Thursday, August 6, 2015

On Practices of Moral Authority

When I use the phrase “practice of moral authority” there are three important words involved, and all of them require some explaining.  First, practices.  Practices have two important meanings I want to describe.  First, in a larger sense, practices refer to a particular category of actions, maintained within particular physical spaces and through time within a tradition.  In this sense, medicine is a practice, and so are science, gender, and race, among other things. Social scientists and philosophers have already done a lot of important work to show how these categories are not only practiced in real life, but they are also broader practices, in the expansive sense I am here using the term. Boundaries are an important part of this expansive sense of practices: practitioners within a particular category generally look for ways to indicate how their practice are different from similar categories. Astronomers and astrologists both study stars, and astronomers want to show how the two groups are different, primarily by showing how the practices themselves are different: in doing so, their “boundary-work” is both about a broad and abstract category rooted in explicit action (what I’m calling a practice) and about the explicit identity of a community (astronomers) and individuals (specific astronomers making these distinctions). 

Practices can also have a smaller and much more specific meaning.  By this term, I refer not to the expansive sense of the word practice I used earlier but to the much more specific instantiations of those broad categories.  If medicine is a practice in the first sense, then a physical exam is a practice in the sense I mean it here.  While there are important elements of these smaller practices that are conscious (e.g. how the doctor thinks about the patient’s specific symptoms), much of the routine is subconscious and habituated (e.g. how the doctor holds the stethoscope). Also, while practices in the first sense are broad, conceptual, and rooted in time, practices in the second sense are specific, habituated, and rooted in space (specifically, the human body).  I will alternate between both of these meanings in this book.

By moral, I do not necessarily mean the explicit study of what is right and wrong, and neither do I mean my own description of the best action an any given moment.  Instead, I refer to a much broader and more diffuse sensibility, a vague and hard to articulate feeling that someone is living life the way it ought to be lived.   This sense of morality is rooted not in explicit rules and careful deliberations but in subconscious habits and the maintenance of everyday emotional expectations.  To be clear, the sense of how one ought to live, at least as I refer to it, is socially constructed: I am not interested in how people come to know God’s law or the moral truth that exists outside of human consciousness (though I am quite interested in the people who claim they are doing exactly that).  My project is descriptive, not normative. Moral, for my purposes, is not so much instantiating God’s law or the moral truth as it is living out the taken-for-granted rules that a community has established within its tradition.  Morality is therefore less important as a series of discrete questions about particular actions and more relevant as a way to frame what a good life resembles. 

A good life is ultimately a series of moments of course, but morality rarely takes its shape in those moments through careful deliberations about whether particular actions are right or wrong.  It is instead either a set of resonant experiences through which unconscious moral expectations align with everyday interactions with people, objects, and events or an experience of dissonance in which someone feels an emotional struggle, generally through a sense of disgust, fear, annoyance, or regret. People might not be able to articulate precisely why they feel these emotions, or their explanations might be inconsistent with some of their other commitments or claims.  This inarticulacy and inconsistency is the result of a few factors. First, morality as I’m describing it here is a repertoire of various visions of what a good life might resemble, with various, often incommensurable virtues idealized at once (for example, a courageous person, in enacting their courage, might be insufficiently generous).  Second, and perhaps most important, morality is as socially necessary and constitutive as language and culture. Like languages, moralities are localized to a particular community and only make sense socially and historically; they are largely subconscious, with rules that are not necessarily explicable by their users; they are finite and limited, even as they are also expansive with multiple, often-conflicting ways to either communicate a good idea or live a good life.

Finally, the word authority.  By authority I mean a kind of power that is socially accepted.  If power is simply the ability to do something or to make someone do something, then authority, at its most simple, is the general social acceptance of that power.  For example, a parent has authority over a child when that child accepts a parent’s power.  Authority can be a rationally determined decision, and it can also be an unconscious commitment rooted in tradition.  For example, Americans grow up respecting the authority of science, rarely even consciously choosing to permit that power (in contrast, someone might grudgingly acknowledge the authority of a meeting’s chairperson).  For my purposes, authority is important as a source of social power, that is, a power over others and a power in how one relates to others in everyday interactions.  Even when authority is only the power over one’s own life, it is necessarily social in that it implies the permission of others in a community to do so.

