“The Shape of Water”: satire, period drama, and more than ordinary horror; in fact, a love story

Guillermo del Terro’s lastest auteur-isch tour de force, “The Shape of Water”, is indeed a cutting social satire of the social and political values of rival “power structures” in the 1960s.  It’s also good horror, and it’s a love story. And it is a period piece.  I worked at the old NBS in Washington DC in 1963-1964 (before there was a UDC) and it really looked like that in the underground tunnels.

The basic premise is a bit concocted. In a secret research facility near Baltimore, the military (read NSA at Fort Meade) holds a captured “alien”, a scaly biped creature with gills and lungs who has to stay under water, discovered in the Amazon, and maybe an extraterrestrial alien. I will accept nothing less.

Maybe the creature is superman. The US wants to send him into space. And at the height of the Cold War, the Russians (and their inside implants) want the alien dead.

The autocratic civilian head, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) plays his world of Trump-like powers.  Among his chargelings are two proles, janitors who bow down to him: Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and the mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins). Strickland treats them with racial remarks that even make a modern audience cringe, and (for Elisa) sexual harassment – and the movie was shot before the recent scandals.

One day Elisa finds the creature (Doug Jones).  After a series of mishaps, Elisa binds to him and the second half of the movie is taken up with her arranging his escape into the Chesapeake Bay, at high tide and after a fall thunderstorm.

Shannon plays well the typical bureaucrat who believes you get things only by intimidation and control. But so does the general  (Richard Jenkins), who near the end warns Strickland about winding up in an alternate universe of “shit” with his own future cosmic existence undone.  Bullies win in this world.

The film mentions other events in the geopolitical environment, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and Sputnik, but I didn’t hear mention of the Kennedy Assassination. So maybe the time is early 1963.

Back in the 1960s there was a late Saturday night movie program “Chiller”, of mostly monster movies, where typically you didn’t see the monster until two-thirds the way in.  I can recall “The Werewolf”, “Blood of Dracula”, and “Invasion of the Animal People”.  Or try “Donovan’s Brain”, or “the Undead” or “The Disembodied” (or “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, a real classic). Then there was also “Creature from the Black Lagoon”.  This film doesn’t quite fit those, because you see the monster early, and he really isn’t a monster, although he fights back with his fingernails at Strickland.  So I could wonder about “Roswell” (1994, or even “Six Days in Roswell”, 1999), or “Fire in the Sky” (1993, about Travis Walton). I could also suggest that Terro could have taken a hint from “An American Werewolf in London” (“The Monster Movie” in 1982) or “Wolfen” and allowed Strickland a full decapitation at the end.  Maybe for a few seconds “you know you’re dead”.

The story is by the director and the script was written with Vanessa Taylor.

A Sense of Wonder from Mathieu Le Lay on Vimeo.

Before the show we were treated to Mathieu LeLay’s  “A Sense of Wonder”  The short appears to he filmed in the Canadian Rockies.

Name:  “The Shape of Water
Director, writer:  Guillermo del Torro
Released:  2017/12/18
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed: Angelika Mosaic, 2017/12/14
Length:  105
Rating:  R
Companies:  Fox Searchlight
Link:  official

(Posted: Monday, December 25, 2017 at 11 AM EST)

“Santa and Andres”: a peasant girl watches a banished writer in Castro’s Cuba, to protect the “revolution”

Santa and Andres”, directed by Carlos Lechuga (based on a story by Eliseo Altunaga), is a bizarre and oddly intimate drama with a stark political warning: communism is deeply hostile to homosexuality and to independent speech.

The setup sounds unpretentious and unpromising. In 1983 in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, a revolutionary peasant girl (Lola Amores) is assigned to watch an exiled gay writer Andres (Eduardo Martinez) in a remote hut conveniently, it turns out, in both mountains and near the shore. Some public event is supposed to go on nearby.

The film starts out in Spanish with a summary of Castro’s purges not only of gay people but of intellectuals in general.  One logically wonders, if his regime is so vulnerable to the books or articles of a few writers, why isn’t that an admission of weakness and illegitimacy?  But of course, the point of this kind of authoritarian is to force everyone to be the same so that everyone has an equal chance to survive, or so that no one can stand off at a distance and benefit from the labor of others.  By that kind of thinking, I wouldn’t be allowed to write and publish on my own without demonstrating some kind of community engagement.  Long term, I see this idea as a real threat today.

