Saturday, April 7, 2007

300 Misrep

The movie "300" gives a highly stylized account of the battle of Thermopylae fought in 480 BC by three hundred Spartans under the leadership of King Leonidas. I don't need to go into the details of the battle itself, or even the description of the movie; what I want to focus on is the sort of message the movie sends. Throughout the film, there are constant reminders of the value of freedom.

"It is not a question of what a husband, or a Spartan, or a king should do. Instead ask yourself, my dearest love, what would a free man do?"

"We are with you sire! For freedom! For Sparta!"

"When this battle is over, the world will know that few stood against many, that free men stood against a tyrant, and that even a god-king can bleed."

"This is the dawning of a new age, an age of freedom. And all will know that three hundred Spartans gave their last breath to defend it."

Freedom and fighting against tyranny (in various forms: mysticism, subjugation, corruption) is the basic idea behind the film. While I have always believed in personal freedom, I also believe in honesty. And here is where "300" begins to tread on dangerous ground. Your average movie-goer may not understand that the whole point of why Spartans made a culture out of warfare was because of the vast slave population that drove their economy (the Helots, as their were called in Sparta). The city-state of Sparta was fed by slave labour, slaves who were fellow Greeks. It's ironic to think that Spartans would be fighting for the idea of freedom, when they themselves were the most active slavers in ancient Greece.
One can argue that the point of the film isn't really about being historically accurate, but presenting something entertaining. But I think this is beside the point. In the culture of today's generation, film is a powerful medium for expressing information; its persuasive power makes it very political (the idea is Foucauldian), and its even more dangerous because it isn't overtly political, but it masquerades as "mere entertainment". As a student of communication, I've come to the realization that nothing on the media channels is mere entertainment.
The falsehood of Spartan ideals in the film "300" is further reinforced when the film presents the Persians as the ultimate slavers, worshipping a megalomaniac god-king, bound by superstition, and completely opposed to the values of freedom, democracy and equality. This isn't a misrepresentation per se, because the Persian Empire wasn't really known for free elections or participative governance; but to use it as a contrast to a western culture that is made out of be one based on "reason" and "justice" is highly misleading. If anything, the ancient Greeks were just as unreasonable and unjust as the ancient Persians.
Today, we still have that outdated and ancient mode of thought that dictates our identity along geopolitical borders: East vs. West. A lot of the discourse on religion, governance, economies, and philosophies are divided and opposed along these geographical demarcations. This idea of a divided world is part of the problem of terrorism, neo-imperialism, and the sort of close-mindedness that has hindered development and conflict-resolution. What a film like "300" does, with its packaging and message reinforcement, is to catapult a discourse of division into the minds of the audiences. What makes it especially eye-brow raising is that we celebrate this movie as a valuable contribution to our culture.


Friday, April 6, 2007

Philosophy Bites

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stagename Molière was a 17th century French dramatist, director, theatre manager and actor. In one of his plays, a man discovered one day that he had been "speaking prose" all his life without knowing it. Similarly, implies GSU professor Mark Woodhouse in his Preface to Philosophy, all of us have been doing amateur philosophy all our lives. In a sense, philosophy is just hard thinking about the important issues of life. Look at the following illustrations and try to see how virtually every human activity has philosophical implications:

1. A neurophysiologist, while establishing correlations between certain brain functions and the feeling of pain, begins to wonder whether the "mind" is distinct from the brain.

2. A nuclear scientist, having determined that matter is mostly empty space containing colorless energy transformations, begins to wonder to what extent the solid, extended, colored world we perceive corresponds to what actually exists.

3. A behavioral psychologist, having increasing success in predicting human behavior, questions whether human actions can be called "free."

4. Supreme Court justices, when framing a law to distinguish obscene and nonobscene art forms, are drawn into questions about the nature and function of art.

5. A theologian, in a losing battle with science over literal descriptions of the universe (or "reality"), is forced to redefine the whole purpose and scope of traditional theology.

6. An anthropologist, noting that all societies have some conception of a moral code, begins to wonder just what distinguishes a moral from a nonmoral point of view.

7. A linguist, in examining the various ways language shapes our view of the world, declares that there is no one "true reality" because all views of reality are conditional and qualified by the language in which they are expressed.

8. A perennial skeptic, accustomed to demanding and not receiving absolute proof for every view encountered, declares that it is impossible to know anything.

9. A commissioner, while developing new zoning ordinances, begins to wonder whether the effect or the intent (or both) of zoning laws makes them discriminatory.

10. A BIR director, in determining which (religious) organizations should be exempted from tax, is forced to define what counts as a "religion" or "religious group."

11. A concerned mother, having decided to convert her CPP-NPA communist son, is forced to read the Communist Manifesto and to do some thinking about Marxist and capitalist ideologies.

We could continue the list indefinitely. But already you can see that given a particularly relevant problem, even the "nonphilosopher" is lured into a modest amount of philosophical thinking. In examining possible responses, that person will probably discover a commitment to certain philosophical theses.