Hollywood Jahilliya

Democracy, whiskey, sexy.

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I'm an old-school liberal, like FDR or, heck, even Trotsky if I'm feeling generous. That is, I recognize a fascist enemy when I see one, and I treat it like an enemy. It's my mission (self-appointed, of course) to convince other Hollywood liberals to do the same.

04 March 2006

Doublespeak, indeed

A couple posts ago, I took a swipe at the new Wachowski Bros. movie, V For Vendetta. Based on the trailers I've seen, it looks like the movie is an outright endorsement of terrorism. At first, I chalked this as a clever marketing ploy. But it looks to be shaping up a whole lot worse.

The movie's nominal director, James McTeigue, has said that the film is "morally ambiguous" because he doesn't want to tell audiences what to believe (even though he is telling them what to believe, just by saying that). And the movie's reported final sequence, in which thousands of oppressed Londoners erase their individuality and don Guy Fawkes masks to collectively bomb Parliament in lockstep, doesn't inspire much confidence in me, either. Nor does the fact that Alan Moore, on whose early 80s graphic novel the flick is based, has disowned the project.

Of course, like most of the world, I haven't seen this movie yet. But I can glean enough from what advance buzz and promotion have told me to make the following preliminary assessment: V For Vendetta look to be not just pro-terrorist, but outright fascist, too. Without admitting it's either; maybe even without knowing it's either.

Naturally, they've tried to fool you (and maybe themselves) by making the villain a fascist state, and the hero a sleek, ass-whuppin' Neo-come-lately with a flair for both the historical and the dramatic. We're meant to think of it, I guess, as something like Batman vs. Big Brother.

But at the same time, they're blurring the line between Batman and Big Brother, and hoping we don't notice (indeed, they're telling us not to notice, repeatedly, and will keep doing so in every promotion and interview). The notion that a fascist government's enemies can themselves be fascists -- with their only real distinction being that they're not the ones in charge today -- apparently never occurred to the Wachowskis or McTeigue.

The obscuring of ethical standards, the erasure of individuality in service to "the Cause," and the insistence that there is no objective truth are all tactics of totalitarianism, not liberalism. Yet, they're all being used either in the movie itself or in its promotion campaign, to imply the film's actually against those things.

So, as a bit of pre-emptive pop-politics prophylactic, here's an elementary lesson in political theory for those in Hollywood who missed out on Orwell's point.

The difference between a fascist and a revolutionary has absolutely nothing to do with which one of them holds political power, or which one of them is on the offensive. It has everything to do with the standards by which they conduct themselves in the use of that power.

Fascists are terrorists, whether they're in power or not. The reverse also holds true: all terrorists are fascists. And neither of them are freedom fighters, ever... no matter what their cause and no matter which of them holds political power.

The way to tell the difference between a fascist-terrorist and a freedom fighter is to look at their use of language, tactics and philosophy. Fascist-terrorists always claim special insight and special prerogative in the use of lethal force against civilians (as Morpheus said in The Matrix: "most of these people are dependent on the system and will fight to protect it; that makes them your enemy").

When fascists are in power, this special claim will be applied as a police state violence against civilians; when they're out of power, it will be applied as terrorist violence against civilians. Batman makes a distinction between murder and justice; Big Brother doesn't, even when he's still just The Joker.

One of the chief ways fascists bolster their special claim is by insisting that truth is relative; their preferred method is deliberately taking words and images from their original context and mis-using them until all vestige of their original meaning has been erased. Hence, the word "fascist" gets divorced from it original political meaning as an ideology of slaughter and now means "something unpleasant"; and the word "terrorist," which once meant pretty much the same thing as "fascist," now gets watered down to mean nothing at all, really, except an empty label applied by "fascist" governments to those who oppose them. Or so we're told.

Freedom fighters, on the other hand -- even the ones who have political power -- try to hold to the standards of just war theory and the rule of law. They don't target civilians, they don't say all truth is relative, and they don't claim special insight into the minds of "the people," or special dispensation from God (or the Dialectic, or Anything Else) to ignore the rules of civilized warfare. For them, there is a difference between murdering noncombatants and killing enemy combatants in war, even if both are held to be wrong in the ultimate sense.

To put it bluntly, there's a moral difference between premeditated murder and justifiable homicide, between first-degree murder and manslaughter, and so on. Fascist-terrorists seek to erase this difference so they can kill however, whenever, and whoever they please; while freedom fighters seek to protect it and live by it.

Freedom fighters care what's true, and they care how their actions affect society at large; at the very least, they care about their public image, and try to behave in ways that endear them to, rather than frighten, the people. Fascist-terrorists don't.

Freedom fighters hold themselves to some set of objective ethical standards; fascist-terrorists reject all such standards in the service of their Holy Mission or Great Leader (or, as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said in a letter to Bin Laden: "[some Sunnis object that] we are being hasty and rash and leading the [Islamic] nation into a battle for which it is not ready, [a battle] that will be revolting and in which blood will be spilled. This is exactly what we want, since right and wrong no longer have any place in our current situation.").

Freedom fighters place the rights of the individual over those of the collective in most cases; fascist-terrorists do the opposite.

If truth is relative, then might makes right, and the rule of law is replaced by the will to power. Those with the most toys get to make the rules, and there's no way to prove them wrong. Democracy and human rights become meaningless in a world without standards and clear language.

Under the philosophy apparently being hawked by V For Vendetta's production and promotion team, there is no way citizens can evaluate the behavior of their government or its enemies, let alone hold either of them accountable, or choose (as we all sometimes must) between the lesser of two evils. If there's no way to prove evil exists, let alone prove it wrong, what then is the point of activism or revolution? Simply to achieve power for its own sake? How is that different from what Big Brother already does? And anyway, what does the word "terrorist" really mean?

McTeigue and the Wachowskis ask us to question the meaning of words like "terrorist," calling them, by implication if not exposition, mere arbitrary labels. And yet, they also market their movie as a bold exercise in truth-telling that asks the audience to "make up their own minds." But how can we, if the auteurs have deliberately made things less rather than more clear?

How can a movie have an agenda and not have an agenda at the same time?

Can it "make a statement" while denying that it's making one? And how are we supposed to evaluate that statement in the first place, if words and images don't really mean what they say?

As I said in that previous post, it's adapting Orwell's imagery while neatly reversing his message. Orwell held steadfast to the notion that ensuring liberty meant adhering to objective standards of evidence and the scrupulous use of clear language. Political factions who do otherwise, especially in an attempt to justify or excuse the use of terror against the general public, are on Big Brother's side. As are those who muddy the objectively real difference between terrorism and revolution.

Even if they think they aren't.

"Since nothing is either true or false, good or bad, our guiding principle will be to demonstrate that we are the most efficient -- in other words, the strongest. Then the world will no longer be divided into the just and the unjust, but into masters and slaves." -- Albert Camus, The Rebel

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