why are some american wars so popular?

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The two most popular wars in American history, just based anecdotally on TV documentaries, books, movies, and video games, are the American Civil War and World War II.  Despite the youth of the country, the land now known as the United States has a long history of warfare. Just based off of this Wikipedia page, there are over well over eighty. I lost track towards the end. A cursory examination would suggest that of course these two wars, of huge significance to the country, would be the most popular and thus best represented in our various mediums And the appeal of the two wars is undeniable. But why the glut? Most consumers of media would agree that World War II content is oversaturated in the market, resulting in some fatigue and backlash, even as the war remains a prominent topic. Couldn’t there be room for a lesser known war to be represented? No, there is not, and due to reasons financial and cultural.

Let’s examine movies. If we look at two very successful American war films, Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot, and compare the international gross with the domestic gross, the result is roughly a 1:1 correlation in both cases. Most blockbusters expect to make the majority of their gross by the international market, which is much larger and therefore more lucrative, than the smaller domestic market. That’s why the studios tend to play to a wide audience, by dumbing down the material and laying in a lot of action. Poor dialogue doesn’t matter when most viewers will read subtitles in their own language. Having a broad audience also means that very “American” movies, that is, movies that deal with our history and therefore less universal, will always gross less. Let’s compare E.T.’s gross with Saving Private Ryan, since both are widely acclaimed Spielberg movies. E.T. made more at the international box office by a 2:1 margin compared to domestic. The latest Amazing Spider-Man likewise made almost double internationally, as did the first Pirates of the Caribbean. Purely on a financial basis, it makes more sense to create films with universal themes and no historical lessons required because you can double your money or at least make 50 percent more.

It must be said, of course, that is a large, domestic audience that will consume American films made for Americans. But these movies tend to be smaller, more family drama, and with far less of a budget. Not nearly enough for a proper war flick. But even if such a movie were to be funded, it is unlikely that it would be made. If you had clicked on the Wikipedia link and perused the list, you might have be a little stunned to see how many Indian wars the U.S. has engaged in. The death throes of a culture systematically wiped out by overwhelming and sophisticated force is hardly the invigorating story that we Americans like to hear. There is no way for us to feel like the victors, even as we are the victors. Likewise, wars that took place on the continent before the birth of the nation are equally unappealing. The Pequot War was one of savagery – on both sides – and unmitigated aggression. The genocide of the Arawaks won’t exactly inspire pride in the Great Explorer. The conquests of the Aztec and Incan empires would not, without a heaping dose of racism, be palatable. The same goes for the Mexican-American War, or the Fiji, Sumatran, or Korean expeditions. We don’t talk about the black ships. These are all wars of territorial conquest and aggression, not noble conflicts against evil. Even the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan have proven ill-fitting in let us put on our American flag pants. The only war that America has “lost” is the Vietnam War (though we did get our asses handed to us in 1812), which, when represented, is a symbol of callous military destruction and cruelty. It shows that war is hell.

World War II and the Civil War, on the other hand, are something to be proud of. In the former we saved the world and destroyed pure evil (Nazism, the Holocaust, and the Soviets are why the European theatre is more popular); we were just. In the latter, the North takes pride in the war fought to preserve the Union and end slavery, while the south feels it to be a noble war lost (perhaps somewhat how leftists feel about the Spanish Civil War), and marked the end of their “aristocratic golden era”, a war waged to preserve its culture. Plus, civil wars are always a topic of great interest in their respective countries.

This leaves one war that seems somehow made for a movie and never has, to my knowledge. The Seven Years’ War, or the French-Indian War in the U.S. The original global conflict, with combat theatres in Europe, North America, Central America, the West African coast, India, and the Philippines. Oh, but we don’t like stories that don’t involve us (or white people), which is why Toussaint Louverture’s story will likely never be told, and if it does then it will for some reason star a white guy. I’m not kidding about the racism; notice the conspicuous absence of blacks in war movies, especially in wars where they were active, like the Civil War and World War II. Glory and Red Tails are all that come to mind, neither of which grossed much at all. It’s why Driving Miss Daisy beat out Do the Right Thing and Glory for an Oscar and grossed almost three times as both films combined. At least at the time it seemed people were more comfortable with blacks in servile roles than in active roles, like killing white people and rioting. But that’s all behind us now, as 12 Years a Slave won an Oscar, which coincidentally had to be made by the British, and was still out grossed by American Hustle despite, in all honesty, being one of the most important films in decades. And belabor to point only a little more, any statistic will show that women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and any other minority (like transgender), are grossly underrepresented in our mainstream media.

