Sunday, December 25, 2016

Swiss Army Man

I first saw this at the theatre and, despite the fact that it starts with a whole lot of farting in a wide variety of tones and tempos, the ending is deeply moving. The surface story is about Hank, trapped on a deserted island - sort of - who finds a dead body, Manny, who slowly comes back to life - sort of, and they try to get back home in a Wizard of Oz kind of way. Here are a few different things I think it could be about; I'll likely read much into it because it had me thinking and questioning at every turn. Authorial intention be damned! There are a ton of spoilers, but they won't really ruin anything. This is a film that can be watched over and over.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Solidarity Over Competition

As always, I loosely summarize/transcribe the important bits below if you don't have 33 minutes to watch the video.


This is an astonishing moment in history. The human species has been around for about 200,000 years. Up until this point, people have made decisions about their lives, their immediate futures, but we’ve now reached the point that we have to make a decision about whether or not the species is going to survive in anything like its current form of organization of social systems.

We’re facing two fundamental questions: Nuclear war, which we know that if there were one, everything would be destroyed, and climate change. If we don’t make decisive steps right now, there will be irreversible catastrophic consequences. We’ve already inadvertently made the decision for a huge number of species. Anthropogenic climate warming is on the order of an extinction. We are playing the role of the asteroid this time.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Hypernormalization or Welcome to the Age of Absurdity

I added the subtitle above because this is one trippy film, but it's important to see (or read this summary in about 15 minutes) after last night. It actually helps explain Trump. After Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self, a very straight-forward documentary (albeit 4 hours long), this one, at just shy of 3 hours, is absolutely bizarre by contrast. News footage is mixed with feature film content and inane YouTube videos all with a soundtrack mix of NIN, 80s techno, discordant carnival music, and creepy singing children. It has the intentional effect of a funhouse mirror. It was perfect to watch as the votes came in last night.

We’re living in strange times. Huge superpowers have no ability to deal with extraordinary events and no vision for the future. And the counterculture is also sucked into this make-believe world, so they have no real effect on anything either. Most of events in the film were outlined by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine a decade ago, but Curtis adds in some further connections (like Trump’s involvement) and takes us on a journey through it. It's not just that politics have changed, but the way we've been trained to think has shifted dramatically.

Charles Taylor on the Crises of Democracy

Charles Taylor gave a lecture on the "Crises of Democracy" two years ago, as part of a "Civic Freedom in an Age of Diversity" program where he explores the very complex situation we're in. He says we're not in a period of democratic stagnation, but in a downward spiral that has to be actively stopped. He takes up the same thread as in his Sources of the Self, that we have to go back to retrieve our past, our trajectory here and all the assumptions we brought with us, in order to understand our current situation. There's is a summary of his ideas below condensed in a way that I can best understand it all.

He's critical of John Rawls's veil of ignorance theory for ignoring an important part of politics. It's correct at the core, but it misses the reality that, at any given time, the capacity people have to put together common actions is limited or augmented by their culture. Whether or not a revolution succeeds or fails has to do with the state of the democratic repertoire, or what Taylor calls the "social imaginaries" of the people. During the American Revolution, people ruling already had a purchase in the habit of electing assemblies, so the notion of what it was to set that up was already familiar. That wasn't the case for the French Revolution, so a lengthy battle ensued.

If people can do something active within institutions outside of democracy, like credit unions and trade unions, then people can learn to act together and accomplish something. But we need a critical mass of people who are able to work together in this way before we can do it as a society.

Before the Flood

First of all, I love that this Leo DiCaprio film, directed by Fisher Stevens, was free to watch everywhere on the National Geographic Channel for a while. But if you missed it, here's the gist of it below.

