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Monday, March 12, 2007

A Graphic Defense of Freedom

I was one of the millions who went to see 300 this past weekend. Overall I enjoyed the movie and I've got a general fondness for films based on graphic novels -- in this case the book of the same name by Frank Miller (it's available on Amazon).

The history behind the events portrayed in the screenplay is quite interesting, although it's definitely not claiming to depict things as they actually happened. The action is well choreographed and although it can be quite violent and at-times gory, it is artfully done and never struck me as gratuitous.

In short, the story is of the Battle of Thermopylae where Leonidas, king of Sparta, made his heroic stand with 300 soldiers against the innumerable armies of Xerxes, king of Persia. On their face, the ideas provoked by the movie are quite simple and the emotions it evokes are quite primal. Some may see in it some synergy with the neo-conservative's mantra that "freedom isn't free."

The Greeks are portrayed as battling the mysticism of the East in order to protect the reason, enlightment, and democracy that, at least in the abstract, form the pillars of western civilization. The fact that the Spartans are attempting to beat back the invading forces of a foreign empire, however, complicates the apparently simple comparison to the invasion of Iraq and the greater "War on Terror."

I would argue that the story's caution to be vigilant and willing to sacrifice even our lives to defend intellectual and physical freedom can be applied to our current situation in a much different way. The threats to personal liberty, civil rights, and democracy are multiple and in many ways most directly originate from internal forces -- including the policies enacted by the neo-conservatives under the guise of that self-same War on Terror.

I watched the DVD of V for Vendetta this weekend as well, and it's a film that deals very directly with this post-9/11 paradigm. Fear, anger, and the desire for security are very powerful human emotions and unprincipled and unaccountable governments can use these as weapons to manipulate an unguarded populace into trading away their hard-won civil rights. In the movie, based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (also available on Amazon), a right-wing cabal orchestrates a series of biological attacks in England that are blamed on foreign terrorists and used as a pretext to install a fascist govenment that couches its rhetoric in nationalistic and religious terms.

Inspired by Guy Fawkes and wearing his mask throughout the film, V, the protagonist of the story, plans to blow up Parlaiment (as Fawkes had tried in his Gunpowder Plot) in order to shake the people from their complacency and complicity, and enable them to cast off the chains of oppression that they had willing allowed their elected officials to put in place. I see it as a cautionary tale along the lines of Octavia Butler's science fiction novel Parable of the Talents.

Both of these films deal with questions of freedom and the threats to it. That we need to safeguard our freedoms is something on which most of us will agree. The point of argument is how best to accomplish that in troubled times. Clearly understanding the nature and motivations of those who wish to "lead" us in that fight is one important defense against trading away the very liberties we hope to protect.
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