An Education in Perspective

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Perspective. We've all seen those optical illusions in which two identical circles seem to be of different sizes when they are juxtaposed against smaller or larger squares. It's all about perspective.

That's one of the points made by the film The Impossible, the true story of a family caught in the devastating tsunami that hit the Asian coast on the day after Christmas, 2004. As the Belon family fly into Thailand on Christmas Eve, they worry about normal things. Henry (Ewan McGregor) is certain that they have forgotten to set the security alarm as they left their house, and he worries that their belongings might be gone when they return home. Maria (Naomi Watts) and young son Thomas (Samuel Joslin) panic as turbulence makes the plane bounce. Sons Lucas (Tom Holland) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) squabble as young brothers are wont to do. Later that day Henry confesses to Maria that his job is threatened by an up-and-coming coworker. "How will we survive if I lose my job?" he wonders.

It's natural to worry about these kinds of things, of course. Under normal circumstances, people would be foolish not to worry about protecting homes and jobs. And children, for that matter. When Maria mentions to a hotel worker, "I'm a doctor, but right now I'm staying home to raise the boys," the worker responds with a smile, "Oh! You've been promoted."

But when the circles of financial insecurity and airline turbulence are pictured beside the gigantic squares of a 9.1 earthquake and its raging tsunami, perspective changes. Suddenly the circle of family is the only one that matters.

The Impossible is emotionally intense, ranging from gutwrenching to heartbreaking to heartwarming as the tale of devastation and survival unfolds. The Belon family is relaxing beside the hotel pool on a sunny day when the debris laden flood suddenly engulfs them, sweeping them in different directions. Underwater scenes of the flooding are dramatic and claustrophobic, conveying well the sense of panic one would feel while drowning. Miraculously, Maria and Lucas emerge from the flood near one another, and they frantically struggle to stay together as they are pushed forward by the rushing water. Maria is badly hurt when her leg and chest are gashed by debris. When the water finally subsides, we see that the back of her leg is torn to the bone and the skin of her thigh is hanging like a slab of meat. She needs help. But so do thousands of others. And they are the lucky ones. They're alive. We see scenes of survivors looking desperately for loved ones at hospitals and makeshift refugee camps, even searching through piles of corpses. Just to know.

Other values change as well. Certain commodities cannot be replaced. Cellphone juice, for instance. In a disaster like this, everyone wants to call home, hoping that other surviving family members will have done the same thing. By leaving messages with family back home, they might be able to locate those others who survived. In this film, several people have cellphones, but no one has a way to recharge the batteries. Consequently, cellphone power becomes irreplaceable — and irreplaceable commodities become priceless. Money becomes virtually useless, because money's only true value is in the commodity or service for which it can be traded. So how can one obtain necessities?

After the tsunami subsides, Henry meets a couple near the hotel who have not been hurt by the flood or separated from their loved ones. They just want to get home. When Henry asks to use the man's phone to call his father-in-law and see if Maria has tried to contact him, the couple refuse. "We only have a little power left, and we need it for ourselves," the man says. And he's right. Under the circumstances, I might react the same way.

Later, however, Henry meets Karl (Sonke Mohring), whose family is also missing. Both of them are desperate, lonely, and afraid. Karl has a phone with a small charge left. He offers Henry his phone. Money is useless, but trades are still made: Karl offers compassion, and Henry pays with gratitude. It seems to be a fair exchange for both. Meanwhile, those who were least hurt by the tsunami needed neither compassion nor gratitude. They could afford to hoard their juice, and no one commandeers their phones.

In the end this is a film about what matters. And what matters is not home security alarms or jobs in office buildings but family. The bond between Maria and young Lucas as he becomes the caretaker of his badly injured mother is tender and heart wrenching. The desperation felt by Henry as he searches for his missing family, and the grief expressed by others whose families are lost forever, is intensely moving. Bring a hanky. In fact, bring several.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Impossible," directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Apaches Entertainment, 2012, 114 minutes.



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Losing the Battle, Spinning the War

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March was a time of judgment on the American official language — the language spoken by the people considered most qualified to sling words around: politicians, media operatives, public educators of all kinds. The official language was weighed in the balance, and found wanting. It proved grossly unequal to the challenge of such mighty events as the Japanese earthquake, labor unrest in Wisconsin, and the political embarrassments of government radio. And then along came Libya.

