Since Chris was on vacation last week, we’re revisiting one of our favorite WITHpod episodes. The conversation is also timely given the recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which cites that time is running out to reverse damage done to the planet. From the original 2019 episode description:
This is a good one. Trust us. It'll make you laugh, it'll make you reflect, it'll inspire and it might even give you that special WITHpod brand of existential crisis. Our second stop of the fall tour brought Chris Hayes to the stunning Theatre at the Ace Hotel with screenwriter and director Adam McKay along with debut novelist Omar El Akkad. The question at hand - how can we use art and pop culture to properly convey the urgency of the climate crisis? How can storytelling break through the noise and get to the beating heart of the collective struggle our planet is in? And how will future generations think about the way we are meeting this moment? Like we said, maybe a teensy existential crisis. But we promise, you'll laugh a lot too.
Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.
Adam McKay: I've actually had conversations with and gotten to know a lot of the climate scientists like Michael Mann and Bill McKibben. The one question I always ask them, I always say, "Is it possible we're so far outside the zone of what we know is going to happen or so far outside the zone of known science that there is a trigger moment with all of this and one day we do wake up and there are seagulls flying across the sky and everything is tipped?" Every one of them says, "Yes." That's the scariest thing I've ever heard.
Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening," with me your host, Chris Hayes.
Well, I'm fresh back from vacation, the Grand Canyon and in Sedona and Arizona, which was amazing. Never been to the Grand Canyon. One of those things that just surpasses any possible hype that you could give it in person, really profound moving spiritual experience. It was great got to spend some time with my family.
For today, because I was on vacation, we're going to present you with a very special encore episode, which is one of my favorites that we've ever done, in some ways a time capsule from a different world. That different world, of course, being pre-pandemic, October 2019, when we had a WITHPod live tour, which was incredibly fun, which I would love to get back to doing at some point.
We recorded this conversation at Theatre at the Ace Hotel in L.A. and it's with screenwriter and director Adam Mckay along with novelist Omar El Akkad. Adam, who I know pretty well is, of course, an incredible guy and has only gotten more famous since we have this conversation. He's, of course, the writer and director that did Anchorman and Talladega Nights, The Big Short, Vice. When we were having this conversation was in the early stages of working on a movie that would become Don't Look Up, which of course has become this huge cultural force that is about, in some ways, what the talk of this conversation about, about climate, storytelling and attention. If you haven't seen that movie, you really should. Adam talks about some of these projects in the podcast.
Also with us is novelist name Omar El Akkad, who's just a completely fascinating dude who wrote this book, American War, that has stuck in my head, almost more than any fiction I've read in like the last five years. I hadn't ever met him in person before meeting him backstage to the event, but we booked him because I really enjoyed the book.
The two of us got together in Los Angeles in this great venue at the Ace Hotel. The conversation, the topic really, the reason I booked both of them and it's even more relevant, I think, today than it was then, is how we can use art and pop culture to try to tell the story of the climate crisis, to convey its urgency, to attract attention to it.
Of course, I'm speaking to you just a few weeks after the latest IPCC report, which is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that comes out with these reports that basically say the window is closing, we have seven to 10 years to really definitively like alter our trajectory to maintain a world underneath the 1.5 to 2 Celsius degree target. Almost certainly going to be two, could be much more.
I mean, two is going to be terrible and horrible for a lot of people, 1.5 would still be horrible but better, over two is going to be like really terrible. Once you start to get up to three and four, you're talking like does human civilization look recognizable sort of territory.
We're also doing it few days after an individual lit himself on fire in Washington, D.C., killed himself as a moment to try to catalyze attention on the climate crisis. It's very hard for me to sort of think about that action and what it means about attention, because what it is, is sort of an act of both conviction and insane despair, about what it would take to wake us up to what we're facing.
We talk about how storytelling can break the noise, how we discuss how future generations think about the meeting the moment, a lot of developments on the front in all these facets have only made this, I think, conversation more interesting, particularly because it's happening before Don't Look Up became such a cultural phenomenon. I thought it was a great conversation to revisit, because there's just sort of interesting interplay between what we're seeing in August 2019 before the pandemic, before don't look up and how it sounds now.
We should note that we're republishing this but we've actually edited it in some places for either timeliness or places of few small factual errors. So without further ado, here's our live WITHPod conversation.
What's up Los Angeles? Man, this is a trip. Now, I'm wishing I had like a tight 30 stand-up to give you guys. It's so wonderful to see all you people here tonight. Thank you for coming out. Thank you. That is very kind. I love you right back.
I get asked a lot recently about, in fact Adam McKay and I were just talking backstage about, like, "Well, how do you keep up with all this? How do you keep up with everything that's going on?" I always feel like I have bad answers cause I always feel like I'm failing, that I'm not keeping up, that things are getting past me, that we're falling down on the job, that there are such as sheer magnitude of things that require our moral attention and I can't possibly in the time I have as a living human being or as the host of a television show and also a podcast possibly divert and attend to all of the things that I need to morally pay attention to and put other people's attention to.
I got kids too, man. I got three kids, who are just phenomenal. I'm biased, but they are great.
I came across this quote that has been resonating with me. Ava DuVernay actually just posted it recently, but I just found it and it's a Samuel Beckett quote and Beckett is a great intellectual, spiritual, moral hero of mine. Beckett said in an interview in 1961, he said, "To find a form that can accommodate the mess, that is the task of the artists right now. To find a form that could accommodate the mess. That is the task of the artist right now." I've been thinking about that quote a lot, because it has a deep resonance for me and in Beckett's own personal life.
I don't know how much you know about the biography of Samuel Beckett, but here we go, a quick 60 seconds on it. Beckett is this experimental writer and he doesn't have a huge amount of success. He writes these novels, he's friends with James Joyce. World War II happens. He joins the resistance. He is chased by the Gestapo. He flees from Paris into a town where he holds arms. He is a righteous, righteous courier in the battle against fascism. He emerges from the war and he has a kind of moment of inspiration in his mother's room in Dublin where he realizes that he has to break out of the forms that he's received and write something new that captures the mess in some ways. That can accommodate the mess and he writes "Waiting For Godot." Well, first he writes "Krapp’s Last Tape." Yes, "Waiting For Godot." Woo. The classic applause line.
He writes "Krapp’s Last Tape" and he writes "Happy Days."
Anyway, the reason I say all this is because Beckett, like so many artists and intellectuals of both Europe and the U.S. and in the West and the 20th century were completely formed by the war and by the wars. When you think about the literary canon that emerges in the 20th century, when you think about the pop cultural representations in art and in music and in literature, like the bloodshed that soaks the continent twice within 40 years defines so much of how people are struggling with answering the most elemental questions that are asked to us about who we are and why we are here and what it is our purpose to do.
