The chattering classes are already going after that sweet little robot Wall?E. Some on the right accused the film of being leftist propaganda because of its environmental message. As the New York Times points out:
Blogland moves at the speed of thought, however, and already the right-wing backlash to the right-wing backlash against “Wall-E” is underway.
Other conservatives are embracing the film as an exemplar of conservative values. Beliefnet’s own Crunchy Con Rod Dreher writes that Wall?E
embodies a traditionalist conservative critique of modernity, one that advocates a more or less Aristotelian view of humanity and politics. Philosophically, this is one of the most subversive movies I’ve ever seen. Crunchy cons, this movie is for us.
Of course the movie is neither conservative nor liberal. If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And if all you look at is partisan politics, everything you see has to be categorized as either for or against whatever position you are espousing. This is especially the case if you are on deadline — or if you would like to leverage a hugely popular movie by attempting to appropriate it for your cause.
Like all great art, “Wall?E” is far too nuanced and layered to be used as anyone’s soundbite. And the attempts to do so say far more about the speaker than they do about the message of the film and the views of the people who made it. Those who argue that the film is “leftist propaganda about the evils of mankind” are saying that it is left-wing to point out that human beings have been careless with the earth’s resources in a way that could lead to making the planet uninhabitable and that corporations do not always have the best interests of the community as their top priority. Beliefnet’s Crunchy Con argues that this critique is a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of conservatism.
Technology emerges as a villain here — but it’s a complicated villain, as I’ll explain. Technology allowed for the development of the consumer economy, and the creation of the fantastic spaceship that allowed humanity to escape an earth it despoiled with technology. But technology also shaped the consciousness of the humans. It led them to break with nature (Nature), and to think of technology as something that delivered them from nature. As humanity became more technologically sophisticated, the film argues, they became ever more divorced from Nature, and their own nature…Consequently, they’ve become slaves of both technology and their own base appetites, and have lost what makes them human.
These two ways of looking at the same material are based on overlapping but different definitions of conservatism. Traditional conservatives would object to stories that suggest that the government should solve the problems; that is not the case here, where an individual (the captain) acts on his own against an establishment that oppresses him in a way that conservative icon Ayn Rand would applaud. Those who object to this film are the small group who consider any acknowledgment of environmental degradation or short-term thinking from corporate executives and and government officials an affront to conservatives. Surely conservatism has to be more than perpetuating the status quo or reflexively defending corporate behavior. And surely protection of the environment transcends partisan politics.
I was interested to see that my review of the film attracted a couple of comments objecting to its message and its suitability for children. While some commenters liked it a lot, one said “this movie was not appropriate for children as it sends messages to children that fat people are lazy and screen watchers, the government is not to be trusted and that it is okay to leave it up to one person (not as a collective) to make major changes for them.” Another said “They made humanity seem stupid, lazy, and incompetent from start to finish. Not the message you want your kids walking away with….Not something that attacks self esteem and provides a helpless feeling that only technology will save us. Kids are going to have a mess on their hands and they need to have creativity to solve it.” It interested me that some viewers could take the movie that way. For me, the movie was about the idea that technology will not save us and that creativity is essential. Besides, technology is the result of creativity. As I said in my response to the comments, if you look at myths and fairy tales, even traditional lullabies, you will see that they began as ways of explaining the world to children and deal with the direst possible issues — jealousy, greed, loss, justice, ambition, and anger. Most of the Pixar movies are a big departure from the Disney classics when it comes to villains. The bad guys in Pixar films are not nearly as scary as Maleficent or Cruella DeVil. I think it is a good thing in a country where we have an unprecedented level of childhood obesity and inactivity to give children a gentle reminder of the importance of mental and physical exercise.
Dreher points out that this is a film that shows the importance of both work and intimacy. These are not conservative values; they are universal values. As Sigmund Freud said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” Wall?E, EVE, and the captain would agree.
In another post, Dreher says,
it would be a stretch to say that “Wall-E” is a “conservative” movie — it really is beyond our categories — but it’s hard for me to think of a film that so clearly and gracefully offers a traditionalist conservative/crunchy con critique of contemporary society. The thing is, even if you don’t notice any of the thematic elements, it’s simply a beautiful work of storytelling and visual art.
True art will always transcend any attempt to confine it with labels, and like all great stories “Wall?E” can be interpreted in many ways. Perhaps the greatest contribution we can hope for from the robot who learns to love and the spaceship captain who learns to think is that they will inspire conversations that will remind us of the importance of love and work, and perhaps of care for the planet as well.