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.

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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?

our poor, fractured home

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I had a discussion with a friend recently about how highly we regarded cultures that emphasized meals as a gustatory and social event, instead of our own, which commodifies time and makes eating a solitary habit even in the presence of others. The TV dinner comes to mind. T. S. Eliot said, “Television is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.” We sit around one another and learn nothing, say nothing, and most importantly we expose nothing.

I’m not going to give some hackneyed rhetoric against this practice, which no doubt any Westerner has heard (at least of the English speaking world) because more important than targeting it is understanding why it exists, and also because it most certainly has been spotted since its inception.

It’s impossible to address this issue without wondering whether the TV dinner or any other noncommunicative meal is used as a bandage for familial dysfunction. Rather than argue or miscommunicate, it’s much easier to avoid one another with a distraction, or simply avoid the meal altogether. Many families are so busy that neither child nor parent can find time in their schedules that allows for simultaneous dining (and tell me that’s not a symptom of something). But why do families miscommunicate or fail to communicate at all?

For so many reasons: technology, class, education, interests, personality, culture. It would be hard to name all the culprits, nor very productive, because these are all, again, symptoms.

If one were to look at the happier families or groups, one sees shared interests, shared values, shared language (I don’t mean the same as in all speak, say Finnish, but that the words being used are understood by all parties, carrying the same definition. And pay attention to the word “shared”). The Scandinavians are generally considered to be the happiest group of people in the world. If examines them, they will see racial, religious, cultural, and social homogeneity. The more similar we are to one another, the happier we are. I have to warn here that I am not at all advocating any kind of ethnic cleansing or forced conformity. But this dissonance we find in American culture matters (I can only speak for my own country), and it is very evident in all aspects of life.

Just look at the proliferation of articles dealing with how to be a man, or how a man should treat or ask out a woman, or etiquette to hook ups or so many other phenomena; it’s very evident that we don’t really know what to do or say, even within our own social groups. Nothing can be tacit anymore because anything or nothing can be implied, too much is misunderstood or not understood at all. Values and mores are in complete and constant flux, and between generations this gap can be even more pronounced. Increasing the nuclear family is strained, and where before there were strong communities to keep people from falling through the cracks, the advance of the center-less city has decimated such a net. We are constantly segmented into our own age groups and rarely work or interact with people of a different generation. Just look at how segregated bars are according to social groups, with infringement on such environments (i.e. going to a bar you’re your crowd is not welcome at) bringing on greater isolation within those environments.

This all has a great impact not just on how we pass time and eat our meals, but also on our politics. The Scandinavian countries have a strong social democracy, and they believe that they government has a duty to help people and care for them. That’s impossible here because of strong bigotry and distrust in this country. Resentment against other racial or ethnic, groups, genders, or sexual orientations has created the gridlock we face today. One side actively yearns for Scandinavian style social democracy while the other does but can’t get over its prejudices to work for it. That is, as one might hear someone saying, “I don’t want that damned, lazy other group getting my hard earned cash for their special privileges.”

I think this all looks pretty bleak, and it may appear that there is no way forward, but there is, and it is the answer that I have mentioned quite a few times already: communication. We need active discussion between groups. We need dialogue that is not out to prove a point but to foster understanding.  The bigots will always have cotton stuck in their ears, and they may always be around. But ignore them, we need to be speaking to people of all stripes, we need to seek out people who are different from us and talk to them. Get over the awkwardness, because we need to talk about real shit that matters. Talk, talk, talk. And then listen, listen, listen. It is the only thing that will save us.

I see now, how funny it all is, that the only way to end these TV dinners and sort out all these problems is to start talking to each other. How wonderfully straightforward.

being black at michigan

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It is a little disheartening to see the wider reaction to the Being Black at University of Michigan movement (#BBUM). Commenters and “activists” like Jennifer Gratz have condemned the the list of demands recently put out by the Black Student Union as asking for special treatment, and as trying to separate themselves from everyone else (and thereby being racist). I don’t like to be this blunt, but it is pure ignorance to think that blacks are racist because they don’t see themselves as being like everyone else; such thoughts probably are even racist. Blacks don’t think they are different than everyone else (read: whites) because they all got together and hashed out the idea that if they played the victim they could extort money from hard working whites, and if you believe this it is because you think blacks are lazy, which is a racist notion. If black people think they are different than whites it is because they are reminded of that on a daily basis, not because they want to be different. The whole point of this movement is that they WANT to be included in the University of Michigan community.

