Image from 'Brazil'
A published appreciation of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil sparked a bizarre, politically motivated controversy, S. T. Karnick writes.

No good deed goes unpunished, as the philosophers say, and today I received a vivid lesson in that great truth. A couple of weeks ago I was asked to write a paragraph or two praising Terry Gilliam’s excellent 1985 film Brazil, for an article on "The Best Conservative Movies of the Past Twenty-Five Years" to be published in National Review and also on National Review Online.

I enthusiastically asssented, as I think Gilliam’s film quite good. Of course, I do not characterize myself as a conservative nor allow myself to be so described, but if National Review thought Brazil a good reflection of conservative values, that appeared to be quite a good thing to me, as it would bring to the magazine’s many readers an awareness of a film depicting the awful consequences of big government.

That seemed to me a very positive thing indeed.

The piece was accepted, edited, etc., and appeared yesterday on National Review’s blog, "The Corner."

At that point the excrement hit the fan.

The first rumble was quite fair, in my view: a Letter to the Editor at It described my item as "an ironic NRO Corner post," the irony being that it "describes a dsytopia that in many ways reads like a description the Bush administration (though it must be admitted it may resemble the Obama administration in more way ways than we might like to admit)."

That’s reasonably fair, I think, although quite hyperbolic, and I particularly agree with the author’s recognition that the Obama administration can be expected to be as bad, or as I suspect, worse.

This item, however, inspired Slate columnist Glenn Greenwald to pen a furious denunciation of my sweet little appreciation of Brazil, which he titled "Most self-delusionally ironic post of the year." I do not often win awards, but I cannot say that this was one that I really wanted to get.

What was most dismaying, however, was that in his eagerness to deliver what surely seemed to him a well-deserved hate-bomb toward the vile Nazis of National Review, he mistakenly assumed that as an author published by them I agree with all of their positions. Thus he attributed to me a bizarre laundry list of positions I do not hold and in fact have regularly derided, and on the basis of that list and its apparent contradiction of my appreciation of Brazil, he suggested that I must literally be insane.

Among other things, he claimed I "endorsed Mike Huckabee for President; blamed the 2006 GOP loss, in part, on the Republicans’ failure to advocate an "assertive foreign policy"; and [consider] Rambo to be a sterling theatrical achievement that celebrates authentic Christian values." Actually, I have publicly and repeatedly said the very opposite of all of those things, except I have indeed written that the recent Rambo film was quite good. Which I still believe. Nobody’s perfect, apparently.

Now, as an author whose writings have appeared in countless publications, I’m well aware that writers do not necessarily agree with all or perhaps even most of the positions of all of the publications for which they write. And I would certainly have expected so wise and sophisticated a fellow as Mr. Greenwald to be well aware of that possibility as well. But no.

So, I sent him a note documenting the falsehoods in his article, and asked him to print it. He did, although not on the same page as his falsehood-filled article, with all the links stripped out, and introduced by an explanation intended to deny the falseness and importance of his claims. But he published it, just as I requested.

Here is my response to Mr. Greenwald, with the hyperlinks restored:

Dear Mr. Greenwald,

Thank you for your interesting and impassioned article regarding my praise of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

The content of your critique, unfortunately, appears to be based on a misunderstanding, specifically a belief that I endorse a large number of positions with which in fact I do not agree and which I fact I have quite publicly disagreed. Perhaps you are not sufficiently conversant with my actual writings to be aware of this. This is a problem I often encounter, alas, as a liberal of the right—people try to pigeonhole me as holding other people’s opinions which in fact I resolutely and quite openly oppose. To wit some examples from the present case:

Allegation of support for the Iraq War. I have not been a supporter of the Iraq War. See, for example, TCS Daily – A Classical Liberal View of the Iraq War, “Prominent GOP Senator Embraces Classical Liberal Position on Iraq War”, and search for “Iraq War” at The American Culture. The claim that my NRO article criticizing the Republicans “blamed the 2006 GOP loss, in part, on the Republicans’ failure to advocate an "assertive foreign policy" misunderstands my point, as I was critiquing the Republicans’ failure to achieve their own stated goals, not endorsing those goals: “Republicans failed to get it done in Iraq and stood idly by while Iran and North Korea worked to develop nuclear weapons and Osama bin Laden laughed at us from his bunker in Pakistan or wherever he is now.” My position stated in that article, that classical liberalism includes “strong defense of the national interest in international affairs,” is outlined more fully in “A Classical Liberal View of the Iraq War” (cited above), where I make it quite clear that the Iraq War did not qualify as conforming to such principles, and I have followed up on this in quite a few other articles also cited above.

