Sunday, April 19, 2015

Playing the "playing God" card

A few weeks back I made plans to attend the keynote address for the GYRE Symposium on plastic pollution in the ocean that was being held at the Centers for Disease Control. As it turned out, I was running early - not unusual for me - and the conference was running late - not unusual for conferences - so I arrived just in time to catch the end of an earlier presentation.

In some respects it was good timing. The speaker, whose name remains unknown to me, was describing a very successful urban gardening project. His optimism about providing quality nutrition for African-Americans and others living in the inner city who lack ready access to sources fresh fruits and vegetables was inspiring.

What was also inspiring was his way of speaking. His cadences and phrasing were characteristic of those of black preachers from the Baptist pulpit, whose voices were notably raised in support of civil rights and social justice in the middle of the last century. There is little doubt in my mind that when the world looks back on the American contribution to public speaking 500 years from now, Martin Luther King, Jr., along with Abraham Lincoln, will stand at the top of the list of orators this country has produced. King's "I have a Dream" speech surely belongs to the ages.

But there is an element of this rhetorical style which I find problematic. And that is the use of a memorable and amusing quip that reduces a complex issue to a catchphrase.

Johnny Cochran's masterful, "if it doesn't fit, you must acquit," is a good example of how this kind of soundbite can be wielded in the courtroom. He used it to good effect in the defense of his client O.J. Simpson during Simpson's 1995 murder trial. I don't fault the late Mr. Cochran for exploiting this technique; his job as defense attorney was to further the interests of his client, not to lay out to the jury out a thorough analysis of the pros and cons of voting for or against a conviction. But the impact of his words in this context illustrates how an argument in favor a position for a complicated situation can be reduced to a very simple slogan.

A more notorious example arose from the pulpit in the 1990's. It emerged at a time when the battle for gay rights was gaining traction in mainstream America and the movement dared to say the name "civil rights" in describing itself. Much of the African American religious community took this comparison as an insult to their own hard-fought struggle for civil rights. And their response was undisguised disdain. The slogan, "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," became a mainstay of sermons as a result.

Sadly, instead of addressing the controversy surrounding homosexuality with arguments of substance, these black ministers, backed by scripture, chose to play the "God card." In their minds - and in the minds of many in their congregants - the invocation of this simple catchphrase marked both the begining and end of any discussion gay rights: homosexuality is ungodly; God said it; I believe it; and that settles it.

So it was with some consternation that I listened as the speaker at the GYRE Symposium chose to play the God card, too. During a comment on GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), he paused, lowered his voice, and confided conspiratorially with the audience, "you know what the plant scientists and the soil scientists think GMO stands for? They think it stands for God Move Over."

As the audience laughed and applauded, my dismay only grew. Many people in the auditorium reached for pen and notebook or smartphone or tablet to take down the speaker's exact words so that they could use it later on in their own advocacy. This was apparently a slogan with legs.

Now there are many dimensions to the controversy that surrounds genetically-modified crops, ranging from concerns about food safety to the possibilities of unintended environmental consequences. Some see GMOs as the way agricultural giants like Monsanto will continue to tighten their grip on agricultural markets which they already dominate, much to the disadvantage of both farmers and consumers. Others see GMOs as our best hope for feeding a growing global population, forecast to reach 11 billion people by the end of this century, and to do so while simultaneously reducing the use of pesticides, conserving water, and retaining valuable topsoil.

But whatever one's opposition to genetically-engineered food is, any argument should be rooted in the scientific evidence and commonly-held secular values and not be based on an arbitrary notion of what God would or wouldn't want.

Playing the God card has never helped in resolving any real-world problem. It maligns those with opposing points of view, casting them as blasphemers. (This can be a death sentence in some cultures.) In the case of "God Move Over," plant scientists and soil scientists are derided for having the arrogance to usurp God's authority, to play God, as it were. This may come as a surprise to some of them who no doubt believe they are doing God's work by striving to devise ways for future generations to be able to enjoy good nutrition while minimizing the harm to the environment required by large-scale expansion of agriculture.

