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Remember, remember 11 September; Murderous monsters in flight; Reject their dark game; And let Liberty's flame; Burn prouder and ever more bright
- Geoffrey Barto
"Bjørn Stærks hyklerske dobbeltmoral er til å spy av. Under det syltynne fernisset av redelighet sitter han klar med en vulkan av diagnoser han kan klistre på annerledes tenkende mennesker når han etter beste evne har spilt sine kort. Jeg tror han har forregnet seg. Det blir ikke noe hyggelig under sharia selv om han har slikket de nye herskernes støvlesnuter."
2005: 12 | 11 | 10 | 09 | 08 | 07 | 06 | 05 | 04 | 03 | 02 | 01
V for Vendetta's politics
Artists can create whatever reality they like, so when they want to make political statements, they can make every part of the worlds they create work together to support those statements. It all fits together, no loose ends, no paradoxes, no clouds of uncertainty. What you see is all there to make a point, it's there to provide you, the reader or viewer, with all the support you need to accept the statement the artist wants to make.
Want to warn against the evils of capitalism? Make the bad guy a tycoon who quotes Adam Smith while stealing from grandmothers. Want to promote it instead? Make the hero a brilliant entrepeneur who quotes Adam Smith while battling a corrupt bureaucracy. (No need to be subtle, ideological wish fulfillment is a profitable market.)
This is true even for good political art, rare as it is. And this confuses us, because we suspect maybe there's a connection. Maybe because the art is good the political statement is too. But what makes a story good, and what makes it right, are two unrelated things. They pull at 90 degrees to each other. Maybe the artist succeeds at making something good but fails at being right, or succeeds or fails at both.
Good art has to be true and honest, but on a personal level. What the characters do and who they are need to be true to something in ourselves. When that happens, the story becomes plausible. We know it's fake, but we also recognize it as true.
Good political statements are true on a different level. They need to be real. Reality doesn't care what makes you weep or laugh, it doesn't try to make sense. Sure it's fun to hear about successful people who have the same beliefs you have and can remake the world in their image, but don't expect any help from reality.
Have you ever tried to translate a good story into real terms? Take Tolkien's nonsense about noble kings. A monarchy was just a hereditary dictatorship, and its purpose was to steal, murder, invade and oppress on a larger scale than you could do as a mere chieftain. There's a reason Frodo doesn't team up with the rightful leader of the parliament's foreign policy committee, but it's an artistic reason, not a political one.
To get political meaning out of good art you need to pick it all apart, remove the nonsense, and reassemble it in a way that corresponds with reality. Since good art is always true on some level, there'll be something left, but what it means might not be much when you're through with it.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is the archetype of this, a good political novel that has had bright people confused for half a century. It's a good story with a good political statement, but there's no one-to-one mapping with reality. I shudder when people refer to Nineteen Eighty-Four, I've never seen anyone do it well. Translated into real terms the book is about life in totalitarian states like Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. That's what the part of the book that's true and real actually describes. It is not about how a little surveillance is the first step towards a Big Brother society. It is not about how political word games leads to Stalinism. Maybe surveillance and political abuse of language are bad things, but for reasons of their own, not because they happen to be part of a book about totalitarianism.
There's a temptation to see these rare books that have both good art and good politics as mystical visions, which we can interpret as we like and apply to our own future, like a Book of Revelations for non-believers. They're not. They're just good stories with political truths in them, and attempts to map them onto reality won't work unless we drop all the parts that are irrelevant and wrong.
Extracting good politics from good art is so difficult and easy to get wrong I almost wish nobody would ever try. Orwell inspired some oppressed Eastern Europeans with his fiction, and that's great, but then he went on to befuddle a whole world of free people. I suppose it was worth it, but couldn't he have just written a pamphlet? His non-fiction is clearer and more relevant to us, and if this essay or this one were thought of as "required" reading for people who care about politics I think we'd be a lot better off than with entire nations of people who think "that's totally like Big Brother" is a deep observation.
