Saturday Suggestions: Moffat, the Iran Deal and DC on TV

My top reads from the past 7 days

What Steven Moffat Doesn’t Understand About Grief, And Why It’s Killing Doctor Who by Sarah Siegel (Tea Leaves and Dog Ears)

“Joss Whedon, Steven Moffat and George R.R. Martin walk into a bar and everyone you’ve ever loved dies.”

Why Hawks Should Love the Iran Deal by David Rothkopf (Foreign Policy)

“For the hawks to suggest that the deal freezing Iranian uranium-enrichment efforts above the 5 percent level, halting work on the heavy-water reactor near Arak, and granting daily inspections to Iran’s centrifuge-laden facilities at Natanz and Fordow makes matters more dangerous in the short term is just indefensible on its face. Absent such a deal, all enrichment and technological advancement efforts would continue unabated and without inspections. Iran would almost certainly move more quickly toward having a bomb without this deal than with it.”

America’s Least-Favorite City Has Become Television’s Favorite Subject by T.A Frank (New Republic)

“Veep” is also, in its odd way, the most sympathetic of the shows toward those it depicts. It understands that Washington’s politicians join a fraternity of those who know the difference between symbols and real policy but who must report back to constituents who see only the symbols. If you talk to voters as if you’re explaining things, you’re condescending, but if you talk to them as if they’re on your wavelength, you’re aloof. It tends to make you either a cynic or a hypocrite—and, in either case, a bit of a bullshit artist.

Brave New World seems prophetic; it’s not

Huxley’s masterpiece is better at seeming prophetic than actually seeing the future

63e3aeaf06a5039c5bba75d3ce58050c“In 1931, when Brave New World was being written, I was convinced that there was still plenty of time. The completely organised society, the scientific caste system, the abolition of free will by methodical conditioning, the servitude made acceptable by regular doses of a chemically induced happiness, the orthodoxies drummed in by the nightly courses of sleep-teaching – these things were coming all right, but not in my time, not even in the time of my grandchildren. I forget the exact date of the events recorded in Brave New World; but it was somewhere in the sixth or seventh century A.F. (after Ford)….Twenty-Seven years later, in this third quarter of the twentieth century A.D., and long before the end of the first century A.F., I feel a good deal less optimistic than when I was writing Brave New World. The prophecies made in 1931 and coming true much sooner than I thought they would.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958)

While listening to the audiobook of Brave New World (BNW), I kept running into a problem. Listening to music on an MP3 player or spotify has accustomed me to having a virtually unlimited supply of it. Therefore, whenever I get somewhat indifferent to a piece of music I skip to the next one. This habit becomes rather an irritant when listening to an audiobook because I’m regularly skipping to the next chapter and then having to spool back to find my place. This technologically induced impatience is ironic given that one of Huxley’s themes is a society that has dispensed with delayed gratification.

BNW does this. It has an uncanny ability to speak to our contemporary fears. It can be related to any number of current debates: consumerism, feminism, genetic engineering, secularism, permissiveness, technology and the role of the arts and humanities. But that doesn’t make it an accurate prediction.

When Huxley came back to the ideas in BNW in non-fiction form with Brave New World Revisited, he identified two trends that he thought were pushing the world towards dystopia: overorganisation and overpopulation.

Huxley associates overorganisation with Fordism and the regimentation and standardisation it implies. He subscribes to the thesis of  William Whyte’s “the Organization Man” about how workers sacrificed their individuality to the needs of their firms. BNW essentially imagines these principles extrapolated from the corporate world to society as a whole. Humans are literally manufactured in batches to fill a preordained role, and autonomy is systematically suppressed.

However, the reality turned out differently. Rather than becoming the organising principle of society, Fordism is in retreat. Mass production now co-exists with an increasing number of firms that focus on producing goods tailored for specific consumer tastes. Many companies especially in finance and technology actively seek out not ‘Organization Men’ but misfits who’ll bring unconventional thinking to problems. Ford’s city of Detroit is now a bankrupt mess.

