Against the New Phrenology: De-Pathologizing Trumpism

This is a guest post by Dan Boscov-Ellen. Dan is a Ph.Dprofile. student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research and a Visiting Instructor in Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute. His dissertation research involves exploring the political-philosophical implications of capitalist ecological crisis.


One of the most persistent refrains of the US Presidential election has been that of liberal incredulity at the idiocy of Trump voters. Depending on the current status of Nate Silver’s election forecasts, this tends to manifest either as amusement (perhaps chuckling at a Daily Show interview of deluded rally attendees or a screening of Idiocracy), or as disgust and horror (perhaps soberly staring into one’s craft IPA when the debate watch party gets too real). How, liberals wonder, could anyone vote for Cheeto™ Hitler?

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But of course they do not wonder too hard – it is obvious to most liberals that Trump voters are simply ignorant and stupid, an apparent truism of which comedians, political scientists, neuroscientists, and cognitive psychologists constantly assure us. Everyone knows that Trump supporters are less well-informed than liberals – if only they read the New York Times and listened to NPR instead of watching Fox News! But the deeper problem, allegedly, is that Trump voters are simply not intelligent enough to realize how ignorant they are. Psychologist David Dunning explains that

[t]he knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.

According to neuroscientist Bobby Azarian, this Dunning-Kruger effect “helps explain why even nonpartisan experts — like military generals and Independent former Mayor of New York/billionaire CEO Michael Bloomberg — as well as some respected Republican politicians, don’t seem to be able to say anything that can change the minds of loyal Trump followers.”

At base, then, it is the Trump voters’ fundamental and impenetrable stupidity that causes them to ignore the experts – highly credentialed neoclassical economists, experienced military and intelligence figures, beneficent billionaires, esteemed members of the mainstream American political establishment and independent press, and Neil Degrasse Tyson – who obviously know far better than the plebian masses. Indeed, many liberals secretly believe it might really be better if the experts just ran things and we revoked the cretins’ right to vote.

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“But What On Earth Is Whiteness That One Should So Desire It?”

This is the fifth post in our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics, which will be followed shortly by a response from the author. Earlier responses are here from Naeem, Nivi and Srdjan. This piece expands on, and in some senses muddies, a short review I wrote of the book for a symposium in Perspectives in Politics.


This book is an indispensable and provocative account of the genesis of International Relations in the US as a discipline expressly concerned with the maintenance and expansion of global white supremacy. It is an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how we study world politics, which has thus far ‘disappeared’ racism and racial politics from its foundational narratives. [1]  It seems, this time anyway, that people are paying attention – the book is receiving wide acclaim and attention in the roundtables, symposia and review sections of the very journals, conferences and institutions that constitute the historical objects of its narrative. Does this mean that the ‘rising tide’ of calls for the discipline to deal with its racist foundations are being answered?

We will have to wait and see. Vitalis’s book makes some important headway in that direction but the rearguard is already being mobilised. Gideon Rose’s capsule review for Foreign Affairs, the journal once named for Race Development, perfectly captures precisely how this rearguard can function, in the process re-inscribing the ‘norm against noticing’ the operation of racism and white supremacy in both world politics and the discipline (IR) that claims to study it. Marking the book as ‘flawed’ and ‘political’, Rose accepts that the origins of the discipline were racialized and characterized by discussions about race relations. However, his rhetoric effectively consigns the analytic case that there are continuities in these ideas to a conspiratorial form of politics (attributing to Vitalis, bizarrely, a rather childish view of the US as ‘evil’).

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

The most prominent of these linkages in the text is Vitalis’s juxtaposition of Lorthrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, which foretold of coming race wars in the twentieth century, with Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations which does the same for the twenty-first (4, 62-4, 177).  It is true that Vitalis does not work through a point by point analysis of the two texts; however, it is also equally demonstrated that there are clear overlaps in form and content between the arguments. Both are grounded in the belief in coherent civilizations existing in fundamentally antagonistic relations, of which the white (or Western) is the most advanced and against which others will attempt to rise. For Rose to refuse to acknowledge the argumentation at all, even in a capsule review, seems odd until one reads the same reviewer’s graceful, generous assessment of Huntington’s famous work in the same journal in 2013, commemorating the 20th anniversary of its publication:

The origins of “The Clash of Civilizations?” lie in the conjunction of a special scholar and a special time. By the beginning of the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington was already one of the most important social scientists of the second half of the twentieth century, having authored major works in every subfield of political science. The hallmarks of his efforts were big questions, strong answers, independent thought, and clear expression. The end of the Cold War, meanwhile, had ushered in a new era of international relations along with a host of questions about what would drive it. Drawn, as always, to the major practical and theoretical questions of the day, Huntington set himself the task of limning this new world.

