Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Asymmetrical Warfare

The Mouse that Roared is a 1959 Cold War comedy starring the greatest performer in the history of the movies, Peter Sellers. Five years before his turn in Dr. Strangelove, this film sees an ad hoc military force from tiny "Fenwick" invade Manhattan and capture a doomsday device. The action bizarrely anticipates both the Cuban Missile Crisis and the challenges of less technologically advanced military foes that still haunt the U.S.

Militarism is ludicrous in The Mouse that Roared. The Fenwick Army does jumping jacks in their chainmail on the poop deck of their one vessel. They shoot arrows at anyone who challenges them. Needless to say, the U.S. does not respond with an effective "counter-insurgency." But beyond the obvious silliness, this film confidently presents war as a profitable deception fought by pawns.

What got me thinking about this movie, though, is the deployment of European troops outside the continent in order to protect an investment (Fenwick invades the U.S. because California's wine industry is threatening their own). This was cheeky and unrealistic from 1959 until now.

A new flavor of military action is taking shape--one that lacks U.S. leadership. Somali pirates seized a huge Saudi oil tanker in November. It becomes clear why this shocked the international community when you see in this clip how little these pirates are working with. And while it's true that the push to combat piracy off the Somali coast has been multilateral, it hasn't been from the U.S.-led NATO. It has been a Franco-British police action, with help from such unlikely military players as Japan and China.

The 100,000 American military troops on European soil mean that the U.S. takes care of much of the defense budget for European countries. But there has been some complicated political pressure for Europe to kick in more resources to NATO. It's complicated because in the zero-sum game of militarism, empowering others means you yourself are weaker.

One small tip in the balance of power was the deployment to Macedonia of the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF) in 2002. The ERRF consists of 60,000 on-call soliders from the national armies of the member states. It's a sort of Euro-SWAT team, that could theoretically deliver bandits back to a theoretically-functioning Somali government.

This is not the return of Napoleon. But maybe at least we won't see any more comedies about the U.S. army humiliated by "a bunch of fifteenth century Europeans."

Monday, December 29, 2008

Two Dead Curmudgeons

Samuel Huntington is dead at 81.

Huntington is most famous for his mistrust of multiculturalism. In his "Clash of Civilizations?" essay, monolithic cultural blocs hurtle toward each other and unavoidably result in mass murder. These cultures include Latin American, Islamic, Hindu, Japanese, "African," "Orthodox," "Western," and, vaguest of all, "Sinic," a blanket term for Korean, Chinese and Southeast Asian.

Of course, as this obituary in the Times of India points out, the most important thing to grasp about "the Islamic world" is that it is not uniform. Senegal, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Turkey cannot be said to share the same culture. No one uses the term "Christendom" anymore for the same reason.

In his book The Third Wave, Huntington attacks Confucian and Islamic heritages, characterizing them as inherently anti-democratic. In "Who Are We?" he uses the baffling term "ampersands" to describe American citizens with backgrounds that aren't completely WASP-ish.

Huntington believed that an empowered developing world could only lead to the disintegration of "American values." His pessimism found its full flower in The Clash of Civilizations? a warning of the imminent dissolution of America due to the Hispanic immigration wave.

In the 21st century, democracy will be pluralistic and inclusive, and will not live or die on the criterion of total national solidarity. America, as well as the unified Europe, will find strength in ideological diversity rather than uniform patriotism. Huntington did not understand this.

Here I pass the mic to the eminent Louis Menand:

...If the world is becoming more porous, more transnational, more tuned to the same economic, social, and informational frequency—if the globe is more global, which means more Americanized—then the need for national cultural homogeneity is lesser, not greater. The stronger societies will be the more cosmopolitan ones.

