Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"Take Me To Your Leader!"

by James F. Gaines

One of the oldest myths of First Contact is the famed punchline, “Take me to your leader!” uttered by an alien upon landing on Earth. Just imagine if that were to happen today. A visitor asking to be conveyed directly to Barack Obama would soon receive a letter from 47 Republican senators hinting that we might legislatively secede from Outer Space! Moreover, it was not just recently that the preposterousness of a face-to-face meeting with one or more of our planet’s leaders was pointed out by forward-thinking sci fi creators.

In the 1951 Robert Wise film classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, the interplanetary messenger Klaatu, having landed right behind the White House, emerged from his shining saucer with a marvelous gift and a desire to see the President and was promptly… shot. In vain did he insist on his peaceful intentions and reiterate his request while recuperating in Walter Reed Hospital. (In retrospect, this very treatment seems amazingly indulgent; one can easily see contemporary scientists plant the injured traveler on a slab and start dissecting him – i. e. ET). Does Klaatu get to see the Leader? No, for the President sends a distinguished flunky who informs him that such an interview can only take place behind hermetically closed doors, rather than in the world arena Klaatu seeks. Other world leaders are no more comprehending than Harry Truman, since the British PM and the Soviet Chairman seem unable to decide where to meet each other, much less someone from another world.

Does the alien persist? Certainly not. Neither Wise nor original short story writer Harry Bates imagined that a being who could traverse so many million miles would be a moron. Klaatu elegantly escapes and seeks out more understanding humans. He has to go pretty far down the food chain before he succeeds in finding a candid boy named Bobby and his stenographic mother Helen (Bobby naively explains, “She’s a real secretary, not like that man they call the Secretary”). The numerous humans in between Bobby’s broken little Benson family and the President are more likely to resemble the latter in their mixture of fear and contempt for aliens, be they doctors, soldiers, Klaatu’s bureaucratic and bigoted fellow boarders at the rooming house at 1412 Harvard St. NW, or Helen’s treacherous fiancé Tom Stephens. In his greed for diamonds, power and recognition, Tom rats out Klaatu’s disguise as Mr. Carpenter and almost gets our little orb incinerated by the mechanical policeman Gort. The only exception to Earth’s hostility, other than the Bensons, is Professor Barnhardt, an enlightened by ultimately ineffectual scientist whose plans for a global conference are ruthlessly quashed by the commander-in-chief and his minions. Only Klaatu’s personal inclination to forgive and forget, following his death and Christ-like reanimation by Gort, offers some redemption for an apparently undeserving planet.

Surely, one may object, mankind has come so far since 1951 that such a scenario could never play out today. Reality check: the Cold War has been heated over. America is even more fear-crazed over Vladimir Putin than it was over Molotov and Khrushchev, and Putin hasn’t even taken off his shoes! Once again, we are trying to topple Iran, though this time the targets are Ayatollahs rather than the vaguely socialistic Mohammad Mossaddegh. The nations cannot get together to decide how to tackle the imminent demise of our own world from pollution of the bottom couple of miles of our atmosphere, never mind matters beyond the ionosphere. Suffice it to say that a twenty-first century Klaatu would have no better recourse than the 1951 model.

Richard Attenborough reminded television viewers recently in an overview of his career that our ape ancestors first applied their collective intelligence to more or less cannibalistic hunting, which is still reflected in today’s chimpanzees. We are still in many ways naked apes. Louie Thoreau’s BBC documentary on America’s Most Dangerous Pets featured one of the most prominent chimp wranglers of our day, who proclaimed that he felt much safer among 500 lb. Siberian tigers than among chimps, since their devious primate minds were always watching, waiting, and actively plotting for ways to unleash their lethal aggression. Politicians, the chimps of our marble domes, are, for their part, far more likely to display humankind’s negative characteristics than any potential upside. They would make most undesirable partners for a First Contact situation.

Perhaps ET had it right after all. Marooned on a scary world, he sought out the company of kids and stayed hidden among them as long as he could. Revived from death, not by human doctors but by his own kind, he telekinetically separated himself from NASA and the CIA and offered to initiate none of them to the secrets of space travel. The only things he consented to take back to his realm were a potted plant and the boy Elliott. Presciently prudent. Humans have an undeniably morbid tendency to neglect knowledge that is merely beneficial in favor of that which is destructive. Ned Land on the Nautilus. Put an astronaut on ET’s craft and he would bypass the medical suite and immediately search for a phaser to retro-engineer. All that passes for sophistication in the human mindset may one day in the future be interpreted as something closer to psychosis by beings with interplanetary capacities. Or at least we can hope so.

Ergo, it is not inconceivable that a future alien initiating First Contact would short-circuit the paths of power and opt for colloquy with a child, a woman, or a member of some neglected group. To return to Klaatu, we must recall that his original search for contact with heads of government had a specific and sinister motivation: it was those people and those alone who controlled the dangerous means (presumably, nuclear weapons) that had put the continued existence of Earth in jeopardy. With the help of Dr. Earnhardt, Klaatu devised a stunning demonstration of alien technology that could not be overlooked by the leaders he wished to reach, and who had so callously spurned him. Resorting to Plan B, he fulfilled his mission without having to unleash the awesome punitive power of his robot companion. More definite than the questionable, unstated response of Presidents, Chairmen, and other poobahs was the effect of the humble Bensons, who presumably provided reliable proof that our race was not irrécupérable. It puts one in mind of the Bible. When the Lord had decided to push the Reset button on Sodom and Gomorrah, he sent angels for a First Contact with Lot. Had he sent them to the kings or chief priests, they might simply have jumped in their helicopters (sorry, chariots!) and headed for Camp David or some other more secure spot in the Fertile Crescent, keeping their lives, their gold, and their sins to themselves. The humble Lot, unlike his leaders, actually tried to bargain the Lord out of this firestorm by offering to find ever-dwindling numbers of men as righteous as himself. Of course, it didn’t work, and even Lot lost his salty wife and a good part of his righteousness, too, after he fled the doomed cities of the plain. Nonetheless, life went on.

This is not a bad goal. It is worth remembering. Maybe we should engrave it on the NASA headquarters. And the White House. And even the Capitol, if Congress doesn’t immediately disavow or deface it. “Life must go on!” We should keep it foremost as we talk about exploiting the planets, bringing back treasures of precious substances, going where no man has gone before (So what, maybe somebody else has gone there before) or “discovering” life (Duh, it’s already been discovered by somebody or it wouldn’t be there at all). We won’t really be ready to take our own destiny in hand until we realize that it may depend on trusting and understanding somebody ELSE.