issue 205 - March 1990
Roger and Me
directed by Michael Moore
Roger and Me breaks new ground for a political documentary. It's Michael Moore's story of his home town of Flint, Michigan, and how it hit the economic skids when General Motors (GM) laid off 30,000 local autoworkers. Moore uses deadpan humour and a dry wit in his quest to get by a bevy of secretaries and security guards and convince GM chair Roger Smith to come to Flint to talk with some of the workers he has laid off.
Most political documentaries tend towards verbose preaching. But Roger and Me is a genuinely funny movie that moves along better than your average episode of Miami Vice. We meet the rich and the famous - Flint's country-club set, Flint-born celebrities Anita Bryant and Pat Boone (who thinks Smith is a 'can do' sort of guy). We also meet the victims of GM's 'structural adjustment' strategy - like the woman who sells rabbits for 'pets or meat' or the former autoworker who is now a sheriff evicting people who can't pay their rent.
Moore is at his best when providing outrageous coverage of the local political issues There is the $100 million automobile theme park that closed in six months. And then there are the wealthy couples who pay through the nose to spend a night in the new jail that Flint has built to accommodate the unruly jobless.
Roger and Me is so good that Warner Brothers has taken it on for general commercial release. This is almost unheard of for a documentary with crystal-clear class politics. Go see it not just for the laughs but also because as Moore says -'There may be some twenty-first-century ghost towns. The lesson here and the lesson in the movie is that it's not just Flint. It's coming to your town,'
by Dembo Konte and Kausu Kuyateh
If the West wants to appreciate the flawless, fastidiously formal pleasures of this kora playing from Mali, it'll have to unlearn its current ideas about ethnic or 'world' music. For a decade now the developed world has been celebrating African music while altogether denying its otherness. The West has simply 'rediscovered' in Africa (despite the diversity and complexity of that continent's cultures) fundamental values that we imagine were lost or repressed in the high noon of civilization and progress: values like 'natural' well-being, spontaneity, conviviality, uninhibitedness, everything we long for and want to relearn. Hence the success of the imbecilically cheerful Bhundu Boys and the triumph of pop megastars who've made a pilgrimage to the 'roots' of pop and humanity (Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel). Africa is just serving as a mirror for the West's new ideologies.
But now check out Simbomba. This isn't rootsy, unspoiled, primitive music at all. It's learned, hieratic, almost classical music, made by players from an hereditary elite. Nor should you think that this is a slice of 'heritage', or a statement of pride in cultural or racial roots: some of these pieces are traditional, but this music's still developing.
This kora music is a close mesh of string-cum-keyboard chords. It's crystalline, and as beautiful as frosted glass. It has the appeal of mathematics or diffraction patterns - pristine and almost ascetic. There's none of the self-expression or euphoria that pop would like to find in Africa: more of a stilling and cleansing of consciousness. Kora music like this is indifferent to the West's fashions, carries none of the messages we expect to hear. It's unfamiliar, unfathomable and irresistible,
Free is Cheaper
by Ken Smith
This is one of those maverick ideas books that arrive out of nowhere and sleep on reviewers' shelves until someone notices them, It certainly deserves to be noticed, being clearly if idiosyncratically written and full of fascinating polemic and historical titbits.
Ken Smith believes all goods and services should be available free of charge. That might seem like the wackiest of wacky ideas but it becomes ever more fascinating as it is explored in a barrage of speculation, invective and anecdotes, all designed to prove that money, in a practical rather than puritanical sense, is the root of all evil.
In this tour through the modern world, the way we run things comes to seem ever more absurd, a house of cards built upon endless bureaucracy - a paper chase that leaves us all working frantically to keep a worse quality of life. The starting point is a question which Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman would be hard pushed to answer: why does it take longer for a carpenter or bricklayer to earn the price of a pound of meat or a housebrick than it did five centuries ago?
More topically for British readers, Smith drives home the absurdity of the present UK water industry installing meters in households and then setting up a huge bureaucracy to monitor them and gather payment - a move that will make water much more expensive (and thus more attractive to the private companies which now provide it).
What Smith doesn't make clear is how we might get from the present destructive spiral to the moneyless system he advocates. He sees the burgeoning Green awareness as a step towards it but at the moment it could be a step towards almost anything. Nevertheless we need as many good ideas as we can get - especially ones that are so entertainingly expressed.
Available for £12.95 (not free!) from John Ball Press, May Hill, Gloucester GL17 0NP, UK. Postage free for all orders incl. overseas.
Free from Fear
by Pamela Hussey
Pamela Hussey has been Desk Officer for Latin America at the UK's Catholic Institute for International Relations since 1981. Last year she spent four weeks in El Salvador in order to research a book about nuns working with poor communities. In the end the impact of her experience there produced a much broader book.
