Munich is an Unwitting Indulgence in Nihilism

Monday, December 26, 2005
Somewhere along the line, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner bought into the absurd myth that much of the Arab terrorism of the past fifty years is the inevitable blow back response of Palestinians whose land and heritage were allegedly stolen by Jewish imperialists . Munich is their recently released creation---and it is an appalling piece of work. Based on the highly questionable book by George Jonas, Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, this film is far too long and exhausting. It is often boring. A group of four assassins are sent on a mission, to kill one by one, Palestinians suspected of collaborating in the massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes during the 1972 games held in Munich. These misfits soon wonder if they are morally any better than their pursued quarry. The latter often come across as warm and fuzzy human beings doing the best they can. There is even a ridiculous scene where the Israelis and the Palestinians inadvertently spend the night together. It suggests that a little love and understanding will bring about peace. The violence of the terrorists would cease if only the Israelis were more open to dialogue. Throughout of the film, the recurring theme is that violence is ultimately useless in fighting terrorism. It will probably even make things far worse. Needless to add, the creators of Munich are also indirectly commenting on our post 9/11 existence.

Spielberg and Kushner, to be kind, are unwitting nihilists. The logical conclusion of their morally equivalent premise is that the defenders of Western Civilization values are little better than their attackers. We have no one to blame but ourselves for allowing our elected leaders to exacerbate the tensions. Violent responses to terrorism must give way to improved communication and good will. After all, our disregard of the rights of the Third World’s citizenry got us into this mess. Is this bizarre perspective an anomaly? Not in the least. Both men are mainstream representatives of the leftist ideologues who control the Democratic Party in the United States and the Labor Party of Israel. Such individuals and their cohorts have to be defeated politically. They may mean well, but their ideas turned into actual policies are dangerous. This movie is a not so gentle reminder of how crazy the Left is in the early part of this century. If they are not hindered, there may not be a next one. The stakes are truly that high.

18 comments:

chuck said...

I haven't seen the movie, nor will I. I don't go to Spielberg movies anymore, haven't for years. The guy is like an annoying twelve year old and it drives me nuts. Plus, whenever Spielberg puts a child on screen I get an appalling urge to toss said child in a sack and throw it into the nearest river. Scary, man, scary.

But enough about me. Munich sounds like what happens when you send a boy to do a man's job.

truepeers said...

I won't be paying to see this film, based on what I've read so far. And I agree with David that the lie of moral equivalence goes to the very heart of contemporary liberalism and is our proper target.

In many respects, the ideologies of moral equivalence are the result of WWII. For many liberal types, the horrors of Hiroshima are seen to balance those of Auschwitz; both events demonstrate the horrors that powerful nations can render, and are thus a basis to question our allegiance to nations in the victimary ideologies of our day.

The postmodern belief in moral equivalence also has something to do with the decline of high culture since the war, though paradoxically it also has something to do with how our would-be highbrows today (e.g. Kushner) are clinging to the lessons of high tragic art and its implicit call to sympathize with the victims of human folly.

On the one hand, the understandable loss of faith in high culture comes with loss of faith in the nations that had been high culture's patrons and the particular agents of its universal values. Most notably, high culture declined in response to the failed art student who tried to make a high aesthetic project out of his third reich. However he defeated himself, since his violence transcended the boundaries or ability of high culture to do its proper job: to contain or limit violence through meaningful appeal to the lessons of tragedy. Hitler thus showed how corrupting highbrow desires could become in the era of mechanized warfare, since we cannot detach the seemingly limitless violence of the Nazis from their desire to take highly seriously the formal closure on which all aesthetic projects depend. It was as if their apocalypse of violence were a search for the ultimate form of esthetic closure.

In my opinion, one very effective road beyond the high cultural pretensions that declined with the Nazi failure was realized in Spielberg’s Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, both meaningful war and Holocaust stories that transcend the form of tragedy as they simply but powerfully explore the theme of ordinary people's struggle for survival, along with their humble and true sense of morality. (Imagine if Spielberg were to portray the Israelis as he does the American boys in Private Ryan who are exemplars of nationhood in a post high cultural environment. They are not fighting for any crazy ideologies or high esthetics, nor immersed in a classic tragedy. Their leader - Tom Hanks' character - is just a humble English teacher who is simply fighting to do an unwelcome but necessary job, and go home to his family.)