We should always look beyond amusing slogans that oversimplify complex problems. Sometimes both God and the Devil reside in the details. It's time to place the God card back into the deck and leave it there where it belongs.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Two Days, One Night" - Norma Rae in retreat

Imagine you're in the open ocean drowning and the only thing you can do to get your head above water is to grab ahold of the feet of the companions a few feet above you who are kicking as hard as they can to draw a breath of air. They may be able to rescue you if they work together, but it's possible, even if they try, that they will be pulled under. What can you ask of them? What sacrifice are they obligated to make to help save your life?

This scene captures much of Sandra's (Marion Cotillard) situation at the opening of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's film Two Days, One Night. About to return from disability leave from her job at a small solar panel manufacturing plant in Belgium, Sandra learns that the manager of the factory, M. Dumont, has offered her sixteen co-workers a Faustian bargain of sorts: they can vote to allow Sandra to return to work as before, or they can vote to have her laid off and, as a consequence, each reap a €1,000 bonus.

A vote, taken on the Friday before Sandra is scheduled to return, goes 15-1 against her. But she learns from her one faithful supporter, Julliette, that it has been tainted by the meddling of the plant's foreman. Devastated by the bad news and still beaten down by the depression that has led to her absence from work, it is all Sandra can do to do to get out of bed and to go with Juliette to the plant and plead with Dumont for a makeover vote.

Backing his car out of the parking lot, eager to head home for the weekend, M. Dumont relents and agrees to a second vote on Monday. And thus begins Sandra's two days and one night, the time she has to convince her co-workers to vote to give up their bonus pay so that she can keep her job.

The movie then unfolds as series of tense encounters, as Sandra locates each of them to make her case to stay employed. These typically begin with a knock on the door in a working class neighborhood and a puzzled, but polite, welcome by the co-worker himself or a wife or a child. Each of her pleas becomes an affecting drama in its own right. And Cotillard uses these dramatic moments to display her impressive power as an actor.

But what is most remarkable about Two Days is its unelaborated upon backstory. Globalization and its impact on advanced, once worker-oriented economies of Western Europe is the elephant in the room. Sandra's company, faced with stiff competition from a Chinese solar competitor, is fighting for its financial life and is determined to do so on the backs of its employees.

The unsettling premise of the film is that, when faced with obvious manipulation by management designed to extract concessions from employees and sow dissension in their ranks, workers roll over without complaint. No demands are made for sacrifices from M. Dumont, his higher-ups, or, God forbid, the shareholders of the company. Sandra and her co-workers accept these indignities matter of factly and then proceed to fight among themselves over scraps from the master's table.

In another age, Marion Cotillard, certainly more than beautiful enough, would have played a latter-day Marianne, leading the charge of the economically dispossessed to the barricades to turn back corporate greed, or a Belgian Norma Rae, rallying workers to unite in pursuit of their common economic cause. Instead Sandra's struggle, as compelling as it is as portrayed by Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, is directed solely at her inward demons and not at those roaming unchecked in the outside world.

Monday, December 1, 2014

"National Gallery" Documentary - Pictures of an Exhibition

I didn't know quite what to expect when I went to see “National Gallery,” a documentary about the British National Gallery, the other night. I knew that its runtime was three hours and wondered what kind of approach would be able to carry a film about an art museum for that long. Talking heads wouldn’t do. And a conventional BBC-like treatment I thought would come off feeling like an extended art history class.


"National Gallery" does succeed, in spite of its length, and one thing that makes it so successful is allowing the people of the National Gallery - the docents, the experts in art restoration, and museum officials - to tell us about the museum in their own words, while speaking to their usual audiences: grade school classes, museum patrons, and fellow museum bureaucrats assembled around a backroom conference table. When the filmmakers do resort to talking heads, they use the clever device of filming other filmmakers doing interviews with museum staff.


As I watched “National Gallery," I began to see a structure in the way the elements of the documentary were being assembled. The backroom meetings are the dull underpainting for the picture that the director, Frederick Wiseman, paints for his film. Restorers, woodworkers and cabinetmakers, as well as docents and instructors, form other layers of the composition. And a layer of human faces is built up over the course of the film, each face applied like a brushstroke by the camera as it flits back and forth between the pallet of faces in the pictures hanging on the walls and the pallet of the faces in the crowd examining them. All without commentary or narration.


What a fitting approach to a documentary about an art museum, not as a classroom lecture, but as a painting in its own right. “National Gallery” allows us to contemplate the museum, much as we would a work of art.