Sunday, June 28, 2009

The hidden secret of NIMH

The human brain is a marvelous organ capable of managing the universe of the body, but its capacity for memory and awareness is one of the more magical seeming functions. The world is filled with diversity and all it takes is the casual mention of an idea or an item and suddenly the world is filled with what was invisible before. For example: Let's say that someone shows a picture of a new car they want or just bought, a car you had previously never seen, suddenly everywhere you go the same car is driving ahead, beside or passing in front of you. Some are dusty and others look like they just drove off the showroom floor. They're everywhere. They didn't just appear; they have been there all the time. The only thing that changed was awareness.

The same is true of everything: stories, books and movie, for instance.

Cruising through the menu at Hulu yesterday, I came across an old favorite animated feature, The Secret of NIMH based on the book by Robert C. O'Brien Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I confess I enjoy animated films with a touch of magic and The Secret of NIMH is one of my favorites. The artistry and beauty of the film and the message of facing one's fears and helping one another is the main focus, right behind the cruelty to lab animals and the experiments of the National Institute of Mental Health that result in the mental and physical evolution of a group of rats and mice. There is another message that is integral to the book and the movie, that evolved rats should no longer live as animals stealing what they need from humans, an echo of which I've become more and more aware since reading Ayn Rand.

There are two factions within the rat community led by the aging Nicodemus. One faction wants to continue living beneath the rose bush in the Fitzgibbons' front yard and stealing what they need from the farmer, such as the electricity that powers and lights their underground world. The other faction wants to leave the rose bush and travel to Thorn Valley to found a farming colony and create their own world independent of humans. They wish to live as an evolving species and not as thieves.

I don't know if either Robert C. O'Brien or Don Bluth, the head animator of the film, realized what they were saying or how that central theme would echo through the intervening years, but the story still holds up. The concept is radical: producing what is needed versus stealing it from those already producing the necessities and luxuries needed. Sound familiar?

The one thought that continues to echo through my mind is that if sentient and evolving rats and mice could figure it out, why can't we?

There are disagreements among the rats of NIMH and none more vocal than Jenner. In the movie, Jenner engineers Nicodemus's death certain that if Nicodemus is gone the rest of the rats will follow him and continue to live by stealing electricity, food and supplies from farmer Fitzgibbons. In the book, Jenner leads seven of the rats on a hardware store raid and are presumed dead, prompting men from NIMH to bulldoze the rose bush to exterminate all the rats.

It isn't the clash between humans and rats that is so interesting, but the underlying theme that sentient and evolved animals like rats understand the need for self determination. The rats understand that they will be discovered if they remain dependent on the farmer and that the only ethical way to live is by producing their own food and necessities. It's a really simple equation, one my grandmother taught me. Determination + Work = Independence and Prosperity. I wonder even now, how the people in this country forgot that simple equation or if they never learned it.

In order to get jelly, we first had to grow and then harvest the grapes from the arbor in the back yard. Produce on the table came from the kitchen garden out back, which had to be tended, nurtured, weeded, watered, harvested and then preserved so we could have fresh corn, tomatoes and vegetables during the winter. It didn't meet all of our needs so my parents worked every day, and even worked a second job when what they earned wasn't enough. We all worked hard and for our efforts we earned a comfortable life. Everyone pitched in. Even as children, we learned how to tend the garden, harvest the produce and fruits that grew in our yard and preserve what we produced.

With the current economic picture, people are more interested in lining up for food stamps, Welfare and government grants instead of lining up for jobs. It shouldn't matter what the job is as long as it ends with a paycheck.

When I lived in Columbus, I saw people on the streets at on off- and on-ramps to the freeways with signs: Will work for food. When I stopped I offered them business cards for the local labor exchange and explained they would get paid at the end of the work day. As I drove away, I watched them either rip up the card or just toss it onto the ground. They didn't really want to work. They wanted a handout. A handout is so much easier and all it requires is standing around waiting.

I've known immigrants who crammed into small apartments and rooms and worked two and three jobs every day of the week to earn enough money to feed themselves and their families, saving a little of what they earned for the day when they could afford a place of their own. They didn't expect handouts; they were willing to work, and it didn't matter what the job was so long as there was a paycheck at the end of the week. There were always a few who would rather steal than earn a living, but they were in the minority. The job didn't matter and they often ended up with grunt work -- washing dishes, cleaning motels and hotels, making and serving food in fast food restaurants, digging ditches, mopping floors, picking produce, etc. The only thing that mattered was being independent and having a chance for a better life, one they didn't have in their home country. In the remaining spare time, they went to night school to learn the language and get an education so they could move on to a better job to earn more money.

With unemployment soaring to and past 10%, and that's only the unemployed who get benefits and haven't fallen through the bureaucratic cracks, more and more people are losing their jobs. Businesses are downsizing and moving their operations offshore to stay alive and compete. Crippling taxes and increased government oversights and regulations force more and more businesses to close. More people out of work means fewer people able to afford luxuries and cutting back on food, clothing and rent and that means more businesses folding or laying off more employees, and it just keeps getting worse. The current administration's response to the economic crisis is to print more money and hand out more food stamps and Welfare checks without facing the fact that they're stealing from the people who are still producing at an ever growing rate until the end result will be the strangulation of the remaining viable businesses as they struggle to meet payrolls and buy the raw and manufactured materials to continue producing. They too will be forced to downsize just to stay alive and that means more people out of work and on the public dole.

It's a vicious and vertiginous downward spiral with no Thorn Valley on the horizon, the effect of too many mouths sucking on the government teat. The government cow is rapidly running dry and the pasture is grazed nearly to the roots. It takes seed to grow more grass and time for the grass to grow, but none of that means anything when the cow is slaughtered to feed all those voracious mouths. In the end, the pasture grass will grow back, but there will be no cow to graze and produce milk. At least, there will be no more cattle to add greenhouse gases to the mix.

I doubt that Robert C. O'Brien or Don Bluth intended their story to be taken in this direction, but the theme is clear for anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the entitlement versus independent production debate. It's not the magic or the Frisbys need to move house that is at the center of The Secret of NIMH, but a group of rats aware that they need to be independent and produce what they need to live. It's amazing how much truth can be found in a children's book and a beautifully animated movie.

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