Art Needs Moral Vision

Spielberg’s Munich offers only moral evasion

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

Technical or artistic skill cannot compensate for moral confusion. This simple truth about art is as old as Plato, and applies to popular art like the movies as much as it does to high art. No matter how brilliant the technique or artistry, if the moral vision is corrupted or incoherent, the work of art fails and deserves condemnation. Indeed, works that combine such skill with moral corruption are dangerous, for their technical brilliance can tempt the unwary into ignoring or even accepting their moral or ethical shortcomings.

This danger is what makes popular art, especially movies, worthy of attention despite their transience, particularly now, when sophisticated cinematic techniques are as widespread as the moral relativism masquerading as sophisticated insight. Munich, the latest movie from one of Hollywood’s most esteemed directors, illustrates this unholy alliance of cinematic brilliance and moral confusion all too typical of most popular entertainment.

For decades Spielberg has been a master of all the resources and skills that make an entertaining movie. When his theme has been confined to a sentimental morality, such as the requirement that we be nice to children or the weak, or when his subject comes with prepackaged moral certainty approved by the liberal establishment, such as the evils of Nazism or racism, his movies are powerfully entertaining, if thematically somewhat banal. In Munich he addresses a topic, Palestinian Arab terrorism, which cries out for moral clarity; but all Spielberg gives us is the received wisdom unthinkingly repeated by Hollywood and media liberals alike.

This popular take on the Arab-Israeli conflict is encapsulated in the phrase “cycle of violence.” The assumptions behind this phrase comprise a catalogue of modern moral pathologies. Most important is the therapeutic psychology that sees force not in moral terms — that is, as the instrument of a righteous or unrighteous choice and aim — but as a reflexive reaction to grievances and wounds to self-esteem. People who have been insulted, wronged, or denied various aspirations “lash out” in anger, provoking a similar reaction in those whom they attack. Thus the “cycle of violence,” a vicious circle that can be broken only by abandoning force and addressing the grievances that started the cycle in the first place

Notice the implications of this view, one that can be found lurking in every issue from capital punishment to childrearing. Violence is categorically wrong, and for that reason rarely justified. People aren’t violent out of a choice to pursue some aim, but are passive reactors to something outside themselves that makes them suffer. Conflict resolution is thus a form of therapy, requiring understanding and correction of the conditions that really account for violence. All we need to solve our conflicts are sophisticated thinkers who have abandoned the old superstitions of good and evil, and who are sensitive to the feelings and situations of those who commit violent acts — people who see the world not in a simplistic “black and white” but in the nuanced “shades of gray.”

The Palestinian Arab terrorists have been brilliant at exploiting this Western secular superstition, one contradicted by the record of history and the collective wisdom of the human race, both of which teach us that evil men use violence to advance evil ends, and that such unrighteous violence is stopped only by righteous violence. Instead, the Israeli-Arab conflict is interpreted in terms of the “cycle of violence” and its moral equivalence: Jews traumatized by anti-Semitism and the Holocaust drove from their homes Arabs who, in turn traumatized by their suffering and the thwarting of their “nationalist aspirations,” turn to violence, which provokes a response from the Israelis, which creates more suffering, which provokes more violence, and on and on. All we need to do is break the cycle — which usually means getting Israel to stop reacting to Palestinian violence — create a Palestinian state, and the lion will lie down with the lamb. For doesn’t every grammar school teacher know and preach that  “violence solves nothing”?

The “cycle of violence” thesis is attractive to squishy liberals because it doesn’t require a moral judgment. We don’t have to assign blame, which is the cardinal sin for the sensitive, compassionate, superior creatures we fancy ourselves to be. We know, since Freud and Marx and Oprah have told us so, that people don’t choose evil but are driven to it by circumstances beyond their control. So why should we “blame the victim”? Only troglodytes mired in retrograde illusions like good and evil dare to judge who is to blame and deserves retribution for freely chosen acts. And when the terrorist is a non-Western “other” sanctified by multiculturalist victim-politics, the need to avoid judgment is even more pressing.

