you take the skyway

Up In The Air: A documentary about the way corporate culture shapes American geography, disguised as a love story.

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase, “as pretty as an airport.”

– Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-time of The Soul

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) works for CTC, a consulting firm in Omaha to which you can outsource your firing needs. A CTC transition specialist will fly to your office, fire a dozen or a hundred of your employees, and be back on a plane that afternoon. When CTC hires ambitious Cornell graduate Natalie Keener (Kendrick), Bingham is assigned to show her the ropes, dragging her from Wichita to Miami to Detroit, contrasting his views of attachment with hers. While this goes on, Bingham flirts via text message with another hardcore business traveler (Farmiga) and frets over how to get out of attending his sister’s wedding.

george-clooney-up-in-the-air

The firings in Up In The Air take place in rapid, documentary-style jump cuts. This is only fitting, since every fired employee (save a few big name actors like J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifanakis) was recently fired, recruited by director Jason Reitman through an ad in the paper. The complaints, the confusion and the anger share the same bitter chorus: I’ve put in 17 years with this company; what am I supposed to tell my daughter; do you sleep well at night? It’s a level of heartbreak that, viewed through the lens of cinema, makes no sense: how can you be mad at George Clooney? Look at his chin! But that’s the disconnect Reitman wants you to evaluate. People get so frustrated when they lose their jobs because they invest so much of themselves – or rather, their selfs – in those jobs. If you work in an office, you spend more time at your desk than you do with your children or your wife. You spend more time on someone else’s reports than you do on your creative passion. Then a man you’ve never met shows up to take it away.

Keener approaches these firings with the coolness of an oral exam, blinking and calculating in response to each rejoinder. On one flight, we see her devising a comprehensive script to answer any potential complaint. But when her boyfriend breaks up with her while she’s traveling with Bingham, she collapses in uncharacteristic tears in a hotel lobby. Keener treats her job like, well, a job, even when that job is telling people who’ve invested twenty or more years in a company that they’re No Longer Wanted. But she takes her relationships seriously. Contrast this with Bingham, who approaches each case with a warm and sympathetic ear. He tells each victim that being let go could be the door for a new opportunity – and he’s not conning them; he seems to believe it. But Bingham invests none of this attachment in his relationships, urging the attendees at his motivational speaking sessions to “empty out their backpacks” of sentimental knicknacks, detailed histories and personal relationships.

anna-kendrick-up-in-the-air

It’s tempting to see Up In The Air as a story about a modern nomad, a man without connections. But Bingham is connected. He spends most of his life in the air, depicted in the movie through an artful series of bird’s-eye panoramas of American cities. We see Chicago’s skyline, Miami’s beachfront, Detroit’s factories and Topeka’s checkerboard farms. America encompasses so many varieties of corporate infrastructure: housing communities, hotel chains, agriculture, auto manufacturers, telecom companies and cloverleaf interchanges. That’s what Bingham loves; the language of film tells us that. When he reaches the personal milestone he’s been aiming at for so long, a corporate spokesman descends from the clouds and thanks him “for his loyalty.” Bingham’s not a vagabond. He’s a vassal. So is everyone else we meet.

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and reflects no light in day or night

I work in Copley Square, one of the most photogenic neighborhoods of Boston. Once a week, if not more often, I cross the plaza to my office, by threading my way through crowds of Asian tourists. They live up to (down to?) the stereotype by pointing subcompact digital cameras in every direction and snapping pictures: some with family in front, some without. They’re not lacking for vistas: the square is bordered by the Boston Public Library to the west, Trinity Church to the east, the Hancock Tower to the south and Patrick Henry’s childhood CVS to the north. Amateur photographers pose their family members, who stand with hands folded in front of their waists or with arms outstretched. Look! Boston!

