Liberal Interventionism & Space Esperanto

30 Apr

On Thursday, I had the opportunity to attend a 35-mm screening of 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still, a film I’d actually not yet seen, although my penchant for bad Keanu Reeves vehicles had previously brought me in contact with the forced, formulaic 2008 remake.

While many of the plot points have since become the stuff of sci-fi cliche, it still has considerable charms – the central acting duo is superb, with a nuance performance from Patricia Neal’s and Michael Rennie’s bemused but earnest professorly Klaatu seemingly planting the seeds for both Spock and David Bowie. Compared to any movie made for mass consumption today, it gets straight to the point, the premise being well established within the first three minutes, mercifully sparing the audience from the boilerplate character introduction that has become de rigueur. The dramatic event that serves as the film’s namesake is also refreshingly low-key: most of the Earth’s electric devices stop working for 30 minutes, something that no-one would bat an eye at in a more contemporary sci-fi film.

Of course, The Day The Earth Stood Still isn’t really a science fiction thriller, it’s a classic Cold War “why can’t we all get along” nuclear-anxiety lecture piece. However, the mechanism through which this lesson is imparted by Klaatu (the assembled species of the other planets apparently speak Esperanto) works to remind us of the common ideological roots of neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism, and how the Beltway view of the world has developed over the last 50 years.

Klaatu comes to visit “in peace and with goodwill,” but the message he  delivers at the end of the film contains an odd sort of peace. He states that the peoples of other planets now live without violence between them, but if the aggression and war that humans currently practice on Earth is brought out beyond its atmosphere, they will have no choice but to destroy the entire species, perhaps the whole planet, although what exactly all other species of flora and fauna have to do with it is never made clear.

This kind of peace – be nice or be destroyed – seems to have become the guiding principle of a military superpower which for the last few decades has been utterly incompetent in attempts to negotiate the prevention or termination of violent conflict elsewhere in the world, but has, with some regularity, been willing to summon the Iron Smiley Face of armed intervention, from the troubled actions in the Balkans and Libya to the clearly deranged neo-imperalist invasion of Iraq. (While there were enough commercial and geostrategic interests in the later case for the idea of “intervention” to be bypassed entirely, enough of the people who planned and supported the invasion believed it for it to be relevant.)

What’s more interesting is the method by which the other planets came to live in peace in the first place – they built robots that would destroy them if they acted aggressively against each other. So, while The Day The Earth Stood Still might seem to be a cry against the madness of a nuclear-armed world, the answer presented in the plot is actually just another form of mutually assurred destruction. A galaxy of Gort-enforced order reminds one of America’s position in today’s world a technical sense, as we, too, are now instructing machines to enforce a moral order, as with the increasingly visible unmanned aerial vehicles that run illegal CIA assissination campaigns over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen,  and now appearing over Libya (or, leaving the UAV’s aside, as with a military whose freedom of action is based entirely on technological superiority).

Klaatu’s solution to violence shares with the dominant Western order a basic inability to craft solutions with tools besides those which created the problem under consideration. This conceptual trap leads to the tremendous waste of using foreign occupation to try to fix Afghani problems that have in large part been caused by decades of foreign occupation, the waste of spending over $500,000 per missle to destroy miltiary vehicles on Libyan highways that the major Western powers were only all too eager to sell to Qadaffi mere years ago.

50 years, ago, the well meaning American idea of  peace was a world of robots poised to violently punish the violent, and it’s only too easy to see how that contradiction has remained and festered in the national imagination since.


3 Responses to “Liberal Interventionism & Space Esperanto”

  1. Trent Diamanti May 4, 2011 at 11:01 AM #

    Great little piece! Lots of great writing: “Michael Rennie’s bemused but earnest professorly Klaatu seemingly planting the seeds for both Spock and David Bowie.” and “Of course, The Day The Earth Stood Still isn’t really a science fiction thriller, it’s a classic Cold War “why can’t we all get along” nuclear-anxiety lecture piece.”

    I also really appreciate you pointing out the irony of how the good guys doing the lecturing in a nuclear-anxiety lecture piece use basically the same means (threat of devestating violence) to hold humans in check as we’ve already been using to keep ourselves in check. An interesting wrinkle in that take on the movie is that at the time the it came out, MAD was a mixed conventional and nuclear affair, as 1951 was only two years after the first Soviet nuclear test (and the only way for the Soviets to get nukes to the continental U.S. was on one way suicide missions using a meager strategic bomber force) and the U.S. hardly had the capability to annihilate the entire population of the Soviet Union. If anything, the movie seems like a sort of prophetic endorsement of the future status quo when, by the late 60’s, the U.S. and Soviet Union amassed sufficient nuclear weapons to make MAD a reality and ensure international stability. Looking back, the movie seems like more of a response to the Berlin crisis and a feeling that WWIII could break out right after WWII than the circumstances that brought us Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe.

