More Than Money
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Margaret Eleanor Atwood is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. So what’s she doing writing about money in “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth”?
Written for the 2008 Massey Lectures, each of the book’s five chapters was delivered as a one-hour lecture. These essays examine borrowing and lending “from financial, psychological, theological, literary, and ecological points of view.”
She became interested in the subject while writing about America’s invasion of Iraq – and questioning whether US citizens understood the debt to which they were committing.
Critics found the book “well researched and thought provoking” despite her eclectic anecdotal style.
Backed by the National Film Board of Canada, filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal has made a documentary titled “Payback” based on Atwood’s book. It’s now playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Not to be confused with the Mel Gibson thriller of the same name, “Payback” explores debtor/creditor relationships: two Albanian families locked in a blood feud; the BP oil spill vs. the ecology; exploited Florida farm workers; imprisoned media mogul Conrad Black.
While investigating the concept of debt in societies around the world, you will meet economist Raj Patel. Author of “The Value of Nothing,” he is known for his philosophy of sharing. He describes himself as “Not a communist, I’m just open minded.”
Also introduced is Louise Arbour, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Since July 2009 she has served as CEO of the International Crisis Group, an NGO that advises the UN, the European Union, and the World Bank.
Other voices include Casi Callaway, Florence Barran, Gerardo Reyes, Petrit Prenaga, religious scholar Karen Armstrong and ecologist William Rees.
And, of course, Margaret Atwood has her on-camera say. She explains, “I started thinking about the subject of debt for a number of reasons, but among them was my puzzlement over a turn of phrase, ‘He’s paid his debt to society.’ What happens when people don’t pay their debt or can’t pay their debt or won’t pay their debt? What if the debt is one that by its very nature cannot be repaid with money?”
She describes it as “one of the most worrisome and puzzling things I know: that peculiar nexus where money, narrative or story, and religious belief intersect, often with explosive force.”
All in all, “Payback” follows Atwood’s premise that “How we think about it changes how it works.”
That said, I would have liked to have heard more from Margaret Atwood on such topics as the American debt ceiling, the Greek economy, or predatory lending practices. Guess she owes me one.