As usual, the commander in chief led the nation into linguistic battle on most of the fronts available; and as usual, he was beaten in every skirmish. About Wisconsin he did what he ordinarily does; he tried to get into the fight, while also trying to stay out of it. A violent proponent of unions, and an eager recipient of union funds, he still hopes to win the electoral votes of all those states that are in financial turmoil because of the demands of public employee unions. So he acknowledged the states’ budget problems, and then he said, “It is wrong to use those budget cuts to vilify workers.” A little later, when asked to state Obama’s position on the continuing turmoil in Wisconsin, his press agent repeated that inane remark.

Of course, nobody was vilifying workers, even if you are crazy enough to equate workers with government employees. What some people were doing — and suddenly, such a lot of people — was trying to keep the unions that represent people employed by state and local governments from bankrupting their employers. Obama’s feckless verbal feint would have turned into a factual rout if some White House correspondent had asked the obvious question: “What vilification are you referring to?” But nobody seemed able to do that.

The commander in chief led the nation into linguistic battle on most of the fronts available; and as usual, he was beaten in every skirmish.

Meanwhile, union shock troops were occupying the capitol of Wisconsin, trying to prevent its legislature from voting. These vilified workers caused over seven million dollars of damage. Yet even Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, a rightwing personality on a rightwing channel, was willing to call the Wisconsin actions “peaceful.” You see what I mean about the official language not being adequate to the crisis? Suppose I came over to your house with a few thousand friends chanting obscene slogans against you, and we camped in your living room for weeks, attempting to force you to do what we wanted you to do — would you call that peaceful? Of course not, but only one person in the media, a volunteer bloggist whom Yahoo! News, in a fit of common sense, allowed on its site, made a point like that. Congratulations, bloggist. You have linguistic qualifications that none of the media professionals can equal. But they’re the ones who are getting paid.

Among this country’s most influential purveyors of the American official language is National Public Radio. I’m calling it that because it is currently attempting to deny its identity as government radio by calling itself by a set of non-referential initials: it just wants to be known as good ‘ol “NPR.” Well, sorry, alphabetical agency: we all know the smell of a government medium. It comes from the money it tries to cadge from the taxpayers.

In early March a highly paid government-radio official was caught on video telling some “Muslim” potential donors that “NPR” would actually be better off without government help, presumably because it would no longer have to pay any attention to the majority of the American people, whom he suggested were ignorant and stupid and susceptible to the racist propaganda of people who actually, believe it or not, would like a smaller government. He identified the tragedy of America as the fact that its educated elite (clearly typified by himself) was so small and uninfluential. Those were the views that Mr. Ron Schiller, senior vice president of National Public Radio, expressed concerning the citizens of the United States, who (perhaps tragically) put the “N” in “NPR.”

Suppose I came over to your house with a few thousand friends chanting obscene slogans against you, and we camped in your living room for weeks, attempting to force you to do what we wanted you to do — would you call that peaceful?

Schiller was forced to resign immediately. His brief public statement assesses his behavior in this way: “While the meeting I participated in turned out to be a ruse, I made statements during the course of the meeting that are counter to NPR’s values and also not reflective of my own beliefs. I offer my sincere apology to those I offended.”

Again we see the limitations of the official language, which proved utterly incapable of specifying what went wrong with Mr. Schiller, who might be offended by his remarks, or why anybody might be offended. In short, the official language was incapable of answering any question that anyone who read his statement would probably ask. And it created new and damaging questions: Why did you make statements that were not reflective of your own beliefs — that is, lie? By the way, what are your beliefs? Do you actually believe that other Americans are smart but you are dumb, yet for some reason you keep maintaining the opposite? If so, how does that happen?What were you thinking, anyway? But no one in the high-class media found the words to ask such simple questions.

Now we come to the terrible events in Japan. Again, Obama was in the vanguard of our linguistic forces. And again . . . Here’s what he said about the earthquake and tsunami, on March 11 — in prepared remarks, presumably edited by numerous White House word wizards, who were struggling to get exactly the right tone. “This,” Obama said, “is a potentially catastrophic disaster.”

Gosh, this thing is so bad, something really bad may happen.

When the president is attacked and captured by his own language, what can we expect of his assistant priests, the writers and readers of the “news” media? The answer is, Even worse. And we got it.

Particularly impressive was the horror-movie approach, with the Japanese cast as Godzilla: “Operators at the Fukushima Daiichi plant's Unit 1 scrambled ferociously to tamp down heat and pressure inside the reactor” (AP report, March 11). I have trouble picturing anyone tamping down heat orpressure, but it’s even harder for me to picture someone doing it ferociously, unless that someone is a monster trying to rescue its offspring from the accursed humans’ nuclear experiments.