To say someone has a certain authority means that they have implicit permission from the rest of their community to do what they do.  Yet it also means more than this, because authority is generally rooted not only in permission but also in expertise.  To say a doctor has authority does not only mean that doctor has permission to act; it also is to say that there is a good reason that doctor has permission to act.  It is to say that a tradition has established certain implicit and explicit metrics through which permission is granted and people deem other people capable of and free to perform particular actions.  This authority is often subconscious and implicitly provided, but it can also be denied or challenged. When I call something a “moral authority” I mean a combination of the two last terms listed above: a generally implicit permission and consent from other members of a community that someone has acquired sufficient standing or experience to perform particular actions related to making of a good life.  After all, all actions and all authorities are not necessarily moral: one might have developed an authority to prepare coffee, but in most communities, this would not relate to one’s capacity to live a good life.

We are now ready for my definition of “practices of moral authority,” by which I refer to practices, in either the broad or the specific sense, with which individuals and communities both practice and confirm their capacity to live life as it ought to be lived.  These moral practices gain their authority via the observation, permission, and encouragement of fellow members of their community (even if, as is often the case, the observation, permission, and encouragement are all performed without conscious deliberation). Because both morality and the first sense of practices are expansive terms, these practices of moral authority can be leveraged as tools through which to reconcile a community’s commitments and ongoing tradition with the goals, expectations, and challenges posed by those outside of the community.  However, because these are practices of moral authority, the accomplishment of this reconciliation must be earned via experience or gaining a position of trust, and the reconciliation can not be any one individual’s idiosyncratic decision: it must be done with the permission-whether explicit and conscious or implicit and not, of the community and its tradition.  The practices of moral authority I describe here—gender, scripture, prayer, and science—are all simply entry points to more specific bodily performances of the category. For example, the big practice is gender, and the smaller practice is wearing the hijab.  Both are moral, and both are rooted in authority.

The split between two understandings of the word practice is important. In the smaller sense of practices, practices of moral authority are specific actions people perform that root their lives in an ongoing tradition, helping them habituate certain implicit understandings of what a good life entails.  In the bigger sense of the word practice, practices of moral authority are less specific instantiations of a broader concept than they are concepts with their own particular authority over how one ought to live.  In this broader sense, gender, scripture, science, and prayer all function as categories with an authority that has been accorded them either from within their tradition (for prayer and scripture) or from within and without (for science and gender).  I am distinguishing between these by calling them internal and external practices.  But the most important point for these larger practices of moral authority is that while they can be leveraged to accomplish moral tasks, they are also authorities in their own right: in each of the schools I studied, science, gender, scripture, and prayer were understood to have accomplished things and to have a moral weight that had to be respected and accommodated. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Poem! Job II

Job II

They don’t know why
we’re kind, really.
Maybe your fingers on my arm
are like veins on a leaf,
or the dances bees do,
or something else
between genes.

And I don’t know if I am kind,
or that I want to be,
or that it’s not really something
super, below.

The poets have their own equations:
It’s those roots half-bulged in the grass,
or the sweat on her lips,
or the memory of your father
pouring skim milk into his tea.
A passing sense of yes.

Promised infinity,
we climb out on the roof,
every night waiting
to see our dad fly home;
Each plane a promise
that the other one exists.

Losing the bet,
God went double or nothing:
I bet I can make them
sense me, somehow.
Fine, said Satan. 
Just don’t touch the house.
Poor guy just paid that off.

Copyright, Jeff Guhin 2014 (and seriously, it's not that good, so come on) 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Making fun of dorky white people is actually kind of racist (and not against white people)

There are a lot of pretty funny collections of white folks' photos all over the internet, including this one,  “The 29 Whitest Family Photos of All Time.”  As is often the case, “white” means dorky, uncool, and awkward (my biggest complaint is that the category automatically rules out my many dorky black, Latino, and Asian friends, whose dorky-ass pictures are friggin' HILARIOUS, including one who shall remain nameless but will be obvious to all who remember his denim shorts well into his early twenties. But more on non-white dorks later.)  In a somewhat different sense than these funny-photos-of-weirdoes, the blog, Stuff White People Like codes being white as rich, trendy, and smug, with all the right political commitments and cultural signifiers.  These signifiers—according to the blog—are sometimes related to race, especially the degree to which white people want to show their sympathy for the plight of the black underclass, as well as their deep appreciation for black urban culture, which basically means liking hip hop and really, really liking The Wire.

