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Lessons of 'The Lion King'

Commentary by Greg Lewis /
January 28, 2004

The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow. - William Blake, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"

I've recently had the opportunity to watch the marvelously well-realized Disney Studios animated film "The Lion King" again. One of the things that struck me, in the wake of events since the 9/11 atrocities, is that there are lessons to be learned from this film that apply to the United States' approach to international policy and to protecting its citizens. Mixed in among the lessons are telling commentaries about the nature of treachery and of loss of resolve from within.

I realize that the film was made in the mid-1990s and that Disney Studios certainly could not have had the current world situation in mind during its creation. Nonetheless, there are striking parallels between the plight of the pride of lions of which the young Simba was deposed as the rightful King and what could well happen if power is gained in our country by those who don't understand the nature of that power and the responsibility that accompanies it, who even, in some cases, actively seek the diminution of that power.

The first and most obvious lesson of "The Lion King" is about the importance of leadership. At the film's beginning, King Mufasa presides with wisdom and firmness over a domain that stretches, as he tells his young son, Simba, as far as the eye can see. Mufasa understands and communicates to the future king the lesson of the natural order of things, without apologizing for the fact that lions are at the top of the order. Indeed, at Simba's birth, all the other creatures come to pay homage to their future king.

It's clear — although there's no way the folks at Disney could have intended this parallel — that the United States, under the leadership of George W. Bush, understands its position at the top of the global world order. We no longer apologize for our might and our leadership as we did under Bill Clinton, and we no longer lack the resolve to do what must be done to maintain order in the world. We are the nation to which many others look for guidance, just as we are the nation that still others resent and deplore for the very fact of our power.

Of course, the position of the resentful and deplorable is represented in "The Lion King" by Mufasa's brother, Scar, a treacherous and sniveling and cowardly creature whose focus is on overthrowing Mufasa and assuming the throne himself. Scar finds his allies not among other members of the pride of lions, but with the hyenas, to whom he promises a position of power in his "administration." When his treachery results in the death of Mufasa and in his being able to drive the young Simba from the kingdom, Scar assumes power. As Simba grows up living a life of forced and unnatural irresponsibility in exile, the kingdom under Scar and his hyena henchmen is transformed from a lush earthly paradise into a desert from which the natural order of things has been banished by an uncaring and self-involved leader whose only purpose in life had been revenge.

There are two analogues in this situation, the one quite obvious, the second somewhat more obscure. First, it is clear that Palestinian and radical Islamist leadership have fomented a murderous and irresponsible culture that goes against the natural order of things. Palestinians perpetrate atrocities against a flourishing neighbor country in the name of . . . of what? Of some principle which says that the Palestinian people must suffer in poverty and darkness so that their "leader," much like Scar, can maintain his cowardly and sniveling hold on leadership? That the Palestinian people, on whom even those in their home countries have turned their backs, must endure more years of suffering and homelessness, even though the deed to a homeland has been theirs for the taking for more than a decade?

But in addition to this extreme example of what profoundly irresponsible leadership can do, we need to look at what happened during a similarly (though much less extreme) episode of such leadership in the United States during the 1990s. It's clear that Bill Clinton's lack of resolve, his lack of understanding of his responsibility as the most powerful leader in the world, and his lack of a moral compass put this nation in danger. Our enemies, particularly terrorists, were heartened by our unwillingness to confront the threat they posed to American interests. It is clear that Osama bin Laden assumed that the United States would react in a Clintonesque way to the destruction of the World Trade Center; that is, that we would not seek to redress our grievances through military action. He assumed, based on his reading of Bill Clinton's character and actions, that the destruction of the Twin Towers would be the beginning of the downfall of a United States that lacked the will to retaliate.

In turning his back on the threat that terrorism posed — indeed, in the name of subverting the order of things — Bill Clinton was this nation's version of Scar. The two-term limit, coupled with the electorate's wisdom in selecting a new and worthy leader in George W. Bush, are perhaps the only things that stood between us and desertification after our sworn enemies declared war on us on 9/11. Had one of Scar's cronies been elected, there's no telling what might have happened.

There's a telling moment in "The Lion King" when, after Scar has asserted that young Simba was responsible for his father's death, Simba implores him to "tell the truth." Scar responds by saying, "Truth? What is truth? Truth is in the eye of the beholder." His parsing of language and assertion of a position of moral relativism in his own interest is all too reminiscent of the Clinton Presidency.

But it's not just moral relativism that's the issue here. It goes deeper than that. During Bill Clinton's presidency, the United States submitted "to learn of the crow." This meant, in part, that under Clinton, those on the left often seemed to be saying that "all values are relative" and morality cannot be defined. In fact, when we examine their actions, we discover that they themselves are moral absolutists. It's just that the values they uphold are the opposite of the positive values of western democracies, the antithesis of values based on Judeo-Christian tradition.

Those on the left are not simply declaring that, for instance, the teachings of the Qu'ran have equal value to those of the Christian Bible; they're actually profoundly anti-Christian and elevate many anti-Christian values to a position above those of Christianity. They do this by such actions as their failure to speak out against tyranny and their failure to uphold America's position as the guardian of morality, the beacon of democracy, and the keeper of global order.

Presidential elections are about more than candidates' charisma, more than their personal appeal, more than their ability to epitomize the ill-founded anger of the left against George W. Bush. Our elections, especially this year, are about choosing a leader who understands our place in the world, who understands that democracy and freedom are values that are infinitely more important than the mere gaining of and holding onto power. It's not about Terry McAuliffe and Bill Clinton and Tom Daschle and their ilk desperately trying to regain lost influence. The upcoming elections are about retaining leadership that understands that the United States is the leader of the world, that we are the eagle and that we can no longer risk, as we did under democratic leadership in the 1990s, submitting to learn of the crow.

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