Merchants of Doubt

My review of Merchants of Doubt

“Fake it, till you make it so,” might be one of the many truisms apropos for Merchants of Doubt, the new documentary by Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner, based on Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik M. Conway’s book of the same title. The film examines a group of spin doctors who make a living convincing the public to doubt science in favor of corporate-backed fiction. These silver-tongued faux-pundits introduce (unreasonable) doubt on topics as diverse as acid rain, cigarettes, toxic chemicals, the ozone layer, and climate change, obfuscating the real issues and influencing public opinion. Their modus operandi: “Discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, promote doubt.”

Your first question might be, “So? Industries hire PR people to promulgate their point of view. That’s how PR works.” Yes, well, Merchants of Doubt shines a light on much murkier and shadier territory you might not have considered before—this is an incestuous cadre of “experts” who are bedfellows with just about every industry in need of white-washing of nefarious activities. In addition, plainly put, these spin doctors are NOT doctors: none of them have Ph.D.s or any sort of scientific qualifications making them worthy of opining on the topics. As Marc Morano, one of the most ubiquitous of the lot, states, “I am not a scientist, but I play one on TV.” Funny, if it were not hair-raisingly scary.

Merchants of Doubt begins by examining the tobacco industry. Knowing all along about the dangers of their product, the industry at first focused on convincing the public that cigarettes are perfectly safe and non-addictive. Once that jig was up, they framed the issue as “don’t take away our freedom.” As tobacco’s lead spin doctor Peter Sparber (who posed as a fire marshal, no less, while on big tobacco’s payroll) put it “If you can sell tobacco, you can sell anything.” And indeed, he did, moving on to other industries in need of his special brand of hucksterism. Big tobacco was also responsible for the decades-long egregious use of flame-retardants on furniture: this furniture sprayed with a toxic chemical that imperiled thousands of firefighters, because making a self-extinguishing cigarette would be “much more difficult.”

Turning its lens on climate change next, the film demonstrates the deleterious effect that presenting the issue as a scientific debate had both on public opinion and political outcomes. In the book, science historian Naomi Oreskes conducted an analysis of all the scientific papers published between 1992 and 2002 on global warming and found zero papers disagreeing with the fact that global warming is anthropogenic and due to increased greenhouse gases. In other words, there was a resounding and prevailing scientific consensus. Yet, scientists like Fred Seitz and Fred Singer founded front organizations and think tanks like Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), with nebulous enough names to grant an air of legitimacy, to further global warming skepticism and a conservative viewpoint.

Merchants of Doubt asks the very germane question of what these doubt-peddlers gain from their activities. Sure, the remuneration is nice. But Seitz and Singer were scientists during the Cold War – the film suggests there is an ideological component, too – and they frame these debates being about government interference, an attack on a way of life. This could also explain why libertarians, as a group, are such intense climate change deniers, or so Merchants of Doubt posits.

But back to the faux “I play a scientist on TV,” pundits. The film seems to exonerate the media from blame in this whole quagmire, but aren’t 24-hour news channels, reliant on “debates” for 90% of their programming front and center in this mix? Why are scientists pitted against people like Morano in a “debate?” What kind of a debate could possibly take place between a scientist and a talking head?  Merchants of Doubt points to the increased personalization of something that should really stay in the professional: for example, Morano routinely releases the email addresses of climate scientists so they may receive death threats and ad hominem attacks totally unrelated to their actual work. The Cato Institute publishes climate change-denying reports that are literally identical copies, stylistically, of the report released by NOAA. All of the above point to the kind of desperate and base tactics that far eclipse mere PR.

Merchants of Doubt certainly offers a probing look into something that isn’t “business as usual,” or at least shouldn’t be. The cadre of fake scientists/spin doctors, thanks to 24 hour conservative channels like Fox News, has been frighteningly successful in steering public sentiment toward a corporate-backed political outcome. The implications of this are much further reaching than just exposing the public to biased-by-their-very-nature public relations yarns. While the film could have used a much tighter editing hand to keep it on track (not to mention that the gimmick of having a magician explain how magic works to draw an analogy is heavy-handed, at best), it does expose something we might not have thought much about, which is why is it that climate change deniers continue to have a political floor for their opinions to be listened to at all.

Ballet 422 Film Review

My review for Ballet 422

Ballet 422 chronicles 25-year-old choreographer Justin Peck’s choreographing of the New York City Ballet’s 422nd ballet. Black Swan this is not, nor should it be, but while cinema verite at its finest, the film dances around any real engagement with the viewer.  Austere and skeletal, it tends to run a bit like a dancer’s diary. There is nothing here to draw a “lay” audience in and little to indicate story-telling on the director’s part.

Jody Lee Lipes offers a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world’s most prestigious dance companies. Justin Peck has two months to create the piece for the company’s winter 2013 season. A member of the Corps de Ballet, he is also a dancer; in fact, in the final scene, where we see him leave the premiere of his piece to change into his dancer’s costume is a wry nod to superheroes of all ilks.

