Yesterday, I watched Sam Peckinpah’s last film, The Osterman Weekend. It is based on the Robert Ludlum novel. It was only his second novel, and from what I understand, it didn’t make much more sense than the film. But the film really is something to behold. It has the feel of porn, with everyone spying on everyone else. And the last act turns the whole thing into a revenge story, with no real clue as to how the first two acts were meant to facilitate this. And it is a shame, because it has an excellent cast, and I’ve never seen Rutger Hauer so good.
But I want to focus on one little thing in the film. The CIA has decided to get well known liberal television journalist John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) to work for them by convincing him that his three closest friends are KGB agents. Laurence Fassett (John Hurt) thinks he will go for it because of Tanner’s politics. He says, “They say that converts make the greatest zealots. He’s more American and Americans. He’s a bigot about truth, democracy, justice.” I think that’s exactly true. The most liberal among us are the biggest believers in those grammar school civics lessons.
For a long time, I thought that conservatives were the same way. But I can’t say that’s true anymore. Conservatism is all about tribalism and hierarchy. America is not great because of its ideals or the things it does; for the conservative, America is great because it is America. And this is why we get this endless parade of jingoism — the constant call for us to use our military to crush some other group or country. I do see in this a certain naive idealism: the assumption that America is great for some vague and gauzy reason.
But if you aren’t willing to pull back the gauze and focus clearly on the reality, then all your patriotism is nothing more than chauvinism. And I wonder if there isn’t a deeper understanding that to look too closely at what America actually is would shatter the illusion. Maybe such naive conservatism is, at base, just the Dick Cheney kind of cynical conservatism. It doesn’t matter, I suppose. Because you can’t love something if you refuse to see it. That’s the kind of adolescent “love” that is weaker the more you know of the object.
The film made me wonder if I would rat out my friends if I found they were traitors. It’s hard to get into the mindset of the Cold War, especially knowing what a ridiculous game it was. But I’ve thought very clearly about whether I would rat out a friend involved in a terrorist plot (and I’ve had a few over the years who I could imagine being involved in one), and the answer is that I would. But even there, that’s probably first an act of humanism. It is second an act of patriotism, but only in the John Tanner version of it: being a bigot about truth, democracy, justice.