Force Awakening…reactions, analysis, hype

Spoilers, maybe.  Who knows, everyone is so sensitive now.

Sorry Britain got it first, hope I am still here for Episode VIII…new-the-force-awakens-character-descriptions-for-finn-rey-kylo-ren-and-captain-phasma1




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A Conversation from “What’s the Point of IR”?

This past weekend, I had the privilege of participating, with a number of friends and colleagues, in the Sussex International Relations Department’s 50-year celebration: What’s the Point of IR?

The conference was interesting in a lot of ways – just go look at the (annoyingly long, but effective) hashtag: #whatsthepointofIR. There was a lot of very important (and very diverse) discussion of what we do and how we do it, both in practice and normatively.

In this post, I want to highlight a part of the conversation I found particularly interesting: a discussion about if IR scholars have an individual or collective normative accountability for the product of their/the discipline’s work. This conversation was had alongside the conference, on Twitter, inspired by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s talk on the pedagogical value of IR – largely between Patrick and I, focusing on the question of moral responsibility but also engaging whether there is an IR, who is in it, and what it is for. We intend to expand on/continue to have the conversation, but I figured that it’d be interesting to share:


I don’t have anything new to say about the Planned Parenthood shootings

A little more than a week ago, someone walked into a Planned Parenthood and started shooting – killing people for being less “pro-life” than he was. He was an  evangelical with a history of violence against women. The particular clinic, the people who died, the details of the event – those are new, and unique. But people killing people over some lose affiliation with abortion? I  have memories of that happening consistently over the course of my life, damn near in my back yard. There were the summer and Christmas clinic bombings in 1984, the doctor shot in the back in 1993, and another shot in the head in 1994 – all in my small hometown.

In the 1994 Washington Post story, then-President Bill Clinton called the act of shooting a  physician because s/he provides or supports the provision of abortions “domestic terrorism” and condemned it. While I’ve recently suggested that the risk of ‘everyday terrorism’ discourses is a license for ‘counterterrorism’ in intimate spaces, and have always worried about the Orientalist implications of terrorism language – this one is easy – killings that target abortion clinics are terrorism. They are a part of a larger system of violence against women and girls, and a culture that combines sexism and violence. That’s not something new to say. Someone probably said it before I was born. I don’t have anything new to say. Because nothing different is happening. Same script, different century. Its not about saying something new. Its about someone finally fucking hearing it – abortion clinics aren’t places to kill people, women’s bodies aren’t crazy and unrelated men’s business, and so long as it is easier to buy an arsenal than it is to enroll in school there’s a risk that people buy and use arsenals.

Some of my conservative friends look to make a counterpoint out of San Bernardino shootings – those were acts of terrorism, after all, by Islamic extremists inspired by Daesh. But there’s no counterpoint there. Its not scarier for people to kill people out of a terrible misinterpretation of the Islamic god than out of a terrible misinterpretation of the Christian god. Both are made possible by a culture of violence and the availability of weapons. Both are unconscionable. And both have been going on way too long.

I’m tired of responding to either. And I’m tired of sexist, racist, politically polarizing responses to something that should be not about sex, race, or politics: militarized culture, not ok; killing people in the name of life, not ok; killing people who aren’t trying toil you, not ok.  I don’t have anything new to say, because I’ve said the same damn thing every time violence like that happens, and, however loudly it is said, … it seems to drown in the combination of religious and nationalist rhetoric with which both of these events, and many others like and unlike them, are normalized.

James Bond as an Autonomous Weapon

In a recent piece for the Conversation, I compared James Bond to a drone.  I think a mistake was made, James Bond is not just a drone; he is an autonomous drone.  This “man” is not concerned with headquarters, orders, or the state.  He is pure id, operating under some sort of ‘00’ code routine of kill before you are killed.   James-Bond-fighting-on-a-helicopter-607133

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US Defense Spending: There Used to Be a Debate

Yesterday I posted a brief discussion about conservatives (or the lack thereof) in academia, in response to a Facebook conversation I had gotten into with some friends. Nothing earth-shatteringly insightful, just some noodling with ideas on an old question (and an opportunity to plug the much better work of some friends of mine).

