Lies and the death of political discourse

Best Of Enemies, 2015

Behind the Curve – Best Of Enemies (2015)

There’s a political anecdote of which I’m quite fond. It’s about two legislators from the same political party having a conversation. One of them, a seasoned politician, hears the other, a freshman legislator, At one point, the younger man refers to the rival party as “the enemy.” The old man interrupts him and says, “Son, they’re not the enemy. They’re the opposition.”

I don’t know the veracity of this story or the names of the men involved, but I often find myself thinking on it when I look at the current political climate. If politician’s like the old man ever existed, by now they seem to have been completely overrun by the younger legislator’s ilk.

I know that politics has always been a dirty business, but when I look back at the past 8 years I can’t help feel that something has changed for the worse. Almost from the moment Barrack Obama took office, certain people have abused and berated him with a level of ferocity that I can only explain as madness. People called him a socialist and a Muslim. They questioned his citizenship. They drew Hitler mustaches on his face. They questioned whether he “loves” America. And for what? What did Obama actually do to deserve the abuse? He’s just a moderately Left-of-center Democrat.

Barrack Obama, from ABC News
Barrack Obama, from ABC News

To listen to certain people talk, Obama has been the most radical president in our history. But that’s not even close to true. He was actually fairly moderate. Obama didn’t raise taxes for most Americans (despite what the teabaggers claim). He didn’t legalize pot or implement gun control. He didn’t implement universal healthcare. He didn’t break up the too-big-to-fail banks. And despite the vitriol thrown his way by the Right, Obama’s approval rarely sank below 40%.

Compare this with George W. Bush, who started two pointless wars and left office with a dismal 22% approval rating. Did he receive this kind of abuse? I don’t think so. I know that Bush was criticized and mocked (deservedly so), but I don’t think we saw the same level of venom and disrespect during his presidency.

Many people chock this up to good-old-fashioned racism. There’s a lot of merit to that argument, but I don’t think it fully explains the phenomenon. After all, not every Obama critic is a Klansman. There must be something deeper that has changed in American politics.

Let’s analyze it through recent events. We just came through a particularly nasty election. I blame a lot of that on Trump. But Trump merely stoked the flames of resentment; he didn’t create it. The venom existed long before Trump descended that escalator. People were already angry and dissatisfied. But why? The economy was good under Obama. Unemployment was down to 5%. And our military budget was bigger than ever, which you’d think would’ve satisfied the paranoid war hawks on the right.

At least those were the facts as I heard them. Republicans apparently heard something completely different. They claimed that people were losing their jobs constantly. They claimed that the military had been crippled.

How is that possible? Because there is no longer a consensus on facts in American politics. And I blame the Media for that one.

Many Americans still watch cable news to stay informed, and these networks have almost fully abdicated their responsibility to fact check information. Perhaps it began with the Vidal/Buckley debates explored in Best Of Enemies, when news networks first discovered that conflict gets more ratings than dry, fact-based coverage of politics. Today’s news stations are all about conflict and arguing and showmanship. They will point the camera at a politician saying some blatantly false, incendiary statement and not bother to comment on its veracity.

Fox News
Fox News

If there is commentary, you can bet that it’s a shouting match between extremists. The media is not interested in truth. They’re interested in a good fight. So now you will see a leading scientist arguing with a climate change denier with a Bachelor of Arts. Both will present data and call the other’s data erroneous. Both look equally credible. The newscaster will sit between them and take no sides. They don’t want to appear bias.

There’s only one problem with that: it ignores the fact that certain biases are good. We should be bias against non-facts. Some statements are true and others are not. Not every issue has two equally valid sides. There is such a thing as fact, as observable reality. We cannot be stuck forever arguing over data. Arguing not about policy, but about the nature of reality.