The reason Asian tourists descend on Copley Square in flocks of thirty or more has nothing to do with the square’s history and everything to do with buses. The tour buses that serve the Boston area make this neighborhood a regular stop. Copley Square didn’t play a role in Boston’s revolutionary history – in fact, it was a swamp back then – but it’s certainly photogenic. Tour bus companies recognized the square was photogenic and began including it on their tours. And now strangers to the city get out and take photos because the tour bus stops here.

copley_square

The history of Boston is neither so old, nor so mysterious, that we have to argue over which came first: did the tour buses decide Copley Square was a point of interest, or was it Copley’s status as a point of interest that got tour buses to stop here? The answer is clearly the latter. Yet seeing tourists pass through Copley Square always gives me an opportunity to revisit it with a stranger’s eyes. And I’m reminded of how much institutions – like tour bus companies – shape our view of the world, while the world also shapes the way these institutions grow.

And I hope that, in every busload, there’s at least one sullen teenager or cranky grandma who gets off the coach, draws their collar up against the St. James winds, and asks, “What’s so special about this place, anyway?”

I am a visitor here; I am not permanent

The Visitor: A well-tailored little indie film. Like a very nice suit.

Richard Jenkins (Intolerable Cruelty, Step Brothers, etc – one of those actors you recognize but don’t know) stars.* He plays Prof. Walter Vale, a Connecticut professor who’s stagnating following his wife’s death. When he’s coerced into attending a conference in Manhattan, he sets foot in the tiny apartment he’s owned for years but never uses. In doing so, he finds two immigrants who’ve been living there for months: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira). Confusion ensues.

Once it becomes clear that Tarek and Zainab are as much the victims of fraud as Walter is, Walter begins to open up to them gradually. He allows them to stay in his pied-a-terre while he’s presenting at the conference. He learns about Zainab’s day job and Tarek’s passion for the drum. And he rediscovers passion.

The Visitor isn’t perfect. It lacks the understated dignity of Tom McCarthy’s (BC ’88) last movie, The Station Agent. There are several moments that state the movie’s theme with a quiet elegance: Walter, awkwardly sitting on his sofa and drinking a glass of wine, while Tarek and Zainab hurriedly pack their things. Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass) talking with Zainab over coffee in a small cafe. Little moments, well-framed.

And then there’s Walter’s rant at a security guard, the climax of the film. It’s not the temper that I mind; given what’s at stake, I wouldn’t have been surprised with more. But the dialogue, and the delivery, feel so stilted. Tom McCarthy was a featured regular on the final season of The Wire, which shot right around this time: maybe he took away the wrong lessons?

But what makes the film work, even in light of this clumsiness, is Tarek’s unshakable charisma. Haaz Sleiman has an infectious smile and a warm attitude. He’s not merely believable as a lover, a musician and a guide to New York. He’s admirable. He’s the kind of lover, musician and guide – and friend – that we should all want to be. This is essential, because the latter half of the movie hinges on identifying with him.

The Visitor is about how the unforeseen consequences of our actions can hurt the ones we care about. It’s about the horrors of institutional bureaucracy. But it’s ultimately about the same existential crisis that the West has been grappling with since the 50s – that sense of alienation in one’s own home. In dealing with that, The Visitor runs into the same obstacles that every artwork tackling the existential crisis has. But discovering just how little you know about your own home can be freeing, as well as terrifying.

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* As an example of how hard it is to remember this man, I called him “Christopher Perkins” in the first draft.

I’ll be the fire escape that’s bolted to the ancient brick

Charles Stross, author of Accelerando and other sci-fi books, wrote a fascinating post two weeks ago (thanks to Ari for linking it). He talked about the challenge of designing society for posterity: how to make a social order that could run a “generation ship” without falling apart.

Generation starships: they’re not fast.

If you can crank yourself up to 1% of light-speed, alpha centauri is more than four and a half centuries away at cruising speed. To put it in perspective, that’s the same span of time that separates us from the Conquistadores and the Reformation; it’s twice the lifespan of the United States of America.

We humans are really bad at designing institutions that outlast the life expectancy of a single human being. The average democratically elected administration lasts 3-8 years; public corporations last 30 years; the Leninist project lasted 70 years (and went off the rails after a decade). The Catholic Church, the Japanese monarchy, and a few other institutions have lasted more than a millennium, but they’re all almost unrecognizably different.

[…]

I’ve been (inconclusively) batting around some ideas with Karl Schroeder — how do you design a society for the really long term? There are a couple of levels to consider: notably, decision-making and economics. And it doesn’t look as if we’ve got any good solutions to either.

