Consider the one movie that has had a greater impact on hip-hop culture (which is to say, the dominant culture of this country’s youth and underclass) than any other – Brian De Palma’s 1983 Scarface. As chronicled by books, articles, or even a simple glance at the themes in contemporary rap, no movie has a greater hold on the imagination of black and Latino youth.
The film stars Al Pacino ferociously chewing the scenery as Tony Montana. Montana is a Cuban immigrant who rises to become a prominent cocaine dealer in Miami before dramatically losing his friends, family, power, and life.
The film is noted for its extreme vulgarity, especially for the use of one particular example of Anglo-Saxon 226 times, or about 1.32 times per minute. For those who have overall questions about the plot, you can actually figure out the entire movie from just viewing every use of that one word.
The movie itself is simply a more explicit version of one of the uniquely American film genres, the gangster film. An immigrant of lowly origins rises to the top of society through unethical methods. However, in his desire to become a powerful and wealthy man, and thus a true “American,” he loses the very things (culture, family, traditions, identity), that made him who he is. Eventually, the now deracinated protagonist is destroyed, losing even the ethereal wealth and power that he once possessed.
In The Godfather Trilogy for example, Michael Corelone, despite taking the family to new heights, dies alone and isolated, his daughter a victim of the violence he used to build his fortune, his son alienated and disgusted, his father Vito’s hopes that the Corelone family will “make it” as a prominent American family in ruins.
In Goodfellas, Henry Hill ends up betraying all of his former friends and colleagues, and is disgusted to have to live as an average, anonymous American working on the consumer plantation, without even the comfort of his old neighborhood friends.
The Sopranos television series begins with Tony Soprano bemoaning the collapse of community standards and his acknowledgment that he is fighting a losing battle to keep La Cosa Nostra going.
Scarface is a story in this vein, about an ambitious outsider caught between his old identity and the need to secure the wealth and power that modern America values far above family, patriotism, or identity. Even the hero’s name is a signal that Tony represents not Cubans per se but the universal experience of every “new American.” Montana is even an anti-Communist, butchering a former Castro confidante with a knife to earn his green card and entry into American life. In the end, though, Scarface is a cautionary tale. Tony’s mother, a humble house cleaner, sets up the conflict by saying, “You think you can come in here with your hot shot clothes and make fun of us. That is NOT the way I am, Antonio! That is NOT the way I raised Gina to be. You are not going to destroy her. I don’t need your money. Gracias! I work for my living.”
Ultimately of course, Montana does destroy his sister, and everyone else around him. He murders his best friend in a jealous rage and sees his sister killed. His trophy wife abandons him, disgusted after a flabby and drunken Tony embarrasses himself at a restaurant. He is murdered, and perhaps even worse, defeated with no friends left to avenge him. Behind the cursing and bluster, Scarface suggests that American success comes at too high a cost. At the end of the movie, Tony lies floating in his own blood, his mansion occupied by his enemies, the line “the world is yours” serving only as an ironic counterpoint. Montana’s collapse and ruin is far more complete than anything suffered even by Michael Corelone or Henry Hill.
This depressing lesson seems to have completely gone over the heads of the largely non-white fans of Scarface. When a new DVD version was released of the movie, crowds of Latinos camped outside the Best Buy in Secaucus, New Jersey like it was Black Friday. Scores of gangster rappers claim Tony Montana as a role model and an inspiration. Aaron McGruder, certainly the most perceptive critic of black culture from within the black community (and perhaps in the whole country), makes sure to characterize his pop culture-worshiping young black everyman character Riley Freeman as an outright Tony Montana wannabe. At any major city in America, T-shirt vendors can be found hawking cheap knockoffs of Al Pacino’s iconic pose, alongside images of Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and of course, Barack Obama.
The nonwhite worship of Tony Montana tells us a great deal about the values that blacks and Latinos internalize from American popular culture and what they believe America is all about. Collectively, nonwhites seem to simply block out not just Tony Montana’s defeat, but even the corruption of his career. For many, the ending needs to be changed outright. In the Scarface video game enthusiastically advertised to “urban” markets, Tony Montana’s iconic last stand is reimagined as him blasting his way out of trouble so he can rebuild his empire.
