Fears ‘R us. It makes us easy to rule.

Summary: Look at the hot debates about US public policy and you’ll see most rely on exaggerated threats. Fear has become the primary tool of political advocacy in America. It makes us stupid and easy to rule. We can do better. Understanding this weakness is a first step.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” — Good advice from Jesus in Matthew 10:16.

Moravian Seal

Doesn’t work well in this world. Moravian Seal, at Rights Chapel at Trinity Moravian Church, Winston-Salem, NC.

Panics are us. At some point in the 1980s our usual rhythm of rare panics and frequent urban legends became a drumbeat of nation-shaking panic attacks. Our reactions to our fears become a barrier to rationally dealing with our problems (worse, sometimes there is no problem, so resources are burnt for nothing). Our easily aroused and disproportionate fears make us easy to rule.

The risk of epidemics became grossly exaggerated. AIDS an existential threat to entire nations (perhaps even humanity). Routine flu epidemics (e.g., swine flu in 2009) into panic mode. A few cases of Ebola sent a nation of 300 million into hysterics.

Both Left and Right have seen our weakness and seek to exploit it. The Left uses scares about chemicals (Alar in 1989,) and climate catastrophe — about scenarios both sooner and more severe than anything considered likely by the IPCC (e.g., methane doom; see the good news). The Right deploys equally fake scares about rising crime, increased Black Mob Violence, and exaggerations about foreign foes.

Our Defense and Homeland Security Departments, and the massive private sector bureaucracies feeding off them, rest on a foundation of exaggerated threats. Fear is their business.

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Review of “The World’s End”: fun boomer nostalgia.

Summary:  We’ve broadened our geopolitical analysis to include film criticism by Locke Peterseim. Today he reviews an entertaining product of the Hollywood mix master, The World’s End. After a lifetime of movie watching, boomers have exhausted the genres of horror, action, and sci-fi. Nothing remains but mixing them up and parody. Unless we open ourselves to a future of new experiences and new stories.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

The World's End

To Grow Up or Not to Grow Up: The World’s End & Genre as Nostalgia

By Locke Peterseim
Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly, 12 September 2013.
Reposted here with his generous permission.

Here’s a truth about science fiction and fantasy fans, myself sometimes included: Even though our beloved genres are purportedly “forward-thinking” and/or “open to flights of limitless imagination,” the majority of these fans – these passionately vocal fan boys and fan girls – tend, like most other human beings, to gravitate toward the familiar, to what they know best and feel most comfortable with.

And, like most other human beings, what we know best and feel most comfortable with are the things imprinted on our minds, tastes, and personalities during our formative, impressionable pre-teen and teen years. In that respect, genre and love of said genre can become yet another form of nostalgia.

This brings us in multiple ways to director Edgar Wright and writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s immensely likable new sci-fi film The World’s End, a movie that (if we’re being charitable) can be said to slyly play off fan-boy nostalgia for not only the events but the beloved genres of their youth. (If we’re being less charitable, we could also say Wright, Pegg, and Frost are themselves fan boys spinning through repeats of the genres they loved as kids.)

Which isn’t to say World’s End isn’t a ton of fun or well-made. Pegg plays Gary King, a 40-something British loser trapped in a life rendered empty and pointless by his belief that things were never again as great as they were 20-some years ago when he and his late-teen pals celebrated their last night of secondary school with a 12-point pub crawl (sadly, in Gary’s eyes, abandoned after the ninth pub and pint). The last stop on the legendary list was to have been the appropriately named “The World’s End.”

Samantha White, Rose Reynolds & Sophie Evans

Samantha White, Rose Reynolds & Sophie Evans

Skinny and strained, bug-eyed and beaten down by the realities of adulthood (as well as whatever steady stream of substances he uses to numb them), Gary has never truly left the summer of 1990. Bittersweetly stuck in his romanticized past, he’s baffled and battered by the larger world and society around him that his much more successful friends have adapted to. But Gary desperately believes if he can reconvene his old school chums (including Frost, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Martin Freeman) to return to their hometown and repeat — and this time finish — their once-epic night out, he will somehow regain the elusive, almost-magical hope, confidence, and potential he felt when he was 18.

The first act of The World’s End is a snappy, funny riff on the dangers of arrested development and chronic nostalgia. It’s the charming, thematic opposite of the classic British coming-of-age story played out with a wit that weaves somewhere between Gervais and Merchant and Abbot and Costello.

