This essay contains spoilers for the movie 12 Monkeys.—Eds. The more we come to fear that our lives after the pandemic will not remain the same, the more we desire to make them the same, either by ignoring the problem or by going back in time and preventing the catastrophe. Our technological achievements, from biological…
This essay contains spoilers for the movie 12 Monkeys.—Eds.
The more we come to fear that our lives after the pandemic will not remain the same, the more we desire to make them the same, either by ignoring the problem or by going back in time and preventing the catastrophe. Our technological achievements, from biological research to airports turned against us and spread the virus worldwide, while we largely ignored the problem. So we react by abandoning technology, isolating instead. And we wait.
Now’s a good time to revisit 12 Monkeys (1995), Terry Gilliam’s pandemic vision: Mankind exterminated and progress paralyzed by a deadly virus leaping from airport to airport. A terrifying future where we live in pods and eat bugs, while tyrant-scientists try their hand at time travel to test and trace the virus to its origin. Just like us! It all recalls Machiavelli’s warning in chapter III of The Prince: Without prudence, by the time the disease is visible, it’s already out of your hands…
Gilliam’s film asks, what’s the difference between prophecy and madness? There’s always somebody warning you about the end of the world, after all, and once in a while, it happens…it’s either luck, and speaking at the right time, or prudence. But of course, only the prudent can tell the difference. We’re stuck with one curse or the other: blindness or hindsight. We either don’t know what’s happening or we ask ourselves, could we have done more?
This is the trap James Cole (Bruce Willis) is caught in as the protagonist of 12 Monkeys. He has to go back in time and learn about the epidemic, or hopefully even prevent it from happening. Stuck in the future, he can’t make sense of the past or deal with people he considers ghosts—he’s forced to watch as the past replays itself again and again, the people in it more like ghosts than flesh and blood. But in navigating the past, acting and making choices, he becomes as ignorant as everyone else. Time travel induces madness.
Still, Cole is able to see our world from a distance, and to gain a vista on the madness of the times. Bruce Willis is arrested and thrown into an asylum because he’s not well-adjusted—but the movie shows that being well-adjusted, the psychological ideal of liberalism, means denying there’s anything to fear. Liberalism asks us to trust in systems we don’t understand and refuse to judge events for ourselves. It also turns out to mean living by the fantasies TV advertises.
The film’s more “well-adjusted” characters work in secret laboratories studying deadly viruses which may equally save or doom humanity—there’s no way to tell which. There’s immense power there, exercised by people like ourselves and so just as ignorant as us of what will come of their actions. We trust that everything will work out perfectly with our technological powers, and if it doesn’t, it’s time to pray or maybe get lucky. Our imprudent experts live by fantasies, too…
Liberalism and Despair
So, in the movie and outside of it, there are good reasons not to be well-adjusted. But nobody can say that publicly, of course. Instead, liberal piety answers our secret fears with love of animals—the more we fear we are evil, the more we turn to animals as innocent. Nature, without us, might be good. In 12 Monkeys, that’s Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt)—the beautiful, wild, rebellious son of Mr. Science with power over life and death, the genteel Dr. Goines played by Christopher Plummer. Behind both, however, is love of death.
One of the father’s lackeys—one who does not get honors or inheritance like the son—decides to take his revenge on mankind for his rejection. That’s the film’s reveal and the villain completing this unholy trinity, spreading the disease, the ghoulish Dr. Peters played by David Morse. His plan was to sacrifice human beings to prove how stupid and blind we all are, releasing the virus to prove he was right all along. If we can self-destruct, he reasons, we must. We’re too base to deserve to live.
You might say well, it’s just a movie, they made up a villain! We certainly assume our pandemic was spread innocently, ignorantly. Perhaps fearful people didn’t tell the truth about where they traveled. That’s irresponsibility, so we’re ok with authorities fining or even arresting people. But surely no one would do anything evil! It’s funny: In the worst epidemic in a century, we’re so sure no one could have done anything evil…
In our plea for innocence, we become like the animals we imagined as innocent. This is the movie’s secret: Bruce Willis is supposed to learn that the 12 monkeys were and were not responsible for the onset of the epidemic. Beyond the fantasies of the well-adjusted who denied the epidemic would come, beyond the reassuring T.V. fantasies helping us ignore the world, there is one more fantasy that separates us from our bodies: the denial of evil.
