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Editorial

The New York Times, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, “The Moral Hazard of Drones”

The New York Times, Scott Shane, “The Moral Case for Drones”

Esquire, Tom Junod, “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama”

The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama”

Oxford Journals, Bradley Jay Strawser, “Walking the Tightrope of Just War” 

The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, “The Strikes’ Effect on Life in Pakistan”

What follows is a meandering rumination on one of the most contentious issues facing modern political philosophers and anyone interested in discussing global-political ethics: the implementation and expansion of the U.S. military’s drone program in the Middle East. As you can probably tell from the number of links featured above (and the length of this post), the issue is extremely complex and is of great importance to prominently featured thinkers across the internet, despite mass media’s relative indifference.

The majority of writers talking about drones tend to come down definitively on one side or another, either for or against them, but I find myself wavering among the arguments and honestly unsure of where I stand. Not that I need definitive certainty, but I thought writing a bit about it and offering some resources would prove beneficial for anyone else grappling with this conundrum like I am. If you have any interest in this debate – one which I think will only become more prevalent in the future – I strongly recommend any of the pieces above.

So, where do you start with such a factually and philosophically challenging problem? I guess I would begin by asking “Why is this issue so complex?” followed quickly by “What are your reservations?”

As many people are aware, the U.S. government has deployed unmanned, remote-controlled planes commonly referred to as “drones” to the Pakistan/Afghanistan/Yemen region to conduct reconnaissance missions and often kill suspected terrorists. These actions are carried out in the name of defense of the U.S. citizenry.

Perhaps the most sensational and widely-known drone incident was the targeting and killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen who defected to Yemen, joined Al-Qeada, and was suspected of having a hand in planning the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. This event is of particular note because it “was believed to be the first instance in which a U.S. citizen was tracked and killed based on secret intelligence and the president’s say-so,” according to Huffington Post.

The drone program was started during President Bush’s time in the White House after 9/11 at the outset of the “war on terror,” but of particular concern to observers is the way in which President Obama has expanded the program, even as U.S. ground forces are in the process of exiting Iraq and Afghanistan. The practical causes for concern are many and mounting: the CIA has never openly acknowledged the program’s existence, the U.S. Congress has never officially supported the program, there have been an unrecorded number of civilian casualties, the program reportedly inspires more terrorists than it kills, and the President seems to operate with unilateral, unchallenged authority. And to further complicate things, questions abound about the ethics of the program, which is where I am with regards to the issue: many questions, few answers.

I have to admit that this technology is obviously a phenomenal development in the prevention of soldier casualties, and it allows us to stop our enemies in remote, difficult-to-access regions of the world. I am not naive and don’t think every enemy can be dealt with through diplomacy or sanctions. But the increasingly remote nature of our armed conflicts and the resultant detachment of the citizens in whose name those actions are taken is worrying. As far as I can tell, there are four troubling questions at the heart of this matter:

  • Is the drone program more or less ethically acceptable than larger armed conflicts, and to what extent does the remote nature of the devices influence our conception of war?
  • Does the unilateral expansion and implementation of the drone program constitute an express overstepping of the President’s military authority and violation of the law?
  • Are the supposed benefits of the drone program justification enough, despite ethical misgivings, to engage in the remote execution of even a suspected terrorist?
  • Do technological developments that remove the risk of soldiers’ lives from the battlefield render armed conflict meaningless and is that a good or bad thing?

These are the questions I find myself debating internally and with friends whenever this issue comes up, and no matter how many times I try to wrap my head around them, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to any of them. I think part of the difficulty is the fact that we live in a time when traditional definitions of terms such as “war” are evolving at such a rapid pace that our linguistic and philosophical vocabularies are struggling to catch up. Many contend that drone strikes constitute acts of war or even war crimes, but when the strikes kill a relative few compared to a traditional war, do those accusations hold merit? Are they even relevant?

