Data

 

Everywhere I turn, articles, seminars, news reports and scheduled seminars focus on the issue of data. The article Sunday morning in The Washington Post by Craig Timberg entitled, “Trump campaign consultant took data about millions of users without their knowledge,” begins with Facebook’s recent suspension of Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that evidently played a key role in President Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Cambridge Analytica had claimed that it was at the pinnacle of marrying the art of political persuasion to the science of big data by tailoring advertising to the psychological traits of voters, in this case, political messages and fundraising requests married to political dispositions through psychographic targeting. The company boasted of possessing 5,000 data points on every American.

I am not here concerned with the ethics of privacy (improperly sharing data and failing to destroy private information), the ethics of spying given the covert character of data, the tactics, the accuracy of using five selected basic traits such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, to develop correlations, the lack of regulation of this Wild West frontier of human knowledge or the effectiveness of these correlations, however valid any one of those questions may be. Quite aside from the immoral and probably illegal use of data from tens of millions of Facebook users without their permission or knowledge, and using that data for nefarious political purposes, the specifics are even more frightening with tales of Alexander Nix, the recently suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica, and his cohorts caught openly claiming to have used shadow companies as fronts, using bribes, sex workers as traps and a host of other unethical practices to advance the position of the company.

My focus is the significance of the effort in gaining access to the psychological profiles of an estimated 50 million Americans and equivalent numbers in other countries. For example, on the issue of effectiveness, Cambridge Analytica claimed that its data modeling and polling showed Trump’s strength in the industrial Midwest and shaped a homestretch strategy that led to his upset wins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The actual as well as potential for undermining Western democracies is important and leaders of populist parties, like the Five Star Movement in Italy, which won 33% of the Italian vote in the 4 March elections and has been the first major digital political organization in the world, boasted that the dawn of electronic populism has come ending the era of liberal representative democracy. Luigi Di Maio: “You can’t stop the wind with your hands.” Digital means and digital data are combined to revolutionize politics and supposedly return power to the people.

This morning, I also received an email inviting me to attend the Walter Clarkson Symposium.  The keynote address by Deborah Stone addresses the “The Ethics of Counting” and the day-long symposium itself will focus on: “The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision-Making.” The issue: how data is collected to result in policies based on evidence-based decisions to produce statistical methods and models relied upon for policy decisions. The advocates promote such data for the ability to reduce complex realities to objective and comparable metrics. Critics suspect the evaluations.

The effects on humans clearly extends into the economic sphere. Last evening, I attended a symposium of top Canadian applied economists focused on prognostication or prophecy, the core purpose of the data age according to Jill Lepore. The economists looked at the tea leaves of fiscal and monetary policy, housing and taxation as well as trends and forces affecting the value of the Canadian dollar to paint a relatively bleak picture of the Canadian economy based on each of the economist’s efforts at large data crunching.

The reliance on data as a primary form of knowledge and determinant of policy has a definite history which Jill Lepore argued began with photography in the nineteenth century. Initially, I found this ironically to be counter-intuitive, but her point was that the era of facts correlated with the Sanctuary of Truth, of numbers correlated with the Sanctuary of Method, was succeeded by the primacy of large data that, in my argument can be correlated with the university as a Social Service Station. The reason Jill pointed to film was because photography in the late nineteenth century was used as evidence. This was coterminous with the decline in faith of eye-witnesses in identifying individuals involved in crimes. As our senses were undermined, though data had not yet filled the vacuum, the first steps had been taken to displace our senses and prepare the ground for the empire of data.

Ironically, according to Jill, these first efforts were used for utopian reasons – to undermine the case for the ill-treatment of the Negro in the U.S. At the same time, the effort established the pathway to indirect evidence and that a “picture was worth a thousand words.” James Frye developed the lie detector in the 1920s to show that a compilation of data in one’s body, of which we were not consciously aware, could be a more reliable detector of lying than that of any so-called expert at “spotting” lies. Orson Wells radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds,” seemed to prove that in the age of radio one could no longer rely on one’s ears any more than one’s eyes.

