Whether it’s King Kong offering us a sensitive New Age ape with a taste for blondes or The New World’s sexy Pocahontas becoming a metaphor for the virgin American land, our culture keeps struggling to draw the line between nature and culture. That drama played itself out in the year’s two biggest documentaries, Luc Jacquet’s insanely popular The March of the Penguins and Werner Herzog’s critically acclaimed Grizzly Man. While Jacquet treats the penguins’ Darwinian struggle for life with a Frenchified anthropomorphism that would make Uncle Walt shudder (in the original French version, you half-expected these tuxedoed birds to light up Gauloises), Herzog uses the story of solipsistic bear-watcher Timothy Treadwell to show the delusions of civilized man denying the barriers between himself and the wild. Although Herzog sees this story through his usual mad-German eyes — “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony,” he says, “but hostility, chaos and murder” — the most sensible thought in either movie comes from an Eskimo in Grizzly Man who observes that we disrespect wild animals if we try to pretend we inhabit identical worlds. Now, if somebody will just tell that to Naomi Watts.
While foreign scientists engage in traditional forms of dishonesty — like South Korean clone-meister Hwang Woo Suk faking his research — the new American right has been busy attacking science itself. Bush administration ideologues watered down official studies of global warming. Republican politicians flocked to attack medical knowledge in the Terri Schiavo case (with the ambitious Dr. Frist offering an incorrect diagnosis, sight unseen). Most striking, evangelical groups tried to force-feed students the idea of intelligent design, another term for God in pseudo-scientific drag. While this predictably raised the hackles of actual scientists — on Charlie Rose, DNA codebreaker James Watson called Darwin the most important human being who ever lived — it also brought out the good sense in many old-school conservatives who believe in, you know, reason.
It was Bush-appointee Judge John E. Jones III who overruled the “breathtaking inanity” of the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board for forcing intelligent design into the curriculum. And it was bow-tied, baseball-loving pundit George F. Will who scoffed at the anti-evolutionists in every available forum. “If an intelligent designer designed nature,” he asked, “why did it decide to make breeding so tedious for those penguins?”
13. Counting Chickens
“I earned capital in the campaign,” boasted George W. Bush, after the 2004 election. “Political capital. And now I intend to spend it.” Just so. The year began with the president cockily planning to cram through a big anti–New Deal agenda. But as conservative thinker Peter Viereck once observed, “Reality is that which, when you don’t believe in it, doesn’t go away.” And in 2005, Bush faced a lot of reality. The mess in Iraq, public rejection of his Social Security plan, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” the indictments of Libby and DeLay and Abramoff — all this (and much, much more) turned Dubya’s political capital into Enron stock. The guy who ended 2004 as Time’s “Person of the Year” had, by this December, morphed into the chump on Newsweek’s “Bush in the Bubble” cover. But before you get too giddy pondering Dubya’s inexorable ruin — unpopularity, impeachment, eternal disgrace! — remember that his second term is less than 12 months old and our media can’t hump the story of his failing presidency for another three years. So steel yourselves, comrades: Once Bush’s approval ratings go up a few more points to 50 percent, we’ll be bombarded with headlines calling him “The Comeback Kid” and declaring that, once again, Prince Hal’s been misunderestimated.