Thursday, March 13, 2014

Liberalism, Then and Now

Watership Down was the first PG-rated movie that my Mom ever took me to see in a theater.*  I read the Richard Adams’ book in my early 20s, and am now reading it to my children.

The 1972 novel was widely and critically reviewed when it came out, and I was sufficiently impressed with it that I looked up those reviews in the Contemporary Literary Criticism.  Most of them, drawn from publications across the political spectrum, could be described as enthusiastic but guarded:  the reviewers were flummoxed by their inability to pigeonhole it in a particular genre (and, indeed, it arguably spans several).

In retrospect, one of the interesting things about the liberal reviews was their reaction to the author’s heavy-handed environmentalism.  To recap for those unfamiliar with the story:  the rabbit protagonists are forced to flee the Sandleford warren when it is bulldozed for a housing development at the beginning of the book.  The rabbits are understandably upset by this, and mankind comes in for some rabbity criticism for killing critters for non-food purposes.  Today, of course, this kind of anti-development environmentalism dovetails nicely with upscale urban liberal priorities, but I surprised to discover that apparently this wasn’t as obvious in 1972.  Several of his liberal reviewers back then almost demanded that Adams come clean about his agenda:  are you saying we shouldn’t build houses for people?  How can that be good for the poor?

Today, in contrast, “the poor” are mainly just a prop in the elite war against the middle class. 

As a child, I was confused by the movie’s poster art:  it was not until I re-watched the movie as an adult that I realized that what I had always thought to be a sinking ship (a “watership” going “down”, get it?) was actually the silhouette of a rabbit caught in a snare.  I found out last week that my wife had the exact same misapprehension when she was a child.

* My father had taken me to see Smokey and the Bandit the year before.

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