Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 June 2013

The President’s Climate-Survival Speech: An Adult in a Marvel-Comix Culture


[For a recent post on our species’ practical and moral choice between heaven and hell, click here.]

President Obama’s climate-survival speech at Georgetown University Tuesday was notable in two respects. First and foremost was its timing. Why did he wait until five months into his second term to lay down a marker on the single issue that most gravely threatens the future of our entire species?

The answer has more to do with politics than science or sound policy, i.e., more to do with emotional than analytical intelligence. In that respect it was more like dealing with Kim Jong Un than governing a modern society of educated voters.

Ever since Rush Limbaugh declared making him fail official GOP policy—just a few microseconds after his first inauguration—the President has known, deep down, that his ability to govern would be limited. So, except for health-insurance reform, his first term was largely temporizing.

Sure, he tried to persuade, inform, educate and cajole. He tried reason and compromise.

But the opposition wasn’t having any. It had rightly lost the 2008 election after eight years of what may turn out to have been the most disastrous presidency in US history. Already it has given us two decade-long wars with little or nothing to show for them. But it didn’t want to accept the consequences of its catastrophic national leadership, or of its well-deserved loss. It has yet to acknowledge either in any meaningful way.

Children pass through two stages of mental development in which knowledge and acceptance of practical consequences take a back seat to the raw desire of their immature wills. The first is the “terrible twos.” In that phase, toddlers learn they can say “no.” They then exercise that prerogative with all the enthusiasm of their immaturity.

The second is the teenage years, in which individualistic Americans rebel against their parents’ guidance and forsake it, preferring to go their own way regardless of consequences. Later, at some time in their early to mid-twenties, their parents magically get much smarter, and they rejoin the human race’s collective consciousness, mature judgment, and appreciation of consequences.

It’s hard to know whether our Yankee culture has been going through its terrible twos or its teenage years. But it’s crystal clear that our national culture, at least on the GOP side, has been going through some phase in which practical consequences take a distant back seat to pure ideological will and self-love.

Dubya bespoke the credo of this misguided era, quite inadvertently, when he said, “We make our own reality.” Isn’t that what just what two-year-olds and American teenagers try do do?

You don’t even have to study our politics to recognize the pathology of this current phase of our national culture. Just look at our movies—our culture’s most globally famous (and expensive!) expression.

In our early postwar years, our best movies were deep studies of the human dilemma and the consequences of individual human choices. Casablanca probed the timeless themes of love, loss, loyalty, real patriotism, self-sacrifice and (in the end) friendship against the background of the recently concluded great war.

High Noon told of individual risk, courage and self-sacrifice in bringing law and justice to a lawless world, the semi-mythical Old West. But it was even more notable for its technical realism. It depicted the legendary Colt 45 for what it was (and is): a weapon powerful enough not only to make you jump with its mere retort, but strong enough to blow out your guts or brains and knock you off your feet with a single shot.

The apex of postwar film-making was The Defiant Ones. Using the brilliant metaphor of a leg chain, this film explored the practical consequences of dragging people of a different race here in chains as slaves, from halfway around the world, and then (inevitably) having to support their drive for freedom and nurture their descendants’ social evolution into citizens, voters and free workers.

I have already written a whole post on this great film. Here I will write only how hard it is to imagine Barack Obama as President, or the struggle, life and posthumous success of Martin Luther King, Jr., without that film.

Culture matters. It trumps law, easily, every time. It trumps science even more easily. That much the extreme anti-science phase through which or culture is now passing shows brilliantly.

Only culture can save us. Or it can destroy us. That’s why movies matter. And that’s what the great writers, producers, and directors of our golden age of film well understood.

The best of that era were immigrants or sons of immigrants from war-torn Europe. They loved America, which had offered them refuge from a dark fate, including the Holocaust. So they promoted our best values, including a practical understanding of consequences and a willingness to accept them—something that we Yanks used to call “individual responsibility.”

In different ways, the three great films I’ve mentioned were all variations on that theme. They taught, quite self-consciously, what it means (or once meant) to be American.

How different are our movies today! Now money men control their themes, not artists with human consciences. These self-appointed cultural-gurus-for-profit apparently have concluded that money lies in grand spectacle, the modern equivalent of ancient Roman bread and circuses.

And so our grandest spectacles come from Marvel Comics. They have casts of thousands, with endless credits to match. But the named individuals are neither actors nor musicians, let alone writers. They are computer graphics artists. Producers and directors are middle managers whose primary goal is profit. Writers are mere hired hands, who work from comic books intended for prepubescent readers. The moral message, if any, gets lost in the graphics of exploding planets. No one ever asks why.

Yet there is in fact a moral message, albeit subliminal. It is utterly clear, utterly consistent and utterly un-American. Individuals are powerless. You cannot even make a dent in human affairs, let alone rampant evil, unless you are a superhero like Spiderman, Batman or Superman. So why even try?

If you think I exaggerate, consider the pseudo-normal heroes: Jason Bourne, Bruce Willis in his “die hard” series, or the youthful Captain Kirk in the recent hit Out of Darkness. Each of these heroes succeeds by virtue of uncommon (and hugely expensive) training, abnormal ability to withstand the physical consequences of things that would maim or kill most people, and sheer dumb luck.

