America Is: Not Quite Seeing The Threats

Leo DiCaprio trying to get all of you to wake the hell up in the movie Don’t Look Up.

I really love Adrastos’ idea to have us do our version of the New York Times series America Is… where 17 writers at the TimesĀ choose one piece of culture that captures the true spirit of our country. I think it’s an amazing feature and it is a wonderful opportunity to offer our own thoughts on a very interesting subject.

I will start by saying one of the wisest minds in American politics, Times opinion writer Jamelle Bouie, took one of my choices. He wrote about the movie First Reformed, a poetically and beautifully mournful meditation on our current moment, starring Ethan Hawke as a minister of an ancient church going through a crisis of faith. He is asked to offer counsel to a couple, a young radical environmentalist who wants his pregnant wife to get an abortion rather than bring a child into an increasingly difficult world wracked by climate change. My pick is also about climate change but gets more laughs.

Don’t Look Up is a movie I’ve already written about here (I found it to be a good, not great movie with some flaws). But I’d like to revisit it for this theme because it is sort of the opposite of First Reformed. That movie is about the existential dread felt by the younger generations of Americans, but Don’t Look Up is about ignoring climate change’s many threats.

America is not a homogenous nation, and how we as a nation view climate change is complicated. To sum it up, Democrats are the most concerned and Republicans are not really concerned, and overall, we are probably not taking it seriously enough (although the majority of Americans really do want it addressed). In Don’t Look Up, the avatar for climate change is an approaching extinction-sized comet that will wipe out life on Earth.

The two scientists who discover the comet are gobsmacked by the lack of urgency in the American public. A looney billionaire tech guru views the comet as a money-making opportunity and attempts to break it up and send it into the ocean where the pieces can be recovered, and convinces many in the public that this will result in all kinds of economic benefits. A right-wing president scoffs at the science and demands that Americans “don’t look up” because the threat is not real, and this becomes a slogan. At the same time, Americans are caught up in silly things like celebrity breakups.

There is a moment where one of the scientists loses her mind on national television out of frustration that no one seems to get that there is a threat to wipe out the planet and a fair number of scientists I know deeply related to that scene. Often they themselves are flustered by the American public’s lack of urgency about climate change, even as its effects are making themselves known right now.

I do not think it is fair to paint the entire American public as willfully ignorant. I think a more accurate portrayal of America is more like a van full of people that comes upon a Danger Bridge Out sign. Some in the van see the danger and suggest a change of course, some angrily tell everyone to ignore the sign because it’s too negative, some just shrug and accepts the van’s fate, and some begin ranting that the sign was put there by nefarious actors to tell them what to do and steal their freedom.

It is not just climate change. We have to face up to the fact that we did not do very well with COVID. However, instead of a major push to prepare for the next pandemic, we are hearing people like Robert Kennedy Jr. and Joe Rogan declare that we did too much and that vaccines should be eliminated. Their current campaign against vaccine expert Dr. Peter Hotez is beyond repugnant and part of a disturbing anti-science movement gaining momentum in America at the moment.

But this fits into a general trend in the country right now. It is truly odd what we treat as urgent. As some have pointed out this week, five billionaires trapped in a submarine that they chose to get in despite safety concerns captured more sense of crisis than hundreds of migrants drowning in a packed ship who were on that boat out of desperate necessity. We have a segment of our country that believes Joe Biden and transpeople are the greatest threats to America.

We also have a segment of our country that has a near-pathological level of forced positivity, who yell at people, including younger folks, to stop worrying. The problem with believing that lecturing people about being negative is some sort of a magic talisman that makes problems go away is climate change, like the honey badger, doesn’t care. I sometimes wonder how future generations will view us, and shake their head at how we ignored the obvious signs like dangerously smokey air from widespread wildfires, extreme heat waves in places like the Pacific Northwest, and monster Gulf of Mexico hurricanes.

Take the hint, America. Joe Rogan won’t save you from a future deadly virus or a raging firestorm or rising water levels. We’re the United Damn States of Freaking America, we have a track record of doing great things, and I will add to the “moderates,” incrementalism will simply not cut it right now. Thankfully we have a president currently trying to steer us in the right direction to get back to a nation that can handle any sort of crisis with smarts, hard work, and solidarity.

See, yelling at people to wake up is not being negative, or defeatist. It’s a call for us to live up to our track record, one that like an aging athlete seems to be in our past. But that doesn’t have to be.

We can once again become the America that used to do great things. And we kind of have to, the asteroid is beginning to get a little too close.

The last word goes to Vampire Weekend…


2 thoughts on “America Is: Not Quite Seeing The Threats

  1. My choice for America Is …
    The film “Double Indemnity” with the summation of all film noir in Fred MacMurray’s line:
    “I killed him for money… and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and i didn’t get the woman.”

  2. Was it five billionaires on the Titan submarine? If so, clearly they need moar submarines!

    And kudos to the orcas for finding a way to invite billionaires for “dinner”.

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