When I was 22 I left the US for the first time, traveling to Bologna, Italy to study a year at Johns Hopkins SAIS (School of Advanced International Studies – now called the Nitze school) Bologna Center, working for my MA in International Studies. I left on August 23, 1982, exactly 32 years ago.
Bettino Craxi was Prime Minister, considered at that time one of the most successful as his government had staying power. Later he’d be part of the Mani Pulite scandal that would destroy the Italian first Republic and die in exile in Tunisia, but that was a decade away. Bologna was considered a “red” city, governed by the PCI, the Italian Communist Party. It had a vibrant student life, thanks to being the home of the oldest university in the world – the University of Bologna, founded in 1060. It was radical, wild, and quite the place for a young man who had spent almost all his life in South Dakota, about as far from radical big city life as humanly possible!
I went into a bar and they had murals of American indians, teepees, and stuff about the Lakota Sioux. I told them I was from South Dakota, where the Sioux lived. Turned out it was a Communist bar and we got into a discussion about communism, capitalism and politics. I was the typical American but already had the capacity to listen to other perspectives – it was fun.
That year transformed me. My mind opened to Italian and European culture (I also spent a lot of time visiting pen pals in Germany, developing a taste for Hefe-Weizen while learning some Bavarian), and became fascinated with European history and culture.
Alas, the classes at SAIS were all in English and I spent most of my language time studying German. I went to visit friends in Eichstaett every month or so, and really wanted to communicate. I bought German translations of the Asterix and Obelisk comics, and wrote down every word I didn’t know. Then I would look them up, and study that list – the list grew to over 3000 words. I built a vocabulary slowly but surely. Now with kids and a job, I don’t have as much time to put that kind of effort in it, but I know what it takes to learn a language – it isn’t fast or easy.
Luckily, while I didn’t really learn Italian during my year there, I did go out a lot and picked the language up well enough to chat at parties or on the street. I’ve forgotten much of that, but my ear still can distinguish words and patterns in Italian, so I don’t need something fancy like Rosetta stone to learn it. A work book, a vocabulary list, and grammar exercises will be key.
I’ve been saying I’m going to learn Italian for over thirty years. When I returned from my year in Bologna I was determined to keep studying Italian. But between finishing my masters, working for the Senate, night managing a pizza place, and then ultimately earning my Ph.D., other things got in the way. In 1991-2 I lived in Germany, and really developed my fluency in Germany. I avoided Americans and made some of the best friends in my life while there. I learned the joy it is to communicate in a foreign language, and really start to understand a different culture.
I’ve been back to Europe many times. I’ve crossed the Atlantic over 40 times (meaning over 20 round trips — not sure the exact number). 11 of them have been leading travel courses, four times to Germany and seven times to Italy. Otherwise most of my trips were to Germany to visit friends and engage in research. Next May we plan on another travel course to Italy. This time, I want to go there able to speak Italian. Not fluently – you have to live there for that – but enough to engage in conversation and understand what is said.
So I got out my book today and started with the basics. Definite articles, indefinite articles, plurals, partitives, etc. I know enough that I don’t have to go back to the very basics, just review basic grammar, relearn conjugations, and most importantly build vocabulary.
I’m also lucky that my friend Steve is going to do work in Venice, Italy in the near future and thus he’s really throwing himself into learning Italian. So I have someone to practice with, if I keep myself disciplined. It sort of makes me feel young – focusing on learning this language, wanting to be able to use it. The 22 year old in me comes back out.
In those days it was a different world. Bologna had no fast food except one Italian burger place near the train station (now it’s dotted with McDonalds), to make a call home I had to go to the phone company in the middle of the night and wait to be given a booth to place the call. No internet, just lots of letters and post cards. Credit cards weren’t accepted anywhere in Italy, there were no ATMs, and the currency was the Lira — 1900 Lire per dollar, that year.
Italian TV had only three or four public channels, and almost everything you bought was at a small store or market. There were a couple Coop supermarkets, but the quality was less and it was a long drive. I bought my pasta from a lady who ran a small shop with a big photo of Mussolini behind the counter. The local Tabacchi sold stamps – the price seemed to always vary – and I would spend hours just walking around the city, exploring and observing. I was hooked – this South Dakota boy was going to study international relations!
