Thursday, August 05, 2004


If you can't stand the heat...

Okay, I've still got lots to bring over from DA, but I'm guessing most anyone reading this has probably already seen a lot of that material, and of course thoughts continue, before doing another text dump, I thought I'd swing back by the expat question, and what better way to jump into that then by saying that on Tuesday I went out to see Fahrenheit 911...heh. My take, honestly? I was less than shocked, and if anything, felt like Moore was pulling a LOT of punches. Yes, I know some of the exaggerations--and downright lies--contained in the movie, so before there's any rants on the subject, let me just say that I have never viewed Michael Moore as a documentarian--and that's coming from someone who watched Roger & Me back in the early 90's and used to catch TV Nation any time he could during stays in AK and Australia. Moore at his best is Moore hiring a semi-truck, painting the whole thing commie red with hammer and sickle, loading it up with posters of Che and Castro and copies of the Little Red Book and driving it across Louisiana, where it is illegal to transport any form of Communist propaganda, and stopping in at police stations and asking the police to arrest him. Moore at his best is a Moore that has to deal with the merely absurd, rather than the frightening. The difficulty he faces in his current work is that the political sitch in the US has veered far past the merely absurd to the downright frightening.

We'll have to come back to that point before I'm done, I'm sure. Meanwhile, I do not approach Moore uncritically, and in fact spent an hour or two before trolling my favorite right-wing website just to get nice and pumped up for the movie. (And in accessing this site, came across this, which looks interesting but would look more interesting if the author had managed to get Riefenstahl's first name right in the opening paragraph...nevertheless, I'm all for this sort of crit work on Moore) So I went in...only to find out that the theatre we'd picked was showing it 'dubbed' in German--which means that although all the sound on the film's footage is in original English, the voiceovers (and there are more voiceovers in this film than in Bowling for Columbine) are in German. So my assessment of the movie is somewhat incomplete, because although my German is better than it was when I first moved here, it's still not at the point that I can make much sense of anything that gets too complex. Funny thing is, this is exactly what happened to me when I first saw Bowling, and yet, I remember leaving that movie much more outraged, much more ready to fire some heavy artillery at the whole of the American dream than I did this time. I also went with the same people to both movies...though, the first time, I had met one of these people (Christoph) only 10 minutes before we started off to the theatre, and the other I'd only been out with on a very few now, we've played what we like to call music together, and have spent many, many nights drinking excellent beer from Munich and talking about these same issues. What struck all of us was the sense that, in Fahrenheit, we'd encountered nothing particularly new, prompting Hugh, one of the folks accompanying me, to say, "Maybe it's because the information war has already been won over here." The fuss over this movie in the states is most striking in the fact that, where I live, the reaction to this movie seems to be, "...and?" (Or, to be precise, "...und?")

So, for the movie--back, maybe, to that idea that America has veered past absurd into genuinely frightening, and that being one of the limitations Moore faces. The strength of B4C, for me, is that it expressed, though in extremely simplified terms, some of the central theses I'd been working with for quite some time, and my positive reaction to that movie was, no doubt, in large part due to the pleasure I felt in hearing those theses being expressed in a semi-mainstream document. Primary among these is what I think is Moore's underlying theses in that work--that the greater proportion of the human race is unduly influenced by the media's (and there's a loaded word...) use of fear to sell its products. This is the source of my discomfort--and my source of comfort since moving--in America: I feel unduly afraid. I don't here. I didn't in Australia. I can't say for certain that this isn't a matter of having matured, but the coincidence strikes me as being an important one.

