"Sharp, quirky, and occasionally nettlesome", Walking the Berkshires is my personal blog, an eclectic weaving of human narrative, natural history, and other personal passions with the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills as both its backdrop and point of departure. I am interested in how land and people, past and present manifest in the broader landscape and social fabric of our communities. The opinions I express here are mine alone. Never had ads, never will.
I had my first dream about President Obama last night. At some point during every presidency of my adult life, I have dreamed about having some casual, one-on-one time with the current president. In each case, whether I agreed with his politics or not, it made the man more human and accessible. I am told that such dreams can be interpreted as anxiety dreams, where my unconscious mind tries to influence powers beyond my control.
I can see that. Obama was certainly non-threatening in last night's dream. I said as much to him as we sat together, telling him I thought he was being very approachable and that I felt we could talk about normal stuff, like the Red Sox. I then mentally kicked myself because he is a White Sox fan, but he just nodded and indicated that we were both wearing the same Fenway colors. (I also noted that the curl of chest hair at his neckline had gone gray but am not going to try and interpret what that means). In any case, I do not at any time recall him speaking to me, just that it felt comfortable in his presence.
I usually keep my personal politics apart from what I write in this blog. Perhaps Obama was on my mind because of the consternation in some vocal quarters regarding his upcoming speech to America's schoolchildren. The message to work hard and stay in school is hardly partisan, but apparently having it come from the President is perceived that way by many who oppose his politics. The AP reports:
"As far as I am concerned, this is not civics education — it gives the appearance of creating a cult of personality," said Oklahoma Republican state Sen. Steve Russell. "This is something you'd expect to see in North Korea or in Saddam Hussein's Iraq."
I'm calling bullshit. It gives the appearance of respecting the office of President and of encouraging students to dedicate themselves to learning and to being good citizens (things that partisan politics on either side lost track of long ago).
Public school is one of the bastions of our democracy. Every single day, my children salute the flag and pledge allegiance, which is an indoctrination in civics and patriotism that few of those crying foul about the President's address find objectionable. I am not concerned in the slightest that my children may have the opportunity to listen to the President speaking directly to them about personal responsibility and developing their full potential. I would not object to that message from any President. I have the opportunity and responsibility as a parent to discuss what they heard and thought when they come home.
President George W. Bush asked America's children to donate a dollar to help the children of Afghanistan as we went to war in October of 2001: a far more overtly political message to our youth. His father gave an address to America's schoolchildren that this transcript shows is exactly in line with what Obama intends to do next Tuesday. A presidential address of this sort is not unprecedented, nor out of line with the respect usually accorded to Chief Executives of our nation since generations of American schoolchildren were taught to venerate Washington. One can only conclude that it is an objection to this President, and what he represents, that is behind the calls to keep children out of school in districts that have elected to show the speech, and the decision by others not to show it at all.
I want my children to appreciate that there are many sides to the issues they will face in life, and particularly that there is more to history than what they are taught in school. I want them to be critical and informed consumers of information. The teachable moment in this case is sadly not about the President's message, but the reaction to it from those unwilling to trust their children to listen to it thoughtfully and discuss with them afterward what they heard. Respect for the office even when you oppose the politics of the officeholder is a traditional value that has been abandoned in American politics. There is nothing liberal or conservative about that dereliction.
The real risk here is that by speaking directly to schoolchildren, President Obama becomes more accessible to them, and with that familiarity perhaps more acceptable as well. Then he may appear in their dreams, and we know what that leads to...
The WWF is one of the world's largest conservation non-profits. It is hardly an environmental extremist group - it works closely with national governments and its President Emeritus is HRH The Duke of Edinburgh - but it is also a complex bureaucracy with a governance structure that includes both "autonomous" offices that can operate independently and a handful of associate offices that cannot. This decentralized policy has allowed the autonomous offices in more than 40 countries to be more responsive to local conditions and adapt their programs to meet conservation challenges on the ground. It also leaves the organization vulnerable to exposure when one of these offices does something ill advised and it explodes on the Internet.
