3 Lessons from American Dharma
American Dharma is a documentary on Steve Bannon, by Errol Morris. Its North American premiere was at TIFF on September 9, 2018.
1. We all hurt others in the name of what is “right”.
Dharma is the first word of the Bhagavad-Gita. A single definition does not suffice to capture it - it’s something like sacred duty or cosmic order.
The Bhagavad-Gita opens as follows. Arjuna is facing his kinsman, Duryodhana, in a long-standing familial land dispute. Arjuna weeps to Krishna at the thought of having to face his relatives in battle. He laments to Krishna that even if he were to win, the thought of having killed his kinsmen would render his victory pyrrhic.
Krishna responds by telling Arjuna not to despair. He instructs him to carry out his dharma, as a kshatriya, to defend his people. So Arjuna goes to war.
The nuance of the Bhagavad-Gita is not something that can be captured in a blog post. The line between doing what needs to be done for duty’s sake and hurting people in your self-righteous delusion is hardly clear.
2. We are all capable of hate and destruction.
If I have not created something of the scale and influence of Breitbart, it is not because I am a good person who has risen above hate and anger. Jesus or Buddha may have achieved that - the rest of us are a long way off. It is because I have not made it a priority to create an influential news site. I probably lack the skill. What I do not lack is the requisite anger.
I have judged people to be worthless losers. I have hurled insults on Twitter and Youtube. I have felt my worldview and my way of life threatened by people who I deemed to be incompetent and undeserving of their positions. I have felt resentment against systems that I believed were corrupt, or did not recognize my talent. I have wanted to burn things down rather than see myself excluded. I have wanted to punch people in the face, and to see them hurt by my power.
I am not 100% convinced that I was wrong to feel any of the above. And I will feel these things again.
We have all done this. We all do this. To pretend otherwise is delusion.
3. The bad behaviour of others does not justify our own.
TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers chose to open the movie’s North American premiere at TIFF by stating that Bannon is an “enemy of everything that the film festival stands for”.
This may have been necessary from a cover-your-ass perspective. Morris was apparently criticized at the Venice Film Festival for “giving Bannon a platform”. Thom may have felt that such polarizing words were necessary to make it absolutely clear to the crowd that TIFF was, in no way, endorsing anything Bannon had to say.
It was sad that Thom felt the need to say this, whether he personally believed it or had to send the proper virtue signals to the crowd to avoid being crucified. But it is not helpful.
To declare someone an enemy of everything you stand for seems antithetical to the takeaway that we should have to this film, and to US politics since 2016: Hatred is bad. Scapegoating is bad. Villifying the “other” as a one-dimensional enemy is bad. No “side” gets to claim the moral high ground here.
The argument that (insert name of apparent bigot) should not be given a platform, lest we legitimize their views, is a copout. Steve Bannon does not need Errol Morris as a platform to legitimize his views: he already has one. Turning our noses up in arrogant confidence of our moral position appeases our fragile egos, at the dire cost of never being able to understand what the hell is really going on.
We should never underestimate our own capacity to do evil. If I said that I couldn’t see reflections of my angry, righteous self in Bannon’s conception of dharma, I would be fooling myself.
That someone like Errol Morris is willing to construct such a looking glass, and that Bannon was willing to sit down for it, is not cause for outrage. It is one step closer to understanding how such a man comes to be - and through that understanding, wreak a little less hell and hatred on this world.