Comparing V for Vendetta to 1984

Several students have told me that the film V for Vendetta is “just like” 1984. Since I’m always interested in resources that might make Orwell’s important warning clear to younger people, growing up as they are in a world that is so shaped by Newspeak and Doublethink–now referred to as “political correctness”–that his message is hard for them to hear, I watched the film.

It was similar, in the sense that in both stories humanity is being oppressed by a totalitarian regime. Still, it was the differences that mattered most.

For one thing, Orwell understood the political threats that would most matter in this age. He accurately identified the main source of modern totalitarianism as socialism, characterized by an ontology of materialism and an ethical philosophy of utilitarianism. This film, I thought, could have been produced by the Party in 1984. There is no God, and humanity’s fate is determined by economics; there is no moral law–the “rational” guide to ethics is to focus on the collective–doing the most good for the most people. Inevitably, “good” will be defined by the leader. We’ve been down that road several times. What is good is what is good for the Revolution. Who opposes the party opposes humanity.

So it’s quite ironic–though very politically correct at this moment early in the twenty-first century–for director James McTeigue to cater to socialist fears that the totalitarian threat comes from Christians. His film portrays a Christian fascist party at the helm of a negative utopia. Like Orwell, he uses an authentic verse memorized by British school children to evoke a distant, ominous memory from a Christian past. Orwell used lines from “Oranges and Lemons”:

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

McTeigue reaches back to the Gunpowder Plot–one of the seventeenth century religious battles between Protestants and Catholics, immortalized in a rhyme popular among British school children:

Remember, remember the fifth of November.
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

This linkage of terrorism and violence to Christianity flatters the sensibility of moderns, still believing they are achieving some sort of liberation from religion, while they continue pressing forward in a world where individual liberty erodes in a morass of political correctness, and the dominant power in Europe is a European Union intent on eroding national sovereignty through all the accouterments of a propaganda state and rationalized regulation, while churches all over Europe remain empty and quiet each Sunday.

The main danger to freedom in Europe now is the same as it was when Orwell wrote: the progressive fulfillment of socialism’s managerial fantasy, the depth and breadth of its control increasing. The main obstacle to this dream has always been the churches–think of Catholicism in Poland–which provide both a rival center of power and an incommensurable reality forever beyond the reach of the state, for those who believe. McTeigue’s vision of a state-run Christian fascism will distract many in the audience from a more credible danger.

In some ways, V for Vendetta resembles the French Revolution more than it resembles Oceania in 1984.  In Enlightenment France, a utopian naivete fed the passionate belief that if the horrible French aristocracy (and the Christian clergy) could be destroyed, that then. . .then. . .then, somehow, liberty and fraternity and equality would, um, burst forth–or something.

But. It was not to be. As Edmund Burke noted at the time, when long-established institutions are suddenly destroyed, what follows is not utopia but a mad scramble after power wildly careening into the streets–a mad scramble for which the most brutal and Machiavellian are best equipped. Terrorism did destroy the aristocracy, establishing itself as a principle of power. The Reign of Terror was enacted to the tune of noble platitudes and motivated by an unscrupulous will to power, in time, of a single man: Maximilian Robespierre.

The hero in V for Vendetta is an intellectual. We never see his face, but we hear his voice and we watch the entire nation brought to attention at his single will. It is clear that this will opposes evil. It is far less clear that this will is not evil itself. Still, isn’t there a pleasure in seeing evil overpowered? One could easily mistake this pleasure for the triumph of goodness.

This film differs from 1984 in that Orwell did not offer even any appearance of a solution to the problem of fully realized socialism. Winston Smith’s defeat is total and thorough. He loves that which has destroyed him. Though Orwell supported the desires and intentions of the do-gooders who became socialists, he could never see how those intentions, after consolidating power to do good things, could keep that centralized power from the brutal and devious thugs who would always be attracted to it. Since he didn’t see a solution, he focused on making the threat clear.

McTeigue’s story, by contrast, ends on a triumphant note, as though destroying totalitarianism were as simple a matter as shooting a bank robber in some Hollywood West. The image of triumph is not without horror, of a sort, as a mass of identically masked terrorists grin their porcelain grins–a not overly appealing nod to equality–amid explosions bringing down the architectural symbolism of Western Civ–the fireworks of emancipation, or something–with rousing music.

McTeigue’s story is self-aware enough to play with the nihilism of his avenging hero’s vision, which cannot get beyond destroying evil. The masked hero falls in love, and this brings home, painfully, the essential joylessness of the quest that has consumed his life. He cannot be deterred from his fate by the attractions of love. He knows enough to blow up a bad world, but he knows far too little of how to create a good one. The story’s grace note is that he does know, at an existential level, that it is love that he has missed. But the point of the story, still, is that he does miss it.

