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September 17, 2005

The Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener is one hell of a movie. But in fact it's only about 62 dead people.

Long ago at the beginning of this blog, I set my sights on matters no less trivial than 3,000 deaths. I called it a Lynch Factor - essentially the sum total of all blacks who have been lynched since Reconstruction. I haven't been able to stick to that goal. The original reason for that was that I was sick to death about hearing about every rock thrown in Palestine, every Israeli exploded, every West Bank Palestinian sniped. The interminable skirmishes of the Middle East were the daily bread of NPR, and it was making me sick. Not because every life isn't precious, but precisely because of that, and we weren't hearing about other lives. Now I am convinced, especially with my newly found fascination with infants, that 3,000 is too high a number.

'The Constant Gardener' is a film about the kind of privileged woman who gives me the creeps. She latches onto the cause of poor non-white destitute people and uses her every wile to draw people into her conspiratorial web. It is an archtypical story and one that makes me queasy. 'The Constant Gardener' the story in which passion and love are traded for the moral sanctimony of privilege.

I once wrote about a day at the beach from the eyes of a lifeguard. He wonders how many he can keep from drowning. Maybe on the Fourth of July, out of a crowd of a million, only ten drown. That's a good day and that's a good number. It's the calculus you must apply if you're a lifeguard. Even if you aren't a lifeguard, ff you are bold enough, you take it upon yourself to make your own moral calculus and you move according to it. You gather the facts and become an arbiter of life and death. Whom do you let die so that others might live? Whom do you kill? Whose face do you avoid in order to keep your mind clear enough to support the purpose you feel in your heart to be the right purpose? How do you represent, and at what cost do you devote yourself to the institution of your ambition? In this film, it's all about a seemingly capricious woman who has dedicated her life to a calculus nobody fully understands.

In one scene from the film, a woman, infant and child are walking. The white woman recognizes her and knows her village to be 40 miles away. She tells her husband to stop and give them a ride. He refuses. He tells his wife, I want to care for you more than I care for them. This makes the privileged woman furious.

The privileged woman wants to care for them more than she cares for anyone, and decieves all of here privileged peers for the sake of undermining their calculus. She leaves her husband in the dark and tells him nothing of her many deceptions. She wrecks the lives of her intimates for the sake of the lives of strangers. She uses her privilege and access to be the spoiler, the spy, the subversive. She plays a sly game where the stakes are life and death, and for this all she offers is her love in return. Her love, her promises of sex, her attentions and smiles - these are the bits she dangles to keep all the players in play. These are the cards of the privileged woman, and she abuses and flaunts her role.

She doesn't want to be the wife of a diplomat, she wants access to what the wife of a diplomat has access to, the bigger diplomat. Because all she sees are corrupt men, and she uses one to destroy another - the one responsible for the destruction of 62 lives. She proves it.

What does the privileged woman know? She knows the depravity of her ilk. She wants the simple purity of those who don't conspire to the calculus of making global millions selling life-saving drugs. She just wants women to have babies.

The Constant Gardener must tend to his privileged woman and her mission. He cannot walk away because he was in it for love. When she ends up dead, he cannot walk away because she was in it for life. She has the high hand, and now he must live within the parameters of her calculus. She looks from the bottom up, not from the top down. It is not about the company that might save 1000 lives, it is about the man who ordered the death of 62. So if she must sacrifice her own and her husbands and her would be lover for them, she will, and she does.

This is what is so disturbing about this story. It's about the treacherous intimate who must latch on to drama greater than the value of family and friends. It is about the moral crusader who sees in every habit of her upbringing and peers, nothing but contempt.

Who could love such a privileged woman? Ahh perhaps that's not so much the question as how could she possibly be avoided? The rebellious daughter of privilege. She goes where she wanna. Beware her intimacy, for her true love lies elsewhere and her ambition is without bounds. She wants the life or death decision in her hands. Don't sleep. For she will bring all the machinery to a halt and she will reduce all of the artifice and posturing to the rawest motivations. She will strip away everything until there is nothing but the brutal facts, and there they will lie in front of you.

Can you handle the truth?

This is also the story of meddling in Africa. Of taking advantage of wealth and power and the arrogance of benevolence.

'At last he lays his head flat on the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as hea had done before; and after this, made all the signs to me of subjugateion, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me as long as he lived.' -- Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

'The problem of internalizing the master's tongue is the problem of the rescued. Unlike the problems of survivors who may be lucky, fated, etc. the rescued have the problem of debt. If the rescuer gives you back your life, he shares in that life. But if as in Friday's case, if the rescuer saves your life by taking you away from the dangers, the complications, the confusion of home, he may very well expect the debt to be paid in full.' -- Toni Morrision, 1992

The great danger of charity is that it has no public price tag. It is a debt that can only be negotiated one way and the grantee has no rights worth respecting. The grantee must remain a symbol of the grantor's largess. This is the moral calculus of charity. It's never enough to save one life. You have to save the village, you have to save the tribe, you have to save the whole teeming nation of unfortunates, and you have to crawl the globe looking for people who fit the profile.

This is the hunger of sanctimony. It is as deadly as greed.

Posted by mbowen at September 17, 2005 08:41 AM

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I agree Cobb. I believe in charity and helping people but this woman was extreme. I always fear that people like that will end up as racists, because their whole viewpoint is based on believing that we, people who are not white, are innocent of everthing, instead of just human beings, in the first place, and also, in regard to non westerners, human beings who have different values and beliefs, many of which are contrary to the liberal western values. This kind of woman if she really existed might one day hate all black people because her baby died in that hospital where the africans went. The black doctor makes a saracastic remark to a white character about how he thinks white doctors are better. That's not even the point. The point is the "white" hospital, where all the richer black people go to as well as the white people, is less crowded, better supplied, and much cleaner, with less risk of leaving the hospital with an infection. Is showing how liberal she is worth taking a risk that in fact turned out badly, the baby did die. I was thinking if she went to the other hospital that she despised maybe the baby would have lived.

Posted by: Anita at September 23, 2005 10:50 AM