Originally rambled out over at Liberty.me. Spoilers for the 2005 film Serenity, proceed with caution
Joss Whedon’s painfully-beloved, endlessly-missed, didn’t-even-get-a-God-damn-full-season sci-fi Western Firefly had its libertarian moments. Hell, the pilot has the main character, the funny, but wounded Captain Malcolm Reynolds, say the following piece of dialogue: “That’s what government’s for — get in a man’s way.”
Mal has a reason to feel this way. He’s the the survivor of a losing war with the government known as the Alliance, whose noose around the rest of the universe grows tighter and tighter all the time. Mal simply wants to be left alone, with his eight other crewmates, and his beloved spaceship Serenity. Included in his crew are Simon Tam, who watches over his sister River, a damaged, psychic genius who has been experimented on and is on the run from government agents; as well as Inara, who is basically a registered courtesan (sexual freedom! Kind of!). The rest of the crew is a well-rounded, albeit Joss Whedon-archetypal group of men and ladies. We’ve got goofy guy, the badass warrior, the adorable chipper girl, but well, it’s better than all that, and if you don’t love it, well, I don’t know what to tell you.
Alright, so, Captain Mal is not a libertarian saint. The crew of the Serenity does some good, old-fashioned smuggling to keep going. They also commit some theft. Even with some attempted justification for this by virtue of their residing in a crony capitalistic government, it doesn’t quite work. They’re not perfect.
Still, the libertarianism is not incidental. Whedon is definitely a liberal, but he has described Mal as “if not a Republican, certainly a libertarian.” Whedon built the show out of his own beloved and quippy character types, out of Western tropes, anime like the similar motley crew in space-themed Anime Cowboy Bebop, and the Civil War novel The Killer Angels. The rough and tumble group surviving after a lost war for independence is deliberately intended to invoke Confederates after the Civil War.
This is maybe why Whedon has previously mentioned that he isn’t necessarily on Mal’s side in all things. Perhaps the Alliance is not objectively the big villain that an individualist like the Captain believes it to be. But then, it doesn’t matter. The show endorses, if nothing else, Mal’s desire to live his own life. Whedon’s occasional attempts at neo-historical distance don’t really hold up against this basic need of Mal’s to be on his own, and out from under the thumb of the government.
(The self-described “more of a libertarian” producer and writer Tim Minear, who penned my favorite episode “Out of Gas also helps enhance that feeling of righteous leave me alone-dom.)
In 2005, fans got the movie Serenity, which more or less wrapped up the story of the crew (a few mysteries were left to successive comic books).
The struggles of River, who has been mentally unstable since the Alliance messed with her brain, are the highlight. She is being followed by a deliciously nuanced and unnerving villain known only as The Operative. He pursues her not just because, as in the series, River fled from the Academy that messed with her mind. Turns out River also knows a horrible secret about something the Alliance has done (maybe don’t bring a psychic into a room full of government men with secrets). In one of her moments of bewilderment she tries to tell her brother what she sees in her head: “old men covered in blood — never touched them, but they’re drowning in it.” (It may be a crazy girl’s confused cries, but that sure sounds like the state.)
The movie actually begins with one of River’s mixtures of a childhood memory, a nightmare, and a psychic vision. In that scene, young River tells her school teacher, “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. ”
As perfectly, toe-curlingly libertarian as that is to see, especially on the big screen, it gets better.
Our plot culminates with the crew of Serenity discovering what River knew — the horrors the Alliance unleashed upon an entire planet called Miranda. There is a convenient piece of future-video evidence where a woman involved explains that they “meant it for the best.” It being the use of a new type of drug intended to make the population of 30 million become calm, complacent, and nonviolent. It worked so well it killed most of the people of Miranda. A minority of them became the terrifying, cannibalistic killers known as Reavers.
Our (big damn) heroes are horrified, but the question now is what to do with the information. With the Operative following close behind, they decide to visit their friend Mr. Universe, a kind of unpleasant, but useful character who hacks and broadcasts pirate communications.
But before they make that decision, Captain Mal has to give the speech — he has to convince his crew to follow him, to risk their lives to reveal this information. They can’t let this crime be covered up anymore. They have to “speak for these people.” Says Mal:
Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. 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 runnin’. I aim to misbehave.
These words may have been penned by a softy liberal like Joss Whedon, but do we libertarians need fiction better that that? It’s perfect. The movie could end right there, and it would still be satisfying.
The final scenes involve a last ditch fight between the Reavers and the crew, while Captain Mal fights the Operative in order to access the equipment that will broadcast the proof of the Alliance crimes. Mysteriously, it took me half a dozen watches, and a post-Edward Snowden world before I realized — they’re whistleblowers. The entire premise of the climax is that simply leaking information is work risking the lives of Mal and his crew. Indeed, the unstated assumption is also that by showing the universe what happened to the people of Miranda, thanks to the Alliance’s terrifying experiment, they will weaken that government.
It is an optimistic idea. The Alliance probably has more than one small group of evil-doers. Like the National Security Agency, or the Pentagon, or God knows who else, their presumption is mighty. Here in our world, we have seen attempts to reign in the NSA, but we haven’t seen them get anywhere yet. The most jaded say, yeah, we already knew what Snowden gave up his home to tell us about. We knew in 2005, and probably before, and nobody gave much of a shit. We also know that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are out of control. Hell, they are part of the same mechanism. Showing that the NSA spies on innocent people isn’t guaranteed to shut it down any more than knowledge of the DEA’s immoral purpose has stopped it from becoming a spy agency in its own right.
Last year, as the skinny, soft-spoken, earnest Snowden first revealed himself, and explained why he had leaked the NSA documents, I was giddy with admiration. He left a comfy life, and all his loved ones behind in order to tell a truth he thought we needed to know. Snowden was, indeed, a big damn hero.
But so what? Chelsea Manning is one, too. And she has 30 more years to linger in prison because she wanted to show people what war really looked like. Not enough people cared about “collateral murder”or the Iraq war logs. They didn’t want to know. She was just as well-spoken, just as certain that the government has far too many secrets about far too many important issues than Snowden. But nobody wanted to see it, or go head to head with the cult of the military. The NSA is a much easier target, and we still haven’t come close to beating it. Today The Intercept revealed that No Such Agency built its own Google-like search engine in order to share 850 billion documents with the FBI, CIA, DEA, and others.
As much as I adore Serenity, I have to wonder whether Mal and his crew’s effort to show the ‘verse the horrible crime of their government mattered much in the end. And maybe that’s the point. The movie doesn’t prove that they changed the nature of the government by revealing its evil acts. They certainly didn’t destroy it. The movie simply gives us nine brave characters who want to live their own lives, and one villain who thinks that doing wrong is alright as long as you keep your far-off noble end result in mind. Serenity isn’t about overthrowing the big, bad authorities, it’s about folks who subscribe to the notion that “if you can’t do something smart, do something right.” This is something Manning and Snowden understand all too well.