Machiavelli and HRC: La Mandragola

Given that HRC’s campaign for president is about to end shortly, the punditry has already begun to offer explanations for why her campaign failed. And the most obvious, but the least talked about, potential explanation is sexism. Certainly sexism is something that HRC’s own supporters have argued: whether it is a true or not, I can’t say, because I have any kind of empirical evidence can only come after the fact.

But I’m not really interested in whether sexism played a salient causal role in HRC’s failed campaign. No, what I’m interested in is this: which matters more? that a woman can hold the highest office in the land? or the fact that we still think of politics in gendered terms? In other words: would it matter all that much that a woman can become president when we haven’t moved past the notion of gender itself in politics.

And this got me thinking about Machiavelli’s La Mandragola, a satirical play he wrote while in exile. I read the play in a political theory class, which is unusual, because usually in these classes, the only Machiavelli texts we read are (of course) The Prince, and in a longer course, The Discourses. In hindsight, I’m really glad that I read the play, and Professor Wendy Brown should be given a lot of credit for introducing this little-read text to an undergraduate class.

Anyways, I bring up Machiavelli and HRC, not in the usual sense, which sees HRC as a kind of Machiavellian figure who’s willing to use any and all tactic to gain power. To be honest, I really don’t see HRC as a kind of Machiavellian figure, and I think this aspect of her public life is overblown. No, what I have in mind is something broader, not constrained to the person of HRC herself, but to our political system as a whole.

In the La Mandragola, the plot revolves around Callimaco and his single-minded objective of having sex with Lucrezia, the young, beautiful married wife of a much older man named Nicia. The fairly standard (and I think non-controversial) interpretation of the play is that Lucrezia stands for the Italian principality, and the various characters’ conspiracy to gain sexual access to Lucrezia as standing for political machination to control Italy.

Clearly, this interpretation of the play sees politics in explicitly gendered terms: political success, however conceived, is a woman. And inevitably the metaphors for achieving political success is couched in sexual terms. And the implication of this is that one must pursue political success like one would pursue a woman: with cunning, wiles, deception, and sometimes even force. This gendered view of politics is also evident in The Prince, because Machiavelli says that man must struggle against the goddess Fortuna, either through cunning, or with force. As he writes in The Prince, men must wrestle with Fortuna and force her into submission.

“It is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortuna is a woman and it is necessary, in order to keep her under, to beat and maul her…She more often lets herself be overcome by men using such methods than by those who proceed coldly…therefore always, like a woman, she is the friend of young men, because they are less cautious, more spirited, and with more boldness master her.”

Again, it becomes very clear that for Machiavelli, politics is gendered. And this raises the question which I brought up at the beginning of the post: would it matter all that much for a woman to attain the highest political office if the way we talk about politics is still in very gendered terms

I don’t have a clear answer for this question, but what is clear to me is that HRC and her supporters talk about her campaign in these terms. HRC herself constantly speaks of herself as a fighter that never quits, tough enough to roll with the punches, and all these other kind of very masculine metaphors.

But I wonder if a woman’s becoming the president is truly a substantive victory for women in general. If we really want to make gender a non-issue in politics, then perhaps we ought to re-think politics. It might be necessary that for this process to start, it must first be possible for a woman to attain the pinnacle of political success. But if we continue to think in terms of gender when we talk about politics, then how much have we moved beyond sexism?

Watching Sex and the City, in Good Faith

Or at least, in as good a faith as I can possibly conjure up.

I can’t watch TV in the last month or so without constantly running into a commercial for the movie, and I see its billboards everywhere, hear it on the radio, and see it in the papers. I must applaud the studio for its massive, carpet-bombing like marketing of this movie. And from a purely financial perspective, this movie is interesting, because it’s being marketed like a summer blockbuster movie, but with a completely demographic: instead of courting the usual 18 to 34 male demographic, the movie is courting women, which traditionally have not driven the kind of summer blockbusters that the studios usually put out. So it will be interesting to see how this movie performs, and whether it will pioneer a kind of marketing and distribution that breaks the monopoly held by the 18 to 34 male demographic on big-budget movies.

