Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Al Gore's Medium is His Message
Some have said that Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, is just what it appears to be - an urgent wake-up call to the world about the dangers of global warming by the man who "used to be the next president of the United States," as Gore himself ruefully puts it. Others have wondered whether it isn't a highly unusual opening salvo in what would be a very interesting addition to the 2008 presidential campaign. But when I saw the film the other day, I came out of the theater (into a global-warming inspired deluge) convinced that An Inconvenient Truth was a stunning, subtle, and perhaps intentional argument for the necessity of reinvigorating American democracy.
The film isn't, after all, "merely" about human-caused global warming and its terrifying potential to transform the world in ways that could mean the end of civilization as we almost knew it. It's also about the man American voters elected to run the world's most powerful nation in the year 2000 who then never became our 43rd president.
This combination of message and messenger is what makes the film such a powerful commentary on the American moral condition.
As Gore pointed out in the film, we used to live rather lightly on the earth. Puny human governments and their forms, however despotic and evil our leaders, however repressive their regimes, however vast the suffering of people living under them at the time, didn't much matter to our planet's well-being. Mother Earth would go on as before.
Now that has changed. As Gore cutely pointed out in his presentation, our "shovels" are now motorized and several stories high and can shear the top off of mountains in no time at all. So now the decisions made by those who control those "shovels" and the other tools of our wonderful and terrible technology can not only make the human lives they rule over horrific or honorable. They can also chart a course to planetary destruction or ensure our world's well-being for future generations.
Of course, we've had this awesome power since the Manhattan Project unleashed its unholy invention on the world. The bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though, in the very intensity of their previously unimagined and unimaginable destruction seared into our collective imagination the price of wielding that power. And we've managed to choose not to do so again for sixty years.
But global warming is not so dramatic. With his animated version of the inundation of Bangladesh, the Netherlands, large parts of China, Manhattan and* Florida, Gore convincingly demonstrates that global warming too brings with it Mutually Assured Destruction. This time though, there is no balance of Cold War powers, missiles armed and pointed, to keep those who lust for power in check. In the Warm War, America alone gets to decide the fate of the Earth for everyone.
If only the neocons who started the Iraq war to demonstrate American worldwide hegemony had gone to Al's slide show instead, we could have saved ourselves so much terribly wasted blood and treasure.
We already have the power to control the future of everywhere on Earth.
For we are the single biggest cause of global warming and our choices alone could bring global warming under control or send the whole world spiraling toward radical climate change.
The inescapable conclusion is that the only thing that stands between us and self-inflicted world-wide destruction is politics, and not anyone else's but ours, America's. It is we who must act for the good of the globe as citizens of Earth, empowered by our greatest gift to our planet, American democracy. We must save the world by deciding to choose a different path. And we must do so soon and together or it will never work.
It is following the logic to this place that makes the messenger so poignant, and so ironic, for he is the very emblem of our imperiled democracy.
We once had a system, however imperfect, as Al also pointed out in his slide show, which allowed us to do great and noble things - forge a Constitution to live by that inspired the world, end slavery, allow citizenship for women, go to the moon and back, start a movement and pass effective legislation to save the environment. American democracy, whatever its flaws, was a living, breathing thing that reminded us that we were all in this together and that we must forge our future as one people.
That all unraveled in the 36 days following the 2000 presidential election when the will of the people was undermined, first by Republican shenanigans, then by our Supreme Court. Now no less a person than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Bobby's son, John's nephew- remember them?) has published a meticulously researched article frighteningly entitled, "Was the 2004 Election Stolen?" Kennedy's exhaustive review of all available evidence is convincing.
It turned out to be a remarkably fragile thing, this democracy upon which now the whole world's future may well depend. American democracy, after all, is just an idea, one that hinges on citizen participation and respect for our institutions, especially by those who would lead us, to make it work. It's clear with a man in the White House who has little regard for democratic practice and continues to dispute the worldwide scientific consensus on the reality and impact of global warming that America will not act to save the world unless we first act to save American democracy.
But in this new millennium we the people don't seem to play much of a role in what our government does or doesn't do in our name. The American people have become "inactionary" -- a term sociologist C.W. Mills coined during the McCarthy era, another time in our history when domestic repression mingled with international fear.
"Political will," Al said optimistically at the end of his film, "is a renewable resource." But political will is dependent on having feelings of efficacy. And we've become so anxious, afraid and complacent in the years since we failed to make him President Gore. It wasn't just 9-11 that did us in. It was bearing witness to the undermining of our political process by those who lusted for power more than they respected our precious if imperfect political system.
If we're to save the world this time - not from fascism as we did in World War II but from our own excesses - we have got to find our political will again. We must start by making sure our votes count and that we elect the visionary leaders we need at this time of climate crisis. We must act together as a nation in the interest of the Earth and its people to confront the passivity and the gluttony that got us here.
It's an inconvenient truth.