Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Culture’ Category

Young and Sexless in Japan

By Taylor Marvin

Two years ago I wrote a piece asking whether heterosexual dating norms would change as women’s educational achievements and incomes increased. In American society men have traditionally paid for dates, and more broadly been expected to ask women out rather than the other way around. This norm grew from a patriarchal culture where men were assumed to be the head of the household, and women typically did not work outside the home. Women practically had less money to spend, and men were expected to impress potential wives with their earning potential, important in an era when single-income households were the norm. But as women’s education attainment and incomes have increased, this norm seems to be growing less prevalent. Among many young people in my age range splitting the bill between heterosexual dating couples is more common than the man simply paying himself, and today women are more likely to ask men out or propose sex than decades before — especially given the proliferation and normalization of online dating sites. While it is unclear if American dating norms will continue to shift as women grow on average higher educated and better remunerated, it does appear that some degree of norm shifting is occurring in American dating behavior.

In the Observer* Abigail Haworth has a fascinating piece reporting on Japanese young people’s growing disinterest in sex and relationships. Termed sekkusu shinai shokogun, or “celibacy syndrome”, in the Japanese media, Japan’s already low birth rate and aging population appears further threatened by a trend away from sex and permanent relationships among millions of young people. A recent survey reports that 45 percent of women and more than a quarter of men ages 16 to 24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact” and according to a relationship counsellor interviewed by Haworth, Japan’s young men and women are on divergent paths that no longer intersect in long-term relationships and marriage. While it is unclear if this trend away from sex and marriage will last or is just a passing social phenomenon, it does give increasingly-geriatric Japanese society reason to worry.

The immediate causes of “celibacy syndrome” differ between men and women, though they are both rooted in Japanese patriarchal society. Japanese women are increasingly highly educated, ambitious, and career-driven, but this ambition is punished rather than rewarded by Japanese society. Married women who work outside the home are disparaged and the gender gap and female economic participation in Japan is far worse than in western countries. Japanese business culture also places higher value on long hours and extreme corporate loyalty — as the famous term karōshi, or “death from overwork” exemplifies — making it extremely difficult for ambitious women to have both a career and family, and many women find that promotions cease with marriage anyway. This makes marriage and motherhood an impossible burden for many ambitious women, and creates an incentive towards long-term singleness. As Haworth writes:

“But what endless Japanese committees have failed to grasp when they stew over the country’s procreation-shy youth is that, thanks to official shortsightedness, the decision to stay single often makes perfect sense. This is true for both sexes, but it’s especially true for women. ‘Marriage is a woman’s grave,’ goes an old Japanese saying that refers to wives being ignored in favour of mistresses. For Japanese women today, marriage is the grave of their hard-won careers.”

Haworth additionally relays the “astonishing” statistic that 90 percent of young women “believe that staying single is ‘preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like’.” Casual sex is also stigmatized, and altogether Japan’s fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world.

Fertility rate, 1960-2011. Data by World Bank via Google Public Data Explorer.

Fertility rate, 1960-2011. Data by World Bank via Google Public Data Explorer.

For their part men face the opposite pressures. Japanese society still stresses that a man’s role is a breadwinner, and prizes single-income homes. But three decades into Japan’s economic slump the jobs that would allow young men to fulfill these expectations are rare, and many men have retreated from the workforce entirely, living with aging parents and embracing social isolation or all-consuming hobbies. Insecure about their inability to meet expectations of paying for expensive dates or supporting a stay-at-home wife, many men withdraw from romantic or sexual relationships.

Additionally, it’s not difficult to imagine that this “celibacy syndrome” dynamic is self-reinforcing. As heterosexual young people pass though youth without gaining romantic and sexual experience with the opposite gender, and surrounded by peers who are similarly uninterested in long-term marriages, it stands to reason that these lifestyle habits will become more difficult to break with age — recalling The 40-Year-Old Virgin, if people “can’t be bothered” with sex in their twenties and thirties, it is unclear if this lifestyle will change later in life. And while individual Japanese young people may be happy choosing a celibate lifestyle, it’s difficult to not see the trend as something of a loss. “The ebbing of human intimacy seems to come from a place of disenchantment and frustration,” writes Slate’s Katy Waldman in a summary of Haworth’s report. “I can’t make this historical husband-wife arrangement thing work, so I’m giving up altogether.

Haworth closes her report by asking if Japan’s apparent future of the unmarried and childless is “providing a glimpse of all our futures,” citing falling birth rates and delayed marriages across the Western world. While there are many cultural reasons suggesting that Japan is a special case, many of the same trends are affecting the United States. In recent decades the American middle class has worked increasing hours, while working wages, especially for middle class men, have stagnated. It’s not impossible that if the American middle class finds itself working hard and harder for less that marriage could become an inconvenience.

But I suspect that for American society Japan’s celibacy syndrome is less of a portent than a warning of what happens when patriarchal societies fail to adapt to changing economic conditions and social norms. American women still, of course, face a persistent wage gap and gender discrimination. But these gender barriers pale in comparison to Japan’s, and working mothers have become normalized in America society. Indeed, discrimination in Western society often flows the other way, with stay-at-home mothers “increasingly facing a damaging but unspoken prejudice that assumes they are stupid, lazy and unattractive.” This shift towards two-income households and female remuneration approaching mens’, especially among the highly educated, has provided American society with some degree of a buffer against stagnating middle class wages, manufacturing flight, the end of jobs that allowed high school-educated men to solely support their families.

Returning to the norms governing heterosexual courtship, relationships, and marriage, unlike in the United States Japan’s appear to have not changed with the times, and remain suited to a patriarchal and hierarchical society that forced men to be wage-slave absent fathers and women marginalized stay-at-home mothers. As women’s liberation, a changing culture, and economic stagnation made this social model untenable, Japanese relationship norms broke instead of bending. In America and western Europe, this seems not to be the case (Europe’s low birth rates are not related to the same social roots as Japan’s). Instead of a harbinger, Japan’s low birth rate** could be seen as an endorsement of the value of feminism and flexible social norms unbound by rigid tradition.

Update: At Kotaku Brian Ashcraft has a piece doubting Haworth’s reporting, citing data complaints by Inoue Eido and others.