But aside from that brief tangent, all this over-saturation and over-exposure of the movie got me thinking about the show itself. Of course, coming of age in the late 90’s and early ’00s means that Sex and the City is an inevitable cultural presence, even if most guys have a settled pre-conceived notion about what the show is “supposed” to be like.

Of course, I shared that pre-conception, but from an intellectual point of view, I felt that having these pre-conceptions without actually having watched the show in any meaningful manner is an act of dishonesty. After all, what kind of person would I be if I judged anything without actually having analyzed it? I would be Bill O’Reilly, that’s who I’d be. So having that in mind, I decided to give the show a fair chance, in good faith, after I was done with my classes. So for a month and half, from April to now, I have pretty much watched all the episodes I could get on TBS re-runs. And this is my good-faith evaluation of the show. Of course, I’m only a man, so there is probably a threshold of sympathy that I can never quite overcome, but I’m going to try my best to render a sympathetic interpretation of the show.

And my conclusion: the show is clever and witty, but does not enough substance to warrant repeat viewing and loyalty in the long-run. It is an exercise in style, but not much more, albeit its style is good, sometimes even very good.

To me, the best part of the show is undoubtedly the writing: it is undeniably witty and clever, some of the best writing on television. As someone who appreciates good writing, I found the show to be more than satisfying in this respect. However, I don’t know whether this is snobbery or not, but I always took the use of voice-overs to be lazy-writing (SHOW, not tell). Second, I appreciate the fact that the show features female characters who are not your traditional beautiful types. I’m not Peter Griffin, so I’m not going to say that Sarah Jessica Parker’s face looks like a foot, but she’s no Helen of Troy. But I take this to be a strength of the show, because it’s showing relatively (emphasis on this) real women on TV.

But here is my biggest problem with the show: the characters just aren’t sympathetic. In fact, most of the time, they are narcissistic, shallow, and materialistic to a fault. I am not accusing the characters of one-dimensional, but they are, for the most part, not people that I can feel sympathetic for. Again, I might be the wrong person to talk about sympathetic characters, because I’m only a guy. But I don’t think my lack of sympathy has all that much to do with gender differences, because there are plenty of other female characters in the media and in literature whom I am deeply sympathetic toward

I can’t say whether the characters portrayed on the show are representative of how most modern women think, but if they are, then I have to say that there is something wrong. This isn’t a normative judgment on how they behave, because god knows I’m no prude, and I don’t think women should be subservient wives to domineering men. So I have no problem with the characters’ “modern” take on sexuality and relationships; rather, my problem is with their persons.

Put it simply: my problem with the characters is not their promiscuity. I don’t dislike them because of what they do, but what they are: shallow, self-absorbed, materialistic, emotionally brittle

What’s worse, these characters are all mirror-images of each other: sure, there are differences, but I tend to think that they only hang out together because they see themselves in each other. Now, one could call that a close friendship, or, as I’m inclined to say, co-dependence.

But don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed watching the show, quite a lot actually. It is a fun show to watch, but ultimately not emotionally rewarding, which largely derives from my inability to connect with the characters, due to what I perceive to be seriously personality flaws. Granted, I’m no well-adjusted, contributing member of society, but even I find their personalities deeply alienating.

The ultimate irony, at least the way I see it, is that the show, at bottom, is not even true to its own ethos. If the show is about four successful, single, independent professional women and the strength of their friendship through rain or sunshine, then why is it the overriding objective of the characters to find a husband and create the traditional nuclear family? Doesn’t this quest ultimately undermine the show’s subversive suggestion that for successful professional women of today, having a husband is no longer a requirement for success and happiness?

So it looks like to me that the show can’t quite make up its own mind: is it trying to show that traditional notions of family, success, and sexual mores are no outdated for our modern lifestyle? Is it trying to show that women today no longer need those things to lead happy, rewarding lives? Or is it trying to say that ultimately, the path to happiness still lies with marriage and family?

The show constantly vacillates back and forth on this position, and maybe this should be counted as one of its virtues–showing the complexities of what it means to live in our modern society. Or perhaps it’s just not as radical and subversive as it claims. Had it leaned more in the former position, then I would have had a much higher opinion of the show, because it would then truly offer a radical position, and there would be something to analyze and interpret further.

