Rape Culture or Nationalist Culture?
By Bryan Caplan
[Warning: Mild Fury spoilers]
The idea that the modern U.S. is a “rape culture” has always struck me as ridiculous. I’ve never met a person who claimed to have raped anyone. I don’t know anyone who intellectually defends rape. I don’t know anyone who denies that rape should be punished as a heinous crime. The way men talk definitely changes when there are zero women within earshot. But men in our culture do not become soft on rape after they retire to the parlor for cigars and brandy. True, I live in a Bubble. But I’ve toured American society for decades, and never detected anything remotely resembling a rape culture.
Until last Wednesday, that is.
I took my elder sons to see World War II drama Fury at the local theater. Around the middle of the film, American troops occupy a small German town. Brad Pitt and the fresh-faced newbie soldier find an apartment with two young German women. Pitt intimidates them at gunpoint, and orders the older of the women to cook him a meal. Once Pitt relaxes a little, he eyes the younger woman, then gives his new recruit a choice:
She’s a good clean girl. If you don’t take her into that bedroom, I will.
The recruit then takes the younger woman into the bedroom while the older one stifles a protest. The camera shows the recruit and the “good clean girl” kiss, then cuts away. A little later, the she and the recruit return to the kitchen, both visibly happy.
If circumstances can ever vitiate the genuineness of consent, these plainly do. Two armed enemy soldiers burst into your apartment and start making demands. Even if the soldiers never say, “I will kill you unless you have sex with me,” the women reasonably fear for their lives – and the soldiers know this full well.
Of course, Fury is only a story. Mere fiction. How could this possibly show me the rape culture in our midst? The audience reaction. During this horrific scene, hundreds of seemingly normal American men and women were laughing. Repeatedly. Loudly. The longer the scene went on, the funnier they found it.
On reflection, however, “rape culture” poorly captures the ugliness I witnessed. If the audience reaction exposed a general tolerance for rape, we should expect them to have a similarly bemused reaction if the movie showed German soldiers intimidating American women into sex. And it’s obvious that the audience wouldn’t have found that even slightly amusing. Instead, there’d be gasps of dismay, disgust, and anger. It’s only funny when we do it to them.
What I really saw last Wednesday, then, was not a hitherto elusive rape culture. What I saw, rather, was another symptom of our ubiquitous nationalist culture. The first George Bush boiled it down to essentials:
I will never apologize for the United States — I don’t care what the facts are… I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.
Unlike the rape culture story, the nationalist culture story predicts that the American audience would also support – or at least not mind – mistreatment of enemy males. And that describes my fellow theater-goers to a tee. When Brad Pitt forces his recruit to kill a helpless German prisoner, I inwardly condemned Pitt as a war criminal. The people around me, however, seemed to have the reaction the screenwriters intended: “Sure, this seems cruel. But Pitt is teaching his recruit a vital lesson that could easily save American lives.”
We do live in a bad culture. But it’s not bad because it condones or trivializes violence against women. Few things are less acceptable to us. Our culture is bad because it condones and trivializes violence against foreigners of both genders – especially the violence of modern warfare and the violence of immigration restrictions.
“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” That’s Brad Pitt’s widely quoted Fury fortune cookie. Totally wrong, of course. History is violent because many popular ideals are violent. And nationalism is one of the very worst.
P.S. Tyler Cowen told me his audience at Fury only had a few chuckles during the same scene. How about yours?