We went to see the fine film Frost/Nixon on Monday evening with a good friend of ours who happens to be British. It was fun to see the film with someone who grew up in the UK. She is decidedly younger than we are so her memory of said events was not so clear. But we like her anyway!
I had a bizarre and unexpected reaction to the Swedes who were sitting in the audience. Their reaction to certain events in the film disturbed me greatly. They laughed in places where it felt like mockery. The disdain that seemed to exude from their collective responses created a visceral reaction in my gut. I wanted to stand up in the theater and scream, "You just don't fully understand how complicated the American political landscape can be. You live in a country that has, well, zero impact on the global scene so why don't you all get down off your self-righteous high horses?" I think it's good that I resisted that urge. But it was weird. I mean, me, a patriot of the highest order? Feeling like I wanted to defend Nixon to the folks who live in the nation that I now call home?
Well, it wasn't really wanting to defend Nixon as much as it was a desire to ask them to have a little more understanding of the perils of power. One of my complaints about the Swedes is that they can be rather self-righteous, especially when it comes to their critique of others, especially Americans. And I think they lack the depth of understanding it takes to really do an honest and fair critique. Sweden has largely been a homogeneous society, where variance of points of view are quite slight. They have a natural tendency to head for consensus rather than valuing a hotly debated difference of opinion. Sweden is a country of 9 million people, the equivalent of the Chicago metro area. Problems are fairly easily solved here due to the smallness of the population. And let's face it, when was the last time you saw the Swedish Prime Minister involved in a International crisis? (Bonus points to someone who can post the Prime Minister's name without googling it!) Sweden is not the go to country when it comes to global issues. This isn't a put down of Sweden. It's a reality check. I found their disdain for Nixon's weaknesses almost hurtful and as I've reflected upon it, I can only deduce that my gut reaction, which surprised no one more than it surprised me, is rooted in a desire for a little empathy from the Swedes as to how complex American politics and society are. I guess their reactions felt to me as if they themselves would never find their leaders in such an ethical dilemma. And it is there that they are wrong. All governments have blind spots. The only real issue is how deeply do they affect their nations and how widely known are they?
Nixon was a flawed leader with numerous blind spots. You'd be a fool to think otherwise. The film, however, moved me to a deeper level of empathy rather than critique. That his presidency, resignation, and eventual pardon represent a troubled and sad time in American history is indisputable, but coming to a greater understanding of why Nixon did the things he did was a valuable experience for me. I obviously think he was wrong, but I didn't sit in that theater believing that myself or any other person with that kind of power would be exempt from the temptations of the office. I guess I just felt like the Swedish people who were sitting around me watched the film while looking down their noses. I didn't like it and I'm trying to more fully understand why I had the reaction that I did. But it also felt good to feel a bit patriotic and have a small desire to defend my America, flaws and all.