When I was a senior in high school my brother took me to see V for Vendetta. A few years older than me and with the cultural exposure that attending a west coast college provides, he had at least some knowledge of what we were in for. I was excited about hanging out with him, but the idea of a superhero flick about a guy who dawns a vaudevillian mask and a Zorro hat did not seem all that appealing. Age before beauty, however, prevailed (just kidding brother). Since I left that theater Vendetta has been one of my favorite films. You’ll notice that I do not use the word flick or movie to describe it now. That is because of its artistic and literary quality, Vendetta is a film. Something higher, something purer than what I was used to. A few years later I receive a DVD of it for Christmas and, now, it is somewhat of a ritual to watch it on or around November the fifth.
This last year as I prepared to watch Vendetta on the evening of November 5th, I could not help but register a mental note about the key theme of the film—illiberalism. Given the contemporary political dialogue, a word I use euphemistically, the themes and troupes that director James McTeigue uses to tell the story come through loud and clear. It will probably help to revisit the story in which the political commentary is couched.
V for Vendetta
The story is set in London in the not too distant future. England has become a sort of dystopia, not in an apocalyptic sense, but in the line of Stalin lead Russia. England has become a surveillance states keeping tabs on the conversations of its citizens, delivering entertainment and news through a highly propagandized BTN (British Television Network), and sporting a Gestapo-equ goon squad tasked with enforcing the national curfew and cracking down on sedition. Each of these dystopia tropes operates in service to the High Chancellor Adam Sutler, whose title harkens more to 1940’s Germany than present day England. As such the viewer is put on notice to look out for some kind of cataclysmic event that would cause such dramatic change in one of the world’s first representative democracies. Much of the plot of the film is the progressive revealing of the government conspiracy that saw shadowy elites use a chemical weapon developed by the military research on their own people in order to consolidate power and grow their personal wealth under the cloud of fear and terror.
While our hero, V, has been an on screen protagonist since the beginning, we now figure out his involvement. The reason for V’s vendetta. As it turns out he was a patient/prisoner of the medical facility that developed the toxin which portions of the English populace were exposed to. In fact it was developed from his blood as scientific testing and research revealed him to be somehow genetically anomalous. We find out that V escaped from the facility, after causing an explosion, and has been slowly killing the individuals compose the inner ring of conspirators. After years of murder and plotting, his final move is ready. He turns the conspirators on one another and their citizenry. Upset with the increasing openness of Sutler’s tyranny, the population responds to V’s call to meet outside the gates of Parliament to witness it Fawkesian destruction.
There is much more that could be added to fill out the details, but you can sense the basic premise. A skilled and motivated vigilante stands against an evil and oppressive government to avenge the evil he endured and free the populace of his nation from the grip of tyranny.
Such a plot in and of itself is entertaining, but means little for the sake of worldview interpretation beyond an understanding of objective morality and the goodness of justice. However, Vendetta offers a critical scene that move the film into the genre of political commentary.
With forty minutes left in the film, Inspectors Finch and Dominic meet with an informant in order to understand the web of conspiracy and intrigue that they have found themselves in. This informant, Rockwood, lays out the conspiracy from the beginning. That beginning is the political rise of now High Chancellor Adam Sutler, who is described as “deeply religious man and a member of the conservative party. He is completely singleminded and has no regard for political process.”
This scene lends much in the way of interpretation because of the choices made. In essence the antagonist, the imposer of tyranny, the leader of a mass-murder conspiracy is a power hungry religious zealot. This is enforced further by the cross image that marks the badges of the secret policy and campaign posters. The subtle emphasis on the religious extremism of the fascist regime is also displayed in the scene in which Natalie Portman reads a prisoner’s toilet paper memoir. The brief but touching autobiography is the account a beautiful young actress who endures a life of persecution for her lesbianism. This persecution culminates in the arrest and eventual death in the progress of the conspiracy around which the film turns. Then there is Stephen Fry, the closeted homosexual television personality who is arrested and executed for possession of a Qur’an. If all of that was not clear enough, there is always the sexually deviant priest—power hungry and paid off to be (at minimum) complicit in the conspiracy.