People turn on the TV and believe what they see on CNN or MSNBC or Fox News. They say to themselves that it wouldn’t be on TV if it wasn’t true. The average voter does not have the time and resources to fact-check on the fly. If the political climate is ever going to get better, we need a baseline of facts. We need news outlets with enough balls to exercise editorial authority and call B.S. on blatant lies.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: 1984 (George Orwell, 1949) – Monday, November 28
  • Movie: The Imitation Game (2014) – Monday, December 5
  • Game: Pokemon Go (Niantic, 2016) – Monday, December 12
  • Documentary: We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists (2012) – Monday, December 19
  • Wild Card! – Monday, January 30

Global warming will kill people

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Behind the Curve – An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Man-made global warming is definitely, 100% a thing that is happening. That much is obvious and beyond debate (beyond reasonable debate, anyway). There are mountains of scientific evidence backing up the idea that human activity is affecting our climate in dramatic ways. Anyone who persists in denying man-made climate change in the face of that evidence is either in the pocket of the energy industry or just plain stupid.

Futurama/An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Futurama/An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Global warming is, in my opinion, the most important issue of our age. Which is why I find it so depressing that it has barely come up over the long and torturous course of the 2016 election. Now a lot of that has to do with the Republican nominee for President being an ugly, misogynistic Realdoll. But I’m not convinced the situation would be much different in a normal election year.

Republican politicians will not even acknowledge that there is a problem, despite the fact that a majority of their voters now believe in global warming. Even the Democrats, who at least give lip service to the problem, have only made small steps in addressing it. What’s really needed is drastic action. The window we have to implement change is getting smaller and smaller. It’s possible that the damage of global warming is already irreparable.

And yet there is no urgency in the mainstream political discourse.

It’s been clear to me for a long time that humans (or at least Americans) are incapable of dealing with such a gradual problem. Right now, many Americans are more concerned with the threat of terror attacks. Terror attacks are easy to understand. They’re big and flashy and undeniably scary, but are ultimately less dangerous to western civilization than unchecked climate change. We’re like the proverbial frog in boiling water.

Sadly, I fear that humanity will not rise up and adequately address global warming before we hit the tipping point. The sea level will rise. There will be more natural disasters (some believe we’ve already seen a spike). And a lot of people will die. A lot more will be made into refugees (almost half of the world’s population lives near the coast).

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

There’s no real point to this article except to wallow in the hopelessness of our situation. It’s beneficial to remember that the global climate ecosystem is self-balancing. We humans have creating an imbalance, and so Earth is going to correct it and create a new equilibrium. The correction will be violent. And we may not like where the new Earth leaves us. It’s not going to wipe out humanity, but it will have a catastrophic effect on our population.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway, 1929) – Monday, October 24
  • Wild Card! – Monday, October 31
  • Movie: No Country for Old Men (2007) – Monday, November 7
  • Game: Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001) – Monday, November 14
  • Documentary: Best of Enemies (2015) – Monday, November 21

The space elevator is interesting enough

Sky Line, 2015

Behind the Curve – Sky Line (2015)

Sky Line is a somewhat frustrating documentary. I’m interested in the subject matter (i.e. the efforts of certain individuals to build a space elevator) and I want them to succeed. But at the same time, I don’t quite care about the people on screen.

Sky Line, 2015
Sky Line, 2015

I like Sky Line when it’s discussing the science behind the project and the difficulties inherent in construction. But every time they try to depict conflict between the individual parties or bring out a scientist’s kid to help humanize him, my eyes start glazing over.

It’s strange considering how much I like character-focused stories. I think the problem here is that the subject matter is interesting enough as it is (to me at least). It doesn’t need a personal story to liven it up.

Sky Line, 2015
Sky Line, 2015

The story of Sky Line is that of humanity, and the conflict is our continuing struggle to reach out to the stars and beyond. The personal, human struggles depicted just feel petty by comparison. Maybe that’s why I didn’t find the personal struggles very compelling. It would probably be better if the film was a purely informative documentary in the style of History Channel or Planet Earth.

