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October 25 2005

(SPOILER) Serenity analysis by Peter Suderman, who previously reviewed the movie for Relevant. Here he analyzes its political-economical philosophy for The American Spectator...

He still likes it.

Really a first-rate analysis of what I see to be Serenity's biggest virtues, and a review that all of us, no matter what part of the political spectrum we sit on, can no doubt appreciate. People can argue over whether fascism or communism is the biggest evil, but their two greatest proponents of the twentieth century (Nazi Germany and the USSR) had one thing in common--bureaucracy as an instrument of mass murder. Government intervention in the lives of its citizens is the biggest threat to freedom, and Firefly has always come down solidly on the side of small government.

At the same time, I'm not sure these people are Randian, not in the sense that Rand herself was. I love Atlas Shrugged as much as the next small-government Republican, but it seems to me that the characters in Rand novels interacted with each other solely out of their own selfish motives. (Anyone who's ever read Rand would know that to call an Objectivist selfish is to grant them high praise, so I use the word unapologetically here.) Sure, Jayne might be like that, but many of Serenity's crew also seem to value each other in a way that goes beyond what they have to give. Could it be that they actually...gasp...LIKE each other?!

Sigh. Small government and good friendships. A libertarian's dream come true. Now if I could just get either... =)
BAFfler - we're all friends here! And the mods govern us in a small way...
I'm a glass half full kinda gal. Kinda.
If there's one thing I've learnt, it's that you can read practically anything into the works of Whedon and Minear. Personally I think they were making it up as they went along but hey each to their own.
I'm utterly baffled that libertarians are finding "Randian" virtues in Serenity, especially in Jayne. Selfish, yes, with Faith's sense of integrity: "Want. Take. Have." In Rand's universe, armed robbery is barely one step above bureaucratic robbery.

As long as I'm grousing (and you shouldn't hear what else I've been saying today!).... I'm also utterly baffled by anyone who claims that Nazism is worse than Communism, or vicey versy. The only difference is the rhetoric used as a masquerade; the methods of power and abuse, as well as the results, have been pretty much identical.

Now having got all that out of my system, there are definite "frontier values" in Serenity, of the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid variety. Independence is good, but when you depend on having someone around to steal from, that's not independence. Entertaining, thought-provoking, but not necessarily something I'd want to emulate.

Smuggling and salvage, I got no problem with, as long as they do it quiet-like.
It's funny how Joss left out his deep belief that government was a force of evil when I saw him speak at that John Kerry fundraiser.

I don't mind when people find/read things into "Serenity", but I think people are on dangerous ground when they find "strong political messages" in just about anything that isn't specifically a "message film."

The fact of the matter is that skepticism about government runs deep in both liberal and conservative circles -- it's just that liberals like the welfare state and want to limit military/police powers, while conservatives despise the welfare state and embrace military/police powers.
"strong political messages" in just about anything that isn't specifically a "message film."

Serenity is not without a message, but probably not a strong political one. Yes, alliance is not "good" in Serenity/Firefly, but it is neither bad; and, yes, Mal is not bad, but neither good. The "grey area" is something Joss seemed to have in mind when making Serenity (at least, that's what he said in many interviews).

Talking about politics, I have read, here and there, words about the fact that Adam Baldwin's political idea were "not the same as Joss's" and, without being said aloud, seemed quite "conservative", if I understood the unsaid words. Do anyone has precise infos on that?
From posts by not only Adam Baldwin, but also by Joss and Tim Minear and Jewel Staite, it seems that Joss and many of our BDH lean left while Adam and Tim lean right. As always, interesting to see people read their ideology into the works of The Joss(tm).
Adam is most definitely an outspoken conservative and has actually argued politics with fans on one of the sites, which I think is kind of endearing.
On thing I have noticed about Serenity is that it seems to be taken to heart by any political viewpoint, like some form of political Rorshach test. It's really quite amazing to find a film like that.
LOL, IMForeman. I like that: "political Rorschach test" *giggle*
Serenity *is* political. At least its creator says so. (I don't count Minear as Serenity's creator, no matter how much I love and admire his work.) In the interview of Joss that appears in "Serenity: The Official Visual Companion," Joss says of Serenity that, "it's very, very political." (See page 39.) Joss's leftist political bent is no secret. Thus I doubt that he wrote Serenity as an argument in favor of libertarian/conservative political philosophy. That said, one of the wondrous aspects of art is that the beholder can (and should) plumb its depths to find various kinds of complex meaning. Like others who've posted in this thread, I am fascinated by the broad spectrum of political viewpoints represented by fans of this movie. I think it's wonderful that Serenity provokes all kinds of thoughtful political analysis - right and left and in-between. It's a great tribute to Joss and the art he has created.

