Dispatches > The Buzz

Monkey see, monkey do

Relaunching Planet of the Apes, telling the left to be more liberal, and paying a debt of ingratitude

Issue: "California: Bellwether state," Oct. 24, 1998

Back to the apes
Science fiction often doesn't age well. Case in point: Planet of the Apes (rated G), a 1968 blockbuster that is getting a heavily hyped 30th-anniversary home-video release from Fox. In addition, Titanic filmmaker James Cameron is preparing to produce an Apes sequel. Why? An entire generation raised on Star Trek and Star Wars missed the Apes craze, so the time has come for a revival. Watching Apes is like opening a time capsule. The movie monkeys around with touches of Buck Rogers and Tarzan mixed with heavy strokes of bombast about science and the arms race. Even with a script co-written by Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame, it plays like a B movie today. Astronaut Charlton Heston crash lands in a strange world ruled by simians who treat humans as wild animals for zoos and experimentation. People are in cages and apes give the orders. They have an advanced civilization while the humans who live among them can't even talk. They argue that a talking man can't exist because it violates their "sacred scrolls" (an obvious low blow at creationism). Helping save the day is an ape archaeologist (played by the recently departed Roddy McDowall). As social commentary this is so overcooked that even village atheists will roll their eyes today. As a simple adventure story, this is entertaining, if corny. And the Oscar-winning ape makeup has survived well. Why do the apes hate humans? It turns out they don't trust them because people are so warlike. Even our hero, early in the movie, explains why he launched into space by saying, "I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man." Like countless other sci-fi products, Apes bangs the anti-war drums to death. This brand of storytelling died out in the days of Lucas and Spielberg. Still, this monkey business, which spawned four sequels and a TV show, was big stuff in the pre-Lucas days-and may be once again. Why liberals are so mean
Richard Ellis is a liberal who wants to save the left from itself. This political scientist, a democrat and ACLU member, wrote The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America (University of Kansas Press). He complains that an intolerant streak runs through activists from the pre-Civil War radical abolitionists to post-Cold War environmentalists. Mr. Ellis points out that leftist fascism did not begin in the 1960s. He shows examples in history ranging from William Lloyd Garrison to Walt Whitman to Tom Hayden (Jane Fonda's ex-husband). He criticizes idealists who want to build a perfect world at any cost. For many on the left, everybody except a tiny elite is dismissed as unenlightened and a little stupid. Of Whitman, Ellis writes that "his celebration of an almost mystical common people often co-exists with disdain for the lives of actually existing people." Often the revolutionary struggle turns into essentially a new religion. For example, feminist groups in the 1970s with names like New York Radical Women, The Furies, and the Redstockings claimed to be defenders of women even as they attacked women's roles as wives and mothers. They built a view that the personal is political, declaring that any opposing views be bulldozed. Movements like this once attacked the academy, then took it over, installing petty dictators on campuses from coast to coast. While the Bible teaches than man is still fallen even in the best societies, illiberal liberals think that by taking power they can build a secular paradise. Mr. Ellis argues that utopian movements become increasingly purist, paranoid, and pedantic because they want to recast human nature in their own image. They decry authority, yet fall under the spell of charismatic leaders, whose domination becomes ever more forceful and extravagant. "A politics that merely seeks to avoid cruelty, to allow people to live peaceably with one another, or even to remedy injustices," the author writes, "seems woefully inadequate to those who believe human beings can usher in something approaching heaven on earth." Unfortunately, Mr. Ellis doesn't want to stop the left in its tracks. He just wants it to rediscover civility. When we all went into debt
Forty years ago, Bank of America mailed 60,000 credit cards to the residents of Fresno, Calif., and started a revolution. Unlike Diner's Club and American Express, which targeted travelers and businessmen, BankAmericard was "the family credit card" and mass market all the way. It succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations. First, California was spammed with credit cards. Ads said this card was "As good as cash" and "Your wallet is never empty when you carry a BankAmericard." In 1966, banks from coast to coast joined in. Four years later, Bank of America couldn't keep up with the growth any longer, so they spun the card system into a separate operation. In 1977, the card was globalized into Visa, your global passport into a world of consumer credit brought together by the gold, white and blue flag. Nearly half (49.6 percent) of all credit cards in America carry it. "Today, the credit card is such an integral part of our lives that we take it for granted," says Bank of America executive vice president James G. Jones. The mountain of cash that flows via plastic money is taken for granted too. Consumers charge more than a trillion dollars a year on Visa alone, often at interest rates over 20 percent per year. Abuse and maxed out accounts are commonplace. Visa and MasterCard (which started as Master Charge in 1966) are so huge they were recently hit with an antitrust suit that claims they tried to keep banks from offering competing brands of credit cards. Still, the money rolls in. As the credit card companies fix their Y2K bugs, they're considered to be way ahead of the game. They're also preparing smart cards, electronic purses, and debit accounts to launch them into the new millennium. Consumer credit, on plastic or microchip, opens the door to a new dimension of personal freedom. But if misused-as it usually is-it becomes a chain around our necks, dragging us down in last year's extravagance.

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