If Life Was a Movie

Close up on man holding a video camera. (Getty Images)

Dear Reader (particularly a certain former-governor-turned-disc-jockey who’s in need of common sense and a new set of wheels),

I have this weird trick I use when I’m trying to figure out what I think about complicated or controversial events. I ask, “What if this was a movie?” 

I don’t mean a highly fictionalized movie “inspired by real events.” I mean a serious effort to tell what happened that’s true to what actually happened. But I also don’t mean a documentary. I mean a movie—or I guess a novel—that has heroes and villains. In Cold Blood—both the book and the movie adaptations—is a good example of what I’m getting at.

Think about it this way. You know that scene in Apollo 13 where the engineers have to MacGyver an air filter out of random stuff that’s on board the ship? “We’ve gotta find a way to make this fit into the hole for this—using nothing but that.”

Well, imagine the “that” are the known, and largely undisputed, facts about a given event. You don’t necessarily have to include all of the facts to tell the story, but the more honest you are, the more you’ll include the important facts. What you can’t do is make up things that didn’t happen or twist facts out of their historical context in order to deceive or manipulate the audience toward your own ideological conclusions.

I have a huge backlog of grievances about all manner of purportedly historical movies—Munich, Reds, JFK, etc.—that play such games in order to peddle B.S. theories and ideological agendas.

Mind games.

While I’m sorely tempted to go down those rabbit holes to air my grievances, let’s look at an Apple TV series I just finished, The Crowded Room, instead.

“Based” on the non-fiction novel, The Minds of Billy Madigan, the show purports to tell the story of the first criminal defendant to successfully claim multiple personality disorder (now called “dissociative identity disorder”) in a criminal trial. 

I’ve got many, many problems with The Crowded Room, but the most relevant one here is how it departed from the facts. The actual Billy Madigan was arrested for raping three women at Ohio State University. His lawyers and psychologists successfully argued that two of his alternate personalities committed the crimes. But in The Crowded Room, they changed Billy to “Danny,” moved the setting from Ohio to New York City, and changed his crime to firing a gun in Rockefeller Center, wounding some people. 

They needed to do this in order to make Danny more sympathetic. It’s hard to get the audience to take the side of a guy who was widely known as “the campus rapist.” It’s hard to show him brutally raping young women and expect anyone to hope he wins his case. So they made the shooting a kind of dreamscape-y pseudo-crime in which Danny thinks he’s shooting the stepfather who sexually abused him. In one interview with Amanda Seyfried, who plays the crusading psychologist protagonist, she says, “I love opening the box on anything that’s hard to watch.” And while there’s a lot of stuff in the show that’s hard to watch, it tells you something that they refused to actually show you the stuff that actually, you know, happened. 

Resistance is futile.

As far as I can tell, the agenda of the series was to shine a light on mental health and put some ancillary points on the board about various sexual identity and gender issues. But the real moral of the story comes in the final episode in the form of a little monologue from Seyfried.

Seyfried is talking to Danny’s lawyer, Stan, over lunch. They’re freaking out because they’re losing the case. They’re particularly frustrated that they couldn’t get Danny to manifest his different personalities better on the witness stand. Stan theorizes that Danny couldn’t confront his actions because of guilt or shame or something. He reveals he knows something about that because he has guilt and shame about his service in Vietnam. 

“So, you volunteered,” Seyfried says. “That makes what happened your fault?”

“You could look at it that way. Yeah. Sure,” the lawyer responds. 

“Or you were at war, and you were a kid,” Seyfried says. 

“Stop,” Stan protests. “Does anything about this face say, ‘Please analyze it’?”

Seyfried presses ahead anyway: “That’s the thing, Stan. Everybody who’s gotten hurt has some kind of story they tell themselves. ‘I shouldn’t have been walking alone at night.’ ‘I shouldn’t have worn a short skirt.’ … ‘I shouldn’t have gotten angry.’ ‘I shouldn’t have talked back.’ We make the bad things that happened to us our fault. It’s a way to imagine that we have some control, but we don’t, because bad things happen. So, until we accept that it’s not all our fault, we’re not gonna be able to begin to heal.”

And then Seyfried exclaims, “My God, that’s it!”

This realization is the key to getting Danny acquitted. 

Now, I want to be fair. People wrongly blame themselves for things outside of their control all the time. And that’s often an unhealthy thing to do. 

But this little sermon—the didactic core of this infuriating 10-episode mess—is a problem, too. It’s a celebration of victimhood because it dismisses agency by conflating it with control and declares control an illusion. But control and agency are different things. “Gotten hurt” is not a synonym for “made mistakes.”

The rapist is to blame for rape. Always. But I get it, rape is such an emotionally charged topic—which is precisely why they erased Billy Madigan’s actual crimes—that it’s difficult to talk about the agency of victims without sounding like you’re blaming the victim, which I don’t want to do.

So let’s put it this way. People have the power to make decisions that reduce the likelihood of bad things happening to them. I grew up in New York City in the 1970s. I learned from an early age about making such decisions. Don’t go to this place alone. Don’t go to that place after dark. Don’t flash cash. Don’t go anywhere with a stranger. Whether victims follow such advice or not in no way absolves the mugger, the rapist, or the murderer. But that doesn’t mean the advice isn’t valuable.

