The President Has Learned the Wrong Lessons from Literature


Literature can be didactic in interesting ways.  It has to have a point, to be compelling, and authors tend to align their points so that they draw the reader toward their beliefs and conclusions.  At the same time, literature has to be believable.  If the crisis and resolution are too simplistic, too reliant on fortuitous coincidence, or simply too pat, then both the drama and the moral are undermined.  (This is the complaint that is made against Huck Finn, for example, although in that case, I’d suggest the critics are misunderstanding.)

The balance between these two imperatives — having a point and being believable — is part of what makes literature a useful institution not only to record and perpetuate a culture, but also to foster its evolution.  When pulling the culture in a direction they believe to be forward, writers can only stray so far from the truths that readers have been acculturated to believe.  That’s why, for example, my major interest in the next book in the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin is whether he resolves a compellingly conservative metaphor in a way that stays true to reality or loses control of his themes in a tangle of nihilism.  It’s also why some conservatives rallied to the Hunger Games series for its conservative message, whatever the author’s politics.

If I’d gone all the way to a Ph.D. in literature, I might be inclined to write a paper hypothesizing that the surrealists’ and modernists’ true objective in challenging traditional narrative principles was to break these constraints on the messages that literature can inject into the culture.  If reality isn’t relevant, the author can push whatever propaganda he or she wants.

But I didn’t get that Ph.D., so I’ll have to stick to noting that Charles Krauthammer’s column on “Obama’s Syria debacle” made me think that President Obama has either read all the wrong literature or missed the lessons of what he’s read.  Russia’s Vladimir Putin is dancing around our (cough, cough) Commander in Chief because the latter doesn’t understand reality or the broader culture in which the former is operating or even, it seems, human nature.  (Out of charity, I’m putting aside the possibility that Obama is simply the sort of coward who would run himself into a dead end because he lacks even the character to stand up to the inevitable.)

Take, for example, William F. Buckley, Jr.’s novel The Story of Henri Tod.  Set in the JFK period of the Cold War, the novel spins its tale around the buildup to the Berlin Wall.  The leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbrict, wants to build the wall to stop the flow of people into West Germany, and he manages to get the barest permission from his Soviet boss, Nikita Khrushchev.

Having to consider the entire balance of his nation against the West, and the United States in particular, Khrushchev warns that if a single U.S. tank makes a move on the wall (a barbed wire fence, at first), the project must be called off.  As useful as Ulbricht might find the wall, it is not worth the geopolitical conflagration that might occur if the United States opposes it that strongly.

Obviously, Buckley didn’t want to rewrite history, so political complications prevent President Kennedy from acting on intelligence that this is the case, and the wall goes up.  But the point is the importance of taking initiative when possible.

Now broaden “literature” so that it includes ’80s movies, specifically My Bodyguard.  A new kid in school (Chris Makepeace) befriends the mysterious tough guy, named Linderman (and played by known-conservative Adam Baldwin) to pose as his bodyguard when the school bully (Matt Dillon) targets him.  To turn the tables, the bully pays his own “bodyguard,” Mike (Hans Salas), to bully Linderman.  Mike is actually several inches shorter than Linderman, so he doesn’t jump into his task.  Most of the scene of their first confrontation involves a ritual escalation during which Mike tests Linderman’s willingness to take abuse, to the point that he beats him up and throws his precious rehabbed motorcycle in the river.

If pop culture seems too lightweight for the occasion, turn to ancient historians.  Tacitus, for example, tells how the Roman Emperor Galba allowed the traitorous Otho to rile his troops by not putting an end to the talk while his own troops and the “rabble” were still on the emperor’s side.

It isn’t a call for recklessness to acknowledge that a failure to stand up to provocations can invite the aggressor to the next level, and Barack Obama now has a long record on the international stage of being willing to take abuse.  The most plain reading of his actions is that he’s absolutely terrified of having a a large-scale war break out under his period of responsibility, and that makes it very attractive for aggressors to see just how far they can push their opportunity while he’s in office.

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