But for now: the show is merely entertaining, but not much else.

Then again, I could just be talking a lot of shit.

Intuitions and Charges of Implausibility

What exactly are we doing when say that certain philosophical theories, if we think it out fully to its logical conclusion, would lead to conclusions that are extremely unacceptable from an intuitive sense? I’m thinking in particular of the Repugnant Conclusion here. Often times, such philosophical theories are rejected because they are thought to be highly implausible because of their dramatic departure from our common intuitions.

But is this kind of rejection right? Why is the departure from common intuition a good reason to reject such theories? Isn’t philosophy, at least in part, the exercise of reason so come up with radical conclusions that challenge existing intuitions? Case in point: philosophical theories that advocate the equal treatment of all persons regardless of gender, nationality, skin color, and religion would have been very counter-intuitive to people living a thousand years ago. Yet now such a theory is now part of our common intuition; in fact, any philosophy whose conclusion leads us to reject the equality of persons would now be seen as counter-intuitive and most likely rejected out of hand.

So is there a non-question begging way of using intuition in moral philosophy?

This question became a question for me as I was reading the first chapter of A Theory of Justice, the section on the reflective equilibrium. I find Rawls’ discussion of the subject unsatisfying, because as he explicitly acknowledges, he won’t answer many of the questions that one might logically have about the reflective equilibrium: such as, how do we decide when and how to modify our theory and intuition, and by much, and which one has priority, and how we come up with these rules? Furthermore, what is equilibrium actually reached? Is it complete convergence, or merely convergence up to a certain point? And if the latter, when is there “enough” convergence to constitute an equilibrium?

Granted, I haven’t finished A Theory of Justice, but I feel like if these questions aren’t answered satisfactorily, then the whole project becomes too abstract.

Why Aren’t Elections Considered Coercive?

Like the title asks: why not? Because to me, elections are pretty coercive.

A thought experiment: suppose in Country X, there are 100 citizens, all of whom vote. They are all asked to vote on how to spend $100 dollars. 33 of them voted to spend the money on cleaning up the streets; 33 of them voted to spend the money improving security, and the rest 34 voted to spend the money on infrastructure improvements.

Now, assuming that this election was held under fair conditions, and suppose that every vote count equally, and suppose that the electoral system in Country X is first past the post (like in America), then how can we not say that the 34 people who voted for infrastructure improvement is coercing the 66 others who voted on other things?

I am personally not satisfied with any kind of argument that uses consent, because I don’t think consent alone can establish why 34 people should have the power to impose their wills on 66 others. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the decision reached by the 34 is in any sense legitimate, from a moral point of view. For all I know, perhaps the morally right decision was to spend the money on security, and not on infrastructure.

Does this suggest that I’m somehow anti-democratic? I would say no, because my problem with elections isn’t that they are coercive per se, because all majority-rule (unanimity systems excluded) is coercive to some degree or another.

Rather, my problem is with the circumstances under which a coercive electoral system operates. The only way that I can legitimately accept this kind of coercion is if I knew that those in the majority (or plurality) are acting out of good faith in trying to decide what is best for EVERYONE. If I can be reasonably confident that my fellow citizens chose what they chose because they honestly thought, in good faith, that what they chose is best for everyone, I’d be inclined to accept the coercion of the election. However, if they voted the way they did not because of any real consideration for the public interest, but only out of self-interest, I would view that kind of coercion as illegitimate.

To go back to my earlier example: if I’m one of the 66 people whose decision was not chosen, I would only be inclined to view that outcome as legitimate if I can be reasonably sure that the 34 people who voted for infrastructure improvement TRULY thought that infrastructure improvement would be the best course of action for everyone. On the other hand, if those 34 people voted merely out of self-interest (for example, perhaps all of them are contractors), then I would view such a coercive measure as totally illegitimate.

The trick, of course, is to distinguish between acting out of considerations for the public versus acting out of consideration for pure self-interest. But even I’m not completely satisfied with this, because the American system is not designed for people to contemplate the public interest; rather, it’s a system that encourages individuals and groups to consider their own interests, which are then aggregated and balanced through institutional features like separation of power and checks and balances.