You can't but wrestle with that and the legacy of it, even if you aren't writing about the war, "Waiting For Godot" is not about the Great War, but it's about peering into something dark and wondering what's out there, and when salvation will come. That orders and structures the representation of so much of the art that gets produced in the 20th century. I've been thinking about that a lot because we're constantly searching these days for the right analog for climate change, for the climate crisis.
What do we point to? What is a civilizational challenge that we have met on the scale of what is bearing down on all of us right now as the fires burn just a few miles from here? What do we point to as a touchstone? What do we point to as a precedent for the kind of thing that we're going to have to deal with, not just at the level of I cover it on my TV show, we vote on it as citizens, but I mean like at the level of what does it mean to be a human on this earth? What are we called to do collectively? What does it mean to be a human in love on a planet that's burning or a human in an argument on a planet that is burning or a human who's been betrayed or a human who is accreting with other humans in some sort of collective struggle against the vastness of this thing that we have done to the planet? What I feel is that the only precedent we can find is war, analogs and precedents of war. But we don't want to think about this as war, right? Yes, we don’t? You're like, no, we love martial metaphors.
Well, that's a good question. Why not? Well, because, no, that's a good question. This is not going to be interactive, by the way, lest anyone get too many ideas here, but why not, right? Because the problem presented as war presents solutions that can't help but be bound by that metaphor. We're trying to do the same thing. We all are on the same side and the thing we're trying to do is to meet this civilizational crisis together and I become more and more convinced that part of meeting the civilizational crisis together will have to be about us talking to each other and ourselves about what this moment means and that's where art and literature and film and television and pop culture come to play. What stories are we telling ourselves about the world we inhabit now and the world that in a very real way we're fighting to save in its present state?
Those representations largely don't exist. It is a hard thing to represent and the conversation I wanted to have tonight is precisely on that because I think it is as urgent a task for human endeavor as any of the tasks surrounding the challenge are. Just representing what it means to be alive and be fighting for this planet at this moment now and into the future. What does it mean? That's a question I can't answer very well as a cable news anchor or as a podcast host. That's the kind of question that could only be answered in movies and drama and literature.
There's two people tonight we're going to talk to in this conversation who are both wrestling with this in a really profound way. The first is a man named Omar El Akkad and he wrote an incredible book. Do you guys know this book called "American War"? Raise your hand if you've read this book or applaud because again, here to podcast, applaud. Podcasts are a great, great, great visual medium. "Raise your hand." What a doofus.
He wrote this beautiful, powerful affecting book and I'll give you quickly what the plot is, which is that it's set in the year 2070-something, I think. Climate change has ravaged the country. The Eastern seaboard has largely gone. The capital has been moved to Columbus, Ohio, and it's looking back on a civil war, the second civil war between the States that has happened after a move to ban fossil fuels by some of the northern states and some of the southern states have seceded and then lost quickly but that it's resulted in a very, very, very, very bloody insurgency and counterinsurgency for years after. The book was put into my hand in Minnesota, I was at a book fair randomly by someone who just said, I think from the publisher said, "You might like this." It was one of those things where you're like fidgeting on the plane and I picked it up and started reading it and thought, "Jesus Christ, this is good."
Omar's a journalist too, but he wrote this book and it's really the first time that I felt in that way that I was talking about earlier, about the wars and what they mean and what it means to be human in their presence, that that weight was channeled through something that I read. And the other guest tonight is a guy named Adam McKay, who, yes, you can applaud. Yes. I think "Talladega Nights" is one of the great political texts of our time. I mean that a hundred percent, like, it's a fricking brilliant film. A lot of his films are brilliant, including "The Big Short" and "Vice." And I thought about Adam and having him on this conversation tonight because, two reasons.
One is he makes movies where he tries to wrestle with the complexity of the world and tell big, difficult stories through film in a way that's fun and accessible and gripping. Number two, we were at a dinner, I don't know last year where like he spent 80 percent of it haranguing me for not covering climate more. I was like, "Buddy, I don't know. Go make a movie about climate. Why are you giving me a hard time?"
But he was right. He was right. These are two people that I have enormous respect for and who are also operating in a register that I don't operate in. They're creating imaginary worlds and inhabiting those worlds and representing back to us the world that we live in. I'm really excited to talk to them about how we do represent this moment of peril for all of us. Please join me in welcoming Omar El Akkad and Adam McKay.
Adam McKay: Look at all these lovely people.
Omar El Akkad: Oh nice.
Chris Hayes: Let me start with you Adam, because we did have that conversation.
Adam McKay: We did.
Chris Hayes: What was your light switch moment about climate? Not just as like, oh, it's an issue and I obviously want the world to not heat past habitability, but that it's something more, it's something existential. It's something at the core of who we are.
Adam McKay: By the way, Chris is being very nice. When he said harangue, it was more than that. It was downright obnoxious and also Ira Glass was involved in the conversation and I've yet to hear him rise to the challenge. I love "This American Life," but every time I listened to it I'm like, what the fuck?
Chris Hayes: "Didn't I just obnoxiously harangue him? Why did that not work?"
Adam McKay: Yeah. I had a moment where I've been following global warming obviously since we all started talking about it. I think it was in the '90s when it first kind of came up. I think Al Gore's documentary was a seminal moment where it brought it into our conversations, but it was really that U.N. report. When that came out, and it said, "Oh, my God, it's so much worse than you can believe." I think that's when we were filming "Vice," and my wife can attest to this, I couldn't sleep for two nights after I read that report. It scared the shit out of me.
Chris Hayes: Did you have that like, real panic feeling?
Adam McKay: Yes. Yeah. Like the only other time I'd had that in my life was the Iraq War where it was like, oh, this is a really bad idea. I don't know what to do, so we went and marched in New York City and yelled and waved our hands and it did nothing. This was times five. This was like holy shit and I bothered everyone I knew, telling them for weeks and weeks, this is really bad. Then, slowly you could see people stop making eye contact with you and starting to treat you differently. I'm like, oh, this must be what it's like to be a Scientologist. By the way, god bless them.
Chris Hayes: That joke kills in this town. Just kills in this town.
Adam McKay: God bless them. God bless them.
Chris Hayes: Know your audience. Well, it's also--
Adam McKay: We're all doing in the best we can. I don't mean to slag them.
Chris Hayes: No, there's something about it, about there is this aspect of like the prophet on the street corner, who is like the thin line between the prophet and the crank. The end is nigh, right? Like saying to people even when the words come out of your mouth like civilizational challenge, unprecedented in organized human life on the planet sounds grandiose.
Adam McKay: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: But it reflects our best understanding of the truth.
