Worst Weather in Two Centuries

If it has seemed like we’ve been hearing an awful lot in recent months about extreme weather, about record this and record that, it’s because the weather has, as a matter of fact, been extremely extreme.  How extreme?  Well, on his Wunderblog, Jeff Masters has just posted an astonishing summary of 2010’s top twenty extreme weather events, in which he documents the most wild and unusual weather in decades.

“Every year extraordinary weather events rock the Earth. Records that have stood centuries are broken. Great floods, droughts, and storms affect millions of people, and truly exceptional weather events unprecedented in human history may occur. But the wild roller-coaster ride of incredible weather events during 2010, in my mind, makes that year the planet’s most extraordinary year for extreme weather since reliable global upper-air data began in the late 1940s.”  

At the end of the post, he goes further, and suggests that in the last year and a half the world may have experienced its the most wild and unusual weather since 1816, the famous “Year Without a Summer” caused by the eruption of the Tambora volcano.  Only this time, of course, there’s no volcano to blame.


Documentary Round-Up Pt. 3: The War in Iraq and the KJB

The War You Don’t See (2011):

 Message: 5/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4/5
Cinematography: 4/5

Back when I was spewing venom about the obsequious media response to the prospective war in Libya, a friend recommended this documentary to me, and I finally got around to seeing it a couple weeks ago.  It’s made by John Pilger, a veteran English documentarian who has made a business of unmasking the powers that be for more than three decades (though this is the first film of his that I’ve seen).  Indeed, with his track record, it’s surprising that he was able to get any higher-ups to sit down and consent to an interview with him.  Many of them don’t come off looking very good at all, and Pilger has no hesitation in contradicting them to their faces when they try to BS their way through awkward questions.  Of course, being English, he’s still too polite to go for the kill and elicit the kind of angry outburst that Ferguson gets in Inside Job.  Also, the film appears to be on a considerably lower budget than Inside Job, and so isn’t quite as cinematically flawless; but it does pretty well considering.

The theme of this movie is the pervasive failure of the Western media (of course Pilger’s chief focus is on the British media, but the sins he uncovers there look like petty quibbles next to what many American networks are routinely guilty of) to offer a really honest and transparent account of Western military engagements.  Too often, they simply act as the public relations arm of the government, disseminating to the masses the official statements–often enough bald lies–of White House or Downing Street.  The official account is rarely subjected to any serious scrutiny, and independent reporting that calls it into question or unearths inconvenient facts is usually swept under the rug and not allowed to make it to press.

Unsurprisingly, Pilger devotes particularly blistering criticism to the way the major news sources handled the lead-up to the Iraq War, repeating without qualification the false information government sources fed them and tripping over themselves to flatter national leaders.  Once the war started, he shows how the media practice of “embedding”–getting military permission to have reporters stationed with certain units–meant that those reporters by and large only got to see what the military wanted them to see, and when they saw something different, they generally felt pressure not to report it so as not to lose their “embed” status.  The result is that viewers generally only get to see the war from the perspective of their own triumphant troops, not from the standpoint of the civilians who are suffering.  Pilger discusses how, even though civilian casualties are mentioned in the media, they are often understated and are given only as statistics–viewers are never invited to share the pain of the victims and their families.  And he cites one arresting statistic of his own–in WWI, civilians accounted for less than 30% of all casualties, in WWII around 50%, in Vietnam around 70%, and in the Iraq War over 90%!  All this time I had supposed that, however bad civilian casualty rates were now, at least we were getting better and better at minimizing them.  Apparently not, and no wonder, when a single US GI death brings as much public outcry as the deaths of 100 civilians.  

Pilger also looks at warped media coverage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and this is in Britain, where I always thought they were remarkably pro-Palestinian!); and gives some interesting attention to the Wikileaks issue (including an interview with Julian Assange).

 

So why does this happen?  Here is where I thought Pilger’s film could’ve done rather more.  A lot of the answer that seems to come up in his interviews with people is that it’s the embedding phenomenon–in Washington and London as much as in the field.  To get a lot of information, reporters need to gain the favor of government officials, who will supply them with information.  But this means that they are limited to sharing the information that those officials want them to know and to pass on.  If they should ever do research on their own account that contradicts the official story, they’ll immediately be threatened with losing their special access.  And so the pressure to conform is tremendous.  

