To the surprise of many critics, and many readers of a particular newspaper, the movie 300 surged ahead to take in more than $70 million in its opening weekend (and more than $150 million worldwide at the date of this article). A live-action adaptation of a graphic art interpretation of the Spartan’s stand at Thermopylae—how’s that for an illustration of how all art is both derivative and creative—the movie had been expected by the industry to be a “niche film.” And it was panned by most critics as “a throwaway epic“: “excessive” and “simplistic.” A. O. Scott of the New York Times sneers that it’s “about as violent as Apocalypto and twice as stupid.” My absolute favorite negative review, however, has to be Kyle Smith from the New York Post—who violates Godwin’s Rule to say:

Keeping in mind Slate’s Mickey Kaus’ Hitler Rule—never compare anything to Hitler—it isn’t a stretch to imagine Adolf’s boys at a 300 screening, heil-fiving each other throughout and then lining up to see it again.

(Note for Mr Smith: it’s a Rule for a reason—Nazi references just never sound credible. Also, “heil-five” doesn’t sound clever, just juvenile.)

Even some of the critics who liked the movie sound somewhat dismissive, viewing it as pure escapism, fun but vapid as it were. But at least these critics understand, and appreciate, the movie for its celebration of manly virtues and the excitement of battle. Richard Roeper at the Chicago Sun-Times perhaps sums up this view:

It is excessively, cheerfully violent — and it is gorgeous to behold. It looks like the world’s most sophisticated and expensive video game, and I mean that in a good way.

Neal Stephenson, a popular science fiction writer, tries to explain this odd divergence of critical opinion and popular cash. He writes:

The critics, however, were mostly hostile, and frequently venomous. Many reviews made the same points:

  • “300” is not sufficiently ironic. It takes its themes (duty, loyalty, sacrifice, the preservation of Western civilization against enormous odds) too seriously to, well, be taken seriously.
  • “300” is campy — meaning that many things about it can be read as sexual double entendres — yet the filmmakers don’t show sufficient awareness of this.
  • All of the good guys are white people and many of the bad guys are brown. (How this could have been avoided in a film about Spartans versus Persians is never explained; [snip])

But such criticisms aren’t really worth arguing with, because they are not serious in the first place — and that is their whole point. Many critics dislike “300” so intensely that they refused to do it the honor of criticizing it as if it were a real movie. Critics at a festival in Berlin walked out, and accused its director of being on the Bush payroll.

True as far as it goes, but he lets the critics off far too easily. For many of our intelligensia—and most art/film critics are card-carrying members of that group—what used to be called “the manly virtues” are neither manly nor virtuous. Rather, they’re seen as archaic and dangerous remnants of a benighted and primitive state of being. They are holdovers from the Dark Ages of war, superstition, barbarism, and religion (the last usually considered worse than the rest put together, unless it’s the friendly sort of religion which doesn’t really believe anything but good manners—Unitarianism or recent Episcopalianism). Historians may have debunked the notion that the “Dark Ages” were uniquely superstitious and violent, but our intellectual elite still lives happily in the 19th century on this point. (For freethinking rationalists they’re surprisingly slow to modify their views to fit current research.)

In reality, of course, these intellectuals reject manly virtues not out of moral superiority, but out of cowardice. They have made a virtue of cowardice and elevated the most craven individuals into great moral heroes. Consider how antiwar groups have lauded those who join the U.S. Military and then refuse to serve in war. As if these people somehow didn’t realize that soldiers exist pretty much entirely to either kill people or enable others to do so. I can respect the conscientious objector who refuses to be drafted due to moral commitment, but who could possibly respect someone who treats the Army as Career Builder.com and then refuses to pay the bill when it comes due?

Of course, the cowards who comprise the “peace movement” aren’t real pacifists. Real pacifists understand that pacifism means that people die. They realize that evil people don’t suddenly become less vicious simply because they’re confronted with peaceful non-cooperation. They understand that they, and their families, may well pay a terrible price for their stand of conscience. I may disagree with these people, but I can understand them, and respect them. In their own way, they show the same sort of courage as the 300 Spartans. They, too, are willing to die to the last man rather than compromise themselves.

Not so the weak-hearted leftists who make up the antiwar movment and the intelligensia. They are the fair-weather pacifists whose pacifism is just another name for cowardice. They say they oppose war because of the killing, but you’ll notice they can’t be bothered to actually do anything about killing. They’ll protest that the United States isn’t doing enough to stop some atrocity and then protest whatever U. S. intervention occurs. They’ll call for regime change for a brutal regime (but never very vigorously), then oppose any change involving force. (Thus giving vicious thugs an all-powerful veto over any actual change.)

They say they are concerned, but their actions teach a different lesson: they are afraid. Amusingly, many of them claim that it is their opponents who thrive on fear, but this is psychological projection. (And it isn’t even really accurate. Support for the war in Afghanistan, and Iraq, wasn’t built up on fear so much as anger and grim determination. If we had really feared Saddam as an imminent danger, we wouldn’t have bothered with the conventional weapons.) The thought of evil bastards who can’t be reasoned with, can’t be appeased, can’t be effectively dealt with in any way except violence, capitulation, or isolation terrifies them. They desperately wish that such people would just go away. The most foolish then perform the intellectual equivalent of closing their eyes and hoping the monster isn’t there anymore. The only slightly less foolish preach a mantra of withdrawal and isolation.

But, as the Spartans realized, when the enemy is willing to track you down to your home, there is no isolation—and withdrawal means surrender. At that point you need to do whatever it takes to defend your home, or lie down and wait for the final thrust of the spear in the gut or the “merciful” boot of the conquerer on your throat. For those with courage, and honor, who love home and would die to defend it, neither of those are options. For our cowardly intellectuals and honorless chattering class, those are the only “civilized” options.

Which is why there aren’t epics about the civilized, sophisticated Spartan citizens who tried to block the rash and militaristic actions of their king. Because the Spartans, whose virtues did not include tolerating cowardice masquerading as sophistication, knew the proper counterargument involves steel, not words.

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