As soothing to our sensibilities and vanity as this view may be, in the case of the Israeli-Arab conflict it is mere moral idiocy that requires a complete ignorance of the facts of history — the incessant Arab violence against the Jews that started long before the creation of Israel or the so-called “occupation.” For Arabs don’t want to kill Jews and destroy Israel because Jews displaced a subset of Arabs artificially called “Palestinians.” They want to kill Israelis because Israel is the closest, most galling emblem of the unjust ascendancy of the infidel West over Islam, the concrete representation of Islamic dysfunction. Shaped by a tradition and religious culture of divinely sanctioned spiritual superiority and the rightness of Islamic domination over infidels, many Muslims believe they are sanctioned by their faith to reestablish by any means necessary Islamic dominance over a region and people who were once reduced to fearful inferiority.

This jihad waged to reestablish Islamic dominance has been the dynamic of the Arab assaults against Israel. No doubt this or that individual terrorist has had different motives. Some may have been nationalists killing for a secular state, but that motive doesn’t by itself explain Palestinian terrorism, and to reduce terrorism to that one cause is to distort the issue. For if nationalism is the driving force of Palestinian terror, what explains the demand that any Palestinian state be free of Jews, especially when Arabs make up one-sixth of Israel’s population? Why would Arafat have thrown away opportunity after opportunity to achieve a Palestinian state, instead launching more terrorist violence in response to Israeli concessions? Why does a third or more of Palestinian Arabs support Hamas, an organization whose essence is not Palestinian statehood but rather a commitment to the destruction of Israel? Why is the Palestinian national movement pretty much the only one that demands the destruction of a neighbor as a precondition of its own nation’s existence?

And here is where Munich reveals its moral flabbiness, its embodiment of received wisdom that will no doubt earn it plaudits from pundits and critics equally conventional in their thinking, but that compromises the movie’s claim to any sort of true artistic significance. For throughout the film recur speeches and scenes that reduce the conflict to Palestinian lack of a national home and to Israeli reflexive retribution. Terrorists make moving speeches about the loss of their ancestral homeland, but we never hear of the three wars of aggression against Israel, or the equal number of Jews expelled from the lands in which their ancestors had lived for millennia, but who have not used this loss as an excuse to murder innocents. The Israeli agents tracking down the murderers of Israeli athletes in Munich are defined for the most part by their agonizing moral doubts and ambiguities, incessantly reprising the mantra of  “violence begets violence.” The Israeli bomb-maker makes a speech about how killing terrorists somehow compromises Jewish “righteousness,” which suggests that Jews can be righteous and worthy of our sympathy only as long as they remain passive victims, as they are in Schindler’s List.

So too with the movie’s depictions of the terrorists’ “humanity,” as though their evil is somehow mitigated by the fact that they have wives and daughters, or translate literature, or enjoy a nice evening. So what? The Nazis who engineered the Holocaust had children and wives, mothers and fathers. Many of them were probably loving parents and children. Hitler loved Eva Braun and his dog Blondie. He no doubt enjoyed the sunsets from his balcony in Berchtesgaden. Evil can coexist with humane capacities, but that banal fact ultimately has nothing to do with the need to fight against evil. To think otherwise is to indulge a rank sentimentalism that obscures the necessary moral judgment that holds the perpetrators of evil accountable for their acts, and the upholders of the good responsible for using force to stop evil.

In Munich, however, force is viewed with the suspicion typical of the quasi-pacifist liberal. Using force against murderers is futile, the movie keeps telling us, for each dead terrorist is replaced by another one, each killing of a terrorist inspires another act of terrorist retribution. I wonder what would have happened if the same attitude had been taken regarding Nazis or kamikaze pilots. Thank goodness our fathers and grandfathers had more sense. They knew that evil men have to be destroyed, and you stick with the job until the evil men give up or are no more. They knew that evil men choose their evil to advance some aim, and will try to kill you no matter what you do, and are more likely to take heart from a failure to resist than to reconsider their evil aims or to abandon violence. They knew that the sorts of reservations Munich indulges are not signs of a sophisticated sensibility but rather the evasions borne of moral uncertainty, Hamlet-like doubts whose purpose is to avoid action and moral responsibility.

The moral evasions at the heart of Munich evoke another Munich, the Munich of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement, that moment in 1938 when moral exhaustion confronted evil and blinked, unleashing a force of destruction that cost 50 million dead and that was stopped not by understanding of context or empathy with the enemy’s humanity but by righteous force wielded by men who weren’t afraid to call evil by its proper name. Fortunately for Israel, most of its citizens have learned this lesson of history, even as their co-religionist in America indulges the luxury of ignoring it.

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