I recently graduated from the University of Michigan, and I understand these students’ demands very well. The percentage of the state’s black population is 14.2 percent and nationally that rate is 12.6. I was not surprised by the low Hispanic population at the university because, though the national percentage is 16.3, the state percentage is much lower. The schools I attended K-12 had very few Hispanics, and in the state they mostly reside in Mexicantown, Detroit, or in Holland on the western side of the state. But what did bother me was that the University employed almost exclusively Spaniards for their Spanish department. I believe there were two Colombians (one retired recently) and a Puerto Ricans; the rest were Spanish. Why the complete lack of diversity? Why not even one Mexican professor? This always was something that grated me about the classes.

In our supposed post-racial society, why are enrollment rates for Hispanics and blacks at this top university falling? Asian and Indian students, just based on demographics, are heavily overrepresented. I met more Chinese international students than I did Hispanics, and I had more friends who were Asian or Indian than I did Hispanics or blacks. I don’t want to go deeply into this issue because it would require an entire entry, but suffice it to say that money is the greatest predictor of whether someone will go to college or not, and all the Indians and Asians had wealthier families than I. I am not trying to “shame” people for being wealthy, but I don’t believe that wealth makes a person “smarter” than poorer students, just better educated due to attending better schools, which is why the fact that 70 percent of the University of Michigan’s student body comes from families making over $100,000 a year in part helps explain this discrepancy. U of M is the most expensive public university in the country, which puts it out of reach for many poorer students, of any color.

Universities also have an incentive to draw in a diverse student body, and this is the reason why some students with worse scores can get in (and regardless of color. I knew a white girl who quickly dropped out due to being unable to keep up with the academic rigor). They don’t want only the best students because that doesn’t make for a dynamic community. Any Asian student can tell you this. They have to score even better than whites because they are competing with other Asians who are scoring even better. Asians and Indians would dominate the top universities (so now we see affirmative action in reverse). So unless you believe in a complete meritocracy, you should see that even whites are benefited by some racial quota, even if it is not called that. And already you can feel the resentment grow against Asian and Indian students for their huge numbers in the university system.

So now we have a bunch of commenters (majority white) who are upset that the black students are asking for special privileges. This is just plain ignorant. We don’t call shelters and food programs for the homeless and poor special privileges. Looking at the statistics about blacks in the U.S. show that they are poorer, less educated, and, especially among men, incarcerated. It is not racist or calling blacks victims to say that many of them need help. Why would we want a society that, due to what you were born into, strongly predicts where you will end up? Just as we want to help the poor, we should also help any group that needs it. If you are a Christian, I would refer you to the parable of the Prodigal Son (this of course isn’t a perfect analogy. I am not saying blacks squandered their inheritance, but that you shouldn’t punish people for being poor, but welcome them and include them regardless of their condition). The people who think this is special privilege don’t understand the reality of life at U of M. Not that many black students live near the central campus because it is extremely expensive (You are looking at the very least $500 just for a shitty room, not including utilities and internet), which is why the group wants cheap housing on central campusto have a greater, more visible black presence. White students don’t need to ask for greater representation because they are the majority, and closely resemble the percentage of whites in the country. The undergraduate student body is 65% white, while making up 62 percent of our youth (the older population has a greater white population but they do not attend the university, obviously in nearly the same numbers). It behooves society to give all groups of any socioeconomic definition a fair representation at the university level because higher education is paramount to achieving greater success and being able to send your own children off to college. If we want to continue to keep poor Hispanics and blacks undereducated and struggling, then let’s continue this facade of equal opportunity in this country. Helping these groups is not going to make them lazy or give them the attitude of “entitlement” that so many white people think that minorities have. If you believe these kinds of arguments, that we shouldn’t help some groups more than other groups because it isn’t fair, that it is racist to address racial issues, then you really need to take a look at the logic you are using to arrive at these conclusions. I bet it’s racist.