When your university makes national news, and your freshmen are asking you what you think about it all, you should probably go ahead and say something.
1. Universities are, first and foremost, places to learn, and learning hurts. It destabilizes. It can drive you insane. That’s just part of the ball game. If a film professor wants to show American Sniper and discuss its qualities as a work of art, she should do so. If a propaganda historian wants to show American Sniper and discuss its ideological implications, she should do so. If a support group for student-veterans wants to show the film for its cathartic and therapeutic qualities, they should do so. If a student wants to watch the film in his room, he should do so. All of that is Freedom of Speech 101 and I condemn any view that would water it down.
(PS: Insofar as a little-read Twitter account is “public,” I’ve already publicly opposed trigger exemptions on syllabi; scroll down).
2. Campuses are also social spaces. Umix is, my students tell me, the “dry” alternative to another bar-crawling Friday night. In addition to scheduling, canceling, and then rescheduling American Sniper, its recent activities include “Build-A-Bear, Massages, Bingo…Karaoke, Asian Food Buffet, DYO Picture Frames, Inflatable Laser Tag and more!” Umix is not a film society. Umix is not, from the sound of things, particularly educational. It’s the equivalent of the pool table in the dorm basement.
3. Throwing an all-ages, PG-rated, for-the-entire-student-body event, a dry event (which religion forbids alcohol again?), at a school located near Dearborn, and then showing a movie that praises the courage of those who fought in a war of choice against Arabs, is, at best, like inviting all your Japanese friends to go see Bataan with you. It’s a like using church funds to throw a Sunday school class party where everyone watches Irreversible followed by Cannibal Holocaust. It’s just a weird move.
4. Canceling all campus screenings of American Sniper would be censorship and no sensible person should stand for it. Canceling this screening, and replacing it with an inoffensive and surprisingly well-made kids’ movie, is effective event planning.
5. I am not sure how far I want to enter into the controversy around Chris Kyle himself. I certainly do not condemn him. Had he adopted any other attitude than “they were animals” toward the people he shot, he may not have survived deployment. That is no justification of the war itself, but since Chris Kyle is not the architect of the war—that distinction belongs not only to the Bush Administration, but to many, many liberals and even some leftists—it would be unfeeling to blame him for getting through it on whatever terms were available to him. Certainly Michael Moore’s comments regarding his “cowardice” were absurd; just about anyone who signs up to fight in an army is brave. (It is unfortunate that our culture celebrates this form of bravery so much more, and more officially, than other forms of bravery, but that doesn’t make soldiers less brave.) Of course courage is no guarantee of the rightness of one’s cause; I’m sure Confederate soldiers had brass balls, and they were fighting for slavocracy. Our soldiers in Iraq were fighting—on pain of imprisonment, or death, or the death of their fellow-soldiers—for the lies of our foreign-policy establishment, which those soldiers had no hand in creating. Ideally we’d find a way to honor their selfless courage while regretting the purposes to which it was put, but that doesn’t make a good bumper sticker.
6. But while I’m on the subject, there is one argument that I heard regarding American Sniper and Chris Kyle that I will go ahead and grump about. I heard again and again, when the film was first released, that critics of the film or Kyle are attacking someone who “fought for them.” This would be totally admissible if we were talking about the Revolutionary War. It would be totally admissible if we were talking about the Union side in the Civil War. (If you’re white and Southern, you could also apply it to the Confederate Army.) When we come to Vietnam and Iraq and Grenada it’s not admissible at all. Who seriously believes that the average American’s safety was protected, their rights advanced by those wars? And I have heard enough disgruntled talk about civilians from veterans—one of whom once said, in front of me, “`Thank you for your service,’ they say. I didn’t do it for your lazy ass,” thus implying that every non-veteran in the room was a bad, lazy person—that I feel pretty skeptical regarding the claim “Chris Kyle fought for you.”
7. This touches on the meaning of patriotism. Of course it does. Members of my own family have more than once called me “unpatriotic” for voicing opinions like this. But I believe in an America that Chris Kyle can live in, and where every veteran comes home to a safe job, decent pay, and all the help they need, at whatever expense. I believe in an America that asks him (and all able-bodied adult citizens, including me) to defend, but never to invade. Meanwhile, during the Iraq War, I heard proponents of the war say, again and again, without any qualification, that everyone who protested the war was committing treason. Treason is a capital offense. This doctrine was a more immediate threat to the liberties and lives of millions of actually existing Americans than any Iraqi. So is the national security state that that war helped bring into being (and that Obama has continued to nurture). So is the assumption that black men are inherently criminal. There’s more than one way to threaten American rights, and more than one way to fight for them.
8. You should go see Paddington, seriously. It’s way funnier than the trailers.