But then, as Gary and his reluctant, skeptical pals complete the first third of their revisited pub crawl, the outing and the film begin to veer into the unsettling and odd. Mild Spoiler Alert: It turns out some, perhaps many of the town’s denizens have been replaced by look-alike robots from outer space bent not on invasion but subversive assimilation.

Drinking Beer on the road

At this point Wright’s much-vaunted genre-blending kicks in. The director made his name with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both of which star Pegg and Frost and both of which use their respective genres (zombie movies and cop flicks) to take playful swipes at the social norms surrounding adulthood, authority, and friendship. Likewise, The World’s End — which completes the film makers’ loose genre trilogy — upshifts into a confidently silly sci-fi action movie, complete with Wright’s trademark mix of inventive (if still a bit tedious) fight scenes and well-chosen soundtrack tunes as Gary et al battle the growing hoards of Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style robots in order to not so much save the world as reach “The World’s End” and complete their epic pint-guzzling quest.

It’s all very clever and very entertaining — almost to a fault. Wright also made the delightfully spastic Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (another film set to a genre beat about a befuddled, idiosyncratic young man in pitched battle against conformity), and he has a clear and cleverly expressed love for the genres whose trope-y waters he surfs and an admirable devotion to solidly crafted — if sometimes stylistically chaotic — storytelling.

But there are also times when all that dedication to genre leaves The World’s End, like Wright’s other films, feeling “constructed,” existing more as an exercise than a creative expression; as if the film serves the genre, rather than the other way around. As much as I enjoy watching them, I always end up liking Wright’s films more on accrued style and humor (and soundtrack) “points” than as completely effective overall works.

Sophie Evans

Which brings us back to the notion of fans’ (and film makers’) love of genre as a form of nostalgia. “It never got better than that night — it was supposed to be the start of my life!” Gary hollers at one particularly and surprisingly poignant moment, and you can imagine the film makers are speaking not just of Gary’s stagnant life growth and failures, but of the very genre that has the character surrounded by human-looking robots with glowing Village of the Damned eyes and messy blue goop for “blood.”

Fan boys and girls had been excited for The World’s End for years as the much-ballyhooed conclusion to Wright and Pegg’s Cornetto Trilogy. (So named for the brand of British ice cream that cameos in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and now The World’s End.) Two things genre fans love to do are embrace a film maker (or writer) who speaks their genre to them with love, and then await the film maker’s next work with growing levels of ecstatic, increasingly frenzied anticipation. (What is the annual Grand Geek Ball of Comic Con other than an increasingly artificially managed frenzy of anticipation playing off nostalgia?)

The buzzword “freedom” is often bandied about in The World’s End, usually by way of a Peter Fonda sound clip from Roger Corman’s 1966 The Wild One knockoff, The Wild Angels. The creepy village robot people of course represent, with a big metaphorical bat, the societal conformity one must strive to be free from, but the past 15-year rise of Interweb-fueled geek acceptance and box-office dominance by way of Lord of the Rings and super-hero movies, you can’t help but wonder who’s conforming to what these days.

Edgar Wright and Martin Freeman

While The World’s End lightly explores notions of youth and adulthood and the age-old questions of freedom versus responsibility (as well as the joys of inebriation), its main message is that as comfortingly familiar and reassuring as rose-colored nostalgia for bygone formative days can be, in uncontrolled excess (and if there’s a third thing fan boys and girls do well, it’s uncontrolled excess) the emotion can be crippling, even self-destructive, and ultimately it’s better to move toward the future — even if that future happens to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I kind of hope Wright, Pegg, and Frost are aware that lesson also applies to their own adolescent-based love for the horror, action, and sci-fi genres they’ve been successfully playing off.

I love the sci-fi, fantasy, and action genres and appreciate the works of fellow genre aficionados like Wright. But too often fandom — again, myself included — feels stuck obsessing on the genre properties its members loved as youth. Like nostalgia, genre can be a crutch and a cage. To grow and get better, stronger, and, yes, free, you need to eventually kick it aside and see what you can do when loosed from both its comforts and constraints. That goes for both fans and film makers.

Click here to buy the DVD of “The World’s End”.

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About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves — and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

Some of his other reviews:

  1. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution.
  2. Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America.
  3. 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War.
  4. “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again.
  5. A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
  6. Elysium Shouts Big, Loud Messages About Health Care & Immigration Reform. Gun Control, Not so Much.
  7. “The Lone Ranger” shows Hollywood’s new paradigm, since films were too deep for us.
  8. Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien.
  9. Fury: the big screen display of America’s love of war, & inability to understand it.
  10. Interstellar’s Quantum Love and Other Cosmic Horses#*t.