Both those films drew a lot of criticism, especially from the highbrows that survive in certain privileged circles. The critics were still trying to judge Spielberg according to old- fashioned high cultural standards, often saw the violence he was depicting as a gratuitous attempt to depict the undepictable, and missing why great art in our time cannot aspire to the old high esthetic values.

So here's the paradox, as I see it. Spielberg is a proven post-high cultural genius when there is no doubt about who are the moral superiors and failures, as in the case of the Nazis. But now that he has put WWII to rest, he turns to something more recent and finds himself without sure moral footing - perhaps because in earlier transcending the highbrow esthetic on some powerful artistic intuition, he nonetheless found himself in the new era without serious intellectual tools and an ability to be sure of himself (as artist, Jew, American, etc.) and of moral rightness. So he buys into the false victimary ideologies that pervade the post-Auschwitz, post-Hiroshima environment, a time when the Israelis are “the new Nazis”. And, perhaps when such an artist loses his moral footing, he reverts to some of the tricks of the old highbrow esthetics: he returns to tragedy, and depicts the clash of two warrior foes whose story is more about the folly of human rivalry and lusts for power, and of the need to sympathize with all the victims of such rivalry.

Tragedy, which exemplified high culture values before the obvious evil of the Nazis corroded its sense of ambiguity and paradox - and before Stalin proclaimed one death a tragedy, a million a statistic - is implicitly a criticism of the small-minded patriots who think their side is mostly right and the other’s mostly wrong.

As such, the return to tragedy is the temptation to fall into the folly of postmodern moral equivalency. Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List are great films because they articulate moral rightness without trying to be high-minded about the universality of tragedy, and at the same time without being insensitively jingoistic. But take away the Nazis and the formula falls apart. Maybe that’s a clue as to why the Israelis are the new Nazis and why we can’t rely on artists to be our moral leaders in this day and age. Spielberg showed us how to transcend tragedy and now he seems – from what I’ve read – to be reverting to it. That’s not tragic; it’s just stupid and, as David says, nihilistic.

Buddy Larsen said...

The film sounds like a plea for an attitude of appeasement ("Munich" had to be the title? How dumb is THAT?) that WON the culture wars of the latter 20th century, at least at the street level (and under Carter & to a lesser extent Clinton, at the highest level) and then *proved* to've been the *wrong* way to stop terror and usher in peace.

chuck said...

In many respects, the ideologies of moral equivalence are the result of WWII.

I think the ideology predates WWII by quite a bit. If I had to guess, I would put it's origin in the October Revolution and the consequent necessity to excuse the inexcusable. It is at that point that good men of the left -- GBS, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and such -- lost their honesty and morals. Hearing excuses for the Communists was certainly where I first encountered the arguments of moral equivalence. You know: how the USA was just as bad, yada, yada, yada. The present day association of the ideology with the left is no accident, IMHO.

Spielberg’s Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, both meaningful war and Holocaust stories

I didn't see either. I was sure Spielberg would make them hoky and put in silly, ahistorical stuff somewhere. Not everywhere, but just enough to drive me bonkers. I have heard criticisms of the films that lead me to believe that that was the case, but I guess I might have to take the risk someday and see for myself. Note that I tend to be hyper-critical of films anyway. By and large I am not someone to take to a so called "serious" film unless you like hearing rants.

Buddy Larsen said...

I'm not qualified to vote on the meaning of "Schindler's List" other than as a drama. The nazi heart was well shown, tho, in the commandant character. "Private Ryan" is excellent in so many ways, but as Mark Steyn has pointed out, it's the Boomer's WWII, where the soldiers are hoping that saving Ryan will 'give meaning to the whole crazy mess'. You know, as if bringing down hitler didn't.

Buddy Larsen said...

Look in on this, Steyn on Dieppe, libs and "Ryan".

Anonymous said...

I, like chuck, have not yet seen this movie. I, however, enjoy Spielberg movies quite a bit and plan on viewing this one. I don't see him as "an annoying twelve year old" at all, simply a man who knows humans intimately. He knows what will make us jump, what will make us laugh, what will make us cry, and what will make us think. He is utterly professional and always in control of his audience. Is he the best living director? No, not at all. He will often trade in a possibly brilliant commentary on man for a forced feel good ending. And his movies are rarely, if ever, the best pictures of the year in which they are released. But his pictures are always very good and absolutely entertaining, and I have no reason to believe that Munich will break the trend of excellence started by Duel.