* I originally credited the piece to the Guardian, which shares a website with the Observer. **This originally read “celibacy syndrome”; altered to the wider notion of low birth rate.

Banksy, Art, and Syria’s War

By Taylor Marvin

The famous British street artist Banksy has released a short video satirizing the Syrian civil war. The video, a minute and a half long, depicts two rebel fighters firing at an arial target with a MANPADS, or shoulder-fired anti-air missile system. Shouting Allahu Akbar, the rebels down an aircraft and run towards the crash site. The ‘aircraft’ is then revealed to be an animated depiction of the Disney character Dumbo the flying elephant, dying in pain. A child, dismayed at Dumbo’s death, kicks the fighter who fired the MANPADS, who falls clutching his shin in pain.

Washington Post writer Max Fisher has a thought-provoking post examining the video, which has been criticized by many. Fisher attributes the video’s odd tone to liberal internationalists’ conflicted relationship with a war where no armed faction seems worthy of support, and any intervention is perceived to carry imperialist overtones. “There’s been a real hesitancy among leftists like Banksy to embrace the Syrian opposition, which is reflected a bit in his choice to skewer the rebels, portraying them as murdering beloved children’s cartoon characters,” Fisher writes. But the murderous Assad regime is if anything even more unworthy of leftist’s support. “There’s no good guy for them; Islamist rebels – especially ones who might receive support from the West – are the closest they can get to a pure bad guy.” As Fisher notes, this bird’s-eye view of the Syrian war makes taking any stance beyond simply decrying the loss of life difficult; the only firm position taken by the international leftists Fisher associates with Banksy has been opposition to US or NATO entry into the war. Of course, this opposition is similarly fraught; while the efficacy of proposed airstrikes is unclear, opposing Western intervention in Syria means at best admitting that the killing will continue, as will Russian and Iranian aid to the Assad regime. It is perhaps this confused position that explains leftist’s adoption of the “endless war for empire” rhetoric better suited to their narrative of the lead-up to the Iraq war than the Obama administration’s real dilemma in Syria.

Fisher attributes Banksy’s muddled message to this awkward balancing act, which leaves caricatures of Islamist fighters as the only channel for satire left:

“Unlike his West Bank work, it’s not really dealing with the conflict or its larger issues, even from a one-sided ideological perspective. It’s not getting to the core issues, but rather sticks on one of the few aspects that European and Arab leftist movements feel comfortable addressing, and ignores all the rest. That doesn’t mean the video is bad or wrong as a piece of political art, of course. But it’s an interesting lens into a larger ideological movement’s struggle to figure out how it feels about a conflict that has killed over 100,000 people and displaced millions.”

I think this is certainly true. Crafting artistic depictions of wartime that do not endorse or denounce any one side is extraordinarily difficult, particularly within the constraints of a 90 second viral video. But I also think Banksy’s narrative choices take his work beyond the “awkward” and into outright unsettling.

Screen shot 2013-10-10 at 5.26.29 PM

Admittedly, I know very little about Banksy’s wider work and believe that the video’s intended reading is a statement on how Syrian adults’ warfare makes childhood impossible, an artistic message emphasized by the closing image of the child kicking the MANPADS-armed fighter. But this simple denunciation of the horrors of warfare is contradicted by other elements of the video’s symbolic toolkit. Importantly, Banksy chose to associate Dumbo, the murdered children’s cartoon character, with airpower, one of the few element of military force that the regimen enjoys a complete monopoly over. Syria’s rebels fight with small arms, rockets, armored fighting vehicles, and potentially even chemical weapons (a common but very unlikely accusation disseminated by the Assad regime’s messaging and global news organizations like RT). But only Assad can operate military aircraft, and regime fighter aircraft bombing rebel forces and civilian neighborhoods in relative safety is one of the defining image of the war. Moreover, denying the Assad regime the use of its monopoly on airpower — either through a No-Fly Zone or airstrikes targeting the regime’s air force — is one of the most-discussed options for a potential Western intervention.

Given this monopoly, Banksy’s choice to incapsulate the Syrian war in a depiction associating regime airpower with a symbol of childhood is striking. I don’t believe that this can be read as even an indirect endorsement of the regime, but it is in my mind a clumsy attempt to satirize the conflict. But Banksy has taken on a difficult challenge. In the midst of a war between a brutal autocratic regime and an increasingly-disunified opposition, Syria is fracturing along ethnic lines with any losing side facing the prospect of brutal retaliation by the winner. Ultimately, the tragedy of the Syrian war breaks any mode of satire, except for complete cynicism.

Uniforms and Gender in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek

By Taylor Marvin

Via Kelsey D. Atherton, blog the Trekkie Has The Phone Box has an excellent post detailing the problems with women’s uniforms in JJ Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise. Unlike men’s uniforms, those worn by most women in Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness do not identify the wearers’ rank. Of course, this is problematic in paramilitary Starfleet, but it’s also emblematic of the Abrams’ reboot’s view of women as a whole: the rebooted series does not invest female characters with command responsibility in the same manner as male characters, despite their position in the chain of command, so rank insignias are unnecessary. As the piece concludes, in the franchise “women aren’t scripted as officers in the same way that their colleagues who are men are.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t even a logical hole given the rest of Abrams’ Star Trek universe. In Abrams’ Starfleet, after all, cadets on academic suspension can leapfrog an entire starship’s chain of command and receive field promotions to First Officer, catastrophic losses are accepted without comment (Star Trek spoiler: the destruction of the fleet over Vulcan), romantic relationships between bridge officers appear routine, and (Into Darkness spoiler) Kirk is surprised that flagrant disregard for protocol merits demotion. Whatever the other failings of Abrams’ vision of Starfleet, excessive focus on military efficiency is not one of them.

As the piece notes, this is particularly problematic for Lieutenant Uhura, the only reoccurring female character in the rebooted series. While Abrams’ Star Trek has made the character a gifted linguist, in and of itself a specialization with cultural feminine overtones, Uhura is depicted as capable but unprofessional, and is implied to have slept her way to her position (though of course, unprofessionalism extends to all characters in Abrams’ reboot, so it is unclear if Uhura’s portrayal is due to her gender).