All of this is of course made much more complicated by the fact that Moore himself is making use of the very fear he seems to be criticizing to sell his product...and I suppose, if I felt the effort worthwhile, any deep criticism I might level at Moore's oeuvre would take this as its target--he goes only so far, then pulls back. This is evident also in the current offering, in his montage of the Bush administration's preening before the announcement of the war in Iraq. There is a flash of brillance here, one that ultimately goes unrealized as it does not extend to the work at hand: somehow, the audience is meant to apply criticism to this preening in regards to the Bush administration, but not to Moore himself. And yet, any truly critical member of the audience knows that the same preening is at work in Moore's presentation of events. Moore levels some very effective criticism at just about everything he disagrees with, but he is decidedly lacking in his ability to self-criticize. Were he to do so, with honesty and rigor, his movies might be truly brilliant. As it is, they rarely get much past the merely spectacular.'s the thing: I'm not dismissive of Moore's connections. I can recognize the gaps in logic, and I very much find fault with the way the whole is presented, but I do maintain a certain belief in those connections. I do recognize that this belief is largely a product of staying outside the whole of many assumptions made by mainstream politicians (Kerry very much included)--because I think it necessary only to step just a little outside of those assumptions to start to recognize patterns. Some assumptions: that free markets lead necessarily to free societies, that those who head large corporations, by pursuing their own limited self-interests are ultimately pursuing the interests of all the human race, that U.S. foreign policy may be excused on the basis of being grounded in 'higher principles' of liberty, that any effort to rid the world of 'terrorism' (a flawed undertaking, in my opinion) is necessarily good, that nation states are justified in pursuing what is good for the citizens within their borders--even at the expense of the citizens in other nation states--and even, at my more radical, that the political unit of a 'nation state' is in any way a viable political unit in a world that is increasingly called upon to address issues of global importance such as the rise of MNC's, the continuing (and by now irrefutable) damage to the environment, and epidemics, to name but 3 of the more pressing issues. In fact, any effort to eradicate terrorism should probably jettison the very idea of nation states, because, even assuming the viability of the project, terrorists are not defined by nation states--at least, not unless you're willing to accept that war itself is an act of terrorism. Answers? I don't have them. I'm a common, more than averagely aware citizen, but I'm no expert, and I don't pretend to be. What I am saying is that there are a lot of dangerously out-of-date assumptions being employed in current U.S. foreign policy, and any real solution would require a radical re-thinking of those assumptions to account for contemporary developments. I don't expect this to happen in my lifetime, though I can always hope. Point is, when those basic political assumptions do come into question, business connections between a political dynasty in the U.S., and key players in Saudi Arabia do start to look dicey...especially in light of, say, no-bid contracts being awarded by the U.S. government to a corporation that just happens to have had the vice-president on its board of CEOs. To be told, time and again, that such connections are 'unproven,' that they are not indicative of any conspiracy because these corporations truly do serve the best interests of all the world's citizens, and the like, becomes, to say the least, a bit difficult to swallow at a certain point.

I was recently in conversation with a friend about this, and about my own youthful forays into Marxist theory (incompletely grasped, to be certain), which I often cite in my own consideration of the paradoxes behind the left's participation in 'anti-globalization' movements. I can yammer, but to boil it all down, I have some sympathy for such movements, because it strikes me that it isn't necessarily capitalism that should be re-thought here--more capitalism's big brother, corporatism. I get the sense, in those discussions I have on these ideas, that the issue isn't so much free markets (though of course, that comes into play), but free markets that are dominated by a very few, very powerful corporate entities. If anything, I think limitations on the movements of both capital and labor should be lessened, but I also see many current limitations on both as being drafted largely in response to the interests of larger corporate structures. Thing is, many within the anti-globalization forces seem to be quite accepting of some 'globalizing' forces, primarily, the sense that there needs to be some international body of law with some teeth to it--to which all nations, even those with an extreme level of military might, should be held accountable. There is also this paradox in regards to the more Marxist-leaning among these forces: some of the key thinkers within Marxism have made the suggestion that the natural evolution of human economic activity is such that capitalism starts locally, but then moves toward global control--and that, once that global control is established, the need for the structure falls rise to a more natural form of communism than occurred in, say, Russia in 1917. Don't know that I agree with that assessment, just that, if that were so, the Marxists among the anti-globalization crowd would seem to be working against the very forces that feed a global communism. A telling political paradox, I think.

Historical determinism aside, I do believe there is real need to re-assess a lot of assumptions in terms of both politics and economics. Going back to the discussion I had with this friend, we were questioning how the current trends might be made more the economics of our world might be re-cast to better reflect the current situations we all face as humans, and to better make use of the real potential we all hold...and my friend made an interesting statement, to the effect that laissez-faire economics, and all the principles held dear within that economic world-view, is often presented as being the best model we can possibly present. In light of some clear failures on the part of Marxism, there's probably a case to be made for that...but...if we really think about our species' history, and the true length of it, we come to understand that these principles are still pretty young--just a little over 200 years old, in fact--and that it might be time to re-think some of the more problematic areas within that framework to more accurately reflect the reality we do face in the early 21st century.

Long rant, and actually just skims the surface of my thoughts on this truth, I do not want at all to come across as being someone who thinks I have any real handle on the matter. But I do think about it, and that's why I go to see Moore's movie, and it's also why I swing by the anti-Moore sites before I do. In truth, I don't even know how well such grand economic and political concepts actually reflect or drive our day-to-day lives. Sometimes, I think not at all...because on the individual level, it's about getting food on your family's table, and a truly viable economic model would be one that simply understands that having too much food on one's table means that someone else doesn't have enough, and acting on that knowledge on an individual level. Unfortunately, there seem to be people from every society--myself included, given that I'm on the internet, which is as much a luxury as anything--who don't see those basics as being enough to fully realize their own human potential, and want more. How we deal with that, I don't know. But I do like thinking about it.

