C'est nous qui brisons les barreaux des prisons, pour nos frères, La haine à nos trousses, et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère. Il y a des pays où les gens aux creux des lits font des rêves, Ici, nous, vois-tu, nous on marche et nous on tue nous on crève.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Barbarism begins at home

Not so long ago, I went and saw Guillermo del Toro's latest movie, Pan's Labyrinth:

Told largely from the perspective of an 11-year old girl, it depicts the family life (and fantasy world) of a child (Ofelia) caught in the crossfire of the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia lives with her pregnant mother, and the villain of the film, fascist officer Captain Vidal, who is Ofelia's stepfather.

Throughout the film, we see Vidal torturing and butchering his way through the Spanish countryside, as we might expect from a fascist captain. What is interesting, however, is that del Toro goes to great lengths to parallel the violence of the Civil War with the authoritarian oppression that Ofelia (and her mother) experience at home. Vidal is depicted repeatedly ordering Ofelia and her mother about, and using intimidatory tactics to exercise his will. For Vidal, Ofelia's mother is simply a means to an end, the end being that son that Vidal wants as an heir.

Obviously, the movie is a little cartoonish in its depictions of good an evil, as we might expect from a director whose previous work includes Hellboy. Nonetheless, the film depicts brutal authoritarianism both in 'public life' and at home. (Milan Kundera's Czech novels are perhaps an attenuated version of this phenomenon, showing us a stifling public world that is ironised by the complexities of a usually messed-up private life).

In an interview, del Toro makes clear that the 'fascism' on display in Pan's Labyrinth not only relates to a specific regime of the early 20th Century, but stands for authoritarianism generally:

[T]he fascists stand for anything that has an intolerance to opposition and
imagination. I really think they represent the official line of thinking. You
either think this way, or you become an enemy. [Apply that to] corporate greed,
to government, to organized religion, whatever you want. And imagination is the
ultimate playground of freedom. Imagination should always be free and
irresponsible, in that sense; but disobedience, on the other hand, should be
done very responsibly.

Picasso said much the same thing about the bull in his Guernica mural.

Of course, 21st Century Australia is far removed from the horrors of the previous century's totalitarian regimes. Nonetheless, it is self-evident that the political pendulum has swung significantly towards authoritarianism, dressed up as so-called 'conservatism'.

The authoritarian gestures of the present regime are well-known: the introduction of sedition laws, the virtual abandonment of a particular Guantanamo detainee, the exhortation to produce children 'for the country', the attempts to destroy the union movement, and so forth. Naturally, these restrictions on freedom find their apologists in the Murdoch media, as exemplified by the likes of Janet Albrechtson, who, like some caricature of post-modernism, tells us that 'freedom is not absolute', and that 'liberalism will kill us'. We have seen so many articles extolling the virtues of the above measures, (as well as Australian and US military adventures - a kind of authoritariansim practised in other lands) that it is not even worth cataloguing them.

What is interesting, however, is the way that the lurch towards 'conservatism' in the public arena has closely corresponded to authoritarian conservatism in the private sphere. The Hun appears to have given the likes of Bettina Arndt carte blanche to peddle her diatribes against women and the Family Law Court in the name of 'besieged males'. Miranda Devine in the SMH has shamelessly attributed to 'female equality' the excesses of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. Whilst it may be ironic, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is precisely women who push (or who are used to push) this agenda. And whilst it does not receive enough media attention, we know that the likes of Howard and Abbot are linked to ultra-conservative, highly authoritarian religious groups. There is a real risk that the big government control and regulation that exists on the 'outside' will increasingly seep into individuals' private lives. Already we see this in Federal politicians' statements about education, for instance, where it is supposedly necessary that teaching mimics or incorporates the consumer capitalist structures that exist elsewhere.

As ever, The Smiths got it right when Morrissey sang:

Unruly boys

Who will not grow up

Must be taken in hand

Unruly girls

Who will not settle down

They must be taken in hand.