Sunday, March 25, 2018

The March for Our Lives Had a Subtext

“2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of my favorite films.  From start to finish, it’s brilliant.   Most fans of the movie like to talk about Hal, the demonic computer, or the bizarre scene at the end leading up to the Space Baby.  But for me, what is most notable about Kubrick’s classic is the juxtaposition between the “Dawn of Man” segment at the film’s outset and the next scene, showing a journey to the Moon. 

“The Dawn of Man” revealed our roots in ape society and the value of tools (specifically, the weapon known as a club) in advancing evolution.   Once an ape recognized how valuable a club could be in killing his rivals, he became the ancestor of human beings.   Immediately after making that point, Kubrick whisks us far away in space and time to the future of man as an animal that is no longer earth bound.  Our hero is not an ape with a club but rather a PhD with a cover story.   Dr. Heywood Floyd exemplifies the intelligent, urbane and influential role model that contemporary man aspires to be.  He is tasked, however, with the unenviable job of informing an audience of scientists that what is actually transpiring on the Moon must be kept hidden from the public back on Earth, and that these scientists are expected to support a fictitious story about an epidemic.  In other words, Dr. Floyd, who is serving in the role as a teacher of the best and brightest, is simply peddling bullshit.  But boy does he look good and sound good when he does it.  Then, in the next scene, Dr. Floyd’s sophistication is matched by that of Hal, the supercomputer, only this time, we see the product of 21st century intelligence not merely lie but kill – and do so without an ounce of remorse.

Yesterday’s March for Our Lives in Washington DC wasn’t really about guns any more than Kubrick’s film was really about technology.  First and foremost, “2001: A Space Odyssey” was an essay about the human condition and how little human beings have truly evolved over the millennia.  Our technology has improved in leaps and bounds, Kubrick tells us, but as for our goals and our characters?   We have merely replaced unmasked aggression with sophisticated ways to lie and to destroy.   First and foremost, the March for Our Lives was about political bullshit.  It was about the consequences of living in a society run by politicians who have Hal’s conscience when it comes to death and destruction and Dr. Floyd’s skills when it comes to enunciating cover stories.   The gun laws these politicians defend are not the problem; they are but one of many symptoms.  The Generation Zers who put on yesterday’s program made this point crystal clear to anyone in attendance who cared to listen.

To those who weren’t in attendance, let me set the scene.  The event wasn’t so much a “March” as a “Stand.”  We stood for hours, 800,000 strong, on America’s main street, Pennsylvania Ave.  We all faced the Capitol Building – in fact, we could see nothing ahead of us but masses of people, a “March for Our Lives” sign and the behemoth Capitol.  To our left was a TV screen, but for the hours leading up to the speeches, we didn’t watch that screen; we simply listened to the sound system, which was high quality to say the least.  In fact, people were having a great time even before the speeches because the Generation Zers who put on this show figured out the importance of pumping great music over a great sound system.   I wondered why all the Boomers and Xers who’ve put on marches before couldn’t have come up with that idea.

At 12:08 pm, the March officially started.  The organizers gave us plenty of variety.  We saw songs performed on stage, heard plenty of speeches, and watched a number of pre-produced informational videos.   Pretty much everything was excellent.  No glitches.  I thought for a second we had witnessed a glitch when one of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students got sick on stage, but even she turned it into a triumph, saying “I just threw up on international television and it feels great” before continuing with her poem without missing a beat. 

In terms of the speeches, when we weren’t listening to the MSD students, we heard from African-American or Latino children who come from impoverished communities.  They were pointing out that gun violence has underlying causes, not the least of which is poverty.  Poverty begets gun violence, they taught us, but then again, gun violence also begets poverty.   If we want to stop this cycle, we need to devote resources to our poor communities, which is a point I have rarely heard made by the politicians who have come on TV to confront the MSD massacre.