This film should be viewed and judged for itself and not for the whirlwind of controversy that surrounds it. But it seems that people can not view a movie like this without bringing their own political views into focus, a crime this "review" is certainly guilty of. If this must be, it must be. I only wish that those who chose to review this movie based on their own political beliefs and not on its own merits would stick to the facts and not hypothesize upon things they know nothing of. In reality Israel enjoyed a relatively long peace with the Palestinians throughout the nineties. This peace was brought about by Rabin and the very openness to dialogue which is viewed here with such disdain. The current flames of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians were sparked by Sharon and the Israeli army forcing them illegally onto holy Muslim land. This was done with the specific intent of riling up the Palestinians and proving that they were an unruly bunch who needed discipline. This was followed up by a Muslim retaliation, which spiraled into a cycle of alternating Israeli and Palestinian violence. Nihilism is the belief in nothingness not in peace. But I'm sure that this subtlety is lost on someone who thinks the U.S.'s war on terror is the same thing as the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Not all Muslims are the same, and the belief that a commentary on one group reflects a commentary on all others is equivalent to believing that a commentary on Nazis is a comment on all Christians.

But I'll have to see the movie before I know for sure.

Buddy Larsen said...

Thanks for showing us the proper apolitical attitude, Anon.

chuck said...

...he returns to tragedy, and depicts the clash of two warrior foes whose story is more about the folly of human rivalry and lusts for power...

I don't see tragedy this way at all. I think tragedy has strong moral elements and without them it is not tragedy at all, merely irony. Antigone, Oedipus Rex, The Bacchae, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello... Take away the evil of Regan and Goneril contrasted with the good of Cordelia, and what is left of Lear? Take away the moral certainties of Antigone and Creon and the play becomes pointless; one wonders why the characters were driven to get themselves in such a mess when they could have just laid back with a doobie.

I think you are saying that in tragedy conflicting sides are often motivated by high morals so it is difficult to determine the 'right' side. I don't deny that, but in that case it is necessary that both sides act in a highly moral way. If one side acts villainously then it is no longer tragedy, it is good versus evil, that is, a Western, which is a totally different kind of story. It is the inability to name anything as villainous that distinquishes moral equivalence.

chuck said...

Anon,

that a commentary on Nazis is a comment on all Christians.

Ok, I'm stumped. How is a commentary on murderous pagan socialists a commentary on Christians?

Buddy Larsen said...

I think he meant 'Europeans', Chuck.

truepeers said...

Buddy, Mark Steyn often hits the ball out of the park, but i think he strikes out on this one: "But it's flattering him [spielberg] to pretend he has any view on the war one way or another: with his customary lack of imagination, he simply cannot conceive of a world where men are prepared, quietly and without fanfare, to die for their country. Perhaps he has a point: in a narcissistic Clinto-Spielbergian culture, it's hard to see what would now drive the general populace to risk their lives.

-i just don't get it: men prepared quietly and without fanfare to die for their country is exactly what Private Ryan is about. Perhaps Steyn is responding more to interviews where Spielberg, now himself before the camera, can only spew out some relativizing liberal pap. But his artistic vision goes much deeper than that. Many great artists cannot say anything profound about their nonetheless profound works. There are different kinds of intelligence out there.

I also think the shots at the boomers are cheap. Of course Ryan is a boomer esthetic, but it's much greater than most boomer efforts, and it's not true that it's as if saving Ryan is the only way the boomer can make sense of the war. And it's not as if they can't envision Hitler's evil, at least if we compare them to the generation who fought the war and were almost entirely silent about the HOlocaust for the first twenty or thirty years thereafter (these things take time for us to find the words, etc.).

IN any case there is nothing to mock about the Spielberg-Private Ryan ethic of focussing on the imperative of survival amidst unspeakable evil. There may be more truth to this humble ethic than in many heroic stories of hte war, which is not to mock heroism either. And besides, the film itself seems to belittle the crazy mission to save Private Ryan - RYan himself fights against it - its point being that every American who survived the war, and their descendants, may rightly think of themselves as just ordinary people not worthy of great sacrifices. But it was precisely for such ordinary people that the war's great sacrifices were made.