We can add a perspective with modern post-Communist Russia, where Putin fears that open speech accepting homosexuality will allow less competitive males to believe there is no point in having their own children and families, in a country with an underpopulation problem and demographic winter.

Andres claims he hasn’t written a word in years, and was banished after writing a book (like my “do ask do tell”) that the government didn’t like.  His mute nephew-boyfriend (?) (Cesar Dominguez), after putting him in a nearby infirmary with a stab wound, turns him in to authorities for having started a ew book.  Andres denies it.  The authorities will come to search his house and throw eggs on him for being queer and, therefore, counter-revolutionary.

So, will any redeeming chemistry come in his relationship with Santa?  Is the new book real?  Why are authorities so concerned about a half-finished handwritten manuscript (rather like my 1969 effort “The Proles” during the time I was in the Army)?

The end reminds me of the Mariel Boatlift (which occurred 3 years before), which resulted in calls for personal hosting of Cuban refugees by the LGBT community in southern cities in late 1980, well before the AIDS crisis would become known.

The film makes Castro’s Cuba look bad, approaching Kim Jong Un’s North Korea (which makes much more show today, but Castro gave us the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962).

The film was actually shot in Colombia.

A good comparison might be “Before Night Falls” (2000), by Julian Schnabel, with Xavier Bardem as Cuban poet and novelist Reynaldo Arenas (Fine Line Features) (legacy review).

Small business in Havana (wiki)

Mariel Boatlift refugee center in Miami (wiki)

Name:  “Santa & Andres
Director, writer:  Carlos Lechuga, Eliseo Altunaga (story)
Released: 2016
Format:  1.85:1  in Spanish, subtitles
When and how viewed:  sample review DVD from distributor, 2017/12/23
Length:  105
Rating:  NA  (R)
Companies:  Breaking Glass Pictures
Link: official  

(Posted: Saturday, December 23, 2017 at 8 PM EST)

“The Skyjacker’s Tale” and left-wing terrorism

Jamie Kastner’s 76-minute documentary “The Skyjacker’s Tale”, while not exactly the Pardoner’s Tale (from Canterbury), is indeed a riveting account of the background of a political hijacking in the 1980s, New Years Eve 1984, to be precise.

Ishmael Muslim Ali aka Ishmael LaBeet got a gun onto an America Airlines flight from the Virgin Islands and demanded to be left off in Cuba.  The film has many snippets of the elder l:aBeet talking from Cuba today, saying he is respected in his neighborhood.  He sounds proud of what he did.  But as Obama normalized (somewhat) relations with Cuba in 2014, he could face extradition again to the US.

The background is that in September 1972, apparently about the time of the Munich Olympic attacks, LaBeet and a cadre of other black men stormed the Rockefeller owned Fountain Valley Golf Club in St. Croix, killing at least five white people.  The motive was at first thought to be robbery but soon began to appear to be race and class war.  There were stories that this was an armed insurrection intended to make the Virgin Islands a black country.  The film makes a lot of the rhetoric of the time;  in some circles around the Black Panthers, you could not remain moderate;  if you didn’t didn’t fight for them, you were part of the enemy.  For a time much of the Virgin Islands was shut down by the terror threat.

LaBeet and the others were eventually caught, and confessions were extracted perhaps with torture (“Extreme Rendition”).  LaBeet wound up serving about 12 years in mainland US prisons before legal tricks got him back to the Virgin Islands for retrial. When he was flown back to the states to return to prison, he pulled off his own heist.

Charlotte Amalie, wiki

Communist Party HQ in Havana, wiki

See also “American Heiress”, Jeffrey Toobin’s book. Nov. 9, 2016.

Name:  “The Skyjacker’s Tale”
Director, writer:  Jamie Kastner
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant Play, 2017/11/15
Length:  76
Rating:  na
Companies:  Strand Releasing
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 at 11:50 PM ESR)

“After Piketty”: compendium about wealth and income inequality mixes mathematics with challenges to personal morality

After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality”, edited by Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum, for Harvard University Press, is a gigantic compendium of academic reaction to Thomas Piketty’s 2014 missive, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (“C21”).

The book comprises four sections (“Reception”, “Conceptions of Capital”, “Dimensions of Inequality”, and “The Political Economy of Capital and Capitalism”), splitting into twenty-one chapters, after which Piketty responds with a Chapter 22, “Toward a Reconciliation between Economics and the Social Sciences”.