Additionally, female characters in Abrams’ Starfleet most commonly wear miniskirted uniforms, echoing those of the original Star Trek series. But the cultural connotation miniskirts carry today is distinctly different from when Star Trek was first aired:

“Additionally, the cultural context of the miniskirt has changed. While it was once seen as a symbol of liberation, it is now interpreted as one of objectification. That is not to say that the miniskirt is inherently one or the other, but that a very clear message is sent within our own cultural context today when the vast majority of the women seen onscreen are wearing it.”

I think that this is an important point. The rebooted Star Trek can insist that its women wear miniskirts as homage to the original show or to maintain canonical consistency, but it is important to remember that when the original Star Trek was produced women in command position were extraordinarily rare in Western militaries. In the 1960s it was not immediately unreasonable to depict far-future female military officers wearing short skirts. But today we know what women in military uniforms look like:

US Army photo by Sgt. Kandi Huggins.

US Army photo by Sgt. Kandi Huggins.

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible that women wear miniskirts in Starfleet. But narratives can only be understood through the culture in which they are produced. In 1960s America, miniskirted officers could be understood as the product of a liberated future, or at least one as liberated as the biases of the era would allow — Deep Space Nine’s female executive officer, and former terrorist, would have to wait a few decades. But today, when what women in military uniform look like is universally understood, putting Starfleet officers in miniskirts can’t be seen as anything but regressive.

Scattered Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings

By Taylor Marvin

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate;
And through I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun

I recently finished reading JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As I hadn’t read the books for many years, this reread allowed me to, in my mind, approach the story fresh, a process that imparted a few scattered observations. In no particular order:


Most obviously, The Lord of the Rings is incredibly short, at least by modern standards. Perhaps my perception is influenced by A Song of Ice and Fire and other extended modern fantasy series, but despite his popular reputation for long-windedness Tolkien’s work is incredibly succinct and to the point. Despite the arguably extraneous Tom Bombadil and Scouring of the Shire sequences — arguably, as they do play an important role in the narrative — Tolkien doesn’t dwell. While George RR Martin’s reputation for overblown descriptions of heraldry and feasts may be exaggerated, Tolkien’s world-building is much more economical, relaying on names and references dropped into the narrative without explanation or embellishment.

This directness also extends to the story’s pacing, which is distinctly pre-modern. Tolkien isn’t interested in the dramatic, practical progression of his story — this event led to this, which allowed this further event to occur — but instead the great deeds of great figures. In keeping with this narrative style, The Lord of the Rings is notably undramatic. For example, when the hobbits Merry and Pippin attempt to convince Treebeard to rally the Ents to help their friends, there is little dramatic tension: despite the Ents’ thousands of years of self-imposed isolation from the wider world, Treebeard readily agrees to help them. Again this isn’t a critique, but I can’t help noting that a modern fantasy story would inject a dramatic fakeout here — indeed, as did the film adaptation of The Two Towers.

Secondly, The Lord of the Rings is incredibly conservative. In addition to Tolkien’s obvious love of nature and trees, in Middle-earth yesterday was better than today, and today will be better than tomorrow. Middle-earth’s past saw greater evils but also greater triumphs, and a fading grace that cannot be replicated. This nostalgia is an inherent fact of the world, and Middle-earth’s slow path towards the mundane cannot be remedied through technological advancement. Indeed, a common criticism of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is that Westerosi society and technology are unbelievable stagnant throughout the continent’s over 6,000 year history. But in Tolkien’s creation this criticism cannot apply, because in Middle-earth technological progress is implied to never even occur to its inhabitants — technology is either a gift from the gods, in the case of the Númenorians, or the necessarily evil work of outside powers, as with Sauman’s mind of ‘wheels and metal’.

In contemporary society, this brand of backwards-looking nostalgia is frequently criticized as romanticizing a violent and impoverished past. As I’ve frequently argued, the current era is an unprecedented golden age in human history, the recent decline interstate violence and poverty represent an enormous gain in human welfare, and romanticizing the past is most often only a disguised pinning for lost privileges. But I think it’s important to remember that this critique does not apply to Tolkien’s conservative worldview. As I’m sure other have noted, Tolkien invented Middle-earth in the midst of World War I and The Lord of the Rings was partially written during World War II. Given these circumstances it’s no wonder that Tolkien’s worldview was influenced by an era when all technological advancements seemed to only make wars more destructive. I’m reminded of Edward Gibbon’s famous claim in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that Rome in the second century AD was the best time and place to be alive in history. Today this seems ludicrous, but from Gibbon’s 18th century perspective, it’s a much more reasonable belief.

This conservatism is expressed in social themes, as well. Samwise Gamgee comes from a lower social class than Frodo, Merry, and Pippin, all idle gentleman while Sam’s family works. Sam is employed as Frodo’s servant, always refers to the other hobbits as “Mister”, and is expected to make the others breakfast and carry the heaviest pack, a subservience that is never questioned by his companions. In a more modern work Sam’s subservient position would be a topic to be addressed by the text; i.e. despite their master-servant relationship, Frodo would explicitly learn to treat Sam as an equal. But importantly, in Tolkien’s telling Sam’s class doesn’t make him less worthy than his social superiors — indeed, along with Aragorn Sam is one of the most unambiguously heroic characters in the novel. To Tolkien, innate goodness doesn’t replace inherited social status as the determinant of how people should be treated, another reflection of the culture influencing Tolkien’s writing.

Similarly, The Lord of the Rings is an strong endorsement of absolute monarchism, but not in a way that necessarily applies to our world. Unlike the modern understanding of monarchy Aragorn, the “divinely” appointed king, is literally better than the people he rules. Not just more capable in lore, medicine, and war, Aragorn lives far longer than his subjects — in Tolkien’s telling the preferred form of government is absolute rule by those who are so much more capable than those they govern that they may as well be another species. As others have remarked (I know Sean T. Collins has discussed this, but cannot find the link), Tolkien simply isn’t interested in the potential failings of hereditary government, or indeed governance at all. The Lord of the Rings ends with Aragorn coming into his crown, sidesteping the challenges of governance in a sentence, and Tolkien himself abandoned a story that was to be set during the reign of Aragon’s son and heir.

