Our inglorious Constitution
In the fundamental differences of opinion that divide committed conservatives from committed liberals, there are strengths and weaknesses. Liberals’ embrace of pluralism stemming from their emphasis on equality (of opportunity rather than outcome, generally) tends to give them strength of numbers and puts them, at least theoretically, on the right side of an entrenched state apparatus largely committed, in large and small ways, to equality. Their ability to admit difference, however, tends to put them at a disadvantage when faced with conservatives’ broad (and generally monadic, even if they don’t admit it) tendency to assert universal truth, which flows naturally from their (conservatives’) emphasis on individual liberty. Liberals tend to see some kernal of truth in conservative charges, whereas conservatives almost never have this problem.
In other words: conservatives think they’re right even when they’re wrong, and liberals think they’re a little wrong even when they’re almost entirely right.
In the current political climate, this fundamental opposition has been difficult to traverse. For instance, liberals have a hard time sticking to their charges that some anti-Obama sentiment is based in racism (to the degree that I feel a little weird even writing that sentence without a series of hems and haws) because conservatives counter that not everyone who opposes Obama is a racist, which liberals know is true because they themselves oppose Obama sometimes and they’re certainly not racist, are they, and besides—missing the point that the issue isn’t racists, but racism, which is a subject for another post. Another example is the idolotrous treatment of the Constitution (see this, for instance, via hatethefuture) and their charges that the government is violating it. Because they’re not entirely wrong!
The unfortunate reality of American political discourse is that people don’t really understand how the government works, and because of that, the smooth functioning of the government actively requires hiding certain things from the public. This is not to say these things are wrong; at least a few people in the government are smart, moral people who care about the Constitution, and they have thought through these complex issues and given them the thumbs-up. But they are complex issues, and getting through them requires several years of careful study and an ability to listen to arguments you don’t immediately agree with, all of which it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get people whose first impulse is to draw a Hitler mustache on something (anything! a butternut squash! whatever’s closest at hand!) to do.
So, like I say, they’re not entirely wrong. Depending on how you look at it, how you finagle the interpretation, what your assumptions are and the historical context and and and etc., the whole basic modern structure of the government is Constitutionally suspect. For instance, according to the Constitution, nothing contained in it is meant to apply to people in single states, but only to Federal matters. Indeed, the Federal government is not supposed to get involved in state matters, but is only supposed to deal with international issues and business between the states. That power is contained in what’s called the interstate commerce clause, and to allow the government to, say, enforce the Civil Rights Act everywhere, it’s been invoked to argue that civil rights has something to do with interstate commerce. The problem is that it has to be invoked to do anything, even in cases when it’s clearly not supposed to apply. There are tons of examples of this. Of course, to follow the letter and spirit of the law here would prevent the government from doing all kinds of things we want the government to do, so we put up with it.
The primary error Constitutional deists make here is to ignore the fact that there’s a lot more than the Constitution to Constitutional law; there’s also the 200+ years of judicial decisions that interpreted and added to the Constitution, to say nothing of laws and statutes and regulatory decisions and so forth and so on. But the legitimacy of these, in some sense, rests on their verification by the Supreme Court, and you could make an argument, were you so inclined, that the Court’s position is itself Constitutionally untenable, seeing as how it essentially invented its now assumed power to ratify laws. It received this power not by Constitutional fiat or Congressional order, but through interpretation: the landmark 1802 decision Marbury v. Madison was actually about the Court declaring that it had the power to interpret the laws. It made a good argument for why it should have this power, but it didn’t deny that there were other ways of looking at it. Through this interpretation, admitted and defined as such, it created something new.
Which is why, roughly speaking, I loved Inglorious Basterds so much. It was primarily an act of interpretation, a historical movie that proudly refused to have anything to do with actual history. It wasn’t based on real events, it wasn’t accurate, it wasn’t real; it was fiction, and art, and only by unabashedly seizing its position as such was it able to provide us with a far more immediate and real emotional and intellectual experience than any historical recreation I’ve ever seen. It was the anti-Oscar movie, unserious, unauthentic, but real as a movie in ways that less confident moviemakers are unable to manage. No one, at this point, needs to be educated about the Nazis or the Holocaust; anyone who wouldn’t have sympathy for the Jews or antipathy for National Socialism is pretty much a lost cause, and it’s hard to imagine any piece of torture-porn or rigorous factual evidence convincing someone who’s not already in that camp. So why not, you know, have some fun with it? The great thing about this movie is that it’s not even really a what-if; it doesn’t convert a near-miss or a true possibility into a game-changing event that makes everything different, but takes bits and pieces from everywhere and mashes them together into something enormously satisfying. The ending of the movie is literally overkill—multiple plots succeed in murdering the Nazis in multiple ways. Instead of capping it with a tragic, ironic twist, it pretty much gives us exactly what we want, and in the context of modern-day WWII movies, that’s a brave and strange thing. The ending brings elements together that had not previously been aware of each other, and their collision creates something new. The subject of the movie is ultimately not war or death or violence or Nazis or Jews but interpretation itself.
Which is why, maybe, it angered people who thought about it (critics) but not people who didn’t think about it (moviegoers). Interpretation gets a bad rap in our hyper-literalized culture, where art and entertainment are assumed to take a morally inferior position to reality. And it gets a bad rap in politics, too, where we assume people are trying to trick us (because we don’t entirely understand how government or politics works, maybe?) and so resort to “but this is what it says" denials of nuance or ambiguity or complexity as a way of feeling grounded and right, even when we’re not. We deny the valitity of creative interpretation, which is the whole stance of anyone who talks about politics; either they’re telling you what it really means (because there is only one thing it really means!), or they are “cutting through the bullshit” to get to the true and basic and real because of course a multi-trillion dollar state apparatus must be pretty basic and understandable to someone watching Bill fucking Maher. (Breathe! OK.)
And that’s why Inglorious Basterds was so wonderful: it was a full-throated celebration of what seems to me a fundamentally liberal value. Conservatives engage in this kind of thing, too—see Glenn Beck—but they don’t admit it as such, which appeals to the kind of people who are more interested in being right than in being happy. Inglorious Basterds modeled a kind of creative interpretation that admitted its own falseness as a way of asserting that this was not a foreclosed possibility for the past, but a wide-open possibility for the future. Invent something new, and if it’s good, then why not just keep pretending it’s real until we all accept it as such? That this almost never happens is just why we need someone to do it in public, to show us how being wrong is OK, to encourage us to keep doing it over and over until it works, to be wrong until we are right. Tarentino’s movie was a high-wire act of creation that made a case for the ability of swagger and style, properly framed, to bring about change. It was a hell of a movie, and a political statement subtle and believable enough that it might actually work. But if it doesn’t, that’s OK too.