Without ads, it's 90 minutes, jampacked with information. The pacing is good, and that's key. I can't help comparing it to Josh Fox's film, because there are marked similarities - both feature one man, a passionate novice in the field, talking a little too much about himself as he flies around the world narrating his learning experience through listening to a variety of experts - many of the same experts even - as he aims to get some kind of a hopeful conclusion. But Leo's film works so much better. It helps that he has funds and connections - where Fox had footage from drones, DiCaprio had footage from space - and that he's a much better orator and has an incredible cinematography crew (and it doesn't hurt that Trent Reznor did the music), but what Stevens and DiCaprio got from the interviews and what they did with the material, the basic trajectory of the film, is what nails it as the superior vehicle to inspire positive change. In 2000, DiCaprio interviewed President Clinton on Earth Day, and they talked about the need for citizens to use better lightbulbs. He recognizes we're getting nowhere with that kind of rhetoric, and he does a good job at getting at the big picture quickly.

DiCaprio frames the film with a discussion of Hieronymus Bosch's famous triptych: The Garden of Earthly Delights, which is timely as Bosch died 500 years ago this year and you can take a really interesting, brief online tour of the work. The painting hung over DiCaprio's crib as a child. My parents were wary about giving me a book of his work when I was about ten. It's pretty disturbing for a little one, depicting our deal with God, our fall from grace, and the hell that awaits us for all our sins.

He also starts and ends the film at the United Nations as he took on the role of the UN Messenger of Peace with a focus on climate change back in 2014 when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarked, "If this boat is sinking, then we will all have to sink together." And then he gets moving. Here's a very brief summary of pertinent remarks made with each place or person interviewed:

Denial is a Money-Maker

In the U.S., about 70% of people believe climate change is real, 35% believe it's caused by humans, and 16% are worried about it. The 30-minute film, "The Doubt Machine: Inside the Koch Brothers' War on Climate Science" explains how many people have been tricked into a false belief. It features Michael Mann, who was also in recent films made by Josh Fox and Leo DiCaprio. What makes him so important? He published the "hockey stick graph" in 1999, which shows how industrialization connects directly to the increase in global temperature, and he was summarily attacked for it.

Later used in Gore's Inconvenient Truth

It was a matter of shooting the messenger. There were death threats made to him and his family, and money was offered to his colleagues to discredit him. He was eventually cleared of all wrong-doings. The smear campaign was funded by Charles and David Koch.

The Koch Brothers own a $100 billion oil, chemicals, and minerals empire. They control 1-2 million acres of the Tar Sands in our fair nation. And you thought this was just an American problem! Their number one goal is to stop any climate action. They do this by controlling Congress and the Senate by paying off politicians directly. The 52% of Senators and 39% of member of Congress that are in their pocket have pledged to stop any policy that will impede their business ventures. Because the US is so influential, this is the single biggest obstacle to climate change action.

The film doesn't say this, but if it weren't for the "intent to destroy" line in the definition, what the Koch brothers are doing is genocidal in nature: deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of a group in whole or in part. Okay, it's not a deliberate intent to destroy life; it's just an unfortunate side effect of their business model that will take down 100s of millions of lives. That's all.

Climate change is all real. The worst predictions keep coming true, and it's going to get so much worse really soon. We stand to pass 2° threshold by 2050. How much money does it take for politicians to allow policies to continue that will destroy the world for your children? About a million dollars on average.

The API - American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying arm of the oil industry, uses the same methods as the tobacco industry to provoke doubt. Remember this?

Charles and David's dad, Fred Koch, was a chemical engineer from Texas who couldn't get an in to promote his tactics in the U.S., so went abroad and set up refineries for Stalin and Hitler. Really. He trained his sons in neo-liberal, small government philosophies. In the 1990s, the Koch family needed clout in Washington to stop regulations that would impact their profits, so they got involved in bribing lobbying politicians for their support. Now their reach is unprecedented in its complexity. Any politician that runs counter to their policies is hung to dry, like republican Bob Inglis.

They have the cash to bombard the public with whatever message they need them to hear. And they have rounded up scientist-types who are making a fortune denying climate change. One of the most famous is Willie Soon, an aerospace engineer who carefully allows people to believe he's a climate scientist, even though the difference is huge. There were some climate scientists who were skeptical, but not now. There is too much evidence matching GHGs to climate change that it's clearly not just a matter of solar variability.  No scientist educated in climate studies is currently denying that this is a human effect that requires human action to slow it down.

ETA: And now they own Time Magazine!