One hears a great deal these days about the universal nature of story. It’s a gratifying conceit that deep down we all share the same fundamental narrative.
But what about the more factional, political nature of story? I don’t mean the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty or corporate cunning in Promised Land. I mean the intrinsically political nature of how character is portrayed and plot structured. Stories stage conflict. And the strongest conflict always dictates inseparable, irreconcilable opposites. If Henry Adams was right, that politics in practice is always “the systematic organization of hatreds,” then what better place to look for a good, old-fashioned fight to the death than the political arena?
And yet how does a writer enter this circle of hatreds and not become swallowed whole? The results, sadly, speak for themselves. What we too often see are writers entranced with over-simplifications, blind or indifferent to their own prejudices, willfully objectifying their adversaries, and succumbing to the relentless need to prevail that animates the pursuit of power—or at least the need to win an argument.
The reason so many stories with a political perspective fail to move anyone but fellow camp followers, whether the premise of the story speaks to the left or the right, seems to be the inability of too many writers to see the human motivation beneath the partisan message. The point isn’t to present the cause du jour. Rather, it’s about understanding the deeper, dueling conceptions of what it means to be human and to act in the world that lie beneath the surface of political contention.
It’s not enough to know the buzz words and bête noires of your political adversaries so you can insert them into your characters’ dialogue. No writer in the past 15 years has tried more consistently to create genuine political drama than Aaron Sorkin, and yet his conservative characters all too often seem to please no one but liberals. It’s not because conservatives are intrinsically peevish and contrary. A character that serves merely as a mouthpiece for slogans is a plot puppet, and no one enjoys being represented as a puppet, no matter how articulate the ventriloquist.
The problem, of course, isn’t restricted to the left. Glenn Beck praised Vince Flynn’s Pursuit of Honor as “conservative porn.” The description was apt, and not because the book portrays liberals seductively.
I’ve thought about this a great deal since I got skewered for a book a critic derided as an attempt to “shove my politics down his throat.” The critic was conservative. When I let him know the book was selected by Admiral James Stavridis—then head of the U.S. Southern Command, no liberal bastion—for his staff’s reading list, the critic backed away from his harshness a bit, but not completely. I’d clearly lost a reader, and it seemed facile to place blame solely on him.
Since then I’ve done a lot of reading on the political convictions informing what we think of as modern conservative and liberal thought, and I’ve discussed with readers and friends across the political spectrum their tastes in novels, plays and films, probing why they find particular stories more gratifying than others. My conclusions are hardly scientific, but I think they might prove useful to writers hoping to address politics in a meaningful way—which is to say without Chicken Little-hand-wringing or finger-pointing bombast.
Are there, perhaps, right-wing stories and left-wing stories? Do fascists prefer the chivalric romance to the picaresque novel? Does Aristotle’s concept of hamartia, the so-called tragic flaw, prefigure Marx’s belief in the inevitable fall of capitalism?
Not quite… but closer than one might think.
Stories require characters and, as I mentioned above, it’s in the conception of human nature—specifically, what human beings can know and accomplish—that the political worm burrows itself into the narrative apple. And plot is merely the dramatic structuring of what characters come to understand and do.
The closer a story hews to the idea of man as having a true nature, a destiny—a soul—and the more heavily the hero relies on certainty of purpose and strength of will to fulfill his ambition, the more pleasing it will be to conservative audiences.
Think of the Aeneid, or any heroic saga, as the archetype. This includes the chivalric romance and its modern avatar, the detective story.
Duty calls. The hero answers. An encounter with death—physical, moral, emotional, professional—clarifies the stakes. The question at the heart of the matter is: What will it take to prevail? Most such stories stage the conflict with an external force or opponent, and though the adversary need not be conspicuously evil, few conservatives will complain if he is. Moral ambiguity favors the weak. Temptation is to be defeated, not examined—or worse, explored.