The negative efforts to disenfranchise the senses had prepared the ground for the age of data which began in 1948 with the invention of the computer following the secret work at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes in Britain during WWII. Bletchley Park has been commemorated in a number of films, especially Enigma in 2001 with Kate Winslet, Saffron Burrows and Dougray Scott, but even more effectively in The Imitation Game (2014) staring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. The government code and cypher codebreakers learned to penetrate the German and Enigma ciphers, an impossible task without the use of a proto-computer. The “Ultra” intelligence produced undoubtedly shortened the war.

UNIVAC was put on display in 1951. It was used in a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn film, Desk Set (originally a William Marchant 1955 play), in 1957 to show how facts could be established using such a device far faster than relying on human observations and analyses. Spencer Tracy plays the “electronic brains” engineer who manages EMERAC (the Electromagnetic MEmory  and Research Arithmetical Calculator). Katherine Hepburn plays what will become an obsolete “fact checker.”

JFK would become the first television-age politician when “The Simulation Project” was launched in 1958 to determine what policy positions would turn on voters and which would turn them off. Data had entered the age of political manipulation. But numbers still reigned even as data sciences rose in academe to claim not only that data knew faster, but that it knew better and, even more importantly, that only data could tell us some things – such as the key elements of sociology – demographical distributions – and economics – such as the material I heard last night correlating falling single house prices in the GTA with rising condo prices with speculative investing with numbers of overseas investors to create a graph of demand and supply correlated with market prices. This was not just a matter of adding and correlating numbers, but of employing algorithms to knit the data together and produce a formula for predicting shifts in market pricing.

It was no surprise, in line with Gauchet’s analysis, that these economists all seemed at heart to be committed to neo-liberalism. When you marry a Trump regime that seems to have no respect for a balanced budget and engages in redistribution of wealth to the rich – quite aside from is impulsive, unpredictable and shape-shifting character – with the Trudeau regime in Canada also based on deficit financing and a redistributive rather than growth budget, but one dedicated to serving the middle class rather than plutocrats, then the outlook has to be pessimistic and even more pessimistic for Canada that is in such a vulnerable position, exacerbated when it does not cut corporate and individual tax rates to compete with the Americans.

However, economic suicide is not the same as political enslavement. In 1989, a London think tank gathered vast quantities of data about an audience’s values, attitudes and beliefs, identifying groups of “persuadables,” and targeted them with tailored messages. In the 1990s, the technique was tested on health and development campaigns in Britain and then extended to international political consulting and defence. Those were efforts at control at the same time as data was being collected and spliced and diced to careen everything out of control.

An algorithm invented in 1999 by a graduate student at the University of Waterloo was used to bundle mortgages together and sell them as tranches, a system which began to reel out of control in 2003 as salesmen and bankers promoted the products without an iota of understanding or even any ability to develop such an understanding, of precisely what they were selling. For it was based on a computer projection and different taxonomic tools to create a new species of monetary instruments. The economic bust of 2007-08 that followed almost brought down the whole international economic order. As indicated above with the story of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, privacy, so critical to the age of the Sanctuary of Truth and the age of facts but also to the world’s public in general, became a major casualty. The world of data seemed to produce greater calamities than benefits, especially for the ordinary man or woman.

As also indicated above, we are entering a new age in which evidence-based medicine in numerous fields can be handled better by the computer than by highly trained individuals. But, at the same time, as data is crunched and analyzed in ways no ordinary human can do, falsification becomes barely detectable until the economic house comes crashing down. As also indicated above, the data predators have emerged out of the woodwork who, like termites, are currently eating through the foundations of our homes. It should be no surprise that paranoia increases, which in turn can be exacerbated by the complexity, inaccessibility and control over parts of our lives and its overall trend towards decontextualizing. History itself gets thrown into the waste bin of history. As the speakers said at last evening’s symposium, Canada has the highest proportion of its population with tertiary degrees but also the highest level of unemployed educated individuals. In a day of data, who needs historians or philosophers.

