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Posts from the ‘Culture’ Category

Settler Colonialism and Telling Stories with Maps

By Taylor Marvin

At the blog Afternoon Map Nicholas Danfort recently highlighted two maps, presumably from the first half of the 20th century, which neatly divide the world by race. This kind of grand racial classification wasn’t really designed to be empirical, despite what its practitioners might have consciously thought of their pseudoscience. Rather, as Danfort notes, “racial hierarchies could be adjusted and re-arranged to accommodate any political goal or ideology. As long as the right people ended up on top and the right people ended up on the bottom, infinite variations were possible.”

To demonstrate the point, Danfort passes along two maps which claim to show the distribution of the “races of mankind,” with one map depicting Europe, the other the entire globe. The global map is particularly interesting.

Source unknown, via Nicholas Danforth.

Source unknown, via Nicholas Danfort.

Danfort doesn’t know the source of the map and it’s impossible, at least for me, to precisely date. (The fact that much of the text is illegible doesn’t help.) However, since the mapmaker indicates that the western part of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo is mixed between the “Indo-European” and “African” races, I’d guess the map was made before independence and the flight of the Belgian Congo’s white residents, so before 1960.

This leads to another interesting facet of the mapmaker’s racial thinking — a marked triumphalism about white settler colonialism in Africa. Perhaps it’s useless to remark on, given that we don’t have any idea what percentage of a population that mapmaker uses as a threshold for a mixed region, or indeed when exactly the map was produced. But the mapmaker notably indicates much of what is today South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique as overwhelmingly populated by whites. (Though the map’s “Indo-European” class is wider than what we today think of as white, that’s likely correct description for contemporary Southern Africa; admittedly the mapmaker might include South Africans of Indian descent into this category.) Again, it’s unclear what precise distinction the mapmaker sees between the cross-hatched mixed and solid colored regions, but presumably this is intended to show a wide white majority in the latter.

Enclaves on the coast of modern Angola and Namibia are colored solid red, as well. Other regions, like portions of modern DR Congo, Zambia, Uganda, and Kenya are depicted as mixed.

While the low resolution makes it difficult to make out, here’s a modern political map paired with the historical map’s view of Africa.


By the CIA World Factbook.

By the CIA World Factbook.

Since it is unclear what year the mapmaker is referencing, it’s difficult to get into any specific numbers. Similarly, comparing the white populations of various African colonies and minority-ruled states is difficult, even before accounting for time. (The numbers below are drawn from different years, and are not well sourced.) But with these caveats aside, the mapmaker’s broad red brush paints a view of settler colonialism starkly different from the reality.

In apartheid-era South Africa whites numbered over 10 percent of the population. Rhodesia, which would become modern Zimbabwe after a brutal liberation war, was dominated by a white population in the low to mid single digits percentage of the total, while whites comprised a few percent of modern day Zambia. White residents of the Belgian Congo seemed to have numbered 89,000 out of a population of 15 million on the eve of independence. While numbers are harder to pin down for Portugal’s African empire, something like 500,000 to a million mostly white Portuguese citizens fled the newly liberated colonies after 1974, out of a combined Angolan and Mozambican population of over 17 million. And while the mapmaker’s racial classification scheme obscures French settler colonialism in North Africa, in the 20th century the French portion of Algeria seems to have been roughly 10 percent.

Overall white immigration to African colonies never approached that of European settler states elsewhere, and only rarely surpassed ten percent of the population. In most European colonies in Africa the percentage of whites was much smaller. For the map to “accurately” depict this reality the mapmaker must be using a very broad definition of racially-mixed regions, which, for example, the depiction of Black Americans within the United States suggests isn’t the case. (African Americans were over five percent of the population of select northern states in 1950; by the mapmaker’s apparent definition these states should be cross-hatched, assuming the map was produced at around that time.) Anyway, depicting South Africa as overwhelmingly solid red shows that the mapmaker is following two distinct standards: tiny white minorities receive the mixed classification, while broad African majorities do not. This is deliberate.

The point is mapmaking is rarely an objective depiction of the world. Maps tell a story, and are often mobilized to support specific political projects. This map doesn’t only make broad pseudoscientific statements about race, but by exaggerating the white population of select African colonies seemly makes a political statement, likely in support of colonialism. Decolonization in Southern Africa and the end of South African apartheid was famously resistance to white minority rule. This map redefines South Africa and perhaps modern Zimbabwe as majority ruled, comforting an audience presumably sympathetic to white colonialism, and ignoring its victims. Unfortunately this destructive fantasy still has its adherents.

What Is the Western Gaze?

By Taylor Marvin

Comics writer and critic Sean T. Collins and artist Colin Panetta have an eleven-panel comic based on Max Fisher’s May Vox explainer “9 questions about Nigeria you were too embarrassed to ask.”* Fisher’s piece was published in response to the mid-April Chibok mass kidnapping by the militant group referred to as Boko Haram (which rose to international prominence in May in part due to the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag) and attempts to answer basic questions about Nigeria and the Boko Haram insurrection.

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Vox’s style of ‘explainer journalism,’ which was pioneered by both Vox founder Ezra Klein and its foreign affairs writer Max Fisher, is frequently criticized as simplistic or condescending. As a non-area specialist Fisher’s writing has been criticized by experts as misleading. Worse, Vox’s nominally non-ideological simplification of complex world events is often political, because simplification involves the politicized choice of what to leave out. A clear example of this problematic simplification is Yousef Munayyer’s convincing dissection of Fisher’s May post “40 Maps That Explain the Middle East,” which Munayyer writes presents a biased view of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War or, from Arab perspectives, catastrophic Nakba.