As for the MSD students, they spoke as adults.  They asked to be taken seriously based on the logic of what they had to say and the emotions that they bring to bear on the gun issue, and not because they possessed some special status by virtue of their personal accomplishments in bringing the movement this far. Nobody on that stage – not the MSD students, nor the kids from Chicago or South-Central LA – wore their gender, race, sexual orientation, or youth as a badge.   We heard their personal stories but in a way that felt inclusive.  If anything was put at the forefront here, it wasn’t race or gender but rather socio-economic class and personal circumstance.   When I compare the way these kids communicated to, say, the Boomers or Xers on MSNBC, I felt that the former were being infinitely more respectful and substantive and infinitely less obnoxious.  They truly took a throng of 800,000 people and turned it into loving family.

So with that as background, let me address the target of the March: politics as usual.  These kids called for a political revolution and, indeed, used that word explicitly.  “Enough,” they said, with politicians who take money from special interests, like the NRA, and then ignore the will of the majority and the dictates of common sense to advance the agenda of those special interests.   (Opposing bans on assault weapons would fall into that category.)  “Enough” with politicians who offer us their “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy but don’t do anything to change the system that created the tragedy.   And “enough” with politicians who resort to doublespeak in order to dodge the fundamental issues that plague our society, whether they involve something specific like assault weapons or something more general like poverty.    It is not a coincidence that there were more allusions yesterday to Marco Rubio than any other politician, including Donald Trump.   Rubio epitomizes the kind of slick, smile-at-my-constituents but vote-with-my-donors politician that this group of Generation Zers was targeting yesterday. 

The MSD crew, the “Survivors” as they are known, have a deep, deep bench.  But they also have a rock star.  Her name is Emma Gonzalez.    Even as she walked to the stage, I could hear some of the girls behind me screaming like it was 1964 and they were about to see Paul and Ringo.  Gonzales proceeded to hit one out of the park by repeating the names of the MSD victims and various things that they would never do again, before standing silent and resolute for 6 minutes and 20 seconds – the same length of time it took the gunman with an AR-15 to shoot so many members of her community.    I knew immediately after she stopped talking that she would be leaving us to our own thoughts for 6 1/3 minutes.  And I made the most of it.  I simply stared at the image above her head, the image of the United States Capitol Building.  A place that has come to be associated above all else with obfuscation, hypocrisy (such as expressions of “thoughts and prayers” without a commitment to action), cynicism, unprincipled ambition, servile self-seeking, cowardice, phoniness, arrogance ....

Emma Gonzalez originally became famous for using the refrain, “We call BS,” in a speech delivered back in February.  Here’s an excerpt:

“The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and our parents to call BS....  Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don't know what we're talking about, that we're too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.

If you really think such “BS” only applies to the way politicians deal with the gun issue, you’ve missed Emma’s point.  She knows damned well that she’s only addressing a symptom, but she also appreciates that in order to start a movement, you must begin by successfully acting at the symptom level. Banning assault weapons and requiring universal background checks are clearly needed reforms.  Only a bought-and-sold politician, or a true gun fanatic, could possibly oppose these measures.  Yet even when Obama had 60 Democratic Senators and a Democratic majority in the House we still couldn’t pass gun reforms.  So, as these kids pointed out many times, this isn’t just a “Red” versus “Blue” problem... the truth is that it’s a cancer in our political environment that’s metastasized.  Call it the cancer of Bullshit.  More specifically, we have become a society controlled by politicians who care most of all about getting elected, know that the path to electoral success is by appealing to special interests at the expense of their constituents, and don’t mind bullshitting whenever their actions are challenged. 

The truth is that Donald Trump was elected precisely because enough Americans who are older than the MSD kids became so alienated by politics as usual that they voted for a reality TV star who talks like the guy at the end of the bar.  Americans of all ages realize that our system is broken.  The questions are: (1) Can we fix it?  and (2) If so, how? 

I don’t have all the answers.  But I’ll tell you this.  We had better listen to those kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas.  Because they are smart, they are charismatic, they are organized, they properly appreciate the cancer, and thankfully, they haven’t been infected with it.  Right now, they and those with whom they associate are my oncologists of choice.  To be sure, when it comes to this fledgling “We Call B.S.” movement, we older folks need a voice, but for now, let’s use our ears more and our mouths less.

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