Perhaps this sounds like sentimental internationalism. Let’s be cynical, then. The people who determine international relations are the political, business, and opinion élites, not the populace. It is overwhelmingly in the interest of those élites today to adapt to an internationalist environment, and they exert a virtually monopolistic control over information, surveillance, and the means of force. People talk about the Internet as a revolutionary populist medium, but the Internet is essentially a marketing tool. They talk about terrorist groups as representatives of a civilization opposed to the West, but most terrorists are dissidents from the civilization they pretend to be fighting for. What this kind of talk mostly reveals is the nonexistence of any genuine alternative to modernization and Westernization. During the past fifty years, the world has undergone two processes. One is de-Stalinization, and the other is decolonization. The second is proving to be much more complicated than the first, and this is because the stamp of the West is all over the rest of the world, and the rest of the world is now putting its stamp on the West. There are no aboriginal civilizations to return to. You can regret the mess, but it’s too late to put the colors back in their jars.

And why isn’t internationalism, as a number of writers have recently argued, a powerful resource for Americans? The United States doesn’t have an exclusive interest in opposing and containing the forces of intolerance, superstition, and fanaticism; the whole world has an interest in opposing and containing those things. On September 12, 2001, the world was with us. Because of our government’s mad conviction that it was our way of life that was under attack, not the way of life of civilized human beings everywhere, and that only we knew what was best to do about it, we squandered our chance to be with the world. The observation is now so obvious as to be banal. That does not make it less painful.

Harold Pinter is dead at 78.

Where Huntington challenged the consensus of Western multiculturalism from the misguided American right, Pinter attacked Western power from the humorless British left. Imagine Samuel Beckett, but bleaker.

The London playwright turned out modern plays rife with uncomfortable pauses, profanity, and a wide streak of misanthropy. But he became better known for his political positions. Pinter opposed bombing in Serbia in 1999 and in Afghanistan in 2001. He supported Fidel Castro and Slobodan Milosevic. Pinter was a dedicated anti-American, and when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, critics alleged corruption and narrow-minded Eurocentrism.

More than any other playwright Pinter's work best illustrates Claude Levi-Strauss' complaint about modern theater: that it feels like "witnessing a domestic argument which has nothing to do with me."

Here's an excerpt of Pinter's scintillating verse:

The lights glow.
What will happen next?

Night has fallen.
The rain stops.
What will happen next?


Here they go again,
The Yanks in their armored parade
Chanting their ballads of joy
As they gallop across the big world
Praising America's God.

In this Al Jazeera interview, it is evident that the gravelly old man had courage. But nowhere does radicalism appear less fun than it does in the work of Harold Pinter.

The Art of Being Tintin

My family's obsession with Tintin began early when Santa Claus left my brother a copy of The Black Island. Inside the large hardback comic book, the generically European boy reporter dons a kilt and outfoxes both a crime syndicate and a huge gorilla on the craggy Scottish coast. As a gambit to induce my brother to love reading, Tintin was a success, but today he is more likely to do Tintin stuff (scramble over fences, tackle evildoers, stow away on steamships) than he is to read about Tintin stuff.

The distinctively post-World War II series of adventure comics is poised to crossover into the English-speaking world. Commercial moviemaking's two heaviest heavies have promised to turn Tintin into a turgid, American-style trilogy of blockbusters.

This defies reason. There is no more European hero than Tintin. He's an intellectual given to feats of derring-do. His jaunts into the wide world lead him into ancient and insoluble enigmas, but through a balance of patience and guile he arrives at solutions.

Tintin can travel to the moon but his adventures leave no trace. He's not engaged in nation-building or altering the course of history. This is exactly as post-colonial Europe imagines its role in the world: a polite and quite selfless crusader for the greater good. The militaristic fulminations of Tintin's friend Captain Haddock contrast sharply with the hero's carefully considered actions. Haddock always ends up an ineffectual clown.

Although the very visual and action-oriented medium of comics theoretically lends itself to cinematic interpretation, Tintin has until now resisted the movies (mostly). This mediocre animated version offers some clues as to why. Notice how uncomfortable the lad is after knocking the chessboard over at 2:50. This is a hero who hates being disruptive. Also, Tintin doesn't have an acquisitive bone in his body: he never gets the girl, and he never reaps a reward from all the good work he does. Indiana Jones, he is not.