I realize that the Italy I experienced back in Bologna is as far away as the Italy of 1950 was from my time there. That boggles my mind. I would go to Florence to read and people watch, spending lots of time at the Boboli gardens, which were free to enter. Now it’s 12 Euros. A train ticket to Venice or Florence as about $5 round trip second class. Now it’s about $50 – but instead of two and a half hours the trip is about an hour. The trains then had compartments and on warm days you could open the windows. Now it’s climate control with “airplane” seating.
So as I celebrate the 32nd anniversary of my first flight abroad (first commercial flight ever, actually), I also feel very lucky to have experienced how Europe has changed over the years. And that 22 year old Scott still is a part of me, driving me to finally learn Italian for real this time! Anyone have any Asterix and Obelix books in Italiano?
We talk about human rights as being extremely important. People like me who dislike war and militarism often support military action in defense of human rights. Everyone is appalled by ISIS atrocties. We look at the lack of intervention in the Rwandan genocide as failure of the world to adhere to the “never again” promise on preventing genocide.
But what are human rights? How are they determined? Can we enforce them? In the West there has been a focus on political rights – free speech, liberty, freedom of association, etc. In the third world the counter argument is that political rights are meaningless if people are starving and have no place to live. They focus on economic rights, such as a right to food and shelter. Others say that there are rights associated with identity and community.
Enlightenment rationalism led to the hope that if only we could find a first principle and build from there, it would be clear how to understand the world and human ethics. Many in the West thus follow John Locke’s argument that there are natural rights to life, liberty and private property which we get by dint of being human. To be human, one must be alive. To be human one must be able to feed and shelter oneself. That requires both property and liberty to go out and get the material needed to live. This way of thinking, called liberalism, generally stops with those rights – those rights are seen as foundational, no other true rights exist.
That approach has a glaring weakness – namely, humans can live as human without private property. Indeed through most of human history there was no such thing as private property. As hunter gatherers we just took what we could get. Property rights arose with the creation of agriculture, but most often these were collective/community rights governed by custom and tradition. So clearly there is no objective need for private property.
More fundamental to the problem is that the notion of “rights” doesn’t exist in nature. In nature you can do whatever you choose to do, limited only by your capabilities and the consequences of your actions. Nothing more. Locke’s argument assumes that there is some right to exist as a human which leads to those other rights. But no such right exists in nature, it only exists as a human construct, a belief that life is valuable and therefore should be protected. We have that belief for our species, but put a hungry tiger in your house and I guarantee he won’t care about your “rights.”
Similarly, when we down a burger and fries, we haven’t thought about the right of the cattle to live – let alone live naturally without genetic manipulation and inhumane factory farm conditions. Our hunter gatherer instincts show as much regard for animal rights as the hungry tiger has for our rights. The notion of rights is a human creation, reflecting what we think ought to be followed based on our experience, empathy, and context. This concept has practical use (hence most societies have traditional rules against theft and murder, even if they don’t talk in terms of rights) and abstract (how should humans treat each other, what is the best social order?)
If the concept of rights is a human creation, then so is every notion of rights, whether Lockean liberal, social democratic or communitarian. This means we have the freedom to create the idea of human rights and to determine which rights we want to create, defend and hold dear. We don’t find rights in the ether, there is no “first principle” to give us objective rights; rather, we create both the notion of rights, and what rights we choose to recognize.
So we are free to come up with whatever notion of human rights we want, including things like a right to a paid vacation or a right to bear arms. However, no notion of rights will be viable if it isn’t held by a vast majority of society. And if different “isms,” philosophies and religions have different notions of rights, it will be (and has been) hard to construct a viable, effective form of human rights.
So maybe the key is to look into our hearts. What makes us cringe? What is something that almost everyone finds repulsive? What acts illicit disgust and anger across cultures, and among people of diverse philosophical perspectives? Those acts certainly include beheading, torture, rape, murder, theft and array of actions. This doesn’t come from a rational argument, but a sense of common empathetic sentiment. Hollywood films work world wide because the emotions of certain core circumstances transcend boundaries.
