Blame Hollywood

People blame Hollywoood for “coarsening the culture”, for drugs and violence, for normalizing sexual deviance, for terrible intellectual property law, for liberal or even socialist politics. But, as a general rule, the most powerful social effects of a thing often derive from what does not trigger our ideological allergies, from what slips through without irritation or objection. I think we’ve been harmed by a cliché we barely perceive, that we dismiss as banal if we notice it at all.

Hollywood’s theory of conflict is a heroic tale, good versus evil. But more than that is smuggled into the formula. The heroism takes the form of good guys crushing bad guys. Once the evildoers are killed, imprisoned, or otherwise neutralized, normalcy is restored, and that is the happy ending. Good follows from the elimination of evil, naturally, inevitably. Like a splinter, the bad need only be removed and the body will heal to a preordained shape whose correctness we can take for granted. Destruction is grit and heroism. Construction takes care of itself.

With its infamous “Mission Accomplished” in 2003, the Bush Administration was transparently reaching for this trope. The bad guys were crushed, so the credits could roll. The happy ending was upon us. Events, and then the Administration’s political opponents, quickly made a mockery of that presumption, but not of the cartoonish narrative framework, to which all factions in American politics are slavishly devoted. The problem was the bad guys had not, after all been crushed. They came back, and back again, like a Fast and Furious franchise. What remained, always, was to “complete the job” of defeating evildoers, despite how ridiculous that seems when you put it into words this way.

It’d be great if the Hollywood formula was just a technique by which cynical consultants manipulate plebes for approval and votes, with no one serious actually believing it. But this is Kool-Aid we have all drunk, a formula American politicians plainly believe, or at least govern as if they believe even when the plebes aren’t looking. The American public didn’t demand “debaathifation” in Iraq. Americans, after all, pride ourselves in frequent bathing, in stark opposition to places so perfidious no fries shall be named for them. No public groundswell compelled the Bush administration to expel the entire civil service of the newly conquered country from public life and condemn their ethnic group to marginal status. But debaathification was necessary, as a matter of “moral clarity”. Debaathification rhymed with denazification, and we had all grown up on Raiders of the Lost Ark and those newsreel-style World War II movies. The Baath were evil. They had to be purged, not included, not appeased, in the new Iraq. So we enjoyed sequel after sequel, ISIS for example, starring disaffected Iraqi sunnis. Justly excluded from political life, their careers destroyed, their interests dismissed in the new dispensation, they did not, as they ought to have, hide in squalor and devote themselves to mortifications. Instead they fought from without. Who could possibly have forseen it?

In Afghanistan, apparently, the Taliban early on sought a negotiated peace with the government we installed, requesting amnesty for prior leaders and participation in the new government. But the Taliban were terrorists, and we don’t negotiate with terrorists. Our Afghan partners sagely agreed to the peace, but Donald Rumsfeld — who, we must concede, was no stranger to John Wayne films — forced them to walk it back. The Taliban and their supporters were exiled from participation in government, chased by an army of nineteen-year-olds on a desperate mission to crush the terrorists, at risk of being SWAT-ed anytime by cynical local rivals who figured out that ours were arms they could direct. Eventually they regrouped and today they have turned our narrative framework right back on us.

In real life, bad guys don’t get crushed and disappear. After the “Mission Accomplished” banner is stowed in some dusty closet, all (nearly all) of the complicated humans, not good, not evil, will still be around, and they’ve all got to figure out some satisfactory manner by which to coexist peacefully. Or else they will not coexist peacefully.

It is worth contrasting Iraq and Afghanistan with the experience of Ireland. Sinn Féin, you may recall, was “the political wing of the IRA”, a terrorist organization. But an influential diaspora in the United States didn’t see it that way, and pointed out there was terror on the other side too. In American consciousness, providentially, it was not so clear who the good guys were and who should not be negotiated with but needed to be crushed. So, unusually, we refrained from fucking things up, and even helped encourage the parties negotiate a political settlement in which all sides, even the ones associated with terrorism (as I said, all sides) would be represented and included. When, unusually, we are unable to impose our Hollywood formula narrative on events, we do, occasionally, refrain from actively ruining things. We might even manage to play a modest constructive role.

