Filed under: Capitalism | Tags: Barbarism, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Fascism, George Orwell, Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism, Max Horkheimer, Michael C. Moynihan, Naomi Wolf, Politics and the English Language, Reason Magazine, Semantics, Semiology, The End of America, Theodor Adorno, Timbro
Over at Reason Magazine (‘free minds and free markets’), Michael C. Moynihan laments the shoddy semiotic integrity of the word ‘Fascism’ in ‘Crying Wolf: Are We All Fascists Now?’ Moynihan sits as a visiting fellow for Stockholm think-tank Timbro, who are ‘devoted to innovating economic and social policies founded on free-market principles’ alone in the brave fight against a ‘Swedish political topography…dominated by groups espousing socialization, collectivist economic planning and heavy taxation’. With that grain of salt, here is a sample of how Moynihan stands up for semantic autonomy:
In a May 2008 essay for The Times of London, playwright Tom Stoppard, the British son of Czech émigrés, explained his long-held contempt for his more hyperbolic comrades in the theater. “I felt myself out of patience with people who, from 1968 onwards, would denigrate this country that adopted me, this country that I’d adopted, as some kind of fascist police state. It just seemed so embarrassing that those countries that truly could be described as such were very, very different from Britain.” In Stoppard’s acclaimed 2006 play Rock ’n’ Roll, a meditation on Czech resistance to Soviet occupation, one character upbraids his daughter for her lazy use of the term, grumbling that many in her generation “think a fascist is a mounted policeman at a demo in Grosvenor Square.”
To anyone that has attended a political demonstration, trawled a blog, or attended a Western university in the past half century, the scattershot use of “fascist” will ring familiar. And almost as clichéd as accusing an ideological opponent of fascist sympathies is the accurate observation that such charges often demonstrate an utter lack of understanding of just what qualifies as fascist, other than “someone I vehemently disagree with.” As an indicator of a particular set of political beliefs, “fascism” has become a perfectly meaningless pejorative, a political cudgel that is obtuse and imprecise by design.
This argument should sound familiar to anyone who has attended a first-year lecture in political science, literature or philosophy. This argument, right down to the syntax, is an uncredited lift of George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’:
In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like ROMANTIC, PLASTIC, VALUES, HUMAN, DEAD, SENTIMENTAL, NATURAL, VITALITY, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion If words like BLACK and WHITE were involved, instead of the jargon words DEAD and LIVING, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word FASCISM has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” [my emphasis]
Moynihan’s argument is thus based on a truism most literary types have absorbed as a matter of course. By borrowing, uncredited, this well-known argument of Orwell, Moynihan steals unannounced into our psyche, installing his argument there before he makes it. ‘Yes’, we agree, ‘we must protect the value of words, “fascism” most of all’. Surely, then, Moynihan will follow with a proper definition of “fascism” to set those trigger-happy leftists dead to rights?
It never happens. Moynihan offers no valid definition of his own. Instead, the real, insidious thesis of the article comes clear, retroactively revealing what the title of his article was meant to denote: not Peter’s wolf, but Naomi’s:
few noticed the runaway success of another, much more shoddily researched fascist-themed tract, this one from the feminist writer Naomi Wolf. According to Wolf’s The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, America is barreling down the road toward a fascist future, following a path well-trodden by Mussolini and Hitler. The Bush administration’s spotty record on civil liberties and the growth of executive power aren’t temporary phenomena, Wolf argues, but portend a greater “fascist shift.” America, she writes, is in the late stages of our own Weimar Republic —it’s a partially free society nearing collapse, “on the verge of a violent police state.”
Even when not flubbing or oversimplifying the broad details of fascist ideology, The End of America commits the fatal sin of contorting every sinister moment of the 20th century to ensure that it lines up with some aspect of the “war on terror.” It is clearly with Al-Qaeda in mind that Wolf wrote this stunningly ignorant passage on the construction of phantom enemies: “What matters to a fascist leader is not to get rid of the enemy but rather to maintain an enemy,” a piece of analysis that would certainly surprise the families of untermensch liquidated during the Second World War.