Al Pachino as Tony Montana
Why the attraction to blacks and Hispanics? Tony Montana represents not just the quintessentially American desire for money and power, but the uniquely non-European American desire to have these things without having to identify with the American nation or its institutions. Montana neatly summarizes his view of his new hometown of Miami and his adopted country with the quote, “This is paradise, I’m tellin’ ya. This town like a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked.”
Watching a news report on cocaine in Miami, Tony neatly transitions into a rant against the “bankers and politicians” who are the real bad guys. While Tony hates Communists, he also casually defines capitalism as “fuck you.” Tony accepts this, even revels in it. America is a Hobbesian jungle of all against all, with money and power as the only absolutes.
However, there is a moral code behind Tony’s bluster. In contrast to the “WASP whores” with their money and connections, Montana’s criminality is more honest and forthright. By relying on his “balls and his word,” Tony simultaneously shames all of the law abiding, bourgeois Americans who obey a corrupt system and also the rich businessmen and politicians who are just as bad, if not worse, than drug dealers.
In the famous “bad guy” speech, Tony Montana echoes a favorite Culture of Critique theme. Tony says drunkenly to a group of shocked whites at a fancy restaurant, “You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, ‘That the bad guy.’ So . . . what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide—how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say goodnight to the bad guy!”
After all, if everyone is equally corrupt, no one can be good. In line with Tony’s own moral code though, the speech takes on a different meaning. All the old “mummies” with their illegitimate wealth and power are the real bad guys. They are soft, corrupt puppeteers who hide behind courts and fancy suits but don’t have the cojones to put their own bodies on the line. Tony, who earned his money with manliness and physical courage, is the real moral exemplar.
This is the moral code that elevates the drug dealer over the legitimate businessman, or the street enforcer over the snitch. This is the code celebrated in the narcocorrdios of Mexico, or the rap anthems blaring in Los Angeles or Baltimore, or the stop snitching shirts and signs displayed with pride all over the ghettos.
In fact, Tony Montana might even be a civil rights hero. Crime, murder, and crude displays of violence to show who can be the “big man,” if only for a few moments, are all ways of sticking it to the white power system. Ken Tucker, author of Scarface Nation, notes that white critics didn’t understand the movie in 1983. “But very quickly, Latino and black audiences seized on the story of Tony Montana . . . as an example of how a poor, disenfranchised ethnic person in America could improve his life in the Reagan era. That story has remained powerful.” Criminal action is not wrong, but simply a more honest and direct way of expressing one’s individuality and rage at “oppression.”
Of course, the more direct the approach the better. Contemporary hip hop culture values the direct use of force and display of masculinity rather than the more subtle strategy favored by a Don Corelone. Tony Montana does not fail to disappoint on this front as well. The most relevant example is the case of Montana’s Jewish mentor Frank Lopez, an aging drug lord with a chai necklace and a blonde shiska mistress. Frank doesn’t want to rock the boat, and when Tony gets out of hand, Frank arranges to have him killed. But Montana, who kills him first and secures both his business and his girl, is more moral because he uses straightforward force as opposed to Semitic intrigue.
While the Jewish identity of Lopez probably goes over most urban audiences’ heads, the frustration at the “white” (mostly Jewish) shop owners who run small businesses in the ghettos and barrios to “exploit the community” is very real. We can imagine many blacks and Hispanics fantasize not about having to build up such a business but about being able to simply claim it, or at least try to destroy it as they did during the LA Riots.
The irony of course, is that Tony is not ruthless enough to maintain his power. He refrains from killing women and children even though he was ordered to by Sosa, his Bolivian cocaine supplier, killing Sosa’s henchman instead. If he had done this, his downfall would have been avoided. This speaks well of Montana, indicating at least some semblance of decency. But perhaps it is more a reflection of his own machismo. After all, he had no problem working with Sosa and profiting greatly from the relationship, despite Sosa’s tactics. He also glories in his murder of Sosa’s henchman. He presents his refusal to do Sosa’s will less as a moral stand than as a display of dominance over other men.
After he shoots Sosa’s henchman, he crows, “I told you, man, I told you! Don’t fuck with me! I told you, no fucking kids! No, but you wouldn’t listen, why, you stupid fuck, look at you now.” The code of aggressive machismo, displays of dominance, and the quick resort to violence are of course all staples of contemporary urban culture. Tony Montana’s bloody last stand, after all, was not a defense of loved ones, a noble idea, or even himself, but simple rage at the people who were “fucking with him” and who didn’t realize they were “fucking with the best.”
