Your Ticket Out of Here

snowpiercerThe middle class is stagnating. 2015 was the first year when the middle-class didn’t make up the largest economic demographic in America. It was a big part of the campaign for both sides, with Trump wanting to “bring back the jobs” and Bernie Sanders advocating for a minimum wage of $15. It is more and more difficult to climb that ladder and more and more expensive to buy a piece of the American Dream.

Snowpiercer, the movie, is about a train in a post-apocalyptic ice-world. The passengers’ stations in life are designated by their ticket. There is no advancement. There is no moving between train cars.

Mason, the frigid mouthpiece for Conductor says: “In the beginning, order was proscribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you… Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail.”

One of the biggest ideas in America is the ability to move up in the class system. It’s not Jacobian Europe, where someone has to be born into the middle class. And yet, it’s obviously not a perfect system either. Money buys good schools and good schools mean more money. Those without the advantage of a private school or a very good public school have to work a little harder. That’s the basic essence of privilege, a term I’m sure we’re all familiar with. This doesn’t mean that life is easy for those who go to a good public school or private school, because life is always hard. But it’s a way to acknowledge that certain chances are statistically more likely to happen to those of a certain income bracket. They can afford intangible things like gap years or second chances. Not necessarily an easy ride, but a ride with safety nets and airbags.

Snowpiercer is more than a story about class, it’s about class mobility. The protagonists have to literally fight their way to the front of the train, dying off one by one until only one man remains to meet the conductor. It’s not even as if the people closer to the engine of the train believed the people towards the back deserved to suffer and starve. They simply believe those in the back of the train are freeloaders, and are lucky to get what they have. They eat bug-jelly made in vats that the “middle-carriage” people supply the poor. The “last carriage” people live by the grace of others. Resources are scarce. The train can only support so many people.

In the end, the protagonist who reaches the end of the train manages to destroy it. He judges that society doesn’t deserve to perpetuate itself if others must suffer under such circumstances. Talking to other people who had watched the movie, some were confused and angry. The characters were presumably the last people on Earth, so surely such suffering was necessary? Though the fact that the system needed to be destroyed and be rebuilt I imagine the writers and director intended this as a metaphor

I think this is a very absolute view of a very nuanced problem. It’s not a simple matter of “haves” and “haves-nots,” it’s also a matter of “wants” and “shoulds” and “needs.” The fact that the middle class is stagnating is a very disturbing problem, but it’s one we need to approach with a flexible mindset. The story of Snowpiercer is, after all, pure fiction.

The Infinite Appetite

post-header

A study by Alan Berinsky in the British Journal of Political Science says that repeating a rumor, even a confirmed false one, only increases its power. This was especially prevalent in an election that saw “fake news” actually enter the mainstream conversation. No longer is this just a thing that hardcore journalists worry about. The president writes it in all caps on his Twitter.

Kids don’t want to read cold, objective journalism anymore. In the study conducted by Regina Marchi, teenagers want more personalized, “authentic” journalism. We are told to brand ourselves, as journalists and creators. We have to compete against cute kitty-cats and THE WORLDS BEST BACKFLIP for clicks. That’s something I’m sure Edward R. Murrow hadn’t been prepared for.

Aldous Huxley’s science fiction classic Brave New World talks about a society in which the government will not have to censor the public, because the public won’t care. It does not feel so deeply as to hurt itself, it is not moved so deeply as to change, it is not angered so deeply as to know that something is wrong. People have accepted the lives they are given because they are good lives. Well, good enough. “And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts.”

If someone doesn’t want to listen to a news organization who called the demagogue an honest man, they don’t have to. Turn the channel. Close the browser. Hit that handy little block button. Better yet, move on to the next website, who calls the demagogue a tyrant. The academics call this “self-selection bias.”

Our reach is incredible. Our voices can be heard almost everywhere. Edward R. Murrow said, “The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.”

And there have been attempts to safeguard against it. There have been news networks that have tried and tried to steer the conversation towards something resembling clarity again, whether by annotating speeches or going so far as to give “Pants On Fire” awards.
However, there is another quote that I think is a nice reflection against Murrow. It’s from Brave New World as well, and summarizes why all these safeguards and all this effort seems to just fly over the heads of those who need to hear it most. “In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

 

huxley-orwell_stuart-mcmillen
by Stuart McMillan

It was All a Dream

post-header

The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Far Beyond the Stars” tells the story of a struggling black science fiction writer (Avery Brooks, who usually plays the captain of the titular space station). He sells stories to a local magazine with the caveat that his characters are always white. They have to be, in order to sell. Breaking his usual form, “Benny” (usually “Ben” on his space station) writes a story about a future in which a black man is in charge of a space station. This is, incidentally, is his actual “future” in the sense that he is actually writing the story of Deep Space Nine. However, the magazine won’t publish it because his main character occupies a position of power and isn’t white. Eventually the magazine changes the story to have been the day-dream of a shoe-shine boy, “Dreaming of a better life.”

“But this will gut the story,” another writer from the magazine says in protest.

“I think it makes it more poignant,” offers another.

“Benny, what do you think?” the editor asks. Benny assents to the change in the story.

The story is literally ripped off the presses, and the owner of the magazine fires Benny.

The episode ends with Captain Sisko, the one we’re used to- not Benny, waking up. The Prophets (long story) have been playing with his “neural transmitters” again and have been sending him visions this entire time. It was all just a dream.star trek ds9 sisko far beyond the stars benny russellstar trek ds9 sisko far beyond the stars benny russell

Most people dislike the “it was all a dream” ending. There are good reasons for that dislike. It does delegitimize the entire experience the viewer just watched and it probably does take away from the meaningfulness of the story. However, I think in this case it offers up an interesting point of conversation. Does making Benny’s struggles into a dream invalidate the lessons we learned?

