising Iranian incomes don’t weaken the regime in the long-term improvements in standards of living, even in autocratic countries, remain gains for aggregate human welfare and make the world a better place.

Smith’s refusal to recognize the clearly understood link between income and fertility rates is astounding. Resorting to such patently ridiculous reasoning disproves his thesis better than any counterargument ever could.

Red Lines in the Strait of Hormuz

By Taylor Marvin

USS Harry S. Truman in the Arabian Sea. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kilho Park.

USS Harry S. Truman in the Arabian Sea. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kilho Park.

Wired’s Spencer Ackerman is worried that the US Navy’s presence in the Gulf will tempt the Iranians into war:

“Now consider that in the coming days, there will be a whopping three U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups near Iranian waters at the mouth of the Persian/Arabian Gulf. The Carl Vinson is there to relieve the John C. Stennis, which Iran recently threatened directly and has yet to sail for home. Almost there is the Abraham Lincoln. All these deployments were scheduled long ago. But if you were Iran, would that reassure you? Or would you see three U.S. aircraft carriers near your shores with tensions as high as they are?

One of these days — the Pentagon, for obvious good reasons, will not say when; I would not report the date even if I knew it — one of those carriers will pass through the strait en route to Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. It will have the right to do it: the strait is an international waterway. Hold your breath when that happens. The prospect for miscalculation is really, really high. If Iran fires at the carrier, the battle group has to show it is not to be fucked with. Otherwise every U.S. Navy ship in the Gulf and the north Arabian Sea becomes a target. And no one knows how a U.S.-Iranian fire exchange stops. Ever there was a time for cooler heads to prevail.”

I’m more optimistic. While an escalation between US and Iranian forces is certainly possible, I don’t see how the Iranian leadership’s incentives scheme favors an escalation into actual combat.  What are Iran’s strategic goals? In the short-term, reducing the severity of the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States, EU, and UN; in the long-term, achieving regional hegemony at the expense of the US, Israel, and its Sunni Arab rivals. It’s possible that the Iranian leadership sees closing the Strait of Hormuz as a tool to coerce the rest of the world into moderating sanctions. While the Iranian Navy almost certainly lacks the capability to completely close the strait for an extended period of time, asymmetric attacks by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy against the US Fifth Fleet would significantly raise oil prices and massively disrupt the recovering global economy.

However, it’s an even bet whether this would successfully coerce the rest of the world into dropping sanctions in exchange for an Iranian guarantee to keep the strait open. Disrupting the global economy would generate a lot of ill will around the world, especially from energy-hungry states like China that have historically preferred a hands-off approach to Iran. Iranian defiance could easily provoke heightened global appetite for sanctions. This scenario is the more likely of the two. Weakening Iran’s coercive position is that fact that an Iranian threat to close the strait would be a one-time deal. Even relatively successful asymmetric surface warfare against US forces would destroy military assets — especially surface to air missile systems and Kilo-class diesel submarines — Iran’s status as an international pariah make difficult irreplaceable.

This doesn’t mean that a war with Iran would not be immensely costly. Defeating Iran militarily even in a limited conflict confined to the strait would be difficult. A wider conflit could be extremely costly. As Adam B. Lowther recently noted in The Diplomat, Iranian air defense capabilities would challenge US strike access:

“If it comes to war, the proliferation of advanced air defense systems to countries like Iran may give it one of the best integrated anti-aircraft defense systems the United States faces in combat. They may be capable of inflicting casualties on American airpower not seen since Vietnam. And with a declining bomber force, losses could be unacceptable.”

Of course, there’s a lot of daylight between Iran’s Soviet-legacy S-200 SAM systems and the newer and vastly more capable S-300s the Russians declined to sell to Iran in 2010. But operating in defended Iranian airspace would probably require stealthy B-2s or F-22s, and it’s always possible that the right circumstances could allow and Iranian SAM site to down a US aircraft. Losing a B-2 or F-22 would be a disaster for the US, demonstrating that these advanced aircraft can be downed and destroying much of their valuable mystique. But despite Iranian military capabilities, it’s likely that US and allied Arab forces would force open the strait to shipping before rising oil prices forced an end to sanctions. A limited war over the Strait of Hormuz would not be a strategic victory for Iran.