V for Vendetta, the comic book by Alan Moore, is another good story with politics in it, and in this week's Ny Tid the publication of a Norwegian translation tempts Øyvind Holen out onto deep waters. V for Vendetta is even easier to get wrong than Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the first person to misinterpret it was the author himself. Moore thought he was making some kind of statement about those evil British Conservatives, and I suppose he tried to, but that's not the part of it that's true. Holen swallows this and more as he explains the relevance of V for Vendetta:
Despite its childhood diseases, V for Vendetta is a remarkable work. Both read in the shadow of 1980's England, and in the shadow of today's fear of terrorism. The Thatcher government showed Moore that you didn't need a nuclear war or a revolution for a democratic society to move closer to fascism and totalitarian tendencies. And how much of a difference is there really between the everpresent surveillance of V's England, and the surveillance cameras and anti-terror laws today appearing all over the West. V For Vendetta describes a totalitarian nightmare society that borders up to George Orwell's 1984, and as with Orwell it's not difficult to recognize ourselves in the mirror Moore holds up for us.
To Holen, V for Vendetta is about terrorism in an oppressive society related to our own. It is a cautionary tale, a morally ambigous and controversial story with a relevance to current affairs those dumb people in Hollywood will feel uncomfortable with, what with the US being ruled by conservatives who fight terrorists and all.
I don't see V as a terrorist. He's a revolutionary who takes out key people and state institutions in order to bring down a fascist government. Low-level "innocent" government employees die, but they're not targets. I'm not saying this to play any word games, though, so if Holen insists on there being room in the word terrorism for this meaning as well, I'm not going to protest. As long as we don't forget that "terrorism" now contains two meanings: V's revolutionary surgery, and the random slaughter of civilians more typical of real life terrorists.
Terrorist or not, the relevance to our war on terror just isn't there. Both goal and method is different. V's actions are, in the context of this story, legitimate. Most people will, I think, recognize that, (and disagree instead with the realism of the context). I don't believe those dumb people in Hollywood can make a good Alan Moore movie any more than Holen does, (Tom Sawyer??!), but not because they're afraid of causing political offense. They just aren't up to the challenge.
If you want to get anything meaningful out of V for Vendetta, begin by ignoring Moore's foreword, which is dumb, (especially in retrospect, what became of those concentration camps, Alan?), and don't pay too much attention to the first couple of chapters, which read like Jack Chick comics. Moore himself apologizes for the beginning. Vendetta is remarkable, but it only becomes so when Moore makes it more than the story of a man who takes revenge on a parody of conservatism.
The good storytelling of Vendetta begins with Evey's transformation from victim to free person. Vendetta is a story about taking responsibility, about how dignity and freedom begins in your own mind, and can never be fully taken, only given away. This isn't an ideological statement, what makes this a good story, what makes it good as art, is that it resonates even outside the story's political context. Never mind how Moore wants you to vote, the story's true. People who have lived in dictatorships will recognize these themes, but so will just about anyone else.
The good politics of Vendetta is harder to get at. Taken literally, V for Vendetta is the wish fulfillment fantasy of a madman. Everything fits together. The anarchist hero is brilliant, educated, lucky (or has the foresight of a god, either or), and knows just where to prod the fascist government to bring it down. Real Life's not like that. Seen from the outside, in the real world, V would probably appear more like Rorschach in Watchmen. Vendetta is like an anarchist version of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it even relies on the same plot device, an all-knowing computer in the hands of the revolution. Which in both cases is just a way of bridging the difficult part of overthrowing a government to get more quickly to the fun part.
Taking this literally doesn't make sense. So, again, we need to dig out and reassemble the pieces that do make sense in the real world. One of those pieces is the nature of fascism. The brutality of it, the hypocrisy, the alternate reality it creates for itself, its dependence for survival on fear and apathy and the failure of good people to say "no, no further, no, this isn't right".
And then there's V's alternative. Moore calls it anarchy, but when he explains what he means by that it sounds a lot like liberalism. V hates the order that springs out of authority, but what he wants instead isn't chaos, ("take what you want"), but the spontaneous order that follows from individual freedom, ("do as you please"). Many will want to claim these ideas, and that's all the better for them, but I insist on much of V's anarchy being the core of liberalism. Especially in the real world, where anarchism doesn't work.
The last thing V for Vendetta is is a commentary on conservatism and anti-terror laws. In fact I'd rather not see it as a "commentary" on anything. It's a fine story, that's what it is. If you get something from it that is meaningful on a personal level, that's great. That's what good stories do. But to recommend Vendetta for its clever "take" on 1980's Britain is like warning against the Lord of the Rings for its stirring defense of aristocracy. Just read a pamphlet, will you?
Atlas | 2005-10-16 17:28 | Link
Either Stærk hasn't read Atlas Shrugged or he is willfully misrepresenting it through a cartoon that is definitely misrepresenting it.