What is the link to data as a new foundation stone of evidence for a university. Some believe the issue is not evidence, but the wearing of blinkers to ward off unwanted information. As Heather MacDonald noted, we not only educate large numbers who cannot get jobs comparable with their degree of education, but we also bring up our children without the appropriate values of character and resilience (characteristic of the teaching in the Sanctuary of Truth) needed in such circumstances. “Instead, we merely validate them. From their earliest days of school, we teach them that they are weak individuals in need of constant therapeutic support. In England, the ‘safe space’ pedagogy was introduced in elementary schools long before students began to demand safe spaces at universities. High school students were told that they didn’t have to listen to lectures about suicide or other difficult subjects because they were likely to be traumatized. So by the time they enter university, students have become entitled to this kind of protection and validation. They actually feel that they have a right not to hear words that jar or challenge them, and that speaking these words is a cultural crime.”

It is the world of the data-based university as a Social Service Station that I will explore tomorrow.

Tomorrow: The Primacy of Data and the end of the Social Service Station

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A Historical Intellectual Frame

In September, Jill Lepore’s book, These Truths: A History of the United States, will come out as a Norton publication. Yesterday, I heard the last of her three Priestley lectures at the University of Toronto respectively on Facts, Numbers and Data, the core material that went into that book. The lecture yesterday was on data. The volume offers an account of the history of the United States in terms of shifts in what counts as the key evidence for establishing what we can believe in successive eras – the Era of Truth, the Era of Numbers and the Era of Data. It is a bold neo-Hegelian thesis, and, in that very mode, runs counter to what is accepted as history by most historians.

The book, and the lectures, argue that societies change as the technologies change as the concepts embedded in those technologies change and offer new ways through which to view the world. Thomas Jefferson called “these truths” upon which the U.S. republic was founded political equality, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people. I will map onto her lectures the development of these truths, each as the primary core of the three eras she discusses and to which she only alluded in the lectures. I will not offer the political, economic and social dimensions of society arbitrarily. Instead, I will superimpose on her intellectual framework the core thesis of a French philosopher and intellectual historian, Marcel Gauchet, another rare neo-Hegelian. His ideas were put forth in his four volume, Avènement de la démocratie (The Advent of Democracy) published between 2007 and 2017, the same ten years in which Lepore developed her thesis.

If that is not complicated enough, I will superimpose my own institutional history of the university on that intellectual framework and use the Lepore and Gauchet frames to elaborate on the emergence of successive ideas of the university over the same period. As any Hegelian will do, Lepore writes of a nation that begins in contradiction and the fight over the meaning of history informed by the central preoccupation of the United States with race that brings about the special anxieties and anguish that trouble America. Given Gauchet’s work and my own, my thesis will be broader in one sense but narrower in another since my prime reference will be the emergence and development of the university worldwide but primarily by reference to that institution as it develops in Canada.

To make matters more difficult, I will first work backwards by initially discussing the third of her Priestley lectures on data that she gave yesterday and then move backwards to discuss numbers and facts. In that context, I will put forth the core idea of the university as a Social Service Station (SSS) first and then go back to discuss the idea of the University as a Sanctuary of Method and, previous to that, as a Sanctuary of Truth. Before I offer that intellectual guide map, I will present a triptych of Lepore’s, Gauchet’s and my framework in a static mode of simple succession. Only then will I go back and move forward to depict the dynamic progression of contradictions that plague each era and help yield the next stage. I will include the final stage of the university as a supermarket of ideas and a post-truth world in a separate discussion at the end of the series.

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American history at Harvard. She is also a staff writer for The New Yorker and I may have referred to those writings on such varied subjects as barbie dolls and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in previous blogs. Relatively speaking, Lepore is a rising bright star in the intellectual heavens having received her BA in English in 1987 from Tufts, her MA in American culture in 1990 at the University of Michigan in 1990 and her PhD at Yale in 1995. In just over two decades, this sprightly and down to earth historian of popular culture has cut a swath through academe. The triptych presented below, without the additions of Gauchet and my own conceptions, is what she presented in her Priestley lectures as the character of three very different ages of determining what we know, how we know it and why we know to explain the character of these shifts.