I read or heard an interview with the guy behind Stuff White People Like some years ago (I just looked at the blog and it hasn’t been updated since 2010, which is also when the second book came out), and he admitted that what he was describing was actually more about socio-economic status than race.  As he said, and as should be obvious, lots of non-white people also like the things he’s describing, and lots of other white people don’t. Yet it’s telling that the blog isn’t titled, Stuff Upwardly-Mobile Urban Professional Like (which would probably be more accurate).  The use of the word white is important, and not only because it’s pithier.  By writing about what white people like, whites are able to make clear what non-white people don’t like.  I know, I know: that’s not the intention, you say, and of course we know some black people like this stuff too, or Asians or Latinos, or what have you.  But that’s not the title (which still hasn’t changed).

The variegated stuff that while people are said to like all mark high status.  You might say that misses the point, because, well, that stuff is just funny: the various items show smug stupidity, or silly obsessions, or simple obliviousness.   Well and good.  But that kind of self-mockery comes from a position of strength, and it’s actually a reinforcement of social dominance (just as the King, during Carnival, could show his power by agreeing to be mocked).  Perhaps more importantly, the flaws that the blog presents actually help their white (note: not upper-class—it’s in the title) purveyors to succeed in the economy and elite cultural milieus.  It might be silly that we white folks love, say, microbrews and sweaters, but these habits are also really useful ways to connect to other members of the elite, as anyone who’s read Bourdieu—or been to a fancy party—can tell you.

Which brings us back to the “whitest” photos of this or that ridiculousness.  The message in these pictures is a bit different from the SWPL blog: it tends to show pictures of white working class and lower middle-class folks alongside their wealthier cousins, and the lesson is less that whites are silly snobs and more that they’re awkward dorks.  Yet there winds up being a similar moral to the story, because distinguishing white people as awkward weirdoes (and to say that acting this way is white implies that not being white means not acting this way) also winds up reinforcing white people’s power in modern America.  As my friend Bob Wardlaw pointed out to me, being an awkward dork is often correlated with intelligence.  In this country at this time, being smart means not only economic success but also a moral justification for that success.  It makes sense that guy’s rich, because he’s smart.  And who’s smart?  Well dorks.  And who are dorks? Well, white people.

The underlying racism here should be obvious, but the obverse is just as dangerous.  It’s silly to even have to point out that we’re not encouraging inner-city minority kids—especially African Americans—to take education seriously.  There are obviously lots of great inner-city parents doing exactly that, but as a society, our inexcusable ignoring of in inner-city education (yes it’s getting better, but it still has a long way to go) does a lot to demonstrate that being smart (dorky?) is not a big deal, and not necessarily even a way to succeed.  Add to that our knee-jerk equation of black (and especially black male) with athlete, and we have the the equal and opposite sort of stereotype for black kids.  Haha, it’s funny that all whites are dorks.  And isn’t it awesome that all blacks are athletic? 

But where do those stereotypes get you, besides just being wrong? For a very few talented athletes, sure: you might get a job (though even athletic success is correlated with economic privilege).  But for the majority of those young jocks, they spent countless incredibly valuable hours and days and years of young adulthood cultivating skills that are just about useless.  (Yes, I think that sports are awesome both for the individual and for the society; but in moderation, like practicing piano, or anything else. And by the way this problem of jock culture is not unique to young black men: it's a big problem for a lot of working-class white sub-communities as well, though at least those kids aren't running up against the idea that their very DNA equals athleticism-above-all-else).  And then there’s the basic empirical fact that plenty of black kids are actually really bad at sports (as are, by they way, plenty of white kids).  Black folks are also often very dorky and awkward, as are Asians, and Latinos, and Native Americans, and yes, white folks.  It is precisely the insistence that being a minority (especially black) is somehow cooler than being white that epitomizes the problem, and for many reasons.  First, being cool is a survival strategy, a means of not caring so as to suffer through whatever the world throws at you.  Being dorky means that you can take the world as it is, because it will basically provide for you and leave you alone.  Insisting on cool means insisting on the need for protection, and allowing for dorkiness means that protection won’t be required.   Even more importantly, messages about a race's inherent coolness (or lack of coolness) tells young socially awkward non-white kids (of which there are many, probably—shockingly enough—as many as there are socially awkward white kids) that they are somehow extra-weird.  Photos that talk about how dorky white people are subtly force non-white people to avoid being dorks.  Yet being a dork (and I speak as an expert on the subject) is actually incredibly awesome, and leads to all sorts of experiences of creativity, sensitivity, and intellectual growth that you can't really find when you're busy being cool.  White folks have taken too much already.  We can't take being dorky too. 