During the episode, I found myself thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM activists have often been criticized not for their goal of addressing police brutality but about their particular brand of protest. They are often associated with the less-than-peaceful  demonstrations that rocked the cities of Boston, Charlotte, and the town of Ferguson. Critics say their protests grow too violent; their goals are too nebulous. Of course, this stems largely from the fact that BLM is a very large, segmented movement. There is no one “leader” and there is no one “set of rules.”

I’ve always felt there’s been this underling message of, “Go back to capital hill and make your difference there, like those before you did.” However, BLM activists maintain that this only just worked for their forefathers. They say the system is still broken.

Danielle Fuentes Morgan writes on Al Jazeera, “They are physical proof that respectability politics are invalid and that the system was never built with black people in mind.”

Coincidentally, a character named Jimmy from “Far Beyond the Stars” argues the same thing. He’s shot by police ten minutes later in the episode.

Benny protests his circumstances by writing a story about a strong black character. Other black characters in the episode try to dissuade him from doing so, arguing that white people will never publish a story about a black man. Instead, Benny’s girlfriend is trying to buy a diner and become a business owner.  One of their friends is a major baseball player in the city. The unspoken mentality is, If we can keep our heads down and just take what they’ll give us one step at a time, we’ll get there eventually. The only opposing voice is Jimmy, who is portrayed as suspect and a thief. Jimmy’s character stands for the, They won’t give it over until we take it from them mentality, most like BLM. And we know how he ends up.

So which is the most effective way to make a difference in the world? Is it not a matter of attitude, but a matter of technique? The civil rights activists of the 1960s were considered revolutionary for merely sitting in a public place marked ‘Whites Only’. The BLM movement is decidedly less passive. I think few would say their cause is a useless one, but they are endlessly associated with the more negative effects of their protests. Does the pushback actually harm their cause, or does BLM need to be loud and proud to make a difference?

“Far Beyond the Stars” poses the question of valid protest through the trope of It Was All a Dream. Captain Ben Sisko takes his lessons learned in his visions seriously, but the audience is left to decide for themselves. Did the episode have a point if there are no actual consequences from story, because it was all a dream? But how far can we go to make a point, before the lessons learned become too preachy, or the methods used to get there too extreme?

Is it even possible to have protest that makes a difference when there are no consequences from a protest? Could sit-ins even work today in the 24-hour news-cycle that is our societal consciousness? That is, do we learning anything from “Far Beyond the Stars,” even though it was all a dream? I think it’s possible to. I also think it’s possible to disagree. I personally believe it’s impossible to have one uniform set of rules for protest throughout all of time. What worked for fictional aliens probably wouldn’t work for us.

Threats Both Foreign and Domestic

post-header

District 9 re-imagines the classic alien invasion as a refugee story. It’s a powerful movie, directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture. District 9 tells the story of a government worker who is accidentally transformed slowly into the aliens he’s supposed to monitor. The aliens have landed after ostensibly fleeing from their own home-world. After a brief celebration it quickly becomes clear that all those other movies skipped over the part where the aliens need resources and documentation. They are, after all, refugees, and who wants to deal with some few thousand of those?

I am constantly reminded of Disctrict 9 in today’s migrant politics. And it is its own breed of politics. From those who brave the Mediterranean to those who cross mountains at night, safe soil might as well be galaxies away and yet they go. On the weekend of January 30th the president passed a law that immediately prohibited those of certain countries and immigrant statuses (which was quickly recalibrated by the Defense Department) from coming back into the States. The #muslimban quickly went viral. His administration has also assured the public that the infamous “border wall” is really happening, and it looks as though the American taxpayers will foot the bill.

The point is not to discuss the various injustices, but about what this says to the people on the other side of the wall.

District 9 ends with Christopher, an alien, stealing away the mothership and leaving. Because it is a “found footage” movie, talking heads analyze the situation before the credits roll. People are frightened now. The aliens haven’t been treated well, but now that one of them has left and ostensibly gone back to alert the rest of the aliens, who’s to say he won’t come back with an actual invasion in a few years? The aliens have been persecuted and now, for the first time since they’ve landed, they have the capability of revenge.

The biggest idea behind the #muslimban and the wall is that our country is ostensibly under attack from migrants, and it must be protected from them. As the online edition of the New York Times said that weekend, “Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, said Mr. Trump simply did what he had promised on the campaign trail and would not gamble with American lives.”

They must be contained, for the safety of both our peoples and theirs. A few but prominent conservative politicians would even argue that their core values come into direct opposition with Western values, the same way aliens are portrayed in District 9. They are too strange, and dangerous to anything that stands in their way, so it’s best to have the authorities make the big decisions and keep everyone as safe as possible.

The aliens in the movie are criticized for their drain on the South African economy and their use of resources without giving anything back. It’s not discussed whether integration in the government committees assigned to the aliens or in the workforce have ever been tried. I don’t think that’s the point Neill Blomkamp was trying to make.

The unwillingness of humans to change is what created this mess in the first place. No one wants these aliens, no one wants their drain on resources, no one wants them endangering their families. However, because they are kept separate there is a lot of suffering going on. And that backfires.

History has taught us time and time again that screwing over an entire peoples just because you have the power to will eventually come back around. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths who came to the Roman countryside as refugees and were starved and turned into slaves.

That doesn’t make it right, of course. This isn’t a game of “getting even.” But it does introduce the danger of someone stealing away a mothership, and coming back to us with an armada. Is that a risk we can take?