But Seyfried says we don’t even have any “control.” Sometimes we don’t. But often we do. The whole show celebrates the idea that we are merely depersonalized flotsam on the currents of life, without any agency. And, therefore, the only way to “heal” is to accept that the bad things that happen to you aren’t your fault. Sometimes that’s true. But there’s a real Herbert Marcuse-style inversion here. Liberation—from guilt, shame, whatever—is only achievable by fully accepting you’re a victim of forces outside of your control. That’s pernicious B.S.

The cul-de-sac of desire.

What prompted me to bring this up was this piece in the New York Times by Jamieson Webster, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. I don’t have the space here to grapple with everything I disagree—or agree with—in Webster’s argument; it’s discomfiting in both directions. Still, the headline gets at the core problem. “I Don’t Need to be a ‘Good Person.’ Neither do You.”

Here’s my hot take: “Need” ain’t got nothing to do with it. You should try to be a good person. It’s a fact of life that you’ll fail sometimes. But that doesn’t mean trying is wrong. 

Webster reports that many of her patients are obsessed with mimicking the behavior of other people they think are decent and well-adjusted. She writes:

I’m increasingly seeing this in my work as a therapist in New York City. So are my colleagues. One said to me recently that he was tired of listening to his patients talk about the impossible advice inhaled on Instagram and TikTok—to say nothing of the self-help industry. “Doesn’t anyone come asking to be more free?” he exclaimed. “They don’t,” I said pessimistically. “Everyone wants to make the right decisions.” The problem is it’s very hard to tell someone that pursuing the abstract question of “right and wrong” ways to live will lead you into a cul-de-sac. It avoids the deeper question of desire, and desire is a compass.

She then goes on to write interesting things about how giving into desire and uninhibitedly pursuing pleasure is an important path to self-discovery. Or something. 

Now, whatever wisdom or insight—and I think there is some—there is in her advice, one conclusion comes screaming out: Maybe people should stop consulting psychologists about issues of morality entirely.

I find it utterly perplexing that in a moment when standards of morality, probity, prudence, decency, and, yeah, “right and wrong” are under profound assault from within and without, on the right and the left—a point Webster glancingly concedes—her advice is to not even bother trying to figure out what is right and wrong, beyond indulging and pursuing pleasure until it no longer feels “right” for you. If you’re really struggling to figure out what is right and wrong, maybe go ask a priest, rabbi, Imam, or pretty much any morally serious person who won’t tell you, “Give in to your desires.” 

To her credit, Webster admits that giving in to our desires isn’t what we “ought to do,” but she provides no external yardstick for figuring out what we ought to do beyond what works for us.

For decades now, we have psychologized the moral lingua franca of culture to the point where notions of right and wrong are subjectivized and reified in therapeutic language. I agree with the psychologists that feelings of shame and guilt can often be debilitating and unhealthy, and psychologists can be very good at identifying such instances. But you know what? Sometimes shame and guilt are entirely legitimate feelings, earned by terrible decisions that cannot be erased by some mantra about how “You need to be you” or you should “be true to yourself.”

Again, I think she makes some interesting points, but I find the whole idea of making pleasure and physical desire the measure of man—and woman—the currency of our identity acutely unhelpful. Granting poetic license, I agree that “desire is a compass.” But here’s the thing about compasses: They just as easily point in the wrong direction as the right one. The compass doesn’t say, “North is the right way to go.” It just says, “North.” You need things external to your compass—i.e. knowledge—to know whether going north will take you back into bear country or toward the nearest road. 

The idea that you should give in to your desires, regardless of what those desires are, is antithetical to vast swaths of traditional morality. I’m neither a prude nor an ascetic, but maybe personal pleasure isn’t the most important thing in the world, never mind anything like True North? And maybe, just maybe, we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns when it comes to taking moral direction from psychologists.

Our life, the movie.

Okay, since I’ve ignored current events, and the topic I actually set out to write about, let’s circle back to my One Weird Trick for thinking about current events.

As I write this, The Dispatch Slack channel brims with posts from colleagues pointing to various right-wing dudes getting positively tumescent over Donald Trump’s mugshot. On the website formerly known as Twitter, Ted Cruz declares, “Trump’s mugshot where he looks like a pissed off and angry badass is an iconic historic photo. It’s going viral, and it’s making a heck of a statement.” Dinesh D’Souza, a noted expert of authentic black street culture, observes, “In the urban black community, a mug shot can be an iconic symbol, both of victimization and of greatness. It’s a defiant UP YOURS to ‘the man.’ Think Tupac Shakur. Trump is now the ultimate gangsta in our culture.” Rod Dreher, agreeing with Ben Shapiro about how “iconic” the picture is, says, “This is totally true. The punkest thing now will be to wear a tshirt with this image on it. I don’t like Trump, but I want one simply to register my disgust with the ruling class.”

