Don’t Look Up
A film that contributes to the irrationality that it condemns
Adam McKay’s recently released Netflix film, Don’t Look Up, is a parody of the various tendencies, attitudes, and beliefs in American society that render it unable to attend to problems that it is scientifically and technically capable of resolving. The message is that, unless there is change, the extinction of the human species may be the consequence.
Cuban film critic Rolando Pérez Betancourt observes that the film shows a “highly idioticized society” in which manipulations and lies are tools of daily communication, where the White House, the press, and the social media indulge in the most absurd falsifications. As former Boston Herald art critic Daniel Gewertz writes in The Arts Fuse: “Don’t Look Up is a clever, unapologetically brash satire about a future America so consumed with celebrity worship, brain-numbing infotainment, social media popularity, and political gamesmanship that it refuses to take the impending destruction of planet Earth seriously.”
In Don’t Look Up, Michigan State astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy and doctoral candidate Kate Dibiasky discover a “planet killer” comet headed for earth in six months. A former head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office arranges for a meeting with the President and her Chief-of-Staff son, both of whom are portrayed as completely unqualified for the powerful positions they hold. Confronting scandal with respect to a Supreme Court nominee and concerned with the upcoming mid-term elections, and tired of hearing predictions of disaster, they are dismissive of the two scientists and are not inclined to accept their doomsday conclusion.
However, and this is a point that the film’s reviewers miss, the President actually does the right thing at the initial meeting. She does want to go public immediately; and she proposes further analysis of the data by a larger number of scientists as well as ongoing conversation between her and NASA to determine appropriate courses of action. She proposes, as she characterizes it, to “sit tight and assess.” In spite of her unpresidential demeaner, her decision is not unreasonable. In such a situation, it hardly would have beeb wise for a government to make a public announcement before further and broader analysis ensured a correct understanding of the situation and an appropriate course of action. Furthermore, the tendency toward panic would be reduced by announcement of a well-considered plan of action in conjunction with the announcement of the threat.
But the morally righteous always have naïve expectations of the powerful. Our two scientists had expected immediate public action, and they were convinced that “sit tight and assess” was a euphemism for doing nothing, and that the White House was “blowing them off.” So, they went to a major daily newspaper, even though the chief of staff had asked for no leaks to the press. The administration, now placed on the spot by the scientists, denied meeting them. The newspaper, in spite of reservations concerning the validity of the scientists’ claims, went with the story, but did not give it prominence. Meanwhile, our scientists appeared on a morning talk show, where they found frivolity and ignorance of a high order, causing Dibiasky to lose control of her emotions before a television audience. Her emotional meltdown led to shameful abuse of her in the social media, for which it is infamous. The story was out there, but it was not having an impact, because it is a message that no one wants to hear, because its promoters had been discredited, and because the nation is preoccupied with more frivolous affairs.
Dibiasky’s loss of control in public, which also occurred later to her professor/mentor, can be interpreted as a parody of the Left. She shouts her moral indignation, expresses her feelings of frustration, thereby presenting an image of an unstable person, undermining the credibility of her message. Here is portrayed a comportment that the Left has institutionalized: short-thrift explanations and slogans, shouts of moral indignation, undisciplined behavior in the streets, and castigation of the people for their indifference, all of which discredits them and outshines the fact they are right. This style of passionate, moral indignation appeals to some, but it could never be the basis for a national consensus and united political will, and as a result, it condemns the nation to permanent, dysfunctional division.
As the story unfolds, the President decides to take responsible action, although not for the right reasons. This option should have been visible from the beginning, inasmuch as a national battle against an external threat is generally good for presidential ratings. This, indeed, is the reason that presidential administrations have been inventing foreign threats for the past seventy-five years, and it is the premise of another political satire film, “Wag the Dog.” And so, with responsible action now being taken by the government, the nation and the world were momentarily united in the implementation of a science-based plan to send drones with nukes to the comet, seeking to change its trajectory; and the president’s ratings went up.
But short-sighted nationalism intervened, due to a course of action presented by a high-tech guru, who sometimes was not well connected to reality. His team of investigators had found that the comet contained rare minerals that were important for the manufacture of computers and cell phones, minerals that for the most part were under the control of China. The creation of such a scenario perhaps reflects the anxiety of creative artists in the United States in the face of the material fall of the USA and the rise of China.
Thus, taking U.S. short-term interests into account, the President cancels the plan in march and opts instead for an untested and insufficiently researched plan to break up the comet and let it fall to earth harmlessly in several smaller pieces. Dibiasky, of course, is outraged, and she shouts her outrage for all the (online) world to hear. She declares that they have found diamonds and “rare shit” that will make rich people “even more disgustingly rich.”