While I am not a comics critic or Nigeria expert, my read of Collins and Panetta’s comic suggests a similar critique. The comic focuses on the first entry in Fisher’s question-and-answer article, superimposing the question “What is Nigeria?” over a hashtagged placecard, Western news show, American currency, oil tanker, US Air Force drone, and bloody concrete room; notably, the images read as increasing in lethality. “What is Nigeria,” in Collins and Panetta’s artistic paraphrasing of Fisher, is a question answered through a Western lens, centered around Western concerns, and reduced to Western cultural, economic, and military power. The final panel — the question “I skipped to the bottom. What happens next?” — brings this view back to Vox and Fisher’s perspective, reducing Nigeria the country to the West’s impingement on its 170 million inhabitants.

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Assuming that I am reading Collins and Panetta’s critique correctly, the comic calls to mind a February piece by Sarah Kendzior which characterized coverage of the then-ongoing Maidan protests in Ukraine by BuzzFeed and other outlets as “disaster porn.” Kendzior was writing about the Western view of Ukraine, but her comments are very applicable to the Nigeria coverage Collins and Panetta examine: “Violence never exists in a vacuum, it is only perceived that way—and when you are on the losing end of the perception, you are at risk, as anyone who lives in a place written off as ‘one of those places’ can tell you.”

While not mentioned in her piece, on Twitter Fisher sarcastically commented that Kendzior was demanding that audiences “pass a test” before caring about Ukraine. My response fell somewhere in between Kendzior and Fisher (who was then at the Washington Post). ‘Caring’ about foreign suffering is not a value-neutral act, because concerned voters can drive policy. But it is also true that the vast majority of foreign affairs watchers consume news as an entertainment good; the average BuzzFeed reader or cable news watcher consumes it even more casually. News outlets are expected to cater to this audience, and so does Fisher’s breezy, 101-level explainers produced for an audience only willing to learn as long as learning is centered around them and their morning coffee.

Even to a non-expert like myself there are many problems with Fisher’s Nigeria explainer: it is flattering to audiences who know nothing, is focused on conflict, reduces the country to a north-south religious divide that many experts deny, and tends to cite Western experts and journalists. But I’m not convinced it deserves the critique Collins and Panetta raise. Many of Vox’s readers cannot find Nigeria on a map, and it’s not wrong for Fisher and other explainer journalists to try and answer basic questions about the country when conflict make it relevant to Western readers. And far from reducing Nigeria to dollars, drones, and oil — not that these things are irrelevant; Nigerian government revenue is heavily dependent on oil and US military contributions to the hunt for the kidnapped schoolgirls has included ISR aircraft — Fisher does offer a reasonably broad look at Nigeria’s recent history, social conflicts, and the tangled roots of the Boko Haram insurrection.

All of this may be written through a Western lens for Western audiences, but that is overtly what Fisher aims to do. Fisher’s habit of featuring music from the countries he is profiling may be trivial and arguably a bit condescending, but it also pushes back against the tendency to reduce countries and peoples to only conflicts and hashtags, a tendency the comic appears to criticize.

If a mildly-interested reader wants to learn more about the country the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, and its arguable Western appropriation, thrust into the news cycle, I’m not sure what Collins and Panetta would prefer. Sure, if you actually want to seriously study Nigeria Vox is not the place to start, but there are many, many people who don’t want to invest hours or a career examining the country but still read the news. How this indifference affects US policy is another question, but I’m not sure Fisher’s writing is the best way to frame it.

*Fisher’s piece cites a piece by Will Moore at Political Violence at a Glancewhich I edit.

Update: Collins has a comment explaining his criticism of Fisher in greater detail, which focuses on Fisher’s tone, lack of empathy, and othering of Nigerians than the Western-centric simplification my piece addresses.

Assimilating into Narnian Whiteness, or Else

C.S. Lewis (Pte) Limited.

C.S. Lewis (Pte) Limited.

By Taylor Marvin

[Spoilers for The Chronicles of Narnia throughout]

C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are classics of children’s literature, but more than a half century after their publication are frequently criticized. Critics have disparaged the value Lewis places on childhood innocence, and the series’ simplistic morality. Others have noted The Chronicles of Narnia’s ugly racial undertones, an othering of characters of color through a rejection of non-European cultures and an emphasis on their alienness. This criticism is, unfortunately, correct.

Narnia and neighboring Archenland* is a land that reads as European. Its human inhabitants are white, dress in European gowns and tunics, and fight with straight swords and triangular shields. Narnia is opposed by Calormen, a desert empire to the south. Just as Narnia reflect England’s past, the Calormen are reminiscent of Arab, Persian, or Turkish cultures: Calormenes are desert people, maintain a vast expansionist empire, build cities with domes and slim spires, grow oranges and lemons, and arm themselves with curved scimitars and round shields. Calormenes are also described as darker skinned than white Narnians, and unlike their northern neighbors who honor Aslan, a great lion who is the series’ stand-in for Jesus, Calormenes worship the cruel god Tash. A Calmormene unit of currency is the crescent, an apparent allusion to the star and crescent’s importance as an Islamic symbol.

Lewis is a Westerner writing for a Western audience, and Calormen and its inhabitants clearly read as the Chronicles’ other. This isn’t only due to the fact that Arab-influenced Calormen is more distant from Lewis and his readers’ cultural experience than Narnia. Calormen is also one of the series’ main antagonists, is ruled by a oppressive emperor while Narnia is governed by a fantasy-trope “good king” (ignoring classic fantasy’s tendency to wave away the inherent violent coercion of absolute monarchy, especially when the king is white), and is frequently described as “cruel.”