Scarface, despite the hilarious 80s montages, comic book dialogue, and over the top accents, is actually a chilling representation of what America has become and what people value today. Perhaps the most significant dialogue is not the famous “Say hello to my little friend” or the quotable “The only thing in this world that gives orders . . . is balls” but an exchange between Tony and Elvira, his white, blonde, junkie wife that he claimed from Lopez, the mentor he killed. Elvira states, “You know what you’re becoming, Tony? You’re an immigrant spic millionaire, who can’t stop talking about money,” whereupon Tony interrupts, “Who the fuck you calling a spic, man? You white piece of bread. Get outta the way of the television.”
The display of barely concealed racial hostility, papered over with money, drugs, alcohol, and television to fill the empty hole that used to be a country, perfectly sums up what America has become. Scarface is actually a profound criticism of the American Dream, suggesting that hard work and traditional values lead to greater happiness than the pursuit of quick money through criminality.
Blacks and Hispanics, however, seem to have missed the point, seeing the antihero as an honest hero, and aspiring to be the next Tony Montana.
Editor’s Note: If you liked this article, click here and here for more like it.
(”The Godfather: Part III” is briefly mentioned in this.)
Hollywood has brought us two great, romantic genres, two forms of movies where the war of good versus evil could play itself out against a background of an entire complex fictive world grounded in a present or past reality. In this world, coherent action and struggle can emerge dramatically by heroes, villains, their rank and file supporters, and by innocents caught in the crossfire. The first classic genre was, of course, the Western ... Unfortunately, the Western movie is no more, felled perhaps by endless and unimaginative repetition, but possibly, too, by the dogged leftist insistence in the later Westerns for the Indians to be the Good Guys and the whites the Bad. Look, fellas, it doesn’t matter what the literal historical truth may or may not have been; the leftist reversal – the insistence on destroying familiar heroes – simply don’t work, it didn’t scan, and it helped destroy the Western genre.
The more recent innovative Hollywood genre, ranking with the Western, is the Mafia movie: the clash of heroes and villains against a mythic but reality-grounded world, updated to twentieth-century America. Some of the great directors have
(”The Godfather: Part III” is briefly mentioned in this.)
The Oscars. From the beginning, it was clear that the Oscar race for best picture of 1974 was between two films: “Godfather, Part II” and “Chinatown.” As pointed out in these pages, (Lib. Forum, March, 1975), “Godfather”, a marvelous film, clearly deserved the award. In contrast, the morbid, cynical “Chinatown” (neatly skewered in Libertarian Review by Barbara Branden) was the darling of the avant-garde intellectuals, serving as it did as an “anti-hero” reversal of the great detective films of the 1940’s. Part of the excitement of Oscar night is to watch the race between the top pictures build up as the minor awards are allocated. From the beginning of the night, it became clear that “Chinatown” was losing out, as it was defeated in one minor award after another. Unfortunately, this meant that the cool, subtle, and nuanced performance of the beautiful…
(”The Godfather: Part III” is briefly mentioned in this.)
A long time ago, in a multiplex far, far away—actually, it was early June of 1977, at the Mall Garden Twin in Albertville, Alabama. I was eight, fresh out of the second grade, and the movie, of course, was Star Wars.
That movie was all I’d ever wanted, even before I knew what I wanted out of a movie. It was flash and bang and glorious vistas and scary monsters and fantastic spaceships and grand heroes and diabolical villains and magic and laser swords and a princess and a knight and talking robots, all wrapped up in stirring music and a vast, epic scale. Star Wars hit me, with all its extraordinary, playful velocity, at just the right age. I—and most of my contemporaries—have never been the same. In retrospect, we never had a chance.
On the eve of the first new Star Wars movie in ten years, and the at-long-last continuation of the original story, why are so many of us so captivated by these films? What has the power to keep drawing millions back to those long ago, far away worlds? As was said about 1999’s “Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” “The Force Awakens” is the most eagerly-anticipated movie of all time. People have buying tickets to see it for weeks. Why? Nobody acted like this over, say, “The Godfather Part III,” or “Jurassic Park: The Lost World.” (Good thing, too, since both of those movies were awful.)