That blog post led to another FB exchange, which I reproduce here:

[Name Removed] As usual I enjoy reading your blog and admire your knowledge and reasoning skills. But I would contend that there is something inherently ideological in, for example, designing military hardware, bombs, or the circuitry that can operate a drone or deliver an intercontinental missile with a warhead attached, as opposed to designing an artificial limb or artificial womb for premature babies or a convection oven. Funding decisions get made and engineers decide to put themselves in the way of specific types of funding that come from a particular ideological position about the value of, for example, random strangers’ lives in comparison to personal or national objectives. We don’t tend to see these things as ideological because we have so deeply absorbed a belief system that says, of course the state can only enforce its will through violence. Physicists can imagine a death ray, engineers build it, business people figure out how to make a profit from it; but it takes the liberal arts to say, “Gee, is building a death ray a good idea?”

[Me] You make an excellent point. It takes a humanities perspective to see the fundamental ideological assumptions that underlie many of our systems, structures, and activities. At this point, there is little disagreement between “liberals” and “conservatives” about the military or militarization, which is a sad indication of how far our ideological goalposts have moved. Of course, that may be partly due to living next to a really big Air Force base…

There’s a broader political observation here that has gone almost totally unremarked upon. I don’t think this is just the result of living next to a massive AF base, in an area whose regional economy is substantially tied to defense spending. I think this is a national phenomenon.
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Russia and Syria: Let’s You and Them Fight

My friend and fellow blogger Brandon Valeriano is a much better security studies scholar than I am. He’s written a great piece today about Russia’s involvement in Syria, and in particular how unimpressive that involvement is so far relative to the breathless hyperbole appearing in the American press.

Some of this, of course, is press coverage in the context of an American presidential race. Republican candidates, none of whom have any credentials on foreign policy, are swift to criticize the Obama administration for making the US “look weak” and for “capitulating” to Russia. The narrative of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war plays into that fable well, and helps win votes from tribal Republicans. It has no bearing on reality, but neither does most of the rest of the campaign. For those of us interested in the world as it is, we can safely ignore the three-ring circus and look instead to what we already know about international conflict and what that might tell us about the US-Russia strategic balance. Continue reading

Russia’s Vaunted Military?

This New York Times piece on Russia’s use of power in Syria was so notable for its hyperbole and exaggeration, it woke me from my RI slumber.  As my old friend from UIC, Evan McKenzie noted “For the US media exaggerating Russia’s military power is a reflex.” It truly is in this case, the article is so bad that it could have appeared in Russia Today.  Lets cover it by using the NYTimes’ own words.   Mine are in italics0,,17590427_303,00

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Seeking out the Untold Stories of Mobility

This is a guest post by Amanda Russell Beattie, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University School of Languages and Social Sciences. 

Last week, a little boy drowned on a Turkish beach.  In an instant, the world took notice of the plight of refugees fleeing violent conflict.   Closer to home, in the UK, this one photograph has prompted ordinary people to undertake numerous political acts, donating clothing, food, money, and other forms of aid to the refugees currently living in the Calais jungle. Much has been written on the ethics of publishing this photograph: whilst I am aware of and grateful for the acts and the sentiment that it has prompted, I cannot support its publication. This tension is difficult, and has proved impossible for me to work through.  These are some of my thoughts.

On twitter, Annick Wibben reflected on the publication of the photo and the ensuing action it prompted, suggesting that ‘something is better then nothing’ when seeking to achieve political change.  These reflections prompted a blog exchange between her and Megan MacKenzie, leading Wibben to wonder what should, or can, academics do in response to experiences of trauma? Wibben makes a compelling claim that the stories of those fleeing conflict can inspire us to understand how such situations, like the death Alan, come to be.   These type of tragic incident can facilitate sites of intervention that offer ‘points of resistance’ to enact policy changes.

