Friday, January 13, 2017

World Citizen: Garry Davis vs. National Borders

In September 1948, when delegates to the new United Nations met at the grand Palais de Chailot in Paris, a twenty-something American wearing the flak jacket of a bomber pilot pitched a tent on the Palais steps. Guards descended and angrily ordered him to leave, but he politely declined. I’m no longer in France, the young man explained, eyes twinkling. I’m standing on “international territory.”
     As a crowd gathered, so did the world press. With days the name of this pilot-turned-peacenik, Garry Davis, was known around the world. Newsreels captured a mounting drama that featured curious crowds, inspired celebrities and perplexed authorities.
     When a reporter asked Davis what he was about, he replied, “I’m a world citizen.” With that simple assertion a global movement was born.
     Garry Davis was part rebel, part performer and completely original, a world-class Don Quixote who for more than half a century jousted at one of the biggest windmills of all – nationalism. It was a wild ride that took him around the world, in and out of 34 jails, and across countless frontiers.
     After renouncing his US citizenship as an anti-war protest, camping out in Paris, and crashing a UN session to deliver a speech, Davis launched his first major organizing project, a registry for world citizens. More than a million people responded to the call. Forced out of France, he next went on tour, stateless and without documents. This time thousands of people turned out to meet him and local governments passed supportive resolutions.  Yet, over the next few years he was also repeatedly thrown in jail and deported.
     In 1953, for example, while he was appearing as an actor in a London stage production of Stalag 17, the show closed unexpectedly when the Queen died, and Davis found himself without a visa. A kindly magistrate gave him an idea: build a home on public property. But he was arrested anyway and taken to Brixton prison.
     Officials there laughed at first when Davis wrote to the new Queen. But they had to eat some crow when she responded with a thank you note. She would not step in, Her Majesty explained. But she did appreciate his situation.
     Three years later, wearing a homemade uniform and carrying a “World Passport” he had printed himself, Davis traveled to India. Necessity was helping him to become adept at intimidating low-level bureaucrats and exploiting the local media. His discussions with border officials were often hilarious, exposing the arbitrary rules and artificial boundaries of nations. But once inside country, he shifted focus to study with a Buddhist guru. The break also helped clarify his mission and prepare him for the next phase of the journey.
     At this point, for Davis, world government already existed. After all, he had announced its formation in a 1953 declaration. Before a small audience in Ellsworth, Maine, he had called it the World Government of World Citizens, and explained that its legitimacy was based on three laws – one God, one world, and one humankind. And although he was only one person, all humans were potential world citizens. They just needed to “claim their rights and assume their responsibilities.”  Yet Davis also understood that many more people would have to reach the same awareness before things began to change.
     In the early years, the tactics Davis used sometimes put not only his freedom but his life at risk. A year after his stay in India, for instance, Davis was almost shot before he could show his passport in Germany. It happened in Berlin after he left his bicycle near a barbed wire fence that separated East from West. Crawling under the wire in a pre-dawn mist, he was caught by several gun-toting police, arrested, interrogated, and ultimately put on a train to West Germany.
     As the scenery passed he could not help but remember another view of the same countryside --- from the cockpit of his bomber during the war – and also what the experience had taught him. “We are born as citizens of the world,” he realized. “But we are also born into a divided world, a world of separate entities called nations. We may regard each other as friends, and yet we are separated by wide, artificial boundaries.”
     Garry Davis spent the rest of his life trying to change that. One of his main strategies was to develop and issue documents, including the extraordinary World Passport. Recognized on a case-by-case basis by more than 100 countries – and officially by a handful – the passport has evolved into a convincing document in seven languages, issued to at least a million people over the years. Davis often argued that the right to travel, outlined in the passport, was grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
