Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Bad Man Theory

I was going to write this after the U.S. presidential election, but by then everyone will be preoccupied with the inevitable recount in several counties in Delaware. So I might as well write something now. (By the way, "Delaware" is the state that has, for some reason, become a comedy punchline. You just say "Delaware" and people laugh.)

It's no secret that political art -- specifically, anti-Bush art -- has become big in the last, well, four years. For example, I read a magazine story about political plays currently being mounted around the U.S.; different titles, different stories, but every single one of them was about how much the author hates a) Bush, b) Halliburton, c) Christians, d) White guys in suits. Anyway, what interests me is, what's going to happen if the Democrats get in? Well, the answer is that there will probably be "political" plays and books dealing with the evils of b) c) and d). But some of the fervour will go out of political art, all around the world, and if the Republicans are ever voted out of control of the House and Senate, still more of that fervour will evaporate.

The tone of recent political art is usually described as "Bush-hating," but that's not wholly accurate; Tony Kushner doesn't hate Bush any more than he hates anyone else to his right. The characteristic of political art in the last decade or two has been what I would call the "Bad Man Theory" of political art. This states that society's problems are caused by bad people doing bad things out of bad motives, and the purpose of political art is to expose the bad people and the bad things. "Balance" is achieved by showing that maybe the good people are too complacent and not doing enough to stop the bad people. And the grand theme is that if only there were fewer bad people doing bad things, the world wouldn't be so bad.

This kind of art is inevitably created along party-political lines: inevitably because if you postulate that Republicans are bad people with bad motives, then the solution is to replace them with someone who doesn't have bad motives. This particular kind of political art has always been around, of course, but I think it really got off the ground in the '80s, with anti-Thatcher plays in England (one or two of them even created by theatre professionals who didn't vote for her the first time around). These plays surveyed the immense, complicated, decades-in-the-making problems in British society and concluded that they were all caused because the British people voted in the wrong party in 1979. American culture, late as usual, didn't really catch up with this kind of political art until 1994, when the ascention of the Republican House and Senate created a convenient target, setting the stage for the global explosion of Bad-Man art since January 2001.

The problem with this kind of political art is, first of all, that it dates really quickly. This is because when you associate society's problems with a bad man, or even a bad political party, you wind up turning art into policy-wonkery. Good political art acknowledges that there are no easy answers. Policy analysis in a democratic society, by its very nature, has an easy answer: vote this guy out. Or even: change this policy. With the exception of a few songs here and there, I can't think of a good piece of art from the '60s that's dedicated to a policy analysis of the Vietnam War. But the '60s did produce several fine anti-war movies, including The Americanization of Emily, which is not anti-war in a policy-analysis kind of way (as in "stop this war"), but in a more theoretical and complicated way, questioning the wisdom of war, not of a war.

The other problem with Bad-Man art is that it's not even particularly effective propaganda. Good propaganda art must convince people that the artist's preferred position is right, and the other side is wrong. But Bad-Man art is so hung up on motives -- on the idea that the Bad Men are doing that they do for bad reasons -- that it spends too much time on questioning motives and not enough time questioning actions. Put it this way: even if you can prove that a politician did something for a bad purpose (making money, controlling the supply of black gooey stuff), this does not, in itself, prove that it was a bad thing to do. In other words, exposing someone's "hidden motive" is a poor substitute for questioning the wisdom of the official, stated motive. The hang-up with motives, the belief that anything bad has to be done for bad motives, is both ahistorical -- some very good things have been done out of greed; some very bad things have been done out of noble intentions -- and irrelevant. Again, take The Americanization of Emily: Paddy Chayefsky isn't concerned with showing us that wars are fought for less-than-noble reasons. He's more interested in the opposite point -- that the "noble" and "good" stuff about war doesn't make it any better, but worse, a prettified justification for slaughter.

Rejecting the Bad Man Theory doesn't mean that political art shouldn't have a point of view or that it should bend over backward to show the "other side." What it means is that good political art is not about good people vs. bad people, let alone my political party vs. yours. It's about serious political ideas embodied in a story or picture -- and when dealing with ideas, as opposed to political platforms, the artist often discovers that the idea leads him to conclusions that would please neither political party. (See under Shaw, George Bernard.) And perhaps most importantly, it's about acknowledging that some problems are bigger than just the ascention of people you don't like, and that they will continue no matter what political party is ascendant.

After writing some of the above, I found an old article by Andrew Ferguson that says some of the same things, though more about journalism than art. Ferguson, whose work has heavily influenced writers like P.J. O'Rourke and Christopher Buckley, is primarily a journalist, albeit a funny one (he wrote a great long piece a decade ago about "diversity training" in corporations: a hilarious study of rich white people paying other rich white people to tell them how horrible rich white people are). He writes political punditry as well, but he's not a hack at it; he's willing to criticize Bush, albeit from the right.

