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Friday, March 09, 2007

300

Something that The Kid finds interesting is the political discussion emerging over the new film 300.

The film is a shot for shot adaptation of the comic book by Frank Miller. The book, loosely recounts in a stylized fashion, the epic Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. where 300 Spartan soldiers under their king, Leonidas, fought to the last man against an invading Persian army numbering in the millions.* The tenacious sacrifice of the Spartans delayed the Persians for 3 days and allowed the rest of the city-states of Greece to get their collective act together and eventually defeat the Persians at the Battles of Salamis (naval) and Plataea (land.) Thus preserving the Greek way of life (the foundation of western culture) from extinction.

Miller, of course, is the towering figure in comic art in the past 20 years, having penned Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – a work of startling genius that not only redefined the epic character of The Batman, but also the comic medium itself. It is also simply one of the great stories of Western literature.

Kid Various has not read 300, but if the director Zack Snyder’s collaboration with Miller is anything like Robert Rodriguez’s collaboration on the adaptation of his work Sin City, the results could be astounding.

In seeing the previews for 300, The Kid thought “Wow, that looks interesting.” Never having it enter his mind, that the story might somehow come to be thought of (by some) as the post September 11th Triumph of the Will.

Like this audience at the Berlinale film festival.

… ran into some surprising reactions at the Berlinale film festival in Germany. Some attendees walked out of a screening there, while others insisted on seeing its presentation of the Spartans’ defense of Western civilization in the face of a Persian horde as propaganda for America’s position vis-à-vis Iraq and Iran. (By contrast it drew applause at a Los Angeles screening last month.)

“Don’t you think it’s interesting that your movie was funded at this point?” Mr. Snyder recalled being asked in Berlin. “The implication was that funding came from the U.S. government.”

But then the Berliners would know something about Triumph Des Willens, wouldn’t they?

And read this article by James Pinkerton:

Every young man who sees this movie - and movies are mostly targeted at the young - is going to get a triple dose of adrenaline, male-bonding and macho pageantry. Words such as "duty," "honor" and "glory" are heard constantly through the film. Indeed, if spears and shields were replaced by M16s and Humvees, "300" could be a military recruitment film.

Moreover, the Spartans are portrayed as strong, upright and conservative - there's even an image of Leonidas in the pose of a Christian martyr - whereas the Persians are depicted as effete, weird and decadent, all kinky and body-pierced. No wonder, then, that the Persians were lousy soldiers, victorious only because of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and outright betrayal. Indeed, the most sinister figure in the film is a Spartan politico who specifically identifies himself as a "realist."

And so go the parallels today, where for many Americans "realist" is code for "cynical," "cowardly" or, worst of all, "French." These Americans believe the United States is destined to lead an epochal struggle against the forces of evil - led by Iranians, aka Persians - in the Middle East. In addition, they believe that Uncle Sam's chances for victory in the ongoing war are being jeopardized by "cut-and-run Democrats" and "white-flag Republicans" in Congress and the media.

To which Kid Various can only reply – maybe it’s not such a bad idea for America’s teens to understand, in the phrase of J.S. Mill, that war is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things. Maybe it’s not such a terrible tragedy for young men and women in our country to get the message that there are things that are worth going to war for. There are things worth dying for.

It might even be a good idea for young American men and women to understand why Thermopylae was important for the survival of Western civilization and that, yes, there is indeed something distinct called Western civilization. That this civilization is characterized by pluralism, individualism, democracy, rationalism and reason.** And that more so, the rest of the world does not necessarily share these values. That most of the population of the world has, from time immemorial, suffered under the constraints of tribal/traditional culture that has led them only to despotism, penury, superstition… and defeat.

Pinkerton’s dismissive comments about how the film portrays the Persians as weird and effete, and therefore lousy soldiers, hits closer to the mark than he realizes. Read Victor Davis Hanson’s The Western Way of War. The West has consistently been able to defeat larger, numerically superior enemies exactly because its cultural system values things like pluralism and rationalism, allowing for constant experimentation, innovation and pragmatic implementation of the results of that process. The Greeks had that, the Persian Empire did not. And the Persians were never able to conquer the Greeks (in fact a century later, the Greeks under Alexander would burst out of the Agean and conquer Persia.)