Free from Fear is about the life of the Base Christian Communities and those 'professional' religious who accompany them; but it is also about the ordinary people of El Salvador as they struggle to make real a vision of justice and freedom from oppression which springs from their Christian faith. Here is a picture of the life of the poor under a regime of increasing violence and against a back-cloth of civil war which is both evocative and moving. The book is full of insights both from ordinary people, especially women, and from the great liberation theologians. But Pamela Hussey does not forget the role the Church has played, and still plays, as oppressor and supporter of the status quo. She illuminates the central place which the Church plays in the struggle for liberation in Latin America - and raises some challenging questions for Christians in the rich world.
Beyond the Barricades
by various photographers
(Aperture Foundation US/Kliptown UK)
Beyond the Barricades is a superb collection of black-and-white images by 20 black and white South African photographers. The photos are often of high quality, and are being exhibited in London and New York to tie in with this publication. Yet the sense of the photographer as self-conscious artist which inevitably pervades the normal photographic book is entirely absent here - you even have to search for the credit to each picture in the small print at the back.
Instead their work is a document of 'Popular Resistance in South Africa in the 1980s', As such there is no pretence that the photos themselves can say everything: the captions are intelligent and informative, setting the image in context; there are poems and eyewitness accounts; and the book ends with a suitably committed overview of the changes in the political landscape over the last decade. Perhaps by the end of the next decade this will be part of the vital history of a new nation. But for now it should be fuel for even more active support by those of us overseas.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
The Turning Point
.being the book that showed how
revolutionary science has become
After completing a degree in theoretical physics, I turned away from science altogether. It seemed to bear no relation to the world I was living in and to have no answers to the global problems which were beginning to concern me. I read about the Greenhouse Effect, international debt and the rising tide of cancers in the industrialized world. I wanted to do something to help but it seemed hopeless. So many problems. Where could I possibly start?
Fritjof Capra finds a starting point in the very physics I had rejected. I didn't understand the implications of the revolution which has taken place in physics this century. The science which gave us Newton and the mechanistic world-view in the seventeenth century has broken the mould again and is now offering a radically different way of understanding reality.
In The Turning Point, Capra ranges far beyond physics, challenging the beliefs which lie at the foundations of modern Western civilization, More importantly, he offers a new way of looking at the world and a framework within which we can act.
Any view of the world is based on a series of underlying beliefs which are accepted as self-evident truths by the established system of authority and by the vast majority of the population. They become so deeply ingrained that it is hard to imagine that people ever understood or interacted with the world in any other way. But cultures and systems of belief rise and fall, and perceptions of reality undergo radical transformations.
Capra traces the rise of the currently accepted world-view and shows how it stemmed largely from the work of Newton and Descartes in the seventeenth century. This gave us: the belief in the scientific method as the only valid approach to knowledge; the view of the universe as a mechanical system composed of material building blocks; the view of life as a competitive struggle for existence; and the belief in unlimited material progress to be achieved through economic and technological growth. These beliefs differ radically from the Western medieval notions which preceded them, and also from Eastern ideas. As the Cartesian world-view rose to dominance, the ideas of physics were carried over not only into the other natural sciences but into psychology and economics too. Today these values permeate every aspect of our lives.
But there is evidence that Western civilization is now approaching a major turning point in which three crucial transitions are occurring together. These are: the slow but inevitable decline of patriarchy; the passing of the fossil-fuel age; and a 'paradigm shift' in our vision of reality. This shift began at the turn of the century when two advances in physics challenged the very foundations of Cartesian ideas. First Einstein's Theory of Relativity swept away the idea that there were absolutes in either space or time. Then quantum mechanics undermined the idea of an objective, value-free science: the experimenter affects the experiment, the observer and the observed are inseparably connected.
This has changed everything. Modern developments in science can be described as using a 'systems' approach which looks at the world in terms of relationships and integration, which sees the interconnectedness of all things. Capra pointed to the close link between these ideas and traditional Eastern perception of the universe in his first book, The Tao of Physics.
Systems occur on many different levels. A cell is a complete system, so is a human being, so is a city full of people or an ecosystem comprising many different species. At each level of organization the entity, whether it is a cell or a human being, is both an individual whole and a part of a larger entity. It must assert its individuality in order to maintain the system's structure but it must also submit to the demands of the whole in order to make the system viable. In a healthy system there is a dynamic balance between integration and self-assertion which makes the whole system flexible and open to change.
Flexibility is crucial if any organism is to grow and adapt to changing circumstances. This applies to societies as well. Historically cultures whose social structures have become too rigid to adapt break down and are replaced by creative minorities from outside or within.
In this book Capra shows us clearly that these creative minorities are already with us and are increasing in numbers and influence. The refusal of the old order to adapt or change is shown as the characteristic behaviour of a declining culture. A major turning point is approaching. Evolutionary changes of this magnitude cannot be prevented by short-term political activities. The future belongs to those who realize this and who can adapt to the 'new way' of holistic interdependence.
The Turning Point by Fritjof Capra