300 inhabits the rational brutalism and militaristic spirit of the Spartans so thoroughly and so graphically that, if I were to tear a page, I would half-expect it to bleed on my hand. As the cliché goes, this book is nasty, brutish, and short, a concentrated dose of propaganda that dispenses with subtlety on the front cover and becomes more muscular and bold from there. If it is propaganda, and we know that Frank Miller is not averse to explicitly ideological work, it is proficient and effective, an artistic vanguard for civilization. In criticizing this book, one attacks not a mere story but an entire culture, a mythology that has become second nature to us so that, when we are confronted with such a vivid incarnation of it we fall down in awe and fear. Confronting this book as a Westerner means confronting oneself, to strip off the tolerant trappings of liberalism and civic society, the niceties of the so-called “public sphere,” and find oneself on either the black or white side of a red line.
To simply condemn 300 as an artifact of Western imperialism and cultural chauvinism, to point out that it gleefully dehumanizes an entire race of people and gives us not history but a dark if seductive myth, is not enough. Everyone with a developed sense of awareness of representation and media criticism can see that this is stark tribalism masquerading as a defense of enlightenment, the product of paranoia and a siege mentality so pervasive it defies description. In order for a narrative like 300 to lose its power over us, we need to see that it does exercise that power. Much of the Western ethos depends on our identification with the Greeks in this battle. If we flip the script and embrace the Persians, we ally ourselves, by extension, with the Iranian ayatollahs and Islamofascists and terrorists, the numberless and faceless masses who threaten to overwhelm our islands of rational thought. And it is only through relentless discipline and unity, only an absolute identification with the ideals of Sparta, that we will overcome these threats. Otherwise, we will be slaves to mysticism, cowering before despots who rule us with fear.
Protecting the freedom of the many requires a blood sacrifice of a few, for without vigilance comes decadence and complacency. We in the West have won the war for history, but all victories are temporary. We need to look at the seething masses of Persian immortals, the warrior-slaves of Xerxes, and tremble as if looking into a mirror. Nothing separates us and them except our nations, the ties of kinship and the ideals they engender.
Miller understand this, as he wrote in this piece for NPR:
“For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to face an existential menace. They want us to die. All of a sudden I realize what my parents were talking about all those years.
“Patriotism, I now believe, isn’t some sentimental, old conceit. It’s self-preservation. I believe patriotism is central to a nation’s survival. Ben Franklin said it: If we don’t all hang together, we all hang separately. Just like you have to fight to protect your friends and family, and you count on them to watch your own back”
Self-preservation means men protecting their women nations, and homes, keeping away all the “louts, thieves, and rapists.” Self-preservation means no dissent from ironclad dedication to indestructible ideals. Our bodies might perish in the fight, but the ideals live on, immortal, as long as there are bodies willing to breathe free air and spill the blood of those who threaten their radiance. After all, if we don’t kill them, they are surely coming to kill us, and in far greater numbers than we can imagine. Propaganda and agitation are necessary to keep us from sleeping too well at night. Without nightmares, without the full knowledge that we are hated and beleaguered, we will become like those Athenians, slaves to pleasures and opulence. Without a vanguard, the noble dead, the 300, we will all be swept away.
All of this has a certain revolutionary ring to it, does it not? All this talk of upheaval, all these images of dead Persians used as mortar for walls, all this blood spilled for noble causes. But it more accurately represents Walter Benjamin’s phrase that “Behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.” Behind Frank Miller’s fantasized bile and blood there is the failure of liberalism. What he proposes is a repudiation of all critique of the West, of a full-blooded and passionate embrace of national pride and patriotism for the sake of our own survival. It’s war against imagined oppressions based on nostalgia for old oppressions.
One critic has characterized Frank Miller as a libertarian. If 300 is anything to go by, he can call himself whatever he wants but he is nothing more than a scoundrel and a liar. He lies not because he dabbles in propaganda, nor because he is irrational or somehow insane. He lies because he believes that ideals matter more than facts, that our own distortions should be the basis of our action rather than some outside reality. “Libertarian” proto-fascism of this ilk is actually a perfectly rational response, a defense of something that has real value to real people. What is working in 300 is not well-intentioned white appropriation like Habibi (which humanizes some Arabs by dehumanizing others) or the naïveté of something like The Pride of Baghdad. It is, rather, a principled stand for a set of values in response to a perceived threat. We should read this and mark ourselves. What pleasure do we take in this? What fragments of truth do we find ourselves nodding to? Why do we have to acknowledge the beauty of the artwork if we find what it depicts repugnant? Is there something broken in criticism, in the whole system of values that underpins it, if we can find anything but fault in 300?
I ask these questions because, if criticism is a searching after the truth, we need to make sure that it’s well-equipped to do so. We can’t just be impressed by the strength of a book’s convictions. We need to have a framework for deciding whether those convictions are true or not. By all means, read 300. But remember that it comes armed, and whether you’re a pacifist or a professional revolutionary, you’re going to need to defend yourself.