The United Nations has several human rights documents and treaties, though they remain aspirational rather than legally enforceable. That’s a start. As we see ISIS butcher innocents, children being used as pawns in war, women being kidnapped and used as slaves in the sex trade industry, and governments torturing enemies, it’s time to work harder to create and enforce a core standard of human rights.
The first step is to recognize we don’t have to ground our rights in nature, religion, or some external factor. We work together, look inside our hearts and minds, and determine what we humans want to recognize as basic rights. From there we can decide that we will work together to defend those rights, whether deep in Iraq or in a small town in Missouri.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Kiev this coming weekend, her first visit to Ukraine since the crisis began. The Germans have been in an active dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for weeks, Last weekend German foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hosted a meeting with his French, Russian and Ukrainian counterparts to discuss how to end the crisis.
At this point, the Germans have successfully dissuaded Russia from expanding the conflict, even as the Ukrainian army clears pro-Russian separatists from the towns of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kiev’s forces are rapidly defeating the separatists though fear of a Russian invasion is real. This is the first real test of German’s ability to take a leadership role in using soft power to try to diffuse a potentially devastating crisis.
Some might wonder why the US is acquiescing to European leadership here. Shouldn’t we be pressuring the Russians and asserting America’s role as leader of the western world? In a word, no. In fact, the title ‘leader of the western world’ is passe. While there is a European based civilization generally known as the “West,” it is a cultural construct. The West as a unified international force ceased to exist with the end of the Cold War. The world is no longer divided into neat blocs. Perhaps the point where this became crystal clear was in 2002-03 when France and Germany worked with Russia to stymie US efforts to get UN approval for the Iraq war.
More to the point, the US has little at stake in Ukraine. While politicians may wax poetically about stopping Putin, this isn’t the Cold War. Ukraine was part of the old USSR after all, we’re not about to risk all out nuclear war because of separatists in east Ukraine, or even a Russian invasion. In 2008 when Russia took South Ossetia, President Bush resisted calls to come to the aid of Georgia (South Ossetia was a Russian part of Georgia wanted to join Russian North Ossetia), even though Georgia actively supported the US in Iraq. We have no vested interest in the Russian near abroad; for Russia, it’s their primary focus.
Germany, on the other hand, has real interests. It gets natural gas from Russia, it’s promoting democracy and European stability, and it wants to make sure there isn’t another move to a Europe divided into blocs, even if this time it’s the Russian bloc and the EU bloc. While the US has little with which to pressure Russia, Germany is a main trade and investment partner of Russia, and the ambiguous relationship between the two countries goes way back. If Russia’s economy is to grow and modernize, it needs a close relationship with Germany.
The Germans understand that pressuring Putin with tough talk and threats is counter productive. The American penchant to pull no rhetorical punches in condemning Russian support for the separatists serves no useful purpose other than to create an emotional backlash in Russia – a backlash Putin wants to take advantage of. The Europeans prefer quiet pressure: the promise of closer economic ties as a carrot alongside the potential stick of increased sanctions.
Will it work? The odds are better than one might think. While Russia has the power to invade Ukraine and annex eastern portions, it’s not really in their interest. Those are poor parts of Ukraine which would be costly to administer, and the already vulnerable Russian economy would be hit by sharper western sanctions. If they hold back, Putin will have his nationalist bone fides questioned – something which could harm his popularity. But he’d likely expand economic ties with Europe, which Russia needs.
In all of this, it appears likely the EU is ready to accept that the Crimea is again part of Russia. That allows Putin to claim a victory even as he backs down, and historically the Crimea is more Russian than Ukrainian anyway. The longer this drags out without a Russian invasion, the better the odds that the crisis will end quietly rather than escalate to an all out Russian-Ukrainian war.
It’s really up to Putin – and no one is sure on what he’s basing his calculus. In any event, the leading role of Europe in negotiating and dealing with the crisis, with the US in the background, is an example of how the new multi-polar global polity operates. Europe thought they could deal with Yugoslavia’s breakup in the 1990s and failed. Now the challenge is clear – find a way out of the Ukrainian crisis without it devolving to war.
