Tuesday, July 18, 2006


MARCH OF THE PINHEADS: Conservative values and the penguin movie [PA Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

Even though I would not call myself a "conservative," I have a great deal of respect for people who honestly hold well-thought-out conservative opinions. These are people with whom you can at least hold an intelligent conversation and even have an exchange of useful information. It must be disheartening to many conservatives to see the press give so much attention to self-proclaimed conservative "spokespersons," who once they open their mouths reveal themselves to be complete dunderheads.

It to these that this column is dedicated, for they are now marching along in single file, as it were, under the delusion that a group of birds living in Antarctica are to be role models for all the good God-fearing "Christians" who think Jesus would have voted for the war criminal that sits in the White House. This March of the Pinheads is truly remarkable because I had no idea how many so-called "conservatives" really were pinheads.

I am, of course, talking about the reaction of some "conservatives" to the movie "March of the Penguins" a documentary about the Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri), one of sixteen species of aquatic birds making up the family Spheniscidae.

This is a great movie; Marxists and "conservatives" can agree on this, but Marxists will not attempt to explain the behavior of the penguins in terms of Marxist theory. We do not see the penguins practicing "primitive communism" nor having established the "matriarchate," nor do we expect, in the future, to see the male penguins revolt and establish patriarchy -- even though we call this group "Emperor penguins."

The "pinheads" of my title, however, see the penguins in terms of American family values and Christian values. This seems to indicate that the values of the radical right are for birdbrains -- but this would be to insult the penguins.

Here, in summary, is what the documentary discloses about these penguins. Once a year they migrate 70 miles inland from the sea to find ice thick enough to nest upon -- the ice insulates their eggs from the cold of the ocean. They pair off, have an egg, then the female splits and goes back to the ocean for about three months, leaving dad stuck with the egg -- which he incubates by keeping it on his feet covered by a flap of skin. He lives off his blubber. The eggs hatch, the females come back full of fish, and everyone gets to eat. When the little penguins are big enough to run around on their own, the adults all go back to the ocean and the little ones follow. This all happens in horrible Antarctic conditions that blow the minds of the audience (such as have them).

In the New York Times for 9-13-05 we find an article by Jonathan Miller, in the science section (!), "March of the Conservatives: Penguin Film as Political Fodder." Miller collected the opinions of some "conservative" and "Christian" leaders about this movie. None of these opinions are related to anything that was portrayed in the movie, relates to conservatism, or is particularly Christian, which shows that these people did not understand what they saw with their own eyes -- which is really pitiful. It shows, I think, that their brains, having been saturated for years with political, social and religious nonsense, can no longer function rationally.

But let me give some evidence for this position. According to Miller, the editor of the ultra-right National Review urged young Republicans at one of their conferences "to see the movie because it promoted monogamy." He also reports that the so-called "conservative" radio jock Michael Medved said about the movie that it was "the motion picture this summer that passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing."

Did I see the same movie? These penguins pair off for the mating season -- next year it’s a new ball game regarding who your mate may be. This is certainly like the monogamy practiced by many Americans -- i.e., serial polygamy. Having an egg every year with a new sex partner may be "traditional" for the ultra-right, and perhaps the young Republicans and Medved's listeners will be thrilled to have been encouraged to act likewise (even without the egg).

There is a scene where an albatross is trying to kill and eat a chick who is separated from its parent. The giant penguins -- four feet tall-- could easily have dispatched the smaller albatross -- but nooo! They stand around and watch with that "it’s not my chick" attitude. I'm sure this is also indicative of Republican concern for others -- but at least Rich Lowry (the National Review genius) and Medved had sense enough not to bring this behavior up as part of their "traditional" values.

As for "child rearing" -- as soon as the breeding season is over and the little chicks are fuzzy enough to fend for them selves, mom and pop take a powder -- some family values! As far as "sacrifice" is concerned -- there is none. If the female penguins don't get back in time with the grub, pop is off to the ocean -- egg or no egg, chick or no chick.

There are more pinheads to hear from. Here is a writer from the so-called Christian publication, World Magazine, as reported by Miller. "That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat-- and some might suppose, a strong case for intelligent design. It's sad that acknowledgment of a creator is absent in the examination of such strange and wonderful animals. But it's also a gap easily filled by family discussion after the film."

"So you see Suzi, these eggs hatching proves intelligent design."

"But daddy, why did God put the breeding grounds seventy miles away from the food supply?"

"He had his reasons honey."

"But daddy, why does the man penguin have to do all the egg watching and go without food for three months until the mommy penguin comes back?"

"That is how God designed it all."

"Daddy does God want you to help around the house and watch me and Jimmy while mommy goes out to work?"

"Errr, I didn't get that from the movie. Its time for mommy to put you to bed."

The author of The Lutheran Milieu of the Films of Ingmar Bergman opined that he could see the movie "as a statement on monogamy or condemnation of gay marriage or whatever the current agenda is." I shudder at the thought of gay penguins. Perhaps the melting of the Antarctic ice is God's vengeance for such transgressions -- I'll have to check out Falwell's website.

The last word goes to Laura Kim, a veep at Warner Independent, the distributor of the film: "You know what? They're just birds."

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at pabooks@politicalaffairs.net.

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