Column by Andy Schmookler
Summary: We all know how to respond to evil. Again and again, our popular stories and mythology take us vicariously and gratifyingly through the process — e.g. in films like “Avatar,” “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings,” where our heroes put themselves on the line to defeat an evil force in defense of sacred values. Why is it, then, that as we face that same essential situation in America’s contemporary reality, we fail to respond as our heroes do?
The the destructive force that has arisen on the right is only one side of America’s present national crisis. The other side is the weakness of the response from Liberal America to this profound threat to our nation’s well-being.
I’ve described President Obama’s failure to wage the battle that must be waged. But the problem of liberal weakness – and of its blindness – is not confined to the president. These defects were evident among Democratic leaders before Mr. Obama assumed the presidency, and they are manifested, I would assert, by Liberal America taken as a whole.
It is important that we understand the sources of this weakness.
It’s not that we don’t know how to respond to an “evil force,” for this is something our society’s culture (popular and otherwise) has taught us well.
Consider how three of the most salient narratives of modern American popular culture put us through our paces– evoking the pain and outrage of seeing injustice done and sacred things destroyed, and instilling in our hearts the will to fight the necessary battle to prevail over evil and set things right.
** The film Avatar, for example, seen by many millions of us, shows us a rapacious and brutal force. It is a kind of military/industrial complex, ruthless in its willingness to violate the sacred web of life in order to enrich itself. We follow our protagonist, Sully, in switching our allegiance to an entirely different culture of human-like creatures imbued with reverence for the living world that sustains them. We participate in their pain and rage at the despoliation of that world. At the film’s inevitable climax, we identify passionately with the determination of our hero and his companions to fight and win the battle between these two approaches to life. It’s a battle we understand as one of good against evil, fought to protect what is sacred from still further plunder.
** The Star Wars films have permeated American culture. From the beginning of the series, we were presented with a stark contrast between our underdog individualistic heroes, immersed in the stuff of life, and the dominating, life-denying Empire ruled from the “Death Star.” We feel outrage when the Death Star brutally murders an entire living planet, causing (as the wise Obe Wan Kanobi discerns) “a disturbance in the Force.” In Star Wars, as in Avatar, we eagerly follow the movement toward that inevitable climax, the all-out battle between the forces of good and evil. And we are thrilled when Luke – trusting “the Force” – threads his bomb into the core of the Death Star, using the explosive force of the Death Star’s own power source to destroy it.
** In the Lord of the Rings saga, the simple courage and integrity of Frodo Baggins helps save the world from another representation of the force of evil. We are gratified as our stalwart heroes prevail in the climactic battle against Sauron and the forces of Mordor, forces for which there is no value beyond the lust for power. And it is with relief and deep satisfaction that – once the battle has been won, and with the cauldrons of war-making and dominance no longer threatening to burn up our world — we return to the realm of the Hobbits, a world green with life and well-ordered by human decency and the web of human relationships.
In those imagined worlds, we are capable of perceiving the evil force before our eyes, and responding emotionally with the requisite outrage at the despoliation of the sacred and with determination to protect it by fighting and winning the necessary battle.
But in the real world, in our times, we in Liberal America have not demonstrated these same capabilities. We have not acted like our heroes — Sully, Luke, and Frodo — even though we are in the same basic position as they: facing an evil force that threatens our most sacred values.
** In the imagined world of Avatar, the destruction is wrought in the quest of the mineral unobtanium, which nicely captures an essential truth about the spirit that has captured today’s Republican Party: it is a spirit for which any sense of “enough” is simply unobtainable when it comes to amassing wealth. Nowhere is this more dramatically demonstrated than with the urgent issue of climate change, where the Republican Party has made it party dogma to deny what 97 percent of climate scientists say is a serious, potentially catastrophic threat that must be addressed, and has consistently blocked our nation’s ability to respond to the challenge. Like the brutal and greedy system in Avatar — a system willing to destroy the living system of that planet for its own greater enrichment — the Republican Party willingly collaborates with the world’s richest corporations, seeking to protect their short-term profits even at the cost of undermining the integrity of the earth’s biosphere on which we, our children, and our grandchildren depend for our survival.
An evil force is right before our eyes. But why hasn’t Liberal America risen up more powerfully, like Sully, to lead the battle?
** Like the Empire in the Star Wars films, today’s Republican Party manifests an ugly (and often sadistic) lust for power. It gave us a presidency that launched a war of choice to extend the hegemony of “the world’s one remaining superpower (and that brought the shame of torture to the highest levels of American government). Even though it was already legally wielding the greatest power on earth, that presidency arrogated still more powers to itself, with unprecedented usurpations of powers contrary to the Constitution, threatening the traditional American systems of checks and balances. Then, when cast from power, this Party gave us an opposition that, in an unprecedented strategy for regaining power for itself, made its top priority to make the president from the other party fail. This, despite the nation’s being beset by several national crises, including the economy teetering on the edge of an abyss, and despite the inescapable reality that if the president failed the nation too would fail, and tens of millions of Americans would suffer.
The spirit of the Death Star is visible before us. But why has Liberal America not acted like Luke?
** As with the depiction of the forces of evil in The Lord of the Rings, likewise in America in our times we can see operating a force that seduces and corrupts ordinary people. We can see a kind of “ring” operating through our political and economic systems, bringing out the worst in those under its sway. With their ambition’s inflamed, people decent in their private lives act to further indecent policies. As in The Lord of the Rings, an insidious force tricks a great many of our fellow citizens into thinking they are serving the good while unwittingly they are serving the opposite–turning the democratic political process into a form of warfare and national policy into an instrument of injustice, abetting a force inimical to their own real interests and deepest values.
To combat this insidious, deceptive force, how many in Liberal America have been willing, like Frodo, to leave our comfortable Hobbit-like niches and rise to the urgent challenge of our dangerous moment?
Yes, we are in basically the same situation as our heroes, but our side in this battle is not imitating their heroic defense of the good we love in our world. Indeed, the battle has been nearly one-sided.
Why is that? Why is it that, while we face an “evil force” that threatens our most sacred values, our response has been so much like that line from Yeats referred to earlier: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with a passionate intensity”?
The answer to that question has many parts. But a central part of it lies in the realm of beliefs– i.e. in the worldview of liberal/intellectual America.
In the fantasy worlds of the movies, we willingly suspend our disbelief in such ancient notions as “the battle between good and evil.”
But when we look at the real world around us, our belief system tells us there is no such thing as an “evil force.” That’s a primitive notion, our sophisticated rational worldview tells us.
In this “Press the Battle” series, I will try to show that this liberal worldview not only weakens us, but is also in error. The error is not in insisting on evidence and logic, but in not pursuing the rational and empirical approach far enough. There is more to our human world, I will try to show, than is dreamt of in our too-limited natural philosophy.
Coming soon: Beliefs that Make Liberal America Weak.