Four years in, and after the absurdly good opportunity the pandemic provided, I think it’s pretty clear that Donald Trump is not the authoritarian I was so worried about back in 2016. He may have wanted to be, but he doesn’t have the capacity. That doesn’t mean my country is safe though. We’ve got a pretty good model of where a the flounderings of a clownish can lead a country. Boris Yeltsin is that model. And if the US produces a Putin, he or she will be a lot scarier than anything Russia can muster in the 21st century.
I can’t seem to find it, but I believe it was Keynes who has this wonderful quote on the fact that so much of the world around us is shaped by the ideas of long-dead thinkers who nobody actually reads and whose names have been largely forgotten. Today’s video is about one of those thinkers, Halford Mackinder. He’s not a household name, but he creeps around the margins of any large history book you will read, and he still inspires a lot of bad foreign and domestic policy in countries all over the world. His “World Island” or “Heartland” thesis is part of the list of justifications people will offer for interventionist US foreign policy. But Mackinder’s influence always remains somewhat subterranean. Because it kind of has to. Because his ideas are crap.
If you actually read one of Mackinder’s books, which I did, his ideas sound more like a half-assed dungeons and dragons game than a serious theory of history and politics. And when you dive in and examine his assumptions about the upcoming 20th century, you realize they were all wrong. His idea of looking at geopolitics as a whole is rightly influential. His actual ideas about geopolitics and their future are frankly laughable. It’s amazing how influential you can get if you give a veneer of respectability to the paranoid visions of militarists. Today’s video demolishes Mackinder’s ideas.
Today’s video talks about the ambivalent approach to the use of power we see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Marvel movies are often as much about how great power hurts itself and what it aims to protect as they are about bad guys. The video lays out that the DC movies have none of this subtlety. As I think more about it though, I think I was too easy on the DC movies. These films are pro-US power, and even pro-torture in a very Trumpian, Fox News way.
A couple years back, with a review of Batman V. Superman, I talked about the main influence on the DC movies, a guy named Frank Miller. Frank Miller is an undisputed genius, but he’s got a world view that is deeply rooted in the 1980s. His vision is of a world that is being torn apart at the seams. In Miller’s world we need powerful people to do what’s necessary to face “evil” no matter the cost. This vision of the world made a lot of sense in the 1980s, with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, and with US cities falling into an abyss of crime and drugs.
I am writing this from the heart of New York City, a place that is now safer than it was in the 1950s. Despite the US’s careful cultivation of rogue states, and the ever present threat of a dirty bomb, nobody expects human civilization to be wiped out anymore. I hate to throw this word around, but from this perspective, Miller’s vision looks more than a bit fascist. And that’s the perspective the DC films have adopted. Evil is everywhere. Power must confront it. And that power should not be questioned. You can see this world-view on Fox News every day, and you can see it in the speeches of Donald Trump.
After the critical and financial failures of Batman V. Superman, and Suicide Squad, the Warner Brothers corporate offices mandated that the films get more “optimistic”. But this pro-power perspective has continued in the DC movies, regardless. Last year’s “sunnier” Wonder Woman takes place during World War I. The film-makers don’t know anything about World War I, so they just portray the Germans as Nazis. This fits with the US foreign policy establishment’s lionization of Woodrow Wilson, and insistence that US power is always used for good. As someone who would love to see pop culture reckon more seriously (or at all) with World War I, I was pretty disappointed.
I may be over analyzing things here. The DC movies have been a mess, top to bottom, since Christopher Nolan finished his last Batman film back in 2012. But there are a lot of really, really bad ideas floating around in that soup of crap…
I have loved the Empire State building since I was a child. But have you ever thought about that name? “Empire State”? That’s how New Yorkers saw their state in the early 20th century. New York led the country that was going to lead the world. Parsing the exact definition of “Empire” intended in the name is a much longer topic than a blog post can cover. But that vision, of New York as a leader, went straight to the top. Al Smith, the president of the company that built the building was a former governor of New York.
This video documents how that vision has faded, and how far from national leadership the people and politicians of New York have fallen. I think I’ll have a lot more to say on this topic in future, but I wanted to briefly lay out the facts this week.
Since I started laying into Saudi Arabia with gusto about six months ago, folks have been bringing any number of stories to my attention. It seems like every month or so there is a new positive story about Saudi Arabia running in every major Western news outlet. It’s like clockwork. Actually it’s just like clockwork.
Some of these stories represent real advances. Some do not. But we’re not seeing them because of their intrinsic merit, we are seeing them because Saudi Arabia gives tens of millions of dollars to the best public relations people in the business. Last week saw one of the most coordinated and sophisticated pushes yet. This video mentions an interview with the Guardian, but there were customized approaches to a number of outlets. The New York Times gave their launch of a new economic zone above the fold treatment.
So I tend to be pretty skeptical when somebody comes to me with news of Saudi Arabia’s changes for the better. There was one element in the onslaught this week that surprised me however. MBS’s claim that Saudi Arabia is now a moderately Islamic country was legitimately shocking to me. Shocking enough that I made this video.
I don’t know much about the environment. I don’t even know if I think the Paris Climate Change Agreement was a good idea. But I do know that now that it exists, abandoning it is crazy. Whether you are a climate skeptic, or a climate enthusiast, the US seat at the table was vital. The agreement, as toothless as it is at the moment, is unprecedented for the scope of international participation involved. 15 years ago when Bush threw over the Kyoto protocol, it didn’t really matter. Some Europeans whined, and the developing countries were happy to do away with a possible constraint on growth. The picture today couldn’t be any more different. 195 countries have signed up for this agreement. China and India are enthusiastically on board. This is the direction the world is going. And the US has decided to go hide in the corner.
It’s embarrassing and it’s exactly the sort of thing that makes Trump’s presidency so damaging. The United States still has enough power left to keep acting like this through four or even eight years of a Trump presidency. But it’s the worst possible way to spend our last years as a hegemonic power. Today we still have enough power to ignore what the rest of the world wants. But that’s changing. The difference between the Kyoto protocol and Paris Climate accords show that very clearly. The world has tremendous resentment towards its lone superpower. Up until today they didn’t have a body to express that resentment through. US power means we dominate any club we belong to. Trump just gave the world a universal club, free of US influence. This will not be good for my country. Sad!