...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, January 14, 2011

Day 3661: The Wrong Kind of Story


Let's face it: human beans are pretty badly put together in the BRAIN department. It's in your interests to cooperate, but you just don't.

Instead, inside your little heads, you're all the heroes of your own story, as I said yesterday. You don't SEE other people except as BIT PLAYERS in your own PERSONAL DRAMA.

The whole of American culture – and now, by extension, the whole of OUR culture – encourages this idea: "one man (it usually IS a "man") CAN make a difference". And the corollary: the government/big business/the bureaucracy/the Matrix/absolutely everyone else is venal, incompetent, corrupt. And probably out to get you.

In how many films is this the plot? In how many TV series is this the premise? From John Wayne to "Knight Rider", from Superman to "24", even "Doctor Who" (the "rebel" from a world of "self-absorbed bureaucrats who run the universe" – which may be why it is as beloved to right-wingers as to Liberals) all say this.

(Of course it's an almost perfect fit for TV or Movies where the economies of the form – dramatic as much as monetary – require a preference for a small central cast of characters and almost certainly a single key protagonist. Who, by a total coincidence, is usually white and male and almost-without-exception heterosexual and cis-gendered.)

The maverick entrepreneur is lauded as heroic when the faceless bankers are condemned (hence the "lucky chancer barrow-boy" persona presented by Lord Sugar-Plum Fairy); the iconoclastic artist is praised as a radical while the populist is condemned as bourgeois (unless you are on "Britain's Got Strictly the X-Factor on Ice" where the plucky populist is the "underdog" against the elitist "industry" – does NO ONE see the irony in this?!); the brave protester, standing up against the vested interests of the establishment is lauded as the lone voice of "common sense" (and so the Prince of Wales, the World's most establishment Don Quixote, wearily tilts at the windmills of "Big Pharma" – defending the multi-billion pound "alternative medicine" industry – and "Big Agriculture" – defending the multi-billion pound "organic farming" industry (in which he has an interest) – and "Big, er, Architecture" – defending, well, his NIMBY chums – in an effort to use the story to make himself popular).

And it doesn't stop there, of course: it's the basis of revolutionary communism and the F├╝hrerprinzip too.

Even the World's biggest RELIGION is based on this idea. Heroic outsider who makes a BIG change; corrupt and incompetent government (bribery with thirty pieces of silver; washing their hands of decisions)… is any of this ringing any bells? Christianity historically does VERY well among the poor, the deprived, the underprivileged, the ill-educated and why? Not because those people are more credulous or more gullible (…well, maybe not JUST that…), but because it has a really good STORY.

The REASON that Superman ends up as Mr Jesus so often is because Superman AND Jesus are both YOU. In your own story you are the unique individual that changes and creates the world around you.

It's no wonder that Mr George Lucas ended up turning his own mythology INSIDE-OUT: a Force that relies on you building connections with other people, working together even(!), is the EXACT OPPOSITE of the story of the "chosen one", the one special flower who will do… whatever (in this case "bring balance to the force" but basically "win").

And in a very real way this is how the Captain went from Cleggmania to being burned in effigy: the story of the coalition simply does not fit this overriding world view.

"Star Wars" has to END with the moment that the rebels WIN; you can't go on and have them form a GOVERNMENT (and no, I'm NOT getting into "expanded universe" novels). How's the story supposed to work if the rebels next worry is about the fact that the Emperor has spent all the money on Death Stars so they have to choose between raising taxes or cutting benefits?

Likewise Dr Woo has to LEAVE the moment that the monsters are DEFEATED. Russell Davies' first series of "Doctor Who" (the one with Mr Dr Eccythump) toyed with considering the consequences of this, even went so far as to hint it was a moral derogation that ultimately allowed in the fascists. Or Daleks as Dr Woo calls them. Incidentally, it's easy and obvious to say that the Daleks represent Fascism or the Cybermen represent Communism, but actually both (and indeed our real world fear of "Fascists" and "Commies") also draw on our ALIENATION from a world that at times seems full of identical blank-faced hostile and oppressive OTHERS. Still, a literal deus ex machina saved Dr Woo from having to face the consequences of his sticking to the "and now we leave" script, and he's shown no sign of wanting to take responsibility since (compared with Mister the Master who actually bothered to run the planet for a year! With admittedly MIXED results.)

And also likewise – and forgive me – Mr Jesus' victory definitely has to come in HEAVENLAND in the AFTERLIFE. Actually solving problems here in the real world would involve, well, actually solving problems here in the real world.

Because that's the problem with the story: Real Life does not HAVE winning lines. You don't ever get to "happily ever after". Or "heaven on Earth". Or the communist revolution. "Utopia" MEANS "nowhere". It's why the ENDS never justify the MEANS – because there AREN'T ANY ENDS.

So Captain Clegg gets to be the dashing rebel, the outsider, the underdog and everyone LOVES him and against all the odds – just as the story says he should – he wins, overthrows the government and takes his place in the throne room (or Downing Street garden). He even wins the heart of the Ice Princess. Er.

After that, ANYTHING (short of hopping into the TARDIS) is a betrayal of the story. So actually GOVERNING the country was the WORST thing he could have done!

Which brings us back to the right-wing commentators and their use of the language of HATE.

Somehow the right… actually it's not "the right", that's wholly imprecise; it's the AUTHORITARIAN Parties in Americaland (who, like an icky ichneumon wasp, are consuming the economically DRY Replutocratic Party from within)… anyway THEM, somehow they get away with this.

Perhaps they're particularly good at wiring themselves into the story, subverting the story, so that their supporters get to feel like the "lone hero" up against (if the Authoritarians are out of government) the government or (if the Authoritarians are IN government) the foreign foe/enemy within: commie or terrorist or whoever. Effete European will do at a pinch, particularly in Hollywood.

They SAY they are about INDIVIDUALISM, but it's the sort of individualism that leaves you ALONE and AFRAID. Individuals who wish to be separate should have that choice, of course they should; but authoritarians DEPEND on making you feel separate, and tell you you have NO CHOICE but to be that way. It is the individualism of divide and conquer.

That's why it is so important for me that I remind you of this: Liberalism IS about empowering the individual. But it's not JUST about individuals. It's about the CONNECTIONS that you make as an individual. So it's about FAMILIES. And about COMMUNITIES. And about NATIONS. And about WORLDS.

It is the CONNECTION between us that means we have a duty to be KIND to one another. Disagree, surely, but don't despise.


lizw said...

I think I agree with this.

But if I can go off-topic for a moment: although it's difficult and not a good election strategy, it is possible to write gripping stories about the tough choices that have to be made once our heroes are in government. A friend of mine is currently doing just that for C.S. Lewis's Narnia: it's worth a read for anyone who likes that universe, but wonders how a bunch of children would actually go about running a kingdom. Chapter IV contains one of the most chilling moments in any fiction I've ever read.

Richard Gadsden said...

I think I agree with this too. I also agree with liz that you can write stories about making decisions in government - Eric Flint's 163x series is a published example, with long scenes where constitutions are being drawn up as well as battles and derring-doo.

But the only visual-media example I can come up with is the West Wing, and even that is much more inclined to be a "how can we do the right thing" story than a "what is the right thing" story. Even if it does have my favourite line about politics: "It's more complicated than that"