Political readings of “Lego Movie 2”

It’s a trap…

A few years back I wrote about the The Lego Movie and how it captured the operation of fascism in a form that was both accessible and about as enjoyable as fascism ever can be.

Some readers of this blog were unhappy that I’d ruined that film for them, so it’s only right I try to do that for another generation of scholars and young parents.

The Lego Movie 2 isn’t as good as the first one (confine discussion of whether this is ever possible to yourself, away from me), but obviously I watched it, because, well, Lego.

This aside, there’s still plenty of politics going on in the film., which I’ll write about now with some mild spoilers (because you’re not 9 years old and because you’re a serious scholar).

For the IR types among you, there’s a whole bunch of realism going on, with security dilemmas, anarchy and the brutishness that this engenders in actors. The collapse of the (ultimately benign) dictatorship in the first movie produces a literal and metaphorical wasteland in which actions are guarded and security is everything. The final reconciliation of the actors this time occurs when they identify a common external threat and work together to overcome it.

As a musing on power in its various forms, the movie offers a useful way to conceptualise how actors operate under uncertainty and the tension between collaborative and conflictual action, as captured in the notions of being a ‘master builder’ or a ‘master smasher’.

For the gender scholars, there’s a bunch of gendered roles, paternalism (and maternalism), as well as how children ‘become’ adults going on in all this too. It’s also a classic of the ‘absent father’ trope and all that implies.

But for my purposes, the film is all about constructivism.

The logic of appropriateness runs through the entire piece, as individuals strive and struggle to either fit into their environment or communicate their intentions.

If Emmet’s arc is one of finding a persona and an attitude that works from him (puberty alert!), then Bianca’s is one of learning to signal intentions less ambiguously.

As someone who teaches negotiation, I recognised a lot of these tensions from my classroom, where students are apt to adopt personae as ‘negotiators’ that don’t always sit comfortably with their more general sense of being.

In both classroom and the film, individuals try out different gambits, with varying degrees of sincerity and of success. But ultimately, as the film suggests, it is when there is a more open exchange of views that progress is made, clearing up the confusions and misunderstandings and realigning how we view other’s actions.

Indeed, the whole film turns on how individuals perceive one another and themselves: Finn misunderstands Bianca; Emmet is misled by Rex; Lucy struggles (as in the first film) with her sense of identity; Batman has to learn about living with light as well as dark; and Superman has to find accommodation with the Green Lantern.

Identity here is thus not purely about being true to yourself, but also about being true to others. Whether you accept that being doing both you end up with a happy society – as the movie argues (as movies are wont to do) – is another matter.

But however you take it, this case highlights how we can use cultural products to illustrate and illuminate our teaching: the beauty of politics is that it is pervasive, so we can find it pretty much anywhere we look, if we choose to see.

Comparative Politics 2019, Part 3

Another post on changes this year in my comparative politics course:

As usual, students are reading a lot of academic journal articles, especially from the Journal of Democracy. Although the writing in this journal is very user-friendly — concise sentences, little jargon — students lack the kind of familiarity with the genre that I do. Identifying and evaluating the elements of the author’s argument is a skill that gets better with practice, and the undergraduate students that I see need a lot of practice.

I regularly assign journal article analyses in my graduate courses. My original instructions for this assignment were too long so I simplified them. But I can’t assume that the process of analyzing the argument made in a text is immediately understandable to the average undergraduate. Years ago, I used an in-class exercise in textual analysis in an attempt to give undergrads some training in this skill. An actual example of the exercise can be found here. But I was never quite satisfied with the results.

On the first day of class this semester, I tried a new exercise, in part to prepare students for Seymour Martin Lipset’s “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited: 1993 Presidential Address,” from American Sociological Review 59, 1. This article includes an abstract that handily functions as a summary for the reader. Journal of Democracy articles don’t have abstracts, so I redacted it. I projected the article’s introduction on the wall screen and asked the class to examine each paragraph in sequence to identify Lipset’s subject (which is stated at end of the first page and beginning of the second page).