     Just as important as the fundamental right involved, however, was knowing how to use tools like the passport and other identity documents. As explained in Passport to Freedom, a book we co-authored in 1991, many nations have accepted World Passports and other documents issued by the World Service Authority, the non-profit organization Davis founded. But step one in effectively using them is to know what you are talking about. “The official, as part of the machine, knows little more than his narrow function and the regulations on which it is based. When you ask questions, you shift the burden of responsibility.”
     Other steps include remaining cool, going to the top of the chain of command as soon as possible, always assuming you are right, keeping track on your paperwork, choosing the right words, looking good, and remaining firm. It’s basic, but solid advice for anyone forced to deal with arbitrary authority. That said, over the years Davis refined the approach into a long-running piece of political performance art that he repeatedly took around the world.
     In April 1984, for example, he arrived at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. At this point Davis was already in his 60s and could look like an elder statesman if he wished. Determined as ever, he was nevertheless detained after a mind-boggling exchange and told he could not enter the country. The next night, however, when the authorities attempted to put him on a return flight, he protested so effectively that the captain threw him off the plane.
     A day later he escaped from detention and went downtown for public interviews at a daily newspaper.
     When he was caught, the Japanese put Davis in detention, then on a plane for Seattle. There he was told that he would be placed on trial for entering the US illegally. He was now classified as an “excludable alien,” the officials claimed. It was beginning to look like he was trapped in a Kafka-like tale.
     Two weeks after setting out for Japan, Davis stood before a US immigration judge. Both governments were refusing to admit him. ‘Quite a dilemma,” mused Judge Jones. But before he could decide how to handle the convoluted case, a telex arrived from Washington, DC. The news was almost inconceivable: Davis’ entire file had somehow been “lost.”
     As a result the Seattle case was closed and the world citizen was free to go.
     Five years later Davis was back in Japan. This time he opened an office in Tokyo and helped many undocumented workers and Chinese students who were fleeing repression. For them the World Passport and other documents meant proof of identity, access to a job, or a way to get from one place to another.
     During this extended visit, Davis met the Japanese Prime Minister and had a private, personal talk with Andrei Sakharov. The Cold War was winding down then, and the Soviet Union would soon dissolve. Like Davis, Sakharov had reached the conclusion that it was time to move beyond nationalism and create a democratic world government.
     After more than a year of looking the other way, however, Japanese Immigration eventually decided to pounce and had Davis arrested in July 1990. He was jailed for several weeks and questioned each day by the same immigration official who had handled his original case more than five years earlier. Gradually, Davis managed to convince this man his claim to world citizenship made sense. The Japanese deported him anyway.
     When Davis landed in Los Angeles in August 1990, he fully expected to be arrested again. This time he was handled a letter instead. It announced that the Secretary of State had unilaterally decided to classify him as a “parolee in the public interest” and let him go.
     During this period Davis moved to Vermont, a safe haven that remained his home for the rest of his life. However, he never stopped fighting for his vision for a world without borders. In July 2013, just a week before he died on July 24, just shy of 92 years old, Davis was still finding ways to spread the word. At this point NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was trapped in a Moscow airport after his US passport was revoked. For Davis the response was obvious: the World Service Authority would issue him one.
     The World Passport may not have reached Snowden*, but Davis made his point one last time. “All we're doing is conforming to the idea that human rights must be protected by law," he told reporters. "The world passport opens the door. Anyone can get it; everyone is a human being, everyone has a right to travel.'"