There’s nothing wrong with fantasy authors mining cultures for inspiration, and modern English-language fantasy would be enriched by authors widening their imaginative scope beyond the no-firearms trope fantasy of late medieval Western Europe. (Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of al-Rassan is an entertaining example of a white fantasy author respectfully drawing on Moorish culture.) It’s not even wrong for authors to write racial prejudice into their characters — if Calormen is a rival of Narnia, it would be natural for the Narnian and our-world characters Lewis tells his story through to see Calormenes as duplicitous and cruel. But Lewis doesn’t just write these views; he echoes and, worse, endorses them. “That is better. I feel like a true man again,” says a Narnian king after discarding a Calormene disguise of scimitar, turban, and dark-stained skin. Again, it is understandable for King Tirian to see his Calormene enemies as “not real men.” But Lewis gives the reader no reason to question Tirian’s prejudice.

Beyond the occasional racism of the Narnian characters, Lewis also others the Calormene enemy by leveraging the narratives that Western culture uses to depict Muslim cultures as alien.** Calormene men are written as untrustworthy, prone to flattery, and violent, while women are depicted as decadent and frivolous. This depiction cannot be divorced from the early modern view of Arab or Turkish societies as simultaneously dangerously violent and decadently seductive. Lewis’ depiction of the women’s quarters of Calormene palaces seems to certainly draw from European painting’s ‘harem’ genre, minus the sexuality.


Illustration from “The Horse and His Boy,” by Pauline Baynes.

Another way the Calormenes are rendered as the alien is through their speech. While Lewis’ Narnians speak slightly more formally than his contemporary characters, their speech is still readily comprehensible to modern audiences. In contrast, Calormenes’ speech is full of English archaisms and formalities. “I desire and propose, O my father, that you immediately call out your invincible armies and invade the thrice-accursed land of Narnia,” says one Calormen lord. While this — to modern English-speaking ears — archaic mode of speech is more apparent in court speech than Calormen women characters, readers are clearly intended to read Calormenes’ speech as formal, hierarchical, and decadent, all traits associated with the imagined Orient in Western culture. Strengthening this linguistic allusion is Calormenes’ habit of following the name of their king, the Tisroc, with the phrase “may he live forever,” an apparent nod to Islam’s “peace be upon him” honorific of the Prophet Muhammad.

Othering through speech patterns is not restricted to Lewis in the fantasy canon. Sean T. Collins has noted that in A Song of Ice and Fire the dialogue of George R.R. Martin’s Westerosi — broadly, medieval England — characters is generally written in the same style as modern English, while “foreign” characters from the series’ southern Europe and Middle Eastern analogs are not. “They speak with accents, they speak with strange pronoun usage, they speak with alien idioms, they speak in vaguely sinister or portentous or blandishing tones,” Collins writes. ” You hear them and you think ‘Okay, this person is not like us,’ ‘us’ being real-world readers and fictional-world Westerosi, the inheritors of the shared cultural relevance of medieval Europe.” Lewis’ use of speech to distance readers from antagonists is textbook, especially because there’s no logical reason that Calormene speech should so differ from Narnian. While the two nations are separated by a large desert, there is evidence of Calormene-Narnian cross-cultural exchange, both are hereditary monarchies, and both speak that same language.

Now, Lewis’ Calormenes are not uniformly negatively depicted. In The Horse and His Boy, which provides the most complete picture of Calormen culture, Calormenes are shown as great palace architects and master storytellers. While it’s possible to argue that these are coded as “Eastern” skills in Western culture, as a storyteller himself Lewis certainly respects the art of crafting a narrative.

Illustration from "The Horse and His Boy," by Pauline Baynes.

Illustration from “The Horse and His Boy,” by Pauline Baynes.

Several individual Calormene characters are also positively depicted. Again in The Horse and His Boy, a Calormene boy discovers he is actually Narnian, and makes a bid to escape to the north. He is joined on his journey by a Calormene girl, Aravis, fleeing an arranged marriage, because no one is forced to marry against their will in Narnia — of course, arranged marriages were a hallmark of medieval European society, but Lewis is happy to abandon the distasteful aspects of Narnia’s historical inspiration. (This is also true of later British history; in The Magician’s Nephew Aslan warns two Victorian schoolchildren that soon “great nations in your world will be ruled by tyrants” who do not care for mercy and justice, at roughly the same time the British government was administering concentration camps in the Boer War.) Aravis is a leading character of the book, but readers can’t help but notice that her positive depiction stems from her desire to shed her Calormene identity and adopt a Narnian, whiter one. Lewis’ defenders are right to note that Narnia features people of color and, through Aravis, an eventual mixed-race marriage. But it is important to see this marriage for what it is: an assimilation into Narnian whiteness. It is difficult to imagine Lewis endorsing a Narnian woman marrying a Calormene man and assimilating into Caloremene culture.

Similarly, Emeth, the Calormene officer whose loyalty to the demon-god Tash is rewarded by Aslan in The Last Battleagain earns Lewis’ sympathy by implicitly abandoning his Calormene culture. Since Aslan is good and Tash evil, good-hearted service to Tash is necessarily service to Aslan instead. The lesson here is clear. Individual Calormenes can be good, but only through implicitly (Emeth) or explicitly (Aravis) becoming Narnian. In Juan Arteaga and John Champion’s words, “the best case that can be made for Narnia is that Middle Eastern people aren’t inherently evil, they just need to be converted to Christianity.”

