MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Digital Nation: In Washington, No One Can Hear You Scream

Eliminate the birthers, tax-dodgers, bigots, wannabe witches, Flat Earth diehards and Palin-tologists from the Tea Party movement and you’ll find the righteously angry offspring of the just plain pissed-off Americans, who, in Network, opened their windows and shouted “We’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore.”

How many of the tea-baggers could pick the movie’s unhinged news anchor, Howard Beale – or Gordon Gekko, for that matter — from a police lineup is open to question, of course. Whether the protesters know it or not, their rage owes as much to the unabashedly liberal dramatist Paddy Chayefsky as such opportunistic windbags as Rick Santelli and Glenn Beck. If Democrats had backed President Obama’s reforms with half the passion demonstrated by the Tea Party crowds that opposed them, the upcoming elections would be a cakewalk.

Revisiting Network 34 years after its release could shine light on other mysteries, as well. For example, the answer to the question on the minds of many progressives — “What happened to Obama?” – might be found in CCA chairman Arthur Jenson’s “corporate cosmology” lecture to Beale. Unaware of the media conglomerate’s overwhelming debt, the populist newsman had encouraged viewers to send telegrams to the White House, denouncing the proposed sale of CCA to Saudi investors. In response, Jenson decided it was time for Beale to come to Jesus.

After watching Charles Ferguson’s shocking documentary, Inside Job, it was easy for me to conjure a scenario in which the president-elect was asked to attend a similarly portentous meeting in a dimly lit room, out of earshot from the tape recorders installed in the Oval Office. Standing in for Ned Beatty would be outgoing Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke and President George W. Bush, all of whom had turned a blind eye to the corrupt practices that had led to a meltdown in the financial-services industry and given reprieves to the bankers who created the problem.

Their one-sided conversation might have gone something like this:

“Good morning, Mr.Obama … they tell me you’re a liberal. …. You are a young man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples, Mr. Obama. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars, petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels. … It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. …

“Am I getting through to you, Mr. Obama?

“You howled about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. …

“We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Obama. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Obama. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Obama, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, for which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”

This top-secret missive, handed down from president to president like a secret Masonic handshake, might have shaken Obama to his liberal core. Instead of going with the powerful flow of the electorate’s mandate for change, the president-elect put his foot on the brakes and surrounded himself with Capitol Hill insiders and members of Wall Street’s old-boy network. Attacking unemployment, the mortgage crisis and recession would take a back seat to propping up the financial-services industry, helping its executives collect their unearned bonuses and keeping the worst of them out of jail.

Or, so one might infer from Inside Job, Ferguson’s thoroughly sourced and persuasively delivered indictment of unbridled greed and unchecked corruption. Watch it back-to-back with another new, equally disheartening political documentary, Jeff Reichert’s Gerrymandering, you’ll wonder why anyone even bothers to get out of bed in the morning, let alone vote.

Although the documentaries spotlight different aspects of the current political and economic malaise, they find support the widely held notion that no one in the nation’s capital is paying attention to the needs of Americans devastated by political stasis and economic ruin. Or, to paraphrase the tagline of Alien, “In Washington, no one can hear you scream.”

Inside Job describes how Obama, a novice in the field of economics, inadvertently put the foxes in charge of the henhouse when it was his turn to tackle the banking crisis. Gerrymandering blows the whistle on a redistricting process that allows incumbents to draw boundaries that serve mostly to ensure their re-election. In both cases, voters were given little or no say in the matter.

“Coming in, Obama had very little economics background and didn’t get wealthy himself until his autobiography was published,” said Ferguson, whose previous documentary, No End in Sight, explained how ill-prepared the Bush administration was to ensure stability in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. “He turned to people who’d had experience in previous administrations, instead of considering other prominent economists. For example, he brought in Lawrence Summers, who, during the Clinton administration, was a vocal proponent of the kind of deregulation that caused the banking crisis in the first place.

“In 2003, before being named Obama’s Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner was president and CEO of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Mary Shapiro, the new chairwoman of the SEC, served as a financial services regulator in the administrations of Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan.”

Two weeks ago, the White House announced Summers would step down from his position as director of the White House National Economic Council at the end of the year. He’ll return to Harvard University, which he served as president from 2001 to 2006. Some observers wondered out loud if the resignation might have had something to do with a screening of Inside Job that week.

