American Sniper, Hollywood Heresy
What's so surprising is not that it keeps happening. What's surprising is that people continue to be shocked and scandalized when it does happen.
Every few weeks something erupts in America's collective consciousness -- a political scandal, a pop culture obsession, a hot spot in the culture wars. When it does, an American leftist will say or do something appalling, ill-informed or attention-seeking (or all three). The rest of the country is outraged and it carries a news cycle or two.
The latest tinderbox is American Sniper. This is a good, if conventional, war film that tells the story of a sniper sent to Iraq to kill jihadists. The story is based on the real story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle. In American Sniper, Kyle saves hundreds of American soldiers from ambush. He also has to kill women and children. He becomes haunted by all the death he has caused, gets into debates about the validity of the war, and suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The story, directed by Clint Eastwood, is well-told and not jingoistic. And yet the left has treated American Sniper like a heretical text. Michael Moore uses Jesus to condemn Kyle, preaching that the Messiah would never be a sniper. Bill Maher mounts his HBO pulpit and calls Kyle a "patriotic psychopath."
To reply by calling Moore and Maher crazy left-wingers misses the larger point. They aren't pundits, they're preachers. Their theology was formed by the counterculture of the 1960s, one that made bad faith in America a holy virtue. In 2010, the writer Shelby Steele summed up this new faith perfectly:
This new American identity -- and the post-1960s liberalism it spawned -- is grounded in a remarkable irony: bad faith in America as virtue itself, bad faith in the classic American identity of constitutional freedom and capitalism as the way to a better America...Bad faith in America became virtuous in the ‘60s when America finally acknowledged so many of its flagrant hypocrisies: the segregation of blacks, the suppression of women, the exploitation of other minorities, the "imperialism" of the Vietnam War, the indifference to the environment, the hypocrisy of puritanical sexual mores and so on. The compounding of all these hypocrisies added up to the crowning idea of the '60s: that America was characterologically evil. Thus the only way back to decency and moral authority was through bad faith in America and its institutions, through the presumption that evil was America's natural default position. Among today's liberal elite, bad faith in America is a sophistication, a kind of hipness.
The sophisticated hipness of bad faith in America has a representative in Matt Taibbi, a writer for Rolling Stone. Taibbi went to see American Sniper, but there really wasn't a need. He had formed his opinion before the opening credits. "I saw American Sniper last night," his piece opens, "and I hated it less than I expected to."
Again, don't balk at the arrogant fatuousness of this. Taibbi is a theologian, not a journalist. His reaction is no different from an Ayatollah who is asked to read The Satanic Verses. To Taibbi, American Sniper will be "so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism." To Taibbi, director Eastwood populates his movies with "white hats and black hats." Forget the scene where a fellow soldier asks Kyle if the war is moral or even doing any good. Or the one where Kyle runs into his younger brother who is finishing a tour in Iraq and is badly damaged and says "Fuck this place." Or that Kyle -- contrary to Taibbi's claim that he "eventually gets around to feeling bad" -- is ashamed of his first kill, a woman an child who were attacking a group of Marines with a grenade. Or Kyle's own PTSD, which indicates that killing slowly poisons the soul. Any film, book, television show or speech that hints that the American military may do some things right -- or that, like American Sniper, admits that it is also may do some things wrong -- is not sufficiently devoted to the idea that certain American institutions (the military, white men, football, Republicans) are evil.
Liberal theocrats -- let's just call them Taibbiites -- even have an Edenic origin story. For them that time was the 1960s, an era which they solemnize and celebrate with Pauline ardor. Some great things happened during that time: rock and roll, civil rights, the environmental movement, the beginning of more tolerance for gays and lesbians. But there were also bad missteps: "free" love, drugs, black militarism, the War on Poverty, crime, and broken families. After the 1960s reasonable people could honestly face up to the mistakes that had been made. They could admit some uncomfortable things: maybe welfare trapped people in poverty. Drugs could more often destroy than liberate. And perhaps biggest of all: the U.S. military is not an evil institution.
When Jacob Weisberg, a liberal writer, had the courage to explore this fact, he was cast out as a pariah by Paul Rosenberg at Salon. Those who read Rosenberg's piece will notice that he quotes Weisberg, but quickly shifts topics without addressing the issues that Weisberg brings up. Because exploring the truth of reality is not the point. The point is to save your soul and stay respected in the hipster Sanhedrin.
It's why Ayatollah Taibbi knew he hated American Sniper before stepping into the theater.