Saturday, May 22, 2010

Putting the 'Man' in Disaster Management

Recently, a new HBO series called Treme begun broadcasting in the US. From the creators of the epic political police show The Wire, Treme explores the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, showing the New Orleans locals struggle not only to re-establish their lives economically, but also to reinvigorate the city's world famous music scene. As such, the show moves beyond the analysis of failed institutions that comprised most of the content of The Wire, to the question of how to restore a cultural identity damaged by the same winds and water that flooded thousands of homes and businesses. While fans of The Wire will find familiar the rants of John Goodman's lecturer/novelist about the failings of FEMA and other disaster management agencies, Treme offers a more intimate spiritual journey to its audience. It is not aiming to merely garner sympathy for the victims of a natural disaster, indeed, an early episode includes a scene of a street musician laying into some young Christian whitebread do-gooders for their condescension and lack of realism. The intent appears to be to show the power of human resolve even in the face of the awesome power of nature, and horrific institutional incompetence.

By contrast, last year's epic disaster movie 2012 was a by-the-numbers film seeking to capitalise on a huge, and growing, alt-culture obsession with Mayan calendars and predictions of an apocalypse on December 21st, 2012. Director Roland Emmerich, who brought up the spectacular Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, alongside the less impressive Godzilla, took well over two hours to tell an extremely hackneyed and unoriginal story. The disaster scenario itself is relatively original - a huge solar flare heats up the earth's core, causes the crust to destabilise and ultimately displace. This causes huge landslides, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and, once the crust displacement stops, massive tidal waves a bit like when you move too quickly in the bath and a load of water slops over the end. This is all portrayed through exceptional CGI, including a wonderful 9/11-inspired shot where a plane carrying our protagonists flies in between two collapsing buildings.

However, the creativity ends there. The story itself has been almost entirely lifted from previous movies - a man somewhat estranged from his wife/family - see Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day or Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow - leads a small group of survivors against the odds and ultimately rescues them from ever-impending doom. This basic story goes back millenia, at least as far as the Jewish exodus from Egypt (the probable reference point given the pre-eminence of Jewish writers and directors in Hollywood) and before that when nomadic civilisations travelled and travailed the earth's surface. As a story structure it isn't bad, but in the disaster movie genre it is a staple to the point of being hackneyed and tedious.

However, it is the movie's sexist and racist subtext which is most telling, in terms of what this highly unrealistic film tells us about how humans truly respond to crises. John Cusack plays the protagonist, the estranged husband and father whose former wife has married a plastic surgeon who is usefully and utterly predictably killed off so as to enable the reunification of the family unit by the movie's end. Anyone with half a brain, or who has seen prior Emmerich films or others in the genre, sees this resolution coming at least an hour before it happens. The family themselves are a pissy, whining, patronising mess. Beyond occasionally screaming 'mommy' or 'daddy' the children do absolutely nothing, and aside from a couple of feeder lines to allow Cusack to deliver punchlines used in the trailer, the wife does much the same. Throughout the film the wife and kids are treated as a composite unit, a thing that needs to be rescued because it is so incapable of self-determination. This is the classic 'women and children first' mentality - save the weakest because they cannot save themselves.  This is particularly evident in all of the vehicle sequences. The protagonists initially escape a huge earthquake, which destroys California and sees it break up and fall into the Pacific ocean, by Cusack driving them to an airport in the limousine he uses for work. The sequence involves a dozen near-misses, a tactic repeated so often that by the end it fails to have any dramatic impact because you know the clean white middle class picket fence family will survive. In particular, one moment sees Cusack drive the limo through a collapsing building and out the other side. The implication is that his macho bravado at confronting the unknown (he can have no idea if the building will last long enough for the car to get through it) is rewarded, that it is brave men who do the saving of incapable women and children. After the family get to the airport, they acquire a small plane, and then later a larger plane with a few more passengers including a moderately entertaining Russian billionaire apparently based on oligarch Alisher Usmanov, part owner of Arsenal football club and a close friend of Vladimir Putin. In every section where the plane is in flight, the men are up front doing the piloting while the women and kids hide in the back/belly of the plane as they continue to contribute nothing to the rescue attempt. At one moment, where the pilots discover that Hawaii (where they intended to refuel) is on fire and seemingly sinking into the ocean, the men are called up to the cockpit and the women and children left downstairs with Russian oligarch's collection of automobiles, again implying the family is merely an object in need of being rescued rather than a group of autonomous humans.  

