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'XXX' and Cultural Politics
Progressive Populist
by Nathan Newman
September 15, 2002

Okay, summer movies are not the place to find deep political sentiment, especially not ones involving action stars snowboarding through avalanches. But XXX, starring breakout action star Vin Diesel, has a bit more beneath the hood than expected.

XXX is a fun James Bond tribute with a Gen X attitude as billed, but, to my surprise, actually had some interesting political commentary simmering beneath the surface. Nothing to get in the way of the action of course, but as a story where the enemy are pure nihilistic terrorists, it would be hard for it not to have some resonance in a post-911 world.

The setup is: an anarchist who could have come from the streets of Seattle -- complete with his own webcast of destroying rich folks' stuff -- collides with military-intelligence police state to thwart terrorist destruction of the world. This could play as straight cooptation of street cred by the government, but the hero Xander Cage probably expresses a lot of the ambivalence of global protesters dealing with enemies like Bin Laden and al Quaeda. Quotes Cage in one scene to his National Security Agency handler, "Before you send someone to save the world, maybe you should make sure they like it the way it is."

Like Cage, the global justice protesters find the mass murderers of 9/11 despicable, but they also distrust giving more power to the governments trying to use it as an excuse to increase their own destructive dominance. And the movie's view of fighting terrorism hardly fits the simple militarism of the Bush regime. The bad guys are disaffected Cold Warriors from Russia who have turned to anarchist violence in protest of general global conditions. But their master plan is not to attain specific military objectives but to set off multiple weapons of mass destruction in different cities in order to induce more warfare among nations. The more war the better as it will induce more hatred between peoples until, hopefully, civilization collapses under the weight of resentment and military recriminations.

Which is largely Bin Laden's model. And Hamas's model. And oddly below the violence of XXX is the message of how much these kinds of terrorists thrive on the war that leaders like Bush and Sharon launch in response to their terrorism.

Where older Bond-style villains had specific goals -- military or economic -- which they were using violence or the threat of violence to attain, this nihilistic terrorism in XXX has violence as its purpose and the violent response by established governments as its goal.

Which is what makes Bush's lumping of Bin Laden with Saddam Hussein and Hamas with the PLO so bizarre. Hussein and Arafat, the latter with far more justification in my mind, have used violence to accomplish specific goals and have been willing to refrain from violence in exchange for political concessions -- they fit Clausewitz's definition of war as politics by other means. (Just as early Jewish terrorists were willing to eventually refrain from violence in exchange for Britain giving into Israel being established as a state.)

But the Bin Ladens and Hamas and XXX villains of the world thrive on the violence itself, not on any specific concessions, so replying with violence just creates recruits for their cause. They may even die (as the XXX villains do) but they win as long as they leave more violence and resentment in their wake. The very violence that might contain the Saddams and Arafats of the world, who have specific territorial and economic interests to lose, feeds the strength of the Bin Ladens and Hamas activists of the world.

Sharon's brutality has effectively destroyed the infrastructure of Arafat's power but has only fed the power and strength of Hamas. Similarly, there is no doubt that the US can destroy Saddam Hussein's government, but the result is very likely to be a strengthening of those groups like al Quaeda, which thrive on resentments against US intervention in the Middle East.

Containing the violence of terrorists at the source makes sense -- the daredevil infiltration of XXX in the movie as the idealized goal -- but the subliminal message of the film is that addressing the grievances of the mass of people dissatisfied with the world is the better place to start in the real world. In an action film, that substantive analysis no doubt gets lost in the immediacy of blowing things up to stop the bad guys, but that may just capture the ambivalence of many folks trying to negotiate the desire to stop terrorists while seeing expanded general war as a dead end.

Xander Cage may not be the ideal poster child for the global justice movement, but in a world where US Army-sponsored video games are going head-to-head with bestselling "Grand Theft Auto III", it may capture best the ambivalence of youth culture dealing with the contradictions of the post-9/1 world.

Nathan Newman is a union lawyer, longtime community activist, a National Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild and author of Net Loss, recently published by Penn State Press, on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email or see Posted by Nathan at September 15, 2002 02:51 AM