I then divided the class into groups of two or three students each, and gave each group copies of a different section of the article. Each section presents a particular set of characteristics that, in Lipset’s opinion, facilitates the institutionalization of democracy. I asked students in each group to identify the characteristics discussed in the section that group had been given. Each group then reported its findings to the class, which I wrote on the board.

The exercise seem to work well in terms of demonstrating how to pull apart a journal article’s argument, and it made the first day of class a lot more productive than it usually is. The challenge will be to engage students in this type of exercise using articles that have a more complex structure.

Comparative Politics 2019, Part 2

In addition to creating new writing prompts for my comparative politics course this year, I have re-arranged the order in which students encounter different topics. Last year’s version of the course was sequenced as follows:

  • Methods
  • Theory
  • State and Nation
  • Democracy
  • Authoritarianism
  • Political Transitions
  • Political Economy
  • Resistance, Rebellion, and Revolution
  • Gerhkania simulation

This time around the sequence is:

  • Theory
  • Nation and State
  • Democracy
  • Methods
  • Authoritarianism
  • Political Transitions
  • Resistance, Rebellion, and Revolution
  • Political Economy
  • Gerkhania simulation

Why the change? Last year I found myself explicating about research methods used in comparative politics before students had any significant exposure to what actually gets compared. Instead of encountering puzzling real-world situations that might have excited their curiosity, they had to fixate on the mechanics of doing a most similar systems design or a qualitative comparative analysis.

This year these assignments won’t begin until the second third of the semester. I won’t have to rush through my material on methods, and I will have more opportunities in class to ask students “What kind of research design might allow us to compare these cases in a way that allows us satisfactorily answer the question?”  

Comparative Politics 2019, Part 1

In line with the first and third bullet points in my post last year about teaching comparative politics, I’ve tried to make the relationships between course learning objectives, readings, and writing assignments more transparent to students. I’ve done this in part by making writing prompts refer more explicitly to what I want students to learn. For example, here is last year’s assignment about Venezuela, which I placed in the section of the course about democracy:


  • Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully, “Latin America: Eight Lessons for Governance,” Journal of Democracy 19, 3 (July 2008): 113-127.
  • Uri Friedman, “How Populism Helped Wreck Venezuela,” The Atlantic, 4 Jun 2017.
  • Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro, “Venezuela Is Falling Apart,” The Atlantic, 12 May 2016.
  • Juan Cristobal Nagel, “Venezuela’s Constitutional Crisis,” Caracas Chronicles, 12 January 2016.
  • Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera, As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger,” The New York Times, 17 December 2017.

Of Mainwaring and Scully’s eight lessons, which is most relevant for Venezuela? Why?

Answering the above question requires reading the Journal of Democracy article, which is good. Yet the question also demands that students apply a general framework to a specific context that is totally unfamiliar to them. A few newspaper and magazine articles aren’t enough to give students a clear sense of what is happening in Venezuela’s political system. The end result is a badly-constructed rhetorical situation likely to generate answers that aren’t relevant to the learning objectives behind the assignment.

Here is the 2019 version of the assignment, which I have placed in the section of the course on political protest:

Continue reading

From Frying Pan To Fire?

A brief meditation on teaching in the era of Trump. From a comparative perspective. In more ways than one.

As someone whose income is in the world’s top one percent, I have the luxury of partaking in long-distance travel on a purely voluntary basis. Soon I’ll be vacationing outside the USA, a country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters. My destination? A country where corrupt, narcissistic xenophobes are doing their best to undermine the rule of law, with the full approval of their supporters.

So yes, I see parallels, despite the geographic and cultural differences. The tribalistic nationalism. The sexism. The religious justifications. The cronyism. Most of all, the constant attempts to de-legitimize the very institutions that originally put these people into positions of power.

I know that I’m a bit more sensitive to the symbiotic relationship between popular prejudices and abusive government than many people, in part because my wife, as a Muslim and an immigrant, is classified as both a terrorist and a rapist in Trumpspeak. But history demonstrates that those who engage in idol worship and willful ignorance as a means to an end rarely see their expectations met.