And when we discuss the validity of unilateral military actions taken by our leaders, it’s growing increasingly difficult – especially where the Middle Eastern region is concerned – to see any instance in any shade but gray. President Obama’s decision to use the U.S. military in Libya without congressional support (as the law traditionally requires) was more humanitarian mission than war, and although his means were questionable, I ultimately support the ends given the rapidity with which circumstances were developing and the potentially devastating result of inaction. Further, he acted as part of a coalition, but without abiding by our laws – is that acceptable?

Many people I speak with about the subject contend that the drone program is without doubt ethically-bankrupt because of the suspect results, and I both agree and disagree. I think it depends on your perception of the persistence of our enemies. The most unfortunate aspect of the debate about military action is that the circumstances being discussed are often relative and subjective. I think most would agree that the U.S. has enemies that wish to do it harm. In organizations like Al-Qaeda, though, we find an enemy unwilling to negotiate or relent.

So, realistically, what can you do? If the U.S. government desires a proactive approach to negating the potential effects of its enemies, it realistically has only a few options, all of which have been used over the course of the last decade: a remote targeting program, a full-scale invasion, and a small-scale infiltration.

The questions I listed above are unfortunately predicated on my pessimistic understanding that the U.S. President will, for the foreseeable future, be required (by ideology or public account) to eschew a more ethically sound defensive posture for an ethically questionable offensive one. In other words, I consider this issue from the perspective that the U.S. will always want to attack its allies instead of defend against them.

Many would argue “the best defense is a good offense,” and that the potential benefits of the program far outweigh the cost or ethical agony. But I struggle with my confident belief that that’s not always true and that such a self-assured attitude toward an institution implemented with the sole purpose of killing individuals we deem enemies is cavalier and wrong. And with that I can’t help adding to my list of questions and asking myself “At what point is one forced to accept that the animal fear of pragmatism trumps the human hope of idealism?”

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Save the Arctic, “A Homeless Polar Bear in London”

Save the Arctic

World Wildlife Fund

Defender of Wildlife

It’s one of the great shames we, as humans, have perpetrated in our time on this earth: in our tunnel-vision preoccupation with our own survival, we’ve invaded and destroyed the natural environments of our fellow animal astronauts. There are many realities that make me sad on a daily basis, but few get to me the way the plight of animals like the polar bear do. Here are creatures that live in harmony with the planet and their peers, according to a natural balance, and we bring them to ruin by accelerating the decline of their habitat, because we desire more of things we don’t really need. Is there anything more despicable?

And the most frustrating part is my willing, characteristically human hypocritical involvement in this crime. Well, I’m trying to help combat the unfortunate state of affairs here and now.

Please take a moment to check out the links above. They are all extremely informative and inspiring with regards to the state of our relationship with animals like the polar bear. I know this kind of promotion seems corny and disingenuine to many, but understanding and being aware of this situation is a responsibility we all have as denizens of this planet. I encourage you to donate to or take action on behalf of the organizations.

Everything is connected. Though animals’ plight may seem distant and disconnected from your life right now, consider that the horrible negative circumstances we impose and they suffer may one day expand to influence the lives of your children, their children, and so on.

Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko, “The Legend of Korra”

Following in the footsteps of its predecessor – Avatar: The Last AirbenderThe Legend of Korra, despite its billing as a kids’ show, is unequivocally one of the most intelligent, pertinent, and beautiful shows on television. And if you are in any way a fan of quality animation or unique stories, it’s one you should be watching. What follows is essentially a love letter to the new series and the old, because you can’t have a future without a past.

For the uninitiated: the world of Avatar/Korra is divided into four nations in which a segment of the population is born with the ability to “bend” – physically manipulate through force of will – one of four specific elements: water, earth, air, and fire. Beyond being just awesome to see and imagine, this ability gives trained benders incredible power to shape the physical world around them, but only with intense martial arts focus are they able to master the element and themselves. There is a deep spiritual side to bending, which is epitomized by the existence of one lone, reincarnated bender, “the Avatar.” The Avatar is born with the ability to master all four elements and bring balance to the varied peoples as a paragon of elemental harmony.