Ballet 422 really does not offer us even a modicum of psychological insight into any of the characters. There are no interviews, no insights. In fact, even though putting on a ballet in 2 months is clearly a Herculean task, this is hardly palpable here.  We never get a sense of the enormity of Peck’s or the dancers’ accomplishments.

Peck appears somber most of the time, and smiling is hard to come by in this film, on all sides. Uber-seriousness rules the day. This makes for a very isolating feel to the documentary. It’s almost claustrophobic. It is hard to see why we should care about any of the characters, devoid of any information about any of them. An upside is that we are not presented with the dictatorial, (megalo)maniacal choreographer trope that seems to be the hallmark of most art films (i.e., Whiplash).

What is perhaps even more frustrating is the purposely-choppy flow of the film. We only get glimpses of rehearsals, glimpses of costume design, glimpses of the orchestra. And in the end, we do not even see the entire ballet.

Ballet 422 does offer an intimate, albeit limited, look into an art form of breathtaking beauty.  Sadly, there is dearth of insight into the creative process or into the thoughts of any of the performers or Peck himself. Austere and stiff; it suffers from an odd determination to make even the most graceful and awe-inspiring clinical. In a sense, because we do not see too much of the struggle, it risks diminishing Peck’s and the dancers’ accomplishments. If the mark of the professional is to “make it look easy,” then Ballet 422 should receive ample accolades. In all other regards, this runs like nothing more than the skeletal, scribbled notes of someone putting something together.



Childhood Deployed: Remaking Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone

My article on Susan Shepler’s book Childhood Deployed:

Shepler’s recent book, Childhood Deployed: Remaking Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone, examines the difficult reintegration of former child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone’s devastating civil war lasted from 1991-2002, leavingmore than 50,000 dead and over two million displaced as refugees. UNICEF estimates 10,000 children were involved in the hostilities.

Shepler was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone in the 1980s, where she worked as a teacher. She returned ten years later, while the war was ongoing and again after the war was over, to study the process of former child soldiers’ reintegration into their communities. She conducted ethnographic research in Interim Care Centres for demobilized child soldiers. She followed the children in their everyday lives, in the centres, in school, in the community, and at play. Shepler jokingly referred to participant observation as “deep hanging out” and this description seemed especially apropos in her interaction with the children, which allowed her to gain a view accessible to her as a member of their community rather than an outsider.

The Paris Principles define a child soldier as any child associated with an armed force or group, regardless of whether she/he was involved in actual combat. All the factions in Sierra Leone’s war recruited children (boys and girls) from all parts of the country. The children carried guns, commanded battle, and worked as porters, spies, cooks, or “wives.” Some of the children were abducted and some joined willingly. Shepler’s book brings up the fact that the Western view of a child is actually quite different from the Sierra Leonean—this is relevant in the sense that child labor and child agency are much more heavily emphasized there than they would be in the West.

Shepler’s work examines how the “standard narrative” of the child soldier: “I was abducted; it was not my wish, and now all I want is to continue my education,” is something that was not universally told by the children. Children had different ways of talking about the experience, depending on who they talked to. In other words, it is not as though that narrative was not authentic, but rather that “child soldier” as an identity is created in social practice across a range of settings. In a sense, the process of using that term and applying that term is intensely political and we must examine what is lost and gained by deploying ideas of modern childhood.

“Reintegration works best when it works with local culture,” she said. Child fosterage, for example, would have been a preferable alternative to institutionalization in interim care centres. Apprenticeship, which is an integral part of the child-rearing experience in Sierra Leone, would have been better than the “skills training” provided in the centres.

Shepler advocated for the need to develop better models that capture the complexity behind the term “youth.” She also suggested that policy makers be cognizant of the political consequences of their distinction making. She advocated for the design of programs for benefit all war-affected youth and not just those children who were deemed to fall under the “child soldier” category.

Associate Professor Susan Shepler’s research is a powerful testament to why ethnography matters and why anthropologists have a lot to share with international development organizations.



Human Capital Film Review

My review of Human Capital

Looking for some sort of parable on the divide between the haves and have-nots or trenchant social commentary on the evils of the spoiled rich? Human Capital comes up short. If you’re looking for a not-thoroughly-boring whodunit that also riffs a bit on the ol’ “eat the rich” trope, you might have some better luck finding that here.

In Human Capital, the destinies of two Italian families become intertwined after a hit-and-run accident that kills a bicyclist. Director Paolo Virzì adapts Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel, Human Capital, into a story told from the perspective of three of the main characters.

One of the families is spectacularly rich; the other… hopes to become so via its tenuous association with the spectacularly rich. That’s about the extent of the social commentary in the film.