This prejudice extends beyond the principal group of characters. Among the geologists and other officials who predict and attempt to manage the crisis there is not a single female of any note. They are exclusively male, barking orders and engaging in egotistical battles over authority and jurisdiction. Just in case the implicit message (that only men are useful and capable) wasn't clear enough, the opening scene offers one more slap in the face to anyone seeking to question the established order of disaster management. We see the chief geologist visiting India and meeting up with another geologist who has discovered dramatically increasing temperatures under the earth's surface. Our principle initially says hello to the Indian geologist's wife, who informs him that she has (in her dutiful, subservient role as female) made 'that fish curry you love'. Once she is out of the way, the Indian geologist returns her to 'her place' saying 'her fish curry is still awful'. Even the one moment where a woman contributes something, albeit in her domesticated role as food-preparer, she is derogated and sidelined. Even the newsreaders who appear sporadically are all male, ensuring all authoritative voices are those of men. Every woman is a supplemental character to a male - the president's daughter, the protagonist's wife and so on. One has to wonder at the personal background of the screenwriter, Harald Kloser, that he is so aggressively against any sign that women actually have something to offer the world.

The bias also extends to racism. Though there is the occasional black or Chinese face in the film, it is almost exclusively a tale of global crisis affecting white people. While the president and the chief geologist are played by black men (the sight of Danny 'I'm getting too old for this shit' Glover as the president is an amusing highlight), they are both suave, clean, articulate black men, obviously inspired to some extent by Barack Obama. They are the acceptable face of black men, in that they are bourgeois whites in everything but the colour of their skin. Similarly, the Indian geologist who discovers the phenomena in the first place is killed in a giant tsunami after playing a very minor role, and the Chinese are portrayed almost exclusively as labourers. The governmental plan for surviving the disaster is to build gigantic ships - essentially ferries - in the Himalayas, so that they can ride out the tsunamis. Though financed by selling tickets to the Russian billionaire and the like, the construction is done by the Chinese. When the American party arrives in the Himalayas to begin boarding the ships, there is a wide shot showing several ships side by side, and the US crisis manager mutters 'leave it to the Chinese'. The implication is that the autocratic, collectivist Chinese state is actually something to be praised, due to it being useful to the world's elite. Only passing reference is made to the right of the workers who produced the ships to a ticket on board them.  

Almost completely ignored is Latin America, alluded to through images of Christ the Redeemer crumbling and falling down, and the whole Arab world. The former is a particularly gross oversight, given that the whole story is based on the predictions of Mayan Indians, the 'aboriginal' population of the Southern American continent. Without the Mayan 'long count' calendar there would be no 2012 subculture, and therefore no movie. Despite this, Roland Emmerich saw fit to only make a fleeting reference to the inspiration for his work, through a news story playing on John Cusack's TV about a group of (white) 2012 obsessives committing suicide at an ancient Mayan site in a South American jungle. The treatment of Arabs is even more laughable. Though Mecca appears in the movie's trailer, Arabs are only referred to in a disparaging way. One of the billionaires who is sold a ticket is an apparent oil sheikh, who aside from buying a ticket only appears elsewhere in the film towards the end when the black geologist is expressing his disgust at the selections of passengers for the 'arks'. Putting that clearly in an anti-Arab context, the Russian oligarch is shown as a hero, sacrificing his life to save those of his sons, as he falls to his death ensuring they get on board just in time. That screenwriter Harald Kloser and director Roland Emmerich maintain this racist bias was admitted by Emmerich in an interview. He discussed why the film shows the destruction of other religious sites, including Christ the Redeemer and the Sistine Chapel, but does not show any damage to the Kaaba (commonly known as 'the big square thing in Mecca'). He said:
Well, I wanted to do that, I have to admit," Emmerich says.
But my co-writer Harald said I will not have a fatwa on my head because of a
movie. And he was right. ... We have to all ... in the Western world ... think
about this. You can actually ... let ... Christian symbols fall apart, but if
you would do this with [an] Arab symbol, you would have ... a fatwa, and that
sounds a little bit like what the state of this world is. So it's just something
which I kind of didn't [think] was [an] important element, anyway, in the film,
so I kind of left it out. -
This logic has been criticised by some as cowing to Islam, but a semiotic study of the movie itself suggests the opposite. Rather than being intimidated by Muslims, Kloser and Emmerich show a clear racism towards Muslim and Arab peoples, assuming that the CGI destruction of the Kaaba would result in a fatwa. Nowhere is there any indication that they sought out the opinion of Muslim leaders to see how they would respond to the on-screen destruction of the Kaaba, they simply assumed that a fatwa would be the response. In the context of a movie which portrays everyone but white ruling class males (along with the occasional non-white useful pawn) as useless, this editorial decision, and the conversation Emmerich reports having with Kloser, is clearly motivated by racism rather than a rational or sincere fear of Islam or Muslims.

