Saturday, May 28, 2005

Oxblog's David Adesnik discusses the interesting question of whether the "Star Wars" saga--and the recently-released Episode III, in particular--is a political allegory, and if so, what lesson can be drawn from it. Apparently, George Lucas himself sees in it echoes of the US military invasion of Iraq, and an answer (of sorts) to the question, "how does a democracy turn itself into a dictatorship?". Others draw the same analogy, but from the opposite side, arguing that the Jedi that Lucas so obviously admires are in fact the real villains of the story.

Well, now that I've finally seen the film, I can say with some confidence that a few of the lines Lucas slipped into the film are intended to express his own rather conventional Hollywood political take on current events. The Jedi and the Senate are said to stand for "democracy" and the Republic, but the Senate is manipulated and eventually controlled by an evil chancellor/emperor, who conjures up a war for political reasons, and uses it to arrogate dictatorial powers to himself. At one point, a prominent female character even gives voice to some vaguely antiwar sentiments that sound more like the naive mumblings of a Hollywood starlet talking about Iraq than the words of a Senator of the Galactic Republic battling a rebel army of androids. The intention is clear, if somewhat jarring, given the tone of the rest of the film.

(Then again, it's hard to call anything "jarring" in a movie with dialogue this stilted, or with plot and characterization this incoherent. For example, Yoda briefly descends at one point into Hollywood-guru Buddhism, urging Anakin to "let go of everything you fear to lose"--not long before slashing people dead left and right with his light saber, apparently out of fear of losing the Republic.)

The political digressions notwithstanding, though, the overall story is completely unrelated to anything so modern and complicated as democracy. In fact, it represents much more conventional legendary fare: the age-old struggle between church and state. The Republic is best considered as a traditional tribal/national federation--think Iroquois Federation, Holy Roman Empire, ancient Israel under the prophets--in which clans, tribes or nations sharing a common religious allegiance agree to manage their conflicts within the framework of their shared traditions. The Jedi are a religious warrior class--think Crusaders, Jihadis, Maccabees, Samurai--whose code includes protection of the existing political order. The emperor is a warrior king--think Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, Genghis Khan, Napoleon--who seeks personally to exercise absolute power over as much territory as possible, and views both religion and traditional tribal politics as a threat to his absolute sovereignty. This type of struggle among religious obligation, tribal loyalties and military ambition probably dates back to the struggle between prehistoric warrior-chieftains and medicine men, runs all the way through the Bible, and infuses numerous famous legends, including, for example, those of Robin Hood and King Arthur.

Of course, none of the parties in this eternal struggle has much to do with modern democracy. All, in fact, depend on undemocratic, or rather pre-democratic, notions of government--theocracy, tribal authoritarianism, or military tyranny. As I've mentioned before, democracy is a highly counterintuitive invention that proves useful, and therefore durable, once it catches on, but actually seems quite odd and implausible before that point. It therefore makes terrible material for a supposedly timeless heroic legend. I suspect that whatever his politics, George Lucas instinctively knew how foolish it would have been to try to build his space-opera mythos around it.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Mark Kleiman points approvingly to public policy professor Michael O'Hare's rather bizarre proposed solution to the problem of music copyright protection: simply have the government pay musicians to create music. The idea is for music makers to allow anyone to record, play, trade, distribute and otherwise use their music--in return for a government subsidy, which would presumably be in proportion to their music's "popularity".

Let us put aside for a moment the enormous temptations to corruption and politicization that would beset any government effort to compensate artists based on their popularity. What purpose is such a scheme even meant to serve? What is the social value of compensating musicians for their popularity, anyway?

Traditionally, the function of intellectual property is to spur creativity. Patents, for instance, create an incentive for inventors to come up with useful inventions, by granting them a limited-term monopoly on their proceeds. By the same token, compensation for the creation of music would presumably have the goal of spurring the creation of new "good" music. How important is that?

One way to answer that question is to look at forms of music where intellectual property is less prominent a factor. Instrumental jazz, for example, is largely a performance art form, with many accomplished players obtaining little compensation from recordings. Those who earn a living from their music do so largely through performance fees--as they presumably would under the proposed government compensation scheme, since their music has little mass appeal.