Avatar: The Last Airbender focuses on Avatar Aang, the last surviving member of the air nomad nation, as he travels across the world, gathering friends and allies, and mastering the elements in order to defeat the war-mongering tyrant leader of the fire nation. It sounds simple, but the story of Aang’s journey is told with such genuine emotion, insight, humor, fun, and more – not to mention the animation is incredibly entertaining and exciting – that to me (and many others), it truly transcends the “Saturday Morning Cartoon” and becomes something meaningful, artistic, and inspiring.

Some of the heart-wrenching situations and very adult questions that arise in the series’ last season (for example: Can one truly forsake attachment to the physical world in service of the spiritual? Is it morally correct to kill even the most ruthless killer? How far should one go to adhere to his or her’s culture’s philosophical legacy?) are complex and relevant to even the most skeptical adult viewer. And if this description has at all perked your ears, the entire series is available on Netflix On Demand for your viewing pleasure. There is so much to learn and enjoy, that it’s the kind of series I intend to make a required viewing experience for my (or anyone else I know’s) children one day.

After the bittersweet conclusion of Avatar: The Last Airbender, fans (myself included) were clamoring for more. Luckily, the creators obliged with the development of The Legend of Korra, a new story which picks up 70 years after the ending of Avatar. This story focuses on the trials and tribulations of the Avatar reincarnated after the death of Aang: Korra. Korra is a strong young woman who, despite having already mastered earth, fire, and water, struggles with air bending and the responsibilities placed on her as a result of her weighty mantle.

Korra’s personality and desire to live her own life are often at odds with the expectations of the greater world, elucidating a thematic conflict that makes her tremendously appealing and identifiable as a character. We’ve been with her for only a short time, but it is clear Korra embodies an impressive creative feat: she is a multi-faceted, genuine, fascinating character that has a lot to learn, but appeals and inspires as a hero regardless of the viewer’s gender or background. Korra – skilled, but not invincible – stands her own ground as Korra, and it is this self-possessed quality that is just great to watch week after week, even in her moments of fear and doubt. I have a feeling she will quickly become a standout idol among young girls and boys alike.

With The Legend of Korra, the series creators have lessened the stakes in some respects (the world is no longer at war and most of the action is localized to a single location, Republic City), but raised them sky-high in others. Family and history have always played a large part in the Avatar universe, but in the wake of Aang’s world-changing stint as the Avatar, Korra is confronted with nearly overwhelming doubts about her ability to live up to the legacy of Avatars past. Although Aang often struggled with this same issue, Korra’s very relevance to the world is thrown into question as a result of the advent of new technologies, social realities, and worst of all: an anti-bender movement aimed at eliminating the powerful bender “race,” and using terrorism to inspire fear.

The ability to bend is inherited, not cultivated, and this conflict raises a number of intriguing questions regarding many issues, but one in particular is front and center: the nature of power, from where power is derived, and who has the right to wield it. When Korra is confronted by the leader of the anti-bender movement (establishing the major struggle of the series), and her mask of confidence is cracked, it becomes clear just how much she has to learn. The complexity of this situation leaves our protagonist in a bind; all actions seem to betray someone or something, and watching her fight to rise above these obstacles will no doubt become the reward of the series.

And though we’re only six episodes in, that’s why I already love this series so much. What makes The Legend of Korra excellent is the confidence of its story-telling and refinement of its production. This journey is going places and saying things and it’s looking incredible while doing it.

