The Duck of Minerva

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BREAKING NEWS: Brian Ratbun Exposed As Secret Mastermind Behind Recent Rockumentary; USC Concerned About Contract Violation, Mental Health

February 5, 2012


“All the fake news that’s fit to print.”

— Los Angeles*

A political science professor at University of Southern California came under fire this week for the role he may have played behind-the-scenes on a recent documentary about the heavy metal band Metallica. Administrators at the university are investigating whether Professor Brian Christopher Rathbun’s participation in the project may have violated rules permitting faculty to consult no more than one day a week on projects outside the university.

The film in question, Some Kind of Monster, is described by Rotten Tomatoes as

“a documentary about rock stars in therapy… the band works through difficulties in group dynamics, personal demons, and relationship issues.”

Although the film portrays the supposed relationship between Metallica and psychologist Phil Towle (who they hire to help work out some group tensions during the making of their album St. Anger), Rathbun is alleged to have convinced the producers to invent this storyline to make the documentary more appealing to 80s-era metal-heads who are now themselves raising children and struggling with identity issues.

An anonymous source formerly associated with the production process on the documentary corroborated this story in an exclusive interview to the Canard:

“We were originally going to just do a film on the history of the band, you know, a concert film. Then Professor Rathbun approached us with the concept of a psychologist who would help former metal icons working through mid-life crises. He said a film like this would resonate with the ‘disillusioned-former-metal-head’ market. It seemed like the perfect angle for the documentary, plus he’s a professor of political psychology specializing in trust, so we went with it.”

Rathbun’s involvement undercover with the film came to light after his recent confession to having been a “metal-head” in high school. The post was read by a former student who contacted the Canard after putting two and two together, recalling Rathbun’s near-obsessive interest in the documentary and his frequent Metallica references in an international relations class she took with him in 2005.

“He knew a lot about metal, about Metallica and about the film, which was kind of hot. When I saw the film, and how it was about a psychologist helping the band through a mid-life crisis, I sort of connected the dots, you know, between Prof Rathbun, metal and psychology theories. Then when I noticed the ‘consultants’ in the credits, I realized that he was probably just working under a pseudonym, probably to avoid getting in trouble with his department for taking on extra-curricular activities. But he’s tenured now, so…”

Although the Canard has not been able to reach Rathbun for comment, colleagues in his department spoke anonymously about his potential motivations in working on the film.

“He’s always loved the metal subculture, students say he plays Iron Sabbath or whatnot at the start of every IR class, and he has a gift for seeing the connection between culture and politics. But I think this was also about doing something edgy and pop-cultury as a social scientist without attracting the nerd label. So many IR types who study pop culture just deal with geeky topics like sci-fi. I think it was really important to Brian to engage with this kind of subject matter in a way that avoided that kind of label and that kind of crowd.”

Indeed this view is consistent with Rathbun’s own recent blog posts on the subject, in which he both described his mid-life angst over his heavy metal past and reiterated his radical anti-nerd agenda.

“I am not a nerd. I have tried to make this abundantly clear. My anti-nerdishness in high school expressed itself much differently – I was a metal-head… We didn’t like you and you didn’t like us. Don’t pretend otherwise. There were 1800 people in my high school and a total of 20 owned the “Blizzard of Ozz.” If you don’t know what that is, you have proved my point. Now go play your Duran Duran albums and get out of my face. NEEERRRRDDDDSSSSS!”

Sociologists, however, counter the idea that nerds and metalheads are actually distinct and oppositional subcultures. According to Dr. Aya Nohsalot, Associate Professor of Adolescent Sociology at Trewth University, nerds and metal-heads are birds of a feather:

“In fact members of both groups share a common lack of conformity and disregard for the social norms of more popular peers.”

Though Nohsalot’s research on this topic is as yet unpublished, evidence abounds on the Internets to support her theory. The Urban Dictionary’s definitions for “metal-head” (persons who ‘tend to have a powerful dislike towards the close-minded and mainstream’) are similar to “nerd” (a person who does not conform to society’s beliefs that all people should follow trends and do what their peers do). Uncyclopedia also describes “progressive metal-heads” as “typically tall, skinny, white and usually long haired and extreemly nerdy” [typo in original]. “Nerd/Metalhead” is also a specific social category in itself one can achieve by answering certain questions on an online quiz. And according to the popular Facebook page “Metalhead Nerds”:

“Metal and being a Nerd goes together like Han Solo and Leia. Being a Nerd is like a nice cake frosting on top of death.”

Hence, as an avowed metal-head, Rathbun’s anti-nerdism is puzzling to some. Noted IR scholar, former metal-head and self-identified geek Alex Montgomery, who was recently seen in full Colonial dress at an ISA panel on Battlestar Galactica, commented:

“That’s funny: I, too, had a mullet in high school and my music was later used by PsyOps teams to torture Iraqi POWs, but some of my best friends are nerds.”

One possibility is that Rathbun has been watching too many YouTube videos. But according to Professor Nohsalot, he may instead be suffering from a syndrome identified by Freud by which a person expresses outward hatred toward things they secretly love, but believe are bad. A recent study reported in Psychology Today invokes this theory to explain relatively high rates of sexual arousal to gay porn in homophobic men. (It also explains the particularly virulent anti-cyborgism of Cylons hiding in the Colonial Fleet.) “It’s entirely possible that Rathbun is actually a self-hating in-the-closet nerd, who is projecting his own fears of ostracism on the wider nerd community in order to avoid acknowledging his own inner nerd,” says Nohsalot.

Rathbun’s co-bloggers at the Duck of Minerva find this theory at least plausible. When asked how nerdy Rathbun actually is, Steve Saideman pointed out:

“Well he did join the Duck of Minerva. That says something.”

Charli Carpenter commented:

“It’s true that every time I’ve spoken to Brian he’s been wearing loafers with his collared shirt perfectly pressed and every hair in place, but on the other hand he does watch Game of Thrones…”

Dan Nexon added:

“I’d say his nerd credentials are pretty solid, he just likes to dress well and watch football. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

The Canard caught up with Stephanie Carvin on a transatlantic flight from Britain to Canada and was told over a hot toddy:

“Poor Brian, he’s brilliant but so complex, dark, so tormented. If only he could embrace his own nerdiness. It can’t be easy living in the closet. Too many mothballs.”

It remains unclear whether Rathbun will be able to invoke his psychological condition in his hearing with the University Ethics Board, or how he would score definitively on a “Which Stereotype Are You?” test. One thing is certain however: the world is better for thirty-something former metal fans thanks to this documentary. Rathbun’s co-bloggers have offered to testify on his behalf, if necessary, ‘anti-nerd’ or not; and are reportedly considering an intervention to help him accept his true identity.

*Illustration created by Alexander Montgomery.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.