But despite these positive depictions of individual Calormenes, the close of the Chronicles of Narnia makes clear Lewis’ biases clear. In The Last Battle, after Calormen conquers Narnia, Aslan, and by extension God, ends the world. The moral consequences of this act of spite are somewhat lessoned by the series’ explicit depiction of the heaven that awaits the good, but the world’s end still presumably sends millions to hell or oblivion. Indeed, Lewis’ favored conclusion is so striking because it arguably should have already occurred in our world, and none of us should exist. If we accept Narnia as God’s favored land and the Calormenes as Arabs, then logically our world should have been ended in 637, with the fall of Byzantine Jerusalem.

*In this essay I refer to both nations, which share a culture, as “Narnian.”

**Much of my thinking on this theme is informed by David Najar’s UC San Diego class.

Will Governments Ever Say No Thanks to Global Events?

By Taylor Marvin

The June opening of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is fast approaching, but not all Brazilians are happy that their country will be hosting soccer’s premier event. Despite Brazilians’ futebol-mad reputation, a February poll found that only 52 percent of Brazilians supported hosting the Cup. By April that number had fallen below fifty percent. In addition to construction fatalities and fears of heavy-handed policing during the Cup, many residents of the South American giant are concerned about the event’s cost, and believe that funds devoted to what the government of President Dilma Rousseff has dubbed the Copa das Copas or ‘Cup of Cups’ could be better spent elsewhere. Rousseff, who is heavily favored to win what is expected to be a rough second term in October, certainly hopes that the World Cup and the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympics will be a high point of her term in presidency. But even if the World Cup and Olympics unfold successfully and protests are kept to a minimum, Brazil’s efforts to host these events have not gone as smoothly as their backers would have hoped.

The problems associated with hosting large international sporting events — rushed construction, ballooning costs, and public opposition — are not limited to Brazil. The days before the opening of this winter’s Sochi Olympics were marked by widespread media reportsor, less charitably, mocking — of substandard construction and a frantic last-second push to finish building accommodations. Less immediately, the Sochi Olympics, which were the most expensive in history, drew attention to Russia’s widespread corruption problem, which challenges the Games’ overt goal of demonstrating Russia’s modernity and encouraging foreign business. The Sochi Games also leave behind a fantastically expensive resort city no one seems to know what to do with. While it is debatable whether Russia’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine is related to the Sochi Games, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the threat of retaliatory sanctions certainly doesn’t help.

Elsewhere, Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup requires truly staggering construction in the oil-rich Gulf State. Conditions for the migrant workers tasked with building these facilities and infrastructure projects are so bad and so many workers are expected to die that it is possible to seriously raise the question of whether FIFA can be considered a mass killer. South Africa’s 2010 FIFA World Cup was also troubled by serious worries about the country’s ability to host such a massive event.

If hosting massive international sports grows more expensive and difficult, will governments eventually decide that it simply isn’t worth it? After all, noble-minded talk of the thrill of sport and international cooperation aside governments’ desire to host these high-profile events is really driven by the international prestige and attention they bring. If the risks of spiraling costs and mass protests — particularly in the age of social media — put this prestige in doubt, governments may be more hesitate to spend such vast sums. The almost gleeful mocking of unfinished Sochi construction must have raised many eyebrows in countries scheduled to host their own international sporting events. Will governments ever look at the precedent of negative reporting on Sochi’s unfinished hotel rooms and Qatar’s thousands of dead laborers and simply say ‘no thanks’?

This question is particularly relevant for democratic governments. Autocracies, like Russia and Qatar, can simply decide that event-driven gains to their prestige are worth the possible costs to their image or domestic unrest over construction costs. Autocratic countries, less constrained by human rights concerns, also have greater ability to preserve their own image by keeping demonstrators away from the international media. In democracies, however, these risks are more difficult to shrug off, particularly on the domestic level — while Brazil’s Rousseff remains heavily favored to win reelection, protests driven by anger over the Cup did real damage to her polling, damage she is surly aware of.

Of course, despite their costs the recent Olympics Games in Beijing, Vancouver, London, and Sochi, and the South African FIFA World Cup, were all ultimately successful. These events experienced cost overruns, delays, and ultimately leave behind brand-new facilities and infrastructure that are difficult to find a use for once the games are over, but all of these events suffered no major disasters and brought positive global attention to their host countries. This positive coverage is why it is difficult to imagine a large-scale move away from hosting massive international sports events by democratic governments. Despite negative attention like the #sochiproblems Twitter hashtag that trended in the opening days of the Winter Olympics, international media coverage of international athletic events follows a script. In the lead up to the games, media focuses on construction and the dramatic possibility of delays. Because this news is not yet a major story, this coverage tends to be delegated to the international news that most consumers do not closely follow. As the event approaches and journalists arrive to the host city, they fill their time by reporting on facilities problems, adding audience-drawing drama to an otherwise uneventful waiting period. But once the matches actually start, sports reporting dominates. Barring a serious disaster, this feel-good coverage of athletics and the glamor of opening and closing ceremonies is what viewers around the world will remember after the events are over. The negative legacy of these events, like corruption and useless facilities, are much less reported on once international journalists have left.

As long as something does not go seriously wrong, both international audiences and Brazilians will likely remember the 2014 World Cup for the soccer, not delays and cost overruns. From the perspective of international prestige, that’s a win. Similarly, the brutal truth is that it is difficult to imagine a world where anonymous worker deaths leave a greater impact on audiences than the highlights of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. As long as media coverage of these events follows the same script, governments will likely keep chasing the perfect Copa das Copas.