Yet to acknowledge this, to admit that pictures of dorky people are no more “white” than they are any other race, is to realize that using a racial category—even as a means of self-mockery—brings with it a whole lot of difficult racial baggage. That’s not to say we should avoid racial categories.  It drives me nuts when people –often well-meaning conservatives—say we should just get rid of the word “black” or “African-American” because we’re all just people.  Racial categories still exist—ask anyone who’s experienced racism—and we still have to be able to talk about them.  Perhaps more importantly, race has been inextricably mixed with culture in this country, and so to ask some people to stop taking about race would be to ask them to stop talking about pretty important elements of their lives.  So I’m not saying we should get rid of words like white or black or anything else.  I’m saying we should be careful when we use them, and that we should acknowledge our privilege and power, even when we’re just making fun of ourselves.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Why Randians Would Do Well to Learn That Life Often Sucks

I almost never talked about Ayn Rand in grad school, mostly because her ideas are stupid and derivative (anything that’s any good she stole from Nietzsche or the Austrian school).  Once, however, a professor lamented how many otherwise smart and tasteful undergrads loved Ayn Rand. He couldn’t figure out why, until he realized that these young men (as they usually were) felt unappreciated for their raw brilliance, an experience that Yale (where your average kid is pretty dang sharp) only intensifies. These kids know who John Galt is: it's them!  The many young Randians I’ve met match the demographic: despite getting into really good schools, they might not have gotten into the best schools, or might not have won the best awards, or in some other way were not able to succeed in every possible way imaginable. They are not appreciated! Their genius is not recognized! And yet these other people are getting things they deserve! It's not fair! We must have a strike of geniuses!

(By the way, I’ve got nothing against Yale undergrads, many of whom I really admired--especially the sociology majors, who I got to know very well, but lots of other folks as well. The vast majority of Yale kids I met were well aware of the gift of their education, and while they had worked incredibly hard, very few told me they "earned" their spot. They knew they were lucky.) 

I have neither the time nor the desire for a full-scale critique of Randians for the empirically untenable and morally poisonous world they describe. Most intellectuals just think Rand is ridiculous and don't bother to engage her. But this leaves an empty, untended pool that fills with vipers. Something's gotta be done, so here’s something.

It seems stunningly obvious to me that any success any of us have (while hard work certainly has much to do with it) is ultimately contingent and mostly unearned. Ayn Rand, John Galt, and any of the rest of us are lucky to be alive, to know how to read, and not to have died of malaria. Sure, fine, yes, hard work matters. Sure, fine, yes, there are lazy people who want a free ride. Sure, fine, yes, talents are not distributed equally at birth. And sure, fine, yes, some people have had to work a ton harder than others. There are folks who taught themselves to read, who struggled unimaginably to succeed. And some of those folks might well like Ayn Rand, but most of them—in my experience (meeting such folks, not being one—I've had a pretty easy ride)—know their success was contingent and sympathize with all those takers. I have never met an Ayn Rand fan who was a real-live self-taught bootstrapper (despite whatever they claimed on their admission essays): they had taken social capital and language skills from their parents and schools, and they went on taking all the opportunities that come from growing up among the elite (and if you’re middle class in America, you’re in the global elite). The makers just keep taking.

Enter the Republicans’ anger at Obama's infelicitous insistence that "you didn't build that." Even if the righteous rage didn’t get Romney elected, it did reveal something important about the American myth of self-creation, a myth that might explain Rand’s popularity. If you ignore the parents that raised you, the schools that educated you, the roads that carry you, the government that protects you, then, sure, yes, you are the carrier of your own life.  But that's a lot to ignore.  We are all, all of us, within communities that are greater than the sum of their parts.

If you’re reading this and think I’m arguing against the market, then you’re totally misunderstanding both me and the market.  The invisible hand is often plenty effective, and I think it’s usually a better bet than a state solution. But even the market is greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s only able to work with a state that keeps it on track and citizens who are committed to a certain ethical vision that’s bigger than themselves.  In fact, all of this comes to a lesson that’s so crushingly obvious I’m embarrassed to write it, yet it seems necessary to repeat: any human success is only possible because of communities in both the present and the past.  Even a guy living in a cave who takes care of himself on his own—if he wants to think about the experience meaningfully—must depend upon a language, which, like old Ludwig W. argued, can never be private.  We're all in this together, and that's true whether that "together" is the work of the state or the interactions of the market (which is not just "you" either).  None of us builds anything alone.

