Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fears of Elysium

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princess and lords may flourish, or may fade,
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.”

From The Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith, Irish playwright, 1730-1774

They say semi-conscious fears may be expressed by science fiction movies. The classic example is the Godzilla movies of Japan in the 1950’s. Naturally, half-hidden fears wouldn’t be on the movie posters, and the folks in the street were unlikely to walk out of the theater saying to each other, “Godzilla is about our fear of radioactivity after The Bomb.” It required academics and film critics to make the fears explicit. Meanwhile, over in the US, the conformity of the 1950’s, along with the Red scare, was behind such movies as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I think our fear of someone pressing The Button, a truly irreversible act, was behind that movie where the saucer lands on the Washington mall, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The human pilot, “Mr. Carpenter,” would “stop” the earth, but his robot could destroy the earth. You may recall how after the man is shot the robot goes into a countdown to apocalypse. (klaatu, barada nikto)

Elysium, in theatres now, is influenced by our world of today while showing a world of tomorrow, one where cold logarithmic equations have not meant the “progress” we would like to see—only the “progress” we fear to see. It stars Matt Damon and Jody Foster in a world where the middle class, “once their country’s pride,” is gone, where the poor live on earth and the rich live in a gargantuan space habitat, Elysium. In the United States of the future the poor guys groundside feel much, much more medically hopeless than, say, Africans of today who can’t get advanced cocktails to fight AIDS. Of course people want to escape to the sky.

Today there are sometimes boatloads of economic refugees heading for Australia. The Australians have finally stopped docking the boats and housing the refugees— instead they are taking people off to remote islands for judicial processing. In the future, space boats headed for Elysium are simply blasted out of the sky—only a few boats ever make it. If the Australians do not simply find an old cargo ship and chug-chug the refugees back to where they started, then it is because the public of today is divided on what to do. But not the cynical public of the future.

Below Elysium, Damon works in a factory. He live in a dusty brown city, a cynical unhappy city, a city quite unlike the vibrant 1950’s city of Detroit where proud workers live in strong neighborhoods. Instead, his demoralized world has pathetic foremen and pathetic safety standards: a natural consequence of absentee owners and no middle class.

For Hollywood, portraying an economic decline is straightforward; moviegoers may exit saying to each other, “What a yucky world.” But I think the half-conscious fear, unlikely to be spoken aloud, is about Damon’s city in California. In the future of Elysium the US is neither a traditional melting pot nor a Canadian style multi-culturalism—instead, a European style pluralism. Viewers sense that just out of camera range is a world where, as in Europe, government documents and kitchen cereal boxes are legally mandated to be in more than one language, English and Spanish—and this is not to aide fresh immigrants.

So far, of course, ethnic groups in the US have always melted in. So far, only rare individuals have been Boston bombers or, say, drone strike targets: individuals holding dual citizenship who have suffered a failure to assimilate. The general population is doing fine. Sure, the Swedes in Fargo say, “Ya?,” and the folks in ‘Frisco use chopsticks, but no one raised here is without a sense of “good English” and an American self-identity. (The exceptions might be in two states that were conquered with inhabitants already present: Arizona and New Mexico—I’ll find out when I go to Roswell) But despite this proven track record there is still, in the US, an ancestral semi-conscious fear of, “There’s always a first time.” (to not assimilate) I suppose the 1980’s movie Alien Nation played into this fear of separation. “How will my kids get a job?” said someone at the start of that movie, fearing his kid would not be as smart or as bi-lingual as an alien would be.

As I see it, we live our lives and we go to watch the big silver screen in the context of our citizenship. So let’s step back to see the bigger screen.

I’m as fearful as the next guy: In my everyday life, I for one prefer to be only semi-conscious of the rate of progress: How easy to think that progress is as regular as the arithmetical gradations on my ruler; how fearfully hard to acknowledge that progress is like the spreading logarithmic gradations on my slide rule, or like some startling graph curve.

Given that bar graphs and curves are easier to visualize than abstract numbers which have to be translated, perhaps other Americans fearfully prefer to be only semi-conscious too: I’ve noticed something. I sometimes read figures, usually within a sentence, but I never see a graph showing how other countries are catching up to the US GNP—nor do I (accidental pun) “graphically” see the interception point. Never have I seen a graph curve on how the gap between rich and middle class keeps growing, nor a graph of how the US middle class keeps shrinking. And heaven help us: These curves are just not flattening or slowing down.