And the film does not forget about the need to fight evil. Remember the intellectual - the translator - who at first can't fight and ends up watching his buddy get killed in hand to hand combat. Well, even he learns you have to pick up the gun and fight evil.

As for Schindler's List, one of the things that makes it profound, imho, is how the Nazi commandant is portrayed, not simply as profoundly violent and evil, but with just enough of a touch of comic book villainy to allow you almost to laugh at him. The film itself undermines certain esthetic pretensions, e.g. those of the Nazis. There is much truth in this deritualizing move, perhaps more than in all the handwringing at the banality of evil and the death of art after Auschwitz. BUt this ability to almost laugh at the criminals who peformed the HOlocaust is precisely what sent so many more high-minded critics ballistic.

CHuck says he doesn't like serious films, but the genius of Spielberg is in making serious things not entirely serious and thus getting at some deeper truths about the arch seriousness of modernism and the postmodern reaction thereto.

I'll reply to CHuck's other comments, a little later.

chuck said...

TP,

is how the Nazi commandant is portrayed, not simply as profoundly violent and evil, but with just enough of a touch of comic book villainy to allow you almost to laugh at him.

Well, I suppose that is one way. I prefer drinking with an old Nazi until he pulls out the pictures from the Eastern Front showing Russian pilots charred and disfigured in their downed aircraft. Along with other tests, like picking a matchbook off the floor with your teeth while not bending your knees, it goes a long way towards understanding the mix of masculinity and cruelty that seemed to mark some of these men, a mix reminiscent of the Romans, for whom weakness was vice and cruelty a virtue. Then when his intellectual Nazi brother lends you a mattress and accusingly points out the holes burned by Allied incendiaries, you perceive a certain lack of repentence. It is all very interesting, not particularly funny, and beats the hell out of the genius of "art."

truepeers said...

I would put it's origin in the October Revolution and the consequent necessity to excuse the inexcusable. It is at that point that good men of the left -- GBS, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and such -- lost their honesty and morals.

-you have a point, there is no doubt some continuity between such leftists and today's postmodernist; but still, those you name were fools but nonetheless devout leftists who believed that their cause was right and just. They were not quite yet the postmodernist believer in nothing or everything.

I don't see tragedy this way at all. I think tragedy has strong moral elements and without them it is not tragedy at all, merely irony. Antigone, Oedipus Rex, The Bacchae, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello... Take away the evil of Regan and Goneril contrasted with the good of Cordelia, and what is left of Lear? Take away the moral certainties of Antigone and Creon and the play becomes pointless; one wonders why the characters were driven to get themselves in such a mess when they could have just laid back with a doobie.

-yes, I agree entirely. I don’t want to say that the question of good and evil is absent from or irresolvable in tragedy, but just that the hero becomes complicit in evil. Oedipus cannot escape guilt for his crimes. More generally, in fighting evil the hero becomes an executioner and that is his tragedy. But if we were going to pursue this, we’d have to talk about the historical progression in the vision of tragedy. Hamlet is not a classical revenge tragedy, precisely because it is against such an outcome that Hamlet is fighting the whole play. His constant deferral, his inability to act, to just revenge his father, is Shakespeare’s way of making a very modern figure of Hamlet. His tragedy is that he cannot ultimately escape his knowledge of tragedy.

If one side acts villainously then it is no longer tragedy, it is good versus evil, that is, a Western, which is a totally different kind of story. It is the inability to name anything as villainous that distinquishes moral equivalence.

-well I think there are many tragic elements in good westerns, where the hero has to become an executioner, has to commit the lesser evil. Anyway, the inability to identify evil is a good definition of pomo moral equivalence. And again, at least part of the origin of this moral failure is the true enough realization that one can’t successfully tell a tragic story about a genocide. When the murdered are murdered with the precise intent of wiping their stories from the earth en masse, no one’s story can be made exemplary in the way of the tragic hero and attempts to do so would fail to communicate the horrors of the crime. Thus mass murder becomes Stalin’s cold statistic. What Spielberg discovered, however, was that he could still tell a story about the survivors, a story that did not have to be high tragedy, but could find in survival the human truth that surpasses great evil. He does not capture the event of the Holocaust in any comprehensive or truthful way, sayeth the critics, but he was smart enough not to try while, on the other hand, not allowing the whole event to go unremembered.

chuck said...

those you name were fools but nonetheless devout leftists who believed that their cause was right and just.