Chasing the DC Foreign Policy Career Dream

By Taylor Marvin

Are you a student or young graduate hoping to break into the DC foreign policy world? Writing in Foreign Policy, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Eric Trager shares advice for those hoping for careers focused on the Middle East. Trager’s points are intuitive, and reasonable. If you want to work on Middle Eastern policy issues, regional skills are vital. This is particularly true in the current job market, where a huge number of highly-qualified candidates competing for a limited number of entry-level foreign policy positions (a small number undoubtably made smaller by the gradual trend towards unpaid internships replacing what were once entry-level paid work, which is more pronounced in but not limited to prestige niches) means that employers can be as selective as they want. Trager recognizes this, warning applicants that “there is simply too much talent for too few paying jobs.”

So what makes a successful entry-level applicant? Regional language skills, or better yet fluency, is a minimum requirement, and the Arabic dialects many first-generation Americans may have learned at home isn’t enough. Applicants should also have spent time in the Middle East. It isn’t enough to just simply study abroad in highly-trafficked regional centers, Trager writes, noting that job applicants “who stray from well-traveled paths within the region — studying in Haifa, rather than Jerusalem, for example — always stand out.” It’s also valuable for candidates who write senior theses in college to conduct actual research in the Middle East. Finally, a DC internship is vital. American foreign policy jobs outside of academia are overwhelmingly centered around Washington, and “the best applicants for entry-level positions will have spent at least one summer working in D.C. getting to know its ways,” in Trager’s words.

All of these points are reasonable. In an age where American foreign policy in and outside of government suffers from a lack of hands-on regional skills among its practitioners, language ability and study experience in the Middle East should be vital for graduates hoping to spend their careers studying the region. Yes, this trend towards language fluency and extensive study abroad requirements for entry-level applicants is partially driven by an oversupply of hopefuls and an undersupply of actual paying jobs, but it also has real value, as anyone who remembers Fred Kaplan’s anecdote in The Insurgents relaying that roughly one percent of US embassy officials in Baghdad in 2006 spoke fluent Arabic knows. These requirements are also driven by the simple selectivity that makes it difficult to distinguish valuable knowledge from arms-racing “credential creep,” as Faris Alikhan terms it. As Adam Elkus (a qualified FP watcher if there ever was one) noted on Twitter, a post 9/11 foreign policy career bubble is now popping — particularly for those focused on the Middle East, I’d guess — and the jobs that many students expect simply aren’t there.

But value aside, there’s another obvious takeaway from Trager’s advice — that the foreign policy world is limited to those from wealthy backgrounds. Or more pithily, it means that “building a career in policy often means not only living on little income, but paying your way around the world,” in Sarah Kendzior’s words. Think about what these requirements practically signify from a student’s perspective. Assuming they achieve admission into an elite college at all, taking three years of language courses as a four-year undergraduate means that a student must decide that they’d like to focus on the Middle East as a freshman, at the latest. In other words, a career in Middle Eastern policy requires many students to make decisions about the rest of their lives when they’re nineteen years old. Study abroad is open to all students on paper, but in reality studying for one or two semesters in a foreign country requires significant amounts of money for visa expenses, food, travel, and so on. If these expenses are covered by scholarships and grants great, but for many they are not. Since most students who study abroad tend to do so in their junior year, conducting senior thesis research in the Middle East implies many students studying abroad not only once, but twice.

Unpaid DC internships are great resume builders for students who attend universities in the Washington area. But for those in other parts of the country — so the vast majority of university students — it’s much harder. An unpaid DC summer internship requires moving across the country, finding housing in an unknown city, and covering living expenses for a summer. Many summer internships are full time, so unless interns have the energy to work a night job they either have to take out a loan or have their parents cover their expenses. Given that an unpaid internship only maybe leads to future paid employment, borrowing money to fund one is not unreasonably too much for many.

Similarly, this is all assuming that students have the opportunity to move across the country for a summer at all. For working students this may not be possible, either because they need the money or they’ll simply lose their job back home if they do. If “at least one summer” at a DC internship is the bare minimum, now we’re talking about blocking off two summers, or possibly three if a fall semester study abroad stint conflicts with a full-length summer internship. Again, this isn’t to say that on-the-ground regional experience isn’t important, or that cultural immersion isn’t vital to those learning Arabic or Farsi. (Immersion is instrumental to learning Romance languages, much easier for English speakers to acquire than Arabic.) But we should be realistic about what Trager’s guidance practically means for students. Foreign policy driven by a knowledge elite will tend to be staffed by, well, the elite.

There really isn’t a good answer here. American foreign policy is best served by practitioners with deep knowledge of both their region of focus and Washington, DC. But restricting foreign policy jobs to only those lucky enough to meet a steep criteria of experience and internship requirements is bad for everyone. If Trager’s advice really is the minimum necessary to be competitive for an entry-level DC policy job, we’re selling students a lie. International Studies majors are at least in theory benchmarked around the assumption that there are jobs for graduates, an assumption strengthened by the entire world of consumer foreign policy media fed to students. Perhaps we should be telling International Studies majors that jobs in their field are restricted only to the elite (and to an extent all liberal arts and social science majors are now told that), but the message doesn’t seem to be sinking in — particularly for students who succeed above expectations in their International Studies majors at the expense of extracurricular internships and experience focused on later out-of-major employment. Of course everyone knows that International Studies isn’t Petroleum Engineering or Computer Science (or even Economics for that matter), but at least in my experience IS classes are not presented as a fun four-year course of study its students are never going to need in their professional lives, even if that is true for most.