You really need the physical hardcover to follow this book; it’s a bit overwhelming on Kindle.

The editors start with an Introduction where they summarize Piketty’s basic claims:  social democracy became more generous with the disadvantaged right after the Great Depression and WWII, but generally the trend is toward greater inequality as was the case in the “Gilded Age”. Underneath income inequality lies wealth inequality, which tends to drive divergence in incomes.

A Chapter One by Arthur Goldhammer, “The Piketty Phenomenon” notes that Piketty’s book sold unusually well to the general public for a non-fiction academic text. Maybe this would become a lesson for me on how to sell my own authored books!

The various chapters often refer to actuarial calculus (reproducing some mathematical derivations (even partial differential equations) and proofs) and refer to the basic inequality  “ r > g” (average return on capital exceeds growth rate).  At then Piketty himself refers specifically to David Gerwal’s chapters and the “two fundamental laws of captitalism”, regarding the derivation of capital share, and the way the capital / income ratio follows the savings rate over growth rate.

But it is the socially descriptive material, and the bearings of such on personal morality, that occasionally grab attention. Piketty, some authors say, has no explicit theory of human capital (or social capital the way Charles Murray would talk about it).  But generational wealth gives some kids advantages, including those who (like me) grow up childless.  The advantages include greater financial stability when young (less need to go into debt), and very likely parents who have helped train them in the abstract thinking that is necessary for personal success in modern civilization. The quality of public education associated with class and particularly race becomes relevant.

Capitalism, by definition, implies that wealth accumulates on its own beyond the actual work done by the asset owner, so it implies also using (or “exploiting”) the labor of others.  That implies also rent seeking, which tends to impose rules on workers who haven’t accumulated enough of their own capital to own their own lives. No wonder, various forms of socialism and communism developed (even ideas about the moral nature of some kind of “New Man”) evolved over decades in the past two centuries especially.  I can remember the angry rhetoric, especially from women, when spying on meetings of the “People’s Party of New Jersey” in the early 1970s., like “why do we have to have capitalism”, along with proposals to limit maximum income to $50000 a year (income equality by racing to the bottom).   Sometimes threats of expropriation by force would evolve, as with the Patty Hearst case (Jeffrey Toobin’s book, Nov. 9, 2016, ironically reviewed by me right after Trump’s election).  Left wing terror preceded and sometimes went along with radical Islamic terror.

The book does get into sensitive ideas like personal complacency, along the lines of the usual rationalization (short of a canard) that ego-related inequality is necessary for innovation, even if it can undermine sustainability and stability. Indeed, lifelong accumulated savings (and some of it inherited) allowed me to become an independent journalist without the need for my own writing to pay its own way, which others may see as destructive or unfair.  I consistently refused to become someone else’s huckster, even as I understand the pressure on many people to join up and recruit others to buy from them.

Likewise the authors take up the issue of voice. Wealthier people are able to influence politicians to meet their needs, whereas the less well-off are recruited into solidarity by others who do not respect their ability to think for themselves.  Even Donald Trump bragged to his base, “I am your voice.”  I resent the idea that anyone else claims to be my voice.

Editors: Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum
Title, Subtitle: After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-06745-0477-6  hardcover and Kindle
Publication: Cambdrige and London; Harvard University Press, Introduction and 21 chapters in 4 sections, with a Chapter 22 reply by Piketty
Link:  Publisher’s

(Posted: Saturday, October 28, 2017, at 6 PM EDT)

ELIAN: the controversy over returning a little boy to Castro’s Cuba in 2000

ELIAN” (2017), directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell, tells the biographical story of Elian Gonzalez, now 23, who became the topic of an international controversy over immigration from Cuba late in the Clinton administration.

The film starts with the amateur boatlift in November 1999 of Elian’s mother and boyfriend, when the mother drowns (not being able to swim), and 5-year-old Elian is rescued (almost as if he were Moses) and brought to Miami.

The film gives a quick history of the rise of Fidel Castro and the expropriation of the wealthy, who fled to Florida in the late 50s.  It covers the Bay of Pigs but oddly omits mention of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  But the film covers the political effects of the anti-communist “right wing” in Miami on the Cuban issues, to the point that it sometimes could lead to political violence on both sides, with rather zombie-like behavior from crowds. It doesn’t directly mention the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, which led for calls for people to host asylum seekers in some southern states.