Huxley seems to think that overpopulation is the route by which overorganisation would come about. That a highly powerful and controlling state would be needed to prevent unchecked population growth from leading to ecological disaster. He feels that no other kind of government can prevent people having large families. But again history has not turned out as Huxley expected.

Population increases seem to be leveling off of their own accord. Family sizes have been dropping for decades. While the number of humans on the planet is still rising, this is driven not by parents having more children but by there being more parents to have children.  We are seeing the aftereffects of people in the past having large families as the offspring of those prodigious breeders now reach child bearing age themselves. We are regulating our own fertility without the need for a totalitarian state. In fact, many more recent dystopias like the Handmaid’s Tale or Children of Men feature the reverse kind of demographic challenge – a population in decline.

This is not to say to say that Huxley’s predictions will not come to pass. The future is unpredictable after all. However, I see no reason to predict that it will. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a messages worth listening to. Rather we should see it as what Huxley originally intended it to be: a satire on the utopian novels of men like H.G Wells, a warning that ‘progress’ can move us towards hell as well as heaven.

The unfortunately realistic economics of the Hunger Games

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One of the criticisms of the Hunger Games is that it’s not plausible that in a futuristic sci-fi world with extremely advanced technology, much of the population would still be on the edge of starvation. Matthew Yglesias argues that the extreme inequality between the Capital and the Districts is not only plausible but has actually existed and that Collins has identified how it would come about. He illustrates this by reference to the work of two economic historians:

Acemoglu and Robinson’s general theory can be grasped through the lens of the “reversal of fortune” they observe in the Western Hemisphere and originally described in an academic paper co-authored with Simon Johnson. If you plot per capita income in the Americas today, you see a clear pattern with the United States and Canada ahead, the southern cone around Chile and Argentina in second place, and the middle portion much poorer. It turns out that if you turn the clock back about 500 years, the pattern was reversed. The places that are rich today were poor then, while those that are poor today were generally rich in the past. This, they argue, is no coincidence. When Spanish conquistadors showed up in the prosperous areas of Latin America, they stole all the gold they could get their hands on and then set about putting the native populations to work. They set up “extractive institutions” whose purpose was to wring as many natural resources (silver, gold, food) from the land as possible while keeping power in the hands of a narrow elite. These institutions discourage savings and investment, since everyone knows any wealth can and will be arbitrarily expropriated. And while the injustice of it all led to periodic revolutions, the typical pattern was for the new boss to simply seize control of the extractive institutions and run them for his own benefit.

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District 12 is a quintessential extractive economy. It’s oriented around a coal mine, the kind of facility where unskilled labor can be highly productive in light of the value of the underlying commodity. In a free society, market competition for labor and union organizing would drive wages up. But instead the Capitol imposes a single purchaser of mine labor and offers subsistence wages. Emigration to other districts in search of better opportunities is banned, as is exploitation of the apparently bountiful resources of the surrounding forest. With the mass of Seam workers unable to earn a decent wage, even relatively privileged townsfolk have modest living standards. If mineworkers earned more money, the Mellark family bakery would have more customers and more incentive to invest in expanded operations. A growing service economy would grow up around the mine. But the extractive institutions keep the entire District in a state of poverty, despite the availability of advanced technology in the Capitol.

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But Collins is right in line with the most depressing conclusion offered by Acemoglu and Robinson, namely that once extractive institutions are established they’re hard to get rid of. Africa’s modern states, they note, were created by European colonialists who set out to create extractive institutions to exploit the local population. The injustice of the situation led eventually to African mass resistance and the overthrow of colonial rule. But in almost every case, the new elite simply started running the same extractive institutions for their own benefit. The real battle turned out to have been over who ran the machinery of extraction, not its existence. And this, precisely, is the moral of Collins’ trilogy. [Spoiler alert: Ignore rest of this story if you haven’t finished the trilogy.] To defeat the Capitol’s authoritarian power requires the construction of a tightly regimented, extremely disciplined society in District 13. That District’s leaders are able to mobilize mass discontent with the Capitol into a rebellion, but this leads not to the destruction of the system but its decapitation. Despite the sincere best efforts of ordinary people to better their circumstances, the deep logic of extractive institutions is difficult to overcome, whether in contemporary Nigeria or in Panem.

