Freedom is something that we all say we’re for, yet few of us bother to do the hard work of understanding what that word actually means. And as with so much that springs from not thinking, a trip to the movies gives us a clue about what’s going on and who’s getting away with what. There are two contemporary movies that seem, on the surface, about as different as films can be. In their plot, style, setting, and in the political views of their makers, they seem opposite. Yet they ultimately put forward the same incoherent view of freedom, and neither film has found that view questioned by its audience.
Most of us have seen Braveheart. In that film, Mel Gibson stars as William Wallace, who leads Scotland in rebellion against the English. He wages a very successful campaign of cleaving English soldiers into bite-sized morsels, but eventually the English capture and execute him. At the end of the film, with his final breath, he screams, “Freedom!”
I know some well-meaning people who cite this as a ringing endorsement of freedom. To them I say, I’m sorry, but it isn’t. The cry of “freedom” here is about as meaningful as if he had shouted “Nachos!” or “Taxidermy!” Because in that film Mel Gibson wasn’t fighting for freedom, doesn’t know what freedom is — and he isn’t helping us to figure it out, either. (Frankly, in light of all we now know about Gibson, it’s a little silly for any grownup to describe the world he wants us to live in as “free.”)
I admit that facts are pesky things when dramatizing history, but we can’t understand this without first examining what the Scots were trying to accomplish in their rebellion. Were they out to establish a new system of government that would abolish tyranny and guarantee their rights as sovereign individuals? Of course not: nobody in those days had the slightest conception of such things. All that mattered was who you were being shoved around by, and if you were lucky enough or brutal enough, you got to be the one doing the shoving. The only freedom the Scots were fighting for, if any, was the “freedom” to be tyrannized by someone who spoke with the same accent they used. Mel Gibson’s dramatization did not in any way contradict this. So why do people accept that his soldiers were getting hacked to bits for freedom?
By default, we have an attitude today that hates what is big and successful. “The system,” we believe, is always oppressive. It’s become such an accepted truism that we no longer feel the need to know what the system is; only that it is a System. The Empire is always the bad guy, and we always cheer for the Rebel Alliance. The big, successful corporation is evil; the proof is that it is big and successful. We always want the number one team to lose the big game. The underdog is always the good guy, not because of any particular virtue he possesses, but just because he is the underdog. Ask yourself: what’s the last movie you saw in which a futuristic society is depicted as virtuously putting down a rebellion?
This urge we have to bring down the big and successful is somewhat new in human history. It would have been unthinkable among the ancient Greeks, for example, to long to see structures torn down just because they were big, or indeed because they were structures.
Think about how we cheer the Scottish clansmen through their meat grinder battles in Braveheart, indifferent to whether they actually intend to be free once the hated English are gone. We see the same thing again and again today, with the Kurds, the Basques, the Tibetans, the Palestinians, and virtually any other group at one time or another: we’ve got no evidence at all that they actually want to live in freedom; chances are that, if given the opportunity, they’ll set up the same murderous kleptocracies that are proliferating everywhere. Sometimes they announce it in advance. Yet we line up under banners demanding that they be made “free” — and once we get what we want, once their citizens are being impoverished and brutalized by ragtag bands of local hoodlums instead of by a large, orderly system, we’ll magically stop caring about whether they are “free.”
We don’t really need to examine the governments they presently live under. They might be murderous administrators of slave labor camps like the Chinese, or they might let their minorities vote and serve in the military and even in Parliament like the Israelis do; that’s all beside the point, don’t you see? They’re big and successful and structured, and so we conclude that they must be oppressors. We endorse the minority’s demand to secede, relishing the black eye that it gives to the larger entity, never giving a damn how these “oppressed” might savage each other if given the opportunity. When Apartheid fell in South Africa, there was great rejoicing; but now that South Africans are being ravaged by homegrown Africans instead of by European colonial throwbacks, we no longer hear about it, and nobody finds any moral urgency in stopping it. We courageously smashed The System, and it turned out that was the end in itself; we don’t care about the aftermath and we would prefer not to hear about it, thank you.
