Dunkirk

I don’t often have the time (or bank account) to see movies in the theater. But I was pretty excited to be able to see an early 70mm screening of Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk. I would definitely see it in 70mm or even IMAX if you can. It’s visually stunning. Even more so, I came away feeling that Dunkirk is deeply resonant and thoughtful in its portrayal of war.

Every film about armed conflict and historical battles is a little different. They allow the director or writer to show off skills of historical accuracy, or tell a story that highlights heroes and national symbolism, or pop the hood on human nature and examine why people engage in violence at all.

Previous war films that I’ve seen have often been characterized by unapologetic gore and death, or the worship of self-sacrifice and patriotism, or a chess-like fixation on tactics and strategy. With Dunkirk, Nolan has done something more minimalist, more existential, more literal. Dunkirk is an up-close, personal account of the emptiness of war and the struggle to simply survive for another day.

(Spoilers Ahead)

By following three sets of characters, in a non-chronological weaving of their respective timelines, Dunkirk creates a feeling of disorientation in the audience like that of a shell-shocked soldier. Through the film’s nonlinear telling, a sense of time and order fades. You rarely know when a bullet, bomb, or torpedo is coming until it’s right on you. And Dunkirk not only shows it–it makes you feel it. It’s a rollercoaster of increasing intensity that is only occasionally alleviated for a fleeting moment. A simple piece of bread and jam after being pulled out of the water represents a brief taste of home, safety, and comfort. Until new bombardments ratchet up the danger and intensity again.

The sounds of the film are turned up to 11 and put you in the heart of the action. Every fly-by makes you want to duck. Every gunshot feels like it’s whizzing past your ear. Every tilting camera angle of a sinking ship nudges you to look for a way to get out and stay afloat. These are not moments for heroics. They’re for instinctual perseverance and leaning on the people around you to overcome the blasts and drowning depths.

Dunkirk is filled out and made even more felt by an excellently experimental Hans Zimmer score. With music as texture and just a few overt themes, Zimmer turns the intensity up and down in sync with the rising danger and brief moments of relief. A nearly constant stopwatch-like ticking conveys that time is always running out, while other instrumentals mimic the noises of fighter planes, ships, and munitions. A foundation of strings, synthesizers, and longing horns churn in the background. The melody of hope that appears late in the story is an intrusion of almost otherworldly warmth that washes over you like rays of purifying sun.

Dunkirk tightly fits it all together to depict the terror and disorientation of war. The primal strive to survive against ocean and machine. And the slight but tangible hope for escape and future comfort.

War is hell, as many have said. But Dunkirk perhaps depicts more of a purgatory–somewhere in-between heaven and hell. The Dunkirk beach is a stand-in for all of us trying to survive on this pale blue dot in a vast, dark universe. The twin forces of humans who’ve lost their humanity (the Nazis are symbolically faceless throughout the film) and an indifferent, wild planet constantly threaten to extinguish life and cause a permanent descent into darkness and meaninglessness.

But there is also the small glimmer of hope of making it out–making it home–if you can persevere. In Nolan’s worldview, it’s the industrious humanity of other people who come to the rescue rather than divine intervention. If we can make it another day together, maybe we will all eventually see the end of our existential desperation, and rest in the comfort of a heavenly home.

The United States Cannot Be The World’s Superhero

There’s a natural urge to want something done when you see injustice. Human beings are wired for community, collaboration, and fairness. If someone or a whole group of people is wronged, we can feel in our gut that there’s a need for the wrong to be made right.

At a time when people around the world are as interconnected as they’ve ever been, with 24/7 media coverage of nearly every corner of the globe, we are constantly made aware of a multitude of conflicts, crimes, dysfunctions, and dehumanizing acts. Famine, war, oppression, poverty, and more.

Once you become aware, you feel the weight of the injustice and the longing for resolution.  

Who’s going to fix this stuff?

For some time now, there has been a widely held assumption that–as the world’s only true superpower–the United States will step in to right such wrongs. If there’s a brutal dictator, the US will remove them from power. If there’s a war, the US will show up with guns blazing to take over for the good guys. If there is famine or poverty, the US will provide essential resources.

That all sounds pretty hopeful and noble. Captain America will be there when things get bad! We all long for a force that can intervene no matter how dire and horrifying things get. That’s the appeal of superheroes. If only it were that simple.