At the very least, it will be a good thing if teenagers could at least be able identify the Battle Thermopylae and have some understanding of why it may be relevant.

For anyone who would like an account of Thermopylae without having to slog through Herodotus, Kid Various highly recommends Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. Like 300, it’s a fictionalized account of the battle, the events leading up to it and, moreover, an overview of Spartan society that is riveting (and more historically accurate than 300 – The Kid doubts Xerxes used actual ogres in his armies.)



Update: Somewhat appropriately the NHL has been promoting 300 as hockey is the only professional sport left that embodies the values of the Spartans: Honor, Glory and a good Hip Check into the Boards!

The Spartan swords of Warner's "300" are mixing it up with the slashing sticks of the National Hockey League.

Marking the first time the NHL has promoted a Hollywood pic, the league has cut a 30-second TV spot mixing game play footage with scenes from Warner Bros.' violent ancient battle actioner "300."

Update II: This topic has been picked up at Winds of Change (The Kid knew he couldn’t be the only one thinking of this.)

Conversation in the comments section is interesting, including some links to material by Victor Davis Hanson concerning the political meaning of the film. Of course, as he points out, the book itself was written in 1998, before the beginning of the Long War – indeed, before most people had even heard of George W. Bush. But he notes:

Ultimately the film takes a moral stance, Herodotean in nature: there is a difference, an unapologetic difference between free citizens who fight for eleutheria and imperial subjects who give obeisance. We are not left with the usual postmodern quandary 'who are the good guys' in a battle in which the lust for violence plagues both sides. In the end, the defending Spartans are better, not perfect, just better than the invading Persians, and that proves good enough in the end. And to suggest that ambiguously these days has perhaps become a revolutionary thing in itself.

And as he notes in his introduction to the book 300: The Art of the Movie:

So almost immediately, contemporary Greeks saw Thermopylae as a critical moral and culture lesson. In universal terms, a small, free people had willingly outfought huge numbers of imperial subjects who advanced under the lash. More specifically, the Western idea that soldiers themselves decide where, how, and against whom they will fight was contrasted against the Eastern notion of despotism and monarchy — freedom proving the stronger idea as the more courageous fighting of the Greeks at Thermopylae, and their later victories at Salamis and Plataea attested.

Lessons to learn well…

Molon Labe

Update III: Welcome Instapundit readers! Please stay and have a look around... For those of you who don't know us, we at The Idiom tend to specialize in posts about frivolous topics such as the Long War and serious topics such as gay penguins.

* Herodotus probably exaggerates. But the number was certainly in the hundreds of thousands.

** It should be noted that the Spartans were in no way a democratic society. They were a militaristic, class-stratified, slave owning society that was ruled by hereditary elites that also had highly communistic overtones (Personal wealth in the form of precious metals or land was prohibited. Communal “good” was prized above individual status.) This is evidenced by Plato describing the Spartans as the closest to the “perfect” society (the original state from which all others were descended in an imperfect form) as opposed to the degenerate Periclean democracy of Athens, which allowed the “unwise” to rule. For those who believe that Plato was some sort of great genius, instead of an antique Pol Pot who merely lacked the killing machine necessary to bring about his perfect order, read The Republic. His perfect society is a totalitarian nightmare where the great mass of human cattle serve the needs of the “wise” rulers of the state. Note Plato considered himself to be one of the “wise.”

When the Spartans talked about fighting for their freedom, they didn’t mean freedom in the same terms that we speak of, meaning “individual liberty.” Rather they meant freedom in the way that the Arabs currently use the term, meaning “freedom from rule by a foreign power.” Or, more aptly, the freedom to be dominated by your own kind.

