There are jellyfish in my strip of the ocean. They are small as daisies and clear white. They float will-less, wantless, like a blooming field of condoms lifted and lowered with the oncoming waves, pulled with the tides, stranded on the damp sand, glassy, limp, slimy, broken. How to tell the difference between live ones and dead ones escapes me. Hot sun on the shore, burning sand underfoot, I want to enter the blue waves with their inviting roll, their delicious foam, their drumming on the sand, but I don’t want jellyfish down my bathing suit. I don’t want jellyfish brushing against my arms or legs. What if I forget to close my (frequently open when it should be shut) mouth and one slides in? Are jellyfish tasteless, odorless, or are they briny, salty? Do jellyfish have thoughts of death as they go down the gullet? I stay on the shore. Nothing is perfect, not even a perfect day at the beach.
So, in retreat under my umbrella, I consider the movie we had seen at Montauk the night before: Arlington Road . This is a bad, clumsy movie; don’t go. But something about it haunts me. The story tells of a large, well-organized terrorist group that blows up buildings like the Oklahoma Federal building and is out to get revenge on Government agencies for their callous acts toward individuals. There’s a Ruby Ridge-like shootout in which we see that the F.B.I. made a bad mistake and murdered innocent citizens just trying to protect their home. The leader of the bombing group had his father’s farm ruined by an indifferent government’s irrigation decision. We, the audience, aren’t fond of do-it-yourself bombers, but we see the film’s point: Big government is the enemy of the little man, every man. Jeff Bridges tries to stop the bombing of the F.B.I. building in Washington but is lured into carrying the bomb himself and is killed along with many F.B.I. men, and that is the end of the story. This is depressing. The bad guys win, but the film does not intend them to be entirely bad guys. The F.B.I. is accused of blaming the bombing on one man who is found dead at the site in order to prevent public panic. The F.B.I. has, according to the film, done this before and they will do it again. So at the end of the film the F.B.I. is the organization that lies to us, misuses its power, and the valiant successful group of anti-Government violent conspirators has fooled the public and beaten the Goliath of our Government and will go on to kill more innocent people in its fight against the Government of the United States. This is really depressing. I haven’t told you all the twists of the plot and the predictable car chases and the sweet children endangered, etc. But what has happened here is that, into the general paranoia of American culture, Hollywood has launched this nasty missile dressed up as summer entertainment. This movie comes as close to supporting the lunatic separatist, big-government-hating gun nuts of America as any movie I’ve ever seen. Is it time for an inquiry into the right-wing infiltration of our media?
Now here’s the real problem. Ever since J. Edgar Hoover and his misuse of his agency to hound Martin Luther King Jr. and others whose vision of America differed from his, we are suspicious of the words and deeds of the men who should be protecting us from harm.
The C.I.A. bumbles and lies to us about the wars we aren’t winning, where the Chinese Embassy sits, and what goes on in certain pharmaceutical factories. Cover-ups and lies run from Ollie North to Richard Nixon, and our respect for our Government’s capability, not to mention trustworthiness, is washed away in the rains of hint and exposure, conjecture and innuendo. Was J. Edgar really a drag queen? All that impeachment pap about perjury and honor fell on deaf public ears because we have become so used to falsehoods, to Government deceptions. We are aware that the lie is just business as usual.
I’m not a person who runs around with an Eliot Ness for President button on my lapel, but it seems to me that this fear of government is a dangerous thing and threatens the very root of our democracy and our true pride in our country. In Arlington Road ,
a Boy Scouts-like organization has been taken over by the terrorists for their own purposes. In reality, when our faith in our institutions withers, our power to resist tyranny is diminished. None of this is the fault of the movie producers or distributors of Arlington Road . In all likelihood, they were just hoping to make money out of our general distrust and unease.
But thinking about the movie makes it clear that the accumulated reports of corruption of Government agencies is coming home to roost in our hearts and making us vulnerable to the worst of impulses, some of which are violent. The Republican drumbeat against big government adds to the sense that the Government is the enemy, trying to take our right to self-defense away from us by regulating guns or H.M.O.’s. These conservatives are playing with fire when the building is already on fire.
The balance between the individual need and the Government is always in tension. Living with other people is by definition a compromise and somebody’s going to be angry whatever the majority decides, however many laws protect minority opinion. But now something else is happening. The lunatic fringe has made itself seem like the victim, the one that deserves our sympathy. Using words like liberty and God and freedom, they preach against the community, and some are even willing to kill. I don’t want to censure movies or fire film directors or screenwriters who have associations with the N.R.A. or the white supremacists or whatever, but we have to watch out, notice when propaganda is buried into the entertainment we gulp down with our big cartons of popcorn, and we have to protect ourselves against a paranoia that will unravel the public consensus and leave us snarling one against another like so many savages on the prehistoric plains. We need a century’s worth of truth from our Government so that a film like Arlington Road will rock the box office as a hilarious comedy. Maybe a 21st-century Woody Allen could play the Jeff Bridges part in a remake.
In a few days, the jellyfish will float off to wherever jellyfish go when their Long Island season is over, and I’ll go back into the waves. It’s a simple pleasure in a time when nothing is simple, not even going to the movies.