Stimulating debate: what Russell Brand can help us with

One of the great things about teaching Politics is that the subject matter is very connected to the world around us: we can see and live what we discuss in the classroom.

With that in mind, it’s always great when that process comes full-circle and you get to bring the world back into the classroom.

Last week saw a great example of this, when Russell Brand (almost as well-known in the States as I am: maybe even more so, given that I’ve failed to marry Katy Perry) was interviewed on a flagship current affairs programme in the UK, Newsnight, about his recent guest-editing of a special issue of the New Statesman.

Here’s someone with ideas (and possibly with access to a thesaurus), willing to expound them and engage in debate. That those ideas are contestable makes it even more watchable and a perfect springboard for classroom discussion.

This would be a great opening to a debate on the role of ideas, or of framing , or the relationship between ‘old’ and ‘new’ politics or indeed of the conceptualisation of left and right. Brand’s articulation of a different model of political action also nicely sets up an class activity on fleshing out that model.

For me, it’s an interesting way into how we represent political arguments and the way we defend them. One can see the potential value of both sides of the discussion, but also the weaknesses, so offering something to everyone.

These kind of found materials are analogous to the fictional examples we’ve discussed before, but have the additional benefit that they connect more explicitly to political situations. And, in this case, some jokes about beards.*


* – for non-UK readers, you only need to know that the interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, recently grew a beard, to much consternation. It’s a small country and we don’t get out much.

Nigeria, Norway, and Asian Girlz

Much of my teaching connects to the concept of identity, and I could simply lecture about the topic. However, for students, hearing this information from a middle-aged Caucasian man who was born and raised in the U.S. just isn’t very thought-provoking or relevant — especially since many of them think that racism and discrimination in the USA are purely historical phenomena . . . in other words, we now have a (half-)black President.

I’ve found short videos to be a great way to initiate discussion and introduce texts on the subject. This New York Times video essay by Zina Saro-Wiwa on transitioning to natural hair is a great example of how the personal can be political when it comes to identity. I show the video and discuss it with students in class, and only then reveal that Zina  is the daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995 because of his political activism on behalf of his fellow Ogoni, one of Nigeria’s many minority groups.

Charlie ChanThe fictional Africa for Norway charity, a.k.a. Radi-Aid, produced this wonderful parody on foreign aid. When I show this video in class without any prior explanation, most students think Radi-Aid is an actual charity or they get perplexed because it contradicts their assumptions about what Teju Cole calls the White Savior Industrial Complex. Usually only students from other countries immediately identify the video as a joke.

What Kind of Asian Are You? is a great depiction of the unconscious racism that is frequently found in constructions of national identity and in Orientalist perceptions of women as objects of sexual desire. Personally I find this video hilarious — partly because I am a living example of it — but it’s a well-scripted scene played by professional comedic actors.

Comedy is very difficult to pull off successfully, and it can be tricky to use in the classroom because tastes vary wildly. While part of my standard procedure when showing these kinds of videos is to deliberately discuss how they illustrate illogical beliefs and behavior, I also try to use videos that generally succeed at being humorous rather than offensive. A great example of what I avoid is the recent Asian Girlz video by a generic whitebread pop-rock band from Southern California that has finally achieved its fifteen minutes of infamy. I’m not inserting a direct link to the video because the lyrics are fairly explicit; you can do a Google search if you like.  The band has claimed publicly that the song and video are satirical, but as comedy they fail massively. My guess is that the band members thought producing the song would be beneficial to their careers. Probably Levy Tran, the Vietnamese-American actress/model who appears in the video, thought the same thing. But although the video has generated some notoriety, it’s probably the type that isn’t wanted, and for the typical undergraduate classroom, its content is not nearly as useful as scenes from films like Blazing Saddles, the low-budget Terminal USA, or Charlie Chan in Egypt.

Four Lions & Boston Marathon: Breaking the Frame

Orson Welles called it “breaking the frame.” Also known as the fourth wall.…the breaking of a narrative….like when an actor in a movie pauses to speak directly to the audience. Teaching is a performance space too. It is removed from reality. When we are in this space we are allowed to “bracket” many things in order to make our pedagogical performances work…..i.e. narrow the real world down to just us, our space, our thinking. And once in a while the frame breaks….. without your permission. These are the events and their notes.

March, 20-ish 2013
Mid-morning: IR class topic: Terrorism

Readings: Kydd & Walter, Kilcullen, …etc etc.
Discussion point: critical analysis of the film Four Lions. A film about a group of British males who plot to attack their home country.

