Service Guarantees citizenship. On Verhoeven and voting rights.
Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers turned 19 yesterday. Today will be the first election it can vote in. I mean, if movies could vote. Maybe it early voted? If you haven’t, you need to go out and vote. Back to the movie: whatever this movie might actually think or say, it wears the attire of a campy sci-fi adventure caught up in a galactic tale of revenge filled with buckets of goopy neon colored bug guts and brilliant red human guts. Life is cheap in this flick and everyone is headed to the meat grinder. Wahhooo! Let’s get our citizenship on! I hope you’re ready to vote.
Underneath all that casual death is one of the most self aware satires of the militaristic right I’ve ever seen. 19 years in, I think most folks can see that. Maybe that’s more hopeful than quantitative assessment. Somebody call Nate Silver and Five Thirty Eight. The film has a fun, light spirited brisk pace to it. The best one sentence review I can think of for it is: take the “Let’s all go to the lobby” jingle and substitute “Let’s all go to the war, and get ourselves killed!” Paul Verhoeven’s basic question is: what would it look like if we were already living under a fascist regime? Answer? Sci-fi camp and patriotism. And that should scare you a litt-aw dude! Exploding bug guts! Hi-five! Sorry, I got distracted by shock and awesome bug explosions.
You might have seen Columbia Pictures is planning a reboot. What’s interesting is that they’re looking to pull entirely from Robert Heinlein’s original book. The book is much more sincere in its attitudes towards limiting democracy and the imperative of personal sacrifice. Considering the book was published in 1959 and still sparks debate, Columbia Pictures’ product ought to get some heavy columnar attention.
Verhoeven’s film doesn’t quite take its source material head on. They certainly wouldn’t be on the same side of a debate. And there’s a lot more going on in this film than voting rights, but I don’t want to open the gates of analysis wider than that very limited focus. I’ll leave it to say that the way we think about voting and citizenship is hugely impacted by our personal notions of patriotism and our own jingoistic proclivities. In Verhoeven’s world, Clausewitz reigns supreme. And, because of that, it impacts the way they think about voting.
“All right, let’s sum up. This year we explored the failure of democracy. How our social scientists brought our world to the brink of chaos. We talked about the veterans, how they took control and established the stability that has lasted for generations since. You know these facts, but have I taught you anything of value this year?” – Jean Rasczak
Where do we diverge from Verhoeven’s picture of the near future? Gosh, with that quote not too much, right? His vision feels disturbingly prescient. But, let’s talk voting rights! We live in a representative democracy. That means we elect people to serve in our government. We vest them with our political authority. Basic civics stuff, right? So does Johnny Rico – the hero of our film. The difference is, aside from a bit of paperwork, you get your right to vote based on the number of days you’ve been alive. Rico needs to do two years of Federal Service to take his suffrage.
When Rasczak asks his students why citizens are allowed to vote, the first student replies that the Federation gives it as a reward for service. Rasczak shuts that noise down and goes straight to the lesson. Voting is an exercise of political authority. Do you agree? I do, sure. Remember, politics is war by other means, right? Oh, I see where this is going. Well, you can bet Rasczak agrees because if politics is war, then political authority means force. And force falls under, as he says, the supreme authority of violence. You can’t be gifted the right to vote. You have to take it. It is a conquest. You have to claim it like you would enemy territory. The supreme authority is violence!
I think the Federation’s argument comes down to the idea that understanding is driven by experience, and should you be allowed to affect a world you do not understand? Truth be told, I’m not unsympathetic to part of that argument. I think service in the military deserves respect. So does civil service. But, I don’t think it’s required to vote. That isn’t quite what I’m getting at. I think there’s some value in totally comprehending – grokking, as Robert Heinlein would say – that the exercising of power of any kind on the scale of a country comes with casualties.
I don’t know about you, but most of my warrior time is spent on my bed in my underoos regulating fools on the social medias. Right? And, if I’m being honest, I’m a weekend Facebook warrior at best due to all my other obligations. Due to the mundane Billy Events that fill my day it’s easy for me to forget there are serious human events going on around me. This isn’t so much about being knowledgeable enough to pick a side in an election as it is the idea our lives make it very easy for some of us to become inattentive to the impact our choices have. We are all connected. But, it’s by the political authority we exercise. Don’t forget, if politics is war by other means and political authority is tantamount to violence, well. We inflict violence on ourselves as much as we do others.
After the lesson, Rico approaches Rasczak looking for some advice on whether he should join up or not. Rasczak says:
“Figuring things out for yourself is the only freedom anyone really has. Use that freedom. Make up your own mind, Rico.”
Figure it out! This is where political philosophies get dicey. In a certain way, you know, I do agree that’s the only freedom we have. We’ve got time and self-awareness. What more can we really do than figure things out? It’s a bit too “you do you, bub” for my taste. But, oh my, things have gone awry if that’s where your conversation about the nature of voting rights concludes. Here’s what what I figure about all this voting rights talk. A right is something you innately have. For example, in a democracy you innately have the right to vote. No matter how Rasczak couches it, it’s still just a privilege if you can earn it, deserve it or lose it. And you must exercise that right.
Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is a hell of a piece of work. It practically begs you to check out and enjoy the splatterfest. And you should, because that part is super fun. In a lot of these types of movies, you tend to leave the screening sort of thinking ok, that was fun, but is there any ‘there’ there? Well, friend, there’s buckets of ‘there’ in this one. For all the guts and gore, there’s satire so keen flying by you’ll be surprised to find yourself looking up at your decapitated body. I like government and I think it can do great things. But, Verhoeven is not off the mark. A message has to connect with something to persist.
We’re talking about voting rights, yeah? And how they’re innate? Well, keep in mind we fought a Civil War over whether people were actually people. Those of us who could vote didn’t even direct elect U.S. Senators until 1913. The 19th Amendment wasn’t ratified until 1920. The Voting Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1965. And that Act had its teeth pulled with Shelby County v. Holder in 2013.
The trajectory of voting rights in our country is not expanding, it’s shrinking. We’re reducing early voting hours. We ludicrously assign a common work day of the week to be the day we also make time to vote. We are making it more complicated to prove identity in order to vote. We still aren’t talking about the fact that felons in some states never get their right to vote back. And we certainly aren’t talking about how in the hell felony disenfranchisement is even a thing. For all our pride in democracy, we are way behind in actual voter turnout. My point is the relevance of movies like Starship Troopers persists because we are still fighting the same fight.
What do you think? Is Verhoeven’s film in the pantheon of Great Cinema about civic duty? It’s camouflaged nicely, but I say yes! What are some other great movies talking about civic duty? Hit me up on Twitter @WBDass today if you want to chat Rico’s Roughnecks to take your mind of Election Day anxiety.
Related Topics: Politics