Anyway, one of my favorites among Ferguson's articles was one he wrote in January of 2001, just as George W. Bush was about to assume office. Noting that the Clinton era was rarely referred to as a "decade of greed," and that many of the problems that worried commentators during the Reagan years seemed to fade from view during the Clinton years, Ferguson predicted -- quite accurately -- how stories about homelessness and income inequality would become more prevalent with a Republican in the White House. The point of the piece is not that these things aren't worth worrying about, and I don't even think of it as a partisan political piece. It is, rather, a satire of the way we tend to assume that everything depends on the identity of the man at the top, and that everything changes when we change leaders. Again, it's the Bad Man theory: the political situation is defined primarily by whether we like to politicians or not. Some excerpts:

For the last decade we have been without a Mark Twain or Upton Sinclair, a Mencken or Sinclair Lewis or Dos Passos, without even a Christopher Lasch or some other jowly Jeremiah worrying aloud about the debilitations of affluence. In place of the adversary culture a small army of courtier journalists arose, panting to celebrate the newly rich, to sing hymns to their taste and sensitivity, to their compassion, their self-knowledge, their spirituality, their dynamism, their willingness to "think outside the box," their egalitarianism, their refusal to wear ties to work -- all the admirable traits that earlier rich guys, from John D. Rockefeller to Michael Milken, had somehow lacked. Baby boomer rich people, we learned, were "dynamists" operating in the realm of "pure possibility." They were wise, they were visionary, they struggled admirably under the mighty weight of their social consciences. Plus they had pots and pots of money.

All of this is about to end. And not merely because of the weary stock market and the slowly deflating economy. For psychological reasons that I am not qualified to diagnose, it is difficult for the verbal class to criticize the accumulation of wealth when the country is being presided over by a liberal Democrat -- and, more importantly, when it is liberals who are piling up the wealth. (Liberals pile up wealth much more tastefully than right-wingers.) The actual facts of the situation are irrelevant; this is a matter of how the national life is presented and interpreted. The billions wasted in the Clinton years on the dot-com delusion, for example, were surely as misdirected as the billions sunk into "junk bonds" in the 1980s; yet one was daring and bold (if overenthusiastic), while the other was intolerable, wasteful, even immoral. The difference lay not in the facts but in the attitude of the people who presented them.

Journalists, you can be sure, are about to rediscover greed. Avarice is on the comeback trail. There will be something suspect -- something gross and declasse -- about the first fortunes to be made in the era just beginning. With the new President Bush in the White House, we're going to see the reemergence of all kinds of things we haven't seen since -- well, since the old President Bush was in the White House. Avarice and selfishness are just the beginning. Say hello to homelessness, for instance: We are about to see a horrifying deterioration in the plight of our nation's street people. We haven't heard much -- anything, really -- about the homeless since, oh, roughly January 20, 1993. As it happens, the number of people living on steam grates has remained pretty much constant from the middle 1980s, when they filled the airwaves and graced the cover of countless magazines, to the present day, when they are all but forgotten. They are about to be remembered.

Twinned with homelessness, hunger will quickly become intolerable in the United States -- which is, as we are doomed to be often reminded, the richest country in the history of humankind... Curiously, and greatly to their credit, the only public figures in the past decade who have tried to draw attention to hunger in Bill Clinton's America have been functionaries of Bill Clinton's Department of Housing and Urban Development. They were ignored. Soon, though, they'll find work in privately financed organizations with names like the Emergency Coalition for Feeding the Children. And at last their cries will be heard.

Hunger and homelessness -- scandalous though they will suddenly be -- will be mere symptoms of what will be understood as the defining problem of the Bush era: the gap between rich and poor. This is yet another affliction that almost vanished in the last decade. Only a few left-wingers, consigned to the margins of the political conversation, were rude enough to note that the gap remained obdurately large. Their day, too, has finally come. They will point out that X percent of the population (the figure will vary, depending on whether you're reading the cover story in Business Week, the six-part series in the New York Times, or the special pull-out report in Newsweek; but the number will be teeny-tiny) owns XX percent of the nation's wealth (again the figure will vary, but it will be surprisingly close to 100 percent). And it will be getting worse. The statistic will also appear high up in stories about "deindustrialization." Tough, brawny old industries began to wither away in the 1980s, causing much human anguish and inspiring several Pulitzer Prizes for feature writing. The process of deindustrialization was then put on hold for eight years. It is poised to resume, as once-proud breadwinners are pressed into jobs flipping hamburgers...

Then again, the Bush era may not begin so quickly. It may take a couple of years. But gradually a picture will emerge, and the newly revitalized adversary culture will paint it in the most lurid colors. We will find ourselves in a divided nation, torn between a decadent and meretricious elite and a lower class struggling just to get by, afflicted with homelessness and rampant hunger, preyed upon by corporate raiders at home and sinister forces from abroad, while a heartless government in Washington obsesses over imagined threats. (Did I mention that the Pentagon is about to start wasting money again?) The picture will be one of a nation in decline, and without much prodding Prof. Paul Kennedy and maybe even Kevin Phillips (authors, respectively, of the Reagan-era classics The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and The Politics of Rich and Poor) will be coaxed from retirement. In time our unhappy social critics will look to a leader -- a politician, a governor, perhaps a United States senator -- who will reluctantly come forward to offer a means of rescue, who will argue that the decline doesn't have to continue forever, who will boldly assert that America's greatest days are still ahead.

And she'll be right.

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