Adam Ash

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

US Diary: George Bush and the moral of the movie "300"

Spartan Pride
Bush, 300, and the folly of empire.
By Matthew Yglesias/The American Prospect

When America finally gives up on the Iraq adventure, I expect we'll see something of a backlash. As Fouad Ajami, the right's favorite Arab writer , put it, America tried to bring the Iraqi people The Foreigner's Gift -- the gift of freedom -- and the Iraqis just screwed it up. There's even, if you squint at it right, a certain truth to this, once you abandon the myth that the war would have worked out fine had it been administered more competently: Following an invasion, Iraq's fate still lay much more in the hands of Iraqis than it did in the hands of American policymakers. On another level, however, this perspective is completely daft. The foreigner's gift failed to go over well not because of some weird Arab derangement, but because Iraqis acted like ... human beings everywhere act.

Which brings me (as it did Tom Geoghegan yesterday) to the Spartans. No one would call 300 , either the film adaptation in theaters now or the graphic novel about the battle of Thermopylae on which it's based, a subtle work. It does, however, illustrate a crucial point in a rather subtle way. By pushing the audience so clearly to identify with the noble Spartans and painting the invading Persians in such an outlandishly Orientalist manner, graphic novelist Frank Miller and the filmmakers help to show why nobody likes a hegemonic superpower.

Spartan leaders say they fight against the Persians for "freedom" in a manner that almost sounds plucked from Bush's second inaugural address . We know, however, that Spartans did not fight for civil liberties or political democracy as we would understand it. Indeed, they don't even fight for that sort of liberty as they would understand it. The Spartans know perfectly well that the Spartan code is harsh and authoritarian. They look down on their freer Arcadian allies as soft and weak, and look down on the Persians as decadent. The freedom they fight for is simply the freedom of Sparta , and the freedom of Greece , from foreign domination. Just like the bold declaration "they can take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom" in Braveheart , what's at issue is national autonomy and dignity, not a mode of domestic political organization that can be spread around the world.

Even when the Persian king Xerxes offers the Spartan leader Leonidas a very favorable deal -- the Spartans may keep all of their land, while he will remain ruler of Sparta, become warlord of all of Greece, as Xerxes' vassal, carry his battle standard deep into Europe -- Leonidas says "no." He turns it down because to kneel at Xerxes' feet and offer even a token gesture of submission to the Persian Empire would be an insult to his dignity and to that of his people. He refers to it as a deal only a madman would reject, and then goes ahead and rejects it -- to the approval of everyone in the theater and in his army. In fact, that rejection could actually be looked at as a fairly rational response. Terms of surrender, no matter how favorable, can always be revised once you've laid down your arms. Today, the Persians want merely a token of submission. Tomorrow it may be gold for tribute. And the day after, who knows?

When you see it in a movie that aims to make the defenders out to be heroes, everyone sympathizes with this attitude. It's called "patriotism," it's called "nationalism" and it's the deadly enemy of empire-builders everywhere. People, simply put, don't enjoy submitting to foreign domination, even to foreign domination that presents itself as well-intentioned -- even to foreign domination that is in fact well-intentioned. Bush says America is merely midwifing the birth of a world of liberty, that "freedom is the Almighty God's gift to each man and woman in this world," and American power merely God's servant. Xerxes makes it simpler and says he literally is a God . The movie even gives him a more-than-human voice to prove the point.

Bush's claims may play to a domestic audience but foreigners don't buy it. When the local superpower sends its army abroad, people get scared . Professions of good intentions don't cut it. The locals fight back. Sometimes the superpower wins, but more likely it doesn't -- nothing beats the motivational power of people defending their own lands, families, and traditions. Fortunately, the modern world devised a better way for superpowers to exercise their influence. A United States that is willing to commit itself to formal institutions with rules and decision-making procedures the rest of the world can embrace is a superpower that the world need not fear. A United States that can be relied upon to follow international law is a superpower that the world need not loathe. A United States like that will have less formal freedom of action than will Bush's quasi-imperial version of the country, but it will be more able in practice to accomplish what it needs to accomplish. Bush has freed the country from legal, institutional, and moral constraint but in doing so rendered us incapable of actually getting anything done.

As for 300 , no doubt most audiences will just see a jingoistic film that will spur their own sense of nationalism. People should remember, however, that the trouble with nationalism is that everyone's got one; as much as Americans love our country, other people love their own countries more than ours and aren't interested in being our vassals.

(Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.)


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