News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Just finished watching Tears of the Sun, with Bruce Willis. Regretful was the absence of a narrative. Michael Herr's for Apocalypse Now is arguably the best part of the film. This absence was serious, as there was so much empty space otherwise. None of the actors actually said very much at all. I was surprised at how dumb and dimwitted the roles were; as if the screenplay was written by a military caricature: some long-suffering blank cartridge so verbally repressed and socially so inert as to be dysfunctional. Bruce Willis played the tough silent type, the sort of sexy lummox attractive to lazy women looking for an easy mark.

It was a surprisingly illiterate film overall, given the fabulous issues that were being dealt with: US intervention in an overseas civil war, church and NGO interaction with local régimes; tribal loyalties; the gorgeous African scene that was so well described by J. Conrad in Heart of Darkness. And it was odd that at the end of the film, given the prodigies of tear squeezing and emotional foreplay during the rest of it (even sad-sack violins), that the screen goes dark and, behold, a quote from Edmund Burke. Ed remains one of the Archangel's of the US conservative camp and is perhaps most prominent historically for his well-argued opposition to the French Revolution, which he thought bloody, ultimately destructive, and opposed to the public welfare. He wrote at length, and too often snoringly, in favor of productive social change, which meant slow-as-she-goes, prudent consensual change leading to an enhancement of the lifestyles of all.

Although the quote make sense in view of the story's background (civil war and ethnic cleansing), it seems incongruent given that the film espouses various PC values and do-gooder hallucinations: the witless church/NGO intervention plus the emotion-driven countermanding of military regulations and rank-and-file order in favor of doing what seems to be "right" to the common man. In so saying, I mean no sneer at the common male; simply to say that it seems typical of world-savers, soul-snatchers, and professional tear-squeezers everywhere to dodge the underlying imbecility (not to mention insanity) of the worldview of the peoples of the underdeveloped nations. Rather than realize and act upon this, in the film, (mirroring reality in many ways and doing so rather well I thought) people prefer to stick with homely knee-jerk emotions and employ emotional blackmail in their conversations with others when discussing the value of what they do and when reassuring themselves that their feeble, often counterproductive efforts to save others, are not in principle what they are in fact: smoke and mirrors, an expensive waste of time, and primarily devoted to catering to the wish fulfillment of individuals with a keen desire to become important and who would appreciate a leg up and a free lunch while they're at it. By playing the great white host outfitted with a potlatch worth of CARE packages, whether a priest or an NGO volunteer, one is actually the pointy end of a huge logistics pyramid. One is also the representative of a Valhalla of terrifying 19th century warring ghosts. One is backed, in a very real way, by an enormous military power consisting of Westerners, most of whom are, or have been, white. And thus white, roughly speaking, is the color of power in the Third World today (as opposed to yesteryear, when power came in many other colors all over the world).

The NGO's would not be there were it not for the Western military; these volunteers would not be praised as saviors were it not for the economic power of their homelands; their worldview, religions, and personal safety would not be taken seriously were it not for combination of both. And yet, of course, both soul-savers and NGO's prefer to console themselves with the clearly bogus notion that it is their innate goodness, there selflessness which has put them there, front and center, given them centerstage, made them great people, a new generation of apprentice Gandhi's and Martin Luther King's.

Again, the Messiah complex. We all have it, we all fantasize about it, we all want it made real and recognized. But to have the limelight, in this case, requires a lighting crew and theater owners and, most critical of all, investors and bouncers. Volunteers or students hired on the cheap is far, far from enough. And let's not forget the playwright, as most of these goodhearted people don't have enough wherewithal for public speaking off the cuff and not enough chutzpah for leadership. What would those in communication with the divine say if they didn't have a Bible for cribbing notes, for teaching songs, for copping affecting allegories? What would volunteers say if they didn't have catchy slogans and reference manuals passed down from on high from the NGO's PR firm?