You should read the whole post; it’s fascinating stuff. And if you think about it, there’s a hidden question in there. A society that could remain stable aboard a generation ship – an enclosed biosphere hurtling through space – is, of course, a society that could remain stable aboard Spaceship Earth.

Too bad the question itself makes no sense.

Don’t get me wrong: “how do you design a society for the really long term?” makes perfect grammatical sense. You can even start imagining along those lines, as Stross and his friend Schroeder evidently did, for several ‘grafs worth of thought. But if you consider what those actual words mean – specifically, design, society and long term – the question becomes impossible. There is no way to answer it.

Let’s say Stross, or NASA, or even you, come up with a way to answer the question. And let’s say a generation ship – a vessel capable of interstellar travel along a lifespan of hundreds of years – gets built. Here’s what it’ll look like on Day One.

NASA Project Director: Okay, guys, remember what we told you …
Generation Ship Crew: Right, right, we remember.
NASA Project Director: … you’re an oligarchical commune with rotating leadership roles and multiple redundant judiciaries …
Generation Ship Crew: Mm-hmm, got it.
NASA Project Director: … lower the radiation shields every 400 days to prevent genetic drift …
Generation Ship Crew: It’s all in the three-ring binder. We’ve got it.
NASA Project Director: Okay. Just checking. Good luck, people!
(ship door seals; generation ship takes off)
Generation Ship Crew: SPRING BREAK! WHOOOO!

Okay, maybe things won’t fall apart that fast.

But the entire premise of Stross’s question ignores an obvious hurdle: if some social scientist theorizes the Perfect Society for a generation ship, who’s to say anyone inside the generation ship is going to follow it? Especially once they’re light years away from the home world? NASA can tell the crew, “The engineers are in charge; if what they say isn’t law, the ship stops spinning and O2 stops filtering and you all die in six weeks.” But that doesn’t matter, unless every non-engineer aboard the ship also agrees.

To be fair, Stross isn’t suggesting that the Perfect Society be dictated from on high. He closes the post with the question, “What sort of governance and society do you think would be most comfortable, not to mention likely to survive the trip without civil war, famine, and reigns of terror?”

But the question is still irrelevant. Stross can prove, using all the equations social science has to offer, that (say) an anarcho-syndicalist state where the Chief Engineer, the Head Gardener and the Captain of the Dodgeball Team act as a non-legislative judiciary is the only stable state for a closed, high-maintenance biosphere that has to have a population greater than x in 450 years. But that proof is irrelevant to the people inside that biosphere unless they believe it. If I scrub the oxygen filters, I might be convinced after a few years that I’m the most important person aboard the ship. After all, without me, everyone dies.

And even if NASA somehow indoctrinates every member of the first generation of the crew in their Perfect Social Theory, there’s a reason this sci-fi construct is called a generation ship. It will take more than one generation to get where it’s going. Four and a half centuries from here to Alpha Centauri at 0.1c; that’s eighteen generations. Who’s to say your kids will hold to the anarcho-syndicalist ideal with the same fervor you did? Or their kids? It only takes one generation to decide the reactor only needs sixteen control rods instead of twenty for the entire project to fail.

Far more important than the question of what should happen is the question of what will happen.

So let’s say we lock 250,000 engineers, biologists, chemists, physicists and janitors inside an asteroid and slap it toward Alpha Centauri. We tell them, in the strictest language we know, what they have to do in order to stay alive. But once they get airborne, it’s anarchy – not in the “jungle savagery” sense, but in the “no recognized law” sense. What form of social order will evolve?

My guess: the same ones we’ve seen throughout history. The human race evolved in an open biosphere with no set instructions on how best to live. A generation ship changes two of those variables, closing the biosphere off from mutation and leaving a three-ring binder of Best Practices. But otherwise, we’ll probably see what we’ve seen throughout history: warring tribes, dueling factions, a period of disorder that leads to a strong preference for law and a powerful state that arises as a result. A quarter of a million of Earth’s best and brightest go in; forty-five decades later, Augustus Caesar steps out.