Adam McKay: I mean I always go back to the thing from the New Yorker, which is for years we had those cartoons that would have the guy in "The New Yorker" saying the end is near. And we were all trained for decades to laugh at this because it was the sales pitch of the lunatic. It was, well how Jim Baker and Tammy Faye got us, it was how a lot of other people have gotten us through the years. Everything about us has been trained to be suspicious, but in this case it's true.
Chris Hayes: How about you, Omar? You are a war correspondent and journalist for years before you wrote the book. How did climate sort of seep into your consciousness at the level that you ended up grappling with it?
Omar El Akkad: Well, I was at my weekly scientology meeting. Not sure what you're laughing at. I was a journalist for about 10 years and the last four of those, I was a foreign correspondent, but I was working for a Canadian newspaper. I was a U.S.-based foreign correspondent. I was reporting on this country to readers who don't live in this country and that's a very surreal experience.
Chris Hayes: Oh, dude, I can't imagine, I mean, particularly right now, but always.
Omar El Akkad: Print reporting has what we call M copy. M copy is the background paragraphs that you put. There's the headline, there's the first paragraph telling you what happened. Then, a few paragraphs down, there's the M copy, which is just the background you need to know in order to understand the wider issue. In the case of reporting on America for non-American audiences, the M copy always boils down to "no, no, this is really how it works here."
You do a gun control story for Canadians and there's M copies saying, "No, no, you can walk across the street and get a machine gun. It's fine." Healthcare story, same thing. I did a lot of gun stories, a lot of healthcare stories. I also pitched a lot of climate stories. At one point I went down to southern Florida and there's a bunch of towns around Miami where the mayors are telling the residents that your grandkids are probably not going to be able to live here. Maybe we can salvage as a shipping port, something like that.
I'm talking to this professor who's been sounding the alarm on climate change for the past 35, 40 years to no avail. What he'll do is he'll go to any community group, any organization that'll invite him. He'll go and give his lecture about why we need to do something and he's been doing this since the early 1980s. Every time he goes, he brings with him this overlay map that he shows and it's a map of that community and he says, this is what it looks like with one meter of sea level, two meters, three meters.
He told me that inevitably when he would do this, afterwards somebody would come up and point to a spot on the map and say, "Oh, my house is going to be okay."
Chris Hayes: Oh, wow.
Omar El Akkad: He would say, "Yeah, you live on a hill. You still have to take a canoe to get groceries."
But it got to the central point around climate change as a really difficult problem. Maybe the most difficult problem, which is that in terms of space, we worry about the boundaries of our house. Maybe our community, maybe our town and in terms of time, we worry 30 years. The length of a mortgage. In geologic terms, 30 years, 300 years, that's a blink of an eye. But we're trained to think in those terms and if we do, then climate change, who cares? That's somebody else's problem. That was when I decided to make it a central component of the book. I think most of the people who applauded were my cousins. But if you read the book, climate change is a fairly central component of the landscape. That was a decision. It came around that moment of realizing that people will face very few short-term consequences in this country for turning a blind eye to this.
Chris Hayes: It's funny that when you even say it now, I come up against this all the time, just like my own conceptual bankruptcy with it, where I just can't actually imagine it. Like I can try to get my head around very concrete things like the Chicago heat wave killed 800 people and it's going to be at some point 125, 127 degrees routinely in a city like Phoenix. Like that's not going to work. But even that, as I say those words, like the live reality of that, because it's conjuring a thing in the future, and the worst effects are in the future, that is still so hard for me. It's still hard for me, even as a journalist or as a person to fill the white space in my mind that I know with the facts to create like a human picture of what that would mean.
Adam McKay: I mean, that was another moment for me was when I saw, mankind has never been alive with this much CO2 in the atmosphere. Then that led me to read about the atmosphere. What you realize pretty quickly is the atmosphere is almost like the human eye in the sense that it's a miracle that it exists and it's one of the top three preconditions for life, for the entire existence of planet Earth.
Now, at this point, when I'm reading about this, my wife is really sick of me. My daughters are now avoiding me at this point, but I'm scared. I'm like legitimately frightened. I get to the place that you're talking about, which is how do you express this without seeming crazy.
Chris Hayes: You start off in comedy, right?
Adam McKay: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: How did you, and why did move from comedy to, I mean "The Big Short" and "Vice" are comedies in certain ways, but they also have really deep dramatic feel to them. How do you sort of think about your trajectory towards the kind of work you're doing now?
Adam McKay: I came out of a background, I grew up around Philadelphia and started doing comedy in the '80s when comedy was kind of taking off and media was really exploding. But then I went to Chicago and I studied under a guy named Del Close.
Chris Hayes: The legendary.
Adam McKay: Yeah. Who is connected to an entire Chicago theater and labor and political scene. So his whole approach to comedy was always that you're not aiming for comedy, you're trying to make larger points. He used to always say, if you aim for comedy and you miss, you end up with crap. But if you aim for something higher like art or political statement and you miss, you could always get lucky and hit comedy.
The stuff we got to do in Chicago, we started the group, The Upright Citizens Brigade. We started that in a coffee shop and we would take the whole audience back to my apartment and pull them out of the theater and we would stage a murder in my apartment and we would do stuff like I advertised my own suicide and put posters all around town. There was this vibe in Chicago that culminated with us doing a show at Second City called "Piñata Full of Bees," which was a very political show. Noam Chomsky makes an appearance and yet at the same time, a bunch of great comics like Rachel Dratch, John Glaser, all these amazing people. We were kind of trained to think that politics, social issues, real questions aren't separate from comedy.
You pointed out "Talladega Nights." I mean, Will and I wrote that in response to Bush America; that's where it came from. That was always kind of our approach and there's certain points, stuff got so crazy, I was finally like, all right, I got to do a straight-up movie about the financial crisis. That was "The Other Guys." We released it and people were like, "Why did he talk about the banking crisis at the end in the end credits?" I was like, "No, the whole movie was about that." Then I realized, "Oh, I have to be much more obvious." That was "The Big Short." That was the jump. Yeah.
Chris Hayes: I always sort of view novelists or people that can write a novel as people that ran a marathon. I understand it is a doable thing for humans and that people do it; it just seems incredible to me. I don't understand how it's done. Why did you write this book and why did you move from chronicling things in a nonfiction way to conjure this world?
Omar El Akkad: I was on assignment a few years back. I was in southern Louisiana, it was another climate change story. Southern Louisiana if you've never been, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Culturally unique, geographically unique, also disappearing at the rate of about a football field of land every half hour. Every time I say that, somebody comes up to me afterwards and says, "You've got it wrong. You said every half hour." It's every half hour.
It disappears into the Gulf of Mexico. There is a famous drawing of Louisiana that you see on the state emblem and it's a rectangle going this way and a rectangle going this way. The bottom rectangle is not a rectangle anymore. It's shreds of land. Oil and gas pipelines, saltwater intrusions. A hundred years of this will tear away the land.