With nearly 200 countries in the world, there’s no way that one of them–however powerful–can show up and rectify every act of injustice in the world. It would require an impossible amount of people, resources, and time. How much thinner can the United States stretch itself than it already has? How do you choose which international injustices get attention and which can be ignored?

Even if the United States or any other superpower could intervene anywhere and everywhere, countries are sovereign spaces. They have their own political systems, beliefs, identities, and goals. The US should not step in as it pleases–no matter how good the intentions. Millions of Americans were outraged at the slightest suggestion of foreign interference in our 2016 presidential election. How do other countries feel when the US barges in and imposes its will in much more drastic and consequential ways?

Frankly, the United States doesn’t have a great track record. There’s a long history of fragile and struggling states because the US intervened without a long-term plan for the prosperity and sustained independence of those places. Without a plan that meets those countries’ ideals and goals and respects their autonomy. More often than not, US intervention creates a vacuum, establishes what’s purely in America’s interests, or leaves things worse than they were before.

As often as possible, justice needs to emerge from within a country rather than heavily influenced by external forces. The United States and others may be able to provide support, guidance, or some resources from the outside. But they should definitely not be the primary actor and influencer within other countries. Too often it leads to destabilization and ruin.

And honestly, we have enough of our own injustices to rectify within the United States. A broken healthcare system. Voter suppression. Widespread unemployment, underemployment, and economic inequality. Various local environmental disasters and a transcendent climate crisis that’s constantly worsening. And much more.

How might things be different if we had used the amount spent on the deadly, failed wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria–something like 3.5 trillion dollars and counting–on the wrongs within the United States?

What effort has gone into establishing more fair and accountable police forces? Toward fair and equal voting? Toward employment and a robust social safety net? Toward a renewable energy system and environmental restoration?

The United States can’t do it all. It often makes injustices in other countries worse. And there are already millions in American neighborhoods who are suffering and forgotten. America needs to learn how to be just in our own communities instead of arrogantly and brashly trying to be the savior of the whole world. If we must lead, let’s lead by example in the way our own country’s wrongs are righted. That would be truly patriotic and powerful.

This Mess

How are you feeling? Are you managing your week OK?

How’s your job? Is it what you like to do? Do you get along with your boss? Do you make enough to pay for the things you need?

Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating well? Are you spending quality time with the people you care about?

Did you watch the first presidential debate? How do you feel about the country’s future?

How do you feel about your future?

These are pretty crazy times we’re living in. The present often seems crazy because of the unpredictability of the near future. Things could go many different ways, and so that leaves a sort of unsettling, up-in-the-air feeling in our gut. Is it going to turn out OK? Am I going to be OK?

By all measures, we’re at one of the most significant crossroads in human history. The most recent climate math tells us that “if we’re serious about preventing catastrophic warming…we can’t dig any new coal mines, drill any new fields, build any more pipelines. Not a single one. We’re done expanding the fossil fuel frontier. Our only hope is a swift, managed decline in the production of all carbon-based energy from the fields we’ve already put in production.” If we want to maintain a hospitable planet, we have to end our failed fossil fuel experiment now.

Beyond our worsening environmental tragedy, the integrity of American society has been stretched thin and perforated with a number of other tragedies. Unlivable wages. Excessive use of force. Invasion of privacy. Expensive, endless, destabilizing warfare. Crumbling infrastructure. Disturbing immigration and profiling practices. And those are just the most obvious.

If you tuned into Monday’s debate to hear what the Republican and Democratic candidates are going to do about all of this you were probably deeply disappointed. Instead of 90 minutes of rigorous, nuanced policy discussion on even one of these tragedies–climate, wages, immigration, or otherwise–the American public was given a front-row seat to two adult human beings–one of whom will be the next president–relive their grade-school days with petty zingers and disdainful deflections.

It is the absolute lowest-hanging fruit to vent about Donald Trump’s vulgarity. A five-year-old could tell you he’s an absurd, self-centered blowhard who should never be president. The endless hot takes saying as much aren’t clever or engaging.

It’s not nearly as obvious to many people that Hillary Clinton is right there with Trump as a historically unfavorable presidential candidate. When given an opportunity to outline a compelling vision for America at the debates, Clinton directed the audience to her website and recently published book Stronger Together, which has struggled to sell more than a few thousand copies. This country is in need of something other than the status quo. Many anticipate she will maintain that status quo, and no one is buying into it–literally or figuratively.