It’s a clever trick: he manages to discredit Naomi Wolf’s argument before she makes it, simply because she has the temerity to use the word ‘fascism’. Aside from the fact that Moynihan seems incapable of differentiating between a ‘fascist shift‘ and full-fledged Nazism, by using this strategy Moynihan can deride the comparisons Wolf draws without attacking her philosophical foundation. How can he?—he doesn’t offer a correct definition with which to challenge Wolf’s. Now, Moynihan pretends even handedness by also critiquing Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism which makes the laughable claim that fascism descends from leftist values, but he reserves his lengthiest and most applied criticism to Wolf. In fact, Moynihan for the most part approves of Goldberg’s project, he simply chides the book for its occasionally excessive zeal.
It soon becomes clear that Moynihan is less interested in buttressing the semiotic integrity of the word “fascism” against the onslaught of lazy illiterates than he is in apologizing for free-market liberal capitalism and shoring its borders against principled leftist critique—all under the veil of linguistic pedantry. It comes as no surprise then, that Moynihan concludes not that we should consolidate, solidify and uphold a just and specific definition of fascism, but that we should cease talking about it altogether:
When both sides see creeping fascism lurking around every bit of political rhetoric and action they disagree with, then the term doesn’t need to be reappropriated or redefined, it needs to be buried.
Language must be based on experience, not pedantry. If we bury a word as potent and important as “Fascism”, we bury the concomitant essential and unforgettable experience. This is the point Orwell was trying to make, not that such words have outlived their value. It is ironic that Moynihan would use free-market principles to isolate and defend “fascism” from those who would secure its services in the name of social democracy; it is capitalism itself that diluted such political words in the first place. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer write in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944):
The general repetition of names for measures to be taken by the authorities makes them, so to speak, familiar, just as the brand name on everybody’s lips increased sales in the era of the free market. The blind and rapidly spreading repetition of words with special designations links advertising with the totalitarian watchword. The layer of experience which created the words for their speakers has been removed; in this swift appropriation language acquires the coldness which until now it had only on billboards and in the advertisement columns of newspapers. Innumerable people use words and expressions which they have either ceased to understand or employ only because they trigger off conditioned reflexes; in this sense, words are trade-marks which are finally all the more firmly linked to the things they denote, the less their linguistic sense is grasped.
Wolf is attempting to ground such terms in political experience, because otherwise, they disappear under a shadow of reactionary reflex. Moynihan, eager to defend his free-market mantra, is attempting precisely the opposite: he is attempting to relegate fascist ideology to the past, to sever it from social memory and experience, and to ensure that the trajectory of capitalism—from liberalism to barbarism—proceeds apace.
Filed under: Literature | Tags: James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Gee Williams, Salvage, Blind Man with a Pistol, Chester Himes, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped, Isle of Mull
I took the name of this blog from the title of Chester Himes’ 1969 police-procedural novel starring the inimitable detectives Coffin Ed Johnston and Grave Digger Jones. Himes himself provides the epigraph:
A friend of mine, Phil Lomax, told me this story about a blind man with a pistol shooting at a man who had slapped him on the subway train and killing an innocent bystander peacefully reading his newspaper across the aisle and I thought, damn right, sounds just like today’s news, riots in the ghettos, war in Vietnam, masochistic doings in the Middle East. And then I thought of some of our loudmouthed leaders urging our vulnerable soul brothers on to getting themselves killed, and thought further that all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.
Himes follows his preface with one of my favourite quotes of all time, a ‘foreword’ credited to ‘A Harlem intellectual’:
Motherfucking right. it’s confusing; it’s a gas, baby, you dig.
Last night, I attended the James Tait Black Literary Award ceremony, where I was cheering on the wonderful Gee Williams and her equally wonderful Salvage (unfortunately for Williams, the winner for fiction was Rosalind Belben’s Our Horses in Egypt). I was lucky enough to speak with Williams and her husband, and they introduced me to another, delightful literary blind man and his sidearm.
