Pop Culture and History (and Social Science) as Advocacy

A movie about the Nat Turner rebellion  is expected to hit the theaters soon.  Obviously, the movie does not pretend to be an apolitical piece:  it reuses the title of a famous and equally political (from the opposite direction) film from a hundred years before.  While, obviously, I have not yet seen the film, I can’t say I approve of this tendency, of “historically based” films being used for advocacy any more than I have of the “science” ™ being used for advocacy:  like I said about science as advocacy, if you shill through art, you are not an artist, you are a shill.

The historical background of the Nat Turner rebellion is just as dubious as that of the Klan, if on a very small scale:  the historical Nat Turner was a slave preacher and, for all intents and purposes, a cult leader with a worldview not unlike that of a Charles Manson:  he thought he was commanded by God to kill whites and the victims of his rebellion were, by and large, a fairly innocent lot, other than that they subscribed to the contemporary social practices–several of which, I suppose, would be incompatible with the present day morals.  The rebellion, of course, was followed by an equally indiscriminate massacre by the local militia other other armed whites, reinforced by sailors from US navy warships, of local blacks, both slave and free.  There is no disputing that the conditions of slavery contributed to certain details of the end times theology preached by Turner.  Certainly, he was able to gain many of followers due to the oppressive conditions of slavery.  But hardly any act of great violence perpetrated by many draws participants without “good” reasons, at least from their perspective.  In the end, Nat Turner was a literal madman and a mass murderer who contributed to tragedies for many, not someone who should be cast unambiguously into a hero.  Yet, the background to these many personal tragedies was the institution of slavery.  Perhaps he will still have become a mass murdering cult leader even without slavery surrounding him, but he may not have been able to gather as large a following as he did and the number of victims might have been limited.  It certainly would not have contributed to the further complication of the national political millieu as the actual rebellion did that would eventually lead up to the Civil War.  Will the movie depict him as this complex figure and the even more complex set of circumstances that led to the situation escalating as far as it did?  I hope it does, but I don’t expect that it will–or at least, it will be done very well (not necessarily a knock on the filmmakers–I just don’t think it is very easy to impart upon the audience/readers how complicated a given situation is beyond the simple declarative morality.)

Another recent controversial film that was certainly not apolitical was The American Sniper. For all the controversy that it drew, I thought the movie’s portrayal of the real life sniper, Chris Kyle, was reasonably well done and nuanced:  he was hardly an unambiguous hero, but a man increasingly slipping into madness and, as the movie unfolded, was gradually becoming a homicidal maniac who actually enjoyed killing.  In many ways, a cross between a Hamlet and a Macbeth–not a clean-cut “hero.”  To his credit, this is typical of Clint Eastwood films, including those from his Spaghetti Western days.  Different audiences, I suppose, saw different things, based on the reactions that I’ve seen, though.

George Orwell famously claimed that all art is propaganda.  Every artist, author, even scientist has some political view and is given to the temptation to use his craft to shill for his beliefs.  I also think this is how most art is reduced to useless garbage that cannot transcend their times.  Science, defined broadly to include history and other “factual” pursuits of knowledge, to its credit, has sought to resist this temptation for most part by focusing on timeless truths devoid of moral questions.  But the audiences demand moral clarity, and the temptation to shill becomes difficult to resist if the artist seeks fame and fortune that only a large and/or respective audience can provide.

PS.  I suppose one way of describing a common attitude associated with the movies that “advocate” on the basis of far too complex events and people is, “he was a mass murderer, but he was a mass murderer for justice.”  I heard something analogous describing a real policy, by someone who orchestrated by that policy before:  Richard Holbrooke describing the bombing campaign against Serbia that he concocted as “bombs for peace.”  What’s next?  Mass murder for human rights?  Genocide for life?   That kind of attitude makes me sick.  My worldview, in fact, tends to be opposite:  no matter how hard we might strive for justice, peace, or whatever, there will be mistakes.  We need to be, at minimum, cognizant that regardless of how grand and beneficent how goals might be, we are imperfect and we will do wrong along the way.  We should do all that we can to make whole those whom we injure even in pursuit of the good, not justify our misdeeds by claiming that we were trying to do good.

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