When earlier this year Clinton went back-and-forth with Bernie Sanders in an illuminating centrism-versus-progressivism debate, she now spends most of her campaigning pointing out that she’s not Donald Trump. Is that supposed to be impressive? There are millions of people who would be a better president than Donald Trump. We know he’s prone to things like body-shaming women. We know he’s said climate change is a hoax. We know he has shady business practices.

What does Hillary Clinton have to say to the millions of people working low-wage service jobs with more to pay for than they can afford?

What will she do for young people who think the entire free market economic arrangement is bullshit and are wondering how they’re ever going to find a modicum of success and stability in their decades of adulthood?

If she becomes president, why should anyone trust that she’ll do what needs to be done to restore the climate when she sold fracking–one of the most environmentally destructive practices–to the rest of the world as Secretary of State?

Why should anyone trust she will bring about peace and an end to intervention in other countries when she has an established history of warmongering?

How does her longstanding belief in child deportations make her more fair and empathetic on immigration?

Clinton will probably win–merely on the incredibly weak basis that she isn’t Trump and that he may not even be trying to win. It will be an uninspiring end to an uninspiring election. Either way, we’re faced with terrible choices for our next president.

So what do we do?

Do we throw our arms up and cry? I definitely felt that way after about 20 minutes of this first debate. What a sad situation that these are the two plausible choices we’ve been left with. Disengagement feels like a natural route to take–though not one that can be expected to change anything.

Do we bite the bullet and cast a lukewarm vote for Clinton? After all, haven’t our presidential elections been mostly a lesser-of-two-evils choice for a while now? Clinton-Trump looks like the worst instance of it yet, with Clinton only slightly “less evil” than Trump on aggregate.

Do we look to third parties and cast a vote for a candidate possibly more suitable to the task at hand? Jill Stein and Gary Johnson are getting more attention than third party candidates typically do. Is one of them the least-of-several-evils? However appealing they or other third party candidates may be, the odds are near impossible that one of them will win. At most, they may siphon away a mandate from Clinton or Trump.

Whomever you choose to cast a vote for in November, I think there’s a longer trajectory to be mindful of. Neither of the two major party candidates can be trusted or believed to lead the kind of movement we need to improve the many tragedies we’re confronted with. It’s up to us. If this bewildering presidential election has made anything clear, it’s that we are in desperate need of a revitalized democracy that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. We need a mass movement of everyday Americans banding together and demanding what’s necessary for the common good.

A movement that holds the feet of politicians in office to the fire, and supports down-ballot candidates (senate, house, mayor, etc.) who understand what’s going on and what we need to do.

A movement that insists on fact-based, truth-telling journalism–as opposed to the post-truth, propagandistic media we’ve been stuck with over the last several months and longer. It shouldn’t be as hard as it is now to get down to the actual facts and significance of what’s happening.

A movement that Tweets, blogs, Instagrams, Snaps, and more, about where we’re at and what needs to go differently. Politics is one of the old untouchables with family and friends, but we have to move beyond avoiding mentioning how broken the world is and how we might be able to fix it because it’s not pleasant dinner conversation. We need ideas shared out loud. We need to keep bringing injustice, destruction, and inaction back into the spotlight. We need to have constructive disagreements out in the open so we can actually land on some mutual understanding.

A movement that doesn’t stop at social-media activism, but rather continues on to running for office, joining nonprofits, researching and educating, protesting and working toward reconciliation.

We may be stuck with a saddening mess for the months ahead. Nothing changes overnight. But if we can start building a movement that holds an unfavorable president accountable and steadily starts to shift the political tectonic plates, we may see things begin to heal. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” many have quoted. It only bends if we force it.

I refuse to throw in the towel. Do you? We need you and me and her and him and those guys and that journalist and this social-media-famous young woman and that up-and-coming politician and many, many more, building up a movement that demands a better future. It’s up to all of us to fix this mess.

A Healthy Scrutiny of Authority

I’ve been on a bit of a Noam Chomsky kick lately. (I’m a nerd). First, I came across the recent documentary Requiem for the American Dream, which is essentially an extended Chomsky interview with infographics and historical film clips. It’s quite insightful about the current state of the American economy and the struggles of the middle class. I’ve also been reading through Chomsky’s most recent book, Who Rules the World?an unflinching examination of the notion of American exceptionalism. The thing that sticks with me the most about his overarching perspective and recurring critiques is the need to scrutinize people and institutions with power and authority.

