Sunday, May 3, 2009

Movies, TV and IR Theory, oh my!

Every once in a while, folks tend to focus on the same thing. In this case, there are a few blogs all focused on which movies are the best ones for International Relations scholars/classes. Stephen Walt, Dan Drezner, and the Duck of Minerva considered a variety of movies and their relevance for IR. Below, I note a couple of noticeable omissions and then move on to TV, which these folks almost entirely ignore.

Missing Movies:
  • Perhaps because the Monty Python crew focus more on classical questions of comparative politics, the Holy Grail and Life of Brian are not mentioned. The former does a great job of addressing state building and the sources of political legitimacy. The latter helped clarify for me the politics of the middle east, but also the fissile nature of political mobilization.
  • Kelly's Heroes: The lists by the others above mention a few classic civil-military relations movies, but here is another--that looting is a temptation that may undermine control of the guys on the ground.
Television and IR:
There is much from TV that we can use to illustrate our points and helps to reveal some of the dynamics in play in international relations.
  • One must begin with Star Trek in its various incarnations, especially the classic version, Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine. The classic Trek was hardly subtle about anything, including episodes named "Balance of Terror," "The Doomsday Machine," or "Day of the Dove." Alliance politics, deterrence, arms races, not to mention the question of whether to intervene or not (the Prime Directive was violated on a regular basis), and ethnic conflict all showed up repeatedly. Next Gen addressed the same issues, but with more subtlety. DS9 seemed to be more of a Middle East conflict--refugees, terrorism, occupation, and the like.
  • Babylon 5 was explicitly a space station dedicated to being the UN/Switzerland of the various civilizations. Very interesting alliance politics, explicit efforts at diplomacy, ethnic conflict, etc. Indeed, just as Classic Trek had an episode about ethnic conflict (black/white people vs. white/black people, leading to mutual annihalation), B5 had an episode where this one group of aliens divided every few years randomly by selection of green and purple scarves, providing a very clear example of imagined or invented identities. I would show both in my IR of Ethnic Conflict class because each clearly showed the implications of identity for intervention--do nothing if there is ancient hatred, intervene if identity is invented.
  • The new Battlestar Galatica had many IR-ish elements as well--the aftermath of conquest and genocide; civil-military relations including a good model of a coup attempt in one of the last episodes; and the interaction between civil wars and international conflict (intra-Cylon dynamics affecting Human-Cylon conflict).
  • Lots of stuff the past few years on interactions in the absence of government: Survivor, Deadwood, and the first season or two of Lost. In each, we have a model of anarchy, like international relations, where there is no legimate authority, where competition is relatively unregulated, and where the fittest survive and thrive. But what each demonstrates, particularly the latter two, is there are multiple strategies to survive and thrive under anarchy. Nature shows are also good for demonstrating this specific point.
  • The first couple of seasons of Happy Days--each episode consists of Richie and his father, Howard Cunningham, teaching Fonzie, the most powerful actor in the system (because of his reputed fighting prowess and his keen ability to attract females) the appropriate way to behave. What better demonstration of constructivism's logic of appropriateness?
  • Any other suggestions?


Jonathan Waldman said...

I'm thinking Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot has a place on this list. Something about those fingertip missiles. Now to hulu to confirm...

Anonymous said...

You have successfully stumped me. I am apparently not the expert I thought I was.