home > archive > 2004 > this article
Nothing verboten: An interview with Steve Sailer
By Bernard Chapin
Steve Sailer is presently the Film Critic at The American Conservative and contributes regularly to their Arts and Letters section. He is also one of the main reasons why this particular reader subscribed to their magazine as I regard its analysis of social issues to be excellent. Before taking a position with TAC he was previously, and remains to this day, an accomplished journalist.
Mr. Sailer has his own website where he has established an archive of essays and columns which one should take the time to peruse. He also writes for Vdare.com and is the founder of the Human Diversity Institute.
There seem to be few topics too hot for Mr. Sailer. Few writers consistently tackle issues like immigration, intelligence testing, race, gender, and genetics, but he has made a career out of doing so. He is passionate about examining all things politically incorrect which has made him some enemies, but has not deterred his efforts. This year he found himself right in the middle of the neo-conservative/paleo-conservative civil war. One source described the way in which he was treated by some of the neo-conservatives. Any questions in reference to his ideological outlook will be illuminated fully in the paragraphs below.
BC: Mr. Sailer, you are the Film Critic at The American Conservative. There are a great deal of conservative media outlets available to politicos nowadays. What does the magazine uniquely offer its readers?
SS: It's that rare conservative periodical that doesn't see itself as a volunteer adjunct of the White House PR department. I find it a lot more intellectually exciting than the run of the mill conservative publications because when I open it, I never know what to expect. Likewise, executive editor Scott McConnell and his staff don't micromanage me. They just want me to be interesting to the kind of smart people who read the magazine.
Most film criticism in rightist journals is pretty sad stuff, a matter of ideological bookkeeping, a toting up of conservative merits and demerits. In contrast, I try to write in the tradition of the late Richard Grenier, who was Commentary's critic in the 1980s. (His slam on "Gandhi" was so detailed that it eventually was published as a book.)
A typical movie reviewer knows a vast amount about film, but very little about what the films are about. Grenier knew plenty about movies, but also an awful lot about how the world works. I try to do three things in my reviews:
First, I explain who the intended target audience is. Different kinds of people like different kinds of movies, so it's pointless to insist that everybody must like what I like. Too many critics subscribe to the Be Like Me school. In contrast, I was a marketing researcher for many years, so I had beaten into me the first law of market research: Not everybody shares your tastes. "Master and Commander," "Moulin Rouge," and "Barbershop" were fine movies aimed at very different demographic segments.
Second, does the film work for that audience? Making movies is extremely difficult, and thus only a few dozen each year turn out to be worth watching, even by their intended market segments. For example, Ron Howard's "The Missing" engages in some unfashionable and moderately courageous debunking of myths about the wholly benign nature of "Native American spirituality," but the film never hits on all cylinders at once, so it's not really worth your time. (Instead, you should just take ten minutes to read my review!)
Originally, I was hoping that my tastes would prove so off-kilter that I'd become well-known by having my name constantly quoted in ads for movies that everybody else hates, but instead I've found that my reactions are fairly close to a consensus between critics and audiences.
The third element is what Grenier did so well: write reviews for people who don't go to many movies. Films touch upon major issues in history and society, and thus provide a springboard to an essayist willing to do the work. I see the film without any preparation, because that's how 99 percent of the audience will see it, but then I read the book or study the history or talk to an expert on the subject matter.
For example, consider Ed Zwick's "The Last Samurai" with Tom Cruise, which illuminates, unwillingly, contemporary America's obsession with medieval Japanese militarism. When you first see "The Last Samurai," you sense the movie is fundamentally bogus, but you have to understand the reality behind it to see why the filmmakers went off track. Rather than just revel in the cruelty of the samurai tradition, like Quentin Tarantino does in "Kill Bill," Zwick tries to justify his fascination with superb swords hacking human flesh by concocting a clever rationalization for why the Meiji Emperor's destruction of the samurai was America's fault. (Yet, as David St. Hubbins pointed out in "Spinal Tap," there's such a fine line between clever and stupid.)
So, how does a nice liberal like Zwick, who makes war movies with a multi-culti veneer, create a nice liberal elegy for the good old days when an insulted aristocrat could restore his honor by decapitating an insolent commoner on the spot? He portrays the samurai as victims of racial prejudice! See, the Meiji modernizers think of the samurai rebels as savages, just as their American puppet masters think of the Plains Indians as savages. In reality, the leader of the revolt, Gen. Takamori Saigo, resembled Sitting Bull far less than he resembled Jefferson Davis.
