The Anarchist Subtext of Harold and Kumar 2

I saw Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay Sunday night, which had a lot of sentimental significance for me. When Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was released in 2004, it filled me with a strange, ecstatic joy. And it also inspired a lengthy blogging jag at Daniel Drezner’s blog, which led, indirectly, to the revival of The American Scene.

Below, I explain why Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is a sophisticated and persuasive anarchist tract. But first some throat-clearing.

In its first iteration, The American Scene was the shared effort of Steve Menashi, Ross Douthat, and Jaime Sneider. Steve, being an ambitious fellow, had hoped for a highbrow blogazine of the center-right. But by the time Harold and Kumar was released, The American Scene had fallen into decrepitude. It was around this time that Steve and I became friends. He suggested that I start blogging for The American Scene, and I figured, Why not? Ross and I also became friends around this time, which led to more fruitful collaboration down the line. It also led to our subsequently becoming housemates for a long time, which is another amusing. I used blog, or rather write lengthy raps, at a website called, where I identified various nouns as either good or evil. I had a small but devoted audience of fellow lunatics. But yeah, that was a passing phase. In truth, it was more my speed, but we all need to grow up and blog about, um, pressing questions of public importance. And overexposed indie favorites.

Anyway, Harold and Kumar had a deeper sentimental significance as well – one of my best friends is a straight-laced Korean American, and I am, for reasons that I can’t fully justify of explain, very devoted to the idea of panethnic Asian American solidarity. In my lifetime, Asian Americans on the east coast (the “Beast Coast” and the “No-Cease Coast”) have played second fiddle to our “Best Coast” counterparts, and here was a movie about two post-Ivy League Asian American potheads from New Jersey. Hot damn. I was also fascinated by the quite sophisticated ethnic politics of the movie, which I thought of, and continue to think of, as both post-multicultural and vividly anti-racist.

So what did I think of Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay? Well, I mean, I laughed my ass off, and I saw it with a fellow quasi-Asian (a half-Asian, in her case) who also laughed uproariously, though it’s possible she was mostly laughing at me. We were en route to the airport after checking out exotic flora for most of the afternoon, and I hectored her into letting me consume one last Double-Double before heading home. Armed with the GPS, we raced for a random multiplex located near our regional airport destination. She wanted to see Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and I suppose Matt Feeney’s positive words convinced me that it wouldn’t be too bad. But I was secretly rooting for H and K. And sure enough, it was playing at exactly the right. Jenga!

The first H and K was, to be sure, far more affecting in a lot of ways, and more effective or rather more recognizable as a conventional political vehicle. Yes, we get it, Harold and Kumar are regular American dudes — much smarter than average, and kookier than average, but certainly no different from most American post-adolescents in all of the essentials. And so they shouldn’t be deemed different on the basis of their exotic backgrounds.

The second H and K has a quite different and in my view more powerful political message — the movie is a strange anarchist tract, a manifesto for Kumar’s sophisticated anti-authoritarian worldview, hinted at briefly when Kumar explains why he refuses to pay taxes and why he believes that a lack of faith of government is perfectly compatible with faith in one’s country. As evidenced by Kumar’s open-hearted embrace of various idiosyncratic indigenous folk cultures and gold-hearted prostitutes, he is a firm believer not only in tolerance but also in an inherent right to self-defense. He seems to see all authority as lawless — it can be justified only in immediate, human terms, which is why he sees no need not to smoke his smokeless bong in an airplane lavatory (while another dude is in the lavatory), and why he feels he is justified in using strategic essentialism to his own criminal ends. Kumar is a Konkinite-like lumpenrebel against bourgeois conformity, as represented by his lingering resistance to medical school.

I fear that I’ll give too much away. I don’t want to do that. Let’s say the film also offers a searing indictment of America’s secret archipelago of prisons in terms that even the most braindead potheads will understand. Homophobic tropes are cleverly deployed to anti-homophobic ends.

There is one thing that gave me pause. In the first film, Harold falls hard for Maria, a gorgeous Latina who lives in his Hoboken apartment building. Note that Maria is not an Anglonormative beauty — say, a WASPy blonde. In light of Harold’s distaste for Cindy Kim, which Goldstein and sidekick emphatically don’t share, this would be a risky, too-obvious move. Better still would have been making the love interest an African American woman, though the decision to cast a fair-skinned Latina may have been made in deference to the presumed suburban male audience. Kumar, to his great credit, didn’t moon over any particular woman. Rather, he sought sexual opportunity wherever he could find it, up to and including from a pair of semi-fetching British potheads who suffered, memorably and scarringly, from a particularly severe bout of gastrointestinal distress.

In this sequel, Kumar does have a love interest, and I fear she fits the Rothian tradition more closely than I’d like. She is a petite, somewhat mousy Anglo redhead who went from wonderfully free-spirited ’80s-inspired punk as an undergraduate (Harold has an excellent moment in this flashback) to slightly lame, drug-dependent, bozo-dependent weakling hurtling towards an unhappy marriage. The meet cute flashback, alas, doesn’t seem very convincing. To be sure, the entire movie is beyond absurd. But you expect a scene of this emotional weight to at least have some surface plausibility. And unless Vanessa is an utter nut, it seems hard to believe that she’d shotgun with a stranger after he helped her with her calculus final. I mean, let’s be serious here. All in all, an unconvincing romance, though Vanessa certainly has her moments.

Though it occurs to me that the creators had to go the Rothian route — had Kumar pined after a South Asian beauty, they would’ve been layering on a cross-cutting message about authenticity that cuts against Kumar’s protean self-identity. And had she been, say, East Asian or African American or Latina, it would have been confusing to an audience rooted in the Anglonormative sensibility. Unless, that is, they somehow cast Rosario Dawson, who is loved by conventional American dudes. But that’s been done to death. Also, I suspect the young lady who played Vanessa is a well-regard young comic actor who will likely find many more opportunities, so why not cast a conventional cutie. I get it. That doesn’t mean I like it.

In related news, I’m personally very gratified that Padma Lakshmi has put South Asians, and particularly South Asian women, on the US psychocultural map, so to speak. Despite her heavily operated-upon Michael Jackson nose, I think there’s no denying that she is a knockout of historic proportions, and her spaced out California accent (she’s from Massachusetts, I believe) is beyond charming. But let’s face it — she’d never date Kumar. Nor should she. He is a crazed anarchist!

Some simpleton critics object to the too-friendly characterization of George W. Bush. Bush is portrayed as a basically friendly man-child who has no business wielding great authority. Yes, he is bailing out his buddies. Yet he also set in motion the sandwich-eating taking place at “G-bay.” I hardly think this is a sympathetic view. Rather, the film suggests that the most swaggering, destructive leaders are in fact driven by profound insecurities. Viewed through an anarchist lens, we see that President Bush is in essence at the head of a gang that even he scarcely controls. He exercises the ritualistic power of the pardon, to expiate sin, and he deploys it on behalf of two decent fellows — this is tribal justice. The state is an illusion.

I plan on writing my dissertation on this, just as soon as I get The American Scene accredited as a degree-granting institution. I will get Noah Millman to be my advisor.

Photo by awesome Flickr user Dunechaser under a CC licnense.