Our Hollywood imaginations are not restricted to foreign affairs. The formula we applied so successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan we are working hard to apply at home. Both of the two political communities into which our electoral system divides us find it convenient to label the other as “fascists”, “authoritarians”. More in sorrow than in anger, perhaps, our side, the ones who are still sane, who carry the torch for our way of life, our values, Our Democracy, can no longer afford to appease these extremists. They must be extirpated, crushed, discredited. The Earth must be salted beneath their corpses.

Do we all see how dumb this is? We, the good guys (whichever flavor of good guy you belong to), believe in life, liberty, and the pusuit of happiness. They, those other people, are putting all of that at risk. So we will what? Kill, subjugate, imprison, “reeducate”, nearly half the country? Merely disenfranchise them and use a militarized state to crush the politics by other means governance without consent is sure to engender? Our Hollywood intuitions are pathetically stupid. The aftermath of victory is not a happy ending. It is hell on earth.

So stop rewarding at the box office of media grift and political contribution all these brave truth tellers who will fight against this latest outrage, who will not betray you, who will not yield. Of course, it’s no good either rewarding at the box office the “centrist” insiders and establishment smarter-than-thous who will always betray you, who have for decades and demand normfully you be mature enough to allow it to continue. Whether it’s #Resistance versus MAGA, or PMC elites vs outsiders, this framework of Defeating The Bad Guys is a mirage. Our intuitions are drawn nowhere but there, it is the only way our atrophied minds now understand our human affairs. Blame Hollywood.

The art of living well is modus vivendi. It is a practice of continual negotiation, stitching, construction. There is progress, but there is never final victory, no happy endings. You support your values not primarily by working political institutions to ensure your side wins, but by expanding communities that celebrate metavalues like pluralism and tolerance and integration, under which we all keep the blessing of one another’s company without surrendering our differences, however profound.

So many of us focus on political tactics — data-soaked electoralism, wonk insider activism, take-to-the-streets militancy — that can stand in tension with the work of expanding our political community. That doesn’t mean those tactics are bad or unimportant. The consequences of this moment’s legislative and electoral outcomes can be serious, and every decision is necessarily a battlefield. But over the long term, the shape of the social terrain will determine whether civilized outcomes are even possible. Tactical opportunities should be devoted to creating material and institutional conditions that reinforce the work of expanding community, rather than taking wins against implacable bad guys. At home and abroad, magnanimity and inclusion are the only bases for a realist nondystopian politics.

Update History:

  • 5-Sep-2021, 5:30 p.m. PDT: “wonk insider activism, take-to-the-streets militarism militancy
  • 11-Sep-2021, 12:25 p.m. PDT: “coursening coarsening” Thanks commenter Tom!

3 Responses to “Blame Hollywood”

  1. Detroit Dan writes:

    Yes. This message helps me in my struggle to relate meaningfully and constructively with friends, family, and community. Winning / defeating the enemy is sometimes necessary, but is not the ultimate goal.

  2. Tom writes:

    Should be “coarsening”

  3. Oliver writes:

    This strikes me as an exceedingly optimistic accouting. I get that the political discourse is headed in a direction where we want to pull the emergency brakes with sloganeering like “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” and similarly “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” but I think you’ve missed a big part of the mood. We like to focus on the economic results (or better, disastrous consequences) of 40+ years of Reagonomics, and how that they have created a aire of discontent, while the losers in the economic system have suffered needlessly for generations. What if, instead, the current mood is fed just as much by a breakdown in the trust of the justice and political systems. Sure, the justice system has been notoriously unfair to marginalized groups throughout American history, but since the Bush the Younger years, there has been a marked increase in unwillingness from those at the top top punish their peers. An Abscam type of revelation where the Senate begins to throw out one of their own is unthinkable these days, even after, for example, their peers’ documented help in fostering and implementing an insurrection. As another example, whistleblowers in the lower ranks (Snowden) were hunted during the Obama years, while leakers in the upper ranks (Petraeus) got off the hook and book deals. Only one mid-level banker got punished for any role in the financial crisis of 2008. And so on and so on.

    The sense of “burn it all down” where the two teams are lining up along ideological lines, may be coming from a vigilante mindset, because both teams as a whole recognize that nothing is being done to punish anyone who has any clout; they only know that things are getting worse, no one is accountable, the rules keep changing, and the guys at the bottom keep getting screwed. The Hollywoodifcation may be accelerating the problem, but it’s not the problem.

    “It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.”