finally, an apt hitler comparison

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Hitler, ever the boogeyman of the Western World, is one name that truly suffers from the extreme hyperbole it is subjected to on a daily basis. If someone is strict in some regard they can be a grammar nazi, or the supposed extreme feminists called Feminazis. One partisan propaganda machine is compared to that of Goebbels by the opposite party. If you are extreme left you get called a Nazi, the extreme right you are fascist. Most abusers of language don’t understand the danger that this exaggeration places people in. By removing Nazism from its context and what it was, and shoving it into inane, untenable portmanteaus that serve no purpose other than disparagement, we run the risk of making the terms Hitler, Nazi, and fascism meaningless. We stop seeing the actual dangers of fascism and fascist-like ideologies, and merely understand the words to connote evil or strict.

For once we are actually seeing references to Nazi Germany in an appropriate manner, even if quite a bit of damage has already been done. I noted in myself how weary I am of comparisons to the rise of the Third Reich, but what is happening in Ukraine right now fits the description well. Much like Germany, Russia is using the excuse of protecting Russian interests and ethnic Russians. The former apology is one that has been used very often in American history: The Spanish-American War, almost invading Mexico during their revolution, as well as various occupations of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the whole (long) list of supporting coup d’états in order to establish pro-American governments. The latter, however, rings of the Nazi Germany and lebensraum. Russia has no business trying to “protect” people of Russian heritage. As a state, its only duty is to its citizens, which can potentially be of any heritage. There are Russians all over the world, does that mean Russia would occupy a Russian concentrated area in the U.S. to protect ethnic Russians? No, it’s obviously a false pretense, and an excuse to justify their actions.

The recent, increased suppression of homosexuals in Russia also speaks to a historical precedent. Sochi, in hindsight, feels reminiscent of the ’36 Berlin Olympics, as the issue of the recent event was homosexual rights, while the past was noted for how race played into the politics of the games. What Putin is accomplishing here is creating a straw man, blaming homosexuals for the erosion of Russian cultural values and diminishing Russia’s power. The anti-gay laws that were enacted were designed to remove homosexuality from the public sphere. If this trend continues, it will be almost exactly like the methods used against Jews during the Shoah, which marginalized Jews to outside of the rest of the population with rules that singled them out, took away their rights, and with resettlement and ghettos allowed for their elimination almost outside of the public’s eyesight. Much in the way that Hitler was able to use anti-Semitic sentiments to rouse his base, Putin is also consolidated power by demonstrating strength with a military buildup (classic Hitler move), finding a group culpable for the loss of culture, and engaging in imperial expansion under the pretense of aiding Russians outside the country. That is lebensraum, though I don’t know the word for it in Russian. This is all more Third Reich than it is Soviet Union; it is not a return to the cold war, but an imperialist moment in a time when we all thought there would be no more European wars of conquest.

In no way am I advocating that we should go to war with Russia right now. Neville Chamberlain continues to receive posthumous flak for pussyfooting with Hitler, and the result was that Hitler became emboldened, or so the story goes. A lot of American pundits no doubt want to compare Obama to Chamberlain, a typical American-centric view of the world, especially ignorant today as Merkel is by far the most important player other than Putin in this dangerous game. My point though, is that Chamberlain, some have argued, was strategically delaying the war, because Great Britain did not have the necessary force to combat Hitler, especially after the Great Depression. Today we are (supposedly) just leaving our Great Recession, and war may be at our doorsteps. It is true that we have the most formidable military in the world, and would likely have the backing of the EU and maybe even China. But, because not a single shot has been fired yet, it will do the whole world good to work diplomacy to the best that we can. Once the shooting starts there is no guarantee it can be stopped until many bodies have paid the price. Long before that, we should exhaust our diplomatic resources to end this affair as bloodlessly as we can.