“I don’t know if the documentary had anything to do with the announcement,” said Ferguson, a White House consultant, before striking it rich with Vermeer Technologies, and, later, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution . “It is true that senior people in the Obama administration are aware of the movie. I will be doing Q&A’s after the screenings in Washington.”

Inside Job debuted last May at the Cannes Film Festival, where critics voted it the best movie not in competition. Its American debut came last week at the New York Film Festival. By all accounts, audiences were outraged by what they saw, if not sufficiently aroused to light torches and march on Wall Street. Unlike the Tea Baggers, the kind of folks who attend festivals would be reluctant to blame Obama for problems that started with Ronald Reagan and continued through the second Bush administration.

The movie provides plenty of common ground for agreement, though. Among other things, the people represented in the movie have almost nothing in common with those Americans considered to demographically average. The suits and shoes worn by these Masters of the Universe, as Tom Wolfe referred to them in The Bonfire of the Vanities, cost more than some strapped workers will make this year, including unemployment benefits.

Few considered the bonuses to be particularly obscene or undeserved, or saw the absurdity in creating markets for derivatives, hedge funds and other fail-safe financial instruments created solely to fleece people not in their income bracket. Their arrogance is palpable.

Among the expert witnesses called by Ferguson to address the mind set of such creatures are a psychiatrist and a notorious New York madam. Together, they describe just how much fun an otherwise square business executive could have with an uncapped expense account and the ethics of a jackal.

“These guys were spending corporate money … I had a lot of black (credit) cards from the various firms,” recalls the madam, Kristen Davis, currently a candidate for governor, running as a libertarian. “Money wasn’t an issue for them. They’d tell me to make up a title, write up an invoice on a phony letterhead and send it in.”

One of the movie’s heroes, Eliot Spitzer, was brought down by the discovery of his dalliances with prostitutes. Before becoming the governor of New York, he was elected state attorney general, a position that allowed him to take on white-collar crime and security fraud. No one on Wall Street missed the irony when Spitzer was forced to face the same media that hounded their indicted comrades.

“These guys lived in a bubble, where they thought they could buy anything or anyone they wanted,” said Ferguson. “Willem Buiter, Citigroup’s chief economist, calls the competition among banking executives a ‘pissing contest … mine’s bigger than your’s … that kind of stuff.’ Jonathan Alpert, a therapist whose clients include many high-level Wall Street executives, says, ‘These people were risk takers, they were impulsive … it’s part of their personality … and that manifest itself outside work, as well.

“‘It was quite typical for these guys to go out to strip bars and to use a lot of drugs. I’ve seen a lot of cocaine use and prostitution. They feel as if they need it to be successful, to be recognized.’”

What, then, does Inside Job have in common with Gerrymandering, a movie about creating congressional districts shaped like balloon animals? Survival instinct, for one.

Every 10 years, data collected by the Census Bureau is used by state legislatures to delineate voting and state legislative districts. Historically, incumbent lawmakers have drawn those lines to benefit their chances for re-election and/or prevent another interest group from gaining traction at the polls. The word originated in 1812, when then-governor Elbridge Gerry conspired to redraw Massachusetts state senate districts to favor his Democratic-Republican Party. One looked so much like a salamander that a Federalist wag was inspired to merge forever the amphibian with the politician.

Gerrymandering opens with the kind of man-in-the-street interview in which average Americans are asked to define something they should have learned in high school, but invariably look foolish trying to do recall.

“I hadn’t heard of gerrymandering until 2003, when Texas Democrats from the House of Representatives fled to a motel in Oklahoma to prevent Republicans from having the quorum necessary to redraw voting districts,” admits Reichert, a former senior vice president of Magnolia Films. “It opened my eyes to disenfranchisement.”

The incident was so bizarre that Reichert set out to make a film about it. Upon further reflection, he decided to expand the focus to include examples of gerrymandering from other states and private efforts to control the practice.

“We’re the only advanced democracy that allows its politicians to draw the lines of their own districts,” emphasized executive producer Bill Mundell, founder of the advocacy group, Californians for Fair Redistricting. “It’s America’s best-kept secret. I invited some British MPs to a screening and they were astounded by how it’s done here. The practice has grown aggressively worse over the years.”

