No More Foreign Policy Debates

There will be debates about foreign policy, of course, but the sad spectacle of the last presidential debate of 2012 suggests that the idea of a presidential debate dedicated to foreign policy has officially reached the point of diminishing returns.

By my rough estimate, the two candidates used more than one quarter of debate time to talk about domestic economic policy.  At least half of the remaining time was spent agreeing on broad foreign policy points — Drones are good! Israel is our friend! Let’s withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014! — and the remaining half was used to debate Governor Romney’s assertion that his foreign policy would be the same as Obama’s, only better.  (And both of them would have basically the same foreign policy as George W. Bush.)

The particulars of this debate were not the problem.  No, the problem lies in the substance.  The candidates continually veered back to domestic policy because, as the bank robber Willy Sutton allegedly said, that’s where the money is.  Voters care about foreign policy when we are attacked, e.g. September 11th, and they care when war weariness is an issue, e.g. the final years of the war in Iraq.  But even in these cases they can only care so much.

Obama’s victory in the debate was preordained after a fashion.  An incumbent president enters into every foreign policy debate with a distinct advantage, since it is unlikely that his or her opponent has actually crafted foreign policy, and if they have, it is also unlikely that they did so recently.  (An exception to this rule would’ve been a debate between President Obama and Ambassador Huntsman, but the stars were not in the ambassador’s favor.)  Few expected Governor Romney to win.  That said, it is not because of fairness to a challenger that the foreign policy debate should be scrapped.

The numbers and press reports tell us a clear story, which is that voters don’t make up their minds based on foreign policy.  And the candidates oblige us.  When, for instance, was the last time Vice President Biden was as substantive on foreign policy as Senator Biden had consistently been?  (Let us set aside, for the moment, that Senator Biden was considerably to the left of Vice President Biden on foreign policy.)  And it was not a mark of weakness nor an admission of defeat for Governor Romney to conclude the “foreign policy” debate with remarks that were 80% domestic policy and 20% fluff about peace.  Those remarks were planned, not spontaneous.  It was Romney’s silent admission that the the foreign policy debate is useless.

Unfortunately, the first camp to declare the foreign policy debate obsolete and call for changes will be attacked for not caring about foreign policy.  The current debate system locks both parties into a kind of mutually assured destruction, which means only an outside group, such as the Commission on Presidential Debates or another independent voice, could get momentum moving on changing the structure of US presidential debates.

If the foreign policy debate really does get scrapped for the 2016 election, what should take its place?  One of my personal thought experiments wound up getting independently mirrored as a Tweet today:

A four-person debate, with a moderator, would give the vice presidents another chance to shine or falter.   It would illustrate the teamwork and complementary styles of the ticket.  Most importantly, it would allow the candidates to double clothesline the competition.  I kid.  Somewhat.  But we shouldn’t stop there.

We should also consider a final, unmoderated debate, a freewheeling discussion on the issues.  (A timekeeper could help manage the candidates but not offer any questions.)  Without a lifeline or inane questions from a moderator, the candidates would be free to inspire — or disgust — the American people.  It would remove one of the most enervating aspects of the modern presidential debate, the stultifying web of rules and pre-debate agreements which ensure that the two candidates only debate around the margins and suck all of the spontaneity out of the room.  Lastly, it would turn the presidential debate into what it deserves to be — a battle of the wits, not just a battle of the debate coaches.

Our proposed debate schedule looks like this:

  1. Presidential debate on the economy
  2. Vice-presidential debate
  3. Presidential town hall debate
  4. “Tag team” debate
  5. Unmoderated presidential debate

Of course, five debates might seem like a lot to an American public who couldn’t really be bothered to tune into the final debate, but after the primary season and its seemingly endless debates, would it be so bad to have one more debate if it could be a debate that truly mattered?


Avatar’s Political Messages: the Overt and the Hidden

Stuart Staniford has written a compelling post where he compares the politics of James Cameron’s Avatar to the philosophy of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber.  A key — and disturbing — passage:

We put [the Unabomber] in jail because he started killing technologists, stating as his reason that he hated industrial society and wanted to return to a more natural and free state of humanity. He was less successful in the execution than Jake/Trudy/Grace and the Na’vi – who actually succeed in ejecting Parker and Co. from Pandora – but it seems to me that the moral logic is exactly the same.  Nature good, technology bad, violent opposition justified.