 

Oh, did I forget to mention South Ossetia?

left vs. right part 2

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The issue of states’ rights has long been tied to race in America. Cases like Plessy v. Fergusson and Dredd Scott v. Sandford illuminate this very clearly. States’ rights is not an ideological argument but one based on geography. Strom Thurmond led the Dixiecrat party, and before that was the Democratic Governor of South Carolina. George Wallace was also elected on the Democrat ticket –  in Alabama – and like Thurmond, was noted for being progressive on the race issue in his own state. Wallace, as a judge, addressed black men in his court by their last name, instead of calling them by their first names as the rest of the judges did. This respectful formality and fairness he showed to blacks earned Wallace the endorsement of the NAACP when he first ran for governor, an election which he lost due to his opponent’s vehemence against segregation. Within hours of the loss, he was quoted as saying, “I was outniggered by George Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.” After that, Wallace became one of the staunchest supporters of segregation in the country, declaring at his inauguration four years later, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” This language earned him a rebuke, and after he learned to use the coded language of states’ rights, which Strom Thurmond started (though it wasn’t quite coded at the time) in his opposition to Truman’s efforts to end segregation. The most important take away from this is understanding that many issues are not ideological but geographical. This is why the Republican Party was able to so swiftly become the party of the American South, by playing up the most important issue in the area, which was integration. This is not to say that only the South was racist, as George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon received widespread, though varying levels of, support around the country. It was that the issue of race was far more immediate in the South than the rest of the country. Even though Southerners may have supported liberal economic policies, their stance on social issues were much deeper.

Unfortunately, this has resulted in a conflation of race and economic policy in the United States that has served to undercut the poor, who often vote against their own interests unconsciously. Think about terms like “welfare queen,” which implicate the government safety nets and the supposed work ethic of blacks. Some would support this argument by stating the greater percentage of blacks on welfare than whites as proof that blacks are lazy, which the data, viewed decontextualized and very simplistically, would seem to make validate. This of course ignores that the problem of poverty is an issue of location. That those who live in locations are under-serviced, have poor schools, high crime, and  have other factors that limit the economic viability of its people is hardly a surprise, but in understanding the why we come to a chicken-egg problem that is explained differently depending on whether one believes entirely in individual responsibility or systemic issue creating systemic problems. The battle over how we conceive these issues is, again, geographical rather than ideological. Red states, which tend to rail against welfare, receive the greatest amounts of money from the federal government. Under the Reagan administration, welfare programs were cut while the national debt surged. As a contrast, federal aid programs grew even bigger under JFK and LBJ at the same time that we fought the war in Vietnam. The result? The national debt declined all through the sixties. Those who blame programs like Social Security don’t realize that the amount paid into Social Security is less than the amount paid out. The surplus is then used to fund other parts of the government’s budget.

So why this gap between what the Republican Party claims it wants and what it actually does? The reality is that the wealthy individuals who control the Republican party with their campaign funding are using race to play white voters against their own interests. A strong safety net helps everyone. If we compare welfare and trickle down economics, what we see is that by giving welfare to the poor, who must spend every dollar on surviving, the economy is able to continue functioning. Money is spent on food, clothing, rent, heating, water, gas, etc., all the basic essentials to living. Wealthy individuals, on the other hand, don’t need to buy as much of these necessities, being far fewer in number than the poor. Luxury products, though expensive, have high overheads, unlike cheaper consumer goods, which means more money goes to businesses and the wealthy individuals who own it, than to the workers. Therefore, tax cuts to the rich really do nothing for the economy, just in the same way that a strong stock market has no bearing on how well off workers are. Not that the Democrats will be our saviors. In order to remain a viable political party, they have had to make a sharp right since the Reagan years. The momentum of the Civil Rights movement has helped the party maintain its position on social issues, though one would hardly call them courageous for it. Similarly, their base is populated by union members, which requires they at least pay lip service to their constituents, even as they give them the shaft as they did with the Affordable Care Act.

