Monday, April 19, 2010

T.H.E.Y. is Us

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." -Margaret Mead, American Cultural Anthropologist

Now that the cable has been off for a couple of months, I've watched about a dozen documentaries via NetFlix. The Nintendo Wii, as of last week, allows us to stream any "Watch Instantly" NetFlix selections directly to our TV, which is fantastic (I had been watching on my 14" laptop, so the 42" is a nice change). Anyway, I've been really struck by a common theme prevalent in the majority of these films.

I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent really quick: Is your film properly labeled a "documentary" if your thesis is predefined and you're just trying to argue a point? I think of a documentary as a film that explores an issue, preferably without bias, and demonstrates the findings in a cinematic format. I think of films that are trying their best to prove/preach something to me as "propaganda." But I digress. . .

I'll get back to the Propaganda discussion on a later date.

So I'm watching a variety of films, on subjects ranging from National Debt to Personal Debt to Wal*Mart's Destruction of the American Way-Of-Life, to Global Warming, to Nutrition, etc, etc. What strikes me most about the common message in all of these films is the real lack of a common message! Each film places the blame for one of the World's problems on some Big Corporation, some Intangible Entity (The Credit Card Companies, The Fast Food Chains, Wal*Mart, Congress, etc). The underlying idea seems to be, If only we could get rid of [insert evil international conglomerate here] we'd all be able to live happy, healthy, prosperous lives!

There is an immense danger in this way of thinking. Actually, "immense danger" is kind of putting it lightly. There is an inherent failure in this method of assessing a problem's root cause. By the logic presented in most activist "documentaries," the problem lies with these institutions and their immense power. The failure of this ideology is in assessing the root of their power. Wal*Mart is not, in and of itself, a powerful entity. Neither is MasterCard, or Monsanto, or even Congress. All of these organizations gain their power by the actions, votes, and purchasing habits of the millions of Americans who support them - knowingly or not. Wal*Mart is nothing if people stop shopping there! CitiBank credit cards cannot ruin your life if you don't use them! If people demand electric cars, companies will create them! If we refuse to purchase hormone injected, unethically fed and raised food Monsanto will be out of business!

Obviously I'm being a bit simplistic. It is extremely difficult to avoid Monsanto corn or Exxon oil given our current supply system. But it is possible. Rather than bitch and complain about all these corporate giants ruining our lives, we should look to take responsibility for our choices, for our purchases, and for our future. I can't stand Wal*Mart and what it represents, so I never shop there! It isn't that hard. I, like every other American, have been the recipient of an inordinate number of credit card offers and "pre-approvals." I throw them away. I am not powerless to the machine. I do not have to be in debt to HSBC just because they sent me an application.

There are lots of problems in our culture and in our world. I strongly dislike many of the practices of big businesses in our country and around the globe, and an awful lot of what's wrong is directly attributable to those entities. But the majority of those entities are not in-and-of-themselves powerful (there are exceptions, I'm sure). The majority of the institutions that are causing real harm, or are perpetuating real harm, are exercising authority founded upon the millions of individual decisions made by millions of Americans each and every day.

The real failure of the "Blame the Powers-that-Be" way of thinking is in deriving any type of solution. When CitiBank is the problem, how do you fix it? Legal action? Laws? How long do those take to implement? Banks have better lawyers than you or I!
However, if each of us, as individuals, are responsible for our own decisions, and the ramification of those decisions, then taking action to correct our collective issues becomes much easier. Only by understanding that the individual is responsible for changing the collective can real change ever happen.

Maybe at some point I'll do a bit of a review of the specific films I've seen lately, and my evaluation of where on the Blame The Man vs. Blame Ourselves scale the film maker lies.


Beany said...

I'll try to articulate what is circulating in my head and hope that something sensible comes out.

What I find very problematic with many of these messages (documentaries/movies/books) is that they subscribe to the same terms of debate set by those they're arguing against. Why not define a new paradigm and focus 80% of the resources/film time on that new paradigm? I'm just a leetle bit tired of the whole wallyworld is evil outlook. It just tends to leave the viewer with somewhat of a defeatist outlook at the end. Okay fine, Cargill controls all the raw materials that everyone is eating. But, what do I do with that information? Many of these documentaries leave me with a sense of hopelessness so I'm always looking for more and not really finding it.

And I never thought about the documentary defined in that way. Very interesting. I like it!

aj said...

@Beany: I agree completely! I was really excited to watch all the “documentary” content on NetFlix, but the more I watch, the more I tire of the same, dull, pointless, demoralizing formula. It is frustrating, and there are some really interesting topics covered so I’m always hoping for something enlightening and inspiring.
I’ve seen a few good ones. The gold standard, in my book, is Food Inc. But that film spoiled me, so now I measure every other “documentary” by that standard and am left constantly disappointed.