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Location: LaGrange, Kentucky, United States

The opinions and interests of a husband, analyst and Iraq war veteran.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

On the peculiar voyeurism of free peoples

James S. Robbins pens an interesting piece on the movie 300 in today's National Review.

The runaway blockbuster 300 has prompted renewed interest in the classics. The movie has it all — heroism, sex, violence, good vs. evil — who knew dead white men could be so interesting? The historical inaccuracies in the movie are legion, as in many historical films (let alone those based on a graphic novel). But if the movie motivates people to learn about the true story then I’m all in favor.


One is attracted to the human drama of the story. A small band of fighters willingly sacrifice themselves against vastly superior forces to buy time so armies could assemble to defeat the enemy later. It is no mystery why the defense of the Alamo was soon dubbed “America’s Thermopylae.” In fact the first Alamo monument bore the inscription, “Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat - the Alamo had none.” Leave it to the Texans to one-up the ancients. [Hah! - ed.]

But the analogy is inexact, because of what the respective groups were defending. The heroes of 1836 were fighting for freedom. The Spartans fought to maintain their autocratic state. A better analogy is not the Alamo but Iwo Jima, from the Japanese point of view (also recently dramatized in Letters from Iwo Jima). Both groups of defenders, Spartan and Imperial Japanese, were prepared to die fighting the enemy — but not for things we value.

Yes, we can admire them on the human level, for the bravery it took to fight against hopeless odds for the cause in which they believed. Courage, self-sacrifice, and indomitable spirit are qualities we like to see in our heroes. But is that enough? Shouldn’t we take the cause into account too? Seriously, in the battle of Spartans vs. Persians, for whom do you root? Both were unsavory.

[Emphasis mine]

"But is [admiration for their bravery] enough? Shouldn’t we take the cause into account too?" Yes, there is another factor here. It's the vicarious thrill we get from such alien worlds. As a free people, we're steeped in love for self-government and liberal democracy. We jelously defend it by day, but at night (or in a darkened theater) we dream of anarchy and monarchy! But at a voyeuristic remove, of course.

We watch mafia movies to imagine what it's like to live an existence governed by tribal law rather than rule-of-law. We watch vigilante movies to get a sense of what "justice" would look like in a lawless world. And we watch 300 to experience the nightmarish grandeur of a totalitarian state, safe in the knowledge that when the lights come up, the dream will end.

Where does our morbid fascination come from? I don't know. But I like to think that it re-inforces our commitment to freedom. I know it re-inforces mine.

More from Robbins:

If you can’t quite get behind rooting for the Spartans, there were other heroes on the scene at Thermopylae, people the movie ignores. Herodotus tells us that when it became clear that the Greek defensive position had been flanked, Leonidas ordered the men from the other Greek states to leave, to prepare for the confrontation yet to come. But the 700 men of Thespiae, led by Demophilus, refused. They chose to stand with the three hundred Spartans, to fight beside them. "So they abode with the Spartans," Herodotus wrote, "and died with them."

Who were the Thespians? No, not actors — hard to imagine seven hundred or even seventeen taking up arms these days. They came from Boeotia, near Mt. Helicon, a little more than midway between Thermopylae and Athens. Their polis was traditionally a democracy. The Thespian Hoplites were much more akin to the volunteer citizen soldiers long seen as the backbone of the American fighting forces. Unlike the Spartans, the Thespians did not spend their lives drilling and training for war while living off the sweat and toil of those the enslaved Helots. The Thespians were free men who lived freely, and defended their city because their conscience demanded it.

What little we know of Thespiae leads us to believe that life there was pleasant, and cultured.


The Thespians made a greater sacrifice than the Spartans, but they did not have the power and influence of Sparta, nor apparently the ability to inspire the same sort of myth-making... Today in Thermopylae there are two main monuments to the defenders. The Spartan monument features a wall flanked by sculptures of figures reclining, fronted by a bas relief of the battle, and with a statue of a Spartan hoplite, spear raised, dominating the center, above the inscription "Come and take them." At the traditional spot of the last stand, a plaque proclaims, "Stranger, bear this message to the Spartans, that we lie here obedient to their laws."

Nearby stands a strangely muted memorial to the soldiers of Thespiae, a dark, headless, armless, legless trunk, a shattered remnant of a man, and beside the pedestal a marble tablet dedicating the shrine to the unknown defenders of the pass who chose to sacrifice themselves for democracy and their homeland.

To my way of thinking, Thespiae may not have much of a physical monument, but its legacy of freedom and democracy is monument enough. My thanks to Mr. Robbins for the interesting essay.

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