Most of us treat the story about the Ebola outbreak in Africa as a curiosity. This isn’t the first story about Ebola somewhere in Africa, but it always seems to get contained. However, the current Ebola outbreak has become more widespread than any time in the past; if it spreads in Nigeria, especially to the capital of Lagos where a case has been reported, it risks becoming the a world wide epidemic.
It started, like small past outbreaks have, in what seemed to be an isolated village, Guéckédou, Guinea. In December 2013 a two year old died of suspected Ebola, as did a few others. After that things seemed quiet until February of this year when the disease started spreading through Guinea. In March Doctors Without Borders warned that this was a dangerous epidemic and would be difficult to contain.
But Ebola in an African country is not unprecedented, so most people shrugged off the news. Then in May it spread to Sierra Leone, and later to Liberia.
A few facts: Ebola is spread through exchange of bodily fluids, which can include sweat and thus touch can transmit the disease. It kills over half of its victims, and this strain seems to have a death rate of near 70%. Once infected, there is no cure. There are treatments, but those usually involve basic patient care to increase the chances of survival. There is no vaccine, nor are there any potential vaccines or cures anywhere near any kind of human testing. Since the disease has been very limited in scope, drug companies haven’t had the profit motive to invest large amounts in preparing for a potential outbreak.
If it spreads, we’re in trouble.
There has been a case in Lagos, Nigeria, a city of over 20 million people. Not only is Lagos immense, but it is full of slums and dirty living conditions. If it spreads there, it could rage out of control. Lagos is also home to major transnational oil companies who operate in Nigeria. Ebola in a city won’t stay in the slums. There is a lot of international travel from Lagos, and it’s likely that an outbreak in Lagos would become global.
At this point, the response has been slow. Seen as an African disease, the West hasn’t taken it seriously, nor has it given African states affected the aid they need. Governments in the West haven’t funded research into cures or vaccines because it wasn’t seen as a major problem.
But it’s not too late. At this point, the virus is not out of control, even if this outbreak is larger and more dangerous than any time in the past. For once Ebola is in a position to become a global pandemic, and even if the chances are still relatively small, the time to act is now. Not only to prevent this outbreak from spiraling out of control, but to prepare for the future. This will happen again, and again, and each time the risk of a pandemic will grow. This needs to be a global priority.
The governments of the West need to give as much aid as possible to assist the effort on the ground in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. The focus now can’t be primarily on potential cures or vaccines — there’s not enough time for that — but to treat, quarantine, and contain the virus where it is.
That means sending people and supplies – basic medical equipment, including gloves, sanitizing agents, sheets and material used to disinfect and create sanitary conditions. Good quarantine facilities will make it easier to contain the virus. People on the ground can make it easier to identify cases and get help to where it’s needed.
Yes, it’s dangerous. More health care workers have died in this outbreak than any other Ebola outbreak before – not only in absolute terms, but as a percentage of the health care workers. That is scary – and one can understand people in the West not wanting to go into a situation where even the top doctors have not been immune from infection. But we send troops into battle, and health care workers have proven themselves as brave as soldiers. They often have helping others as their main goal.
Still, if we want to send enough people to make a difference, they need to be well equipped and everything possible done to protect health care workers. This is real. The time to act is now – this is a real and present danger, and the warning signs are clear. Otherwise we risk that 2015 will be remembered as the year of the Ebola plague.
The war was just two weeks old. The Germans were convinced their Blitzkrieg tactic would work – they’d dispatch the French within six weeks, then turn to the Eastern Front and defeat Russia. They would acquire Lebensraum, literally “room to live.” It was General Erich Ludendorff’s belief that without colonial possessions, Germany could only acquire it’s “place in the sun” by conquering and settling the vast plains of Eastern Europe and Ukraine.
The French were enthusiastic about the war when it started, but by mid-August they realized that the German machine was organized and efficient. Their plan relied on the ‘French spirit’ overcoming the cold mechanistic Teutonic mentality. That didn’t work. French Commander Joseph Joffre had to re-organize the French plan – which was essentially to go on offense – to organize a defense. It would be nearly mid-September when it became clear the Germans had failed, and the Blitzkrieg turned to trench warfare, with the lines hardly moving in nearly four years.
