Sun, 24 Sep 2006
If you watch the special features on the Syriana DVD, there’s a part where George Clooney says something like, “We didn’t intend for this film to point fingers at any particular political party.” I think that’s true. The movie doesn’t mention George Bush or Condi Rice, Bill Clinton or Richard Holbrooke, or indicate whether the hypocritical and amoral U.S. administration it portrays is controlled by Republicans or Democrats. I don’t think the filmmakers believe there’s any difference. Their philosophy, I’d guess, is common to a lot of people on the far left (and far right). Take, for instance, this guy I met at a bar just before January’s federal election: “It doesn’t mean anything,” he scoffed. “The people who run things have already decided that Stephen Harper is going to be the next Prime Minister.” I will confess that I didn’t listen all that closely to the remainder of his rant, but I think I could sum up his worldview pretty easily. Democracy is a farce. There are secretive powers behind the scenes that determine which issues get into the media and which get left out; which candidates we vote for, and which we ridicule and ignore. The electorate are willing dupes. Only a handful of freethinkers like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and the entire under-25 population of Western Europe are brave enough to pull back the curtain and expose the machinations of the conspirators.
I’m not sure if the people who believe this stuff really believe it, or if it’s just a nihilistic pose that allows them to sneer at society. It’s a nice way to avoid facing up to the reality that your arguments are weak. “Well, of course we keep losing elections. They would never let us win.”
But getting back to Syriana. If you haven’t seen it, the story can be summed up as, Big Oil Controls Everything. Big Oil is upset because the heir to a Saudi-like Middle Eastern kingdom has agreed to award the drilling rights to a lucrative oil field to the Chinese. Why sell to the Chinese over the Americans? Because, the heir explains, the Chinese submitted the higher bid, and he wants to use the money to modernise his country. It turns out this Arab aristocrat favours democracy, equal rights for women, separation of church and state, fluoridation, anti-smoking laws, all that good liberal stuff. His feckless playboy brother, meanwhile, couldn’t care less about his people. He just wants to throw cocaine parties on yachts and be fashionably dissolute. But, the playboy is willing to sell his oil to the Americans. So the Americans manoeuvre the playboy into power. When the rightful heir plots a coup – you know, one of those famous Middle Eastern pro-democratic military coups – the Americans spread the story that he’s a terrorist, then blow him up with a guided missile. Cut to a roomful of Big Oil executives cackling and chomping on cigars as the playboy announces that he’s going to reverse his dead brother’s decision and sell oil to the Americans after all. Will anyone stand up to these fat cats? Not the media. Not the CIA – they’ve been cowed into submission by their political bosses. Not even Matt Damon has the courage to speak out. But who’s that steering a dinghy full of explosives toward the American oil rig? Who’s that finally striking a blow against imperialist exploitation? Could the hero of Syriana be – a suicide bomber?
Let me turn down the sarcasm dial long enough to admit that Syriana is actually a well-written, well-acted, and rather gripping movie. And up to a point I agree with its message: that is to say, I too am opposed to the assassination of preposterously saintly political dissidents.
Speaking of paranoid movies, consider V For Vendetta. England is ruled by a fascist dictatorship that rose to power by unleashing a designer virus on the citizenry then pinning the blame on terrorists. Only an actual terrorist – a poetry-spouting, genetically-enhanced superman in a Guy Fawkes mask – can uncover the truth and lead an uprising that culminates in the destruction of the Houses of Parliament. Once again, it’s impossible to disagree with the film’s message: fascism is bad. Against a totalitarianism as ruthless as the one portrayed in this film – where every single official from the dictator down to the cop in the street is a racist, sadist, or sex fiend – even terrorist tactics can be forgiven.
V For Vendetta is a comic-book fantasy, while Syriana is a pseudo-realistic drama. But they take place in the same world – a world where officials murder innocents at will, where the media are complicit in spreading lies, where citizens submit docilely before a conspiracy so vast and impenetrable that it can’t be fought through elections or rallies or writing petitions, but only through blowing stuff up. This isn’t exactly our world. But we are meant to understand that it is our world.
For those of us who cling to the quaint belief that those in power aren’t unfailingly corrupt, that they may sometimes be motivated by their better angels as well as their worse, that when they do evil they are as likely to arrive at it through honest mistakes as through moustache-twirling infamy – for us the question is, how should we react to movies like this? Should we accept them at face value, as entertaining fictions, or should we be alarmed at the continuing migration of the Politics of Paranoia out of chat rooms and anarchist quilting bees and into mainstream popular culture?
I’m a little alarmed. Let us differentiate between the old-fashioned Conspiracy Theorist – a whiskery guy in a wood-panelled basement, patiently subjecting each frame of the Zapruder film to infrared analysis – and the new-style Conspiracy Artist, who uses the mass media to peddle the idea that the mass media is full of lies. At least the Conspiracy Theorist is obliged to offer facts, or what are supposed to be facts, and those facts we can attempt to rebut, as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11 is rebutted here,* or as the slander that the World Trade Center was deliberately destroyed by the U.S. government is rebutted here. But the Conspiracy Artist needs only to offer a suggestion, and the suggestion is always the same – This is what things are like (or will soon be). To the argument that things are not really like that – not like that, anyhow – the Artist just smiles his haughty smile. Poor naïve fool, he says. Go on living in your dream world, then.
It’s exasperating, you see, because there are no facts to rebut. There is only an attitude. And that attitude may prove far more resilient than the fusty rabble-rousing of the old-style leftists. Noam Chomsky with the face of George Clooney; Howard Zinn as a genetically-enhanced superman – how can they be resisted?
* – When I first read Dave Kopel’s Fahrenheit 9-11 rebuttal, linked above, I didn’t take note of Kopel’s participation in the anti-Michael Moore documentary FarenHype 9-11, which includes an appearance by the preposterous right-wing attack mongoose Ann Coulter. I haven’t seen this documentary and I can’t say whether Coulter’s involvement discredits the entire thing and, by association, everyone involved in it. But on the basis of a few minutes spent reading Dave Kopel’s blog I’d say he comes across as a fairly respectable thinker of the libertarian Republican variety.