Attack of the Platitudes

08.26.2002 | FILM

It has been a few years since the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious death sentence, against the Indian author Salman Rushdie, for the crime of defiling Islam in his book The Satanic Verses. The death threat, which sent Rushdie into a hiding from which he has yet to emerge, also catapulted he and his novel into tremendous fame. Everyone was aware of The Satanic Verses--far more than they were of his earlier and arguably more masterful Midnight's Children--and at the height of its notoriety The Satanic Verses was probably the second most well-known book in the United States, just behind the Bible. And like the Bible, almost everyone who knew of it was hard-pressed to explain it, largely because even though many people knew of it very few bothered to read it. A number of people wrongly, although not unreasonably, assumed Rushdie's book was about Satanism. And for those brave souls who bought the gigantic book and cracked it open, the rewards were probably few. The Satanic Verses is a long, exceedingly complicated and often infuriating work, whose payoff does not come until its final twenty pages--at which point, admittedly, one is left staggered by both Rushdie's gifts as a writer and the galloping verve of his imagination. Reaching this point, however, requires more than a little patience, and until its crescendo the novel seems like the literary equivalent of a busy airport, with countless stories heading off in a multitude of directions, and little to tie them together.

The result of having a public controversy over an impenetrable novel was that most people who staked a position on the Satanic Verses controversy did so without knowing much about it. In this case, there was little harm in doing so: the book was complex but the problem was not. No civilization can tolerate a government death sentence against a writer for the simple act of writing, and any religion that needs to kill its renegade interpreters represents the worst, not the best, in organized faith.  Still, among its partisans, the Satanic Verses argument could only run so deep: not understanding the book kept everything superficial, and it was the controversy, more than the novel, that drove the discussions.

All this came to mind after I watched Another World Is Possible, a new documentary from Bullfrog Films that bills itself as an examination of the worldwide movement against "corporate globalization." Globalization, it can safely be said, has reached Satanic Verses status. It is railed against (or ballyhooed) almost reflexively, and credited with all manner of evils and goods, many of which it has no bearing on at all. It has been called the weapon that will end poverty and the weapon that will make it worse. It is rarely called anything in between. This is not a problem that concerns the makers of Another World is Possible. Exploring globalization is not important; nor, for that matter, is explaining it. Opposing it is. Why read the book when you can just jump in the fight?

The documentary's backdrop is the World Social Forum, a summit of activists and intellectuals that was held this past March in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in response to New York's World Economic Forum. The World Economic Forum is a favorite target of anti-globalization activists, who regard it, partly correctly, as an unremitting apologist for the current rules of global capitalism, and a kindred spirit to such troublesome institutions as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. I say "partly correctly" because among the WEF's delegates are some of the IMF's harshest critics, including Jeffrey Sachs and Dani Rodrik of Harvard University, as well as Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who resigned last year as the World Bank's chief economist and now barnstorms the planet deriding the IMF as a cadre of fools.

Still, the WEF is on the whole guilty of doing a little too much self-congratulation, and a little too little thinking about those whom globalization has left behind. So there is certainly a place for the Porto Alegre conference, and it is certainly shameful--as Another World notes--that the U.S. media devoted virtually no attention to it. Fifty-one thousand people convened on Porto Alegre, including a host of internationally-known figures (among them Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu), so it seems that some network, somewhere, might have mustered the will to send a camera down and see what was up. Alas, it was not to be. Tunnel vision has no easy cure.

The danger with expeditions like Porto Alegre is that they end up mimicking, albeit on the other side of the looking glass, the very institutions they despise. The WEF may get criticized as a stultifying confab of backslapping homogeneity (Lewis Lapham's The Agony of Mammon skewers it well), but there is little assurance that Porto Alegre will not simply become its left-wing little brother, a slightly more radical episode of "what we talk about when we talk amongst ourselves." The anti-globalization movement is no stranger to this phenomenon. It has been characterized to this point by massive demonstrations, and such shows of force necessarily sacrifice nuance in the name of vigor. After a time they become heat without light, and by keeping everything simplistic they can create as many problems as they solve. I was not at Porto Alegre, and that is, in the end, why I was intrigued by this video. The World Social Forum was a large gathering, but it was not a demonstration. It promised to move beyond the crowd rhetoric, and Another World is Possible offered to make the case for it, for its value and continued existence.

