matt (hbergeronx) wrote,

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on the brotherhood of science

saw "Cloak and Dagger" this weekend. Overall this was a thoroughly unremarkable movie, perhaps made because Fritz Lang felt guilty about Thea von Harbou's becoming a Nazi sympathizer. But the most interesting part of this was the use of a common forties and fifties trope, that of the international brotherhood of scientists.

You can see this also in films like "The Day the Earth Stood Still". The world has gone mad, with ambitions for nuclear power, and in the face of this stands the scientist, enabler, and at the same time dispassionate and pacifist.

The myth works something like this: all men are brothers in science, and that there is a bond between fellow scientists that insists they cannot bring harm to other scientists or learned men.

Dr Jesper (Gary Cooper) becomes a spy, operative for the OSS, in order to help his "pinup of science", Dr Katerin Lodor. When Lodor is killed during the operation, he then decides to make contact with the Italian scientist Lodor is working with for the Nazis to try to convince him to give intelligence or otherwise stop his work and hinder the German effort for the Bomb. Much hilarity and hand-staple-forehead ensues.

I think it might be interesting to trace the evolution of the scientist in fiction- especially not in science fiction but in "torn from the headlines" tales such as this movie and in other works as well. Scientist is in many ways still a highly respected position, particularly when the scientist in question is pitted against the political and amoral, particularly antienvironmental forces. This character is usually reserved for ridiculous movies such as "The Day after Tomorrow" or "The Arrival", or "The Core", all science fiction. The absurdity in this trope is in how it's a character that doesn't really correspond to anyone in the real world. It's an ideal, even espoused by scientists, that they would like to think of themselves as in a pure humanist union. People, though, don't act or behave like this.

I also think that it's a bit of superinflated ego that people somehow have the power to destroy the planet. Now, I'm not suggesting that modern science hasn't given us the tools to make life very difficult to continue, and I don't believe that global warming and other boogeymen are entirely fictional. But such fictions take for granted the fact that human existence is somehow divinely or otherwise endowed as more important than other existing or potential forms of life. I've tried to come to grips with things like "nuclear holocaust", and have overlaid maps of the kill zone of things like Hiroshima on maps of the NYC area, and I'm not terribly impressed. The kill zone is not much bigger than Manhattan island. It is conceivable that many people in Paterson, NJ, for instance, or even Hackensack, where I live, might survive a Hiroshima sized blast in downtown. Now, granted, todays complete arsenal is many thousands of Hiroshimas, but the total face of the landmass of Earth is many thousands of landmasses of Japan. Death and war are horrible and inexcusable- but man, really, is puny in the face of the universe, and would be better served to learn this. He has an effect, true, but it is really shruggably unimpressive at times.

How many of you, my readers, were/are scared senseless by such schlock as "The Day After"?

All this is to say, we have a great power to terrorize ourselves, but it is well in excess of our own capacity. Stewarding our environment s a noble and proper goal, but it cannot become a monomaniacal obsession, lest it become a tool of terrorists, on all sides.

The movie "Cloak and Dagger" is presumably a fictionalized piece of war propaganda, released just after the war to prove what a wonderful thing and what a bunch of ethical, beautiful people were comprising the nation's OSS, basically the quasi-progenitor of the CIA. The movie makes much (in the beginning of the movie) of having "set back" Hitler's nuclear ambition by sinking the M/F Hydro, when just recently it was discovered that the ferry only contained maybe a fraction of what might have been needed. There's very little evidence that Hitler was even close to nuclear capability. Sound familiar? We always try to justify and glorify the ends, and history is written by the winners.

There's something to be said for those scientific ideals- truth and freedom above all else, for instance, and there is no doubt that Hitler's hatred of Jewish Science (a.k.a. quantum mechanics) may have stunted his ambitions.

That said, I'm always intrigued by the ability of people to see themselves as ethically just, no matter what behavior they engage in. At the risk of amoral nihilism, I'm certain that a certain amount of self-doubt, a certain amount of belief that all actions have an immoral or unethical component because all knowledge is imperfect, is much better than trying to justify one system of ethics as superior over all others.

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