Saturday, September 27, 2008

No Country for Liberal Men

I wanted to write a post about this subject, but then decided I did not know exactly what it should look like -- so I am soliciting opinions from others instead.

I want to talk about Miller's Batman, Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, and 24.

Though not politically conservative, I find something endlessly fascinating about these works, which on some level are just conservative propaganda. And as a liberal person, I am often surprised by how little patience I have for hippie-dippie Alan Moore in works like Promethea even though -- often on specific points -- I am really in tune with his philosophy.

Is it just that I like well told stories of whatever ideology, whereas friends of mind get so offended by the conservative moral indignation of something like No Country they just cannot see past it? Or is it that the conservative position has some kind of weird hold on my imagination (my family is quite conservative), and to prevent it from leaking out into my politics I enjoy it in stories? Surely it is not that the conservative position makes for better stories, though as I remarked in How to Read Superhero Comics and Why Miller's fascist impulses -- bad for politics -- are great if you are a storyteller, as storytellers often need to exercise absolute and ruthless control over influence and tradition in a way that would just be WRONG when dealing with human beings.

Obviously I am not asking you to tell me what you think is going on in my head. But I am wondering what your thoughts are, when you are reading a story whose ideology conflicts with your own.


Anonymous said...

Are you referring to the book or the film of No Country For Old Men?

I didn't see the film as espousing and overtly conservative viewpoint.

As for why you enjoy conservatism in you art... well, I think it's kind of like playing a first person shooter game to blow off steam. You put in GTA or, in my case, Star Wars: Battlefront and you shoot some people and you feel better while, in real life, you'd never actually go out and shoot people.

Watching guys like Batman and Jack Bauer (sp?) go out and kick some bad guy ass allows us to cheer and say "Yeah! Get 'em!" the ficticious context, no harm is done because the good guy always wins and evil is always punished with as little cost to the innocent bystander as possible When we know that the reality is far more complex; that is, I think that we all WISH things were that simple but many of us know that they are not. Make sense?

Geoff Klock said...

Scott it makes total sense -- it is just that everyone I know hates fiction of that sort for exactly the reason that it is not realistic. I guess it is just that they have different criteria than I do.

I read the book for No Country, which does go on a lot longer with the conservative stuff, but the sheriff in the movie, in his monologues is pretty conservative -- he goes on and on about the degeneration of society and I think we are supposed to see men like Chigurh as the endpoint of letting our kids go out with green hair. BUt I could be wrong about that.

neilshyminsky said...
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neilshyminsky said...

Further to Scott's point: I think that a lot of it is simply conditioning. Fictional violence serves a cathartic function in mass culture, and it makes sense that we'd be attuned to that even if we can't be on-side with it intellectually. (I'll leave the issue of precisely what form that functions takes a bit vague, since I'm sure it varies wildly.)

So I just acknowledge the political content of the violent, conservative stuff that I enjoy as a guilty pleasure. I think we all have different tolerance levels, though - that is to say, the criteria by which we judge them can be weighted differently. With Miller's All-Star Batman, I'm just a bit too disgusted by the politics to be able to see anything else. I can sometimes ignore the politics, but I can never divorce them from the aesthetics entirely - and Miller's is too repugnant for me to even ignore it.

Geoff Klock said...

Neil -- Maybe the problem is I do not seem to have a point at which the politics overwhelms the aesthetic. At least in mainstream america. I mean I am not going to be able to get pure aesthetic enjoyment from some kind of Nazi rally or whatever.

Anonymous said...

I'll answer your question from a slightly different perspective: I would rather read a work that shows us how fascist conservatism can become, even if it's advocating said fascism, than how dippy liberalism can become, because I hate it when people do a bad job of representing my side. I frequently get angry with conservatives, but I get much angrier with liberals who can't handle the arguments well (especially since I view many of these arguments as pretty obvious). I live in a city with a lot of self-professed peace-loving hippies, and they drive me crazy sometimes because they don't think about the issues; they just repeat mantras.

With regards to comics (especially superhero comics), I don't think the genre really supports liberalism. The closest superhero comics (usually) get to moral complexity is the "moody anti-hero," which isn't quite the same thing as asking whether or not building infrastructures in developing nations would be a more efficient means of combating terrorism than hitting them with a laser beam.

That being said, I can't tolerate Miller's sexism (yeah, it's kind of an arbitrary line, given the pervasive sexism in comics in general, but evidently I drew a line there somewhere).

Anonymous said...


The sherriff's monologues in the film are, in fact, conservative but I just read that as that he was a sad, old man whose time had passed (that's the point of the title isn't it?)

To further anonomous's point-

When liberalism is handled badly, it comes off as whiny or naive.... conservatism, of these particular genres, comes off as 'cool' or, more to the point, 'Badass'

For example, in watching the documentary The U.S. Vs John Lennon, G. Gordon Liddy tells this story about how during the late sixites he was walking passed a candlelight vigil of protesters when he stopped, grabbed one of them, USED THEIR CANDLE TO LIGHT HIS CIGAR and says "There, at least you're good for something."

While I find G. Gordon Liddy and everything he represents and everything that his action represents completely repulsive, I have to admit "That's pretty badass" (I liked the story so much I stole it for a short story that I'm working on).

I think this might go back to your "They told us we would be superheroes" post. Liberals are hardly the ideal 'manly men'...Too often, when liberalism is handled badly it comes off as a) whiny and b) weak and c) naive (as opposed to "hard men" like Miller's Batman who are a) decisive, b) strong and c) wise... or at least more knowledgeable about how the world really works).

That's the triumph of All Star Superman... it is none of those and merely gets us one step closer to what is at the heart of liberalism which is aspiring to more than we can be, rather than conservatism which, more often than not, seeks to return to a non-existant golden age that was never that great to begin with.

Geoff Klock said...

Scott -- you are right about where the sheriff is coming from, but I think the book stands by the basic rightness of his opinions. Nowhere in the book or film is he really undercut.

That is a very good point: failed liberal propaganda is lame, while failed conservative propaganda still has a basic "cool" to it. This is analogous to the tragedy comedy thing. Failed tragedy can still succeed as unintentional comedy, but failed comedy has nowhere to go.

Anonymous said...


I always felt that The Sherriff's conversation with his... was that his Uncle?... at the end of the film undercuts him slightly, if his position that the world is going to hell... his Uncle's story (about the man being shot cold blood) emphasizes that this sort of thing has always happenned, it's nothing new... or, perhaps, it may have been intended to mean that this descent into evil has been going on longer than he thinks.


I just realized that, in my previous comment, I was basically paraphrasing something I'd read in America: The Book about Republicans and Democrats... so here's the actual thing.

"The Republican Party is the party of nostalgia. It seeks to return America to a simpler, more innocent and moral past that never actually existed. The Democrats are utopians. They seek to creat an America so fair and non-judgemental that life becomes an unbearable series of apologies. Together, the two parties function as down comforters, allowing the candidates to disappear into the enveloping softness, protecting them from exposure to the harsh weather of independent thought."

Anonymous said...


I also suspect that, like me, you are somewhat of a moderate liberal.
Like you, I come from an overtly conservative background. As a result, while we may not agree with those conservative ideals, our intimacy with them allows us to understand more of where they come from and why conservatives are uncomfortable with certain liberal ideas.

We also both teach comp classes which, basically, teach the fundamentals of rhetoric. One of those fundamentals is to understand your target audience and why they have the beliefs that they have. While most liberals like to think of themselves as open-minded, I know from personal experience that they can be just as closed minded as hardcore conservatives. This is why liberals are often seen as being 'elitist' because their counter-argument is too often 'you just don't understand' or 'if you could only see'... it comes off as a sort of modern gnosticism and it's a major turn off for most people.

So, I think, we enjoy the conservatism in these works because we understand that part of people, maybe even that part of us, that wants those ideals to be true. So, even though we completely disagree with Miller's Batman philosophically, we understand where he's coming from.

neilshyminsky said...

Geoff wrote: "failed liberal propaganda is lame, while failed conservative propaganda still has a basic 'cool' to it."

Indeed. My best example: Team America nailed this difference, even if Stone and Parker claimed that they didn't intend to. They claimed they were skewering all sides of the pro-/anti-war debate: framing one as "dicks" and the other as "pussies", and mocking both pretty relentlessly. But what they either didn't realize or didn't care to admit was that, given the way the film framed the opposition, it's far more desirable - far cooler - to be the "dick". (Even the hero of the film realizes it, which is what makes me think that Stone and Parker were full of shit when they denied an agenda.)

And it's cooler, of course, because the values of conservatism are either still or once were hegemonic - they're drawing on a history of cool, playing up a nostalgia for a classic coolness. By contrast, liberalism has to imagine a new cool, one that intentionally tries to negate the old one - and that's both a hell of a lot harder and can easily go very, very wrong.

neilshyminsky said...

To clarify that last bit: That is, in the example of Team America, there's nothing inherently cooler about being a dick than a pussy. But since masculinity is hegemonic, it's therefor cooler - it carries more social capital, in the Bourdieuvian sesne - to be a dick than a pussy (or coded as feminine).

Anonymous said...