In the US the European war was not seen as our problem. The largest ethnic group in America was (and still is – though by a much smaller margin) German. The idea that the US should take sides wasn’t popular. American President Woodrow Wilson, in fact, viewed it as a sign of American superiority that our Democratic system would remain at peace while power politics led the autocratic powers to a pointless war in Europe.
On this day, Americans were more pre-occupied with their own hemisphere – namely the opening of the Panama Canal, which would allow ship travel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans without having to make the daunting journey around the tip of South America. The expanse of trade and ease of shipping promised a new economic era – not to mention that naval ships could now be moved far more quickly between the two oceans. But the US was content to let the Europeans fight their war.
World War I would shatter the Europe of old, harken the collapse of the British and French colonial Empires, replace the Russian Czar with Communism, redraw the maps and bring in a world to be built with the use of reason rather than custom. Royalty and nobility were replaced with ideology and raw power. Connection to the land, one’s role in the community, and church was replaced by consumerism, industrial assembly line work and materialism as a way of life.
This was true in the US as well as Europe. In the US in 1900 over 40% of the population was in farming, by 1990 that level dropped to 1.9%. The US census stopped counting farmers after that, the number ceased to be relevant.
But while it may be true that rational thought finally eclipsed irrational and often tyrannical tradition, the 20th Century did not usher in an era of liberation and prosperity. In the first half, humans using reason created ideologies – secular religions based on core assumptions and beliefs – and found it possible to rationalize all sorts of heinous acts, including war, often with the good intent of creating a truly democratic and just society. Mass consumption and economic change led to the Great Depression, environmental crises, and humans to be used as tools, whether in sweat shops, sex trade or as consumers to be used for their disposable income.
100 years ago the modern world finally pushed aside tradition and custom, and an era of radical change, new technology, and more deadly wars began. World War I would be the last war in which military deaths out numbered civilian ones.
A century ago today, people viewed the future with hope. Yet for over thirty years it would be defined by war and depression, and the US would not be immune. Now as we look forward to the next 100 years, a few lessons seem clear.
1) Ideological thinking is dangerous and obsolete. It led to the Second World War, defined the wasted resources and existential danger of the Cold War, and divides people along unnatural and often absurd lines. People who might otherwise be able to practically deal with problems see the world abstractly – including other people, nature, and community.
2) War, environmental degradation, a soulless consumerism and massive global corruption the planet at this point in time. Materially the West is very well off, but we’re a society riddled with alienation, depression, anxiety, obesity, lack of connection to nature (especially children) and a loss of meaning and community. In the third world corruption, abuse, war, sex trade, and poverty dominate, with communities/tradition ripped apart by global capitalism.
While the “West” has been in constant transition ever since knowledge trickled into Europe from the Islamic world and in the 13th Century the Church shifted from Augustinian other-worldliness to Thomist logic, one can see World War I as the destruction of the old order, and the creation of a new, modern, rational, ideological and very materialist era. It’s clear at this point that our way of conceptualizing and ordering reality isn’t working. This new era is under threat from economic collapse, environmental degradation and climate change, terrorism, energy shortages, and a host of problems. Humans are caught struggling to find meaning, and often doing so by following an ideology or doing anything to, as Erich Fromm put it, escape from freedom.
That has to change if we are to successfully navigate a future in a world that is changing at an even faster pace than it was a century ago. There are signs of hope – the EU has started a transition to a post-sovereign interdependent political structure. Social media is opening up new avenues of change, though that can be used for good, evil, or trivial. But we can’t go on like we did in the past.
100 years ago the European leaders were caught up in the “cult of the offensive,” believing the next war would be quick, decisive, and won by the country bold enough to start the conflict. They thought they could harness 20th Century technology to expand 19th Century political structures. Instead, the war destroyed the world they knew, and things would never be the same. Unless we expand our thinking, we could be headed for a similar fate.
