A Critical Look at the Political Issues Discussed in Half Nelson
About two years ago in my Social and Political Philosophy course we were assigned to apply the theories we had learned to a particular film. I can’t remember much from the list other than Z, Burnt by the Sun, Paths of Glory, and Half Nelson. I was familiar with only some of the films, regretfully having not seen over half of the choices. Yet of all the films I either never heard of or had never viewed, it it was Half Nelson which was the most intriguing. I ended up going with Paths of Glory for the assignment, figuring that discerning the filmic vocabulary of Kubrick could hopefully distract from my minimal understandings of Mill, Marx, Rousseau, and various other’s political theories as they applied to the content.
Shortly afterwards I received Half Nelson from Netflix, yearning to understand how a story about the relationship between a crack-addict teacher and his troubled student would apply to political philosophy. When the movie concluded I knew three things – the movie was exceptional, that Ryan Gosling was one damn good actor, and that I had no idea of the political or social implications within the film. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the content, it was a great story about a teacher’s struggle with the world manifested through drug abuse, but I didn’t understand the application of themes and ideas varying between existentialism and politics.
Dan Dunne plays a teacher who is trying to expand beyond the typical method of adolescent instruction. He brings up ideas of dialectic, recalling them from his college years of Hegel and Marx. He begins showing a video of a man from the civil rights era ranting about the “machine;” it was a video that bridged from him watching an old television show in the scene prior, involving a proto-typical nuclear family. The principal interrupts his discussion about the metaphorical meaning of the machine and scolds him for not cracking open a binder containing pre-written lesson plans from the Civil Rights era. This was a great way to show the method in which he creates his lesson plans – they aren’t pre-determined, they are developed while watching re-runs of canceled family sitcoms, snorting cocaine that aids in further illuminating the pathetic world in which he lives.
It is a bold twist of irony, showing how the machine is much larger than the proverbial bubble that the kids seem to believe and Mr. Dunne professes. Hierarchies exist in all systems, and through each subsequent rank the force upon others to adhere to specific guidelines and rules becomes all the more ridiculous. Kids must not chew bubble gum, cheat on tests, or talk back to their instructors, teachers need to be in accordance with particular goals for each grade, the principals who demand these guidelines do so for political reasons whether on the national level (such as No Child Left Behind) or federal level (requiring physical education), and so on. While the machine does indeed contain everyone, one’s purpose becomes less significant through their attitude - either accepting their current circumstances, or doing something to change them. It all begs the question as to why Mr. Dunne is wrong for teaching his lessons. Who ultimately decides what the correct education is?
I recall my friend telling me about reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States back in high school. I was shocked to say the least. Kids spend twelve years learning that Columbus discovered America in 1492, and then they are going to be instructed that this country was actually founded through the enslavement and genocide of the Arawak tribe. The sad thing is other friends of mine believe that Howard Zinn is some type of ultra-leftist, exaggerating his claims regardless of the evidence he presents. I have not read the whole book, but as of yet I have not noticed many unsupported claims.
The problem is that people do not enjoy having their beliefs challenged. Religion, politics, social issues, whatever the case may be, too many people are caught up in adopting an ideology without looking at the other issues. My entire family is conservative, my Grandma still thinks George Bush is a great president and my aunt believes that he will be remembered as one of the greatest presidents (Please take a moment to let that soak in). While I do not believe that all conservatives are ignorant, I do maintain the belief that most people have a more liberal agenda buried inside and its up to proper education to get it out. I thought I was conservative until I arrived to college and started learning the facts I never was taught in high school. Better late than never.
My family often points the finger at the college atmosphere for providing me such liberal ideologies. I always laugh in these instances, wondering how the world’s brightest students and future professors who decided to dedicate their lives toward education and minimal pay are so easily ostracized in conservative circles. Is it really so hard to accept that perhaps these professors have been thoroughly educated, understood the issues and weighed liberalistic vs. conservative agendas in a fair manner? Not for many. Those who pursue degrees outside of the liberal arts are not wrong for doing so, but they must admit to conditioning their political beliefs upon a more individualistic level rather than educational.
I recall in my Mass Media and Popular Culture class in which I bumped into a classmate of mine while printing out a paper in the library. We had the usual small talk and he mentioned to me how he disagrees with most of the things we talk about in class. While discussing these particular subjects would warrant an entire entry, I will simply say the issues discussed weren’t based on intellectual opinions, but rather on extensive study and research. I walked away in frustration, wondering how he so easily dismissed what we were learning. The problem I commonly notice in college is that people do not like having their beliefs challenged or changed, which in my opinion is the entire purpose of college. Until we’re eighteen years old we are forced to believe the often monotonous lessons taught in high school, the news we here on the television, stories brought to us by the newspapers and beliefs laid upon us by our family. To tell someone that we aided in the Indonesian Genocide is often regarded as leftist bullshit. Why so many people believe that are getting all of the facts from approximately five channels is beyond me.
Mr. Dunne sees this problem. Imagine if high school revealed all of the horrors that our government carried out during the civil rights movement? The highly questionable shooting of Fred Hampton by the Chicago Police, the disintegration of the black panther movement through the FBI, the true reasons behind Vietnam, etcetera. Kids are not meant to question the choices of their government or those in power, just like the many adults of this world aren’t mean to question their involvement in the detrimental side effects of capitalism. Not to get too specific, but the only difference between the factory workers of Marx’s day and the current circumstances is that a shorter day and more pay. In the end, is a slave who works in horrendous factory any different than the stockbroker who has a BMW? Health-wise yes, but from the outside the function of far too many people remains as chronologically as a sequence of birth, vocation, marriage, children, retirement, death. The only difference are the kinds of TOYS. So tell me, what is the difference between the kids in Mr. Dunne’s classroom, and the adults filling the skyscrapers. One gets a Playstation 3, the other gets a Yacht. It is here where the film poses the most interesting question – if Mr. Dunne looks at the world with such strong resentment, then why is he teaching middle school instead of doing something about it?