As far as I know, the movie Deliverance has featured in political discourse just the once. Back in 1996, Pat Buchanan, hot from his triumph over Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary, warned the country-club Republicans that he was coming to get them “like a character out of Deliverance.” In the film, you’ll recall, a quartet of suburban guys spend a nightmare weekend in the backwoods, in the course of which one of their number winds up getting strapped to a tree and sodomized by a mountain man. (“Squeal, piggy!”)
At the time of Pat’s remark, I remember thinking: What a great country! In how many other political cultures can a fellow identify himself with a stump-toothed inbred psycho hillbilly homosexual rapist as an applause line? I’d love to think he’d paid some demographic-positioning consultants to focus-group the thing, but it seems more likely it was an impromptu flourish by the candidate.
Now, however, Newsweek has attempted a more sustained political deployment of the movie. In a column headlined “War and Deliverance,” their Middle East editor, Christopher Dickey, makes the picture the defining metaphor for “the Mesopotamian quagmire.” The Atlanta suburbanites in the picture include Burt Reynolds as the obsessive wannabe back-to-nature survivalist and Jon Voight as “the perfectly ordinary man, the just-getting-by guy,” but the one who in the end delivers his pals from the hell of their weekend in the country. Unlike most of us, whose knowledge of the film relies on hazy memories from the Seventies and late-night TV screenings, Dickey knows the story in depth: His dad wrote the novel and the screenplay. And, as he sees it, the Burt Reynolds character with his “untested ersatz fortitude” is “Dick Cheney’s closet fantasy of himself,” and the Jon Voight character is “the rest of us, just scared and trying to get by.” As for the river whose rapids they set out to negotiate, “that’s the war in Iraq.”
Christopher Dickey paints with a broad brush: “On a grand scale they [the administration] could reinterpret the Constitution until it became meaningless.” (Monitoring jihadist phone logs being the reinterpretation into meaninglessness, unlike, say, partial-birth abortion, which is merely an ancient constitutional right the Founders had cannily anticipated a need for.) So one’s first reaction to this is a faint flicker of surprise that Dickey doesn’t see Cheney as the mountain man and the Constitution as his rape victim. One’s second reaction is that the metaphor is dishonest. When it comes to “closet fantasies” about toppling Saddam, it’s not Dick Cheney versus “the rest of us.” Throughout the 1990s and all the way up to the Iraq-war resolution, there were a lot of folks auditioning for the Burt Reynolds role: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and almost every other prominent Democrat indulged in just as much “ersatz fortitude” about Iraq and its WMD as Dick Cheney ever did.
But the third and bigger point is that, enjoyable as they are, pop-culture metaphors aren’t really of much use, especially when you’re up against cultures where life is still defined by how you live as opposed to what you experience via media. It seems to me, for example, that when antiwar types bemoan Iraq as this generation’s Vietnam “quagmire,” older folks are thinking of the real Vietnam — the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and whatnot — but most anybody under 50 is thinking of Vietnam movies: some vague video-store mélange of The Full Metal Deer Apocalypse. Take the Scott Thomas Beauchamp debacle at The New Republic, in which the magazine ran an atrocity-a-go-go Baghdad diary piece by a serving soldier about dehumanized troops desecrating graves, abusing disfigured women, etc. It smelled phony from the get-go — except to the professional media class from whose ranks The New Republic’s editors are drawn: To them, it smelled great, because it aligned reality with the movie looping endlessly through the windmills of their mind, a non-stop Coppola-Stone retrospective in which ill-educated conscripts are the dupes of a nutso officer class. It’s the same with all those guys driving around with “9/11 Was An Inside Job” bumper stickers. That aligns reality with every conspiracy movie from the last three decades: It’s always the government who did it — sometimes it’s some super-secret agency working deep within the bureaucracy from behind an unassuming nameplate on a Washington street; and sometimes it’s the president himself — but when poor Joe Schmoe on the lam from the Feds eventually unravels it, the cunning conspiracy is always the work of a ruthlessly efficient all-powerful state. So Iraq is Vietnam. And 9/11 is the Kennedy assassination, with ever higher percentages of the American people gathering on the melted steely knoll.
There’s a kind of decadence about all this: If 9/11 was really an inside job, you wouldn’t be driving around with a bumper sticker bragging that you were on to it. Fantasy is a by-product of security: It’s the difference between hanging upside down in your dominatrix’s bondage parlor for half-an-hour after work on Friday and enduring the real thing for years on end in Saddam’s prisons. That’s the real flaw in Christopher Dickey’s Remembrance metaphor: If Cheney is Burt Reynolds, and the rest of America is Jon Voight, and the river is Iraq, who are the mountain men? Well, presumably (for he doesn’t spell it out) they’re the dark forces you make yourself vulnerable to when you blunder into somewhere you shouldn’t be. When the quartet return to Atlanta a man short, they may understand how thin the veneer of civilization is, but they don’t have to worry that their suburban cul-de-sacs will be overrun and reduced to the same state of nature as the backwoods.
That’s the flaw in the thesis: Robert D. Kaplan, a shrewd observer of global affairs, has referred to the jihadist redoubts and other lawless fringes of the map as “Indian territory.” It’s a cute joke but a misleading one. The difference between the old Indian territory and the new is this: No one had to worry about the Sioux riding down Fifth Avenue, just as Burt Reynolds never had to worry about the mountain man breaking into his rec room. But Iran has put bounties on London novelists, assassinated dissidents in Paris, blown up community centres in Buenos Aires, seeded proxy terror groups in Lebanon and Palestine, radicalized Muslim populations throughout Central Asia — and it’s now going nuclear. The leaders of North Korea, Sudan, and Syria are not stump-toothed Appalachian losers: Their emissaries wear suits and dine in Manhattan restaurants every night.
Life is not a movie, especially when your enemies don’t watch the same movies, and don’t buy into the same tired narratives. To return to that 1996 presidential race, Bob Dole, apropos Pat Buchanan’s experience hosting a CNN talk show, muttered testily at one point, “I was in the real crossfire. It wasn’t on television. It was over in Italy somewhere, a long time ago.” Happy the land for whom crossfire is purely televisual and metaphorical. But, when it turns real, it’s important to know the difference.
© 2007 Mark Steyn