Although Joss views Serenity as a very political movie, if you look at the broader context of Joss's interview statement, you will see that he's not trying to ram a political screed down anyone's throat: "It's very, very personal. It's very, very political. It's very, very emotional and hopefully nobody will notice any of those things, because they'll be too busy having fun. That's my mandate for everything I do."

[ edited by phlebotinin on 2005-10-25 23:59 ]
Joss has also said that a work doesn't become art until it is more than what the writer created. I think this clearly qualifies.
Joss is well known to have a big problem with the current U.S. government and what they are doing in the world and so the movie is more conservative than one of his works might be otherwise. On the other hand, he writes a pretty good god-believing Shepard while being an atheist himself, so I would be hesitant to read too much into what he creates.
Furthermore, one can be more-or-less liberal and have some intellectual flirtation with libertarianism. OK, maybe not if one is rigidly consistent with accepted dogma - but that's hobgoblins for foolish minds. I flirt with it myself, don'tcha know.

Not saying that Joss *intends* this, that, or the other, but him being a liberal doesn't preclude him from having sympathy for various other ideas.
A writing teacher I once took gave us an exercise where we were supposed to write a speech for a characters espousing points of views that were diametrically opposed to our own.

To write characters, you've got to get inside the heads of all sorts of people. Like an actor, you've got to find those little bits of commonality you might have with people and ideas you'd want nothing to do with in real life. This is why writers who are nothing more than ideologues for one point of view or another rarely write anything that really works on a dramatic level.
All good points. One part of me would love to have Joss expound on what he meant when he described Serenity as "very, very political." The other part of me likes having his intentions remain undelineated. As Lioness and I and others have said here, his intentions are one thing. As art, Serenity to some degree transcends Joss's intentions.
For all those who've posted, believe me, I have no doubt that any libertarian ideas in the series weren't a result of the Whedon. I'm quite aware of Joss's political philosophy--actually, I thought I read somewhere that much of the libertarian streak in the series came from Minear, which just goes to show what can happen when two people with disparate ideas get together and create something out of friendship. Besides, if Joss's source material really was "The Killer Angels," it's not that hard to see how the libertarian streak might have found its way in no matter what Joss originally had in mind. (Thankfully, this one comes without those nasty slavery associations.)

So, this post is neither here nor there. If I remember right, the link right ABOVE this one on the main page takes one to an entry on how Serenity is a message film for liberal activists, basically an encouragement to not take it lying down anymore. I just find all of these different reads fascinating. Makes me a bit sad that mainstream America has given this one more of a pass than we'd like.

And the beat goes on...

(By the way, went to see Serenity again. For all those who remember my problems with the film before, let me just say that I still had issues, and I doubt those will ever go away. On the other hand, knowing what was coming, I found that I was more able to enjoy the movie as a work of art. I'm scheduled to make it a date movie with a very attractive co-worker on Wednesday.)
All these politics... really complicated...

Reading your comments, I understand that "liberal" and "libertarian" seem quite different (see the post of SNT). But when I roam on the National Libertarian Party of the US and the Liberal Democrats party of the US, I can't see *that much* difference, except maybe in the economical point of view. Both parties seem to cherish personal freedom and diversity. The libertarians just add that these can be attained through complete free-market economy, while liberal democrats consider that the market economy should *sometimes* be regulated (but not so much neither).