Stages (what?) Facts Numbers Data
Themes
Modes (how?) Discernment Measurement Patterns
Goals (why?) Truth Power Prediction
Rough dates 1800’s 1900-1960 1960-2020
Primacy People Science Progress
Realms Civil Society Economics Neo-liberalism
University Sanctuary of Truth Sanctuary of Method Social Service Station

In one sense, the above depicts the stages of the birth and development of historical consciousness in modernity. For modernity itself since the development of the nation-state in the sixteenth and seventeenth century has prioritized change over stasis, a vision of dynamic transformation over pre-existing truths. In the mediaeval period, the dominant idea of the polity was of the King’s Two Bodies that provided the essential characterization of the politics of a society built on the divine right of kings, the very conception that gave rise to the notion of a ‘body politic.’ (Cf. Ernst H. Kantorowicz The King’s Two Bodies: A Study of Mediaeval Political Theology; the book was first published in 1957 and was one of the seminal works that informed my own thinking – a revised edition, which I have not read, was published recently by Princeton University Press) The core thesis, which I quote, is the following:

The king’s natural body has physical attributes, suffers, and dies, naturally, as do all humans; but the king’s other body, the spiritual body, transcends the earthly and serves as a symbol of his office as majesty with the divine right to rule. The notion of the two bodies allowed for the continuity of monarchy even when the monarch died, as summed up in the formulation “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

As in the contemporary era, the university went through four stages in the mediaeval period with its own version of a Sanctuary of Truth, A Sanctuary of Method, a Social Service Station and a Supermarket of Knowledge. (See Howard Adelman, The Holiversity) In that period, there were two radically different realms, the eternal one above that ruled over the changing one below, the realm of eternal and the realm of transience.

Gauchet dubs it the state of heteronomy in contrast to modernity governed by the concept of autonomy, the capacity for self-determination and the ability to make one’s own laws and self-legislate. According to Gauchet, in the period of modernity, democracy emerged as the prime political system and the nation-state the prime political unit to express this idea. In my view, not elaborated in this series, what we find is the rediscovery of the ancient Israelite conception of the nation-state via the Dutch thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries now wedded to a revised version of the Greek concept of democracy.

In Gauchet’s version, modernity begins the process of leaving religion behind in the dustbin of history. Gauchet is an avowed French secularist. In my own view, in modernity the divine re-enters history as a process of self-revelation rather than the view of an unchanging deity ruling from a transcendent perch on its wayward and contentious empire below. On the surface, and on the surface only, modernity gives the appearance of leaving religion behind but really re-incorporates religious notions in a sense of spiritual revelation over time. The religion left behind is that of the totem of hunter-gatherer societies in which fate lies in the hands of the supernatural Other, either embedded in a world of natural spirits or disembodied from the natural world first by nomads who are not hunter-gatherers but move their domesticated flocks alongside them.

To jump to the present, we have entered a period in which democracy is in crisis, in which the university is in crisis and in which a sense of powerlessness has become the defining notion in radical contrast to the original vision of autonomy and self-determination. The symptoms include an obsession with an apocalyptic outcome and destruction of the natural world that lies at the core of environmentalism and the predominant mode of the new fiction and sci-fi movies. Instead of individual self-determination, politics has become for us liberals identity politics. Instead of politics as a collective enterprise of communal self-realization, it has become the realm in which personal fulfillment is the dominant mode. As a consequence, the core of a democracy, has been sucked from the plum to leave behind a dried and wrinkled prune. As privacy disappears, so ironically does the sense of the public.

