Truth and consequences

The first presidential candidate I cast a vote for was Michael Dukakis in 1988. It was my freshman year of college and I’d just turned 18. The school I attended was overwhelmingly Republican, but I’d already signed up with the campus Democrats, and when I refused the “BUSH/QUAYLE” window signs a dorm neighbor was distributing door to door, telling him I wasn’t a Republican, he went pale as the face of death and said, “What are you, then — a communist?”

what, me worry?

The first candidate I ever really loved, though, as a semi-autonomous semi-adult, had been Al Gore, though I wasn’t old enough to vote in the ’88 primaries. In my senior AP government class (which my father taught), we filled out little Newsweek bubble sheet exams to help us determine not only our partisan identities but which candidate’s views most closely lined up with ours. I was not a political junkie. I was not a member of the debate team. I spent most of my spare time writing poems and stories and interlibrary loaning every article about U2 that had ever been printed. That, I suppose, should have been a clue to which way I was leaning. I remember being shocked and awed by Bono’s refusal to sit on the same dais as Ronald Reagan on one occasion — who didn’t like Reagan? But when I worried about government it was still usually the administration of my little high school, the bastards.

gore more years

Al Gore changed that. Once it was clear he was my candidate I had to defend myself at every turn, first from myself, since I despised his wife’s anti-rock music crusading, then from nearly everyone around me, Reagan/Bush-lovers all, Iran-Contra be damned. But bubble tests don’t lie, and straight down the line he was my man. To declare support for a Democrat in my town — let alone in my family — was a little like growing up in Salt, Jordan, and declaring you want nothing more than to open a McDonald’s franchise when you grow up. All hail The Great Satan!

Even if you only reluctantly voted for Gore in 2000, even if you despised his clumsy public persona or his bad handlers, even if you think Florida really went for Bush and wasn’t stolen, your throat will catch in the first few minutes of An Inconvenient Truth, which you not only have to see, but have to convince people you know to see, too. On its merits as a movie it would be worth it: Who would have thought that a documentary about a guy on the road with his environmentalist laptop slideshow — and that guy is Al Gore, no less — could be so terrifically gripping? He’s human, he’s funny, he’s a good lecturer — a little nerdy but self-deprecating about it, too. Can you imagine having had an intelligent president these last six years? It’s almost too much to bear.

I walked into the film wistful about the Gore presidency that might have been; I walked away pretty much converted to his scientific scenario–that in the last fifty years or so, greenhouse gas emissions have escalated so dramatically, and continue to rise at such an unprecedented rate, that within our lifetimes we’ll come to realize that last year’s “natural” disasters were only the beginning of global devastation. We’ll see sea levels rise, flooding millions in Asia. We’ll see storms intensify. We’ll see glaciers finally disappear. It’s gonna get all Book of Revelations on your ass.

I use the Biblical reference and the word “converted” deliberately. The biggest obstacle the film faced in convincing me, in fact, was its reliance on tropes more generally associated with apocalyptic religious rhetoric. Not only the end-times imagery: Gore himself comes off as something of a prophet — lucky enough to have found the truth as a young man (one of his teachers at Harvard conducted the earliest global warming research), laboring his entire political career — and in the six years since he “lost” — to get others to understand just how serious the consequences will be if we continue on our reckless course. He’s a wanderer in the wilderness, despised and rejected of men, living on milk and honey, I suppose. We see him climbing on and off planes, flying coach, going through security checks (wouldn’t his belt set off the metal detector?), constantly tinkering with his slide show while he travels to remote parts of the globe to visit scientists in the feld or to deliver his (free!) lectures. He’s always alone: just himself, the slideshow, his memories good and bad, the cosmos. Doesn’t Tipper ever travel with him? Of course she does, but the film aims to give you the righteous man against the unrighteous masses, the man with a truth that can’t be ignored. It’s just not convenient. There’s an emotional pull to setting him up this way. Perhaps it’s self-serving. But I think it also aims to intensify the message itself, and maximize the possibility of converting viewers. I’ve been around enough evangelical media in my day to know the tricks of the trade, and this one does go a little over the top at times in its desire to bring you into the fold.