To return again to the issue of states’ rights, what it remains is a way to speak about social issues in an underhanded manner. Controversial topics (today) like abortion, gay rights, and voter I.D. laws are wrapped up with states’ rights. We’ve even had North Carolina create a measure that declared the state did not recognize federal court rulings that have prevented states from declaring a state religion (which fortunately was struck down). The element of religion is a somewhat recent addition to modern American politics, which has proven to be very interesting for the GOP’s big tent.

left vs. right part 1

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As with so many other fields (sociology, psychology, to name a few), in order to make some sense of the differences between ‘groups’, we must create some boundaries in order to narrow the field enough to generalize adequately. To describe the difference in thinking between the left and the right is no doubt reductive, there being myriad variations within a group (part of the reason why stereotypes are so damaging), but it is still a useful bit of information to have. To boil it all down though, the constituents that remain suggest the greatest difference between left and right thinking is how we construct the world, that is, whether we assign more power to the individual or to the systems they exist within and are molded by.

The right in the United States identify as conservatives and are generally represented by the GOP at the political level, which also contains the Tea Party. This is common knowledge, but let’s talk about how we arrived here. The Republican Party began as an anti-slavery party in opposition to the Democratic party that dominated the South. Part of the reason for this political stance was that the Republicans supported capitalism. Capitalism, despite what many people are taught, is a system where workers sell their labor to employers who own the materials, the location, and the tools. It does not require a free market system in order to function. This distinction is important because this is what separates capitalism from feudalism or serfdom and slavery. Though the southern plantation owners could sell their goods into a free market, this did not make it capitalism, as people were commodified and not their labor. The Republican Party of the 19th century wanted a capitalist nation, not a slave nation (they were, in their time, very “liberal”). From this, the Grand Old Party morphed into a business party that represented the interests of capitalists and business owners. The Democratic Party, after the Civil War, represented white agricultural interests and opposed the efforts of the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction in the South. These differing interests help explain why, when one looks at electoral maps, we generally see and continue to see the North and the South voting for opposite parties. After Reconstruction ended the South continued to resent the Republican Party and rarely ever voted for Republican candidates, especially after the former slaves were disfranchised with restrictive voting laws. Literacy tests, with exemptions for those whose grandfathers could vote before 1963 (i.e. white men), as well as violence and the threat of violence, kept blacks from voting for the party of Lincoln. [As a side note, the reason why there is an explosion of violence against blacks in the South is because they were no longer goods, which meant damages to their bodies no longer carried an economic cost, nor did they have masters interested in their continued existence. Slavery though, for all intents and purposes, did not cease after the 14th Amendment. It continued into the 20th century. See John Pace’s Slave Farm for more on this.] After the turn of the century, neither party was viewed as the civil rights party or the labor party, which the Democratic party would come to be.

The Great Depression threw the Republican Party out of office, and in order to save American capitalism, Franklin Roosevelt helped make compromises, between the socialist and communist parties agitating for revolution or radical reform, and the capitalist business owners whose property would be at risk in such a revolution. Therefore, FDR helped ameliorate the plight of the laborer in America with thick safety nets, public spending, social welfare, and the legitimization of labor unions, all movements which had their roots in the Progressive Era . The Democratic Party dumped classic liberal economics in favor of Keynesian economics, which they continued to support until the Reagan Revolution. In the 50s and 60s the Democratic became the civil rights party with Lyndon B. Johnson pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the assassination of JFK. This is likely one of the most important transitions in modern American history, because prior to this the South was firmly Democrat territory. The South strongly supported the New Deal, and much of the Great Society was focused on Appalachia, with programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority designed to bring the South into the modern age with electricity, running water, and other infrastructure. This change is most observable in the 1968 election of Richard Nixon. Within one presidential term the South switched from the Democratic Party, which represented them since before the Civil War, and helped bring many out of poverty and into one of the most prosperous times in American history, to the Republican Party of which its right wing continued to fight the New Deal some thirty years later. Brown v. Board of Education, though its ruling was in the fifties, wasn’t really enforced until the 60s. The rise of politicians like Barry Goldwater and George Wallace help to explain why the Republican Party came to dominate the South, and eventually much of the American landscape.

In my next post I will continue to discuss how the Republican came to its modern form up to the current date.