The Violent Imagination

I’ve been listening to “What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding”  and thinking about the title “What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”  And it’s made me mad.  It’s made me sad.  Worse still, it’s made me preachy.  I wrote a 300-ish word post called “What’s so Funny?”, which I might haul out sometime if I need an example of what not to do.

Ultimately, this is one more stage in the transformation of my imagination.  Like most American kids, I was raised on a diet of sanitized violence, the heroism of the fist.  And to a large degree I love those stories, still, stories where a single death is treated as a tragedy, not a footnote or statistic.

Honestly, the violent imagination problem isn’t about loving Superman or Optimus Prime, any more than the materialistic consumer problem comes from believing in Santa Claus.  It’s what happens when the story grows up without really maturing.  Regarding materialism, the problem comes when the wide-eyed wonder of Christmas morning becomes, not the wide-eyed joy of giving, but the short-lived “hit” of buying new stuff (if television is the opiate of the masses, consumerism is its crack cocaine).

The violent imagination problem comes when we leave Superman behind for The Authority, or The Punisher, or Dirty Harry, or The Bride from Kill Bill.  Or Hamlet, for that matter.  We are taught, by media both vulgar and elevated, that things will get better if the good guys kill the right people.  We’re taught this by our government.  We’re taught this by our news media.  We teach and learn this from each other.  Our civil religion teaches us this is so, echoing the sentiment from ten thousand pulpits.

The message is so ingrained in our culture that it’s nigh-impossible to avoid it, and it even feels a little bit like treason to try.

But that doesn’t change the truth.  The world will NOT get better just because we kill the right people.

I’m not a pacifist.  Maybe I will be one day, but I’m not right now.  I believe that sometimes, fighting is necessary, and when necessary, it is right, even if our past behavior set the wheels in motion.  On September 12, 2001, we couldn’t go back in time and undo all the times our foreign policy screwed over the people of the Middle East, pushing them into the arms of murderous radicals.  Those sins were committed, relics of an abominable Cold War strategy that said, effectively, “we’ll support any anti-communist, no matter how cruel, despotic, or dysfunctional he is.”

Likewise, in 1942, we couldn’t undo the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I and saddled Germany with oppressive, punitive reparation payments it could not pay, leaving the German people demoralized, impoverished, and ripe for a demagogue’s pickings (I know the U.S. never even signed the Treaty of Versailles, but President Wilson could have worked a lot harder to stop it, perhaps by making U.S. rebuilding aid to England and France contingent upon a fair peace treaty with Germany).

And so we fight, because we have to.  But this is not glorious, and it is not bloodless.  Whether Dresden or Afghanistan, even our necessary wars still leave thousands of dead civilians in their wake.

But we never seem to learn.  We never learn to be peacemakers, to stop laying the seeds for the next brutal conflict in the resolution of this one.  We never learn that we are a giant in a playground, and that we cannot behave like (for example) France, because we are not on their scale, and our actions have far more devastating consequences than theirs.

But we’ve been taught since childhood that we are the good guys, and so it follows that whatever we do is good.  We measure the body count of our wars in American dead, as if brown foreigners don’t count.  But it’s not because of racism, not really; it’s because we’ve been taught to divide up good and bad, and glory in the bad guys’ deaths.

 

And it is maddeningly hard to shake this.

And even more maddening to do it in a way that doesn’t disrespect the sacrifices our soldiers have made to protect us.  Their most sheltered supply clerk has sacrificed more for America than I have: enduring boot camp, moving to wherever the army tells him or her to go, sacrificing, at least while he or she is within the army, the right to free speech and expression.

Heck, with an easily-acquired (for those without criminal records) permit, I can carry a firearm a huge number of places, including my home.  Soldiers who live on base don’t get to do that; they don’t even get to have guns in their homes.  They can still worship freely, but they’ve pretty much sacrificed the rest of their Bill of Rights protections in order to serve.

Many servicemen and women have given far more: years away from family, their babies’ first steps, arms, legs, marriages, lives, traumatic brain injuries that steal their intellect and even personalities.  Even those who escape the combat zone apparently unscathed often have nightmares that linger for years.  I never want to minimize that, or pretend I know what it’s like.

But that doesn’t change the truth.  I can’t cheer anyone’s death, not any more.  And I can’t write in such a way that my writing cheers anyone’s death.  So where does that leave me?

I’m not a pacifist.  Sometimes terrible forces must be met with force.  Saying “everything would be better if everyone was a pacifist” doesn’t really help.  The question is, will we unilaterally be pacifists, or will we not?

And the answer is, we’re suicidal to just unilaterally become pacifists in the face of Hitler, Mao, Stalin, even Bin Laden.  Passive resistance works against fundamentally decent people (like the British in India or Americans during segregation) who are committing an atrocity, because once they are convinced they are committing an atrocity, their decency will force them to put an end to it.  It doesn’t work against a totalitarian war machine that is already in process of killing tens of millions.  Its record isn’t even that good against small-potatoes Third World dictatorships, though it does, at least, have a chance there.

But if pacifism is too far to go, we can be peacemakers, reserving violence only for the last resort, and actively working to de-escalate situations that can lead to violence.

This is the responsibility of everyone who legally carries a concealed handgun: to de-escalate situations, to let the other guy have the last word, to even let yourself be spat upon, because you know you are carrying death in your pocket, and you cannot unleash death unless death is already threatened  (I’ll leave off any comments on the Travyon Martin case, and simply say that all parties need our prayers.  I will say that Mr. Zimmerman should voluntarily surrender his permit to carry a weapon, even if he is not guilty of murder.  Following someone around and confronting them is a violation of the peacemaker mentality required to responsibly carry).

So, once more, where does this leave me as a writer?  I mean, I like writing action scenes.  But I can’t glorify killing.  And I’m not sure I can, with a clean conscience, write the kind of chivalrous, bloodless violence that Superman, the Lone Ranger, and their comrades practice.  That doesn’t really exist in the real world.

So what do I do?

Right now, I’m writing a lot of unhappy endings, or rather, pyrrhic victories and bittersweet endings.  That can’t really last forever.  I like happy endings, and I want to figure out how to get there from here.  I can think of two roads forward: unlocking my nonviolent imagination by learning more about creative nonviolent resistance, and learning to write creative nonviolent resistance; and really thinking about the good take-away messages of childhood heroes.

Much as Santa Claus can teach the joy of giving, the message of many of the best stories about the childhood heroes is that of self-sacrifice, of bravery, of putting others ahead of oneself.  Every time Superman steps in front of a missile (which could, perhaps, hurt him), we see a four-color version of our own better natures.  The fistfight with the guy who shot the missile is far less important than the act of stepping in front of it.  Time and time again one of these cartoony characters steps into a doorway to hold that point against an army, so a group of innocents can escape.  Of course they escape, most of the time.  Sometimes they don’t, though the authors always seem to bring them back.

Sometimes, the bloodless violence fistfight types (Superman for example, or even Batman [spoilers],  etc.) can serve as counter-arguments against those who say that the ends justifies the means, that wiping out the bad guys is the right move, that the ends justifies the means.  But I still don’t think I can write that kind of sanitized faux-violence, not having seen what real-world violence is.

So what do I do?  This is part of what the short story challenge is all about, even more so than character voice, unified premise, or proactive protagonists.  It’s about figuring out what a hero is, and learning how to write it.

No wonder I’m nervous.

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1 Comment

  1. […] dealing with the violent imagination […]


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