A lot of folks have criticized Christian Randians for ignoring Jesus's call to serve the poor.  It’s an important criticism, but it misses something much deeper: Rand's vision of the human person is fundamentally asocial and self-directed, both of which are radically different from any Christianity I’ve ever encountered.

The Christian God's very self is social (look at all the brilliant theological work on the trinity), and Christian anthropology is fundamentally communal (such communitarianism motivates Christian critiques of liberalism’s individualist assumptions—see Hauerwas, MacIntyre, Taylor, etc.) It is with others that creation is possible (not as lone geniuses), and through others that we create Church, experience grace, and prepare our salvation. Of course, there’s a certain Evangelical, Pauline reading of Christian life that focuses only on an individual acceptance of Jesus and then a smug satisfaction that all is done.  Yet such a reading ignores that the Bible through which these folks encounter Christ was written by others, that the Bible itself documents others, and that the Bible was carried forward through history by others.  Even the most Biblicist, individualist reading of Christian salvation is still incompatible with Randian individualism.  Not to mention, first, that few if any Christians (including Evangelicals) actually live like this, and second, that the Gospels are a huge “you’re so friggin’ wrong it’s unbelievable” to anyone who wants to ignore other people.  There’s a reason conservative Christians lean heavier on Paul than on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John:  Jesus was pretty clear that people need to be in community and that they’ll be judged by how they’ve treated the least of these.

That Christians’ obligations to the poor make their commitments incompatible with objectivism is already well-traveled ground, not least by Rand, who recognized her dissonance with Christianity better than some of her Christian devotees.  The disconnect is more interesting to me for revealing something important about how Christians should think about themselves and the role of contingency in their lives. “Blessed are the poor” is a hard nut, and one that can be used to justify all sorts of oppressive economic systems.  Yet one of its most important lessons—at least for me—has been that the poor are better able to recognize the contingency of success and inoculate themselves against the sin of pride.  If you know enough poor people, you know they’re just as smart and talented and hard-working as rich people, and once you know that, it’s hard to feel all that proud about being successful.  It’s hard to be anything but grateful when you do wind up doing well, and indifferent when you don’t.

I’m not arguing that material poverty is a good thing (it’s not).  I don’t think Jesus was making that argument either: in fact, human rights—including the right to fair wages, health care, and good education—can be justified by the Abrahamic belief in the equality of all humanity. (Of course, it should be obvious—even if it’s not for a lot of folks—that there are plenty of non-Abrahamic, secular, and atheist ways to justify human rights as well.)  What I’m instead arguing is that the experience of poverty helps people to understand something deeply important about life, something Rand’s philosophy just doesn’t get: success is utterly contingent.  Or, less abstractly, life often sucks.  And when our life does not suck, we had a lot less to do with that lack-of-sucking than we might otherwise believe.

Like countless others before him, Augustine couldn’t figure out why an all-loving God would make a world that sucked so much.  While his solution leaned a bit too much on predestination for my taste, I appreciate his instance that what success we have is due much more to God’s grace than our good works: as he said, there but for the grace of God go I.   Augustine encouraged Christians to cultivate humility and gratitude and avoid the sort of pride that Rand’s self-created anthropology encourages.  You don’t need God for this insight, either. Lots of wise folks throughout history have realized what seems pretty clear: it could have been a lot worse, and you’re a lucky bastard if it’s not.

And that’s another place where the Randian vision of the person differs radically from the Christian: it’s not just that she denies we have to serve the poor.  It’s that she denies they’re actually people with rights.  She’s most clearly Nietzschean in her argument that there are basically two kinds of people, the worthless takers and the necessary makers.   Now, for a Christian, no human is worthless, but that’s a problem with how Rand treats the poor, which, again, lots of smart people have already written about. I’m more interested in how this way of thinking affects the makers, as it forces them to think of themselves as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity, as superior, special, and exempt.  It’s hard for such people to function in a democracy because any bad things that happen to them must surely be the result of some grand conspiracy.  The sun should always shine on makers, and when it doesn’t, it’s a cosmic injustice with some clear person to blame. (Rand herself was just so covetous, deeply embittered by her critics’ disregard, her romantic failures, her general lack of apotheosis.) And so we return to the Yale undergrads who don’t understand why the world won’t already worship them. 