# # #

I am going to read a little into Stross’s post now.

I suspect that implicit in the definition of “Perfect Society” is stability. Stross hopes that the Perfect Society will in fact be so utopian that it will not change, because no one will ever have a reason to change it. Not only will it fulfill everyone’s needs, but everyone within it will recognize that it will fulfill everyone’s needs. It’s a perpetual motion machine, requiring only its own input to keep going.

(The first question – if you discover this perfectly stable social order, why do you even have to leave Earth? – might merit another post)

This implicit premise – if I’m right in ascribing it to Stross – highlights a regrettable belief in technocracy. Technocracy is the belief that if we only put the right experts or the right rules in place, the social order will run itself. Our current problems, like poverty, corruption, ignorance and violence, do not well up from human nature. They’re artifacts of an outdated culture. If we pass the right laws, we can get rid of anything we don’t like.

Both conservatives and liberals are guilty of this.

Conservatives follow it in the form of “legislating morality.” Outlawing abortion springs to mind. “If abortions are outlawed, then no one will have any abortions!”, conservatives believe, contra all sense and experience. In reality, outlawing abortions means that women will terminate their pregnancies in dangerous, illegal ways. You cannot change the desire of a woman to own her own body by passing a law.

Liberals follow it in the form of “managerial liberalism.” A recent example: the stimulus package! The federal government passes a $787,000,000,000 “recovery package” to distribute money to local agencies and companies. Shockingly, some of this money has gone to waste. The most recent example: four Congressional districts in Hawaii that don’t exist received over $40,000,000 in stimulus money. Similar bookkeeping problems exist in Arizona, where the fictitious 86th Congressional District has already received $34,000,000. “That’s not what we intended to happen,” say liberal economists like Paul Krugman (who argue that there wasn’t enough stimulus) and Dean Baker. Of course it isn’t. But your intentions are irrelevant. You cannot change the desire of people to scheme for a little extra once the money faucet gets turned on.

Whether on the Left or the Right, technocracy supposes that human nature and cultural trends can be changed by top-down legislation. Draft the right rules, put the right people in charge, and the generation ship that is our world can sail on, untouched and unchanging, until we all turn into Star Children and join the galactic Overmind. In the real world, though, unintended consequences always crop up.

We’re all trapped in this biosphere together, hurtling through the galaxy far below the speed of light. And if we don’t learn a willingness to rule ourselves, throw out the systems that don’t work and take responsibility for our own screw-ups, we’re not going to reach Alpha Centauri alive.

I lose a dream when I don’t sleep; I’m slumbering

A man wakes up on a desert plateau. The staccato pops of automatic fire draw his attention; looking over a ridge, he sees an old man in an outmoded jacket tumbling down a hill. He picks the old man up and carries him out of the sun. The old man dies; the younger man buries him. Alone, the younger man staggers across the desert until he finds:

The Village.

jim-cavielzel

The notion of a remake of The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s legendarily inaccessible 1967 BBC series, thrilled me more than it bothered me. I don’t like remakes. I don’t like the idea of dredging the same river for new fish. But the original Prisoner, for all the thunder of its premise, lacked something in execution. McGoohan wanted the audience to draw their own conclusions, but a little more explicitness couldn’t have hurt (“yes, Patrick dear, but what do the monkey masks mean?”). And toward the end, the show drifted from challenging-weird to just weird-weird. The same ideas, given a fresh start and a proper budget, would devastate.

Number Six (Jim Cavielzel) stumbles through the Village. Exhausted from walking in the desert all day and afflicted by hallucinations of life in New York, he falls off a rooftop. He awakes in a clinic – The Clinic – under the warm gaze of Dr. 313 and the blue-eyed fatherliness of Number Two (Ian McKellen). “Why are you keeping me here?”, Six demands. Two shrugs: “I see no locked doors.” This is the insidiousness of the Village: it responds to direct confrontation with gentle redirection. Aside from Number Two, no one denies the existence of a world outside – Isaac Newton, Alexander Graham Bell, David Beckham, Manhattan. But they don’t understand why it’s so important to Number Six. They just want to help.

