Monday, August 12, 2013

"V" and the Radicalization of the Comfortable

I recently re-watched the original 1983 "V" miniseries with my kids. If you don't recall it, the premise is that aliens come to Earth offering peace and prosperity, but their benevolence quickly changes to tyranny, their political opponents start disappearing, and it turns out that they're actually lizards bent on stealing our seawater, enslaving some of us, and eating the rest. The show is filled with unsubtle references to the Third Reich, so probably the dominant interpretation of the show's theme is an unobjectionable but trite "Don't let the Holocaust happen again."

But there's another theme running through the miniseries: the radicalization of the comfortable. The show begins with the following dedication:
To the heroism of the Resistance Fighters — past, present, future — this work is respectfully dedicated.
The show then opens in the middle of El Salvador's civil war, where a local rebel leader is being interviewed about recent losses to government soldiers. During the interview, the rebel looks directly into the camera and promises that he will keep fighting until his people are free, and then asks the audience, "You got that, Mister?" We then see him heroically defy an attacking government helicopter with a handgun.
With this setup, the mission of the show is to get us to identify with that rebel leader. What would it take to get comfortable suburban Americans to take up arms in the same way? Our stand-in is Juliet Parish (Faye Grant), a bright and mousy (if conventionally Hollywood-attractive) medical student living on the L.A. coast with her stockbroker boyfriend. She's perfectly content measuring tumors on laboratory mice and doesn't seem to have a political or violent bone in her body.

Over the course of the four-hour miniseries, though, she and a group of others find themselves marginalized and persecuted by the new alien regime and slowly find each other and take up arms. The group includes a cross-section of 1980s Los Angeles -- a white anthropologist, an African American refinery worker, a Latino gardener, an elderly Jewish Holocaust survivor -- but it is Julie's transformation that is most central to the story. Ultimately, the new rebels turn to her for organizational leadership, and she finds herself transformed into guerrilla, to the point where she reenacts the opening scene (at which she was not present), shooting defiantly at an alien vessel.
In hindsight, this is a pretty radical message. The show is encouraging us to empathize with armed guerrillas in El Salvador and essentially everywhere else in the world. (This is particularly interesting given that the U.S. was backing the El Salvadoran military at the time.) We're not so different, the show is saying. Under the right circumstances, we all could -- indeed, should -- become rebels. This was a similar tack taken by the "Galactica" reboot during the New Caprica occupation, when the show asked us to sympathize with a subjugated population building IEDs and employing suicide bombers, and they got some pushback for that. "V" was made over 20 years earlier.

Note: I have ignored the main character of Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) above in part because his role is, to me, the least interesting, even if it probably takes up the most screen time. Not that the actor does a bad job -- I like him! -- but the character just doesn't really undergo much of a transformation. He's mainly just used by the script to show us things the other humans don't get to see.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Where the action is

Loyal readers will notice that I haven't posted much on these pages in a while. I'm devoting my blogging energies these days to Mischiefs of Faction and to my weekly gig at Pacific Standard. These commitments seem like more than enough to keep me busy right now. I'm keeping Enik Rising open for business, in case I feel compelled to say something about "Star Wars" or a cake I'm baking, but for now, if you want to catch me, please check the sites above. Oh, and definitely follow me on Twitter. I'm not even close to done with that yet.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Raising barriers to voting, with predictable consequences

What happens to the electorate when you tighten up rules for voting? Does everyone have a harder time voting, or are some groups of voters affected more than others?

We got some evidence on this question in Colorado recently. For several election cycles, Colorado has provided mail-in ballots automatically to those who have registered as requesting mail-in ballots in previous cycles. In late 2011, Secretary of State Scott Gessler announced that the state's mail-in ballots would henceforth only be sent out automatically to those who were "active" voters, meaning they had voted in the last general election. This led to a dispute between Gessler's office and the counties of Denver and Pueblo, with the Brennan Center and Colorado Common Cause getting involved. I was brought in as an expert witness to help determine the effect that the change would have on the electorate, specifically with regards to race.

With the help of University of Denver geographer Paul Sutton, I compared voting precincts in Denver, Pueblo, and throughout the state based on their racial breakdowns and on the percent of voters listed as IFTV ("Inactive - failed to vote," meaning they did not vote in the last general election). Below is a scatterplot showing the percent of residents who are Latino compared to the percent who are IFTV status, by precinct within Denver:
That's a very strong relationship, suggesting that the rule change would have a disproportionate impact on Latinos, making it less likely that they'll receive a mail-in ballot. Basically the same trend was found among African American residents:
I found these same patterns within Pueblo County and across the state as a whole.