The film returns to the narrative of Elian. Back in Cuba, Elian’s father starts the legal process to get Elian back, and soon a public legal battle erupts between the dad and the “extended family” in Miami.  Attorney General Janet Reno gets involved (the film mentions Reno’s role in Waco in 1993) with her determination to apply the law literatlly.   In a rogue video, Elian gives some evidence of wanting to go back. But later he records an indoor video saying he wants to stay in the U.S.

Eventually the courts decide to return Elian to Cuba and considerable controversy happens, with demonstrations, after the “shock force” INS raid necessary for Elian’s repatriation. The scenes in the film get pretty violent.  I don’t recall this from the news accounts.

The film maintains that the Elian incident helped Florida go for Bush, after the recounts.  But the film also brings up the fiasco with the chads in Palm Beach County.

Elian, as a grown man, is dedicated “to the people” and to modern communism, not to differentiating himself from others for his own sake (however articulate and charismatic his personal manner seems). Yet he was made what he is today in Miami, the film says. At the end, he addresses Cuban youth. “The American dream” was not for him;  a future Cuban revolution may be so.

Name:  “ELIAN
Director, writer:  Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1, much footage is cropped
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2017/8/24
Length:  107
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  CNN, Gravitas Venturas
Link:  CNN

(Posted: Friday, Aug. 25, 2017 at 12:15 AM EDT)

“Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”: A teen takes on Beijing’s erosion of Hong Kong’s separate democracy

Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”, a documentary by Joe Piscatella, gives us a detailed history of the Hong Kong “umbrella protests” in 2014, as Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” promise (made by China in 1997 when it took over from Britain) began to unravel as Xi Jingping began to consolidate power in Beijing. The film is also a docudrama about one slender and very determined teenager, Joshua Wong, to take on the system. There are a lot of moral lessons to ponder.

In 2011, at the age of 14. Josh organized a movement called Scholarism, in resistance to Beijing’s insistence on national educational standards based on the Communist Party, as implemented by Cy Leung. Josh posed the basic libertarian moral system was to why young adults could not grow up to be themselves, rather than meet specific pseudo-competitive standards set up by a Communist government needing order and conformity (to add to meaning). In time, China actually backed down a in the standards.

But in 2014 a new resistance, growing out of Scholarism and amplified by Benny Tai, over China’s restrictions on the ability of Hong Kong to elect its own people. Joshua says that Benny didn’t first understand that protest movements need to grow and take reaction to be effective, rather than just be a vehicle or intellectual public argumentation. The “Occupy Central” movement grew and set up protest sites all over Hong Kong, sometimes using umbrellas (“rain shields” as linguist Paul calls them).  Police became energetic and then backed off, hoping the protests would run out of steam.  But when businesses complained they were losing sales, the police reiterated. Josh was arrested (in a scene actually shot in real time) and went on a five day hunger strike. Eventually the strike broke and China maintained control. But Josh recovered and, with his friends, began to run for office in a system where Beijing picks most of the potential candidates.

The film mentions the abduction of at least five booksellers in Hong Kong, thought to sell books critical of Beijing. Ai Weiwei (the subject of at least two documentaries) is mentioned. The film also shows a retrospect of Tianamen Square in Beijing in 1989.

The optics of the film are quite striking, with drone shots of the occupy camps and of the protestors among the skyscrapers with sparklers and then umbrellas.

Edward Snowden had stayed in Hong Kong about one year before these protests.

Panorama of Hong Kong (Wiki).

Name: Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower
Director, writer:  Joe Piscatella
Released: 2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length:  78
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Netflix
Link:  Official (needs paid subscription)

(Posted: Saturday, May 27, 2017 at 11:30 PM EDT)

“I.T.”: stereotyped B-movie show how the values in the information technology world have changed since I worked in it

I.T.”, by John Moore, is indeed a formulaic B-movie about computer hacking, but it manages to make a few important points about how the world of “information technology” and the people who work in it, has changed since I made a living at it from 1970-2001.

The film boasts Irish James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan as executive producer, and Brosnan plays tech magnate Mike Regan, who behaves more like Donald Trump than a silicon valley executive, because he is aging. Regan has formed an aviation company that will provide an air-taxi service like Uber and wants to take it public. He’s hired a personal I.T. consultant Ed Porter (young Australian actor James Frecheville) to handle the GUI in his office. But Ed takes an interest in Mike’s 17 year old daughter (Stefanie Scott) and starts showing up in situations where he’s not invited. Mike gets irritated and fires Ed, who then takes revenge by hacking Mike’s smart home and company, even interfering with his SEC filing.