In my boyhood, before the moon landings, it was the man now called Barrak Obama’s mentor, the famed community organizer Saul Alinsky, who could just as well have meant fears when he referred to problems: He said things remain as only a semi-conscious “bad scene,” not a clear and solvable “problem,” until people have hope. No one reasons out how to spend a lottery fortune, not unless they want to indulge in fantasy, and no one living in the ghettos, in Alinsky’s day, reasoned out how to fix the ghetto schools. Not until they had hope in the form of resources and tools and money. (Alinsky died in 1972)

Today some people, “hope challenged,” feel it makes more sense to write to their congressman about “sin” or “gun control” than about those infernal graph curves—after all, what could you expect a poor congressman to do? It’s a bad scene to be steadily losing the middle class, but where are the specific tools to recommend?

The good news is that our congressmen are not “capitalist pig dogs.” I think they mean well, even if they have an “old white male upper class bias.” They aren’t like the cynical folks in Elysium. The other good news is that our attitudes and habits are within our control. I’m thinking of how business guru Peter Drucker often wrote of how the post-war economic miracles of Germany and Japan were made possible because businessmen and legislators always had one eye on the good of the nation. Today congress could learn to keep one eye on whether anything they do will further shrink the middle class—this habit of mind would be qualitatively different than simply looking at “jobs.” To paraphrase the Buddhists, “when the people are ready, the tools will appear.”

While Americans have made movies about the Iraq fiasco and the Wall Street melt down (Margin Call) I don’t sense the public has truly felt any “wake up call.” Not yet. Let’s hope we don’t have to “hit bottom” before we can face fears and drop hubris. Not yet cynical, still pre-Elysium, I still retain hope. I realize that just now, our fingers half weakened with confusion and despair, we are allowing the middle class to slip away from our grasp. But “good old congress” could still become embedded in a nation with a strong attitude, with a clear-eyed determination to preserve the middle class.

I raise my glass in a toast, “Here’s hoping.” I think I’ll go rent the movie South Pacific, and sing, “I’m a cockeyed optimist.”

Sean Crawford
~I covered America in Descent (book report about A Time to Start Thinking) in October 2013, …
~I exposed inflation here and abroad in Conspiracies and Inflation, archived November 2013….
~I covered drone strikes matching US values in Drones, Culture and Citizens archived in February 2013.

~ It’s a truism the middle class is the backbone of our economy, of democracy and of public morality. The classic contrast is between the inspiring, awesome republic of Rome… and the corrupt, decadent Roman Empire that came along once the middle class was extinguished. “Ill fares the land…”

~As for my claiming that European style pluralism is inappropriate for us, I can imagine the British on their islands serenely nodding in understanding. After all, their flag is a combination of the crosses of ethnic patron saints, (not political flags) as they have broken a lot of hearts down the years in order to assimilate. (Oliver Goldsmith, quoted above, wrote in English) Meanwhile, over on the continent, I can imagine the Germans frowning and disagreeing, as someone told me Vienna has three languages. My sarcastic answer to the Germans is: Can you spell Yugoslavia? ... Your children won’t be able to.

~A nation’s semi-conscious fears may not always make it to the surface to be worked on and solved, of course. Today, tutored by the war on terror, we are learning that many Arabs find it easier to retreat to an Islamic past "—progress by earning God’s sudden blessing—" rather than surface their fears that "—progress by catching up—" to the rest of the world would require a lengthy effort: no quick fix. Arabs would need to embrace the attitudes and tools of progress, such as non-corrupt business management and a scientific mindset—but I doubt anyone is translating Drucker’s management books into Arabic. In fact, according to journalist Gwynne Dyer, in the whole Arab world, only 300 books are translated per year. (Future Tense: the new world order, 2004, p 66, adding in brackets, (Greece, population ten million, translates about 1,500 each year.))

Meanwhile, in Japan, Drucker is still well known as part of their economic miracle. A 2009 novel, Moshidora, has been made into a live action movie, a comic book (manga) and a TV cartoon (anime) series. In the novel a schoolgirl fills in for her sick friend to be the high school baseball team manager. She goes to the bookstore to find a sports book and instead finds a text, Drucker’s Management, which she uses to lead the team.

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