Disease is important because it reminds us of our bodies, our weakness, our mortality, our fears—it’s not a technological or institutional problem you can solve through some more science, natural or political. If you get sick, you will likely lose your mind—maybe your life, too. Fantasy then fails. You cannot jump outside of your experience and indulge in time travel.
You can treat our epidemic as a revelation of institutional failures we need to fix, and medical ignorance, and all that. And this is true as far as it goes. But it cannot bring back the dead. It cannot even prevent people dying today, tomorrow, next week, next month. Even science, as much as the rest of our media, tempts us to believe the lie that we can know the unknowable, playing with models that go back and forward in time without consequences for ourselves.
So it’s not an accident that 12 Monkeys connects time travel to madness and madness to tragedy, to a man who decides to be a hero and learns he has to pay a price for his belief, that he can change the past. When we look to a scientific or political savior, that’s what we’re looking for. When we look away from catastrophe, that’s what we think we are accomplishing. These are fantastic solutions to real problems.
12 Monkeys is not about time travel, but about our desire to travel back in time, to deal with guilt and with shame, to avoid failures rather than learn from them. That the climax seems to be an accident, since hero and villain meet by chance—or by a necessity they ignore—is not itself an accident. Our hero wanted to escape with his beautiful lover to paradise, the Florida Keys: That’s an image of death.
Watch 12 Monkeys, and watch it again. It reproduces necessity, since it has a beginning, middle, and end, each event following as it must—even though it’s based on the promise that we can repeal necessity, travel in time, skip around, reach the happy end. The skipping forward and backward in time, between dream and reality, between guess and discovery, follows a sequence of revelation, an inescapable necessity that promises us we can learn better.
Terry Gilliam asks to remember the past, to remember ourselves, to retrieve the things we forgot or lost when we embraced our most beloved, most successful fantasies. This American crisis, the pandemic, and this all-American hero’s tragedy, driven by his love and by scientific masters, will help us put two together. Back in 1995, 12 Monkeys grossed almost $170 million, but we didn’t learn much. Since we’re doing the time, we might as well do the crime as well, and learn.
In Rome, at the second National Conservative Conference, two speeches were dedicated to the defense of humanity from the onslaught of progressive ideology. This ideology has been best (and most succinctly) described by The American Mind’s own James Poulos as the Pink Police State. The call to action was first articulated from an American perspective…
In Rome, at the second National Conservative Conference, two speeches were dedicated to the defense of humanity from the onslaught of progressive ideology. This ideology has been best (and most succinctly) described by The American Mind’s own James Poulos as the Pink Police State.
The call to action was first articulated from an American perspective by the man who kicked off the proceedings, Rod Dreher. It was then reiterated in a very different French context by Marion Maréchal.
Comparing the two speeches and speakers, I was surprised that they should agree on so many points—I think Rod would agree as well, since he was impressed with Maréchal’s speech and talked to her about it privately. But then again, it’s surprising that they should have met at all. Rod is an American Orthodox—former Catholic—in favor of small communities, whereas Maréchal is a Catholic overflowing with visions of a Europe redefined as a French Empire!
But both see the same enemy—globalized Progress—and the same saving grace—Christianity. Both look toward a renewed interest in anthropology and ecology in order to save humanity from the trans-humanist future. Maréchal pointed to the late Sir Roger Scruton’s belief that conservatism is all about the oikos, the home, which should guide both ecology and economics. Only at that level can we develop an anthropology, an understanding of what makes us human, that shows what’s distinctive and irreplaceable about us.
Maréchal, interestingly, presented herself as a new Jeanne D’Arc, ready and willing to face off against a new enemy trying to destroy the French way of life. Her vision of change goes to politics through the culture and seems strangely religious—strangely because as she herself insisted, the French are anti-clerical, though Catholic. Her presence at the conference suggests she is indeed preparing to return to French politics at the highest level, and her politics will be one of national deliverance.
We may compare Maréchal’s Jeanne D’Arc with another figure from the Christian Middle Ages: Dreher’s own self-chosen patron, St. Benedict of Nursia, founder of the order that bears his name and of a kind of community that would prove essential to saving civilization in times of barbarian invasions. The two have this in common: their admirers would call them visionaries and their detractors fanatics. They are not normal politicians and they can only address abnormal times.