However, there’s another, deeper problem that emerges when Pilger is interviewing some particularly defensive media executives, which is a confusion about what it is that the news media are supposed to do–a false ideal of democracy.  Defending themselves against Pilger’s question, a couple of execs insist that they never told viewers that such-and-such official report was true, they simply passed it on as it was, and left it up to the viewer to decide about the truth of it.  Their job, they insist, is simply to be a conduit for facts and opinions that come to their attention; it is then up to ordinary citizens to decide what to make of these facts and opinions that are passed along to them.  Our society is frightened to death of elitism and paternalism, and idolizes least-common-denominator democracy; so the news media insist they must not take any responsibility for interpreting, investigating, and cross-examining information–that is the citizen’s job.  But of course, this ignores the fact that most ordinary citizens simply do not have the time and the means to properly investigate government claims and media reports–they must opt either to assume a perenially skeptical posture (as I do), or to presume that what the authorities tells them is usually true (which most still seem to do).  They rely on media to sort through things for them and get to the truth of the matter.  But the media (at least as represented by some of the people Pilger is interviewing) is busy trying to shove this responsibility off onto the government, which is hardly the most impartial source.  Pilger presses them a bit on this point, but not as strongly as he could have.

I also would’ve liked to see him talk about how part of the problem is the instinctive patriotism and war-lust that seems to so easily seduce all people, modern Western reporters as much as anyone.  So many of the people he talks to admit to just having gotten caught up in the excitement of it all and not wanting to ask any hard questions.

 

Needless to say, an illuminating, challenging, disturbing and sobering film all round.  Now I’m going to have to go check out some of Pilger’s other work.

 

 

KJB (2011): The Book that Changed the World

 Message: N/A
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4.5/5
Cinematography: 4/5

Now for something completely different!  This is not a strict documentary at all, but a hybrid docu-drama, with a generous sampling of live action mixed throughout the documentary interviews and narration.  Although it’s very politically-charged in its own way, the politics in question happened four hundred years ago, so it doesn’t seem quite as controversial anymore–however, there’s still plenty of controversy to go around, at least for Presbyterians whose identity is dependent on a certain narration of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. 

This docu-drama, made in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, invites the viewer to experience the complex political and religious milieu of the late 16th and early 17th century in which the King James emerged.  By doing this, rather than simply focusing narrowly on the production of the translation, its merits, and its reception, the filmmakers succeed in recreating the original wonder and drama of the King James Bible, helping viewers to really feel what a monumental accomplishment it was.  In this, they are helped in no small way by the booming and melodramatic presence of John Rhys-Davies as narrator and presenter, roaming around old buildings and libraries and rapturously inhaling from the pages of archaic manuscripts.  The best scene of all is when Rhys-Davies, to demonstrate the auditory qualities of the translation, thunders forth favorite passages from a pulpit in an old stone church.  

But it was perhaps King James himself who stole the stage.  Although a no-name actor on a very rushed and under-budgeted production schedule, he (see, I still don’t even know his name) does a fine job of bringing this brilliant and enigmatic monarch to life.  The scene where he brazenly mocks both the reactionary Anglican clerics and the over-scrupulous Puritan protesters at Hampton Court is almost worth the price of the film (at least for me, though I know most people aren’t doing their dissertation on Anglican-Puritan disputes).  The film offers a much more sympathetic (and from what I can gather, historically accurate) take on King James than we–at any rate we in Presbyterian circles–have generally been exposed to.  (I grew up in a church where the pastor would not even call it the “King James Version” lest he show any respect to the monarch that commissioned it, always referring to it obliquely as the “Authorized Version.”)  He comes across as a incredibly educated and theologically aware ruler, headstrong and defensive but deeply conscious of his duty to his subjects and to Christ’s kingdom, as well as politically savvy.  In particular, I was surprised to learn in the film how closely he was involved with the commissioning and oversight of the translation, which I had always assumed simply bore his name because he was the king who officially signed off on it.