Tolkien also never questions whether the descendants of the Númenorians have the right to rule the Men of Middle-earth. Indeed, the racial themes of Middle-earth become more troubling if you chose to consider the inherently-superior Númenorians as colonists, though again this endorsement of the literally superior Númenorians doesn’t necessarily have any relevance to discussions of colonialism in our world. However, like fantasy authors to whom people of color are simply an inconvenience to be discarded, the fact that Tolkien created a world whose reality endorses hereditary monarchy and colonialism should be troubling to modern readers.

Anyway, also see Sean T. Collins on Tolkien’s poetry, Adam Roberts on the master-slave dialectic in Tolkienthis classic Tom Bombadil theory, and a Bombadil-related Portlandia sketch.

Why Do So Few Military Video Games Have Indian Bad Guys?

By Taylor Marvin

Before diving into the question I’d like to stress that I am not a gamer, and my knowledge of the medium comes from cultural osmosis as much as anything else. So, feel free to correct me.

The writers behind contemporary military first-person shooters, one of the most popular video game genres, face an interesting challenge: finding an enemy. Islamic terrorists are a natural choice. However, this route has its problems. As the 2010 controversy over Medal of Honor — which originally would have let gamers play as the Taliban — illustrated, games pitting players against Islamic militants may stray uncomfortably close to reality. But more importantly, terrorist antagonists can’t credible provide the sense of scale many game writers desire. Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and the Battlefield series require balanced combat between equally-capable military forces rather than simply small-scale firefights, and many of their single-player campaigns feature invasions of the United States. Even given gaming’s suspension of disbelief there’s simply no way that Islamic terrorism can believably provide conflict on this scale.

This need for grand scale is problematic, because writers in both the games and film industries have trouble selecting antagonists capable of plausibly challenging the United States’ global military hegemony. Many writers simply skip the problem by calling in alien antagonists, implicitly arguing that an extraterrestrial invasion is more likely in the foreseeable future than a major, non-nuclear war between human combatants. Aliens also have the advantage of being entirely inoffensive. Casting human enemies, on the other hand, carries a substantial risk of bad publicity. While China is perhaps the most logical future US competitor, the prospect of alienating Chinese consumers and government censorship makes Chinese antagonists a rare choice (thought the upcoming Battlefield 4 appears to feature combat between US and PLA forces). Russian audiences, however, seem not to mind being cast as enemies in Western games — indeed, there’s something almost flattering about the implication that Russia’s one bad day away from invading, well, everywhere. Russia invades the continental United States and Europe throughout the Modern Warfare franchise, though Modern Warfare’s Russians are notably manipulated into war, and Alaska and Canada in Battlefield: Bad Company 2.


Another option is North Korea. The 2011 game Homefront and the 2012 remake of Reagan-era action film Red Dawn chronicle completely-implausible North Korean military occupations of the United States (though it is important to note that Red Dawn was originally written with Chinese antagonists whose nationality was hurriedly switched in post-production to avoid losing access to the increasingly important Chinese market; for its part the Japanese edition of Homefront removed references to North Korea). The near-future setting of the 2007 game Crysis postulated that a decade of economic development and military modernization would allow North Korea to mount amphibious operations into the South China Sea, though later entries in the series abandoned the People’s Liberation Army for alien and evil mega-corporation antagonists.

The recently-released trailer for the upcoming mega-hit Call of Duty: Ghosts appears to depict an invasion of the US by Spanish-speakers “from south of the Equator,” implying an invasion force of Peruvians or Argentines (or possibly Venezuelans depending on how geographically-challenged Ghosts’ writers are). Finally, many games like the above-mentioned Crysis series simply avoid the prospect of controversy altogether by calling in the classic anonymous-but-evil private militaries.

However, there’s one notable omission from the list of games’ nation-state antagonists: I can’t think of a single major contemporary military shooter with Indian enemies. With soon-to-be the world’s largest population, increasing military spending, and the expectation that it will grow into a global power this century, India is certainly a more plausible future military competitor for the United States than Latin America or especially North Korea. So why do no games pit Indian bad guys against Americans?

The most obvious answer to this puzzle is that India is a democracy and an increasingly close US ally. However, in my mind it’s unclear if this is a substantial barrier to military shooter writers looking for a new adversary — after all, despite the frosty US-Russian diplomatic relationship, no one thinks a war between the two is remotely likely. Another possibility is that, like with China, developers are afraid of losing access to the Indian market. But while the Indian government has a record of political censorship, it is unclear if the small Indian video game market is important enough to make this a pressing concern.

I think that a plausible explanation for the lack of Indian antagonists in contemporary military shooters is American culture’s racial narratives. In this narrative Middle Easterners are constructed as terrorists, but not competent enough to truly threaten the United States. (In reality Islamic nations are just as capable of invading the US as Russia; that is, not at all.) Games that feature the Russian military obviously benefit from a half-century of American culture that held the USSR as the ultimate threat, and from the Cold War nostalgia so evident in the Red Dawn remake. East Asian antagonists exist within the “yellow peril” narrative that depicts Asian men as alternatively martially threatening or asexual and submissive. But in my understand the popular Western conception of India leaves little room for threatening narratives — though it is important to note that American racists frequently fail to distinguish between India and southern and western Asia overall (whose inhabitants are constructed as terrorists), as the distressing reaction to the first Indian-America Miss America illustrates. Instead, in this racial narrative Indian men are viewed as uncivilized, impotent — outside of the Kama Sutra — and subservient, a narrative likely derived from deceptions of the British colonial period. Within this narrative it is difficult to construct to Indians as a threat, in video games or otherwise. Of course, this is enormously racist.

Again, this isn’t to say that I think a future war between the US and India is at all likely, or that deceptions of foreigners as FPS cannon fodder is particularly constructive. But it is an interesting question. Thoughts?

Rehabilitating Pinochet?

Image by Archivo Clarín Argentina, via Wikimedia.