I can’t recommend Sky Line, but I do recommend reading up about the potential usefulness of a space elevator and how such a construct could benefit humanity.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Douglas Adams, 1980) – Monday, September 26
  • Movie: Battle Royale (2011) – Monday, October 3
  • Game: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Nintendo, 1993) – Monday, October 10
  • Documentary: An Inconvenient Truth (2006) – Monday, October 17
  • Wild Card! – Monday, October 31

Attracting honesty with honey

(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, 2015

Behind the Curve – (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies (2015)

As you’ve no doubt noticed, everybody lies at one point or another. Just about everyone will bend the rules if they perceive it as socially acceptable. But one of the more interesting points made in (Dis)Honesty is regarding when people are honest. In one of the studies, participants were asked to recite as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember before taking a test that they could easily cheat. Although few could name all the commandments, this exercise dramatically reduced cheating in comparison to the control group, regardless of the individual participants’ religious beliefs or lack thereof. Simply reminding people of a moral code, whether or not they follow it, caused them to be more honest.

(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, 2015
(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, 2015

Think about that. Reminding people of honesty makes them more honest. The documentary even included practical example of this. A British government agency was able to dramatically improve the voluntary response among taxpayers by adding one simple sentence to collection letters that said something to the effect of “a majority of British taxpayers pay on time.” This simple reinforcement of positive social behavior saved the agency a lot of money.

It seems there’s some truth to the old adage that you catch more flies with honey, and I wish American policymakers understood that. Have you ever been on food stamps? I have, and I can tell you that Michigan’s DHS is very short on honey. In addition to being generally understaffed, uncommunicative and disorganized, every letter from that organization reeks of accusation and condescension. I talked with a benefit recipient who needed to send certain additional paperwork to DHS. The first she heard of it was in a letter they sent that threatened to shut off her benefits. She was understandably frightened and stressed out by this letter and was probably less productive in the week that she got it. When someone is already struggling to get by, scaring the hell out of them doesn’t get them back on their feet.

But this attitude, in one form or another, is extremely prevalent in American politics, especially when it comes to issues relating to low income individuals. The idea seems to be that people are inherently devious and will take advantage of the system when given half a chance. Especially on the conservative side, the prevailing wisdom is that benefits like food stamps actively discourage people from trying to be self sufficient.

(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, 2015
(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, 2015

I disagree. I think that most people will respond to generosity with honesty. I’m not saying that all people are honest. There are always going to be those who abuse the system. But the attitudes held by leaders about those they govern tend to be self-fulfilling. If you treat people as potential cheaters and scammers, then more will cheat. Maybe because you made it sound socially normal. Maybe just to spite you. On the other hand, if you treat people with trust and respect, I think they’ll repay you in kind.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001) – Monday, August 22
  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29
  • Movie: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – Monday, September 5
  • Game: Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) – Monday, September 12
  • Documentary: Sky Line (2015) – Monday, September 19

The natural tendency of black helicopters

Requiem for the American Dream, 2015

Behind the Curve – Requiem for the American Dream (2015)

Requiem for the American Dream is an insightful look into the state of America’s extreme income and wealth inequality, and I highly recommend it. It’s fairly neutral politically, although I’m sure some people will argue that it’s liberal propaganda. The documentary is all about how the elite classes in America (business leaders, political families, etc.) have, through a concerted effort, rigged the economy and political landscape to work in their favor. They have written rules making it easier and easier for them to maintain wealth and power while keeping the proletariat masses down. So it’s a good documentary if you want to depress yourself.

Requiem for the American Dream, 2015
Requiem for the American Dream, 2015

But I want to take issue with one aspect of the film. A lot of the presentation seemed to imply an active, determined conspiracy on the part of the elite class to keep the rest of us down. It made it sound like the Illuminati or Knights Templar; a secret society of old white guys ruling the world from a shadowy room.

But I don’t think that’s really happening. It is possible, but pretty damn unlikely.

Certainly the social and economic policies in modern America smack of class warfare waged by the elites, but I’m not convinced that’s the overall intent. To me it looks more like the natural tendency of people in power to do whatever is necessary to stay in power.

Imagining a dark cabal of industrialists pulling the strings of the economy may give us a comforting blame figure, but it makes alleviating inequality even more difficult. We live in a country where uneducated people, and even some educated ones, vote for candidates based on feelings and divisive social issues. Too many people aren’t informed enough to understand when they’re voting against their own economic interest. If we want people to understand the problem of income inequality, we need to present a reasoned, level-headed argument. Introducing conspiracy theories, even if you think they’re true, only serves to make the cause appear silly and paranoid.

