Saturday, December 5, 2009

What's in a name?

Peter Whittle has an excellent article in Standpoint and on the New Culture Forum (full disclosure: I am proud to say that he is a very good friend of mine) about “vigilante” films, why the critical establishment is sniffy about them and why audiences, particularly conservative ones, love them.

This set me off thinking (I do that sometimes but not too often) about the importance of what you call plotlines and characters. Vigilante has rather a horrible sound; it reminds us of lynching gangs, the Ku-Klux-Klan and other kinds of nasty gang rule. But, actually, a vigilante is a man (or, perhaps, a woman though I have not heard of any films outside the superhero ones that had a female vigilante) who rebels against the corruption and inefficiency of the establishment, the criminal society that develops as a result of that, and the cowardice of everyone around him. A man like, for example, Marshall Will Kane in High Noon a film much loved by all left-wing film critics is there any other kind now that Alexander Walker has sadly passed away?), though a number of us think it is a truly conservative film. (I have never quite worked out how those critics feel about Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront.)

Or a man like the lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Or, coming a little closer in time, a woman like Karen Silkwood as played by that perennial Hollywood leftie, Merryl Streep, or like Erin Brockovich as played by Julia Roberts.

These are all films and characters loved by the leftish or “liberal”, in the new American sense of the word, commentators love. Why don’t they like Dirty Harry or Michael Caine’s latest character, Harry Brown, or Clyde Shelton in Law Abiding Citizen?

Need one ask? Individuals who fight the big monster, the establishment, illegal behaviour that protects criminals are called whistleblowers or heroic rebels if that establishment is big business, old-fashioned Tammany Hall (though perhaps not these days with Chicago politics elevated to the White House) or just the rich who do not spout liberal platitudes. The moment the establishment against which our hero and heroine rebels becomes a liberal one (as it is both in Britain and the United States) said hero(ine) is described as an evil, murderous vigilante who should be bunged up in prison and the key thrown away.

You know who are the goodies and baddies in an old-fashioned western by the colour of the hat; you know the good whistleblowers and the evil vigilante by the name, which is the result of the kind of establishment the person in question takes on.

There is a parallel with journalists and their heroism. The New York Times, for instance, refused to publish those CRU e-mails at first because they had been stolen and had not been meant for publication. Admirable restraint, one might say. But do I hear the words Pentagon papers? Do I hear Watergate? It all depends from whom they were stolen, I suppose, and who was doing the covering up.

According to James Taranto [second story down], the NYT is still having problems with the whole issue of whistleblowers on the wrong side who should really be vigilantes.
Meanwhile, we noticed something missing from this New York Times editorial:

“From revealing accounting shenanigans at Enron to uncovering fraud at WorldCom, whistle-blowers have exposed some of the most egregious cases of corporate wrongdoing. Yet too many remain vulnerable to employer retaliation.”

The editorial goes on to call for new laws strengthening the protection of whistle-blowers. But we guess the editorial praising the East Anglia whistle-blowers will have to wait for another day.
Which reminds me: most people here can recall the heroically portrayed journalists who uncovered Watergate in All the President’s Men. Will there be any equally heroically portrayed bloggers and website editors, not to mention purveyors of unpublishable e-mails about Climategate? I think we all know the answer to that.

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