Orwell in Panem: What the Hunger Games owes to 1984

*Spoiler warning: this article reveals lots of plot points from all three Hunger Games books and 1984*

big-brother-1984

Now that it is venerable enough to merit inclusion on school curriculums and lists of the greatest ever novels, it’s easy to forget the horror and revulsion it initially generated. During the broadcast of a 1954 BBC adaptation of the story, a 42 year old housewife housewife named Beryl Merfin was so disturbed that the shock killed her. And an Early Day Motion was tabled in parliament decrying “the tendency, evident in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programs…to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes.”

There’s something similar in the reaction to the Hunger Games. Many are appalled by the violence it shows or by the premise of teenagers fighting to the death.

It is strange that connections are not drawn between these two dark dystopian novels more often. Fans and admirers of the Hunger Games tend to locate Collin’s inspiration in the classics or Lord of the Flies. While her detractors claim she ripped off Battle Royale. However, I’d suggest that 1984 seems like a significant influence as well. Especially given that Collins is apparently a fan.

So where can we see this influence?

The Brutality

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley conceived of a regime that ruled not through fear but by providing its population with a string of amusements to keep them perpetually distracted.

That’s emphatically not how President Snow maintains his power. He relies instead on a rather Orwellian dose of terror.  While the Hunger Games may be set in a land whose name comes from the latin phrase ‘panem et circenses’ (bread and circuses) there is no sense its rulers are trying to buy off their people or earn their affection. Rather it is the threat of violence from Panem’s paramilitary ‘peacekeepers’ that keeps them in line.

While Games themselves may at least in part have been inspired by gladiatorial games and are occasionally described by characters as being meant to serve as a ‘distraction’, that doesn’t seem to be their real purpose. Rather they are a commemoration of a failed rebellion against the Capital and an implicit warning not to try again.

Nuclear Weapons

1984 was written at a time when nuclear weapons were a new phenomenon and is in part Orwell’s attempt to work through their consequences. As David Aaronovitch explains:

“Orwell saw the beginnings of a…carve-up of the globe into superpowers and told friends that this was what initially set him going on the novel.

Less than two years later, the Americans dropped atom bombs on Japan. In an essay for Tribune magazine called You and the Atomic Bomb, Orwell argued that the A-Bomb threatened to bring into being….[a] world of super states governed by totalitarian hierarchies of managers.

It’s often missed that Nineteen Eighty-Four is set a few decades after an atomic war. The managers administering the book’s three super states, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, have tacitly agreed not to try to destroy each other but to continue forever in a kind of cold war.

Indeed, it was Orwell who coined the phrase “cold war” in that 1945 essay.”

A similar situation emerges in the Hunger Games where the Capital and the rebellious District 13 are locked in a state of mutually assured destruction because during the rebellion each acquired part of Panem’s nuclear weapons stockpile. That creates a situation where the Capital can exert its control over the remaining districts. Until Katniss shows up that is…..

The Names of Places

Real places have acquired impersonal nomenclatures. So Britain becomes ‘airstrip one’ and West Virginia morphs into ‘District 12.’

They can make you hate the one you love

Orwell dramitises the Thoughtpolice’s power and the fear they can evoke with their ultimate torture instrument, Room 101, by showing how they get the lovers Winston and Julia to betray each other. Confronted with his personal nightmare of having his face eaten by rats, Winston cries out that “torture Julia instead.”

In Mockingjay, the final Hunger Games book, Peeta whose adoration for Katniss has been unwavering throughout the trilogy is hijacked (i.e. brainwashed) to hate her with a murderous ferocity.

The Tarnished Revolution

Ok, this is from Animal Farm not 1984 but I’ll bet that if Collins is a fan of the later book, she’ll have read the former too.