The coercive power of an Iranian attempt to close the strait is lessened by Iran’s own reliance on shipping through Hormuz. In The Atlantic, Hamed Aleaziz and Robin Mills recently explained:

“Despite Iran’s tough talk, it seems unlikely that the country would cut off what amounts to its own lifeline. Iran also relies on an open and fully operational Hormuz. As reported in the New York Times, Iran exports almost “2 million barrels of oil a day” through the Strait to countries like China. And the Iranian government, according to researchers at the U.S. Institute of Peace, receives 65% of its revenues through its oil industry; would Iran’s shaky economy be able to take such a hit? Probably not.”

The Iranian government’s actions are a balancing act between their short-term and long-term goals. Abandoning the nuclear program and reconciling with the West would bolster Iran’s immediate objective of moderating sanctions, but a nuclear capability is Iran’s best hope at medium-term regional hegemony — Iran can’t credibly challenge the Israelis when Israel has 300 nuclear warheads pointed at them. Iran’s inconsistent diplomatic behavior — what Time’s Joe Klein describes as having “no idea how to play the hand they’ve been dealt because they don’t know very much about the other players at the table” — comes from the fundamental conflict between these short and long-term strategic objectives. Iran knows a war tomorrow would be disastrous. But not acquiring nuclear capability is in the long-term just as bad: it means acquiescing to continued Israeli and Saudi hegemony and Iranian marginalization in the region outside of Iraq, a scenario not improved by the shakiness of Iran’s Syrian ally. Nuclear capability and continued defiance of the West is popular within Iran, and while the Iranian government remains reasonably stable it has a strong popularity incentive to continue its enriching program despite sanctions. Iran’s long-term strategy is to pursue a nuclear capability while straying just shy of the red lines that would lead to war. Increasing the costs of war — building up its SAM and asymmetric naval capabilities, and insisting that it could close the Strait of Hormuz — moves these red lines closer to Iranian goals. We’ve already seen this: President Bush insisted that the US would not allow Iran to enrich uranium, but didn’t act when it passed this milestone in 2006. President Bush rationally concluded that pervious rhetoric aside, a war with Iran to prevent uranium enrichment would fail a cost benefit test. If Iran can continue to raise the costs of war, it can pass additional red lines without consequence.
In the immediate term, this is actually a stable equilibrium. Iran knows that attempting to close the Strait or firing on a USN vessel will lead to war — these are serious boundaries that can’t be crossed. Iran has an incentive to threaten the US, but a stronger incentive to avoid a disastrous conflict that would decimate its military capabilities and weaken its long-term strategy. This incentive is strengthened by the recent US withdrawal from Iraq: Iran can no longer deter a US response by threatening to step up covert operations against US troops next door. Usually a strategy that favors escalation to the brink of conflict is dangerous, but here war is unlikely: in the short-term the Iranians clearly understand the US’s firm red lines and are aren’t likely to cross them. In the longer term this equilibrium is less stable. While the Iranian strategy likely seeks to avoid actual conflict, the Israelis have made it clear that they do consider war a more favorable outcome than an Iranian nuclear capability. It’s unlikely that Iranian efforts to raise the cost of war will shift this Israeli trip wire — the Israeli government has spent over a decade insisting that a nuclear Iran is completely unacceptable, and is likely electorally committed to war if an Iranian nuclear weapon appears imminent. This is where Israel’s democracy hurts it. The autocratic Iranian government hasn’t electorally committed itself to following through on its threats to close the Strait. In Israel the stakes are higher, and while Israel’s multi-leg nuclear forces mean it could probably safely accept an inferior Iranian nuclear capability, electoral forces make it difficult for an Israeli government to back down from its insistence that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable.
So in the short-term, war is unlikely: the John C. Stennis will safely leave the Gulf, and Iran is unlikely to act on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. In the long-term the status quo is less stable. Israel will probably attack Iran before it acquires nuclear capabilities.