But maybe the ferocious beings were actually the talking heads of American TV. On the selfsame day, March 11, Fox News’ late-night guy was calling the earthquake and tsunami “one of the worst natural disasters in the history of mankind.” Fox News’ Rick Folbaum called it “the fifth worst earthquake in the history of earthquakes, folks.” Yet again, the official language just isn’t up to the task. It ought to be able to distinguish between “the hundred years since earthquake records have been scientifically kept” and “the history of earthquakes” or “the history of mankind,” but evidently it can’t. Under communism, hundreds of thousands of people in China lost their lives in natural disasters — but we have no words to speak of them, do we? Or maybe, just maybe, we never read a book, so we don’t know nothin’ ‘bout things like that. In either case, the problem lies with words. We can’t use them, and we can’t read them either.

After Folbaum made his immortal declaration, his colleague, Marianne Rafferty, consoled the audience by promising, “We will keep everyone up-to-dated.” Would anyone who had ever read a book—I mean a real book, with real words—say a thing like that? What would you have to be paid to make such a statement before an audience of educated people, or even just people?

The worst thing is that words are related, in certain ways, to thoughts; so if you don’t have thoughts . . . Some examples:

“Is Japan getting the assistance it needs?” That’s the question that Wolf Blitzer asked the Japanese ambassador to the United States (March 12, CNN). I thought it was a little strange that Japan, one of the richest and most technologically advanced nations on the planet, should be the object of that question. But never mind. In reply, the ambassador noted, somewhat vaguely, that his prime minister had ordered one-fourth of the nation’s armed forces to help the people currently starving a moderate distance north of Tokyo. That apparently satisfied Blitzer. He didn’t say what you would have said: “What! Why isn’t he mobilizing the entire army?” He didn’t say what you would have expected him to say: “Wait a minute! What’s your God damned army for, anyhow? We can get our correspondents into the disaster zone — why can’t you get your army in? And if you can’t, why don’t you air-drop supplies? In short, Mr. Ambassador, what the hell are you talking about?” But I guess Blitzer couldn’t think of those questions. After all, he’s merely one of America’s most famous interviewers.

Marianne Rafferty consoled the audience by promising, “We will keep everyone up-to-dated.” Would anyone who had ever read a book—I mean a real book, with real words—say a thing like that?

“There’s the sense that they’re in this together, and they’re just trying to get along as best they can.” That’s what CNN’s Anderson Cooper said on March 14, describing Japanese people waiting hours for government water, only to have an official tell them that the government had run out of water and they would have to wait an undetermined number of additional hours in line. He liked the way the victims remained stolidly in that line. He thought it was good that they didn’t complain. Yes, in subsequent days of reporting, he did begin doing what any normal information-processor would have done right away: he criticized the Japanese government for its lies and incompetence, at least about the lurking threat that we all fear, nuclear reactors. But he never questioned his favorable view of the people’s passivity (the media word was “calm”). It just wasn’t in him to make the connection between the people’s passivity and the government’s incompetence. Again, he didn’t have the words. I assume that he didn’t have the thoughts, either.

Here’s another instance. “You wonder how any government could deal with such a thing,” intoned Shepard Smith, a Fox News figure momentarily stationed in Japan, on the evening of March 15. He was referring to the combination of the nuclear issue and the disaster relief issue, both of which the Japanese government was supposed to “deal with.” Personally, I didn’t “wonder” about that. I suspect that you didn’t either. Any responsible government could find out how to deal with such problems. There are known procedures for addressing dangers in nuclear power plants, and disaster relief is not an unknown science. This wasn’t World War II. But maybe the Japanese official class is like our own — so tied up in its own linguistic incapacities that it can’t formulate an efficient thought.

Now to Libya. I’ve recently written two reflections about Libya for this journal, so I can hit the ground running. What everyone with a brain is still laughing about is President Obama’s address to the nation on March 28. Generally, watchers identified the most risible part of the speech as Obama’s denial that he intended to get rid of Qaddafi. Admittedly, he wanted Qaddafi gone; yet, he said, “broadening our mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” He couldn’t find the words to say “ousting Qaddafi,” so he said “regime change.” If you’ve got the magic decoder, you’ll understand this. But you still may not understand his policy.