 

There are only two weaknesses in this film, that account for my giving it four rather than five stars.  The first I have already mentioned–this was filmed on quite a low budget, and so one should not expect the “drama” part to be top-quality, and it’s not.  That said, it’s much better than one might expect–the costumes, acting, sets etc. are all respectable and there are few if any moments that make you wince at their corny-ness.  A bit more irritating at times is Rhys-Davies’s melodrama–indeed, if it were anyone else but Rhys-Davies, it might be intolerable, but we expect no less of him, and he has the ethos to back it up most of the time.  But occasionally, it is a bit over the top.   

Nonetheless, I highly recommend this film to anyone–Christian or not–who wants to learn about this most remarkable contribution to our cultural heritage and this fascinating period in history.



Forgetting How to be Secular

In a pregnant passage of Common Objects of Love, O’Donovan argues that, rightly understood, “secularity” is in fact a Christian concept, and the modern retreat of Christianity means, ultimately, a loss of secularity, since secularity consists in the patient suspense in wait of ultimate validation, and modernity rejects faith in any ultimate validation to come:

“The Christian conception of the ‘secularity’ of political society arose directly out of this Jewish wrestling with unfulfilled promise.  Refusing, on the one hand, to give up what it knew of God, itself, and the world, accepting, on the other, that what it knew was incomplete and demanded validation, Israel understood itself and its knowledge and love of God as a contradiction to be endured in hope.  ‘Secularity’ is irreducibly an eschatological notion; it requires an eschatological faith to sustain it, a belief in a disclosure that is ‘not yet’ but is absolutely presupposed as the inner meaning of what we know already.  If we allow the ‘not yet’ to slide toward ‘never,’ we say something entirely different and wholly incompatible, for the virtue that undergirds all secular politics is an expectant patience.  What follows from the rejection of belief is an intolerable tension between the need for meaning in society and the only partial capacity of society to satisfy the need.  An unbelieving society has forgotten how to be secular.”



Documentary Round-Up Pt. 2: Down with Wal-Mart and McDonalds!

Whereas the documentary in the first post, Inside Job, took on the behemoths of the American banking industry, and did it very effectively, these next two documentaries likewise sought to expose the dark underbelly of American corporate giants–two of the most iconic: Wal-Mart and McDonalds–but were less effective in their execution.

The High Cost of Low Price
Message: 4.5/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 2.5/5
Cinematography: 1/5

This film is an attack on Wal-Mart’s business practices, pointing out, essentially, that the wonderful benefits to American society of being able to buy $10 cardigans and $5 earbuds do not come without a price.  Obvious, perhaps, yet it is stunning how many ardent defenders Wal-Mart still has.  The movie covers the obvious bases–running small businesses into the ground and destroying downtowns, appalling Third World labor conditions, barely liveable pay for First World Wal-Mart employees–along with some less obvious ones–poor security at Wal-Mart parking lots leading to high crime rates, very poor environmental standards, for instance.  All of this is very much a story that needs to be told.

Unfortunately, it was clearly told on a very low budget by a very under-competent director.  The film quality is quite poor and worst of all is the sound mixing–there are many points where you simply cannot hear what the interviewees are saying because of over-loud background noise or music.  Of course, that’s no great loss, because they often don’t have anything very interesting or intelligent to say, generally offering little more than subjective personal experiences, which, although readily believable, doesn’t carry much weight in a company with 2 million employees.  That is, of course, the line of defense that anyone inclined to contest this film’s premise could easily take: yes, abuses have happened–bad labor practices, bad environmental practices, etc., but Wal-Mart is just so enormous that of course there will be instances of such–that doesn’t mean they are systemic or intentional.  The movie offers some evidence and statistics to prove that they are in many cases, but it might not be compelling to people otherwise inclined to trust Wal-Mart.  To really prove his point, the director would have needed to secure interview with more highly-placed people who could bring damning evidence against the company on a macro level.  