One final note on Hegel and neo-Hegelian thought. Hegel has been radically misinterpreted through a Marxist lens and my own scholarship on Hegel focused on a reinterpretation to unpack the central religious themes of Hegel. While the dominant populist intellectual belief was that Hegel was convinced that history led to a terminus, to a final point of unity. I, and the rest of the Toronto Hegelian school, contended that history was not about the absolute as the end of history, for the absolute was always with us from the start. At each stage of historical self-revelation, the absolute takes on a new chimera and projects a new illusion of unity that will soon be fractured by its internal contradictions. Rather than coming to the end of history, rather than Hegel pronouncing on the character of that end, he wrote that, “The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”

Contrary of the current character of the world of data preoccupied with its positivist emphasis on prediction, in history, we can only understand it backwards. That is the perpetual tragedy of history. As soon as we recognize the contradictions of an era we have moved on to a different age with its own internal contradiction. Hence, not a new unity but new forms of fragmentation and forces of dissolution.

I will begin next week with describing the age of data, the process of its emergence and the forces within it of dissolution with a focus on the dissolution of the Social Service Station that is in the process of being transformed into a supermarket of knowledge. Let me try to be clear. Each stage is not a discrete unit separate from the previous stage. It emerges out of the contradictions of that early stage out of elements of technology, of communication and of a mind-set emerging in that earlier stage. In this alliance of convenience of two successive stages, the defined enemy is always, not the previous stage, but the stage prior to that. It is a way of covering up current contradictions while displacing blame on that which has already been cast into the dustbin of history.

I will go back to trace the series of crisis that develop out of the contradictions in each stage to try to provide the background of why, when we have accumulated not only more knowledge than at any previous time, but the means to access even much more while, at the same time, we perhaps have never felt so impotent accompanied by the feeling that society has careened out of control. What happened to the idea of autonomy and self-determination. In the film Annihilation that I wrote about in the last blog, the central conceit hidden behind the martial mission film genre and the horror film genre was a conception of alien forces, not only taking possession of our selves and our brains in the world of big data, but of the very DNA of life in the whole of the living natural realm by becoming the ultimate body snatcher and controlling the central messaging system of our DNA to create new monsters, hybrids and mutations.

It is the roots of this dystopia of impending doom and its emergence that we need to come to understand. Just when we seem to have become the masters of our destiny, society is more than ever pervaded by a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in spite of the bursts of volcanic energy from high school students in America and women in America. Is it possible and how can we recover the original bold claim that we are masters of our destiny?

One last caveat. After Lepore’s lecture, which one of my grandsons attended with me, we went out to dinner together. He expressed an unbridled confidence in the wonders and indeed miracles that reside in the new realm of data. In my account, I will have to explain this overwhelmingly utopian vision in juxtaposition to the dystopic one that I sketched above.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Sunday: Facts, Numbers, Data: The Social Service Station

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Annihilation and Darkest Hour

Yesterday, I saw two movies as well as attending Jill Lepore’s J.F. Priestley lecture on “Numbers.” The first was Annihilation starring Natalie Portman and directed by Alex Garland (who previously directed Ex Machina) that I saw with my youngest son at a movie theatre (it has to be seen on a full wide or even IMAX screen to be really appreciated) before I went to the lecture. The second was the Winston Churchill movie, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour with Gary Oldham offering a simply outstanding portrayal of Winston Churchill. I saw that movie in the evening on TV. Since I slept in until 6:00 a.m. this morning, I might not finish this blog today. For I need to take a driver’s test given that I have turned 80. And I want to hear Jill Lepore’s third lecture on data which I am going to hear this afternoon with one of my grandsons.

My son loved Annihilation. I hated it. There is no question that it was an extraordinary visual experience; the imagery throughout blows your mind. But it is also a horror film in which at every turn there is another horrible creature or spectacle about to attack the five brave women who have entered the “Shimmer” to find out why no one comes out who has gone in to the spreading alien presence on earth. One explanation for our radically different reactions to the film is that he loves horror movies and I cannot abide them.

But that is an insufficient explanation. For I could have enjoyed the visual and visionary spectacle and tried to ignore the cliché of the five-person team of individuals with different characters and motives going on such a suicidal mission, with one important and significant exception – the team in the current era of #Me Too was all female. The plot, instead of lauding the women for their courage, played up the “fact” that each was driven by a different self-destructive motive. Except Natalie Portman as Lena, who was the only one of the five that survived and returned to tell the tale.