The result is that most citizens have no incentive to think from the view of the public, because the system creates incentives for them to think in terms of self-interest. And this is where we are today: political decisions are rarely made because of considerations of and from the public: rather, they are made as a result of going through a series of processes in which individual self-interests are aggregated and balanced against each other. Whoever comes out on top wins: thus, the 34 gets to utilize the resources of the government to pursue their own ends.

I’m not claiming that this kind of system cannot ever produce political results that benefit the public as a whole, but only that such kind of results are accidental and secondary. There is a kind of faith that the aggregation and balancing of disparate individual interests would somehow produce something for the public in most cases, but I think this faith is exaggerated. Sure, it happens, but you also get a lot of situations like the one I’ve described in the thought experiment.

Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I just came back from watching the new Indiana Jones movie, and I have to say that it is decent, but not great. In terms of how it compares with the rest of the movies in the series, I’d say it’s on the same level as The Temple of Doom, which means it’s the worst of the bunch, but still entertaining nonetheless.

Now, how much nostalgia plays into my assessment can’t be evaluated objectively. Although I was still in China when the first three movies premiered, I nonetheless have very fond memories of those movies, seeing as how they were some of the first few movies that I have watched in America. It is safe to say that Indiana Jones created my expectations of all action adventure movies should be.

I came into the movie with somewhat modest expectations: I didn’t expect the movie to recreate the excitement I felt when I first watched the movies, but I did expect some entertaining action sequences. In that respect, the movie did not disappoint. Whatever my opinion of Steven Spielberg’s body of work, I have to say that he is, on a technical level, an excellent director. All the stunts and action sequences were very well choreographed. The edits weren’t so quick as to induce nausea, like most action movies have a tendency to do, and the cameras are all placed strategically so that there is never any interruptions in the action. Also, the special effects are obviously much better looking than the ones in the original trilogy, and they weren’t over the top in any blatant way.

So yes, the movie is entertaining, but I felt like there was too much of an inclination to try to one-up the stunts and action sequences in the previous movies. Understandable, of course, since it is a sequel after all. But some of the stuff is ridiculously over the top that even someone like me, who is already familiar with the already implausible actions in the movies, found it incredulous. But I don’t think this is a serious problem, because if you are already a fan of the franchise, you quickly learn to ignore these things and just enjoy the spectacle of it all.

But the movie is disappointing in the sense that it never does manages to recreate the kind of pure joy in watching Indy pulls off some crazy shit, like the first three movies did. To this day, I still get a thrill when I watch the old movies, albeit not to the same degree as I did when I was younger. But this movie largely fails to elicit that kind of response from me. I appreciated the action sequences from a technical point of view, but I had no visceral reactions to them. There were a couple of moments when I had that feeling, when John William’s familiar score is playing, and Indy is doing some crazy shit, and it does take me back a little. However, those moments are largely absent from the movie as a whole.

Who knows, maybe I’m just getting older, so it would be unrealistic and unfair for me to expect the same kind of visceral thrill that I got when I was much younger. So again, I return to the original question: just how much does nostalgia have to do with it? In the end, I would have to admit, if I were to be completely honest, that without the words “Indiana Jones” in front of the title, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would not be all that different from movies like The Mummy or National Treasure.

Which is ironic, because without Indiana Jones, movies like The Mummy or National Treasure would not exist. So it is strange to see Spielberg and George Lucas making a movie that feels like movies that are imitation of the franchise that they have created.

Man, I feel old.

Things Fall Apart

It’s such a strange sensation to look at my room right now, empty of all furniture except a mattress, the walls bare of my posters. I can’t help but to think that somehow four years of my life, as evidenced by my accumulated books and music, have suddenly disappeared, packed away, on the way across country to some other place.

It’s as if all of a sudden, things just fell apart, piece by piece, until all that is left of my fours years is out of sight. The feeling is disorienting, because I woke up yesterday and realized that I had absolutely nothing to do: done with finals, no more classes, no more reading for classes, and no more writing papers. To the feeling in Heideggerian terms: the university, for four years, was my world. It is the place and context in which I have defined myself and forged an identity. But now, I no longer have a place in that world, so it’s like my Being in the world is now changed to something completely different.

