BOSTON — These are dark days. We are living in a time when people are obsessively contemplating the mote in their brother’s eye, but failing to consider the beam lodged in their own. Any utterance by the enemies of our beliefs, regardless of merit, is dismissed as extremist blather, while extremism in the service of a cause we believe in is accepted as just. Right. Left. Liberal. Conservative. These are the markers we have been left with, while right and wrong have become road kill on the highway of popular culture.
These were some of the thoughts that ran through my head watching Team America: World Police Saturday night in a huge theater right outside a raucous Fenway Park. Like many others, I took plenty of pleasure in the mocking of that toad, Kim Jong Il, and giggled at the portrait of actor Matt Damon as a half-wit who could only manage to shout his own name over and over again. For the record, I also thought Saddam Hussein being portrayed as Satan’s gay lover in hell in the South Park movie was a stroke of genius.
But I couldn’t help but feel ill at ease as hundreds cheered and pumped their fists in the air at the bloody evisceration of puppets modeled after Alec Baldwin, Janeane Garofalo, Sean Penn, and others. I mean, come on. I know it’s an election season, but can we please be serious here for a minute? Baldwin is a good actor with daffy lefty political views and a big mouth. Why should seeing his effigy shot full of holes makes conservatives so happy? Have Susan Sarandon’s meanderings really become so vital to the survival of our country that an on screen decapitation is a joyous occasion? Celebrities with silly political views are not comparable to Kim Jong Il.
Nevertheless, conservative websites have been publishing gleeful, untroubled endorsements of the film for nearly a week now. Aren’t these the same sites who have been complaining about MoveOn.org comparing George W. Bush to Hitler for the last year? Haven’t they posted condemnation after condemnation of the rhetoric and merchandise of the Bush haters? I can’t say I enjoy being in the position of defending Michael Moore, but here it goes: He may be the purveyor of conspiratorial, fraudulent documentaries, but he is not a suicide bomber.
I INVITE THOSE WHO HAVE already begun composing letters in their heads condemning this column to consider for a moment how they would have reacted if Fahrenheit 9/11 had a scene in which a puppet of George W. Bush strapped with explosives walked into the U.N. General Assembly and blew himself up. Would that have been simple political satire to be laughed off, or would that have been a cause for outrage? Or what if a local Democratic group had a fundraiser where dolls of Bush Administration figures could be attacked with hammers (even in a hypothetical, Dems would be too scared to use rifles) for a dollar a pop? Would that be right or wrong?
Conservative reviewers of the film seem to argue that Team America is different because it is a balanced critique, skewering equally left and right. This is simply false. The first half of the film does indeed mock American hubris in the War on Terror. Team America absent-mindedly destroys Paris and Cairo while defending the world from the terrorists, for example, and the group’s theme song going into battle is “America, F**k Yeah!” Its headquarters is in Mount Rushmore, for God’s sake. Every action movie cliché and archetypal character is magnified to the nth degree, and it is at times hilarious.
But none of this is done in a personal way. The characters are all composites. As such, they bear resemblance to an idea of what some Americans are like but aren’t assigned the identity of anyone in particular. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condi are not carved into wood and pranced around. Even Gary, the reluctant hero of the film — “You’re an actor with a double major in theater and world languages! Hell, you’re the perfect weapon!” the Team America leader gushes — is not based on any actor in particular, and so, in a way, he becomes all actors. But, by using the names and likenesses of left-leaning actors, the film makes its attacks on that side intensely personal. The message is simple: These are traitors who serve our enemies. If the filmmakers had opted to use composite characters for these characters as well, it would have made for a much more effective satire, since satire, by nature, relies on exaggeration. Even the use of actual characters without violent death would have been more palatable. Instead, this just feels like a settling of Hollywood scores.
NO ONE IS ASKING for anything more than this from the creators of South Park. They openly admit that they are in the shock value business, and are clearly very talented at it. If conservatives want to embrace this sort of violent satire, fine. We, as a nation, can edge that much closer to the day when we deem the differences between red and blue America so irreconcilable that everyone on the other side of the fence is a fraud or a traitor. Of course, labeling people as such will make them considerably less likely to give audience to your ideas, but then this stopped being about ideas a long time ago. If politics was about ideas today there would be no need to demonize the opposition.
But those who revel in seeing Hans Blix eaten by sharks or watching Tim Robbins get shot in the face should realize every time they complain about Bush being called a fascist or being portrayed as a demon on a protester’s sign, it is an act of hypocrisy. Either there are rules of decorum and civility or there are not. We cannot abandon these in good conscience simply because the fanatical elements of the left have done so. Otherwise, what’s the difference between us and them?
Walking out of the theater, I could hear the Red Sox fans in Fenway chanting, “Yankees suck! Yankees suck!” and caught myself thinking: Maybe some day we’ll find a way to raise political discourse to the same level.