I had missed this essay by Anthony Paletta when it first appeared in February 2012, but it raises a question that the author answers with some good insights — especially near the end:
Why do people on the political left hate vigilante films (and I would add, vigilante fiction generally)?
Now clearly, it isn‘t that leftists reject violence in movies. Despite their typically harsh condemnations of private gun ownership and use, liberals historically have been transported to rhapsodic heights of praise for, and heap loads of Oscars upon, many violent films — from “Bonnie and Clyde” to “Dog Day Afternoon” to “Silence of the Lambs” to “The Godfather” (and many other gangster films) to anything by Quentin Tarantino, and on and on.
Yet go read some of the same critics’ older reviews of films like “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish,” or of more recent ones like “Harry Brown” or “The Brave One,” and you’ll see that progressive reviewers simply can’t restrain their vituperation — often even casting these films in political-economic terms, as “fascist” (which reveals their sad ignorance of political and economic definitions, as well).
So, what’s really going on here?
The violent films that progressives prefer typically blur moral distinctions between heroes and villains, between criminals and victims — and simultaneously shower pity and “understanding” on the perpetrators of criminal violence. Nor is there a whiff of protest against “vigilante violence” in their reviews and commentaries when the targets of that violence are the Politically Incorrect — as in Tarantino’s recent “Django Unchained,” or in the old Seventies film “Billy Jack,” or in countless other movies that target racist bigots, unscrupulous capitalists, despoilers of The Environment, etc. Similarly, outstanding thriller authors Lee Child and Barry Eisler, both of whom tilt to the political port side, get away with plenty of visceral vigilante violence in their novels; yet they still retain the approval of liberal critics and readers, solely because of their Politically Correct targeting.
No, the objects of liberal wrath are only those vigilantes who uphold actual justice — not “social justice” (which is its progressive counterfeit). Actual justice is rooted in the individualist premise of personal self-responsibility for one’s actions. “Social justice” is the inverse: It is rooted in the premise that no individual is, or should be held, morally responsible for his actions. In movies upholding the former premise, criminals are brought to account for the evil that they choose to do. In movies upholding the latter premise, criminals are viewed as helpless victims themselves, driven to acts of violence by forces beyond their personal control.
That is why, in contrast to the violent films that liberals like, the ones that they hate draw clear moral boundaries between good and evil and establish a zero-tolerance policy for the evil. But, in a breathtaking lapse of logical coherence and consistency, liberals simultaneously do hold unforgivably accountable those who reject their moral Narrative — the liberal worldview — often gloating when those characters are subjected to the most vicious, violent retribution for their philosophical apostasy.
In a previous essay, I make clear that I do not endorse actual vigilante law-breaking. I explain why what may be satisfying, even morally instructive, in fantasy would be very bad practice in the real world.
But, as a writer of vigilante fiction and of nonfiction that rejects liberal, deterministic excuse-making for predatory violence, I think you may find Paletta’s piece to be morally instructive, too.