The film in both its aesthetic and plot line is based on the scientific phenomenon of refraction with which all film directors, cinematographers and photographers are familiar and which either plagues them or delight them as they use the phenomena to evince an alien presence. However, in this film, refraction becomes a more elementary principle, not simply of bending light, but of interacting with our DNA and mixing it up to form new hybrids. As the suicide-prone physicist in the movie, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) discovers, radio signals cannot escape the Shimmer, not because they are blocked, but because they are refracted like light in a prism to prevent them from escaping. The extraordinary visuals of the film, however, not only come from the beauty of light being refracted, but from the horror of DNA being refracted to form mutants that not only cross the species divide, but ignore the radical division between animal and plant life.  The visual story line is one of the juxtaposition of terribly ugly (and dangerous) forms of life with extraordinary beauty.

My scientific critique has nothing to do with mutation, including mutations through refracted light, but with such an extraordinary and unbelievable recombination that, in my understanding of science, would make it impossible for any living being to emerge. And when something does not make sense, I turn off. The clichés of horror movies, including the initial appearance of Kane (Oscar Isaac) as a dead-eyed zombie returning from the dead at the beginning of the film just before he turns into a blood-vomiting dying man whose organs are all collapsing, were not the only elements that repelled me. I could not buy into the science and, if I watch a sci-fi movie, I want to see an extension of science and not the abuse and mutation of it.

I admit that the biological aberrations were brilliantly constructed and offered haunting images that were discomfiting, disorienting and genuinely frightening, all enhanced by the sound track, but when I wanted to go sleep to escape the misuse of science and the horror film assaults on both my sensibility and my intellectual critique, the noise – and, for me, it was just noise – kept me awake. Instead of loving the way Garland used plot and flashbacks to tantalize and tease by allowing us to both fall behind and sometimes even get ahead, I simply felt manipulated. And to what end? After all, the vaginal hole in the bottom of the lighthouse that had been the destiny of the five women may have been a visual wonder, but for me was a Freudian bore.

However, there was also something deeper going on to propel such a strong negative reaction in me and such a powerful positive response in my son. One reader of my blog just sent me a reference to another blog: (https://medium.com/personal-growth/seeing-vs-reading-29365d4540e2). That blog argued that seeing versus reading, intuition versus rational logic, looking at patterns versus parsing into elements, watching the interplay of solids, light and shadows rather than simply applying a taxonomy of categories using language, explained the difference between aesthetic appreciation and analytic skills, between creativity and, presumably, non-creativity.

Though I think the general argument is bogus, there is a difference between those who love pattern recognition, love the interplay of images and those who do not primarily see through such eyes. But for me, it is worse. For in medical school, I could never recognize anything through a microscope and had to use reductionist reasoning to determine what I was looking at. I have serious problems with face recognition. So, at root, whatever the large areas of overlapping interests between myself and my youngest son, in the end we see the world somewhat differently, especially when it comes to aesthetics and, in particular, certain kinds of film.

Obviously, this difference has grave consequences with respect to dealing with facts, numbers and data, which my son has no difficulty handling even though his prime interest is elsewhere.

In contrast, both my son and I loved Darkest Hour. If Annihilation used light to brilliant effect, darkness pervades the Winston Churchill film from an opening scene in which a secretary walks into a dark room and Churchill is nowhere to be seen until he lights his phallic cigar and adumbrates that he will be the guiding light for a nation under siege. The interplay of light and shadow operate in radically different ways than in Annihilation. The film takes us through the claustrophobic underground corridors of Whitehall and Westminster and even has Churchill riding for the first time on the underground (Did that really happen?). Further, we are into a realm of courage of a radically different and higher order. Churchill wavers between the pressure to sue for peace and the need to resist a tyrant to the death.

