How to believe in S*c*i*e*n*t*o*l*o*g*y

“As an ex-s*c*i*e*n*t*o*l*o*g*i*s*t, I am frequently accused of stupidity for being so gullible. I’m not gullible at all ordinarily, so how come I fell prey to the cult? How did I reconcile the more ‘way-out’ aspects of s*c*i*e*n*t*o*l*o*g*y with the normal world around me?

There was nothing inconsistent to reconcile. It really did all make perfect sense at the time… Here are some ways this can be achieved by a cult…” (Operation Clambake)

Armageddon It

I saw War of the Worlds tonight, opening night, and it is visually arresting, relentless and brutal. This Village Voice review by Michael Atkinson has a couple of interesting takes on the film. The iconography of 9-11 and the collapse of the World Trade Center is certainly exploited in the film’s depiction of mass catastrophe, and the reviewer is right to caution those with first-hand traumatization from ground zero to see it at their peril. But it doesn’t seem so much political allegory as attempted exploitation of our experience. The trouble with attempting to burrow deep into our post-9-11 psyches to tap into our visceral traumatization is, I suspect, that many people are just not that caught up any more in the trauma of 9-11, for at least two reasons to which Spielberg is not oblivious to judge from allusions in the film. The trauma of the terrorist attacks has been detoxified partly by our numbing (more of that below) but more profoundly by the caricature of fear the buffoons running the country have produced with their ludicrous War on Terror® ever since. As they flee the initial alien attack in Bayonne where the film opens, Spielberg has the daughter figure plead with her father, Tom Cruise, to tell her if it is “the terrorists” they are running from. Spielberg throws that in our faces not once but several times to be sure we get how laughable and pitiful it is that that has become our kneejerk standard in threat assessment. If he is attempting to exploit our deepest fears, he is doing it not without irony.

The film not only traumatizes nonstop but, collapsed onto one character, the daughter, we have a decent cinematographic portrait of traumatization per se, both the psychic numbing and the hyperreactivity that come from being exposed to something beyond the pale of what humans are meant to endure. Her father has a sense of what she is going through too. Again, not once but several times during the film, he shields her eyes and firmly instructs her not to look at what they are passing through. Shouldn’t this be seen at least partly as an allusion to American obliviousness to where the real threats are coming from in our world?

The funny thing about the daughter’s traumatization is that she is not shown rising above it at all; she gets more and more numb, passive and nondynamic as the film proceeds, to the point where it seems she barely has any lines in the last third. But, then again, H.G.Wells’ story wasn’t about transcendence or the indomitable human spirit either. [Spoiler ahead, stop here if you don’t already know the story.] The virtually undefeatable invaders are done in by earthly microbial infection of course, not human valor, in what has seemed to me ever since I read the novel in my childhood (no, I wasn’t around for Orson Welles’ famous Mercury Theater radio broadcast!) to be an unsatisfying deus ex machina despite Wells’ epilogue (done very nicely in the film by Morgan Freeman’s voiceover) about it saying something about humans’ exerting their will — and their right — to survive. (Independence Day has already been there, done that, and, as you know, it is much more of a two-hour-long cliché.) Perhaps this is another ironic twist by Spielberg as by Wells: it will be a miracle if we persevere despite our stupidity and arrogance.

What Cruise shields his daughter’s eyes from, at least as much as the mass carnage the invaders wreak, is the rampant human cruelty and inhumanity which erupts with the breakdown of social order and mass panic. This more mundane inhumanity which erupts after a ‘terrorist’ attack can be seen, of course, as a commmentary on our post-9-11 existence as well, although we are left to believe that, just as on the family level the daughter is sinply reunited with her mother in the climactic scene (or, should I say, anticlimactic?), everything is now going to return to the prior status quo on the societal level after the aliens’ demise. Everything except Cruise, of course, who goes from a caricature of a deadbeat father to find cheap and somewhat inexplicable redemption. I’m sure it is written into his contracts that this must be the case with any role he takes.

Which brings me to the Voice reviewer’s more curious contention, in his last paragraph.

“Wells’s Martians-arriving-in-meteors paradigm is subtly altered, so that now the genocidal ETs are delivered by lightning bolts into the dormant ships buried underground for eons — kind of like the time frame for s*c*i*e*n*t*o*l*o*g*y’s alien occupation backstory. Could Tom be thinking he’s finally produced a D*i*a*n*e*t*i*c cinema?”