And here is the connection to my teaching: the basic principle that I try to convey to students is that one benefits by comparing, as open-mindedly as possible, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Curiosity-driven analysis leads to unexpected insights, sounder judgments, and more satisfying outcomes in life. And it is quite acceptable to make mistakes along the way as long as one takes the time to try to figure out why things went wrong.

Unfortunately I am seeing an increasing resistance to this message among U.S. undergraduates. Far too many expect to be intellectually and morally validated solely on the basis of personal opinion. Far too few exhibit a willingness to consider the possibility that perspectives which differ from their own might have merit. If some students perceive my teaching as a threat to the comfortable psychological environment that they have constructed for themselves, I get labeled authoritarian, racist, sexist, or otherwise unprofessional — revenge for being told that their academic performance is not of the quality that they believe it to be. Who am I to tell them that they are not perfect?

This probably makes me sound like a disgruntled, insufferable elitist. But I wonder if we folks in the USA are in the midst of a disaster of our own making. Unstructured and unsupervised play during childhood has become the exception rather than the rule. Reality TV, online personae, and the War on Terror have been background noise for as long as today’s teenagers have been alive. Anxiety and depression are epidemic on college campuses. And now government by distortion, outrage, and caprice has been normalized. It’s probably only natural that many undergraduates think everyone has the right to their own immutable set of alternative facts.

Additional Snippets from Comparative Politics

A few more quick thoughts about my comparative politics course, which just ended . . .

On the last day of class, I distributed pieces of paper and asked students to write down what they thought were the two best and two worst assigned readings, and to include brief explanations of their choices. Nine students were in the room — out a class of ten. Despite such a small sample, I will go out on a limb and draw some conclusions, all of which relate to transparency:

  • I should preface each writing assignment with a very brief overview of how assigned readings relate to the topic at hand, because students don’t automatically know this. For the question “Does Chinese culture promote authoritarianism?” the class read an interview with Singapore’s former leader Lee Kuan Yew. Two of the students didn’t understand that Yew, being of Chinese ancestry like many other Singaporeans, was discussing his views on Chinese cultural norms.
  • I should also explicitly inform students that readings are written in different styles for different audiences, which means that some of the readings will be more difficult and less enjoyable to read than others. For example, in the section of the course on revolution, I assign Theda Skocpol’s 1976 article “France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions.” Two students said this article was a least favorite reading, because of its style. Oddly, in my opinion, a few other students complained that the long-form journalism found in some of The New York Times articles was hard to understand.
  • Students have difficulty placing unfamiliar historical events in chronological order and parsing out how what happened before might have affected what happened after (the “history just happens” mentality). For an assignment about Iran, students felt confused about the relationship between the 1979 revolution, popular support for the post-revolutionary Islamic Republic, and more recent anti-government protests. While I find it easy to connect the dots, students don’t — for them, context can be confusing. So for some assignments I need to narrow down the reading list.

After students finished identifying readings they liked or disliked, I asked them if they would have preferred formal mid-term and final exams, or regular quizzes, as an alternative to some of the writing assignments. I was surprised that they said no, since I had been under the impression that they used test scores to reassure themselves of their performance. One senior said that he didn’t remember a thing from test-based courses he had taken, while he remembered a lot from writing-based courses, and therefore he regarded the latter as much more beneficial. Two others said that, as studies have shown, they and their friends promptly forgot whatever facts they dumped into short-term memory the night before an exam, so they regarded exams as anxiety-producing events irrelevant to their learning. If next year I use quizzes as a stick to improve attendance in class, they will probably need to be the “write a paragraph that answers the question” type.


Snippets from Comparative Politics

Some end-of-the-semester thoughts on my comparative politics course, in relation to a post from the beginning of the semester and to Simon’s post last week about a framework for active learning.

First, the simple stuff:

Running this course with only ten students at 8:00 a.m. is problematic, for reasons I have mentioned before. Lack of students definitely decreases the level of activity in my Gerkhania simulation. Attendance has picked up but is still only eighty or ninety percent, so in the future I really need to give pop quizzes — in paper, rather than electronic, form — on a semi-frequent basis.

