Tag: battlestar galactica

Pop Culture Narratives in World Politics: A Bleg

I will be on a panel at 1.45pm in Indigo A with the following description:

There has been a growing body of work in world politics that relies on or analyzes fictional narratives. To what extent can cultutal phenomena like Battlestar Galactica or Harry Potter be used as for pedagogical purposes in the classroom? How useful are such narratives as data points to either explicate or substantiate theoretical claims in world politics? This roundtable weighs the costs and benefits of using popular culture narratives inside the classroom and in publications.

Charli Carpenter will be discussing her work on the intersection (PDF) between Battlestar Galactica and real-world politics. I assume that Patrick James will tell us about his forthcoming book on teaching international relations through The Lord of the Rings. I expect that you all can guess what Dan Drezner’s role on the panel will be. I’m not at all sure what Jonathan Cristol will present — perhaps something on Philip K. Dick?

Here’s my question: what should I talk about? I don’t have any interest in revisiting the substance of Harry Potter and International Relations, which leaves four options:

  1. Methods and Methodology. In essence, I could discuss my thinking — six-years on — about the framework Iver Neumann and I developed for HP&IR. If Steve Saideman will allow me to present last, this might be a nice way to close out the disparate panel presentations.
  2. The Hunger Games. My guess is that I would talk about the series from the perspective of the four  approaches to popular culture and politics referenced in the first option.
  3. Interstellar Relations: The Politics of Speculative Fiction. The substance and pedagogy of the class I teach, with ample kudos to PTJ’s influence.
  4. Strange IR: International-Relations Theory as Speculative Fiction. A discussion of a paper idea that PM came up with after we finished a brief comment on whether the nineteenth century was the most important  (.doc) “turning point” in international politics. In brief, why a number of over-the-horizon developments — the “great convergence,” climate change, the end of the “Age of Efflorescence” — might alter the constitutive rules of international politics and how coming to grips with that requires practical science fiction. 

Feedback would be greatly appreciated.


Un-Civil Military Relations

Starbuck’s away and has various guest bloggers filling in at Wings Over Iraq. David Costelloe of Never Felt Better is among them, and his latest post is one more for my dataset on BSG analogies in Egypt commentary.

In particular Costelloe argues Egypt can learn from the flaws in Colonel Saul Tigh‘s character and the absence of civilian supremacy it represents:

Let’s break it down. He shows hesitance when handed some responsibility during a crisis, at the cost of lives (mini-series). He displays open contempt of the government in public (Colonial Day). He is the lead officer in the actual coup of the government (Kobal’s Last Gleaming). When he is thrust into command, he loses the fleet (Scattered), nearly loses the Galactica to a Cylon boarding party (Valley of Darkness), utterly botches a crowd control operation resulting in civilian deaths (Resistance), openly taunts the imprisoned President in front of the government (Fragged) and basically takes orders from his wife.

He assaults a member of the media who is interviewing him (Final Cut). He later attempts to rig the Presidential Election in favour of Roslin (Lay Down Your Burdens). He takes the lead in a Kangaroo court that murders several people in the aftermath of the New Caprica escape (Collaborators). He begins to stir discontent among the crew (Torn). Despite being the XO, he ends up secluding himself in a drunken stupor that borders on a mental breakdown (Hero). He gives evidence at the trial of Baltar in a clearly drunk state (Crossroads). He hides his true nature as a Cylon from Adama and the government (“He That Belivith In Me”). He engages in an extremely inappropriate relationship with a Cylon prisoner, resulting in her pregnancy (Sine Que Non).

Oh, and of course, the drinking. Tigh is frequently drunk on duty and openly drunk off duty, resulting in a snappish attitude and disrespect towards fellow officers and crewmen.

Now, anyone of those things should be a dealbreaker. Tigh is a fairly appalling officer, his brief moments of competence not really making up for all of the above.

But the problem is that the Fleet is a sham-democracy, one that is fully under the thrall of the military. Roslin, despite being the Commander-in-Chief (unelected), hasn’t anywhere near the power to actually effect any change aboard the Galactica. When it comes to military matters, she is, by and large, a rubber stamp. William Gladstone said, on being a state leader “One must be a good butcher”. Perhaps the most well regarded President in history, Abraham Lincoln, was famous for replacing incompetent and ineffectual commanding officers. Laura Roslin is not Lincoln, and does not have the power to be.

…The Fleet is not a free society, it’s a military oligarchy.

Now I agree with nearly everything in his description of Tigh, and I agree Egypt has much to figure out as it configures its unique brand of civil-military relations, but I don’t agree this means the show as a whole argues for a military oligarchy rather than civilian rule. In fact, I’ve argued the opposite in a recent working paper. But what’s really interesting is that David Costelloe himself implicitly argues the opposite in an earlier post, accurately casting the Pegasus as a narrative device to illustrate the counter-factual in which Adama abandons Roslin and the fleet at Ragnar – the pivotal moment in the mini-series that I argue lays the foundation for the civilian-protection narrative that underpins the entire show:

It all goes back to the Ragnar choice. In the mini-series, Adama faces the choice of staying and fighting a hopeless war against the Cylons or running with what little of humanity is left. Pegasus, under Cain, faces the same choice. Adama chooses to run and Cain stays.

