WHEN TO FIGHT AND HOW
He buried the lead. In last Sunday’s NY Times Opinion section, Drew Westen wrote an article called “What Happened to Obama?” (Maureen Dowd quoted it a few days later.) I’m still thinking about it, not for the political content, but for Mr. Westen’s ah-ha moment in one of the last paragraphs. It’s the kind of insight we writers jump at:
“When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability. Whether that reflects his aversion to conflict, an aversion to conflict with potential campaign donors that today cripples both parties’ ability to govern and threatens our democracy, or both, is unclear.”
Regarding this singular observation, I’m of two minds “like a tree with two blackbirds” (apologies to Wallace Stevens). On the one hand, I’m sick of villainizing. Movies pumped up with super-baddies who require superheroes. Novels opening with murder/mayhem all in that first sentence. Politics poisoned with character assassination. This Manichean good-bad thing by which we divide our own nature, our personal yin-yang into us vs. them, is a big problem globally. We render the “villain” as other than ourselves. Then he/she/it/they can be blown away in whatever fantasy of retribution soothes our helpless, paralysed, righteous hearts whether in art or video games or life itself.
But (here’s the second blackbird): there is surely villainy in this world. Villains, plural. Complex webs of evil. Institutional oppression. Most important, there’s everyday evil, that accretion of petty wrongs, Arendt’s banal surround, where, on top of everything, insult to injury, we must count ourselves among the villains because by turning a blind eye, by not fighting or fighting ineffectively, we perpetuate that which gradually erodes our lives.
That’s where Mr. Westen comes in. When we don’t identify a villain, he suggests, we collude. When we don’t name a villain, we fight poorly or not at all. Then the bad guys win. But when should we fight and how? Against what or whom? Can we permit a warrior spirit–that which comes up naturally in the face of injustice, cruelty and evil–can we permit such a spirit to inform a Zen approach? What’s a Gandhian hero to do? How should an MLK-Dalai-Lama-inspired heroine proceed? I’m of two minds, many minds frankly, and my characters are too…
© i.e. ideas expressed 2011