Creative Destruction

May 9, 2006

Update: United 93

Filed under: Content-lite,Popular Culture — Brutus @ 1:03 pm

I posted an entry on the movie United 93 last month, averring that it's a tacky exercise in audience pandering. George Will has a column on the movie in the Washington Post. He apparently fancies himself a cinema critic for the purpose of this movie, and he reports that United 93 won its opening weekend at the box office, which goes to show that folks were willing to subject themselves to repeat trauma, presumably out of some sense of obligation. I gather (from other sources) that there was a lot of quiet sobbing in theaters after showings. Will says two things in particular that bug me:

Going to see "United 93" is a civic duty because Samuel Johnson was right: People more often need to be reminded than informed.

and

The message of the movie is: We are all potential soldiers. And we all may be, at any moment, at the war's front, because in this war the front can be anywhere.

First, when a movie is transformed into a civic duty, especially one where the surrounding events are remarkably well known (yet the events depicted are cloaked in secrecy or flatly unknown) and the traumatic reminder is served up as pseudoentertainment, I have a real problem. A book reviewer may say a title is a must-read, and I'm OK with that. It's an endorsement. A pundit or cultural critic may say something should be required reading, whereupon I'm more than likely to ignore both the object of that sobriquet and the pundit or critic. I can make up my own mind what's important. When Will calls upon our civil duty to go relive the trauma (in a fictionally reenacted version, no less), the trauma still fresh in mind for most of us, it's offensive. Will can publish his opinions, sure. That's his job. But he certainly doesn't speak for me or my values when he imposes his sense of duty.

Second (beyond his apparent inability to punctuate properly using a colon), the message Will takes from the movie may be remarkably different from the intent of the filmmakers. Based on what I've read, they wanted to honor the martyred passengers, not galvanize the public into active resistance in the absence of open domestic warfare or repeated terrorist attacks. I've seen a fair number of arguments about the citizen soldier and why such a thing is necessary in the contemporary world. One of my fellow bloggers on this site, Robert Hayes, has made his arguments in favor of the citizen soldier at length in other venues.

It is clear to me that Will conflates his imperative to not only witness but be reminded of events with a duty to participate in them. Under certain extraordinary circumstances, that may indeed be necessary. Without going too far off topic, however, I can well imagine the awfulness that would obtain were groups of citizens, probably acting as mobs (as such things must inevitably go), to interfere with the obgligations and activities of the U.S. military in providing for the general defense. Our government already regards its citizens as enemies of the state, either potentially or literally. It wouldn't take much, I fear, to see the military ordered to fire upon the citizenry.

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8 Comments »

  1. One wonders just how far such civic duty actually goes considering that United 93 dropped four spots in the box office this weekend.

    Having seen the film, the message was fairly clear that average people acted bravely in an incredibly difficult situation. In no way did it come across as a call for the average citizen to regard himself as a soldier. How Will reached such a conclusion is anyone’s guess.

    However, he is not the only person seeking to use this film to galvanize the “sleeping” public. There a quite a few people who wish to inspire in Americans the furor many felt following the attacks. Their mistake is assuming that people have forgotten and become complacent. While the latter may be true, the former is not. People remember, though they may not express it with the same emotion that they once showed.

    I agree that Will appears to conflate the purpose of the film with his own opinions about citizen soldiers. Given the size of the population, the variety opinions, issues with the current administration, etc., I think you are correct in saying such a civilian force would disintegrate (almost immediately) into mob rule.

    Comment by Toy Soldier — May 9, 2006 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

  2. I’ll consider something my civic duty when it doesn’t require me to pay $14.00 to movie theaters and movie studios in order to fulfill said duty.

    I am sure the movie is very good and I can assure anyone who cares that I have certainly not forgotten those events. They remain quite vivid in my mind.

    I don’t however, appreciate being made to feel, by critics, advertising or whoever that I MUST see what is essentially a piece of entertainment, created in order to make money, in order to be a good person or to correctly respond to horrifying events of our recent past.

    Comment by KT — May 9, 2006 @ 6:46 pm | Reply

  3. Y’know, it could just be that some people like it :p

    Comment by Adam Gurri — May 9, 2006 @ 10:53 pm | Reply

  4. Brutus,

    Agree with you on this one but I think there is one more general issue that has been missed here. Imagine the US Hockey team plays and looses to the Russians with three wins, and one draw. How wonderful would a movie be where we focus on the draw, show how great the players were during that single game.