Notes:Compelling, awkward, funny….Were we supposed to laugh? When the seemingly mentally impaired activist accidentally blows himself up….were we supposed to laugh?

A new perspective on terrorists. They are disaffected, second and first generation young males. They manage to bomb a marathon. No real coordination, just a bunch of dudes acting like asses who also managed to make explosives.

April 15th, 2013–no class day–

Boston bombing suspects
… a couple of young males, disaffected by their lives in the United States… bomb a marathon. The Boston Marathon. Their logic, unclear, seemingly accidental….. no real coordination…. just a couple of dudes ….

April 17th, 2013
Mid-Morning: IR Class Topic: ??????

What? What?    No Seriously…..what?

There are awful coincidences that come along when you teach. A marriage of random events, and fiction.

The real world, it crashes into your classroom, makes a mockery of your safe space. …and you know very well that what happens next just might teach them something…..teach me something.

….or we can collectively run away.

Step 1: Establish a distance between the very shocking thing that had happened and the thing we had just been exploring from an intellectual perspective.

Step 2: No wait…back up…. have a good long look at the event. Maybe we spent the hour talking over the finer points of analysis, guessing from the color of the smoke, the location, the time of day….all the suppositions.

Step 3: Predict and analyze. How would Kydd and Walter understand this? What does this mean for Kilcullen’s hypothesis?

Step 4: Gracefully declare the class productive.

Notes: BULL$!!@% Spackle that damned hole shut again! 
A class assignment accidentally became inextricably fused to a real world event. I hated it….hated it….

I used those articles like a crow bar:…. to pry myself clear, to pry us all clear from the feel of that event. We intellectualized it….. we walked through it, stared at it, shook our heads…..and we giggled. Not at the pain, but the incredulity…. the gross coincidence. And we laughed at the uneasy way we desperately and willingly returned to seeing world through the end of a straw. At least we could memorize that and understand it, mock it sometimes. 

Narcissism. There’s no way to speak to this without inviting that claim. But there’s also no way to talk about struggle in a classroom in the shadow of big events when they break the frame. I felt sick and fortunate at the same time. I didn’t have any answers.

Nothing clever….just a really wicked reminder that no matter how you teach, it is a performance space….

also… apologies for any misuse of the 4th wall concept. I entirely recognize that I’m playing fast and loose with the concept.

The Walking Dead: Ethics in War

Note: mild spoilers for the March 10, 2013 episode of The Walking Dead, ‘Arrows on the Doorpost’ below. I avoided names and details as much as possible.

I’m a big fan of finding ways to use pop culture in the classroom.  There are lots of reasons for this–including that it can keep students interested–but honestly, there are two main rationales for why I do it.  The first is that it taps into their prexisting knowledge and thus lowers the stakes in a discussion about politics.  Students who may not feel comfortable entering into a debate about India and Pakistan or Republicans and Democrats may eagerly engage in a discussion of zombies or Tina Fey as Sarah Palin.

The second reason is that it helps demonstrate the idea that politics is not limited to the political sphere, but is embedded in their daily lives and interactions.  Showing them how political ideas are reflected in current tv, movies, books, and music creates buy-in for them to learn the more ‘real-world’ ideas we discuss in class.

I teach a course on politics in film and fiction (also games, and I’m considering adding theater after reading an excellent paper on the subject at TLC), but I’m always on the lookout for small clips and moments to bring into any class. I keep a running list on the notepad on my phone of ideas.

This week, I was watching the most recent episode of the Walking Dead, ‘Arrows on the Doorpost’ and jotted down the note, ‘WD 3/10/13–laws of war’.  In the episode (which you should only show up till the commercial break around minute 40–see below** for the reason why), the leaders of two different groups meet–maybe to resolve their differences, maybe to call a truce, or maybe for some other nefarious purpose.  Their lieutanants, meanwhile, are first in a standoff, but eventually a shared threat–the zombies–show up, and they start communicating and finding common ground and shared experiences.  Now this series in general is excellent for discussing in-group and out-group conflict, democracy v. authoritarianism, and testing the adage that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.  The entire episode is worth showing, particularly as it would be relatively easy for non-viewers to understand what is going on.  One moment I quite liked is when a character, taking notes in a small journal, explains that he’s recording history–that people are going to be around in the future and will want to know what happened. That is quite a symbol of optimism in the face of the zombie apocalypse.

