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Blockbuster Revelations

November 18, 2013

Re-watching Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s true masterpiece, during the government shutdown may not have been a good idea. Or maybe it was the best idea.

Relative to Children of Men, Gravity is a child’s tale. Gravity is a story about everything that could go wrong in a place that is principally known for its tight structure, protocols, and goals. Gravity’s dramatic tension arises from the juxtaposition of unplanned accidents and random contingencies against a need for careful planning. The stakes of Gravity are small, but potent. We relate to Gravity because we too feel like we would be similarly ill-equipped to deal with the rules of a callously indifferent universe if we were literally severed from a lifeline.

Children of Men, by contrast, explores what happens when one fundamental thing goes wrong and how the effects of that one disaster emanate outward into the rest of society. The stakes are about as large as can be, and the film lands no fewer emotional gut-punches for its sprawling focus. But unlike Gravity, where the audience implicitly understands that Bullock’s goals are to get somewhere safe, Children of Men’s audience (supposedly) does not come into the film with a grasp on any preconceived end goal for what society should aspire to a few generations into the future. Society and government do not have pre-written teleological ends; the only stated mission of a liberal polity is to allow people to pursue their own ends of happiness, and maybe provide the environment or the means to achieve said happiness.

Through the narrative arc of Children of Men, the audience is put in the position of watching what it would feel like to tug at the loose thread in the corner and see what lies behind the woven veneer of so-called society. That we accept the Britain portrayed in the film’s opening scenes as a plausible hypothetical only to find that it is just the top layer of a much deeper dysfunction is unsettling and frightening, especially in this moment of history. It shows us just how capable we are of self-deception.

For me, Children of Men makes a good case for being the best the apocalypse genre has to offer specifically because of the authentic feel of the unfurling societal and governmental decay. The fact that the world feels intuitively realistic, but then reveals itself to be even more horrifyingly realistic than previously considered serves to root out and confirm some of our deepest fears and anxieties. The references to riots and revolt in other countries and spreading chaos touch deep-seated nerves. That the chaos inevitably proves to be much closer to home than originally thought makes the film feel apocryphal. That we recognize our own susceptibility to the kinds of thinking that leads the film down its path is what makes Children of Men terrifying.

Of course, it is these kinds of nightmares that Hobbes was considering when he postulated that a governmental leviathan would be necessary to allay all of the fears that humanity is capable of imagining. We know that humans are fallible. And we know that we live in an age where near-infinite harm could result from some human–all too human–mistakes. So when we are presented with a scenario where everything is at stake, we recognize in ourselves a tendency to reach for a security blanket, whether that blanket manifests itself as an information-addicted National Security Agency or an full-on totalitarian/military state. And as with many nightmares, there is a tendency to equivocate the end of American values with end-times or actual, biblical apocalypse. However, more than anything else, it is probably more of a reflection of American exceptionalism and self-centeredness that Americans cannot imagine the world going on without America.

It’s tempting to date this kind of eschatological thinking to 9/11. After all, when did the public utterly lose any ability to calculate the probability or impact of worst-case scenarios? When the actors on the world’s stage were the rational, predictable actors that characterized the Cold War, we at least could know where we stand relative to our enemies. Even if the doomsday machines themselves were terrifying, we could calculate and counteract what would set them off. There was a logic to mutually assured destruction because it was tied to concrete, worldly values. Now that the fingers on the innumerable and untraceable buttons have morphed into hands attached to people willing to give their lives to achieve other-worldly ends, we feel as though we can no longer trust in rationality to win the day.

So when presented with a powerfully direct and immediate example of just how wrong things can and will go (i.e., 9/11), the American leviathan rears its head. And consequently, in what might be termed the “Wikileaks Era” of American history, we find ourselves having to deal with a seemingly unending barrage of revelations (they’re always “revelations,” aren’t they?) about the extent of government militarization, surveillance, data mining, overreach, and impunity. Values as fundamental to the American founders as freedom from intrusive searches and seizures have been exchanged for marginal increases in security, and even those improvements are of questionable (if any) utility.

That these news stories are always characterized as dramatic “revelations” rather than “predictable outcomes”–indeed, the exact kind of outcomes that Hobbes anticipated–makes me feel like we’re living in a society at the precipice. America’s self-deception runs so deep that these developments felt like the worst conspiracy theories  borne out as true when they were first revealed. But in retrospect, didn’t we know that these consequence we now live with were predestined by the new normal set in the wake of the PATRIOT ACT and the rise of the surveillance state? Didn’t we know that we would react this way? Of course, but we didn’t think we’d have to actually get up the political willpower to actually do something.

Instead, we allow the inertia to continue to propel us along the same track. Instead of repealing the laws authorizing the surveillance state, we double down on them. Instead of welcoming whistleblowers with outstretched arms as a means of marshaling public opinion against our institutions in need of correction, we despair because we think that it would be a futile exercise.

That policy inertia is unlikely to change anytime soon in an environment where the political capital is spent dealing with non-real issues that increasingly resemble the hyperbolic and ridiculous puppet shows that are always described in 1984 or Farenheit 451 or Brave New World. When the government can be shut down as part of a sideshow tactic by a cult that desires the apocalypse, i.e., the Tea Party, any hopes of any legitimate discussion about uncomfortable choices are already lost. This millennium’s ostrich approach to politics created this cult of apocalypse out of a false premise that the world might stay the same.

What the understandably beleaguered citizens of this new modern order want is a pristine variety of America that feels like the one they grew up in. They want truths that ring without any timbre of doubt. They want root-and-branch reform – to the days of the American Revolution. And they want all of this as a pre-packaged ideology, preferably aligned with re-written American history, and reiterated as a theater of comfort and nostalgia. They want their presidents white and their budget balanced now. That balancing it now would tip the whole world into a second depression sounds like elite cant to them; that America is, as a matter of fact, a coffee-colored country – and stronger for it – does not remove their desire for it not to be so; indeed it intensifies their futile effort to stop immigration reform. And given the apocalyptic nature of their view of what is going on, it is only natural that they would seek a totalist, radical, revolutionary halt to all of it, even if it creates economic chaos, even if it destroys millions of jobs, even though it keeps millions in immigration limbo, even if it means an unprecedented default on the debt.

Apparently suicidal tactics and theocracy are not exclusive to our enemies.

Like the twist in any good movie, we find in ourselves something we despise in others. A movie’s protagonist usually grows from this realization; now the onus is on us to do the same. There may even be some reaction and growth from a world-wearier and savvier public. But corrective measures we take will mean very little if we don’t grow a little more accustomed to checking for loose threads to see where they follow. Or is that starting to sound too much like a movie?

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