Now, one could certainly say that instrumental jazz musicians don't work overly hard at creating wildly popular music. After all, their product is appreciated only by a niche audience. But they work very hard indeed to meet their own, and their audience's, definition of quality. And by that standard, they certainly succeed. Few fans in cities with any significant jazz audience find themselves bereft of good jazz musicians to listen to. And the top musicians tour constantly all over the country, bringing their music to clubs even in relatively obscure locales.

Why, then, would we expect musicians who produce popular music not to do the same? After all, their music isn't any harder to create than jazz. Their concert revenues would almost certainly be larger than that of jazz musicians. And they would have an additional incentive--great fame and widespread adulation--that jazz musicians can never realistically hope for.

Of course, most of the money earned today as a result of intellectual property rights to music goes into music marketing anyway, not music creation. And perhaps music marketers would work less hard under a regime in which music is not granted intellectual property rights. Is that really such a bad thing?

Monday, May 16, 2005

There's no question that Newsweek's now-retracted Koran-in-the-toilet story was a journalistic fiasco. But numerous commentators have made two assertions with which I must sharply disagree:

  • Newsweek's mistake was so egregious because its article accused America of a heinous act; and

  • Newsweek is responsible for the rioting, and resulting deaths, that followed its publication of the false story.

  • Let's deal with the second point first. Even if the riots really were provoked by nothing more than the Newsweek article, Newsweek can hardly be held responsible for the violent acts of others who happened to have read mistaken reports in their magazine. But in fact, there's every reason to believe that a murderous mob stirred up in response to a Newsweek article would have been happy to have been stirred up by just about any convenient pretext. Indeed, there's ample precedent for Islamist riots responding to completely false reports generated by untrustworthy sources. Often, these riots are carefully planned and prepared for reasons that have nothing to do with the ostensible provocation, and there are plausible claims that this one, too, falls into that category. Under the circumstances, Newsweek's role in causing these riots was most likely pretty minor.

    As for the supposed horror of flushing a Koran down the toilet--well, all I can say is: if it had been a Bible flushed down the toilet, the Supreme Court would have stepped in by now to prevent the US government from objecting to it. Sure, US interrogators flushing a Koran down a toilet might offend some devout Muslims. But then, interrogating suspected terrorists no doubt offends some devout Muslims, as well. What matters is not whether violent Muslims in Afghanistan object to American interrogation techniques, but rather whether mistreating a Koran is within the bounds of American standards of interrogation--which, after all, includes some fairly harsh treatment of the interrogated prisoners themselves. And while it's hard for me to imagine Koran-flushing actually being a useful technique, neither do I see a compelling reason for excluding it on moral grounds, rioting Afghans notwithstanding.

    Thursday, May 12, 2005

    There's something about procedural rules that brings out the hypocrite in just about everyone. Power Line's Scott Johnson catches distinguished Minnesota politician Walter Mondale succumbing to the temptation, with the support of his local newspaper. Mondale recently published an op-ed defending the Senate filibuster, now under attack by Republicans frustrated over their inability to confirm Bush administration judicial appointments. The newspaper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, now concurs with Mondale. A little over a decade ago, though, the paper condemned a 1993 Republican filibuster of a Clinton administration spending bill. And less than a year later, it endorsed a campaign to end the filibuster altogether. Mondale, in fact, was one of the leaders of the successful 1975 Democratic move to reduce the number of senators needed to break a filibuster from 67 to 60.

    Of course, those were different times. In 1993 and 1994, for example, a Democratic president confronted a rambunctious Republican minority who were as enthusiastic about exercising their minority prerogatives as the Democrats were about limiting them. Not only were Republican senators filibustering Clinton spending initiatives, but conservatives were enthusiastically embracing the general idea that certain government decisions--in particular, tax increases--should be subject to a minority veto. The Heritage Foundation endorsed a Constitutional amendment to enforce the principle in 1996, and the Republican-controlled Senate voted in support of it in 1998. Numerous states--mostly Republican-controlled--have enacted some form of it.

