Using Our Powers For Good

A skillful writer has the power to change things, for better or for worse. Assuming we’re all getting more skillful at this process through obsessive practice, how are we using that power? Are we writing sagas that mesmerize the world, or exposés that shake up the establishment? Not too likely, although it would be nice. Most of us have to settle for entertaining a few readers or sharing some of our hard-earned wisdom once in a while. Even such modest efforts should be based on reason and intellect. Hopefully, like doctors, we “first do no harm.”

These days, thanks to unfettered social media, the power of expression is becoming more and more of a high-stakes game. The freedom to impart and receive information is the foundation of our democracy, yet that democracy is being buffeted by an equally strong freedom to spread misinformation. If the public doesn’t have sufficient knowledge or judgment to distinguish one from the other, we’re all in trouble. To make things worse, we have a president who believes he has the power to decide what reality is. Anything that doesn’t pamper his ego or confirm his greatness is “false news.” He has sufficient enablers in high places to bring the United States perilously close to his ultimate dream, a Fascist dictatorship under his control. For this reason, it has never been more important for writers to speak truth to power. That means using their own powers to promote decency and truth, to counteract the poison that is emanating from the top and pervading everything.

Unfortunately, dangerous extremists are often skilled at talking or wielding a pen. For example, Alex Jones, the main voice of Infowars Network, is a crackpot but also an effective communicator. He combines wild imagination with political hatred, and feeds it to gullible followers who add fuel to the fire as they pass it along. Here is a verbatim quote: “When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped … yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children.” He paints a vivid picture for a receptive audience that is predisposed to believe the worst about someone they hate.

We know of at least one idiot who took action based on this report. Not for a minute, it appears, did he stop to think how plausible it would be for a former First Lady, US Senator, and Secretary of State to operate a child sex ring in plain sight for many years without being detected. He never asked himself why a woman who is a mother and grandmother herself would want to murder children. He located the pizza restaurant where Clinton’s nefarious operation was supposedly going on. Armed to the teeth, he burst into the place, and confronted … employees who were busy making pizza for their customers. Even now, he and many others reportedly still believe the sex ring he expected to find is operating in a diabolically subtle way among the pasta-spinners.

The times are so perilous that we might be excused for thinking fiction-writing is too trivial and takes too long. But stories that illustrate timeless verities tend to last longer than the headlines. It would be great if we could all find a way to convey the great truths of our times. Admittedly, we’re more likely to indulge in petty vindictiveness than earth-shattering revelations. What fiction writer hasn’t used thinly-disguised characters to satirize people who have slighted him or her? Yet those personal slights are injustices, all the same.

One of the story lines in Sycophants, my current novel-in-progress, makes use of an old friendship from my college days. We were drawn together as fellow English majors and aspiring writers, although she was the aggressive type and I was not. While I dabbled in poetry and the literary magazine, she was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. I was conscientious about my studies, while she concentrated on her extra-curricular life and barely graduated. Still, I admired her greatly. It was the Watergate era, and many young journalists fancied themselves a budding Woodward and/or Bernstein.

The ambitious editor made a big splash with one particular piece, a student survey of professors’ competence and popularity. The survey was particularly cruel to one of our English teachers. This man was my honors thesis adviser for a paper about Sylvia Plath, the poet and author of The Bell Jar, who famously attempted suicide as a college student, and succeeded in the act about ten years later. After the survey appeared, my friend was ostracized by the English department, and denied any chance for future references.

A few years after we graduated, we learned that my former adviser had committed suicide. Without knowing the exact circumstances, I can only speculate about what led to the tragedy. It was rumored that he had failed to get tenure, and that his wife had left him. My friend is a good person at heart, and she certainly didn’t intend for that to happen. No one can prove a direct connection between what she wrote and the tragedy. Still, I wouldn’t want something like that on my conscience. It could be that Karma, or the writing gods, have repaid her in some ways. She eventually went to work for a small mid-west newspaper, writing some great investigative stuff but for very little pay, constantly plagued by online trolls who belittled her progressive views.

I typically turn to sports when real life gets too heavy. We sports fans should be able to insulate ourselves from the worst of the daily news by watching and analyzing games, since they don’t have life and death implications. Unfortunately, some fans treat them as if they did. Many of the debates that rage on my favorite baseball sites these days devolve too easily into the ugly and personal. That in turn leads to writing that is highly imaginative, but not particularly informed or analytical.

Predictably, my Washington Nationals are coming off yet another bitter playoff disappointment, leading to widespread recriminations that have yet to subside three months later. It’s risky to defend, for example, a catcher (Matt Wieters) or a manager (Dusty Baker) who is presumed to have made the boneheaded plays or decisions that torpedoed the team. Someone is sure to question your sanity or your morals. A “humorist” will write that the person you’re defending must have some major dirt on you. (Nude photos are the most popular choice). Many fans think they’re mind-readers, and can judge by a player’s demeanor that he just isn’t into it, or is only doing it for the money. Urban legends about players’ personal lives abound on social media. It’s almost a given that when a star player leaves a team, he had to get out of town quickly because he was having an affair with another star’s wife, and it was about to be revealed in all its sordidness.

Does this style of debate remind you of anyone prominent in the news these days? Even in sports, we could benefit by sticking to substantive issues and having informed discussions, but that wouldn’t be Trumpian. It’s easier to insult someone than to actually know what you’re talking about. All in all, social media spreads democracy with one hand and chokes it with the other. A reader has as much responsibility as the writer, perhaps more, to distinguish wheat from chaff.

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