Last month saw the release of two highly anticipated, albeit quite different, sequels: the “Matrix Reloaded,” the Wachowski brothers’ follow-up to their first “Matrix” film, and the American-sponsored “road map,” the latest installment in an ongoing series of Israeli-Palestinian peace plans.
A mere coincidence, no doubt. But there are few real-world dramas as heartbreaking and inspiring as the efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East, and few Hollywood blockbusters with the chutzpah to propose such radical social theories which — unusual as it might seem — can be applied to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I always seek inspiration in the stories films tell us about the power of the human spirit. I crave dramas that fill me with hope and challenge me with ideas about self, society and social change that resonate beyond the fictional worlds of the shimmering screen. And, if anything, the “Matrix” films are full of challenging ideas, from French deconstructionists like Jean Baudrillard to leading postmodern philosophers like Cornel West (who is actually cast in a prominent role). Unlike much sci-fi, where big ideas are often thrown in as mere spice, the plots of the “Matrix” films serve to elaborate upon and make concrete the Wachowski brothers’ unique philosophical stew and its inherent call to action.
In the first film we join Neo, a contemporary computer hacker, in his obsessive and at times spiritual search to answer the question at the core of the movie: What is the Matrix? Neo soon learns that the world as he knows it is in fact an elaborate deception, a computer-generated sedative, while in the real word humans are used like batteries to power their machine overlords. He arrives at a challenging yet liberating new view of reality by questioning the most basic assumptions of his existence. Neo initially rejects a prophecy proclaiming him to be the One who will defeat the machines, but by the time the credits roll, he embraces his role to liberate humans from their false consciousness.
At first blush, this mythical fight between good and evil appears to reflect the current impasse in the Middle East, where each side views the other as absolute evil bent for destruction. In the Palestinians’ “Matrix,” Israelis are the heartless colonialist oppressors suppressing their abilities to live as a free people. In the Israelis’ “Matrix,” Palestinians use suicide bombers and support from the Arab world to undermine their free society and threaten their very existence. We see a similar divide in the United States, with lobbying groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee rejecting any criticism of Israel, no matter how appropriate, while left-wing activists allow any criticism of Israel, no matter how inappropriate.
Actually, what the film does tell us is that these various Matrices, while based in nuggets of truth, are also comforting narratives distracting us from facing painful realities. Like Neo, we must be willing to question our most basic assumptions and not shy away from the discomfort of inconvenient facts. The Palestinians must recognize that a resistance movement that devalues life is morally corrupt. Israelis must recognize that an open society built upon a military occupation is an untenable paradox. Questioning the narratives we depend upon to understand our world need not lead to an amoral relativism rejecting all narratives. Instead, personal and communal introspection into how we understand the world can lead to the creation of a more sophisticated, inclusive narrative robust enough to incorporate truths that lay beyond our level of comfort.
With the “Matrix Reloaded,” we learn that understanding the lies that bind us is far from enough, and that the Wachowski brothers’ teaching lesson is far from finished. With the second film they set out to undermine the premise established in the first film with the same intensity that Neo first questioned the nature of the Matrix.
Neo is the prophetic leader of a resistance movement destined to end humanity’s enslavement, right? Well, as we learn in “Matrix Reloaded,” this mythology is itself just another tool of the ever deceptive Matrix. The computers, it turns out, have actually been guiding the resistance movement, having long ago predicted their emergence, without the rebels’ conscious awareness. “The One was never meant to end anything,” Neo realizes. “It was all another system of control.”
What is Neo to do? While the first film is concerned with Neo discovering the true nature of reality, the sequel focuses on Neo’s internal exploration to free himself from these “systems of control.” One of the film’s new baddies, the French Merovingian, ridicules Neo’s inability to understand why he is motivated to rebel. He scoffs at Neo’s refusal to admit that “free will is an illusion between the powerful and the powerless” — an illusion we all consent to, at some level.
Acting as counterpoint, the resistance movement’s advisor, the Oracle, counsels Neo: “We cannot see beyond the choices we do not yet understand.” In other words, according to the brothers Wachowski, the more we act unaware of our true motives, the more we risk perpetuating the very problems we seek to resolve. To find a resolution, we need to understand how our actions reinforce systems of power rather than change them. To quote the Merovingian once again, “‘Why?’ is the only real source of power.”
Such an understanding is sorely lacking in the Middle East. In the spring of 2002, I met a Jewish activist who was incensed by the Sharon administration’s efforts to “reoccupy” areas of the territories under Palestinian Authority control. His response: to get arrested protesting. Why? Because he had to “do something,” he informed me. Without understanding why he felt unable to do anything but go to jail, he failed before he even began. Instead of helping Palestinians, all he did was reinforce his own sense of powerlessness, helping no one and further solidifying the status quo he sought to change.
“Matrix Reloaded,” applied to the Middle East conflict, also suggests that my “good” and “true” perspective about Israel can never beat and eliminate someone else’s “bad” and “false” ones. In fact, our competing narratives are all actually interlocked, combined into one inseparable metanarrative; blind battles for dominance by one perspective over the other simply serve to strengthen the overall system. Neo recognizes this inherent interconnection, aiming to free humans from the control of the machines without destroying his masters in the process. “We need machines and machines need us,” Neo realizes in the second film. The separate human and machine narratives are interlocked in the Matrix and can no longer be separated.
The “Matrix” films argue that we will all be more effective change agents in the world by continually exploring the edge of our beliefs for uncomfortable truths while understanding our deep motivations for the roles we play within the systems we seek to change. Applying this approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we can step out of the Matrix that keeps us in conflict and revise our separate narratives so that each people, in the end, achieve the peace, security and justice for which we all seek.
Barry Joseph is human rights and Internet specialist at GlobalKids.org, a New York-based educational organization.