Sutton then made these maps for Denver County, showing roughly the same trends geographically (click to expand):
Again, the trend is quite consistent: the higher concentration of a racial minority group within a precinct, the more people in that precinct who did not vote in the previous general election, and the more people who would be deprived of an automatic mail-in ballot.

Now, there is an ecological inference issue here: I'm making individual-level interpretations using precinct-level data. To try to get around this, I employed the ecological inference program Eco to make some approximations of the individual-level behavior. The results estimated that roughly 10 percent of eligible white voters were IFTV status, but roughly a third of Latinos and African Americans were IFTV status. The change in the rule on mail-in ballots would have meant racial minorities having a harder time voting by mail than whites.

Based partially on this analysis, the judge in the case ruled against Gessler, and the change in mail-in voter policy is not being implemented. But given partisan voting patterns among different racial groups, it's not hard to imagine how this would have played out electorally had it been enforced.

(Cross-posted from Mischiefs of Faction)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Temperature Trends

Andrew Gelman is right: this graph is pretty bad. If you want to get a sense of what temperature trends look like over the past century or so, I find a lowess trendline useful:

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Are (some) academic stresses self-imposed?

Dan Drezner makes some nice points in response to the Forbes article that lists academia as one of the least stressful occupations. While he rightly notes that adjuncts face a great deal of career stress, he concedes that those of us in tenure or tenure-track positions enjoy a degree of autonomy and flexibility that those in careers at similar pay levels do not have.

He also makes a point about us self-selecting into this line of work, and I think this is an important one in the discussion of stress. Academics generally do their jobs because it's a career they actively sought out and they study a subject that deeply interests them. (No one ever wrote a folk song about being forced to become an academic because it was the only job in town.) Thus, we end up committing to a lot of things we don't actually have to do -- such as conference papers, journal reviews, academic blogs, etc. -- because we find them intrinsically interesting or we believe we have a decent contribution to make. Now, it's good for the discipline and for our own career reputations and professional advancement that we do these things, but they're not always mandatory, particularly for tenured faculty. So the professional commitments I took on during that blessed year between gaining tenure and becoming department chair certainly added to my stress levels, but a) I could have declined many/most of them and kept my job, b) the commitments brought some satisfaction that partially offset the stresses, and c) the stresses weren't remotely like those faced by firefighters, police officers, soldiers, miners, commercial fishermen, etc. That is, no MPSA paper is going to kill me, although some have tried.

Similarly, with teaching, many of us endeavor to improve our teaching or offer new courses because we believe it's important to do so. Taking on such a commitment invariably generates new stresses -- teaching a new course sometimes leads to initially lower course evaluations, generating a new course is harder than repeating an old one -- and we could usually just not do these things and still keep our jobs. Nonetheless, we take on the task of improving our course offerings, and the concomitant stress, because to quote Hyman Roth, "this is the work we have chosen," and we think this is the best way to do it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Finally, a good film about the presidency

I saw "Lincoln" the other night. This is a very good and very rich film -- it contains a great deal of detail, both in the script and on the screen -- and I'd like to see it again soon to look for things I missed the first time around. Much has already been written on the film (I'm particularly enjoying Ta-Nehisi Coates' and Susan Schulten's perspectives, and David Brooks makes some interesting observations), but I wanted to mention a particular point: this is probably the best film on the American presidency ever made.

The premise of the film is that Lincoln has an agenda item (the thirteenth amendment) he wants to push through Congress. He's recently been reelected -- after very publicly supporting emancipation -- and believes he has a mandate to see this agenda through. But he faces numerous obstacles. First, a Confederate peace envoy is offering to cease hostilities if slavery can be retained in some form; news of this will likely erode support for the proposed amendment. Second, his party, while maintaining large majorities in Congress, doesn't command two-thirds of the House, and members of the minority Democrats must be won over if the amendment is to pass. Third, his party is hardly united on the amendment; conservatives think it goes to far, radicals think it doesn't go far enough, and none of them like him forcing this on a lame duck Congress. Fourth, Lincoln's own views on slavery and the war have evolved over his first term, and many in Congress and in his own cabinet distrust him as a result.

These struggles are the essence of the American presidency. And the film nicely portrays both the powers and the limitations of the president. It makes the point that should be so obvious but is so rarely portrayed in political films: the president has no direct power over Congress. He is not a member of it, he cannot author bills, he cannot force Congress to consider a bill, and he cannot (despite what the creators of "The Contender" would have you think) demand a roll call vote. The president runs and is elected on an agenda but is largely dependent on Congress to see it through. The film also notes that the president can't dictate to his party: Preston Blair, one of the founders of the Republican Party, makes far more demands on Lincoln than the other way around, and Lincoln basically begs Thaddeus Stevens and the Radicals for their support. And in terms of the president's legal powers, Lincoln himself is shown wrestling with whether his Emancipation Proclamation was actually constitutional or whether it would have any authority in peacetime. He well knew that he was exploring uncharted and potentially dangerous areas of the law and was unclear about his power to do so.