Nor did any of the Greeks truly embody modern Western culture. That would have to wait until the European Enlightenment nearly 2,000 years later. However, the political/philosophical ideas of the modern West did germinate there. And the diverse nature of the different political/social systems provided for the tension/competition that provided for rapid innovation that becomes part of the West, as well as the fierce desire for freedom that was, initially centered around communities (the Spartans were fighting for the freedom of other states to have the political systems they wanted – even degenerate democracy – as much as they were fighting for their own right to be authoritarian) that eventually migrated to the concept of sovereignty of the individual.

8 Comments:

At Friday, March 9, 2007 at 9:50:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually Realism is the belief that the best way to preserve the nation state is through self interest driven security measures. All those other things you said (cynical, cowardly, french) are better categorized as liberalism.

Today's Realists are more commonly known as Neo Conservatives.

 
At Saturday, March 10, 2007 at 7:39:00 AM EST, Blogger Kid Various said...

Just to make clear...

Kid Various didn't say those things about Realism; James Pinkerton did in his article that we quoted.

But Realists certainly are NOT Neo-Conservatives. The Kid knows this because he used to be a Realist (to get technical, he was a "Structural Realist" of the Ken Waltz variety.) One of the hallmarks of Realism is that the intentions of States do not matter. Only their capabilities. This is because Realists view all states as basically singular actors and rational - that is, they calculate their behaviour in terms of how it will best enhance their survival. Things may get in the way, information is imperfect, the bureaucratic system will distort policy, etc. But, according to Realists, all states are at least working in this paradigm.

Post September 11th, Kid Various became much more of a NeoCon. Because the NeoCons believe that you must judge states not only by their capabilities but also by their intentions. In short, Britain, France, Canada, Japan, even probably India having nuclear weapons does not concern us. Iran having having the Bomb scares the living crap out of us!

As such, NeoCons understand that we will not be secure until we change the *intentions* of those states. The spread of American (or really *Western*) values becomes part of our security doctrine.

Kid Various is unsure whether the NeoCon paradigm is ultimately feasible.

But he *knows* the Realist paradigm is ultimately untenable.

 
At Saturday, March 10, 2007 at 11:08:00 AM EST, Anonymous Bill Brown said...

An earlier movie version of Thermopylae came out in, I believe, the 1970's and it was my belief at the time that it was an encouragement for us to go ahead and do the right thing, fight the good fight, despite world opinion which "just wanted to get along".

 
At Saturday, March 10, 2007 at 11:48:00 AM EST, Blogger JSF said...

I saw the movie on Tuesday during a Preview. The movie is a foreshadow to modern geopolitics. I discuss it here:

http://valley-of-the-shadow.blogspot.com/2007/03/go-tell-spatans-stranger-passing-by.html

 
At Saturday, March 10, 2007 at 12:09:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...they believe that Uncle Sam's chances for victory in the ongoing war are being jeopardized by "cut-and-run Democrats" and "white-flag Republicans" in Congress and the media.

He forgot to mention European Socialists pretending to be Liberal Democrats

 
At Saturday, March 10, 2007 at 1:09:00 PM EST, Anonymous Ted B. (Charging Rhino) said...

It must not be lost that this one one of the great hinge-moments in "Western" history. Those few, rare moments where we can point-back and say at that moment these participants changed the course of History. And one of few great military battles where they truely "died to the last man".

"...Go, tell the Spartans, you who read this stone,
That we lie here, and that their will was done."

 
At Saturday, March 10, 2007 at 3:31:00 PM EST, Blogger Jake Odell said...

For those who believe that Plato was some sort of great genius, instead of an antique Pol Pot who merely lacked the killing machine necessary to bring about his perfect order, read The Republic. His perfect society is a totalitarian nightmare where the great mass of human cattle serve the needs of the “wise” rulers of the state. Note Plato considered himself to be one of the “wise.”

Save yourself the trouble and read "The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume #1: Plato" by Karl Popper. His analysis reveals Plato and all his modern followers for who they realy are.

Thankfully, Aristotle did a 180 on him and made Western Civ what it is today (or aspires to be).

 
At Sunday, March 11, 2007 at 3:29:00 AM EDT, Blogger Brian said...

I loved it when the Athenians were called "philosophers and boy lovers." Sounds like modern Europe.

 

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