Thursday, November 2, 2006

Fiction and politics.

In the Virginia Senate race, George Allen wanted us to see his opponent Jim Webb as some sort of deviant because of some images and characters he'd put in his novels. This inspires Victor Davis Hanson to muse about fiction and politics:
In this age of global, instant and technologically sophisticated communications, we are often left bewildered over what is true and what is made up. Cute postmodern sophistries asserting that ''there are no facts'' only make our confusion worse.

When Reuters published doctored photos from the recent war in Lebanon, unknowingly or not, they were disseminating computer-enhanced graphic art. That dark smoky sky over Beirut was not real photography. Recent journalistic exposés of the Iraqi war, such as Bob Woodward's State of Denial, might have been mistaken for histories. They aren't, since their footnotes reference the reader to anonymous sources that can't be verified.

And the problem isn't just that we are led to believe a film or book must be ''true'' when it is sometimes not. It's also that we often deliberately want to make something real that was never intended to be. Fury arose recently over the fictionalized docudrama ''The Path to 9/11.'' The charge was that it was not an accurate rendition of history, even though ABC issued multiple warnings of its fictionalized nature across our television screens.

And now we are supposed to believe that an imaginary story - and that is what a novel is - must be an accurate moral litmus test of its creator?
Hanson raises the question only to drop it. And he frames the question to make it more likely that we'll drop it too.

I wouldn't ask whether a novel is "an accurate moral litmus test" of its author, but whether it is useful evidence relevant to a question we want to think about. In the case of a political candidate who has written a novel, it might give us something to take into account even though it's not a specific and accurate test.

George Allen had an idea about the way to use his opponent's novels, but it wasn't a very good idea. The material wasn't strong enough to persuade us to think ill of Webb. In fact, it improved my opinion of Webb to learn that he'd written respectable novels and to see that he was an intelligent and thoughtful person who'd taken the time to think through his military experiences in the artist's mode. It also made me notice his military experience. And Allen ended up looking bad for extracting the sexy parts and making arguments that those passages did not support.

But we might imagine another case where a political candidate wrote novels that were quite bad and revealed shallow thinking and morbid obsessions and the opponent made crisp, fair arguments that helped us think about what kind of a person the author is.

We need to become adept at dealing with different kinds of materials, none of which are entirely true. Even an undoctored photograph frames a shot and represents the photographer's decision about what to include and exclude. Even a fully professional history or journalistic report structures the presentation and imposes editorial choice. We have wake up and think actively about how the creator of any image or text is trying to influence us, whether it's presented as fact, fiction, or something in between. And anything anyone makes says something about the person who made it. The trick is to get good at evaluating what it means and to become equally sensitive at detecting the distortions and manipulations of those who try to tell you how to evaluate it.

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