On the other hand, the more human nature is seen as intrinsically contradictory, fragmented, self-deceived—afflicted with what Joseph Conrad called man’s “miserable ingenuity in error”—the more it will appeal to liberal audiences. The will, so dear to conservatives, is for such viewers inherently suspect, contaminated by hubris. All too many victories are pyrrhic. It’s insight that saves the day, if it arrives in time. (Often it doesn’t. Ask Oedipus. Or Jake Gittes.)
Many such stories stage the conflict internally: between a false, self-destructive self and a healthier, more honest—truer, if not exactly “true”—self. The key action concerns the recognition of an error, the stripping away of a delusion, the rejection of a convenient lie in favor of a troubling truth, often about oneself. The hero is less warrior than searcher, and the story ends in difficult wisdom, not decisive victory. Uncertainty is inescapable, especially about our own motives. The narrative in one way or another intrinsically asks: Who am I?
Such stories were far more in vogue in the heyday of psychoanalysis. Chinatown’s tragic pessimism concerning human understanding echoes not just Sophocles but Freud. Not that conservatives fail to understand the capacity for human error or the darkness of our natures. Quite the contrary; evil doesn’t work in a vacuum. Whether conservatives trace their lineage back to Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, or John Calvin, they inherit a vivid understanding of human corruption and folly. But they also retain a faith in virtue and tradition that liberals, inheritors of Enlightenment, skepticism and existential guilt, consider misbegotten.
Stories that appeal most to conservatives normally focus on the hero overcoming, not just recognizing, his limitations. Vacillation in the face of temptation demonstrates weakness. Doubt is disaster. Virtues may be hard won, but they can’t be ignored. A little sin is excusable until the end of Act Two. Then strap on your six-guns—or your moral clarity—and get on with it. To which any liberal worthy of the name, with the left’s Darwinian lust for data, would promptly respond: It’s never that simple. For them, nothing better defines a fool than his conviction that he has the answer.
The pursuit of a deeper understanding not just of what conservatives and liberals believe but why they hold those convictions so devoutly has more than self-edification as its reward. Blatant politicking is a great way to alienate at least half your potential audience. But if you understand the underlying conceptions of character and action that touch liberal and conservative audiences most profoundly, you may just find those elements already in your story, ripe for deeper exploration.
Up in the Air has corporate heartlessness, a classic liberal nemesis, as the major negative force in the story. But it pits this force not against science, art, social justice, or some other left-wing sacred cow, but a conservative one: family. This broadens the film’s appeal despite the fact that its plot is intrinsically liberal. The story ends with a shock of recognition—Aristotle’s anagnorisis—as Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) recognizes what a genius he is at self-deceit.
Argo presents a fundamentally conservative plot—the hero accepts personal responsibility for rescuing the vulnerable few from both murderous zealots and the indifference of a feckless bureaucracy (the Carter Administration, no less). Conservative critic Michael Medved gushed, calling the film “compelling from first moment to last.” But the filmmakers bookended that plot with an indictment of American policy in Iran at the beginning, and President Carter speaking for himself at the end. That left-leaning message is easier to swallow because fundamentally conservative values drive the action and balance the theme.
And for all the left’s hand-wringing over Zero Dark Thirty—it not only suggests that torture is effective, but presents a heroine with classic conservative values, a woman who “refuses to accept failure” while contending with “uncertain men who are often maddeningly indecisive” (quoting Medved again). The moviemakers pulled their right hook at the very end when Maya (Jessica Chastain) sits alone in the C-130 that will supposedly take her home. Her tears may feel gratuitous—having served out vengeance, I suppose, she can at last indulge her grief—but her isolation is absolute. Perhaps she’s wondering if killing bin Laden was actually worth it. Revenge never brings back the dead. But there’s no doubt that her mission, her obsession, her reason for being, has reached its end. I can’t help but think she’s asking herself: Who am I?
All stories concern choices, actions, and consequences. They can’t escape a moral perspective—and to that extent every story is political. The point is to accept that, understand the ramifications, and respond wisely: the better to speak to the audience, not just preach to the choir. MM
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of MovieMaker Magazine.