Again, there’s nothing unreasonable about Trager’s advice from the perspective of an employer seeking quality work. Ultimately the lesson to Middle Eastern policy hopefuls boils down to what prospective law students are just beginning to hear: unless you are already firmly in the elite, don’t try.

Why Should Aliens Look Like Their Spaceships?

By Taylor Marvin

I recently watched the 2013 film Ender’s Game, which brings to mind a science fiction pet peeve. In the film, humanity faces off against an insect-like alien culture, whose spacecraft mirror their appearance. This is a common motif in science fiction. In Star Trek: Enterprise’s third season, a reptilian alien species’ ships recall their scaled and spiked appearance, and the robotic attackers deployed by the alien invaders in the 2007 computer game Crysis resemble their creators. Across science fiction, the vehicles of particularly “exotic” aliens — that is to say, not human-like — frequently feature an “organic” design scheme of curved lines and bright colors that brings to mind the aliens themselves.

Of course, this is partially due to the constraints of visual media. Directors want audiences to be able to link spacecraft with the alien culture that built them, so deliberately draw visual similarities between the two. Writers and artists also often wish to suggest that aliens are alien, and craft spaceships as far from real-world designs as possible.

But there’s a problem with this logic. Humans are fleshy creatures, but our spacecraft don’t resemble chunks of meat in various shades of brown. Why should aliens, particularly aliens who build their vehicles out of metals and composites, just as we do, be any different? Why should alien spacecrafts’ visual aesthetic recall their creators’ bodies, while humanity’s do not?

This isn’t to say that aliens would be unable to learn about humans from our vehicles. The design of a fighter aircraft, for instance, reflects a human species whose individuals tend to be about five to six feet tall, who get most of their sensory information from swiveling visible light sensors mounted on top of their body, and who are unable to be upside down for long periods of time. More speculatively, perhaps alien attackers would draw cultural information from the fact that the combat air vehicles that fly off the humans’ bigger sea vehicles tend to be more brightly decorated with subcultural markers than the air vehicles that take off from the ground — though I’m not sure how helpful this information could be to an alien attacker.

All this is to say that while intelligent aliens would likely think and behave extraordinarily different from us, there are only so many ways to build a solar sail or fusion rocket. Particularly when limited by the universal constraints of physics and weight optimization, it wouldn’t be surprising for an alien spacecraft to roughly resemble human designs.

Americans Shouldn’t Be Embarrassed For “Only” Speaking English

By Taylor Marvin

In a recent piece for Thought Catalog, Chelsea Fagan criticizes Americans’ poor foreign language skills. Under a headline deeming American’s monolingualism “embarrassing,” Fagan argues that learning another language has never been more convenient, foreign language ability opens individuals’ eyes to the world, and that Americans are mocked by foreigners comfortable in many languages. Many of Fagan’s points are correct — bilingualism does widen horizons and broaden perspectives, and is of course essential to aspiring specialists in a variety of fields — but the argument that Americans’ second language abilities are some glaring flaw ignores both economic realities and the intersection between foreign languages and privilege.

While millions of immigrants bring their native languages to US society, English is overwhelmingly the working language of American culture and the main language of 80 percent of Americans. Roughly 20 percent of Americans speak a language other than English in the home, and though it is difficult to say exactly how many Americans speak a second language, a 2001 poll found that a quarter of Americans can hold a conversation in a language other than English.

Most ordinary Americans find English alone adequate for their daily lives — the key word being “ordinary”; language skills and area studies in the military, diplomatic and intelligence services, and development field is another question. Americans’ second language skills compare poorly to regions highlighted by multilingualism boosters. Looking only at English, the English Proficiency Index rates much of northern Europe as very high or highly proficient in English (though note that there are caveats about this measure), and second-language English speakers are increasingly common around the world.

But of course, a simple comparison between Americans and the perception of multilingual Europeans ignores the simple fact that English is increasingly the global common language. While French was the language of 18th and 19th century diplomacy and German of late 19th century international science, the global reach of the British Empire and then United States has given English an unprecedented international presence: while English has roughly three and a half million native speakers, nearly two billion people have a useful command of it. In many societies, English is the second language to learn, and brings enormous practical benefits; Fagan is correct when she notes that “speaking two language is the bare minimum in so many places,” and that second language is often English. In many globalized fields like international business, science, and academia English is fast becoming mandatory — an imperative that many academics from Brazil, where English proficiency is not common, seeking to teach and study abroad are learning the hard way. In many other multilingual societies, bilingualism is mandated by the legacy of colonially-imposed multiethnic states that necessitate a common — and often colonial — lingua franca.

In contrast, there is no single second language for Americans to learn, and, most importantly, the majority of Americans don’t have to. This is a powerful disincentive, which extends to other English-speaking countries: “The incentive to step outside the comfort of the mother tongue is weak when you already speak the world’s lingua franca,” admits even the pro-second language British Council. Though multilingual Americans enjoy a small earnings premium, it’s telling that most of the benefits of learning other languages that Fagan lists are more focused on self-improvement than immediate practicality. Broadening perceptions, better understanding foreign news, increased opportunities to travel, and reading literature in the original language are all valuable, but it’s reasonable that many Americans working or studying forty hour weeks judge them not worth the time commitment foreign language competency requires. It’s certainly not embarrassing that their priorities — or more concretely, what they choose to do with their free time — are not the same as Fagan’s.