The characters are another reason why Tintin works best inside little rectangles on a page. They are both rich and one-dimensional. The countenances of General Alcazar or Nestor the butler at Marlinspike Hall are distinctive and instantly recognizable, but the hero himself seems to have no psychological complexity. He barely even has a face. It's hard to imagine actors bringing these characters to life. The filmmakers' avowed approach of "photorealistic animation" seems to skirt the issue.

Tintinology is a rich vein of cultural criticism on the continent, as analyzed as any bit of postwar literature. But only recently has the discussion moved into English, with the publication of Tintin and the Secret of Literature, by Tom McCarthy. In the book-length essay, McCarthy weighs the literary merit of the series by "unleashing the arsenal of post-modern literary criticism."

It is taken for granted in Tintin's homeland of Belgium that comics are an art form of serious importance. Brussels' best highbrow comic shop is even called Le Neuvieme Art in deference to the medium. In the English-speaking world where Tintin is less of a phenomenon, and "graphic novels" are a fairly new innovation, the a defense of comics still feels bold.

McCarthy finds that if Tintin is not literature, then he's better than literature, or at least more fun. Since each page was published serially, the narratives are shot through with cliffhangers. The settings all sparkle, alternately with domesticity and exoticism. And how many geopolitical murder mysteries do kids and adults enjoy with the same level of enthusiasm?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Toward a Euroculture Pt. 2

Everybody wants to live in the Europe of the Eurovision Song Contest. It's garish, arbitrary, democratic, and sexy.

The contest is the most successful of the European Movement's efforts to introduce the concept of Europa über alles into popular culture. Europe Day, on May 9, is not as celebrated as the various national holidays. But on the second to last Saturday in May, the Eurovision Song Contest draws millions of viewers from across the continent, who phone in their votes for best cheesy song.

Frenchman Marcel Baison created the first contest in 1956. A Europe-wide celebration of televised pop music could help to forge a continental identity, but it was also a marketing opportunity. For a while there were language restrictions in order to preserve some idea of authenticity, but these concerns have been dropped. Also, there are no nationality requirements, so it was perfectly fine for Canadian Celine Dion to win for Switzerland in 1988.

Acts have recently tended toward the ridiculous in order to distinguish themselves. Fifty-one countries have participated at least once, stretching far beyond Europe's geographical borders. Special priority, though, is given to the four countries who pony up the most money for the event: the UK, Spain, Germany and France.

The sound of Europop emerged in 1974 with the triumph of ABBA's "Waterloo." On the first morning of my last trip to Paris, I heard this song as I woke up jet-lagged in a youth hostel in the 15th arrondissement. This is as good a candidate for a European anthem as "Ode to Joy." It commemorates the end of European unity through militarism and announces a surrender to the binding forces of love.

Last year, with the event scheduled to broadcast from Belgrade, riots swept the Serbian capital following Kosovo's declaration of independence. But the event prevailed, with beefed up security for the Albanian, Israeli and Croatian delegations. The contest went off without incident, and Russia's Dima Bilan took home the prize with an earnest-but-animated rendition of "Believe." Maybe trashy pop music can function as a panacea.

2009's event will take place in Moscow, in keeping with the custom that the previous winner's home country gets to host the contest. This presents problems, and not just monetary ones, since the resurgent Russia has criticized NATO presence in its midst and apparently will not consider membership in the European Union. The proceedings this year will emit a miasma of geopolitical intrigue that is sure to heighten interest.

Only soccer tournaments can claim the sort of supranational appeal that Eurovision does. It's the closest that the one billion Europeans have come to cultural communion. Of course, culture will follow economics. When financial borders have been as permeable as they are today for a whole generation, then a sort of European identity may emerge.

Toward a Euroculture Pt. 1

Attempts at codifying a borderless, streamlined Europe have usually been heavy-handed. Like Esperanto, which is a beautiful idea on paper, learning tools like The Raspberry Ice Cream War tend not to inspire actual Europeans. They would rather not have their identities molded for them.