In Chapter 15 of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped our narrator-hero David Balfour is shipwrecked (surprise!) and washes up on the Isle of Mull on the west coast of Scotland (forgive the extended passage, but I could not resist quoting at length):
In about half an hour of walk, I overtook a great, ragged man, moving pretty fast but feeling before him with a staff. He was quite blind, and told me he was a catechist, which should have put me at my ease. But his face went against me; it seemed dark and dangerous and secret; and presently, as we began to go on alongside, I saw the steel butt of a pistol sticking from under the flap of his coat-pocket. To carry such a thing meant a fine of fifteen pounds sterling upon a first offence, and transportation to the colonies upon a second. Nor could I quite see why a religious teacher should go armed, or what a blind man could be doing with a pistol.
I told him about my guide, for I was proud of what I had done, and my vanity for once got the heels of my prudence. At the mention of the five shillings he cried out so loud that I made up my mind I should say nothing of the other two, and was glad he could not see my blushes.
“Was it too much?” I asked, a little faltering.
“Too much!” cries he. “Why, I will guide you to Torosay myself for a dram of brandy. And give you the great pleasure of my company (me that is a man of some learning) in the bargain.”
I said I did not see how a blind man could be a guide; but at that he laughed aloud, and said his stick was eyes enough for an eagle.
“In the Isle of Mull, at least,” says he, “where I know every stone and heather-bush by mark of head. See, now,” he said, striking right and left, as if to make sure, “down there a burn is running; and at the head of it there stands a bit of a small hill with a stone cocked upon the top of that; and it’s hard at the foot of the hill, that the way runs by to Torosay; and the way here, being for droves, is plainly trodden, and will show grassy through the heather.”
I had to own he was right in every feature, and told my wonder.
“Ha!” says he, “that’s nothing. Would ye believe me now, that before the Act came out, and when there were weepons in this country, I could shoot? Ay, could I!” cries he, and then with a leer: “If ye had such a thing as a pistol here to try with, I would show ye how it’s done.”
I told him I had nothing of the sort, and gave him a wider berth. If he had known, his pistol stuck at that time quite plainly out of his pocket, and I could see the sun twinkle on the steel of the butt. But by the better luck for me, he knew nothing, thought all was covered, and lied on in the dark.
He then began to question me cunningly, where I came from, whether I was rich, whether I could change a five-shilling piece for him (which he declared he had that moment in his sporran), and all the time he kept edging up to me and I avoiding him. We were now upon a sort of green cattle-track which crossed the hills towards Torosay, and we kept changing sides upon that like ancers in a reel. I had so plainly the upper-hand that my spirits rose, and indeed I took a pleasure in this game of blindman’s buff; but the catechist grew angrier and angrier, and at last began to swear in Gaelic and to strike for my legs with his staff.
Then I told him that, sure enough, I had a pistol in my pocket as well as he, and if he did not strike across the hill due south I would even blow his brains out.
He became at once very polite, and after trying to soften me for some time, but quite in vain, he cursed me once more in Gaelic and took himself off. I watched him striding along, through bog and brier, tapping with his stick, until he turned the end of a hill and disappeared in the next hollow. Then I struck on again for Torosay, much better pleased to be alone than to travel with that man of learning. This was an unlucky day; and these two, of whom I had just rid myself, one after the other, were the two worst men I met with in the Highlands.
At Torosay, on the Sound of Mull and looking over to the mainland of Morven, there was an inn with an innkeeper, who was a Maclean, it appeared, of a very high family; for to keep an inn is thought even more genteel in the Highlands than it is with us, perhaps as partaking of hospitality, or perhaps because the trade is idle and drunken. He spoke good English, and finding me to be something of a scholar, tried me first in French, where he easily beat me, and then in the Latin, in which I don’t know which of us did best. This pleasant rivalry put us at once upon friendly terms; and I sat up and drank punch with him (or to be more correct, sat up and watched him drink it), until he was so tipsy that he wept upon my shoulder.
I tried him, as if by accident, with a sight of Alan’s button; but it was plain he had never seen or heard of it. Indeed, he bore some grudge against the family and friends of Ardshiel, and before he was drunk he read me a lampoon, in very good Latin, but with a very ill meaning, which he had made in elegiac verses upon a person of that house.
When I told him of my catechist, he shook his head, and said I was lucky to have got clear off. “That is a very dangerous man,” he said; “Duncan Mackiegh is his name; he can shoot by the ear at several yards, and has been often accused of highway robberies, and once of murder.”
