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Commentary: When art imitates life

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

Like many people over the holiday break, I consumed a fair amount of Netflix and Hulu.  I have a fondness for contemporary Scandinavian crimis and Sturm und Drang German and Russian programming that center on the hardships of daily life for the masses.  Not exactly escapism from our current reality.  I know.  Perhaps I have a not so subtle fondness for the film genre known as the 'end of history.'

As a family, one of the things we like to do is to go to the movies on Christmas day.  Michael and I started this tradition in 1999, when pre-children and still in grad school we went to see The Matrix.  The movie was mind blowing, both cinematically and intellectually.  The way the Wachoswki sisters' minds worked made sense to me.  I could follow their thought spiral.  Having spent the previous several years with one foot in the remote Choco region of Ecuador and the other in graduate school at the University of Florida, I understood how the world the Wachoswki sisters depicted seemed real.  Yet, I also knew that it was just one version of reality.  The film captured my growing awareness that nothing is as it seems and that everything is manipulated on some level.  After leaving the Rialto Cinemas in Macomb, Illinois in the waning days of 2021, I recognized that sense of awareness has only grown in me over the last 22 years.   

On the small screen in my living room, the Netflix film Don’t Look Up is another movie I am adding to my list of favorites.  It is a film about the literal end of days and the human species' capacity to ignore the reality that we all inhabit.  A not so subtle film about climate change, this dark comedy tells the story of a comet that is hurtling towards earth and about to wipe out the planet.  As Ezera Brain writes, “...  Don’t Look Up is a film about looking up, seeing the disaster, and then realizing that the system can’t address the disaster — so it tries to convince you that everything is fine.”   Not unlike The Matrix, this film is also about waking up and taking responsibility for the catastrophic mess we humans have created.  

As someone who researches and teaches about disasters, I see them all around me.  Wildfires in Colorado, people drowning in their basements in New York City, tornadoes in the middle of winter, and oh don’t forget the current pandemic we continue to live through.  These disasters are intimately connected to our consumer culture and the decisions we make as individuals to participate or not in this culture.  I also see that the government we have created - despite which political party you belong to - isn’t really interested or capable of solving this problem. 

After WWII, when our government was trying to figure out a way forward, President Eisenhower’s administration embraced the writings of economist Victor Lebow who wrote:

“Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption . . . we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”  

Making a last minute milk run the day after Christmas, I shook my head as I noted that the stores were already full of things for sale for both Valentine's Day and Easter!  What Victor Lebow wrote about in 1955 is our current reality, and we are all responsible for contributing to its existence.  The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported in their December 23, 2021 news release that the  GDP (Gross Domestic Product)  grew by 2.1% in the third quarter.  Which means that we bought a lot of stuff for the holidays.  My household was no exception.  

Despite, or perhaps because of my love of ‘end of days’ films, I don’t find either Don’t Look Up or the Matrix series to be depressing.  In fact, for me the main takeaway is that we do have the power to change things.  Which brings me back to one of my favorite quotes by the Anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Here is to a more hopeful, sustainable, and better 2022 for all of us.  Now get to work, people. 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.