man v cosmos

And yet, I let myself be led. Maybe because the arguments are rational (as opposed to, say, stories about God wiping the world clean with a giant fiery handiwipe). Maybe because what I read about global warming over the rest of the weekend continued to make sense and supports the claims Gore had made. I also forgive the filmmakers for their evangelical lapses because I recognize that this film will only make inroads among conservatives very gradually, if at all, and based on individual family interventions. I’ll give my parents a copy for Christmas. They may not watch it: in 2000, my mom said she thought Gore was “scarier” than Clinton. Clinton was just an adulterer; Gore, on the other hand, loves owls more than people. But the last six years may have softened my parents, who fiercely oppose the war and have come to despise Bush. In the last election they actually voted for John Kerry. They understand arguments, and I think if they listen to this one, they may come to realize we’re talking about more than owls here.

In one of the movie’s best moments, in fact, Gore shows a slide developed by Bush the Elder, who held a summit on the environment in the late 1980s to pretend he was on top of the science. The image is a giant scale, with gold bars on one side and the earth in the balance on the other. Bush’s message: we have to balance environment and economy. Gore puts the image on the screen. His eyes glisten and he flashes a wicked smile. “Mmmm. Gold. That looks delicious,” he says in a cartoon villain voice. Then he glances at the earth. His message? No earth, no gold. Same goes for people whose livelihoods depend on cutting down trees.

If An Inconvenient Truth gets viewers to go home and start reading about global warming, it’s done its job. It won’t change the most conservative minds: they’ll point out that Gore the treehugger hypocritically prints books and pollutes the environment with all his global air travel. They’ll whine that not having access to SUVs would be to surrender our liberties. They’ll complain that academic peer review for the undisputed scientific validation of the basic outline of Gore’s global warming scenario has to do with the fact that scientists can’t think outside the orthodox box if they expect to get tenure and their cushy government grants (which might explain why science research funding is shrinking under this joker?). They’ll say that this is one big, early campaign ad, and every ticket is a soft money contribution. We could only be so lucky

8 responses to “Truth and consequences”

  1. nikki. says:

    hello bryan.
    i loved your post. have you seen spike jonze’s short al gore documentary? it’s pretty heart breaking america didn’t get a chance to see it before the election. looking forward to seeing you guys out here in july.

  2. i did see it — but i swear i saw it before the convention that year. i saw it once on tv and again during coverage of the convention, if i remember right. it’s fantastic. we’re looking fwd to playing in LA too — bw

  3. PB says:

    I always found it so interesting that Gore was criticized for being “stiff,” almost always by the same people who found Clinton too “slick.” Apparently nerdy or vivacious is bad even if the content is smart, and stupid is good as long as it is “just folks.” Maybe we deserve to get swallowed up by a whale of devastion. We can’t tell a good prophet from a stick. Great post, you and Dave, bookends of insight today.
    By the way, Bryan, all this time, I thought you were a communist.

  4. red til i’m dead, baby.

  5. trixie says:

    i thought i would mention the al gore documentary (which was filmed by spike jonze, btw) and then i read all the posts and realized that i am way behind the curve. i can provide the link to it, though:
    it kind of broke my heart to watch it, especially after seeing an inconvienient truth, which farrell and i got to see last week. what kind of situation would we be in now if instead of our current administration we had a thoughtful environmentalist at the helm? i get sad just thinking about it.
    p.s. sorry for any typos. i can’t read what i am writing, and as you all know, we can’t edit our posts. oh well.

  6. Belvin Meadows says:

    I saw the movie.
    I planted a tree. Planted many trees. :)

  7. Dave says:

    Hopefully the film helps create some momentum for taking real action against global warming. We need a president and a Congress who will negotiate binding treaties and enact effective regulations, and soon, or we’re all screwed.

    I’m kinda liking Gore in ’08, though we’ll have to see who else runs.