Anyway, I'm doing the story and I'm talking to a person who lives in one of the southern-most stretches. We have this conversation afterwards. We're just sort of shooting the shit afterwards. We have this conversation that I think will be familiar to any immigrants in the crowd where he asks me, "Where are you from?" The answer I give him is apparently not satisfactory because he says, "Where are you really from?"
Then we do that song and dance where we go backwards in time.
Chris Hayes: Outside Toronto?
Omar El Akkad: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Omar El Akkad: About I think 15,000 miles outside Toronto is where we ended up. We finally go back to Egypt, which is where I was born. When I tell him this, he nods and he says, "Oh yeah, I could hear the Egyptian in your accent."
Adam McKay: Wow.
Omar El Akkad: I was like, "No man, you couldn't. I've been working on this awhile." But it was one of those reminders that I frequently get that I don't have a good answer to that question. I'm fairly unanchored in terms of geography and my relationship with place. I was born in one country. I grew up in another. I'm a citizen of a third now. I live in the fourth.
Fiction is a good place of refuge for people like us. Because you get to sort of shift the contents of this imagined world to fit whatever your contours happened to be. I've been writing fiction long before I became a journalist. I wrote three novels before "American War." There's a literary term for them; "not good." So I never showed them to anybody and I never tried to get them published.
Chris Hayes: When you said three novels, I had a real panic moment of, like, "Wait, I called it your first and your debut. Did I just screw that up in front of all these people?"
Omar El Akkad: Yeah, this is unacceptable. This is shoddy research from the folks at MSNBC. I don't know--
Adam McKay: It's not cool, Chris. Really not cool.
Omar El Akkad: --what kind of operation. Anyway, so that's that. Fiction has been around for a while in my life and I lived there for a very long time, so it came naturally to me that way.
Chris Hayes: The book, obviously "American War", and I think there's some similarities, actually to "The Big Short." Obviously "The Big Short" is this very complex and dramatic story of a thing that actually happened that is then written as a nonfiction journalistic book and turn into a feature film. American War is entirely a fictive world, but a lot of your reporting from the War on Terror ends up in the book. I have to say that like there are sections that are clearly about Guantanamo. There's sections about what it's like, this life in a refugee camp. There's sections about the insidiousness of foreign agents who will come and cultivate people to be weapons for them essentially, that a lot of that stuff hit me harder reading your book in a fictionalized form, than the thousands of articles that I've read on.
Omar El Akkad: Oh, thank you. It's really nice to hear, but it's also sort of depressing, because the work that I used to do and the work that you currently do is this stuff that's supposed to impact people. You're supposed to read the news about this stuff and you're supposed to say, "Holy shit, I should do something," and then you're supposed to do something.
Chris Hayes: But in some ways that's what I mean, like when I think about how important this moment is in terms of representation is precisely that. The financial crisis was not undocumented. It wasn't like people didn't write about the financial crisis. They wrote a ton about it and in fact there were people that were sounding the alarm bells in some of the press, not all of them. But we don't understand these things until we hear stories about them. Don't you think?
Adam McKay: Yeah. You and I were talking earlier about the book "Sapiens," which I think really has a key section in it. I just read it. I was late to the party on this book. Everyone was telling me to read it, but I just read it in the last--
Chris Hayes: I was too and I also loved it when I got it.
Adam McKay: Yeah, and there's a section where Yuval Harari talks about the idea that what separated us, homo sapiens, from all the other erect monkeys, was that we were able to have a larger group of us do things under a unified banner than other monkeys, because we were able to create mythology. That is the sole reason that we defeated the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons. Although I'm sure they were lovely, upright monkeys and didn't need defeating. Who knows, by the way? There probably could have been a whole different avenue of human existence if we had embraced them. But I read this and I was like blown away. Because the scientific certainty behind it, like saying, "That is the thing that separates us."
Now, we're in this moment where our mythology, our group story has been rewritten. Where half of America to some degree, a large portion of the world, has become so cynical and so individualistic, that there's no longer a belief that collective action can happen through government, that anyone who asks for a good government is weak. And that's a rewriting of the narrative of America. Because before that we landed on the moon, we beat the Nazis. Government was strength; the union's collective action. I'm someone who grew up in the '70s into the '80s and I saw this change happen. I've been confused for a lot of years by this. And I just read this book and was like, "Oh, that's it. That was the change."
Chris Hayes: It's wild because the mythologies that we tell ourselves, like in "Sapiens," he talks about it as literally our evolutionary advantage. It's also the way that we mobilize societies for things like war. That's what's so sort of awe inspiring and terrifying about this unique human trait. The mythologies we tell ourselves are able to mobilize coordination of humans on a scale that was not conceivable beforehand and has enabled all the kinds of things that we can do.
But those mythologies can be utterly contemptible and vicious and evil. Or they can be transcendent and uplifting. That's the other thing I worry about, about this moment, which is like, it's getting bad and it's going to get worse on the climate front and there is going to be an increasing appeal for stories about that. Particularly when you think about immigrants and immigration as we're going to see hundreds of millions of climate refugees. There's going to be stories ready-made there that are going to play to the worst in people.
Omar El Akkad: Yeah. We already have more refugees in this moment as a result of climate distress than we do as a result of wars. Very rarely is this mentioned in the case with Syria, but Syria started out as a drought. The first sort of culmination of the human misery that we now know as the Civil War started with an extreme drought. One of the real difficulties of storytelling in this particular moment is the certainty.
The certain knowledge that we are currently living through and as a result complicit in, some future generation's shame. Which is to say right now we have the veneer of marketing and PR and political speak that lets us have some remove from the moment and its seriousness. When you look back, when a future generation looks back at us as history, we will be seen to have known what was happening, known what was going to happen, known what to do about it, and the consequences of not doing anything, and have done nothing.
As a storyteller, how do you contend with that? Well, you can ignore it and just say, "That's the future. I don't have to worry about it." You can acknowledge it and preemptively apologize, which is useless and yet still better than ignoring it. Or you can acknowledge it and try to magnify it while you still can. That I think is the closest I can come as a storyteller to having any kind of impact outside of just telling the story.
Adam McKay: Can I defend us right now?
Chris Hayes: Please. For the love of God.
Adam McKay: L. Ron Hubbard had a vision.
Omar El Akkad: No. You keep his name out of here.
Adam McKay: By the way, once again, I'm Irish Catholic so I can't ever diss on scientology. God bless you. The Irish Catholic or the Catholic religion is far more evil, so let me just say that. I mean factually right.
Chris Hayes: Hey, Tiffany, will you just check the time code and we'll cut that out? Thanks.
Adam McKay: Even Catholics know what it is.
Chris Hayes: Will you just write that down? What are we at? Okay.