The two families meet after their children begin dating. Buffoonish real-estate agent Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) is portrayed in a rather caricature-like way as a blustery, uncouth, wanna-be-nouveau-riche. Cultured he is not, but he knows an opportunity when he sees one, or so he thinks. He buys into the exclusive hedge fund of Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni), the father of his daughter’s boyfriend. At the point, it is impossible for the audience to suspend any kind of disbelief as the next plot development is literally emblazoned on the screen in a giant flashing neon sign. (No) surprise—he is not going to get rich quick.

Human Capital doesn’t stray too far from familiar stereotypes. The rich family are not particularly loathsome–their lives are what we would expect.  Carla’s “slammed” days consist of shopping, getting massages, and pet art restoration projects.  To its credit, the film actually shines in that regard. We are not asked to think, “Oh, they are rich, but LOOK how unhappy they are.” We don’t get the sense that they are particularly unhappy. We do understand, however, that their being inured to this lifestyle is actually a sort of a liability: when it looks like when they might lose even a fraction of their enormous wealth, they appear hopelessly childlike, lost, and incapable of living the life of “normal people,” almost as though they have forgotten how to.

On the other hand, as far as thrillers go, Human Capital is quite a good one! It is not at all apparent who hit the bicyclist and from that perspective, it does hold the viewer’s interest. Serena (Matilde Gioli), Dino’s daughter, is, as a character, the most compelling and well-developed. Unlike just about everyone else in this film, she seems to be the only one with a backbone and passion for, well, much of anything. An added bonus–the quirky art dude might get the girl and not the rich heir.

In a somewhat heavy-handed way, Human Capital showcases how the one percent really cannot at all relate to the life of the ninety-nine percent. Literally and figuratively removed from the rest of society, they appear woefully stuck in their glass palaces. At least the film does not seek to elicit our pity for them. The value of Human Capital is certainly not in its novelty or cleverness, as there is no emotional richness to be found here. It certainly does offer a good bit of suspense and entertainment, which makes it definitely worth checking out.

Yoga District Blog Post: Building Skills and Community

My post for the Yoga District Blog: Building Skills and Community, the For the Teachers, By the Teachers Series

Do you know the origin of the expression “ships that pass in the night?” Neither did I, but it is apparently from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem entitled Tales of a Wayside Inn:

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

Teaching yoga can be a lot like that. Teacher training is a communal experience — you bond with your cohort in lasting ways. But once you are a newly-hatched yoga teacher, still finding your wings and feet, you sort of have to look around to find the protective canopy of a momma bird’s wings. Sure, all of your teachers have their own practice and, in turn, their own teachers, but teaching can be an incredibly (and oddly so) solitary endeavor. Sometimes all you hear is your own voice . . . and that can be disorienting. Building community becomes something that requires its own investment of time — reaching out to your fellow teachers, seeking out further education.

Yoga District is the only studio I practice at that not only understands that but does something about it. No other studio where I have been is so committed to the growth of its members, student and teacher alike. And no other place understands that the teachers are still students themselves.

The “For Teachers, By Teachers” series of workshops allows us to not only meet fellow teachers, laugh and share in our general foibles, but most importantly, learn. If you are wondering how that is different from going to a traditional workshop or attending continuing education classes, my response to you would be that the teachers teaching these workshops are selflessly offering their time and knowledge just so our community can stay vibrant and tight-knit — a tough thing to find in the increasingly transaction-oriented and transitory city of Washington, DC.

These workshops are but an example of Yoga District’s general ethos of community and “yoga for the people, by the people”-ness (yes, I realize this is not a word). They are not lectures where we are being talked at — we do, we share, we discuss, we bring up questions from our experiences. That is what makes them fundamentally different from going on a retreat with a stranger/superstar yoga teacher. To me, they are like a Sunday hangout with family.

I have now had the pleasure of attending two of these workshops: the first on hands-on assisting with Ros and the second one on prenatal yoga with Brittany. Both were incredibly, incredibly helpful.

In the hands-on assisting and adjusting workshop, we learned not only the specific adjusts for each pose but also more subtle information such as how to respond to students’ responses to these adjusts and assists. How is that for meta! The laying of the hands, so to speak, is an incredibly fraught process. Understanding cues and proper way to implement hands-on work is critical to making the process beneficial and comfortable for our students.

The second workshop on prenatal yoga was equally illuminating. Brittany even brought along a little fabric pelvis and a fabric baby doll to illustrate all the changes that take place in a woman’s body and make us understand why certain poses are not optimal for pregnant ladies. For example, did you know that the hormone relaxin, which allows the uterus to expand, also softens connective tissue, putting women are risk for hyperextending through joints and causing other joint injuries (so being newly able to get into splits is not always a good thing!). From the second trimester on — when the center of gravity really starts to shift — most of the balancing poses are best done next to a wall for support so as to eliminate the risk of injury to the baby as well as the Mom. Steering clear of asanas that work on the central abdominals is also recommended.

These are just snippets of everything that was shared in these workshops. It truly is a blessing to be a part of a community that works for the betterment of both its teachers and students — and does so without much fanfare and horn-tooting.

This is also another one of my posts.