The difference is the presence of a civilian authority, in the form of Laura Roslin, who steers Adama away from the military choice. She doesn’t order him, it should be noted, but she convinces him the fight isn’t worth fighting. Galactica runs.

Pegasus stays and is an authority unto itself, lacking any kind of civilian control. In that way, Cain becomes God – in the fleet, the command is split, while in Pegasus it becomes committed to one person.

This dictator becomes anathema to the ideals of the Colonies (more or less the ideals of the United States) by running her ship like a madhouse with no responsibility: launching crazy attacks, executing her XO in front of the crew, abusing a prisoner. Galactica, on the other hand, has a civilian authority and the responsibility of a civilian fleet, to be a check and balance on any of its activities.

Well, which is it? I suspect that part of the problem is here is the narrative of civilian supremacy that Costelloe has bought into, one which assumes that civilian power unexercised signals civilian powerlessness. In his post, Costelloe repeatedly mentions the sack of McChrystal (and drubbing of generals by Lincoln) as examples of civilian supremacy rightly executed, but there’s an important difference between those events: Lincoln fired generals for incompetence, Obama fired a competent general for allowing his subordinates to vent about the civilian administration. I continue to believe this act was not only unnecessary but also a sign of Obama’s weakness, not strength, as a Commander-in-Chief.

By contrast, the civilian government on BSG stands up to military convention when necessary to protect the civilian fleet (what better example than the decision to assassinate Cain?) but doesn’t sweat the small stuff. This is consistent with the particular civil-military bargain struck between Roslin and Adama at the start of the series. I don’t agree with each decision or indecision myself, but I am not convinced that because the civilian government treats the military as a partner rather than a true subordinate on the show that this means BSG portrays a ‘military oligarchy.’

Instead, we may need to think past the civilian supremacy / military rule dichotomy to look at the variety of civil-military governance structures possible given the different circumstances in which states find themselves. In fact some of the more recent scholarship on civil-military relations argues precisely this.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


“Also, It Turns Out Mubarak is a Cylon.” #BSG #Egypt @RT “So Say We All!”

I was fascinated to learn while working on my Battlestar Galactica “research project” that Adama’s quote from the scene above was floating around the Internet for some time during the Egyptian Revolution. The statement “This quote now applicable to Egypt” appeared in a Reddit thread, was reposted on at least one Facebook site, quickly attracting 6,000 likes and over 1800 comments, while like-minded tweets exploded across cyberspace. This one was featured at the Huffington post:Here are some other fun examples.

The book editors for whom we’re developing this working paper asked us to look at the “intertext” between the series and political understandings in the actual world, so for our paper it was sufficient to acknowledge this phenomena.

But as a qualitative analyst I decided to take a closer, more systematic look at a sample of these comments and tweets. I was interested in the extent to which BSG metaphors engendered useful political commentary on civil-military relations – precisely what you would hope if Jutta Weldes is correct in arguing that “state action is made common-sensical through popular culture.”

I discovered something more nuanced: the answer to that question seems to depend greatly on which new media tool the data came from.

The pie charts you see below are the results of myself and a student assistant coding tweets and comments for these attributes, disaggregated by source. We analyzed comments from three sources: Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. The Reddit and Facebook comments were easy enough to capture with a little technical help – thanks Alex.

Tweets were trickier because Google doesn’t index them. Luckily my partner Stuart Shulman has invented a tool for capturing live Twitter feeds, and he happens to be sitting on a searchable archive of over a million tweets from #Cairo and #Egypt. We used his tool, DiscoverText, to search those tweets for the keywords “BSG” “Battlestar” “Galactica” and “Adama” and got back a small but interesting set of results to combine with the Reddit and Facebook comments.

DiscoverText also allows you to tag and sift through text data you gather, so last weekend we went through a total of 77 tweets, 383 Reddit comments and 966 unique Facebook comments. (The FB page says there are 1800 or so, but a lot of them are duplicates. Fortunately DiscoverText also contains a de-duping tool so we were able to eliminate those entirely.)

You can see a couple of things right away. First, you find less diversity among the tweets: they basically fall into just four code categories, whereas the range of commentary in the FB and Redidt threads is wider. But secondly, the tweets and FB comments share something in common: they are primarily composed of mindless validations of the original quote, whereas the Reddit thread contains many more original, substantive comments and even discussion.

In other words, as this bar chart makes a little clearer, the social media reaction to this quote was to retweets or write “so say we all” – similar to the practice of clicking on a form letter to a Congressperson rather than writing an original substantive remark about a political issue. However, on the Reddit thread, commenters were not only more likely to point out that it’s not clear how applicable the quote is to Egypt, but also more likely to use the quote as a jumping off point to broader discussions of Egypt, of civil-military relations, of the nuances of Adama’s messaging – in other words, far more of these were “original comments” generating discussion among commenters, rather than simple validations of the original poster’s argument. That’s pretty interesting, especially given recent claims that blogs and blog commenting are going the way of the dinosaur in favor of social media as a platform for deliberative discourse.

