Culture Wars: Are Bravehearted Conservatives Clueless?

Ken Masugi

August 1, 1995

For making unexceptional criticisms of current popular entertainment, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole stirred up unwarranted controversy. As his defenders have noted, he shied away from recommending censorship and merely advised self-control on the part of a dissolute Hollywood. Degrading sex and violence (not to mention insipid dialogue and celebrations of mindlessness) make us less fit to lead the active lives of citizenship democratic self-government requires. How can any common purpose exist, whether it be love or patriotism, if human beings are reduced to bodies without spirit? Consider the vacuous high schoolers portrayed in that entertaining update of Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless.

But first let us clarify an important matter: Pornography is no more speech than flagburning is. And censorship, even the Supreme Court would agree, can be consistent with First Amendment freedoms. It’s perfectly clear to us ordinary citizens that flagburning and pornography belong in the same offending category. It is the virtue of a free people to create a public sphere for self-government, not solely through laws but, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, through mores as well. And it is here, in the area of mores, that Hollywood attacks (and reveals, often inadvertently) America’s soul most directly.

The latest in the Batman series, as tedious as daytime TV, is a good example. A reflection of contemporary America, Gotham City is degenerate, lacking in public spirit and requiring the intervention of an otherwise privately occupied millionaire, Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, to secure justice. Only a private, mysterious force, in whom the public has absolute trust, can save it from its own ineptitude and inability to exercise citizenship. These
desiccated last men who yearn for vigilante justice are ripe for tyranny.

The establishment of political freedom is precisely the focus of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. The three-hour film details the heroism of William Wallace, the thirteenth-century Scottish warrior, in creating a Scotland free of English tyranny. (Winston Churchill compares Wallace with Joan of Arc in his first volume of the History of the English-Speaking Peoples.) Wallace wants to live a merely private life, but vicious English lords kill his wife and humiliate the divided Scots. Once it is clear that he cannot live a good life alone, he assumes leadership of a revolt against the English masters. And Scotland moves toward independence.

Many viewers of Braveheart may be repulsed by the violence rather than enlightened by the political themes. But the movie’s last scene denies the propriety of such a conclusion: As Wallace meets his gruesome end, tortured and eviscerated, he screams out “Freedom!” He is infinitely more than the disfigured body his torturers would attempt to reduce him to. This is the farthest thing from a pornography of violence. Thus the Mel Gibson treatment of Wallace is the best reply to those who can’t (or won’t) differentiate between violence in the cause of justice (as in a good western) and gratuitous violence. Braveheart approaches Paul Scofield’s Man for All Seasons (based on the life of Sir Thomas More) as the best film about devotion to principle and piety.

Now comedy, even the sick humor of films such as Die Hard and the grotesque Pulp Fiction, can teach us about moral responsibility. The sordid Woody Allen’s comic marvel, Bullets Over Broadway, reflects wisely on the moral responsibility of the artist. Human beings are reduced to ’toons in Pocahontas, and our moral horizons are likewise shrunk.

It would appear that, with rare exceptions, current films teach us to be either maudlin or cynical. That is, they tend to reinforce bad tendencies in the American character, when they don’t inspire new vices. Our low condition is all the more evident when we contrast the earliest entertainment in this nation’s history, such as Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Joseph Addison’s 1733 play, Cato, which George Washington ordered performed at Valley Forge. Cato is a tragedy about the Roman republic’s last hero who fought the triumphant Julius Caesar. But it is also the love story between Cato’s true ally, an African prince, who is in love with his daughter. Cato’s devotion to civic virtue, to patriotism, makes him proud in this match. We may marvel that slaveholders would delight in a play approving interracial marriage, but that only testifies to the Founders’ devotion to civic virtue. Unless
we see the need for such a political focus, we will be Clueless in preserving our freedom.

Ken Masugi is Senior Fellow at the Ashbrook Center and is Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at Ashland University.