V is for ‘Vacuous’ and ‘Vatican’

January 30, 2007

Occasionally, for better of for worse, religion gets an overhaul.  The Protestant Reformation might be considered the point at which the break with premodern conceptions of religion began in Europe.  One’s relationship with the divine became a matter of personal belief, not merely a matter of ritual and decorum.  The importance of earthly institutions was de-emphasized and the imperative of one’s personal, true belief came into view.  Often times we forget this significant break and we assume that 12th century Christians were like us.  But for the majority of its “golden years,” monotheism thrived on the ignorance and illiteracy of it’s adherents.  It enjoyed a cozy relationship with all manner of tyrants and scoundrels, kings and sultans alike.  This wasn’t because the rabbis, mullahs and priests had already discovered Darwin’s Dangerous Idea or because they knew, like the anti-capitalist philosophers of the 19th century would later point out, that religion is a powerful tool of control.  They still believed that the watch needed a watchmaker.  Even David Hume in the 1700’s conceded that he had no better explanation for the question “From whence?”  The scholarly religious classes weren’t some heathen cabal, conniving to keep the people stupid and weak.  There was no Grand Inquisitor Syndrome sweeping through Europe and the Middle East.  The fellows at St. Catherine’s didn’t formulate celibacy as a means to absolute control.  They really believed that sexual energies should be redirected into praise and service.  They came from an era where supernatural explanations prevailed over scientific ones, because the natural sciences weren’t as well developed as the prevailing way of explaining complex phenomena: superstition.  That various tenets of faith would turn out to be remarkably effective means of mind control was certainly welcome, but incidental nonetheless.

The Reformation wasn’t without it’s problems though, since it only replaced one religious ruling class with another and opened up the space for many more sectarian schisms to take root.  In Britain, Catholics lost their foothold in the political sphere and found themselves oppressed by the new kids on the block.  In 1605, a group of British Catholics decided to recapture their political superiority by attempting to explode the Houses of Parliament.  Now audiences worldwide are learning of the Gunpowder Treason as if the plot had been engineered by Mikhail Bakunin himself (Bakunin, for those who don’t know, was a seminal anarchist thinker and an intellectual rival of Karl Marx).  In order for this metaphorical respinning of Fawkes’ character to work, however, one must turn a blind eye to the fact that he was a conservative militant whose political motives were hardly inseparable from his religious ideology.  Reviewers and viewers alike have proclaimed the subversiveness of ‘V for Vendetta.’  According to them, this film is radical and inspiring; a wake-up call for desperate times.  The film should serve as a wake up call, but not in the way it hopes to be.  ‘V’ purports to be a leftist tribute to revolutionary values, but the fact that audiences have uncritically taken its story to heart, well, let’s just say we’ve caught them Red-handed…

The twentieth century in the Middle East can be thought of as a time of reformation: social, political, religious, you name it.
Unfortunately, secular initiatives like those pursued by the PLO in Palestine or the Khalq Party in Afghanistan proved unsuccessful.  There were all kinds of reasons for these failures.  The Palestinian Liberation Organization became corrupt and self-interested.  The Khalqi were essentially juvenile Marxists who expected Afghan tribal culture to be as enraptured with Marxist theory and rhetoric as they had been.  After too many failures, certain Muslims decided that it was time to return to the better days–a time when Islam was the law of the land.  From this rotting heap of failed reform, groups such as the Taliban militia, Hamas and Al-Qaeda were born.  But, like the Protestants in England, Muslim militants have found that the weight of firepower and a standing army is not at their disposal.  So they choose to attack symbolic targets, such as the World Trade Center.  And worse, in the absence of hard artillery they choose to attack soft targets like children, non-combatants and fellow Muslims.

I can’t quite see the valiance in counter-reformationist terror.  Nor do I see why I should respect militants that pursue a by-any-means-necessary campaign with an eye to reinstating the ways of a more pious past.  I do not find any subversive character in a film that takes such a figure as its ideological figurehead.  But what if we think of ‘V’ as a sort of subconscious cartoon confession from the spirit that calls itself liberal today.  Maybe they’re telling us, in no uncertain terms, that they do indeed stand in solidarity with terrorists and against the forces that fight against religious fundamentalism.  Maybe they’re telling us that they have only read the term “Orwellian” in Z Magazine and that they have not ever properly read Orwell himself.  Maybe they’re telling us that they prefer aestheticized politics ready-made for consumption much more than they care for the tedious, unglamorous work of actual political activity.  Perhaps they truly would like to have their history lessons narrated to them by the creators of ‘The Matrix.’  And maybe they do consider a film glorifying a 400 year old Catholic plot to be educational in the ways of political radicalism as opposed to, I don’t know, say watching a documentary tracing the history and motives of Islamism.  After all, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad–they’re all the same, right?  Warriors in the crusade against globalization!  (Somebody should take a poll of those viewers who have been so moved by ‘V’ and find out how many of them fall into the demographic of the 52% of Americans that didn’t vote in the last election.  Once such a number has been established, I’d like to know then, how many of them have cited the election results as reason for the “evil” of the Bush administration as if they were powerless to have made any difference in the face of such overbearing daemonia.  All this is conjecture and fantasy, but the results would be interesting)

Now consider what would have happened if the filmmakers had chosen to remain faithful to Alan Moore’s graphic novel.  I don’t claim to have read the thing, but it is my understanding that, rather than glorifying the actions of ‘V’ as revitalizing and revolutionary, Moore left the character and his actions morally ambiguous.  According to him, the reader/viewer should be asking themselves hard questions about the use of violence in the name of revolution.  Unfortunately, that’s a question none of the viewers of this film had to ask.  It was answered for them, by those who adapted the screenplay and by those who swathed the film’s “hero” in an unambiguous cloak of piety.  Kudos to Mr. Moore for condemning the film as “imbecilic.”  And, for all the dumb nonsense this film poured into the brains of potential future allies in the ongoing fight against religious terror, I take consolation in the fact that my experience on 9/11 might be reproduced for some of them.  At least they might have the comfort of knowing that, in a moment of naive idealistic ignorance, they cheered for a comic book hero, not for real casualties and real killers.  Maybe some of them will realize the danger of lazy, uninformed radicalism.  Maybe fewer will make the Khalqi mistake.  Maybe even a few of them will end up on the good side of this fight.

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