Monday, January 09, 2006

Pretty stories

I don't know if it's American ignorance, stupidity, or arrogance, our vestigial Calvinism, or just human nature not to be able to face up to the ways we are each of us capable of utter villainy, but whatever the cause, we do not have a very sophisticated view of evil---at least not one that shows in our popular literature, our movies, our conversation, or our politics.

I've written before that a certain type of conservative is likely to see crime and evil as things done to them by Others and because of this they are blind to their own bad behavior.

Thanks to to their embrace of Calvinistic and Social Darwinian teachings that material success is proof of superior virtue and a combination of vanity and self-interest they start from a premise that they are never in the wrong.

(See Why Conservatives feel free to cast the first stone.)

But I probably should say that they are only more likely to think this way.

I think that if you sat most people down and discussed it deeply you'd find that their idea of what defines evil is pretty straight-forward, simple, and strictly limited to exclude themselves from the list of potential evil-doers.

Evil, they'd tell you, is physical cruelty, sadistic violence, the most overt and brute forms of criminality---murder, armed robbery, rape. And, you'd realized they were saying, evil is something other people do.

Bad people know they are bad, they'd say, they are conscious of their sins and their crimes.

Probably they would not admit to believing the corrollarly that since bad people know they are bad and I don't know that I am bad, I am ipso facto not bad. I would know if I was doing something wrong.

This sort of thinking is almost as pervasive on the left side of the bandwidth as it is on the right, by the way. Most Liberal bloggers assume that conservatives, Right Wingers, and Republicans know that they are in the wrong and either don't care or actually enjoy being wrong, and it has the consequence that many Liberal bloggers operate too easily from the assumption that since they are bad and wrong and know it and I must be right and good and whatever I type must be right and good, even when it is as mean-spirited, hateful, nasty, un-thought out, unsupported, self-serving, and tendentious as what they type.

Bad is them. Good is me.

And this is how evil and villainy are portrayed on TV shows, in the movies, in books...and in the news.

It may be that we are encouraged to think this way by what we watch and read, but I think it's more likely the other way round. Our storytellers and entertainers work to give their audience what they want. We want to be told that we are good and evil is an Other.

We want pretty stories.

And it's not just we plebes zoning out in front of CSI and Cold Case who think like this.

In fact, it appears that most of the Washington Media elite does too.

It may be that they're all in the bag. It may just be that old habits die hard and even when the story is Republican corruption they just can't help beating up on Democrats. But I think their determination to believe that the Abramoff Scandal tars as many Democrats as it does Republicans---and by their math, one Democrat would equal 100 Republicans; this is how any Bush League inititave that Joe Lieberman signs on to can be called bipartisan---is because if Democrats are involved then the story they have to tell is pretty and safe, pretty and safer for its being an old one.

If the Democrats are in on it then they can tell it as a story of "Politics as Usual."

Oh look at all those foolish Congressmen with their hands out. Aren't they a bunch of clowns? Oh well, that's the price we have to pay. I just thank goodness the system still works and my Congressman isn't one of them.

Couple weeks ago, Rob Farley, of Lawyers, Guns and Money (a Mannion Koufax Award nominee for Best Group Blog), posted his list of the 10 Worst Americans.

It's a persuasive list, although to make things more fun and the discussion livelier Rob deliberately undercuts its seriousness by including novelist Henry Miller, movie director Joel Schumacher, and blogger/pundit/one time serious journalist Mickey Kaus---Miller and Schumacher for crimes against art and good taste, Kaus for just being a dope and a jerk. I particularly agree with two of Rob's choices, J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy, for the reasons Rob gives for putting them on his list.

J. Edgar Hoover: I don't think that civil liberty in the United States has ever had a more committed enemy. I don't know that he hated leftists, african-americans, and civil rights advocates per se, but he was willing to destroy anyone who threatened his power.

Joseph McCarthy: Willing to burn everything that was good about America in the service of his power.

Hoover and McCarthy were thoroughly bad men, two of the most consummate villains American politics has produced, and yet at one time each was tremendously popular and regarded as a hero, Hoover much more than McCarthy, of course, and at his zenith McCarthy was probably more tolerated than admired by those who approved of what he was doing---but, make no mistake, they approved.

Despite Ann Coulter's efforts, popular history is emphatic on the point of McCarthy's villany. It's been slower to come around on Hoover---in fact, I'm not sure it has; he's treated more as a clown than anything so that the truth that America's number one law enforcement agency was run for two generations by a criminal and a thug can be ignored. But I suspect that even where what Hoover was and the evil that he did are acknowledged, most people regard Hoover, and McCarthy, as aberrations. Isolated figures whose success was accidental and ultimately irrelevent to any consideration of the American character or our political system, which after all is an expression of our national character.

Few people think about, let alone worry about, how the fact that Hoover and McCarthy rose to power and thrived, the fact that, to take two other men on Rob's list, we almost made the likes of Aaron Burr President and gave a serious shot at the job to George Wallace, or that, in the case of an obvious pick Rob left off his list probably because he was too obvious, we elected Richard Nixon President twice and by a landslide the second time, how these facts suggest that our history and our government has been full of bad actors and that these bad actors have not just succeeded, we have liked them for their success and applauded them for it.

Which means that not only have we alllowed bad and evil men to govern, we almost certainly will again, if we are not in fact doing that now---which, of course, we are.

This is not a pretty story that Americans have routinely been duped and defrauded and out and out corrupted by our politicians.

It's not a pretty story that we have been fools and rascals and voted for and cheered on other fools and rascals.

It's not a pretty story that we are not as good as we like to think we are.

So we don't tell it.

Which makes it all the easier for us to be duped and defrauded and corrupted again.

Barely a generation after Richard Nixon waved goodbye we put into office the puppet of a bunch of old Nixonian bagmen and hatchetmen and told ourselves we had elected a man who would bring honor and dignity back to the White House.

Except we didn't put him there.

We put Al Gore there. Or we meant to.

But so in love are we with pretty stories---or so in love is the Media with its Pretty Story---that we're having a very hard time admitting to ourselves that we wuz robbed.

Susie Madrak has posted an excerpt from an interview with a professor who has studied the results of the 2000 election and concluded not just that Gore won Florida---that's a given---but that he won it by 30,000 votes!

(Follow Susie's link to jem6x's post at the DailyKos for a detailed explanation.)

In the excerpt, the professor tells the story of how after Socretes' self-inflicted execution his student Plato left Athens and went far out into the country to found his Academy. The reason he did this, the professor says, is that Plato had concluded that the Athenians didn't want to hear that the pretty stories they told about themselves weren't true.

...the town people didn’t want to hear that their beliefs about the gods were myths, that their institutions were founded somewhat arbitrarily, that they didn’t know what they were talking about when they said they wanted justice.

So maybe it isn't Americans.

<> It's human nature.


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