Like all of us, I’m struggling through the mess that is our world since Trump and the neo-Nazis entered power. It’s easy to feel disempowered and small. It’s easy to see all the things that could lead us into a place of no return. It’s easy to see the danger of belonging to a minority, to see the system failing, and to despair about being human.
There are some differences between now and 1938, however. Those differences aren’t in the rise of the idiots. They’re in us. They’re in places where we can talk out of the public eye. I discovered yesterday that talking out of the public eye and carefully planning a rise is how the current crop of idiots gained power. That’s the bad news. The good news is that their work was not the only critical changes to our society that take place just out of sight. That other stuff gives me hope.
Let’s start with the less-hope. So many people are fighting using the old paths of fighting. The ones that haven’t worked terribly well. A bunch of my friends feel very strongly that punching Richard Spencer is the right thing to do. Another group feel that joking about punching is the right thing to do. Me, I feel that these two groups are missing the wood for the trees. They’re focussed on an immediate feeling of relief from this intolerable hate. The feeling that they can discipline Spencer and his ilk into place.
The trouble with this, of course, is that they’re not Spencer’s victims. The person who punched him and the people who joke about punching him and others are saying it from a position of relative safety and privilege. There are two real questions here:
1. When someone punches a bigot, who does the idiot hurt? Not the person who punches. We’ve already discovered that people who can punch are often able to defend themselves. When Spenser went home, did he hurt anyone there to let out the emotion of being publicly humiliated? Did he hurt anyone outside the home? It’s not the joy of vindication that matters, it’s not having people who hate the bigots unintentionally (in fact, with the best possible desires in the world) hurt the victims of the bigots. Create more hurt. Add to a culture of hurt. The place we’re living in currently has a culture of hurt. We have to choose how we subdue evil with a mind to that. The aim of that punch was to help, but there are other ways of helping, ones that may not make anything worse.
2. What I read yesterday was an interview with three people who had left the alt-right. They’d grown past their anger and into the world most of us live in. One of them pointed out the long path Spencer and Bannon have travelled to reach where they are, and how carefully planned it is. They pointed out that Spencer was about to stand for government and had probably found a place where he could get in. That punch would far better have been another action entirely, something that would help in preventing him getting into public office. Research Watergate-style rather than instant emotional gratification. Finding out what Spencer’s plans are and making sure they don’t hurt anyone else is the best route of all. Not as easy or as emotionally satisfying as a punch, but better for everyone else.
One of the reasons many people don’t take this route is because a lot of our narratives push the punching. Our TV, or books, our online chat – they all have more narratives that push for immediate emotional response than ones that push for the more complex reaction that puncher needed.
There’s another thing they give us, however. They leave out how to handle hate. They tend to favour certain groups (the white hero, for instance, the male protagonist). When they have non-white, non-male, narratives tend to have a limited range of virtuous characters, and those characters have a tendency to not carry the really debilitating emotions, the ones that so many of us carry that prevent us from playing an active part in halting the dissolution of the difficult to the dangerous to the disastrous.
I’ve begun to notice a change in this. This change is where I place some hope for the future.
Yesterday I was watching the latest crop of superhero TV (and this is where you find out why I watch so much of this kind of work). There was a Jewish superhero in a very recent episode of Arrow who actually followed a path I emotionally resonated with as someone Jewish. I thought I’d never see the deeper levels of Jewish belief and how tikkun olam operates placed into a superhero story as if it belonged. In Arrow (which is a terribly dire show in a bunch of ways) the Jewish superhero laid down his arms for a while, because he had to be true to what he was and his super hero heritage gift would have led him astray, for it was broken. He had to find another path to do what he wanted to do if he wanted to reform the world. I don’t know if we’ll be shown that path, or if he’ll come back with his weapon made true again, but that a minority could have an emotional trajectory that was true for his background is important.
I saw new politics in more shows than Arrow and I’m beginning to see them in novels. Caitlin Brennan’s House of the Star, for example, is technically a quest/adventure, but the whole outcome concerns resolving personal hate based on stereotyping. These changes in narrative are gentle and often under the surface, but they’re there. There have always been these themes, but they’re in greater abundance right now. It’s not a minority preaching: it’s the majority. And it’s not done as preaching: it’s enabled as narrative choices.
I don’t know if these story choices will change the choices people make in real life or how they’ll change them, but this particular path wasn’t available in the late 30s. Nor was it able to respond so very widely and quickly, with such an audience.
The turnaround in many our creative arts right now is very fast. From the moment the decision is made to fund a season to the moment that season is released is astonishing for superhero shows such as Arrow. Movies had fast turnaround in the 30s, faster than now, but it’s not movies that are calling the cultural shots. We all still follow movies, but the everyday conversation has turned to the TV series, especially the ones that we share internationally, through places like Netflix.
International current conversation based on storylines that have been decided during the time of our recent political past? It’s up to the millions upon millions of viewers how this is interpreted and what it means for our society. They might choose to support Trump and Turnbull. They might choose to punch someone in the face. Or they might spin off in an entirely new direction.
It’s not all types of shows and books. But it reaches a lot of viewers and readers. And it’s carrying politics that‘s personal. Where decisions have to be made by individuals, not by someone important in another city. It’s not politics of the papers: it’s politics of the people. We have a potential game-changer.