Our nation might be less divided, and our debates less poisonous, if more artists were capable of showing us the ironies, ambiguities and tragedies inherent in our politics — rather than comforting us with portraits of a world divided cleanly into good and evil.
Yes, the problem might be that we do not have artists capable of rendering contemporary architects of a war of aggression that was based on shoddy intelligence, ideological fervor and deceit in a sufficiently subtle, even-handed manner. If only Hollywood were better at portraying the depth and complexity of people who unleashed hell on a nation of 24 million people out of an absurd fear of a non-existent threat! Life is so unfair to warmongers, is it not? Then again, the reason our debates are so poisonous and our nation so divided might have something to do with the existence of utterly unaccountable members of the political class that can launch such a war, suffer no real consequences, and then reliably expect to be defended as “decent” and “well-intentioned” people who made understandable mistakes. The unfortunate truth of our existence is that villains do not have to come out of central casting for comic book movies. They are ordinary, “decent” people who commit grave errors and terrible crimes for any number of reasons. Many great evils have found their origins in a group’s belief that they were doing the right thing and were therefore entitled and permitted to use extraordinary means.
That said, I do agree that we should have a greater appreciation for ambiguity and complexity. Would that we had had more of this when the President was railing against an “axis of evil,” administration supporters were authoring absurdly-titled works called An End to Evil, and advocates of invasion were routinely claiming that anyone opposed to the war did not understand that evil existed in the world. Where was this discomfort with sharp “Manichean” divisons then? Where were the complaints against simplistic and naive “reductionism” of complex realities?
Perhaps more of a tragic sensibility would have held some of the delusions of war supporters in check. Perhaps they would have been less enthusiastic to start a war that did not have to happen. After all, the Iraq war was nothing if not a product of a comforting, false vision of a world cleanly divided into good and evil, in which “we” were liberators and “they” were villains, pure and simple. When “they” possess a weapon, it is a dire threat to all of mankind, but when “we” possess the weapon it is no problem at all. “Their” aggression is proof that they must be destroyed, while “our” aggression is evidence of our noble intentions. Of course, when opponents of the invasion attempted to hold our government to the same moral and legal standards the government invoked against Hussein, we were told that this was to engage in “moral equivalency” and “relativism.” There is nothing quite like the relativism of universal moral standards!
Perhaps one reason there is not much interest in exploring the tragic side of our politics is that Nemesis is ever-elusive. The ambition and pride of political leaders may lead to disaster, but the men whose ambition and pride fueled the calamity escape relatively unscathed. We have an abundance of hubris in our politics, and there are more than enough sins that invite punishment, but unlike the famous figures of tragedy our leaders never answer for what they have done. It is always “History” that is supposed to judge them. In the meantime, they walk away, and often enough they head off to a comfortable retirement. They remain unaccountable and surrounded by a small army of revisionists just waiting to rehabilitate their reputations in a few years’ time.
When that changes, perhaps we will have more complicated storytelling that does not simply vilify the people responsible for a great crime. However, since there will apparently be no accountability for our leaders in the real world, we may have to settle for the inadequate stories we have now.