* It did reach contacts in Russia near Snowden, according to WSA's David Gallup, but whether Snowden received it wasn't confirmed.

Greg Guma knew Garry Davis for more than 20 years, co-authoring and editing two of his books, Passport to Freedom: A Guide for World Citizens and Dear World: A Global Odyssey. A memorial service for Davis was held at Burlington City Arts in Burlington, Vermont on January 5, 2014.

Friday, January 6, 2017

MOMENTUM II Launch & Casting the President

(unreleased 2008 poster)
     A highly ambitious US Senator (Michelle Pfeiffer), a tough-as-nails ex-warrior (Laurence Fishburne), and a charismatic tech mogul (Armie Hammer) are fighting for the presidential nomination. 
     That's the premise in Momentum II, a better-than-the-real-thing political thriller that answers the question: Just how far will candidates (and their families) go to get elected?
     As a Reality TV celebrity becomes president, the next political blockbuster gets the green light, intended for summer release. Here’s the basic plot: Fishburne (playing General Fred “The Fox” Oxhart) has just rescued POWs being held in Iran, but is falsely smeared as a war profiteer. Meanwhile, Pfeiffer (as Christine Norris Nichols) receives a sympathy bump after her airplane almost goes down, while Hammer (tycoon Nathan B. Crane) mobilizes the young at mass rallies with rousing stump speeches about change. The three are in a pitch battle for the presidential nomination.
     But neither of the candidates has enough delegates to seal the deal. And Michelle’s dad, Gene Hackman (as Ted Nichols), has a secret plan to win the White House. It's dream casting, courtesy of FantasyWorks, which has been working on the sequel since 2008.*
     The film opens during a brutal primary season, with the prospect of a brokered convention looming ahead, and rumors fly about Fishburne’s alleged connection with a private military company that has received diamond concessions in exchange for backing a fundamentalist rebellion in Africa. It’s not true, but Armie exploits the controversy to press his change agenda, arguing that both of his opponents represent an obsolete politics.
     The momentum is shifting. But Hackman is really behind the smear. He is determined to gain access to the White House for himself and secret Chinese backers.
     On the way to a campaign event, Michelle’s plane almost crashes. The mishap totally dominates cable news, drawing attention to her husband’s death and giving her a sympathy bump. When Internet rumors begin to circulate that her hubby was returning from a secret tryst when he died, the role of victim triumphing over adversity revives her flagging campaign. 