    One can, to be sure, make specific arguments for limiting the supermajority requirement to tax increases, or judicial appointments, or even poet laureate nominations. But in practice, any faction that sees itself as secure in its dominance tends to oppose supermajority requirements altogether, while factions that see their grip slipping, or not yet firm, will see supermajority requirements as an important equalizer against the powers-that-be.

    In truth, there's no magic to the number 50%--or 60%, or 67%, for that matter. As long as the number remains fixed, a responsive political class will generate the required majorities to meet the insistent demands of voters. The real problem occurs when changes in the rules outpace the political system's ability to react. With respect to control of the judiciary, that point was reached decades ago, when the American judicial custom of arbitrarily overruling the democratically accountable branches of government expanded from an occasional hobby into a full-time profession. The resulting disruption of the political equilibrium--reflected in the Bork and Thomas nomination fights, the Republican stalling tactics of the 1990s, and the recent filibusters--is still far from being resolved.

    Monday, May 09, 2005

    Economist/blogger Brad de Long has stirred up something of a controversy by lambasting an essay by German author Gunther Grass published on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversity of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Most commentators have understandably balked at de Long's characterization of Grass as "crypto-Nazi scum" (which de Long appears to have retracted). But the heated partisanship of the conflict (Grass is a lifelong leftist; de Long is of the center-left) has obscured some of the, shall we say, oddities of Grass' essay.

    To begin with, consider this passage:
    In the cold war that quickly followed, German states that had existed since 1949 consistently fell to one or other power bloc, whereupon the governments of both national entities sought to present themselves as model pupils of their respective dominating powers. Forty years later, during the glasnost period, it was in fact the Soviet Union that broke up the Democratic Republic, which had by that point become a burden. The Federal Republic's almost unconditional subservience to the United States was broken for the first time when the Social Democratic-Green ruling coalition decided to make use of the freedom given to us in sovereign terms 60 years ago, by refusing to allow German soldiers to participate in the Iraq war.
    It's true that lots of European intellectuals like to think of themselves as rebels against American hegemony. Still, Grass is writing on the occasion of the anniversary of the fall of the Nazi regime. Is that really the right time to bemoan the subsequent sixty years as a period of German subservience to foreign powers? What alternative fate, exactly, did Grass consider appropriate for Germany in 1945?

    There follows the following passage:
    Fifteen years after signing the treaty on unification, we can no longer conceal that despite the financial achievements, German unity has essentially been a failure. Petty calculation prevented the government of the time from submitting to the citizens of both states a new constitution relevant to the endeavors of Germany as a whole. It is therefore hardly surprising that people in the former East Germany should regard themselves as second-class Germans.
    Again, although one can scarcely fault Grass for worrying about geographic inequalities in modern Germany, is the anniversary of the fall of the Nazis really the right moment to present such problems as a failure of "German unity"?

    Grass continues:
    Now, I believe that our freely elected members of Parliament are no longer free to decide. The customary party pressures are not particularly present in Germany; it is, rather, the ring of lobbyists with their multifarious interests that constricts and influences the Federal Parliament and its democratically elected members, placing them under pressure and forcing them into disharmony, even when framing and deciding the content of laws. Consequently, Parliament is no longer sovereign in its decisions. It is steered by the banks and multinational corporations - which are not subject to any democratic control.
    Once again, it's common on the left to worry about corporate influence on the democratic process. But to use the anniversary of the end of German Nazism to echo old claims that the democratically elected German government is nothing but a collection of puppets of "banks and multinational corporations"? (At least Grass doesn't attribute any particular religion to the international capitalists who have supposedly hijacked German democracy. But still....)

    No, not every German nationalist socialist is a National Socialist. And Grass hasn't yet made the jump from the German far left to the de facto German far right (although he wouldn't be the first German artist to do so). But one might have expected a writer like Grass, who has made a career out of exploring the echoes of Nazism in postwar German culture, to be a bit more careful about keeping them out of his own pronouncements.