Tag Archives: Back to the Future

Hey you, get your damn hands off her

I was standing in the express lane at the grocery store, waiting to purchase dinner, tapping away on my smartphone.  Three places ahead of me in line was an older couple who were quite exasperated with the cashier, for reasons difficult to ascertain; something to do with the amount of change being incorrect.  The cashier, a young kid no more than twenty, was doing his best to be accommodating – this did not impress the older man, who decided at one point to slam his hand on the conveyor and yell at him.  Giving the older guy the benefit of the doubt just for the moment, he could have reached the end of his tether after a rotten day.  But that was no reason to take it out on the kid, who was not being rude, or dismissive, or in any way belligerent.  What surprised me most about the whole affair was how my stomach turned at the old guy’s outburst.  You know that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex, having undergone the brainwash of the “Ludovico treatment,” starts heaving with nausea at any example of violence?  That was me.  It was this peculiar mix of revulsion and paralysis.  I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few weeks reflecting on this and wondering where it came from, trying to contextualize it in terms of my overall personality.  And the conclusion I have come to is this:  I hate bullies.

Liberals aren’t supposed to be hateful.  We are supposed to be the compassionate and empathetic turn-the-other-cheekers who look at the world in endless shades of nuance and complexity.  Yet I can summon no sympathy or understanding for anyone who preys on the weak; who tries to get their way by intimidation, smears, threats and the perpetuation of hatred and fear.  It isn’t that I just want to see bullies stop bullying, I want to see them humiliated and utterly destroyed.  I am positively gleeful at the thought of the arrogant asses of the world sobbing in the corner.  I see it as justice and fair retribution for the torment they have inflicted on other people.  And it frustrates me that what seems on the surface to be wishing only for karmic just desserts makes me no better than they are.

When the news broke of Andrew Breitbart’s death yesterday, I was appalled at my initial reaction, which was, essentially, good riddance.  This man devoted his life and career to spreading hatred of the things that I believe in.  But at the same time, he was somebody’s father and somebody else’s son – a man with a young family and kids that now have to grow up without their dad, a situation I can understand all too acutely.  Andrew Breitbart’s children don’t deserve that, and at the same time, he doesn’t deserve to not be around to watch them grow up.  Maybe that is what makes liberalism such a challenging philosophy to uphold – the need to be able to look deep into the soul of one’s opposition, into the recesses of the ugliness that repels us and tears at our most cherished tenets, and locate the mutual humanity.  As Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) puts it in The American President, “Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”  And to that say, Namaste.

What did I want to do in that moment in line?  What would have sated those intense feelings of anger and hatred simmering inside my gut?  Did I want to take a swing at the old man?  Did I want to excoriate him in a Sorkin-esque blaze of wit and erudition and Gilbert & Sullivan references?  Which of those options would have made it better?  The answer is, neither.

The perfect illustration of this dilemma, for me, is the climax of the first Back to the Future, when George McFly, thinking he’s playing out a scene to win the affections of Lorraine, realizes to his horror that he is in fact throwing down with his lifelong nemesis Biff Tannen.  Biff is such a detestable character, embodied memorably by Thomas F. Wilson, that everyone who watches the movie can’t help but smile when George finally decks him with one powerful left-handed haymaker.  But the crucial point of the moment is not the defeat of the bully – it’s George’s embrace of the confidence locked away inside him.  Biff doesn’t really learn much of a lesson or even stray very far from his bullying ways – it took two sequels to finally defeat his ilk once and for all – but George is forever a better man.  When we see George at the end of the first movie, he has no trouble dealing with Biff, and again, not because of one bloody nose, but because he recognizes Biff’s failings and pities him.  One can never be threatened by someone for whom you feel pity – it is an irreversible triumph, because it is a triumph of the soul.

Eventually the cashier and his manager were able to address the problems of the old couple and send them on their way – a happy ending for all concerned.  The rotten feeling I had inside, however, lets me know that I still have work to do on myself – I’m not George McFly at the end of the movie just yet.  And it remains ever difficult to find that pity in a time when bullies run rampant in our governments, our banks, our schools, tearing with greed at the very fabric of our civilization.  Yet ours too is a powerful flame, one that should be stoked constantly to ensure that our collective humanity shines on.  Our lasting impression upon history can be exemplified by the best of us, and those are the people I’d rather stand with.