For More Information

See all posts about Book and film reviews and Art, myth, and literature.

The Trailer

Another fear barrage hits America: thermite is bad for airplanes!

Summary: Another day, another info op run against us. Thermite is bad; bigger budgets for HomeLand Security are good. It’s easy for them because we’re so fearful and gullible. When that changes America will change, and meaningful reform becomes possible.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

The Thermite Threat

A screenshot from “Fox and Friends”.

Follow the narrative of fear

It started with a routine TSA bulletin, 16 December 2014: “Attn Intelligence Customer”, explaining that thermite (discovered 1893) is dangerous when exploded on airplanes.  The first page was released by The Intercept, who says it was marked “secret”. Like the thousands of such memos produced daily by our vast public and private “security” machinery, this normally would have quickly been forgotten. It served its purpose, generating fodder to keep these legions of bureaucrats employed (a flood of more memos, interdepartmental memos, meetings, seminars, follow-up memos).

But an immediate threat arose that required re-purposing this memo. In response to a rising tide of criticism. Congress threatens to cut the Homeland Security budget. So they deploy their most powerful weapon: leaks to the press. So we read in The Intercept of 25 February: “Exclusive: TSA Issues Secret Warning on ‘Catastrophic’ Threat to Aviation“.  Opening:

The Transportation Security Administration said it is unlikely to detect and unable to extinguish what an FBI report called “the greatest potential incendiary threat to aviation,” according to a classified document obtained by The Intercept. Yet despite that warning, sources said TSA is not adequately preparing to respond to the threat.

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Is America in Retreat before a more threatening world?

Summary:  After 2 failed invasions and occupations, as we gear up to repeat the same tactics in another round of interventions, it’s time for our hawks to excite us with stories about our mad unprofitable Empire (unprofitable to us). Today we have a review of the oddly named America in Retreat: The New Isolationism & the Coming Global Disorder. Our first 2 interventions have set the Middle East aflame. He’s right; imagine what disorder we can cause in a future guided by our hawks (a species found on both Left and Right). But where’s this “retreat” and “isolationism” he speaks of?

Pax Americana

The Road from Westphalia

By Jessica T. Mathews
Excerpt from The New York Review of Books, 19 March 2015.

Review of America in Retreat: The New Isolationism & the Coming Global Disorder
by Bret Stephens (2015).

Almost from the beginning of its history, America has struggled to find a balance in its foreign policy between narrowly promoting its own security and idealistically serving the interests of others; between, as we’ve tended to see it in shorthand, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick and the ideals of Woodrow Wilson. Just as consistently, the US has gone through periods of embracing a leading international role for itself and times when Americans have done all they could to turn their backs on the rest of the world.

… Bret Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal, sounds a call for more powerful and more engaged US leadership around the globe. Stephens appears to worry about a return to isolationism, or at least a more inward-looking American policy, and does what he can to head it off.

… Stephens’s is a facts-be-damned polemic, designed to show that the world has gone to hell since President Obama took office. Somehow, Obama is saddled with responsibility for the success of North Korea’s nuclear program. Stephens does not say that North Korea began the program in the 1950s, succeeded in building its first bomb 22 years ago, and carried out its first atomic test 3 years before Obama took office.

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Good news: the warming pause finally appears in the news as journalists learn about science.

Summary:  Telling the public about climate change is among the most difficult challenges for journalists, ever. Complex, rapidly changing, no consensus among scientists beyond a few basics about mechanisms and history, and highly politicized. Here we look at two examples, good and not-so-good. These show progress, and also how the Left’s dogmatic adherence to its narrative has forced them to abandon science (a commonplace in history for both Left and Right).

Community Climate System Model

Community Climate System Model

(1)  Good journalism

Sample #1: “Scientists now know why global warming has slowed down and it’s not good news for us“, Jeffery DelViscio, Quartz, 27 February 2015.

They accurately report two studies. They quote scientists — not activists. They often put things in context. Most important, they break the Left’s narrative of denying the pause, which for several years been one of the hot topics in climate science.

Roberts told Quartz that this all suggests our current warming pause is unique, but, despite the low probability, it is also “very possible” that the pause could continue a few more years. And that wouldn’t be inconsistent with what we know about the effects of the heat-trapping ocean oscillations at work in the Science study.

