John Lithgow as Doug Strutt, “Beatriz at Dinner”: he’s not bad, he’s wrong. He’s established a set of principles based on his view of the world, and then assiduously pursued action guided by those principles, and the world has rewarded him. He engages with Beatriz because she directly challenges his view of the world, unlike the sycophants in the room, and he wants to convince her of his rightness. It’s a tribute to Lithgow’s acting that he can show me the sympathetic aspects of Strutt’s character and make him into more than a cartoon villain of the normal Hollywood variety.
Coincidentally, I listened to a podcast by Michael Goldfarb this morning about factionalism, and as a consequence I’m reading Federalist Papers #10. Here I read:
As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.
Factions are the same disease within a society as is displayed by Doug Strutt: a willingness to trample the rights of others in the pursuit of some (ideological, material, …) good. And, as Madison points out, factions (and people like Strutt) are inevitable in a society that respects property, difference of opinion, and liberty to think and act. Madison’s solutions are to control the effects of such factions, such control being possible for him by the size and consequent diversity of the Republic, and the institutions of representative, not direct, democracy.
When I watched the movie, I felt that the morally bad characters were the sycophantic supporters, especially the young lawyer on the make, because he understood that he was doing wrong and did it anyway. Over dinner he brings up all the problems with the real estate deal they’re consummating: protected wildlife, angry protesters. He reacts with disguised disquiet to Strutt’s enthusiasm for hunting. He has too much to gain to listen to his conscience.
Oddly enough, we see something similar in the US Government at the moment. The majority of Republican members of Congress hold back from approbation of bad behavior by the President, by their leadership, even though they know that they’re doing something wrong, because they stand to gain their objectives thereby. McConnell subverts the norms of representative government with his manipulation of parliamentary procedure, Ryan approves of King Trump’s abrogation of the constitution, Susan Collins wrings her hands on the sidelines and expresses “concern” rather than acting to punish Trump or her leadership, so the party can achieve it’s legislative goals, Orrin Hatch, a man who has been in the institution for most of his life, says nothing when the norms of the institution in which he serves are violated by his leadership. This sort of craven behavior is the real moral bad.
Also, oddly enough, I see traces of Madison’s correctives in the inability of the ruling party to pass legislation. While we theoretically have only two “parties” of consequence in our government, the Republicans encompass a wide range of political views that would in other systems be expressed by membership in minority parties (Libertarians, religious parties, Greens, …); this divergence of principle makes it very difficult to make legislation without accommodating the rights and opinions of those with whom the majority disagree. The institution is working, in some sense.