“The cream of it is,” says I, “that he called himself a catechist.”
“And why should he not?” says he, “when that is what he is. It was Maclean of Duart gave it to him because he was blind. But perhaps it was a peety,” says my host, “for he is always on the road, going from one place to another to hear the young folk say their religion; and, doubtless, that is a great temptation to the poor man.”
So far, this blog finds itself between acts of random, ludicrous violence and blind catechists packing heat. I’d say that’s pretty good company.
Filed under: Literature | Tags: Colonization, Edinburgh International Book Festival, How Late It Was How Late, James Kelman, Kieron Smith Boy, Language, Man Booker Prize, Self-Censorship
Yesterday I heard the great Scottish writer James Kelman read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Language is the culture—if you lose your language you’ve lost your culture, so if you’ve lost the way your family talk, the way your friends talk, then you’ve lost your culture, and your divorced from it. That’s what happens with all these stupid fucking books by bad average writers because they’ve lost their culture, they’ve given it away. Not only that, what they’re saying is it’s inferior, because they make anybody who comes from that culture speak in a hybrid language, whereas they speak standard English. And their language is the superior one. So what they are doing, in effect, is castrating their parents, and their whole culture.
From Duncan McLean, “James Kelman Interviewed” in Murdo Macdonald, ed. Nothing Is Altogether Trivial: An Anthology of Writing From the Edinburgh Review. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1999. 112.
This interview excerpt sums up Kelman’s politics from a career of writing. ‘Language is culture’. It carries our history, our values, our desires and our tragedies. It can be violent, oppressive, joyful and liberating. And for Kelman—socialist, existentialist, working-class and above all, Glaswegian—this problem goes straight to the heart of writing and art.
His Booker-prize winning effort How Late It Was, How Late (1994) was called ‘literary vandalism’ by The Times for its proliferate usage of the word ‘fuck’ and for its ‘abuse’ of the English language. If only they knew how finely they were making his point. At the talk yesterday, Kelman noted how as a Scot, linguistic self-censorship is endemic. Not only against swearing, or blasphemies or even Gaelic. But against words like ‘doune’ instead of ‘down’, or ‘didnay’ and ‘couldnay’.
His new book, Kieron Smith, Boy (2008), takes this matter to heart. Following Kieron, a ‘proddie’ with a ‘pape’ name growing up in Govan in Glasgow (a block away from Ibrox Stadium where Rangers play), Kelman tracks the formation of the Scottish urban identity through language. Scottish history haunts Kelman’s language, where old Gaelic syntactic constructions still govern his phrasing.
There were great smells at the river and big ships went down it, ocean-going. Ye heard the horn and ran to see them. Ye had to run fast so it would not be away. Everybody was cheering maybe if it was a new one just built and here it was launched. Even if it was an old cargo boat or else a container ship. I liked them. Where had they been? They were all old and had been places all over the world. It was great, and ye were walking along and running along and running along beside it then ye had to go round a corner and round a river-street and then back down and there was the river and the boat was there.
Ye heard the horn sometimes and ye were in bed, it was creepy, ye were maybe asleep but ye still heard it, if it was coming out of nowhere, that was how it sounded, ooohhhhh ooohhhhh, ooohhhhh ooohhhhh, oooooohhhhhhhhh, and a big low voice. Just creepy. One time my da was home on leave and took me and Mattie down dead late at night. It was for a special boat. Other people were there, lasses too. We were all there waiting. It was completely foggy and just as if there was no noise hardly anywhere and everything was thick, very very thick, and ye could hardly hear anything and ye could not see nothing except yellow coming through where the lights were, ye were holding on to yer da’s hand, then Look, look! That was my da in a quiet voice, See, look!
Filed under: Capitalism, Imagination | Tags: Bechtel, Democracy, Ecuador, Edinburgh, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Financial Times, Glasgow East Byelection, Guayaquil, Hope, Labour Party, Lawrence Summers, New Labour, Scotland, Scottish Independence, Tariq Ali, Thatcherism, Venezuela
Yesterday, I heard Tariq Ali speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Warning: bagpipes at link!). Erudite, gentle and compassionate, Ali began with last month’s Glasgow East byelection, in which the Scottish National Party defeated the 25th safest incumbent in Britain, inciting Ali to label the incident ‘the end of New Labour’, and moved expertly from British politics to South Ossetia, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela and back to Scottish independence. It was a masterful performance.