By denying his lust for regime change, he costumed himself as a dove. Unfortunately, that made the hawks wonder whether he really, truly, wanted Qaddafi out. (They’d heard double-talk before.) So on the next day, he back went on TV, to express his satisfaction that the members of Qaddafi’s inner circle supposedly “understand that the noose is tightening.” Ah! Now we are the executioner with the noose. So both the hawks and the doves are happy, right? Well, maybe not.

The vocabulary is missing. The official language has no words for “war,” “making war,” or anything else that Obama was obviously doing.

You can tell when somebody is really dumb, or is really desperate for the attention of people in Washington: that person is eager to go on TV and defend nonsense like this, which nobody else could possibly defend. Thus Bill Richardson, once Clinton’s ambassador to Monica Lewinsky, then governor of New Mexico, now television expert on constitutional law, informing CNN that Obama was acting purely in order “to avert a humanitarian disaster” when he started bombing Libya. Asked whether the president shouldn’t have consulted with someone in Congress before going to war, Richardson said there was no need: “This is not a war powers situation.”

You see! You see! There it is again. The vocabulary is missing. The official language has no words for “war,” “making war,” or anything else that Obama was obviously doing. So we are forced to watch this strange, slow shifting of vehicles around the used car lot, as political salesmen try to find some piece of junk that the suckers will buy: “this is not a war powers situation.

Imagine Libyan planes and rockets bombarding the New Jersey coast. Would that be a war powers situation? Would it turn into one if its goal were regime change? Or would it still be a mission to avert a humanitarian disaster, and therefore immune from legislative review?

But here’s the real stuff. In his address to the nation on March 28, President Obama tried to calculate the scale of the humanitarian disaster he was trying to avert, without the help of long (or even short) consultations with Congress: “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."

I know, I know — you can’t resist the unintentional humor of “a city nearly the size of Charlotte,” as if anybody knew, or cared, how large Charlotte (North Carolina?) might be. The desired impression was: Whoa! That big, dude? Then I guess we gotta go to war! The real impression was: Not!

But there are so many other things to notice:

The image that simply makes no sense: try to picture a massacre that reverberates.

The modesty that presidents get whenever they know they’re in trouble, and “I” just naturally transforms itself to “we.” (Were YOU waiting? Did YOU know?)

The Victorian prissiness of “suffer a massacre.”

The pathological specificity of “one more day” and “nearly the size.”

The moral stupidity of “stained the conscience of the world,” which literally means that if some bad thing happens, everyone in the world becomes guilty of it. (All right; you think I’m just being sarcastic. Then tell me what the phrase actually means.)

And finally, the breakdown in thought and grammar evident in the goofy progression of verbs: “If we waited . . . Benghazi could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated.” To see what’s happened here, insert some normal words into the various grammatical slots. Like this: “I knew that if I waited, you could write me a check that would have made me rich.” Huh?

Anyone who knew grammar would have fixed that one up, but as we know, Obama, the world-famous author, has no knowledge of grammar, never having mastered even the like-as distinction, let alone verb progression. But examine his inability to distinguish the meanings of “could” and “would.” The president was forced to admit that he had made a decision, that what he did wasn’t inevitable, and that he wasn’t, like Yahweh, absolutely certain about the future. That’s how “could” got into that abominable sentence. Yet at the same time, he wanted to imply that he was certain about the future: why else could, or might, “we” have made the decision we made? So he put in “would.”

And that solved his problem. So far as he could tell.

Don’t blame him. He speaks only the official language.




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Are Crises Good for the Economy?

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Could Japan’s latest crisis help it economically?

Those who believe in Keynesian economics might answer yes. For them, destruction is creation because it “creates jobs” and otherwise “stimulates the economy.” Taking an opposite, more rational, view economists of the Austrian school would either laugh Keynesian theory off, or if they were more considerate, expound Bastiat’s broken window fallacy: there must be something wrong with the idea that if we all go around breaking windows, somehow we’ll be better off, because the windows will have to be repaired. The problem with notions like this is that we see the creation of a new window; we see money going into the workmen’s hands; but we do not see all the beneficial projects that cannot go forward because the money for them has been spent on mere repairs.

The broken window fallacy notwithstanding, there seems to be something that enables crises to revitalise an economy. While crises destroy wealth, sustained crises also weaken government, a hostile, anti-development institution. It is the latter event that eventually can have a huge favorable affect on society.

This is what India has experienced.