Adam McKay: Here's the thing I would say about what we're going through right now. Is that there is another power, and this is just me saying shit, but--
Chris Hayes: That's what these people paid money for.
Adam McKay: But there is another power that has been unleashed and I would recommend if anyone hasn't seen it, check out Adam Curtis' "Century of Self," which is an amazing documentary about the power of marketing and advertising and propaganda and information warfare. This is the new power because I think what happened was people realize when you bomb a country, when you occupy a country, it doesn't work. You destroy it, you lose capital based on that. You try and occupy it like Vietnam, like Iraq and you have an insurgency.
The new power is kind of what China realized centuries ago, which is just that their culture was so great that anyone that tried to take them over would go, "Oh, you guys are awesome." Like chill out and just want to hang out in China. That's now happening in a much more scientific focused and dangerous way. I just saw the documentary, what's it called? "The Great Hack." Has anyone seen this?
Chris Hayes: I haven't seen it.
Adam McKay: There's a phrase in the end of that documentary, which is worth hearing, which is the woman who sort of becomes the whistleblower says, "What happened with Cambridge Analytica is it's the first time that weaponized information warfare was turned on a civilian population." And it led to Donald Trump becoming president. It led to the dictator of Hungary. In a way, it led to Netanyahu in Israel. You look at these insane leaders, that if you wrote this down and said a reality star bankrupted casino owner is going to become president, you'd go, "That's insane." But that's the power of information warfare. And I think that's what we're contending with.
Chris Hayes: You mean that also in when you think about the we in your statement, you mean that in a sort of exculpatory fashion, in so far as the collective we, which is the 6 or 7 billion people on the planet. A tiny sliver of them have power to change that, right? The basically democratic citizens in the developed world. Of that, a lot of them are not equipped or able to fight back in this sort of informational battle.
Adam McKay: Yeah, if you talk to anyone, and I'd love to hear what Omar thinks about this with radicalization. But if you talk to anyone, they will tell you advertisements and commercials don't work on them. "Oh, whatever. They're just commercials." Well guess what? It's a $60 billion a year industry. It is working, and it's working on me, Adam McKay, and it's working on all of us in ways we can't even imagine. This is a toxicity that is being released. A radiation that's being released on us that we're not even aware of.
Chris Hayes: I mean in the case of the fossil fuel companies, it is in the same way, not unlike what happened with tobacco and cigarettes. I mean it was a sustained multi-decade project of very explicit propaganda and informational warfare to stop us from taking seriously the science that ExxonMobil itself had internally in its own files in the early 1970s, when they realized that carbon was leading to the earth warming.
Adam McKay: Full disclosure, I am paid half a million dollars a year by Shell Oil. Because they're a great company. They're actually trying to improve our environment. Exxon and the others are destroying our environment. But Shell Oil's on the green side. I just have to say that.
Chris Hayes: Dude, you delivered that so straight, I had a fucking heart attack. I was like, "Are you shitting me, Adam McKay?" How did this get past our vet? Oh, my God.
Omar El Akkad: I don't know much about the world of A-level celebrity, but do you now just get free oil from Shell for the rest of your life for mentioning them in a public forum?
Adam McKay: I do. And once again, I'm still non-partial. I'm still a human being. But, can I say that Shell balances our future with our current needs better than any company on this beautiful green earth that we all love.
Omar El Akkad: Well, holy shit, if that's the deal, I just want to say I really love Taco Bell. They're also doing great. I don't know, if we're getting freebies. I'm sorry, what the hell were we talking about?
Adam McKay: Make a run for the border is an inclusive message. That's not anti-immigration. Run towards the border.
Chris Hayes: What we were talking about is the insidiousness of the informational warfare. Such that when you said that joke, I had a second, I'm thinking it might be true. Because the amount of work that has gone into distracting from the crisis and throwing dirt in people's eyes has been so sustained for so long and has been asymmetric. Like you've got a bunch of climate scientists who are out there doing their thing and the people on the other side of it for four decades are literally the wealthiest industry in the world that realizes that the entirety of their business model fundamentally depends on not letting people take this action.
Omar El Akkad: You brought up cigarettes as an analogy, which I think is a good analogy. There were decades of public interest campaigns of people going out and saying, "Hey, this causes cancer. This causes cancer." And of the industry saying, "We're not sure." What caused the single biggest drop in smoking of all of this was raising the price of the thing, was taxing it. That is a government thing.
So when I talk about we, this is a country of many wes and they're very compartmentalized, such as one we doesn't really understand the experiences of the other. That's how a lot of injustice in this country gets perpetrated. But you also have a government and so when I say we, I talk about the agency that can be enforced by a government and this is the same thing with climate change. One of our central problems in tackling this, is chronological; not only the fact that this is happening in the geologic blink of an eye, but in human terms too long to think about. But also because we forget really easily. Forgetfulness is a form of defense.
There's this group that does interactive storytelling. They bring you up on stage and they do this thing and it's a road show and very well funded. They called me up and said, "Do you have any ideas? We'd like to have you on stage." I said, "Well, I'm thinking a lot about the War on Terror, George Bush years right now." Because at that time, it was the first round of George W. Bush dancing on Ellen and peddling his garbage art about the soldiers he sent to be maimed in an illegal war, which is a fun daytime show topic. I don't know.
Anyway, so I say, "I have all these photos from the time I was in Gitmo. I can tell a story about that." I finished saying this and the person on the other end says, "That's really great, but do you have anything more recent?" That was a self-defense mechanism, right?
Adam McKay: Wow.
Omar El Akkad: So we did something really horrible. Now something different and really horrible is happening, let's focus on that. Like, "Don't also give me this to worry about." That's a big problem, this short term memory problem.
Adam McKay: Can I once again defend us?
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Adam McKay: People forget Milton Berle in the '50s had Himmler on, and they danced. Those were--
Chris Hayes: Wait, is that true?
Adam McKay: --no. Chris, come on. No.
Chris Hayes: I don't fucking know.
Adam McKay: God, I wish I had said yes. Why didn't I say yes? Oh.
Omar El Akkad: That's getting cut out of the podcast, right?
Chris Hayes: You just made a film on forgetting.
Adam McKay: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: I mean, it's profound. When you talk about like, I think about this a lot in the context of climate, when you say, "How will we all be remembered and this moment be remembered and the people?" I always have some desire there's going to be some cosmic justice, I think because I was raised Irish Catholic as well. Like there's some St. Peter up there, there's some ultimate scorekeeper and they're going to have their justice when it comes. But I'm watching the horror of the Bush administration being erased in real time right now and that was only 11 years ago.
Adam McKay: Yeah. I don't know what to say. It was--
Chris Hayes: Well, you made a whole movie about it.
Adam McKay: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: Because I feel like you feel the same way.