Such appears to have been the case with WWF-Brazil, which late in 2008 contracted with a local agency for a campaign to highlight the threats to human health and welfare of extreme climactic events like the Asian Tsunami. The result was a proposed ad which features the skyline of lower Manhattan in black and white - complete with its lost Twin Towers - and scores of descending aircraft, apparently meant to underscore the equivalent in passenger planes piloted by terrorists of the deaths caused by the Tsunami . The ad was either rejected or pulled after an extremely limited run - it is still early days in this Perfect Storm - but the image made its way to the Internet, as so many things inevitably do today which one thinks are dead and buried, and has gone viral.
This is a nightmare for WWF, and will almost certainly result in a loss of donor revenue, and a more centralized governance structure. The organization is still playing crisis management catch up, as its Website currently contains its 9/1 press release condemning the ad as unauthorized, a position they have been compelled to back away from today according to an article in The Guardian, with a joint statement by WWF-Brazil and the ad agency that :
"It was created and approved in late 2008, mistakenly, and was solely
the result of lack of experience on the part of a few professionals
from both parties involved"
This public relations disaster has many dimensions, but I'd like to focus on a couple in particular. The first is its target audience. The premise of the ad is horribly offensive to the governments, donors, and policy makers of the developed world, and especially the United States which consumes 25% of the Earth's resources and which the developing world hopes will help subsidize the costs of reducing their own carbon emissions. You can be sure that no US based ad campaign by the WWF would have blundered so badly.
In Brazil, though, and in much of the developing world, the impacts of a warmer climate are likely to be severe and there is resentment that so many resources have been put into the response to the terror attacks of 9/11 while comparatively little progress is made on reducing the death toll from things like preventable diseases in their countries. In this context, 3,000 deaths from a single event in the United States are contrasted with 2 million annual deaths of children from malaria. Rather than environmental extremism, the ad is a reflection of that mentality. There is nothing about the ad, however, that appeals to those of us in the developed world to shift our priorities and perhaps even accept changes in our lifestyle to increase resources to the developing world to reduce the impacts of natural disasters, let alone offset the cost of adapting their economies to reduce emissions.
The premise that the Asian Tsunami was a harbinger of more extreme climate events in the future is controversial. While a preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the overall climate is warming, the degree to which this is due to human activity is less certain than the link between species extinction and the activities of our own species. Had the WWF put the emphasis on habitat destruction and biodiversity, they would have been on much stronger ground. And all the marketing research of the major environmental organizations tells us that this would be a failed message, because biodiversity conservation is not compelling enough for human beings to open their wallets or change their behavior. It has to matter to us directly, we are told, so we have put people back into the equation when we pitch saving the environment. The next time you open a copy of The Nature Conservancy's magazine, take a closer look at the number of conserved places it illustrates by integrating people into the image.
Climate change messaging is therefore all about the survival of our species: about saving the natural systems that sustain life on Earth, certainly, but most especially our own lives and those of our children and grandchildren. A world without polar bears may compel some of us to act on their behalf, but a world where climate change is now a threat to our national security is another kind of argument for another constituency altogether. That constituency universally recoils at this type of ad.
Climate change is a highly complex issue. The policy implications and environmental consequences of our action or inaction are both vast and laden with uncertainty. An ad is by its very nature a distillation of complexity into something simple and memorable. The most memorable thing about this misbegotten ad is that WWF was associated with it, for there is the iconic Panda logo in the upper right hand corner. As WWF and the ad agency now admit, "it should never have been made", but what lies behind its making and what it means going forward will require the organization and environmentalists as a whole to take a hard look at how we work and communicate effectively.
Traditional values in many American families include devotion to a benevolent and mystical Trinity. I mean of course, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. We encourage our children to have faith in unfair trade practices, endorsing the exchange of a plate of stale cookies, inexpertly dyed eggs or a bit of bloody enamel for disproportionate material gains. Those heretics that dare to question how that Jolly Old Elf manages to cover the entire world - chimneys or not - in a single night from his secret base in the warming Arctic are willing to suspend their disbelief in the face of mountains of loot.
With all false gods, though, there comes that time in every child's life of First Disillusionment, when the scales fall from their eyes, adults are fallible, and they must learn the vital life lesson that you can't trust everything you hear from those in authority. My own parents decided when I was of tender years that they would no longer be complicit in the cult of the Dread One in the Red Suit who knows if you've been bad or good, but like all good fundamentalists I insisted that they were wrong and Santa Claus was as real as the rising sun.
