The Patriot and why they really fought

By Joe Schembrie
web posted July 3, 2000

According to certain British critics, the new movie, The Patriot, asserts that the main reason Americans fought against the British in the American Revolution was because British Redcoats burned down their farms and imprisoned and shot children. British critics protest that their soldiers did nothing of the sort.

Now, it's possible to be right -- and to completely miss the point. And that they do.

Technically speaking, the British are right; their forefathers were guilty of few atrocities -- that is, prior to the start of the Revolutionary War. Until the shooting began, eighteenth century videotape would show little comparable to the Rodney King beating. Even in the fabled Boston Massacre, British soldiers demonstrated remarkable restraint before firing on a civilian crowd, and were defended by none other than John Adams, future President of the United States. That charges were brought against the soldiers at all, speaks well of British jurisprudence during colonial times.

Nonetheless, there's technical truth -- and then there's substantive truth. The real, undeniable truth is that the British soldiers were present as agents of a royal tyrant.

Even so, it's hard to put the justification for the American Revolution into terms that modern minds can comprehend. King George III was no Hitler or Stalin. Unless you shot at them first, the British offered no concentration camps, firing squads, or pogroms. The taxation rate was quite low in comparison to modern levels and involved mainly items imported from other British crown colonies. Superficially speaking, the American Revolutionaries risked their lives and sacred honor over a tariff on tea.

Obviously, the Americans of the day were seeing something clearly which we, shackled as we are with our modern-day sensibilities, can barely perceive at all. Their minds, nurtured on classical books and reasoned discourse, were accustomed to looking to the future, to long-run consequences of abstract principle. And with regard to British colonial policy, they plainly saw that once you accepted the principle of taxation without representation, you're on the road to serfdom.

Sure, it's only a two percent tax rate today. Tomorrow it will be two-and-a-half. And day by day, year by year, it will incrementally creep up to a hundred percent tax rate. And then you're a helpless slave, deprived of the resources and freedom necessary to rebel against the tyranny that enchained you.

The Patriot's plot could have concentrated on those long-run consequences of abstract principle. But probably even conservatives wouldn't go to see that. Movies are about images, about emotional spontaneity. Modern audiences, accustomed to the visual immediacy of modern media, demand that stories be told in terms of passionate imagery with short-term consequences.

And with the Clinton Administration, we've seen that demand for emotional spontaneity seep even into the realm of political discourse.

When conservatives sought to impeach the President, they were looking to the long-term consequences of an abstract principle, of what would happen to Constitutional safeguards if we allowed a national leader to get away with perjury before a grand jury. Liberals, however, looked to the short-term consequences: "This is all very unpleasant, but no one was hurt -- let's just forget about it and move on."

And who won that argument? The polls say that the liberals did.

The same triumph of the immediate over the long-run, and of pictures over abstractions, occurred in the case of Elian Gonzalez. "The boy should be with his father," went the liberal argument. Conservatives would then launch into an elaborate explanation that under Communism, the boy will not have anything approaching a normal family life. But if the polls are right, most Americans yawned and flipped the channel once they were reassured by the picture of Elian smiling in the arms of Juan Gonzalez.

So given that emotionalism and imagery carry the day in politics, should we be surprised that they dominate the entertainment industry? If conservatives are to have any future voice in our culture, they'll have to make an accommodation with that reality.

And if The Patriot emphasizes the immediate, bloody brutality that occurred once the war was under way, rather than calmly discuss abstractions about tax policy as the source of conflict in the American Revolution, so what? That can be seen as deceptive only by those who perceive political issues only in the short run. In the long run, an unchecked power to raise taxes will ultimately lead to slavery, and slavery will inevitably lead to bloodshed. The essential message of The Patriot is the same one that Thomas Paine cited from ancient Israel: That, sooner or later, the king will come for your sons.

The Patriot simply compresses this abstract history lesson -- which normally plays out over decades -- into an immediate, visual, personal experience that modern audiences can appreciate on an emotional level.

Yes, in Clintonian America, it does seem somewhat odd for passion to serve truth. But I feel that's something we could get used to -- don't you?

Joe Schembrie is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right.

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