So, you might want to stop a minute and ask yourself: how exactly does Cameron get mainstream American audiences to root for the Unabomber side in this conflict?

It’s a good question, but in fact, Avatar is not the first time Cameron has asked viewers to root for terrorists.  Though it predates the Unabomber as a public figure by four years, Cameron’s Terminator 2 is heavily infused with a violent ludditism not unlike Kaczynski’s manifesto.  We come to accept Sarah Connor’s extremism because, in the universe of the film, there really is a future where technology threatens mankind.  But that doesn’t change the fact that her rhetoric and the Unabomber’s rhetoric are cut from the same cloth, in particular when she rants and starts comparing the creators of Skynet to the creators of the atom bomb.

(As an aside, before Cameron was a hypocrite for using cutting-edge technology to make a film attacking technology with Avatar, he was a hypocrite for doing the same thing in Terminator 2.)

Returning to Staniford’s question, how does Cameron get audiences to side with terrorist luddites (or if you want to use an Iraq metaphor, “insurgents”)?  Part of it is because, like Terminator 2, the technological baubles he throws at us are so appealing that most audiences barely think about the plot.  Still another reason is that, for liberal and moderate audiences, the movie is a triumphalist appeal to white guilt.  Triumphalist, because rather than lecturing the protagonist about his racism, it gives him the opportunity to transcend his own racial limitations.  As Annalee Newitz put it in her essay on race in the films Avatar and the much-superior District 9,

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

There’s another side to this which explains incentives for Sully (and the audience).  More than just “peoples of color” or even “noble savages,” the Na’vi are highly idealized and eroticized, presented to us as, in the words of one friend on Twitter, “ten foot blue supermodels.”  Unlike the aliens in District 9, whose appearance and behaviors tend to repulse rather than evoke sympathy, Cameron banks on sexual imagery both to lure in the teenage demographic and to make his messiah tale more palatable.  (This choice was so blatant that Cameron opened himself up to all kinds of parody.)  What if, however, Cameron had made the aliens in Avatar something truly alien, like the jellyfish-like Flouwen in Robert Forward’s Rocheworld, or simply made Eywa herself the only sentient life on the planet?  He could have sidestepped many of the film’s shortcomings, though the end result would’ve been closer to 2001 than any of Cameron’s prior work.*

Despite the film’s politics, Cameron manages to sell us on Avatar with a ton of technology, a feel-good fable, a significant amount of sex, and a dumbed-down New Age religion.  And yet there’s a less-discussed moral aspect of the film that appeals to audiences:  the defense of property rights.  This is perhaps an accidental reading of the movie; Cameron certainly wasn’t out to defend one of the foundations of capitalism when he wrote the script, but the movie invites such comparisons.  Here’s libertarian David Boaz, making the case that Avatar is about eminent domain:

Conservatives rallied to the defense of Susette Kelo when the Pfizer Corp. and the city of New London, Conn., tried to take her land. She was unreasonable too, like the Na’vi. She wasn’t holding out for a better price; she just didn’t want to sell her house. As Jake tells his bosses, “They’re not going to give up their home.”

“Avatar” is like a space opera of the Kelo case, which went to the Supreme Court in 2005. Peaceful people defend their property against outsiders who want it and who have vastly more power. Jake rallies the Na’vi with the stirring cry “And we will show the Sky People that they cannot take whatever they want! And that this is our land!”

I’m sure that some in America will roll their eyes at Boaz.  But here in China, the Avatar-as-defense-of-property rights meme is the dominant view of the film.  Chinese have little interest in Avatar‘s cotton candy pantheism and no white guilt to make them sympathize with native peoples (in fact, had Cameron linked the Na’vi to Tibetans or other minorities, Chinese would have hated the movie), so the sheer spectacle of the film is what drew in Chinese audiences and the economic aspects are what they took away from their viewing.  How else to explain the apparent victim of an illegal demolition who hoists a banner above his half-smashed home, telling people that the lesson of Avatar is “to defend your home to your death!”

* Save perhaps for The Abyss, which presents us with “aliens” that are fantastically different from us, though at times sickeningly cute.