Acton Commentary

The Manchurian Mistake


The cover of Richard Condon's 1959 novel on which the movie was based doesn't fit the “evil empire” portrayed in the 2004 remake.

In a rare instance of solidarity, Hollywood and religious leaders have identified the next major threat to the world's welfare: the multinational corporation.

In thisyear's remake of the 1962 classic “The Manchurian Candidate,” audiences arebeing subjected to more than two hours of ideological demagoguery and grandioseconspiracy theory. Moviegoersfamiliar with the original will be surprised to learn that gone are the ChineseCommunists seeking to control the world via the mind control of a key politicalleader. Chinese Communists, ofcourse, still exist and are still in control of the lives of hundreds ofmillions of people. But Communistsare no longer sinister enough in the eyes of Hollywood to merit such animportant role. Moviemakers have found a new target.

In therecently released version, which is approaching $50 million in gross sales, thesource of evil is a multinational company. The Manchurian Global Corporation, “the geopolitical extension”of every president since Nixon, is the villain. This explains the film's promotional tagline: “This summereverything is under control.”Manchurian Global, a clumsy and thinly-veiled fictional representationof companies such as Halliburton, is Hollywood's manifestation of real-lifecorporate evil. The satiricalelements that were hallmarks of the original are absent, as director JonathanDemme (“Philadelphia”) attempts to turn his remake into a serious and sustainedcritique of globalization, capitalism, and politics, playing on people's worstfears along the way.

The evilempire represented by Manchurian Global becomes the catch-all for stereotypicalHollywood villainy. The remaketakes potshots, for example, at biotech foods, which in the film is used as acover by a villainous rogue scientist. The scientist is, of course, ageneticist who pursued Nazi-esque eugenics during South African apartheid.

Unfortunately,a number of religious leaders - who should know better - have bought into thewarped and delusional view of the business world presented by this summer's“The Manchurian Candidate.” Some of these religious leaders argue that themultinational company, unregulated and driven only by insatiable thirst forprofit, is the source of all evil.Using imagery like the “evil empire” to describe the global economy,they warn us the multinational Tower of Babel is covered by advertisements fromcorporations that control our minds, our purchasing decisions, and ourpocketbooks.

In recentweeks, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) has been meeting in Ghanaand considering the nature of justice and evil in our world. It turns out that the free market andthe multinational corporations that control it have “created job loss andgrinding poverty, an unprecedented rise in crime and violence, ecologicaldegradation, and the spread of HIV/Aids.” The answer, WARC proposes, is“creating effective institutions of global governance” which willcounterbalance the “unaccountable power of transnational corporations andorganizations who often operate around the world with impunity.”

Thisis bad political theory, bad economics, and bad theology. Corporations and those who lead themare accountable both to their shareholders and to those who purchase theirproducts. They cannot force us tobuy their products and most operate under strict legal requirements imposed bytheir governments. It is, instead,“institutions of global governance” that are some of the most unaccountableorganizations on earth. Doesanyone recall voting for a United Nations representative? Is the World Bank or the InternationalMonetary Fund accountable to the citizens whose taxes pay its bills?

BothWARC and those behind the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” buy into the theorythat there are a handful of people somewhere (usually New York) who “control”the free market economy. In onesense, such concern is valid.Anytime the economy is controlled by a small group of people, thepossibility for destruction, starvation, and the proliferation of povertyincreases. The last century is a powerful witness to this truth.

Multinationalcorporations, however, are not the usual perpetrators of such tyranny. Rather, those with the most blood ontheir hands are the kinds of political entities espoused by members of WARC asthe remedy. They would replacetyranny at the nation-state level with tyranny at the global level, in the nameof guarding us against the growth of the Tower of Babel.

But thefree market, properly conceived, is the ultimate divestiture of power. It is power in the hands ofpeople. What these church leadersshould be prophetically defying is government tyranny that tramples propertyrights, restricts trade, and fosters multi-generational poverty.

Theologically,it seems strange that evil is incorporated. There is no doubt that there is a kind of systemic sin thatcan encompass an organization, group, or even an entire nation. Both President Reagan and Pope JohnPaul II recognized the collective evil that was the former Soviet Union. The Tower of Babel does exist. But contemporary theological punditstoo often speak of evil as if it occurs only in systemic form. There is toolittle emphasis on individual sin or individual responsibility.

Dr.Philip Wickeri teaches evangelism and mission at the San Francisco TheologicalSeminary after having spent 23 years working in China. His comments to the gathering ofdelegates at the WARC meeting are telling: “We are facing a crisisin Christianity today brought on by what more and more people are interpreting to be the twin challenges ofglobalization and empire. TheUnited States is the center of empire, its financial organizer, politicalarbiter and military enforcer.” What a curious comment--from someone who spentmuch of his life under Chinese Communism--in this summer of the fifteenthanniversary of Tiananmen Square.

Photo © 2004 No Exit Press