Both books feature revolutions that betray their ideals in very fundamental and symbolic ways: Napolean and the other pigs start walking on two legs or President Alma Coin’s proposal to continue the Hunger Games with tributes from the Capital.

Dystopias old and new

When young adult fiction is drawing on ideas from a classic political fable, the distinction between high and low culture really does not make a great deal of sense.

I do wonder how long debates over the threat of totalitarianism will remain dominated by the language of 1984. There’ve been a huge number of dystopias since: Fahrenheit 451, Blade Runner, the Handmaid’s Tale and now the Hunger Games. I wonder how long it will be until they begin providing at least part of the vocabulary we use to talk about tyranny.

Thoughts on Dr Who’s 50th

doctor-who-ghosts3

1.       The BBC knows how to make Dr Who into an event

The BBC’s manipulation of different media to build the show’s brand has become formidable enough to be a subject of academic study: my sister’s degree included her writing an essay on it. The buzz they created around announcing the 11th (or should that now be 12th) Doctor was formidable but for this anniversary they pushed it towards hysteria. Expect mini episodes and the like to become more common from now on and what are essentially program length trailers to become more common.

2.       An Adventure in Time and Space and the Culture Show were sublime

Some of the programmes that made up this barrage of buzz building were excellent. Mark Gattiss’ drama about the beginnings of Dr Who was surprisingly moving but the surprise champion (in my opinion) was Matthew Sweet’s unconventional take on the cultural impact of the show. Both were essentially fans’ loveletters to their childhood televisual loves.

3.  Brian Cox is a superb actor

Playing the renegade head of BBC drama and Dr Who mastermind Sydney Newman he stole just about every scene of an Adventure in Time and Space he was in. Why he’s not mentioned alongside people like Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan and Simon Russell Beale I don’t know.

4. I hadn’t realised quite how primitive TV drama was in 1963

So primitive in fact that it seems to have been more like theatre to a camera rather than a live audience. The early Dr Who serials were apparently shot on a single set, with a strictly rationed number of cuts and only 90mins on that to shoot 30mins of film.

5.       The Doctor may be old but Bruce Forsyth has been around longer
Apparently part of the rational for commissioning Dr Who was to see off the damage being done to the BBC’s Saturday night audiences by Sunday Night at the London Palladium hosted by Bruce Forsyth. What was on immediately before the Day of the Doctor? Strictly Come Dancing hosted by Bruce Forsyth!
6.       The US is learning to love Dr Who
Or part of it is at least. The highbrow American magazines whose website I regularly scour devoted a quite surprising amount of space to it. But I think it’s adoption in America has been a bit like the Killings rise in the UK: something mass market has become bohemian and upmarket in the journey.
*Spoiler Warning: I’m now talking about the Day of the Doctor itself and giving away key plots points*
7. Clara remains a plot point not a proper character
Even now the mystery of who she is has been cleared up, she still seems to only be there to instigate the Doctor to do the things the plot requires. She’s very far from feeling like a rounded character in her own right.
8. Maybe that UNIT scientist with the Tom Baker scarf could replace her
With a new Doctor on the way, we are surely due a new companion? Especially given that the current one is so underwhelming.
If so, based on her short time on screen the new UNIT scientist – apparently called Osgood – would seem like a good choice. She’d be like the fans version of themselves on screen and be quite different from any of the companions since the show returned.

9. It seems rather mean spirited of Christopher Eccleston not to appear
I mean how much would it have taken to show John Hurt regenerating into him? Like a day’s work if that.

10. Moffatt knows how to delight geeks
Zygons, lots of in jokes and TOM BAKER!!!

11. Saving Gallifrey makes NO sense!
Unless I’m missing something this is dumb. Wasn’t the reason the Doctor destroyed the Time Lords in the first place that they had become monsters who wanted to destroy the universe? Wasn’t the 10th (or 11th) Doctor killed trying to stop them from bringing Gallifrey back? Didn’t the mini-episode the BBC released earlier this week say that they were now as bad as Daleks?! Why save them?