Radio Flyer is a small 1992 film about two brothers, Mike and Bobby, who invent a flying machine out of a little red wagon so that Bobby can escape the brutal abuse he regularly suffers at the hands of his drunken stepfather.
The end of the film never baffled me. It seemed clear that Bobby’s escape down the side of a mountain failed, and that in order to ease the pain of his brother’s death, Mike invented an alternate reality that had Bobby sending him postcards from all over the world. As a grown man, Mike tells his children the story and says:
“Do you guys understand what I meant about history being in the mind of the teller?”
“I think so.” “Yeah.”
“Good. Good, because that’s the way I remember it.”
I wasn’t aware until recently that there was a controversy about the movie’s end. Some people, it seems, are adamant that the little red wagon sailed off into the sky and that Bobby spent the rest of his life happy and traveling. This fantastical possibility was offered by the film’s somewhat cryptic ending and many fans decided that, despite the grim reality of the rest of the story, a fantasy ending was somehow fitting. The director, Richard Donner, seemed to want that, too, but he couldn’t sink the weight of writer David Evans’s final few lines.
Even as a writer and a creative person, it has always surprised me that some people are so willing to suspend reality in favor of even the most obvious fantasies — like karma and its accompanying bromides like “what comes around goes around” or “there are no accidents”. Bad things happen to good people every day. Some ignorant or bad people are greatly rewarded. Sixteen year old girls blow lottery fortunes on fake boobs and cocaine, while people who’ve worked hard for 30 or 40 years lose their jobs and homes. Talent and persistence don’t always win out — sometimes luck, nepotism, or family connections matter more.
And the chances are that if you see a baby being thrown against a wall, or a woman getting raped, or a gay man being beaten by a bunch of thugs, you’re not going to think it’s karma, or the mythical fates at work – you’re not going to think “there are no accidents” – instead you’re going to think that such events are wretched, horrible, often preventable, and totally unacceptable.
I believe that people buy into the karma myth because it comes with blinders attached. If people can delude themselves into believing that there’s some higher reason for unacceptable acts or circumstances, and that the world runs as it is supposed to, then they’re essentially letting themselves off the hook from having to consider the realities of the world they live in and, consequently, their place and role in those realities. If they believe that “there are no accidents”, then they don’t have to put forth much effort in righting the wrongs, or even acknowledging them, because wrongs simply don’t exist — and if they do, well, karma — not effort — will take care of them.
Many otherwise smart and liberal-minded people I know have fallen under the spell of karmical thinking. They are so enamored with idealized concepts of peace, fairness, inclusiveness, and supporting the underdog that they have become intellectually lazy. They may be willing to lend their names to the progressive cause du jour of the day — Palestine, free elections in Iran, health care reform — but their understanding of the issues may be extremely narrow, often on purpose and adamantly so, because they refuse to see anything beyond their magical blinders.
While some liberals may be bent on mystical, karmic thinking, even more pervasive, particularly when it comes to politics and religion, is the dogmatic adherence being exhibited by many conservatives. Here, people have ceased to think critically, as independent beings, and have instead subscribed to a rigid, and often fantastical, set of beliefs as proffered by their religion’s or party’s most prominent spokespeople.
Paradise in exchange for murder and suicide; heavenly forgiveness for even the most brutal and intentional of acts; forced marriages of young girls to older men; oppression and brutality heaped upon women, children, minorities, and the underclass — there are those, in America and abroad, who insist that God is a co-perpetrator of these and other savage and systematic abuses of humanity, and that man is only carrying out God’s will when he bombs an abortion clinic, forces a thirteen year old Texas girl into a polygamous marriage, or stones a Sudanese rape victim to death.
The horrors of oppressive religion become entwined with culture. In Afghanistan, a ten year old girl beaten with wires by her two older brothers for visiting a skateboard park says, “I’m not upset with my brothers for beating me, they have the right.” In Canada as well as the U.S., women and teenage girls defend a lifestyle in which it is common for 14 and 15 year old girls, most of whom have never experienced life outside of their isolated communities, to marry and bear children.
