All posts by Madeleine

Lessons from World War Z: What “truth” do governments owe us?

When I first picked up Max Brooks’ novel, World War Z, I anticipated that I was about to read a 400-page novel explaining the ins and outs of zombies. I have seen my fair share of zombie films and am quite familiar with the standard plots. Typically in zombie films a group of people –– usually teenagers –– go somewhere and then they encounter zombies and must fight for their survival. However, from the outset, Max Brooks’ novel is different. First, rather than focusing on a small group of teenagers’ experience with zombies, Brooks’ novel explores the ways in which people and governments around the world are confronted by the un-dead. Second, in Brooks’ novel, the zombies come to the humans, rather than silly teenagers going to a part of town where they probably should not be, thus eliminating the possibility of readers simply dismissing the events by saying that the humans should not have sought out the zombies. Readers cannot immediately place blame on the humans for encountering zombies because the zombies came to them. Third, unlike the typical zombie movie, Brooks’ novel is about far more than fighting zombies. It stays true to intricate relationships between counties, like South Korea and North Korea, and is even rooted in real historical events and the ways governments have approached ‘handling’ pressing issues.

While reading World War Z, I was particularly struck by the sections that discuss the Phalanx drug. In promoting the use of Phalanx, an anti-rabies drug, the United States Government knowingly deceives the American public with a placebo in order to both prevent mass panic and help strengthen the U.S. economy. The slogan, “Piece of Phalanx, Peace of Mind,” (page 82) is essentially indoctrinated into American society. I understand that in times of crisis people are looking for a magic-bullet type solution (which is what the Phalanx was), but it seems morally wrong that capitalist entrepreneurs like Breckinridge Scott are able to profit enormously on giving the American public a false sense of security and that the U.S. Government promotes the Phalanx drug even though they “knew Phalanx was a placebo, and were grateful for it [because Phalanx] calmed people down and let [them] do [their] job” (page 75). Former White House chief of staff, Grover Carlson, even admits to pushing Phalanx through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The American people should be able to have confidence that the FDA will serve its mission to protect U.S. public health and monitor the safety of food and drugs in the U.S., free from any political agenda.

Similarly, the Phalanx issue reminds me of the 1951 U.S. Civil Defense Bert the Turtle, “Duck and Cover” film shown to children in the 1950s during the Cold War. The 10-minute cartoon video provides instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. It explains that children should hide under their desks at school and should practice the duck and cover technique under desks, chairs, or tables –– all while a light-hearted and catchy song plays in the background of the video. In an effort to calm anxieties about a possible nuclear attack, the video compares a nuclear explosion to fire drills, car accidents, and really bad sunburns. However, in the event of a real nuclear attack, it is highly unlikely that hiding under a table would save someone’s life.

In both the Phalanx and “Duck and Cover” instances, the government is providing Americans with a false sense of security in an effort to prevent mass panic. Keeping the public calm is not in and of itself morally wrong. Indeed, governments have a duty to maintain the security of their countries and preventing mass panic certainly falls under the umbrella of security. So, in a democratic system like the U.S., is it the general American public’s responsibility to hold their government accountable and ensure that the information the government is providing is true to the best of their knowledge? Or, in the name of national security, should the government be able to rightfully justify knowingly withholding or even providing false information to the American people?



Was the Third Invasion just?

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is without a doubt my favourite book we have read so far in class. It is completely unlike any other book I have read. Though I am a bit ashamed to admit it, until this point, I have avoided science fiction novels in part because I have always struggled with science as a discipline and was intimidated by the genre and also because I naively believed science fiction novels were meant for people with a firm understanding of and intense fascination with outer space. However, Ender’s Game proved that not only could science fiction novels be very readable, –– thereby negating my hesitation because of possible challenging science concepts ­­–– but science fiction, and Ender’s Game specifically, is also highly applicable to other disciplines.

As an International Relations scholar, while I read Ender’s Game, I constantly found myself trying to discern whether or not the Third Invasion was just, in accordance with the Just War Tradition. To do so, I have decided to focus on three important criteria for a so-called ‘just war’, namely, discrimination, just cause, and proportionality. I have chosen to look at just cause because it serves as the primary motivating factor in the decision to go to war, while I have chosen to evaluate proportionality and discrimination because they are both essential to ensuring that the war stay just once it has begun and limit ‘collateral damage’. Certainly in blowing up the bugger’s planet, the Third Invasion did not discriminate between combatants and innocent civilians. However, it is more difficult to asses whether or not the Third Invasion had just cause or if it was a proportional response. On the one hand, it could be argued that the First and Second Invasions served as just cause for a pre-emptive Third Invasion and because the I.F. was likely to be extremely outnumbered, in order to succeed, it had to attack first. But, on the other hand, it could also be argued that there was not sufficient evidence to prove that the buggers would wage a third war after 80 years had passed since the Second Invasion. As we discussed in class, the ‘justness’ of the Third Invasion seems to be a matter of perspective. From the I.F.’s perspective, they were just in their actions because they knew the buggers would be difficult, if not impossible, to defeat if the I.F. waited for the buggers to attack first and so were noble in their efforts to protect humanity. Contrarily, the buggers likely saw the I.F. as an aggressor that lacked just cause, proportionality, and discrimination.

Still, I do not believe that the I.F. was inherently wrong in launching a pre-emptive attack. Of course, destroying the buggers planet and essentially committing an act of genocide is despicable for many different reasons, but I do not believe that the simple act of capitalizing on an opportunity and attacking first is in and of itself unjust. The fact of the matter is that technology and warfare is very different in Ender’s Game than warfare was when the Just War Tradition first became popular. In Ender’s Game, losing a war against the buggers means the destruction of the human race. The stakes are high. Furthermore, though Ender’s Game is set in the future and war is fought in outer space, the principle of the ‘justness’ of the Third Invasion is analogous to drone warfare in the War on Terror today. Both instances eliminate the human element of war, which can pose a serious threat to any likelihood of a ‘just’ war. With this in mind, is it even possible for a war to be ‘just’ either today or in the future?

Anthropology: An eternal journey for deeper understanding

While reading Lily King’s eloquent novel, Euphoria, I found myself frequently trying to discern which of the characters had the ‘best’ anthropological research style. I do not come from an anthropology background, so my reasoning was primarily based on what felt the most ‘right’, the style that respected the native peoples most and was most likely to lead to sound, lasting results.

I noticed that Bankson, a typical Englishman, seems to draw on his background in biology when conducting anthropology research. He prefers to observe, as if trying not to disturb the waters, and maintain as ‘objective’ as possible. But, it seems inherently futile to try to be an objective onlooker because our own experiences shape the kinds of things that we notice. On the other hand, Fen’s anthropological research style reflects his desire to live more like the people he is studying and so he fully immerses himself in the native cultures. In essentially throwing himself into the different cultures, Fen does not treat the local peoples’ way of life with respect. Perhaps from the local people’s perspective, it could feel as though a foreigner is intruding in their customs. Nell’s approach seems to be in the middle between Bankson and Fen’s styles. Not only does Nell assist in childbirths and invite local women into her house, but Nell also shows Sanjo and the other local men how to use her typewriter. In doing so, she develops relationships with the local people and teaches them about her own culture and way of life. In terms of anthropological research efficacy, on the one hand, it is good that Nell is engaging with locals and learning their language because she gains a deeper understanding of the people. However, on the other hand, in developing relationships with locals and introducing them to Nell’s own culture, there is a possibility that her results may contain some sort of bias or skew. That being said, if it is impossible to be completely objective when studying people, how does an anthropological researcher ensure that his or her results are valid? What does it mean to have valid anthropological results that accurately portray a community? Even more, what right does an outsider have to tell a community’s story?

Still, most startling about the characters’ anthropological research styles is the treatment of culture as a possession, a sort of ‘prize’ one can obtain. For instance, when Nell describes her experience after the first two months of research in a community she says, “at that moment the place feels entirely yours” (p. 50). Later in the novel Nell mentions that she is trying to “piece this culture together” (p.181). A culture is not a commodity. It is not a single entity that one can somehow ‘obtain’ or ‘possess’. In reflecting on this section of the novel, I thought of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s, author of the novel Americanah, TedTalk “The Danger of a Single Story”, in which Adichie describes how troubling it can be when someone thinks they know all there is to know about a subject from the information they have. I believe there is tremendous power in humility and appreciating that there is always more to learn on any given subject.

This being said, I do believe that Anthropology as a discipline is incredibly important and studying cultures around the world has tremendous value. However, as we discussed in class, it is also crucial that anthropological researchers conduct their work on the terms of the people they are studying, accept their own personal bias, and appreciate that their work will never truly be ‘complete’ since one can never truly fully understand the intricacies of a culture. Rather, anthropologists are fortunate enough to be on an eternal quest to learn from their peers and people around the world.

Discussing race in the U.S.

Racism is not dead. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us of this observation in her novel, Americanah. Having recently moved to the United States from Canada, I gained a lot from the protagonist’s, Ifemelu, experiences regarding race and racism in America. As Ifemelu points out, racism is a particularly contentious issue in the United States and, because it is such a contentious issue, discussions about race in the United States employ a certain ‘language’. For instance, in the United States, Ifemelu’s friend describes herself as multiracial, but in Nigeria her friend says that she is half-caste. Both terms are describing the same thing, but certain phrases are appropriate in one community, while others are not. Race and racism are issues in Canada as well, but they are not discussed or treated in the same manner as they are in the United States. Honestly, I am still learning what phrases to use and how to approach issues of race in the United States. So, I benefited significantly from Ifemelu’s perspective on appropriate expressions and behaviour.

As we discussed in class, too often people avoid talking about race because, quite frankly, it can be awkward. Personally, I am extremely nervous that I might use inappropriate language and possibly offend someone. However, a classmate pointed out that my temporary discomfort with the subject is very minimal compared to the discomfort that people who are part of a minority race in the United States face every day.

Furthermore, the novel Americanah reminds me of this year’s First Readings novel, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. In The New Jim Crow, Alexander argues that as a society we have trapped African Americans in a vicious cycle of racism through mass incarceration, and that we have a role to play in shaping the future. I found the story about the police’s expansive power to attempt to address the drug problem and society’s seeming acceptance –– through a lack of questioning –– of the perpetual cycle that results particularly insightful, because it made me think about the alleged wrongdoers, the people who are supposed to protect society, legislator’s roles in drafting policy, and our role in asking for change. Adichie makes a similar argument in Americanah when Ifemelu is hired to speak at different events because she is a lead blogger on race in the United States. At the events, Ifemelu notices that she was hired because of her blogging status, not necessarily because of her ideas for change. People wanted to say that they brought Ifemelu to speak and attended her events, but were less interested in changing their behaviour. In doing so, like in The New Jim Crow, the event-organizers and attendees are actually perpetuating the cycle of racism by not truly engaging with the issues.

Alexander and Adichie both encourage readers to engage in conversations about race, even though it might initially feel awkward. As Alexander highlights, the result of not discussing race or questioning racist behaviour and policies, is the current system of incarceration that disproportionately targets African Americans. In order to realize a true change in the system, we must stop pretending that racism is an issue of the past and listen intently to the people who are being oppressed.