If you are going to deny all the evidence of modern science and put your faith in magical beings, then beware the Tooth Fairy, for she is fickle and prone to nodding off before you do and neglecting to stash a windfall of cash beneath your pillow. Santa and Peter Cottontail pile on the sugar plums and gum drops when we have not yet reached the age of reason, but the Tooth Fairy waits until we are six, already well acculturated by our peers in school, and master of such exceptional achievements as the rudiments of reading, counting by tens, and riding without training wheels. We may have seen elder siblings triumphantly gap toothed and clutching the ever inflationary rewards of their biological achievement, and so we block out any nagging doubts about who it might be who actually stuffs the stockings while we wait for our seat at the tooth exchange.
Elias is six, and has a loose tooth. Already I sense him wavering about St. Nick, although like the second child he is, he wants to be sure before he proclaims his disbelief. It has never bothered him that the Easter Bunny hides the very eggs he made, but that house of cards is also ready to topple, because this is the year - just as he starts to cash in on his toothless status - when the Tooth Fairy will slip up and reveal all.
It happened that way for his sister Emily three years ago when she was in first grade. It may have been her third or fourth tooth - the first had fallen out in the car and only a tear stained letter to the tooth fairy had accomplished the traditional exchange. In our house the task of tooth fairy falls to the night owl, rather than she who retires with her books and is out like a light by 10:00. There was great wailing and lamentation the next morning, when the bloody tooth was still beneath the pillow and NOTHING ELSE. My daughter was inconsolable thanks to that inconstant pixie, so I was forced to peel back a layer of the onion and declare;
"I'm the Tooth Fairy"
And so, it quickly followed, I am also the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus. Emily was quick to catch on that far from crashing disillusion, this in no way meant a halt to the seasonal swag. It also was her initiation into the Grand Secret, for her brother still believed. And believes to this day, but he has no younger sibling to smile at knowingly when he learns the Truth. He may only have a passing acquaintance with the tooth fairy before he sees through those gossamer wings. I suspect he will take it in stride, for there is still the same effect even if he needs a new hypothesis for the cause. It will probably affect his parents more, our dissembling exposed, the secret out, and another milestone of childhood passing before our middle aged eyes.
The tooth fairy will remember to set her alarm clock this time.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that since the Gulf War, the Viet Nam war movie has been in a state of arrested development.
Forrest Gump and Dead Presidents were the decade's most notable
offerings in the 1990's, and I do not mean to imply that a film had to be highbrow or
highly political to be notable. Forrest Gump's importance is not what it has to say about history but as an early, high profile use of digital manipulation of historic film footage. Dead Presidents is just classic Blacksploitation revisited. Not a Deerhunter or Full Metal Jacket among them,nor yet a Rambo.
Since 9/11, the genre continues to be impoverished. Gibson's movie, filmed in 2001, is a continuation of the redemptive, heroic depiction of the service and sacrifice of American soldiers in Viet Nam - and their families at home - that arose in American society in the late 1980s and continues to this day. The Quiet American is based on a novel from an earlier era and is more notable for the Oscar nominated performance of Michael Caine than what the story itself has to say about American involvement in Southeast Asia. The rest are throwbacks of varying quality, but do nothing to carry the conversation about how we interpret the events of the fast receding past and that heavily value laden conflict.
Mainstream American films - aside for those that go direct to video - quite naturally tend to track with the tastes of contemporary American audiences. American films about Viet Nam will indicate how contemporary politics and society grapple with the memory of what amounts to a period of national trauma. A gung ho film like John Wayne's Green Berets gives way to the nihilism of Apocalypse Now, the morality play of Platoon, the revenge fantasy of Rambo. Depictions of the Viet Nam veteran progress from hero to outcast to perpetrator to victim and back to hero, and that is where we are left as a new generation of veterans emerges from a new series of conflicts.
Maybe there is nothing new for Hollywood to say about Viet Nam because we have come full circle, or perhaps we are stalled by contemporary events. Maybe when the first President Bush declared during the Gulf War that we have put Viet Nam behind us, it foreshadowed the second''s declaration of "mission accomplished". And maybe in another ten years, the memory of our current wars will inform how Hollywood revisits Viet Nam.
Either that, or we will get another pulpy Quentin Tarantino gorefest along the lines of Inglorious Bastards.