The rise of the genocidal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a major military force in Iraq has a silver lining. To be sure, that doesn’t help the people already slaughtered by the Jihadists, or who are in the path of the group wanting to establish a reactionary Sunni Caliphate across the Mideast. However, the brutality and danger of ISIS is internationalizing the conflict – and that makes it very possible to defeat ISIS. Moreover, there is virtually no widespread sympathy for the group in the Muslim world – their acts violate the spirit and letter of the Koran.
When the US went to war with Iraq in 2003, it was against the wishes of most of the world. President Bush’s advisors were shocked to see France and Germany work with Russia to undercut US policy. So when Iraq proved beyond the capacity of the US to “fix” – especially when Sunni-Shi’ite civil war broke out in 2006 – the world was content to let the US deal with the mess created by an ill fated decision to go to war.
Realizing that the conflict was weakening the US and undermining the entire region, Presidents Bush and Obama followed a different path. President Bush co-opted the Sunnis, and set up a “peace with honor” situation where the US could extricate itself by 2012. President Obama continued that path, and the US managed to leave Iraq – humbled, but not completely humiliated.
When that happened, I thought a tripartite division of Iraq was likely. It was clear that the Shi’ites and especially Prime Minister al-Malaki believed that Iraqi unity meant Shi’ite control. The Sunnis and Kurds each exercised local autonomy despite the existence of a nominally national government. Iraq seemed to heading down that path when ISIS emerged, almost without warning. Yes, ISIS has been around for a decade, but only recently with the decline of al qaeda and the on going civil war in Syria have they managed to form a coherent leadership and a strong fighting force. Without intervention, they could not only reignite a civil war with the Iraqi Shi’ites, but continue genocidal acts against minorities and anyone not following their interpretation of Islam.
Readers of this blog know that I am very skeptical of, and usually oppose, US military intervention abroad. But this is a clear case in which the US can play a role in an international effort to stop genocide and save a region from complete collapse.
The US cannot defeat ISIS alone. The cost would be so high the American people would rebel, and it would further hasten the decline of American power. But the horrors of ISIS have shocked the world, and now Iraq is no longer an American problem. The Pottery Barn rule (you break it, you own it) no longer applies.
The world must undertake a multilateral intervention that includes NATO bombing and referral of ISIS leaders to the International Criminal Court. The world must also find a way to cut ISIS off from its source of funding – and only multilateral collaboration of intelligence agencies and other relevant actors can root out the ISIS money flow.
NATO bombing and logistical assistance along with rearming the already effective Kurdish Peshmerga fighters would turn the military conflict around. Politically US-Iranian pressure on Iraq could force the Shi’ite government there to work to build a unity government that would again coopt Iraqi Sunnis, who have been helping ISIS out of anger at the inept government of al-Malaki. Iran could play a major role – the Shi’ite Islamic Republic has a strong desire to see ISIS defeated.
The rest of the world needs to step up too. Money and humanitarian aid is essential to save the minorities such as the Yazidis who are currently being hunted down by ISIS. This requires creating safe zones for minorities, and then having learned the lessons from Bosnia, being in a position to assure that these havens remain safe. Even after ISIS is defeated, the refugee crisis will be immense. This will require a global effort, and should include contributions from China, other parts of ASIA, Latin America and any state that can afford to contribute at least a bit.
With such an effort, not only can ISIS be defeated, but good will can be built with the Arab world – good will that can help that part of the planet continue with the slow, painful but real transition of modernization and democratization. Defeating ISIS could mean defeating the Islamic extremism. ISIS is no more true to the values of Islam than the Westboro Baptist church reflects Christian principles.
So this crisis represents an opportunity – a chance for the world to come together, say “never again” to genocide, work cooperatively, make institutions like the ICC prove their value, and ultimately end the decades of crisis between the Arab world and the West. That may sound overly optimistic as ISIS continues to advance and minorities are butchered. But we have it within our power to turn this around – and if President Obama can build an international coalition to do so, that could be the crowning achievement of his administration.