Ultimately it is simplistic to compare Americans’ second language proficiency with that of a selection of bilingual societies. Bi or trilingualism is common in northern Europe because the small overall number of, say, Swedish or Dutch speakers mandates English proficiency, and many northern European societies are functionally bilingual, which allows parents and society at large to pass on second languages at a young age. In other regions English proficiency is increasingly common because the language brings immediate economic benefits. The life-affirmation rewards Fagan lists simply cannot compare to these tangibles — as the lack of, I imagine, Argentines learning Russian to read Tolstoy illustrates.

If Americans fail to learn foreign languages it is not because they are somehow less worthy or innately open-minded than Europeans, but instead because of demographics and social structures difficult for individuals to overcome. Non-Americans who mock monolingual Americans are as misguided and narrow-minded as Americans who demean Europeans’ lack of a dozen aircraft carriers.

The relationship between privilege and bilingualism and language more generally is complex: native bilingualism in the Untied States is associated with racial discrimination; bilingualism and European lingua francas in the developing world are often integrally linked with the legacy of colonialism; the globalizing benefits of the international English requirement in technical professions is a product of American hegemony. But despite this relationship, Fagan’s list of the benefits of multilingualism are grounded in economic privilege. Brushing up on Portuguese for an upcoming trip to Portugal is great — but many, many Americans will never have the disposable income for international travel, much less the time to invest in acquiring a second language, particularly one not widely spoken in the US. Studying abroad, immersion often essential to second language proficiency, is unavailable to many American college students from working class households. The online language learning program Duolingo is a great, free resource, but it is no surprise many overworked and underpaid members of the American middle class don’t choose to spend their evenings studying French, or place as much value on personally breaking the stereotype of the monolingual American — stereotype-breaking that is, essentially, a luxury.

Just as proficiency in English in other societies is often tied to economic and social status, Americans’ monolingualism is linked to the global English-speaking privilege that lessens the incentives to learn other languages. American would be a better, more inclusive place if more of its citizens spoke foreign languages, but it isn’t embarrassing that comparatively few Americans buy the luxury good of a second language.

Why Does RT Host Conspiracy Theories?

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 8.39.10 AMBy Taylor Marvin

The ongoing crisis in Crimea hasn’t brought only Russian foreign policy into the news. It has also thrust RT, a network funded by the Russian government and formerly called “Russia Today,” into prominence. Despite RT’s slick image and array of young, fluent English-speaking hosts, many international observers have noted that RT’s coverage of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, um, differs from other news organizations.”Though the station is frequently cartoonish,” Dan Murphy wrote earlier this week, its positive coverage of the Russian military intervention in Ukrainian territory “is nonetheless a reflection of how the Kremlin sees the world and/or wishes it to be.”

But leaving aside RT’s value as a window into the worldview the Russian government seeks to advance, I’d like to focus on the ineptitude Murphy highlights. Early this week RT host Abby Martin closed her show by apparently going off-script and denouncing the Russian invasion.

Martin’s message attracted wide attention on social media, with Glenn Greenwald acidly commenting that the Kremlin-owned RT hosts more dissent than private US news media did during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, RT segments where Martin denounced water fluoridation and questioned whether the 9/11 attacks were what they seemed — in other words, classic conspiracy theories — quickly surfaced. Martin has also claimed that there is no difference between RT and US corporate media, a view which is somewhat defensible but marginalizes the highly-relevant fact that RT directly answers to the autocratic Russian state in a way US private media does not.

Martin’s statement was followed by the Wednesday on-air resignation of another American RT host, Liz Wahl. Despite Wahl’s public recognition of the “many ethical and moral challenges” of working at RT, her and Martin’s actions strengthen, rather than weaken, RT’s mission as a propaganda arm of the Russian government. After all, a real propaganda network wouldn’t allow such dissent, right? Disconcertingly, this view is already being repeated by some Western commentators.

But why does RT host conspiracy theories, anyway? After all, RT’s mission is propagating a sympathetic view of Russian political aims internationally. Unlike Martin and Wahl’s denouements of Russian foreign policy, hosting stilly conspiracies sabotages this mission, because it illustrates that RT is not a trustworthy news source. Instead, we would expect that RT do everything it can to conceal what it really is by mostly broadcasting unbiased analysis, so only dedicated viewers are aware of its biases. RT’s Iranian analogs, Fars News and Press TV, broadcast their bias through cartoonish ineptitude, but this seems to be due to incompetence; a general incompetence RT’s polish seems to contradict. Notably, even if taking the most cynical possible view of US government-funded broadcasters, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty do not host conspiracy theories.

So why the conspiracy theories? A few, um, theories of my own:

  • RT doesn’t care. Perhaps RT feels that broadcasting conspiracy theories doesn’t sabotage its mission of disseminating pro-Russian viewpoints. After all, RT doesn’t demonstrate any real commitment to subtlety anyway, so maybe it makes no effort to conceal its true type at all.
  • All bad press is good press. Maybe RT producers green-light broadcasting 9/11 conspiracy theories because they judge that all coverage critical of the United States, even discredited conspiracy theories, furthers its mission.
  • Lack of oversight. It’s also possible that RT’s overseers don’t exercise particularly close oversight over its segments. As long as stories dealing with Russia and US foreign policy stick to the script, perhaps producers and hosts are otherwise allowed creative freedom. It’s also possible that RT itself attracts unconventional thinkers — cough, cough — who are susceptible to conspiracy theories and otherwise unable to find a job in mainstream media, though I would suspect that given the difficulty of succeeding in the broadcast news industry RT’s staff are no different than their more successful mainstream peers.
  • Know your (receptive) audience*: It has been suggested that online confidence tricks like “Nigerian prince” scam emails contain many spelling errors or other implausibilities as a means of filtering out all but the most gullible early on, before the more labor-intensive stages of the scam. Perhaps RT follows a similar logic, deciding that an audience who values and shares stories on conspiracy theories are more likely to accept the narrative RT is actually interested in promoting, while driving away less credible viewers.