Ali pointed out that when Tony Blair’s New Labour came to power in 1997, if you read what Blair and his ministers were actually saying (which of course Ali did to no avail), they were advocating a continuation of Thatcherism. Surely the privatization of the Royal Mail should have keyed us in to the fact that there is little difference between the Conservatives and Blair’s Labour. Ali pointed to the chameleon tendencies of Tory ministers who found no difficulty finding a new home. Indeed, the recent confidence motion that demanded 42-day detention capabilities for anti-terrorism police saw progressive Labour MPs voting for the bill while every Tory voted against it. Under neoliberalism and capitalism, Ali argued, when you believe that the Market can solve everything, why, exactly, do we have government at all? Pro-market MPs are incidental, opportunistic and utterly indistinguishable.
Well, the party’s over. ‘When you base your politics on a lie’, Ali stated, ‘it’s only a matter of time before you get caught out’. He cited a Financial Times article by (sexist bigot) Lawrence Summers about the mortgage crisis in the United States:
the government should use its new receivership power to protect taxpayers and the financial system. In the process, payments to stock holders, holders of preferred stock and probably subordinated debt holders would be wiped out, conserving cash for the benefit of taxpayers. The GSEs’ borrowing costs would fall considerably, helping prospective homeowners.
In this scenario, the government would operate the GSEs as public corporations for several years. They would then be in a position to extend credit where appropriate to support resolution of the current housing crisis.
Punishing shareholders. Nationalization without compensation. ‘In the olden days,’ Ali said, ‘this was called “expropriation.” China’s recent explosive growth has emphatically demonstrated that capitalism and democracy are not companions. Now, to save us from the devastation neoliberalism has wrought, the ex-president of Harvard University, in the pages of the Financial Times is advocating social democracy as the only available solution.
Under time constraints, Ali turned briefly to the situation in South America, where populist anti-poverty movements are changing the political landscape of a continent and delivering social change to the people. ‘It’s not revolutionary’, he said simply. ‘It’s social democracy’. If Scotland, for example, continues its path towards independence, they will have a new space in which to build a robust democracy. There is no point in earning it, Ali says, unless you are prepared to do something with it. Actions like the Ecuadoran village of Guayaquil, and their winning fight against Bechtel who sought to privatize their water supply should provide us with hope that we do not have to doom ourselves to another term of neoliberalism, now Labour, now Tory. ‘Change is possible’, Ali concluded. ‘If the will is there’.
So let’s, shall we?
Filed under: Imperialism | Tags: Beijing 2008, Capitalism, China, Claire Fox, Merchant of Venice, Olympics, Vancouver 2010
One can imagine China reading such Western stories and responding with mock incredulity and sly condescension. ‘But what have I done wrong? Where have I stepped awry?’
China has opened her doors to capitalist investment. Following the lead of North American colonization of the First Nations, she has ushered in modernity and development to the feudal and poverty-stricken theocracy of Tibet. She has made national security paramount and relegated political dissent to free-speech zones. All of these strategies come verbatim from the Western capitalist playbook. It would of course be easier for our protests if China were to adhere to the plot of the last Western-led Olympic boycott—the 1980 games in Moscow—and invade Afghanistan so we could assume a position of moral authority. Oh wait.
So China has needlessly amplified State security, is guilty of oppressing and attenuating indigenous cultures, and is flagrantly ignoring calls to address its growing poverty and human rights abuses? Make no mistake: these are massive crimes and acts of negligence. But I question the assumption that our concern with these abuses stems from a love of humanity and not from a hostile, orientalist political agenda. As the wonderful Claire Fox has put it:
None of these measures count for much amongst a sanctimonious Western commentariat because they are not interested in “Beijing’s smog” as a practical problem with practical solutions. Beneath the breathless headlines this week is our own anxiety about the growth of China and our willingness to put the boot into the toxic Chinese economy at any opportunity.
