Monday, March 19, 2007

300 & Conservatism

Robert George says its "surprising" how conservatives are praising the film 300. As it happens, I attended the movie with Robert and came away somewhat less perplexed. The movie, as most probably already know, is roughly based on the Battle of Thermopylae in 580 BC. There, Spartan king Leonidas strode against popular opinion and, alongside 300 elite soldiers, withstood for two days an advancing Persian army of infinitely greater size.
The very first statement heard in 300 are words that should disturb other more conventional conservatives. Forgive the SPOILERS that will come with this making this observation.

The narrator casually explains that Spartan baby boys are examined to see if they are healthy. Those that are not -- or are deemed weak or too sickly -- are, well, discarded. As in, tossed and left to die.

Call it complete post-birth abortion.

Furthermore, the film, arguably justifies this by -- another SPOILER COMING UP -- a plot point that turns one of the few survivors of this quaint cultural practice, ugly hunchback, into a traitor. Ephialtes betrays the Spartans by throwing in with Xerxes (after being told by Spartan King Leonidas that he is of too low a stature to be of help his fellow Greeks on the battlefield). So, there's a lesson for a "proper" military culture: Kill the weak and sickly -- lest they help destroy the best in your society.
That's not quite right. In the film, Leonidas is impressed with the hunchback's will to fight, even complimenting his strength. But when the hunchback is unable to raise his shield with his left arm, owing to his disfigurement, Leonidas regretfully informs him that the key to Spartan warfare is soldiers' acting as a single organic unit, thus necessitating nimble shield maneuvering. Leonidas also suggests a variety of ways the hunchback can still be of service to the war-fighting effort -- removing bodies from the field of battle, allocating water for the fighters, etc. The hunchback, though, ultimately considers these gestures demeaning. Instead, he gives in to personal temptations, revealing an Achilles heal of Leonidas' position in exchange for pleasures of the flesh from the Persian king.

The message to be taken from this is very much conservative. Whereas liberals exalt individual human beings as inherently decent, faulting society for its capacity to corrupt, conservatives, more often than not, view individual human beings as flawed, looking toward civilizing institutions (like the church) to install moral boundaries, humbleness, and a sense of purpose. In other words, conservatives recognize that nobody's perfect, and work from there, while liberals think "just being yourself" is perfect.

When the mis-figured Spartan wasn't treated as an obvious equal to his physically perfect compatriots -- despite his painfully obvious handicap -- he takes his frustrations out by becoming a traitor, thus elevating his own personal self-interest above that of his country's collective security. Unreasonably inflating individual self worth at the expense of common-sense perspective is at the very heart of contemporary liberalism.

Robert's point is largely that as a people who practiced abortion as a means of perfecting their country's warrior ethos, 300's Sparta can't reasonably be embraced by "conventional," or pro-life, conservatives. Unless I've missed it, this is something of a straw man, as I've yet to see anyone lauding this disturbing method of social engineering. In that particular respect, who today wouldn't condemn the abhorrent practice? A therefore flawed society, Spartans are by no means supposed to personify perfection.

But they do value liberty and realize it does not come cheaply. These Spartan virtues, as described by historian Victor Davis Hanson, are where conservatives can appreciate 300's compelling story:
Most importantly, 300 preserves the spirit of the Thermopylae story. The Spartans, quoting lines known from Herodotus and themes from the lyric poets, profess unswerving loyalty to a free Greece. They will never kow-tow to the Persians, preferring to die on their feet than live on their knees.

If critics think that 300 reduces and simplifies the meaning of Thermopylae into freedom versus tyranny, they should reread carefully ancient accounts and then blame Herodotus, Plutarch, and Diodorus — who long ago boasted that Greek freedom was on trial against Persian autocracy, free men in superior fashion dying for their liberty, their enslaved enemies being whipped to enslave others.

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