Indeed, modern census-taking methodology has allowed the politicians to fine-tune redistricting to isolate neighborhoods and individual homes of rival politicians, separating them from their natural constituency. Or, redistricting can used to ensure that racial, ethnic and economics constituencies are protected from capricious redistricting.

“The tweaking of a line can change history,” Reichert adds. “If Barack Obama hadn’t been involved in choosing his own district (when he was state senator), he might not now be President.”

In the movie, Reichert quotes 200 years’ worth of American presidents, decrying the practice of gerrymandering. Finding incumbents willing to take action against it was more difficult.

In 2008, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an active supporter of Proposition 11, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that authorized creation of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Instead of having the lines for state voting districts drawn by legislators, a new 14-member panel, consisting of five civilian Democrats, five Republicans and four of neither party, would perform the task. The initiative was narrowly approved by voters.

The battle continues on November 2, when California voters are being asked to decide whether congressional voting districts should be drawn by the same commission. In addition to Proposition 20, voters will be asked to decide on Proposition 27, an initiative that would effectively repeal Proposition 11. If both measures pass, the one with the greatest majority will be the law that will go into effect. If that sounds confusing, it’s because Proposition 27 proponents – largely Democratic – want to keep things they way they’ve been for many decades.

“This is the classic inside-baseball issue,” argues Mundell, who also is chairman of ZBB Energy Corp., a publically traded alternative-energy company. “It’s not the fault of any individual … it’s the fault of the system. Everything is stacked against proponents of reform.”

Having developed release campaigns for such documentaries as Capturing the Friedmans, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Ferguson’s No End in Sight, Reichert knows how difficult it is to fill the seats of theaters showing non-fictional films. It explains why he tried to make the visual presentation as breezy as possible and create a soundtrack, with composer David Wingo, with updated versions of traditional patriotic songs.

Despite delivering some bad news to audiences, Reichert, Mundell and Ferguson all say they’re optimistic about the future of America.

“The level of voter angst is higher than ever, but they can’t always identify what they’re angry about,” said Mundell. “Movies like this could funnel angst into reform.”

Reichert concurs, “I want people to leave the theater energized by what they saw.”

Inside Job describes an economic system that continues to reward deception and cronyism, and benefits from the inability of regulators to comprehend complex schemes, including betting against the viability of investments created specifically for their clients. Likewise, the movie exposes how academics at our most prestigious colleges are able to pad their salaries by sitting on the boards of corrupt financial institutions and are granted leaves of absence to serve as advisors and regulators for important government agencies.

Indeed, many of the same learned gentlemen entrusted with the education of our future political leaders and CEOs also convinced Iceland, a once-prosperous nation, to deregulate its banks and core industries. In 2008, the banks collapsed and the country essentially went bankrupt.

To get his message across to viewers, Ferguson knew he had to create a cinematic framework that not only explained how the crisis happened, but also clarified byzantine financial concepts most bankers outside New York would be at a loss to explain to customers. Moreover, he understood that Inside Job would have to be sufficiently entertaining to keep viewers awake and inspire word-of-mouth publicity. He did this by drawing a clear line between heroes and villains; adding the provocative testimony of the Manhattan Madam and the Wall Street shrink; by eschewing partisan politics; and speeding up the narrative through tight editing, flashy graphics and a rock-infused soundtrack.

“My last picture was seen in policy circles and I think it had an effect,” he said. “But, it wasn’t widely seen outside that. I wanted more people to see this one.”

If liberals and Tea Partiers can’t see eye-to-eye on the facts detailed in Inside Job, it isn’t likely they’ll agree on anything else.

“Since the established parties aren’t doing anything, there will be a need for a third party,” Ferguson allowed. “I don’t know if that will be the Tea Party or something else. I remain optimistic because I know how the American people responded to the Great Depression.”

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One Response to “Digital Nation: In Washington, No One Can Hear You Scream”

  1. Emidio Galea says:

    INSIDE JOB: For me what is most shocking in this movie is Part V entitled WHERE ARE WE NOW? I got the impression that Obama has given up on his lofty ideals and has decided to join forces with the crooks of high finance. Is it possible that he has now subscribed to the idea of IF YOU CAN’ T BEAT THEM JOIN THEM? But I am an ignoramus of the first order and, like most people, when it comes to political and financial intrigue, can easily be manipulated. Will some honest person in the know kindly illuminate me? Thank you.

Digital Nation

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon