Monday, May 25, 2015

The Search for Heroes and Villains

The most enduring story in our culture is the one that focuses on the battle between a hero and villain. Perhaps that's because it captures the way so many of us see the world. And so it should come as no surprise to any of us that much of our political story winds up being about the search for a hero and the identification of a villain.

As the Cold War ended in the early '90's, a lot of us on the left celebrated the fact that conservatives were relieved of their overarching villain...communists. Of course, it didn't take long before communists were replaced by terrorists and now, for some, that has morphed into Muslims as the villain in our world today.

But make no mistake about it, liberals have their own villains. These days they go by names like corporations, corporatists, plutocrats, etc. The same anger and fear that drives conservatives to blame the world's woes on Muslims drives liberals to do the same with corporations. Of course, there is an element of truth in both of these when it comes to certain specifics. But it is the demonization and labeling of whole groups of people as "villains" that is the problem.

And so today I began reflecting on why it is that we are so drawn to narratives that oversimplify things in this way. That's when I remembered the quote I posted yesterday.

Though his politics went off the rails a bit towards the end of his life, this quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn captures a profound truth about human nature.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
I promise not to go all Jungian on you, but the reality is that the search for heroes and villains is actually about our own struggle to embrace the fact that we inhabit both within ourselves. We attempt to avoid that struggle by projecting it out onto the world.

Arthur Miller's play, After the Fall, is a wonderful story about humans coming to grips with their own heroic failings and villainous capacities in the midst of the McCarthy era not long after WWII. In terms of heroics, he has a wonderful line: "To go to someone with the lie of limitless love is to cast a shadow in the face of God." But the most profound moment of the play for me was when the main character Quentin (who is Jewish) asks a German woman how she lives with herself after the Holocaust. Here's what she says.
I think it's a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one's self. One day the house smells of fresh bread, the next of smoke and blood. One day you faint because the gardener cuts his finger off, within a week you're climbing over corpses of children bombed in a subway. What hope can there be if that is so?

I tried to die near the end of the war. The same dream returned each night until I dared not go to sleep and grew quite ill. I dreamed I had a child, and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was an idiot, and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again, clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it was my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible...but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one's life in one's arms.
You may think by now that I've wandered way off the field of politics. Perhaps that's true. But as a feminist, I'm one of those people who believes that the personal is political and the political is personal. And so, when I see people rushing to demonize their chosen villains and desperately search for a hero who can fix everything for us, I'm reminded  that we're still not sleeping very well because we haven't had the courage to take that broken horrible face into our laps and kiss it. Just as we haven't figured out that anyone promising us limitless love is a hoax.

Melissa gets it.


  1. Commenter Robert:

    People who actually want to engage approach a conversation with curiosity and respect rather than caricature and name-calling.

    If you can do the former, disagreement is welcome. If you continue to engage in the latter, I will continue to delete your comments.

  2. you would think, after shows like hill st blues, house, breaking bad, etc that americans could be a bit brighter and comprehend heroic and villainous dimensions of people & acts expressing themselves strongly or weakly in varying situations - sometimes both in the same situation.


    1. I thought of some of those recent tv shows while I was writing this. The one that first came to my mind was "The Wire." But too many people seem to still be stuck on old John Wayne movies when it comes to how they see the world.

  3. I'm skeptical of the comparison you're making here. When conservatives blame Muslims for the world's woes, they're making a culturally essentialist argument about Islam (and Muslims) to the effect that Islam is uniquely violent, uncivilized and generally hostile to anything not Islamic (which is not borne out by history, as you know). It's rooted in conservatives' view of a cultural and (sometimes) ethnic/racial hierarchy, and it's something that's more sinister than liberals' arguments about corporations, which are structural in nature. Liberals and other leftists are pointing out that certain institutions and social structures (and those who control them) acquire, concentrate, and exert power often to the detriment of those who are not similarly advantaged. To me, that's very different.

    1. You are right that they are very different kinds of villains. I purposefully didn't go there because I was trying to get to the underlying need we seem to have to identify a villain.

    2. Thanks for this comment - it made me think.

      What I'm thinking is that there are lots of different institutions that have power over a certain group of people. And some of them do evil things. We're learning a lot lately about how that happens in police departments. But it also happens in some churches, schools, unions, nonprofits, etc.

      My point was not that corporations are blameless. It was to begin to answer the question about why we need to demonize them as the villain.

    3. Thank you - I do get it in the sense that I agree that people and the structures they create are, well, complicated. They do good and bad things.

      One thing that caught my eye was this: "The same anger and fear that drives conservatives to blame the world's woes on Muslims drives liberals to do the same with corporations. Of course, there is an element of truth in both of these when it comes to certain specifics." It seemed to equate what conservatives do with respect to Muslims with what liberals do with respect to corporations and even appeared to give some credibility to conservatives' charges (which I suspect you didn't really intend to do) for purposes of comparison, and that's why I think the difference is actually quite key.

      Context is so important here. We can accept that people and groups are complicated while at the same time, in a particular context, emphasize what a particular person or institution is doing. So when we say that wealthy people and corporations exert outsized influence on our political system and can rig the game, so to speak, in their favor, it's not demonizing. It's pointing out responsibility in the context of the conversation we're having about power in American society and how it is allocated.

    4. So when we say that wealthy people and corporations exert outsized influence on our political system and can rig the game, so to speak, in their favor, it's not demonizing.

      That's not what I'm talking about when I refer to demonizing. I actually don't think corporations "rig the game" to the extend that some folks do. But I'd totally agree with the idea that they exert outsized influence.

      Perhaps I'd have to go back and pull some quotes from things I've read lately that demonstrate what I mean by demonizing. Here's one example:

      Every president needs to deal with the permanent government of the country, and the permanent government of the country is Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats. The question becomes, what is the relationship between that president and Wall Street. - Cornell West

      Bernie Sanders tweeted a poster of this. It stirred up quite a reaction on my timeline.

    5. I know people don't like these kinds of comparisons, but I don't find all that much difference between Cornell West's statement and the conspiracy theories of people like Alex Jones. And yet an awful lot of liberals buy it. Why is it so appealing to have a villain to blame?

    6. I do find a difference between a statement like West's and the actions of people like Alex Jones. Would I have gone quite as far as West did? No, but I do think he gets closer to locating an actual problem than does Jones - the kind of sentiments that Jones voices has a much uglier history behind it.

      As for finding villains to blame, I guess that's something that's in the eye of the beholder. I do think it's possible to go too far in that direction, but at the same time, it's important to recognize the agency of the powerful and the effects that this agency can have.