The Iranian government’s actions are a balancing act between their short-term and long-term goals. Abandoning the nuclear program and reconciling with the West would bolster Iran’s immediate objective of moderating sanctions, but a nuclear capability is Iran’s best hope at medium-term regional hegemony — Iran can’t credibly challenge the Israelis when Israel has 300 nuclear warheads pointed at them. Iran’s inconsistent diplomatic behavior — what Time’s Joe Klein describes as having “no idea how to play the hand they’ve been dealt because they don’t know very much about the other players at the table” — comes from the fundamental conflict between these short and long-term strategic objectives. Iran knows a war tomorrow would be disastrous. But not acquiring nuclear capability is in the long-term just as bad: it means acquiescing to continued Israeli and Saudi hegemony and Iranian marginalization in the region outside of Iraq, a scenario not improved by the shakiness of Iran’s Syrian ally. Nuclear capability and continued defiance of the West is popular within Iran, and while the Iranian government remains reasonably stable it has a strong popularity incentive to continue its enriching program despite sanctions. Iran’s long-term strategy is to pursue a nuclear capability while straying just shy of the red lines that would lead to war. Increasing the costs of war — building up its SAM and asymmetric naval capabilities, and insisting that it could close the Strait of Hormuz — moves these red lines closer to Iranian goals. We’ve already seen this: President Bush insisted that the US would not allow Iran to enrich uranium, but didn’t act when it passed this milestone in 2006. The Bush Administration rationally concluded that pervious rhetoric aside, a war with Iran to prevent uranium enrichment would fail a cost benefit test. If Iran can continue to raise the costs of war, it can likely pass additional US red lines without consequence.

In the immediate term, this is actually a stable equilibrium. Iran knows that attempting to close the Strait or firing on a USN vessel will lead to war — these are serious boundaries that can’t be crossed. Iran has an incentive to threaten the US, but stronger reasons to carefully avoid actually escalating to a disastrous conflict that would decimate its military capabilities and weaken its long-term strategy. This incentive is strengthened by the recent US withdrawal from Iraq: Iran can no longer deter a US response by threatening to step up covert operations against US troops next door. Usually a strategy that favors escalation to the brink of conflict is dangerous, but here war is unlikely: in the short-term the Iranians clearly understand the US’s firm red lines and are aren’t likely to cross them. In the longer term this equilibrium is less stable. While the Iranian strategy likely seeks to avoid actual conflict, the Israelis have made it clear that they do consider war a more favorable outcome than an Iranian nuclear capability. It’s unlikely that Iranian efforts to raise the cost of war will shift this Israeli trip wire — the Israeli government has spent over a decade insisting that a nuclear Iran is completely unacceptable, and is likely electorally committed to war if an Iranian nuclear weapon appears imminent. This is where Israel’s democracy hurts it. The autocratic Iranian government hasn’t electorally committed itself to following through on its threats to close the Strait. In Israel the stakes are higher, and while Israel’s multi-leg nuclear forces mean it could probably safely accept an inferior Iranian nuclear capability, electoral pressures make it difficult for an Israeli government to back down from its insistence that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable.

So in the short-term, war is unlikely: the John C. Stennis will safely leave the Gulf, and Iran is unlikely to act on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. In the long-term the status quo is less stable. Israel will probably attack Iran before it acquires nuclear capabilities.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830.

Eugène Delacroix, 'Liberty Leading the People', 1830.

The best links of the week:

How US policies fueled Mexico’s great migration (via Erik Loomis).

Are smart people ugly?

How much does file sharing resemble stealing – and does it matter?

Sincerely yours, politics.

Do Israelis really want to bomb Iran?

George Lucas: Hollywood didn’t want to fund my film because of its black cast.

“Do you know what is worse than having your dead body urinated upon? Being killed. Being shot. Being bombed. Having your limbs blown off. Having your house incinerated by a drone-fired missile that you don’t see until it explodes.”

“War is an awful human experience. It is sometimes necessary, but it is never sanitary.”

Iran and the terrorism game.

Ten 100 year predictions that came true (via Brad Plumer).

More planets than stars in the Milky Way.

Antonio Carmona – Medio (Tangos).

The Dark Knight and the Legitimacy of Violence

By Taylor Marvin

So who else is excited for The Dark Knight Rises?

In preparation for the new movie I rewatched The Dark Knight. What’s most striking about the film is its thematic and conceptual differences from its predecessor, Batman Begins. At its heart Batman Begins is a fantasy movie — a good one, but whose ninjas, order of assassins based in the Himalayas, and foggily gothic vision of Gotham hints at a world more fantastical than ours. The Dark Knight, in contrast, feels disturbingly real. This reality is the film’s greatest achievement, and director Christopher Nolan knows how to use it. Why does the films’ evocation of dread work so well? Because the realism of The Dark Knight’s fiction gut punches us into believing it could actually happen: costumed vigilantes aside, Gotham’s social breakdown isn’t unimaginable in a northern Mexican metropolis.