One thing that I tend to with any work is look for the tensions in the viewpoints. Continuing with Miller as an example, the original Dark Knight strikes (pun unintended) me as being far less inherently conservative than the sequel or what I've seen of ASB&R. The television talking heads, as much as they are Miller making fun of talk shows do function as a way of criticizing the superhero genre in a way rarely seen to that point.

If Strikes Again and ASB&R embrace the bad-assness of Batman, DKR seems to say "Yeah, Batman's badass, but it's probably for the best he's just fiction."

Moving on to something else- there's the way Dave Sim reads Cerebus, and then there's the way Cerebus actually reads. If you've read anything by Sim, there's no doubt about his politics, yet Cerebus seems at times to specifically be at odds with them, particularly the ambiguous ending.

Kyle White said...

Borderline off-topic: This Just In (a cartoon briefly on Spike TV) is the only conservative comedy I can recall finding funny.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read it in some time but I remember Susan Sontag covering this ground in her Fascinating Fascism essay. I remember a lot of it pertaining to Nazi Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and her belief that fascist/conservative societies created a natural utopia through physical perfection and strict submission. I know I'm not doing the article any justice but I do believe that we as a society tend to naturally favor these aspects and never (intially) see them as limitations.

Ping33 said...

On 24:

I don't think and have never thought that it espouses an expressly conservative viewpoint:

First off, the most successful and trustworthy authority figure is the Liberal President Palmer, who single-handed fights against a military-industrial complex which is fixated on war (particularly preemptive war) with "terrorists."
It seems to me that the main reason most people see 24 as conservative is Jack's propensity to torture. But in all cases, and unlike the current administration: Jack KNOWS he's breaking the law, what's more; he's willing to accept the consequences.

Todd C. Murry said...

This is a hard discussion, mostly due to the relative uselessness of the terms conservative and liberal. I’ll spare the discussion of the terms not being applied the way the meanings are intended, but even as applied in just a “current Democrat/Republican” way (and the unity of view here is obviously a fallacy of its own), there is a lot of false dichotomy in the discussion above, granting ownership of this or that issue to one side or the other, which is typical of the current “two tribes” mindset. Frankie say Relax.

Most of these works present individual issues in a certain light, are predicated on (seemingly) unconscious assumptions, and have tonal differences which affect the point. I would argue that No Country is more “liberal” than conservative, on the basis of the fact that the most workable political reading yields the theme of the community ruining power of capitalist greed, and is an indictment of Reganomics. From the Sherriff’s perspective, the point is not that the old days were better, but that (as the speech about the final dream of the film indicates) he feels he no longer understands the way the world works well enough to protect it, but the entropy was always there. He feels like he failed his father in having reached a point where he can’t carry out his duty. I think, beyond the fact that his job is law and order which is considered “conservative” (which is kind of stupid), there is no ownership of the idea that society threatens to fall apart from either the red or blue “sides” (sorry for all the parens… they are necessary). They may disagree on causes or solutions, but the Sherriff seems to have decided that the old ways of simply exercising authority don’t work anymore (a more liberal conclusion).

All these things are part of some more complex dialogue about the relationship between the individual and the community or government. In No Country, the community is rotting, and this abolishes the appointed individual’s ability to keep order. In the Miller works, all this stuff is satire, but the government seems to be portrayed as uniformly horrible (this is a mostly conservative government), with the help of the media. The Batman who opposes them is a caricature of American individualism. In 24, we see the constant government co-opting by bad people, with good people, and damaged people fighting the fight as individuals and a group to restore order. Bauer, though, is another cartoon individualist.

The idea of the individual seems at the center of this, and is probably where the ideas of a politicized message mostly form (that and the silly idea the order is conservative). The idea of “one man against…” has been sort of sucked up into the engines of conservative rhetoric, even though in practice, the idea that conservatives favor the initiatives of individual action is ludicrous. This likely developed in the rural/urban divide, where “I need a truck to haul feed” implies different needs than “I need the subway to keep functioning,” and this schism was nudged along by the “you aren’t telling me I can’t buy whatever SUV I want” of the suburban consumerist bacchanalia. So the idea that a man feels that he needs to act, by himself, against the tyranny over the minds of men (gangs, corrupt government, terrorists) seems conservative, but isn’t, really. I mean, Superman was certainly a fully liberal character out of the gate, no question. This is just some kind of tribal, planting flags on ideology thing that obscure our close reads of the fiction.

That said, although both are somewhat centrist, I think No Country skews liberal, 24 skews conservative (mainly due to underlying assumptions, which are the same as any police procedural, that the heroes are always acting “right,” and the villains are trying to slip or slither away, which implies all prosecution is just, which, at this point, is more of a conservative idea). The Miller stuff is mostly incoherent politically, except for blunt satire, and has more to say about what side of the superhero comics war you are on than on your politics.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear, Todd.

speedreeder said...
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speedreeder said...