The more he thought about it, the more he decided that most existing analyses were heading in the wrong direction. The future was not likely to be an easy run toward democracy, peace, and harmonious convergence, nor was it likely to be a return to the old games of traditional great-power politics or ideological rivalry. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural,” he concluded; “the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. [Rose, Foreign Affairs, The Clash at 20]

What can we make of this? Continue reading

White World Order, Black Power Politics: A Symposium

vitalis-e1458738905580This is the first post in the symposium on Robert Vitalis’s, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015). Professor Vitalis (who also answers to ‘Bob’) teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, When Capitalists Collide: Business Conflict and the End of Empire in Egypt, was published in 1995. His second book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, published in 2005 was named a book of the year by The Guardian. He has been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2009), Rockefeller Foundation (2003), the International Center for Advanced Study, NYU (2002), the American Council of Learned Societies (2002), and the MacArthur-SSRC International Peace and Security Program (1998). He was a MacArthur Award nominee in 1998. Below is his introduction to our symposium.

*Update*

Naeem’s response is here; Nivi’s is here and Srdjan’s is here.


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White World Order, Black Power Politics may well be the only book discussed in this symposium series that isn’t primarily concerned with theory, or at least the only one by an author who does not self identify as a theorist, teaching in a department that does not recognize what I do as “IR.”  It is also less an intellectual history, which might allow it to pass as theory, than it is an institutional history. So I am grateful for the interest in it here.

28522646._UY1280_SS1280_That said, it is indeed a critical history. The records of professors, schools, research organizations, and foundations in the early twentieth century United States reveal a past that bears scant resemblance to the “practitioner histories” or insider accounts of great debates invented about the discipline of international relations in the second half of the century, which are the ones most specialists tell themselves and their students until now. In fact, the more I learned and labored in the archives the more I came to see the problem as similar to the one I wrestled with in my last book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. The history that U.S. oil companies invented after World War II about their early and unshaken commitment to a “partnership in progress” with the Saudi people, at a moment when criticism of U.S. imperialism was on the rise in the Eastern Province and across the globe, is the one that books repeated uncritically for decades. The firms’ private records though revealed a dramatically different reality. I developed an account of the exploitative order in place in the oil camps, the racial science that justified it in the minds of the American engineers and managers, and the failed efforts of Arab and other workers to bring about its end. I likened what I did in that book to “reverse engineering” particular processes of mythmaking. I’ve done more or less the same thing for a sector of the U.S. academy in White World Order. Continue reading

Darkness and Light: Re-Visiting Cuba

Let me begin this concluding post by saying how great it has been to have my book, From Cuba with Love, read so closely and receive such thoughtful responses (all of which are collected here).  Thanks so much to Rahul, Dunja, Nivi, and Pablo for their thoughts, and especially to Pablo for organising this symposium.  And now for an attempt to come to terms with some of the questions that have been raised in the last week of posts!

Figure 20_Malecon on a Windy Day

The Malecón in Havana on a windy day, when high waves closed the road to cars, in 2010.

In the book, I expend quite a bit of energy trying to think about sex as a potential site of resistance, so I was fascinated to see a recurring concern (especially from Dunja and Pablo) for the flip side of that coin, or what might be called the darker side of jineterismo-as-sexual-practice.

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Knowing Like A Jinetera

The last commentary post in our forum on Megan’s From Cuba With Love, following contributions from Megan herself, Rahul, Dunja Fehimovic and Nivi. Megan’s rejoinder will be up imminently.


Visit Cuba Poster

So near and yet so foreign! declares the advert. Intimate and exotic, Cuba as a repository for fantasy and self-discovery, the neighbour with the mixed-race charms, the imagined nation Cindy Weber once analysed so relentlessly as “the near colony and certain feminine complement” of the United States. Megan’s new, and first, book – From Cuba With Love – exposes the same kind of dynamic, although from a different standpoint.[1] Hers is a near-seamless blend of reportage and feminist IR, moving from autobiography to testimony to political theory, translating from events on the Malecón (the long waterside promenade in Havana dubbed “Cuba’s great sofa”) to the masculine histories of the Cuban state and back again. It is also – for those seduced by such things – a book beautiful to look at, and to hold (which is a way of saying that you should buy a hard copy). It is a book about evasion, repression and muddled motives, but is itself a model of generosity and clarity.

The central figure throughout is the ‘jinetera’, superficially close to the idea of a ‘prostitute’ but evidently much more ambiguous in definition and shifting in practice. As Megan explains, the term ‘jinetera’ and the general practice ‘jineterismo’ are plays on ‘jockeying’, meaning to manoeuvre for advantage and also to have sex, both connotations clearly playful, if also risky (see the previous posts in the forum for more discussion on the meaning and forms of jineterismo).[2] It is with a curiosity about jineterismo that Megan starts. But where we end up is inside an indispensable guide to the ‘sexual-affective economy’, a bold innovation in disciplinary writing, and a testament to the difference gender analysis makes in studying the global political.

