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Stuff [Jul. 11th, 2010|05:18 am]
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Whenever people talk about literature - and here I include TV and movies and computer games and whatever - they always wax poetic about how it conveys the narratives of the powerless and such. About how we can read about some poor orphan from a minority group in some far-off country and, by hearing their story, learn about how they too are human and deserving of our respect. Books that win big literature prizes are now practically required to have this theme, whether it's about women in Pakistan or blacks in the Southern US or robots in some future that's prejudiced against robots or whatever. Through literature we learn to identify with these people and gain sympathy for them.

...and this is sorta superfluous. We're humans. We already have lots of sympathy for the underdog and the persecuted. And we're humans in a twenty-first century liberal society. We've spent our entire lives getting it drilled into us that we need to be sympathetic to the powerless, that racism and discrimination are the great evils of our age, that we should be doing something about it. I think every book I was assigned to read in elementary school was either about a black person who overcame hardships, a woman who overcame hardships, or a black woman who overcame hardships. And perhaps this is as it should be; twenty-first century liberals who sympathize with the powerless don't come out of nowhere, and maybe it's all those novels we're assigned to read in elementary school that makes us that way. Maybe the whole reason being sympathetic to the powerless seems so obvious to me is that I come from a society that starts teaching that lesson at birth and never stops.

But I started learning that lesson long before I started reading books good enough to remember, so I don't count that as a lesson I learned from literature. The most important lesson I've learned from literature is something completely different: how to be sympathetic to the powerful.

Responsible people usually avoid blatantly dehumanizing the powerless today, at least openly on mass media. No one says "You know, I bet poor orphans in Latin America are plotting something". But dehumanizing the powerful is basically our official global sport. Politicians, corporate CEOs, bureaucrats, leading scientists, rich people - whoever. And just from looking at what a lot of these people do, it's hard to sympathize with them. For that, you need to be able to see the world through their eyes. You need literature.

I'm going through Babylon 5 episodes now, so let me give an example from there. Captain Sheridan, the main character, is military governor of a space colony. He's a nice enough guy who enjoys things like maintaining peace in the galaxy and fighting off unstoppable alien invasions that threaten to destroy humanity.

At some point during his command, there is an accident on the space docks, and some dock workers die. The dock workers, who until now have labored in terrible conditions, demand better conditions and better pay. Captain Sheridan would like to help, but Earth only gives his colony a limited budget, and he's already stretching it just trying to maintain the colony and the military resources it needs to save humanity, so his hands are kind of tied. He tells them he'd like to help but there's nothing he can do at the moment.

The dock workers decide to go on strike. They yell out angry slogans about how the Captain's evil and wants to keep his boot on the throat of the little guy; how he's just a tool of the military establishment. They say they won't go back to work at the docks until he raises their pay. The colony needs the docks to get imports from Earth, presumably including most of their food, so the captain hires scabs to work the dock. The workers try to block the scabs from getting to the dock. The captain, who doesn't want the colony to starve, asks the workers to leave, and when they refuse, he sends in the station police to force them out. Someone throws a punch, everyone panics, it turns violent, and we get treated to scenes of the police beating up the workers and the workers demanding people come see the violence inherent in the system.

And then of course Captain Sheridan manages to find some stuff in the military budget that's just there to keep bureaucrats from Earth happy, he cuts that out, and the problem miraculously solves itself, because it's a TV show and all problems must come to a satisfying, mutually agreeable conclusion within an hour, with twenty minutes of that reserved for commercial breaks. But still.

This seems to me to be an astoundingly mature treatment of a complicated political issue. Captain Sheridan is a good man who just wants to keep his colony running and fight off evil aliens. The dock workers are good people who just want to work in a safe environment for fair pay. Yet by the climax of the episode, the dock workers think Captain Sheridan is some shadowy evil figure who gets his jollies by ordering brutal attacks on the working class and then goes home to count his gold and maybe dine on the blood of young infants (Captain Sheridan, of course, manages to remain gracious and understanding of the dock workers throughout, but only because he's the hero of the series and if he showed any human failings we might start rooting for the evil alien invaders).