The beauty of the original Prisoner was the distinct visual and auditory style of the Village. Shot in Portmeirion, Wales, the use of gay colors, cheery announcements and signs in Albertus typeface all contributed to the air of stiff, enforced conviviality. AMC’s The Prisoner has a style all its own as well. Identical 60s-era bungalows, duplexes and diners form neat little rows in the middle of a vast desert. The occasional flashback to New York or to static-ridden surveillance footage jars Six out of his attempts to focus. There are no walls and no guards: there are the simple limits of sand and sky. But Number Two keeps control in other ways. He can’t suppress every citizen’s desire for escape or their search for something more, so he gives it to them: the Escape Resort! The nightclub More! And just to remind you that this world isn’t right, there’s the occasional touch of weirdness for its own sake, like the soap opera Wonkers or Brian Wilson’s “In Blue Hawaii” or the twin therapists, Number 70.

And no, they don’t have anything that’s not a wrap.

I love Ian McKellen as the new Number Two. He brings a sinister warmth to the bland pronouncements that he bestows on people: “Every day above ground is a good day.” He lives in a pristine opulence that the rest of the Village aspires to. And yet behind everything there’s an air of instability. Everyone gets very still whenever he enters a room, as if he and Mommy were just having a screaming argument in the kitchen downstairs and it’s imperative that we be good. He carries a grenade with him everywhere, pulling it out of his pocket once or twice an episode and tossing it to make a point. He is the capricious tyrant, just as likely to bestow prizes – a free vacation, a medal for service – as punishments. It takes a brilliant actor to pull that off and still appear sane.

ian mckellen

Jim Cavielzel as Number Six, I’m not as sure on. He plays crazy very well, while McGoohan was always proud and stiff. This is essential: Number Six is the man on the fringes of society, and people on the fringes are “crazy,” even if they’re not disordered. When he’s trying to convince 313 or Two that his memories of a world before the Village are real, he fumbles for the thread of his own thought. He lacks the thunderous contempt that McGoohan’s Six had for the other conspirators in the Village, but that’s for the better. Cavielzel’s is a more sympathetic Six. He bites back, but he doesn’t bark.

What doesn’t quite work for me are the slow-mo shots of Six running through the desert, dropping to his knees when faced with some implacable object – the twin towers, the weird anchor – and screaming. They seem a bit too forced. The horror of the Village comes from its cheerful banality and its absolute impermeability to logic, sprinkled with the occasional bit of grotesque: a giant bubble bouncing down the street and absorbing someone. The horror shouldn’t be something that we sit and watch with flashing lights: hey kids! Here’s where the horror is!

I watched the first two episodes, “Arrival” and “Harmony,” last night (and thanks to Sylvia M. for being a gracious host). So far we already know more about Number Six in two episodes than we ever did in the prior series: he worked for a company, Summakor, that collects CCTV footage to analyze trends in human behavior. We already have a hint of why he resigned as well. Interestingly enough, no one in the Village seems to want to know why: a major plot point from the original series. But this cute and accessible woman he picked up on the streets of Manhattan in flashbacks – Lucy – won’t let up on it. But if she’s the only one who’s curious, why can’t Six leave the Village? And if Two wants to know, why hasn’t he asked yet?

Ultimately The Prisoner is not about Number Six. We are not supposed to see ourselves in Number Six; we are supposed to see ourselves in the rest of the village. The Prisoner is about how the institution of society deals with a man who will not conform. Perhaps he’s not conforming because his brain is chemically imbalanced; perhaps it’s because no one around him can supply what he wants. Or perhaps he has memories of a past that no one shares and every time he tries to pursue them, a giant bubble attacks him.

Regardless of why he feels that way, he can’t fit in. He rejects all attempts to make him fit in. So how do we respond? Some of us watch him with sad compassion. Some of us write him off (“she’s a crazy”; “he’s an old drunk”). If he gets too loud or violent, we lock him away. And if he persists in being unmutual, we gently nudge him to the far edge of the herd.

Two more episodes tonight and two on Tuesday. Expect my final thoughts on Friday. Be seeing you.

the prisoner

we never did too much talking anyway

I would like the following euphemisms excised from polite speech:


  • “It is what it is.” No. I disagree. Now let’s fight over it.