The Raspberry Ice Cream War: A Comic for Young People on a Peaceful Europe without Borders was a minor scandal upon its release in 1998. In it, three children of ambiguous nationality are whisked back to the "Dark Ages," when Europe was a maelstrom of warfare and customs headaches. One of our heroes enlightens a medieval king:

...there are no borders anymore and the governments put their heads together to decide what's best for everyone can go anywhere you want, work, study, buy things, go on holiday....

A pretty succinct description of a consumerist paradise. But would you really want to live there?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Content's Dark Ages

In October, Occidents Will Happen sent a very lucky correspondent to the oXcars, a copyleft festival in Barcelona. Exgae, the host of the festival, is an organization dedicated to reforming intellectual property laws.

The downloading community in Europe and elsewhere is united in resisting the suffocating system of strict copyright. In the digital age, information can no longer be considered a commodity, and so authors cannot really be proprietors of their work in the way that a hen is the proprietor of her eggs. The internet means that sharing is required of all content, and we are all the richer for it.

Los Piratas Son Los Padres is the booklet that Exgae released to coincide with the oXcars, and here is a translation of just one taste of the funny, radical, and deeply humanistic work that they do.

The Dark Ages: A General History

by Josianito

Halfway through the 21st century, the copyright protection of authors over their work was extended in perpetuity.

The content industry then decided to secure its market position by impeding new competitors, and thus gain infinite profits. For this to happen, no more authors could exist.

The abolition of the concept of “original creation” came about at the end of the 22nd century.

The action of juxtaposing different past authors’ works was called “combination.” Every person had the right to combine, but they always paid for it. There always existed a past author that held exploitation rights. If there were no trustees, then profits went to one government or other, depending on the nationality of the author. The people who made combinations were known as “combiners.”

All human culture had been painstakingly registered and digitized. Every completed combination was processed by an analysis of sophisticated algorithms that identified the correct proportions of original content and assigned percentages of profits to the original creators.

Writing thus became a hobby of the rich. As for popular culture, only haiku survived (easy to record and transmit verbally).

The classics all entered the commodities market and the prices at which they traded signified the fashion of the times. The Bible, Shakespeare and the Beatles became secure investments, the equivalents to gold in the raw materials trade.

The great crisis of the 23rd century came about when documents were unearthed which demonstrated that “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym under which many authors wrote. The impossibility of correctly identifying the author of his work shattered the confidence of the content industry, and its shareholders fell into penury. To avoid future crises of confidence (the attribution of other classics was also in question), the combination of works before 1923 was prohibited.

The Dark Ages ended after the Galileo Trial. The brilliant lawyer May Terr criticized the commercial exploitation of the Bible, arguing that the text was divinely inspired, and thus had no human authorship. The lack of any document signing over the rights to Peter, nor to the Roman Apostolic Church (the possessor at the time of exploitation rights), made piracy legal.

This decision brought about the greatest economic crisis in history. The stock market price and the combination system were suspended. God was called upon, but he didn’t show up. Finally, under careful analysis all texts were attributed to God, although subsequent testing cast doubt on the existence of the Author. After a thirty year trial, the judge decreed that God did not exist (His having not shown up was a decisive factor), and so all previous decisions were null and void.

And afterward the entire content industry went bankrupt.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Financial Crisis Roundup

It has not fallen to the intrepid staff of Occidents Will Happen to inform the general reader about the global financial meltdown. You know all about it already. But here are a few interesting perspectives anyway:

Iceland has suffered the collapse of its banking system, but on the bright side, they're the happiest people in the world. John Carlin attributes the honor to its roots as a pagan culture, the empowerment of women, social acceptance of nontraditional families, and hot sulfurous mineral water for every household...

The flow of capital across middle Europe just got a little faster, but don't make the mistake of thinking that the Swiss are now team players. They just agreed to open their borders and allow traffic through without passport checks. The agreement also means that Switzerland has access to the Schengen Information System, a pan-European database with information on stolen property and missing persons. So, rather than doing away with the border, they have just moved it farther out of the physical realm and into the informational one...