The other line that Wal-Mart defenders might take is, “Well, sure, Wal-Mart doesn’t pay its employees much, sure it cuts some corners, sure it drives small retailers out of business, but that’s what’s necessary in order to supply its customers with really cheap products, and that helps so many struggling people make ends meet.”  A distributist would be appalled at the absurdity of this defence, but it is the common one among right-wing defenders of Wal-Mart.  The director undercuts this line of defence, however, near the very end of the film when he looks at how much money the Wal-Mart executives make, and how fantastically rich the Walton family is.  It turns out that Wal-Mart could keep its prices just as low and still afford to pay its workers a much more livable wage, if the lucky few on top weren’t trying to live like emperors.  A deeper way of refuting this objection (and perhaps this is beyond the scope of a documentary), though, would be to argue that getting the cheapest products is not the best thing for a society–that the whole business model of a Wal-Mart, convincing the consumer to substitute quantity for quality, is destructive to society.  But for that, perhaps we should all just go read The Human Condition.

Super Size Me
 Message: 4/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 3.5/5
Cinematography: 3.5/5

Yep, believe it or not, I’d never gotten around to seeing this before.  Since it was almost entirely first-person in focus, it was very fun and engaging, and did not require the first-class cinematography of an Inside Job in order to hold the viewer’s attention or make its argument.  It was also, unsurprisingly for anyone who knows the premise, nauseating almost the whole way through.

Just in case anyone doesn’t know the premise, here it is: A guy named Morgan Spurlock, curious about the lawsuits against McDonalds, decides to test out just how unhealthy McDonald’s food really is.  So, with thorough health monitoring throughout the process, he embarks on a month-long binge of eating only McDonalds food–breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  The result–a man in exemplary good health manages to run his body into the ground, putting himself at serious risk of liver failure by the end of the month–was to me at least hardly surprising.  I mean, what else would you expect from an exclusively McDonalds diet?  

What was surprising–and really disturbing–about the film was the fact that it was surprising–to the doctors involved.  At the beginning of the process, Spurlock asks his physicians what ill effects they expect.  Not much, they say–modest weight gain is about it.  By two-thirds of the way through, they’re begging him to stop for his own safety, and at the end, they confess they had no idea that fast food could do that much damage to a person, though in hindsight it makes sense.  This is a damning indictment of the vacuum of nutritional knowledge (or even common sense) among the medical professionals that we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate.  

Of course, the film does not really do all that much to improve this situation.  There is very little discussion of just why it is that this food is so bad for him–his liver in particular.  Spurlock and the doctors vaguely chalk it up to a “high-fat diet,” but clearly fat per se is not the problem.  A bit is said about the degree of processing that fast food goes through, but not much.  I would’ve been interested to see a more thoroughgoing exposure of all of the things that go into making this food so unnatural and so unhealthy, instead of simply blaming it all on fat.  For this, Food, Inc. is a better starting point.   

The most interesting part of the movie, to me, were the interspersed bits of investigation into McDonalds’s marketing practices, and an interview with a spokesman for the lobbying firm that represents America’s food industry.  His defence, of course, and the standard line of defence for free marketeers that want to defend the American food industry, is to say that businesses’s responsibility is simply to make sure to get all the relevant “information” out there–to make sure that the public is well-informed about their products.  If consumers choose not to take advantage of this information, or, having consulted it, choose to buy their products, then they are solely responsible for the effects.  

This is hogwash on at least three levels, and yet it is utterly pervasive among free marketeers today.  First, it is simply not true that the food industry, particularly the fast food industry, wants to get all the relevant information out there to every consumer–on the contrary, it requires thorough and aggressive research, such as that underlying Food, Inc. to get to the bottom of many of its dirty secrets.  Second, it is absurd to say that as long as a company tells you that it is selling something it knows to be harmful, then there is no ethical problem with it continuing to sell it.  If that were so, then why prosecute drug dealers?  If we believe that we have any responsibilities for our neighbor’s good, then surely we must believe that it is wrong to knowingly help another person harm themselves (and make money off it!), even if they choose to do so.

Third, it is based upon the myth of the consumer as a rational, independent choosing agent, who requires only to be informed with relevant facts, so that he can make his purchases accordingly.  Of course, food companies know better than to act on the basis of this myth in their advertising!  They know that the way to win consumers is to bypass their rational faculties and play to their fears, their cravings, their addictions, their sentimental associations; and of course, they know that the best way of all to do this is to capture their consumers when they are only children.  Super Size Me gives some attention to the aggressiveness with which McDonalds seeks to rope in children and thus create brand loyalty for life.  If this is your marketing strategy, then it’s bald hypocrisy to wax on about how the key is supplying the consumer with all the relevant facts so they can make an informed purchasing decision.  