Requiem for the American Dream, 2015
Requiem for the American Dream, 2015

Perhaps the filmmakers did not intend to imply any such conspiracy. It’s probable they only used striking Orwellian imagery to make an entertaining film out of what is essentially a ninety minute lecture. However, I wish they had been more careful. I care deeply about reducing income inequality, but there are powerful forces trying to downplay the problem and dissuade us from action. This cause needs all the credibility it can get.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: The Martian (Andy Weir, 2011) – Monday, July 25
  • Movie: The Usual Suspects (1995) – Monday, August 1
  • Game: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare, 2003) – Monday, August 8
  • Documentary: (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies (2015) – Monday, August 15
  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29

Writing and the pre-internet world

Prescription Thugs: Naked Edge Films, 2015

Behind the Curve – Prescription Thugs (2015)

In one of my college writing classes we were assigned a book about writing. It included a smorgasbord of insights by successful writers talking about their process. At one point the writers were asked about the medium on which they wrote. Since successful writers tend to be older, it shouldn’t surprise you that most of them preferred writing by hand. A few preferred typewriters, but I don’t think any of those interviewed expressed a preference for computers. A common thread was that the convenience of word processors made writing less personal. One writer brought up the copy-paste functions and remarked on how absurd that sounded to her. How, she asked, could one uproot a whole sentence, a paragraph, and plant it somewhere new?

Prescription Thugs: Naked Edge Films, 2015
Prescription Thugs: Naked Edge Films, 2015

The quotes inspired me to try writing by hand. I wanted to make my words as deep, and as cutting as possible like the older writers whom I admired. It was a short-lived experiment. I’m extremely heavy-handed and can’t stop myself from pressing down hard on the paper. The result was an inability to write for more than a few minutes without my hand cramping. And even if it wasn’t physically painful, my handwriting looks like a child’s.

I began to wonder about what it would be like to be a writer in the old days, before computers. They probably had iron wrists, first of all. And then there’s the limitations of a pre-internet world. You’d need to do all your research through the library, or else try and contact experts in that field. Any editing you do would likely leave your paper heavily marked, and you’d have to completely retype your writing for each draft. I imagine that old school writers must have been more careful and precise about word choice during their first draft.

We live in a time of instant gratification. There are instant downloads, streaming services, and apps that deliver groceries to your front door. There’s no longer any need to study or remember things; you can look it up. There aren’t enough reason to take your time and be with your own thoughts.

Prescription Thugs: Naked Edge Films, 2015
Prescription Thugs: Naked Edge Films, 2015

I wonder if the internet is having a net-negative effect on writing and human intellect in general. We’re becoming dependent, like drug addicts. Yes, we have more knowledge available to the masses. Yes, it’s easier than ever to get one’s writing out into the world. But with ease comes a certain cheapness. It’s knowledge we didn’t work for, like what Jeff Goldblum warned us about in Jurassic Park. It’s writing we never physically touched.

I don’t think I could make it as a writer in the pre-internet world, but I’m kinda jealous of those who already did.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1931) – Monday, June 27
  • Movie: The Machinist (2004) – Monday, July 4
  • Game: Pokémon Yellow (Game Freak, 1999) – Monday, July 11
  • Documentary: Requiem for the American Dream (2015) – Monday, July 18
  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29

Socialism and bias

The Propaganda Game: Álvaro Longoria, 2015

Behind the Curve – The Propaganda Game (2015)

When I mentioned to my parents that I support Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Presidential race, I received a few funny looks. “Really?” They said in disbelief. “He’s a socialist!” They seemed to think that this was the penultimate argument against him. I explained that there are many degrees of socialism and that America already has many socialized institutions, from welfare to police and firefighters. I also pointed out Sanders’ ideas really aren’t that radical. Virtually all of them are being successfully implemented in other first world countries. My parents were incredulous.