The verdict is not pretty. Either Porto Alegre was useless or its organizers should sue the filmmakers for slander. I suspect the case is the latter, but the tragedy is that I may never know. Most of the people interviewed seem to have not the foggiest idea of what they are talking about, and those who one suspects do know what they are talking about (Vandana Shiva, for example) are reduced to worthless soundbites. If the World Economic Forum can be bagged on for being a pile of neoliberal bromides, then this film can take it on the chin as a collection of disjointed feel-good platitudes. The video is marketed as "inspiring," but it is hard to discern which side of the ideological divide will draw more inspiration from it. I watched it and felt depressed.  Were I the director of the Cato Institute, however, I might hand out copies of Another World is Possible to everyone I met, to show them the fools they would be cavorting with should they decide to oppose free trade.

If all of this sounds unduly harsh, allow me to walk the reader through it. From the beginning, we are told that Porto Alegre was called in opposition to "corporate globalization," but no one, for the entirety of the film, bothers to define that term. This may seem an idle complaint, but the documentary attacks so many disparate targets (the racial makeup of the US armed forces, the fate of indigenous peoples in Guatemala, and the genetic modification of foods) that without some unifying theme it becomes difficult to follow along. There was a time when globalization was defined as trade liberalization, and in particular the rapid expansion of international exchange that has taken place since 1970. Now, after a good deal of beating with the cudgel of overuse, it seems to signify any act of greed that transcends a national boundary. It's hard to take that on in one documentary.

Matters aren't helped much when we switch away from what everyone is against and start to hear what everyone is for. In the opening minutes we meet a woman who says she is in Porto Alegre to "get together with other people who want to change the world." This is followed by a man who is there to create "an economy based on solidarity," and both these are topped by a third man, who inexplicably states that his purpose in Brazil is to support the Palestinians.

It goes downhill from here. We see plenty of people decrying greed, and an American delegate says it's "cool" that people in Brazil still talk about being socialist.  Another American, this one a young woman, discusses being embarrassed to tell people she is from the US, and later is shown saying, with quite a bit of determination, that marches and protests "should be fun." Then a Brazilian man states that prior to September 11, he never knew America had any "people of conscience."  I found this statement curious--what, precisely, did this man think had happened in Seattle?--but also quite reassuring. It was good to know that we in the States have no monopoly on the ignorant stereotyping of foreigners. But one could only take solace in his comments for a moment, before being flabbergasted by another Brazilian, who professed his happiness over 9/11, "not because all those people died, but because it was a blow against American economic and political policies."

Here I began to wonder if the filmmakers worked for the Cato Institute. Granted, American foreign policy shares some blame for the events of September 11, owing largely to our reckless support of fanaticism whenever its interests run parallel to ours. But there is a world of difference between sorting out the bombing's causes and ascribing a noble purpose to what was essentially a brazen act of mass murder. Yes, Al Quaeda and the Taliban were opposed to US policies. But they were opposed to almost everything, so that hardly seems to be to their credit. The Taliban were a religious version of the Khmer Rouge, bent on rewinding society to the year zero, and bent as well on stomping out art, feminism, individuality and intellectual life. Does anyone really think that a change in trade policies would have prevented 9/11? Or that life under the Taliban would be preferable to life under the IMF? Is the enemy of my enemy always my friend? And if not, why make such a stupid statement? More to the point, why videotape it? Must this be the Left's public face?

Conspicuously absent from this conversation, given the nationality of those running it, was any mention of Brazil's economic and political policies. I will be the first to admit that the international financial markets have not treated Brazil well, and that the IMF's reforms for the country have been snake oil posing as medicine. So there is some justification for its enmity toward America. But Brazil is the most unequal nation on earth--less than five percent of its people control over 70 percent of its arable land, and less than ten percent of its people control over half of its wealth. This hideous discrepancy is not the fault of the United States. Brazil is not El Salvador or Guatemala, not a tiny country that has lived with the jackboot of American militarism on its neck. It is a country larger than the contiguous United States, one blessed with an abundance of natural resources, and one whose reprehensible land policies have been a perpetual albatross on its economy. Not everything is globalization, and not everything is America. Every investor on earth could leave Brazil and its elite would still live in plantations the size of Belgium, while its poor flocked to the favellas of Sao Paolo and Rio. Capitalism may be bad, but feudalism is worse. In Brazil, there is blame enough to go around.