    The sad fact is that on 9/11 four planes crashed and three went on target. The only plane that did not crash on target went on the ground nevertheless.

    If we have one civic duty, it is to remember the events of 9/11 in the real context. Understand the reasons that draw maniacs from 10,000 miles away to kill themselves over their cause. Only once we understand what fuels their hatred, may we diffuse it.

    Comment by Vilon — May 11, 2006 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  5. Going a bit further off-topic, why the “martyr” talk?

    The Civil War had the salutary effect of ending slavery in much of the US, but I think we romanticize history to say that the Civil War was waged for that purpose. WWII freed Jews from Nazi death camps, but I think we romanticize history to say that WWII was waged for that purpose. And the resistance of Ft. 93 had the salutary effect of keeping a plane from crashing into the Capital or the White House, but are we not romanticizing history to say that the resistance occurred for that purpose?

    Sure, maybe the passengers willingly sacrificed their lives for the benefit of strangers. But isn’t it at least as plausible to say that passengers unwillingly sacrificed their lives in a desperate attempt to save their lives – or at least take revenge on the people who had ruined their lives? Admittedly, people can act with multiple motives. But because I observe that people to be more heavily motivated by self-interest than altruism when the two are in conflict, I have little faith that people are more heavily influenced by altruism than self-interest when the two coincide.

    When we observe bad things happening to good people, I sense the resulting cognitive dissonance drives us to create a “meaning” for events. Thus when someone is struck blind, we tend to tell stories about how that person has gained a new appreciation for other senses/life/Jesus/what have you. Even to the extent these stories are true, they are only part of the truth – the part the audience wants to hear. We discuss another person’s life drama not out of empathy for that person’s circumstances, but as a tool for coping with our own horror at his life’s circumstances. Thus, these stories are fundamentally not about others; they are about the audience. It seems a little disrespectful and egocentric to reduce another person’s life story to a tool to be manipulated for our own purposes, no matter how heartfelt those purposes might be.

    I don’t mean to be cynical here. I haven’t seen the movie, and I have no specific knowledge about what motivated the passengers. I merely hope that the film can celebrate the humanity of the people on board that plane without stripping them of the attributes that make people recognizably human.

    Comment by nobody.really — May 11, 2006 @ 4:51 pm | Reply

  6. Nobody.really,

    Agree 100% with your words, what ever that means. Can I say “amen”?

    Comment by Vilon — May 11, 2006 @ 5:25 pm | Reply

  7. Understand the reasons that draw maniacs from 10,000 miles away to kill themselves over their cause. Only once we understand what fuels their hatred, may we diffuse it.

    The reasons that draw maniacs? Maniacs are not generally driven by anything that can fairly described as reason.

    Our enemies are not maniacs, although it is useful to paint thim thus for propaganda purposes. They are men with an agenda.

    That agenda includes the conversion of the world to a particular form of Islam, the elimination of the Jewish state, and the extermination or subjugation of the Jewish ethnic group. It includes, by extension, the elimination or drastic weakening of the powerful states holding Western liberal values that stand squarely against that agenda.

    Which of these fine agenda items do you suggest we start “diffusing” first? Shall we disarm our military, implement sharia, or just start slaughtering Jews?

    Comment by Robert — May 11, 2006 @ 9:07 pm | Reply

  8. Sure, maybe the passengers willingly sacrificed their lives for the benefit of strangers. But isn’t it at least as plausible to say that passengers unwillingly sacrificed their lives in a desperate attempt to save their lives – or at least take revenge on the people who had ruined their lives?

    They didn’t sacrifice their lives. Their lives were already forfeit.

    Admittedly, people can act with multiple motives. But because I observe that people to be more heavily motivated by self-interest than altruism when the two are in conflict, I have little faith that people are more heavily influenced by altruism than self-interest when the two coincide.

    You’re assuming that they distinguished between the two. I suggest that they acted because they realised that they had much to gain, and nothing to lose by acting. That the ‘much to gain’ could be divided into ‘benefit to us’ and ‘benefit to others’ is not something that needed to be factored into consideration.

    Comment by Daran — May 12, 2006 @ 10:20 am | Reply


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