As a result, the movie is at base one huge sexist, racist, macho, technocratic narrative, leaving no pejorative stereotype unused, no blind prejudiced stone unturned. Even the English member of the scientific investigation and advice team speaks in that accent that only exists in the minds of Hollywood directors, because I assure you no one in England actually talks like that. Characters are invariably killed off as their dramatic purpose comes to an end, and the survivors are only those who conform to the precepts and biases of the writer and director. Despite this, the Daily Star provided the 2012 movie DVD release with the ideal reviewer tagline, calling it 'the best disaster movie ever'. Thought the paper has a female editor, it is owned by superrich pornographer Richard Desmond, so perhaps praising a remarkably misanthropic film is to be expected. The Daily Mirror, a tabloid newspaper supposedly aimed at a left-leaning readership, reviewed the movie very positively. Completely betraying the standards they like to claim they stand for (the 2003 anti-Iraq War march in London was partly sponsored by the paper), they gave 2012 a glowing review, bizarrely even praising the abysmal script.

Ironically, though Emmerich also told SciFiWire that he is 'against organized religion' he chose major story elements - the apocalypse, using 'arks' to save people and animals from a flood, focusing on a small group battling against the odds, an everyman prophet (played by Woody Harrelson) - that are more than familiar to readers of the Bible. In particular, the flood/ark narrative dominates the entire second half of the film. In the alternate ending, a cruise ship carrying the chief geologist's father is found perched on top of a rocky outcrop in the sea. This is reminiscent of a common story in conspiracy/alt history folklore - that the remains of Noah's Ark can be found on Mt Ararat in Turkey, near the border with Iraq. Though this has been common knowledge among those who care to look (see, for example, this thread from 2004), British tabloid The Sun reported on the story as a new one as recently as last month. As ever, the fringe is years ahead of the mainstream.

More significant that Emmerich's personal hypocrisy, or Kloser's sexism and racism, is the philosophy underpinning the whole story portrayed in 2012, which is also the philosophy of real life disaster management. In the film, those that survive do so due to making it to a dam on the Chinese side of the Himalayas that contains the arks. It is a parable of technology as our saviour, rather than the resilience of the human spirit as in the grand narrative of Treme, or Robocop as discussed earlier on this blog. But this is not just a technocratic philosophy, as the semiotic prejudices of 2012 demonstrate, it is above all a masculine ideology. That is not to say it is a male ideology, though it is one that conforms to the roles men have historically dominated far more that women.

Particularly instructive on this front is the work of French-Algerian philosopher Helene Cixous, who followed on from Lyotard's critique of grand narratives and Derrida/Lacan's critiques of language. In Deconstruction: A Reader, a collection of essays on poststructuralist theory covering many topics, editor Martin McQuillan wrote about Cixous' attack on the binary opposition of masculine/feminine. In his introduction, 'five strategies for deconstruction', he outlined Cixous' analysis of how a great many values are placed into such oppositions, typically privileging the male over the female, and the masculine over the feminine. The entire section on Cixous is worth reading, so is reproduced here.

What Cixous' essay Sorties ultimately showed is that the masculine prejudice of the monetary/labour economy examined in detail by feminists, postcolonialists and people who don't fit an '-ist' description are continued in the economy of spoken and written language. Expanding on Derrida's assertion that speech is privileged over writing, Cixous developed a theory where the masculine (and hence the Western, the rational, the cultural, the scientific) is historically privileged over the feminine (and hence the Eastern, the irrational, the natural, the mystical).