Hollywood has tried for nearly 40 years to duplicate the success of Star Wars by dumping millions into movies with stunning visuals and lousy plots: “The Black Hole,” “Tron,” “Flash Gordon,” “The Fifth Element,” “Batman And Robin”—he list of bad science fiction movies since Star Wars could go on for page after page. Even entertaining movies with great effects like “Independence Day” or the original “Jurassic Park” have come and gone, generating millions in box-office receipts during their summer releases, but barely leaving a mark on the larger culture.
Epochal Themes of Ancient Legends
Star Wars is different. There’s something about these movies that touches a very primal chord in people—and not by accident. The underlying story itself, of the hero’s journey, has antecedents in cultures as diverse as Japanese, Hindu, and American Indian legends, as well as the western classics. There’s literally something in these movies for every culture, because they were written with themes taken out of ancient legends from all over the world.
Star Wars unabashedly celebrates the values of friendship, family, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and love.
Star Wars unabashedly celebrates the values of friendship, family, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and love. It’s very difficult today to find many popular entertainments that even take such things seriously, much less hold them up as worthy ideals.
These movies are special, though, not just because of the grand themes or the mythic underpinning. They reach us by honestly appealing to emotions rarely appreciated in this pessimistic age. These are stories that, for all their extra-worldly trappings, celebrate the most basic elements of humanity.
When I look back over the first three films, two individual scenes have always stood out for me. In terms of purely emotional impact, I don’t think you can top farm boy Luke Skywalker watching the sunset in “Star Wars,” or Yoda lifting a spaceship out of a swamp in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Both are short scenes, with no dialogue or sophisticated special effects to speak of. Their power comes from the simply but perfectly shot visuals, the soaring John Williams score, and the primal emotions of wonder they evoke.
Plus a Big Dose of Magic
Last, but maybe best of all, these are great entertainments. I still remember my dad walking out of the first film—after nearly a decade of grim 70’s cinema—and exclaiming, “It’s been forever since I went to a movie that was fun!”
‘It’s been forever since I went to a movie that was fun!’
It’s difficult to express how much I’m looking forward to seeing the new movie. The very best moment of “The Phantom Menace” was in November 1998, when a bootleg version of the first trailer escaped to a world on dial-up Internet. It was perfect. Sheer magic, for two minutes. Sadly, it was also the finest single moment of the prequel trilogy.
I don’t know whether “The Force Awakens” can be everything I want it to be. As in 1999, I don’t know if it’s humanly possible for any movie to live up to the expectations for a new Star Wars movie.
But I do know that there’s an eight-year-old somewhere inside who’s going to have a hard time sleeping Thursday night.
Dr. Paul Rahe Of Hillsdale College On Thucydides' Melian Dialogue
(”The Godfather: Part III” is briefly mentioned in this.)
HH: It may seem odd at the end of a week of such extraordianry violence and chaos, and continuing climaxing drama to step back 2,500 years, but it actually isn’t. And as part of the Hillsdale Dialogues, I’m quite certain that my guest, Dr. Paul Rahe, who is the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee chair in Western Heritage, and a professor of history at Hillsdale, will explain to us. Professor Rahe, welcome back, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you, and first time on the Hillsdale Dialogue series with me.
PR: Okay, good, good, pleasure to be there, to be here.
HH: I read your essays on Thucydides to get ready for this, and I’ve been talking with Larry Arnn about it. But do you find it odd to talk after the week of such extraordinary violence about the destruction of the island people of Melian?
PR: No. I mean, it’s, look, Thucydides’ book is a kind of extended meditation on the relationship between the human and violence. And you know, I gather that you spoke with Dr. Arnn about the revolution at Corcyra.
PR: You know, one of the themes of that is war is a violent teacher. It’s a teacher of violence. And that war between political communities often can lead to war inside political communities. So one of the things that he’s tracing in the book is the manner in which a war that goes on for 27 years erodes relations inside communities. So you end up with a revolution like the one at Corcyra, and of course, that’s a portent of a revolution that will eventually come to Athens itself.
HH: Now let’s set up for the benefit of those who did not hear the first couple of weeks that I spent on the Peloponnesian wars with Dr. Arnn. We are at the midway point in the book at this point, and the Melian Dialogue, as you write in your essay, is really the centerpiece of the whole history.