DiscoverText also makes it easy to drill down into specific categories of text. Of the truly original, deliberative comments (for example), you can see some interesting conversations develop. As noted, in contrast to the mindless re-tweeters, the more critical thinkers argued over the applicability of the quote to the situation in Egypt.

Not sure how this applies to Egypt since they have a separate military and police. Which, coincidentally, the military has sided with the people while the police remain loyal to Mubarak. Cool quote but nothing to do with Egypt

This quote doesn’t apply to Egypt in any way. The military forces in Egypt are mostly staffed by conscription, with mandatory service of 1-3 years for citizens (3 if you’re uneducated, 2 w/ high school degree, 1 with college degree).The protesters are cheering “We want the Army! We want the Army!” because, guess what, they are the Army.

I suggest you re-read what Adama is saying. If you think this is about “hailing the police” you are way off. Adama’s point is that there has to be a balance in the state separation of forces. That is the only thing saving the egyptians as the military appear to be unwilling to crack down on the protesters.

This led to two sets of wider conversations, one about Egypt:

The people distrust, resent and hate the police due to decades of corruption, violence and abuse of power. They have no such feelings about the military and largely regard them to be impartial, helpful and for the people. Unfortunately since Mubarak’s inflammatory speech it seems the military are actually still backing him and have also managed to position themselves very well amongst the crowds.

I think the top military commanders are being very cautious at this point just like all the Western governments because so much is up in the air. If they choose the losing side, they might pay with their lives. If the western governments choose the losing side, they might make an enemy of a very powerful player in their regional interests (Israel, Iran, etc.) and with control over the flow of oil (Suez Canal).

Better the devil we know in the current regime, a transition to full democracy will allow the popular fundamentalist Brotherhood terror group to take power. ‘I prefer to deal with the probable’ (Commander Helena Cain). This is not clear cut….. don’t be fooled like the 12 colonies.

… and one about civil-military relations.

It’s very poetic, but I think the real distinction isn’t so much about between fighting enemies and serving the people. Both in theory are actually doing that. The difference is more in the nature of the enemy: The military fights external enemies, the police, the internal enemies.

The purpose of the police has never been to serve or protect the people. They are and have always been a means by which the state can impose its will on the people. This is clear simply by reading the writings of the elites who control the state — they admit it freely. The modern myth that the police are somehow the noble champions of justice for the little man can be shattered by merely being black, or a woman, or transexual, or gay, or any other minority.

The military is expected to protect the physical borders, the police to protect agreed upon immaterial borders within the physical borders. When these rather orthogonal causes are mixed, then it’s likely you will hit a border whatever you do, then the state has become your enemy, despite both the military and the police are employed by you, the citizen.

Alternatively, some commenters discussed the origin of the quote itself, and some got off on tangents about the nature of Cylon resurrection, the value of BSG relative to Star Trek or Firefly, or how to quantify the exact nerd quotient on display in the comment thread. But the most interesting arguments to me (and perhaps to Iver Neumann and Nicholas Kiersey, who are running the BSG project) were the ones where people bickered over whether the notion of BSG as an “intertext” was valid at all: do science fiction shows as parables really help us understand real-world politics or do they merely distract?

Some quotes that received the code “It’s Just A Show”:

CLEARLY some of you losers desperately need to get a life…. or at the very least serious help from a mental health professional….. HE IS A FICTIONAL CHARACTER IN A TELEVISION SERIES NOTHING MORE..

What a load of absolute horseshit. Go and actually read about what is happening in Egypt instead of wasting your time with stuff like this.

Battlestar Galactica quotes are inappropriate for deadly-serious, real life sitatuations.

It’s must easier to accept platitudes and pop culture references than it is to think critically.

Some quotes that received the code “BSG <> World Politics”:

This is why the series was so great. It was one of the few sci-fi shows that truly reflected and touched on relevant ideas and issues of our day.

Almost every good scifi I’ve known takes real-world problems, and puts them into another light so you can look at them differently, and possibly see something entirely new. It can offer an incredible commentary on many aspects of society.

So Say We All :) … It doesn’t matter what genre or if this statement is from a real world instance- it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold truth! And to one of the above posters- if you cannot see Cmdr. Adama’s words (however fictious) is a perfect example of what is happening in the real world- then YOU need to get a life!

I’m not sure where readers come down in this debate, but I will say that in the paper we describe a variety of ways in which shows like BSG function to mediate real-world socio-political relations: drawing on, reflecting and structuring civil-military debates, serving as a social lubricant for human security discussions across the civil-military divide, and even problematizing certain sacred cows in human security discourse. [H/T to Jason Sigger for pointing me to this exchange and this one, for example.] As we ended up arguing in the article:

“These real-world conversations – whether about US military affairs, Middle Eastern revolutions, or just warrioring – are at times infused with Battlestar Galactica references, demonstrating the show’s relevance to deliberative discourse about the civil-military relationship…”

But just how deliberative may depend on the context.

Replication data for this study is available at the Dataverse Project. Comments on our working draft are very welcome.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


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