"on the individual level, it's about getting food on your family's table, and a truly viable economic model would be one that simply understands that having too much food on one's table means that someone else doesn't have enough"

Two thoughts:

1) One problem I've always had with communism and socialism is that they don't scale well in either direction, precisely because they don't deal realistically with the fact that the needs of individuals are basically, by necessity, selfish ("food on your family's table"), and that institutionalized sacrifice for the greater good must always therefore be imposed with force. Capitalism works to whatever extent it does because it is based on what people are really like, not on some theoretical ideal that the majority of the people don't even aspire to, let alone live up to. We American capitalists may not see the forest for the trees, but communism and socialism tend to lose the trees in the forest, which is even less sustainable a model than ours, because it pits individuals against order. A realistic balance is, obviously, to be desired.

If there is a crisis in America, it is because we are faced with the dilemma that great freedom comes with even greater responsibility, but that bearing that responsibility doesn't feel like freedom. But in general, the human animal doesn't seem wired to notice that what is in their long term best interest is frequently not what appears to be in their short term best interest. That, certainly, is not unique to Americans. Where we are unique is in the extent to which we can - and do - make the myopic choices while proudly proclaiming our foresight. We're not the hypocrites the rest of the world makes us out to be, though. We're just dumb.

2) "Having too much food on one's table means that someone else doesn't have enough." - Cough, cough. Bullshit! Cough, cough. Sorry, but that leftist, liberal knee-jerk myth is nothing more than residual guilt from the emotional blackmail our parents used to get us to finish our vegetables when we were children. I know: I have it, too. But it's still bullshit.

Unless you happen to live in the household of a dictator or overlord who is hoarding food, the food you are eating is not coming out of the mouths of the hungry. Starvation in Africa has not one thing to do with how much we eat in America. Don't get me wrong - our gluttony has all kinds of other nasty repercussions, both personally and globally - primarily environmental. But truth is, not one Somali will live better if I lose the garbage gut. In fact, not one Somali will live better if the entire United States of America dropped to our ideal weights.

World hunger is a real problem, but it has nothing to do with global food supplies. It is a matter of local poverty coupled with local scarcity of readily available food sources in the natural environment, typically the result of or at least exacerbated by local politics. If the US shipped a year's worth of food for the entire nation to Somalia, and Bill Gates handed over his entire fortune, the country still wouldn't have a sustainable economy, and most of the population probably wouldn't eat any better, either.

It's not that there's anything wrong with the impulse to be fair. It's just that a couple dozen scientists, engineers, doctors, and economists with the freedom to inovate would do far more to solve these problems than a bulldozer full of Big Macs.
Though your point is taken, food would be a metaphor here for precisely the sort of action you're suggesting--that is, putting a little more of our resources toward viable and sustainable efforts aimed at correcting some of the grosser inequalities that do exist in the world.

Put it this way: Big macs are one thing, SUVs are quite another. If the waste of food were understood as being waste of limited resources, I don't think you'd call me quite so quickly. My point is, gluttony on that front is somewhat indicative of a more general perspective that doesn't see waste as a problem. And before I get hammered for being sanctimonious about the issue--I know I do it too.
Agree, in the general case.

I'm all for sustainable solutions. Truly. I’ve actually spent a great deal of time lately trying to engineer safe and sustainable lighting, heating, and cooling solutions for “third-world” populations (as a hobby – I’m a bit of a “primitive”/sustainable technology buff). I just object to the old wisdom that have-nots are created by the existence of haves, when that's seldom really true anymore, and has nothing to do with either the problem or the solution, anyway.

Waste (Big Macs, SUVs, whatever) - and our disposable culture - is a serious problem, but it is also, for the most part, a separate problem. You can't eat symbols, and the "grosser inequalities that do exist in the world" have nothing to do with our waste. In fact, in most cases, they have nothing to do with us at all, and the real problem isn't in anything we're doing or not doing, sharing or not sharing, but that it's damnably complicated to bring reform to another people without forcing the issue. Think Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Again, Somalia is a great lesson in complicated issues and futile gestures, in how the best of intentions can do more harm than good.

Meanwhile, doing something actually useful depends on our ability to focus the resources that are needed on the kinds of changes that can make a positive difference. It also depends on the willingness of those we would help to adopt the kind of changes that will help them. The recent debacle of Nigerians refusing polio vaccines being another good example. The physical resources - the medicines, the food - it isn't enough. They need teachers they trust. We need advocates. Because the true culprit behind poverty and hunger isn't greed or waste or even indifference - it's ignorance and lack of opportunity. And that’s true whether you’re standing in Somalia or Seattle.

Frankly, I think this is one of the reasons the conservatives have made the inroads they have here. Because American liberals don't have the answers, either, and our rhetoric tends to prove it. Which makes our cries of injustice pretty easy to dismiss, even when they're on point.

Which, amusingly, brings us back to Moore. I'm sympathetic with his cause, but he frustrates me because he buries real insight under common, trite outrage, not only blunting his own message, but also undermining his very cause.
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