Until the late 1980s or so, “IT” was dominated by mainframe computing with a lot of batch cycles and character driven online terminals. Things started to migrate toward minis and PC’s partly because of the military at first, and most of us remember the changes as the Internet was unleashed in the 1990s. The I.T. world made some resurgence before Y2K and then tended to fragment into a “W2” contractor-driven market was demand and supply for older expertise dwindled. This actually hurt when this kind of maturity was needed to build a technically reliable health care system that we call Obamacare. Had a better job been done in putting it together, it might not have become a flashpoint in the 2016 elections. In fact, in the distant past, the polite term for “I.T.” used to be “management information systems”, along with the stodgy “systems development life cycle”.

When you meet Frecheviile’s character, you want to see him play a good person instead of a villain. Why not cast him as an entrepreneur inventing a new security company doing away with ransomware once and for all. Physically, at about 26, he is quite “cute”. But it appears, by comparison on Google images, that he must have waxed his chest for this film (like Steve Carell, the “man-o-lantern” in “The 40 year Old Virgin” (2006)). .

I do remember seeing Brosnan in “Die Another Day” in 2002, some time after 9/11, a film that depicted North Korea as supply terrorists. (Then there is “Red Dawn II”, and North Korea’s nuclear threat today.) Brosnan was real hairy then.

This new film was shot largely in Ireland. There are sets made up to present the Kennedy Center with a backdrop of the Capitol and Washington Monument, that obviously look fake.

Name:  “I.T.”
Director, writer:  John Moore
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant
Length:  98
Rating:  R
Companies:  Voltage
Link:  official  don’t confuse with a 2017 horror film “It” which I haven’t seen yet, or with the Stephen King novel and TV movie.

(Posted: Friday, May 26, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT)

“Voices of Chernobyl”: Supplications from the family members of victims of the 1986 nuclear power plant catastrophe in the Ukraine

The documentary “Voices of Chernobyl” (2016, “La supplication”, or “The Prayer”), by Pol Cruchten, is actually based on a “novel” by Svetlana Alexievich)

But the presentation of the film is rather simple.  A number of people, especially family members of the Chernobyl nuclear plant workers and rescue personnel, stand in the ruins, or sometimes in the early springtime river, plains and forest country of northern Ukraine, and give testimonials to their personal losses.  Often the victims (mostly men) are shown, lying still, clothed.  The horrific symptoms of radiation poisoning are described verbally, but the men are usually left intact visually.  Some of the victims are children born about the time of the disaster who then develop leukemias.

The speakers (in French, with subtitles – the country of origin is Luxembourg) mention the upwind damage in other countries, most of all Belarus, where many abortions would then be performed.

Toward the end, a few women gardeners, indeed “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” (index) appear, working the soil fearlessly.

The actual “accident” led immediately, according to Wikipedia, to 31 deaths, but many more must have occurred gradually.

The film was shown at the DC Environmental Film Festival on March 16 at the Ring Auditorium in the Hirshhorn Smithsonian Museum (where I had seen  the “Infinity Mirrors” exhibition one week before).  The DCEFF program gives the title as “Voices from Chernobyl” as do some trailers; But imdb uses the preposition “of”.

Wikipedia coverage of Chernobyl disaster, many pictures including sarcophagus.

I remember the newspaper coverage of the Three Mile Island disaster in March 1979, when I was living in Dallas;  for a while a melt-down was feared.  When I worked with Dan Fry’s group “Understanding” from 1975 to 1979, I met a woman, in New York City, who wanted to start a national caravan to oppose nuclear power.  She was a one-issue person.

However, young inventor Taylor Wilson has argued that small underground fission plants for many utilities could make the power grids safer (from solar storms or EMP) by reducing the dependence on large transformers.  Taylor has actually written an article about Fukushima in 2011.  His work (in a book “The Boy Who Played with Fusion” — index) deserves a documentary film now.