Super Size Me was fun and a good start, but a small budget and staff meant that it doesn’t dig nearly as deep as it ought to.


The Problem with Palin

As the race for the Republican presidential nomination starts heating up (as it well should–after all, we’re within 17 months of Election Day now!), a lot of focus continues to fall on Sarah Palin, who continues to tantalize constituents and the media by positioning herself as a candidate but equivocating on whether she will actually declare as one.  And, as they have been doing ever since 2008, many conservative Christians seem to be fawning over her, or at the very least eyeing her candidacy with interest.  This has always deeply disturbed me, and although it seems highly unlikely that she could ever actually win (though stranger things have happened), I wanted to finally try to put the reason why into a nutshell, in case she does declare her candidacy and I find myself compelled to comment.  

 

I won’t concern myself with her policies.  While I’m happy with her pro-life stance, my agreement pretty much stops there, and I find many of her viewpoints, particularly on foreign policy, downright frightful.  But that’s not the core of the problem.  The problem is that Palin embodies all that is worst about the American political process–that politicians today are celebrities and demagogues, purveyors of image and slogans, rather than experience and thoughtful ideas.  Palin is as it were the reductio ad absurdum of the politician-as-celebrity, abandoning the very minimal political experience she had midstream in order to pursue a career of unabashed high-profile politicking, inviting the media spotlight and guaranteeing political exposure by making unfounded and polarizing assertions.  But even that isn’t the root of the problem (although her carelessness with the truth is even worse than that which we have come to expect of politicians in this day and age).

What concerns me most is how self-consciously she taps into the peculiarly American sentiment of anti-intellectualism. Americans like to think of themselves as no-nonsense, down-to-earth people: all you need is common sense, not a bunch of academic mumbo-jumbo. We think that anyone who tries to add intellectual complexity to a problem is simply trying to obscure something that should be black and white–to hell with their Harvard degrees, we know the American dream when we see it, and we know socialism when we see it! 

This is the American attitude, and one that has long had a destructive influence on the American church, where fundamentalism has tended to glory in a sort of least-common-denominator, de-theologized Christianity.  Oddly enough, many of the same Christians who are so quick to decry this anti-intellectualism in the Church cheer for it when it comes to politics–this, they say, is Palin’s strongest suit: the fact that she’s so genuine and down-to-earth and black-and-white, so free of the suspicious obfuscating intellectualism that we identify with “the Left,” and which Obama exemplifies.  We decry such “elitism” and vote for the candidate who claims to represent the no-nonsense common man.  

Palin not only claims to do that, but she actually does, because she’s really not all that bright, or at any rate really doesn’t seem to understand politics much at all. And to us, that’s a virtue. But the problem is that politics is an extraordinarily complicated business, especially in this day and age. Plato thought that no one could govern rightly unless they were a philosopher…others since have realized that was impossible, but have still felt that the ideal ruler was the most wise, the most educated. You can’t simply take charge of the most wealthy and most powerful nation on earth with nothing but a dose of common-sense and a conviction that everything is more or less black and white. You would either destroy the nation in no time, or perhaps worse, given Palin’s fiercely nationalistic rhetoric, go about destroying other nations in no time.

Now, Palin’s defendants might be likely to retort that of course she wouldn’t govern alone, but would surround herself with people who know what they’re doing.  That’s even more scary, it seems to me.  Because the intellectuals, the insiders who’ve been around the block a few times, and know their way around Washington, have agendas of their own, and if the person in charge of the show isn’t extremely shrewd and extremely knowledgeable, they’ll run circles round her and turn her into a pawn.  After all, these people didn’t last so long in Washington by being nice people, but by having no scruples, and knowing how to play the game of realpolitik.  My view is that this is what happened to Bush, who I think was probably fairly well-intentioned, naive, and relatively uncorrupt by politicians’ standards, when he took Rumsfeld and Cheney on board, who then quickly turned his presidency to their own sinister ends.  

 

Admittedly, there aren’t many politicians today with enough brains, experience, and grit to hold their ground against these characters, but if anyone can do it, it’s certainly not going to be anyone as naive and impressionable as Palin seems to be.