From Cuba With Love does what a certain kind of post-structural feminist IR does best, dissecting the identities created by, and in, a concrete historical system. Not the narrow ‘identity politics’ critics abhor, but identity as the fullness of lived experience shot through with power, subjectivities which are at once deeply personal (love, hope, desire, sex) and interwoven with the most brute forms of political violence (the state, the prison camp, the rehabilitation centre, the police system, imperialism and resistance, exclusion and poverty). It is a study that is undeniably ‘global’ in its scope, even about inter-national relations in a rather precise sense, given how often the admixture of sex and money circles the desires of the (usually) western male for a ‘local’ rendezvous, and how implicated notions of race, nation, difference, rivalry, trade, progress, savagery, miscegenation, and geopolitical virility are in that. A kind of diplomacy, even. This is an encounter with ‘the Other’, and a negotiation of the foreign, in its most visceral possible form. Or, as one key informant more bluntly puts it:

It’s different if one goes to bed with a foreigner, or a mountain of foreigners…Do we have to carry such chauvinistic patriotism with us in our pussies too? Is it obligatory to make use of a mambí dick? Or are they trying to avoid alienating penetrations?

Yet From Cuba With Love is not just a great success on those terms. It is also in many ways the stand-out example of ‘narrative IR’, that vague but increasingly popular sub-field (or is it a method?) devoted to exploring world politics from the situated perspective of someone experiencing it (that someone usually being the researcher themselves). Continue reading

Three Theses on ISIS: The Universal, the Millenarian, and the Philistine

Nimer SultanyA warm welcome to Nimer Sultany who brings us a guest post on thinking about ISIS. Nimer is Lecturer in Public Law, School of Law, SOAS, University of London. He holds an SJD from Harvard Law School. He practiced human rights law in Israel/Palestine, and was the director of the Political Monitoring Project at Mada al-Carmel – The Arab Research Center for Applied Social Research. His recent publications include: “The State of Progressive Constitutional Theory: The Paradox of Constitutional Democracy and the Project of Political Justification” in the Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review and “Religion and Constitutionalism: Lessons from American and Islamic Constitutionalism” in the Emory International Law Review.


The ruthless brutality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) unfolds before our eyes on the screens. As commentators struggle to explain and understand it, it becomes convenient to revive old Orientalist tropes. Beyond the spectacular brutality, the reason that ISIS invites attention (both fascination and fear) is that it seems easy to fit in confrontational narratives of Islam (us v. them, anti-American, etc.). Muslims are clearly angry at something. In his infamous article “The Roots of Muslim Outrage”, Bernard Lewis simplistically explained that Muslims are envious of, and angry at, Western modernity and secularism. The U.S. magazine Newsweek illustrated this knee jerk reaction, and recourse to run of the mill thinking patterns, in a Muslim Rage cover in September 2012.

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In his book “Covering Islam” (1981) Edward Said has effectively critiqued these binary simplifications that dominate not only journalistic discourse about “Islam”, but also expert-talk about Islam. For Said, all attempts to conceptualise other cultures are a value-laden interpretive exercise. He showed the deficiencies of orthodox writings on—and views of—Islam, and called for “antithetical knowledge” to challenge the orthodoxy’s claims of value-free objectivity.

It seems little has changed, however, since Said wrote his book in the wake of the Iranian revolution. In this brief commentary I want to examine three attempts to understand ISIS. These are long treatments in respected liberal media outlets. To use Said’s phrase, these are treatments that fit in different “communities of interpretation.” These three essays are all aware of the need to provide “context” for ISIS. However, their contextualisation differs. The success of this contextualisation in shedding a light on ISIS varies. Let me call these interpretive techniques: universalization; Millenarian confrontation; and intellectual bewilderment. These three attempts operate mostly on the ideational/ cultural domain.

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The Science Question in International Studies: PTJ, CoI and follow-ups

Science Montage

From the beloved xkcd

Long time TDOT readers may recall the first ever book symposium we hosted, on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. PTJ’s argument regarding the status of ‘science’, epistemology, methodology and reflexivity has continued to generate vibrant and wide-ranging discussion in the discipline. At last year’s Millennium Conference on Method, Methodology and Innovation, PTJ’s keynote speech extended an argument regarding the distinctiveness of scientific knowledge, but argued that international studies did not have to be a science. Responses from Iver Neumann, Mark Salter, Nicola Chelotti, Laura Sjoberg and myself were invited in the follow-up special issue of the journal.

I’ve made my contribution accessible via academia.edu, but here’s a sneak preview: Continue reading

What We Made At ISA: Art as Subject, Art as Method

Our panel at ISA 2015 began with a comment made in a panel at ISA 2014 in Toronto: “I knit in panels. And this is the first conference I’ve ever attended where I’m the only knitter.” The speaker was Kate Daley, knitting in hand, and the conversations that followed eventually became “Art as Subject, Art as Method”, an innovative panel at this year’s conference in New Orleans.