[Some spoilers]

It’s this social breakdown — the loss of government’s monopoly on violence — that’s the film’s central theme. Heath Ledger’s hyperactively schizophrenic Joker is so compelling because Ledger was an amazing actor, but also because he embodies an anarchic concept of state failure that’s deeply foreign to most audiences. The Joker’s insistance that “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules” is disconcerting because it is true — in the absence of the social order guaranteed by government’s monopoly over the legitimate violence no social norms survive, or at least that’s what we fear. This motivation is compelling and disturbing because we fear that he’s right; that in the absence of a guarantee of social order successful individuals are those best able to employ violence, something most of us aren’t very good at. This vulnerability is disconcerting. Human psychology, and by extension society, is very careful to draw a line between legitimate and illegitimate violence, a distinction that rests in the concept of the state. Violence within the structure of governmental monopoly on force is psychologically acceptable; violence outside of it isn’t. The Joker knows this, and’s explicit about the distinction:

This is a compelling distinction, and numerous films have attempted to explore the disturbing ramifications of how humans behave when violence is legitimized: in the horror genre, notably 1971’s Straw Dogs. Of course, The Dark Knight’s central thesis is that social norms don’t break down in the absence of governmentally-imposed order. But this isn’t a happy revelation. The fact that one man can demolish governmental authority in Gotham and strain social order to the breaking point illustrates just how illusionary the foundation of order society — and our comfortable lives — rest on actually is. Commissioner Gordon and the impartial state authority he personifies nominally guarantees Gotham’s social structure, but can’t function in its absence. Only vigilanteism — by definition violence outside of state legitimacy and what’s, in the Joker’s words, “part of the plan” — can. While Nolan retains a positive view of individuals’ behavior in extraordinary circumstances, his depiction of the resilience of social norms that flow from the state’s security guarantee is decidedly more skeptical.

The Joker’s campaign to destroy social order in Gotham is an insurgency whose use of terrorism and the media to inspire panic are strongly reminiscent of the US’s recent COIN efforts. I doubt these illusions to modern counterinsurgency are unintentional: Michael Cain’s Alfred directly references British counterinsurgency in Burma (though the British colonial period in Indochina doesn’t seem to work with Alfred’s age). Despite his capture at the film’s close, the Joker’s insurgency meets its political goals by corrupting Aaron Eckhart’s DA Harvey Dent and demonstrating the fragility of Gotham’s political order. The Dark Knight Rises appears to continue with this theme, but brings the threat of insurgency closer to home. The trailer alludes to the danger of social unrest seeded by rampant inequality, and Tom Hardy’s Bane appears to harness anger within Gotham’s social structure — unlike the Joker’s external disruptive force — to again upend order. Christopher Nolan views anarchy with dread, and human behavior in the absence of state-imposed stability is the central theme of his trilogy. Batman’s position within this social order is unclear. A vigilante, Nolan’s Batman is emblematic of a failed state: if Gotham’s legitimate instituions could guarantee stability, Batman would have no reason to exist. Similarly, unlike previous visions of Batman Nolan’s Bruce Wayne doesn’t fight crime out of civic duty; he does because he a deeply damaged individual incapable of dealing with loss and forming real relationships. This completes the foil between Nolan’s Batman and Joker. Just as the Joker likens himself to a dog chasing a car that wouldn’t know what to do if he he caught it, Bruce Wayne’s personality becomes more and more invested in the construct of Batman rather than himself: ending his vigilante quest ends himself. The Joker knows this, even if Wayne himself doesn’t. Rachel does too:

When counterinsurgency forces — including individuals — invest their core organizational credibility in open-ended missions, their indefiniteness becomes self-fulfilling.

In previous entries in the Batman cannon the Dark Knight’s use of violence outside of the state monopoly is legitimate, though writers hedge their positon through Bruce Wayne’s obstinate refusal to kill (though I’m pretty sure a lot of the criminals Batman beats die in the hospital: as Archer fans know, getting knocked out is really bad for you). Christopher Nolan isn’t so sure of Batman’s legitimacy. Nolan’s Batman is one of the ‘good guys’ but he’s not “part of the plan”: his existence violates social norms and is destabilizing. It’s this theme of escalation — Batman’s violation of social norms draws the Joker’s more violent deviation — that dominates The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne’s motivations are noble, but violence outside of the state monopoly on force is always destabilizing. Nolan’s Batman isn’t a civic-minded champion: he’s a tragic hero.

Also, I really hope The Dark Knight Rises finds a way to not have Catwoman look ridiculous. Why does Batman get body armor and she doesn’t? And Hollywood: no one can fight in high heels.

***

Does anyone think Romney’s Bain Capital problem will get worse after Dark Knight Rises premiers this summer? I mean, come on — it’s like McCain made his fortune at Joker industries.

