Most self-delusionally ironic post of the year

A National Review writer explains that "national-security scares, universal police surveillance, perversion of science and government use of torture" are "the dreary living conditions common to all totalitarian regimes."

By Glenn Greenwald

Published February 10, 2009 10:55AM (EST)

(updated below - Update II)

For some indiscernible reason, some conservative writers love to sit around endlessly attempting to impose ideological labels on pop cultural products:  I think that movie has some conservative overtones but is ultimately liberal; the characters in Battlestar Galactica are subtly right-wing; that's a really conservative song -- that sort of thing.

Along those ponderous lines, National Review is currently unveiling -- one by one, to keep the suspense level extra-high -- its list of "the 25 Best Conservative Movies of the Last 25 Years."  One of its writers, S.T. Karnick -- who endorsed Mike Huckabee for President; blamed the 2006 GOP loss, in part, on the Republicans' failure to advocate an "assertive foreign policy"; and considers Rambo to be a sterling theatrical achievement that celebrates authentic Christian values -- named the genuinely superb 1985 Terry Gilliam film, Brazil, as #22 on the list.  When doing so, Karnick wrote -- and this is really a quote that appears in National Review's Corner (h/t Crust1):

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil portrays a darkly comic dystopia of malfunctioning high-tech equipment and the dreary living conditions common to all totalitarian regimes. Everything in the society is built to serve government plans rather than people.

The film is visually arresting and inventive, with especially evocative use of shots that put the audience in a subservient position, just like the people in the film. Terrorist bombings, national-security scares, universal police surveillance, bureaucratic arrogance, a callous elite, perversion of science, and government use of torture evoke the worst aspects of the modern megastate.

Is it even theoretically possible for someone's brain to allow them to write that last sentence in National Review as listing the hallmarks of "a totalitarian regime" and "the worst aspects of the modern megastate" without simultaneously realizing that this is everything that same magazine has cheered on for the last eight years at least?  Karnick is a rabid fan of 24 and finds discussions of how the show glorifies torture and "the opinions of ex-military and police officers who argue that torture is never effective and never justified" to be "absurdly tendentious" and "stupendously uninteresting."  

I'm genuinely interested in understanding the specific thought process that allows someone like this to write a paragraph like the one above while remaining blissfully unaware of the glaring irony and internal contradictions.  Though we all have the capacity for advocating inconsistent ideas in different circumstances, certain instances are so blatant that it's hard to believe the person's brain allows them to remain blind to it.  Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer, in his probing study of the right-wing authoritarian mind and its capacity to embrace multiple contradictory beliefs at the same time, probably came the closest to shining light on this bizarre syndrome.


UPDATE:  Quite hilariously, while National Review wants to claim Brazil as a great "conservative movie," the person who actually made the film -- Terry Gilliam -- certainly doesn't see it that way.  Rather, he recognizes what is glaringly obviously to everyone but National Review:  that the very authoritarian horrors depicted by the film are the exact ones ushered in by the U.S. Government over the last eight years (h/t emaydon):  

City Pages: You're often described as a fabulist, but isn't Tideland a political movie for the No More Mr. Nice Guy age?

Terry Gilliam: Have people forgotten I made Brazil? George W. [Bush], [Dick] Cheney, and company haven't. I'm thinking of suing them for the illegal and unauthorized remake of Brazil.

Even if one were intent on inventing evidence to demonstrate the inanity and glaring irony of what Karnick wrote about this film, it wouldn't be possible to top this.


UPDATE II:  By email, Karnick sent me a detailed and lengthy reply, which, in a subsequent email, he explicitly requested that I post.  That emailed response is printed in full -- here.  I will simply note that, not being very familiar with his writings, I didn't attribute to Karnick most of the beliefs he denies he holds.  Instead, I noted the irony of his publishing this list of authoritarian ideas in National Review -- of all places -- given that that list of horrors is "everything that same magazine has cheered on for the last eight years at least."  But readers can decide for themselves how persuasive the reply is.

Dear Mr. Greenwald,


Thank you for your interesting and impassioned article regarding my praise of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

The content of your critique, unfortunately, appears to be based on a misunderstanding, specifically a belief that I endorse a large number of positions with which in fact I do not agree and which I fact I have quite publicly disagreed. Perhaps you are not sufficiently conversant with my actual writings to be aware of this. This is a problem I often encounter, alas, as a liberal of the right—people try to pigeonhole me as holding other people’s opinions which in fact I resolutely and quite openly oppose. To wit some examples from the present case:

Allegation of support for the Iraq War. I have not been a supporter of the Iraq War. See, for example, TCS Daily - A Classical Liberal View of the Iraq War, “Prominent GOP Senator Embraces Classical Liberal Position on Iraq War”, and search for “Iraq War” at The American Culture. The claim that my NRO article criticizing the Republicans “blamed the 2006 GOP loss, in part, on the Republicans' failure to advocate an "assertive foreign policy" misunderstands my point, as I was critiquing the Republicans’ failure to achieve their own stated goals, not endorsing those goals: “Republicans failed to get it done in Iraq and stood idly by while Iran and North Korea worked to develop nuclear weapons and Osama bin Laden laughed at us from his bunker in Pakistan or wherever he is now.” My position stated in that article, that classical liberalism includes “strong defense of the national interest in international affairs,” is outlined more fully in “A Classical Liberal View of the Iraq War” (cited above), where I make it quite clear that the Iraq War did not qualify as conforming to such principles, and I have followed up on this in quite a few other articles also cited above.

Alleged endorsement of Mike Huckabee. My NR piece you cited was an analysis of why the right should run a governor for President, not an endorsement of Huckabee himself, as a reading of that article will show, along with my intense criticisms of Huckabee’s positions as in “Coercion Is Not Charity: The Huckabee Fallacy”, where I define his point of view as a “:license to rob one’s fellow citizens.” I was in fact a supporter of Ron Paul in the last election cycle (see, for example, “The Appeal of the Principled Rep. Paul” for my thoughts about him and his positions), though I have never actually endorsed any active political candidate, as far as I can recall.

Alleged support for government employment of torture. My analysis of 24 was that as art and entertainment the show has been quite good, even though it sometimes seemed to support policies with which I disagree. My criticism in the article you cite was of the New Yorker’s tendentious dismissal of the show: “According to the New Yorker author, 24 is about one thing and one thing only: torture.” My article in fact pointed out that the New Yorker author conceded that “Although his program has been accused of parroting the Bush administration's attitudes in the War on Terror, Surnow differs strongly with the administration on the War in Iraq.” After quoting the New Yorker in establishing that Surnow has “no faith in nation-building” and thought we should have been out of Iraq by 2005, I wrote, “I rather like Surnow's analysis.” I certainly did not endorse torture, because in fact I do not endorse it; quite the contrary. Here is what I wrote about the subject when Guantanamo and torture were in the news: (”): “I personally believe that we must resolutely avoid the imposition of torture of any kind, even on noncitizens, unless the most utterly dire circumstances are in effect. And even then, the idea is surely repugnant to any sensitive person.” I go on to concede that “there will seldom be a clear answer [regarding this issue], and that honorable people can disagree honorably.” The NRO article you cite in your critique was not written by me, and I do not agree with it. I am sure that you deplore such attributions of guilt by association as much as I do.

Alleged support of the Bush administration’s “authoritarian horrors”. I have publicly and strenuously opposed the Bush administration’s incursions against our liberties. In “Who Are the Real Conservatives Today”, I wrote, “the Republicans massively increased federal control over elementary and secondary schools and passed numerous constraints on political freedom in the Homeland Security Act and the McCain-Feingold restrictions on political speech. . . . In addition, the Republicans threw away their reputation for competence and the value of limited government with their inept response to the Katrina disaster.” I published a scathing critique of incursions against liberty at all levels of government in the United States (“Twilight of Liberty”, by Steve Stanek) and others like it. I have written extensively against “authoritarian horrors” by the Bush administration and of governments in general (continually praising cultural works that show the inherent tendency of governments to stomp on individual liberties, as for example here and here). In the body of my writings going back more than two decades, I have continually stood against government incursions against individual liberty, by the left and right alike, and the elitism that motivates them.

Allegation that Brazil is conservative. I never used the word “conservative” in the article; that was an umbrella term used for the series as a whole. In my view, Brazil reflects a classical liberal philosophy. As a liberal of the right, or classical liberal, I am grateful to the National Review staff for allowing me to write in their magazine and bring this fine film to its readers’ attention. I cannot think that you do not share my hope that National Review readers will benefit from watching this film.

Allegation of disagreement with Terry Gilliam about the Bush administration. I agree with Terry Gilliam on the awfulness of the Bush administration and have written numerous articles demonstrating that position. A reasonable familiarity with my writings shows quite clearly that I am not an adherent of political conservatism or the Republican Party. In light of all of these considerations, I must respectfully disagree with your claim that my praise for Brazil contradicts my personal convictions and serves as an example of “inanity and glaring irony.”

I greatly appreciate your genuine interest in the thought process behind the composition of my brief appreciation of Brazil, and I hope that the preceding notes may go some way toward allaying any concerns you may have about the consistency of my adherence to the values and ideas indicated in Terry Gilliam’s excellent film.

Best, S. T. Karnick

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn GreenwaldFOLLOW ggreenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------