The role of art in international politics has largely been ignored, a fact which Christine Sylvester has highlighted repeatedly [1]. In our panel, we wanted to combine study of art with the practice of art. Shifting the focus from what we make to the act of making itself, we asked what an engagement with the material, visual, sensory, and creative elements of art and craft could bring to the study of politics, employing not just colour and texture, but also interaction and sensory experience as tools.

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What We Talked About At ISA: Political Speech in Fantastical Worlds

Game of Thrones - Race as a Floating Signifier

Four years ago, I tried to capture a discomfit with the new embrace of the pop-cultural within IR. The focus then was on the way putatively mainstream categories were put to use in the interpretation of science and speculative fiction. This year at ISA (see passim), I extended and nuanced that view, to account both for the great rise in pedagogical uses for the pop-cultural, and to push more forcefully at ‘critical’ approaches to the same.[1]

Like others, I am hostile to the success of zombies (or, to be frank, Dan Drezner’s version of zombies) as a useful way to stimulate reflection on world politics in all its variety. For zombie-IR, elements of the speculative and the fantastical are recruited to make sense of world politics not because they trouble or undermine or reimagine it, but because they replicate it in a way that is taken to be more easily digestible than speaking directly of world politics itself. Such simplification has come under challenge (here, here, and here, for example) and so cannot be said to characterise all approaches to the speculative. But the trend – what I term the speculative as descriptive analogy – certainly appears to be the most popular one. Let us call this Drezner’s Law: the more directly an ‘analysis’ of pop culture reflects dominant categories and concerns, the more broadly that analysis will be consumed.

Despite a single footnote on the zombie as metaphor, and a small gesture towards them as expressions of capitalist consumerism, the main accomplishment of Theories of International Politics and Zombies is to reify monolithic theories, which are taken to be no less than ‘paradigms’. In a feat of definitional feat, those dominant ‘paradigms’ (Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, Neo-Conservatism, Role Theory) in turn hold the key truths to world politics “whether researchers admit it or not” (really?). It seems churlish to deny the usefulness of pedagogical lubricant, but it also becomes hard to avoid the sense of scholars bored to tears by the delivery of paint-by-number theory courses and the yearly task of boiling down paradigms and lineages into the simplest distinctions (Realists think states matter, liberals are interested in cooperation, constructivists believe in, well, social construction). Articulating these ideas through a new universe alleviates the boredom, however fleetingly, and raises a wry smile at the comparisons. The popular appeal of shows like Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones also makes it possible to generate interest in more complex themes through blog and social media ‘outreach’, as if mobilising cultural artefacts to recruit students or prove that scholars are somehow ‘in touch’. The human face of political science.

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Why Tell Stories – Or Rather, Why I Tell Stories

This post has been slowly taking shape in my head since last year’s ISA in Toronto.  A year late, I know, but maybe now it can act as some kind of refresher as we head into this year’s festivities.  (In fact, as I write these words with a cup of tea in front of me, I’m watching the last of the sunrise over Faubourg-Marigny.)

Last year, as there has been for a few years now, there was a roundtable that consisted of people telling stories – personal stories, political stories, literary stories. The room was packed, as it always is for the storytelling roundtable. People stood leaning against the walls, cross-legged on the floor, and sometimes two to a seat. The air was warm and still. The stories were touching, wryly acerbic, and occasionally silly. One storyteller, though, both caught and divided the audience’s attention. She told a powerful story of victimisation in multiple voices, drawn from our own ranks at the ISA, and laid bare the systemic problem of sexism and sexual harassment in the academy. It was the sort of story that had half the audience stunned into silence and the other half nodding in knowing agreement.

In the wake of that story, the discussion took on a life of its own, with a number of audience members calling for solidarity, empathy, and action. Others were shocked and claimed no knowledge that such a world existed under their very noses. Still others shrugged it off, saying that the story lacked an understanding of the complicity of its own narrator (or rather, its narrators) – that it was a kind of call, but one that should not be answered. Sitting in the audience, I said nothing, watched and listened as the tension in the room crested and abated.

Two years earlier, in a similar conference room in San Diego, I had told a story of my own. I hadn’t planned to tell that particular story – in fact, I’d decided months earlier to present a piece I had written for my doctoral thesis that had gotten a warm reception in other settings, which has since appeared here in another form. That was someone else’s story, from my fieldwork in Cuba. But, about two weeks before the start of the ISA, a story of my own came to me all at once and I wrote it in less than an hour. I brought both with me to the roundtable and sat them on the table in front of me, in case I lost the nerve to tell my own story, but somehow I managed it, shaking hands and all.

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