Democrats & Liberals Archives

Myths of Leadership

The movie Hero, directed by Zhang Yimou, stands as one of the most beautifully shot, acted films of the last few years, in addition to having some of the most excellent and memorable action sequences since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along in 2000. But quite a few western critics had misgivings about the subtext and message of the film. Simply put, the film is a kind of apology for concentrated dictatorial power. Not surprising considering the source of the movie (Chinese made), but it got me thinking about the nature of how we regard politics in our culture. We are somewhat better than the Chinese, but only somewhat.

The Return of the King. Surprising that American audiences could enjoy a movie about the return of a monarchy, given our history. Or maybe not. Unlike Hero, we really don't tend to glamorize monarchy or nobility ourselves. We're a rather egalitarian people. Hell, our president affects a provincial accent. But we are also a practical people, and practical people like to see things get done. We like decisive, strong-willed presidents, and when we see them on film, decisive, strong-willed kings.

Of course, that is just so long as they are moral, upright, and attuned to the will of the people. In Return of the King, you have Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor, a man who has proved his bravery, his leadership qualities, and his sound judgment throughout the course of the last few films. Then you have Denethor, a bitter tyrant, a man cruel to his remaining son, and ever solicitous of power that is not his to command. Whether that's the ring, the throne of Gondor, or the Palantir, he puts too much stock in his own wisdom and judgment, and capacity to lead by his own will alone.

He's threatened by those who approach with greater claim to authority, greater wisdom at their command. And when the crisis comes, his response is to expend his troops in fruitless battles, over a target that merely represents a point of pride rather than any defensible position.

In one memorable sequence, he sends his son Faramir to lead the Gondorian cavalry against the entrenched Orc forces. The hobbit Pippin, is commanded by the Steward to sing him a song while he eats. The movie intercuts Pippin singing mournfully, with the brave soldiers charging orcs with archers at ready, and Denethor's rather sloppy meal. There's a real nice touch at the end where a bit of blood-red wine drips from the corner of Denethor's mouth, as the film cuts to the orcs loosing their arrows. We don't see the result, but we don't have to. Only his son returns, and near death at that.

The return of the king to Gondor is a cause for celebration, as the noble, self-sacrificing leader takes the place of the paranoid tyrant who was reckless with his people's lives. In its way, Aragorn's story throughout the film is about true leadership in the face of adversity, leadership that combines boldness with wisdom and honesty, humility with confidence, power with compassion for those it affects.

Aragorn is just one example of what we've been taught to look up to in terms of those in power. There are many examples of this in other parts of our culture.

Disney animation has not slouched on this end of things. Prince Charming. The Lion King. The boy Wart in The Sword and the Stone, who is a young King Arthur. Several characters end up monarchs, or spouses to them. Several are royalty or nobility to begin with. The fairy tales that form the center of our folklore as passed to our children are born of periods and places where nobility and royalty were parts of the status quo.

And of course we expect of such rulers the same virtues we expect of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings All the same, when the work is a fantasy or an history, it's not all that hypocritical for our culture to treat such rulers with reverence. We have not yet seen enough time go by for the presidency or democracy to take on such legendary proportions. But it's not that there isn't the potential.

It's a tricky question. In Independence Day and Air Force One, we are offered a pair of heroic presidents who personally go to battle with the bad guys, respectively genocidal aliens and communist terrorists. But that echoes the old notion of Kings being great warriors in their own right, sometimes leading charges.

The nature of our government has far removed most presidents from action in office. Our president is far more likely to lead forces in a debate than lead them in a firefight. Thrillers involving presidents tend to stick them with storylines scandal, corruption, and/or historical events. They can be at turns admirable, cunning, vicious, and incompetent, cyphers for leadership at it's best, it's most skillful, and it's worst and most incompetent.

Democracy is even trickier, because there is always the temptation to insert one's political beliefs, or to place the concepts into the course of the film in an anachronistic, inorganic way. The proper portrayal of it is difficult because much of democracy is boring process. Few people find C-Span entertaining.

That said, most governments, when seen for what they really are, are boring when they function correctly. The un-exciting stuff of monarchies and ancient republics is rarely what makes the cut in stories and movies about such things. We get the idea that such strong leadership is always the right thing, always gets things done, when a close reading of history suggests that is not always the case. Monarchies and ancient civilizations, though, have centuries of rationalization on their side, where American Democracy is fairly young at justifying itself.

The concept of freedom in American and American-related cinema is often a strange and superficial conception of it. Commodus kills his wise father Marcus Aurelius when the old man tells him he aims to have Rome a republic again, a strange imposition of democratic notions into the world of Rome, if you know the period well.

In Dungeons and Dragons: The Movie the story takes place in a fantasy world where mages rule over non-magic users, and it's events center around one Empress Savina's belief that "All people should be free and equal". The concept of democracy is put off-handedly into the fictional world. We don't know why the Empress takes this view, we don't know what the history of any such sensibility in that world is. It is simply assumed, and aristocratic sensibilities are subject to automatic, facile criticism, a kind of political cheap grace.

Star Wars does a much better job of grounding the concepts of Democracy in sturdier stuff, though leaders sometime seem to skew a little young. The prequels, though clunky in their exposition of the processes, at least tries to answer the question of why yielding to the impulse to create a strong, central leader with unquestioned power is a bad idea, attempts that take on chilling immediacy given recent history. Lucas intersperses his space opera with questions of how wars and crises can change free republics into tyrannical empires.

All in all, though, Democracy is usually expressed not as some working system, but as a normative value. I think that does a disservice to Democracy. Dramas, adventures, and comedies are about contention, centered on conflict, fueled by the dynamic nature of events in the story. Something changes, something is hashed out. Democracy is a living system, and should be shown in that vitality.

In our fantasies, our science fiction, and our other films, we should show in substantive, well-elaborated, plausible, and emotionally affecting ways, the virtues and realities of democracy. We should approach this by either the positive demonstration of how democracies successfully deal with human nature, or by negative demonstration of the failures and tragedies of other systems of government.

In terms of the positive portrayal of Democracy in mythic fashion, we should fashion stories that show how different factions, races and communities resolve differences. The more substantial, the more tragic, the better. It shouldn't be some simple "can't we all just get along", but a real effort fraught with difficulties and legitimate beefs. The resolution should feel earned, gained by fighting the good fight against our own nature, our own selfish impulses. Democracy shouldn't be portrayed as passive vote counting, but passionate debate and efforts at persuasion.

The negative affirmation of democracy, that is, advocacy by the showing of the fatal weaknesses of other systems, should be constructed with equal artfulness. Though having substantial, obvious evils to fight is not altogether bad, it's also crucial to demonstrate the evils of such systems that are not immediately obvious but nonetheless are just as bad. We should show these systems putting good civil servants in positions where they are obligated to commit evils against their better judgment, or bad people in a position where it becomes difficult for good people to opposed them and remain lawfully in the system.

The important part from either angle of things is that the principles of Democracy are not just background noise, or assumptions taken for granted, but active and plausible agents in the creation and preservation of our freedoms, our happiness, and our prosperity.

For too long in our books and films, we have paid lip service to democracy, while pining for the police powers of fascist's states, the military powers of empire, and the political powers of monarchy and aristocracy in our stories.

It's time we grow into an appreciation of our nation's unique political contribution to the world, and start giving ourselves and other nations in the world a substantive vision of why we choose to be a democracy, and why a democratic system is the system to chose. More importantly, it's time we start telling the tales that will teach our children the virtues of such a system. While the old fairytales and myths deserve to be told, new songs need to be sung of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at January 22, 2005 9:33 AM