Bernie Sanders, From Salon.com
Bernie Sanders, From Salon.com

Now my parents do lean to the right on the American political spectrum, but I’ve seen this knee-jerk reaction quite a bit. We hear terms like “socialist” and “communist” and we’re told that they’re automatically bad. Un-American. Certain Fox News personalities even link socialism and communism with fascism, despite that being an ideological opposite to those systems. I think it’s fair to say that there’s a good deal of misinformation out there.

So what are the actual ideas behind communism and socialism? My understanding of communism is limited, but Wikipedia calls it an ideology whose goal is “a socioeconomic order structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and the state.” So from that description, I don’t know that a true communist regime has ever existed on this planet.

Socialism is a bit easier to explain. It’s more of a gradient. Basically, socialism indicates the tendency towards public control and ownership of resources. In practice, this usually means the populace pays higher taxes in exchange for better social services. That might mean free healthcare, free education, a robust welfare net or even something as simple as public libraries. It’s also worth noting that just about every country on Earth has some kind of socialist program in place already.

But that’s not how some Americans see it. This is hardly surprising. The terms “communism” and “socialism” are historically linked to some pretty evil regimes. The Nazi’s called themselves the “National Socialist German Worker’s Party.” Years of McCarthyism and Cold War fear has further ingrained the anti-socialist, anti-communist mindset into the American psyche.

And it doesn’t help that the most visible countries still wearing those monikers, China, Cuba and North Korea, have terrible human rights records. And the “good” countries with more reasonable socialistic policies, such as Canada, Denmark and Norway, don’t receive much attention from the American public. It’s not surprising that many people equate these terms with evil governments.

The Propaganda Game: Álvaro Longoria, 2015
The Propaganda Game: Álvaro Longoria, 2015

It’s human nature to try and categorize everything. And once we have, it’s incredibly hard to change the way we think about it. That is especially the case with political philosophies. It’s the same mental self-censorship I brought up in my Spotlight article. We deliberately avoid learning about political ideas we perceive as “bad,” lest they infect us and make us un-American.

Many Americans have mentally filed socialism under “evil.” We see this attitude evident in our news media, entertainment and politics. And that’s not fair. It’s a type of propaganda. Certainly it’s less conscious and organized than the propaganda we see coming out of North Korea, but it’s a kind of propaganda nonetheless.

I think it’s important for Americans to try and resist this bias and learn to judge socialist ideas based on their own merits. I know it’s tempting to throw away ideas that we see evil men embracing, but that doesn’t mean the idea itself is evil. Learn to distinguish between bad ideas and the bad implementation. I believe that separation is essential to having a rational discussion about America’s future.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985) – Monday, May 23
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30
  • Movie: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) – Monday, June 6
  • Game: Fallout 4 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2015) – Monday, June 13
  • Documentary: Prescription Thugs (2015) – Monday, June 20

The sickness of capitalism

Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room: Magnolia Pictures, 2005

Behind the Curve – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

“Money is the root of all evil.” It’s a cliched expression, but one that rings a hell of a lot truer than we give it credit for. It’s something we nod at, but that we don’t truly believe. Especially in America. It doesn’t stop us from neglecting our families and working longer hours to afford things we don’t need. It doesn’t stop companies from exploiting the poor and the environment in the name of a quick buck. Money is the root of all evil, but we think that means other people’s money. Not our money.

Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room: Magnolia Pictures, 2005
Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room: Magnolia Pictures, 2005

Part of this is certainly Darwinistic in nature. From an evolutionary standpoint, greed can keep you alive where generosity would get you killed. But I don’t think that explains scumbag pharmaceutical CEOs who jack up the price of lifesaving AIDS drugs. In my opinion, a large portion of the blame must fall on America’s longstanding romance with it’s own economic system: capitalism. We need to get over our illusions because, at it’s base, capitalism is a selfish endeavor.

Like all economic systems, capitalism is essentially a game, and like any game, you have a goal. The goal of capitalism is quite simple: amass as much wealth as possible. It’s a greed-based system. So when you have a system built upon one of the seven deadly sins and then end up with corruption, I’m not too surprised.