I know I’m not describing everyone. Maybe this fits you, and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it fits you sometimes but not others. But to the extent the shoe fits, I’m here to say it’s better left unworn. There is nothing inherently wrong about bigness, or success, or dominance. There is nothing inherently virtuous about smallness, or victimhood, or poverty. Sometimes the big guy is morally vile and deserves to be brought down. But sometimes the big guy pummels the little guy because the little guy is a malicious jerk who has unfairly attacked him. Sometimes the little guy abundantly deserves his smallness.
With that in mind, consider a second film, V for Vendetta, based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore, whom the shoe truly does fit — and look how he struts about in it.
Again, this is a film about tearing things down; only this one is far more conscious about it. Where Mel Gibson may have stumbled into the position through ineptitude, Alan Moore shows him how it’s really done. V for Vendetta also claims to be all about freedom. It lionizes Guy Fawkes, who was convicted and killed for trying to blow up London’s Parliament building with gunpowder.
The film portrays Fawkes as an innocent victim, a simple citizen deprived of his liberty. Why? No reason is given, other than that he was not permitted to blow up Parliament.
His effort to destroy Parliament is portrayed as virtuous and noble. Why? No reason is given. The fact that he wanted to destroy Parliament is reason enough.
By the end of the film, all the commoners rise up together wearing Guy Fawkes masks, uniting under his banner. Why? It certainly isn’t for individual liberty. The rights of individuals can’t be coherently advocated by faceless masses hiding anonymously behind a single collective mask.
But rights are beside the point here, because “freedom,” in the view of this film, is destruction. Destruction of what, and why, does not matter. It’s true that the film’s Evil Empire is shown to oppress the people in Big Brother fashion; and that is convenient. Because even if it weren’t oppressing the people, it’s hard to imagine that the filmmakers would stop wanting to tear it down.
Remember: The filmmakers did not choose Guy Fawkes as their symbol because of anything Fawkes believed in. He was their choice because of his effort to destroy Parliament, and all else was irrelevant to them. It did not trouble them that Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot was intended to destroy Parliament in order to clear a path to Catholic rule — the same Catholicism that had only five years previously burned Giordano Bruno at the stake for heliocentrism; the same Catholicism that tortured Jews and infidels under the Inquisition; the same Catholicism that Mel Gibson wants us all to be ruled by. Freedom! I wonder, would unlimited Catholic monarchy be agreeable to a production group that calls itself “Anarchos Films”? Does Alan Moore enjoy the priceless irony, that he and Mel Gibson have circled around to a grand ideological convergence?
But never mind that. All that messy reality stuff is just trivia. Fawkes was the film’s chosen symbol because of his effort to blast down something big and powerful; no further justification or analysis was needed.
And why would it please the filmmakers to see Parliament destroyed? What does Parliament symbolize? English history is not always consistent, but throughout it all, the primary effect of Parliament has been to limit the power of the monarch. King after king found his ambitions to plunder the citizenry frustrated by Parliament. So if one were in favor of actual freedom, which is inextricable from the rights of the individual, one would think having a robust Parliament must be a pretty nice idea. But Guy Fawkes didn’t think so. And V for Vendetta doesn’t, either.
Yet they have got us thinking that they are pro-freedom, and the main argument backing that is: because they destroy The System. When you look closely at it, that’s astonishingly childish, and V for Vendetta is instructive because it did so very little to mask that rationale. They never bothered to tell us what they were actually for, or even to pretend that they were were actually for anything at all, aside from blowing up whatever they could. They were confident the audience wouldn’t feel shortchanged by that.
Why? Isn’t it time we did the work of questioning it?
Isn’t it time we learned to figure out whether The System is good or bad, before we decide to smash it? Instead of smashing, why not demand a good System? Why not figure out what that is, and what standard to judge its goodness by? The rights of the citizens who have to live under it seems like a good place to start. A hard examination of our definition of freedom should follow.
The fact that we have never noticed the hollowness of the “freedom” espoused by V for Vendetta is intimately connected to the fact that so many of our structures are collapsing around us, even as we lose more and more of our essential freedoms. It’s the reason we didn’t feel any need to know what the hell Mel Gibson’s William Wallace meant when he screamed “We Are Marshall!” as he died. Oh, wait — didn’t he scream freedom? Same difference, as far as we can tell.