    It doesn’t much help that “it is what it is” most often surfaces as a sort of cheery fatalism, an unwillingness to tackle a problem. We can’t change the facts! If I wrap this statement in tautology, it becomes self-evident! It is what it is, and it can’t be what it’s not, which we’d rather, so let it be.

    (We mock “it is what it is” on the Overthinking It podcast pretty often)

  • “Now, more than ever …” I find millennialism repulsive in all its forms, but this euphemism dates back centuries. We live in Interesting Times, completely different from any Times that existed in the Past! For one, children disrespect their elders! Illness is rampant in the cities and the lower classes groan in poverty! Also, there are barbarians in the outermost provinces!

    I can’t think of many crises, ills or challenges that affect me and my friends now more than they ever did a comparable group of people in the past.

  • “I just wanted to say that …” Right. I understood that you wanted to say that, as evidenced by the fact that you said it. You don’t need to remind me that you’re a sentient being, my recent experiments in biological reductionism notwithstanding.

    This one doesn’t seem harmful. It’s the sort of throat-clearing we all engage in before getting to the interesting part of a sentence. But verbiage that doesn’t communicate information or mood is harmful. We read or hear it often enough and we start glossing over it. And glossing over speech puts language in the service of evil.

  • “Society …” as the subject of a sentence. “Society” is not an agent of action. Society doesn’t tell men or women to do things. Society doesn’t take away your job. Now while there are impersonal, institutional forces at work that circumscribe the lives of people that no member of that force will ever meet – i.e., I can be limited by the Church’s views on marriage even if I never set foot in a church – it aids nothing to call that force “society.” No one ever got butter on their bread by talking more abstractly.

  • “There are two kinds of people in the world …” The distinction between x and non-x rarely bears fruit outside of pre-school pedagogy, collegiate logic textbooks and high-level programming, yet you can find it in the Washington Post editorial page with sad regularity. This distinction never works. Half the time, it’s so tautological as to be useless (“there are two kinds of people in the world: members of The Rolling Stones, and the rest of us”). The other half, it draws a false dichotomy.

    A peer educator in my high school once passed along the following wisdom from his grandmother, about the two kinds of people in the world: “those who learn from experience, and those who learn from everyone else’s experience.” And while it was an interesting point at the time, useful to the moral of the lesson (namely, Don’t Do Drugs), it’s a false dichotomy. What about people who don’t learn and keep making the same mistakes? What about people who learn from fictional experience – who were scared off of heroin by Requiem for a Dream? What about people who expect a situation to turn out poorly, like a midnight road trip to Vegas, but who do it anyway because they want the experience? All of these could be acknowledged and glossed over, if the speaker hadn’t framed the story with the “two kinds of people” trope.

  • “You owe it to yourself …” Then I default on the obligation. Who’s going to come collect?

  • “Tiny favor” / “Huge favor” Have you noticed that the effort requested by that phrase is inversely proportional to the word used? Moving a couch is a “tiny favor”; answering the phone while you pee is a “huge favor.”

  • “At least I’m doing something!” This sentence only lives in rebuttals. Someone advances a plan: let’s hold a bake sale to save our school; let’s burn the house down and use the insurance money to pay off our debt; let’s bomb villages to catch terrorists, et cetera. Someone else points out that the plan might not work: we won’t pay off a ten thousand dollar debt with brownie money; insurance companies employ sophisticated arson investigators; bombing villages will create the sort of dissatisfaction that terrorists arise from, and so forth. The response, “Well, at least I’m doing something. What are you doing?”

    Most of us get embarrassed when we realize we forgot a crucial variable in the success of our plan. But “at least I’m doing something!” trumpets your apathy boldly. So what if my plan won’t work? Plans don’t have to work in order to be good. They just have to be bold! Action trumps thought; all forward motion is progress; idle hands are the devil’s playground.

  • Blog / photoblog / liveblog / vlog / bleg. I mean, come on.

and they brought prosperity down at the armoury

The Dispossessed: One of those novels I wish I’d found sooner. Le Guin has a beautiful economy of language not often found in fantasy writers: making the terse but poetic choice, rather than bombarding a scene. The Dispossessed feels like an epic, though it comes out fairly slim.

