What a difference sixty-five years makes – in the culture. When Warner Brothers released Casablanca near the end of 1942, America had been at war for a year. Everyone knew we were at war, and knew also that complete victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was an absolute necessity. Casablanca echoed that knowledge.
There was no thought of compromise, of negotiating a “peace,” or of “reaching out” to the American Nazi Bund for its help in reaching a trilateral rapprochement with Germany, Japan and Italy. There was not an ounce of angst over collateral casualties among the enemy population. When the U.S recovered from being attacked at Pearl Harbor, it eventually took the war to the enemy, and when it was victorious, and while the enemy’s citizens struggled to survive amid the rubble and ashes of their folly, the U.S proceeded to root out that enemy’s ideology of tyranny and conquest.
The U.S. is at war again. The culture, however, has not produced anything like Casablanca. (An exception is 300, an allegory on the war, which our enemies immediately protested as “insulting.”) It will not, cannot. The dramatization of moral values remains in the hands of Hollywood’s nihilists and subjectivists. What we get instead are insipid comedies, computer animated cartoons, the occasional “war” movie that denigrates our military, and a steady parade of forgettable movies. This is because while the U.S. rooted out the enemy’s ideology over half a century ago, it failed to eradicate the underlying philosophy that drove that ideology.
A philosophy that remains uneradicated, or is left submerged but intact, will resurrect itself, and take unexpected forms of expression. This is true of a rational philosophy as well of an irrational one. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, reason all but vanished from men’s lives as a norm. It began to rise again a thousand years later during the Renaissance. In the ensuing Enlightenment it gradually displaced faith and other forms of irrationality as a philosophical guide for living on earth.
But not entirely. Irrationality in its many forms remained on the periphery of especially 19th century Western culture and its political and intellectual life. It received a boost of energy to re-insinuate itself into men’s thinking and lives and policies because reason had no consistent advocates and defenders. The irrational gained more and more ground in Western culture in the 20th century and has certainly infected the 21st.
It has reached its ultimate absurdity: we are at war with Islamism – a political/theological ideology that seeks to either destroy or conquer the West, its proponents have made that abundantly clear – but the West’s political and moral energies are focused on irrelevancies elevated to global and domestic crises: AIDS, world hunger and poverty, global warming, the absence of universal health care, and so on.
One might think that our political leaders are in denial about the peril of Islamism, or Islamofascism, or Islamic imperialism. But denial is a conscious action – a refusal to acknowledge the reality of a thing. No, they are oblivious or indifferent to the peril. They are obsessed with other fish to fry other than our enemies. They wish to compel men to submit, not to Allah, but to their own brands of collectivism and tyranny.
Our leaders are paragons of compromise, they wring their hands over real, imagined or projected collateral casualties among the enemy’s population, and have no qualms about “reaching out” to organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Fatah to attain some kind of rapprochement with the enemies of the West – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, North Korea, to name but the larger enemies – in the pursuit of the Kantian ideal of “peace” for its own sake. 9/11 has not been forgotten by our leadership; it has been demoted to irrelevancy.
The irrationalism of President George W. Bush – his refusal to acknowledge the existence and nature of our enemies, because altruism has corrupted his grasp of reality – has played no little role in the creation of the absurdity. His political enemies in this country probably feel grateful that he has made a mess of the war; he has given them an excuse to demote it and abandon it.
But his enemies are also corrupted by altruism. It is through altruism that they wish to acquire and impose freedom-destroying power. Lord Acton identified that fact, and the fact will not go away.
What inspired this commentary was the release last week of the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 “greatest” American films, which is apparently compiled every ten years. Casablanca was number 3 on the list, Citizen Kane number 1, and The Godfather number 2. I could not help but note the significance of Casablanca‘s ranking, which dropped from second place in 1998 to third this year. According to the Daily Telegraph (London) article on the list of June 22, the list “is determined by a jury of 1,500 filmmakers, critics and movie historians.”
Of course, a vote of hands cannot establish the greatness of anything, least of all the esthetic value of art. Greatness is something that can only be recognized and established by individual minds, not by consensus. But, one can deduce from the rankings of 100 “greatest” American films that some positive esthetic measurement remained in some of the balloters.
I won’t attempt here to second-guess the motives of the AFI balloters. Casablanca could have been appreciated by a large block of voters who valued its story and style. It is not the greatest American film, but it has an integrity to it that is effective and memorable. It is a war film, but the thing most absent in it is the war. The Godfather is virutally unparalleled in depicting the gradual corruption of an otherwise decent man. “It’s not me, Kay,” Michael Corleone tells his fiancé early in the film, when she wonders if many of the men at the wedding party are really gangsters. “It’s my family.”
In the end, however, it was him; he had no argument against the family-tribal loyalty that passed as a moral code among the gangsters and which demanded his action. By the end of Godfather II (number 32 on the AFI list), he has betrayed or destroyed everything that ever mattered to him. In the poignant last scene of the sequel, he sits alone in a lawn chair, a shell of his former self, contemplating the desolation of his life, yet still in denial of the fact that he was in any way responsible for it.
Rick, the night club/casino owner in Casablanca, by the end of the story rediscovers the values he thought he had lost, a blow that had turned him into a pragmatic cynic who tolerated the corruption around him. It is in his power to destroy them – Ilsa, his former romantic interest, and Victor Laszlo, the Czech patriot on the run from the Nazis – but his old character reasserts itself and he acts to preserve them. He gives the couple the transit papers to freedom.
About Casablanca, Ralph J. Gleason wrote in 1973, “those were times where things were so much simpler; the good guys and the bad guys were so much more clearly defined and the struggle itself, the moral imperative for man, so much more easily seen.” (From the Introductory Note in Casablanca: Script and Legend, The Overlook Press, 1973.) That “imperative,” writes Gleason, “is rarer now and in the whole visible world has a kind of institutionalized concrete dimness.”
But, it was not a moral imperative that in the end moved Rick Blaine to action. It was a moral choice.
Americans, betrayed by their political and intellectual leadership over the current war, face the choice of becoming a Rick or a Michael Corleone. They can rediscover what it is to be an American, or they can surrender that identity and blame the world for their misery and just drift towards tragedy and an ignominious end. They can redeem themselves, or resign themselves to a logical and merciless fate.
The choice is: liberty, or the lawn chair.