In turn, MacKenzie’s blog post wonders if this is enough. MacKenzie is against the publication of the photo if all it prompts is discomfort and denial.  To be actively political, MacKenzie claims, is “to engage and reflect” on what the image and people framed within it represent.  It demands that we think through the politics of mobility, how states are maintained, borders formed, and security enacted.

For my part, while I am not comfortable with the image being shown, I am aware that it has prompted many to act who otherwise would not.  I should be grateful. But I also think the publication of this single image is harmful.  (I am setting aside the actual ethics of publishing the photo aware of the ethical permissions academics must seek before conducting research!)  The publication of this single photo attends only to one plot in a complicated and diverse story of being a refugee, but more generally, to be a mobile person. To focus on one story, to the detriment of so many others, I suggest causes further harm.

I doubt I would know as many refugee stories myself had I not been ordered to be deported from the UK in April 2013.  But I was, and my life fell apart.

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The Offense-Defense Balance Applies to Interpersonal Conflict, Too

Regular readers of my personal blog know that I am not a fan of firearms as a self-defense solution. While there are clearly cases in which firearms have produced good self-defense outcomes, on balance I think that they cause more problems (and cost more lives) than they save.

I know that there are plenty of folks out there who, for dogmatic reasons, will disagree with me. Some of them, if they were to read the preceding paragraph, would decide on the basis of those two sentences alone that I am not only wrong, but a communist/atheist/socialist/libtard out to take all guns away from everyone so that Obama can destroy America and rule over the new fascist dystopia he so desperately wants. Needless to say, I do not write for these people.

For those of you who might be interested in understanding why I regard guns as dangerous and destabilizing, I offer the following. This is not an exercise in “scenario gotcha” – there is always a different hypothetical that begins “What if I’m attacked in this situation…?” There are an infinite number of hypothetical scenarios, and I will freely concede that there is no one answer to all of them. What follows is a discussion for why guns, on balance, are more problematic than helpful.

I have long maintained that the study of interpersonal conflict and the study of international conflict (my primary field of expertise) have a lot in common. What I have been trying to say about the effect of guns on interpersonal violence has been long understood by those who study international conflict.

Many years ago, the imminent scholar Robert Jervis penned a seminal piece in the study of war (if you want to read the whole thing, you can download a copy here). Titled “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma”, Jervis explored the logic of when conflicts will escalate and when countries will cooperate in a world where there is no central government and every country is (in theory) afraid for its security against every other.

In exploring this question, Jervis introduces a really critical concept: the “offense-defense balance”. Jervis explains the idea this way:

When we say that the offense has the advantage, we simply mean that it is easier to destroy the other’s army and take its territory than it is to defend one’s own. When the defense has the advantage, it is easier to protect and to hold than it is to move forward, destroy, and take.

This is a function of technology and tactics. In World War I the combination of fortifications, automatic machine guns, and trench warfare made taking territory almost impossible and defending it much easier. Vast numbers of lives were lost trying to take a few hundred yards of land in Belgium and France. The war made no sense, and was possible only because the military and political leaders of the day misunderstood the true offense-defense balance until it was too late.

Fast-forward to the start of WWII, and the tables had turned. The maturation of aircraft, the development of the tank, and the new doctrine of Blitzkrieg made maneuver the order of the day. It was much easier, and cheaper, for Germany to take territory than it was for France to defend it. That advantage made it much more likely that Germany would launch the war it wanted anyway.

The important thing about the offense-defense balance is that it has a strong effect on whether countries (or people) are likely to initiate violence or not. In Jervis’ words, “whether it is better to attack or to defend influences short-run stability.” When the offense has the advantage, war is more likely because in a crisis countries will fear that the other guy will launch a surprise attack and thereby win. There have been enough examples since 1945 (the 1967 Arab-Israeli war comes to mind) to keep this logic alive. Simply put, in a world in which the dominant technologies & doctrines are offense-oriented violence between states is much more likely. In a world in which defense is dominant, violence is less likely.