Alleged endorsement of Mike Huckabee. My NR piece you cited was an analysis of why the right should run a governor for President, not an endorsement of Huckabee himself, as a reading of that article will show, along with my intense criticisms of Huckabee’s positions as in “Coercion Is Not Charity: The Huckabee Fallacy”, where I define his point of view as a “license to rob one’s fellow citizens.” I was in fact a supporter of Ron Paul in the last election cycle (see, for example, “The Appeal of the Principled Rep. Paul” for my thoughts about him and his positions), though I have never actually endorsed any active political candidate, as far as I can recall.

Alleged support for government employment of torture. My analysis of 24 was that as art and entertainment the show has been quite good, even though it sometimes seemed to support
policies with which I disagree. My criticism in the article you cite was of the New Yorker’s tendentious dismissal of the show: “According to the New Yorker author, 24 is about one thing and one thing only: torture.” My article in fact pointed out that the New Yorker author conceded that “Although his program has been accused of parroting the Bush administration’s attitudes in the War on Terror, Surnow differs strongly with the administration on the War in Iraq.” After quoting the New Yorker in establishing that Surnow has “no faith in nation-building” and thought we should have been out of Iraq by 2005, I wrote, “I rather like Surnow’s analysis.” I certainly did not endorse torture, because in fact I do not endorse it; quite the contrary. Here is what I wrote about the subject when Guantanamo and torture were in the news: “I personally believe that we must resolutely avoid the imposition of torture of any kind, even on noncitizens, unless the most utterly dire circumstances are in effect. And even then, the idea is surely repugnant to any sensitive person.” I go on to concede that “there will seldom be a clear answer [regarding this issue], and that honorable people can disagree honorably.” The NRO article you cite in your critique was not written by me, and I do not agree with it. I am sure that you deplore such attributions of guilt by association as much as I do.

Alleged support of the Bush administration’s “authoritarian horrors”. I have publicly and strenuously opposed the Bush administration’s incursions against our liberties. In “Who Are the Real Conservatives Today”, I wrote, “the Republicans massively increased federal control over elementary and secondary schools and passed numerous constraints on political freedom in the Homeland Security Act and the McCain-Feingold restrictions on political speech. . . . In addition, the Republicans threw away their reputation for competence and the value of limited government with their inept response to the Katrina disaster.” I published a scathing critique of incursions against liberty at all levels of government in the United States (“Twilight of Liberty”, by Steve Stanek) and others like it. I have written extensively against “authoritarian horrors” by the Bush administration and of governments in general (continually praising cultural works that show the inherent tendency of governments to stomp on individual liberties, as for example here and here). In the body of my writings going back more than two decades, I have continually stood against government incursions against individual liberty, by the left and right alike, and the elitism that motivates them.

Allegation that Brazil is conservative. I never used the word “conservative” in the article; that was an umbrella term used for the series as a whole. In my view, Brazil reflects a classical liberal philosophy. As a liberal of the right, or classical liberal, I am grateful to the National Review staff for allowing me to write in their magazine and bring this fine film to its readers’ attention. I cannot think that you do not share my hope that National Review readers will benefit from watching this film.

Allegation of disagreement with Terry Gilliam about the Bush administration. I agree with Terry Gilliam on the awfulness of the Bush administration and have written numerous articles demonstrating that position. A reasonable familiarity with my writings shows quite clearly that I am not an adherent of political conservatism or the Republican Party. In light of all of these considerations, I must respectfully disagree with your claim that my praise for Brazil contradicts my personal convictions and serves as an example of “inanity and glaring irony.”

I greatly appreciate your genuine interest in the thought process behind the composition of my brief appreciation of Brazil, and I hope that the preceding notes may go some way toward allaying any concerns you may have about the consistency of my adherence to the values and ideas indicated in Terry Gilliam’s excellent film.

Naturally, the deep thinkers who read responded to Mr. Greenwald’s original article with enthusiastic denunciations of my praise of Brazil, a film they profess to like. Their critique: they own this film ideologically, and conservatives have no right to like it without becoming liberals first. This strikes me as a bizarre, stingy, and counterproductive attitude, but I am quite aware that tiny-minded people of all political persuasions love to shout imprecations to one another in their respective echo chambers.

There was one heartening comment on the Slate site, which I reproduce here

Not Unreasonable

I find S. T. Karnick’s email sufficiently convincing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don’t question Glenn Greenwald’s sincerity, but in this case it seems Mr. Karnick’s thinking was not portrayed with sufficient nuance.

That does not imply, however, that the arts are not partitioned into conservative and liberal camps by some.

Strange, really, since art reflects life, and life is ultimately neither. But it seems in modern America, political ideology trumps all for far too many.

— Norma

I fear that Norma’s fellow Slate readers will now consign her to the inner circles of hell with George W. Bush, Ann Coulter, and me, but Norma has done an honorable thing indeed: she has actually looked at the evidence before making a judgment. I fully agree with Norma in her observation that "in modern America, political ideology trumps all for far too many." The current situation is a vivid example of that unfortunate truth.

—S. T. Karnick