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An interesting discussion on the libertarian leanings of Captain Mal Reynolds (and his creator, Joss Wheden) has started up in the comments to my post on Commie Mints below that I thought worth pushing along further by tossing in my two cents here.

First a word or two about Wheden.  Aside from his Dr. Horrible short, I’ve never seen any of his work outside of Firefly/Serenity, so my viewpoint may be necessarily limited.  On the other hand, as I have said probably too many times already, I went to school with the guy, so I had at least some first-hand knowledge of him, at least in his misspent yoot. 

Based mostly on my college observations of the Whedon types around me, I would say that to the extent he’s a libertarian, it’s most likely of the  hippie tune-in-and-drop-out variety.  He wouldn’t necessarily oppose government authority per se, but based rayther on what that authority seeks to do.  So for instance, while I’d imagine he might be opposed to a centralized government that drafts people into the military, he wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with the same centralized government that drafts people for mandatory social work.  Or hands out free pot.

This is just an ignorant guess, of course.  But I know the type. 

As to Whedon’s willingness to toe the Hollywood Elite line (which is avowedly Hard-Left Statist), just because Whedon’s an artiste doesn’t mean he’s necessarily endowed with any more ability to see the disconnect between that brand of politics and personal freedom than anyone else.  (One might argue that the otherworldliness of such people actually makes them less likely to notice such things.)  On the other hand, film ain’t exactly cheap and somebody’s got to pay for it.  So perhaps Whedon knows it perfectly well and is willing to go along with his Nanny State masters anyway.

Interestingly, there’s been something of a kerfluffle over at NRO all week about a column David Brooks wrote in the NYTimes conflating the Tea Party movement with 60’s radicals.  The discussion centers around the differences between the then New Left, with its hardcore authoritarian aims, and the original hippies, who seemed content to go along with their more politically-minded fellows if it involved cutting class, partying all night and free love (and who wound up serving as the cannon-fodder of the New Left for their complacency).  As that discussion pointed out, there was of course some overlap between the two camps.  I would guess that Whedon probably occupies a similar gray area, although trending more toward the latter, easier-going type.

As for Captain Mal.  Well, now.

What strikes me as fascinating is the apparent appeal his character has to such a large and diverse audience.  I personally know of people from all over the spectrum who positive adore him for what they see as traits aligned with their own socio-political outlook.  Indeed, he’s such a mish-mash of conflicting values that almost anyone (with the possible exception of hardcore authoritarian types who wouldn’t watch the show anyway) can cherry-pick some of them and identify with them.  Whether this is the intentional result of brilliant writing or the accidental result of sloppy writing I will leave for you to decide.  (To be fair, I happen to think it’s intentional.)

Personally, I don’t believe Captain Mal is really a libertarian simply because of the evidence of his belief in a code of values that limits individual freedom even when there’s no apparent harm to others involved.  I’ve always understood this to be anathema to the libertarian point of view, which calls for maximum personal freedom and minimal influence from any outside authority.  His ongoing disapproval of Inara’s trade as a “companion” is probably the best example (libertarians often argue there’s nothing wrong with prostitution), but there are others floating about as well.  More broadly, Mal frequently does things for no other reason than because they are Right, even when they might be personally detrimental.  This suggests that he recognizes an objective set of moral values at work in the ‘Verse.  (Not to get all Thomist on you, but this in turn implies that such values must be derived from some higher authority, some Original Source (i.e., God).)  Again, I don’t understand libertarianism in the sense that we use it to accept this idea.  Finally, while Mal’s violent opposition to the Alliance is perfectly plain, I take it to be a specific opposition against a specific government.  I don’t recall that we get much of a look at Mal’s views about political authority in general, or what he would consider to be “good” government, except in some scattered hints. 

As for his “I aim to misbehave” speech from Serenity, often cited in support of his libertarian creds, I would point out a) that Whedon had to abandon the gradual arc of his character development when he went from the series to the movie, with the result that things got rayther ham-fisted (which was a weakness of the movie, in my opinion); and b) that Mal makes this speech only after he’s been pushed over the edge by the forces arrayed against him, something I believe almost anyone would do given the right circumstances.  (I’m reminded of that line of Menkin’s that Ace uses on his masthead: “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” ) 

In fact, my take on Mal is that he’s really a closet romantic, who has been forced by the crushing defeat of the War and the frontier environment in which he has taken refuge to lock that romanticism – battered, scarred and ragged as it now is – deep inside.   Thus, I see a lot of his loner-libertarian pose to be as much self-protection as anything else.  I do not see it as his core character.

But then again, as he himself would say, “You can’t open the book of my life and jump in the middle.  Like woman, I am a mystery.”


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March 2010