Huntsman the Moderate?

By Taylor Marvin

Ezra Klein challenges the media narrative of Huntsman the moderate:

“Huntsman’s weak finish led many to suggest that the GOP was no place for moderates. But the truth is that Huntsman’s campaign didn’t prove that, or anything like it. For all Huntsman’s signaling and hinting, his policy platform is no more moderate than Romney’s. In fact, it might be less moderate.”

This criticism is on the mark — Huntsman’s record as governor is actually solidly conservative, certainly more than Romney’s. But Kevin Drum has an interesting take suggesting that Huntsman’s personality would lead him to govern as a moderate conservative:

“And yet, it’s not entirely baseless. Policy isn’t the only thing that matters, after all, and I’d argue that Huntsman quite likely is moderate in two important ways. The first is the one that lots of people have already pointed out: he doesn’t spend all his time making apocalyptic statements about Barack Obama being the anti-Christ and Democrats leading the United States into penury and decline. He says he believes in evolution and global warming rather than claiming these are vast conspiracies of the scientific community. This kind of thing matters.

But there’s something else that matters even more, and that’s the second way in which Huntsman is genuinely moderate. This is, granted, supposition on my part, but I suspect that Huntsman is more willing to compromise than most of the other candidates. He might want to cut the capital gains rate to zero, but if he could strike a deal with Democrats for a useful bit of tax reform that didn’t include a cap gains cut, I think he’d probably do it.”

Interesting, but I’m not convinced Huntsman would govern any more moderately than frontrunner Romney. Huntsman was only willing to publicly break with the Republican orthodoxy because it came with no cost — he was never going to win the Republican nomination anyway, so positioning himself as a moderate on science issues guaranteed him media sympathy at the cost of primary voters he never had anyway. If Huntsman ever was a plausible nominee, or had enjoyed the prospects of a surge anywhere besides New Hampshire, I’m confident that he would have quickly swung to the right. Huntsman’s actual governing doesn’t suggest that he’s anything but a social conservative, and he probably would have governed as one. Admirable defenses of serving his country in China aside, Huntsman’s actual policy rhetoric in Sunday’s debate was less than moderate, especially his enthusiastic defense of the Ryan budget plan. It’s important to also remember that Huntsman debate performance was targeted to New Hampshire primary voters, who tend to be much less conservative than the nationwide republican base. If he was a serious contender in any other markets he’d likely temper moderate rhetoric even more.

Jon Huntsman is an admirable man and would certainly be more open to political compromise than a President Santorum or Gingrich, but I don’t see him as actually governing any more moderately than Romney would be likely to. In office Huntsman would be beholden to the same conservative base as any Republican president — few presidents win reelection by appealing to independents at the expense of their party base — and personal openness to compromise aside, he would face the same conservative electoral pressures as a Romney presidency would.

And yet, it’s not entirely baseless. Policy isn’t the only thing that matters, after all, and I’d argue that Huntsman quite likely is moderate in two important ways. The first is the one that lots of people have already pointed out: he doesn’t spend all his time making apocalyptic statements about Barack Obama being the anti-Christ and Democrats leading the United States into penury and decline. He says he believes in evolution and global warming rather than claiming these are vast conspiracies of the scientific community. This kind of thing matters.
But there’s something else that matters even more, and that’s the second way in which Huntsman is genuinely moderate. This is, granted, supposition on my part, but I suspect that Huntsman is more willing to compromise than most of the other candidates. He might want to cut the capital gains rate to zero, but if he could strike a deal with Democrats for a useful bit of tax reform that didn’t include a cap gains cut, I think he’d probably do it.And yet, it’s not entirely baseless. Policy isn’t the only thing that matters, after all, and I’d argue that Huntsman quite likely is moderate in two important ways. The first is the one that lots of people have already pointed out: he doesn’t spend all his time making apocalyptic statements about Barack Obama being the anti-Christ and Democrats leading the United States into penury and decline. He says he believes in evolution and global warming rather than claiming these are vast conspiracies of the scientific community. This kind of thing matters.
But there’s something else that matters even more, and that’s the second way in which Huntsman is genuinely moderate. This is, granted, supposition on my part, but I suspect that Huntsman is more willing to compromise than most of the other candidates. He might want to cut the capital gains rate to zero, but if he could strike a deal with Democrats for a useful bit of tax reform that didn’t include a cap gains cut, I think he’d probably do it.