Friday, July 01, 2005

War of the Worlds: why my reaction?

Noticing how Spielberg’s War of the Worlds affected me (see yesterday's post) has led me to wonder why. Why did I see the alien invaders as the American military when no pretty much one else did? Hmmm...well...I tend not to put much effort into political action or debate and view the world as pretty much screwed no matter what we do (hence my attraction to the trailers for this film that showed a hopeless doomsday). Last fall it was uncharacteristic of me to throw myself into the Kerry presidential campaign, but I did it because I saw a clear connection between my personal action and the greater good of the world. When that connection turned out to be not nearly enough to turn the election, I withdrew back into my usual self-absorption. Since then my blog has remained fixated, for the most part, on the problems and obsessions of one insecure, self-hating minority spinster, struggling to attain self-expression, financial solvency and some degree of sexual activity.

But the 2005 version of War of the Worlds has shocked my sensibility and forced my attention on how my country conducts itself in the international arena, a bizarre thing for a Spielberg movie to do, especially since Spielbergy clearly sees his movie as a possible allegory for us as the victims, not the invaders.

Why did my inner mind see Tom Cruise as a terrified National Guardsman running for his life from enemy fire while his comrades explode around him? Why did I see an Iraq landscape in the scenes of destruction? Why did the horrific yet indifferent cruelty of the aliens remind me of the American military’s tendency to dehumanize the very people whose “hearts and minds” it’s supposed to be “winning?”

Because I live with the guilt of an impotent liberal. I know the world desperately needs a different America than the one it has now, I know change only happens when people like me stand up and demand a new direction, and yet I just can’t see what is to be gained from even my slightest political effort. And I’m talking about what is to be gained by me as well the world.

So my apathetic inaction stems from my belief that even when I throw everything I’ve got into it (as in the last five days of canvassing for John Kerry’s presidency), nothing I do can really make a difference at all. So why bother?

But the guilt of being a citizen of the United States festers. It’s the guilt of knowing that around the world innocent people are dying every day and the United States is directly responsible. It’s the guilt of knowing that there is some link, however corroded and ugly, between who I vote for and U.S. foreign policy, between what I buy and how many children are exploited for labor, between what I believe and what the world looks like to millions who live in poverty. It’s an overwhelming guilt so most days I shove it to the back of my mind and pretend it’s not there; I pretend that being a good person in my small daily life is good enough; I pretend that what I refuse to know won’t hurt anybody. But the guilt festers.

And look at what finally brought the pus to the surface: a Spielberg movie conceived as a modern-day allegory for the hostile world in which we hapless Americans find ourselves, a right-wing, toadying propaganda film designed to stoke our fear and show us how justified that fear might turn out to be.

As a registered Democrat, a leftist hot-head and the daughter of Chicano community activists, I couldn’t see War of the Worlds as anything but a state-of-the-art masterpiece of metaphor, showing me how it feels to be hunted by U.S. “peacekeeping” forces. I saw every scene of slaughter, every adrenaline-draining chase, every cruel capture and consumption from the point of view of a hunted people with no one to take up their cause against a foreign presence. The fact that in the real world that presence is often us produced for me an exquisite horror of self-recognition. There was no separating myself from the cold, ugly exterminators of Spielberg’s movie. I felt guilty sympathy for people I should be helping, not empathy with people I can imagine being a part of.

Am I the only one who felt this way? I hope not, but have yet to see evidence that I'm not. H.G. Wells - a British subject - originally wrote War of the Worlds as an allegory criticizing British colonialism. How I wish Spielberg had the consciousness to use the story similarly, as a way for us to examine American “nation-building.” I still think it could be, but only if we start talking about the movie in that context.

What do I do now with my animated liberal guilt? I don’t know. Get those conversations going?

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