Image by Archivo Clarín Argentina, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Following the recent coup in Egypt, the Wall Street Journal posted a fairly run-of-the-mill editorial in favor of President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. Arguing that the polarizing and Islamist Morsi government necessitated a military coup, the Wall Street Journal expressed hope that the Egyptian military would wisely steer Egypt back to democracy and resist the urge to govern the country directly. Accusing it of “trailing events at every turn,” the op-ed’s authors also denounced the Obama administration’s foreign policy, while neglecting to admit that the US has little ability to positively influence events in Egypt, and even less ability to foresee them — again, a fairly typical argument from the Journal.

However, in its last paragraph the op-ed veers into what can only be considered at best wildly historically myopic, or more likely simply deeply offensive:

“Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy. If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi’s fate.”

This is, to put it mildly, insane. After participating in and then subsuming the military junta that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973, Pinochet personally ruled Chile for nearly two decades. In that time he oversaw the deaths of 3,000 people (in a country of 13 million in 1990) and torture and execution of democratic activists, fought all meaningful democratic reform, and nearly fought what would have been an entirely-preventable conflict with Argentina. Ultimately, Pinochet left power not out of some respect for democracy, as the Journal seems to believe, but when he was essentially forced out. If the Wall Street Journal’s editors had any respect at all for Pinochet’s victims — or, perhaps more pertinently, any understanding of the legacy of his regime — they would not hold Pinochet as an example for Egypt’s newly re-empowered generals.

As Colin M. Snider writes, this argument is “vile, disgusting, repugnant, vulgar, and ignorant.”

But perhaps more interesting is what this op-ed represents. The Pinochet regime has long enjoyed some cachet among American conservatives, both for the regime’s anti-Communist stance and neoliberal economic reforms, and during his tenure Pinochet enjoyed close ties with the both the US government and neoliberal economists, notably Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. With the end of the Cold War American elites had much less incentive to support anti-leftist Latin American military dictatorships, and generally turned away from previously-favored right-wing autocracies. But due to his free-market reforms and Chile’s subsequent economic growth the Pinochet regime continued to enjoy some degree of respect that other, once similarly favored regimes like the pre-1982 Argentine junta and Paraguay’s Stroessner regime gradually lost. This respect continued beyond Pinochet’s ouster, with American conservatives especially often rhetorically conflating arguments highlighting the regime’s economic success with some nebulous endorsement of it, while downplaying Pinochet’s crimes and the growth in Chilean inequality he oversaw.

But American economic conservatives ready to celebrate the Pinochet regime’s economic policies are usually quick to denounce its autocratic nature, even while implicitly endorsing the regime overall. This position stems from a somewhat understandable dilemma. In the American elite imagination the Pinochet regime is most often offered as clear-cut economic success story — acknowledge the regime’s crimes and the whole narrative edifice threatens to come crashing down. Some commentators attempt to streamline this historical narrative by insisting that while Pinochet was a brutal dictator the Communist-leaning Allende government it overthrew would have been worse. While this plays into American Cold War biases and draws on the specter of leftist insurgencies elsewhere in Latin America, it’s also a counterfactual, and ultimately not very convincing.

Given this rhetorical challenge — the contemporary conservative need to condone Pinochet’s economic policies while also denouncing its abuses — the Wall Street Journal simply elected to avoid the narrative bind entirely, drop the qualifications, and endorse the Pinochet regime whole-heartedly. Admittedly the op-ed only mentions Chile in the last paragraph and is focused on another issue, but this failure to qualify its celebration of Pinochet at all remains noteworthy.

Pithily noting that “anyone familiar with the political views of the WSJ’s editors couldn’t have been too surprised,” Daniel Larison sees the Pinochet reference as a predictable repurposing of American foreign policy tropes to fit a new situation:

“On one level, it was just an old rehashing of Cold War-era justifications for U.S. support for anticommunist authoritarian rulers, except that Islamists were now filling the role that communists and socialists used to play. On another, it was a fairly predictable expression of support for perceived ‘pro-American’ forces abroad even if they happened to be military officers engaged in a coup against an elected government.”

This is of course correct. But it’s possible that there’s something else here. The Pinochet regime is now nearly a quarter century in the rearview mirror. With this growing historical remoteness, it would be unsurprising if American conservatives gradually drop their qualifications when arguing in favor of the regime’s economic policies. After all, noting that a regime best-known (in the United States I don’t think this is an exaggeration) for its arguably-beneficial economic policies was also a reprehensible, anti-democratic dictatorship complicates the narrative. Given that the Pinochet regime is most often mentioned in the US as an appropriated tool in American economic policy debates, this complexity is relevant, and unwanted. As time goes by I would not be surprised if explicit endorsements of the Pinochet regime like the Wall Street Journal’s become more and more common.

Correction: This piece originally misidentified the Wall Street Journal editorial as an op-ed.

Game of Thrones, Racism, and White Saviors

By Taylor Marvin

Credit HBO.

Credit HBO.

Two weeks ago HBO broadcast the season finale of Game of Thrones’ third season. In the climactic final scene lead character Daenerys, after conquering the slave-trading city of Yunkai, is met by an adoring crowd of freed slaves who proclaim her “mother” and their savior. The season ends with a dramatic bird’s eye shot of the white-skinned Dany surrounded by a sea of darker-skinned supplicants, all reaching inward to touch, salute, and worship her.

Critics immediately attacked the scene’s staging as, at the least, racially uncomfortable, and accused its depiction of a light-skinned foreigner effortlessly freeing people of color from  similarly dark-skinned oppressors as perpetuating the tired white savior trope. George RR Martin responded to criticism of the scene, arguing that slavery in his books is not based on race and has much more in common with the Roman and Greek world, where debtors or prisoners of war were enslaved regardless of ethnicity. Indeed, Martin goes out of his way to avoid race in A Song of Ice and Fire altogether. Unlike in our world, skin tone in Martin’s follows no real geographical pattern, and the inhabitants of some of the most exotic and otherized locals in the series — Qarth and Asshai — are explicitly identified as some of the whitest in the series. Indeed, Martin is one of the few fantasy authors to write protagonists of color who tell their own stories through their own voices.