So, where's the fondamental difference??
The thing that confused me most when I first dipped a toe into American politics is that 'liberal' is a left-wing term, whereas in Holland the right-wing parties are called liberal, and the left-wing parties carry names like social democrats and the likes. Strange how these names seem to have evolved differently.

Anyway, on to your question. If I get things wrong, do point it out, since I'm not an expert on American politics by a long stretch:

Liberals, being left-wing, prefer stronger government and higher taxes to control things more centrally. Think social security and the likes. The government acts as a 'shield' for the weaker members of society and protects the people from the influence of an unchecked market economy.

Libertarians distrust any form of central government, which they feel is fundamently wrong. People should govern themselves. A central government should be as small as humanly possible or, better yet, not even exist. Where I'm unclear is how this would work, exactly, but then Libertarianism, as it is in the US doesn't seem to exist in Europe. Or if it does, it's very small. I think libertarians would prefer more 'city state' like interactions, where people make their own rules. Now how you'd get people to interact fairly and not get anarchism as a result isn't quite clear to me, but I think there's probably some people on this board who could explain it better and/or point you in the direction of a website that deals with libertarianism. I'd be interested myself, honestly.
GVH, that's basically it. Most libertarians have no problem with the idea of some central authority. Even the most widely-read philosophical authority on libertarianism, Ayn Rand, would have said that governments have several legitimate functions: an army to protect people from foreign threats, a police force to protect people from domestic threats, and a court system to have an impartial method of deciding disputes. (To that, I would add a diplomatic wing to help determine the nation's foreign policy.)

But most libertarians would indeed consider more "city-state" like interactions, as you put it, to be the ideal situation. Such a system of government would require people to be more involved, and would force them to either rise to the occasion and become a responsible society that responsibly deals with problems--or suffer the consequences. Solutions that work in one place may not work in another, and attitudes toward "rights" in one place may be different from attitudes in another place. Libertarianism basically believes that people and communities should be able to make decisions about how to run their own lives unencumbered by a larger government, until and unless they violate someone's rights.

To that end, libertarians are generally pro-free market, pro-abortion, pro-drug legalization, anti-tax, and ant-big government. You will find a wide variety of people who call themselves libertarian, however, because really the only basic requirement is to agree to live and let live. (At least, that's how I understand it.) You can find more information at this link.
Imagine a horizontal line like so.


Then imagine a vertical line that bisects this one. The arrow pointing upwards would be labelled 'authoritarian' and the arrow pointing downwards would be labelled 'libertarian'. Any political position should then be visible somewhere on this grid.

While the word 'authoritarian' might conjour up images of Hitler or Stalin, in this instance it simply signifies a greater degree of state control. Whereas 'libertarian' signifies a reduced degree of state control and thus greater freedom for individuals to do as they wish with their lives.

The key point is that it is better to consider 'libertarian' as a direction rather than as a fixed position. While it's logical extension would be anarchy, there are differing ideas of how that anarchy would manifest itself.

The concept of anarchy is an interesting one given that there are two types of anarchists - right-wing anarchists and left-wing anarchists. Those on the right believe that free-market capitalism is, given the inherent selfishness of man, part of the natural order of society. Conversely left-wing anarchists believe that a breaking down of the government-imposed structures of society would allow the positive aspects of human nature to come to the fore.

There are also anarchists who are just keen to smash things up and don't really care what would happen next.

In terms of political parties, terms like 'liberal' and 'conservative' are often unhelpful. Often parties will give themselves labels which they believe will make them attractive to voters - just as Hitler's party was called the National Socialists.