Rod discussed his upcoming book, about how Catholic Slovaks resisted Communist persecution by taking the “Benedict option”—organizing communities that could take strength from the catastrophe of the times. Here we begin to see what it might take to fend off the therapeutic-pharmaceutical Pink Police State: Communities that can educate, summon, and reward the courage to face suffering, to live uncomfortably, to be disciplined rather than lazy—that is, to have a transcendent purpose for which to live.
Refounding and Community
Both speeches were about some kind of founding and both carried the suggestion that what we now need is a change of character at the level of a renaissance. In Rod’s case, going back to the Middle Ages and pointing out that it’s been done before successfully offers great clarity about the model Christian conservatives should follow in order to live by prayer. They have to prepare to withstand persecution. To organize parallel communities that can offer jobs, education, fulfilling lives, as well as legal defense.
In Maréchal’s case, she described a revival of Christendom under new conditions, a way of life that would safeguard people and preclude the need for such hardship—or perhaps the outcome of a political conflict where such communities eventually prove victorious—but she was far more vague about what that community might mean. Despite talking about phenomena at scales as different as village and empire, they had the same idea about the need to redirect our attention from the abstract, vague, and universal to the concrete, particular, and knowable.
In philosophical terms, we call this love of one’s own. Without an interest in inheritance, even in the form of a renaissance, a taking into possession anew one’s long-lost or buried heritage, loyalty is not possible. Without loyalty, a community where people hold things in common is not possible either. The name for that kind of relationship is honor—the requirement that deeds should live up to speeches and the promise that people can rely on each other to be known and loved.
It is not, therefore, accidental that these two visionaries of a new Christianity should meet at a conference about nationalism. Inheritance has something to do with politics—with the requirements of acting on our political nature. Honor is a strange word in modern politics. If it were to find its way back into our everyday speeches, that would be an important sign that these speeches are right, that we are recovering what we have long been missing.
Accordingly, the big promise I see Rod and Maréchal make is: if you follow this new path, you get your soul back. You are no longer merely a patient of a new medicine that treats your interest in yourself as a disease to be cured—no longer the lab rat of vast experiments run by elites who neither subject themselves to the same dangers nor admit to any share in a common nature that would make consent and deliberation necessary.
But aside from the political use of the soul, there is another one, which is much more personal. The appeal of national conservatism, or of Christian visionaries, is at this point limited. But the appeal of other vague things that hint at similar promises, from Joe Rogan to Jordan Peterson, is wide, if shallow, and therefore points accurately at the great need so many young men and young women feel to redeem themselves.
This is why political change is underway. Though I cannot myself predict how it will turn out, I’m sure there’s a need now for this new form of Christian community and for this new Christian vision of bringing people together to complete their commitments and arouse their better aspirations. Maréchal’s statement that we need a new anthropology to fight off trans-humanism is the best statement the soul-searching so many people are engaging in. This might define our generation.
There’s some reason for hope in all this. Comparing the two speeches, it became obvious to me that the Christian commitment is the core of the confidence to face down the Pink Police State. Should you choose to disobey scientific-gnostic authorities that try to redesign your body and want your mind to be at peace through meditation and marijuana, how are you going to find another authority that will preserve your humanity? That’s the question now.
Robert Downey Jr. is the only actor of his generation to play memorable characters whom audiences really and truly love. He resurrected his career, after all, playing Iron Man for more than a decade, taking breaks along the way to play Sherlock Holmes in two very successful Guy Ritchie movies. His attempted third, Dolittle, falls…
Robert Downey Jr. is the only actor of his generation to play memorable characters whom audiences really and truly love. He resurrected his career, after all, playing Iron Man for more than a decade, taking breaks along the way to play Sherlock Holmes in two very successful Guy Ritchie movies. His attempted third, Dolittle, falls flat, however. It offers an object lesson in how to ruin a blockbuster—and children’s fantasies.
Dolittle is supposed to have cost around $200 million, including extensive reshoot costs, usually a bad sign for a production. Worse, it was pushed back several times in 2019 and eventually all the way to January of this year, another bad sign: January is Hollywood’s post-Christmas dumping ground. To underscore the absurdity of all this, though the film boasts an incredible cast of Oscar winners (mostly doing animal voices, admittedly), it was treated like trash by Universal studio!
