Of course, he’s both in the new Russell Crowe film. That’s how Hollywood works: create a fantasy world where all our problems are magically resolved. When it comes to the big problem of personal growth, the film is simple enough: go on a quest, meet a romantic interest. This might be considered escapist since, really, what are we doing going hither and yon, and putting our redemption on an ecstatic union with our soul mate, when really what’s required of us to improve ourselves is typically that we give up on egoism and try solidarity for a change.
Few films are about collectivism. And those that are depoliticize it, make it part of a wish-fulfillment (set in the past, or on another planet) rather than a challenge for the here and now.
So, this latest Robin Hood, the film is definitely against monarchs, especially ones who can’t really fight. Its definitely against leaders who fight endless wars, scorn the common people and practice a leadership style that doesn’t brook disagreement.
So, George W Bush is in the house. He’s the subtext for much of the film’s subtle criticism.
And his foil is Senior Crowe’s Robin Hood, who is loyal (to a point, and that point is when he’s sure its against his self-interest), respectful of women, one of the boys (but more contemplative and moody, not one to patronize Hooters but not critical either of his compadres), and interested in a “purpose-driven” life (something more than war or the accumulation of wealth or hanging out with the guys; a life that values diversity, loyalty and communalism, the logical developments of the Enlightenment ideals of Liberté, égalité, fraternité).
So far, so liberal.
But this is not a film that will offend conservatives and may even excite Tea Partiers and Survivalists. The reason being that it presents us with a notion we hold sacred, “rights,” but limits the meaning to the lowest common denominator of everyone in the audience.
T.H. Marshall** a british sociologist from the 1950s, and one of the most important theorists of the welfare state, argued in a 1950’s lecture, “Citizenship and Social Class,” that there are 3 types of rights: civil, political and social. The 18th C gave us civil or procedural rights (freedom of speech, thought and faith, the right to own property and to conclude valid contracts, and the right to justice). Civil rights, Marshall said, lead to political rights (the right of individuals to participate in government, to share in the direction of the republic). Social rights, finally, give substance to the first two rights by creating a welfare state that reduce risk and insecurity and create equal opportunities for all people to grow, to educate and enlarge their worldviews. “You can’t choose what you don’t know.” Social rights require that the government redistribute wealth. Social rights also burden individuals with the duties of citizenship: for democracy to work, you have to be educated enough to know when money is corrupting your leaders and profit is eclipsing humanism, and humanism is eclipsing ecological sanity/health.
The welfare state in the egalitarian society imagined by a constitutional Republic uses the rhetoric of “rights” not to abolish class differences (which socialists call for) but to prevent the accident of your birth from determining what you are capable of. Thus, the government helps those who have lost their jobs, who were born poor, who fall afoul of drug addiction, who need help with child care and health maintenance and college tuition.
Robin Hood comes out unapologetically for civil and political rights. That bad ol’ King promises to sign a charter that would ensure these rights, and then he reneges on his promise once he’s exploited his loyal lords and knights to defeat a foreign enemy. The King’s betrayal becomes the focus of the film, casting the drama in the ideologically conservative terrain of revenge and ensuring that justice is nothing more complicated than a simple contract: you scratch my back, I scratch yours and if you stop scratching, I am free to do whatever I want.
The political message that comes through loud and clear in Robin Hood is that if your government taxes you “unfairly,” then no matter how fancy your commander in chief dresses (and the King dresses very fancy), you are free to (in the words of Herbert Spencer) “to drop connection with the state–to relinquish its protection, and to refuse paying towards its support” (Social Statics: 1851).
You allow everyone to opt out of paying taxes because they don’t like some decision the leadership makes, then you undermine “the power of the government to help the people realize commonly chosen ends” (Wolfe).
The film dresses up its libertarian values in the puckish attire of anarchistic fantasy, so the middleclass professional resentful of having to fork over hardearned money to Welfare Queens drive their cadillacs to the grocery store for cigarettes and beer can escape to a world where they shoot arrows at corrupt officials and live without the burdens of taxed property.
[**I read about Tawney in Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism]