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Lecture Circuit
July/August 2011

 
Loose cannon: President Ahmadinejad inspects Iranian nuclear facilities

"Guns don't kill people," goes the mantra of the private arms lobby in the US. "People kill people." Could the same be said of nuclear weapons? Is it enough simply not to possess them, and make treaties to prevent others having them? You can't, after all, un-invent them. Ask anybody who's ever been on a self-enforced diet — they know chocolate exists, even if they've banned it from the house. They also know that, bit by bit, they could bring the ingredients in and set about making it themselves.

Brought to you by the people responsible for An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's potholed lecture on the coming environmental holocaust, Countdown to Zero sets out to show that not only is the nuclear threat greater than ever but that the only hope is to banish these weapons from the face of the earth. The director Lucy Walker marshals a lot of archive footage and some pretty impressive talking heads — Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair and Jimmy Carter all make fleeting appearances — to make the central point that the threat of oblivion did not end with the cessation of the Cold War, and that JFK's "nuclear sword of Damocles" hangs by an even slenderer thread than it did in 1961 or 1989. The difference now is that although the doctrine of mutually assured destruction no longer holds sway, we have instead to contend with the possibility of nuclear action coming from a rogue state, or from a stateless terrorist group, or simply by way of human error. 

Walker's film is not so much a documentary as a promo for the Global Zero campaign, launched in 2008 with the aim of achieving "a framework for the phased, verified elimination of nuclear weapons, starting with deep reductions to the US and Russian arsenals". As such it has a yearning, impassioned tone which engenders guilt in those who might experience even the odd qualm. It would be like speaking up in favour of sin. There's nothing new in this: anybody who found themselves arguing with a CND supporter back in the '80s was made to feel just one up from a child molester. "If we don't want other countries to have the bomb," says Walker in the film's production notes, "how can we justify keeping it ourselves?" This is childish and naive. Is it simply all about what is "fair" and what isn't? The logical flipside to her question is that if we have the bomb, we can't forbid Iran from having one. I can think of a thousand reasons why I'm happier for Cameron rather than Ahmadinejad to have access to the dreaded button, and none of them has anything to do with fairness.

I saw Countdown to Zero at the Frontline Club, a private members' joint in London frequented by journalists and media types. The film seemed made for them — it was one of their own making an argument few of them would disagree with. They would be happy too, I think, with director David Sington's The Flaw, another feature-length documentary which seeks to explain the origins of the financial crisis which hit in 2008. Making tongue-in-cheek use of old Fifties cartoons and public information films extolling the virtues of capitalism, it offers a pretty solid, nuts and bolts account of how and why the system worked so well in the middle years of the last century, and why it came so badly unstuck. Some of the information here is eye-opening, such as the fact that a mere 15,000 Americans now earn a total of $700 billion, and that the disparity in wealth, after the golden era of the '50s and '60s, now gapes as wide as it did in 1929. Most dramatic of all is the graph which shows how, during those same decades, house values stayed roughly the same when allowing for inflation, but then went off the chart in the '90s when financiers realised how much money there was to be made in offering dodgy, no-questions-asked mortgages to the less well-off. The title, by the way, refers to Alan Greenspan's admission to a congressional committee that his analysis had missed something: "I have found a flaw in the model that defines how the world works. I was shocked." Now he tells us. The film's own flaw is that having related all of this, it offers very little in the way of constructive solutions or, for that matter, hope. 

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