Saturday, November 02, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" and the kidnapping of good intentions

At the local movie theater, we were already in a weakened state before the main feature began. The previews hit us like ten minutes of shock and awe, as our bodies were bombarded with those low bass detonations that movie house sound systems deliver with merciless accuracy to the gut, while the most grotesque images of violence danced before us in a relentless march towards doom. The images are so rapid fire as to seem like they are streaming from the barrel of an assault weapon that should have been banned long ago. There was, at least, one oasis of love and happiness halfway through--laughter, familial joy. I clung to that moment of felicity like someone might cling to a streetlamp pole in a hurricane, only to find out that it was a preview for a remake of Rosemary's Baby. The ten seconds of happiness served no purpose other than to set up more blood and gore.

The logic of all the violence is to achieve within us a sense of thrill and danger while we risk nothing in our comfortable theater chairs beyond the loss of two hours' time. The movies' monstrous creatures bring civilization to the brink of ruin, vanquished only at the last possible moment by some individual bestowed with unusual powers and courage. The hero, though suffering countless blows, emerges like the audience unscathed, lending us a pleasing feeling of immortality.

Meanwhile, outside the theater, the real world is threatened not by rapacious invaders but by the relentless liberation of tiny, odorless, invisible, normally harmless carbon molecules that accumulate in the atmosphere and oceans in concentrations that ultimately alter the earth's destiny. All of this is done not out of malice, but as a side-effect of well-meaning people seeking happiness and economic security. The enormous momentum of the changes wrought by all this unintention allows for no last minute reprieve, insuring a trauma measured not in hours but centuries.

In other words, the story that works for cinema, that danger comes from outside, is powerful and malicious, and can be overcome by last minute action, leaves people unprepared for combating or even identifying the real threats to our world.

More reality-based was the feature film, "12 Years a Slave", about a free negro, Solomon Northup, who in 1842 is lured out of his prosperous life in New York state, then kidnapped and sold as a slave in Georgia. It's based on a true story, from a book by the same name. Turns out that kidnapping free blacks to be sold into slavery was a common practice, and as Northup is sold and resold, bouncing from one plantation to another, the atrocities perpetrated in the name of picking cotton become one insult and humiliation layered upon another. Slave families are torn apart, affection and violence are joined as one in the slavers' behavior, a slave's intelligence and learning must remain hidden in order to survive, while the slavers' ignorance and vengeful insecurities are on full display. Plantation owners cherry pick quotes from the bible to defend the indefensible.

Most memorable and effective were the long, unedited shots, as in an interrupted lynching, when the lynchers flee and the slave is left alone, gasping for breath with the noose still taut around his neck, standing on tiptoes in the mud. Not even fellow slaves dare to intervene. In that lingering scene, with no sound but his constricted breathing, it is the inaction that is most terrifying of all.

We emerged from the theater shaken; I was barely able to walk. It seemed false to speak. We would rise later from the depths of feeling, enough to talk about what we had seen. I used to be comforted by the thought that the nation has come a long way since that sordid era. How could society have condoned such cruelty for so long? There have been great strides, and yet the evidence mounts that though the injustice due to the color of one's skin has been reduced, another injustice is deepening according to the timing of one's birth. We have learned to treat one another better, but the unborn generations, with no vote and no legal recognition, are the ones getting dumped on.

What one becomes aware of in the movie's plantation scenes is the vast amount of physical work that needed to be done--picking cotton, harvesting timber, cutting sugar cane. Society's physical work is now largely done by machines, and though the machines are wonderful, the rapacious extractions of fuels from the earth, and the pouring of carbon into the atmosphere, are decidedly not. To power our present day economy, the scars on a slave's back have become the scars in nature--the mountains blown up to mine coal, the Canadian forests obliterated so oil can be extracted from the underlying tarsands. And the destabilization of the climate and the acidification of the oceans are as invisible and even more lasting than the emotional and cultural trauma to slaves--trauma that has been taking generations to heal. Violence and injustice, that in "12 Years a Slave" are in full view, are now obscured by time and distance, giving the illusion of progress.

Our predicament--the need to extract ourselves from a fossil fuel economy--is much like that of John Woolman, the 18th century New Jersey Quaker who worked much of his life to end slavery. From a website honoring his legacy:
"he provided an example of non-participation in slavery. John refused to write wills, bills of sale, or any other document that perpetuated slavery. He boycotted slave products, willing to appear foolish in the eyes of others. And he capitalized on every opportunity to explain why he did not use the cotton, silver, rum, sugar or dyed clothing that others found acceptable."
"12 Years a Slave" drives home how a slave-based economy warps not only the nature of the slave but the slave-owner as well. Even those up north were compromised to the extent they used the products of an unethical economy. How different is our situation, as we seek to reduce our carbon footprints by consuming less red meat, using fewer plastic bags, and driving more efficient cars? Though we are free, we are not free to live moral lives. Every aspect of our generosity to ourselves and others--the comfort of our homes and offices, the food we eat, the trips we take--is dependent on energy that feeds a climatic sabotage of the future. Though the distant consequence allows the illusion of an ethical society, our good intentions are constantly being kidnapped, to later be used against us.

Perhaps the cruelest moment in the film is when Northup is handed a whip and given little choice but to whip a fellow slave. Even as beneficiaries of the economy, we too have no practical choice but to contribute to a massive and irreparable harm. The chairs in the movie theater provided some small comfort, but walking out of the theater into the present day did not.

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