To divide humanity into makers and takers creates a cruel indifference to billions of lives, yet it also divorces certain self-styled makers from the most important insight we’ve ever had about the human condition: life, for no good reason, often sucks.  Or, as the wise King put it, “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (KJV Ecclesiastes 9:11). Ecclesiastes, Job, Oedipus, the Bhagadava-Gita, The Stoics, Candide, the Brothers Karamazov: none of the great works of wisdom make sense to a maker, because it can’t be the cruelty of fate that explains our suffering.  We’re exempt! No, we need the strategies of a grocery-store thriller to solve the real problem: those damn takers.

It might be asking too much for our country to read the Stoics (though they’ll change your life, they’re pretty easy to read, and they’re just about free on Kindle).  Yet there are other ways to cultivate a sense of solidarity and an awareness of our own contingency.  Richard Rorty says we should read novels, which might work, though plenty of cruel people really like novels. We could also read the Bible (especially the Gospels), though you run into the same problems there (lots of slave-owners loved their Bible). The same is true for any of those other holy books that preach solidarity.  Assholes love scripture too.

We could also try talking, really taking, to these so-called takers, who, it turns out, are human, have not taken quite as much as we might have imagined, and do not always and in all cases want to suck the government teat until all is dried and dead. Yet what I’m describing here might be both the hardest and easiest of them all: I’m asking Randians to think about what it means to be a human being, and if Rand—whether describing makers or takers—really captures it.  And maybe the problem is that when you’re 19, or even 45, or maybe even 70—and every injustice you’ve experienced seems like it can be blamed on someone taking something from you, then maybe Rand seems right. 

But once your kid dies in a car accident, you’re left with a world that sucks for no reason except that the world sucks.  You’re left with an awareness that the joy you had yesterday was the pure dumb luck of fate’s cruelty not happening until today.  You’re left recognizing that your dad could have beat the hell out of you everyday, or that your government could have left your water filthy and choleric, or that you could have been forced into war or sex or both back when you were a kid.  Or maybe just that those people who actually did care about you might not have, or might have cared just a little bit less. Or any other damn thing.

And the rest of us—who are here watching you—are left, like the audience of an ancient Greek tragedy, feeling pity for your suffering and relief it’s not us. And, I hope, maybe a gratitude that makes us eager to help you, and then others like you.  Maybe a humility and a sense of awe that the whole thing hasn’t already just fallen apart.  Maybe a deepened appreciation for the beauty that does exist, for the relationships that do work, for the bits of life that do not suck at all, but that are actually quite lovely, thank you.  Maybe a sense that life will always suck, but it will suck less if we’re together. Or maybe we just blame Obama.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Why Elysium is a ridiculous movie, but the first 30 minutes is worth seeing (or, why I hope socialist film is making a comeback)

I saw Elysium about a week ago, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.  For the first thirty minutes, it’s a devastating film, portraying a world that does not feel too distant from our own: a land where the one percent of the one percent of the one percent (literally) floats above most human miseries, safe in a space station from the chaos below.  Folks down on the ground still work for their distant overlords, but their lives are as bad as any third world ghetto: not enough food, no reliable medical care, and a brutal police force that seems more concerned about bullying civilians that stopping gangs.  In fact, the residents of our future Los Angeles (the year is 2154)  use the Brazilian term, favela, to describe their shanty-towns: full of stolen cars, run by drug lords and crossed via dusty roads.  Spanish is spoken as often as English, and either car designs have stopped changing much or people are driving frames that are about 150 years old (which, given other means of locomotion in very poor parts of the world, might not be out of the realm of possibility). 

What the surface looks like in Elysium
The movie’s plot is pretty stupid, and I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about it.  Matt Damon plays Max, an orphan raised by Spanish-speaking nuns who’s childhood best-friend and first-love, Frey (Alice Braga) manages to get out (not to Elysium though) and become a nurse.  Meanwhile, Max did some time for stealing cars for the local kingpin, Spider, and is trying to get his life back on track and maybe even convince Frey he’s worth another shot.  But then, conflict!  Max gets nuclear radiation poisoning, has five days to live, does a few favors for Spiders, and winds up with information that could literally save everyone on Earth with the push of a button.  Like I said, it’s pretty stupid, and if you’re going for the plot, don’t go.

