“I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.”
— President Ronald Reagan, addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, 1987
In the United States, the COVID death toll has surpassed the number of Americans killed in World War I and the Vietnam War combined. Still, our own citizenry seems more divided than ever. Our differences have not “vanished.” Rather, they seem to have intensified. It’s not just maskers vs. anti-maskers, vaxxers vs. anti-vaxxers, but also the quietly marginalized vs. the silent majority, the gig workers vs. pseudo-employers, the have-nots vs. the have-lots.
For a moment, let’s just take a look at recent wealth accumulation. It’s staggering. A report by Swiss bank UBS found that billionaires worldwide increased their wealth by 27.5% at the (former?) height of the crisis from April to July and that their wealth had hit “a new high, surpassing the previous peak of $8.9 trillion reached at the end of 2017.” The number of billionaires has also hit a new high of 2,189, up from 2,158 in 2017. There are both more and more wealthy billionaires since COVID.
Meanwhile, in the US last spring more than 30 million people, over 15% of the workforce, applied for unemployment benefits. Worldwide, 1.6 billion people live on the margins of the world economy — including migrant workers and those employed in the gig economy — whose jobs may never return even after the pandemic. Europe is currently weighing the consequences of losing an entire generation to the throes of unemployment, as widespread youth unemployment has proven to cause long-term damage across the economy in measurable terms of lifetime earnings, having families, even leaving or not leaving parents’ homes.
As an aside, it’s debatable which country is best handling COVID financial relief for citizens (*cough*Canada*cough) and small businesses (*cough*France*cough*), but what’s undeniable is — as stated by Paolo Mauro, deputy director of the IMF’s fiscal affairs department in this BBC article from last May — that “more needs to be done in the US because the social safety nets are smaller.”
It’s not just about hand-outs and small business loans — the latter of which is an American anomaly as other countries offered wage subsidies to small businesses instead of loans — it’s about something much more subterranean, something in the very bedrock of America where “social safety net” reads like a goddamn oxymoron when more than 34 million Americans live in poverty, 27 million do not have health insurance, and 82 million workers are paid hourly rates where the Federal minimum wage is $7.25 (up from $6.55 in 2009).
Businesses get bailouts under the guise of trickle-down economics but individuals, ‘Mericans, are expected to take care of themselves and “rise to the occasion” because that’s what Americans do: persevere, un-aided.
Unfortunately, these innately American ideals of self-reliance and individualism are not well-suited to battle a pandemic. (Is there anything more American than the billionaire?) The long-touted American way of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is pretty much the antithesis to community-first thinking and the collaborative approach necessary to defeating a pandemic.
This requires a radical shift in Americans’ thinking from an individual-first to a communitarian ethos—and it is not a shift that is coming easily to most, especially in the absence of clear federal guidelines.
But how can we encourage this radical shift? Oh, if only Americans would consider COVID to be an alien threat! Maybe then we’d be better off?
Thinking about what President Reagan suggested, now seems like a damn fine time for such an occasion to think about “how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat.”
Let’s imagine for a moment, shall we?
An alien shows up on Earth and says something like, “Unless you make some significant changes and come together as a species, millions will die.” WYD?
Actually, they made a movie about this. 1951’s black-and-white science fiction flick, “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” directed by Robert Wise, is a film about a humanoid alien and his powerful, deadly robot buddy who come to Earth to “deliver an important message that will affect the entire human race.”
If you have not seen “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, please do not watch the 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves. It is awful and at times genuinely painful to watch. Like, it hurts. But if it helps here to imagine an alien that looks and sounds like Keanu Reeves, I guess that’s cool.
In the original 1951 film — based on the 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates — the alien, named Klaatu, explains why he’s come to Earth: “So, like, the other dudes on the other planets are bummed because you guys are building bombs and playing with atomic power and, like, if you don’t stop doing that, they say Earth is gonna be, like… eliminated, dude.”
Now, I’d generally steer clear of any spoilers here, but the title of the film being what it is, I mean, yeah, at one point Klaatu “neutralizes the electricity all over the world,” bringing everything to a full stop as us viewers are graced with scenes of immobile trains, the Arc di Triomphe as still life, folks stuck at the peak of a roller coaster… in many ways, it’s not unlike this year’s pandemic lockdowns: a forced respite from the hustle and grind built atop technology. But it doesn’t seem to change all that much and soon enough everything is moving again and people are about their business like nothing ever happened. Huh.
Anyway, you can probably guess what happens to a gentle alien bro who visits America, the undisputed military power in the world and home to an estimated 120 guns per 100 civilians. Yup, he gets shot and killed. Actually, he survives the first shooting but then they later shoot him again and he dies that time.
But before he dies, he says to his human crush — a young bodacious war widow named Helen whom he met fleeing his American military captors — that if anything should happen to him she should go to his deadly robot buddy and say to him, “Klaatu barada nikto.”