For now, I have no world to which I belong.

I imagine it’ll take some getting used to, but such is life.

Ghost World: Why Teenage Search for “Authenticity” is Stupid

I think people hyped up Ghost World way too much: I’ve been told time and again that I should check out the movie, since it features characters and plot that seem to follow my disposition. At first glance, I would have agreed with them, since the movie is about a smart teenager who feels alienated from the world and uses sarcasm and irony to make sense of it. I though, hey, sounds kinda like me, so I figured, why not check it out?

And I did: rented the movie on iTunes, and came away more disappointed than anything else. I felt the movie was way too overrated. This is not to say that the movie sucks, because I really liked certain aspects of the movie. First, the acting is superb, especially the acting of Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi. Second, I like the tone of the movie, and its refusal to have a nice “Hollywood” ending. The movie really did a very excellent job of portraying the inner lives of its characters.

But that’s the problem with the movie: its central character, Enid, is not a very sympathetic or appealing character. In fact, she’s quite superficial, and to me, she demonstrates pretty much everything that is wrong with the American teenager.

First, the relentless use of irony. Look, I get irony, because I am a smart-ass who likes to cut people down with irony and sarcasm, but the kind of irony and sarcasm that Enid uses borders on malice. It is really a way for her to disguise her own insecurities, which she refuses to admit, even to herself. I just feel like this kind of personal dishonesty is problematic.

Second, I am bothered by Enid’s petty contempt for other people, especially people whose lives are not interesting or creative. Sure, some targets of her sarcasm and takedowns are more than well deserved, but she refuses to acknowledge the possibility that people can lead dignified, content lives even if they are working in ordinary, blue-collar jobs and shop at cheap malls and eat at generic diners. For most of the movie, I felt Enid’s air of superiority is not really warranted. Again, it’s not as if I am that much better, but even I recognize that I’m being unfair when I mock people, but Enid refuses to even acknowledge this.

Third, Enid is just an immature person, and this can be seen in her reaction to her friend Rebecca’s maturation. Rebecca gets a steady job and becomes an adult, which Enid feels is a betrayal of some kind of “punk” or “indie” credibility. This is further seen in Enid’s own attempts to find a job, which she of course fails. I find this attitude highly problematic, because it is founded on a vague, ill-defined notion of “authenticity” which is itself inauthentic. Enid expresses her so-called non-conformity by dressing a certain way and buying certain things. And this is the irony: that we must purchase authenticity, and I’d thought that a smart person like Enid would have recognized the inherent paradox of searching for authenticity.

In summary, I just find Enid, the main character, to be exemplifying the character flaws of most “alienated” suburban teenagers: they might be smart, but their view of the world is so immature and so narrow that they can’t see outside of their perspectives. They don’t seem to realize that part of growing up and being authentic is to find a way to live in the world, instead of constantly striking a pose of disdain and eccentricity. My problem isn’t with disdain and eccentricity as such, it’s rather that these people mistake them for personal integrity.

But then again, I might not be the person to judge, since it was not that long ago when I would have thought exactly the way Enid did. But part of growing up is realizing that life isn’t so simple as to be rejected out of hand, that one needs to give people more credit, that a concern for “not selling out” is not some kind of personal honor, but rather the fear of confronting a reality that is far more complicated than one’s personal morality and perspective.

Which is exactly the reason why I liked the last fifteen minutes of the movie the best: because Enid finally figures this out.

Yet in the end, I still can’t wholeheartedly endorse this movie, because I feel like it’s mostly trapped in this search for “authenticity” that plagues most teenagers. Yes, anyone who has ever felt alienated from his world will inevitably go through the disillusionment process and become cynical and ironic, but that phase can’t and shouldn’t last forever. The real interesting, and the more richly complex phase is the phase in which after everything that one has ever known is destroyed, a person can once again begin to make something for himself.

Here, I’m merely repeating the distinction that Nietzsche makes between passive and active nihilism: passive nihilism is stuck in meaningless, but active nihilism is the more life-affirming approach. I guess my problem with Ghost World is that for the first hour and forty-five minutes of the movie, it is trapped in passive nihilism.