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29 June 2009

Transformers 2: Conservatives in Disguise?

Earlier today I saw Michael Bay's highly-anticipated (and critically-panned) Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Prior to seeing the movie, I had no intention of writing a blog about it. Although films are occasional inspirations for my essays (see my article about the lack of strong African-American fathers, which I wrote after seeing Boyz n the Hood), I never imagined that Transformers 2 would be the subject of one of my blog entries because I don't write straight-up reviews. Honestly, I figured it would be exactly what it is: a steady stream of explosions, robots, and mass destruction.

What I didn't count on was that it would only be what I expected 99% of the time. That other 1% is the focus of this essay. Like the first Transformers film, Transformers 2 spent a great deal of time covering the U.S. military and its interactions with and against the various transforming automatons. Generally speaking, the soldiers are characterized as normal and basically decent--they want to do what is best for their country and they want to protect the weak and innocent, but they will follow the civilian authority of the Constitution.

In Transformers 2, however, I noticed a more overt, though still very, very subtle, endorsement of conservative politics--or, at the very least, a critique of modern liberalism. I don't want to read too much into this (well, actually, I do), but there are several moments during the movie when the misinformed meddler, the entity trying to put the kibosh on the Autobot-military alliance, is a mealy-mouthed government bean-counter who sees the Autobots as an alien menace that constitutes a risk to national security. Now, sure, action movies are overflowing with literal-minded government stooges and opportunistic politicians who are always putting up a wall of red tape that is harder to break than the concrete bunker our hero just crashed through on his motorcycle. The key difference in Transformers 2, however, is that the government stooge in question is acting under direct orders from the president, who is explicitly identified as... Barack Obama (one news report states that "President Obama has been relocated" to a bunker somewhere in the Midwest).

Not evidence enough? At one point, this pencil-pusher makes a point straight out of the Obama foreign policy playbook: let's try to negotiate with the bad guys. Maybe we can talk out our differences and everyone can live in peace. When the bureaucratic boob said that, I almost fell out of my seat. I don't know if Michael Bay or the writers of Transformers 2 were intentionally making this point, but for this chubby conservative the implications were loud and clear: Obama and other liberals who demand negotiations before resorting to force against overtly hostile, dangerous opponents are fatally off base and out-of-touch. The president's puppet makes the point that the United States should not be involved in the civil war of an alien race in the first place, but that doesn't change the fact that it is anyway. The United States, the filmmakers seem to be suggesting, has a responsibility to aid the Autobots against the new Decepticon menace, whether it likes that obligation or not, and the proposed policies of Obama and other liberals in foreign relations are potentially devastating.

Besides a subtle endorsement of a neoconservative foreign policy--or at least a more realistic approach to foreign threats--Transformers 2 is, as I have mentioned, heavily pro-military. The film depicts soldiers as law- and order-abiding citizens who, even if they don't like it, abide by civilian authority. This is a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood fare, which casts soldiers in the light of threats to democracy and as right-wing gun nuts who want nothing more than to seize control of the government themselves. While we should have a healthy wariness of the military as a potentially repressive arm of the federal government--a wariness that dates back to colonial America and that is most evident in the writings of Thomas Jefferson--Transformers 2 makes it clear that the U.S. military is a military of dedicated civilian volunteers who value and fight for freedom. They are not professionals who ride roughshod over the freedoms of others, be they Americans or foreigners. In fact, the U.S. military works closely with several Middle Eastern governments in the film, including the Egyptian and Jordanian militaries. In one scene, when a Jordanian helicopter is grounded by a Decepticon, American soldiers aid the fallen foreigners. This is not the unilateral, oppressive, quagmired military we hear so much about in the media; this is a dynamic, humane force made up of regular, freedom-loving Americans.

This brings me to one final point, a point I've been mulling over for awhile. We are constantly told that wars are started by the elite and fought by the poor; that wars are little more than opportunistic struggles or, even worse, the effect of some perceived slight or random occurrence; that war is rarely right or even necessary. In different times and in different places, many of these assumptions were true. Wars in the past were started by absolute monarchs or power-hungry tyrants, while they were fought by loyal vassals or downtrodden peasants.

In the United States, however, this is not the case. We live in a society where the people, at least in theory and, cynics aside, very much in practice, have a say in the functioning of government. Whatever slogan-spouting liberals will tell you, their bumper-sticker philosophy is severely flawed and misinformed. If the United States goes to war against a hostile power or terrorist group, it is because the people have given their approval. Foreign policy is, admittedly, concentrated in the executive branch of the government, which means that the president and the Secretary of State have a great deal of influence in deciding its direction. Any president hoping to keep his office, however, is going to be careful in how he deals with foreign policy.

Therefore, the traditional criticisms levelled against war are at best incomplete and at worst obsolete, at least when applied to the United States. There is still a great deal of debate about whether or not the United States should be the world's police officer; regardless, wars are not foisted on unwitting dupes by a greedy elite in America.

This claim is a bold one, but I stand by it. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would not have been fought and would not have endured so long without significant support from the American people. Now that support is beginning to wane, serious questions are being asked about America's future role in those countries, but we are seeing a huge amount of popular outpouring for the people of Iran, who are currently struggling against their sham of a government. President Obama's "let's-talk-it-out" approach to foreign policy is not enough when facing a regime of authoritarian thugs.

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