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George Sibley: Down on the Ground with Old Movies

I know this is the music issue, but there are a lot of other things kicking around in my mind these days. So my musical focus for this column is going to be short and sweet. Last week, Netflix failed us one night, so my partner Maryo and I watched Casablanca for about the fifth or tenth time. One of the great moments of that movie is when the Nazis are singing their Horst Wessel song in Rick’s Café Américain, and the resistance hero trying to escape to America gets the band to play the French national anthem; the crowd of Free French and other hangers-on drown out the bad guys. Where’s Victor Laszlo when we need him?
That’s what music ought to do for people, it seems to me – unite them when they need uniting. I find myself dredging for inspirational music these days, or inspirational anything; but it may be that January, especially this January, is no time to expect inspiration, time to just hunker down and wait for the planet to again remember to tilt us toward the sun. A good time too to think about old movies, maybe not so old as Casablanca (1943), but old enough so it’s a little surprising to find them still current, or current again, today.
I’m not thinking about The Manchurian Candidate, although that twice-made movie (1962 and 2004) was back in the public eye in December because our new president espouses admiration for a Russian dictator whose minions allegedly interfered electronically in the presidential election. This was seen by some as a parallel to the movie story of an American hero who was brainwashed by the Chinese Communists into serving as an agent for them. That seems to me to be too far a stretch – to think that Donald Trump could be made to cleave to any ideology more complex than “Look out for Number One.”
His admiration for the Russian autocrat is troublesome, however, since he also expresses admiration for other dictators operating today. The resumés of those he is surrounding himself with – staff, cabinet, etc. – suggest that he truly believes he will be allowed to ride his self-proclaimed landslide into a similar autocratic posture here, issuing executive orders and edicts that will be followed immediately out of respect, fear, or some obsequious combination. There is no indication anywhere that he understands democratic process.
We recently did, however, stumble onto another old movie that seems much more relevant to the situation unfolding in America today. That’s the movie Network, a 1976 pre-internet movie about the mainstream media – which are today grappling with the justifiable accusation of being responsible for Donald Trump’s election.
Network is the story of an aging network news anchor, Howard Beale, who is being fired and goes bonkers on the air. His swan song – done in pajamas and a raincoat – culminates in a challenge to his listeners (a large audience because he’d previously promised to commit suicide on the air) to get up, go to their windows, and shout to the world: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” And millions do it. So many millions that the network rehires him and turns his news program into a show that could be said to satirize Fox News and the Limbaugh/Hannity phenomenon – except that it precedes them by several decades. (Actually, Paddy Chayevsky’s script is too intelligent to really anticipate the depths to which television journalism has taken us all.)
My reason for bringing up this excellent 1976 movie here, though, is to remind us how far back the white middle-class anger that elected Trump goes. It has at least four major roots, some going back into the 1960s. One taproot grew out of the civil rights turbulence of the ‘60s and the perception – exploited by Nixon and the Republicans in their “Southern Strategy” – that equality for blacks and browns somehow meant whites became less equal, a feeling that persists despite the contradicting economic and social data. Another root grew out of the dawning awareness of environmental degradation – with all ensuing regulation being propagandized to the working class by their employing industries as bad for business and an excuse for layoffs. The movement of American industry from expensive (union) labor toward cheaper (non-union) labor, first internally North to South, then out of the country entirely, was another root. And a fourth was the energy crisis that developed in the mid-1970s following the OPEC Arab oil embargo that doubled the price of gasoline in a matter of weeks – if you could get it at all – and deflated the American illusion of limitless abundance. The white middle class perceived all of these things as personal assaults, and the Archie Bunkers all got mad as hell.
Ronald Reagan, remember, was the first presidential candidate to successfully exploit that anger – and then more or less ignore it once he got elected. By the end of his presidency, Reagan had effectively taken down the part of the white middle class that was engaged in wage labor. The unions were essentially broken, the migration of manufacturing toward cheap foreign labor was well underway, the savings and loan debacle presaged the turn of the finance industry toward predatory greed-is-good capitalism, and the middle class had been sundered into an upper middle class (the professionals and petit bourgeois) and a deteriorating lower middle class (wage-labor workers), with the gap between them widening ever since.

[InContentAdTwo] That anger, which probably should have been directed at Reagan but was instead directed at the black and brown underclass the angry whites were beginning to resemble, has festered for 40 years now, with numerous presidential and congressional candidates “feeling their pain” without doing much about it when or if they were elected. The civil rights and environmental laws were, respectively, too constitutionally right and too necessary for health to just be undone, although both are being constantly chipped and whittled away on. The globalization movement was too powerful to be reversed; the energy challenge grew larger as the emerging consequences of atmospheric carbon gases became more unignorable. Meanwhile things continued to get worse for that lower middle class that had eschewed education in the glory days of factory work when it wasn’t really needed to have a good middle class life, and the sinking class became even less educated for economic survival in a world ever more technologically and culturally complex.

President Trump is just the latest politician to get himself elected by promising the sinking class that he would do something about it. Since many of his promises cater to dark myths mixing up economic realities with racial, misogynistic and environmental prejudices and outright fallacies, executing them will run roughshod over the Constitution with which he may still not be very familiar, as well as a lot of enlightened legislation (existing and needed) essential to the future of the planet itself.
The question on which the nation’s future hangs will be how much of that we will actually let him get away with. Any at all is too much, in my humble opinion, and I think we are going to have to be ready to go to the courts and, ultimately, the streets over it. In Casablanca terms – no more distanced Bogart-cool, it’s time to summon our inner Victor Laszlos.
But even if this is all resolved democratically (not at all assured), the big question will remain: what are we going to do to address the not entirely unjustified anger of the people in our midst over promises unkept and relief undelivered (even if their reaction to their plight is to constantly shoot themselves in the political foot)? American manufacturing actually has been coming home – but the old robotic industrial jobs are going to real robots who never need to go to the bathroom or ask for raises. We know – those of us who will admit it – that the planet cannot stand a whole lot more carbon-fueled industrial consumerism, whereby we use fossil fuels to create an economy by converting our finite natural resources industrially into landfill materials after passing through a consumer or two.
So, what will we, can we, do to enable people to have the meaning in their lives that socially approved work has always provided? What do we have for the growing armies of angry, undereducated and hopeless young men and women for whom there is no evident socioeconomic role? These are not challenges that can be positively dealt with by scapegoating underclass minorities, who compound the problem but don’t cause it. That is the conversation we need to be having, but Trump’s list of gold-plated and ideologically bankrupt economic advisors and cabinet secretaries to date (mid-December) suggests that he has already dropped those promises to a low priority.

George Sibley lives and thinks too much in the Upper Gunnison River valley, and likes to hear from readers (