Some might want to argue that “countries aren’t people” and therefore this logic doesn’t apply to the conflict between mugger and victim, or between two men in a bar, or in any other conflict between two individuals. It is true that the analogy doesn’t work whenever there are immediate mechanisms that can enforce security – a police presence nearby, for example. But most self-defense scenarios take place away from the protections of the government – that is, under conditions of temporary anarchy. No government, no central protecting force – you’re on your own, much like countries in the world.

So what do guns do in an environment of immediate interpersonal insecurity? Guns are an inherently offense-dominant technology – that make it easier by orders of magnitude to hurt or kill the other person than it is for that person to defend themselves against an attack. There are in fact few ready defenses against a gunshot (kevlar body armor comes to mind, but it is expensive, not widely available, and impractical to wear in most situations).

In this sense, guns are to interpersonal violence what nuclear weapons are to countries – the weapon against which there is no effective defense. Guns are actually worse in one sense: a country cannot defend itself against a nuclear strike (“Star Wars” fantasies aside), but nuclear-armed states have a reasonable hope of being able to fire back after absorbing that first hit, thereby destroying the other side too. This creates mutual deterrence (MAD, or “Mutually Assured Destruction”, as it became known in the Cold War), which creates its own kind of stability through a “balance of terror”.

Guns are worse, because they lack this tendency to create mutual deterrence. If I shoot you first, and if my aim is good, it is very unlikely that you are going to be able to fire back. I am not therefore deterred by the thought that my opening fire will get me shot in turn. If we are both armed (or if I think you might be), I have every incentive to fire first so that you cannot shoot back. My own self-preservation depends on how fast I can get off the first shot.

Jervis himself, in his 1978 article, foresaw this. Long before Michael Brown, #blacklivesmatter, or the “war on cops”, he wrote this:

In another arena, the same dilemma applies to the policeman in a dark alley confronting a suspected criminal who appears to be holding a weapon. Though racism may indeed be present, the security dilemma can account for many of the tragic shootings of innocent people in ghettos.

I would modify this to suggest that the security dilemma rationalizes racism, and that the two feed off each other, but you get the point. This logic is in fact exactly the defense that police have been using in court to get away with shooting unarmed people.

If police have difficulty resolving this dilemma, how well will untrained or lightly-trained civilians do? The fact of the matter is that the only way you can use a gun to defend yourself, if push comes to shove, is to shoot the other guy first. Those that argue that arming everyone reduces the likelihood of violence ignore the unstable offense-dominance of guns. Guns can only be a deterrent if people are assured of their ability to shoot back – that is, if they can absorb the first strike.

Add to this the challenge of carrying guns in the modern environment. In most places guns must be concealed (in a purse, holster, etc.), increasing the time it takes to bring them to bear. Openly carried guns can make the carrier a target, further increasing the likelihood of violence. None of this pushes things towards more peaceful personal interactions, whether the problem is predators (in Jervis’ parlance, the aggressor-defender model) or people simply being afraid of each other (the security dilemma).

The offense-defense balance problem is real. Every age has its dominant technologies, and these technologies make violence more or less likely. Small, cheap, easily accessible guns are unarguably offense-dominant, and as such they make violence more likely and more problematic between people even if those people merely seek to protect themselves. So let’s stop referring to guns as tools of self-defense and call them what they really are: first-strike weapons.

Why I Don’t Give a Shit about My H-Index

My scholarship is a politics. I did not start out interested in an academic career, then narrow down my research interest in graduate school to focus on gender/feminism in IR. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson once called scholarship and teaching a vocation – it may be for him, but it never has been for me. For me, it is feminist politics and the search for global justice that is a vocation, and scholarship the vehicle to follow that vocation. In Marysia Zalewski’s sense, I see theory as practice, as activism. I had an interest in one graduate program, in one dissertation topic, and in one research program – and its not because that is what I like to research. Its because gender studies/global justice is what I am drawn to do, and research and teaching is how I do it.

