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Rise of the Machine

In the worst-case scenario, can anyone stop the Terminator?

By R. V. Scheide

In a few short days, an election that many pundits are calling the most important in generations will take place. For Democrats, liberals and progressives, much is at stake. The country, according to the latest polls, remains fiercely divided. One wrong move by either party in the final days could tip the election. Naturally, we here at the Bohemian hope that the vote sways in the liberal direction. But we would be remiss if we did not anticipate the worst-case scenario. Therefore, using the tools of science and of science fiction, we offer this projection of one possible future if things go drastically the wrong way on Nov. 2.

Science, of course, has always been on the liberal side, at least in the idealistic sense. For decades, if not longer, scientists have been documenting the environmental havoc modern civilization has wreaked upon the earth, from global warning to the depletion of the world's oil reserves. Few thinkers have put these elements together more succinctly than Santa Rosa resident Richard Heinberg, core faculty member of New College of California and author of five books, including his latest on the coming global energy famine, Power Down: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World (Consortium; $16.95).

"How is the world most likely to respond to energy resource depletion in the decades ahead?" Heinberg asks. "One possible answer: with increased competition for remaining resources (especially oil and natural gas), leading, in the worst-case scenario, to the general destruction of human civilization and most of the ecological life-support systems of the planet."

According to Heinberg, the Bush administration, with its preemptive-strike doctrine and the invasion of Iraq, is well down the path he calls the "last one standing." The United States is literally prepared to go toe to toe with any nation in the world in order to maintain control of precious dwindling resources, particularly oil. Moreover, Heinberg sees little evidence that Democrats or even the Greens have the power to turn us from this path. Still, he holds a special contempt for the Bushies: "[I]t seems to me that the current administration goes far beyond the levels of corruption and incompetence that Americans have come to expect from their elected leaders in recent decades."

Which brings us to Republican California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Last year during California's unprecedented recall election, the five-time Mr. Olympia and megastar of futuristic action thrillers such as The Terminator accused then-governor Gray Davis of both corruption and incompetence, citing Davis' bungling of the state's energy crisis, his borrowing to balance the state budget and his proclivities for political fundraising.

What a difference a year makes. Today, Gov. Schwarzenegger, who's heading down the same deregulatory road that led to the last energy crisis, who borrowed $15 billion to balance the budget and who has demonstrated unmatched prowess as a fundraiser, is the toast of the state, if not the nation.

His image is everywhere--on the homepage of every single California state department website, on Nevada billboards encouraging businesses to move to the Golden State, on TV commercials urging viewers to vote no on the two casino propositions on this year's ballot, as well as the referendum that would force medium-sized and larger businesses to provide health insurance for their employees. Perhaps no leader since Stalin has depended so much upon image alone. The supposedly nonpartisan governor has even gone so far as to personally endorse Republican legislative candidates around the state. Merely being photographed putting his arm around Pat Krueger, Republican candidate for Assembly District 7, which includes Santa Rosa and Napa County and has traditionally voted Democrat, has transformed a long-shot outsider from New Hampshire into a genuine contender for the seat.

There's a lesson here for Democrats, liberals and progressives, but we'll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, let's complete our worst-case scenario. Due to some unforeseen event just days before the election (for the sake of argument, let's suppose the Rev. Jerry Falwell and a tearful Mary Cheney publicly announce that her faith in Christ has "cured" her of lesbianism), George W. Bush wins reelection. Believe it or not, it gets worse. Thanks to Schwarzenegger's tireless campaigning and fundraising, Republicans are swept into office in record numbers, and for the first time in decades, become the state's majority party. To partially appropriate one of Arnold's film titles, it's the rise of the machine--the dubious construct of brawn, celebrity image and pure, unadulterated narcissism that is Schwarzenegger.

If existing evidence is any indication--Arnold's secret meeting with Enron CEO Ken Lay just months before the recall and the $800,000 donated by Chevron to various Schwarzenegger committees and the state Republican Party in exchange for allowing the giant oil corporation to influence the California Performance Review in its favor--the governor and the new Republican legislature will move the state quickly down the "last one standing" path, privatizing everything in their wake, from public electric utilities to the state's dwindling supplies of water. Cheap energy? Medical services for the poor? School hot lunch programs? It's hasta la vista, baby. Blow up those boxes!

Meanwhile, the second Dubya administration pursues the same flawed and disastrous polices of the first Dubya administration, as the international community stands aghast. The war in Iraq spreads to Iran and Syria. Oil reserves are either impaired or sucked dry, pushing the price above $100 a barrel, leading to global stagflation on a level not seen since the 1970s oil crisis. Media conglomeration reaches its peak when FOX CEO Rupert Murdoch buys out CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC and NBC, and merges them into one Super FOX network. The new super network changes its slogan from "Fair and Balanced" to "All Is for the Best."

Americans are hypnotized by this one and only news source and its new champion, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who handily wins reelection to the state's top position by a landside in 2006. Shortly afterward, President George W. Bush proposes a constitutional amendment to allow foreign-born citizens to become president. It is ratified by Congress and the states in record time, paving the way for the Terminator's presidential bid in 2008. The question is, will there be any United States left to govern?