But the first hour—well, really just the first 30 minutes—is spellbinding.  Director Neil Blomkamp has already proven his ability to portray abject poverty with compassion, even beauty, and yet somehow also without sentimentality.  In his science fiction apartheid parable, District 9, he flipped the typical alien invasion story, portraying  refugee camps full of mysterious aliens who brought terrifyingly powerful weapons without a lot of knowledge of how they worked, or, for that matter, knowledge about much at all.  They were unskilled migrants who just showed up, provoking xenophobic anger from the natives and setting nefarious corporate interests to work, figuring out how to exploit yet another mass of unprotected labor, or, if not labor, then just plain flesh.  Perhaps because that movie’s grand finale is a bit less ridiculous—and also because it’s just a lot funnier—that movie is worth seeing both for the plot and for it’s devastating social conscience.

That conscience is also what makes the first 30 minutes of Elysium so remarkable, given Blomkamp’s unapologetic insistence on throwing our fat American asses right into the deep end of global inequality.  It’s perhaps no coincidence that a director with roots in Africa doesn’t show us the perils of American prisons, the insecurity of inner cities, and the dangers of drugs.  Instead, he shows us the diseases that kill because their easy cures can’t be afforded, the homes made of cardboard, the very real possibility not of our kids being malnourished or diabetic or obese but, simply and slowly just not eating until they die.

That’s not to deny the very real problem of the North American inner-city, and it’s certainly not to claim that all of Africa (or the rest of the developing world) is that poor.  It is to say that such poverty actually exists in the world, with real people dying from it everyday, and it’s not just a welcome relief to have a director talking about something else but it’s also incredibly important for us to be reminded.  Because look, we might not have a magic ship in the sky that immediately cures our cancer, but we do have access to drugs and treatment that keeps us alive, access others lack, and so they die.  It is simply unimaginable to me that people in the United States still want to deny people this basic care, but we’re still a long ways away from having conversations about access to health care for everyone else in the world.

It’s not just conscience-pricking that makes the first 30 minutes great.  There’s lots of ways to prick a conscience, and most of them are annoying, sanctimonious, and cloying.  What’s remarkable about District 9 and Elysium is that their presentations of poverty are not cheesy feed-a-kid commercials: they’re real worlds, with decent people trying to make a living, and other people who aren’t so decent, but who still care about somebody else, and then cops who are nearly always mean, but not always, and then kids who try to steal your stuff but then you laugh about it with them, because honestly, what do you have to steal, and then everyone else.  I’m fascinated by the worlds Blomkamp creates, and, especially for Elysium, the rock-em, sock-em adventures distracts from our exploring it.  Frey has a house in what looks to be a lower-middle class suburban neighborhood.   What’s that like?  How do the pretty rich—but not rich enough for Elysium—live?  We see factory owners commuting between the space station and the surface, but we don’t know much about how the world works—either on a global level—there appears to be a one-world government but what that means is unclear—or on a local one.  How does Max get his life back together?  What would have happened if he had just tried a more straightforward unionization effort instead of the ridiculous idea (spoiler) that a reprogrammed computer could change everything?  While machine labor seems to be replacing just about everything—there’s a great scene in which Max’s parole officer is a robot—they clearly still need humans for something. 

Yet what was most exciting about the first 30 minutes was an insistence that good old-fashioned socialist cinema is still around.  In the United States (and in South Africa, I imagine), our class consciousness can too often be clouded by racial kumbayaism: because the U.S.'s many races are getting along a lot better (and they are, though, if you look at 1965, that’s not saying much), clearly class isn’t a problem.  Class and race are too easily conflated, and if we’re making progress on race, then by golly we must be making progress on class too, right?  Yet that’s obviously not the case, as our country’s (and globe’s) rapidly increasingly inequality keeps showing.  Elysium is part of a grand tradition of movies and books (War of the Worlds, Metropolis, among many others) to imagine a future in which the very rich mercilessly dominate the very poor.  Those works warned their audiences about what would happen if the workers of the world did not unite.  It’s a warning we still need.  And what’s nice about Blomkamp’s work (well, District 9 anyways) is that, unlike the terrible socialist realism of the mid-century, it’s actually good.

Yet we can’t be too smug watching the movie.  Like all those intellectuals and petit bourgeoisie and everyone else who’s neither living in a cardboard box nor on a yaught, we’re in a weird class position. The movie’s first thirty minutes was a knock-me-over-moaning punch in the gut, forcing me to think hard about my class privilege and what I can do to change this world.  Compared to that, getting nuked with five days to live is nothing, and unlike Max, there's no button I can push.