"ideological wish fullfilment is a profitable market"
Therefore perpetuating a middleroadanism gives instant gratificat>
Atlas | 2005-10-16 17:33 | Link
gratification today, as it caters to the largest market segment.
Bjørn Stærk | 2005-10-16 18:10 | Link
Atlas: Either Stærk hasn't read Atlas Shrugged or he is willfully misrepresenting it through a cartoon that is definitely misrepresenting it.
Both, actually. I've never brought myself to read that entire book. Hard to put my finger on which factor was the more influential in persuading me not to: My dislike of Rand's philosophy, the loud sighing sound I make when I read summaries of the book's story, the horrible things it seems to do to its readers, or just the sheer size of it. One of them, anyway.
And I know that isn't a fair representation of the book. Seems to have been intended more as mocking by the person who made it, and as for my casually linking to it from inside a pair of parentheses, that was my way of having a little fun with objectivists. They're so easy to make angry, almost as easy as grammar nitpickers, and even more fun. I know I shouldn't, but it costs so little, and you get so much in return.
Yes, this makes me part of the conspiracy of mediocricity and collectivism. You see, we envy objectivists their brilliance and rugged individualism, and so we need to crush their superior philosophy. We intend to do this by linking to silly cartoons. Victory will be inevitable.
So anyway, what did you think about what, you know, the post was about?
Atlas | 2005-10-16 23:57 | Link
I am not an objectivist, I just wanted to make your readers aware that you are in fact kicking against a philosophy you know very little about.
You post? It's too long for a full comment today, later maybe. It brings in too many different subjects that are left hanging, and ends as a review for V for Vendetta and a conclusion a 8 year old could make: cartoons are not real.
Atlas | 2005-10-17 00:00 | Link
Jeff Dege | 2005-10-17 04:52 | Link
You're a fan of Hayek - which means you cannot be a fan of Rand.
Rand was a utopian idealist - who thought that she had discovered how to scientifically determine how society should be organized.
Yes, she was pro-capitalist. But her methods were indistinguishable from Bentham, Marx, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, etc.
Her sole saving grace was that she never gained political power.
børge | 2005-10-19 01:26 | Link
Oh, and for those who might care (even though I suspect Bjørn Stærk doesn't), here's the website of the V for Vendetta movie mentioned in this post: http://vforvendetta.warnerbros.com/
It is made by the Wachowski brothers, you know those hwo created the Matrix triology. :)
Pignut | 2005-10-22 04:37 | Link
"What happened to those concentration camps?"
They were renamed "asylum-seeker reception centres".
Totoro, U.S. | 2005-10-23 17:10 | Link
Alan Moore is a fabulous comic writer, but a poor political analyst. One can ignore his uninformed political views and enjoy his amazing talents as an imaginative story teller. I love V for Vendetta and will see the movie, but I doubt I'll like the movie. I recently read V for Vendetta and it's still good. It's not about Jihadism and the goal of an Islamic Caliphate, however.
If you want to find a real Evey, check out the life and works of Natan Sharansky.
Totoro, U.S. | 2005-10-23 17:15 | Link
My first post was denied because of "questionable content: prescr**tions." At first I thought you were denying my post because I recommended the book but not Moore's political views. Then I realized that it was the use of the "p" word.
That's some "Eye" you have operating, Bjorn.
Geir, Norge | 2005-10-28 09:39 | Link
What are you trying to say BS? Your logic seems even more fuzzy and downright silly than otherwise with this "article". Nice to see you engaging in some wholesome, clean semantics though. And since you are the utmost authorithy on terrorism in Norway (after all, your the member of an anti--terrorist think think which is grand), I find it bemusing but strangely warm and cuddly that you bend the definition of terrorism to fit your own needs. Where did your grandious ideas of consistency go? What about those of modularism? But its good to see that you at least realise towards the end that art need not be political. I agree that in principal at least, all aspects of social interaction have some degree political dimension. And its heartwarming to see that you acknowledge that V for Vendetta may be no more than a comic. Just like the lord of rings is a mere fantasy. In fact, Professor Tolkien vehemontly atressed that there were no analogies in his work. Whether or not it was ACTUALLY infleunced by the times is irrelevant. Lighten up, not everything is a conspiracy.
Bjørn Stærk | 2005-10-29 18:34 | Link
I've deleted a couple of off-topic comments about you-know-what. Hey people, this is not your personal soap box. If it's not on topic, and if it's about a certain other topic you know will spawn a hundred comments that will drown out everything else, don't post it.