Daniel Gross sends up Thomas Friedman's discredited McDonald's theory of conflict resolution with his new Starbucks theory of international economics. Countries that optimistically overextended themselves in the last few years (Spain, the U.K.) are the hardest hit by recent bad times. They are also the most likely to overcharge for whipped, sugary hot drinks. What more appropriate harbinger of decadent lending practices than the spread of the Seattle-based coffee chain? Billy Childish, in an interview with Ian Svenonius, puts an even finer point on it:

[In England], we don't have any industry anymore. We've got coffee. Frothy coffee with a funny name. Some people serve it and other people drink it. Other than that, we don't have industry. So you can actually divide the western world up into producers of strangely-named cappuccinos, and people who drink it...and I suppose I'm a producer of froth.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Jean-Claude Van Damme's latest film toys with your expectations of a Van Damme film. The Muscles from Brussels has built his career on cheap titillation, but JCVD is no action flick. It's a portrait of the Universal Soldier as a victim and a fraud.

When the body-builder followed Schwarzenegger to Hollywood in the '80s, he began a long series of forgettable action movies that brought him fame if not acclaim. Now he returns to Belgium and plays himself, a star in miserable decline.

When Van Damme stumbles into a bank robbery, the stage is set for his usual heroics: roundhouse kicks, gunplay and innuendo. Instead, extremely long takes and inconsistent punch-landing erode Van Damme's aura of invincibility. The confused, wounded masculinity on display would make even Mickey Rourke blush.

The film's emotional center is Van Damme's awkward, tearful monologue about his life and career. It's an astonishing bit of acting that oscillates between sparkling improvisation and and bungled cue card-reading (Van Damme mispronounces the word "penthouse"). This abrupt binge of self-doubt would have derailed a lesser film, but self-doubt is the very heart of JCVD, and the hope for redemption through ass-kicking vanishes amid the whimpering.

JCVD's treatment of violence contrasts starkly with Hard Target or Death Warrant. Director Mabrouk El-Mechri deconstructs the vengeful, redemptive hero, so ingrained in American cinema, and reveals a quivering mass of insecurity, regret and powerlessness. Van Damme's return to Europe is more than just a geographical shift: the violence in JCVD is senseless and demoralizing, where in a Mel Gibson film it would be an apotheosis.

Europe has been blunt in criticizing America's proclivity for violent intervention. Here, in the crying face of Jean-Claude Van Damme, is European cinema's rebuttal to America's failed military solutions.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lisbon Treaty Redux

The Irish are now remounting an attempt to pass the proposed EU constitution by popular referendum. The first one failed in June 2008. Ireland's notorious flat tax, their abortion ban and their military neutrality were contributing concerns to the last failed referendum.

But of course this is a much larger issue. Every democracy must bear a wearisome bureaucracy. Citizens often find the bureaucracy intrusive, unjust, and impersonal. Just imagine the hostility towards a bureaucracy of bureaucracies, that is, an empowered EU federal government.

The Lisbon Treaty has proposed a reformed European constitution but is far from close to seeing it ratified by all 27 of the EU’s member states. Failing in one state means no constitution anywhere. The first draft, penned by eminent French statesman Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, was rejected by France and the Netherlands in 2005.

“Euroskepticism,” the reluctance to grant more power to the EU, is animated by any number of concerns. Small countries point to the disproportionate power wielded by larger countries: EU member states send anywhere from 6 to 96 MEPs (Members of European Parliament) to Brussels. Euroskeptics have also criticized the expansion of the law-drafting powers of the unelected European Commission.

The Lisbon Treaty would streamline the EU as a decision-making body. Its proposed constitution is a major step towards European unification. Representatives of the EU's 27 member nations signed the agreement in December 2007, but it was only ratified in 18 member states, and of those, only three approved it by referendum rather than parliamentary vote (Spain, Luxembourg, and Romania).

Europe of course has a strong allergic reaction to utopian thinking or final solutions, and so will hem and haw about a stronger EU for a long time. They are far less likely than Americans to be rallied by optimistic rhetoric, and even if the Lisbon Treaty passes, unification will remain a far off dream.