And like all good science-fiction, the story focuses less on a naturalistic depiction of how a What-If would come to pass than what such a What-If would mean. Le Guin rejects the notion of a true utopia, depicting the lunar colony of Anarres as an anarchist state slowly ossifying into a socialist oligarchy. Anarres is poor, while its neighbor Urras is rich. But it’s the richness of cloying food and it makes the protagonist – Shevek, an Anarrean physicist visiting Urras, the first person to do so in over a century – literally ill.

Le Guin has always excelled at making the alien seem truly alien, and her depiction of how a true anarchist would react to a capitalist society reads very true. She doesn’t use Shevek as a platform for anti-capitalist polemics: people on Urras are wealthy, happy and comfortable with their station in life. But to someone who doesn’t want property, life on Urras is mystifying and weird. Adequately conveying the stilted weirdness of a capitalist society is no mean feat – considering that Le Guin, her audience, and the publishers who made such a novel possible spent their whole lives in one.

(As an economist, I always read anarchist fables looking for solutions to the calculation problem. The Dispossessed doesn’t provide one, although a good portion of the book deals with a famine on Anarres. Maybe it’s implied)

Why We Fight: A meticulous recounting of the history of American presence in the Middle East would be enough. Start with the Iranian coup against Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953; continue through the U.S.’s efforts in training, arming and bankrolling the Taliban in the 70s, our installation of Saddam Hussein in the 80s and the troops in Saudi Arabia in the 90s. Why We Fight accomplishes all that.

Documenting the growth of the defense industry in the United States since the Eisenhower era would be enough. Begin at the end of the second World War; continue through Korea, the Philippines, Okinawa, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Chile, Honduras, Colombia, etc. Add the nature of American representative politics and the inextricable link between defense contracts, jobs and votes which guarantees escalations in defense spending.

Taking a look at the aftermath of the September 11th attacks would be enough. The world went from universally supporting America (there were marches of solidarity with the U.S. in Tehran and Pakistan in the days after the attacks) to distrusting and fearing America. What changed in that time?

A movie that did all that would be enough.

Where Why We Fight triumphs is twofold. First, the documentarians interview several prominent conservative voices to answer these questions. And not in an attempt to bait them. And not cherry-picked fringe cases either: William Kristol, Richard Perle and John McCain are among them, as well as several Naval pilots. The movie’s prejudices are obvious, but these speakers don’t get the sneering dismissal that (say) Michael Moore would give them.

Second, the way the movie manages to weave together disparate threads into a single story. The narrative begins with a retired NYPD cop who lost his son in the September 11th attacks. A Vietnam veteran, he decides that an appropriate tribute might be to get his son’s name written on a piece of munition – like an aerial bomb – to be used in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This story weaves in and out with several others, like the story of a Boeing weapons technician who helped invent the “bunker buster.” Only later in the film do we hear that this technician, Anh Duong, fled Saigon near the end of the Vietnam War – a war that the retired NYPD Officer fought in. And only much later do we learn that the bomb with his son’s name on it – like all bombs dropped in the first 60 days of OIF – missed its primary target.

Why We Fight was the name of a series of propaganda films made by Frank Capra during World War II. The U.S. has established a military presence in over 130 countries around the globe since that time, and fought a variety of police actions, covert operations and wars in that time. This documentary seeks to answer the same question Capra’s films did, albeit with a more critical tone. And it finds no definitive answer. The documentarians interview an eager young recruit, two Naval stealth bomber pilots, a retired Lt. Colonel from Pentagon intelligence, Dwight Eisenhower’s son, Gore Vidal, a few military historians and a CIA consultant to get an answer and finds nothing. It’s no one person’s fault – certainly not President Bush’s. But when you combine a perpetually growing defense industry, a global military presence, a first-in-class hunger for resources and a doctrine of pre-emptive warfare, the question becomes not why we fight, but why wouldn’t we.

“It is nowhere written that the American Empire goes on forever.” – Chalmers Johnson