But it’s natural that images of a white savior surrounded by adoring people of color would draw more controversy on the screen than on the page, especially when — in contrast to how Martin wrote the scene in A Storm of Swords — Game of Thrones’ crowd of slaves appear uniformly darker than the white protagonists. In his response Martin attributed this to logistical necessities the show faces but his books do not. As the scene was shot in Morocco, local extras filling in as slaves were necessarily darker-skinned than the leads — unless the production is going to fly in hundreds of foreign extras (which would have its own very troubling connotations) crowd scenes are always going to reflect the local prevailing skin tone, which in Morocco is by no means uniform. This echoes Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which if I recall correctly cast many dark-skinned extras as Orcs simply as a way of including local New Zealand actors in Tolkien’s white-dominated narrative.

Again, these logistical limitations are reasonable, and George RR Martin is right to note that many instances of historical slavery lack a racial component. But Game of Thrones is produced and consumed in a cultural context where slavery is overwhelmingly identified with the subjugation of dark-skinned people by lighter-skinned people. “It’s not the most-racist thing you’re going to see on TV, most days,” commenter witlesschum writes of the scene on Sean T. Collins’ site. “But living in the 21st century US, I can’t see that scene without the racial implications pinging and taking me out of the narrative.” It doesn’t matter if slavery in the ancient world was race neutral, because Game of Thrones isn’t broadcast for an ancient audience. In our world slavery is not, and the show’s producers should have anticipated the controversy the scene would draw.

However, it’s unclear if the audience is intended to take Dany’ triumph as an endorsement of her victory, and the white savior narrative it embodies, at all. Whatever the merits of freeing slaves, Dany’s actions represent a top-down, violent attempt to reform a society she knows literally nothing about. In a word it’s imperialism, “liberal” qualifier nonetheless. While the now-freed slaves may hail Dany as their mother, “as joyful as that sequence was framed to be, a family conceived not in genuine compatibility or a shared vision of the world but in desperate need and a rush of affirmation contains great potential for harm,” Alyssa Rosenberg writes. At Rolling Stone Sean T. Collins questioned the writers’ endorsement even more strongly, noting that “Dany’s triumph outside the gates of Yunkai came with its fair share of visual and narrative warning signs that we’re not to take it at face value.”

[Begin spoilers for A Storm of Swords through A Dance with Dragons]

Dany’s moment outside of Yunkai may be a genuine victory, but later events make it clearly a hollow one. Dany’s subsequent attempt to rule the third city of Slaver’s Bay, Meereen, is a failure, undermined by an insurgency organized by the elites she violently overthrew and the economic importance of the slave trade she abolished. Her conquest and emancipation of Astapor led directly to the total destruction of the city, and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

In this sense Martin’s narrative is a bait-and-switch. Much like A Song of Ice and Fire evokes narratives of righteous young princes avenging their fathers before Robb’s betrayal and murder pulls the rug out from under our feet, A Dance With Dragons explicitly undermines the white savior narrative by suggesting that violent interventions to reform foreign societies are always more complicated than they appear, no matter how good their intentions. But this nuance may be lost in the television medium. Game of Thrones presents viewers with a climactic visual — literally climactic, as it’s the last shot of the season — that appears to endorse a white savior narrative and will only be subverted two seasons later; casual viewers may not get the message. This is partially a problem with translating a so-far 5,000 page plus book to television, and ultimately a narrative that subverts a trope is still an instance of that trope. Wired’s Laura Hudson is right to remark that “I’ve seen this trope so many times before that it feels emotionally flat and boring.” It won’t once Dany’s idealism begins falling apart around her, but it does now.

The simple truth is that images of white characters surrounded by grateful, otherized people of color are loaded ones in our civilization, and have been created far, far more often as part of narratives that endorse colonialism rather than critique it. These narratives should be subverted, but it is inherently difficult to do so.

As I’ve previously written, I don’t think A Song of Ice and Fire is orientalist or racist. While its depictions of societies modeled after the Mediterranean and Middle East ring more stereotypical than its main, Western Europe-inspired setting, this is partially a deliberate choice — Martin predominantly shows societies populated by people of color through the eyes of foreigners, who have good reason to see them as alien. It’s also impossible to paint A Song of Ice and Fire as an endorsement of European values. In A Dance With Dragons Martin repeatedly suggests that while Westeros’ culture abhors slavery its own serfdom is fundamentally no different. “Some slaveowners and their overseers were brutal and cruel,” Martin writes, through the eyes of Tyrion, “but the same was true of some Westerosi lords and their stewards and bailiffs.” In this context, Martin’s depiction of slavery is if anything a critique of orientalism, suggesting that Western-identified travelers ultimately find just as much barbarism at home as they do in the “Orient”.

Indeed, this critique is one of the most fascinating aspects of Dany’s character. Just as her denunciations of King Robert as a “usurper” ring false given that her own claim to power is an ancestor who took it by force, Dany abhors slavery yet seeks to return to a throne resting on the backs of serfs who are slaves in all but name. The fact that we’re talking about white saviors at all, and not Dany’s own entitled orientalism, tells me that Game of Thrones’ writers missed a step.

If Humans Discover Aliens, Will We Try and Convert Them?

By Taylor Marvin

Engelhardt, Zephyrin, San Juan Capistrano Mission, 1922. Via Wikimedia.

Engelhardt, Zephyrin, San Juan Capistrano Mission, 1922. Via Wikimedia.

I recently attended the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination’s Starship Century Symposium, a fun, imaginative conference dedicated to speculatively discussing humanity’s future among the stars. One talk I found particularly interesting covered “starships and the fate of humankind,” presented by Peter Schwartz During his presentation Schwartz showed a slide depicting human population projections through the next century. While I don’t remember specifically which projection Schwartz presented, it was broadly similar to one drawn from the 2003 UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs “World Population in 2300” report:

Human population forecast to 2300. Source: <a href="">United Nations, World Population in 2300</a>.

Human population forecast to 2300. Source: United Nations, World Population in 2300.

