2012-08-13

Movie Review (of sorts): The Campaign

The Backdrop
I have been consistently impressed by how prescient The Wall Street Journal has been lately. If not prescient, they have at least been remarkably current on a great deal of issues, moreso than any other newspaper I read. (And, yes, believe it or not, I do read others.) This fact has been demonstrated many times by my repeated links to Journal articles.

On Friday, the release date of the new Will Farrell/Zach Galifinakis movie The Campaign, Peggy Noonan wrote an only-half-good article "A Nation That Believes In Nothing," the punchline of which seems to be some advice for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. That's the bad half. The good half is at the beginning, where Noonan writes (among other things):
The [Obama campaign's anti-Romney attack] ad's cynicism contributes to a phenomenon that increases each year, and that is that we are becoming a nation that believes nothing. Not in nothing, but nothing we're told by anyone in supposed authority.
I wrote a little bit about this phenomenon the other day, only I put a more positive spin on it. What I said was:
The old style of politics no longer works in today's world. There is too much technology out there. The truth is available to anyone with a smart phone or a home computer. Scientific facts are no longer obscured; people can get them instantaneously. In short, it is far more difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of the public in the year 2012 than it has been in any previous year.
In short, unlike Peggy Noonan, I take it to be a good thing that people no longer swallow any amount of cockamamie garbage cooked-up by their supposed masters. Rather than take the political debate hook, line, and sinker, we are now starting to seek information for ourselves. (Now, I don't see this as some kind of major society-wide mental shift so much as it is a predictable result of increased access to information.)

The Campaign
The new Farrell/Galifinakis movie riffs on these themes, too. From beginning to end, the movie spares no "side" of the political spectrum from criticism. The politicians and their staff are unscrupulous, opportunistic sociopaths. Ordinary people are mindless sheep who believe any message that the politicians cook up. Businessmen are moral bottomless pits that swallow any dollar that wanders their way. Virtually every human being in the movie is a cartoonish, hedonistic version of the life we all live out there, every day.

What I love about this movie - despite its being pretty crass - is the fact that it starts out completely absurd (in the inimitable style of a Will Farrell movie), and proceeds to push the envelope of absurdity to uncharted levels. From the outset of the film, Farrell is a hapless, opportunistic sleaze who uses his political power mostly to score chicks and look good. As the movie progresses, the depth of his sleazery and the extent to which he is willing to debase himself for the sake of winning an election rises to unimaginable heights: He films himself committing adultery with his opponent's wife, he promises the Motch (Koch) Brothers to help them sell a portion of North Carolina to the People's Republic of China. He has no moral compass whatsoever.

Contra Farrell, Galifinakis plays an oddball roped into challenging Farrell's character on the Republican ticket. At first, he "only wants to help," but when he falls under the influence of a new campaign manager, he quickly descends into moral depravity himself, culminating in the disingenuous virtual adoption of Farrell's son and the shooting of Farrell himself.

The level of absurdity employed in the film is so complete that something interesting happens to movie viewers: The suspension of disbelief required to watch any movie persists even through the most absurd scenes. The result is that present-day American politics are completely skewered, the political ruse is totally eviscerated. Walking out of the movie, one really is left with the impression Noonan has: Absolutely nothing the politicians say can possibly be true. Nothing.

Those Left Behind
It would be great, of course, if everyone realized this about politics. It is so completely spun, doctored, invented, and patently false that no one with a real head on their shoulders could ever reasonably believe it. Yet some of them do. Why?

I ventured a guess a few days ago: Faith. Simply stated, people want to believe that politics can be salvaged. Even the end of The Campaign closes with a hopeful note, the notion that if we simply vote for people who tell the truth, our system can be saved from its depravity. (Although, the scenes played during the movie's final credits demonstrate how hopeless that notion actually is - or at least demonstrate that the movie-makers seem to recognize that there is no hope in politicians.)

Simply stated, a great many of us have a terrible and irrational faith in politics. George W. Bush was a terrible president who irreparably damaged the country. Americans then elected a messiah-figure under the belief that he could absolve us of our political sins. The result was a "new boss" equally as depraved and morally bankrupt as his predecessor. One would think that Americans old enough to remember both presidents well would have learned well enough that it requires more than a vote to redeem a nation. Yet, while an increasing number of us turn off the campaign ads, zone out, and abstain from voting, a surprisingly large number of us are still playing the game.

The Veneer Of Truth
Recently, I engaged in a couple of issue-specific debates. When asked to provide some evidence for my position, I cited a scholarly economic analysis with over 200 citations. My opponent cited a left-wing think tank. In the court of public opinion, these two citations have become equivalent. Evidence is evidence, regardless of its academic weight. Numbers are numbers. If I can cite "a study," and someone else can cite "a study," then both positions are supported by "studies," and therefore the whole issue is a matter of opinion.

This is one bad side-effect of the information age I lauded a few days ago. The availability of information has had the result (on a minority of us - those with residual faith in politics) of obliterating the informational ranking mechanisms.

You hear it all the time in common conversation: "One day we hear eggs are bad for us, the next day we hear they're good for us. I just eat whatever I want to!" Or: "There are studies that support anything!" (And a big roll of the eyes ensues.)

It's true that there are numbers out there capable of buttressing any argument. What isn't true, however, is the fact that all information is equal when it comes to supporting a position. There are good numbers and bad, good theories and bad. The major challenge with which mankind will be grappling for the foreseeable future is how to differentiate between the two in light of virtually unlimited access to even the most complex information in the world.

Many of us are already getting there. As evidenced by the current state of politics, however, those with the strongest opinions still have a long way to go.