300 Spartans versus 10,000 Academics
The motion picture 300 demonstrates the split between Western intellectuals and the public. Released last March, 300 depicts the battle of Thermopylae fought between the Persian host and a handful of Greek hoplites in 480 B.C. The title refers to the 300 Spartans who led the Greeks in this battle and of which all but one was killed. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller the movie was immensely popular. According to Variety’s online report (May 2, “Ripple effect of '300' hits Cannes”) 300 was a “runaway success” that is “an extremely good omen” due to its box office success. Worldwide the receipts for 300 are approaching half a billion dollars.
While both movie goers and makers have “nothing but love” for the action epic, the same is not true for many reviewers and intellectuals. For example, Variety’s review of March 9 by Todd McCarthy compares the film to gay porn and to Gerald Butler’s Leonidas as a “blowhard.” Dana Stevens writing for Slate online compared 300 to the notorious Nazi propaganda piece The Eternal Jew. Stevens described the movie as a “race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth” that was an “incitement to total war.”
It is the theme of 300 that has the critics hostile not its style. In the opening voice-over that sets the stage for the movie’s action, the narrator states the Greece was the “world’s last hope for reason and justice.” 300’s epilogue dramatizes the battle of Plataea where the combined hoplites of the Greek city states defeated the remnants of the Persian army. Before the battle a Spartan hoplite steps forward and declares: “today we rescue the world from mysticism and tyranny.” For a popular action movie to base its theme on the connection between mysticism and tyranny and that reason is the source of justice and freedom is truly amazing. It is for 300’s unapologetic view that Greek (Western) culture was/is superior to Persian (middle-Eastern) culture that has the intellectuals angered.
One of 300’s most interesting reviews was penned by Mustafa Akyol for the Turkish Daily News: “300: Orientalism for Beginners.” Akyol characterizes the film as “a crude Orientalism and a thinly veiled fascism.” By “Orientalism” Akyol makes clear his agreement with the thesis of Edward Said’s hugely influential book of that title. According to Akyol, and Said, it is this Western portrayal of the Islamic world as “irrational, absurd and stagnant” that is responsible for the hostility between East and West. Said stated the problem as the unenlightened Western masses refusal to follow their academic superiors:
The important point, however, is that a largely unexamined but serious rift has opened in the public consciousness between the old ideas of Western hegemony (of which the system of Orientalism was a part) on the one hand, and newer ideas that have taken hold among subaltern and disadvantaged communities and among a wide sector of intellectuals, academics, and artist, on the other. (p. 348)
The “intellectual affairs” writer for Inside Higher Education, Scott McLemee, although admitting to never having viewed the film, described those who did as “young, impressionable, historically clueless viewers.” McLemee chose to title his non-review "A Fresh Triumph of the Will" indicating his opinion of those who made 300 a huge box office hit. There is a rift between the public and professional intellectuals particularly in the United States. The fault, however, is with the intellectuals who long ago abandoned the Western values of reason and justice for those of mysticism and tyranny.
In 1983 Prof. Leonard Peikoff gave a lecture at the Ford Hall Forum on “Assault from the Ivory Tower: the Professors’ War Against America.” In his opening statement Prof. Peikoff notes that upon his first arriving in the United States in the 1950s to attend New York University he was struck by his American professors’ hostility to their own country. “I do not know another country in which anti-patriotism has ever been the symbol of an ideology on such a scale.” Prof. Peikoff states his belief that this is caused by the fact that America is an ideology. The Founding Fathers' Enlightenment ideals, based largely on classical Greece and Rome, are “anathema to today’s intellectuals.”
In his discussion of postmodernism the historian Mark T. Gilderhus states that, “as the theory holds, Enlightenment ideas about reason, objectivity, and possibilities of progress have no validity….” (History and Historians, pp. 133-4) It is post modern nihilism that explains why in a conflict between east and west, whether 2500 years ago or today, so many Western intellectuals side with the Other. On a positive note, the fissure between the nation and its intellectuals has become apparent to growing numbers of Americans, hopefully new intellectuals will arise to again enshrine reason and justice as America’s, and the West's, basic values.
Crossposted at The Dougout