There is a small scene though, that struck me as potentially being quite useful in the classroom.  Back at the camp of one of the groups, someone recommends that they go and kill the leader of the other group–thanks to the meeting, they know where he is.  This character make an excellent argument for doing so, given what we know of the behavior of that leader. The others object–but not due to fear of retaliation or the ethics of the situation or any understanding of the traditional ‘laws of war’–but because of the orders of their own leader.  Another scene later on helps build on the idea of ethics in war.  In their negotiations, one leader offers a deal: he will leave the other group alone if they give up one of their members who injured him in a previous episode.  This person only just joined the group, and as recently as the previous episode the leader of the group indicated his lack of trust of this person. The scene cuts to commercial before the leader gives an answer, allowing a perfect opportunity for discussion: if it means ending this conflict that could destroy both groups, which include a number of innocent people and children, should the leader give up this group member for punishment?

The first scene is only a minute or two and is quite early in the episode, and thus could work very well if you want just a short prompt.  If you have more time, the second scene is quite intense and occurs about 40 minutes in.  It would be worthwhile showing them the entire episode to that point if you are discussing the ethics and laws of war.  **I would definitely stop it at this point regardless though, as there is a fairly graphic sex scene not long after that commercial break!

Hunger Games v. Battle Royale

In the pedagogical battle between The Hunger Games, a book (and now film) by Suzanne Collins, and the Japanese film Battle Royale, the former is the clear winner.

Spoilers for both follow, so fair warning!

Background: I teach a course on Politics in Film and Fiction, which is based on the premise that we can learn about major political concepts by watching and reading non-political works of fiction.  Thus, the syllabus includes no documentaries or ‘political’ films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; the closest we get to that genre is 12 Angry Men or Elizabeth.  I’ve used the Hunger Games in the class before, and having heard a similar plot was used in Battle Royale, I figured I would give it a shot.

Both works are about a group of kids forced to fight to the death in a game run by adults.  In Hunger Games (HG), this is a punishment given to outlying provinces for a rebellion, and acts as a tool of oppression.  In Battle Royale (BR), the punishment is aimed at an unruly youthful population who, due to high unemployment rates, are engaging in criminal activity. Both works are enjoyable on their own merits, with the gore content much higher in BR, but for teaching politics, HG stands superior.  Here’s why:

In choosing fiction for the classroom, we need to be sure that the political themes are present, relatively easy to spot, and worthy of lengthy discussion.  Showing an entire film to make a single point wastes the time of our students, as does giving them something so complicated that they need everything spelled out for them.  The sweet spot is the film or book that they enjoy on its own merits and also happen to learn something from.

BR is an enjoyable film at times, but the themes are rather muddled.  There is some interesting stuff on how people respond to authority and violence, and some great work on human nature (I particularly like the scene in the lighthouse, where four girls working happily together end up killing each other on the slightest suspicion of treachery).  But the role of government in what is happening is very weak.  Certainly they passed the original BR law mandating these contests, and they kidnap the students and maintain order–but beyond that we can only speculate as to what the role of the government is and the motivation behind these games. The battle is not televised; indeed, this crop of students had never heard of them.  The winners become fugitives when they return to Japan and are decried as murderers.  Thus there is no real connection between the world within the Battle and world outside, and its completely unclear as to how the BR will solve the problem it aims at.  The world in which BR takes place is simply ill defined, and that leaves us talking solely about events within the game, rather than the broader context of why the games exist at all.

This contrasts with HG, where the themes of oppression, rebellion, wealth inequality, and the role of the media and entertainment in politics are quite clear and consistent throughout, and thus allow us to talk about both what happens within the Games as well as the wider world in which they occur.  Viewing of the games is mandatory, and the participants are treated both as celebrities and prisoners.  Wealth inequalities play a crucial role, as poorer kids are more likely to be selected as tributes, poorer districts are unable to train their kids for the game like wealthier districts, and popular tributes receive expensive gifts during the games that can make the difference between life and death. And HG gives us the added dimension of seeing how the event impacts the wider world, with Katniss becoming a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol.

I use the HG book in the class (as usual, it is much better than the film) and will continue to do so.  I may show some scenes from BR to benefit from some of the interesting insights it has into social behavior, but overall, if you are looking for a good fictional work to help your students explore themes like revolution, wealth inequality, behavior in a state of nature, information control, and totalitarian governments, think about using either the HG book or film in class.