As the documentary drags on (because, yes, it is quite tedious) the viewer also begins to wonder how it differs all that much from the corporate mass media it tells us to detest. Naomi Klein is shown saying that she has no use for the World Economic Forum because she's sick of "meetings where everyone agrees and then nothing happens," but nary a word of disagreement is heard throughout this documentary. Corporations are bad. The United States is bad. And globalization is bad, even if we only get dark hints as to why. Problems are mentioned, ranging from the privatization of water to the pillaging of natural resources, but rarely explained.

Sometimes the video is just flat-out misleading. Consider, for instance, a scene where an official from Food First discusses biotechnology. As he talks about damage done by "chemical agriculture," a number of activists dressed as monarch butterflies sway back and forth in front of him. The substance Bt, he says, often kills insects.

The scene is laden heavily with innuendo, and anyone watching it surely understands that Bad Things are happening. But at no point does anyone explain what Bt is. The inference to be drawn, of course, is that it is a chemical pesticide that kills butterflies. Unfortunately, it isn't. Bt is Bacillus thuringines, an entirely natural substance, found in most soil, which happens to be lethal to a number of pests. Indeed, it is this combination of traits--its natural occurrence and its bug-killing properties--that makes it a favorite tool of organic farmers. The controversy over Bt began when the Monsanto Corporation borrowed its gene, copyrighted it, and began building it into crops, including corn.  The copyrighting is without question troublesome, but it also not what the video deals with. The video suggests that Bt kills butterflies, and the evidence to support that statement is sadly ambivalent. A preliminary study conducted in a Cornell laboratory and published as a note (not a refereed article) in the journal Nature indicated that Bt could kill Monarchs, but a much larger series of field studies found the chances of this actually happening to be quite low. The controversy continues--more research is being cranked out daily, it seems--but even those concerned about Bt's affect on the Monarch acknowledge that the insect faces far graver threats, such as habitat degradation from commercial logging and urban development along its migratory flyways.

Does this mean that there are no problems with Bt corn, and that we all should support it? Of course not. Even if Bt does nothing to Monarchs, the idea of a corporation claiming it as intellectual property is deeply unsettling. And this is to say nothing of the risk of biological pollution. Because it is not an industrial chemical, Bt is a precious agricultural resource; it allows organic farmers to battle pests in an environmentally safe way. It can only do this, however, so long as insects lack resistance to it, which is why organicists tend to use it sparingly. By building Bt into every crop it manufactures, Monsanto undermines its potency, and hastens the day when pests develop immunity to it. The evolution of such insects would not only jeopardize countless crops, but also rob us of one of the few legitimately safe tools we have to protect farmland.

That, I think most readers would agree, is a rather alarming prospect. Yet we get none of it in Another World is Possible. What we get instead is a plea to emotion--a tug at the heartstrings in the form of pretty butterflies. It is hard to shake the idea that this was done simply because it is easier. And before anyone accuses me of being Monsanto's lapdog, let me offer the assurance that I find most of Monsanto's public statements Orwellian and corrupted, and much of its work in the Third World unforgivable. But this does not mean everything it does is wrong. The fact that Monsanto is willing to risk biological pollution does not mean it is killing butterflies, and if we insist otherwise and get proven wrong, then what have we accomplished? We will have strolled again into the propellers, seen our credibility ground to bits for want of willingness to do our homework. Certainly there is some satisfaction that accompanies any lusty indictment of corporate America, and in countless instances corporate America more than deserves it. But the case, again, is for means as well as ends. We cannot be forgiven for presenting a monochromatic view of the world, for it is precisely that view, that sort of black-white dichotomy, which we should be fighting against.

And herein we find the tragedy of Another World is Possible: it is activism as self-parody--confronting the foolish idea that everything globalization does is good with the equally insipid notion that everything it does is bad. Sadly, its tone is not unique. At its best, liberalism questions opposition as well as power, and refuses to empty any issues of their complexity. Yet now we see Michael Moore and his ridiculously one-sided books carrying the flag for the loyal Left, and Oliver Stone being applauded in Manhattan when he predicts that the anti-globalization movement will soon join the "revolt" of September 11. The hypocrisy here is astonishing; can we not hold ourselves to the same standard we hold our President? If terrorism cannot be explained away as "evildoers who hate America because they hate freedom," then poverty, avarice and militarism can probably not be piled under the now-meaningless rubric of "globalization." The fact that our opponents resort to such simplicity is no excuse for us to do the same. Our job is to transcend the failings of our adversaries. When both sides run from complexity, the problems fester at midfield and tend to get worse.

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