Volume 74, Number 33 | December 22 - 28, 2004

Talking Point

Darkness rising: A color-coded tale of good vs. evil

By Michele Herman

When you live in a household full of boys, you become a frequent visitor to the land of good vs. evil. All too often our bedtime stories feature a roller-coaster rhythm in which times of peace and plenty lead inexorably to the threat of villainy. This threat leads just as inexorably to bloody battles whose progress I (being a girl raised on stories about little women and little princesses) never can follow. This is the way it works: the good mice of Redwall Abbey are sitting down to their harvest feast; Lemony Snicket’s Beaudelaire siblings are frolicking on the beach; Harry, Ron and Hermione are goofing off in the Gryffindor common room. Meanwhile, you can smell the rat/Count Olaf/Voldemort from a mile away, with his bevy of craven sidekicks and his sicko plans to rule the world. To borrow a title from another one of these series, The Darkness Is Rising.

To tell you the truth, as much as it gets my sons’ juices going, this predictable good-and-evil universe, full of warmed-over archetypes has never been my cup of tea. I’ve always preferred to dwell in the land of nuance. I’m fascinated by good guys who are too frightened to act on their passion, like Lawrence Selden in “The House of Mirth,” and bad guys who are innocent and guileless like Gatsby. I like an author willing to probe under the surface, one bright enough to illuminate the inner workings of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, because otherwise he’s a bore. I’ve long thought that the only theory of life and literature that makes any sense is one that says we each have the full spectrum of good and evil inside us all the time. We’re all capable of pretty much everything, given the right circumstances. What’s most human about us is the constant friction of our best impulses against our worst.

But then we all woke up on Wed., Nov. 3, to find that the U.S. is really just a second-rate children’s novel. We found ourselves sketched in by a not very talented narrator — stripped of subtlety, undertones, humor, understanding and forgiveness. And, for the second time in the past three years, I was forced to reconsider my taste in literature.

After 9/11 I found myself suddenly drawn to sad European stories with the Holocaust, rather than the mall, lurking in the shadows. After the 2004 election, I once again felt I’d been naïve and overly safe in my preferences. Here I was going on about subtlety, when it appears that life really is about good guys and bad guys and the eternal, futile struggle for dominance. Now when I look for some literary reflection of the world around me, when I search for guidance and solace, I find myself turning to J.K. Rowling, a writer I used to think was overrated.

Of course here in New York on Nov. 3, most of us were painted blue (not teal or slate or cerulean). We remain blue. In the Village, a tacit moratorium on discussing the dangers created by this newly simplified storyline kicked in. Much as we enjoy mulling, we all sensed that mulling over the caliber of leadership chosen by our fellow citizens would only stir up a lot of unproductive anger and fear and incredulity and sadness. Some friends consoled themselves by invoking bad election results and teetering world situations of the past. Others clung to the possibility of seeing the winners self-destruct and get what they deserve (hoping they don’t drag the rest of the world down with them). I fell into a third camp, the one longing for some alchemical populist counterforce forged out of MoveOn, Dean and the Deaniacs and the suddenly heroic-looking figure of Bill Clinton.

But one thing we’ve all had thrown in our faces is the new “us” and “them” mentality that swept the nation like last year’s “You’re fired.” Twice in the week after the election, editors told me to make my writing more red-state friendly. What I’m trying to figure out is how to feel about this sudden reductive dichotomy. Is this a dangerous and unbridgeable split like the Muslim extremists vs. Western modernity one, or is it more a media concoction? At what point do I give up my old conviction that we are all complex people with a story and assume the new good-vs.-evil stance that says you don’t try to understand your enemies; you arm against them?

I don’t like to judge people I don’t know; it’s much more fun to judge the ones I do know. I suspect that the majority of red-state people are not enemy material any more than I am. But I can certainly judge the leadership they voted for themselves. I can certainly fear all people, no matter their color-coding, who push down their most human traits — vulnerability, understanding, compassion — and create a shell of rigidity, intolerance and adherence to ideology. It makes perfect sense to fight against anyone determined to overthrow the freedoms and separations on which this country was founded. When you sense that a strong, well-organized, passionate group of people is trying to undo the truths you hold most dear, you stop wasting energy trying to understand them.

But I’m not quite there yet. Maybe it’s another female thing, like my stupefaction at the fact that people still think war — actual physical fighting and killing — is a sensible way to resolve stalemates. Or maybe it’s the teacher in me who believes that in all but the most hardened cases, there’s a way to break through to the humanity inside. I still maintain that listening to people and trying to understand their motives is a good system. I’ll give you an example. There’s this certain right-wing pundit provocateur out there. You know the type. She’s attractive, in your face, and rails against abortion and homosexuality and various other big blue issues. Lots of people listen to her. But to me she stands out from the crowd because she happens to be a close relative of an old friend of mine. I know their back story. I know there is hypocrisy in some of her stances, that some of the positions she opposes so viciously are ones she knows intimately. But I also know she comes from a family so unhappy and unsupportive that it borders on tragic. In other words, there is a frightened and abused person hiding somewhere behind the defenses and the offenses.

I guess the point is that I fear people who harden with age instead of growing more flexible and forgiving. To be mature is to strive to be less fearful and more honest; to accept your vulnerability rather than create a defensive wall around it, to think your positions through rather than take the easy knee-jerking stance, to apologize when you make a mistake. No one succeeds at these goals all the time — Lord knows I don’t — but I want to ally myself with people who at least try. The darkness is certainly rising on the planet. If only the characters were deepening.

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