HH: Explain to people sort of the setting before we dive into what the Athenians actually say, and what it tells any great superpower to be aware of.
PR: Well, the setting is a great power going after a really miniscule power. The island of Melos, in the Aegean, which is an island of Dorians, and it was apparently very early in Greek history a colony from Sparta. It’s not been involved in the war. It stayed out of it. It stayed neutral. And the Athenians send a force to take it. And it’s at a time when they’re actually technically at peace with Sparta. It’s more like a truce than a peace. And they’re sort of cleaning up. They’re looking around and they’re thinking what can we do. And Melos is governed by an oligarchy. And so they don’t want the Athenians to speak to the assembly at Melos. They want to have a private discussion between the leaders of the oligarchy and the leaders of Athens. And there ends up being a discussion that is franker than one that would take place in front of the people. And the Athenians, who have the advantage militarily, are pressing the question of advantage. And what they’re saying to the Melians is you need to give in. If you do give in, we will allow you to live. If you make trouble for us, we’ll kill all of you, which is what they end up doing.
HH: Would you say that they are practicing terrorism?
PR: Well, they’re certainly using terror in war as a force for causing other peoples to toe the line. Look, in some sense, in wartime, terror is a force. How do you get people to surrender unless you scare them? So it isn’t quite what we would call terrorism, see? What we would call terrorism is a kind of secretive attack aimed not at military forces, but aimed at civilians. Now in a sense, the Athenians are aiming at civilians on Melos. On the other hand, the civilians they’re aiming at are also soldiers, since all of the men, and they’re the ones they’re going to kill, are in fact soldiers.
HH: And they do kill every man. They sell the women and children into slavery. They utterly destroy the island. And what I was thinking about when I was reading your essay is that you made the point the oligarchy, the folks who are punished here have no participation in the decision making, none.
PR: That’s exactly right. And there’s an earlier occasion in which the Athenians confront a rebellion on the island of Myteline, a rebellion from within their empire of a city that had been allied to Athens for a long time. That is also carried out by an oligarchy. And there’s a debate about whether they should, when they capture it, whether they should kill everybody. And an Athenian named Deodatus, whose name means given by God, persuades the Athenians not to do that. And his appeal is two-fold. On the one hand, he says the people are on your side, or you’ll make them be on your side if you drive a wedge between the oligarchic leadership that led them into this disaster and the people. And on the other hand, he intimates it’s unjust to kill the people. And early in the war, the Athenians have the measuredness not to make the decision to kill all the Mytelineans. But that’s maybe ten years before this, 12 years before the…
HH: So ten years into war, and the Athenians have lost their, not their civilization or civility, but they’ve lost, what, their patience with…
PR: Yeah, they’ve lost their patience. They’ve also lost their sense of decency. They’ve been worn down by the miseries of war. And now they’re doing things that, well, in Thucydides, when he talks about the decision not to execute all the Mytelineans, he says upon reflection, having slept on it for one night, they wake up the next morning and they think that would be monstrous. Okay, what they do to the Melians is monstrous. And so in cold blood, and in the later period, in, say, 416, they do to the Melians what in anger at their allies they were unwilling to do in, say, 427.
HH: Now in this famous dialogue that we’re talking about, there is the famous, famous line, the strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must. And that is sort of the summation of what the Athenians say here. We have a minute to the break, Dr. Rahe. Do you think that the Americans are sort of heir to the Athenian tradition, are finding their way to that same kind of conclusion?
PR: Not yet. No, I don’t think so. I think we do understand that the strong have a lot more weight than the weak, but there’s a kind of brutality to that statement that is really quite shocking.
HH: There is, and when we come back from break, after, I just don’t know how long America will put up with weeks like this, if it actually continued, and what they would do in response to it, because it’s a traumatic week.
— – – – –
HH: Dr., in terms of what I was saying during the break, when you discuss the Melian Dialogue in your essays that I read about it, you pay a lot of attention to the fact the Athenians are ten years into a war, 12 years into a war, and they’ve become rather ruthless, they exterminate an entire population. They’re in essence going Roman before the Romans ever went Roman. And I was just raising the question of whether or not you see that same tendency developing in America. There’s also a second tendency. Not long after this, they sail off to Sicily in their disastrous overreach.
HH: In fact, you point out it’s the transition point, the overreach transition. So they lose their grace, or their graciousness, and then they go off on a foreign adventure that destroys them.