But after I saw it, this humiliating treatment started to make sense. The plot is very thin and at the same time gratuitous: a young Queen Victoria is dying of a mysterious illness, so obviously Dolittle—Robert Downey, Jr., who produced the movie with his wife—is commissioned to sail to the ends of the world and seek a magical remedy, accompanied by his animated menagerie of wild animals who are cute, tame, and excruciatingly boring.
Well, if you’re going to wow audiences with royalty, the British Empire, and all the charm of a period piece—essentially Downey Jr. doing a variation on Johnny Depp’s flamboyant Captain Jack Sparrow—you should first know what’s so interesting about the British Empire, and about its subjects’ adventures in search of nature to escape the inevitable advance of scientific and even moral progress. Instead, we get pretty backgrounds and action whizzing past at breakneck pace, with a design more fit for Hallmark than for a blockbuster.
The Victorian age is an endless source of Romantic storytelling—in Dolittle, it’s England, the high seas, and South-East Asia! But instead of aristocracy and nature, you get another session of Fantasy Therapy, in which endearing characters overcome their trauma and, in the process, lose any interest whatsoever. Dolittle has lost his too-spirited wife (more of an adventurer than him); his pet polar bear is perpetually cold; and his pet gorilla is cowardly. These rather dull problems are given rather dull solutions as the movie tromps along.
Worse still, everything is animated. And animation, motion capture notwithstanding, is killing expressive acting instead of enhancing it—as we saw with last year’s poker-faced Lion King. You might think it’s impossible to make charismatic mega-fauna dull, but you’d be wrong—it can be done and Dolittle has done it! So goodbye to animals offering metaphors for moral qualities we should learn about!
Therapists and Heroes
Now, the point of the story is this: the eccentric and self-loathing protagonist will show all those stuffy Victorians that he’s cool, and save everyone from their mental issues or boring lives through fantasy, if only he can reluctantly embrace his gifts and live down his past. Not only is this a boring rehash of a million other bad stories selling Fantasy Therapy, it’s obsolete: audiences now worship young, do-gooder protagonists, as in Star Wars.
This is a typical expression of Hollywood’s desperate attempt to resurrect that old magic and keep audiences entranced. This eagerness makes for more flops the more audiences abandon every studio but Disney and turn to streaming instead of theaters. And why not—the only way Dolittle, which lacks a compelling adventure, antagonist, and protagonist, can be enjoyed is on a lazy Sunday, if the family accidentally streams it—probably on Netflix.
Since it’s both a failure and typical, the movie is an object lesson. First, stories have to have a purpose, despite the vulgar delusions about MacGuffins or the friends we made along the way. Stories plainly disclose what we think desirable and good. Magic shows with wondrous visuals mean nothing otherwise and are soon forgotten, just like Avatar. As Aristotle says, we act to a purpose—to secure the good.
Secondly, stories that are serious about what we love and wish to secure should be equally serious about what we fear, or what gets in the way. It is our misunderstandings and our weaknesses that we recognize in memorable bad guys, and this offers also a measure of the distance between reality and poetry—where everything is made up in advance, there are no surprises, and insight therefore can abound.
Thirdly, stories serious about the impediments to our happiness should in turn be serious about who might secure that happiness or guide us to it. We are not so self-obsessed or petty that we cannot admire greatness; nor so dull that we cannot imagine ourselves improving. We just need the help of the poets of our time who weave not mere fantasies, but stories that remind us of what we know about the virtues we possess or wish to acquire.
The open secret of cinema is that we want to see ourselves onscreen—but especially that version of ourselves, that future you or future me, who is capable of heroism. That character who succeeds because he deserves to succeed—something comical, but noble, something dramatic, but endearing. It is stupid and small-minded to deny audiences their higher aspirations in the name of liberal Fantasy Therapy, reducing everything to a session with an upbeat hipster shrink.
Unfortunately, the movies are reduced to bad TV. Don’t get me wrong, there’s also good TV—behold the Marvel show. A few episodes a year, plus season finales, and it’s always good guy beats bad guy, and then we’re back where we started, awaiting new episodes. But Disney has already cornered that market—anyone else interested in making his fortune had better bet on new heroes, new villains, and adventures that disclose what we really and truly want.