Whereas the previous series largely felt like it existed on its own terms, the story of The Legend of Korra can easily be read as allegory, directly interacting with and addressing many of the most contentious and difficult issues facing our own world today. The conundrum of generational responsibility – how does a new generation move the world forward when its previous caretakers have passed on? – resonates given recent social and cultural movements here in the U.S. (Occupy Wall Street, gay rights, income inequality, etc.) and abroad (Middle Eastern revolutions, terrorism, human rights violations, etc.). The tumultuous world of The Legend of Korra smartly reflects our own and seems aimed at the politically- and culturally-aware adults in its audience. If this weren’t on Nickelodeon, I wouldn’t even consider it for a second to be a children’s show, its scope is that large.

This isn’t all to say that there’s nothing but brooding political grand-standing. No! Quite the opposite, in fact. The truly impressive accomplishment of this series and the one before, and what makes them both so endearing, is that they deal with all of these ideas and issues while still being SO MUCH FUN. The art, animation, music, and voice acting teams on Korra have truly outdone themselves, delivering a unique, charming, beautiful, and complete world and even more amazing characters. There is just so much conviction put into even the most straightforward fight scene that every frame of this series is a joy. The creative teams, much like the pro-bending Fire Ferrets, “leave it all in the arena,” and it shows.

In case you couldn’t tell, I simply cannot recommend The Legend of Korra (and its predecessor) enough. If you have a chance to, please check them out. This is exactly the kind of entertainment we, as a culture, should reward and encourage: creative journeys that you come away from more enlightened, with plenty to think about and celebrate.

Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf, “The Enemy Within”

Besides the hilariously appropriate metaphor Rothkopf uses to frame his editorial (the U.S. as burger-guzzling ground-pounder on the fast-track to the cemetery), he makes excellent points as he runs down the list of perceived foreign threats politicians routinely use as bogey-men and swiftly dismisses them all. This is one of the most succinct write-ups I’ve come across that explores why the U.S. needs to stop worrying ad nauseum about external enemies and focus on its domestic issues. This attitude of fear-mongering has been present in politics for as long as I’ve been aware of politics as a thing people care about (admittedly, not long), but given the economic instability of recent years and the advent of terrorism as a front-and-center FEAR in the popular consciousness, people seem to be in overdrive.

That’s not to say there aren’t domestic “terrors” that inspire ridiculous amounts of mental exhaustion among some people (tax laws, abortion rights, gay marriage/civil unions), but it’s so much easier and more common for politicians to point in fear out over the oceans at something that simply is not there or so far over the horizon as to be irrelevant. It sounds like a tired old complaint, but it would be great if those who claim to want to lead us actually did some, you know, leading.

David Rothkopf: “If America stopped searching for goblins under the bed, it might actually be able to reset its economic priorities and start investing in the things that would make the country stronger, more prosperous, and safer again, from infrastructure to energy security to better schools. What’s more, Americans might find that a foreign policy that identified real risks but kept them in perspective and was more about deepening ties, finding common ground, and avoiding unnecessary conflict would work better than the tired us vs. them formulations of the recent past.”

The Atlantic, James Fallows, “False-Equivalence Watch: Nice Work by the Times and Post!”

I wish I could start a political movement to protest “Representation without substantiation!” This brief article focuses on how subtle changes in copy-writing can alter public perception of a story, with regard to the Senate debate over the “Buffett Rule” proposed by President Obama. The writer compares two different headlines about the state of the debate in the Senate and each addresses (one accurately, one inaccurately) why the proposed legislation will not move beyond the Senate.

In short: despite the fact that the legislation won majority support (51-45), Republicans threatened to filibuster to delay and argue against it. The Republicans have not followed through on their threats in modern times, but because the Democrats were not able to secure a “super majority” to override the threatened filibuster, and a tremendous amount of time would be wasted on a filibuster, the fight was abandoned.

The New York Times accurately represented the situation, their headline read, “Republicans Block Debate on ‘Buffet Rule’ in Senate.” Though NYT is regarded as a more liberal, left-leaning publication, the headline indicates the factual reality that Republicans are responsible for ending debate on the Buffet Rule.

