News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: "Walker": Liberal/Conservative Icon?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"Walker": Liberal/Conservative Icon?

Warning: Work in Progress

I watched Alex Cox's film Walker on the Sundance channel the other night. It tells the true story of an American do-gooder who ends up leading a revolution in Nicaragua and eventually becoming dictator. Written, directed, and produced during the hey-day of Reagan's "contra" war in Nicaragua, the film is even more relevant and telling today. It shows how liberals and conservatives are really two sides of the same coin...

There's a lot to the film. What struck me most is that Walker's transformation from starry-eyed idealist to ego-maniacal tyrant falls out neatly from the man's liberal assumptions. But this phrasing gives too much emphasis on the political distinctions we take for granted in our own day and age. Inside Walker's political views I think you can find both modern liberal and conservative political views. How's that for a paradox?

Let me explain. In the film, we see Walker as a proponent of anti-slavery and manifest destiny. He believes in American democratic ideals, so much so that he thinks that he must bring them to every backward and undemocratic society in the world. This is his "burden," as he puts it. In fact it's the burden of America.

I'll leave you to see the movie to get the full story line. What intrigues me about the film is how Walker's politics so easily turn from a liberal view to a conservative view. It's like watching one of those pictures that contain two images: you know the one where it can be either a rabbit or a duck? or a goblet or two faces?

Psychologists call this a "gestalt-switch." It shows how something--a picture--can be two things at the same time; or is it one thing at two times, depending on "how" you see it? For some philosophers this ability of the mind to see one thing two ways has some interesting implications for how we understand "reality." It all depends on how you see it and often on "how you want to see it.

Okay, I've got that off my chest. But how does this relate to politics? Well, I am intrigued by how you can see either a liberal like Hillary Clinton or a George Bush in the way that Walker responds to the distinregration of his rosy-eyed view of democracy and manifest destiny. For me, this explains a lot about how modern democrats like Kerry, Lierberman, and Clinton can sound so much like George Bush when it comes to how to deal with Iraq and the Mideast.

In a deeper sense, though, the movie also says something about American ideals and its vision of reality. American democracy is unique to the history and circumstances of a people with culture and political and social assumptions they shared from countries they came from. Trying to impose this type of democracy from these origins onto another stime/place causes problems for many reasons. The main reason might be simply that a people or individuals in a society are not yet ready for that way of thinking and living.

Now this sounds somewhat anti-American doesn't it? Everyone in the world, we believe, wants freedom and liberty and the ability to pursue happiness. Maybe, maybe not. I'm not sure that's awlays so and that it depends on where and when you are looking at a society. It also depends on how these people understand these concepts of freedom and liberty that our politicians so easily mouthe and throw around like so much confetti at a victory parade.

Let me just close this open-ended essay on a historical point. Many societies have developed democratic societies. Perhaps the first was in Athens during the time of Socrates and Plato. Then there's Florence Italy during the Renaissance, which had many democratic institutions and parctises that "we'd" call democratic. In societies that are not generally considered docratic, such as Medieval feudalism for example, there are various freedoms and liberties available that provide not only a stable way of life but a more free society than even our own. The Enlightenment paardigm of Reason we use to measure other societies and their "freedom" may not be as infallible as we take so much for granted.

In our present circumstances, it is germane to consider what democracy means in a given social and political context. We also need, I think to bear in mind that, unlike Walker in this film, we just can't traipse off to other countries and hope to impose what we think democracy is on those countries.

As anyone who has attained any sense of self-awareness knows, gaining a sense of freedom and liberty is a hard thing to do. It takes time and often involves failure and coming to terms with reality. Gaining a true sense of who I am, unique and individual, not a simple drone in the hive of society, I find my freedom in terms that often defy the accepted, standard, and cliche-ridden formulas of my peers.

Coming to know myself is something unique to me--no one has lived my life and struggled with my demons, not should I expect them to. And should they try, I would fight them for interfering with who I am and trying to impose on me their way of thinking and believing, not mine.

In the same way, I think, Iraqis have to learn what democracy is--the hard way--if they want it bad enough. And having Americans in their front-yard trying to "teach them"--we're talking about the cradle of civilization, remember--how to do it is simply ludicrous. Not only because they know that Americans aren't there out of friendship and purely altruistic reasons. Sure, Americans might have these starry-eyed ideals but those ideals must compete with the realities that the many religio-political factions and interests in Iraq see as their goals.

And who's to say that their goals aren't as legitimate or just as important as ours?

Of course, there's much to laud in American democracy. There's much to podner over and critique as well, asking ourselves whether we are really as vrtuous and excellent as like to put ourselves out to be. If there's one thing that 911 should have done, it was to provide a time for reflection on who we are and what we are as a nation. But this was not done, and the reasons for that are indicative, in many ways, of what is wrong at base with our selves.

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