I have noticed a problem with the reading responses. For these assignments, I usually pair an article from an academic journal — often the Journal of Democracy — with shorter and more current items from news outlets like The Atlantic, Politico, and The New York Times. Some students developed the habit of reading only the latter and ignoring the former. I need to force students to read the journal articles, but haven’t quite figured out the best way of doing this.

Now for the complex stuff: Continue reading

#MeToo in the Ivoriest of Towers

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an extensive account of the sexual harassment of Terry Lynn Karl by Jorge Dominguez at Harvard in the 1980s. Dominguez was sanctioned by the university after Karl filed an EEOC complaint, but Karl decided that Harvard’s response was inadequate and she left. The Chronicle article quotes her as saying, “I knew he was going to keep doing it,” and sure enough, the article contains allegations from several other women about incidents that occurred over a span of decades.

I have shared this story with students who are in my comparative politics course this semester. Why? First, they have already read some of Karl’s work. I hope that learning more about her career will help them better appreciate the quality of her scholarship and her contributions to the field of comparative politics. Second, and more importantly, I hope that the information will demonstrate that, even within the most hallowed institutions, the personal is political. Karl spoke truth to power and suffered the consequences, but in the end she has probably helped make higher education in the USA a better place for women.

More ABCs for Comparative Politics

Happy New Year everyone. Today I’ve got some additional exploration of ABCs for my spring semester comparative politics course, as an update to posts on the subject from September.

I did in fact abandon the book Around the Bloc because of its age and length, and this freed up space in the syllabus for more more articles from the Journal of Democracy. The contents of Journal of Democracy are more concise, contain less jargon, and are overall much better written than what’s found in other journals, making it an excellent source of material on comparative democratization. I’ve inserted a few more questions into the syllabus quiz that require students to find these assigned articles at the beginning of the semester. If students don’t have this skill, they have plenty of time to acquire it by talking to a librarian.

I’m going to begin using Egypt as a small case study. Egypt complements my use of Russia as an example of failed democratization and authoritarian resilience, and it also makes a good contrast with Iran on the subject of revolutions.

I will continue to use the assignment that I created last spring in which students compare two nation-states using either a most similar systems or most different systems design. A year ago, I created a template for students to use for completion of these assignments; however, some students seemed confused about the relationships between variables because of the way I formatted the template. Also some of the completed assignments were awkward for me to read because students had stuffed multiple paragraphs or lots of bullet points into each table cell. So I have revised the templates and changed the assignment directions:

Continue reading

Updating Comparative Politics, Part 2

In my search for a new book to use in my comparative politics course, I sort of stumbled across Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America by Jeffery M. Paige (Harvard University Press, 1997). I say “sort of” because Paige, a sociologist by training, was a prominent scholar of agrarian revolution and development in the 1980s and 1990s — a name I had encountered as a doctoral student.

Search results for his publications turned up Coffee and Power, so I pulled it from the library. The book meets many of my criteria for being worthy of inclusion in my course. It is a multi-country study set in Central America that goes beyond the traditional white male Britain-France-Germany presentation of comparative democratization. The writing is academic but not too heavy with pointless jargon. And it serves as a good example of how to do research in the field.

The problem, as with the book I’m trying to replace, is that Coffee and Power, being than two decades old, is now very much a historical analysis. I don’t think a 400-page work that discusses events from the 1930s through the 1980s will succeed in getting undergraduates here interested in additional study in comparative politics. But I did figure out a way to use the book for what I think would be a good assignment, shown below.

Read Jeffery M. Paige, Coffee and Power, p. 53-84. Do a qualitative comparative analysis of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Classify each country as “high” or “low” for the following independent variables related to the coffee industry:

  • concentration of land ownership (average area of farm per number of farms)
  • farm productivity (amount grown per land area)
  • farm productivity (average yield)
  • technological sophistication (use of high-yield varieties or fertilizer)

Based on your findings, what can you conclude about the economic class structure and the likelihood of democracy in each country?