The Ford Motor Co. has produced an updated version of the 1968 Mustang GT driven by Steve McQueen in the movie “Bullitt.” It’s so popular that dealers have temporarily stopped taking new orders for the car until deliveries catch up.
Some of the car’s success is undoubtedly due to the enduring popularity of the movie, which included solid performances from both McQueen and the Mustang – as well as one of the best car chases ever put on film.
But as popular as the movie remains, there is little doubt that McQueen’s best acting performance was in an earlier movie, “The Sand Pebbles,” where he played an enigmatic anti-hero, a sailor on an obsolete U.S. Navy gunboat caught up in the political upheaval of 1920s China.
In a key scene, a treacherous move has left McQueen’s young Chinese engine room helper in the hands of the revolutionary mob on shore, and he is being tortured to death in full view of the crew of the American ship. McQueen’s character implores the ship’s captain, “Do something.”
The captain: “Get below or I’ll have you shot for a mutineer!”
McQueen: “Well, shoot something.”
A similar thought was expressed last week by Live 8 impresario Bob Geldof, who was quoted as saying, “Something must be done; anything must be done, whether it works or not.” In other words, “Well, do something” (which is maybe what he would have said if he had enjoyed the advantage of an award-winning Hollywood scriptwriter).
For the uninitiated, Live 8 is not a movie but a global, multisite rock concert woven together by television broadcasts and Internet-based streaming videos. Its purpose was to bring Africa’s poverty to the attention of both the public and the bigwigs of the G-8 nations. An estimated 30 million people around the world tuned in one way or another and got to see not only hot recording stars but also some folks from an earlier era.
In some respects, the “Sand Pebbles” and the Africa situations aren’t all that dissimilar. In the movie scene, the ship’s captain was transfixed in horror, frozen into inaction by his orders not to create an incident that would upset the tense diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and China. In the Africa situation, we are equally transfixed by horror, driven to inaction by our inability to see, or even imagine, an effective way to help.
Without doubt, both the movie’s “shoot something” and the real-life “do something” ideas are born of frustration and the instinctive knowledge that we cannot simply stand by and watch this horror and expect to be unchanged by our inaction.
Unlike the vacuous celebrities, the major forces behind Live 8 – Geldof and rock star Bono – have actual, on-scene knowledge of the African horror, and apparently cannot ignore it and get on with their lives. It is probably not an accident that both have had good words to say about President Bush, who has boosted U.S. aid to Africa by 50 percent and, unlike most political leaders, is actually doing something.
What has frozen the G-8 leaders into inaction isn’t the usual selfish greed, although that human failing is always a factor. More pointedly, it is the visible failure of previous efforts that we had been so hopeful about. In 1974, for example, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced a global aid program ensuring that by 1980 no child in the world would go to bed hungry.
G-8 thinking these days focuses on the belief that economic aid only works in countries that have security and good fiscal, monetary and trade policies – an idea supported, somewhat, by economic research. But while this makes good common sense, these countries are increasingly difficult to find in Africa, and as the situation worsens there, this criterion provides not a blueprint for aid but for paralysis by analysis.
If we can get past the smarmy celebrity sentimentality, as well as the foul-smelling protestors, it is true that we cannot stand by and do nothing as Africa slips into the abyss – at least not without affecting ourselves.
In some cases, the real impact of aid has to be measured by its effect on the donors, along with its impact on the recipients. Given the mistakes of the past, we need to do something different; but above all, we need to do something.
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes “Business 101,” which appears monthly in The Snohomish County Business Journal.