PR: Right, they lose a kind of balance of measure, of caution and of decency. They’re, you know, killing all the Melians, the Melians have never done anything against the Athenians. So there simply, there’s no grounds for anger. There was grounds for anger against the Mytelineans, but the Athenians manage to restrain it by sleeping on it, as we often do when we’re angry, and waking up the next morning no longer being angry and thinking gosh. Now, they’re simply cold-blooded. Now you know, if you’re looking for another comparison, the Spartans are cold-blooded from the beginning. We’re told by Thucydides that when they capture neutral ships, they kill everybody. And when the Plataeans, who’ve never done anything against the Spartans, eventually early in the war, they’re starved out. The Thebans want their territory and their land. And the Spartans put on a kind of trial of the Plataeans, and they don’t listen to a word that they have to say. They kill them all. But the Spartans, because they’ve got helots, are kind of brutal people, which is hard to…
HH: They’re slaves. Helots being slaves.
HH: I wanted to make sure the audience who just tuned in, yeah, they’re slave troops.
PR: Yeah, well, they operate in a slave system in which they’re outnumbered by the slave population they rule over by 7-1. And so when it comes to making decisions, they think only about their interests. There’s not a generosity of spirit to the Spartans. They’re brave. They’re very good to one another. They’re loyal to one another. But when it comes to foreign people, they really do not give them a thought except with regard to their utility. The Athenians claim to be better, and they in fact are better. But in the course of the war, they lose that capacity.
HH: So what happens to them?
PR: The violence of war puts them into something like the state of nature. Thomas Hobbes was the first translator into English of Thucydides. And you know, if you want to understand Hobbes, read Book 3, paragraphs 82 and 83 on the Corcyrean Revolution as translated by Hobbes, a better translation than any other of that passage anyway, and then look at his Leviathan. And in the world of the state of nature, Hobbes tells us in Chapter 13 of Leviathan, force and fraud are the cardinal virtues, virtues, by the way, that are identified by Machiavelli, you know, what a gangster in the 1930s would have called moxie. That’s what virtue really is. By the time of the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians are thinking like people in the state of nature. They have lost their capacity to, they’ve lost their balance.
HH: Does that happen to any people long engaged in brutal war?
PR: I think so. It depends on how long, and obviously it depends on how brutal. Look, we in the United States are relatively sheltered from war. Most of us never see the battlefield. You know, during the long Cold War, we were involved in a great struggle, but very few Americans found themselves on the battlefield, whereas ancient warfare involved almost every citizen in rising his life on the battlefield, and in killing. And the long term effect of that is to erode that sort of sense of decency and restraint that ordinarily holds people in check.
— – — –
HH: Dr. Rahe, I don’t want to push too hard on an analogy simply because the news of the week is pushing us there, but I am curious if you do sit back and talk with your students and wonder about, and I know you write frequently in the public intellectual world as well, about what 12 years of war has done to the United States, and what 12 hours of gun battles in the streets of Boston, and explosives, and I’ve been talking to experts all day about the Chechnyan civil war. It’s not traumatic, but it’s impactful to a country.
PR: Yes, yes, and look, I think on Boston in particular, this is going to have a huge impact. How not? I mean, everybody’s locked down right now. This is a day no one in Boston’s ever going to forget, and I suspect the day of the Boston Marathon is a day that no one in Boston is ever going to forget. In the rest of the country, you know, we watch from a great distance as spectators, and yes, you’re right. If you look at Twitter, there’s a great deal of anger being expressed. That’s not very surprising and not very shocking. But you know, it tends to pass fairly quickly, because it doesn’t touch most of us the way it touches, say, the families of the people who were murdered, or the families of people who lost legs, or the people of Boston who in some sense or other witnessed this, because they were very close to it, and were deeply touched by it. You know, think of the blowing up of the federal building in Oklahoma City back in the 1990s. I remember it well, because I was teaching at the University of Tulsa at the time. And I remember being called by the television station to comment on it. And of course, you know, they wanted me to say who dunnit, and they were pressing me to say that the Arabs had done it. And I was holding back, because it didn’t seem very likely to me. And it’s a mistake to shoot your mouth off on in circumstances like that. You need to hold back and wait and see what you’ve learned about it. But what strikes me is yes, we remember that, but we’re not moved by it to great anger today.