And this is, I think, the general template for most political issues. There's a good person in power who implements some policy because he's trying to do a decent job. There are big powerless masses of good people who interpret the same policy as being horribly evil. They fight, both sides demonize the other too much to be able to think straight, and whoever wins there are endless lingering bad feelings.

But why the heck does it take a cheesy 90s sci-fi TV show with comically-haired aliens to get this right? How come the majority of so-called respectable political commentators still prefer to think of it as "all people in power really are evil and are doing it just because they hate you"?

One of the reasons literature is such a powerful political tool is that it gives you new models you can use to interpret situations. Let's say your neighbor was speaking out against the government, and suddenly he gets arrested and is never seen again, and the government says "Oh, he was an enemy of the state who was plotting to betray us to the commie nazis, thank goodness our brave policemen caught him in time." One possible reaction might be "As a patriotic citizen, I hate commie nazis! Thank you, overbearing police state!" But reading 1984 gives you an example of where there was something very different behind this kind of situation. If you've read 1984 you have the option of thinking "Wait a second, maybe this is like that 1984 book where these sorts of arrests were actually a really bad thing."

And maybe you're wrong. Maybe your neighbor was Osama bin Laden, and it's a good thing they caught him when they did. But if you'd never read 1984, the Osama possibility might have been the only one that occurs to you, or the only one that has enough emotional relevance to catch your interest. After you read 1984, you can think to yourself "This neighbor could be like Osama, but he could also be like Winston from 1984". Both possibilities are mentally available and have strong emotional relevance, and you can consider both when deciding what exactly you think of the situation.

Next time I hear about workers striking for better conditions and getting beaten up by brutal security forces, I'm going to think "Sure sounds like all those books I read in elementary school where the poor powerless people were oppressed by the evil ruling class to line their own pockets. But it also sounds a lot like that episode of Babylon 5, where both sides were equally at fault. So I guess I should wait to hear both sides of the story before jumping to any conclusions."

Sci-fi and fantasy books are especially good at this, because they tend to be more focused on political situations, especially unusual political situations, than other genres. I remember reading a book set after an apocalypse, where there were only a few humans left and they were all fighting with each other over the few remaining scraps of civilization. The few remaining military leaders managed to restore a semblance of order, and then declared martial law and threatened to shoot anyone who disagreed, on the grounds that getting civilization up and running again was more important than letting every single person have their say. And y'know, it was something totally new to read a story where people declared martial law and threaten to shoot dissenters because there was an emergency that mandated it, instead of just as a plot device to let you know that they were, in fact, Evil. But it took an apocalypse to really drive it home; maybe no situation outside the scope of science fiction would have worked. But after that apocalypse, every time you hear about martial law, you think "Hey, maybe this was declared by people who really do think there's an emergency and are trying to help."

I'm of course not saying the powerful are always right, or never evil. I'm just saying that, in a society where we're generally taught they're always evil, I'm very thankful for the few books that teach the alternative so I can make an informed decision.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: baddevil
2010-07-11 06:35 am (UTC)

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Starting to get into B5 now?
[User Picture]From: jordan179
2010-07-11 03:18 pm (UTC)

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I'm of course not saying the powerful are always right, or never evil. I'm just saying that, in a society where we're generally taught they're always evil, I'm very thankful for the few books that teach the alternative so I can make an informed decision.

Western mainstream literature used to take both sides of the issue, depending on the circumstances. It became corrupted when it was used as a tool of socialist propaganda during the 20th century, and never fully recovered from the idea that its "job" was to "fight the power."