True, and the same could be said for many who followed them. I have reconsidered this a bit, and think that perhaps the roots of modern equivalence theory lie in WWI, a war fought in high moral dudgeon, and for what? In retrospect there seems to have been hardly any reason for the carnage apart from some German imperial ambitions. Pacifism as we know it began then, and I wouldn't be surprised if the disillusion that followed the war isn't at the root of moral equivalence. After all, neither side in that war was much better than the other, indeed, I might wish that modern Germany had a bit more of the old. And yet millions died in the fight.

Hmm... This leads me to speculate on the roots of the morality Hemingway portrays in his books: very personal, very much finding oneself, very situational, but with little consideration of any traditional virtues besides the manly ones. Generosity, honesty, loyalty, self sacrifice, humility, none of those seem to make a large showing. No Victorian gentleman was Hemingway.

Shakespeare’s way of making a very modern figure of Hamlet.

Yeah, Hamlet posed a problem when I was considering the post. I think you are right to place him as a modern. An educated young man having to deal with vengeful ghosts, feh.

Anyway, the inability to identify evil is a good definition of pomo moral equivalence.

Yeah, except for the villainy of naming villains. That's us, the hyper-religious USA, the country too crude to know nuance, too superstitious to receive the modern vision.

truepeers said...

Yes, I think you are right about the importance of WWI, especially for the highbrows. There was, however, a very important middlebrow culture that clung to Victorian values throughout the interwar years - with, e.g. many English publishing houses that were only destroyed with the bombing of London's east end - and without which Churchill probably could not have rallied Britain to fight in 1940. If they had taken the modern vision more seriously then, it might have been game over for humanity, for hitler's thousand years. To take Buddy's example, no doubt many of those Canadians who went to Dieppe were still full of the pre-WWI spirit which equated freedom with love of King and country/empire (in opposition to more worldly forces). After Dieppe and the whole second war, however, that flame was largely extinguished here.

I think you are a little hard on the USA. The modern vision was not something I would value too greatly. As with any vision, it has its quantum of truth. And while the last century was a nightmare in too many ways to allow for quick and easy rebuttals from those no longer immersed in it, if there is some way to rework nineteenth-century values for this new century, the world needs to find it, and maybe America can be something of a model, because whatever its many flaws, it still works better than most, if not all, other nations. And the proof is in the pudding.

Yes, maybe the cause of WWI comes down most simply to German imperial ambitions. If they hadn't had ambitions to compete with Britain as a naval power, perhaps Britain would never have allied with France. On the other hand, if France had been a stronger nation, perhaps Germany would have never challenged Britain and Britain would have never allied with France. And a stronger France might not have produced so many of the intellectuals who are responsible for pomo nihilism. But it was the economic supremacy of the anglosphere and Germans who made France relatively weak and its revolutionary ideas relatively powerful. So who's to blame?

Buddy Larsen said...

The three H's you guys are chewing over, Hamlet, Hitler, and Hemingway, really illustrate the three archetypes of anti-warrior (as opposed to the reluctant but duty-stiffened defenders of the faith)--the one glorifying conflict as the only thing that will 'make' a man, the other seeing it is "something rotten" that fighting against was the death of life whether the breathing continued to be or not to be, and then old Hemingway, who despite all his literary acceptance of human nature, sure pegged something--don't quite know what--when he said that "war is the result of unguarded treasure." Note he doesn't really blame the belligerant, he blames the appeaser who won't protect his stuff. Killing the bad guys, then is not really a question of morality, but a mere practical matter done to keep the place clean and well-lit--so that the Big Questions can be debated in peace.

I sorta agree with him. So many huge kerfuffles are--like this NSA bit--fundamentally parlor games, and not serious, except for the fact that the unserious can vote, and so, ain't really unserious at all.

Buddy Larsen said...

Here ya go, Anonymous--some homework for ya. It's part of the 21st century (the 20th--and it's hardened mideast left/rightism wrt Israel/Palestine--being SO "yesterday").