HH: Well, the other thing that strikes me that’s very different is, in your essays on the Melian Dialogues, immediately after the destruction of the island and the enslavement of the people who are taken captive and the massacre of the men, the Sicily expedition, Athens just goes further and further. We’re withdrawing from the world, aren’t we? We’re doing the opposite.
PR: Yes, I’m not sure that we can withdraw from the world. You know, Godfather III says every time I try to get out, they drag me back in.
HH: I think you’re the only person at Hillsdale who’s seen Godfather III.
PR: That may be. I insist that my students see Godfather I, because it tells you how Rome operates.
HH: Yeah, that’s true.
PR: Patronage and clientship and so forth.
HH: That’s true, but Rome, but number III, gosh, that’s an awful movie.
HH: In any event, every time, so you’re saying we yet may have a Sicilian expedition in us?
PR: Well, you know, people were comparing the second Iraq War to a Sicilian expedition. Now I don’t think the comparison was ever apt, because our capacity to project power over great distances is very considerable. And you know, the Athenians were sending a vast number of ships and men off where they really couldn’t be adequately be supported. But who knows? What I would say is this. In the larger world, simply because of our footprint, our economic footprint if nothing else, but also the historical role that we played in the 20th Century, we can’t escape that. There’s not going to be a new isolationism. We may try it for a couple of years, and then we’ll be punished for it the way we were punished the last time we tried isolationism. And it may happen under a Democrat, and it may happen under a Republican. But I don’t think we can actually pull out of the world. And what’s happened in Boston is an indication of that. You try to pull out of the world, they come to you.
HH: Yeah, that’s absolutely and truly well said. Can we conclude this segment, though, something you pointed out. The middle of a book is the place of honor. And that’s where the Melian Dialogue is put into Thucydides’ History. Would you explain to people what you mean by that, because that may be a novel concept to some folks.
PR: Well, it’s, you know, if you go through ancient literature, and you know, if you even consider a throne, the highest throne is always the one in the middle. And if you go through the plays of Aeschylus, the plays of Sophocles, the plays of Euripides, the turning point is always in the middle. So it’s a kind of hinge on which the whole thing turns. And Thucydides did not live to finish his account of the war. Book 8 sort of ends suddenly. And it’s clear that he would have gone on to do a book 9 and a book 10. And he would have ended the war, and then Athens would have been in exactly the position Melos was in – defeated and with some people wanting to kill all of the Athenians. So the very questions that the Melians raise in the Melian Dialogue, which is to say what if you’re in our position someday, is raised. And the Athenians prediction in the Melian Dialogue is the Spartans won’t kill them. The Spartans will consult their interests and keep the Athenians alive, because it will be in the interest of Sparta to keep the Athenians alive, which is exactly what happens.
HH: So by consulting rational self-interest, you can get to the right answer if you simply push the question hard enough.
PR: Yes, let’s put it this way. It was not in the interest of the Athenians to kill the Melians. It was not in the interest of the Athenians to go to Sicily. Restraint is in one’s interest. And you know, ordinary moral sentiments also come into play when there is restraint. You sort of pause and think that’s not just. That’s not right. But the Athenians in the course of the war lost that restraint. They came to be in the grips of what Pericles wanted to put them in the grips of, which is a kind of eros for glory, a kind of longing and lust for the beautiful, understood as their empire and their conquests and their victories on the battlefield. In the process, they lost the capacity to calculate about their interest effectively.
HH: Oh, a good word for restraint, and a great place to end this Hillsdale Dialogue. Dr. Paul Rahe, thank you for doing so, so well this week.
End of interview.
(”The Godfather: Part III” is briefly mentioned in this.)
Condolences to the victims of the Aurora massacre in Colorado. There have been shootings at movies before — in the early 90s, some movies about gangsters (including “The Godfather Part III” and “New Jack City”) attracted gang members and shootouts occurred, which for several years led to a policy in which studios released movies aimed at black audiences on Wednesdays in hopes of diffusing the crowds a little. But I’m guessing the shooting last night in Colorado is going to stack up as worse than all the other movie theater shootings combined. Fears of copycat shootings will mean Warner Bros. is facing a publicity nightmare in the same general realm as the Tylenol poisoning rampage of 1982, which killed seven people and was never solved.]]>
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