Incidentally, "Fight the power!" is a particularly stupid slogan. If taken literally, it would mean endless and pointless social conflict, as people fought against whichever group was attempting to govern just because it was attempting to govern, irregardless of the rights or wrongs of any issue.
From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-11 05:58 pm (UTC)

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stupid as you may think it is, "fighting the power" is so deeply ingrained in nature (not only in humans, mind you) that it has governed human behavior since the start and will govern it until the end. it stems from an individual desire for status and power that most mammals exhibit.

we are a selfish and backstabbing lot, and i don't see that changing unless there's a gene sequence that dictates it that we can manage to eliminate.

the best power-holders are the ones that are best at tricking those they have power over. as an extreme example, consider the matrix. when people learn that others have more power than them, they seek to shift that balance. children do this. dogs do this. adults do this.
[User Picture]From: jordan179
2010-07-11 07:43 pm (UTC)

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I did not say that it is always stupid to "fight the Power." Some Powers need to be combatted.

What's stupid is assuming that any Power is always evil simply because it is a Power. That's a self-defeating philosophy -- one can literally never win, because if your own side wins, it becomes the NEW "Power,", which the philosophy condemns you to fight.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2010-07-11 08:05 pm (UTC)

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Or, as a wise man once said, if you beat the Man, who was the Man, now you're the Man.

Seriously, I think the vast majority of people who say "Fight the power" don't mean "It is naturally good to fight all possible powers." I think they interpret it to mean "In our society, the people in power are generally bad, and the power structure is set up to select for bad people, so it's usually a good heuristic to fight the people in power."

...but that doesn't make nearly as good a slogan :(

Also, if the people involved are anarchists or minarchists, then they might believe that anyone who has too much power is inherently evil because good people don't try to accumulate power. If their side won, they would deliberately avoid appropriating more than their fair share of power (in principle; in practice we saw how well this worked during all the various revolutions).

I even believe this to a degree - I'd say anyone above a certain level of power (the level where they're a dictator) has a better than even chance of being evil and probably needs to be fought.
[User Picture]From: cynicalcleric
2010-07-13 12:28 am (UTC)

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There is a saying that power corrupts. If you really believe that as a universal truth, you will always need to fight the power.
From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-11 05:58 pm (UTC)

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"rights or wrongs" is entirely moot.
[User Picture]From: jordan179
2010-07-11 07:43 pm (UTC)

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Not really. A scrupulous attention to "rights or wrongs" furthers Justice, which is vital to social stability and trust between strangers.
From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-11 04:13 pm (UTC)

John

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I thought contemporary lit is all about the sex lives of academics.
From: vnesov
2010-07-11 07:55 pm (UTC)

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Fictional evidence to compensate for availability bias? Sounds like a fine line.
[User Picture]From: veronica_milvus
2010-07-12 09:06 am (UTC)

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I agree - the pendulum has swung so far the other way that nobody with any power can possibly be right or good or have anyone's best interests at heart. I'd like to see a programme about an honest politician, a consientious banker, or heaven help us, a morally upstanding pharmaceutical company.
[User Picture]From: cynicalcleric
2010-07-13 12:29 am (UTC)

I'd like to see a programme about an honest politician

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West Wing?
[User Picture]From: jasini
2010-07-12 04:26 pm (UTC)

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Error of Fact:

"By Any Means Necessary", the episode with the dock workers, took place in season one of Babylon 5, therefore the station commander was Sinclair, not Sheridan.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2010-07-13 12:38 am (UTC)

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I am mortified.
[User Picture]From: cynicalcleric
2010-07-13 12:25 am (UTC)

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And we're humans in a twenty-first century liberal society.

Some of us live in the United States, not Ireland. ;)

Maybe I'm just cynical (and goodness knows American politics and culture in the last 20 years really breed that), but I don't think most politicians or CEOs in American are out to do good and are simply hamstrung by funding issues and differences in political ideology.

