I was reading the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin and came across the following commentary by her:
“A hero whose heroism consists of killing people is uninteresting to me, and I detest the hormonal war orgies of our visual media … War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to ‘a war against’ whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off. This is puerile, misleading, and degrading. In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance. All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the ‘right’ side and therefore will win.”
This passage is copyrighted 2012, and surely Le Guin is commenting in part on the American political and war scene, even if these comments came as an afterword to her novel “A Wizard of Earthsea.”
The stories we tell ourselves – our driving narratives and metaphors – are very powerful. I learned this almost three decades ago from one of my professors at Johns Hopkins. We were talking about the scientific revolution, the label applied after the fact by historians to the era of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. Did that era truly deserve the label of a “revolution” in thought? On one level, yes. A heliocentric vision replaced a geocentric one. Newtonian physics replaced Aristotelian metaphysics. But on another level, the label was misleading. If you view this era only through a “revolutionary” lens, everything gets magnified and refracted through it. You’re always looking for evidence of the “revolution” that you know is there. The revolutionary narrative/metaphor, in other words, restricts and distorts your vision. It also tends to answer questions before they’re even asked. Certain historical figures get labeled as “revolutionaries,” others as “reactionaries,” some as winners, others as losers, almost without having to think about it.
That’s disturbing enough for a historian dealing with the “dead” past. Think about how that distortion, that resort to easy categorization, applies to the living, to the present, in “wartime.” Viewing everything through a war lens both restricts and distorts our vision. We quickly force people to take sides, or we assign them a side regardless of their complexity (“You’re either for us or against us,” as George W. Bush noted in the aftermath of 9/11). Just as quickly, the “heroes” adopt the violent methods of the bad guys (witness the bombing, the invasions, the use of torture, performed by the U.S. in the stated cause of “liberation”). No ethical complexity is tolerated since “our” troops are on the right side (so we think). Even when they embrace violence and lose control, deadly mistakes and even war crimes are readily excused as aberrations that should be forgotten, rare exceptions that do nothing to besmirch America’s exceptional and heroic nature.
The power of narratives is remarkable. The United States continues to be driven by one that’s dominated by power, violence, and war. Is it any wonder, then, that the two major party candidates for the presidency, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, fit so easily and readily into this narrative? Hillary plans to continue to wage war even more aggressively than Obama has, and Trump is all about violent solutions and an “Us” versus “Them” mentality. (Build a wall! Biggest, baddest military! Make America great again! Punch the protesters! Extreme vetting! Throw the illegals out!)
Until we change our national narrative from one of constant war and violence to something more pacific and modulated, our political scene will continue to be, to borrow Le Guin’s words, puerile and misleading and degrading, with candidates serving up heroic violence as pabulum, as infantile reassurance.