I never understood why businessmen are regarded with such admiration and respect. They are usually not champions devoted to a community. Sure, maybe they employ some people, but that’s not their main motivation. Generally they’re in it to make money. To me, holding up businessmen as role models is the equivalent of applauding Darth Sidious for being a successful conqueror. And by applauding business over more humanitarian endeavors, we perpetuate a sick culture of greed and selfishness.

And that’s where I get confused. Despite the immoral basis of capitalism, business is still generally viewed as a noble calling. So noble, in fact, that it excuses shady behavior. There are certain people who will defend an unpopular business tactic with the excuse “companies exist to make money,” as if that’s some worthy cause.

Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room: Magnolia Pictures, 2005
Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room: Magnolia Pictures, 2005

The deification of business is one of my biggest turnoffs in conservative political policy. Why can’t we raise the minimum wage? It makes it harder for businesses to profit. Why isn’t there paid family leave for all? Well it’s too tough on business. Why can’t we have free healthcare? Because everything has to be privatized. Personally, I think it’s the government’s job to support people, not organizations that are fundamentally selfish in nature.

Don’t get me wrong. Capitalism is way better than other economic systems we’ve seen throughout history. It at least gives people a level of freedom and agency to improve their social and economic status (albeit less so in recent years). But I tend to see capitalism as a necessary evil, not a positive good, in modern society. It’s pushed us forward, advancing technology by leaps and bounds. But one day we’ll realize there’s a limit to what can be achieved when our greatest minds are competing with each other rather than working together. It’s something humanity will eventually have to grow out of, like we did (mostly) with monarchies and slavery.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: The Thin Man (Dashiell Hammett, 1934) – Monday, April 25
  • Movie: Spotlight (2015) – Monday, May 2
  • Game: Pokémon Red and Blue (Game Freak, 1998) – Monday, May 9
  • Documentary: The Propaganda Game (2015) – Monday, May 16
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30

The lure of the fantasy

An Honest Liar: Left Turn Films, 2014

Behind the Curve – An Honest Liar (2014)

Admit it. You’ve tried moving an object with your mind. Maybe you grunted at a pen on the other side of a room. Maybe you gave yourself a headache straining. We’ve all done this at least once.

An Honest Liar: Left Turn Films, 2014
An Honest Liar: Left Turn Films, 2014

Everybody has fantasized about having superpowers. It’s completely natural. Even so, I suspect my daydreams were more elaborate than most. I’d imagine how it would feel to use my powers to the minutest detail. I’d map out entire epic adventures in my head. Perhaps these things are the inevitable dreams of a young storyteller, but a strange thing happened. I began to believe my own fantasies. Not only that they could happen, but that they must happen. That they were inevitable and would happen to me one day, soon.

Understand that I was not stupid.The logical part of my brain knew that these things were impossible. Idle fantasies. But that simple fact never stuck in my deeper subconscious. It was a strong presence in my brain that secretly regarded the logical side as a dull spoilsport. It was a stubborn sap that couldn’t let go of the fantasy.

I remember that period in my life fondly for its hope and innocence, but it’s also a testament to the human capacity for self-deception. I couldn’t help thinking of it while watching An Honest Liar. This documentary explores the wide variety and depth of human deception through the lens of retired magician James Randi, better known by his stage name “The Amazing Randi.”

Like Houdini before him, Randi is disgusted by people who use the arts of magic and deception to con people and distort their world view. Over the past 40 years he’s been using his knowledge to expose those who claim genuine supernatural powers. From telekinetics to faith healers to psychic surgeons, Randi demonstrates how these seemingly impossible feats can be repeated through simple trickery and slight of hand.

But even after these demonstrations, some people will stubbornly believe in the supposed psychic. They’ll say, “Sure, Randi can do that with trickery. But that doesn’t mean Uri Geller wasn’t doing it for real!” Or worse, some people accuse Randi of having psychic powers himself. And this is the man who openly states, “I’m a trickster, I’m a cheat, I’m a charlatan, that’s what I do for a living.”

