Friday, October 29, 2010

Fictional Politics

Though it's replete with action, sex, badass characters, and exotic locations, I'm gratified that my latest novel, Inside Out, has also garnered attention for its politics. Generally speaking, anything that gets people talking about your books is good, but the reaction to Inside Out is pleasing too because of what that reaction reveals about how some politics are perceived as political, while other politics are not.

If I had to encapsulate the politics of Inside Out, I'd say something like this: "Torture and endless war have made America less safe, not more, and America is run by a oligarchic web of media, government, military, and corporate interests who profit by keeping Americans afraid of an external enemy."

I don't deny that such a viewpoint is political. But now let's see if we can similarly encapsulate the politics of a more typical, ticking time bomb thriller:

"Alien, brown-skinned external enemy zealots seek to destroy us because they hate our freedoms, and through torture and a militaristic response, we can stop them and preserve our way of life."

For me, the second worldview is as political as the first (more so, in fact, for reasons I'll mention below). But my sense is that, for many people, only the first seems "political." If I'm correct, it suggests that the right has succeeded (at least in fiction) in establishing its own worldview as the norm, by comparison with which, other worldviews are suspiciously "political."

This success is striking for a number of reasons. Chief among them is that the "external threat is worst" view is contradicted by actual evidence. Multiple studies, including one commissioned by Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, have demonstrated that the majority of what causes terrorism isn't our freedoms, but rather our wars. To the extent a view is driven more by ideology than it is by facts, I would expect it to be recognized as more political, not less. In fiction, at least, this seems not to be the case.

In some ways, I'm surprised rightists reject the "our overreaction is the greater threat" worldview, and not just because it's the one supported by available evidence. I would expect doughty conservatives, paragons of the virtues of taking personal responsibility, to embrace a worldview that implicitly empowers us to solve our problems by changing our policies (and without running up huge deficits, too). When it comes to identifying threats to America, something must be overriding the right's nominal attachment to personal and fiscal responsibility. My guess is, that thing is the innate human abhorrence of acknowledging culpability. Psychologically, it's always more pleasurable to blame others for our problems than it is to acknowledge our own responsibility. George Carlin nailed this dynamic with his, "Have you ever noticed that everyone who drives too fast is a maniac, and everyone who drives too slowly is a moron, while you always drive at the correct speed?"

Anger, and the self righteousness that is both the cause and consequence of anger, tends to be easier on the psyche than personal responsibility. It's strange that conservatives reflexively counsel welfare recipients to take responsibility and get off the dole, and yet are unwilling to acknowledge what common sense and the data linked to above clearly demonstrate: anti-American animus is largely the result of American foreign policy.

Now granted, when it comes to politics in a novel, execution matters. But I don't think style and delivery explain too much of the discrepancy detailed above. More important, I think, is the advantage of conventionality to the construction of an "external enemies" plot. Noam Chomsky summed up the difference better than anyone with his withering commentary on "concision" on television. Watch the attached three-minute video and you'll see what I mean.

As is the case for television talk shows, conventional politics in a novel are easy to express with concision. "A blood-thirsty Islamic terrorist has planted a bomb under Los Angeles, but the hero is able to break him with torture and so save the day." What evidence does one have to offer in support of such a simplistic, conventional, and psychologically comforting view? Conversely, if you want to depict elites manipulating public fears for their own private gain, or the ways in which the war on terror perpetuates terror and thus ensures the war will be self-sustaining and unending, you have to provide an evidentiary framework, a framework that's both challenging for the novelist and also likely to be perceived as "political" in a way that the evil bomb-planter plot is not. What's easier is more commonly produced; what's more commonly produced is accepted as a norm. And thus, over time, readers habituate to how inherently political is the "Muslims are coming to get us" plot.

Not for the first time, I have to salute the right for its stellar communications skills. Persuading readers that your political fiction is apolitical? Reminds me of that line from The Usual Suspects -- that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.

P.S. Recently I participated on a great Bouchercon panel, inspired by my Huff Post piece Torture Tales, on politics and the novel. Thanks to moderator David Corbett and to my fellow panelists Mark Billingham, Gayle Lynds, and S.J. Rozan, for exceptionally thought-provoking discussion, some of which is reflected in this post.

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