Now, this is all a great addendum to what I wrote about last week. A lot of conservatives envy the cool kids, which is why they obsess about Hollywood and celebrities and crave our own celebrities. They resent that the left has been able to claim the mantle of authentic, transgressive rebelliousness and so they want to get in on the action. So of course, this is awesome. Trump is Tupac! He’s punk rock! He’s such a badass for getting arrested and mugging for his mug shot! We really are cool! “Victimization and greatness,” as Dinesh helpfully confesses, go together, like sucking up to Trump and getting pardoned by him.

But ask yourself: How could you make a movie about the events that led to Donald Trump getting arrested and not make him the bad guy? Again, you’ve got to stick to the facts. You can’t make stuff up. I think it’s impossible. Oh sure, you could make Alvin Bragg, Fani Willis, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden look bad too and still be truthful to events. Have partisans responded to Trump in irresponsible ways? Of course. But short of 2,000 Mules levels of distortion and dishonesty, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid telling this story without establishing that Trump lied (and lied, and lied) as part of a broader effort to steal the election. Of course, that’s now the subtext. Trump is the villain, but many on the right now think villains are cool.

Nevertheless, contrary to the writers of The Crowded Room, humans have agency. They have the ability to influence the events that bedevil them. They have access to knowledge about what is right and wrong and what paths to go down and which to avoid. Donald Trump had no end of advisers telling him not to go the way he did. But he listened to his feelings. He stayed true to himself. And that is precisely why he is the bad guy. “Bad things” didn’t just rain down on Trump. He’s been rain-dancing for years. Now that he’s soaked by the deluge he invited, he whines about getting wet.

And since I won’t be coming back to this “imagine it’s a movie” point for a while, let’s take a quick gander at Ukraine. If you were to make a movie about the last decade of Russian-Ukraine tensions, you could very easily include things that make the picture more morally complex. Ukraine has a huge corruption problem. The Azov Brigade is full of bad actors— at least was at one point.

But there’s no way you could possibly stick to the most relevant and powerful facts—the mass graves, the use of rape as an instrument of war, the child abductions, the torture and unprovoked aggression, Vladimir Putin’s relentless lies about fighting “Nazis,” not to mention his assassinations of dissidents, journalists, et al.—and not cast Putin and the Russian regime as irredeemably, even cartoonishly, evil. The only way you could tell any other version of events is to lie and propagandize, erase facts and manufacture falsehoods, and float whataboutist distractions. The heroes, victims, and villains in this tale are obvious.

Now, while I think my little trick is a useful rule of thumb for thinking about the moral dynamics of a controversy, it’s not a rule for how we should act. In other words, I don’t think we should craft foreign policy solely by asking, “What if this were a movie?” If we did that, we’d be intervening all over the world—including in Ukraine. Because it would be very difficult to see Russian soldiers on the big screen raping children and old ladies, shooting civilians in the back of the head and pushing them into pits, and not want the president of the United States to raid the larder of the arsenal of democracy with fresh cans of whoop-ass. For the audience, it would be like watching John Wayne sit on a porch with a shotgun doing nothing as he watched a gang rape.

But contrary to a whole chorus of Putin apologists and self-styled dissidents opposing “endless war” and other forms of “neocon” perfidy, we’re not actually intervening in Ukraine. We’re helping—not enough in my opinion—the Ukrainians help themselves. That doesn’t make us the heroes of this story, but it does put us on the side of the good guys.

But being the good guys is no longer cool on the right. We need to be bad boys, you know, like Tupac. For decades, the right castigated those who always “blame America first,” as Jeane Kirkpatrick famously put it. We mocked those who said America was corrupt, decadent, immoral, greedy, sick, and cruel. But now, blaming America first has become the heart of America First.

Various & Sundry

On this day 22 years ago, the Fair Jessica actually went through with it and married me. I remain as mystified as I am grateful for her objectively questionable decision. 

Canine update: Today was a big day for Pippa: New ball day! Yes, the resupply came in and Pippa got a fresh batch of dog-friendly tennis balls (conventional tennis balls aren’t great for dogs). Not to get all sappy, but I still look at TFJ the way Pippa looks at those balls. Some people ask why I have to reorder new ones if Pippa loves them so. It’s a question I ask her all the time. But the truth is she often leaves them behind. We shipped off the kid this week and the girls were very concerned because of all the luggage. They feared we were all leaving without them—a somewhat reasonable assumption given the ridiculous amount of luggage my daughter took with her. But we returned and they were pleased. There’s not too much else to report. The Dingo and Spaniel are still getting along. Pippa is Pippa. Zoë is thriving, despite occasional eruptions of hand-vs-dingo contests and lots of passive aggressive tension between her and Gracie. A few mornings this week have been unseasonably cool, which the girls really appreciate.


Last Friday’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

Can DeSantis get it right?

A post-debate Dispatch Live

I break down the GOP debate with Chuck Todd

The Remnant with Robert D. Kaplan on all things foreign policy

Can Trump be stopped?

Robert P. George finally joins The Remnant

The Dispatch Podcast on the debate that didn’t matter

And now, the weird stuff


Brain damage

Mole men

Must’ve sucked

Hail to the kings

Lovin’ it

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