Now, to be clear, I’m not an anarchist or pessimist. If you’ve read through some of the pieces I’ve written for Upgraded Humans thus far, I hope you have the sense I believe that for whatever problems we face there are interesting and plausible solutions worth trying, and that human nature can evolve toward the good and the just. We need many of the structures and habits that exist in society. They just need to be constantly examined and reshaped around what’s good for people.

And one of the things that’s quite good for people is a broadly egalitarian society. We’ve seen over the last few decades–especially in terms of income, wealth, and opportunity–a dramatic and devastating rise in inequality. It’s the root of many of our present ills. The average American has been hurt by the current socio-economic arrangement, while a minority elite has benefitted immensely. They’ve been able to build reputation, power, and wealth. From a self-interested and self-centered standpoint, it probably makes sense to them to maintain the status quo. But immense authority and influence in the hands of a few is not a natural social relationship and not one that usually benefits the rest of humanity.

Which is why it makes sense that no matter what socio-economic arrangement we find ourselves in, or how well or terribly it’s working out for the average person, it’s crucial that the general public constantly examines and critiques people and institutions of authority. To quote Spider-Man (which was quoting earlier and less cool sources): with great power comes great responsibility. Some people and institutions of authority truly have an elevated social consciousness and use their influence and resources for good. A philanthropic billionaire can do some great things to help large numbers of people. News media can bring difficult, hidden truths into the light. A coach can change the life trajectory of a child with a rocky upbringing. Fantastic.

But often, people and institutions of authority shouldn’t have the power they have, or abuse legitimate power and use it for manipulative or destructive ends. With any person or organization in power, we must ask: why do they deserve our attention, faith, or allegiance?

Do they have a lot of experience in the field they have authority in? If so, is it experience worth praising and embracing? Or are there serious questions about motive, expertise, judgment, and ethics?

Have they been consistent, or are they easily swayed and play favorites? Do they seem to be working from a thoughtful, moral center? Are they aware of the profound consequences of their actions?

Too often, we allow people and institutions of authority to carry on without critique. We look up to them with godlike reverence, taking their words and actions as infallible. We fail to consider that as human beings, authority figures–presidents, coaches, corporations, academics, scientists, news networks, judges, CEOs, bankers, and the rest–are always at the whim of our limited, sometimes misguided, sometimes egotistical human nature.

This week, President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima and gave a heartfelt speech about the bombing in 1945, the power of military technology, and the need for moral progress. There was moving rhetoric and symbolic gestures. At the same time, most media barely mentioned–if at all–that the Obama administration has actually moved to upgrade America’s nuclear arms rather than reduce them, and continues to carry out a dubious drone warfare program that has killed hundreds if not thousands of innocent people. The Hiroshima visit is literally historic in the sense that President Obama is the first sitting president to visit since it happened. And some real healing and reflection may have taken place. But actions are always more important than words. Americans need to hold the administration accountable if it truly believes in a “moral revolution” of military technology and diplomacy that will lead to greater peace in the world.

Or take another example. Through the course of this election, Donald Trump has received virtually wall-to-wall free coverage on almost every major media source. Instead of focusing on real policy conversations about what the United States needs right now, more often than not CNN, NBC, The New York Times, and other go-to media sources are filled up with the latest absurdity involving Trump on the campaign trail. Many have remarked about the reality-show nature the rise of Donald Trump has contributed to this election. Those major media outlets are just as responsible as anyone else for that happening. On many occasions throughout the presidential campaign, CNN may as well have been Access Hollywood–unhelpfully distracting the public with segments closer to entertainment gossip than substantive truth-telling. If these go-to sources are failing in their basic journalistic responsibilities, how can the average person be in tune with what’s actually going on in the world and what we need to talk about most?

Or this: without a doubt, coaches can have a profoundly positive influence on others’ lives. But at the same time, coaches are often fanatically turned into revered demigods with little or no accountability. Baylor University is now in recovery precisely because of this complex. While football players raped and beat other students for years, the coach and school president (and apparently the local police, on occasion) looked the other way. With great power comes great responsibility, and coaches have a responsibility to humanity, dignity, and justice–not just to winning.

Does power always corrupt? That’s a big question for another time. Because of our human nature, we all need the balancing effect of thoughtful observation and critique from others–whether we possess real authority ourselves or not.

For now, it seems clear that for every person or institution of authority, every other person needs to ask why they have that power and whether they’re using it responsibly. They should be working toward advancing equality, justice, and the common good. And we should maintain a healthy skepticism about whether they’re actually doing that.