The future ain’t what it used to be

It’s 2012 – wondering where the flying cars are?  The way some people drive, maybe it’s not a bad thing Ford hasn’t rolled them off the production line yet.  But as a fan of science fiction from a young age, a passionate supporter of space exploration from around the same time and a gazer at the stars from long before that, I kind of expected the future to be, well, a little more futuristic.  I’d hate to think that all those classic movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey lied to me, and yet, as 2001 came and went we weren’t boldly voyaging to Jupiter and beyond, we were mired in terrestrial disputes, our feet welded to the ground by political infighting, war, terrorism and relentless media-induced fear.  The words of Robert F. Kennedy come to mind:  “Some men look at things the way they are and say why; I dream of things that never were and say why not?”  Somewhere along the line we, collectively, stopped dreaming of things that never were and became coddled by advances in technology that heighten only the convenience of life, not its quality.  Probably the greatest step forward in the last ten years has been anything produced by Apple, and yet, really, a portable Justin Bieber catalogue isn’t exactly the sort of thing Jules Verne would have envisioned as a quantum leap.  We still get from place to place, basically, on 19th Century engines – they are faster and sleeker but the principle is the same one that propelled your great-grandfather’s old jalopy down Main Street when it was a dirt road with horse hitching posts along the sidewalks.  As Leo McGarry opined on The West Wing, “where’s my jetpack?”  Forget that – I want my damn Back to the Future Part II Mattel hoverboard.

I laud the advances we’ve achieved in communication, this forum being one of them.  What concerns me is that we are moving towards a point in our existence where we may have very little of substance to communicate about.  Human beings are needy creatures – we are forever craving stimulation to make us productive.  From adversity comes advancement.  But what happens when life is so easy, so crammed with distraction, that challenge is all but forgotten?  Look at the difference in a little over half a century – after Pearl Harbor, Americans banded together to enlist, volunteer, ration, buy bonds, collect scrap metal, anything that could be done to assist in the war effort.  Contrast that to the post-9/11 era where the President told his people that the best thing they could do to help their country was to go shopping.  Rosie the Riveter?  Nope, Penny the Power Purchaser.  And why?  Because it’s easier.  It’s yet another distraction, an erosion of altruism for self-interest über alles.  Surrounded by distractions, we do not think.  We forget about the whole and focus on the pleasure of the one.  These mass-produced trinkets are fun, but they fill the one empty space that should be uniquely our own – our imagination.  They saturate it so completely that we don’t think we are lacking for anything anymore, and thus, we are no longer compelled to create.

I am a victim of this myself.  When I was first living on my own, I had only an old computer with no Internet capability, let alone access.  I wrote constantly, generating screenplay after screenplay, thousands of pages of would-be novels.  Without distraction, I could focus on creation.  Then one day I decided to buy a Nintendo 64.  And who wanted to stare at a blank screen and flashing cursor anymore when there were so many goombas for Mario to jump on and so many princesses to save from castle dungeons?  My imagination took a huge hit and I don’t think it has ever completely recovered.  To this day I prefer surfing through a few favourite sites and catching up on the latest show business news over writing something of my own nine times out of ten.  I’ve been prolific here lately because I’m really forcing myself.  But it’s not easy.  The lethargic soul is a persistent enemy forever at the gates.  And he seems tragically immortal.

Primitive computers with barely the memory of today’s pocket calculator helped land men on the moon and return them safely to Earth.  That was in 1969.  2001: A Space Odyssey came out a year earlier, and given the pace at which things were happening then, it seemed a reasonable prediction – barring the unforeseen bankruptcy of Pan Am – of what our lives could be like as the 21st Century dawned.  Instead, HAL 9000 is the iPhone 4S, and the moon seems further away than ever.  But goshdarnit all, I’ve got 100,000 songs in a little gizmo a third the size of my wallet.  Is this what RFK had in mind when he was dreaming of things that never were?  Is this what Stanley Kubrick expected?  Is this what Aristotle, Copernicus, Leonardo or Galileo would have wanted?  Full seasons of Fear Factor streaming to my HDTV on Netflix?  Snooki with a million Twitter followers?

The capacity of what humanity can do with imagination and hard work is limitless.  But we have to force ourselves to look up from the screen and back at the stars again.  Because although they’ll be there forever, we won’t be, and I’d rather not see the ability to download Jackass 3-D at lightspeed as our civilization’s greatest lasting legacy.