Forbes, however, ran a headline which read, “Buffet Rule Fails in Senate, 51-45.” This is a blatantly inaccurate, intentionally vague representation of what happened. If one were to speculate where Forbes’s political loyalties lie, it’d be easy to infer from this headline, which is sort of, you know, wrong, when it comes to the field of journalism.

I thought this article was effective in demonstrating exactly the kind of thing I personally think is wrong with political debate in this country: disingenuous representation. The Forbes headline gives the inaccurate impression that the Senate outright rejected the Buffet Rule, putting the onus on the entire governing body, when in actuality, it was because the Senate Republicans threatened to filibuster the legislation that the Buffet Rule was stopped in its tracks. And I don’t even want to get into the problem with the filibuster as a governing practice. Suffice it to say that I think the only way it could ever work is if you actually make the person or group threatening to filibuster follow through with their threat. Good work, Senate Democrats…

Anyway, anyone with only a moment to glance over headlines would read the Forbes version, misunderstand the situation without knowing any better, and go on to cultivate ill-informed opinions. This sort of problem is endemic and, to me, indicative of a larger problem with how we currently function as a society. Though we pride ourselves on freedom, that does not mean we should allow “free” incorrect and untrue assertions to have any place in political debate.

This has been a problem for as long as man has tried to govern, but shouldn’t we at least TRY to negotiate obstacle at some point? The issues with which our country is grappling are far too significant to muddle around in petty misrepresentations. Real people live and die by the laws of this land and deserve to be accurately informed as to what goes into creating them.

Note: This started off as a simple response to an interesting New York Times article, but quickly took on a life of its own as a full review.

New York Times, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, “A Radical Female Hero From Dystopia

I’m pretty sure the film alone does not support the level of critical thought (the reviewers confirm this by referencing the books frequently) given it in this article, but this is an interesting analysis of Katniss Everdeen’s character as a modern, popular heroine. I think it would make the conversation regarding her femininity even more interesting to address that in the books she is largely taught what she knows and how she acts by her father. It really bothered me that there was no explanation for her skills and what she knows in the film – I also thought the fact that the leather jacket she covets was her father’s was a touching scrap of information (among so many others) sadly missing from the adaptation.

While I wasn’t looking for an exact replication of the novel on-screen (and was aware as soon as they announced the adaptation that a first-person narrative was a near-impossibility), I maintain that what was presented in the film was largely a hollowed-out version of an extremely rich and emotional story. We don’t get any exposition or emotionally-relevant content about WHY Katniss, in a world where weapons are outlawed, food is supposedly scarce, and things are so rough that revolution foments, she has preternatural archery abilities, knows how to carve a bow, has a nice leather coat, knows about deadly berries, or looks more vaguely disappointed than HUNGRY. It just doesn’t make any sense in context and unfortunately turns her from a HUMAN character into a SUPER HUMAN character, rendering the dramatic weight of her transformation from “poor, hungry girl” to “symbol of revolution” inert; in the film it is made to seem as though she is already a hero waiting for opportunity, as opposed to a person upon whom the mantle of “hero” is thrust.

Further, key scenes, robbed of emotional context, are cheap and opportunistic. Specifically, I am referring to the much adored Rue death scene. In the book, the scene fills your heart with lead because in her tracker-jacker stupor Katniss mistakes Rue for Primrose, and upon Katniss’s recovery, Rue tells her own tragic tale. These aren’t first-person narration moments, but they are completely missing from the film. We are given ridiculous, unnecessarily shoe-horned exposition about genetically-modified tracker-jackers, but we can’t be given ANYTHING about Rue as a character? They cheaply introduce her in the film as a young lamb sent to slaughter and the emotional weight of her death is cheap, in my opinion. It’s a sucker-punch on film, nothing more.