For example 'conservative' implies a dislike for change - and especially sudden change - but often right-wing political parties wish to make substantial changes to the way society is run. Similarly, 'liberal' implies a "laissez-faire" attitude, but many liberals feel societies require a strong guiding hand to help those who would otherwise be downtrodden.
Jon, your explanation is an excellent one. Permit me to add just one or two small things to your thorough analysis. Many conservatives, especially the Christian Right, interpret their self-chosen label as a mandate against change from the way things were. So you have social conservatives, who are willing to change anything to get back to what they view as a happier and more productive--and more stable--time; moral conservatives, who adhere to what they believe is a specific and unchanging core of beliefs; fiscal conservatives, who don't so much mind change in society but detest changes in budget figures and monetary policy; militant conservatives, who want to keep America's dominant power status in the world unchanged; and so on.

On the liberal end of the spectrum, you have a similarly diverse group of individuals. The difference is that while conservatives are divided about what needs conserving (i.e., what makes America great), liberals are divided over what needs to be more free and what needs to be more regulated. Many of them care about only a single issue or a small range of issues (abortion, gay marriage, the environment, the lower class, et cetera), while some of them are liberals across the board.

For our non-American friends who live in parliamentary democracies, I like to explain it like this: Think of the two major American political parties more as coalitions than as actual parties. Each has several key groups within vying for supremacy, only instead of forming coalitions AFTER elections, they often do it BEFORE, during the primaries. This allows the party to make an attempt at putting out a unified message which appeals to (hopefully) more than half the American electorate. Candidates play a larger role in the process as well.

Okay, so not as small as I thought...

[Edited for spelling. Stupid keyboard.]

[ edited by BAFfler on 2005-10-26 16:12 ]
Good explanations Jon and BAFfler.

IMO the simple one line explanations of what liberals and conservatives are supposed to mean in the USA really don't work and are usually used to get emotional responses during campaigning. Opponents paint the words liberal and conservative with all sorts of generalizations meant to scare or anger people.

I do not like politics on the whole. I hate the tricks that are used to manipulate people and the fact that the People and the Country come way down the list after the need to perpetuate power...but I digress. (...and for some reason I have started grinding my teeth...)

My point was supposed to be, that I am pretty much a liberal in USA political terms but I seem to have moderate libertarian leanings. I have never seen a problem with the combination of those two. That is why I like Jon's grid. Some US conservatives, especially social conservatives, want much more governmental control over individual decision making than people who are identified as liberal. That is why I second BAFfler's explanation of the parties being coalitions.

IMO we are a fairly politically moderate country with lots of single hot button issues that can be exploited by either side to make the country swing one way or the other. However, whenever either party lets its most radical elements get too vocal or have too much control, they often scare people and the other party ends up winning the election. Of course then the same radicals say the reason the party lost was because they did not listen to the radicals enough, but what else would you expect.

OK, now I'm depressed.
Thankyou BAFfler. I think you're definitely right that American political parties are broad coalitions.

In terms of Serenity, I agree that it's a true mark of its excellence that Serenity is a strong enough film to support a variety of political readings.

In arguing that a libertarian reading of Serenity works extremely well, perhaps the foremost factor is that the Alliance is trying to do that which is best for its citizens. A key tenet of libertarian wisdom is that government, however well intentioned, is not as well-placed or as good at running the lives of individuals as those individuals themselves.

If the Alliance were simply Fascist or Communist then it would be easy to argue that the BDHs were simply anti-(insert your most detested political group) freedom fighters, but Joss has pointedly said that they should not be seen in such black and white terms.

There is certainly scope to argue that Serenity has something to say about state intervention or the teamwork and sense of 'greater societal purpose' that Communists would argue is a key tenet of their credo. However I have yet to read anything that negates a libertarian reading of this great film!
I'm coming a little late to the party (convention?), but wanted to add that it's so nice to see thoughtful dialogue about politics without icky rhetoric and embarrassing chest-beating. Luvs you guys. Plus, this, from SNT?

Furthermore, one can be more-or-less liberal and have some intellectual flirtation with libertarianism. OK, maybe not if one is rigidly consistent with accepted dogma - but that's hobgoblins for foolish minds. I flirt with it myself, don'tcha know.

Preach on, my brother. My very favorite words of the week -- smart and funny. Thanks ever so.

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