The subliminal message: don’t try to change things unless you are very special, willing to risk death or serious injury several times a minute, and inordinately lucky. In other words, if you were born an ordinary Yank, accept what you are given and just be thankful you weren’t born in Syria.

I can’t imagine any message—even a subliminal one—more at odds with the America I grew up in during the 50s, 60s and 70s, or the America that our Greatest Generation defended with untold hardship and suffering. Our chief (and most expensive) cultural art form has abandoned moral leadership and is going for the crowd and big bucks, heedless of moral, social and historical consequences.

In so doing, it teaches a lesson of fatalism and passivity that has never been part of American culture, except in the South. Maybe that’s why Southern culture has survived so long after the Civil War’s loss and now has even captured the House.

This moral abdication brings us to the second notable theme of the President’s speech Tuesday: acceptance of consequences in the real world. Although he didn’t use the term, the second part of his speech was all about “climate survival.”

Like every scientist worthy of the name, the President understands that global warming is already baked in. We now have more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere than our planet has seen in three million years. We got to that high level by burning fossil fuels. There is no credible alternative source that genuine science can see.

So we cannot even think of stopping, let alone reversing, global warming. The warming effect of carbon dioxide as a “greenhouse gas” has been known since our Civil War. For all the time since, it had been uncontroversial, until the GOP and coal-industry propagandists started acting like two-year-olds, denying reality and pretending not to understand.

Every hour of every day, all that carbon dioxide in our atmosphere traps more of the sun’s electromagnetic energy as heat. And it takes decades or centuries for plants, the oceans and land to net absorb it, or for cosmic rays or other extreme radiation to break carbon dioxide down. Now all we can think about, realistically, is slowing the rate of acceleration of global warming and preparing for its worst consequences.

And so the last part of the President’s speech was about climate survival. Not climate-change mitigation; we just don’t know how to do that. The subject was climate-change survival: trying to arrange our human society to avoid the worst effects of climate change. We need to build infrastructure defenses against events like Katrina, Sandy, droughts, torrential rainfalls and hail that destroy crops rather than nourishing them, and freak weather events like the dust storms in Eastern Australia, the deep powder snow in Manhattan and the crippling heat wave and smog near Moscow, and now in Singapore.

As I read the President’s speech, my mind went back to a recent personal vignette. Last week, I found myself trying to explain to a close friend’s three-year-old daughter why she had to hold my hand while walking through the huge parking lot at Disney World.

As enormous vans and other cars prowled the parking lot, it wasn’t hard to get her to see how big and powerful they are and how they could easily main or kill her. But she got hung up on the notion of intent, and she started to cry.

Why, she cried, would anyone want to kill a sweet little girl like her? The notion that she (by dancing out into a vehicle lane) and a strange driver (distracted by a cell phone or his own daughter) could do things collectively—totally devoid of malice—that would lead to her injury or death was a conceptual bridge too far, even for a bright and precocious three-year-old.

So I tried, as best I could, to explain that bad things happen without evil intent. If she had been older, I would have described how our bankers didn’t want to destroy the global economy but did so nevertheless.

Unfortunately, negligence and its consequences are hard to explain to law students, let alone three-year-olds. So I was left with a project for future lessons and a talk with her father.

On Tuesday, it touched me deeply to see the President trying to do the same thing for a whole nation of three-year-olds. I admired his choice of words, the simplicity of his speech, and his marshaling all the relevant concepts in terms that folks with a (dimly remembered) junior-high-school education could ken.

But at the same time, I felt a a weird flush of vicarious national self-pity, plus a touch of shame. How could the nation that had invented controlled flight and nuclear weapons, extinguished smallpox and polio, developed the Internet and given it to the world, and put men on the Moon have fallen—in a mere two generations—to the emotional level of the terrible twos?

The President’s climate-survival strategy from here on out is as clear as his speech. He must, and he will, use all the power of his office and its bully pulpit, and all his considerable political skill, to make irreversible changes in national policy before 2015, when the next pathological presidential campaign will begin. And he must bring our nation, however wrenchingly, back from the terrible twos or the testosterone-fueled teens into full adulthood, so that we can lead the world in this, our species’ greatest challenge in history (save only nuclear near-self-extinction).

It would be nice if our movie makers and other constructors of national culture could give him some help and some cover. Myth-making has been big business since ancient Greece and Rome. But even pursuing the almighty dollar hardly precludes making myths that promote adulthood, rather than infantilization.

We need movies (like The Defiant Ones on race) that teach climate survival and accepting personal responsibility for consequences of our actions (including burning fossil fuels) as adults. A comic-book culture of terrible twos or irresponsible teens is not going to lead the world in anything anytime soon, no matter how often we chant “USA! USA! USA!”

The President is in no way responsible for that culture. His own personal character and his consistent political persona have done ceaseless battle with it. But he must work within it and help fix it, if doing so takes a new keynote speech every two weeks for the next four years. “National parent” has not been a traditional part of the presidency’s job description, but that’s what the job now requires.

Footnote: It’s unclear whether this stage of teenage mental development is a universal human phenomenon or a product of our peculiarly individualistic Yankee culture. Our extreme individualism encourages youth to “express themselves” even when they know absolutely nothing—a phenomenon you can observe in great profusion on the comment pages of any online newspaper.

Other, more collective cultures more respectful of adults, like China’s and Japan’s, seem lack this distinct phase of child mental development. At very least, the question is worthy of further research.

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