We should not overlook Dibiasky’s incomplete representation of the guru’s reasons for the change of plans. She ignores his claim that the USA will have control over the rare minerals, a claim that implies the possibility that the nation would be able to reverse its four-decade long decline relative to China. She makes no effort to refute this claim, with the argument that, even if the untested soft-landing plan were to work, it likely would not result in easy U.S. control of the minerals, but instead would likely ignite a new stage of intensified inter-imperialist competition and conflict. In her moral outrage, short on explanation and with a loose presentation of facts, she again is a caricature of the Left, which is incapable of explaining to the people that a world of competing imperialisms, which the guru takes as given, is no longer sustainable. Dibiasky, like the Left, through simplistic expressions of moral outrage, generates support among the morally righteous, but she (like the Left) cannot generate sufficient popular support for the political task at hand, which would need to be constructed on a foundation of succinct and comprehensive explanation of what is happening and what can be done.
Astronomer Minsky, in his own televised meltdown moment, asks, “What has happened to us that we can’t agree on fundamental facts? How do we talk to each other? How do we fix it?” Here the creative artists of the USA show that they have arrived to understand that the nation has lost the capacity to have a conversation. However, they offer no suggestions for how to improve the conversation. They satirize the people for acting like idiots, but they leave unchallenged standard media platform practices that constitute structural and cultural supports for idiocy.
Minsky appealed to the public to pay attention to “qualified scientists,” and in this he was right. But there needs to be much more societal reflection on the notion that some combination of reading and experience qualifies persons to speak on determined issues, and that we should especially listen to such persons. Creative artists ought to model and cultivate respect for knowledge in all its forms, including science, philosophy, history, social science, religion, and literature, as the necessary foundation to informed and respectful conversation that can lead to consensus and to constructive practical action.
An ethnocentric and simplistic portrayal of the political terrain
Don’t Look Up presents a reality of two lone individuals speaking a serious message in the midst of a crisis-ridden and confused societal irrationality, in which the nation has no dimensions other than manipulative demagoguery, a media driven by superficiality and profit, and morally righteous naiveté. This politically simplistic narrative contributes to the dysfunctionality that the film condemns. Is there no political party, social movement organization, NGO, or alternative media outlet to which our frustrated scientists could have gone for support? Could not alternative possibilities be identified and critiqued? Are creative artists unable to imagine the possibility of a collective movement led by mature leaders, daily demonstrating its capacity to change the course of the nation away from destructive irrationality, alerting and educating the people toward responsible collective action in the face of calamity?
As Wendy M. Grossman writes in ZDNet UK Book Reviews: “In satirising modern America's lack of qualification to tackle an existential crisis, Don't Look Up ignores alternatives. No activists fire up campaigns. No bloc of governments convenes to find solutions. In this movie, it appears that only the US can save us. Hollywood is not ready for movies in which China rescues the world, even if the rest of us would be grateful.”
Indeed, the brief portrayal of China, Russia, and India was typical American ethnocentrism. The storyline had it that when the three giants of the East learned of their exclusion from the spoils of the soft-landing plan, they decided to implement the original plan (of diverting the comet) on their own collective initiative. This would ensure that the USA, at least, would not enjoy the spoils. In presenting the China/Russia/India intervention as a game of competing imperialisms, Don’t Look Up was demonstrating its incapacity to imagine that the political forces guiding other nations might be motivated by a desire to take decisive action in defense of humanity, standing against an absurd irrationality, having arrived to such reasonableness on the basis of observation of the destructive effects for all of humanity of competing imperialisms. This possibility is not imagined, because the artistic creators in the USA have not observed with any seriousness the social and political movements that have emerged in the last one hundred years in the colonized, semi-colonized, and neocolonized zones of the world. They have not seen, therefore, the gradual, institutionalized creation of an alternative political reality, fundamentally different from the decadence of their own nation, a decadence that defines their assumed reality.
In the fictional world of Don’t Look Up, the collective China-Russia-India space launch in defense of humanity exploded on the launch pad. I was not sure if we were supposed to interpret this as a testimony to the technical incompetence of China, Russia, and India; or as an indication of the presence of the CIA everywhere, always able to reap destruction in defense of American short-term political goals. My Cuban friend and colleague Juan Azaharias thought it was the former; I was more inclined to the latter.
Although simplistic and ethnocentric in its portrayal of the political terrain, Don’t Look Up captures a fundamental truth: if the nation does not fundamentally alter the rules of its political discourse and its way of doing politics, it will fall more and more into decadence, thereby threatening the destruction of modern civilization and the extinction of the human species. But consistent with the political culture that it seeks to critique, it is incapable of imagining any way out.
Cynicism and the eclipse of reason
Don’t Look Up, therefore, is profoundly cynical, and this was noted by Gewertz, who considers it “liberating, appropriately cynical.” But Gewertz is off the mark in considering cynicism liberating, and in maintaining that “cynicism, in the service of truth, is no sin.” Yes, it is a sin. Cynicism feeds the feelings of helplessness of the people, and therefore it serves the interests of the elite. And cynicism ignores a fundamental fact, that the peoples of the world are forging an alternative reality; it thus is based on an untruth about the current human condition.