This is an evolution of what Derrida dubbed 'the metaphysics of presence', the linguistic tradition of privileging speech over language due to spoken meaning allegedly being 'present' at the moment of expression, an aspect absent from written meaning. What Derrida demonstrated, in his typically convoluted and obscure way, is that all language involves a deferral of meaning, most simply that the words used (in speech or writing) are necessarily distinct from other words. One would have to know the meaning of the words not being used in order to be certain of the meaning of the words that are being used, and hence meaning is deferred onto words that are not part of the sentence being spoken or written. Rather than meaning being simply present or absent, a common binary opposition in Western philosophy, meaning is suspended, neither entirely present nor entirely absent, like a ghost or spectre. This is the reason why Derrida uses spectral metaphors in so much of his work, including in the title of perhaps his most politically themed work Spectres of Marx.

As Derrida deconstructed the binary opposition of meaning being present/absent, Cixous expanded this to the binary oppositions of masculine/feminine, rational/irrational and so on. Her work showed not only how such values are bound into binary oppositions with one privileged term and one subservient term, but that each opposition is supported by many others. Hence, man is Western, rational, scientific, ordered, in control and woman is Eastern, emotional, mystical, chaotic and needs to be controlled. A further opposition - convex/concave is of particular relevance to the issue of how humans manage catastrophe. The masculine is convex - protruding, penetrative, a 'presence' in the world. The feminine is concave - receeding, enveloping, an 'absence' from the world. Though these words most obvious describe the difference between male and female genitals (the shaft vs. the crevice, crudely put) it is also a question of roles within the world.

The masculine answer to a problem is to create something anew, typically a technology or feat of engineering. In 2012, the answer to the global crisis is gigantic boats designed to preserve human life, ironically acting like protective wombs for those lucky, or white and male, enough to make it to the Himalayas. Likewise, when faced with a security issue in a specific country the stock response is a military invasion (the contemporary euphemism being 'intervention'). Space in the world is defined by the masculine by building stuff on it, ownership is declared by planting a flag. The feminine response is subversion and adaptation, seeking to alter conceptions of the problem, to dissolve the intellectual limitations on how we see the issue so that there is the possibility of an unexpected solution rearing its head. Space is defined by the feminine by clearing it of obstruction in the hope that something new presents itself in time to deal with whatever the problem is. The former is a rational process, beginning with standard premises and with the explicit aim and assumption of working to a solution. The latter is an irrational process, beginning without premises to avoid the limitations they inevitably present, and hoping that removal of limitations will allow human ingenuity to come up with something that would otherwise appear counter-intuitive.  

In 2012, women (and likewise all non-Western races, ideas, cultures, traditions, contributions) are sidelined in favour of an entirely masculine, technocratic solution that willingly trades billions of people's lives for the security of the elite few. Rather than try to adapt to the crisis, they seek to rise above it and prove man's superiority over nature. In reality, this approach and pursuit often fails, as seen in the Iraq and Afghan wars, and the response to Hurricane Katrina. One moment in the coverage of the rescue efforts after the recent Haiti earthquake was particularly telling. A seven year old boy named Kiki was dug out of the rubble after being trapped for nearly eight days. The image of Kiki, arms outstretched, was broadcast around the world as a triumphant message that the US-led rescue efforts were succeeding, and portraying the aggressive giant rogue state as a benevolent patriarch. However, the video tells another story.

With the cameras already in place, Kiki was presented to the world by US firefighters. Though his mother stood nearby, the firemen cheered as they pulled the child away from her and handed him over to his father. Once again, the woman was sidelined in favour of the man. Once the boy had been placed in the arms of his father, one of the fireman can be seen explicitly directing the father to face the onlooking international media, so as to ensure that the PR value of the rescue was capitalised on fully. Only then was the boy handed over to medical officials to check him for injuries and other damage caused by his ordeal. This footage from Sky News shows the fuller picture.

The implication of this is that the firemen, far from being the brave, noble, beneficent rescue service solely concerned with other people's welfare that they were portrayed as being, were in fact primarily concerned with the public image, with reinforcing the US's international image. They appear to have waited for the media cameras to show up before completing the rescue operation, or at least to have ensured media presence for the moment when Kiki was actually removed from the rubble. They largely ignored his mother, and made sure of the friendly image of a father lifting his boy aloft before he was given medical treatment. Largely ignored by the trumpeting Western media is that while Kiki and his sister were rescued, three of their siblings died in the aftermath of the quake, and the family now lives in destitution in a shanty town on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. While Kiki's story has been widely presented as an example of the success of the masculine rescue efforts of the US-led services in Haiti, the reality is that the same failings that meant Haiti's infrastructure could not withstand the earthquake remain, and affect ever more people in one of the world's poorest countries.

