Cultural Psychosis: What do we win from the game of sweet nothings?

Reacting to 300, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took advantage of his Iranian New Year's address to talk about Hollywood's campaign of "psychological warfare" against his country. Perhaps he didn't realize that we've been fighting that campaign against ourselves for some time now.

This spring, as a blood-splattered historical fantasy by the name of 300 hacked and slashed its way through a few box office records, the sound of sharpening knives could also be heard emanating from the audience. Somehow, amid all of the glorious money-raking, the film had managed the ignominious honor of ranking among the most reviled pieces of entertainment in recent memory.

It seems that quite a few people took issue with the film's depiction of ancient history, namely the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BCE, during which an alliance of outnumbered Greeks made their heroic last stand against the expansionist Persian Empire. Iranian ex-pats in Canada and the US launched online petitions condemning the film, while a healthy international assortment of film critics and pundits took to lobbing about some thoroughly ugly words – nasties like "race-baiting," "homophobic," "war propaganda," "fascist art," "white supremacist" and "neocon wet dream." Over in Iran, the regime-friendly Tehran-based newspaper Ayandeh-No pretty well summed up the political mood with a single no-nonsense headline: "Hollywood declares war on Iranians."

Those responsible for the film reacted with incredulity – or at least feigned it convincingly. In an interview with CBR News, director Zack Snyder scoffed, "It's a graphic novel movie about a bunch of guys that are stomping the snot out of each other. As soon as you start to frame it like that [i.e. with political analysis], it becomes clear that you've missed the point entirely." Warner Brothers issued its own statement to calm the rabble, explaining that it "developed this film purely as a fictional work with the sole purpose of entertaining audiences; it is not meant to disparage an ethnicity or culture or make any sort of political statement."

Yet disparage it did, precipitating a bona fide international incident and leaving critics insisting – beyond all reason, apparently – that a film drawn from world history could actually mean something. Where were these spoilsports getting their silly ideas?

Old legends don't get retold unless they can be pressed into some new service, especially if those retellings cost tens of million of dollars to launch. Naturally, the chief purpose here is profit. Second to that is entertainment. Look at the systematic way that 300 distorts those few things that we do know about ancient Sparta to suit the tastes of contemporary audiences. For one, the Spartans – our heroes – have neatly dropped the time-honored institution of educational and military pederasty from their repertoire (that grotty burden falls on the sissy Athenians instead). They also emerge staunchly against slavery, whereas the real Sparta was, as you might have guessed, a rather brutal apartheid state propped up by firmly entrenched slave labour.

Taken alone, these distortions are merely unsavory and speak to the studio's disdain for their infantalized audience more than anything. But when you add to this the sight of an elite cadre of athletic, virile, white patriots pitted against the gibbering pan-Asian hordes who constitute the Persian army – and who, coincidentally, are either faceless slaves, brown, black, horridly deformed, or sexually ambiguous in a slithering sort of way – and you are left with a grimly straightforward formula, one that equates Sparta with the West and civilization and freedom, versus Persia and the (Middle) East and barbarism and oppression. Pile on top of that a subplot about a traitorous fifth-column of careerist politicians who care not a whiff for the glory of Sparta, then pepper it all with "fuck, yeah!" political sloganeering ("Freedom isn't free," opines Queen Gorgo), and you would be forgiven for concluding that Bush's speechwriters had concocted the whole thing.

They didn't, of course. The unsexy reality is that this type of vainglorious, xenophobic war-is-honor tripe doesn't require the collusion of a shadowy ministry of information. All that's needed is the one-two combo of artistic pandering and the wilful, almost joyous abnegation of all social and political responsibility. The kicker is that those responsible get to make careers off of their propaganda at the same time as they excuse themselves from it by claiming they're just giving the masses what they want – oh, and it doesn't really mean anything anyway.

This isn't breaking news. We've had plenty of years to grow accustomed to these meaningless little performances, these purportedly harmless, sweet nothings that we whisper into each other's ears. We see their workings in our burgeoning credit cards bills; in the groaning shelves and impossibly skimpy price tags at the local megamart; in the fact that gasoline remains miraculously cheaper than bottled water; in the very idea of a modern, surgical war that leaves all of the good guys unscathed; in the way that brands speak to us much more clearly than workmanship, materials and the general provenance of our goods. This is the way of a solipsistic universe, where our everyday actions and entertainments have no consequence, where we may consume what we want whenever we want in whatever quantity we please, where we may buy on credit today and not pay a cent back tomorrow.

But this is make-believe. As the Iranian reaction to 300 illustrates, this refutation of responsibility, this unwillingness to accept that our parlour games mean anything, is untenable, a delusion. It amounts to a sort of collective psychosis, and the global infrastructure built in service of this psychosis will inevitably implode – if isn't toppled by those left on the outside first.

When Seung-Hui Cho – the student who murdered 32 at Virginia Tech in April – took a couple of hours out of his shooting spree to record and mail his parting words to NBC, we hoped for an eloquent, if deranged, diatribe that would help decipher his monstrous crimes. At the very least, we would have settled for an honest outpouring of inarticulate rage. Instead, we got amateur theatrics, a lame PR tape of Cho posing as some badass hybrid between Jesus, Che Guevara and The Punisher. The performance is less than compelling, in large part because his weedy, nerdy body could not adequately fulfill the demands of the role.

In the end, through all of the paraphrased movie dialogue, perhaps the only moment in Cho's multimedia manifesto that provides any further insight is his reference to the "martyrs Eric and Dylan," the perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre. In drawing that line of connection, Cho correctly places himself within a dynasty of losers who, while grappling with pangs of hazy injustice, carried out heinous acts of violence –– armed with unrestricted guns and unlimited ham-fisted clichés about righteous reciprocity – all in the name of principals that they never quite bothered to formulate beyond their own unexamined sense of entitlement. Like the juvenile fictions they aped, their deaths would be spectacular, yet very empty.

Reacting to 300, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took advantage of his Iranian New Year's address to talk about Hollywood's campaign of "psychological warfare" against his country. Perhaps he didn't realize that we've been fighting that campaign against ourselves for some time now. It's how we found ourselves locked in the messy throes of an increasingly vague total war. If we're not vigilant, it's also how we may find ourselves emulating Seung-Hui Cho, martyrs for nebulous ideals that we were never able to fully articulate or understand.