BC: As a film critic, what is your assessment of the influence of politics on filmmaking? Do you think movies today are more political than ever or does the desire for profits generally outweigh other considerations?
SS: Partisan politics doesn't matter all that much. Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn can make "Mystic River" together without their contrasting politics getting in the way. And good for them.
In particular, films don't reflect which way the latest political winds are blowing. They can't be two-hour versions of the opening sketch on this week's Saturday Night Live because, ever since the bust-up of the old studio system, it just takes too damn long to put together all the deals required to make a modern movie. For example, we've been seeing a lot of war movies and historical epics in the last two years. Is that driven by 9/11? Maybe. Yet, considering how long it takes to put together a film, the success of "Gladiator" in 2000, and even "Saving Private Ryan" back in the 1990s, is a bigger impetus.
Hollywood tries hard to give the public what it wants, and some tastes have been moving in conservative directions. Adultery, for example, has fallen very much out of fashion in movies. Many young moviegoers grew up in broken families, and they disapprove of parents fooling around. On the other hand, today a nerdier segment of the audience gets a fetishistic charge out of seeing beautiful women engage in violence, so we are besieged by "Kill Bill" type movies about willowy women improbably kicking butt.
Hollywood has done right by a number of conservative authors. Besides "Lord of the Rings," the four Jack Ryan movies from Tom Clancy's novels have all been solid. And could we have asked for a more intelligent and faithfully detailed rendition of Patrick O'Brian's sea novels than "Master and Commander?" The three studios that teamed up to spend $150 million on Peter Weir's film are probably going to lose a lot of money because they didn't vulgarize the movie. Some literate middle-aged guys got together and spent a fortune making a movie for other guys like themselves (and like the people who read my reviews), and, no surprise, it turns out there aren't enough of us.
(Of course, you could also read this to say that a conservative author has to write a wildly popular series of novels to get taken seriously.)
Ultimately, the entertainment industry is always going to emphasize emotion over logic and knowledge, so those of us who value reason and empiricism are always going to find movies less than wholly satisfactory depictions of the world.
What Hollywood cares about are surfaces. But, to a larger extent than we like to admit, so do the rest of us. Thus, movies provide an important window on human nature.
What movies are actually all about is not partisan politics, but identify politics, although often in subtle ways that nobody else (except Camille Paglia and sometimes Mark Steyn) writes about. And that's precisely because movies prosper by giving us leading characters to identify with. People want to see sexier, braver, smarter, funnier versions of themselves up on screen. That's why you only get to be an enduring star if you primarily appeal to your own sex. You can start off, when you're young and beautiful, by driving the opposite sex wild, but to find loyal fans, eventually you have to draw your own sex into identifying with you.
Here's an example of identity politics in movies that nobody else writes about. In the vast majority of movie love scenes, the leading man is darker in skin tone than the leading lady (check out the "Cold Mountain" ads for a classic example). Poets used to call ladies "the fair sex." Well, it turns out that even though we don't even have a vocabulary for the concept anymore, Hollywood understands that's what audiences (especially women) want to see on screen: the fair sex being wooed by tall, dark, and handsome men. By the way, that's one reason why Nicole Kidman is so much in demand in Hollywood -- she's fairer than any actor. Lots of men are perfectly happy ogling a darker-skinned actress like Tia Carrere, but, for reasons that nobody fully understands, women on the whole prefer to identify with an alabaster beauty like Kidman.
BC: I'm one of those people who loves what Peter Jackson has done with The Lord of the Rings. What's your overall opinion of his films and his adaptation of the trilogy? Would you agree that there are some valuable conservative themes showcased within TLOR?
SS: One of the under-rated and under-used job titles in Hollywood is "script doctor." For a tiny fraction of the total budget, you can call in a very clever writer, such as Tom Stoppard on "Schindler's List," and tell him: "Don't change the basic story, characters, tone, or theme, but please come up with fixes for the half-dozen stupidest things in the movie." Yet, so many movies reach the screen that would obviously have vastly benefited from just an extra $100,000 worth of script doctoring.