Name: “Voices of Chernobyl”
Director, writer:  Pol Cruchten
Released:  2016
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed: Ring Auditorium, Hirshhorn, DCEFF, free, 2017/3/16, large audience (a lot of it young)
Length:  87
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Red Lion
Link:  film

(Posted: Friday, March 17, 2017 at 10:45 AM EDT)

“Bitter Harvest”: drama shows the Holodomor in the Ukraine in the 1930s

Bitter Harvest”, from German director George Mendeluk, does seem at first like a stock “conservative” film, out to prove that communist Stalin (Gary Oliver) was every bit as much a monster as Hitler. The film depicts a historical fiction (story by Richard Bachynsky Hoover) escape by a likeable artist Yuri (Max Irons), protecting his family, literally swimming underwater a border river into Poland, from the Ukraine in 1933, to escape the Soviet-Ukraine Holodomor.

On a certain moral level, the film is timely given today’s controversy over illegal border crossings and asylum. It also seems reflectively pertinent given Valdimir Putin’s preoccupation with nationalistic expansion into Ukraine in the past two years.

As the film opens, Yuri gives a little history, about how the Bolshevist revolution had at first freed Ukraine peasants from the czars, only to be undone with the Soviet Union and with Stalin’s plans to expropriate land and agricultural output from the farmers (apparently temporarily in private hands, giving them freedom) to feed factory workers. The film depicts Soviet soldiers storming into farms, seizing lands and demanding, at gunpoint, that farmers join collectives.

Yuri escapes, so to speak, to Kiev to go to art school, where his work is soon criticized for not being politically correct enough. (This is what happened to composer Dmitri Shostakovich for a while.) There are some lines about whether artists view themselves as elite and privileged about the mores of ordinary proles.

At this point, let me say the script is often a bit corny (it may be translated for English), but the political carnage becomes more believable and compelling as the film progresses. Yui winds up in jail, but uses his artistic (and hand-to-hand combat) talents to escape prison and get back home to help the family escape the famine.

I can relate the ferocity of the extreme left from some personal experiences back in 1972, when a radical meeting expressed the need to eliminate all inherited wealth (which is how the commies seized land). Yuri has no real moral dilemma (as would I) over whether to join a counter mass-movement.  But it’s ironic that Ukraine’s own movement is also communist, but somehow “fairer”.

The early scenes in the film (shot in flat areas in Ukraine) look rustic, with people living simple lives without electricity (there are a few cars).

Ukraine landscape similar to film (Wikipedia).

Name: Bitter Harvest
Director, writer:  George Mendeluk
Released:  2016/10
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, 2017/3/7, afternoon, small audience
Length:  103
Rating:  R
Companies:  Roadside Attractions
Link:  official

(Posted: Monday, March 6, 2017 at 8:30 PM EST)

“No More Heroes”: Jordan Flaherty argues for mass movements and against individual right-sizing; saviors think they are better than the people they help

Remember how all the episodes of “Smallville” on WB started with Remy Zero’s song “save Me?”, back starting around 2001? (just before 9/11).  For years we were treated a cleancut extraterrestrial-born and alien but very attractively human teenager Clark Kent using his “powers” (manipulating space-time around himself as if he were an Alcubierre drive) to save people.  And except when influenced by red kryptonite, he was always a great person, almost Christ-like, an angel.  And he is European-white (although one of his best friends, in whom he first confided that he is an alien, as if he were “coming out”, is black).

Or, more recently, in 2012, I watch a short film video at a local church of teenager running a mission at Double Head Cabbage in Belize.  A tall blond high school teen, who looks like he could toss no-hitters now for the Washington Nationals, lets kids, mostly of color, climb all over him.  This is an experience in bonding with people who look “different’ from you and are maybe less fortunate, at least economically and with infrastructure.  The intimacy in the film is rather unprecedented.  It belongs in DC Shorts (a short film festival), I tell them.

Or, in September 2015, at a National Book Festival sponsored by the Smithsonian at the Washington DC Convention Center, journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn present their books “A Path Appears” (also a video series) about how to help people, both in rural Appalachia and in Africa.  Kirtof also promotes a video, KONY, about a Ugandan warlord.

So now we have this book by Jordan Flaherty, “No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality”, challenging the whole premise of global do-goodism, that you can make your karma better by volunteering to help others, on your terms, when you get to look good and impress the people you help that you’re really better than them:  you’re richer (like Trump, or Zuckerberg, or Bill and Melinda Gates), whiter, taller, bigger, stronger, smarter, have a higher IQ, more gifted, more desirable.  You get to rule the world.  “They” do as you say.  Of course, you’ll be benevolent.  You’ll take care of everybody.  As Trump says now, everybody can buy insurance again, because I say so.  (I don’t think Trump had better try to deport real aliens.)

