Edward Norton on Corporate Power Robert Moses Ralph Nader and Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn is on its face a movie about a lonely private detective living with Tourette’s Syndrome – Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) – who ventures to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend – Frank Minna (Bruce Willis).

But underneath, it’s a movie about pervasive and corrosive corporate power.

Producer, writer, director and lead actor Norton introduces his audience to power broker Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) – inspired by real life New York power broker Robert Moses.

And despite the fact that Robert Moses is known to millions of Americas through Robert Caro’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning biography Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, it’s fair to say that the vast majority of Americans have never heard of Moses. Norton aims to  change that with Motherless Brooklyn.

“The movie has got a Chinatown LA confidential kind of a noir bent to it,” Norton told Joe Rogan last week. “It’s murder mystery that leads into some of the stuff that happened in New York in the 50s, stuff that is hard to believe. New York was run by a Darth Vader like figure who was never elected to public office. People thought he was the Parks Commissioner of New York. But from 1930 to 1968, he had uncontested authoritarian power over New York City and New York State and he made every significant decision about the way that the modern infrastructure of New York was built – where the roads went, where the bridges were built, what was torn down, where the projects were built. And he was very racist. And he baked really discriminatory things – that almost sound like conspiracy theory, they’re so wild and intense – into the decisions he made. He was responsible for the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn and going to LA. And nobody knows this. They think – New York is great, like the greatest melting pot city where democracy works, except that it was run by a total autocrat.”

“For 38 years?” Rogan asks.

“Yes. It’s broadly accepted that no Mayor or Governor of New York could do a single thing without his say so from basically about 1932 to about 1968.”

“How is that even possible and how come no one knows about this?” Rogan asks. “How did you find out?”

“Well people do know,” Norton said. “There’s one of the Burns brothers documentaries about New York — there’s literally almost a whole episode on him. There’s a great book about him that won the Pulitzer Prize. His name was Robert Moses. There’s  Robert Moses State Beach in New York and. But literally, people think he was the parks Commissioner. He was a big liberal progressive believer in progressive change and government reform, and in his early years he got crushed by Tammany Hall and the power brokers. Then he went, he went dark, went completely dark.”

It becomes clear from a recent interview Norton did with Ezra Klein that Norton has thought quite a bit about corporate power.

In the middle of the interview, Norton’s goes on a soliloquy about Ralph Nader and corporate power.

“For all the flack Ralph Nader took for the part he played in the outcome in a given election – the idea that he’s been as marginalized as he has by that, against the career of decades and decades of representing consumer interest, meaning human interest against corporate interest – it’s a shame,” Norton said. “His contribution was tremendous. And I believe he articulated something that’s at the root of a lot of what we’re saying, which is that we’re living in an era where arguably the base problem under everything is the argument between corporate interest and human interest. That’s the root of our environmental problem. It’s the root of our healthcare problems. It’s the root of our political problems.”

“We are actually in an era where Citizens United has defined a corporation as having the same rights as a person. And that’s perverse, sick, like degraded and it will ruin the world. And we have essentially institutionalized it.”

“There is no such thing as a corporation. A corporation is a virtual reality construct that we have allowed, and that literally, we license, we license them. They exist by fiat from us. And this notion that they have the same rights as us is absurd and obscene. And to the degree that we want to solve any of these problems, we’ve got to elevate human interest over corporate interest.  We have to take back, or else we’re headed for Skynet or The Matrix. That idea is embedded in this film. The other side has no face. It’s in the song Thom (Thom Yorke, singer and songwriter for the band Radiohead) wrote — the other side has no face. It really struck me it’s like – that is what it feels like that is what is so terrifying – it’s this idea of a matrix of power around us.”

“In Genghis Khan’s era, you knew where it was. There was no equivocation.”

Klein says he interviewed Nader on his podcast about a year ago.

“It was the first time I really had to grapple with his work,” Klein tells Norton. “I didn’t understand how much of a philosopher he was, how much of his work is actually rooted in a philosophy of what is the good life. He’s actually somebody like I had rarely run into – which is — he’s functionally a political monk. He’s lived an almost spiritual life in politics. And it actually is like he is monkish, he’s very ascetic, in a way, he’s very rooted in a different way like the Dalai Lama. There’s a kind of personal asceticism which then ladders up so that you don’t get pulled along — to the point you were just making — into the like riches and incentives that capture most of the rest of us. That’s how the rest of it gets you. The whole society is telling you – buy into this. And it requires a tremendous amount of personal discipline to remain separate enough so that you don’t buy into it so you can continue seeing what it is actually asking you to buy into.”

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