Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why Crazy Wins

These days there's a lot of crazy.  In all debates in the courts of public ideas, be they political, spiritual, moral, or cultural, the ideas most in the fringe seem to dominate.

In preparation for NaNoWriMo, I've been reading a lot about plot and story.  20 Master Plots and How To Build Them is an excellent resource, (as is Story by Robert McKee).  Every plot must focus on drama, on the tension of an unresolved problem, an unreasonable antagonist, a goal worth dying for, overwhelming passions, major strengths, massive weaknesses.  Unmovable objects vs irresistible forces.

Writers are encouraged to bring the tension to a tipping point; to make it seem like there is no way out, to stack the odds to the point where your protagonist is sure to lose (even if she wins in the end).

No matter the plot, there must be drama, or your reader will yawn and put the book down.

Frustrating conflict is great for stories.  But it's not so great for real life.  In real life, be it personal or political, drama leads to sadness, tears, hardships, and destruction.  On the grander scale, it can lead to lost jobs, hunger, crime, injustice, and even death and war.  In real life, it reaches a point where it is no longer entertainment, though it may seem so to viewers who watch it from afar.

All plots can be placed in two categories: Physical or mental, force or fraud, tragedy or comedy, outward action or inward movement.  Whatever you call it, all plots emphasize one of these, while the other takes a backseat or doesn't exist at all.  The action story will focus on physical resolution to tension.  The murder mystery or romantic comedy will solve it via the mind or character development.

Back to real life.  In the past, power was often won by force.  There was no such thing as the Bill of Rights to protect people, so whoever could suppress the people at the point of the sword, or who ever could kill the king, won the day.  Force is still very much a powerful tool, but in stable democratic nations, it is likely to backfire.  And so today those who seek power must resort to mental strategies.

Persuasion is much more humane than war and unjust imprisonment, and a well-argued appeal to reason is more likely to be the best position than a well-warred one.  But it comes at a price: Fraud is as or more likely to persuade.  And the masters of fraud are oh-so-good at it.

Today, wars are fought in culture rather than on the battlefield.  Even the decision whether or not to go to battle must be fought in the cultural sphere before we send out the first soldier.  That is why people were so upset when Bush lied about the WMDs in Iraq.  Few US Citizens wanted to go to war without a very good reason, and when that reason turned into smoke, people felt oppressed and betrayed.  But even this is far better than our alternative, when a leader had only to give the word to start a war.  The opinion of the common people didn't matter.

Fiction must have tension to keep our attention, and so, unfortunately, must the news.  Decades ago, political thinkers like William F. Buckley argued their points rationally, and it's a political temperament I'd love to return to.  Imagine, a world where two people of opposing opinions could sit down on national television and have a well-reasoned debate, where the drama from both sides was a question of who could out-wit the other, who could appear the most intelligent, who could back up their claims with the best facts, who could persuade.  Why have things changed so much?

Because William F. Buckley was boring.  Walter Cronkite and Paul Harvey droned.  It took too long to get to the bottom of things, to hear the rest of the story, to understand the issues, when you had to pay attention to rational arguments backed by facts.  It's easier to believe that a woman frivolously spilled coffee on herself and got McDonald's to pay an outrageous and undeserved sum, than it is to examine the real facts of the event.

Soundbites, for all their lack of actual content, are interesting.  Dramatic.  When a politician says something stupid, opponents get to rally their anger.  Those who support the same politician can rally their own anger to defend the remarks.  Everyone can get emotional, and it's better than watching Iron Man 2 or Avatar.

This pattern continues no matter what level of culture-war you look at, be it at the top rung during Presidential debates, or at the bottom where bloggers go back and forth.  And it happens even in non-political realms, like when Gawker blogger Alyssa Bereznak railed on Magic: The Gathering Champion Jon Finkel for going on a date with her.

There are people out there, right now, who sound more like William F. Buckley.  They lay out all the facts and make reasoned arguments.  Yet these don't draw the same attention as the crazies.  Because controversy attracts eyeballs and mouse-clicks.  Walls of text don't.

But that's not to say crazy actually wins in the end.  In the war of ideas, every strategy has its pros and cons.  Fringe emotional arguments of high drama are, in the end, weak.  They do not tend to stand the test of time.  And the most crazy people often believe their delusions, which makes them inflexible.  They are unable to adapt to changing times and movements, and those who blind themselves to facts and reason may not notice when those they hope to convince begin to run the opposite direction.

Crazy may still get the most airtime and rake in the most cash, but in a stable democracy, its grip on culture and power is (hopefully) short-lived.

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