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Entertainment in Service of a Political Agenda
Entertainment is a business, one would suppose. Its purpose is to make money. In reality, this type of business being at the center of our culture has the power to influence events in other sectors of society. For instance, it has political influence. Entertaining works shape public attitudes in ways that support or undermine current government policies.
In March 2007, a question of the highest political importance is whether the United States will or should attack Iran to take out its nuclear capability and perhaps effect regime change. An influential group within the Bush administration - sometimes called neo-cons - are staunch supporters of a war with Iran. Many of these neo-cons are American Jews who fear that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten the state of Israel. The drum beat of impending war appears in various forms: reports of Iranian aid to Shiite militias in Iraq, dire warnings issued to Iran by top U.S. government officials, aircraft carriers sent to the Persian Gulf.
It is in this political context that a new Hollywood film, 300, has been released. This film tells the story of the Spartan king, Leonidas, who in 480 B.C., together with 300 soldiers, opposed the invading Persian armies at Thermopylae. James Pinkerton, a writer for Newsday, makes the obvious connection between the themes and players in this film and those of a possible war with Iran in the coming months.
Speculating as to a motive for Hollywood making this film at the present time, Pinkerton is content to offer a commercial explanation. At most, 300 tells a rollicking story important to western history and civilization.
A more interesting possibility is that the films release is coordinated with the political activities of those persons or groups pushing the United States into a war with Iran. Certainly, it would have the effect of preparing the American public psychologically for such a war. Could it be that the neo-cons have influence with Hollywood producers and that this film is primarily a political vehicle?
In Civilization IV - the age of entertainment - such alliances are always possible. Political persuasion increasingly consists of repetitious use of images given a certain moral tone, not unlike the branding process that takes place in television commercials. The traditional type of rational argument has less impact upon public opinion and government policy.
In 300 the evil Persians are defeated by a much smaller number of Greeks as, Bush Administration strategists would hope, modern-day Iran (part of the Axis of Evil) might be brought to its knees through aerial bombardments delivered by a small group of jet pilots.
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"Ready for a war with Iran? Hollywood is, at least in the form of a new movie, 300. The film is a wildly inventive, comic-booky feast of ancient history, bloody swordplay and patriotic rhetoric, ringing with the politics of today. Spawned by graphic novelist Frank Miller - who penned The Dark Night returns, reviving the Batman franchise in the 80s, and who also created Sin City - 300 shows the Spartan good guys defeating the Persian bad guys at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.
Oops, actually, the Spartans lost - were wiped out, in fact. But the Spartans won a moral victory, and the various Greek city-states managed to unite long enough to defeat the Persians in the overall war. And we know all about it from Herodotus, the father of history, who started a pro-Greek spin that spins to this day, 2,487 years later.
Its because of such books, and now movies, that we view these events as an epochal showdown between the manly and freedom-loving Westerners and the servile hordes of Asian tyrants.
The Spartan leader, Leonidas, was indeed a cool guy. Vastly outnumbered by the Persians, Leonidas and h is 300 soldiers set a jaunty masculine tone that still informs the military ethos of grace under pressure. When a Persian emissary told him and h is men to throw down their weapons and surrender, Leonidas shot back, Come and get them!; Stirring words to live by - and die by - and to be remembered.
In 1835, for example, when the Anglo Texans rose in rebellion against Mexico, the Mexican commander demanded the English-speakers give up their lone cannon, to which the Texans, channeling the Spartans responded, Come and take it! Every young man who sees this movie - and movies are mostly targeted at the young - is going to get a triple dose of adrenaline, male bonding and macho pageantry. Words such as duty, honor and glory are heard constantly through the film. Indeed, if spears and shields were replaced by M-16s and Humvees, 300 could be a military recruitment film.
Moreover, the Spartans are portrayed as strong, upright and conservative - theres even an image of Leonidas in the pose of a Christian martyr - whereas the Persians are depicted as effete, weird and decadent, all kinky and body-pierced. No wonder, then, that the Persians were lousy soldiers, victorious only because of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and outright betrayal.
Indeed, the most sinister figure in the film is a Spartan politico who specifically identifies himself as a realist. and so go the parallels today, where for many Americans realist is code for cynical, cowardly or, worst of all, French. These Americans believe the United states is destined to lead an epochal struggle against the forces of evil - led by Iranians, a.k.a. Persians - in the Middle East. in addition, they believe that Uncle Sams chances for victory in the ongoing war are being jeopardized by cut-and-run Democrats and white-flag Republicans in Congress and the media.
Indeed, a hawkish These Colors Dont Run Caravan left San Francisco on Thursday, and is scheduled to arrive in Washington, D.C., this coming Saturday - there to confront antiwar protesters, whom the pro-warriors consider to be anti-American. Along the way, the caravaners might pause to see 300, because its a film for them; the message of support our troops has never gotten a better cine-endorsement.
But wait a second. Isnt Hollywood liberal? Dont lefty studio executives love to tear down America? Well, maybe they love, even more, making money, selling lots of tickets to big red-state audiences. Or maybe they, too, adore a rollicking story put on screen.
Or maybe even out in L.A. they know that Thermopylae is a touchstone of Western civilization, a sacred piece of our common cultural inheritance. And so its worth remembering what happened there, long ago, without regard to the transitory politics of the millenniums since.
For Duty, Honor and Glory against Iran: If its spears were replaced by M-16s and Humvees, 300 could be a military recruitment film by James P. Pinkerton, Newsday. Star Tribune, March 13, 2007, p. A7
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China, Persia, and the "Clash of Civilizations" Campaigning for High Political Office in an Age of Entertainment