An Honest Liar: Left Turn Films, 2014
An Honest Liar: Left Turn Films, 2014

To me, this is less about the effectiveness of certain con men and more about mankind’s need to belief in something greater than himself. We want the fantastical to exist, because it would make this world a lot more interesting. It would also reassure us that things happen for a reason. Perhaps as a kid I felt the universe owed me superpowers to balance out my social awkwardness. That’s how the story is supposed to go. You take your lumps as a powerless nerd, and eventually the universe rewards you for your suffering. Perhaps it was inevitable that the escapism and power fantasy on display in storytelling would eventually drip into our worldview.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012) – Monday, March 28
  • Movie: The Warriors (1979) – Monday, April 4
  • Game: Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) – Monday, April 11
  • Documentary: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) – Monday, April 18
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30

Unhelpful activism

Cowspriracy: First Spark Media, 2014

Behind the Curve – Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014)

Cowspiracy is a movie about what long-term effects the business of meat production is having on our planet, especially in regards to global warming. The Netflix description claims that it’s about factory farming, but that’s a bit misleading. While factory farming is a particular focus of the movie, the film reaches much further than that. It’s real agenda is to promote an entirely meat-free diet as the only moral option for an environmentalist. And I choose the word “agenda” quite deliberately. I know that term gets thrown around a lot, but I really think it applies here.

Cowspriracy: First Spark Media, 2014
Cowspriracy: First Spark Media, 2014

I must sound very down on this film, and maybe that’s not entirely fair. I don’t actually disagree with the main points. They bring up some really convincing arguments and actually examine the data fairly objectively. One oft-repeated point is that animal farming cumulatively creates more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry. I sensed the vegan/vegetarian bias early on, but the filmmakers at least attempted to suppress it. An effort is made to reconcile the principles of environmentalism with the typical American diet (i.e. one with meat). I assumed this same commitment to inclusiveness would be represented in the film’s proposed solutions, maybe suggesting ways an average person could limit their meat consumption. And I was prepared to at least give that kind of thing a try.

But no. They just tell us that “real” environmentalists don’t eat meat. So we shouldn’t do that anymore.

What? Like it’s that simple. This is hands-down the most unhelpful call-to-action I’ve ever heard in a documentary. Because it’s not going to happen. Period. There was an expert in Cowspiracy who talked about all the ways in which our environment will quickly improve if everybody suddenly went vegetarian. It was a nice sentiment, but in practical terms he might as well have been telling us his zombie plan. I think I’ve a better chance of seeing a zombie apocalypse is in my lifetime than a meatless America.

Cowspriracy: First Spark Media, 2014
Cowspriracy: First Spark Media, 2014

The day when the human race quits eating meat altogether is a long way off. If it ever comes at all. I think the invention of Star Trek replicators would have to come first. Even one of the film’s pro-vegan experts doubts it will happen. Meat is a huge part of American culture and of countless other cultures around the world. And most people do not change their diet, their lifestyle on a dime after watching a documentary. It’s completely unrealistic to expect that from your audience.

What really annoys me is missed opportunity. Cowspiracy had a chance to address the environmental morality of eating meat in a way that was real and wouldn’t point fingers at the meat-eating general population. And for most of the film, they seemed to be on that path. But in the end they chose ideology over pragmatism. They take the extremist position, and thereby shut down the conversation.

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but I have to wonder who this documentary is for. Vegetarians and vegans? I’m sure they’ll approve of it, the way a church congregation approves of a Bible reading. But those people are already on-board. Is it for meat-eaters like myself? The presentation and persuasive nature of the film seems to suggest this. But people like me will leave annoyed at the whole vegetarian movement. Because I’m not going to cut meat out of my diet, and the movie said I’m a bad person because of it. The film left me unequipped to make any realistic change in my life and diet. It merely insulted me and ended.

 

Coming up:

  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 5: Family Values) (2015) – Monday, February 29
  • Movie: Deadpool (2016) – Monday, March 7
  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14
  • Documentary: An Honest Liar (2014) – Monday, March 21
  • Book: One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012) – Monday, March 28