So when Klaatu is killed and the robot looks to be kind of pissed off about it, Helen says the magic words to the robot who then temporarily reincarnates Klaatu so he can deliver some closing remarks to the now gathered crowd of scientists and, generally speaking, the larger population of the people of Earth, saying:
The Universe grows smaller every day — and the threat of aggression by any group — anywhere — can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all — or no one is secure… This does not mean giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibly.
Here, the context of 1951 is important I think: in the wake of WWII, the Korean War rages on, the USA continues nuclear testing in Nevada and the Pacific, American citizens Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are convicted of espionage (and later executed), the second Red Scare (McCarthyism) roils through the country, and the Iron Curtain develops a nice patina as East Germany fortifies parts of its border with barbed wire, towers, gates, and guard posts. For many in 1951, it seemed our planet was on the brink of another world war. The “threat of aggression” was very clear and present.
OK, back to the film: Klaatu continues, explaining how he and his alien friends built these deadly robot buddies to function as interstellar peacekeepers to attack and destroy any aggressors to perpetuate a universe free of “arms and armies” and “aggression and wars.”
We do not pretend to have achieved perfection — but we do have a system — and it works. I came here to give you the facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet — but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.
It’s heavy stuff, the idea that humans (and aliens for that matter) are not to be trusted with matters of interstellar peace, and that robots (or AI) are to be in charge, but that’s another topic I think. In the film, as the crowd gathers — diverse representatives of our very real viewing audience — to watch and listen in silent bewilderment to Klaatu, he delivers his final declaration, an ultimatum:
Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace. Or pursue your present course — and face obliteration. We will be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.
And with that, Klaatu and his deadly robot buddy enter the spacecraft and depart the planet.
That was 69 years ago.
Now, it’s easy to misconstrue Klaatu’s message. At first, it sounds like he’s saying something akin to our long-seeded American mentality, like, “I don’t care what you do to you but don’t bring that mess near me.” And then there’s the threat itself, which feels very on-brand for America. But all of that is simply dramatic subterfuge.
Klaatu’s true message is clearly stated and very simple: “There must be security for all, or no one is secure. This does not mean giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibly.” And that, my friends, is a tough pill for Americans to swallow, even still today. This idea, as The Atlantic’s Meghan O’Rourke wrote so succinctly, “requires a radical shift in Americans’ thinking from an individual-first to a communitarian ethos.”
A radical shift, y’all. One that aliens in film spoke about nearly 70 years ago.
But that’s not to say it’s unachievable.
While Americans or even humanity as a whole may very well need to hit bottom before bouncing back, I believe we can and we will come together as a large, collaborative community. It’s inevitable. One day, when we transcend capitalism or an alien comes to Earth and gives us an ultimatum, we will ( be forced to) realize that, yes, indeed, there must be security for all or no one is secure.
Otherwise, we’ll simply go away, our civilization will end, just another example of Fermi’s paradox (which is pretty wild stuff if you wanna dive in there, or read lyrical cliff notes). But I digress! What I mean to say is that we have no future without O’Rourke’s “communitarian ethos.”
Back to the film: the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” — that Klaatu tells Helen to say to the deadly robot who then doesn’t destroy everything and reincarnates Klaatu who tells everyone what’s what before they leave Earth — has never received an official translation. And it’s been the topic of much discussion among the sci-fi littérateurs and cinephiles.
In a 1978 article, “The Language of Klaatu,” Fantastic Films magazine’s Alien Linguistics Editor (uh-huh) attempts to translate everything Klaatu says in the film and offers both literal and free translations of the phrase: “Stop Barbarism, (I have) death, bind” and “I die, repair me, do not retaliate,” respectively.
And while that seems very logical and fitting with the film’s plot, the director of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (in the documentary “Decoding ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto’: Science Fiction as Metaphor”), recalls a conversation with writer Edmund North who — like any smug writer would — brushed off a request for translation saying, “It’s just something I kind of cooked up. I thought it sounded good.”
But at the very end of that documentary, the film historian Steven Jay Rubin recalls an interview he had with Edmund North where the author does indeed seem to reveal a translation, saying the phrase means: “There’s hope for Earth, if the scientists can be reached.”
There’s hope for Earth, if the scientists can be reached.
I like it, but, sorry Edmund, that’s a lot to construe from a three-word phrase (of which one of the words is the damn alien’s name). I think perhaps the translation may be a bit simpler than that?
Let’s see, if we tweak just the last word, “There’s hope for Earth, if the scientists can be heard,” and then parse it down to its most basic, two-word message, we get:
Hear scientists / barada nikto
Klaatu says hear the scientists; listen to the scientists.
Or pursue your present course — and face obliteration. We will be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.
Klaatu barada nikto.