Back to the main point though, I think Katniss being taught what she knows by her father enriches the complexity of her character as a modern heroine and brings a new facet to the discussion of gender identity. It’s also interesting to note (with regards to the idea of the “gendered hero”) Gale’s role in all of this. Gale (interestingly, often a female’s name) plays essentially the same role within his family as Katniss, is equipped with the same skills, etc., but what if the situation were reversed and HE volunteered for the games and Katniss stayed behind in the district? Would The Hunger Games be as remarkable and appreciated a story by half? Or would it be dismissed out-of-hand as embracing the traditional hero and patriarchy?

All of this is not to say the film adaptation was not a worthwhile attempt. It is extremely interesting for a variety of reasons, but principally because it seems almost impossible to discuss objectively on its own merits. Managed by a mediocre director with the backing of a mediocre studio, with complex, definitely R-rated, subversive material molded into a marketable, PG-13 romp-for-all-ages, it’s easy to come at this film with claws ready and eyes gleaming. All adaptations are, by their nature, altered, but, to elaborate… Fans of the novels see The Hunger Games film and their perspectives and knowledge are informed by what they’ve read, so they may not even realize what’s missing from this adaptation without really stepping back from it and looking at it as a movie unto itself. And non-fans seeing this story for the first time are given a tale so absolute in its moral simplicity and middle-of-the-road in its presentation that it’s difficult to find seriously offensive fault. The onus in the case of the non-initiated isn’t on the new-comers, but given the cultural ubiquity of the books at this point, as I said, I think it’s difficult to address this film in analytic discussion without knowledge of the source material.

So, I guess my problems with the film stems from disappointment in it as an adaptation, and perhaps I’m being too critical, but given the influence the story has garnered in popular culture, I don’t think it’s entirely ridiculous to look at the film with a critical eye. In my opinion, treating adaptations in this manner is the only way to ensure quality from Hollywood, and despite its semi-progressive bones, I don’t think this film should get a free pass.

NPR, Linton Weeks, “Obama Is the Best and the Worst President. Discuss.”

When kids are growing up and asked what they want to be when they’re older, some poor, misguided souls claim they want to be “President of the United States.” Personally, I can imagine few positions I’d rather hold less than the presidency, but maybe that’s just me. I’m also of the mind that no one who WANTS to be in such a powerful position should ever be ALLOWED to be in that position to begin with, but that’s another problem entirely.

This interesting NPR write-up examines an issue that cuts to the core of political division in the United States: scapegoatism. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be the President, especially if you attain the office with the intention of trying to do good for the country. I’m sure most go into it thinking they can help the people they love, shepherd those people into a new age of prosperity, elevate them above where they are collectively on inauguration day. How disappointing that moment must be when you, the purported “most powerful person in the world” realize just how ineffectual you are; how self-destructive and resistant to the most basic, beneficial change those people are. They don’t know what’s good for them and they know not what they do, but you can’t dictate what should or shouldn’t change, because you’re supposed to be one of them.

It’s a hell of a catch-22. I believe Obama actively wants to do good, and although he (as with all presidents) has gotten caught in the complicated dance of mission, expectation, and opposition, he has done some good. That’s not to say he’s without flaws. I disagree with his expansion of what I’ll summarize as “Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ policies,” for one. His lack of commitment to the LGBT community has been sad and he’s done pretty much nothing for my generation and anyone younger. But the point is, he seems to be genuinely trying. I get the impression he cares.

All of this is to say that it would be nice if the U.S. citizens dispensed with absolutism in their judgments of his performance and adopted a more nuanced, informed understanding. Despite his best efforts, President Obama and everyone who helps him to achieve the goal of betterment are only human and the world is a more complicated place by the day. Although advances in technology have expanded our view, it seems the public’s thought processes have yet to keep pace. I guess that’s just human nature. Anyway, the article says all of this better than I can manage, so I defer to Mr. Weeks’ analysis.

Dean Keith Simonton: “For good or ill, Obama will also be judged according to criteria that must be considered unjust by any rational standard — most notably the economy. Even though the U.S. president has very little control over economic growth — particularly now that the economy has become global — he still is saddled with the blame for a bad economy.”