Taking a Second Look at Brazil

BrazilIn 1985, I saw Brazil in the theater. Mostly, it didn’t affect me greatly one way or another. And then we came to the end, and I hated it. I was a big fan of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And just the year before, Michael Radford had made what I still consider one of the greatest film adaptations of a book ever. It really was a perfect rendering of what I had imagined while reading it. What’s more, it showed the perfection of totalitarian efforts — where you couldn’t even die to escape it. Thus, I saw the ending of Brazil as a cheap attempt to create a happy ending.

That has been my position ever since. But recently, I began to wonder about that. Part of this is just a function of my cooling off to the book. I still think it is great, but very clearly, totalitarian regimes have never perfected their art. It is rather “free” societies that have managed to break the wills of we Winstons without anything so extreme as Room 101. What’s more, I always knew there was a loophole in the novel. O’Brien tells Winston that sometimes the Ministry screws up and the victim dies — although it is not clear whether he is just saying this as part of the process.

Regardless, I decided to watch Brazil again. It certainly is a great film. But I can see why I wasn’t enthused at the time. I didn’t appreciate Terry Gilliam’s visual style when I was younger. The obsession with plastic surgery and ducts freaked out little Frank. But mostly, I was way too serious when I was that age. I think the idea of laughing my way through Nineteen Eighty-Four was offensive. As with so much about life as I have found it, these are the elements that I most like now.

In general, I think that Gilliam is too much of a visual artist to do comedy. Yet it works perfectly here. The first two acts are filled with very funny scenes. The third act is not, but that’s hardly unusual for a comedy. And Jonathan Pryce is just so likable in the film, I found myself totally absorbed — and delighted. That’s not to say everything is perfect. In particular, much more could have been done with Kim Greist as Jill Layton. (Maybe they could have brought in a female scriptwriter?) In fact, this is one of the reasons that I still think 12 Monkeys is a superior film. (Interestingly, it was co-written by a woman: Janet Peoples.)

From a political standpoint, the film works very much in accordance with the modern world. Everything is screwed up because everyone is going along with the system. Michael Palin’s character, Jack Lint, seemed evil to me when I first saw the film. Well, he is evil. But that isn’t what’s most important to his character. He’s totally afraid. Everyone is. Everyone in a position of power is worried that they will be blamed for something. This is the basis for my favorite line in the film. In discussing the wrongful arrest and death of Buttle, Lint says, “It’s not my fault that Buttle’s heart condition didn’t appear on Tuttle’s file.”

Maybe the reason that I liked the film so much this time is that I’m receptive to its message. Of late, I’ve been focused on this idea of the social system being evil and stupid in ways that no individual would be. Everybody’s just trying to get by. But in some kind bizarre anti-sum-of-the-parts, the more individuals involved, the worse the system gets. Brazil might be nominally presenting some kind of authoritarian system, but what we actually see is a libertarian system where each person doing what is in their own best interest leads to catastrophe.


I want to make note of Robert De Niro’s character, Harry Tuttle. He’s a freelance plumber — working outside the system, and so referred to as a terrorist by the government. This actually highlights the distinction between European and American libertarianism. Tuttle wants to be at liberty to do what he wants. He is not looking for the “liberty” of cornering markets and therefore controlling (destroying the liberty of) whole classes of people. This is why American libertarianism is such a joke. It has nothing to do with liberty; it is all about replacing one system of relatively benign control with another that is as bad as the world in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

How to Become a Scientific Hack

William HapperYou have probably heard of the Greenpeace climate denier sting. Zaid Jilani provides a good introduction to it, In Greenpeace Sting, Professors Agree to Produce Research for Fossil Fuel Industry Without Disclosure. It focuses on the story of Princeton physicist William Happer. And it is stunning. But I know what I would wonder if I did not have inside information, “How does this happen?” I don’t go in for the whole business about people being evil or greedy. These are academics. If they were really greedy, they would have gone into another line of work. So why do they do it? I think I can provide the answer to that question.

The group that I worked in for eight years was focused on methane emissions. That wasn’t my work, but I was very much involved in it, and even published one paper that was focused on it. For a long time, people said that methane could not be increasing in the atmosphere because it was created by natural processes. It was actually my group (long before I was in it), that proved that wasn’t the case. While it was true that methane comes from “natural” sources like animals and wetlands, we greatly affect these in terms of breeding cows and growing rice.

“You son of a bitch, I haven’t taken a dime! I haven’t taken a dime, you son of a bitch.” —William Happer

Some of our group’s work showed that methane production from American cattle was not nearly as high as it was for cattle in other countries. Understandably, American cattle ranchers were thrilled about this information. The work was covered prominently in American Cattlemen and similar industry periodicals. Now, I don’t remember if the group got any funding from “organized cattle.” But this is how it works. It isn’t that someone from the cattle industry would go to a scientist and say, “Fake some research for me” — some kind of backroom deal. Rather, it is that these industries will preferentially support people who have research results that are helpful to their interests.

The biggest problem that researchers face is getting funding. I know that my thesis adviser did not go to research conferences to hear what other scientists were doing. Everyone already knew that. He went to them to meet with project managers. Even existing grants had to be constantly tended to like a garden. And it’s sad, because my adviser was, even then, a very big deal. But that’s the nature of academic research. So if the cattle industry wants to give you $60,000 to look at cow flatulence, you take it. That may not seem like a lot of money, but it’s probably almost half your year’s salary (after overhead), where you could be working rather than teaching a bunch of premeds.

None of this means that people need to turn into hacks. But my group was always pretty well connected — both nationally and internationally. (We had a huge joint project with China looking at rice field emmisions.) Maybe it would have been different if it had been overly dependent upon one source that was highly motivated to see one particular result. Now, I’m not saying this is what happened to William Happer with his work for the coal industry. But I feel certain Happer started as a climate change denier and then the money started rolling in, and not the other way around. Over time, I don’t know what went on with him.

I think it’s important to remember this. It isn’t just a question of understanding fellow humans, even when you think they are behaving very badly. It’s important to understand that science isn’t immune to this sort of thing. Of course, that is the beauty of science. Unlike politics, science makes the whole greater than the individuals. Science can and does get things very wrong. But eventually, it finds its way. But most of all, science won’t be hijacked by a small number of cranks and iconoclasts — unless they happen to be right. There is enormous indication that in the field of global warming, the cranks and iconoclasts are dead wrong.

Anniversary Post: Lebensborn

LebensbornExactly 80 years ago, in 1935, Lebensborn was founded by the Nazi SS for the purpose for getting more Aryan babies born. Like racists everywhere, the Nazis were very concerned that the “lesser races” were breeding too much. Walk around California and you will hear people say the same thing about Latinos. Of course, there is something to this. Immigrants tend to be the people who are scapegoated. Immigrants tend to be younger. Younger people tend to have babies. It’s the perfect situation for racists.

Anyway, what I think is interesting about Lebensborn is that it is based on a kind of thinking that is very common among middle class white liberals. It is the idea that what we really need to do to help the poor is to stop them from having babies. I’m pretty old and I’ve never had any children. So I don’t think it is necessary to have children to have a fulfilling life. But that was my choice. I don’t think that’s true of most people.

But we have this attitude that unless someone has money, they shouldn’t be able to be parents. Why do we do that?! Why is it that as liberals, we think the poor have a right to food and housing, but not parenthood? I think it is mostly because we’ve never thought about it. We are still operating with conservative notions — very much linked to racism and eugenics. And we need to stop doing this. It is one thing to make birth control easy to get. It is great to help people avoid pregnancies that they don’t want. But let’s not get confused and try to stop the poor from having children because we might think that it is a good idea.