The new Ridley Scott movie “Napoleon” is good, not great.
It at least provides a tantalizing overview of post-revolutionary France about which most Americans today know absolutely nothing.
It does put on screen the astounding brutality of old-world forms of warfare and their complete disregard for the human life of the people on the frontlines. So that’s something.
Another point in its favor is to introduce a topic that completely enthralled a late 18th-century generation of great thinkers; namely, why did the American Revolution succeed whereas the French Revolution ended in grim waves of death and then dictatorship?
Edmund Burke and Lord Acton offered a similar explanation.
America had a long experience with freedom and self-government, while the foreign king had virtually no presence in Colonial life other than that which was an exogenous annoyance.
In French political culture, the monarchy and the ruling class generally had a long and outsized role in politics, religion, manners, and national identity generally.
The debunking and killing of the center led not to freedom but to a power vacuum and social anomy.
Whereas that American revolution was restorative, the French Revolution proved purely destructive.
So while I cannot recommend you see the film (the overly lascivious scenes are wholly gratuitous), it is not a complete failure if only to cause reflection on such serious themes.
Something else caught my eye.
It has to do with how it came to be that Napoleon was the right man in the right times to be crowned emperor at a moment when the country as a whole was desperately lacking in some kind of driving center to national life.
The obvious answer is that he experienced a series of battle successes that created the appearance of a winning personality and brilliance.
This sense that he had it all together long outlasted growing evidence of failure. Only once the catastrophe of his reign became undeniable was he finally exiled and disgraced.
This provokes thought of a bigger theory. Success can breed a long series of failures.
This is true in technology, ideas, policies, and leaders.
We are so impressed when something truly wonderful comes along in our otherwise uneventful lives that we infuse the source with a wildly exaggerated sense of valor and even infallibility.
That sets up conditions of disaster, as our sense of doubt and desire for evidence are put on hold in favor of faith and hope unmitigated by demands for proof.
This is the story of Napoleon but it is the story of so much else too.
Consider, for example, what happened with vaccines.
The smallpox vaccine provided protection against a terror of the ages that had wiped out native populations and vexed the human experience for the whole of recorded history. With one shot against this pathogen, humanity was protected and the disease finally eradicated in 1980. That was not that long ago. It was a seeming miracle born of science and medicine. That earned the whole industry enormous credibility.
Because of this string of successes, the glow surrounding vaccines burned brighter and brighter.
Then came the shot mandates for measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and so much more, including relatively harmless infections like chickenpox to which parents had long ago exposed children when they were young to prevent a worse outbreak in later years. The childhood schedule grew and grew to include things like Hepatitis and, absurdly, COVID-19, a shot that wears off quickly, doesn’t really pertain to existing strains, and for an infection that has no medically significant effects on children.
The downside of this huge cocktail of pharma stuff is insufficiently studied, to say the least.
The makers of vaccines for children were even given full liability protection by government, thus bypassing a basic standard of medical law dating far back: if you cause harm, you pay the price. But with vaccine makers, they were able to push their shots on the whole population with wild impunity.
The long-ago success led to a vast amount of failure that has been overly tolerated or glamorized. The COVID-19 vaccine may prove to be the pharmaceutical Waterloo, the defeat that finally debunks the glory of the past and erases the valor the industry once enjoyed.
We can think of many such examples. Consider the way famed pop music and movie stars are all eventually goaded into pronouncing on politics, thus producing incredible inanities that are deeply embarrassing. This is the principle at work again. The success in one realm does not translate into all realms and yet both the star and the public take a while to catch on. The reputational capital earned from one or several conspicuous successes lasts far longer than it should and bleeds into other areas that it does not belong.
It’s true with government too. Look at the grand success of the U.S. involvement in the Second World War.
The U.S. government took all credit for the victory (ignoring, for example, the role of Russia in the defeat of the Nazis) and the world had stood in awe at the awesome power of the nuclear bomb on civilian populations. A new sensibility came about that government can do anything and produce astonishing results. That provided the liberality necessary for the U.S. space program, which put a man on the moon.
This string of successes wiped out the memory of New Deal fiascos and tossed the disaster of the Great War into the dustbin of history.
It wasn’t long before we had every manner of crazy experiment going on. We had the Great Society, public housing in urban areas, and coercion into every realm of domestic life. It was particularly bad in foreign policy. The Vietnam War was next and that produced disaster. Still, the U.S. empire had wind at its back. The Cold War victory led to the War on Terror, the crazed attempt to democratize the whole of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. Those attempts created a catastrophic refugee crisis in Europe and all over the world.
Here we find the principle at work again: some success produces a long string of terrible failures. This is because success blots out the normal amount of public incredulity that should greet crazed experiments. We’ve seen this reach absurd levels in our time as governments have claimed to be the master of the global climate plus control and defeat the whole of the microbial kingdom. These attempts have yielded major disasters, such as Napoleon’s military campaigns late in his career.
We might observe the same phenomenon in digital technology.
The internet wowed the world and rocked our sense of the possible. But we weren’t very balanced in our assessment. As TikTok rots the brains of the young and government uses social media to propagandize everyone else, we’ve lost the ability to call a failure what it is.
The lesson I take from this is that success is to be feared as much or more than failure itself.
The movie “Napoleon” is not a failure but would it have ever been made had Ridley Scott not been responsible for “Gladiator”? That’s my point in a nutshell.