Adam McKay: It was a horrifying moment to have to live through that, to have to see that all those mechanisms grind towards us killing, conservatively 700,000 Iraqis and by many estimates, a million. Not to mention the U.S. soldiers, 35,000, 40,000 that lost limbs, that were brain damaged and thousands that were killed. It was a crazy traumatic period for me to go through. The reason we made that movie was we were coming off "The Big Short." There was this moment where we couldn't make a movie we really wanted to make.
I just saw Cheney, and Bush, and Rumsfeld and all those guys were almost over the horizon line. They were waving goodbye, and everyone collectively wanted to forget this horrible thing, which I totally understand. I was like, "No one wants this movie. No one is asking for this movie." There's no studio in town that is asking for a giant, multimillion dollar film about a killer vice president. That has never been asked for. I was like, "Let's do it."
God bless Christian Bale, and Amy Adams, and Steve Carell, and these big stars that were like, "We're with you on this." God bless Megan Ellison who paid for it and ironically, her dad, Larry Ellison is on record as saying one of his heroes in life is Dick Cheney. That's true. Megan Ellison still paid for this film and got behind it. It was a moment where we had a chance to do that and there were plenty of people who didn't want to hear it, or see it, and were annoyed by it.
Chris Hayes: But it's also the case that like film memorializes this stuff as much as anything else does. To this day, if you say Mahatma Gandhi to me, in my head, I see Ben Kingsley, to this day. Because I watched that movie when I was a young kid and like that was the picture that was seared into my brain of Gandhi. The memorialization that happens through how we tell the story and represent it, can eclipse a million biographies that are written or history textbooks.
Adam McKay: Yeah. That's the nice thing about making "Vice" was you kind of go through the year of releasing it, but it kind of in a way doesn't matter. The movie's just there and you have to contend with it. And I think that's the power of this narrative style, the re-mythologizing of what's going on and that's why I loved Omar's book. I thought Omar's book did a great job of framing the current moment that we're living in as a mixture of global warming, radicalism, indoctrination, culture. There's not a lot of things that have done that to me recently. I was crediting you for turning me onto the book beforehand, but it's really remarkable.
Chris Hayes: Well, one of the things that book does, it's really good. Yeah.
Omar El Akkad: Those are my cousins again. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Adam McKay: It's true. It's true.
Chris Hayes: One of the things the book does to me is bring home a thing that I think we don't contend with enough, which is that in this almost trite way, literally when you turn the temperature up, things get worse. Like tropical--
Adam McKay: "Do the Right Thing."
Chris Hayes: --exactly, "Do the Right Thing."
Adam McKay: "Do the Right Thing."
Chris Hayes: Exactly.
Adam McKay: It's a perfect example. Like everything is exacerbated because it's hot.
Chris Hayes: It's hot as hell. Everything from how far up do tropical diseases penetrate. They penetrate a lot further up when it starts to get warmer to, okay, we're watching what happens when several hundred thousand desperate migrants from Central America show up at the border. Multiply that by 10, multiply it by a hundred. Take all the places in the world that are growing food right now in habitats that aren't going to sustain that food, and send them to other people's borders. The thing that your book made me think about, the terrifying thought is it's separating what I was talking about in the beginning, about war as a sort of like, totemic, rallying, human experience that we represent back to ourselves, and the climate crisis. Like, it may be that we don't get lucky enough to separate out those two. The idea of war and climate, as essentially like, adjacent threats and risks.
Omar El Akkad: Yeah. We are going to kill a lot of people at the walls of the most privileged part of the world. Again, I don't want to sound like a pessimist saying this, but I also am very, very careful never to do the, "It's all going to be okay," because if we continue down our current track, it's not going to be okay. I grew up, I was born in Egypt and I moved to this place called Qatar.
Qatar, pound for pound, is the richest place on Earth. It is also a place that is warming faster than almost anywhere else on Earth, and it's already pretty damn hot. It's 120 plus in the summer. There are built in feedback loops to warming. For example, the warmer it gets, the more air conditioning you use. The more air conditioning you use, the warmer it gets. That is a central feedback loop.
I cannot envision the government of Qatar, which is a monarchy, one day turning off the taps of the single thing that has made this country the richest place on Earth, and saying, "This is for our great-grandchildren." The consequences of that, are in the short-term, ruinous. In the long-term, they will save your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren's lives. But we don't live in that kind of timeline. And so, you're in this situation where, there's this really famous William Gibson quote, "The future is here, but it's not evenly distributed."
Adam McKay: Wow, that's a great.
Omar El Akkad: You're starting to see this.
Adam McKay: Can you say that again?
Omar El Akkad: He said, "The future's already here, but it's just not evenly distributed."
Adam McKay: Wow, that's good.
Omar El Akkad: The same way everything in "American War" has happened. I didn't make that stuff up. It just happened to somebody who doesn't have much of a voice. You can find out what the future is going to look like, if you go to certain parts of the world right now. It just might happen to this particular part of the world 50 years from now and this other part of the world right now.
Adam McKay: There's a scary thing, through using the evil force called Twitter, which--
Chris Hayes: Never heard of it.
Adam McKay: --is a virus. We all know that.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Adam McKay: But there are some good things going to it. I've actually had conversations with and gotten to know a lot of the climate scientists like Michael Mann and Bill McKibben. The one question I always ask them, I always say, "Is it possible, we're so far outside the zone of what we know is going to happen or so far outside the zone of known science, that there is a trigger moment with all of this? One day we do wake up, and there are seagulls flying across the sky, and everything is tipped?" Every one of them says, "Yes." That's the scariest thing I've ever heard. They really don't know.
Chris Hayes: We don't know. I mean, we're veering out of the Holocene. I mean, we're veering out of a period in the planet. Some people may or may not know this, but we've been the beneficiary of a remarkably stable climate, that is in geologic time, extremely rare and also rather short. We're now kicking the system out of this stable band, that all of what we would consider human civilization has developed in. There's been ice ages, there's been hotter and warmer periods, but it's all been within a band that's fairly stable.
Like you said about the atmosphere, kind of miraculously so. Like it probably isn't an accident that the stability that happened there and what we call human civilization flourished within it. We're now on the frontier of an experiment, in which we kick out of that and so everything is sort of up for grabs. That's the thing that's so, again, it's so wispy in my mind, what that up-for-grabs-ness looks like, and how, to be honest, like how you make meaning of it.
Because I think the thing that you talked about before, about the visceral panic, and I've talked to David Wallace Wells in the podcast about this, and I don't know how many people in this room feel this way. This is a great thing to do when you have a thousand people in a room, is just talk about panic. But you get that feeling, that the prickle in the back of your neck or that kind of tingling captured sensation you get when you stare out to the cosmos or picture of your own death from thinking about it too much.
