America's entertainment industry receives a lot of criticism. Because of the gratuitous sex and violence depicted in many films, much of that criticism is deserved. But Joseph Dooley, Genealogist General of the Sons of the American Revolution, says many films also contain a lot of good which we, as Americans, may take for granted.
My wife and I attended a dinner meeting of a local chapter of the SAR recently and heard Dooley talk about that in a speech he entitled, "Braveheart and the Export of American Idealism." It's well worth reading:
Let me ask you: what is the single largest export of the United States? Of course, the answer to such a question often depends on your source. But according to the United States Department of Agriculture, the single largest export of the United States is agricultural products. It might be a stretch to say that we feed the whole world, but it would be accurate to say we feed a good part of it.
(Of course, these days, one could argue that the single largest export of the United States is our debt.)
So, what is the second largest export of the United States? Again, the answer may depend on your source, but would you believe the second largest export of the United States is film? Television. Music. Entertainment. Go to almost any part of the world, and American music will be playing on the radio, American films will be showing at the local theater, and on TV you can tune in to The Simpsons or even Judge Judy.
How many of you saw Mel Gibson's movie, Braveheart? Well, I would hate to disappoint our friends who are Scottish Americans, but the historical William Wallace was nothing like the William Wallace portrayed in Braveheart.
In the movie Braveheart, William Wallace says such things as:
· "You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom."
· "I see a whole army of my country men, here, in defiance of tyranny. You've come to fight as free men, and free men you are"
and, of course,
· "Tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!"
Now, I understand dramatic license. I understand that Braveheart was not a documentary, but a piece of entertainment. But the sentiments expressed by William Wallace in the film do not bear the slightest resemblance to anything the historic William Wallace would have said. And don't get me wrong: I do not mean to diminish the heroic stature of William Wallace. As an American who is descended from both a Revolutionary War Patriot and Irish immigrants, I applaud anyone who would challenge the tyrannical authority of the English.
However, the historic William Wallace was not concerned with the freedom of the common Scottish man; he was concerned with the prerogatives and privileges of the Scottish nobility, especially as those prerogatives and privileges might be threatened by the English.
In the film Braveheart, when William Wallace appeals to his countrymen to fight as free men against tyranny, what we are hearing is not the historic William Wallace, but William Wallace the would-be American. Guess what movie Mel Gibson made just a couple of years after Braveheart? The Patriot. Have you seen it? It's a good flick, but a bit bloody. In it, Mel plays an American Patriot in the Revolutionary War. In both Braveheart and The Patriot, the characters played by Mel Gibson say remarkably similar things.
OK, you might think this reflects more on Mel Gibson than on American films in general, but consider the film 300, which came out earlier this year. Did any of you seen it? It's about the Battle of Thermopylae at which 300 Spartans fought an army of tens of thousands of Persians. In 300, King Leonidas of Sparta says such things as:
· "The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant."
· "A new age has begun, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it."
As with William Wallace, I do not want to disparage the historic Leonidas. We have good cause to admire his courage and military leadership. But I know of no primary source of Spartan history in which Leonidas is recorded as saying or writing anything that praises the struggle of free men against tyranny. Inasmuch as he was an absolute monarch himself, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have concerned himself too much about the evils of tyranny.
In the movie, there is scant mention of the other Greeks who fought alongside the Spartans, and there is no mention at all of the several hundred Spartan helots - or slaves - who fought alongside the Spartans. It would at the very least be inconvenient to have Leonidas exalt the fight of free men against a tyrant while he was being aided in this fight by slaves.
I submit to you that what we have in these films is the Americanization of William Wallace and Leonidas. Does this matter? Does it mean anything?
Earlier, I asserted that the second largest export of the United States is film, TV and music. Are we just exporting entertainment? I would argue, no, we are not just exporting entertainment, but rather various media whereby we give the world a glimpse into American values.
Cynics might assert that American film, TV and music are filled with images of violence and gratuitous sex. I would have to agree at least in part, but I must say that is not nearly the whole story.
What happens on Judge Judy, or better yet Law & Order? Crimes or other transgressions are alleged and investigated, and then there's a trial. In these TV shows, the world sees the American judicial system dramatized in a manner that makes Miranda rights mean something. They don't have Miranda rights in other parts of the world. In these TV shows, the American concept of "due process" means something, and the American Constitution is demonstrated to be a real, living document under which our rights are protected.
But even more than dramatizations of our legal system, American movies and music are filled with stories of people who assert their liberty - who assert their rights in the face of oppression. We export stories of the individual who chooses to be free, who insists on living his life as he chooses, and not as his parents or society or a king would have him live it. American movies and music are filled with stories of people who exercise their rights to free speech and free assembly. American movies are filled with stories of people of faith who freely exercise their religion. And you can always recognize the bad guy in an American movie because he's the one who wants to stifle the free exercise of religion, or stop free speech, or force the hero to conform. The bad guys in American movies are the ones who are a threat to personal liberty.
Surely, prior to the generation of our Patriot ancestors, there were notions of free speech and rights of the common man - but not at the time of Leonidas, or even by the 14th century and the age of William Wallace. Nearly a hundred years before our Revolution, there was the so-called Glorious Revolution, which brought William and Mary to the throne, and also produced the Bill of Rights of 1689. But the Bill of Rights of 1689 secured rights for only some British citizens, not all, and we know that in the intervening century before our Revolution, the rights that were supposed to be secured were not always safeguarded by the British King or his ministers.
What we have in our country, what our Patriot ancestors set in motion, is a process by which our civil rights are asserted, tested and affirmed. The civil rights in question may not have been extended equally to all Americans in the 18th century - Blacks, Indians and women come to mind - but these rights are extended to all Americans now. This process by which our civil rights are asserted and affirmed, is dramatized and illustrated in the media which we export to the world. Indeed, the whole world thinks about liberty and civil rights today in terms crafted by the United States. The world may not always agree with us, but we have defined the terms of the debate. The legacy of civil liberty secured by our Patriot ancestors is not only for us; it is in fact America's gift to the world.