Richard Brody, in New Yorker, is more on the mark. He believes that the film is not a political movie, but a cynical one; and he considers the cynicism of the film to be a fundamental weakness.
“It’s also a movie about the blighted mediasphere—yet, even with the best of intentions, the movie only adds to the blight. . . . its simplistic anger-stoking and pathos-wringing mask the movie’s fundamental position of getting itself talked about while utterly eliding any real sense of politics or political confrontation. It is set largely in and around government, but suggests nothing like any political opposition, such as in Congress or state houses, to President Orlean’s actions and inaction regarding the comet. . . . the movie’s cynically apolitical view of politics contributes to the frivolous and self-regarding media environment that it decries.”
As the film approaches climax, we are witnesses of two bands shouting contradictory slogans, “Just Look Up” versus “Don’t Look Up,” accurately portraying the nation’s loss of the art of reasoned persuasion. Herbert Marcuse, writing during Nazi rule in Europe, lamented what he called the “eclipse of reason.” He maintained that when philosophers began to discern the element of the subjective and the personal in scientific knowledge, the road was cleared for the assumption that there is no universally held standard for discerning the true and the right, a nearly universal standard that transcends differences in culture and ideology. Without a universally accepted method for attaining truth, all knowledge is reduced to the subjective, the personal, and the relative. When the eclipse of reason occurs, Marcuse sadly concluded, there is no objective reasonable condemnation of any barbarity, such as the barbarity of totalitarian and genocidal Naziism. All becomes permissible, if it is personally preferred or feels right or good.
In our time, barbarities abound: aggressive military actions in pursuit of economic interests, in the name of democracy; global policies that weaken states and their limited capacities to defend human needs, in the name of liberty; and seeking personal material comfort in a world in which uncounted numbers of children do not have adequate health care, nutrition, or housing, let alone full opportunities for school and protected possibilities for play. These barbarities require delegitimation through the application of reason.
Marcuse’s lament of the eclipse of reason was personal: he was ethnically Jewish, and he was compelled to flee as a refugee from his native land. Without doubt, his personal experience of confronting the unreasonable was the driving force for his study and reflection on human reasoning. But Marcuse did not permit the personal and the subjective to be a substitute for objective reasoning. He was driven to understand the process of reasoning, above and beyond his personal experiences and views. He was driven beyond morally indignant denunciation of totalitarianism. He was driven to understand its sources, in order to arrive to necessary philosophical premises for blocking its reemergence. He left us with a call, regardless of the particular sources of our own personal pain, to check the impulse of the personal and the subjective and to focus on the reasoned defense of the true and the right. It is a call that remains a part of the cultural legacy of humanity, ignored at our peril.
David Fear, in Rolling Stone, disparagingly calls Adam McKay a “self-appointed prophet of fear.” Yet he appreciates the film’s portrayal of a society in which “news has become reduced to empty-calorie infotainment,” and a morning talk show “reduces everything to mindless feel-good chatter.” However, for Fear, the film is less than the necessary “ultimate Swiftian skewering of our cultural death-spiral moment,” because it is “borne out of a desperate need to address the way things have devolved, yet it’s never able to find a way to crawl out of the tarpit of its own bone-deep despair.”
What David Fear does not see is that the way out for the nation is not a masterful work of literature but a historically and scientifically informed social and political movement, led by persons with political intelligence and commitment to the people and the nation, capable of leading the people beyond the limitations of the political establishment and the media and the limited horizons of cultural critics.
Reflections on Religion
As the comet approached earth, the story’s principal proponents of reasonable action in defense of humanity met for a last supper at the home of Minsky, now reconciled with his wife after months of craziness. Satisfied that they had done their best, the group faced their own deaths and the extinction of human with dignity. They were aided in this by religious tradition. The young man who had hooked up with Dibiasky had some “church game,” rooted in the religiousness of his parents. He led them in a prayer to God: “We ask for your grace despite our pride, your forgiveness despite our doubt. We ask for your love to see us through these dark times.” Given their situation, it was a good place to be.
But the last supper scene was yet another distortion of the human condition and limitation of human possibilities. It presented religion as a purely personal affair, as a personal relation with God, providing comfort in times of human distress and need. It obscures the extent to which the religious world view of the West includes a vision of social justice and a divine command to do justice, as has been taught by the prophets and teachers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The religious vision of social justice and the leftist vision of a post-capitalist, socialist world order are on the same page. Both stand against the irrationality of profit-seeking and skepticism. Both have significant institutionalized expression in today’s world. If they were to join together in solidarity and mutual respect, the prospects for humanity to act in defense of itself would be greatly enhanced.
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