As the New York Times put it in a 10-part series at the end of last year, China is “choking on growth”. The possibility that China could become a fully industrialised and urbanised society, with living standards akin to our own, has become the ultimate environmentalist nightmare. It is often concluded that it would be better for the planet if China simply stopped growing.
The problem is that this selfishly sees only the pain and pollution that an industrial revolution brings to a country the size of China and ignores the undoubted and enormous gains to the Chinese people brought about by the concomitant economic prosperity.
If once Western racists dubbed China as the “yellow peril” and Mao’s regime was sometimes called the “red peril”, modern China is often viewed as a “green peril”.
It’s the yellow peril all over again, but we’ve learned a new vocabulary. This bias is exacerbated by our own hypocrisy. Canada turns a blind eye not only to the cartoonish cynicism of unapologetically hosting the Winter Olympics while occupying Afghanistan a mere thirty years after boycotting Moscow 1980 for the same imperialist crime, but for the exact same abuses for which it criticizes the inscrutable East (hat-tip to bcg on babble):
Often, with only hours’ notice, residents were dumped onto the streets to join the thousands of others who wander the alleys by day and sleep on the sidewalk by night. Anti-poverty groups such as the Pivot Legal Society, the Anti-Poverty Committee and the Downtown Eastside Residents Association say a number of hotels have closed in this manner, adding many more people to the legions of the homeless. According to David Eby of the Pivot Legal Society, a total of 1,314 rooms that formerly housed low-income individuals have been closed or converted to other uses since the awarding of the Games to Vancouver in 2003.
“Economic cleansing” is the ticket, and Mayor Sam Sullivan has the plan. If the Downtown Eastside is ugly and drug infested, he can sweep it all away courtesy of Project Civil City, Sullivan’s less than subtle manoeuvre to rid Vancouver of the relics of years of institutional neglect. Or maybe the city could ship the homeless out to other parts of the province “for treatment,” as the province’s Liberal Forests Minister recently suggested, the idea eerily reminiscent of the wholesale urban clearances of the poor in the run-up to Atlanta’s Olympics in 1996. The statement seemed likely to be a trial balloon, sent up to gauge public reaction.
The Anti-Poverty Committee began to get media coverage, and while the latter tended to be very negative, the genie was out of the bottle; many British Columbians were forced to face the fact that poverty in Vancouver had increased as a consequence of the 2010 Olympic developments. The city struck back: Anti-Poverty Committee members were arrested and charged, and another anti-poverty group allied to them, the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, had their city funding cut off.
Vancouver City Council had dug in its heels, and Mayor Sullivan declared that the city was not going to “surrender to hooligans.” They weren’t going to do anything serious about the underlying poverty issues either. The promises to the poor, promises that had led many social progressives to vote yes in the plebiscite, were simply abandoned. Although many Vancouverites noted the broken promises, a large number didn’t really seemed to care, at least if the mainstream media were to be believed. In this regard, Vancouver mimicked Sydney where, “Sydney Olympic organizers relied on ‘Olympic spirit’ discourse to diffuse public outrage on the numerous occasions when Olympic officials failed to live up to the lofty standards touted in pseudo-religious rhetoric.”
And just in case anyone in the Anti-Poverty Committee or any other organization had thoughts of doing anything even more radical, the Olympic security machine was beginning to sputter to life. As we will see, the 2010 security forces might not be able to do much against a real external threat, but perhaps that wasn’t to be their main purpose: Maybe their raison d’être would be to contain domestic Olympic opponents.
Economic cleansing, callous and active abuse of our Aboriginal populations (while hypocritically displaying the inukshuk on the Olympic logo to boast of our multiculturalism); while using it all to legitimate a security force more intent on suppressing domestic dissent and policing poverty than protecting us against an imaginary foreign menace. We prefer to focus our energies on China, who, coincidentally, are making a play for the global hegemony we used to enjoy. What really hurts is that this new yellow peril is stealing all our ideas and doing a better job. It’s enough to remind us of another wronged nation, whose ominous warning fell mutely on the oblivious ears of the Christian overclass:
—The villainy you teach me, I will execute. And it shall go hard, but I will better the instruction.