I'm not any kind of expert, but I've been thinking about this from a different angle for a while, and I think this plays into this conversation. (If anyone is still listening!)
O.K. so first things first, I haven't seen "No Country for Old Men", and I don't like 24, I've only seen about half an episode and didn't see what the big deal is.

BUT, I am very familiar with Miller's take on Batman, and I did read it when it originally came out in the 1980's, which I think is important to this discussion. And now, I'm not going to mention Frank Miller or Batman, but I'm just going to think aloud about the 1980's and the pop culture that came out of that peculiar decade.
I'm not sure of anyone's age or political persuasion here, but I'm 35 and very liberal, I was born in the early 70's and really came of age in the 1980's. I think it's hard to imagine just how prevalent the conservative propaganda machine was back then, America had just elected the most conservative president in history, Ronald Reagan who, as an actor played all kinds of tough guys and war heroes, but had somehow gotten out of actual military service. (Which is ironic because Jimmy Carter was portrayed a milquetoast, but he actually served 6 years in the Navy, spent many years on a submarine and was nearly killed on duty!)

Back in the 80's, we had movies like RAMBO, TOP GUN, MISSING IN ACTION, and RED DAWN. Not to mention children's programming like G.I. JOE, RAMBO: THE ANIMATED SERIES (and the A-TEAM, which really was like a live action cartoon.)

Did I mention G.I. Joe? Let's just sit for a second and think about how every boy growing in the 1980's played with these and just how militaristic (and conservative) the T.V. show was.
If you don't believe me or remember, watch this clip:

I think that the "conservative badass" is a newly and carefully constructed myth, and I'm just wondering if we, liberal comic book nerds, have bought into the myth. By buying into the myth do we help perpetuate it? If we all grew up playing with G.I. Joes (and other militaristic toys) have we all been a bit brainwashed? Isn't it a bit odd that we in the USA say a pledge of allegiance every day in school? How far down into our psyches does this go?
Somebody, mentioned G. Gordon Liddy, and his lighting a cigar with a protester's candle, and that it's badass, but I wonder why. When did crude and boorish behavior become badass? I'm not sure, but I think that ties into the right's (successful) attempt to transform their image as effete east coast elites (George H.W. Bush) into rootin' tootin' heroes of the wild west (George W. Bush.) I'm not sure if I'm going anywhere with this, or am making any kind of profound observation, or even making sense!
I recently had a conversation with a friend about this and it's something I've been giving some thought lately.

Personally, I feel that different ideas and viewpoints can make compelling works of fiction, so long as the political message doesn't start to overshadow the story being told.
Although I can say that there is time and place for that too! Grant Morrison's Animal Man is one of my all time favorite works of fiction. All Star Superman was pretty great too, although I'm not sure it's exactly liberal, progressive or even political.

But I like Guy Gardner too. Just saying.

Anonymous said...

I learned a new term today: bacchanalian porn.

Who said the internets has nothing to teach us?!!

Anonymous said...

or porn of the bacchanalian sort. Sorry last post, couldn't leave well enough alone.


Anonymous said...

I second speedreeder,

I've often thought of the 80's tough guy things that you mentioned before... I addressed a lot of it during the analysis I did of the first JLI volume... with Guy Gardner representing the Jingoistic norm of the time while Giffen and Dematteis had the rest of the league take a more progressive worldview (even Batman!)even the GI Joe thing (anyone notice that the GI Joe toy line reached the peak of is resurgence post 9/11? Considering that Cobra was a terrorist organization... it's almost more appropriate now) is something that I have found myself thinking about on multiple occasions.

for the record, I am also apalled by my, even briefly, finding G. Gordon Liddy cool.

Anonymous said...

America is an exceptionally conservative nation. Our values are represented by who we idolize in our storytelling. As such, most of our heroes reflect our cultural mindset -- the rugged individualist cowboy hero who uses violence against "them". Its manifest destiny in that we still believe that our nation is at the top of the moral heirarchy over the rest of the world, and it is our duty to instruct them on how to behave.

Does this type of thing make for good storytelling? I don't think so, unless you enjoy stories with a sunday school version of the world -- where the "bad guys" are pure evil with no redeeming qualities and so we do not feel any empathy for them when the "good guy" mows down hundreds of them with a machine gun.

I think the conservative storytelling encourages the behaviors that it is designed to encourage -- strict father worldview, obedience to authority, violence as a tool for good, us vs. them, and that we can solve our social problems with individualistic solutions.

That last one especially bothers me. How does Batman expect to fight a war on crime by beating up muggers? Isn't that just ignoring the sociological causes of crime? We should know by now that individualistic solutions to social problems doesn't work.