If you read the critics most see the summer film “Lucy” as an action-thriller with a rather silly story line. They rave about Scarlett Johansson’s performance, praise the visuals writer and director Luc Besson creates, but dismiss the story line as being rather standard sci-fi movie script. A few critics love it, a few hate it, most are in the middle.
My wife and I went to the film and were blown away. We were in tears through much of it, mesmerized by the ideas behind the film, and when it ended it felt like hardly any time had passed. We were completely drawn into it.
(Spoiler alert – if you plan to see the movie and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now!)
The story line on its face is a bit bizarre. Lucy stumbles into a world of drug smugglers who have perfected a synthetic form of CHP4, said to be a powerful natural form of energy that pregnant women pass on to their fetuses during pregnancy in very small doses. She is forced to become a drug mule, carrying a large quantity of this drug under her skin. Before she can get on her flight to deliver the drug to fly from Taipei to Europe, she resists the advances of one of her captors and is kicked in the stomach, releasing a large quantity of the drug into her body. Rather than kill her, it starts a process where she is able to access more of her brain capacity, ultimately 100%.
OK, I get where the critics are coming from in terms of being skeptical of the story line. The idea that we only use 3 or 5 or 10% of our brain was debunked long ago, and a massive ingestion of drugs creating superhuman power is a bit much. But Director and writer Luc Besson is making a movie, not a documentary. Much of what in the movie is true – how our cells communicate, the way the brain functions, etc. The drugs/brain capacity bit is a vehicle to create a visually compelling action/thriller with a spiritual subtheme. After all, how “real” is Batman, Spiderman, or the Terminator?! It’s a movie, after all!
As Lucy’s ‘brain capacity’ increases her perceptive capacity expands. She can see pulses of energy in trees, electromagnetic forces emanating from cell phones, and the world around her becomes noisy as she can sense everything. She is able to manipulate reality – turn her hair from blonde to brunette, create an invisible barrier that can’t be penetrated, or cause people to hang helpless from the ceiling.
After traveling to Paris she meets a police officer (Pierre Del Rio, played by Amr Waked) who manages not to be completely freaked out by her abilities and becomes her ally – albeit playing a secondary role. She also consults a brain specialist Professor Samuel Norman (played by Morgan Freeman) who tells her she should share her knowledge. Pursued by the drug smugglers she tries to invent a computer into which she can record her insights.
As she gains more knowledge she not only can control herself and the environment around her, but she starts losing herself in the broader world. She realizes that time is an illusion, and that humanity is stuck in fear and repetition. Ours is an existence that is empty in comparison to the deeper scope of reality. At one point she tells Captain Del Rio to accompany her. “I don’t know what help I can be,” he says, realizing her powers are beyond anything he’d ever seen. “To help me remember” she says, giving him a kiss. As she gains knowledge she becomes less emotional – her understanding of the world causes her to realize there is no real loss, pain or sorrow. When Del Rio protests her wild driving by saying “people might get killed” she brushes him off, “No one ever really dies.”
She travels back in time, even confronting the real “Lucy” – an early humanoid whose bones were discovered back in 1974, presumed to be over 3 million years old. She can control time – speed it up, make it go back and forth. She sees the beginning and the end of our universe. Ultimately she disappears, causing Del Rio to ask “Where’s Lucy?” He receives a text message on his phone: “I am everywhere.”
Early in the film she calls her mom, essentially to say goodbye, but also to tell her she remembers everything, even the taste of her mother’s milk. This ability to transcend limitations and connect with the universal was for me very powerful. Besson’s imagination was not merely used to make what’s been called “a kick-ass heroine” but also to play with ideas that explore the nature of space, time and existence.
It was a flashy and extremely beautiful action film, with imagery and pacing that make it entertaining for almost anyone, even if they dismiss the poetic transcendent message. I like to think the Besson knows there are people like me out there who connect with an imaginative, coherent spiritual/scientific fantasy that actually makes profound sense to those who perceive it a particular way.
Because whatever one thinks, the movie’s transcendent vision is what had tears in both me and my wife’s eyes for much of the film – we walked out of the theater almost stunned. Besson’s film was profoundly moving to both of us, and I think it’s impressive that he can create such a film that reaches different people in different ways.