Jennifer Government
Max Barry, 2003

In a world where taxes have been abolished and corporations have taken over the world to such an extent that their branding now extends to surnames — Hayley McDonald's, Nathaniel ExxonMobil — the only function the government serves is to prevent crime. John Nike finds even this too restrictive and launches an initiative to eliminate it completely. This will not only leave companies free to do whatever they want, but will also get Jennifer Government off his trail for killing fourteen people.

When this book came out, the author created a little web game at to promote it. You make yourself a flag, you log in every so often, you answer some questions, and eventually the structure of your own little country takes shape. It was sufficiently fun that I added the book to my to-read list.

Verdict: Jennifer Government is Snow Crash lite. It lacks the frenetic humor of its predecessor, and the characters are every bit as flat, but it's a decent page-turner. And it's got a great title.

The Last King of Scotland
Peter Morgan, Jeremy Brock, Giles Foden, and Kevin Macdonald, 2006

A recent medical school graduate in the 1970s travels from his native Scotland to do field work in a country selected on a whim, Uganda. Happenstance leads him to a position as the personal physician to and, soon, closest advisor of the clownish yet menacing and paranoid military dictator Idi Amin.

Most of the positive reviews that I read after watching this movie hailed it for Forest Whitaker's portrayal of Idi Amin and expressed annoyance at how much screen time was devoted to this fictional Scottish guy. That is, the reviewers didn't actually want to see this movie — they wanted something else, an Idi Amin delivery system. The negative reviews took this a step further. Adding the doctor, they argued, made the film yet another installment of the colonialist view of the Third World, full of booga-boogas threatening the white man who's just trying to bring some civilization to the savages. How dare these filmmakers gloss over the murder of 300,000 real Ugandans in favor of the suffering of one made-up European man-child?

I might be interested in seeing the movie all these reviewers seem to pine for. But this movie is about the First World's relationship to the Third, and it does a decent job of being about that. The Last King of Scotland articulates the main thing I found myself musing about after watching, of all things, March of the Penguins. See, after his goons have given the Scottish kid a thorough beating, Amin himself shows up to harangue his former bestest bud. "Did you think this was all a game? 'I will go to Africa, and I will play the white man with the natives!' Is that what you thought? We are not a game, Nicholas. We are real. This room, here — it is real. I think your death will be the first real thing that has happened to you."

That's a hell of a speech! And I think it hits on something kind of profound. When you look at your sneakers, you might know on an intellectual level that they were assembled by a ten-year-old girl in a sweatshop in Indonesia — but does that sweatshop feel like a real place? In my on-again off-again hunt for a new place to live I've found myself looking at places and thinking: yes, this is in a better location than my current place... but so what? I spend the vast, vast majority of my free time at home, and when I'm at home, my apartment might as well be floating in a featureless white void. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking of your affluent corner of the world the same way. But all those other places are real. Look at your house on Google Maps. Found it? Now look at Kampala at the same resolution. Equally real. When you scan the headlines and see the litany of disasters all over the Third World, those are happening to people just as real as you in places just as real as your home.

Meanwhile, it's November so the penguin chicks should be in their creches by now. Also equally real.

The Queen
Peter Morgan and Stephen Frears, 2006

After the death of her son's ex-wife, the figurehead monarch of Britain comes under attack for being slow to acknowledge the public's grief.

One of the reasons I watched The Last King of Scotland is that I'm curious about different parts of the world, even though most of them I have absolutely no intention of visiting in person. The Queen offers a window onto a couple of such places (Balmoral and the inside of a modern palace) but mostly takes place in the media, a sort of collective mental space. More on this in a bit.

Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth Windsor, but I was more impressed by Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. For the first couple of minutes I thought, "Gah, this guy doesn't look like Blair at all," but after that I actually forgot that it wasn't the real guy!

I really like leeks. When I got to the scene depicted at right, I had to put this movie on pause. Will you look at those leeks? Are they not the most beautiful leeks you have ever seen?

Non-leek-related commentary
But back to the main thought I had about The Queen and, to a lesser extent, the other two texts above.

The basic conflict in The Queen is generational. Following the death of 1980s icon Diana Spencer, there is a public outpouring of grief. Prime Minister Tony Blair and Diana's ex-husband Charles Windsor, both Baby Boomers, believe that the royal family should acknowledge the public's outpouring of grief. The older generations, represented here by Elizabeth Windsor, her husband Philip Mountbatten, and her mother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, believe in keeping a stiff upper lip, the way they did during the war, a much greater catastrophe than the death of a celebutante brat who wasn't a royal anymore anyway. Fine. But why the fuck was there a public outpouring of grief for Diana Spencer in the first place?

A while ago I wrote:

I've found that those whose presidential preference is based around vague notions of "leadership" tend not to be thinking about the actual duties of the president in the American system of government. They think, as George Lakoff has astutely diagnosed, in metaphor. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to NPR and heard a guy at a Bush rally say he's voting for Bush because "he won't just give the terrorists a time-out — he'll smack 'em in the mouth." This is hardly an isolated incident: I can hardly count the number of voters I've heard opining about foreign policy by scaling up their stances on corporal punishment. The problem is, global geopolitics is not parenting! The world is not a suburban house and you're not voting for Dad.

And yet! In all three of these texts we see family and government all muddled together. Heck, in Jennifer Government, "Government" is Jennifer's family name. Of course, this is satire. But when Shakespeare trotted out dukes and earls and kings whose "family names" were the names of regions, he quite unsatirically referred to them as "York" and "Northumberland" and "France," as if human beings could serve as incarnations of countries. In The Last King of Scotland, Idi Amin isn't being satirical when he says "Uganda embraces you" and wraps his own arms around Nicholas: he truly believes that he embodies the country — or at least serves as its patriarch. His declaration that "I am the father of this nation, Nicholas, and you have most grossly offended your father!" is echoed in The Queen when one of Tony Blair's aides refers to him (not entirely jokingly) as the "father of the nation." This phrase is such a cliché that its fundamental absurdity tends to get lost. Nations don't have fathers. They're not families.

But people really, really, really want them to be. Many people's brains are wired to think analogically and imagine incomprehensibly large agglomerations of people as scaled-up versions of the units they do understand: schoolyards, offices, families. The British royal family serves as a focus for this dysfunctional cathexis, keeping it more separate from the actual government than is the case in a republic. And with that observation I finally realized what the deal was with all those British people wailing in the streets over Diana:

The British public is Juliana Hatfield.

Or, rather, it's Juliana Hatfield's character in "My Sister." If the structure of the British government is designed to make its citizens — or, rather, subjects — consider themselves part of a family with the royals at the head, then a generation of Britons and Anglophiles was encouraged to view Diana Spencer not as just another media personality with bad hair and way too much mascara, but as your prom queen older sister, or whatever Britain has instead of prom queens. "I love my sister! She's the best! She's cooler than any other girl / That I have ever met!" And then she's dead, before she got to take you to your first all-ages show. Because she would have, y'know. How sad.

And all the more sad is that since Tony Blair is just as susceptible as everyone else — in the movie, his wife points out that his increasingly strident defense of the queen's role in British society is probably rooted in mother issues — he went on to build a relationship with George Bush that all too closely resembled that between a nebbishy schoolboy and his brother the idiot fratboy who fucks everything up but whom he nevertheless idolizes and wants to help out. The difference is that the queen eventually listened to people and cared about massive public opposition. Bush, not so much.

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