Flaherty loads up his book, especially the first eight chapters, with examples of self-serving “generosity”, going back to European colonialism and US manifest destiny, even the “we are the world” globalism of the 80s. He quickly gets to the topic of nearly mandatory volunteerism, as when (p. 25) he mentions George W. Bush’s call for every American to commit to two years, or 4000 clock hours during the rest of your life, to community service.  (I also remember Bush’s saying at Ohio State about that time, a person without responsibility for others is truly alone).   Some of his most telling examples center around New Orleans after Katrina (and even New York after Sandy), both with the ineffectiveness of hit-or-miss volunteer trips, and with the pretentiousness of Teach for America.  I was rather shocked at the degree to which teachers had to deal with the most intimate aspects of kids’ lives.

We tend to talk about “giving back” as something to get our karma right, become right-sized, and go back to feeling we individually “deserve” what we have.  It’s as if life was about getting a grade or accumulating non-monetary “life points” (a term killer James Holmes actually used).  Authoritarian politicians can easily take advantage of this idea.

In fact, consider Maoism in the 1960s. where Communist China forced intellectuals to “take their turns” becoming peasants.  I can remember those on the Left in the early 1970s (like the People’s Party of New Jersey) who used this example to argue that Chinese Communism was ideologically purer than Soviet style.

Flaherty wants us to realize that, as pastor Rick Warren argues in “The Purpose-Driven Life”, that it “isn’t about you.”  (He doesn’t mention Warren, but he should.)  It’s about your tribe, your team, well, no, its about the people, your mass movement.  He wants people to join up, become like Eric Hoffer’s True Believers. The mass movements will make things right for your group, especially if you’re among “people of color” or, less often, LGBTQ (or maybe both).

He traces the history of the Occupy movement (which Steven Bannon trashed in a 2012 film, reviewed here Jan. 9, “Occupy Unmasked”). He builds up Black Lives Matter (without mentioning the factual problems particularly with Michael Brown’s narrative that led to Ferguson) and takes the usual offense at “all lives matter” which is actually more demanding than it sounds.

Flaherty, when describing how to “change” (and shake off the moral liability if inherited privilege) says, “Instead of shaming people for their mistakes .. .appreciate and lift up principled action when you see it.” (Catalyst Poject).  Then, “This transformation demands moving from individual focus to collective action. Instead of asking ‘How can I be the single best white antiracist activist with the sharpest critique, most specialized language and busiest schedule?’ ask ‘How can I find ways to bring more and more people to social justice work, from lots of entry points, to grow vibrant mass movements?’” In other words, win converts, not just win arguments.  In fact, recruit people.  Pester them until the sign up. Well, there’s a contradiction in that, because that sounds like trying to save them.

I do recall a time at an MCC campfire in June 1979 in Texas when a particular guy into saving souls put his arm around me in a prayer and considered me one less able than others as someone special who needed saving.  Wow.

Clark Kent, in Smallville, used to say, I’m not special, I’m just different.  But Clark didn’t try to create a mass movement. But he didn’t need to.

Curiously, Flaherty poohs traditional efforts at gay equality, like gay marriage and the “right” to serve openly in the military (e.g. oppose “don’t ask don’t tell”) as accommodating “neoliberal violence”, by emphasizing individual station in life as the most important political objective.

But once the “people” get control with their mass movement, what kind of a world do they forge?  Without individual egos and meritocracy, people don’t accomplish much.  Flahety would have people surrendering all and living in moneyless or shared income intentional communities, maybe after a period of revolution, expropriation and collective moral purification.  It’s true that people who have the most to lose will take the fewest or smallest risks for changes that benefit others, but they may also take the least risks in stepping up in individual circumstances (as in Chapter 6 of my DADT-III book).  That’s the “Rich Young Ruler Problem”.

Author: Jordan Flaherty
Title, Subtitle: “No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality”
publication date: 2016
ISBN 978-1-84935-266-6
Publication: AK Press, Baltimore; 248 pages, paper (e), 11 Chapters, endnotes, indexed
Link:  author site

(Posted: Monday, January 16, 2017 at 11:45 PM EST)