This is not so far-fetched as it would seem. Probably sooner rather than later, the international community will challenge the world's last superpower, not on the battlefield, but in the financial arena. In roughly 2007, after it becomes clear that oil reserves are indeed decreasing, OPEC will peg oil sales to the Euro instead of the dollar, leading to the total collapse of the U.S. economy. Unable or unwilling to accept its diminished global status, the Bush administration unleashes its nuclear arsenal, hastening the Rapture its more evangelistic components have been praying for all along.

What will it be like, this rapture, this Armageddon? For one possible answer, we turn to science fiction, namely one of the 20th century's finest efforts on celluloid, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the 1981 film directed by George Miller and starring Mel Gibson. Set in the postapocalyptic wasteland of the near distant future, the film's opening narration tells us it will be "a time of chaos, ruined dreams and a wasted land." After the planet blew itself up ("for reasons no one can remember"), the civilized world discovered that "without the fuel, they were nothing. They'd built a house of straw. Without the fuel, the thundering machines stopped." Ordinary men like the film's hero, Mad Max (Gibson), are crushed by the chaos. "Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage, would survive."

In The Road Warrior, then, we find a microcosm of Heinberg's last one standing, a vision of one possible world to be: a small band of people, suspiciously dressed like Israel's famed lost tribe, is holed up in a desert compound built around an oil rig. Outside the compound, a brutal gang of motorcyclists and dune buggy drivers sporting Mohawks and S&M bondage gear wage a campaign of terror in order to get to the precious fuel inside the compound. Their leader, Lord Hummungus, Warrior of the Wasteland, Ayatollah of Rock 'n' Rollah, played by 6'8" Swedish strongman Kjell Nilsson, admonishes the compound's occupants.

"I'm gravely disappointed," he states with a guttural European accent over the loudspeaker system on his stripped-down 10-wheeler. "Again you have made me unleash my dogs of war. Look at what remains of your gallant scouts!" Two scouts are crucified on a special rack attached to the 10-wheeler's front bumper. "Why? Because you are selfish. You horde your gasoline! You will not listen to reason."

"There has been too much violence, too much pain," he continues, words muffled by the aluminum slave mask covering his radiation-damaged facial features. He offers the people in the compound a choice. "There can be no healing without pain, but I am offering a compromise. Just walk away. Give me the pump, the oil, the gasoline and the whole compound, and I will spare your lives. Just walk away, and I will give you free passage through the wasteland. Just walk away, and there will be an end to the horror."

Naturally, the people in the compound refuse and enlist the cynical loner Mad Max to deliver them out of the desert and unto the promised land. Could such a figure be the source of our salvation in the present day? It's doubtful. First of all, despite Mel Gibson's phenomenal popularity, by definition no one likes a cynical loner, and as far as Democrats, liberals and progressives are concerned, Gibson finally showed his true filmic "passion"--along with a disturbing Messiah complex--earlier this year with The Passion of the Christ.

For sci-fi film buffs, it may be tempting to turn to that other great depiction of the coming apocalypse, The Terminator, in search of a leader. In that film, Schwarzenegger plays a monosyllabic robot (a role disturbingly similar to his present gig as governor) sent back from the future to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Relying only on a human sent back from the future and her own female intuition, Sarah gamely terminates the Terminator, despite two attempts by Arnold to grope her breast. While Linda Hamilton has so far expressed no interest in politics, Hillary Clinton could easily reprise the Sarah Connor role come election 2008. With Heinberg serving as her energy adviser, she could even incorporate what he believes may be our final hope in a new book, It Takes a Lifeboat.

But to choose Sarah, aka Hillary, to face the Terminator in the next presidential election, assuming there is one, is to ignore the lesson Schwarzenegger has already taught us. Actually, to be fair, tennis star Andre Agassi, with those spiffy Canon camera commercials in the early 1990s, taught us the lesson first: image is everything. No actor turned politician has proven this more than Arnold, not even the late Ronald Reagan.

That's why, for campaign 2008, the Bohemian enthusiastically endorses Lord Hummungus, the Warrior of the Wasteland, the Ayatollah of Rock 'n' Rollah, for president. Clearly, the Hummungus is superior to the Terminator in every respect. For one, he's out of the closet (in the film), something that Schwarzenegger will never be able to claim, at least until someone releases those alleged Mapplethorpe photos from the secret vault. At 6'8", the Hummungus towers over his shorter, girlie-man opponent. He's a much better speaker, and in fact has more lines in The Road Warrior than Arnold spoke in all three Terminator films combined. Finally, after Bush gets that constitutional amendment passed, foreigners will be eligible to run for president.

Yes, the Hummungus is brutal, homicidal, perhaps even psychotic. But in the worst-case scenario, that's precisely the kind of man (or woman) Democrats, liberals and progressives are going to need. If Bush wins, it's time to stop pussy-footing around. It's time to put the feet to the fire. There can only be one last man standing. Long live Lord Hummungus!

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From the October 27-November 2, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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