… >Some even say that 2014, the hottest year on record, already marked the end of the hiatus. But Roberts of the Met Office advised caution before calling it officially off. “I would argue that we need a run of several unusually warm years to be able to definitively identify the end,” he said.

All of the researchers who spoke to Quartz about the two studies agreed that the warming pause was just that. “Eventually we expect temperatures to ‘catch up,’ but it may take longer than five years for that to happen,” Roberts told Quartz.

The article’s overall frame is, however, incorrect. Individual scientists have theories about the cause(s) of the pause. But there is as yet no consensus on this. See for yourself by reading abstracts of (and links to) 37 articles describing of the major 12 theories about causes of the pause, many by leaders in this field.

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At last economists see the robot revolution. Here’s why they worry.

Summary:  When I first warned about the “robot revolution” (the 3rd industrial revolution) 3 years ago, I was one of a minority. Experts assured us it would produce quick benefits without much disruption (unlike the previous 2). Time has brought new evidence, and now concern has replaced confidence. Today we review the problem. The next few posts will consider solutions. {1st of 2 posts today.}

“An increase in the productivity of labour means nothing more than that the same capital creates the same value with less labour, or that less labour creates the same product with more capital.”

— Karl Marx’s “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (1857/58).

Robot Evolution

Matthew Yglesias gave a strong rebuttal to people blaming automation for the slow growth in jobs and wages since the recession ended. But it’s happening nonetheless, slowly but accelerating. People tend to underestimate short-term change, and over estimate it over the long term. But now people are noticing the drumbeat of announcements, as automation affects more jobs of all kinds. Even economists are doubting their easy confidence that the future must be like the past.

Previous posts list scores of examples. Every month brings more, such as …”The computer will see you now. A virtual shrink may sometimes be better than the real thing.” “Here come the autonomous robot security guards.”  Robots help deliver meals for patients.  “Eerily lifelike androids join staff at Tokyo tech museum.Journalists reporting the end of journalism as a profession,  “Watch out, coders — a robot may take your job, too.

The problem is structural on three levels, and just beginning. First there is the shift of rewards from labor to capital (those who own the machine), as we see in the workers’ falling share of GDP, and the rise in corporate profits as a percent of GDP.

The second structure factor: technology changes the distribution of income in many fields. We’re shifting to a winner-take-all economy, as explained in “Welcome To Extremistan! Please Check Your Career At The Door.” Excerpt:

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Read like a conservative to see the world in a new way!

Summary: Today’s exercise might open your eyes and raise you consciousness, hopefully in a good way. Here’s what a conservative, of the extreme variety, reads over the course of a week, stories describing a terrifying world of powerful enemies, foreign and domestic, poised to attack (or already subverting America from within). It’s about our weakness and their strength. But more importantly this distorted news flow has tilted the nation’s mental in an unbalanced and fearful way.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
— John 8:32. Yes, but lies told the weak are more politically useful.

Truth Will Make You Free

How have so many Americans become so fearful and militaristic since 9/11, urging an ever more belligerent foreign policy (despite its repeated failures)? There have been studies showing a large fraction of people with a bias or tilt towards these things, such as “Tea Party Members Cultural Dispositions ‘Authoritarianism, Fear Of Change, Libertarianism And Nativism’“.

But there’s more to it. An industry has arise to feed our fears. The information “diet” we consume exacerbates these traits, so that we see a distorted view of the world, with every threat exaggerated in size and immanence. The repeated failure of these threats to affect us does change their views, mysteriously.

Here’s a sample of stories from just a few days — most from respectable sources (it’s much worse in the shadowy corners of the Internet). Only a few from Fox News and the Washington Times, as that would be too easy. Nothing here from the flow of racism; we discussed that yesterday.

Some of these stories are accurate, but lack context. Some are exaggerated. Some are fanciful. It’s the selectivity of the diet that produces the desired effect, making the subject easy to rule. Imagine credulously reading these every day for years. Terror and a kind of paranoia are natural results, plus a desire to strike before they get us.

Foreign Enemies

How the Military Will Fight ISIS on the Dark Web“, Patrick Tucker, Defense One.  “Al-Qaeda morphs into a new movement since 9/11“, AP. AQ has gone thru more changes since 9/11 than Lady GaGa. Always threatening yet seldom acting.  “The U.S. strategy to defeat the Islamic State is underpowered“, Washington Post editorial.  “Islamic State group’s war chest is growing daily“, AP. Perhaps in a decade or so it will equal that of Liechtenstein ($420 million per year).

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