I am going to contrast an unlikely pair of movies...Social Network and Waiting for Superman, and then use them to reflect on my participation in the largest gathering of people I have ever joined-- The Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) in Washington, DC on October 30, 2010.
Social Network is a cautionary tale of privilege, revenge, greed and malice. It is a fictionalized tale
shadowing the real life of Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg is portrayed as an arrogant Harvard student with minimal social graces. In an act of revenge against women, Zuckerberg hacks into Harvard servers and creates the sexist “facemash“ which almost gets him suspended. As others recognized his programming skill, they try to partner with him to create a new product-- a visual listing of university contacts. All of the people who crossed Mark's path in the movie were double crossed in his search for fame and wealth. The movie tale is one of free enterprise coupled with unbridled greed where one person climbs to the top stomping on all who helped him. The irony in the movie account is that the creator of the most powerful social networking tool Facebook, seems unable to friend anyone. Putting aside the issue of truth (or truthiness) of the movie account, I use it here to raise the fears that some have of unregulated capitalism. When one is driven by greed and wealth, what are the checks and balances that prevent these individuals from stealing, using, and abusing people as they get ahead? What is the damage to society that these fast lanes to the top cause?
Waiting for Superman provides a view into a different sector of society. Here we see heart-grabbing stories of the working poor rather than the carefree lives of privileged programmers. This is story of life's lotteries and those who lose out ---right from the beginning. Some schools with "quality" teachers can jumpstart kids to success. Other schools, the movie asserts are fatally damaged by TnT--tenure and teacher unions. The analysis of education in the movie is so simplistic that it strains reality. There is no discussion of how some teachers get to be talented and others are hopelessly incompetent holding on to jobs because they cannot be fired. The internal mechanics of quality education is a black box, unexplored by the movie. But for the sake of argument, I am going to accept the truthiness of the premise: A very limited number of schools have achieved high success with children from poverty, and for many hundreds of concerned parents, their only hope for their children is to win the education lottery. If they don't, then everyone loses. In this case, government is the both the promise and problem, but one is left with the sense of why is that if we know how to create some successful schools, there are not more of them? Why doesn’t government deliver?
So I am going to use the Social network story to represent unbridled greed of capitalism and the damage that is done to the social fabric, and Waiting for Superman to point to government ineptitude and the crime of wasting both human capital and of taxpayers' money.
AND NOW THE RALLY (or two)
The Rally to Keep Fear Alive, was the ironic challenge to Rally to restore sanity held at the same time and lead by the persona of Stephan Colbert. Fear-- promoted by the exaggeration of problems we face-- has been driving people to extreme actions. The more one group sells fear, the more uneasy we all get. The attack on the America by Al Queada was the beginning of a shift to life in a state of constant fear. We attacked another country because we were afraid of weapons that were not there. And now we find ourselves in a place where government no longer works because our two party system is paralyzed by opposing fears.
Half of Americans fears the greed and destruction to our environment, and social well-being which they see caused by a new breed of robber barons. These mavericks like Mark Zuckerberg in the film, take from others and leave a trail of destruction as they pursue wealth at all costs. The fear is that these corporate giants focus on amassing wealth and power by siphoning off resources in massive bonuses rather then investing in jobs, put collective safety at risk by taking less costly options, and find move operations offshore to avoid paying their share of taxes.
The other half fears the government. They see the government like the schools portrayed in the movie—not accomplishing what we expect. When government solves problems, the solutions are viewed as flawed and expensive marked with inefficiencies. They fear that solutions that are designed to work for everyone, will work for no one. Government is seen as the enemy of the economy. If these services were privatized, they would work better for those who could pay for them.
Each side seeks to "keep fear alive" with statements like... we will have death squads or a depression, our environment is on the edge of disaster or government regulations are destroying the economy, -- we can't decide if we will implode or explode.
And that brings us to the second face of the Rally—The Rally to Restore Sanity—lead by the host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart. Hundreds of thousands of Americans filled our capitol's mall with an urgent plea. We need to restore sanity. For hundreds of years we have been able to work in a two party system. We have put our trust in compromise. When intelligent people with different perspectives come together and work to minimize fear, we are able to find compromises that can move us forward. We know how to solve problems by listening, weighing and then working at a solution that recognizes the differences. We need to create moderate civil discourse moving the extremists to the their corners where they serve a role. In the center respectful people with different ideas, a will to compromise, and a belief in a two-party system need to come together to solve problems without demonizing the problem solvers. No party should be the party of “no.” We need to be the people of one great nation who value diversity and believe in sane, open, honest dialogue around issues with the goal of solving problems.
And now...technology...how does that figure in this post? It is media technology that is at the heart of our new world. We are connected in ways that make half-truths circle around us creating fires of fears. An unidentified person in India says Obama's trip cost millions of dollars and within hours some broadcasters spread this exaggeration as if it was the truth, fanning outrage. An airplane creates an unusual tail and hours of broadcast time is focused on ferreting out the truth about this mysterious secret missile. Almost everyone is Hitler. This form of media is, as Jon Stewart, said “hurting America.” We have moved from exploring different perspectives to simply promoting malicious statements or fanning fears. This past election was not about how to make American great; it was about how to disrupt and destroy people. The role of media is crucial in setting public discourse. I end with a quote from Stewart’s message at the rally using humor to help us think about the role of the media:
"The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems and bring them into focus illumining issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected flaming ant epidemic. If we amplify everything we hear nothing. "