Schwartz described these three scenarios as the product of three possible stories. In the above forecast the “medium” line depicts a population growth rate similar to today’s, and by and large a continuation of the status quo: most women continue to have two children, and the global population neither grows nor shrinks. The “low” forecast predicts a future where society continues to grow richer, and families smaller. In this future women tend to have a fertility rate less than the replacement rate, and the human population shrinks, dipping below 3 billion by 2300. The final, “high” forecast is a more dramatic deviation from the status quo; the future fertility rate increases to and then holds constant at 2.35 children per woman, leading the human population to grow at an accelerating rate. In this future, barring any depopulating catastrophe, the human population tops 35 billion in the next 300 years.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 5.19.16 PM

Human population forecast to 2300. Source: United Nations, World Population in 2300.

Schwartz termed this scenario the “religious” future. Many global religions, and in particular fundamentalist interpretations, encourage high reproduction. Given that world fertility rates have dramatically fallen over the last half century, it is difficult to imagine a plausible scenario that would lead to a renewed increase in the fertility rate, given increasing female access to education and family planning techniques. However, a worldwide rebirth of religious fundamentalism that encourages adherents to pursue large families and grow the faith is perhaps the most plausible mechanism for a future global population growing at an accelerating rate.

There are other potential stories to explain the UN’s “high” scenario. In science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, life-extending drug therapies are perfected before increases in worldwide human capital have put global society on the “low” trend, swelling the population — if people stop dying but don’t similarly stop reproducing, the population necessarily grows. But there are plausible reasons to believe Schwartz’s religious fundamentalism hypothesis is more likely. After all, a future global society filled with the same religious beliefs as today’s seems more plausible to contemporary forecasters than the sanitized, secular future predicted in the 1960s-vintage Star Trek franchise.

Additionally, an evolutionary logic could reasonably support the plausibility of this possible future. Since children are likely to, in the aggregate, inherit the religious beliefs of their parents, an individual’s religion can be viewed as an inherited trait. If this holds, religious traditions that encourage fecundity and religious communities that reproduce at a higher rate than the rest of society will grow to be a larger and larger percent of that population. While it’s reasonable to be wary of forecasts that require a dramatic change from the status quo — as this “high” population scenario does — there are plausible reasons not to discount this future. After all, is a dramatic future increase in the global fertility rate any less plausible than the last fifty years’ dramatic decrease, which few saw coming?

As I’ve previously written, I don’t see population growth as a viable road to human interstellar expansion. First, if the human population peaks this century as most forecasts predict, there will be little need for extraterrestrial lebensraum (read into that what you will) anyway. As I wrote last year:

“Even assuming huge technological advances dramatically reduce the cost of space transport and allow for robust off-world industrial infrastructure, costs of living away from Earth will always be unimaginably high. On Earth atmosphere and surface pressure are free; anywhere else they aren’t. If the world population peaks this century there likely won’t be any pressing demographic reason humans have to live off planet, and it is difficult to imagine any other incentive to leave that satisfies any plausible cost/benefit criteria.”

Finally, and more importantly, space travel is fundamentally a luxury. This is especially true for interstellar travel. Now, I don’t mean “luxury” to convey frivolity — but whatever the merits of extraterrestrial expansion, space travel is expensive. If global civilization suffering from the overpopulation-induced shortages, resource constraints, and catastrophes that would motivate expansion beyond Earth in the first place, humanity is unlikely to have the capabilities to do so, anyway. Given the costs of even one-off interstellar missions, this logic is a major barrier to the mid-term plausibility of involuntary interstellar migrations.

But Schwartz suggested another incentive for interstellar expansion in a high population, religious fundamentalist future: bringing the word of God to the alien heathens. Of course, there are some big leaps here — not only does this scenario require that humans eventually detect intelligent life, but that it is located close enough to our solar system that it’s reasonable to travel there. Additionally, this assumes convert-minded religious missionaries judge face-to-face contact with aliens, over simply transmitting them religious messages, to be worth the fantastic cost of interstellar spaceflight. Finally, this scenario also assumes that religious leaders judge aliens — who are likely to differ widely in appearance, outlook, and social structure from humans — to be worth converting. This is by no means assured, and it’s worth remembering that it took Christian religious figures decades to unequivocally decide that obviously-human Native Americans did in fact have souls.

Despite these cavets, a race between religions to spread their faith to aliens is an interesting concept (though these religious leaders would likely be much less enthusiastic about aliens spreading their own religious beliefs to us). But I can think of another, speculative, barrier to this possibility. Recent history’s most missionary religious sects tend to be the most apocalyptic, a tendency especially evident in Christianity and Islam, the world’s two largest religions largely due to their historical expansion. Recent polling by Public Policy Polling suggests that 11 percent of Americans believe the Rapture will occur within their lifetime, and nearly 60 percent of white evangelicals reportedly believe the Rapture is due before 2050. In a 2012 Pew study, in 9 of 23 Muslim countries more than half of those polled expressed the belief that the Mahdi will return within their lifetime.

If missionary impulses and apocalyptic thinking are linked, this suggests that the sects most likely to attempt to convert intelligent aliens also discount the future the most. Indeed, generations ships as a class are essentially predicated on very low discount rates, as only the distant descendants of their builders will ever benefit from their initial investment. This poses a major problem to interstellar missionary efforts. If you believe that the rapture will occur within your lifetime, launching a generation ship to convert aliens is literally pointless — the universe will likely end before the ship arrives! Indeed, if you believe that the end of the world will end in the next half century, it’s pointless even to attempt to communicate with aliens more than 50 light years away, relatively right next door!

Now, this of course doesn’t make interstellar missionaries impossible. But it’s worth remembering that religious impulses and spaceflight are likely to interact in ways difficult to predict.


Sexual Coercion and Political Order in A Song of Ice and Fire

5117TYjqrqLBy Taylor Marvin

[Mild setting spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire follow]

I recently read Alyssa Rosenberg’s excellent essay “Men and Monsters: Rape, Myth-Making, and the Rise and Fall of Nations in A Song of Ice and Fire,” which examines the portrayal of sexual violence in George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series. Sexual violence and harassment in A Song of Ice and Fire is a topic I’ve written on before, and I agree with Rosenberg’s thesis that sexual violence is the series’ ultimate marker of social transgressors.

