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Mysteries of Conservatism, Item 794

In an otherwise excellent review of the latest installment of the Bourne franchise, Peter Suderman, amidst discussions of character development and depth, and the mirroring of content in cinematic form, throws out this baffler concerning the politics of the flick:

Greengrass tries to supplant Bourne’s emotional blankness with some fairly obvious and simplistic liberal politics at the end. Most of these bits, though, seem thin, even desperate, groping for something the series hasn’t earned rather than letting its cool, detached brutality speak for itself. And really, is there any need to spell it all out? It’s always been plain to see that Bourne was what Nathan Lee smartly calls “action hero as blowback.”

The mystery in this concerns what, specifically, is supposed to be liberal - understood as antipodal from conservatism - in the "blowback" thesis. Professed liberals may discuss the thesis and instances thereof, and may even write books on it; conservatives may discuss various theories of interventionism, and may even pen tomes on it, but this does not make interventionism any more conservative than it has been liberal and progressive. In fact, the blowback thesis is really nothing more than a particular formulation of the law of unintended consequences: America, or any other power, does X in order to achieve Y, where doing X has consequence (whether foreseeable or not) Z (regardless of whether Y is attained), and Z returns upon America (or other power) in way B. Now, liberals, or those identified as liberals because they have dissented from recent American foreign policy decisions, may argue that American involvement in this or that nation of Western Asia has resulted in blowback, but this is properly a matter of historical fact. Unless the facts themselves are liberal (which might explain recent conservative aversions to them), it is difficult to perceive how an argument about an alleged case of blowback is liberal.

Comments (5)

Unless the facts themselves are liberal (which might explain recent conservative aversions to them), it is difficult to perceive how an argument about an alleged case of blowback is liberal.

I'm reluctant to get into a Bourne-based discussion because I don't want to read any spoilers until after I have seen it; for that reason I didn't read the review. But it may be worth pointing out that to liberals, liberalism just is the facts. The whole point to liberalism is a value-neutral politics of formal freedom and equality which provides a way to banish all value-referenced conflict to a harmless sphere of equally free private preferences where it cannot impinge upon the equal freedom of the private preferences of others. So we end up with a public life composed entirely of putatively value-neutral bureacratic expertise which exists to insure the value-neutral equal freedom of all (privatized) persons, creeds, preferences, etc.

In actual fact liberalism as a concrete thing in history is something entirely different and abominable from its intrinsically incoherent self-perception. But to liberalism itself, from its own perspective, liberalism is just the value-neutral facts.

It is worth noting that liberalism's self-conception is that of being "just the facts", independent of any substantive commitments or moral judgments. And I'd not want to create the impression of subscription to a native sort of fact/value dualism. It is this dualism, after all, which reduces debates such as the one over 'blowback' to incoherence: foreign-policy liberals - whatever this is taken to mean - might appeal to the 'facts' of the case as confirmation of their (morally-informed, whether or not this is acknowledged; generally, all American foreign-policy debate attempts to invoke moral values of some sort or other) view of the world; conservatives - again, whatever this is supposed to mean - will essentially argue that the liberals' analysis is morally invidious, and so, must have garbled the 'facts'. Neither is a coherent act if the "just the facts" view of things is true.

However, conservatives - by which I mean neoconservatives - really intend, by denying that there can occur blowback, to reinforce certain useful fictions about American history, particularly the notions that America is the Reluctant Superpower, goaded into action only by direst necessity, with motives ever pure, and that, therefore, any apparent negative consequences of American action can only owe to ill-will, malice, ingratitude, or duplicity on the part of others. The idea is that of "My country, right or wrong" as applied to foreign affairs. Hence, for example, supporting the mujahideen in the 1980's was a wise policy without any admixture of fully, hubris, or risk, such that any adverse remote consequences cannot be connected to it. Opponents of neoconservatives often invert this implicitly moral structure to argue that America is uniquely villainous, and this in a manner that reduces our adversaries or rivals to an inert state, acting only when acted upon by America, and thus oddly virtuous in victimhood. Both views are terrible simplifications.

In short, neoconservatives argue against the blowback thesis because they wish for the United States to do certain things, which widespread acceptance of the thesis might threaten; "liberals" and realists argue for it because they wish for the United States to refrain from doing certain things; and only obliquely do any of them touch upon the deeper question, which concerns the moral and prudential 'oughtness' of those things.

...and only obliquely do any of them touch upon the deeper question, which concerns the moral and prudential 'oughtness' of those things.

Well said. It is polemically more expedient in the modern day to identify one's own position with reason as such (understood as value-neutral) than to hint that one is passing moral judgement.

Having seen the movie now, it becomes even clearer why liberals see it as a liberal movie. To liberals (media liberals especially), liberalism just is being against the criminal abuse of power, abuse of power without which the free and equal new man would fully emerge. Media liberals in their own tiny little hermetically sealed minds are the just, intelligent, capable supermen fighting the good fight as individuals against the Man, the System, the abusers of power. The subtext - of the reviews, not the movie - seems to be that one cannot be other than liberal if one is against kidnapping, rendition, torture, assassination, cold-blooded murder of American citizens, etc.

When a reviewer says that this movie has simple liberal politics, what he is really saying is that he (the reviewer himself) has a simple little hermetically sealed mind. Anything that is not the caricature of George W. Bush reaching down to the street level through Jack Baeur is "liberal".

I enjoyed the movie, though not as much as the other two. The middle movie especially is a tale of redemption; in fact this third movie seems to be the most content-free of the trilogy when it comes to both character and moral tension. We'll see though. I've always liked the Bourne movies more on the second or third viewing, which is rare for me when it comes to movies.

What is rather dispiriting is the alacrity with which political factions pore over pieces of popular culture, seeking to validate their dogmas. What is still more dispiriting is the willingness of conservatives to validate both liberal self-conceptions and liberal perceptions of conservatives: to oppose obviously unjust things just is to be liberal, while conservatives, naturally, embrace them.

Both factions are reality-challenged; but on this score, the conservatives are less securely tethered than their adversaries.

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