And then, in utter contrast, there's Jackson's "Lord of the Rings." I'm not much of a fan of the fantasy genre, but three minutes into each film I'm hooked, because everything clicks. Obviously, the bulk of the credit has to go to Tolkien for dreaming up such a compelling, carefully thought-through story, but there are far more ways to screw up a movie than there are ways to make it work, and Jackson and his enormous team succeeded on just about every element.
An important reason they triumphed is they didn't try to update Tolkien's
arch-hereditarian politics. The author's assumption that blood will tell,
that Aragorn will be a good king because the blood of kings flows in his
veins, is silly -- Darwin's cousin Francis Galton coined the phrase "regression
to the mean" to describe what really happens. But, this traditional
idea that a great man's son will be just as great is deeply appealing to
us -- as you'll note from all the second generation actors and politicians
around now. And, if Jackson had tried to update the politics, he would have
wrecked the clockwork of the
One conservative element I like about "Lord of the Rings" is Tolkien's arch-Tory / proto-hippie conservationism. Here in the U.S., conservatives tend to assume that the essence of conservatism is to bulldoze a forest and build a Costco. Tolkien would have shuddered.
BC: The American Conservative is one of those publications involved in the discussion of what conservatism is or is not within America today. Where do you stand concerning the war of words between neo-conservatives and paleo-conservatives? Is there a reason for this internecine strife?
SS: The Left largely lost the intellectual struggle with the Right some time ago, so it's only natural that most of the action these days would be within the Right. In the very long run, it's possible that the main political divisions of the future will be outgrowths of the current intra-Right disputes. One main breakdown could be between those who want to hammer the rest of the world into being just like America and those who fear that trying to do that will only end up making America just like the rest of the world.
I strongly supported the Afghanistan war, but I was highly skeptical about our Iraq adventure, and certainly remain so. I have two adolescent sons, so wars without end aren't too appealing to me.
Of course, ideological coalitions are fluid. I thought of myself as a neoconservative until recently, and I haven't changed my views much over the decades. I've just gotten more empirical and less ideological. To paraphrase Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," it's the neoconservatives who got small. The original founders of neoconservatism were intellectual giants, but the second generation testifies to the inevitable workings of regression to the mean. The first generation became great by admitting they had been wrong about much, but the new boys never admit they're wrong about anything. They just concoct new rationalizations for positions clearly driven by emotional and downright hormonal urges.
I sometimes suspect that after watching "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," the neocons just developed this overwhelming urge to invade the world. They leapt on the John McCain bandwagon in 2000 because he seemed angry enough to start a war with somebody, anybody, but then they deftly switched sides after the primary voters decided Bush seemed saner than McCain.
BC: You are also a columnist for VDARE.com. It was founded to address issues and topics that the establishment has now abandoned–an example is immigration reform. Why is it that unmitigated immigration is now accepted by so many Americans on both the left and the right? Why would our politicians welcome wave after wave of immigrants who can no longer be assimilated?
SS: Opinion polls demonstrate that there is a radical dichotomy in attitudes toward mass immigration between the average American and elites. Powerful interest groups of the Left and Right -- such as urban machine politicians, farm owners, the Catholic Church, factory owners, and affirmative action diversicrats -- have financial and political interests in importing more unskilled labor. For instance, mass immigration holds down wages, so it helps solve the servant problem of the affluent. For the unorganized rest of us, mass immigration is a lousy deal, but the fix is in, especially because anybody who works against it is smeared as a racist.
BC: It seems to me that being proud of who you are is always acceptable in America provided one does not happen to be white and male. Has it been your experience that stating you are proud of your history and civilization results in others automatically accusing you of being a racist? Could it be that the word "racist" is so irresponsibly thrown around today that it has lost much of its meaning?
SS: My guess would be that political correctness will get worse before it gets better, but you never can tell. The most striking improvement in intellectual life over the last decade is that almost nobody takes feminist orthodoxy seriously anymore. Practically every month these days, Time and Newsweek run articles about the biological differences between the sexes that back in the days of the Anita Hill brouhaha would have gotten the writers and editors hauled up before a coven of the feminist thought police. Now, people mostly laugh at feminists. So, there is hope.
I believe that the truth is better for humanity than ignorance, lies, and wishful thinking. At minimum, it's a lot more interesting!
Mr. Sailer, we thank you very much for your time.
Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2022, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.