When American Sniper was released, there was a lot of debate about the message of the film. Here is my view. American Sniper is definitely a conservative film, but it is a conservative film that situates itself in a larger conversation.
So what counts as a “conservative film?” There are lots of ways you could approach this, but here is one way. A film is conservative if the plot and treatment of subject matter reflects an important strain of conservative social thought and sentiment. For American Sniper, it is very obvious. The entire film is about a solider who is dedicated to the concept of service. At times, it means serving his country. At other times, it means serving his fellow soldiers. Even after he returns from Iraq, he spends his time with veterans who has disabilities and injuries. Another theme, more subtly stated, is that the service is done with integrity and honor. At no point in the film, is there any sense of exploitation or critique of military service.
For a lot of people, that is enough, but there is more to the film that qualifies the major point. For example, at least two scenes have fellow soldiers openly critique the Iraq mission. One is more direct and simply asks if it is worth it. A second scene has Chris Kyle reunite with a friend who is simply tired of it all: “Fuck Iraq.” An even more profound critique comes from the portrayal of the spouse who must raise their children by herself as he goes through four (!) tours of duty. In the middle of the film, she challenges him about his absence. In the final stages of the film, he shows symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. In the end, he is murdered by another veteran.
American Sniper is by no means an antiwar film. But it is a smart film that, however briefly, acknowledges that war is hell and its cost is high. It is also a film that hints at the savagery of it all, as it shows children being maimed. Even Kyle’s arch-enemy in battle is shown to have a family that deserves our sympathy. In the future, I hope that more films will probe the Iraq War in new and interesting ways.
The mathematician John Nash recently died as the result of an taxi accident in New Jersey. His importance as a scientist is based mainly on a very productive period in his early 20s before he was crippled by the onset of mental illness. His two main scientific contributions are the discovery of the Nash equilibrium for finite games and an extremely important theorem in differential geometry, which essentially states that there exists a vector space where you can embed a smooth surface without self-intersection in a distance preserving fashion.
Here, I want to focus a little on why Nash’s game theory work became so important. He was not the first to study competition within the framework of game theory. Before Nash, a number of economists and mathematicians had worked on game theory, but they got stuck. Some ran into technical problems and could not get beyond the concept of zero sum games. Other had a lack of imagination. The great mathematician Johnny Von Neumann, for example, focused on cooperative games.
Nash’s approach was simple and deep. If you could write down the pay-off matrix of a game, you can come up with the “best response.” If A follows strategy X1, then B’s best answer is Y1. Similarly, if A plays X2, then B will play Y2. It is not hard to see that you can parameterize this argument – you can continuously move from X1 to X2 and thus the other player will move from Y1 to Y2. The profound idea is that having an equilibrium means that the “curve” connecting X1 to X1 intersects the curve connecting Y1 to Y2 and the intersection always exists due to a super-deep theorem called the Kakutani fixed point theorem.
Nash’s approach is ingenious on many levels. It turned an economic modeling problem into a geometry problem. It is very general and works for any game with a finite number of moves. And it spurred the search for equilibrium concepts in even more general settings.
This post is a commentary on the controversy around Saida Grundy’s tweets. Recently, Grundy, posted tweets about the legacy of racism. The gist of Grundy’s tweets was that there is a legacy of racism and privilege that is not addressed in American society. At the AAUP blog, Arianne Shavisi summarizes the tweets well: “Grundy … an incoming sociology faculty member at Boston University, tweeted a set of remarks and rhetorical questions regarding white supremacy, slavery, and misogyny in the US.” The tweets generated controversy because they were written in an informal fashion and were interpreted by some as racist.
I want to focus on a few issues that have so far have not received much attention. Before I do, I want to be explicit about my own views. There is nothing wrong in asking if the majority in this country have enjoyed privilege or if people have truly acknowledged the history of racism in America. It is also not controversial to note that some ethnic groups, such as Whites, may be over represented on some issues. In terms of style, I would have been more careful. Twitter is the type of media where things can easily be taken out of context. What is funny, or witty, in person can go bad online. There is also a bit dispute over the administration’s response. My view is that university administrators should support an environment of academic free speech, but remain agnostic on particular faculty members.
There are two issues that I’d like to address: the history of controversy in African-American Studies and internet shaming. I’ve written previously in the Teachers College Record, and a little in my book, about the pattern of controversy around African-American Studies. This is relevant since Grundy is jointly appointed in African-American Studies and sociology. Since the beginning, the field has been the target of conservative critics who periodically use African-American Studies as an example of all that is wrong on higher education. During the 2012 Naomi Schaefer Riley incident, a journalist plucked titles of incomplete dissertations and made fun of them. One can go through the pages of conservative opinion journals and books to see periodic critiques of African-American Studies from the likes of John Derbyshire and Dinesh D’Souza (see page 238p, note 5 of the book). In an earlier era, scholars like Martin Kilson would go to the mainstream press to air complaints.
What is new is that these critics now have access to the social media output of African-American Studies scholars. An enterprising critic could comb Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to find the most outrageous things. They can quickly go viral and trigger a wave of outrage overnight. Still, one should keep in mind that it still fits an overall pattern of external critics obsessing over African American Studies as a symbol of the liberal rot of academia. The only difference is the speed at which this can happen. Thus, as I noted above, it is wise to exercise prudence in such a hostile environment.
Second, there is an element of Internet shaming happening here. The journalist Ron Jonson has a new book called “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” that describes how in the modern age people can use comments and social media to instantaneously tarnish a person’s reputation. The normal punishment for an off-color joke or poorly worded remark is a mild reprimand. Now, the very same minor offense can lead to losing one’s job and a potentially irreparable mark on one’s reputation. Jonson also notes that Internet shaming often is highly unequal in that Internet rage is often directed at women. Here, the insult is compounded. Grundy is an early career scholar and this incident has already been a serious burden.
This incident reflects a number of factors coming together. Twitter can translate wit into rancor; social media magnifies mistakes; and there is a ready to go outrage machine just waiting for the jarring statement from an ethnic studies professor. I hope in the future that we can better deal with this phenomena and that this scholar can start a fruitful research career.
In this post, I’d like to explain why you might want to adopt open borders as one of your issues. First, open borders is an issue that affects all people. Any one of us might want to travel to another country for work or enjoyment. For millions of people, migration represents the only plausible avenue out of poverty.
Second, open borders is a “common grounds” issue. It is a policy position that is consistent with most political ideologies. Liberals should favor free migration because it is the easiest way to address poverty and global inequality. Conservatives should support it on the grounds that moving to find work is an example of self-reliance. Conservatives should also support any policy that allows families to be reunited. Libertarians should support free migration because they favor open labor markets. Marxists should support any policy that allows poor workers to travel freely to be in places with the strongest labor practices.
Third, open borders is cheap. No need to build schools, roads, tanks, or anything. All you need to do is tell the border guards to take the day off and go protect things that need protecting.
Fourth, open borders is easy to understand compared to most policy topics. Honestly, most people don’t understand climate science or Keynesian macro-economics. In contrast, most arguments about the pros and cons of migration can be understood by nearly any educated person. The empirical evidence is also relatively straightforward.
If you have ever wondered how you can change the world, adopt open borders as one of your political issues and tell other people.