    Finally, yes there is an ugly contradiction in using threats of violence and violence itself to keep the peace (glibly compared to “fucking for virginity”), but I feel like it’s more of an abstract contradiction than a real life one. If the stakes are high enough, deterrence works. I don’t have a problem with Osama being killed, even though it’s hypocritical in the sense that killing him was motivated by outrage over killing. I don’t see any reason not to celebrate the deaths of despicable people. You gotta be smart about it, to be sure, and not allow an out-of-control culture of revenge and killing to be fostered, but hey, whatever works is…whatever works. My main objection to Afghanistan and Iraq is that those were the wrong tools for the job (or, more precisely, it was a dumb job to undertake) not that those tools should be thrown out of the kit altogether. Ya feel me?

    • TV ecHo May 4, 2011 at 10:50 PM #

      I definitely agree that The Day The Earth Stood Still isn’t a wry commentary on mutally assurred destruction, more a product of a certain mindset that lead to it, albeit an idealistic one.

      It’s that mindset that also sometimes fails to see that “whatver works” doesn’t always work out as planned. The issue is not simply that using violence against violence is aesthetically displeasing; grave problems can arise when one fails to anticipate the negative effects that so regularly accompany the use of violence. That’s the idealistic American mindset reflected in the Gort solution: in the universe of Day the Earth Stood Still, there’s no hint at all that being policed by all-powerful killer robots doesn’t work perfectly, not really any shadow of ambiguity about the arrangement. While the mutually assurred destruction of nuclear weapons did work out somewhat well, if you figure that without them, more people would have died in a great power war than the millions who died in proxy wars (or that those who died in proxy wars might have died in internal conflicts anyway) and if you assume that none of the nuclear weapons still in existence will ever be used, it’s unlikely that the hypothetical mutually assured destruction of robot police would work out as smoothly as is suggested by the film. My main point was, I suppose, that the culture that produced and embraced a work so curiously unreflective went on to police the world with violence in a similarly unreflective manner.

      Going to war to stop war, killing to stop killing – perhaps the metaphor of a “tool” to fit a “job” doesn’t really apply. It’s more like moving around pieces in some piece of out-of-control equipment, betting that if move some bombs to a certain place at a certain time, fewer people will die than would otherwise. Adjustments are being made, but no external tools are being used to solve the problem: you’ve still got an out-of-control death machine.

      Discussing Osama Bin Laden specifically, my primary qualms are legal instead of moral. Killing him would be justifiable if he violently resisted arrest, or if it was thought that he would soon be directly involved in a terrorist act that could only be averted by stopping him at any cost. Otherwise, it’s really just violating Pakistani sovereignity – something Pakistanis are already very sensitive about – in order to carry out a revenge killing. While the rule of law is imperfect, I’d much rather see its processes carried out instead of extrajudicial murder. Also distressing is the legal argumentation that the White House is falling back on, that Bin Laden was a combatant in a war between al-Qaeda and the United States, which merely continues the unacceptable and destructive fiction of the War on Terror.
      Yes, I do have some moral objections as well, as I don’t think revenge is a form of emotional release that’s ultimately healthy, we should instead collectively try to fully accept that the tragedies of the past cannot be undone or somehow balanced out. (And killing him won’t bring back our god damn honey.)

      • Trent Diamanti May 9, 2011 at 10:44 AM #

        Ahhh I see I was missing some of your points, instead projecting my own internal discussions onto your piece. Thinking about the use of violence as something that works enough for the means to justify the ends, what I had in mind more was conventional deterrence and the use of credible threats to violence as a way to keep the peace, rather than the third-world adventures advocated by neo-cons and liberal interventionists. Osama was a bad example of mine as well, since I presented it and thought of it at the time as a false choice between killing or leaving alone when he def could’ve been brought before an international tribunal or something. It’s not like the U.S. was the only country fighting Al-Qaeda. I personally take Qaddafi and Assad blaming their revolts on Al Qaeda as a sign that Al Qaeda is doomed to be ultra-fringe forever world wide. Speaking of the U.S. infringing on other nations sovereignty you gotta see FastFive. Comedy of the year, especially when the Rock and his team roll into Brazil and run amok with no Brazilian oversight. It’s so “I just MADE it my jurisdiction!”, but in a foreign country! Lolz! Also they survive like a 400 ft fall into water, LOLZ AGAIN. I think me and Amy ruined the movie for all the people in the theater taking it seriously with our non stop laughter.

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