And to me it's like, how do you resuscitate that sort of spirit of meaning in what can feel like this sort of oppressive, vast meaninglessness, of what it is, and to me, that comes down to storytelling. That is what we do to make meaning. I know that you've been like, how do you think about telling stories on this topic now? Because I know it's something that you've been wrestling with.
Adam McKay: We're about to announce our new company in a couple of days. I think it'll be coming out Wednesday. One of our main missions, is to tell this story. We're in a time that has never existed for human beings, so how do you? The answer of course is, I have no effing idea, but we're going to try.
There's a couple of different things we're trying. We're working on an anthology series with David Wallace Wells, based on his book, "Uninhabitable Earth," that'll be kind of in the style of "Black Mirror."
Chris Hayes: Love that idea.
Adam McKay: That's based on different visions of the future, and what's coming our way, whether it's in 10 years or a hundred years, we're about to take that out and sell it. I'm working on a feature film, with a very simple premise, which is a meteorite, it's going to destroy the planet, and no one gives a shit.
Chris Hayes: Wait, I'm losing track of the allegory. I cannot compute that.
Adam McKay: We're also working on a couple other projects. We have a podcast company that's about to start and I'm working with David Sirota, on a project that's kind of a "World War Z" telling of the next 50 years and how we solve the climate crisis, so we're kind of kicking that back and forth. He's currently working on Bernie Sanders' campaign, so it's been a little slow going.
Yeah. Then, we're looking at other ways through our company. What are different ways we can reach out? Can we have retreats with speakers? I'm working with Ron Suskind right now, the journalist Ron Suskind, who's written a lot of great stuff and done a lot of amazing stuff. We're working on the idea of an action film that is about global warming and how heroes want to chase cars and have shootouts, but it doesn't work that way. It's a slow grind and so we're kind of kicking that around. These are all a bunch of things that we're currently developing.
Chris Hayes: I love the David Wallace Wells' "Black Mirror" idea. Have you read David Wall Wells book? "Uninhabitable Earth"? Yes? It's a really great book.
Adam McKay: It's definitely a must read. Yeah.
Chris Hayes: It's a really amazing book, because it does this thing of forcing your mind into this place, it doesn't want to go. But imagining the future, is a thing that we do to ourselves to get ourselves to act in the present, like you were saying about this time problem. And there are so many places the mind can go when you imagine the future, in this particular moment, the force of the people that are in the streets and in the sort of climate movement right now, are being driven by keeping their mind in that place, in a very tangible way.
Like when you talk to them, it's like "I'm freaked out," and there was this long period of time of like, "Don't freak people out. Don't freak people out. Tell people it's going to be fine. You're going to make them paralyzed. They're going to be numb. They're not going to want to do anything." It's like, "No, freak the fuck out." Like it's okay to freak out if that is a motivating engine for you.
Adam McKay: Well, look at John Brown with Harpers Ferry. John Brown was considered a nutbag, because he went and took over this arsenal and said, "No more slavery." Well, John Brown was right. John Brown was way ahead of his time and if what he had done had really rung out, maybe we wouldn't have had the Civil War. Maybe we would have like dealt with this earlier.
I think we're now in an era where we have to redefine what radicalism is. I mean, clearly, we have to stop the gears of production and we need to do that in a peaceful way. Violence never, ever works. It just leads to more trauma and more violence. But I think we have to look at more aggressive ways to stop what's going on. Except Shell Oil, except Shell Oil. They really do a great job folks, look into them. Really take time, look into them.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean I think the John Brown example is interesting, because I think a lot, I wrote an essay a few years ago, about sort of abolition, and climate. Doing some of the math, and thinking about the fact that the last time that the state basically eradicated the amount of wealth that we're talking about eradicating in fossil fuel on the book wealth, was emancipation. The scale of that took a war to deal with that amount of dispossession and I think probably took a war that was unavoidable. I'm a believer in that part of the historiography of it.
But it's also the case that like there are other things that we have done, like I think about nuclear weapons, that didn't take a war, but that we really did use that panic and mobilization, the Nuclear Freeze Movement, the fact that we did have a bunch of bilateral arms treaties that we signed. The fact that we are living here and talking to each other now, in a way that a lot of people hiding under the desk in the 1950s, thought might not happen, because of the existential threat. Like, it has been the case, that there have been people summoned to the challenge to sort of meet it, at least in the short term, the blip of geologic time that we live in.
Adam McKay: Well, the hole in the ozone layer.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Adam McKay: That was a huge thing, and we really did have a giant hole, that CFCs were causing, basically spray aerosol cans, and everyone just went, "Oh, let's not do that anymore." And we got rid of them and it's fine, like within 10 years. I mean, it was really quick.
Omar El Akkad: The hole in the ozone layer's a really interesting example, because it was in scientific terms, not a hole, it was a sort of thinning out, a seasonal thinning out.
Adam McKay: Right.
Omar El Akkad: But it could be displayed as a hole. You could show the visualization, and it looked like a black hole, and that was terrifying. Even the term, this was a storytelling victory.
Adam McKay: It was a hole, by the way. It was a hole.
Omar El Akkad: It was an absolute hole, I'm sorry.
Adam McKay: It was a hole.
Omar El Akkad: Yes. You and the scientists at Shell Oil, have conclusively - you're going to have to add like a sarcasm tag to them, unless they think that this was a giant, like hour-long Shell Oil advert. It was a storytelling victory, right?
Chris Hayes: Right, because hole is such an evocative word from a storytelling perspective and also has like a narrative forcing mechanism. Which is what do you do with a hole? You plug a hole.
Omar El Akkad: Exactly.
Chris Hayes: Like we all know the next part of the story.
Omar El Akkad: Yeah. And so, it worked. It worked, whereas the Greenhouse Effect didn't. It sounds kind of pleasant. This is one of the storytelling challenges. A couple of years ago, I read this essay, it was an essay on Dostoyevsky, but as an aside, the author mentioned that the word empathy has a very short history in the English language. It's only about a hundred years old. It comes from the German einfuhlung, which I'm sure I'm mispronouncing. But that literally translated, einfuhlung, means "to feel into."
This is in large part, I think, the purpose of literature, the purpose of storytelling at large. I think we turn to literature, we turn to fiction, to escape the crushing delusion that life makes sense. That is your job, as a storyteller. It is not to propose the right steps to take to avoid this problem. That is a policy arena. Your job is to make people feel into somebody else's experience. If you can do that, you've achieved your goal. So when I think of Cli-Fi, what they call climate fiction now, this new genre, Cli-Fi.
Chris Hayes: I've never heard that term before.
Omar El Akkad: Really?
Adam McKay: I haven't either.