Citing Cliff Orwin, in yesterday’s blog I wrote that, “Liberals must manage the two diverse and rival passions of glory versus safety, ambition versus self-determination, and must do so by a reverence for candor and truth.” All these themes are in the film. Is Churchill after glory or is he the embodiment of courage resisting the retreat into the argument for safety at the cost of selling one’s soul, the position of Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane). In this film, Churchill is not so much driven by imperial ambitions as by a need to protect Great Britain, but without allowing the concern with safety to sacrifice the principle of self-determination. And into that balancing act, a normally forthright Churchill of candor retreats into equivocation to hide from the British people what a desperate position they are in before he returns to trusting them and once again demonstrating a reverence for truth and candor.

It is not as though Churchill does not feel. Instead of being portrayed as simply a brilliant orator with his finest speech at the climax of the film – “We shall fight them on….” He does not sell out his head, but knows what he must do. He does not act on impulse or simply based on his feelings and the need for safety most of all, but, instead, musters all that he knows and understands and the courage to do so against all odds and the sceptics that surround him. Instead of sentiment, he feels genuine compassion for the 4,000 troops at Calais but nevertheless decides to sacrifice them in a stalling maneuver to buy time for the rescue of 300,000 British troops from the shores of Dunkirk by an armada of small fishing boats and yachts under the serendipitous clouds that provide the needed air cover. To succeed, compassion and justice need to be supported by a willingness to face and share facts, with truth, and the quest for a real peace rather than to an ersatz peace of a nation that has surrendered to the rule of a tyrant, the core danger of populism.

Unlike Annihilation, this is a real thriller even though you know the outcome in advance, for both films are about the process of reaching the end, not the end itself.  At least in Darkest Hour, as we move between eloquence and meditative and even mumbling silences, we have the reference of a real linear timeline, the 26 days of May and June 1940 when Britain must face the results of the Nazi conquest and victory in Europe. In Darkest Hour, words are key, not visuals. They are enhanced by a lyrical score rather than what I heard as jarring noise in Annihilation.

Of course, the response to the film reflects a deep need for real leadership when one’s values and way of life are under siege.  Look at today. Russia kills those who flee abroad with nerve and atomic chemicals with virtual imPUTINy on British soil and the British government simply expels a 23 Russian “diplomats.” It is akin to responding to murder with a pinprick.

It is not as if we are absent of any examples of courage to speak out at the present time to confront both tyranny and the pusillanimous response of populists and sentimentalists. Though far from the grand scale of Churchill’s achievements, when Jeff Sessions totally misrepresented the position of California and the record of alleged felons that had “escaped” because California did not support the roundup of illegal immigrants, James Schwab, a spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Enforcement Agency (IEA) – clearly no softie – was asked to deflect journalists’ questions about the basis for the “numbers” of alleged “criminal aliens” and 800 wanted criminals cited by the Justice Department as having “escaped” because of the Californian government intervention. Schwab resigned rather than lie about the facts and the numbers and echo the claims that, because of Californian federal government action, “864 criminal aliens and public safety threats remain at large” because of warnings provided by the mayor. The lie concerned the number of people planned to be picked up – far fewer than the 800 or so – or the numbers of criminals among them.

Of course, Donald Trump’s lies are much worse, come far more frequently and have greater consequences. Every Canadian knows how interdependent the Canadian economy is with the American one. Every Canadian knows how important NAFTA is for Canadian prosperity. But Trump lied, lied right to Justin Trudeau, and said that America has a trade deficit with Canada when the reverse is true, a truth even in an economic report issued by the White House and signed off by Trump.  “You’re wrong Justin,” Trump said in response to Justin’s claims that Canada had a trade deficit with the U.S. When Trump was forced to admit that, “we have no trade deficit,” he added. “Well, in that case I feel (my italics) differently, but I don’t believe it.” In fact, (we are delaying dealing with facts and numbers until tomorrow) the U.S. enjoys a $US12.5 billion surplus with Canada.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Tomorrow: Facts and Numbers with Jill Lepore.