The real problem with the film is that the missionaries and NGO people shouldn't be there unless they have something useful to offer the locals. And neither importing their religion (ipso facto bogus) nor their food (most of which is stolen by, or just frankly given outright to, the oppressing regime in bribe/barter) has any hope of curing the ailment that these nations are unfortunately down with good and hard.

Operating from the premise that racism is outmoded and that all people, when taken in groups, come aboard this world with the same fundamental level of intelligence, then the difference between underdeveloped peoples and developed peoples comes down to massive differences in culture, worldviews, habits, taboos, and so forth. (Here, I'm presuming that the reader has already gotten past the Chomsky et al conspiracy theories of elites and other organized gangs of well-connected bozos pulling strings and riding herd. Try to imagine GW Bush, Poppy, BJ Clinton, the snoozing Reagan and his astrologer-consulting wife, and other powerful cream puffs with enough knowledge and wherewithal to control the planet. Bush et al can't be both master bozos and master wire-pullers.)

The setting of the movie was Nigeria, and, most of the difficulties there I believe have been due to a combination of tribal and Muslim/Christian friction. In the film, though it's not made perfectly clear, I presume that since the opposition does not like the Christian crosses that they see, that they are opposed to Christianity. Probably, they are supposed to be Muslim but, given the present opposition to racial profiling etc., in the film the bad guys are just bad. No reason given, though plenty of opportunity, had anyone cared to write it in to the scenario. Fair enough, in a sense, for I've no interest in working up religious chauvinist opposition to Muslims either. However, it is surely no coincidence that the Muslim prohibition upon usury coincides with the overwhelming predisposition for Muslim countries to be languishing in poverty. Just as it is surely no coincidence that medieval Europe's poverty was overthrown by minority Protestant sects ignoring the Catholic church ban on usury. They went out and made a buck instead. In comparison with the old days, it's been mostly happy days ever since.

Without usury, the lending of money, you can't have a modern economy. No banks, no investors, no stock market equals no capital flow, no added value, no wealth beyond the subsistence level. If your country is this strapped, then you can't send children to school. The economy, i.e. the people, can't afford to pay for children to sit in schools. In poor countries, children pay their own way into adulthood for the most part.

If you can't go to school, you can't learn how the world works. And how the world works, in principle, is via a complex body of systems. We learn about these systems when we study math, physics, historical trends, business operations, meteorology, geology, and so on and so forth. If you don't interpret the world in terms of systems, then you interpret it in terms of conspiracy theories. It is one, typically, or the other. You find religious people who also have a working knowledge of science. But you usually find their understanding of science is obfuscated by their unwillingness to attribute too much to science because they feel guilty about taking too much away from God.

The point I'm trying to make is that Nigeria, like Iraq, Indonesia, and the Philippines is majority-populated by people who believe in conspiracy theories. They believe that ghosts and spirits and devils and angels manipulate and control everything. That everything happens for a reason. And that behind every reason is a person, either good or evil. When you see the world in terms of good or evil, and things don't go your way, you blame someone. Blame, blame, blame. This is the antithesis of detachment, understanding, and a sophisticated worldview that is accommodating, tolerant, and mild-mannered.

Until you eradicate blame and mood swings and replace them with detachment and well-adjusted people, the problems of Nigeria and Iraq are not going to go away. Democracy does not function unless people understand systems. Democracy itself requires checks and balances; again, more systems. If a given system doesn't work, you fix it; you don't fix the people (i.e. no reform camps, struggle sessions, or summary executions). If you interpret society in terms of spirits and ghosts -- and only see good guys and bad guys, heros and villains, martyrs and cowards, sorcerors and zombies -- democracy is not going to function. And when democracy does not function, the public's desire for justice is doomed. The military and the police become sectarian as they themselves are simply fellow citizens when push comes to shove. And when this and more happens, democracy is put on the shelf and exchanged for warlordship. Ergo Nigeria. Ergo Iraq. Ergo, a not terribly satisfying film for thinking people. But perhaps a realistic film that captures well the banality and futility of the worldview held by the non-thinking, be they Nigerian, American or European.

Biff Cappuccino

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