Certainly, the rise of the long-dormant threat is a new twist Spielberg has introduced and a departure from Wells’ story line. I don’t know enough about s*c*i*e*n*t*o*l*o*g*y to comment on any similarities with its “alien occupation backstory” but it is Spielberg’s film, not “Tom Cruise’s War of the World”, despite the frequency with which it seems to be referred to that way in the media. Although Spielberg has apparently been quite tolerant of Cruise’s proselytizing while they promote this movie, I am not convinced that, no adherent of s*c*i*e*n*t*o*l*o*g*y himself, he would plausibly give away artistic control of the worldview his film expresses no matter how big a star he has in tow. Could you see this as an allusion to the ‘sleeper cells’ al Qaeda supposedly planted here eons ago, instead? And of course Spielberg’s friend George Lucas did just release that anti-Bush film, Revenge of the Sith.

But…was I thinking about any of the above as I sat in the movie theater? No, I was riveted and scared witless with, except for one glaring continuity glitch, my disbelief totally suspended.

R.I.P. Chet Helms

Father of San Francisco’s Summer of Love, 62: “Chet Helms, known as the father of the Summer of Love and the rock promoter who brought Janis Joplin to San Francisco, died here on Saturday. He was 62. The cause was complications of a stroke, his family said.

Mr. Helms was the founder and manager of Big Brother and the Holding Company, with Joplin as its legendary lead singer. He helped stage free concerts and Human Be-ins at Golden Gate Park, which became the backdrop for the Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967. He was the first producer of psychedelic light-show concerts at the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom and was instrumental in helping to develop bands delivering the San Francisco sound.

‘Without Chet, there would be no Grateful Dead, no Big Brother and the Holding Company, no Jefferson Airplane, no Country Joe and the Fish, no Quicksilver Messenger Service,’ said Barry Melton, the lead guitarist for Country Joe and the Fish. ‘He wasn’t just a promoter; he was a supporter of music and art. He supported people emotionally, psychologically and psychically. He made the scene what it was.'”

Could GM and Microsoft End Up in Chinese Hands?

More on the reactions stimulated by the news, to which I blinked below, that a Chinese oil concern is going after Unocal. And recall that IBM sold its PC division to a Chinese buyer and that China’s largest apppliance manufacturer is going after Maytag. The columnist explains China’s lust for American brand names not just as blind reverence for American capitalism, of course, but as an efficient means of boosting global sales and distribution capabilities in a rapidly expanding economy and, especially, gaining entry points into the U.S. market. Pressuring the Chinese to let its currency rise will only make that easier. Trade barriers erected by the West to address the growing trade imbalance may further encourage Chinese firms to do an end-around and invest directly in the West. (Bloomberg)

Is our reaction to the threat of Chinese takeovers based on a security concern or plain old American jingoism and xenophobia, shades of the ’80’s fears that the US was being bought up by Japan? Contrast the nonplussed reaction that T.R. Reid, writing about the ‘United States of Europe’, has been getting on the talk show circuit when he runs down the extent of European corporate ownership of familiar American brands; he means to dramatize the hidden economic contention of the EU, not raise the hue and cry about a covert hostile takeover. My guess is that, similarly, most Americans wouldn’t notice any difference after a Chinese takeover of one of their trusty brand names, and after all, globalization is equally an issue whether the CEOs are Asians or Caucasians. The author does observe however, that “…(i)t would be a mistake for U.S. politicians to fall into the same kind of xenophobia they exhibited with Japan,” but his reasoning is that struggling American firms might be rejuvenated by a Chinese partner. He concludes that America should get ready for the arrival of Corporate China. But Corporate America remains by far the greater threat to our security and freedom, IMHO.

Senate Gives Feds Power to Approve LNG Terminal Sites

“The Senate voted on Wednesday to give federal regulators authority over the location of liquefied natural gas terminals, despite objections from governors that states should be have an equal say in deciding where such projects are built.

Republican and Democratic officials from city halls to Capitol Hill have expressed concern that the terminals could become targets of terrorist attacks or pose other safety risks, and they have sought a role in siting them. But President Bush has pushed to put Washington in charge of deciding where terminals are built, saying that a lengthy approval process could delay the building of facilities critical to providing the natural gas needed to fuel the nation’s economy.

On Wednesday, a majority of the Senate agreed with him. The lawmakers voted 52-45 against adding a provision to the energy legislation that would have given governors the authority to veto or impose conditions on the terminals. As a result, the Senate bill — like energy legislation approved by the House — would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the final word on where terminals are built, virtually ensuring that the provision will be included in any final bill that emerges from Congress.

The action came as the Senate headed toward approval of a sweeping overhaul of national energy policy, a Bush priority that has gained momentum as energy prices have surged.” (LA Times)