Don’t get me wrong. I know I’m fortunate to be paid, and paid well, to follow my politics. And I’m not pretending that I do not follow my politics, and navigate my job, strategically. I do all of those things. But if I was putting professional strategy first and politics second, my career would look a lot different. Put into the context of recent discussions, the only way my h-index would measure how well I do what I do is if what I do is look to maximize the attention that my research gets in the academic social sciences. That’s not what I do, and I don’t give a shit about my h-index.

If what I did was try to maximize the attention of my research, I would do research using cutting-edge statistical techniques addressing questions that are of direct interest to a significant percentage of prolific scholars in the field. I do not stay that because it is as easy as that sentence makes it sound – compiling a great h-index, even if one sets out to do it, is very difficult and takes a significant amount of skill. And I don’t say it criticizing the people who take such a career path – to each his/her own, and I know a lot of great people who see this profession as an end in itself, or a means to an end of living comfortably.

At the end of the day, what I’m saying is that choosing to research gender, sexuality, and security in global politics is likely not an h-index maximizing choice. H-index maximization would involve paying attention to, following, and developing disciplinary trends, and citation seeking. My chosen research instead looks to buck and alter disciplinary trends writ large. That doesn’t mean it gets no attention – but it does mean that it gets attention differently, and there is a limit to the amount of attention it gets. That is a career externality to the political choice that I’ve made.

There are some who would argue that the h-index tradeoff is a personal choice that I have made – akin to other personal or career choices people make that have various costs and benefits. That argument might be worth considering if IR research as a whole benefitted from selecting for h-index maximization. I argue that it does not.

My argument does not come from the position that IR research is an unmeasurable art, or the contention that there is some intangible quality that makes scholarship good. Both might be true, but I think my issue is more fundamental. In the provision of data about, and discussion around, IR scholars’ h-index in the last couple of weeks, there has been discussion of whether h-index is a good indicator (whether it captures ‘productive researchers’) and whether what it indicates (‘research productivity’) is what the best Departments should be built around. In those conversations, the suggestion that the h-index measurement has biases has come up several times, especially in Facebook conversations with friends and colleagues.

I reject the notion that h-index measurements are biased. Bias implies that there is some achievable, objective standard out there that h-indexes just fail at measuring – a je ne sais quoi of good scholarship that is either intangible or poorly measured. I disagree. I think that using h-indexes as metrics is a combination of reifications of the political status quo and popularity contests – but I don’t think that is a bias. It is a politics, a direction, and a disciplining move.

The politics is that we like where the discipline is right now, and want to honor innovative, high-quality, attention-grabbing work at its center.  The politics suggests that the majority of ‘research productive’ scholars in IR currently study desirable subject areas from desirable theoretical perspectives using desirable methods. The work that is at the margins is appropriately at the margins, and taking theoretical, empirical, and methodological risks is unlikely to pay off. The direction, then, is the perpetuation of the status quo. The disciplining move is to tie professional success to this status-quo mainstreaming and call it an objective metric. If you can measure quality by influence, and influence by the number of people who pay attention to the work, then IR scholarship has an incentive to run towards the middle and find popular niches.

To me, that does not work for whatever IR is and/or should be. It stifles macroinnovation for microinnovation, encouraging stagnation. It reifies the marginality of disciplinary margins. And it does so in a more formalized way than the social structural exclusions of the discipline do currently.

My h-index exists, like everyone else’s. I even know it. But I don’t give a shit about it. There are those who will judge the quality of my scholarship by my h-index, and/or see it as a good indicator thereof. I cannot stop that. But I can think its both misapplied to me and a bad move for IR scholarship. It being misapplied to me may be my issues – but I’d wager I’m not the only one who doesn’t see citation as a primary purpose of my work. That it’s a bad move for IR scholarship is an argument that I think merits further consideration.