Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I, too, have been thinking about everybody's favorite children-blowing-up movie, and the minds of the people who released it. Of course, the only way to think about it that doesn't make my own head explode is that it was made as a satire of environmentalists, by their opponents. In that context, it makes sense to ask whether or not it is fair, whether or not it is funny, and whether or not it is in good taste. As a film made by environmentalists, it makes no sense whatsoever. Dan's attempt to get inside the minds of the producers is brave indeed. But I don't buy his view that environmentalists view opponents as minor social annoyances, much as we view people who take a cell phone call at dinner.

Environmentalists do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Consider this post, which contains just some of the very nasty plans that prominent environmentalists have announced for those of us who are not yet assimilated. And there is no shortage of direct violence by environmentalists as well. And environmentalists -- including the relatively sane ones -- know about these instances. For an environmentalist to "joke" about blowing up opponents is a bit like anti-abortionists "joking" about blowing up people who support legalized abortion; or Muslims "joking" about blowing up opponents of the ground zero mosque: it's not something I can get my head around.

In fact, I have no explanation at all for the mind-set of the people who made that movie.

I do, however, wish to point out one thing about the movie that I have not seen other people remark on. One of the many ways in which this movement is fraudulent is that their good cops tell us, "all we're asking for is this little thing"; but when pressed, the bad cops explain that the little thing was just an appetizer, and that the main course will -- and must -- completely overturn the economy of the world. (This point was also made in my out-of-date (even then) post.) And we see this in the movie as well. The teacher says:
The idea is everyone STARTS cutting their carbon emissions by 10% thus, keeping the planet safe for everyone, EVENTUALLY.
Clearly there will be further rounds of cutting, but don't worry about that right now. Just remember to think right, and to wear a raincoat to class.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Michael Kinsley is fond of pointing out the contradiction between anti-abortionists' moral absolutism and their rejection of its natural consequences. If abortion is, as pro-life groups routinely claim, morally indistinguishable from murder, he notes, then violence in defense of murder victims--murder of abortionists, for instance--ought to seem eminently justifiable to the entire movement, rather than just to a tiny fringe. Kinsley concludes, quite plausibly, that anti-abortion activists can't possibly believe their own absolutist rhetoric.

I have a similar reaction to the celebrity video and subsequent apology published by a British environmental group called 10:10. The video presents several vignettes in which people are encouraged to volunteer to reduce their personal greenhouse gas footprints by 10 percent...and those who refuse are shown being blown to pieces in blood-spattering explosions at the press of a big red button.

Opponents have responded with outrage, suggesting that the film exposes the brutally totalitarian mindset of the 10:10 group in particular, and the environmentalist movement in general. The apology reassures readers that the whole thing was intended to be funny, not threatening--the script was, after all, written by Richard Curtis, the screenwriter behind such wildly successful comedies as the Blackadder series and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Here's where Kinsley's point comes into play. Let us assume, for a moment--and I see no reason to doubt it--that the film was, indeed, meant to be humorous. What does that say about its creators? Certainly not that they're wild-eyed totalitarian fanatics--such people might find the idea of blowing up opponents heartening and praiseworthy, but they wouldn't consider it particularly funny. On the contrary, blowing up dissenters only comes off as humorous if the punishment is understood to be wildly disproportionate to the crime, rather than commensurate with it.

In particular, the premise of social annoyances--queue-jumping, inconsiderate driving, loud and disruptive cellphone use and the like--being punished with over-the-top violence has been a stock comedy theme for years. In the 2000 horror film spoof, "Scary Movie", for example, a disruptive moviegoer is murdered by a masked killer, to the applause of annoyed fellow audience members.

And indeed, the 10:10 film never depicts anyone either justifying or acting on environmentalist principles--the rigidly enforced social norm it depicts requires only vocal embrace of the general idea of "saving the planet", and a cheery promise to do something concrete toward that end at a later date. The gory fate imposed on those who dare dissent isn't argued for or justified--it's simply a Scary Movie-style comic exaggeration of the cold disgust that we all feel towards those whose behavior we find unacceptably rude, crass or tasteless.

The 10:10 movement's critics' rants about bloodthirsty totalitarians are thus badly off the mark. The filmmakers have in fact shown themselves to be nothing more than shallow conformist trend-followers, for whom failure to pay nominal lip service to fashionable environmentalist cant is intolerably rude and inconsiderate, in the same way that talking loudly on a cellphone in a movie theater is intolerably rude and inconsiderate. If they really believed that shirkers who neglect the 10:10 commitment deserve to die, then they could never have portrayed the idea of killing them so lightheartedly.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide after his roommate broadcast live video over the Internet of him engaged in gay sex acts in his dorm room, has certainly confused a lot of commentators. To begin with, it's clearly not, as some have claimed, about "cyberbullying". There is no indication that Clementi was harassed or threatened in any way, and the passive-aggressive tone of the perpetrator's Twitter messages (not to mention their act itself) strongly suggests that they were themselves most likely incapable of even attempting to intimidate Clementi.

Second, it's only peripherally about society's attitudes towards homosexuality. While Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, appears to have been unhappy about Clementi's use of their shared dorm room for gay sex (among other points of friction between them), he is not known either to have directly disparaged homosexuality, or to have been motivated by Clementi's orientation. Indeed, Ravi's action appears to have been completely opportunistic--he simply activated the Webcam on his own computer, sitting in his own dorm room, from a friend's dorm room. There's no reason to believe he would have behaved differently had his disliked roommate's companion been female. (It's likely, though, that had either participant in such a heterosexual tryst committed suicide on hearing of having starred in a live Internet video, the public reaction would have been far more muted and less passionately sympathetic.)

No, the real moral of this story is one I have touched on before: the failure of modern etiquette to evolve quickly enough to keep up with modern communications technology. Ravi and his friend appear to have thought little about the propriety, let alone the consequences, of their video streaming project before embarking on it. Perhaps they were simply not tuned in to current social conventions regarding such acts--but far more likely, such social conventions simply don't exist yet.

In Robert Altman's 1970 film M*A*S*H*, the story's "heroes" engage in an audio, heterosexual version of Ravi's stunt, publicly humiliating two "villains". (There was no Internet at the time, of course, but the army camp's public address system served as a substitute.) Now, I've long condemned this film's celebration of its heroes' shocking cruelty, but to the best of my knowledge, no other commentator has characterized the stunt of broadcasting audio of a sexual tryst between two unsympathetic characters as anything other than hilarious. On the other hand, the scenario enacted in the film was until recently sufficiently remote from common experience to be easy for audiences to distance themselves from. What makes the Clementi story so unsettling is precisely that what was once a wildly improbable gag, suitable for a ribald, off-the-wall comedy, can now be a casual, unthinking act by a disgruntled college student with no special equipment. And it will probably be quite some time before social conventions catch up to that technological shift.