And while American conservatives have leaned on the gospel of Christianity a great deal, almost none of their social responses are merciful, e.g. Christian, in nature. They buck against the idea of society helping the poor or uninsured. They seek the harshest of punishments against even non-violent offenders. They bring guns to town hall meetings. They favor the deregulation of corporations and a mitigation of corporate responsibilities. They fight against increases in the minimum wage. They either don’t believe in global warming, or don’t think measures to curb it are fair to industry. They think the Constitution and Bill of Rights should bend to their whim — making things like The Patriot Act morally acceptable, but a secular, inclusive government evil.
Under the umbrella of Christianity, the Republicans have stood against equality for women. They have sought to undo affirmative action. They do not believe gay people should have equal rights to the benefits of marriage. They believe that hate crime legislation imposes on their religious freedom. They continue to fight against The United Nations Bill of Rights for Children, which seeks to make children less the chattel of their parents and give them protections as autonomous but dependent beings. 193 countries have signed the bill over the past decade. America and Somalia are two who have not.
In the fantastical world of fundamentalist religiopolitics, it is acceptable for Glenn Beck to call Obama a racist, but not acceptable to question the racial motives behind the continuous, frivolous, and often frighteningly ignorant attacks on President Obama. It was acceptable when a Republican President put the country into trillions of dollars of debt, lied to the American people, advocated torture, kept prisoners without due process, and allowed companies like Halliburton and Blackwater to fill their coffers with tax money — but it is unacceptable that Obama works towards health care reform, and speaks to school children about working hard and not giving up. It was unpatriotic to criticize war and torture under Bush, but it’s perfectly patriotic to bring a gun to a protest against health care.
Ever since Obama became a contender, I have watched the dogmatic branch of the right-wing slip into a state of near hysteria. While there was just something sad and pathetic about watching religious Republican mouthpieces like Jerry Falwell debate the sexuality of Tinky Winky or blaming gays, feminists and pagans for the attack of 9/11, what’s happening now is steeped in a vicious and hateful brew that makes yesterday’s spewed ignorance seem almost innocuous. From conspiracy theories about the President’s birth certificate, to ongoing accusations that Obama is a Muslim, socialist, Marxist, thug — even Satan incarnate — these attacks step way outside the realm of political disagreement or religious differences, and seek to illigitimize and demonize a President who hasn’t even been in office for a full year; who hasn’t yet significantly changed the political or social landscape of America; and who, coincidentally, happens to be America’s most powerful and popular minority figure.
Of course, the possibility that racism is behind much of the expressed hatred is met with staunch denial. Then again, as long as they don’t mention blackness, but instead insist that Obama is an A-rab and play on the fears of their most ignorant followers, then that’s not racist but somehow proper and worthy of consideration.
If a parallel between the Radio Flyer movie and today’s political climate were to be drawn, the mystical thinkers in the liberal party would be the blinders-on idealists who really believe that their little red wagon can effortlessly defy the laws of physics and reality, and fly happily into the sunset to live happily-ever-after in some future made of dreams and wishes. They actually do little to accomplish their imagined flight because that would involve having to fight and possibly alienate the people that don’t want them to take off in the first place. Instead, the mystical thinkers seek to build consensus even among the most inhospitable people, compromising themselves right into a steady holding pattern where little gets done but hey — the intentions were good and in the end isn’t that what’s most important?
Conservatives, on the other hand, may be helping the Republican party commit suicide with their outlandish escapades & maniacal speech but they’re playing it off as if they, too, were taking flight — into a future that glorifies and seeks to replicate the past — when uppity black and poor people, women, and children knew their places; labor laws and unions didn’t interfere with business; war was glorified; prayer was considered more fruitful than knowledge; and non-white, non-Christians were viewed as less than equal or heretical.
In between the two extremes, there are those who seek neither fanciful flight nor destruction of progress. We wonder why it’s not possible to effect a rescue before the wagon goes careening down the mountainside in the first place.
The ending that wasn’t offered by the movie Radio Flyer also seems absent in politics. The question is, between the inaction of the karmic thinkers and the screaming of the backward dogmatists, will the country be able to save itself from the kind of cryptic politics that leaves the future precariously hanging from the side of a cliff?
This article also appears on The Huffington Post if you’d like to comment.
9/11, correction to director’s name.