What Movies Are, or Should Be
Our future and the future of cinema are connected. We must abandon the liberal delusion that we can talk death to death, magically overcome our fears, live the dream, and achieve some fantastic self-admiration. Only then will we tell worthwhile stories, without this damnable sentimentality. Cinema isn’t supposed to be a dream, but a wake-up to realities that we can hardly see in broad daylight, because we’re too busy or distracted.
Connecting philosophy to the obvious is the way out of this impasse. The movie could have been anything from an Aristotelian examination of the soul’s faculties and the way they are present in various animals to an examination of the limits of modern science. Such movies could vindicate our experience, which we share with children, over the supposedly sophisticated adult world of TED talks and “what studies show,” which is mostly bullshit.
Last week, the first Ahmari-French debate about the relationship between Christianity and American politics in the coming generation took place at the Catholic University of America, moderated by the softest-spoken conservative intellectual, Ross Douthat. This is the most important debate among social conservatives in recent years and yet it is strangely marginal, reflecting the marginalization…
Last week, the first Ahmari-French debate about the relationship between Christianity and American politics in the coming generation took place at the Catholic University of America, moderated by the softest-spoken conservative intellectual, Ross Douthat. This is the most important debate among social conservatives in recent years and yet it is strangely marginal, reflecting the marginalization of Christianity in public discourse and the culture.
Ahmari’s argument is that Christians need to focus on two things not previously taken very seriously. First, the Democrat party is now ideologically inimical to Christianity. He cites presidential contender Senator Kamala Harris, who has accused traditional American organizations like the Knights of Columbus of being some kind of menace for hewing to Christian teachings on sexual morality. He might have added the example of the other Senator from California, Dianne Feinstein, attacking Judge Amy Barrett’s Catholic faith in a confirmation hearing and implying it rendered her unfit for a seat on the federal bench.
Second, Ahmari claims, the proper way to fight this ideology goes beyond the legal cases where French’s First Amendment advocacy has shined. Christian Americans need to act politically, including using whatever state powers are available to defend Christian opinions about the common good. His most serious point about how conservatives think and argue is that we have given too much influence to lawyers, who in our era are not particularly suited to thinking about politics.
Putting the two points together, we see Ahmari saying America is facing regime change: Elite liberals will not be satisfied with a state-church separation, but will instead try to destroy Christianity by compelling surrender on all moral questions. He not only cites their use of the federal judiciary, but also the recent establishment of “woke capital”. Progress advances coherently, politically, at a level where it has not yet even been met, much less bested.
The liberation agenda moves from tolerance to compulsory affirmation—and gay marriage immediately leads to transgender issues and whatever comes next. Indeed, we can start betting on what that might be…. Whether it is majority opinion or minority opinion, elite liberalism keeps fighting and so far it has won every question it has contested, Ahmari says. Defensive measures, like arguing cases—though necessary—are insufficient. It’s time to take the offensive.
Unfortunately, at this point wit fails Ahmari. The only measure he suggests is that Senators Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton should hold hearings about why public libraries are hosting Drag Queen Story Hour. One is embarrassed to point out to the man that his means and ends are radically mismatched! The only issue Ahmari, French, and Douthat agreed on was that porn is neither moral nor constitutionally protected (save in mid-century liberal jurisprudence). Ahmari declares he’s for banning things and complains his toddler could reach hardcore porn in a few clicks—why, then, does he not campaign for a porn ban? Does his courage falter because it’s a foregone conclusion that ridicule would overcome him before defeat in the court of public opinion?
Opinions Are Meant to Lead to Actions
Since his first broadside in May, Ahmari has not thought it prudent to come up with a manifesto. He talks about politics, but his aim is opinion, not action. This seems to be why he attacked French, a very easy target, in the first place. French’s answer to porn is simply that the market has spoken. This makes Ahmari’s case: more serious social conservatives are needed, conservatives who would act constitutionally—but who do want to act politically.