My familiarity with RT is basically limited to occasionally watching Robert Farley’s appearances on Alyona Minkovski’s show (Minkovski has since left the network, and is now at HuffPost Live). Does anyone more familiar with RT broadcasting have a theory?

Finally, it is worth noting that the groupthink tendencies and access-driven nature of US media is a real concern, and recognizing RT’s nature should not be seen as an endorsement of the dominant US broadcast news culture.

*I added this fourth possibility as an update.

Foreign News As Entertainment

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikimedia.

Under the provocative title “The Day We Pretended to Care About Ukraine,” Sarah Kendzior writes that much of American mass media coverage of the ongoing political conflict in the Eastern European country is “disaster porn,” that favors page views over responsible, informative reporting. Most readers do not know how the conflict is affecting Ukrainians because “few apocalypsticle authors pose the question, because the only relevant question is what it means for them: traffic,” Kendzior writes, mourning that coverages ‘looks, but does not listen’ to the protesters themselves. Separated from the pain and loss of violence and any impetus to understand it, “we seem to get off on destruction as a visual experience, removed from participation and consequence.”

It is certainly true that much of the coverage of the violence in Ukraine has been lacking. But is it really so surprising that so much coverage is, as Kendzior terms it, disaster porn? After all, another inconsiderate but appropriate description for “fire and blood” is dramatic, as so many of the photos coming out of Kiev are. As Emily L. Hauser notes:

The vast majority of Americans do not know a single thing about Ukraine, or indeed consume international news in any depth at all. For them, international reporting is an entertainment product, and while it is unpleasant to admit, conflict — particularly when dramatically photographed, framing which intersects with the valuation of whose suffering matters — is entertaining to those safely separated from it.

It is unsurprising that news coverage, particularly in a world where quick publishing is more lucrative than accuracy and depth, and where foreign bureaus are closing, pander to this audience. After all, even those who do closely watch foreign affairs similarly, for all practical purposes, view it as an entertainment good. It is often noted that highly-trafficked bloggers like the Washington Post’s Max Fisher — who caustically commented on Kendzior’s piece — occasionally get things wrong (Kendzior herself recently highlighted a piece that chided a Fisher post on Kazakhstan). But Fisher is a generalist, and I imagine that the bulk of his audience, spending ten minutes a day reading about foreign affairs, appreciate a similarly general, breezy style — which is why Fisher has an audience, and academic bloggers with the tight focus, on-the-ground experience, and language skills to really understand a specific place or time generally do not. Readers may like to pretend that their interest in foreign news is in pursuit of learning or global awareness — I certainly do! — but for most it’s entertainment. Fisher produces entertainment, which is why he has a large audience and is paid by the Post, and most esoteric bloggers are not.

This isn’t to single out Fisher or Buzzfeed, or say that entertainment is not informative. Many international affairs bloggers certainly are, and a skillful writer can teach a wide audience something while not boring them. But the simple truth is that the economics of expensive to produce 5,000 word pieces on Ukrainian history and political dynamics only a few will read are not promising.

Anyway, there’s a reason porn is one of the most prolific forms of media in existence.

Fashion and Cultural Telephone

By Taylor Marvin


On the occasion of the release of the new film Catching Fire, I recently revisited the first movie in The Hunger Games trilogy. While I’m not an enormous fan of the book series the films are based on, I was highly impressed by some aspects of the story. As I wrote last year, the concept of the tessera, which makes teenagers from lower-class families more likely to be selected to compete in the gladiatorial Hunger Games, is an impressively sophisticated instrument of political control that aligns the interests of the Districts’ middle class with that of the Capitol regime while preserving the Games system’s illusion of class impartiality.

On my second viewing of The Hunger Games, I was again impressed by the film’s costume designers. The series takes place at some point in the distant future, after the population of North America (and implicitly, the world) has been dramatically reduced by unspecified calamities. Given this future setting, the films’ costume designers are tasked with coming up with clothes for the residents of Panem’s rich capital city that are obviously from another, future culture, but still plausible. This is no easy task — in particular, the Star Trek franchise has always struggled to dream up civilian clothing that is far enough outside the bounds of modern fashion taste to fit the 24th century setting while not looking ridiculous. Additionally, as a decadent and politically isolated society in terminal decline, the clothing worn in the Capitol is supposed to look ostentatious. Conveying this excess while avoiding costumes that look too artificial is a difficult line to walk — “silly”, but not too silly.

As I said, I think The Hunger Games’ costume designers did a decent job. In particular, the exaggerated aesthetic of the Capitol is not particularly implausible for a small and isolated civilization living in the ruins of a once much greater forerunner. It is frequently noted that emigrants or exiles often embody their culture’s customs more vigorously than its other members, perhaps as a way of compensating for their distance from it. Assuming that the catastrophe that reduced the population of The Hunger Games’ world occurred sometime in the (from our perspective) near future, it’s not unreasonable that Panem culture would seek to imitate the fashions and customs of our richer, more populous civilization, particularly if Panem’s small population inhibits cultural innovation. Without knowing if this was an intentional choice on the costume designers’ part, it makes sense that the Capitol’s fashion would be an exaggerated replication of ours, particularly given the distorting effects of however-many generations of cultural telephone.