Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ranting in Literature

It was something I’ve noticed a while ago. There were certain authors whose novels—in some cases, whose entire oeuvres—were little more than extended rants about one subject or another. Sometimes, the rants would be well-reasoned and civil—hard to call a rant, really. However, there were those authors who were so worked up about what they were doing that they could not help themselves and let all of their rage loose upon a poor, unsuspecting reader.
As I progressed in my Bachelor’s degree, I noticed that these authors tended to do the same sort of things to their main characters. More often than not, the protagonist was a symbol of that which the author hated. The man or woman was intensely stupid, stubborn, bigoted, greedy, headstrong, relentlessly religious—whatever the theme of the novel, the character embodied. The character never showed a desire—off the bat, at least—to change. They were happy in their ways, as their ways tended to bring them success. The narrator of the novel showed a thinly veiled hatred for the character’s beliefs—so thin that it was, in effect, cling film.
Throughout the novel, there would be plot points surrounding the character—usually pertaining directly to the character’s family, but sometimes extending to the world at large—that propelled the character into seeing that something was wrong. However, the character, being so incredibly dense, would never actively do anything about these events. In one example, Oil!, Plainfield looks on blankly as the Bolsheviks control Russia, unions form for the betterment of employees, and owners of drilling companies declare war on their Red Menace. And, of course, Plainfield blithers on in his course, knowing full well that the union cause is right, but, darn it, he can’t up and change the way he runs his business. Wouldn’t be good for profits.
In this example, we see Upton Sinclair jumping up and down, using Plainfield as a paper doll against a backdrop of a chronology of the 1910s, shouting about the evils of capitalism. It is nothing more than a rant, a tract whose main complaint is that the capitalists in society are cold, heartless sons of bitches backed by religion (did I mention that the evangelists get shouted about a lot, too?). They, Sinclair says, don’t give a damn about anything but profits, and should be strung up from a tree—for they are spineless.
Now, it doesn’t necessarily make for a great narrative to see a character whose spine seems to be made out of Jell-O—especially since all of the other characters in the novel seem to evolve and show the capacity for change throughout the book. But, that is not to say that these novels should be ignored. They shouldn’t. Books like Oil! and Babbit by Sinclair Lewis stand as examples of what a nation needs in its political atmosphere. With few examples, there is a dearth of such brazen calling-out from the left in the United States. Michael Moore does it, but Moore has the misfortune of not being, ah, photogenic.
It is, of course, easier now to spot out inconsistencies in arguments, to see when someone is cherry-picking information. So, what can you do? Do you make documentaries like Moore, only to get shouted down by the even more bombastic right for supposedly hating America? Do you create paper dolls of characters in an attempt to show the wealthy and governing body’s corruption and bigotry? (The answer to that should be, of course, no. There was a time and a place for that, and that time was the 1920s.)
So, once again, what can you do? I believe the solution to this problem is infinitely more varied and difficult than anything politicians and commentators are doing. We have an entire history of back-biting and vindictiveness in politics. Smear campaigns have always been the norm in election seasons: Jefferson was referred to as a half-breed, in an attempt to get voting Americans to believe that a half-Indian was going to be their president. What we’re facing now, with the Bill O’Reillys, Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs, and, Keith Olbermans, is the consequence of two hundred and fifty years of infighting: The dangerous possibility that those on the right and on the left are approaching a point where they will refuse to work with one another. Congress isn’t helping the situation at all. Turning anything resembling an objective eye towards this Congressional year will show that the representatives are too afraid of losing their seats to do anything. With the exception of one man from the House who voted for the health care bill even though he knew his district would probably vote him out—because “it was the right thing to do” in his opinion—none of them show any spine. They toe the party line when doing so damns their countrymen. And why? They’re backed and financed by lobbyists. Congressmen leave Congress millionaires, sometimes going to lucrative positions in corporations.
So, what can Americans do? Stop listening to bombastic twits on TV and the radio. No one on the left wants to turn the United States into a sharia-run Islamist state. And, I would hope, no one on the right wants to starve out workers for profits. Stop feeding cable news networks with ratings. When you do, Glenn Beck is allowed to insinuate that a Muslim Senator works with terrorists.
Perhaps that is what the modern political literature—satire, maybe—needs to show. The time for straw man and paper doll arguments has ended—and it must end if there is to be any sort of civility in political discourse in the future.

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