Further, French doesn’t seem to realize he’s a defender of a status quo lacking in defenders—public discourse and the culture are against pretty much everything he stands for under the rubric of classical liberalism, Left and Right. By the time Ahmari says he wouldn’t trust a President French as much as he does Trump, and then questions French’s courage because he volunteered during the war in Iraq in JAG, not the infantry, the point is already obvious. This is about generational change driving partisan change.
Ahmari was born in 1985, French in 1969—the one speaks up for the anger of the youth and the desire for change, just as the other speaks up for waiting things out, thinking about the long term, and worrying more about rash action than inaction. French points to all the victories for freedom of religion in recent decades—Ahmari points to the culture war defeats, like gay marriage. Both are right here, so the question is who’s pointing to the more important problem and who can persuade a larger audience.
In trying to judge them, we should remember that truly political opinions are intended to lead to action. Yet the debate never got around to Roe v. Wade, long the most important issue for social conservatives. Perhaps they’re all agreed on repeal, since they take the time to lament the deaths of innocents. Still, Roe’s a great example of the distance between opinion and action. The GOP’s failure to repeal Roe is the signal of its contempt for social conservatives, who are, if not utterly irrelevant in politics, at least easily taken for granted. Can we take any principled people or statements seriously without first being serious about this matter?
Both men seem to be good Christians and claim to be serious about politics, which often comes with great difficulty for Christians. Ahmari prophesies big political changes coming soon and wants to join the fight to make sure America will be friendlier to Christianity. But without a vision of what those changes are and how to influence them wisely, he has remarkably little to offer to those who think he has the better argument. For a man dissatisfied with the way things are and what they portend, Ahmari should have serious things to say about what he proposes we do.
Ahmari is lucky that his opponent is politically incoherent. French claims at one point that Trump will cause a national backlash and a Progressive electoral victory which will be catastrophic for social conservatives: as bad as Reagan succeeding Carter was for liberals. What should follow from that is the most serious possible action on behalf of social conservatives—through Trump, since the deed has been done. But French has done nothing of the kind since 2016, contemplates no such thing now, and does not even seem to see that it follows from his claim.
The reason for this appears at another point, where French claims Progress—a President Sanders, for example—isn’t such a worry for Christians. This brings us back to the status quo he wishes to defend, which forces him to assume Progressives are joking about the various ways they want to outlaw Christianity. His only remark about political strategy is that we should trust Mitch McConnell to block a Progressive president. But that would just bring us back to the GOP and therefore Trump 2020—French dares not see he needs the man he most abhors in American politics.
An Issue of Justice
So at the end of the first debate, we’re stuck with Ahmari, who seems serious about political change, but will not match any means to the ends he describes, or French, who half-heartedly denies any big institutional change is coming through our partisan conflicts, even as he fears these conflicts may do damage to the legal order.
The debate therefore clarifies nothing except that Ahmari is serious when he says he doesn’t think too much of civility—he questioned French’s manliness gratuitously, knowing that this would please one audience even if it angers another. Personal attacks are the future and Ahmari is a kind of Twitter journalist. And French really cannot understand any alternative to the very ephemeral institutional arrangement he defends, as he says, so he calls proposals for changes to “viewpoint neutrality” jurisprudence stupid. We need better debaters if we’re going to get any grasp on events.
For now, we have only two portraits to study. Ahmari never mentions having done or planning to do anything for the common good, but he speaks confidently, indeed harshly. He feels no particular allegiance to obtaining arrangements and astutely points out that the American legal order was very different before mid-century liberalism and far better for Christianity. French has accomplished much as a lawyer, and served in war, but seems completely blind in politics, stunned by 2016 and unlikely ever to regain his vision. He cannot appeal to his expertise without being condescending—as though lawyers had any authority in politics, never mind barrister French.
We seem to have no way to achieve clarity without conflict, so let us hope clarity will further the common good. These two types of pundits will increasingly fight over daily political scandals, until we clarify the issue of justice: Where Christians fit in America. Social conservatives, unlike libertarians and foreign policy conservatives, can appeal to justice in a way that unites a coalition even as it divides Americans between liberals and conservatives. But as yet no one is willing to make this case, either with a view to 2020 or with a view to the next generation. Neither intellectuals nor pundits have much to say to their audience, much less the electorate. We must hope that the next debate, to be held at Notre Dame with the happy addition of Charles Kesler, will show marked improvement so far as politics is concerned.