Omar El Akkad: I hear it all the time. I mean, I don't know how much I like it, but it exists. There's this kind of, because it's a new sort of genre, there's the sense that what are the rules? Overwhelmingly, as would come naturally, is the idea that it has to include climate stuff in it. Like birds have to be dropping from the sky, the sea level is rising and I'm not sure that's true. I think our problem right now is not so much describing to people what's going to happen, because you can look at parts of the world, you can look at Kiribati, the Islands of Kiribati, and find out what's happening right now. I think our problem is to make people feel into. So if you can write a novel that doesn't include a single sentence about climate, but gets people to feel into the experiences of another, you have helped take a step towards ultimately solving this problem. I don't think it needs to be rising sea levels and glaciers.
Adam McKay: By the way, that's the debate that we're having, which is how overt should you be, in what you're trying to make?
Omar El Akkad: Right.
Adam McKay: I mean, there is something to be said that watching a movie as beautiful as "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," is as consequential as watching a movie that is "All the President's Men." What is that line between the two? Are you awakening emotion or are you giving a clear mission? That's kind of definitely the debate that's going on here in Los Angeles.
Chris Hayes: I also think it's the case that the solution to the climate issue, is just the most profoundly human one, which is how we relate to each other as human beings. How much we are able to find transcendence and grace, and reach for the sublime in collective struggle. How much we're able to order ourselves with each other in a nonviolent and organized fashion to produce a world that's better than today.
That's the most elemental human struggle. The problem of climate change is not a technical problem and it's not a problem with climate, it's human. It's about human beings. It's about what human beings and what human beings mean to each other, and how they treat each other, and what they'll do for each other. I still think there's something beautiful about being alive at this moment, for that reason.
Sartre has a sort of controversial sentence he said, which is always sort of hard. It's easy to take out of context, and he didn't mean it in the literal sense, so I'll repeat it with that caveat. Don't cancel Sartre. He said, "We were never freer than under German occupation." Obviously, he doesn't mean that in a literal sense. German occupation was horrifying and it was literal death for millions.
But he meant in some deep sense that like the calling that he found himself in at that moment was the highest possible calling he could imagine. Because that calling was so high, it imbued some kind of freedom. That's where we're at right now. Like, the calling couldn't be higher for us to meet this moment. I wonder how you each think about and whether you think about like your legacy or what your body of work, what your corpus is when this is over in this moment, as it relates to this.
Adam McKay: Yeah. I think what a moment like this really shows you, is how your own - like to me in the last 10 years, the word career became one of the grossest words. It really started to stand out. The idea that you're worried about your own resume and your own perception, my wife can attest to this, because I've ranted and railed about it, and really what you see in this moment is, that it is so much larger, that it really gets in the ripples. It really gets into almost physiological sort of history. Not an on paper, two-dimensional history.
My question right now for myself is just what's the best way I can throw my flesh and bones onto this issue, because I always think back, do you remember that book? "Three Cups," I think it was called, which was kind of discredited and there was a lot of questions about it. But there was this scene, there was a moment in that book, where someone had a T-shirt on that said, "When I die, I just want to be used up."
I never forgot that and it feels like that's really applicable to this moment that we're living in. I just want to make sure I'm loud enough and I'm doing as much as I can, but at the same time, smart enough. In a way, it's sort of like sports, because sports, there are certain coaches who say, "Be aggressive, attack." But always the trick with sports is you have to be smart at the same time, while you're being aggressive. I realize that that kind of relates to a lot of things. That's really the question I'm asking myself with everything I do. Am I being aggressive and at the same time smart?
Omar El Akkad: That's a really good answer. Sorry. The pressure's on now.
Adam McKay: I hate to say it, but that was sponsored by Shell.
Omar El Akkad: Shell Oil?
Adam McKay: It was, they wrote that for me.
Omar El Akkad: Maybe they do good work. I don't know. I'm starting to change my mind now.
Adam McKay: I'm not tired of this joke.
Omar El Akkad: No, no.
Adam McKay: It's going to come back again.
Omar El Akkad: We're going to beat it as it come around.
Adam McKay: It is going to come back again.
Omar El Akkad: This is the editing they're going to have to do is to take out all the 50 references.
Chris Hayes: No, they would have to edit all the laughter. It's still slang. Once it stops killing, then we're going to cut off.
Omar El Akkad: There's way too many callbacks in this. Well, I guess one callback over and over again.
There's a premise in architecture that says that anyone who designs a structure, a building, should give some thought as to how that building will look as ruins which is rarely followed, but I think is also applicable to anybody who writes or tells stories of any kind for a living. When we talk about, and this is an area, obviously I've read a lot in, because it's relevant to my work, but when we talk about politically engaged fiction, societally engaged fiction, fiction dealing with the problems of the day, every book eventually dies. Even "To Kill a Mockingbird," which is now starting to be replaced on curriculum.
People are saying, "Enough." Okay. There is a kind of fate worse than death, for these kinds of works, and that is eternal life. Because it means that the lessons of the work, have not been heated, which is to say if people had actually listened to Orwell and what he wrote in "1984," and said, "Hey, this sounds like a really crappy way to live, let's do something about it," we would not be buying copies of "1984" anymore. Right?
Chris Hayes: Right.
Adam McKay: Wow.
Omar El Akkad: Yet, it doesn't get to die. It lives this undead existence as a result. You ask about legacy, which I've written one book, nobody knows who the hell I am. It's a big question to ask and it's a pompous thing for me to consider.
Chris Hayes: No, but for yourself.
Omar El Akkad: Yeah, and that's what I'm saying is, ultimately speaking, with this and any work, the new thing I'm writing, anything that comes after, I want it to die eventually, because I write, I am engaged with the problems of the moment, which for me, are sort of passing problems, because I'm going to die much sooner than my daughter. For my daughter, they are not passing things. What I want most of all, is for the work that I do around these topics to ultimately become irrelevant because people listened and did something and so that's what I want. That's what matters.
Adam McKay: Taco Bell. Taco Bell make a run for the border.
Chris Hayes: I want to thank all of you tonight for coming here. This was awesome. Thank you for being here. Give yourselves a round of applause. You were awesome. A huge, huge thank you to Adam McKay and Omar El Akkad. Give it up for them.
Again, I hope you really enjoyed that conversation. I've really enjoyed re-listening to it. I took a lot away a lot from it. Definitely, if you haven't yet, I really recommend going see Don't Look Up. It's a fascinating movie. It can be very polarizing. I know people who absolutely loved it. Some people really hated it like in an intense way and in a way that I think is sort of interesting and productive when a piece of art makes you like really recoil or really repels you and I know some people had that reaction in this movie, which I think is part of what makes it such a fascinating piece of work and I definitely recommend you checking it out.
“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway, Tiffany Champion and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper who's a member of the band Tempers who are touring right now and have a new album out, if you want to check that out. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.
Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway, Tiffany Champion, Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.