Zocalo: Spoiler-Free Discussion of “Learning Curve”

In which we see Ranger trainees as they try to apply what they’ve taken from their lessons to the reality of Babylon 5 and Captain Lochley as she continues to adjust to the realities of her new position. Does the titular learning curve get too steep at times? Talk about this episode and everything that came before here.

6 thoughts on “Zocalo: Spoiler-Free Discussion of “Learning Curve””

  1. Having listened to the podcast, I’m going to defend an aspect of this episode from our hosts. Imposing the kinds of understanding about jurisdictions that one can take for granted in a mature federal state like the US or Canada is, I think, misleading. Those kinds of understandings have a long history of statute law, jurisprudence, policy, and lived practice behind them.

    The Interstellar Alliance has only existed for a few months. It’s unclear how detailed the rules are that have been laid out for how it works, but since it has only very recently even come up with a declaration of the broadest principles, I think it’s highly unlikely that there are reams of documentation about the nitty-gritty for Lochley to consult to see exactly where her powers end.

    I think it’s likely that the IA at this point is essentially just the agreement to have an IA (in treaty form, of course, but one suspects that those treaties have a lot of declarations that details are “to be agreed at a later date”). Institutionally, it is probably lurching along in the meantime by repurposing the existing institutions of the League of Non-Aligned Worlds, with a President bolted on. (This is consistent with how the IA is depicted as operating on the show.)

    There is undoubtedly a lot of high-sounding but vague language, and the understandings of that language what that language means are going to be very different depending on who you ask. (For a recent illustration of how this can go wrong, ask David Davis.) The language is going to be strategically vague especially where the issues are difficult, and one suspects that the Rangers are one of the most sensitive areas.

    Also, what language does exist hasn’t been subject to any real legal interpretation yet. To take one interesting point: how much does it matter that Babylon 5 is only temporarily the capital of the Alliance, and that in the near future it is expected to be a normal Earth military station (with all the security concerns that implies)? It is arguably Lochley’s *job* under these circumstances to push for a maximal understanding of Earth’s sovereignty over the station and not let the Alliance establish dangerous precedents (from a member state perspective) for the future — since there is no Earth ambassador to the Alliance, she presumably has to play that role and look out for Earth’s interests. (It remains implausible that actual diplomats play so little role in all this, but that’s not a new problem.)

    Add to all this one further contrast between this situation and real-world parallels: this is an alliance between different alien worlds, with different cultures and different understandings about how “international” relations work. It seems highly unlikely that there is anything that counts as “international” law. The origins of the Earth-Minbari War are all about different cultures assuming that their parochial understandings about how relations with other states work apply universally. This is radically different from (e.g.) the foundation of NATO or the UN (both much more limited in their powers than the IA, especially the UN), which could operate in a context of well-worked out international law extending back to the early modern period, and beyond.

    So the odds are not only that Lochley does not know where her powers end and the Rangers’ jurisdiction begins, but that there is no “correct” answer yet to the question of where her powers end in the first place.

    Incidentally, this is another argument against seeing Sheridan as a “good military commander” but a “bad politician.” This situation is fantastically difficult, and the fact that the entire thing isn’t falling apart now that the threat of the Shadows is fading, implies leadership skills of a high order.

  2. Actually a much better episode than I remember, and subtle… is this really a filler episode after all?

    “I know you think you have your mind made up about Zack…”

    This didn’t bother me, and I think I’ve figured out why. The scene directly before it with Zack asking questions of witnesses who say nothing. The shot lasts two seconds. They are grouped together like figures from an iconic religious classical painting and their angelic innocence is comedy gold. Each man is wearing dark colours, flak jackets. The shot is so brief I overlook that only one is a security guard. Camera turns to Zack asking witnesses on the other side of the stage: more dark colours, flak jackets. The dress isn’t dissimilar to some versions of B5 security, but for the lack of insignias. Next scene. Big black guy (dark colours, flak jackets, not present previously) warns Trace about “Zack”. In my head canon, this man is a security agent on the take. Perhaps he slipped through Garibaldi’s scrutiny, perhaps when Lochley and Zack took over.
    Or maybe he just doubles as Zack’s unreliable pizza delivery.

    Delenn’s wisdom regarding the Pakamara is a solid character note, with Mira evoking the elder stateswoman role we saw in ‘Deconstruction of’ / tDoFS. The stand-off with Lochley is a great piece of acting and writing too.

  3. Lochley’s speech in the mess hall didn’t convince our hosts. It didn’t convince me either, but it occurs to me that we’re not the intended audience. Lochley is professional military, not an early 21st century western progressive. In B5, Lochley cares mostly about the opinion of the men and women serving under her command, who in the mess hall are military and security. If her opinion isn’t perfectly expressed for non-military people, to me that is good characterisation.

    1. I think the issue there is more than Lochley. Lochley is just General Lefcourt again. There are basically three categories of Earthforce personnel in B5.

      1) Rebels like Sheridan.

      2) Officers like Lefcourt and Lochley, whose belief in the principle of civilian control of the military is too strong to allow them to take the law into their own hands. They are waiting for the events of Rising Star to happen within the system.

      3) Outright Clark supporters, who are various types of horrible or psychologically damaged human beings (and Babylon 5 falls into the bad, if widespread, habit of making the second just a subcategory of the first). These appear to be a small minority.