All of this adds up to present a firm view that conservatism, especially when fueled by strong religious beliefs, is a hotbed for tyranny. I can imagine that some may think I am merely reading into the story too far, but consider this quote attributed to the director on his IMDB page:
I don’t think anyone wants to go to the cinema and get preached at. You have to evolve the ideas, some of them political, some of them personal, into a film. Then the film becomes like a Trojan Horse. You push it into the village as one thing and it comes out another thing. Hopefully it is something people think about afterward, have discussions about, even vehemently disagree on. I like the idea you can have the entertainment and the political idea in there.
In seminary I had a professor suggest this same point as a reason why Christians, especially Christian philosophers could not withdraw from cinema, but rather needed to engage it to call out such Trojan Horses. In a similar line of reasoning I have heard it attributed to Chuck Colson the quote “politics is downstream of culture,” which is often followed by a comment akin to “you can have the voting both if I can have the jukebox.”
As I watched the film, for somewhere around the twentieth time, it struck me that there has been a great reversal in the application of illiberal politics. Growing up on a steady diet of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Californian grown anti-government rhetoric, I, like many of my peers, had been well indoctrinated to associate illiberalism and repression of freedom with conservative politics. Even after my embrace of evangelical Christianity, there was still a lingering sense that I needed to be careful not to impose my morality and will upon non-believers as the “boomers” had done.
Older and wiser, I could not help but chuckle a bit at the turn of events. It is not conservatives that are boycotting speakers on university campuses. It is not religious universities that whose professors live in fear of microagressing of failing to deliver the necessary trigger warnings. It is not seminaries that are establishing safe spaces that infantilize our nation’s intellectual youths. These are all being done on the watch of liberal universities. What’s more, it is happening as universities grow increasingly liberal in their politics. Consider Nicholas Kristof’s much discussed New York Times op-ed, in which he writes:
WE progressives believe in diversity, and we want women, blacks, Latinos, gays and Muslims at the table — er, so long as they aren’t conservatives. Universities are the bedrock of progressive values, but the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious. We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.
The article, titled “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance“, just scratches the surface and in fact lent, in my opinion, more credibility to the work of Mary Eberstradt in It’s Dangerous to Believe. In that work Eberstradt chronicles the growing tide of ideological discrimination (persecution is too strong a word) against conservatives, specifically those of a evangelical faith. There is a growing body of reference, but to tell the truth this is not something that ought to have caught us by surprise. Two books published over thirty years ago hailed the events we are seeing—especially those on university campuses—with such frightening accuracy as to warrant the attribute of ‘prophetic’. Those two books are Amusing Ourselves to Death (1986) by Neil Postman and The Closing of the American Mind (1987) by Allen Bloom. Throw in Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and you have a kind of unholy trifecta of prophetic voices warning about an ever closer precipice. Reading these books and opening up the New York Times gives one a kind of feeling that I imagine Wiley Coyote may have felt when he runs of a cliff and is able to take several steps on nothing but air before he realizes his mistake.
As I reflect on how such an illiberalism might arise from a socio-political philosophy named for the antonym to the contemporary state of affairs, one particular of the above mentioned texts posed an intriguing explanation. Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wher- ever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed fromus. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would be- come a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a triv- ial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley re-marked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distrac- tions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflict- ing pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
This is the forward to the book in its entirety. Postman make an excellent observation about our dystopia fears. There is not one path to dystopia. This is not merely one path to the removal of rights. Liberals have feared a conservative inclination to limit freedom in the name of security and stability. This of course is the plot of Orwell’s 1984, Lowry’s The Giver, and we might be tempted to think Bradbury’s Ferhinheit 451 though it seems more probable the Montage finds himself living in the early stages of The Brave New World. Robotic dog aside, not all would go willingly into the night with Bernard Marx. Some rabble rousers would need to be sniffed out.
My point in all of this is that the Trojan Horse of Vendetta is an accusation of conservatives, and especially conservatives who derive their values from firm religious belief, of a tendency to the tyrannical. This is fair in its proper context. History has seen such regimes. However, we need be mindful, as article after article from ideologically left leaning (if not left laying) publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times and The Economist and the Chicago Tribune etcetera etcetera are produced to tell us of the damage that unrestrained liberal policies are wrecking on college campuses. The policies of trigger warnings, microagressions, and safe spaces are, to quote the title of the above linked Atlantic article, coddling the American mind. It is the coddling of the mind that both Huxley and Postman feared the most.
Thanks for reading,