But he continues onward in his story, knowing that it can only end as he and his enemy fulfill their destiny in mutual self-destruction. This aspect of the movie’s vision rings true. We are indeed entangled in a titanic struggle with enemies, the end of which is our mutual death.

This dark tale will be quite ironic to one who believes Christianity’s story with its powerfully articulated vision of how a world might grow to be truly ordered by love. Without knowing that story of faith and hope and love intertwined in a workable vision of human happiness, the modern world increasingly constructs meanings centered in willfulness, pessimism and violence–V fits that pattern; it’s a bloody tale in which, as Isaiah prophesied, the wicked are destroyed, again as during the French Revolution, by the wicked.

Goodness is somewhere else doing other things, unimagined by the film.

What’s wrong with these kids? 2/24

The Roman soldiers who killed a teacher two thousand years ago killed people often–mostly rebels, robbers, and thugs. The system of which they were a part, the Roman state, had taught them to take honor in their work defending the order. They knew little or nothing of the dirty, bloodied commoner, or what he stood for, or who he threatened. The teacher understood this and prayed for their forgiveness, noting “they know not what they do.”

Though Jesus was caught in an evil pattern, he wasn’t tricked into thinking that most of the people who harmed him were his enemies. They were also being harmed by the patterns he had tried to change. Those patterns are still among us. They came slowly into focus for me in a small mountain town in western Montana, but it could have been anywhere. It was simply the world.

I now see the same patterns on a much larger scale in the nation and the world and on a smaller scale within families and individuals. These patterns replicate themselves, and the more force we throw against them, the more powerful they become. They are nearly alive, taking their vital force from us, from our efforts to destroy what we see as evil.

We live in troubled times, among disorderly nations. The evening news is dominated by stories of wars that seem unstoppable. Our cities are disordered, and we hear more and more of crime, gangs, and homelessness. Our families are disordered, and we read that children are being born to single girls who are children themselves. Our personal lives are disordered, and the mental health business is booming. It seems that even nature is disordered, as storms and floods may be increasing in frequency and severity.

In all the noise, we hear passionate speakers clamor for attention, proclaiming that our schools no longer work and that our children are not getting the education they need, but there is little agreement about what sort of education they do need, and calls for better schools bog down in contention, becoming part of the troubled pattern.

Meanwhile, children go on learning what we teach, though not necessarily the things we say in classrooms. The fundamental curriculum for schools is often visible at its board meetings, in the bantering stories told by teachers in the lounge, and in the disciplinary code that is practiced (rather than the one that is written down). The level of honesty, compassion, and concern for the truth that we demonstrate in such routine, everyday affairs is more educative, for good or ill, than the ambitious, idealistic rhetoric in official curriculum guides. How do we handle our disagreements? How do we talk about each other in small groups between classes or after meetings? What standards of evidence do we maintain for tales told about our opponents?

A couple of years after I resigned as principal, the managers of that school were still struggling with the same problems I had faced. They brought in specialists to teach conflict resolution skills because of an increasing number of fights between students, not to mention a maddening level of contention among staff and parents. The conflict resolution folks taught the latest skills from their field, but judging from the agenda of acrimonious disputes at board meetings, the patterns have proven resilient.

The administrators treated student fighting as a problem separate from the rest of the school operation, to be solved with its own little program. They didn’t see it as one manifestation of a much larger pattern. The school itself was a bundle of unrelated programs with fragmented and sometimes contradictory goals. Its leaders didn’t view the myriad problems holistically, considering what teachers were teaching in the history and literature classes about character and consequence, for example, or how disagreements were handled by administrators, or what values were encoded in the discourse at board meetings.

Of course, seeing that small problems are related to much larger problems can be daunting. A few months before, the superintendent had sued the teachers’ union because of their no-confidence vote in him. Meanwhile, the staff was engaged in its annual acrimony over contract negotiations. The union had suggested a work “slow-down,” in which no teacher would come before eight or stay to help students after four, and a “sick-out,” in which large numbers of the staff would call in sick. Their strategy was based, strangely enough, on faith that the school board members they reviled cared more about the education of children than did professional educators, and that the board would back down rather than see the children lose out. They were using kids as pawns to enrich themselves. And of course, it was quite true that some board members saw teachers as commodities to be bought and used as cheaply as possible. Enemies often come to resemble each other.

And there was much, much more. Groups of parents were campaigning to remove or reprimand a number of different coaches and teachers. At every level in the life of the school, champions of morality or diversity were speaking the language of anger. Each group believed their problems were caused by an enemy, so, of course, the combatants wanted institutional uniformity that would force their enemies to accept a better way. In their different ways, each of the sides wanted codes of acceptable language. Each wanted sanctions against deviance. Each wanted submission to their orthodoxy. They wanted to force things to go the way they were sure was right.

And in the midst of it all, the staff was directed, without intentional irony, to consider the question, “How can we get our kids to stop fighting?” The more interesting question would have been “How can we become a peaceful people?”