      I have some problems with this: I think it fails to wrestle with the genuine issues surrounding authoritarian regimes, especially the Nazis (who are the main historical touchstone here), which is that you can have people in category 3 who are not otherwise horrible people. We never get the perspective of the sincere, well-balanced, Clark loyalist, and I think it’s fooling ourselves to suppose that such people do not exist in authoritarian regimes.

      (Or that there is not a reasonable chance that, under the right circumstances, the power of motivated reasoning would not put us among their number. We’d all like to believe that we would be among the heroic resistance fighters. History suggests that most of us would go along with the flow at best, actively collaborate at worst.)

      Further, the implication that most of the people who fight Sheridan in the civil war are in category 2 allows B5 to avoid the difficult issues that were associated with de-Nazification in Germany following the war.

      But I think there’s something to be said in favor of JMS here. He cuts all that other stuff out, but it’s the same as with his simplistic presentation of politics: it allows the story to focus more narrowly and clearly on its main point.

      And it’s an important point! Making the story revolve around the issue of civilian control of the military has a lot to be said in its favor. For a start, military intervention in politics is more often than not where authoritarian regimes come from, and the principle of an apolitical military is therefore perhaps the single most important bulwark against the overthrow of liberal-democracy that we have.

      The Lochley/Lefcourt types are not absurd in their belief that abandoning it to save the state from authoritarianism is destroying the village in order to save it: that this is something that cannot be justified except if all other possibilities have been exhausted. (Which they haven’t. It took the events of Endgame to force the overthrow of Clark, but up to that point it was a political judgement call whether that would be necessary.)

      So, what about the atrocities? I want to emphasize that I offer the following only as analogies for Lochley and Lefcourt’s situation, and that I’m not trying to push anyone’s political buttons here. There’s no analogy about these issues that in the current US polarized political climate does not provoke somebody, but for my argument, all you need to accept is that there are people who sincerely view, or at least might sincerely view things this way. You don’t have to agree with them – just to ask what might follow from their premises.

      There are people who believe that the US use of torture following 9/11 is a clear war crime, a violation of longstanding US principles as well as principles of international law. There are also people who believe that about collateral damage during the Iraq War. There are also people who believe that the line between legitimate military and illegitimate civilian targets has become dangerously blurred in the age of drone strikes in a manner that again, constitutes or at least verges on a war crime. There are also people who believe that the separate specifically US principle that the United States cannot target its own citizens for assassination has also been violated.

      And so on. It’s quite a package. Not going to say where I stand. Instead, I’m going to ask a question. Supposing that you accepted all that, would you think the US military should have overthrown the government? Or should it trust to the normal processes to see it to it that there is a correction in the long run, on the grounds that once the military has overthown a government and installed a new one, that genie is out of the bottle. The precedent is set, and will always be available for use, and there will often be something, in the way of states, that can be viewed by *somebody* as sufficient justification.

      But, you say, what Clark has done is much worse than that. Only if you *know* that he is illegally President because he assassinated his predecessor. Otherwise, what he has done has used excessive force against civilian populations to put down insurgencies against the democratically-elected, legitimate government. Tell it to General Sherman. Hell, tell it to the person after whom Sheridan is named. There are historical precedents that Clark can draw on here to present this as a regrettable necessity. Sheridan himself used force against a civilian population during the Mars Food Riots.

      These things are messy, and Lochley and Lefcourt are not obviously in the wrong in choosing to err on the side of preserving the appropriate limitations on the role of the military in a liberal political order: that saying that it is right for Clark to be removed from office is not the same as saying that it is right for the military to do it. It might matter greatly, for instance, that Clark has apparently not suspended elections.

      I think part of the problem here is that JMS is combining this murky story about authoritarianism and difficult choices with another story about heroes who are very, very heroic and clearly wear the white hats. There’s a tension there, because he wants us to be wholeheartedly on Sheridan’s side, which is hard to combine with presenting the situation as one in which knowing what one should do is genuinely difficult. But I think JMS does achieve it, at least to some extent, if one stands back and tries to think how it would look to someone who doesn’t have the same information that we the viewers do.

      For instance, Clarkite ISN propaganda comes across as very cartoonish, and that matters, because the obvious counter-argument to the Lochley/Lefcourt position is that elections cannot be fair if Clark controls the information that the electorate is getting. But I think, in-story, it’s not supposed to be so cartoonish and obvious, and people are supposed not to know, or at least not to be sure, that Clark now controls the media.

      1. Absolutely. It could probably be said type 1 (Sheridan & Co.) are anarchists. If we look at the anti-Clark activism, type 2 (Lochley & Co.) have fair wiggle room. The set-up is primarily done in the Shadow War with loads of quieter examples: underground refugee railroads, food and humanitarian aid, blockade busting, the Rangers gathering reports, anti-Clark comedians, Sheridan Snr protected. The flip side holds up well. Only a few times are entire episodes devoted to this. JMS has done a fantastic job with these seeds. He might have done better bridging it with Lochley: she might have admitted to a ship-board collection, ‘teddy bears for Earth kids.’

        1. Coincidentally, I just watched Mark Thomas’s ‘The Red Shed’, where he talks about one of his friends: a foreign activist of large stature with a keen political mind who argues with anyone about anything, and sometimes people would seek him out just to argue with him. His name was Byron.

          Happy Christmas!

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