Expanding on Rosenberg’s argument, I see the series’ prominent depiction of celibate organizations as another aspect of its attempt to illustrate the linkage between authoritarian politics and sexual coercion. Celibate orders are common in Martin’s Westeros: the elite Kingsguard, scholarly Maesters, and military Night’s Watch are all organizations that formally require their members to be celibate. Of course, these vows are often broken, but nominal celibacy is a prominent feature of all these institutions’ character.

These celibacy requirements are often coercive. Most obviously, the vast majority of the Night’s Watch — whose members vow to “take no wife” and “father no children” — are forced into its ranks. While the Night’s Watch’s celibacy requirement is not explicitly a punitive feature of the Westerosi justice system that sends criminals to the Wall, it certainly has a major effect on the lives of individual Black Brothers. Similarly, while Westeros’ Maesters — an order of scholars, postmen, and scientists who, like the members of the Night’s Watch, are required to be celibate — are not openly coerced into the order, it is likely that many of the inheritance-less second sons who become Maesters would not choose to do so if they had other options. While not as explicitly as those of the Night’s Watch, Maesters’ celibacy vows are to some extent coercive. Finally, as in our world, many of Westeros’ religious officials are also required to remain celibate.

These organizations are all intended to remain apolitical, and require celibacy as a means of removing their members from Westeros’ political order. The Kingsguard is dedicated to protecting the king, a singular role that permits no other personal loyalties. Members of the Night’s Watch are tasked with defending the entire realm, and are famously required to take no side in Westeros’ political conflicts. Maesters serve as trusted advisors to feudal government figures, a role they could not credibly commit to unless they again have no personal stake in politics. Finally, Septons and Septas are intended to serve Westeros’ people, not any temporal political goals.

In a world where social status and political power is explicitly inherited, marriage and reproduction is inherently political. The only way to remove an individual actor from politics is to remove him or her from reproduction and inheritance, as well. This makes celibacy a fundamental requirement of any organization intended to be a neutral actor in Westeros political structure. Of course, these organizations have little power to actually enforce their formal celibacy requirements — A Song of Ice and Fire is full of Night’s Watch and Kingsguard members who break their vow to refrain from sex. But importantly, Westeros’ practical lack of birth control allows even often-broken celibacy requirements fulfill their political purpose (the series’ “Moon Tea” is a form of birth control, but it is implied to often be unavailable or unreliable, and nevertheless children born out of wedlock are extremely common). Societies without birth control are likely to draw a clear distinction between children born in wedlock — and who can thus inherit political power — and those who are not. This distinction is much less clear in societies with routine access to birth control, like our own. Whether or not Maesters and Night’s Watchmen father children or not, their vows of celibacy prevent these illegitimate offspring from inheriting, and thus keep them and their fathers safely excluded from Westeros’ political order.

While this often coerced celibacy is nowhere near as traumatic, or pervasive, as Westeros’ other forms of sexual violence, it is another aspect of the series’ thematic critique of sexual coercion. Just as Westeros’ endemic misogyny make rape common, its hereditary politics makes sexual coercion a fundamentally political, and thus routine, precondition of social order. Of course, the injustice of all forms of sexual coercion is simply another aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire’s condemnation of the illiberal political structure so many other fantasies celebrate.

Oblivion and More on (Im)Plausible Alien Invasions

By Taylor Marvin

[Oblivion spoilers are marked below]

Last weekend I saw Oblivion, a new entry into the venerable Hollywood alien invasion genre. With stunning visuals and occasionally impressive acting, I found the film enjoyable, and despite its plot holes entertaining.

I’ve previously discussed how difficult it is to invent a plausible motive for an alien invasion of Earth. Unfortunately, Oblivion’s script isn’t particularly inventive in this department — the film’s writer is mostly content to recycle old tropes under a gleaming facade of modern CGI and gorgeous cinematography (seriously, Oblivion is beautiful). But since alien invasion stories in general are such an interesting topic of discussion, reflecting on the Oblivion’s plausibility is a fun exercise.

Of course, discussing alien invasions stories is inherently a discussion of aliens themselves, and speculating on any aspect of aliens’ behavior — especially the plausibility of their Hollywood invasions — is inherently dangerous. But as I wrote in a recent discussion of Cowboys and Aliens, aliens broadly similar to us — in economics if not physiology — would face enough universal limitations that informed speculation is possible:

“The only thing we can assume about alien civilizations is that, well, they’re alien. It’s very difficult to make any assumptions about how an alien civilization would be organized, what they would value, and how they would behave. But we are able to identify universal constraints, and extrapolate which of these constraints aliens’ incentives are bound by. No matter how alien, there are certain limitations that we can assume all technological civilizations are bound by…. The galactic scarcity of certain chemical elements is also universal, as is some degree of natural selection within and between species.”

Unfortunately, Oblivion mostly disregards these questions of plausibility. Of course, this doesn’t make it a bad movie per se, or even bad science fiction; the protestations of science fiction fans who use “hard” as a synonym for “good” aside, plausibility is overrated. But it does suggest interesting questions.

First, Oblivion’s opening minutes establish that humanity successfully defeated the invading aliens with nuclear weapons. This is a welcome departure from the frequent nukes-didn’t-work trope, but it is difficult to think of a plausible way that nuclear weapons would be particularly helpful in a contemporary conflict with aliens. While nuclear weapons are often discussed as plausible weapons in space combat (though in the vacuum of space a nuclear device has a much smaller destructive radius than in an atmosphere), in Oblivion’s scenario humans are confined to Earth, and are shown to have used nuclear weapons against alien surface targets. This implies that the aliens landed ground forces, forces vital enough to their war effort that their destruction ensured their defeat.

But why would the aliens land ground forces anyway? It is frequently noted in contemporary strategic studies that airpower cannot take or hold ground, but this limitation would not necessarily apply to the aliens. A civilization capable of routine interstellar flight is also presumably capable of arbitrarily detecting and destroying even hardened ground targets. This means that if humans are unable to threaten alien standoff weapons platforms or otherwise interfere with their bombardment and the aliens have sufficient spacecraft to cover all surface war zones, ground forces are unnecessary.

Anyway, the aliens aren’t seeking to hold ground at all; they are simply trying to kill enough humans to prevent humanity from interfering with the aliens’ plan to steal the Earth’s resources. This genocide can certainly be accomplished from space.


Read more