Democrats & Liberals Archives

Image Vs. Reality

The question, ultimately is not who’s correct about this war, but what’s correct, and who’s correct about that.

Let me explain: Taken abstractly, one could take any position on the war, and not be constrained. You can talk your way into believing what you want about the war, including about winning.

What happens, though, when we introduce the real world into the mix? Then judging who’s got the right idea becomes a different thing altogether.

I write science fiction and fantasy when I'm not writing for this site, and I've long devoted myself to the craft of making the unreal plausible and intimate. The unreal nature of this kind of story often tempts those who don't want to take their craft seriously to write in this set of genres. The results we all know. Just look at the local video store's selection.

It's the triumph, in their minds, of image over reality.

In my studies, though, I've found something different. I've found that the most successful science fiction and fantasy has a certain sophistication to how it deals with how the universe in the story works. It doesn't have to be perfect, or bear up to close examination or skeptical inquiry. It just has to feel right.

This is harder than one might think. People go through real world societies without painstaking analysis of everything and anything that goes on, but only because there is a pattern to things, often sophisticated and detailed, that they are greatly familiar with. There is a texture, a context to the simpler operations of reality that people need to feel right about something.

This is what sells the alternative worlds of the best science fiction and fantasy, in fact the reality of any movie or book. You can always take things to implausible extremes if you want a superficial story to enjoy, but for a story to really take you in, and move you, there has to be a certain irreducible complexity to the world of the narrative. It doesn't have to be complete, but it does have to be there.

What does this have to do with politics? Everything. Only here, we're not dealing with the plausibility or sophistication of our experience of a fictional universe, but our interaction with our own.

Writing fiction, facts are flexible. If you're trying to create the illusion of real life situations, science, or history within a story, you got to get your facts straight as much as you can. Aside from that, though there is a certain poetic license. Aside from serious breaches of factuality, readers usually do not nitpick the story, especially if it's a good one.

Writing or speaking about the real world, certain things did happen, and certain facts must be gotten right for the sake of understanding the situation. This of course is imperfect, but not because the facts don't exist. We're not perfect in getting them.

If we do not know the right and wrong of things, we are doomed to muddle through our lives, bouncing blindly into one avoidable crisis after another. Life provide enough troubles for us without adding to them.

In dealing with the stories we tell ourselves about the real world, we must not settle for what comforts us.

Take Abu Ghraib. The comforting thought is that Abu Ghraib's scandals were just lies, or justifiable conduct in comparison to Saddam or Osama's cruelty. The Arabs and Muslims we are trying to convince to join our side, though, are not likely to take our comfort, may not tell themselves the same story. The comforting thought might be that it will not happen again, that it was just an isolated incident. But if it does happen again, our comfort is for naught.

In our culture we have a bad habit of trying to avoid stressful decisions. But as we have found out, sometimes avoiding stress is the easiest way to get buried in it. Sometimes one just needs to bite the bullet and get things done, remove the source of the stress rather than continuing to experience the results of it.

This administration tends its image with great fanaticism, but it's results have been mediocre, ultimately, because it has failed to deal with the stressors that it's comforting stories and speeches provide. It's attempts to artificially maintain support for the war by opposing it's dissent as harmful to the troops has probably ended up only intensifying that dissent and putting the soldiers in the alienating position of experiencing just the problems that their supporters deny are at work.

The sophistication of fictional worlds that I alluded to earlier comes to play here in terms of our ability to react properly to the real world. You see, when writing such worlds, one has to keep a certain open-mindedness about how things can unfold in the story. When you start insisting on an ideological approach, the story becomes progressively more artificial, more hemmed in to convention and the pet theories of the author. The author may think this is a good thing, but people of differing opinion may just see a piece of hackwork which clumsily advocates the author's point of view.

That's alright with fiction, because the choice to read or watch lies with the audience. But with public policy and the narratives relating to that, we all suffer the consequences of those whose agenda overtakes their pragamatism, whose prejudices about how things should be run overcomes their wisdom and good sense on that subject. The story of American history is not one we experience at second hand, not one we can detach our lives from. In writing that story in our actions, it is important that we Americans keep a comprehensive, informed, involved view of events, one where our conclusion are changed to match our best understanding of things, not written in stone as armor against difficult realities.

In the end, we can boilerplate the spin in our history books, but that will be no defense against the real consequences of our actions. In the end, we should not be stuck trying to make the best story out of the worst decisions.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at August 14, 2005 10:12 AM