Back in December, I posted a series; Ten Films of Freedom. While rewatching Serenity recently, it occurred to me that the review was simply too short. So here’s an extended edit.
From the very first scene, we see the tenor of the whole film. A fellow student in River Tam’s elementary class questions why some people choose to live outside the government’s dictum. To this River speaks up; “We meddle. People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, ‘Don’t run, don’t walk.’ We’re in their homes and in their heads, and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.”
And from there it goes. The government does too much, no matter the reason. On one planet, the government’s experiments to design a perfected society killed almost everyone by endowing them with infinite complacency, and the rest were driven psychotic. It’s impossible to dissociate this segment of plot from the rise of generational welfare-dependency and the resulting crime culture. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done it for their own good, if you take away someone’s purpose to live, they’ll either die, or find a new reason to exist.
Serenity is a great Western/Scifi story, and can be left at that. But if you want to take more from it, then observe that mankind cannot be molded into perfection, and people should be very careful how they treat others, especially through government. Even if the intent is ultimate good (however you define that), harm is the usual result of sweeping government action.
Fair governments cannot treat people differently, and so it has to treat all these different people as if they were the same. That makes citizens into numbers and statistics, rather than flesh-and-blood people. When you’re playing with charts, instead of messing around with people’s lives, you can spread misery far and wide, while thinking you’ve done wonderful things. In reality, you’ve numbed some people into dependence at the expense of others.
Malcolm Reynolds, the scruffy, rebel protagonist brings cheers when, revving up for a suicidal battle, he quips, “I aim to misbehave.” When the government is too big, just about everything is considered misbehavior, from using the wrong light bulb, to failing to recycle, to consuming too many calories. When the people don’t own themselves and are the property of the commune, the culture, or the state; their decisions become everyone else’s business. “Big government means small ‘everything else’” (-Mark Steyn)
And at heart, big government means biggest intended good (however that is defined by those in power). In the eyes of some, intentions are prima facie evidence of justification. It doesn’t matter that welfare reform signed by Clinton actually reduced government dependency by encouraging people to become self-sufficient. The fact that the bill pushed able-bodied people off the welfare roles remains enough to condemn it, even sixteen years after it passed.
Looking at intentions can license all sorts of behavior. The old phrase rings true, “The ends do not justify the means.” Essentially, you cannot say that all is permissible if done sincerely believing it will bring about the best result. Consider this exchange from the movie between prime protagonist and antagonist:
Mal: I don’t murder children.
Operative: I do, if I have to. I believe in something greater than myself; a better world, a world without sin.
Mal: So me and mine gotta lay down and die so you can live in your better world?
Operative: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there any more than there is for you. Malcolm, I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.
You see, the ends are justified by the means, not the other way around. Think about it, if everyone makes their choices based upon what is right in that circumstance, then the results of those choices are proper as well. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but a billion rights don’t make a wrong, either.
The inherit flaw against this logic is in man’s nature. After the fact, people look and see disparity in what is owned by whom, different quantities and qualities. Naturally, disparity sounds unfair. And sometimes it is. It’s naturally unfair that some people can outperform others, be it on the field, in the factory, or in the arts. But to abolish merit is to abolish self-ownership, and institute some form of subjugation which enables things like genocide and slavery. Sorry, that’s just how it is. You cannot disallow someone to own himself, and still secure him from the whims of someone else.
Ya’ll got on this boat for different reasons, but ya’ll come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before, maybe all. ‘Cuz sure as I know anything I know this, they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean, a year from now, ten; they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave.
Malcolm reflects Thomas Sowell’s perspective of human limitations, also known as the tragic vision. And the government holds to the unlimited vision which believes that mankind is infinitely malleable.
Notice the overt and covert references to sin in this film. As defined by the government’s operative, sin is whatever stands in the way of their objectives, their intentions. Nothing about it is universally deplorable, because their power is not universal and absolute. Only God’s reach is universal and absolute. Sin in the real world is violation of purpose, in that purpose comes from God.
You see, people can’t be made ‘perfect’ without destroying what it is to be human. Not in this lifetime. Attempts at perfecting humanity brought about the bloodiest crimes in history; Nazi Germany (16 million dead), USSR (20 million dead), and Maoist China (65 million dead), just to name three. Those were governments who treated people like expendable property. In trying to root out sin (genetic sin under Hitler, political sin under Stalin and Mao), government destroys man as well.
Go back and read what Hitler was trying to do. He was attempting to rid the world of conscience, believing that morality was a byproduct of evolutionary ethics now only used to keep lesser beings alive. The horror of the holocaust was the Nazi attempt to strip those inherited traits from the world.
Even Mal believes in a better world. That’s why he fights. By the end of Serenity; beaten, bloody, bruised, limping, groaning, he finally manages to subdue the government’s assassin. Yet, contrary to the usual Hollywood wrap-up, he doesn’t kill the operative. Rather he gives the man exactly what he believes in; Mal shows him the utopia he is working toward with each murder. The truth crushes the agent’s dreams and spirit, to the point where he leaves the employ of the meddlers.
It’s odd that worldwide murder should phase a murderer who works for the people who ordered all of the killings. What really goes through the operative’s mind is that you cannot bring about goodness by being evil. He acknowledged that earlier, stating that he could never live in that perfect world, because he was so flawed. What stunned him was to discover that the kindest people, the most docile, the most generous; even they could not live in a perfect world, not as they are.
Working for the betterment of mankind is not beyond question, but to believe in perfection as something we can actually attain by force of our will is only going to harm people for two reasons; firstly because knowledge is by nature a disparate resource, impossible to consolidate efficiently, and secondly because as an infinitely-better goal, utopia enables every heinous act imaginable. Someone once said that Utopia is a myth created to destroy the status quo, and destroyed those lives were. Mal showed the operative that perfection is unattainable, and thus everything the operative did to achieve it became unforgivable.
If only the truth were so effective in the real world… Micromanaging the lives of others is morally reprehensible, logistically daunting, and creatively stagnant. In the words of Ronald Reagan, if none of us are fit to govern ourselves, who among us is fit to govern everyone? The meddlers are just busybodies who can’t accept that other people control themselves and will always retain that right. If they set the rules, we should all misbehave.