I'm pretty sure Dick Cheney wanted to fuck the country over in the name of his wallet and the wallets of some of his business associates. I'm pretty sure most other oil companies have no shame about their profit margin or their impact of foreign policy and are laughing at BP's misfortune. I'm not sure about the rest of the world, but way too many Americans are greedy, self-centered types who want to fuck over everyone except maybe some friends & family in the name of personal gain.

But really I'm not sure what's scarier: a Glenn Beck who truly believes everything he says or a Glenn Beck who knows he's lying through his teeth but does it anyway because he's an attention whore with no conscience who needs ratings.
From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-14 12:10 am (UTC)

another B5 watcher

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I heard many years ago of a poll of the best scifi programs ever. I do not remember who did the poll but no 1 was the original Star trek no 2 Twilight zone. and no 3 was B5. J. Michael Straczynski as the writer is what made every episode. sets were small, always indoors in an old hot tub factory in the San fernando valley. But the movies were even better.
From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-15 02:45 am (UTC)

Martial Law

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One of the very few times I have been able to understand Martial Law was in Battlestar Galactica's 3rd episode of the 2nd season Fragged (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fragged_%28Battlestar_Galactica%29).

That episode shows vividly that Martial Law is not the result of a strong man doing what needs to be done, but the result of a very weak man faced with everything falling apart all around him.
From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-15 04:26 pm (UTC)

Minor nit-picks

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1) It was Commander Sinclair (1st season star of B5, removed by Network execs because he had the charisma of a small mouse) who was in charge, not Captain Sheridan.
2) The episode in question "By Any Means Necessary" was written the wife of the series creator who goes by the name K. Drennan. It was a very good episode and part of Straczynski's "I'm trying to show something that might be real" effort, which included uniforms that had pockets. I could go on but I'll just say this: B5 was not perfect but overall, it remains the best Science Fiction TV series, IMHO.

Lurker's guide page to the show: http://www.midwinter.com/lurk/countries/us/guide/012.html

-- C. Glassey
From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-17 05:03 am (UTC)

Best. Show. Ever.

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My first exposure to "B5" was actually the episode in question ("By Any Means Necessary"). I was bored by it, and turned it off after a few minutes. Fortunately, a little over a year later I saw "The Fall of Night", and I was hooked. I even re-watched all 110 episodes with my mom (lotsa video tapes), and did so again a few years after that with my wife.

In spite of my residence at the opposite end of the political spectrum from JMS (he's a liberal Democrat), I think "B5" is the best series I've seen (and this is coming from a big fan of "Buffy", "Angel" and "Firefly").

I think "realistic" is a good description of the B5 universe. While "Star Trek" and its descendants had the theme of "we've evolved beyond competition with each other - now everyone just competes with themselves (i.e., self-improvement)", and it generally gave religion short shrift, the "B5" universe recognized that human nature doesn't change much, if at all. It had good and bad people, wealth and poverty (unlike the generally poverty-free ST universe), and religions of all sorts.

And it was the first American TV show to have an overall story arc (planned from the start to run for 5 years). That sort of thing is old hat by now, but B5 started that practice. I find that much more interesting than the shows which feature a giant RESET button, so any momentous events in one episode have no long-term effects (I'm looking at you, "Voyager" and "Andromeda" (the latter did have seasonal story arcs until the producers decided that the brain of the typical "Andromeda" viewer couldn't keep track of previous episodes)).

Aside: for anyone who wants to possess the actual B5 DVDs, they're available right now at Sam's Club for about $18 per season. When you watch the first season episode "Believers", be sure to notice the inside joke (the script was written by David Gerrold).
From: stevendaryl
2010-07-18 02:47 am (UTC)

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Great essay!

There is another level of subtlety in understanding those in power, which is to realize that there is a continuum between the guy who is just doing the best he can, given the circumstances, and the guy who is lining his pocket, rewarding his political allies, and punishing his political enemies just to maintain power. The very same person can move along that continuum during the course of his career, and it's probably hard to tell where somebody is along the continuum. Even the politician himself may not realize that he has drifted toward the dark side.