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 up in the series: Addressing Beliefs that Make Liberal America Weak.
Andy, you might or might not agree with me that this is appropriate. I am feeling rather strongly right about now that it is appropriate.
PLEASE, SING WE WILL NOT BE MOVED AND SOUND LIKE YOU MEAN IT. AND THEN KEEP ON MEANING IT
That particular amazing song is the last one in this wonderful collection. It pulls us together. Then we go out again and do our work. Ok maybe sometimes we do play a little. 🙂
I was unaware that the piece about knowing evil was objectionable: I did not think so.
On the piece above, I’d have used examples primarily from history to show show how men and women had overcome ultra-conservatism, racism, vigilantism, etc. and the war on the poor and middle class, down the years.
A nod to fantasy heroes is appropriate and illustrative from time to town, but cannot carry the weight alone. It is agonizingly true that Americans know little of their history, and next to nothing of world history. One of the areas of difficulty is certainly being able to get the truth across when the corporate media, and fundamentalist religions continually spout the same propaganda–and they have the money to do so.
I enjoyed this piece and look forward to the next.
The solution to the transition is to pull the cliff hanger out of the second piece and add the Evil introduction there.
So the closing paragraphs might look like this.
Put all those pieces together, and what do we see?
I am not afraid to call out this force for what it is, evil. I use the word “evil” advisedly. Mostly, I use it because “evil” is the most apt word in our language to capture an important reality in the human world. It’s a reality that can be seen operating through history, and specifically one that’s exemplified at present in all its ugliness by the force we now see on the political right.
I’ve got a message, and a plan, to get our national conversation to focus on this dark and disturbing picture. The more Americans who can see that picture, the more they will drain from this destructive force the power to govern our nation’s destiny.
Replying to both Forest and Richard…
To you first, Forest. I can see doing that, but I’m hesitant. I purposely left the word “evil” out of that piece, while conjuring it up perhaps in the minds of the readers (with my “What do we in our civilization traditionally call..?” question).
My reason for avoiding it is the resistance that I know that the word evokes. First, my fear is that if I declare it too soon, I will lose too many fish at the first play. Better to get the hook well into the fish before straining the line between us. And second, I think that when I put that word forward, there should be some room to deal with the reality that it some will have the impulse to push me away when I transgress their well-established rejection of the notion that there can be such a thing as an “evil force.”
But perhaps there’s another way to do it, in the present piece.
Which leads me to my response to you, Richard. Your response to my fantasy heroes, which you regard as off target, leads me to consider adding a final paragraph in which something that I was leading up to gets put nakedly onto the table for development in a future posting. That final additional paragraph might read something like this:
“Liberal America responds differently to the evil force we actually confront than it does, sitting in the audience of such films, for a basic, and telling reason. When we enter the imaginary realm of the movies, we readily perceive that there is an evil force before our eyes. That’s because in imagined worlds, we willingly suspend our disbelief. We believe in animals that talk, we believe in Avatars that will allow a crippled Marine to run again, we believe in magical wizzards. But in the real world, we are attached to our disbeliefs. And in Liberal America, a great many disbelieve in the reality of something that should be called “evil.” Many believe it an illegitimate concept, something that does not correspond to anything in our reality.
“There’s a saying in baseball. You can’t hit what you can’t see. And I would add, you are unlikely to see what you don’t believe exists.
“In the next entry, I will describe a phenomenon I see operating in the world that I believe warrants being called an ‘evil force.’ It is important for people to see this phenomenon, regardless of what name they give it. But as for me, I think it fits in most essentials what has traditionally been understood in our civilization as “evil.”
Then, the next entry could be that four-part definition of evil I gave in the piece that Danny and Forest didn’t endorse, and that Richard supports.
What do you think of that way of unfolding things?
Not to be holier than Thou ‘er nuthin’:
Andy said, “…[M]y fear is that if I declare it too soon, I will lose too many fish at the first play. Better to get the hook well into the fish before straining the line between us.”
That sounds like deception in the form known in law as “omission of a material fact”–about you in this case. Certainly it appears to be well-meaning deception, but it appears to me to be deception. Just sayin’.
I disagree entirely, Larry. Even if I didn’t already clearly allude to this material fact, I am asking people to follow a series in which this additional piece will be presented rather soon. Hardly seems like deception.
And it is particularly surprising coming from you, Larry, in the wake of your having admonished me more than once about saying to Republicans certain things I believe strongly are important and true, things along the line of “The Republican Party has become an instrument of an evil force.” You spoke of the possible impact of such words, how it would be taken, etc. And indicated that you thought it unconstructive to make such statements to such an audience (which, as I explained, was not the audience I’m trying to address).
You did not address my concern at all, Andy. I was referring to your proposal, which is what I quoted, to try to induce people to change positions in relation to you–move toward you–while concealing from them that talking about evil is your main focus. You said it, I didn’t. It appears to me that you were talking about an approach to a different audience than us readers of NoneSoBlind where the focus has always been on evil. But you’re exactly right, your talking about evil has been putting me off, especially lately, though I am still listening, as I have said. Reading your book might help. In the meantime, especially since evil is your main focus, your concealment of that fact in appearances before different audiences might be considered deception. Or maybe you meant a shorter time than I understood, like revelation sometime before your first appearance is concluded.
Some like me, some don’t. You are in the same boat, like most of us except Audrey Hepburn, who was loved by everyone.
I want to try to shut up for awhile. :-7
“…And indicated that you thought it unconstructive to make such statements to such an audience (which, as I explained, was not the audience I’m trying to address).”
Actually I am afraid that making such statements to any audience is likely to be unconstructive.