     Cut to the convention, where the tension reaches a fever pitch. Deeply offended by the attacks on his integrity Fishburne has doubts about whether to stay in the race. But he can’t decide whether to throw his support to Pfeiffer, whose bitter style bugs him, or Hammer, whom he blames for the smear and considers an undisciplined novice. 
     At a private meeting with the boy wonder Larry’s concerns deepen when Armie, who is literally armed with Internet tracking evidence, accuses Michelle’s camp of circulating the rumors. If the convention deadlocks Armie threatens to go public with the truth, even if it destroys the party’s chances of victory. "I WILL burn this village to save it!" he barks.
     The delegates are about to vote when the networks report that Michelle’s plane may actually have been sabotaged. Pandemonium engulfs the convention hall. Hackman immediately goes on TV, blaming the Iranians and suggesting that it may have been retaliation for Fishburne’s commando mission. He’s setting the stage for something even bigger: Larry’s assassination on live TV.
     But Armie’s cyber-snoops have been listening, and record Hackman meeting with his Chinese contact to green light the execution.
     Armed now with actual facts, Hammer confronts Michelle. At first she refuses to believe it, despite the video surveillance. But when she goes to Hackman he tells her to grow up and accept reality. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” he snaps. Admittedly, the writing is sometimes lame, just like real life. Anyway, Hackman is still bitter about his own fall from grace, despite the fact that the stories about his bizarre sexual practices were actually true.
     Pfeiffer tries to warn Fishburne, but the wheels are in motion and he narrowly escapes being shot during a press conference. Think 24. As father and daughter watch the mayhem on TV, she discovers that dad orchestrated her own near-death experience – and may even be behind her husband’s demise. He was, after all, in the way of Michelle’s rise. But there’s no time to apologize. Hackman knows that Fishburne will be coming for him and escapes in his private jet.
     The voting proceeds – until Michelle sends word that she’s withdrawing from the race. Her backers are furious until she delivers a Nixon-like farewell about getting beyond hate and not allowing yourself be used. The next night Hammer delivers his acceptance speech, asking the delegates to choose Fishburne as his running mate. Armie has realized that making change means more than giving great rhetoric.
     Four months later Armie -- an obvious nod to new "masters of the universe" like Mark Zuckerberg -- wins the race. Alone in his mansion, Hackman watches the returns. Outside, two assassins infiltrate the property. Realizing he’s done, Gene has a drink and looks at a scrapbook of better days with his daughter. 
     At the victory party Armie hoists his running mate’s arm for the traditional victory photo. A single gunshot. And Larry flashes a smile that says “mission accomplished.” Snap! And fade to credits. 
     Fishburne also delivers a catch phrase. During his showdown with Armie, he answers the threat of candor with this: “The truth? Boo-coo inconvenient.”
BONUS: Casting the next chapter
     Momentum II raises the question of just what it takes to be president. As it stands, the job seems to revolve around persuading mass audiences to believe whatever you say – regardless of what you know or what is true – and making a series of dubious plot twists credible. Electability is certainly important, but believability is what makes you electable.
   Considering all that, actors appear to have the edge and we might be better off putting one of them, rather than some less-than-convincing public official, in the White House. We’ve already had an actor in the role, Ronald Reagan, who certainly knew how to sustain audience appeal and sell almost anything – from Borax to Star Wars. And now we have a practiced celebrity with money and media experience.  
    For a while we had an actor in the 2008 race, Fred Thompson. He had even played a president, although it was Ulysses Grant in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. But Thompson's problem was that he couldn’t stick with the script, and also seemed less than committed to the part.
    For Momentum III: After Judgement Day -- not to mention the presidency itself -- an actor who has already played a fictional president may be the best choice. That would provide experience dealing with a crisis that has not happened yet. Is that leadership, instinct or just improvisation? Who can say. But Bill Pullman did save us from an alien invasion in Independence Day, and Harrison Ford faced off terrorists in Air Force One. Those were terrifying times. Or how about John Travolta? He played a fictional Bill Clinton and can actually fly a plane.
     Martin Sheen once looked destined for the role. In The Dead Zone he played a presidential candidate whom Christopher Walken foresaw blowing up the planet. Years later Sheen was back as the most popular president in TV history on The West Wing. The man had definitely learned from “experience.” 
     Other prospects, all of whom have actually played President at some point, include Sam Waterston, Jimmy Smits, Alan Alda, Tom Selleck, William Petersen, Tim Robbins, Michael Douglas, Rip Torn, Robert Duval, Michael Keaton, James Brolin, Billy Bob Thornton, James Crowley, the Quaid brothers, Jeff and Beau Bridges, and even Kris Kristofferson.
     Some are past their box office sales date. But what about Tom Hanks and George Clooney, both A-list and positioned well to make the leap. If Arnold can be governor, anything is possible  Send suggestions to FantasyWorks, att. to Momentum's Project Acting Chief (MomPAC).  
     How about a Black president? Try James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Rock or Dennis Haysbert. Anyway you slice it, we’d be in good hands. Sorry about the plug. Product placement. 
     The supply of women candidates is a bit limited -- but growing. Julianne Moore almost crashed the glass ceiling as Sarah Palin on HBO's Game Change. We should also count Meryl Streep, who nailed an Oscar as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady -- despite a flawed script.  
     But let's not forget that Geena Davis kicked ass on Commander in Chief – and won a Golden Globe “endorsement” for Best Actress. Glenn Close, Patty Duke, Patricia Wettig … they all have relevant role experience, plus the acting chops. And they’ve been vetted in the spotlight. 
     Think of it this way: The Presidency has become a contract to perform on the biggest stage of all, and the role requires star quality, authenticity, a gift for conveying emotion and rapport, plus an instinct for improvisation and adapting to public taste. If that's you, auditions are being held. 
     Restricting the field to political professionals clearly hasn't worked out. What do they know about social media, building a fan base, staying in character and seducing the camera?
    Isn't it time to try someone who can handle the part! 
* 2/26/12 Press Release / Poster: Momentum II background