A further example of this masculine logic was on display in the recent British General Election. While the result was a hung parliament, and ultimately a tenuous Conservative-Liberal coalition, the most notable feature of the voting results was the concern with race, nationality and immigration. The parties that gained the most votes compared to the last election were largely right-wing nationalists - the BNP, UKIP, the 'English Democrats' and the Conservative Party. With immigration being blamed for everything from economic problems (they take our jobs) to security issues (every immigrant is a potential suicide bomber), a racist obsession with immigration by the country's most popular newspapers just about achieved the desired result of a Tory government. With the government running a huge deficit, the Conservatives and nationalists promised to 'get tough' on the problem, exhibiting the same confrontational, domineering, masculine philosophy of 2012, FEMA and the rest. Only a matter of days before the election took place, one event in particular lent yet more weight to the narrative that demanded that 'someone do something' about the problems. On May 1st a car bomb was found and defused in Times Square, New York. The following day it was widely reported that another bomb had been found in Pittsburgh 'in a microwave, near a half marathon'. As far as terrorism goes, this is pretty surreal. However, like so many of these stories, it turned out to be nothing of the sort. After the microwave was largely destroyed in a controlled explosion by bomb disposal officers, it became abundantly clear that the early reports of it containing a pipe bomb were wide of the mark - the microwave actually contained a tin of ravioli. Some amusing pictures can be seen here. The 'bomb' in New York has been widely called 'amateurish', comprised of propane gas cylinders and low-grade fireworks.

The car had been left in Times Square, one of the busiest parts of perhaps the busiest city in the world, with its engine running and its hazard lights switched on. Either the man arrested, Faisal Shahzad, was a total incompetent, or he never had any intention of the car blowing up. The aim appears to have been to remind people once again of the great brown threat of Islamic terrorism, at a time when it would have maximum impact on the British election. Suggestive of this event being a provocation of intelligence services, a Pakistani Army Officer reported to be in contact with Faisal was arrested in connection with attempted bombing.

There are two further aspects to this story that provide indications of something more elaborate than one man with a poorly constructed car bomb. The accused, Faisal Shahzad, is Pakistani-American, though different reports have him as either Kashmiri or Pashtun. But the CCTV footage released of a man supposedly responsible for parking the car in Times Square is a middle aged white man. Also, another man named Sheikh Mohammed Rehan was arrested in Pakistan due to his connection with Faisal Shahzad. Rehan is reportedly a member of Jaish-e-Muhammad, one of numerous Pakistani militant groups with long-standing ties to the ISI, CIA and MI6. As noted by Paul Joseph Watson, the group was founded by Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man who gave $100,000 to alleged 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta at the behest of the ISI's General Mahmud Ahmed. At this stage, the indications are that this was either a thoroughly incompetent attempt at a car bombing, or a psychological operation sponsored by intelligence services. Either way, it helped reinforce the prejudices and misconceptions that influenced the British General Election result.

There are alternatives to this masculine ideology of tackling all threats and problems by 'getting tough' and declaring some sort of war on a range of collective and abstract nouns that cannot be targeted by bullets and missiles. A more mature, careful ideology would be to adapt to new threats and problems, using both the masculine approach of looking for innovations given the framework of knowledge we have and the feminine approach of avoiding the solution being a self-fulfilling prophecy of our precepts. Rather than try to destroy the problematic through the violence of a head-on confrontation (whether that violence be technological innovation, military invasion or something else) we should seek to reach accommodations with problems where it is possible to do so, and seek out the true causes of problems where an accommodation cannot be reached. Waiting for a natural disaster like the Haiti earthquake (or, if you're a raging conspiracist, creating them with HAARP) and then leaping in and showing our 'strong hand' via the rescue effort, we should have been helping Haiti develop the economy and education to build infrastructure that can withstand earthquakes. As the Kiki story shows, this has been completely ignored by mainstream politicians and press alike, in favour of cuddly pictures of a small black boy being rescued by noble white firemen. In that vein, to finish this time I have included one of my favourite videos regarding the 2012 phenomenon, showing Ian Xel Lengold explains some of the reasons why people are predicting not an apocalypse, but some kind of cosmic ontological-perceptual shift in a couple of years time. While I don't necessarily subscribe to Lengold's interpretations or conclusions, what I do subscribe to is that he offers a far more inspiring and multi-faceted view of human potential than Roland Emmerich's movie, etc.