Work and Days

More Newsweek Rehash

Newsweek is running an old story of 2007 by Evan Thomas suggesting that the 300 was a sort of racist propaganda, and he thinks that it reflects the administration’s Manichean views that derive from ancient Greece/Persia faultlines. Most of the essay is moronic and simplistic, and when he gets to me, he gets everything wrong. Here’s an excerpt:

Still, the cultural significance and popular appeal of “300” reach beyond the thrill of watching pixilated decapitations. The Persians in “300” are the forces of evil: dark-skinned, depraved and determined to terrorize the West. The noble, light-skinned Spartans possess a fierce love of liberty, not to mention fierce six-pack abs. “Freedom is not free,” says the wife of Spartan King Leonidas. The movie was adapted from a graphic novel by Frank Miller (“Sin City”). Miller’s post-9/11 conservatism (he is reportedly working on a new graphic novel pitting Batman against Al Qaeda, titled “Holy Terror, Batman!”) suffuses his comic-book fantasies. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that “300” resonates for some real warriors. At a theater near Camp Pendleton outside San Diego, cheers erupted at a showing of “300,” the Los Angeles Times reported. The Marines (“The Few, the Proud”) identify with the outnumbered Spartans. In fact, “Gates of Fire,” a novelized version of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield, is on the Marine Corps commandant’s recommended reading list.

The analogy between the war on terror and the death struggle of ancient Greece with Persia has not been lost on some high administration officials either, especially Vice President Dick Cheney. (A White House spokesman declined to comment about the film.) In the months after 9/11, a classics scholar named Victor Davis Hanson wrote a series of powerful pieces for the National Review Online, later collected and published as a book, “An Autumn of War.” Moved by Hanson’s evocative essays, Cheney invited Hanson to dine with him and talk about the wars the Greeks waged against the Asian hordes, in defense of justice and reason, two and a half millennia ago.

Newsweek long ago became a caricature of a news magazine. It is now overtly partisan, and its style is rumor (cf. the Periscope allegation of a flushed Koran in Guantanamo that led to rioting and death abroad), the unidentified anonymous source, and the usual Bush-did-it story. I wrote an essay once about the shoddy journalism at Newsweek, which is now pretty much the communis opinio—sad because it once under prior generations was a reliable and sober magazine.

On more than one occasion, Newsweek editors have called me to ask about the Cheney dinner (and one other hilarious occasion after the Cheney hunting accident, as if I would know anything about the VP’s game hunting apparently since I, perhaps like thousands of others, had been on one occasion at a large dinner table with him). Each time I got a Newsweek call, I said the same thing: (1) I won’t comment on the specifics or offer any quotations or verbatim rehash, since it is uncivil to blab to the press conversation at private dinners, but almost everything they were asking was completely erroneous to the point of being silly; (2) the VP in 2002 invited all sorts of historians, of all sorts of persuasions to comment on past and present events. My invitation was just one of very many. (3) There were several people there on my single visit, and it was not a one-on-one conversation, and I most definitely did not lecture about “Asian hordes,” and there was nothing at that dinner (five years before the 300) that would suggest a US obsession with the “hordes” of Iran. Since neither I nor the guests in October 2002 ever spoke about the dinner, and since Thomas never claims anyone did, how would he know that I supposedly lectured about “Asian hordes” rather than, if the conversation for a moment turned to the present, the need to go to the UN and emphasize the 20-something Congressional authorizations that were under debate in October 2002 in the lead-up to the Iraq war?

But no matter—the cardboard cut-out is too tempting for the smug Newsweek editor: one-dimensional soldiers applaud a corny good versus evil comic book tale. I suppose we should instead watch a travesty like Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Great, or perhaps a more balanced, sophisticated take on Iraq like Redacted?

I wrote about Greece/Persia in a review of Tom Holland’s book on the Persian War, and two brief essays on the 300 that outlined the comic book/semi-animated genre. I’ll let the reader decide whether these are rah-rah pieces about the dark hordes of 480 BC. And I wrote on a number of occasions why it was unwise to bomb Iran.

One does not need to believe in the overt bias of the Washington press corps to realize it is a wise thing, to quote the ancient Greeks, to keep as much distance from such creepy folk as possible.