I lived in Bhopal in 1984 when the Union Carbide gas leakage swept the city, killing thousands and thousands of people within the hour. Hundreds of thousands were seriously sick. The same year, Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister, was killed by her bodyguards, producing a very weak government. Massive Hindu-Sikh riots occurred all over the country. Sikh terrorism in support of the separation of Punjab and troubles in Kashmir kept us on edge for the rest of the decade. Then, in 1991, Rajiv Gandhi, who had just completed his term as Prime Minister, was killed, presumably by the same ammunition that he had supplied to the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lanka-based terrorist organization. Around the same time, help from the USSR to India ceased, as the USSR ceased to exist. Nineteen ninety-two was a year of major Hindi-Muslim riots all over India. Massacres took place that competed with what Rwanda had experienced in terms of brutality. The economy was in a terrible shape, and India came very close to a default on its international commitments. In short, India was crumbling in 1992 and the government was extremely weak.

Let’s look at what was behind some of these events.

Punjab was not only the breadbasket of India, but huge fund transfers were happening from Punjab to the rest of the country. Supposedly bad elements in the Punjabi society, who had earlier been encouraged by Indira Gandhi, took leadership in the quest for a separate state, and the Indian government’s response was pathetic. Indira Gandhi sent army commandoes to attack and occupy the holy place of the Sikhs, the Golden Temple. A sane approach would have been for the Indian government to cut off the water and food supply to the temple. In that event, the terrorists (if that is what they actually were) would eventually have walked out without a shot being fired. But Gandhi wanted to humiliate the Sikhs. So her humiliated Sikh bodyguards killed her. Thereafter leaders in the Congress Party orchestrated anti-Sikh riots. India was in flames.

When a crisis hits, the first thing that fails and escapes is the government.

(One of the biggest regrets that I live with is the fact that in a fit of nationalistic fervor, I sent all my savings, which for a teenager in a poor country were a mere couple of dollars, to help the families of the dead army commandoes.)

The Bhopal gas tragedy happened in the place where I lived. I was awakened very early in the morning by the sounds of sirens and a smell in the air. Until then, ambulances and fire brigades, if they existed, usually did not use sirens, because they were usually not in working order. The working sirens were on the cars of all the petty politicians and bureaucrats. Reaching the rooftop of my house to see what was happening, I saw a stream of cars with sirens and emergency lights leaving the city — they were all running away. The people of Bhopal were soon to learn that when a crisis hits, the first thing that fails and escapes is the government. Not only were the government and the army (which has a huge existence just outside Bhopal) no longer in sight for a very long time, but given that most of the services — medical, water and electricity, sanitation, banks, intercity transportation and railway — were in the monopolistic hands of the government, it became extremely difficult for the city to get back on its feet. Comfortably sitting hundred of kilometers away from Bhopal, the head of the city was issuing statements that nothing was wrong, while carcasses rotted on the streets. He was making absurd decisions, such as banning the sale of gasoline to stop people from leaving the city.

At the same time, the Indian government was financing and arming Tamil Tigers. Prabhakarn, the Chief of Tamil Tigers, was hosted in Delhi. Starting his pro-Tamil Tigers mission, Rajiv Gandhi sent a naval ship, the Island Pride, a name chosen to humiliate Sri Lanka. It seems, in his naïveté (something that had killed his mother), Rajiv was trying to earn Indian votes. The Tigers, a poisonous snake that Rajiv had encouraged, eventually bit him with his own ammunition.

Given the weakened Congress party, Hindu fanatics were growing in power. They were soon to demolish a mosque in the city of Ayodhya, in 1992. The result was widespread massacres in many parts of the country. Distrust between Hindus and Muslims was at its peak. On top of it the economy was in shambles. It seemed that India would only get worse.

I do not wish to minimize the suffering caused by the events of 1984 to 1992. But in hindsight, it seems that something else was happening. By seriously weakening a cancerous growth, the government, the time of troubles created an opportunity to revitalise the society and the economy. It formed the lurid background of what is now a thriving economy. Indian government, the cancer, never recovered its control over society. The private economy had a breathing space, a space in which it could grow. It was as if a strong chemotherapy had been performed. The government was too confused and lost to control the IT industry, when it began to sprout.

The broken window fallacy is still a fallacy, an irrational approach to understanding economics. Destruction cannot be construction. Massacres are just that. There is no humanity in it. But crises can do one thing very important. While destroying the healthy tissue, they can also weaken the cancer, the government. Crises convey to those who survive the important idea that they must not trust in the government, for government is the first to leave when a crisis hits. Crisis teaches self-reliance.




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