The Merchant of Venice, 3.1.60-1
Filed under: Ecocapitalism, Film | Tags: Alfonso Cuarón, Animation, Children of Men, Dolly!, Green Party of Canada, Hello, Kids Movies, Pixar, Put on Your Sunday Clothes, Science Fiction, WALL*E
I just saw Pixar’s WALL*E, a futuristic animated feature in which Earth has been abandoned to landfill and pollution while the human race flies around the galaxy in a commodified stupor, consuming recreation and sustenance in bland, supersized quantities. The movie is fine, as kids’ flicks go. The narrative follows the last remaining trash-bot on Earth, WALL*E, charged with cleaning up the mess the last humans left behind. The only problem is that the environmental catastrophe has proved far too massive to be fixed, and 700 years later, WALL*E is still shoveling landfill into his trash-compactor belly and stacking it miles into the sky. Cue intergalactic arrival of shiny, high-tech loveinterestbot, and subsequent heartwarming tale.
The thing I found shocking about the movie is the conspicuous political polemic underwriting the otherwise standard love story. The film opens sans dialogue, with a fifteen-minute tour of the abandoned Earth, with an unabashedly anti-capitalist message. The mega-corporation “Buy n’ Large” owns everything from food outlets to public transit, and there is no question that hyperconsumerism pushed the human race to this crisis. Moreover, the ruined Earth, despite its sci-fi feel, is not so futuristic that we can’t see the resemblance to our own current predicament. The delightful irony of the accompanying music, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly! is scathing:
Put on your Sunday clothes,
There’s lots of world out there
Get out the brillantine and dime cigars
We’re gonna find adventure in the evening air
The movie never backs down from this political message. The diasporic Earthlings eat their meals from giant cups (roughly the size of ‘large’ movie-theatre soft drinks), their leisure activities are automated and indistinguishable from each other, their bone structures have shrunk over the years due to inactivity, and social taste is dictated by an automated media system to which every citizen is connected, every minute of their lives.
How is it that a kids movie can get away with this? If this kind of overt political message was in a live-action movie, even a satire, it would be dismissed as unimaginative, or worse, as eco-commie agit prop. Not even science fiction could pull it off. An Inconvenient Truth didn’t sport this kind of polemic. If you want to spread a subversive, emancipatory political message in Hollywood, you have to cushion it in all kinds of subterfuge, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006). Yet somehow, WALL*E can get away with politics that read like they come from the most radical Green Party manifesto (not to be found, of course, in the eco-capitalist Green Party of Canada).
What is it about kids movies that permits this kind of radicalism? I’d like to think that it’s because Disney wants to instill the next generation with an emancipatory politics that will save our skins. I’m sure hoping it’ll happen. But in the words of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, ‘that shit ain’t the truth.’ Instead, it’s the same logic that sees Canada hum and haw about banning incandescent light bulbs and plastic bags while giving tax breaks to Athabasca Tar Sand corporations. Rationally, we know we’re in trouble. Big Trouble. And we’ve got to do something. But Capitalism has so ingrained artificially prescribed desires that we cannot give up. So we shift the things we have to do to realms where it just doesn’t matter.
We relegate these truths that weigh on us to realms of fairy tales, of science fiction. I hope that the message of WALL*E—that, to be prosaic, our hyperconsumerism and disdain for the environment is leading us all to our demise—gains some traction in our children, but the reality is we need it to take hold of ourselves, now. When Disney starts mocking the giant soft drinks its theatres rely on for profit, I don’t get hopeful, I despair. Consumerism—the precise type WALL*E warns us against—has stolen its own criticism from our mouths. And we’re buying it back.
Filed under: Film | Tags: Barbara Stanwyck, Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity, film noir, Fred MacMurray, Friday Night Flicks, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler
So I’ve been away for awhile, as the paucity of posts indicates. To get back on the horse, I’m starting a new (hopefully) weekly feature showing film scenes that make me buzz.
To kick it off, here’s (fittingly) Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), the greatest film noir ever produced, with the creative holy trinity of Billy Wilder (director), James M. Cain (author of original novel) and Raymond Chandler (adaptive screenwriter).
This scene also includes some of the tightest dialogue ever written:
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.