Geir: Your logic seems even more fuzzy and downright silly than otherwise with this "article".
You'll be glad to know the feeling goes both ways, then. I can never quite make out what you're trying to tell me. I guess one or both of us live in a bizarre world of our own that makes it difficult to communicate with the outside.
Geir | 2005-10-31 19:48 | Link
hugs and kisses darling. My communication skills may be somewhat flawed but, hey, what the hell. This is a luvely blog and so much fun. it's like living in a small piece of surrealism, and it must fill you with joy to have created such a monstrosity.
Og når det kommer til fantasiverdener, tror jeg nok vi ikke er så forskjellige. Enhver fjott som faktisk gidder å skrive på blogger burde egentlig legges inn brennkvikt mener jeg. Dette er den laveste form for kommunikasjon, pjatt på intenett er håpløst. Dette er det vel jeg prøver å si. Blogging er som heroin (eller jenter) man hater det men kan ikke slutte.
Brian Jones, Atlanta | 2005-11-01 22:42 | Link
Nothing I've seen so far has changed my original notion, that V for Vendetta reached its perfect form in the graphic novel - indeed, its only viable form. This movie is going to suck rocks, in other words.
Here's waiting for Watchmen, which I think (hope) is going to make a simply amazing movie.
Totoro, U.S. | 2005-11-05 04:19 | Link
Brian Jones . . .
Watchmen is my all-time favorite graphic novel. I don't see how it could be made into a movie, though. So much depends on finding all the details in the illustrations. How could they ever reproduce the unfolding of the pirate comic, for example? I fear for the ruination of my favorite graphic novel.
kim sook-im | 2005-11-05 07:39 | Link
Sister Candice Kim
KEE, Skien, Norway | 2005-11-17 13:58 | Link
Ah, V for vendetta. A classic masterpiece- and even though the politics and political solutions presented are fallible, I think they are vital to the storyline.
Harald Hansen, Kongsberg | 2005-11-24 09:01 | Link
I think you've slightly misinterpreted 1984's significance. It's not so much about showing what goes on behind the iron curtain as to showing what could happen in Great Britain. And the big contribution to the debate is not that we can point to the very first surveillance camera and shout "Big Brother". It is more about that we now have a common vocabulary to discuss phenomena like persvasive surveillance, revisionist history and the corruption of language.
Bjørn Stærk | 2005-11-24 18:47 | Link
Harald Hansen: It's not so much about showing what goes on behind the iron curtain as to showing what could happen in Great Britain.
Or anywhere. The point I'm trying to make is that 1984 isn't about "the future" of anywhere in particular, it's about the nature of totalitarianism.
And the big contribution to the debate is not that we can point to the very first surveillance camera and shout "Big Brother".
You think that's a contribution? Calling something "Big Brother"-like is about as subtle an argument as calling someone Hitler because you disagree with them, and it's something Orwell himself would have disapproved of, because it becomes an excuse not to think. This was a major theme in his non-fiction, and is why I think people should read that instead: Orwell was concerned about the excuses we make up so we won't have to think, about slogans that abandon the ideas they were born from and take on a life of their own. And that's precisely what has happened to the buzzwords from 1984: "Orwellian", "Big Brother", "doublethink", these words have become empty slogans, which people bring out in a debate because of their rhetorical impact, not because they're the product of actual thinking.
If you haven't read the Orwell essays I linked to above, you really should do that. Those and many of his other essays are more relevant to us than 1984.
KEE: A classic masterpiece- and even though the politics and political solutions presented are fallible
What, you know of an infallible political solution?
KEE, Skien | 2005-11-25 12:54 | Link
Only in stories...
Anthony | 2005-11-25 16:11 | Link
"If you haven't read the Orwell essays I linked to above, you really should do that."
The links don't work.
Bjørn Stærk | 2005-11-25 19:53 | Link
"The links don't work."
Thanks - I've fixed it. The ones I'm thinking of are Politics and the English Language and Notes on Nationalism.
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Bjørn Stærk 25/11
KEE, Skien 25/11
Bjørn Stærk 24/11
Harald Hansen, Kongsberg 24/11
KEE, Skien, Norway 17/11
kim sook-im 05/11
Totoro, U.S. 05/11
Brian Jones, Atlanta 01/11
Bjørn Stærk 29/10
Geir, Norge 28/10
Totoro, U.S. 23/10
Totoro, U.S. 23/10
Jeff Dege 17/10
Bjørn Stærk 16/10