But the president does have other powers, notably the power to make patronage appointments and control the military. He can influence media coverage but can't control it. And while we do see a few examples of the president attempting to personally persuade some members of Congress, it's not clear how effective that is, and this isn't remotely treated as his most important power. (A lesser film would likely have shown the president using his bully pulpit powers, but that would have been both ahistorical and stupid here.)

I'm open to suggestions here, but I have a hard time coming up with another film about the presidency that gets at these core issues of executive limitations and powers. "The Contender" was a joke in this regard. "All the President's Men" is great but is basically about the media. "The American President" is pretty much a romantic comedy. It does show the president struggling with pushing bills through Congress, but largely resorts to magical bully pulpit powers in the end. "Dave" is lighthearted comedy. "Seven Days in May" addresses some of these issues but almost completely ignores Congress. The one film that handles these issues seriously, I think, is "Advise and Consent," which chronicles a president's difficult nomination of a new secretary of state, although much of that film's focus is on the blackmailing of a particular senator rather than on the president, who disappears for much of the film. "West Wing" actually addresses a number of these issues in a serious way, although scattered across many different television episodes.

So I plan to use "Lincoln" in my film class, and I'm grateful for a film that finally deals with the executive branch in all its glory and shortcomings.

[Cross-posted from Mischiefs of Faction]

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Superman II: Kal-El is Horny

In my ongoing efforts to visit the sins of the father on my children, I recently watched "Superman II" with them. While "Superman I" holds up quite well, the second one really doesn't.

For one thing, the effects in "Superman I" were actually quite good. Chris Reeve really does look like he's flying -- it looks effortless and quite natural, with little evidence of green screens or wires or anything else. The effects just weren't as believable in the sequel. But beyond that, the dialogue in the second one is pretty miserable. While Lois once sounded like an ambitious cynic, she now sounds like a naive, lovelorn putz; it's hard to imagine why she's so highly valued as a reporter. Clark/Superman is laden with some pretty cruddy dialogue, as well. Either Terence Stamp and Gene Hackman had better writers, or they just had the acting skills to pull off some pretty silly lines and recognize them for the camp they were.

But one of the things that struck me as particularly weak was Superman's big decision: giving up his super powers for a chance to hook up with Lois. After they confess their love for each other, Superman goes off and has a conversation with a holographic image of his mother, asking her how he can consummate his love with Lois. (Someone's got issues.) She tells him that to be with a mortal, he has to become one, and that this move is irreversible. And he's all, "Where do I sign up?" I mean, I guess this is hardly the first guy to make an important and rash decision just for a chance to get laid, and there's no reason Kryptonian men should be any different from Earth men in this regard, but you'd think he'd have given this just a tad more thought. His powers and responsibilities are pretty important to who he is. I mean, he couldn't have saved Lois' life in the first movie (multiple times!) if not for those super powers. On a more practical level, how the hell do they get out of the North Pole if neither of them can fly? And what the hell are they going to eat?

But he ignores all this, enters the molecule chamber, and has his super powers stripped. He then emerges as a regular human, wearing a clean white shirt and lacking the hair gel. He and Lois hug, and then, literally five seconds later...
Boom. How convenient that he has a king-sized bed in his fortress of solitude. Those crystals are amazing, and surprisingly comfortable. This is a pretty impressive quid pro quo. Clark actually motions toward the bed while still hugging Lois, with the look of a guy who just bought an expensive meal or got a vasectomy and is hankering for some gratitude booty.

Clark also becomes hardly the first guy to pay an extraordinary price for sex and quickly regret it, as the very first human being he meets after they return to society beats the crap out of him. Then the TV shows the president surrendering to General Zod and exhorting Superman to save the world. So the honeymoon ends rather abruptly. And then, most disappointingly, Clark finds that he can still get his superpowers back by building a new fortress. Huh? So could any human do that? And how did he get back there anyway? (Note: this would be even harder today, given the receding polar ice.)

So it ends up being a kind of cheap "Last Temptation of Christ" story, with Superman being offered a chance for worldly pleasures in exchange for his job as savior. Only, unlike Christ, he actually gets the worldly pleasures (for a few minutes, anyway), and then gets to give them up and take his old job back. He gives up his chance for Lois only after he already slept with her. Typical guy.